Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan – A Review

By Anjum Altaf

In Himal Southasian Magazine, May 2011
It is an irony that the most significant enemy of history books is history itself, books being frozen at a moment in time while history continues its relentless march – eventually mocking, more often than not, the certainties of an earlier age. Historical accounts that rely on cultural or psychological constructs for explanations are particularly exposed to this danger, as any number of outdated verdicts can illustrate – the opium-eating Chinese, the Hindu rate of growth, the fatalistic Arabs, to name just a few.

The senior journalist M J Akbar thus takes on a large challenge when he sets up his chase to identify the villain of the piece in this new book, billed as ‘historical whodunit to trace the journey of an idea … that divided India.’Akbar repeatedly points to what he calls Pakistan’s ‘DNA’ as the key to this mystery – for example, in the comment that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto could have relaid the foundations of Pakistan along Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s democratic-secular blueprint, but the pull of his nation’s DNA prevented him from doing so.

Tinderbox is not really a whodunit, because Akbar identifies the villain at the outset. Rather, it sets out to search the past for the smoking gun that made Pakistan inevitable…


So much for the creation of Pakistan. Tinderbox divides neatly into pre- and post-1947 periods, and the account of the latter begins with a strangely contrary premise. Having spent the first half of the book trying to convince the reader of the unique DNA of Muslims and their preference for distance, Akbar launches the second half with the claim that ‘Indians and Pakistanis are the same people.’

The objective here shifts to an attempt to figure out why the two countries have moved on such divergent arcs since 1947. Akbar ascribes this divergence to the fact that ‘the idea of India is stronger than the Indian [while] the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani.’ But the claim is never really articulated or established, deriving its plausibility from retroactive knowledge of what was to happen…

For the complete review, see here.


  • Hasan
    Posted at 23:07h, 30 April Reply

    I don’t remember completely, but I think this idea is something that Tolstoy talks about too in War and Peace (I think). He had a different idea about how to account for that but the basic idea was the same; that history isn’t fixed and historical understanding is a weird, fuzzy creature.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 12:45h, 09 May

      Hasan: Thanks for the lead. I looked around and found the celebrated essay by Isaiah Berlin that I had read long ago – The Hedgehog and the Fox. The subtitle had completely slipped my mind – an essay on Tolstoy’s view of history. I recommend it highly to readers.

      The summary is here: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/The_Hedgehog_and_the_Fox

  • Vikram
    Posted at 03:02h, 01 May Reply

    There is a reason why history and journalism are two separate departments at any American university. I am not saying journalist’s are incapable of writing good history books, but when they write bad ones, it becomes all too evident.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:10h, 01 May

      Vikram: I agree. MJ Akbar is among the leading journalists in India and spliced apart as about 150 or so separate columns, the content would have had value. Each column would have informed, amused and provided an opinion for discussion. Bound together, the opinions repeatedly contradict each other and the author is unable or unwilling to resolve the contradictions. The whole is decidedly less than the sum of the parts.

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