It was Balochistan’s fifth uprising since 1947, and everyone agreed it was the worst. Schoolchildren refused to sing Pakistan’s national anthem; university students burned their books on Pakistani history; and on 14 August, Independence Day, Baloch nationalists hung black flags outside their doors. Despite its low profile, it seemed a consequential conflict – another quivering strand of Pakistan’s DNA that threatened to pull the country apart.

How did it get so bad? One answer was offered by a grandiloquent Baloch chieftain – a tribal aesthete, poetry lover and insufferable snob whom I had met six years earlier, in the course of an unusual English lesson.

An elderly tribesman with kindly eyes and a dagger tucked into his waistband cleared his throat and spoke. “Hell hath no few-ry like a...woman scorned,” he intoned in halting English, stumbling over the words as if they were rocks in the desert. “Love and...Attach-ment. Tides. Of. Life.”

His teacher, a bespectacled man with flowing white hair, harrumphed impatiently.

“Essay titles,” said Akbar Bugti, turning to me. “I set them an essay every ten days or so, in English or in Urdu. Cash prizes for first, second and third. Just to give them an idea, you know – to agitate their minds.”

Goethe, Sartre, and “Iliad”

It was February 2005. We were sitting, cross-legged, in the courtyard of a bullet-pocked fortress on the eastern edge of Balochistan. Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti was the sardar, or chieftain, of the Bugti, who numbered perhaps 150,000 souls. Gathered around him, in the manner of a classroom, were his waderas, or subchiefs. The older ones sat up front, with billowing pantaloons and elaborately brushed beards adorned with twirls and combed lines. The young guns lingered at the rear, weapons at their feet, looking bored. This was the haal, the Nawab explained – the tribal telegraph. The chiefs had been arriving since dawn by foot, horse and camel. “They bring the news – rains, deaths, murders. Anything of consequence since the last time.”

If the assembled waderas recalled a scene from another era, the Nawab wouldn’t have been out of place at a country club. In his late seventies, he wore large rimmed glasses and a Pringle lambswool sweater, with a shawl flung rakishly over his shoulder. He sat upright against a wall, projecting an air of hauteur. The haal, he continued, was also an opportunity to give some instruction. The Nawab had taken it upon himself to teach English to the waderas. He handed me a copy of one exam: a list of sentences to be translated into Urdu.

1. “A wing beat – aeons vanish far behind.”

2. “Is it true that my lips are sweet like the opening bud of the first conscious love?”

And so it went, with quotations from Goethe, Sartre and other classical writers that would have challenged even a gifted translator. The entire class failed. “It was a difficult standard, I realised later,” the Nawab admitted. “I gave the test to the vice-chancellor of the University of Balochistan when he came to visit. He failed it, too.”

The call to prayer rang out, causing several waderas to rise and slope off to the mosque. “The prayerful types,” the Nawab observed with barely concealed disdain. He had little time for religion, he continued. “God should be a loving god; he must love and respect, not punish. But our mullahs and your priests” – he wagged a reproachful finger in my direction – “their meal ticket is sin.”

His god was literature: the ancient fort behind us, where the Nawab lived with his three wives, was said to contain one of the finest libraries in Pakistan. He read late into the night, devouring the works of English romantics, French philosopher, and Sufi masters. Presently, he informed me, he was rereading Homer’s Iliad.

‘Que sera, sera’

I had come to Dera Bugti to discuss more temporal matters. Weeks earlier, this lost corner made national news after a group of tribesmen rained rockets on the gas refinery at Sui, the largest in Pakistan, twenty miles to the south. The Nawab’s twenty-two-year-old grandson, Brahumdagh, was said to have led the assault. The army, which guarded the huge plant, was furious, and Musharraf vowed to hit back. Helicopter gunships, tanks and troops had been deployed to the area. Was another clash inevitable?

The Nawab shrugged. “Que sera, sera,” he said. “We have always been in a state of war.”

A voice behind him piped up: “Doris Day.”

The Nawab’s brother, Ahmed, a jowly man in his sixties who had been quietly chain-smoking until then, jerked himself from his stupor. “Doris Day,” he repeated. “Que sera, sera . That was sung by Doris Day.”

The Nawab ignored this non sequitur and pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. “A poem,” he announced, about Buddhism. He started to read.

How can it be that Brahm
Would make a world and keep it miserable
Since, if all-powerful, he leaves it so,
He is not good, and if not powerful
He is not god?

God, indeed. In this lost corner of Pakistan, the Nawab was as close to a deity as you could get. He folded the poem and put it back in his pocket. The waderas sat as quiet as mice, their hard faces betraying nothing. I was certain they hadn’t understood a word.

Nawab Bugti, ‘cut from finer cloth’

The sardars of Balochistan have always guarded their power jealously. During the British Raj, in the nineteenth century, they banded together in a loose confederacy to strike a bargain: in return for allowing the British to build a railway through Balochistan, carrying troops to Afghanistan, the sardars could run their affairs as they pleased.

In recent times, though, they have acquired a notorious reputation as the custodians of a cruel feudal order. Like the Pashtuns, they preside over informal village courts that dispense approximate justice. But while Pashtun society is underpinned by an egalitarian ethos that prizes consensus, the Baloch system is an autocracy that vests immense power in one man. As ever, women suffer most. In 2009, Pakistan’s Parliament erupted over reports that three Baloch women had been buried alive, on the orders of a tribal court, for daring to marry the men of their choice.

Nawab Bugti, though, considered himself to be cut from finer cloth.

He came to power in 1939, at the age of twelve, after his father was poisoned to death, probably at the hands of a scheming relative. The young Nawab completed his schooling at Lahore’s Aitchison College, where the sons of Indian nobles were taught the King’s English, and travelled to London in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

“I was struck especially by Queen Salote of Tonga,” he later recalled. “She was seven feet tall and with her huge bulk, she was an impressive figure indeed.” But later that year, back in Quetta, the Nawab found himself in court facing murder charges. At the trial, which was attended by his wife and his Swedish mistress, he vehemently denied killing his cousin.

He would never be so stupid, he argued, to kill a man in the “settled” areas where regular laws held sway. The judge didn’t believe him, and the Nawab spent much of the 1960s in jail, where he developed his appetite for literature.

He produced a tattered volume by Rabindranath Tagore, the esteemed Bengali poet and Nobel Prize laureate, which he handed to me with reverence. “My constant companion in jail,” he said. “It sustained me.”

‘I prefer The Times

I had set off from Quetta before dawn, to avoid being trailed by the intelligence services, in the company of a veteran local journalist. Our jeep bumped across a bone-dry, sometimes alien-looking landscape, with odd-shaped rocks in lurid colours, sometimes jolting off the main trail to avoid military posts. In my bag I carried a copy of The Tigers of Baluchistan, a jaunty account of life among the Bugti in the 1940s by Sylvia Matheson, an English writer whose engineer husband was helping to build the refinery at Sui.

Guided by the splendidly named Mohammed Mondrani of Mut, the Englishwoman spent years documenting the tribe’s customs; an introduction to the handsome nineteen-year-old Nawab left her weak at the knees. “A sight to gladden the eyes of any romantically inclined girl,” she wrote. “Almost impossibly good looking.”

The Nawab, for his part, treated Matheson somewhat dismissively and boasted that he had killed his first man at the age of twelve. “He annoyed me,” he told her. (Years later, he admitted that was a lie – he had been showing off.)

The Nawab’s propensity for showmanship and provocation remained undimmed. When we arrived in Dera Bugti after a twelve-hour journey, we were instructed to wait: the Nawab was exercising on his treadmill. He finally emerged hours later, walking through a giant wooden door with his secretary scurrying behind. I introduced myself as a reporter with the The Guardian.

“Really?” he replied, arching an eyebrow. “I prefer the Times myself.”

Excerpted with permission from The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches From A Divided Nation, Declan Walsh, Bloomsbury Publishing.