At first glance, Daam-iKhayal by Tariq Mahmud is a daunting volume: a tome of 592 pages to leaf through. The septuagenarian author’s hawkish gaze in the cover photo is equally intimidating, but indicative of his attention to detail.

Before diving into the vast ocean of prose, a taste is provided by the concise but comprehensive foreword. Here, as in life, there is something for everyone. To expect the orderly structure of an autobiography is to miss the author’s intent. Loose organization often defies consistency. Continuity is compromised with occasional relapses into repetition. The chronology and the times pass from the past to the present and vice versa.

Not quite stream-of-consciousness style, but close. Then, within each chapter are self-contained sections that can be read independently. It’s like diving into a mix with cameos from colleagues, vivid sketches from acquaintances, generous portraits of friends, and evocative descriptions of varied terrain and events that have impressed, and sometimes even shaped, the author.

The volume blends the recollections of a memoir with the sweep of the novel, the sharp detail of the short story, the observations and reflections of the travelogue, and the thoughtful opinions of an official memoir. Sound details and visual images provide an assemblage of sensory memories of food, fruit, architecture and lifestyles (p.42), his childhood friends (p.26), Tonga as a way of inter-village and village-town transport (p.22), the teenager observing gypsy women bathing (p.27), the 1965 war (p.28-29) and the demonstrations of adolescent love in the alleys dense and around the tandoors (p.29-30). Here, a bygone world comes to life.

The chapter on East Pakistan is painful (p. 47-85). It becomes particularly poignant because the author spent some of his happiest times there as a student and then witnessed his bloody separation. Years later, it returns there under the name of Bangladesh. His Bengali friends and the zeitgeist have changed in a subtle and sharp way (p.504-528).

Even as he travels through the remote regions of Baluchistan, the interior of Sind, the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan, like a first love, East Pakistan perfumes his story.

By entering the Pakistan Television Corporation, the author enters practical life (pp. 92-106). The atmosphere of those early days at Lahore railway station is skillfully captured: the bustle of the newsroom, the general elections of 1970, the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, the exchange of prisoners of war at the border of Wagah, something this reviewer also witnessed, the comings and goings of the Press Club (p.110-113).

The author provides a lot of information about his colleagues, their weaknesses and their idiosyncrasies. The portrait of Rafiq Goraya (p.106-110) is skilfully evocative of a bygone era, and written with the experience of a master storyteller, leaving little room for shared moments and nostalgia.

Life as a civil servant forms a large part of the book: beginnings as an intern and reaching the top of the power pyramid as federal secretary.

One minute the officer is dealing with the poorest of the poor, the next interacting with the highest in the land. At one point, he is in the company of writers and intellectuals, poets and musicians, singers, music lovers and local notables or killing boars (p.174). The next day he is involved in the undermining of judicial work, field inspections, public order situations and risky security measures for Muharram, situations triggered by sectarian or political friction and corrupt officials (eg. 137)

Allah Ditta (pp. 185-86), his courtier assistant in Jhang, was once a classmate of Nobel laureate Dr. Abdus Salaam. He had previously served another assistant writer-curator, QudratUllah Shahab, who also mentioned him in his autobiography, Shahab Namah.

The chapter on Jhang also recounts his two encounters with the poker religious leader who created the Lashkar-iJhangvi.

The author’s impressions of General Zia (p.146-47) and Prime Minister Bhutto (p.146-150) are significant. the sly claim to hold elections in 90 days (p. 152-165) are all observed by the registrar.

The Zia-Junejo Breakup (p.416-19), Zia’s Death (p.421) and Power Politics within the Bureaucracy and Politicians, Political Intolerance (p.429), President’s Reservations Ghulam Ishaq Khan with regard to Prime Minister Benazir’s government (p.432), the change of several prime ministers, the Lal Masjid fiasco (p.495-96), international pressures (p.498-500) and the action against Akbar Bugti (pp. 500-503) are all mentioned significantly.

The author travels the country far and wide and brings depth to the journeys through insightful observations and historical details. The author admires the miraculous transformation of Singapore and the strength of the system founded by its first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew:

So what is penne is all that is relived.

An unwritten life is an unlived life.

(‘Sonnet CXXXVIII’, Twilight in the Soul).