“Our country was going crazy. How was it possible that we were now garlanding murderers?” (174)* Malala Yousafzai’s autobiographical book, I am Malala, is the story of how her beloved Swat Valley was overtaken by a bunch of murderers who considered themselves religious reformists. It is also the story of the Talibanisation of Pakistan in general and the failure of the Pakistani government in dealing with the problem.
The book is an eloquent illustration of two conflicting attitudes towards religion: one which tries to understand it rationally and use it for improving the society and the other which wields it as a weapon for oppressing people with the objective of keeping them under its all-pervasive power.
As a very young girl Malala started questioning certain aspects of her religion. Denial of education as well as many other rights to girls and subjugation of women in general were things that she found highly discriminatory and unjust. She was fortunate to have a father who made her see the reality from a higher perspective. “I will protect your freedom, Malala,” her father assured her time and again. “Carry on with your dreams.” (55)
Malala dreamt. She dared to dream. Her dreams went against the interests of her religion, at least as it was practised in her country. Before the Taliban entered the Swat Valley the dreams would not have invited so much wrath. The majority of people don’t think for themselves; they accept the truths imposed on them by people who are seen as leaders. Most of the religious leaders in Swat would have accepted girls’ education at least without grudge. That’s why Malala’s father was able to set up a school for girls too. But the entry of the Taliban turned Malala’s world upside down.
Malala dared to fight for her dreams. She wrote blogs. She gave interviews to the media. She spoke in public. Her efforts won international attention and she received many awards. But all that attention made her a target of a gruesome attack. The book is the story of all that.
The beauty of the book lies in the fact that it is written by a young girl who sees the world with all the innocence of a child. There is no bitterness or cynicism that would have affected an adult who went through what Malala did. You are likely to get engrossed in the pages as if the book were a thriller. The narrative has a magic about it.
Even when Malala wonders why her political leaders don’t do anything to improve the life of the people, the innocence is palpable. “What’s stopping each and every politician from doing good things?” She asked her father. “Why would they not want our people to be safe, to have food and electricity?” (168)
Towards the end of the book, when Malala is recovering from the effects of the brutal attack after the treatment she received in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham she will begin to realise that life isn’t as lucid as a child’s dream. Well, one has to outgrow one’s innocent dreams. But the dreams can be sustained at the adult level in a different way. The book ends with the promise that Malala will continue to dream and work hard to materialise her dreams.
I enjoyed reading the book, every page of it. It did make some difference in the way I viewed Pakistan and its problems. As I turned the last page the thought that rose uppermost in my mind was why would the people of Kashmir ever want to be part of a country like Pakistan whose people have not been able to find peace among themselves. The Sunnis and the Shias can’t love one another. The Sunnis (majority of the population) are divided again into many groups. There are the Barelvis, Deobandi, and Ahl-e-Hadith. “Each of these strands has many different subgroups,” says Malala (76). There is not much love lost between any two of these sects. Nor is the relationship among the regions (Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the Pashtun realms) enviable in any way. What peace will the people of Kashmir find in such a country? Pakistan is a country where people lose their smiles.
The book is also about the hopes and dreams of bringing smiles back to that country. The book deserves to be read.