Prologue - Surprises
Passing through security in the Karachi airport is different for a woman than it is for a man. This is true, I believe, in most airports in the Muslim world, but my first experience of it was in Karachi. Men place their bags on the nearest conveyer belt and continue through a typical open-frame metal detector. I think I attempted to heave my carry-on bag onto that belt at first, since there were very few people there and I had no reason to think this was a men-only line, but I was soon directed to a separate and less obvious line for ladies. The luggage conveyor belt looked the same as the other, but the metal detector leads directly toward a curtained cubicle, where all women must be privately inspected. A female security officer held open the curtain and beckoned to me as I passed through the metal detector. She was wearing a smart uniform that includes a dupatta over her hair, beneath the hat and tucked in place at the shoulders. I obeyed, and she swiftly closed the curtain behind me. In that moment I couldn’t help but think of the purdah, with all its complex associations. The women’s security check could perhaps be called a miniature purdah.
Inside that room, the woman used her wand device to check under my arms and around the edges of my clothes. Given the often loosely flowing garments worn in this part of the world, it is easy to see why this sort of check is prudent. But her attitude was gentler than what I’m used to from Western security checkers, who are trained on high alert and treat each passenger as a likely threat, whether they be men or women. But this woman treated me with a sort of collegiality, like a fellow woman, almost as if she were performing a service rather than forcing an inspection. She asked where I was flying, and smilingly sent me on my way. The whole thing took only a few seconds, and as I left I was surprised to think how pleasant it actually was. My first instinct had been to think it was a bit silly or maybe even degrading to be sent to a separate line and treated differently from male travelers, especially since it necessitates a longer procedure. But the effect was not a feeling of being belittled or made to feel second-class. As she lifted the curtain for me to leave the little room, I felt that I had actually been given a strange privilege. And along with that was a feeling of surprise which has accompanied so many of my discoveries about women’s lives in Sindh, which have so often defied my expectations.
It has been in my mind since the beginning of this blog project to write an entry about women in Sindh. Questions about women’s lives, opportunities, hardships and advantages, have been asked me more than perhaps any other topic, and I have probably spent more time pondering these issues than any others.
So why have I so long avoided the actual writing of it? I will admit to a certain degree of cowardice. The subject is simply so vast, so nuanced, and so sensitive. I think most people will agree with me that there is no simple answer to the question, “what are women’s lives like in Sindh?” Nor yet is there a clear answer to the question, “where are women better off: in America, or in Sindh?” I cringe at having to give a glib answer to these questions, and so I often avoid it--but the reason is not a lack of thought on the topic. The reason for my hesitance is that I care so much about the question, and it is so weighty, that I have never wanted to treat it superficially.
I will not be able to avoid speaking in some broad generalizations, but I will try to temper them with careful consideration. For the world is full of exceptions, and there are unexpected realities in all the different levels of society. In fact, the expectations placed upon women, especially daughters, have given me some of the greatest challenges during my time in Sindh. It has been a challenge not only to attempt to conform to these expectations, but often a challenge even to learn what they are. And what can be more embarrassing than to discover after the fact that you have behaved inappropriately, simply because you didn’t know what was expected? Sindhi people are forgiving of these errors, fortunately, and I think I have caused no major catastrophes.
People often pose the question to me of which country is better for women, Pakistan or the USA, as if this would be easy for me to answer in a few words. But I cannot make that call without deep pondering, and perhaps cannot make it at all. What is “better” perhaps comes down to the individual woman and her temperament. But there are two broad statements which I can make with confidence, and perhaps those will help me to build some more specific arguments. The first statement is that, as a woman, I unquestionably have more freedom of movement and of choice in the USA. For those who value freedom above all else, the USA is clearly the better place for a woman to live. I will speak more of what I mean by “freedom” in the paragraphs to come. But I must say first that, at least in my view, freedom is not the only blessing a woman may enjoy. And there are certain honors, luxuries, and beautiful relationships that can grow in a society like that of Sindh, and which do not thrive in America. And my second broad statement is that, to my mind, the societal construct concerning women and the segregation of women from men is the most powerful social force at work in Pakistan, for good and ill.
I. My own early life, for comparison
*I think it’s important to note that this lack of poetry and lack of rhyme is specific to my white-Protestant upbringing, and I would have had a very different perspective had I grown up instead with the hip-hop and rap poetry of Black America. That is a culture in which poetry is as alive and vibrant as anywhere I can imagine, and in which the idea of rhyme has reached new heights of virtuosity. But that is not the culture in which I grew up.
And yet, there are few reactions more frustrating to receive on a translation than that old chestnut: “Somehow it just doesn’t capture the essence of the original.” There is no way to argue against this criticism, because it is invariably correct. The Essence is not available for bottling and re-selling. And so, how to respond to that critique, other than to say: “I tried my best -- and I will keep trying” -- ? My best hope can never be to convey the true Essence, but simply to limit the pain of its loss.
And having recognized an inevitable loss, how should the translator behave? In academic circles it has become trendy to debate whether translation is really an “act of brutality” against an original text. Although the word “brutality” seems a bit extravagant, the idea is really not far removed from comments received about a translation “not capturing the essence.” According to this thinking, the translator is doing something unnatural and unkind, mutilating a work of genius by sending it through a linguistic shredder and offering the results as if they were still whole. And that is an engaging idea -- until one remembers that the translator has actually done nothing at all to the original poem. It has not gone through any shredder: the original poem still exists. There was no attack and no dismantling, and more importantly, no replacing. The translation wishes to emulate, but not to dethrone, the original.
It seems to me that the best way to think of a translation is as a bridge. The original poem has its place, its home, in its language. All those who know the language have access to the poem, but it is out of reach for all others -- until someone builds a bridge. That bridge must start from the native language of the translator, who undertakes the task to connect the new reader to the original. The better the translation, the more solid the bridge, and the more likely it is to transport new readers back to the source. A poor translation requires much from the reader, much clinging and perseverance, if he wishes to understand the poem, and many will be lost along the way. A fine translation, by contrast, will allow the new readers to pass smoothly as if traveling in their own country, and yet experience something they couldn’t otherwise see. The strongest bridge of all is that which inspires the new reader to try to learn the language itself, so that he can approach the poem in its genuine Essence.
And so, that is my project, however long it takes me -- years certainly, or a lifetime, perhaps. I hope I can build a sturdy bridge for future travelers. All pilgrims are welcome on the road toward Bhit Shah.
I have been three times to visit the fishing community on the Indus banks near Larkana, so I will tell this story in three parts.
Part 1. The ancient Indus, yet a new world for me.
On that particular afternoon, I had already been dazzled by several new sights about and around Larkana, and I was feeling ready to head back home. But Papa Saeed had one more location in mind, just before sunset. We were riding in his Jeep, which is the vehicle Papa loves best, because it frees him of the shackles of having to drive on the real, paved roads of town (which roads, it must be said, are paved very poorly in many cases anyway). Our drive on that afternoon took us first onto a very sandy passage that still nonetheless resembled a road, but then soon down a steep hill that seemed not much more solid than a sand dune. Once down that stretch, the Jeep proceeded to bump and jostle its way across a rocky terrain that eventually opened up on the vast expanse of the Indus river bank.
And what a view it is from there: the river Indus stretching wide but placid, its waters almost still, such that you might not even notice which direction the river was flowing. And alongside that peaceful giant of a river stretched a wide beach, not of sand, but of gentle silty dust, which at water’s edge becomes a grey slippery mud.
Farther back from the river, where the terrain changes into a more typical mix of rocks and low plants, there arises a chain of huts, all ramshackle and bending low under the pressure of sunlight and the harshness of reality. These are the homes of the nomadic fishing community, who live in this majestic natural setting but in conditions of abject poverty. I cannot hazard a guess as to whether the beauty of the river and sky can possibly console these fisherfolk amid the starkness of their deprivation.
The people who live here captured my interest at once, and we (Papa and I) seemed to be just as interesting to them. The menfolk usually linger in the background, rarely approaching, but the women (generally older ones) come forth readily to offer their greetings, and the children burst towards us in great curiosity and enthusiasm. The women are always kind, but they seemed a bit wary of us at first. Although the Sangi home is only a few miles from this settlement, it would appear that even Papa is an alien from another planet descending upon them, so different is their way of life. But Papa greets them as equals, addressing each woman as “adi” (respected sister). And if they seem surprised to be given such respect, he insists to them that “we are all Sindhis, aren’t we!”
My attention was drawn to the still waters of the river, and especially to a few strange and still displays moored in them. There were a pair of wooden Indus boats, which are always a poetic image, especially when they float there, empty and waiting. But more surreal was the line of strange birds, all perched on a slender and uneven branch, which was raised by similar but vertical pegs to hover a foot or so above the water. The birds sit there in great solemnity, uttering no sound, and rarely moving at all. At first I had thought that they had simply paused there for a rest in the midst of their regular soarings, but looking more closely I realized that they were tied to the spot. I was even more unsettled to learn that they had been blinded, though I could not understand the reason that was explained to me at the time. I later learned that they are held there for the purpose of luring other birds to the spot to be caught. And thus, as sometimes happens, a scene that appears magical upon first glance turns rather darker upon inspection.
But I could hardly brood on that notion when surrounded by such bright children, who circled around us with increasing excitement.
One particular girl, probably eight or nine years old, caught my attention somehow. Though she had no dazzling beauty, she stood out from the crowd because of her honest, open demeanor, a special friendliness, and, it seemed to me, a noticeable intelligence in her eyes. She was especially plainly dressed. All the children wear the clothes of the poor, of course, but some of the girls nonetheless glow with bright colors and their own natural glamour. But this girl made no effort at glamour; she wore her dupatta tightly around her forehead in the manner of a kerchief. But I haven’t fully described her what drew me to her. Perhaps you, dear reader, will recognize the feeling of being in the presence of someone who seems especially real to you. Something about a personality that stands out against others. It wasn’t the feeling of having known her for a long time -- I didn’t feel like I knew her at all. But I felt nonetheless like she was someone worth knowing, someone worth getting to know.
I asked her name -- that was one of the few full sentences of Sindhi that I could already muster at that time -- “tunhjo naalo chhaa aahey?” But I was surprised, and thought perhaps that I had misspoken, when she responded simply: “Baji.” Baji is a word commonly used for “sister” (usually, an elder or respected sister) -- could this really be her name? “Tunhnjo naalo Baji aa?” I repeated somewhat haltingly. She nodded with her simple smile, and the other children confirmed that, yes, this was Baji. And I was satisfied that at least this was the name she goes by -- though surely she must have some other proper name as well. But to this day I only know her as Baji.
Part 2. Royal throne of fishing nets
My second visit to the fisherfolk, in November 2015, was one of the loveliest of all my experiences in Sindh. I wrote it up for my Facebook page at the time, and since the feelings of the day will be freshest in that telling, I will copy that text here, but I am expanding it to fill in some details that I omitted at the time.
We arrived this time in early afternoon, and the sun was very bright overhead. I was eager to see the sweet children of the fishing community again -- particularly my favorite little girl, Baji. As soon as we were out of the Jeep and among the children, I scanned the group for Baji, and didn’t see her among them. We asked for her, and there was some confusion as to her whereabouts -- she was on the other side of the river, by some reports, or she was inside, or busy with something. These answers could not all be true, so we kept asking. And so the message that Baji was being summoned by these foreign visitors began to travel more quickly among the fisher folk, and eventually it had its effect: and we saw on the horizon that Baji herself was running along to join us.
I gave her a hug, which she accepted gently, but her mood remained troubled, and this troubled me even more. I tried to find out from Papa what might be worrying little Baji. He did not seem to make much of it. “ACTUALLY SWEET EM,” he said, “SHE IS VERY EMOTIONAL TO SEE YOU AGAIN.”
“It is not the emotion that I might have hoped for,” I said, but I’m not sure Papa heard me.
There was an especially large group of excited children circling round us this time, inviting us to walk with them along the riverbank. I reached for Baji’s hand, and felt some relief that she was willing to offer it; another girl took my other hand, and the whole bright and bubbling group of us began our stroll. The children were so buoyant with energy that I hardly noticed when Baji began to sink back a bit into the crowd.
Our path at first followed along the higher bank, where the mud had hardened into firm ground. At one point, though, Papa asked if I wanted to go down closer to a particular boat, where a couple of young boys were beckoning to us. Unable to resist, I started down the hill, towards where the ground was looser and muddier. These boats were very close to the shore, though, and there was some hay laid down on the mud that looked like it might possibly support me in my last steps toward the boat. I proceeded cautiously, but in vain: my right foot sank deep into the soft clay mud, immersing my shoe entirely.
At this point I thought: I've come this far, so might as well go the remaining few steps without shoes. I left both my shoes sticking right there in the mud, and carefully trod the rest of the way toward the little boat. The grinning boys were waiting for me there, and I sat with them for a sunny moment. I was a bit worried about ruining my nice new suit (a present from Ammi Saeeda which I was wearing for the first time), but surely this was worth it.
As I got back up off the boat, the children took me by the hand and helped me not to get too muddy on my return walk. One of them took my shoes for me, which I would have only further muddied by putting them on my feet.
But before we drank it, the children tended to my muddy feet. And this was the truly remarkable event of the day. One or two of them brought a metal pitcher full of water, which they slowly poured over my feet until the mud had been washed away. Another child took my muddied shoes and rinsed them off in the Indus. They tended me with such love and simplicity -- I am unable to find words to describe this feeling of communion. One might assume, seeing the photos out of context, that they were serving me as one high above their station, or that I had demanded such service, but that was not the situation at all. I wouldn’t have even thought to ask for such gentle service as they provided, nor did I wish them to feel in any way inferior to me. And they did not treat me as an outsider whom they were forced to serve, but more like a respected elder sister or aunt they had always known and loved, as one of their own.
Part 3: A mystery unraveled
This was during my most recent visit, in April 2016. The riverbank was the last of our stops on that day’s photo outing, timed to coincide roughly with sunset. There were three of us: myself, Papa Saeed, and our guard, who was new to us but served us very dutifully throughout my stay. His name is Abdul Khalique Bhutto, but we liked to call him “Bhutto Sahib.” (There is nothing odd about this, since it is his name, after all. But I should explain for Western readers who might not realize that the phrase “Bhutto Sahib” will always inevitably bring to mind the great former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. And given that my guard Bhutto Sahib is also quite a young man, there is something vaguely amusing about this.) The three of us had previously been roaming around other parts of the riverside, where the Indus waters were somewhat more actively rushing than I had otherwise seen.
In any case -- at that moment I was perched on a wooden pallet in our chosen roadside shack, enjoying the shade and the breeze above the river Indus. The long highway and massive bridge stretched quietly behind me. Traffic on that route is steady but sparse, and the vehicles you can see are as likely to be camels as trucks. Before me stretched the dusty road from which we would soon descend, in our Jeep, to the community below. From above, the nomadic settlement seemed peaceful, rather organized, almost like a proper village, despite its light and shabby materials. A gentle glowing light was falling on those drooping roofs in anticipation of sunset.
As soon as we three had gotten our fill of Fanta from the huge bottles, we got back into the Jeep to descend and greet our fishing friends below. By this time I had grown used to the way our vehicle tolerates the steep descent into the quasi-sand dunes, and the bumps along the rocky path to our destination, and yet I was a bit panicked by the particular route along the shoals that Papa chose on this occasion. I didn’t mind the proximity to water as much as the precarious angle that the Jeep assumed -- leaning heavily to the left, the passenger’s side, making me feel that I would be the first to tumble into the river if the vehicle lost its balance. Thankfully we remained upright until we’d reached a spot where we could park.
And by now, the fishers have learned to recognize that green Jeep from a distance. This time we were greeted warmly and without any reserve from the womenfolk, and the children once again bubbled with excitement. And I was pleased to be able to communicate a bit more with everyone -- though my Sindhi is still atrocious, I could maintain a certain level of light chatting without great trouble. And I myself was able to ask them this time, “Baji kithey aa?” (Where is Baji?)
They had perhaps been anticipating the question, and the same flutter of inquiry started buzzing between them as the previous time, as they conferred to figure out where she was. And again I tried to follow along with what they were saying, picking out only bits and pieces, though certainly more than the last time. “Baji pareshan aahey,” one of the children told me -- “Baji is upset.” My eyes widened and I asked “chho?” (why?) but the child shrugged, and then said something that I couldn’t quite understand.
Around this time, Papa’s phone rang, and it was apparently a rather important phone call, which drew him away from the crowd of people. I learned later that it was his assistant at the clinic, calling to update him on the many patients who were waiting for his evening arrival. This meant that I was on my own with my weak Sindhi to try to communicate with my fisher friends. Bhutto sahib can speak some English, but when I looked toward him I saw that he was also on his phone (though still paying attention to my surroundings, of course), and in any case he would not be able to provide the linguistic help I needed.
As I was waiting for Baji to appear, one of the kindly women was sitting with me and trying to tell me about her, but I was understanding very little. The one thing I did understand from her was, “Baji does not have a mother.” I was sorry to hear this, but somehow not surprised. Baji did somehow seem more like an orphan than the other children, in some inexplicable way. But -- could this be the reason why Baji was upset? Now, at this moment? The other things the woman said would probably have helped me understand the whole situation, if only my Sindhi were strong enough.
After a few more minutes, Baji herself did appear, at the arm of another one of the older women, leading her towards me. I could tell from a distance that she was once again in distress -- this time even more than before. I greeted her with a hug, which she didn’t refuse, but also could not really share. In this moment I wanted nothing more than to calm her, but without understanding the problem, I was helpless. I looked at her as gently and sympathetically as I could and asked, “Baaji, chho khush na aaheen? Maslo chhaa aahey?” (Baji, why are you not happy? What is the problem?)
But Baji was not able to answer, still gasping and crying strange, dry tears. I looked to her companions, young and old, and asked the same question. They were all looking on with kindly and untroubled faces. One of the older women did offer the answer, though I couldn’t understand it fully. I caught some of the words she was saying -- “she -- thinks -- take --” but I could not make sense of the whole thought. Desperate for a translation, I looked over the heads of the children to where Papa was standing, some distance away. He was quite absorbed in that phone call, however, and did not hear me trying to call for his assistance. The kindly woman repeated her explanation, but I still did not catch on.
I sat down on a sort of a bench and urged Baji to sit next to me, and I tried to treat her in the most friendly and least frightening way I know how. But I was utterly baffled. This bold, bright girl who had captured my attention that first time -- how could she now be reduced to sobs at my return visits?
I continued to try to soothe her with my broken Sindhi. One of the other young girls then said to me, “Hooa tawhanji boli na samjhandi.” (--She will not understand your language.)
And I was even more puzzled -- wasn’t I trying to speak to Baji in her own language? Was the girl suggesting that there was some reason why Baji specifically could not understand me, even though the others could? Surely that made no sense.
“Par'a -- chho?” I said in desperation. “Sindhi aahey, na? Maan haaney Sindhi ggaalhayan thee.” (But why? This is Sindhi, isn’t it? I’m speaking Sindhi now.)
“Accha, Sindhi!” said the other girl, seeming content with my response. But I knew that there must still be something that I had not understood. I looked down at Baji, who was becoming calm, though her mood was far from that bright one that had first impressed me. The gears of my own mind were spinning frantically to try to understand what was happening here, and coming up with nothing.
So I let the children lead me on another walk along the riverside. I kept Baji’s hand in mine, determined to make her happy before I left. But she was quiet. The other children chattered with their normal energy, and I heard at least one of them again say that bizarre statement that I had heard before: “She won’t understand your language.”
And Papa did translate for me: “She thinks you are coming here to take her away.”
And the whole mystery would be unraveled from that simple explanation, though I was too flustered in the moment to see the depth of it.
I was utterly surprised by this idea, so much that I could hardly give it its due. It seemed simply absurd to me. Coming to take her away?
“Baji Baji, sachi naahey,” I tried to say to her, “maan eeain na kandem.” (It’s not true; I will not do that.) But by this point my linguistic skills were highly fatigued, as well as my emotions, and I did not know if she knew what I was talking about.
I wanted to say clearly in Sindhi, “I will never take you away from here,” but I couldn’t manage it -- future constructions are difficult, especially with the complications of a direct object and a location and a compound verb phrase -- I’m still not sure I can manage that whole sentence. (“Maan tokhey kaddahin na kanee eendem, hetan khan…” ? Sindhi friends are welcome to help me with that.)
Suffice it to say that I did not manage to say it clearly. But I also wasn’t yet giving the idea its full weight. It still seemed to me impossible that this could really be what was upsetting Baji. But that was merely because it had not occurred to me before, and the very newness of the idea was keeping me from completely grasping what I should do.
In any case, Baji was looking much less upset by this point, and almost even smiling. “Asaan dost’a aahiyoon, ha na?” I asked her. (We are friends, right?) And she nodded.
“Ain toon khush aaheen? Pareshan na aheen?” (And you are happy? You’re not upset?) She managed another nod and a smile. And I gave her a better hug at this point.
It was clear that Papa needed to get going, and that patients were awaiting him. I was still not fully satisfied that I had communicated well with dear Baji, but I knew that the time for this visit was up. So I said my farewells to all of them.
And to Baji I also said, “Maan wari eendem” (-- I will come again). And I now wish I had not said that -- but only later did I realize why.
As we drove away, I asked Papa if Baji could really have thought I was planning to take her. It still did not seem a logical explanation to me.
“WELL YOU SEE EM,” he replied. “YES. SHE MIGHT THINK THAT. WHEN A FOREIGN LADY MAKES REPEAT VISITS AND WANTS TO SEE HER SPECIFICALLY. SHE MIGHT THINK YOU WANT TO ADOPT HER.”
I tried to let this sink in. “But surely she has no other reason to think so? Wouldn’t the others reassure her that this wasn’t true?”
Papa shrugged. Soon our conversation drifted to other topics, and before long I was again dropped off at the gate of our house in the city.
But my mind was not settled. I could not rid myself of the feeling that I had done something wrong -- not intentionally of course, but something that I still wanted to fix. There is much that I still don’t understand, but gradually over the following days, more pieces of the puzzle were settling in place.
“She won’t understand your language,” the children had said to me. I had thought they meant my Sindhi wasn’t good enough for Baji to understand. But they were not talking about my Sindhi at all -- they meant English, my own language. They meant, “where you’re going to take her, she won’t be able to communicate.” If I had understood it at the time, I could have made things clear. Instead, my answer about speaking Sindhi could only have muddled things further -- making it seem like I was taking her to some place where people speak Sindhi. If only I could have explained that I was not taking her anywhere!
And when the other woman had told me that Baji does not have a mother -- this too feels like quite a different statement, coming from someone who might expect me to be adopting the girl.
And then I began to regret also my last words to Baji, “I will come again.” I meant only that I would continue to visit her, as a friend, and that these visits would always be the same as they had been. And I meant that this was not the last time I’d ever see her, and hoped that she would expect me next time without any distress. But to her ears, I fear that those few words might have had a very different sound. “Maan wari eendem” -- to her, that might have sounded like, “I will try again to take you.”
And I replayed both of my last two visits in my mind, trying to understand what Baji must have been feeling, if she really did expect me to take her with me. Her sobs and her gasps now made sense. She may have been imagining that this could be the last time she would see her home and her loved ones. She was expecting to be torn away from the only world she had ever known. Has she ever even seen a world apart from that riverbank? A child could certainly be forgiven for believing that those vast, calm waters and their stretch of blue sky were the entire universe in themselves. And she was facing the prospect of leaving her entire cosmos and plunging into the unknown.
I am sure that it has been a relief to Baji when I leave without taking her. But I also wonder if perhaps there is a small part of her that actually wants to be adopted by someone like me. After all, she does not have a mother of her own. And she must know that she is poor, and extremely poor, even if she doesn’t have much to compare to. I am not rich at all, but in comparison to Baji’s community, life with me would seem luxurious to the extreme. And even if Baji doesn’t have even the slightest desire to leave her home, she must certainly be curious about what it would be like to be given a different life. And she must have at least pondered it on her own, in between my visits. I fear that she is still pondering it now, to her own distress, since I did not manage to dispel the notion on my last visit.
And that is the end of this story as it stands right now. The mystery is resolved, though emotional harmony is not entirely restored. Perhaps a future visit will settle the matter fully, and the waters between us will be as calm as the Indus underneath Baji’s blue tent of a sky.
I have been learning about Sindh for only four years, but noticed the unusually intense love among Sindhis for their language very early in that time. When I began to respond to my online friends using even the most basic Sindhi phrases of greeting or farewell, I was amazed at the fireworks of appreciation I received in return. Previously, when trying out a few Urdu phrases, I had also been greeted with surprise and joy -- but there was something different and deeper-felt in the reactions to my attempts at Sindhi. And if that was true for my online interactions, how much more emotional and delighted were the responses when I came to utter some of my practiced phrases in Sindh, in person!
This can be partly explained by the rarity of the situation, since it almost never happens that any non-Sindhi (especially a white Anglo type like myself) learns Sindhi in the first place. It is also unusual for a foreigner to learn Urdu, but not nearly so astonishing, because Hindi-Urdu after all is the language of Bollywood, which is enjoyed around the world. Meanwhile, the cultural treasures of the Sindhi language have not (yet) learned to export themselves so widely. Therefore it is rare a foreigner to encounter the language by chance, and to be drawn into it enough to learn even a phrase or two.
And yet, that is precisely what has happened to me--a chance encounter with a language and a culture, which has resulted in a lasting connection. I am not the first of these rare and lucky souls who discover Sindhi -- the beloved Elsa Qazi and others have already blazed the trail -- but perhaps I can help open the door for others who may similarly be enriched by it. The Sindhi love of the native language is, I believe, a contagious kind of joy, and the gentle, rolling sound of spoken Sindhi could bring a smile to even the least comprehending face.
Smiling at the sounds is not enough, of course. But learning to comprehend is no easy matter. The challenge is especially great for a non-Asian like myself, who must learn the entirety of the language from the beginning, having nearly no earlier contact with any aspect of its grammar, its alphabet, its phrase structure, its vocabulary, etc.
For the sake of any non-Sindhi readers of this blog, allow me to share a few statistics to explain the way the Sindhi language currently fits into its landscape, and why Hyderabad is so important in this regard. It is a complex situation, because Sindh is an official province in the federal republic of Pakistan, but political and governmental realities do not always reflect the cultural identity of a place. The governmental capital city of Sindh is the colossal port city of Karachi, which is not only the largest city in all of Pakistan, but one of the largest in the world. Greater Karachi’s population is estimated around 24 million; and although Hyderabad is the second largest city of Sindh, its population of 3.5 million feels genuinely tiny compared to Karachi’s.
But the differences between Sindh’s “first” and “second” cities are more significant than just their differing population size. Culturally, they are different worlds. Cosmopolitan Karachi is composed largely of transplanted communities who migrated there after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. It is not surprising, therefore, to find a substantial percentage of Urdu speakers in Karachi--roughly half of the population, according to the 1998 census*. The more surprising figure, to my mind, is that Sindhi speakers do not comprise the second-largest group in Karachi, and not even the third. Punjabi is the second largest language community in Karachi, and the third is Pashto -- the language brought to the region by immigrants from the distant northern regions Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Sindhi language, in the official capital of Sindh, is spoken by less than 8 percent of the population. This statistic in itself cracks open a window of insight on the broader issue of a sense of marginalization that the Sindhi community has felt ever since Partition.
While Karachi has been rapidly expanding and transforming itself into a pan-Pakistani mega-city over the past century or so, Sindh’s second-largest city stands in greater continuity with the history of Sindh. It is not populated exclusively by Sindhi speakers, but Sindhi is by far the majority language. Hyderabad is, in essence, the cultural capital of Sindh. It is the home of the Language Authority as well as the Sindh Museum, among other things. And the cultural and intellectual nervous system of Hyderabad is further stimulated by the very close proximity of the town of Jamshoro, where the University of Sindh and the Institute of Sindhology are located. Hyderabad and Jamshoro lie facing one another on either side of the Indus, in a key position through which travelers always pass when headed either seaward towards Karachi or north towards most other parts of the country, so it is a natural hub for cultural activity.
The institutions of Jamshoro and and the cultural centers in the heart of Hyderabad are separate institutions (to the best of my knowledge, at least), but they share a few features in common. They are all significant, but none of them is ancient: they were founded after the formation of Pakistan. Any Sindhi person can tell you that the history of Sindh stretches back not merely fifty years, nor five hundred, but 5,000 years into the past. The challenge for the founders of Pakistan (and for its governors still today) was to find a way to link and unite a vast array of communities and cultures and languages under one flag; and a correlating challenge arose for those individual communities to maintain their own sense of self despite federation. That is a challenge faced not only by Sindhis, of course, but by most or perhaps all of those individual communities, whether they were indigenous or Mohajjir (migrated after the Partition). It would no doubt be fascinating to look at each one of those communities in depth. But Sindh is my adoptive homeland, so I am looking at this 'identity crisis,' as best I can, from a Sindhi perspective.
And if I were asked to try to point to one central concept at the heart of Sindhi culture, I would say it has to do with connectedness to the living and breathing land of Sindh itself. The Sindhi language and the valley of Sindhu (the River Indus), the language and the soil, are all of one piece with the Sindhi people. The words Indus, Sindh, Hindu, Hindustan, and India all originally derive from the same root word, which is the name for the river and its valley. Though these words have grown and evolved in different directions over the centuries, I find that Sindh, Sindhu, and Sindhi all remain inextricably bound with one another as a singular concept: a place, a people, a language, an identity.
To keep the language alive and vibrant is thus equal to, or at least inextricable from, the preservation of Sindhi identity. And this is the daunting challenge that has been undertaken by the Sindhi Language Authority (which I will now abbreviate as SLA). The delicate diplomacy of the task is evident in the first lines of the SLA’s constitution, which place the SLA firmly in the context of the Pakistani republic:
“WHEREAS, Article 251(3) of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973 lays down that:
“Without prejudice to the status of the National language, a Provincial Assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in addition to the national language.”So, therefore in deference to and in compliance with Article of the Constitution [...] the Government of Sindh may constitute and set up Boards, Academies, Authority and make effective arrangements and rules inter alia for progressive use of Sindhi Language in the province as envisaged in the Act.”
(I have added the bold face for emphasis; the whole document can be read here: http://www.sindhila.org/Index.php?dflt=Constitution )
The next item (k) sets the SLA’s sights yet higher: “To undertake translations of major Sindhi works of scholars and writers into English for international understanding, goodwill and appreciation.” This is the function by which I am most particularly indebted to the SLA, since I am still not competent enough in Sindhi to approach the literature in its original version. These translations (especially dual and triple language editions) are an invaluable tool for me in my learning. I hope that some day my Sindhi comprehension will be strong enough that I can contribute some translations of my own towards the cause of spreading the goodwill of Sindh around the world.
But now I am getting far ahead of myself. It is time to return to the story of my visit.
I arrived along with my two most intrepid buddies, Inam and Naz, in the late morning. I don’t think that anyone had called ahead to alert the people of the SLA of our visit, but for people such as Inam and Naz, that kind of formality is rarely necessary. They are both well-known to all the relevant people in any place we might visit, and our hosts on these visits always feel honored to see them. And, to my great delight, I am also beginning to be a known quantity when arriving at these places -- for which I do not credit myself at all, but rather that same curiosity of Sindhi people which has sparked so much otherwise inexplicable interest in me.
And so it was also on this day, as we were greeted by a smiling gentleman named Khalid Azad, who knew me right away. He had actually long been my Facebook friend, but we had had no interactions, so I think he will forgive me for not recognizing him on that day. In any case, I shall remember him now, because he gave me (and buddies) quite an extensive tour of the facility.
Though the SLA building itself is not especially large, it houses a small universe of literary production facilities. Khalid Azad led us in and out of all the small offices that lined the corridors and introduced me to the various busy staff inside. The staffers seemed not to begrudge us a momentary interruption; all stood and greeted us warmly.
In other offices we found individuals and small teams working on all imaginable aspects of textual preparation and publication. Some are working on research, others graphics and typesetting, others on archival matters, others on audio-visual material, or on periodicals, and still others on the accounts and administrative needs of the Language Authority. In one especially long, open-plan office on the second floor, we found the large team that is hard at work on the multi-volume Encyclopedia Sindhiana, the first of its kind, which will be the most comprehensive reference work on Sindhi culture and history in existence. Another major reference project underway is the “Mufasil Sindhi Lughat” -- the extended dictionary. I was pleased to be presented with the first volume of this dictionary by Mr. Taj Joyo. This first volume is already an extensive tome, though it contains only the first letter of the alphabet (alif). It is exclusively in Sindhi, of course.
There is something special about these corridors, however: they are lined with a series of tiled panels that illustrate, in text, the history of the Sindhi language. Each one of these panels is, to my eyes, a work of art as well, in elegant calligraphy of many colors. (But then, perhaps I am not the best to judge, since I am simply infatuated with Sindhi script; any common road sign in Sindh looks charming to me.) The panels do not present a straight-forward timeline elucidating the development of the language (as my Western mind might have predicted), but rather a series of windows onto different phases and uses of the language, each illuminating in its own respect, but not necessarily chain-linked to the others in a logical flow of thought. Each one is its own small treasure trove of information.
For a language lover like me, these panels are infinitely fascinating. Many of them show Sindhi writing in scripts other than the one presently used in Sindh (which is, the 52-character modified Perso-Arabic alphabet that I mentioned earlier). Sindhi has connections, even living connections, with several other scripts as well. Of these, probably the most important is Devanagari, the ancient Sanskrit alphabet that is used still today in modern Hindi, Marathi, and certain other languages. Many Hindus, especially those who migrated to India at the time of Partition, use Devanagari for their Sindhi. Gurmukhi is another related but distinct alphabet used in some other Sindhi speaking communities. Hovering somewhere behind all these writing systems is the ancient pictorial writing of Moen jo Daro--those mysterious runes whose meaning has still today not been deciphered.
I didn’t manage to take pictures of every panel (perhaps they are available somewhere already in a compilation, I don’t know), but here are a few of them, along with my best attempts to translate the Sindhi captions:
براهمي لپيءِ مان ديوناگري لپيءِ جي اوسر
“Growth of Devanagari script out of Brahmi script”
البيرونيءَ جي ڪتاب ۾ قديم سنڌ ڌار ڌار لفظن جي املا
“From Al-Biruni’s book, spellings of individual words of ancient Sindh”
اسماعيلي پيرن جا گنان (خوجڪي لپيءِ ۾) لٿو ۾ ڇپيل
"Ganaan (that is, a particular form of poetic verse) from Ismaili pirs, in Khojki script, printed in lithograph."
The front entryway of the building is also adorned with textual significance: a quotation about Sindh from the sufi poet Rumi runs across the wall as a sort of marquee.
هندیان را اصطلاح هند مدح
سندیان را اصطلاح سند مدح
(“Indians praise with words of India; Sindhis praise with words of Sindh"; Masnavi 2: 1757-59)
هڪ ناياب ۽ قيمتي دستاويز
سنڌي ٻوليءَ جي سرڪاري اهميت.
سنڌ جي ڪمشنر سر بارٽل فريئر جو پڌر نامو
“A rare and precious document:
A public statement recognizing Sindhi as the official language, by Sindh’s commissioner Sir Bartle Frere”
If the British colonialists are remembered a bit more fondly in Sindh than they are in other parts of the subcontinent, it probably has something to do with Commissioner Henry Bartle Frere, who is remembered in the above item. Under his leadership, Sindhi replaced Persian as the governing language in the region. Commissioner Frere also required British officers in to learn Sindhi in order to facilitate work and governance.
“But in a language which has been so long neglected & of which so few even now pretend to know the correct Orthography and rules of Grammar many mistakes beyond those incidental to even the most careful transcription, are likely to meet the eye of the critical reader.”
In addition to rooms full of harried CSS students, I was also shown a beautiful children’s library in this building, decorated with whimsical murals in many colors.
I must admit that a part of my brain was trifling with worries of how I’d be able to lift my suitcase once laden with these new gifts. But for the most part I was delighted and honored at such a beautiful gift from an organization that I admire so much. And indeed I got everything home without much trouble. Now these books have been added to my Sindhi shelf in my bedroom at home--the new additions probably nearly doubled the catalogue of my growing Sindhi library. Nowadays when I am in need of inspiration, I look to that shelf, and remember my own good fortune at having discovered a rich world of literature that had once been completely inaccessible to me. Granted, most of it is still beyond my reach. But I have been welcomed into the lap of this language, and daily more of its mysteries are being revealed to me. It will take me months and years to learn it comprehensively. But that is my goal -- and I am grateful to the Sindhi Language Authority, for helping to make this possible for journeying souls like myself from around the world.
Before padding away down the hallway in his hotel slippers, Papa cast a baffled glance into his suitcase. It had been neatly packed for him by my youngest sister Mehak, who knows all his ways and needs better than Papa himself. But as for what to do with all the stuff in the suitcase -- Papa was once again at a loss. “SWEET EM! WHY DON’T YOU UNPACK ALL THIS FOR ME.”
I was momentarily surprised, coming as I do from a “self-serve” culture that values privacy as much as it does independence. Papa’s suitcase was only a small one, containing a few sets of clothes and nothing more, so it would be hardly any work at all for me to unpack it. It was only that cultural attitude shift that took me a split second to achieve. Sensing a moment’s hesitation on my part, Papa continued, “YOU KNOW EM. IT IS VERY SAD FOR ME TRAVELING WITHOUT BOSS.” (“Boss” is what he calls his wife, my Ammi, Saeeda.) “BOSS WOULD DO ALL THESE THINGS FOR ME. OR MEHAKI WOULD. BUT YOU ARE MY ELDEST DAUGHTER AND CAN DO THESE THINGS, TOO.”
“I’ll be happy to do that, Papa,” I said.
He seemed a bit surprised but very pleased to hear this, and he retired to the other hotel room quite contentedly. I hung those few shirts and pants and jackets of his in the closet, and neatened up a few of his belongings that he had left lying around. It was a very small task, but I could tell that it was very meaningful to Papa to be taken care of in this way. And he was not joking when he said that he was sad to travel without Boss, who in this case had gone to Karachi with one of my brothers for an exam instead of coming with us. Traditional gender roles are very much alive within middle class Pakistani family life, and it is normal for the man of a house to expect his wife or daughters to tend to his domestic needs like this. It often comes as a surprise to me, but at heart I am rather a traditionalist too, and so I usually am happy to fall into my own role as eldest daughter in the Sangi house, with all the responsibilities and privileges that it entails. And for the rest of this short trip, Papa was able to boast that his daughter was taking good care of him.
The next morning we were ready again to explore the the historic sites of Lahore. We only had this one day at our disposal, because we were to leave the very next morning for an even shorter visit to Islamabad the next morning. For the sake of protecting my own energies, I insisted that we limit this day’s visits to a small number of sites, and we settled on a few of the most important other Mughal legacies: the tomb of Jahangir as well and that of his wife, Noor Jehan, and the Shalimar Garden.
Actually, the estate that I have referred to as “Jahangir’s Tomb” is really a collection of historic sites spread out across a large plot of land in the Shahdara section of Lahore, north of the River Ravi. “Shahdara” translates to “Way of Kings”: this was the preferred entryway into the city of Lahore during the reign of the Moghuls, and an area especially favored by Emperor Jahangir (1569--1627) and his wife and consort Noor Jehan (1577--1645) when they were staying in Lahore. I have not yet been able to ascertain how much of their lives they spent in Lahore -- these Moghuls lived expansive lives across many cities in their Empire -- but Lahore was important enough to both of them that they were buried there, and both of their tombs can be found in Shahdara. Lahore’s other big Mughal attractions (the Fort and Badshahi Mosque that we had visited yesterday) are really not so far away from the Shahdara sites, but they are separated by the river, which seems to have the effect of keeping the less avid tourists on the southern side.
We stopped at the ticket counter to pay our entry fare: just 20 rupees for Pakistani citizens, but 500 for all foreigners. Papa tried to argue, as he usually does, that his daughter is also a Pakistani citizen (if an honorary one), but ended up paying the full fare for me anyway. I’m not sure what the logic is behind charging foreigners a price that is *twenty-five times* higher than the local price, but presumably it is simply because they know the foreigners will be willing to pay it, having come a long way to begin with. In any case, 500 Pakistani rupees is the equivalent of only $5, so even this is an extremely good price for the benefit of seeing several historic sites all in one.
The first of the sites that one finds right inside the gate past the ticket counter is the Akbari Sarai, which, to the eyes, consists of a pair of large lawns surrounded by a walled arcade, connecting to the tombs of Jahangir on one side and Minister Asif Khan on the other. But that description alone doesn’t quite explain what a “sarai” is, and it is a rather fascinating word, so I hope my readers will allow me a little etymological excursion here. It should be pronounced “sa-raa-ee,” and can be rendered in English alternately as “serai” or “saray” or even with the French “serail” -- which begins to become familiar to many English speakers, who will also recognize the Italian version “seraglio.” The Persian word itself is indeed the same, but the meaning is not. English speakers are familiar with the “seraglio” as meaning a harem in a palace, particularly one associated with Ottoman turks. If we trace that meaning outward a bit, we find it comes from an earlier sense of the Persian word which meant “palace,” but became exoticized to refer specifically to the harem in European imaginations. However, the sense of “sarai” that is relevant to the Akbari Sarai is a different one entirely. After a similar explanation of the palace/seraglio sense of the word, the Hobson-Jobson Dictionary provides this simple definition:
“But the usual modern meaning in Persia, and the only one in India, is that of a building for the accommodation of travellers with their pack-animals; consisting of an enclosed yard with chambers round it.”
(Hobson Jobson: The Anglo-English Dictionary, by A.C. Burnell and Sir Henry Yule (first published 1886). Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1996, page 811.)
And that is exactly what lay before my eyes at the Akbari Sarai -- although it was a sarai of Mughal proportions. This and the adjoining tombs were built during the reign of Shah Jehan, son and successor of Jahangir. But it is worthwhile to look more closely at the events immediately following Jahangir's death, because this is one of those fascinating points in Mughal history where individual will and intrigue between the royals escalate into a kind of Gordion Knot, finding resolution only in the sword. When Emperor Jahangir died in 1627, he was not immediately succeeded by the famous Shah Jehan, but rather by a different son, Shahryar. The latter had managed this with the help of his stepmother and mother-in-law, who was none other than Noor Jehan, Jahangir’s most powerful wife and consort. Shah Jehan, however, proved the far more ambitious and merciless of the two, and he succeeded in having his brother killed within only a few months of his reign, quickly claiming the throne for himself.
And this mausoleum was the building that Papa and I were just then encountering, as our wanderings brought us to one side of the Akbari Sarai. It is a narrow and tall domed structure that must have once looked radiant in the center of its garden plot; nowadays, however, it is one of the more neglected sites in this particular tomb complex. The mausoleum itself appears worn down to the nub; its outer tiles and panels have crumbled, leaving a raw surface exposed underneath. The top of the dome seems to have surrendered itself completely to the forces of nature, sprouting a spiky coif of grass all around--a kind of comical reversal of a balding head. Only in the more protected ceiling areas can you see a trace of the beautiful tile work that once adorned the tomb. The gardens all around are likewise in a state of neglect, overgrown with spiky grass and greyish shrubs. Even there, however, you can still feel the beauty of the landscape, in the form of the elegant and ancient trees that offer their enchanting shade, like this mango tree that stands near the tomb:
There was only perhaps one other visitor present at Asif Khan’s tomb when we were there, and also a guard standing watch. The only other figure who walked by was an old man in a strange plaid suit, carrying a sickle. I don’t know what work he was off to do, but there was something interesting in his appearance. I asked Papa to talk to him so that I could take his picture, and then just as quickly he was off on his way, treading his strange diagonal path, sickle in hand.
The dark and rebellious Saleem/Jahangir is just the sort of historical figure that we love to try to “redeem” by means of a true love. But we will have more to marvel at if we give up the idea of redemption and simply try to comprehend what his life must have been like--if that is even possible. Son of the Great Mughal, sovereign of an enormous empire, possessor of the world’s finest palaces, and husband to twenty wives--who today can even imagine what this life must have been like?
All these things I was pondering as we approached his tomb, which became more beautiful as we got closer, and its interior was far more thrilling than the exterior, as it opened to us like a huge jewelry box. The corridor leading up to the tomb itself is tiled intricately in many colors, to glorious effect, despite some missing sections in the ceiling and discoloration in places. To be surrounded by these delicate patterns is mesmerizing, and I was tempted to linger there for some time. But the watchman of the tomb, a kindly older gentleman, scurried along past us, explaining that he was turning the lights on so that we could see the tomb inside, and that we had better come on in before the scheduled load shedding would darken the inner chamber once more.
It was kind of the watchman to urge us in this way, because otherwise I might not have gotten to see the tomb in the light at all -- and this is the most beautiful tomb I have yet seen. It is all marble, smooth and cool to the touch, and inlaid with those graceful gem tiles, gleaming in many colors. The upper portion of the tomb is adorned with the hundred names of Allah in beautiful Arabic script. And at the head of the tomb were laid a cluster of fresh rose petals, bright red and mysterious, as if left there by Anarkali herself. As I sat on the rim of this tomb, I felt as if I had been let into the myth itself. I had a wish to whisper to the child version of myself, who had been so enthralled by these Mughal designs in the form of a tiny marble box, that I would some day find myself sitting on a whole bank of such marble. And to tell that child-me that I would be wearing bright colors in an Eastern style, and that this would not be some sort of costume that I would have to change out of in a few minutes, but that they would be my own clothes that I was genuinely wearing for the day, and I would be welcomed into the whole of that beautiful culture. How my young eyes would have widened to be told such an amazing thing! And in truth my reaction to it is still the same today.
We were also surprised to meet a young couple with a fair complexion and only vaguely Eastern looking clothing exploring the place on their own. We greeted them and asked where they were from--they were British, they told us, and only briefly visiting Pakistan on what was otherwise a trip to India. (As it happens, the only place at which one can pass between these two nations is at Lahore; on the other side of the border is Lahore’s sister city of Amritsar.) This was their first time in Pakistan, and so Papa and I extended them a warm welcome. I told them that they would find people universally kind and hospitable, especially since they were showing an interest in the country’s heritage. They concurred and said that they had had a wonderful experience so far. I felt proud that I myself had become Pakistani enough to have the opportunity to welcome other Westerners to the land.
And then we were off again -- back to the car, which was necessary to take us the short distance to Noor Jehan’s mausoleum. Viewed on a map, it seems to be nearly on the same site as Jahangir’s, and if I had known to look for it, I might have been able to spot Noor Jahan’s tomb from Asif Khan’s. A railway track lies in between them, however, and some other growth of urban structures, so it constitutes a separate site.
But we were not here to think about the mythical Anarkali, but rather the very real, and very impressive, Noor Jehan. She was Jahangir’s twentieth (!!!) and last wife, and the only one who could be considered a true Empress at the side of the Emperor. She was also not the typical young and virginal bride: she was 34 years old and already a widow at the time of marrying Jahangir. (Earlier in this blog post I mentioned the doomed Emperor Shahryar, whom Noor Jehan had manoeuvred into the throne. One of her reasons for this would have been that Shahryar was married to her daughter, Ladli Begum, born of her first marriage.) Noor Jehan’s first husband, Sher Afgan Khan, had been a famous warrior, honored for his service by Jahangir himself. Popular legend has suggested that after Jahangir came to see Sher Afgan’s wife, he arranged for the warrior’s death in battle (very much like the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba) so that he could marry her himself. This story is not corroborated by any evidence, however, and seems all the more unlikely given that Jahangir did not marry Noor Jehan until two years after Sher Afgan’s death. If there is value in that legend, however, it is that it suggests the power that Noor Jehan could wield in the eyes and heart of the Emperor. It was he who gave her the imperial names of Noor Mumtaz ("Light of the Palace") and then Noor Jahan (“Light of the World”). But it was not only his love which made her an important figure: she developed considerable power and influence in her own right, and arguably had greater autonomy and left a greater impact on history than any other woman in the Mughal sphere.
Papa and I wandered the crumbling interior of the mausoleum, on which restoration work appeared to have only just begun. We inspected the two stones, which commemorate Noor Jehan and her daughter, Ladli Begum. I thought we had seen everything there was to see, when the watchman standing guard started up a conversation with Papa, something about going down to a chamber below. “SWEET EM!” intoned Papa. “LET US FOLLOW THIS MAN.” And the watchman was already sliding open a door from the floor, revealing a staircase headed down toward the crypt. We descended, guided by a very small flashlight in the hands of the watchman, and the weak, narrow beams from our own cell phone lights. To illumine the place falsely with the camera’s flash would have stripped away the eeriness of that dark grotto, so I opted instead to take a few very slow-shutter shots in that impossible darkness, just to offer you all a small sense of the space.
I dutifully took my shot of the bat couple, consenting for this to use the bright flash. “NOW YOU HAVE GOT PHOTO OF THE ROYAL COUPLE, SWEET EM!” laughed Papa as we climbed the stairs again and emerged into the sunlight.
At this point it was time to return to the hotel for lunch and then some rest. I was certainly tired by this time, though Papa is indefatigable, and while I was resting, he circulated among his cardiology colleagues and visited their presentations. By the time I was ready again to go out into the city, it was already dangerously close to sunset. This was a recurring theme for my third trip to Pakistan on the whole: it seems I was almost always racing against the setting sun, hoping to capture more photographs in the last light of day.
And that is what happened again on this day when we arrived at the Shalimar Gardens. Not only had the sun already just sunk below the horizon, but the Gardens themselves, we were informed, would be closing to the public in just 15 minutes or so.
alongside the text above.......
“Until you have seen Lahore, you have not been born!” This is a line quoted to me by Papa Saeed many times before and throughout our trip to that great Punjabi city. This trip, my first to Lahore and my first time in any Pakistani province other than Sindh, constituted my “birth,” according to that particular folk logic.
Of the nine weeks that I have spent in Pakistan thus far (divided into three separate trips), I have spent all but three of those days in Sindh. This has been largely my own choice -- because I feel that Sindh is my genuine homeland, and those few weeks at a time pass by so quickly as I try to absorb all that I need to understand to ‘become’ a Sindhiyani. I need lifetimes more there. And yet, I also love the country on the whole -- not just my adoptive province. And I have kind and loving friends (from Facebook) scattered about all the provinces of Pakistan. So I do have a pull in my heart to explore much more broadly in the country -- even though that inclination has to compete with my unusually strong wish to stay in Sindh.
In any event, I got my first look at another part of the country during the latter days of my third and most recent trip. Papa Saeed was attending one of the major national cardiology conferences, held this year in Lahore, which was the perfect opportunity for us to travel. He would have his own expenses covered by the conference, including a hotel room, and so all that would be needed would be airfare for me. When the Sangis travel together around the world, they tend all to stay in the same hotel room -- they all have astonishing abilities to sleep soundly no matter what sounds or lights might be happening around them, at any time of day that suits them. However, Papa was aware of my own difficulty falling asleep if there’s any commotion around me (despite earplugs--I am a terrible sleeper), and so when the time came, he actually went to the extra twin bed in one of his cardiology colleague’s hotel rooms, leaving me a grand room in Lahore’s finest hotel all to myself during the night. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Papa and I set out from our house in Larkana early in the morning in order to catch our flight from Sukkur. Larkana does have its own airport at Moen-jo-Daro, but it is extremely small--I think it only receives one or two flights per day. Sukkur’s airport is also quite small, but it does provide connections to most of the other major airports in Pakistan. (Even the largest airports in Pakistan, all three of which I have seen now -- Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad -- are surprisingly small, given their importance. But more on that a little later.) The Sukkur airport has a quiet and relaxed feel, and the multiple stages of security feel friendly and not intimidating. And on this occasion I had the pleasure of traveling *almost* as a Pakistani myself, due to my association with Papa, who had bought my ticket. My US passport seemed almost a formality at this point.
“But you are Afghani?” one of them asked me.
“No no, Amriki,” I answered, though smiling broadly to have been mistaken in this way. Afghans and Pathans (who are ethnically Afghan but Pakistani by nationality, living mostly in the northern parts of the country) are typically fair-skinned and often have light eyes as well, so it is no great surprise that I often get asked if I am a Pathan. But it pleases me to no end that I am able to disguise my American-ness to that extent.
I explained to the ladies that I have been spiritually adopted by a Sindhi family, and that I was traveling to Lahore with my Papa. A little later they saw us across the room as we were waiting in a different queue for something or other. I must have said something to Papa that caused him to laugh and squeeze my nose in mock-disapproval. I noticed that the ladies had seen this, and I called out to them: “woh mera baap hai!” (He is my father.) “Haan haan!” they called back, laughing and grinning.
“Sweet EM!” said Papa with a giggle. “Do you now feel like you have been born?”
I looked out of the little airplane windows and towards the Lahore airport, which is a charming red brick structure that faintly imitates the red tones of the old city. “No, not yet, Papa,” I responded. “I don’t think I will be properly born until I see the city itself.”
“WELL THEN!” Papa guffawed. “Someone must be having terrible labor pains for you now!” And we both laughed.
All the passengers from the plane descended to the tarmac and filed towards a couple of buses that were waiting to carry us the rest of the way. Papa and I were the first to climb onto the second bus, and so Papa sat us down in seats directly facing the open doors and decided that we would be the welcoming committee. “Welcome!!” he grinned broadly to each of the unsuspecting passengers as they joined us on the bus. “Welcome to my bus!! …. Bhalee karey aaya! … Khush amadeed!” (I overflowed with giggles.)
Soon we were in a cab winding its way out of the airport territory and towards the city. And this road was one of the places where I could feel most tangibly that I was not in Sindh anymore. No more of the rough and dusty, uneven, unpainted roads that surround even the urban parts of my home province. These roads leading into Lahore were almost indistinguishable from roads that I am used to in the USA: smooth, broad, recently paved, and -- to my great amazement -- marked with painted lines and flanked by not infrequent road and traffic signs, even stoplights. In most parts of Sindh, traffic is a free-for-all of sometimes mind-boggling proportions. I can’t recall seeing a traffic light anywhere in Sindh (for one thing, that would require electricity! and I can understand that it might not feel like a priority for citizens who are already dealing with four-plus hours of loadshedding each day). In short, there can be no doubt that there is more money allocated to infrastructure in Punjab than in Sindh -- and more in Lahore than in Karachi. But I do need to temper these observations with the proviso that the road from the airport leading into one of the most prosperous parts of Lahore is not representative of all Punjabi roads -- special attention must obviously be given to a road like this that will see so many visitors. Nonetheless, the contrast to Karachi roads is instantly appreciable.
On the whole, one can also instantly recognize that Lahore is a place accustomed to receiving foreign visitors. Of Pakistan’s major cities, Lahore has the largest draw of tourists, primarily for the sake of the historic Mughal architecture (which was also my main reason to be excited for this visit). In Sindh, even in Karachi, a foreign tourist like myself is an unusual sight; but cosmopolitan Lahore is not surprised at foreigners and is used to dealing with them. For me personally, I enjoy my exceptional presence in Sindh, and the way I am greeted with surprise and amazement there, and had to admit to myself that I missed that instant-specialness now that I was a much more commonplace kind of visitor. But that is a guilty confession on my part. My Sindh also deserves to be visited by people from the whole world, and I hope that it will be, even though I selfishly wish I could always keep that extraordinary experience of being an Amriki-Sindhiyani to myself alone.
I was a bit tired at this point, having gotten up very early in the morning, so our plan was to check into the room and take a nap before lunch and sightseeing. We were brought up to a beautiful room, but found that it did not have the requested two twin beds but rather only one larger bed. Papa explained to the bellman that twin beds were necessary and that I was his daughter. The bellman looked embarrassed and promised that a different room would be found for us soon. A few minutes later we were told that the new room was being cleaned and prepared for us and it would be ready in a short while. In the meantime, Papa thought it wise that we go ahead and rest, saying that I should take the bed while he rested on the sofa. Actually, the only reason I include this trivial paragraph in my account at all is to explain this sweet photograph that I took of Papa resting on that sofa, using my blue shawl as a blanket.
After resting a while, then relocating to the other room, then having a quick lunch among cardiologists in one of the dining rooms, Papa and I dusted off our cameras and set out for the city.
The cabbie nodded, and I wondered how many hundreds of times he has probably driven that particular stretch of road between PC Lahore and the grand and enormous Qila (fort), which is one of the major pieces of the Mughal legacy of the city. It was built in the late 16th century during the reign of Emperor Akbar--the “Mughal-e-azam” or Great Mughal, after whom one of my favorite Bollywood movies is named--with some additions made by subsequent Mughal rulers. I credit the elegance of Mughal design with the awakening of my very earliest interest in South Asian culture (see this early blog entry), but prior to visiting Lahore I had only once actually been in the presence of any Mughal architecture, in the form of the Shah Jahan Mosque of Thatta (see this entry). And some day I must travel to the Taj Mahal in India, which I have been convinced ever since early childhood is certainly the most beautiful man-made structure on the whole of our planet. But for now I was happy to be in Lahore, where the vast majority of Pakistan’s Mughal treasures are located. And I was not to be disappointed.
Our driver dropped us at a stretch of wide, bleak pavement, from which we could see the high walls of the fort rising on our left. The beauty of the place, at this point, was quite concealed from our view by those walls. This had the same dismal feel that the outer edges of great sites anywhere tend to have, after they become tourist destinations; it felt like a long and dull walk (though it actually was only a few minutes) past empty vendors’ stalls over rocky gravel until we had woven our way into the actual complex.
Having turned a corner and ascended a bit of a hill, we suddenly came in view of the Alamgiri Gate, which was glowing a beautiful pale pink in the evening sunlight. That gate is named for Emperor Aurangzeb (also called Alamgir, which translates to the rather thrilling phrase “universe seizer”), who was the sixth Mughal emperor, son of Shah Jahan. The gate seems to exert a gravitational pull and we wanted to move towards it and admire it, but the path was blocked (you can see a sign in the photo which says, in Urdu, “yeh rasta band hai” -- “this way is closed”). I think Papa probably would have ignored that sign had it not been for an alert armed guard and various others telling us that we had to enter through a side portal to our left.
We passed first through a garden courtyard known as the Diwaan-e-Khaas -- the “Special” Divan -- where the royals could have an audience with privileged subjects and persons of importance. Neighboring that was the much larger Diwaan-e-Aam: the Divan for Commoners, where the Emperor could hear petitions from the public at large. He would of course not have to mix with the public: he would appear on a balcony raised some 8 feet or so above the floor, and look down upon the gathered masses. After attending to the commoners, the Emperor could again disappear into the building and exit by way of his Private Divan, nestled behind and entirely away from the view of the public gallery.
These parts of the fort we saw only briefly, conscious of that rapidly falling sun and eager to get over to the mosque. The front entrance of the mosque faces that beautiful Alamgiri Gate that we had seen at the beginning, and which was still now glowing with pearly sunlight, if a little less brightly. The Badshahi Mosque was also built during the reign of Aurangzeb (Alamgir), who must have exulted in the beauty of these breathtaking structures when they were new.
As we wandered about, a pair of college-age girls asked to have their picture taken with me, apparently taking it from my unusual complexion that I must be a foreigner. I was happy to oblige, secretly pleased to play the role of the ‘exciting guest’ once again. This although Papa laughingly told them, in Urdu, that his daughter is not a foreigner, but Pakistani and Sindhiyani! I’m not sure whether they believed him or not.
The azaan (call to prayer) is one of the things I always miss the most when I am not in Pakistan: the way the voices mark the day with their melody, drawing the spirit inward and somehow outward and upward at the same time. In Larkana, the azaan is a raucous combination of many different muezzins calling from many different speakers of many different minarets. Even here at Lahore’s grand mosque, multiple voices do color the background of the sound. But the focus here is on one beautiful voice and one sublime chant. The footage I recorded of the azaan is not of the finest quality, given that I was using a handheld camera with only its internal microphone. But I am glad to have gotten an audio-visual document of that moment, and I hope that you will be able to get a sense of the beauty of this extraordinary mosque at prayer time.
And that seems a wise place to end this part of the travelogue. By the next, I will be rested again and ready to see several other Mughal wonders before heading off to an even briefer visit to Islamabad.
On that morning I recall that Farzana told me some beautiful things about her faith. She explained that we are made up of two parts, spirit (rooh) and dust (khak), and that it is the desire of every Muslim for the part that is dust to find its rest in Medina, the Prophet’s city. As for the part that is spirit -- that will be reunited with what is Holy, no matter where the dust comes to rest. These things she told me in a combination of Sindhi and Urdu, as I listened carefully, asking her often to explain certain words. And I sipped my milky tea and ate my fried egg with Sindhi bread, and the two budgies, one blue and one green (or is it yellow?), chattered sweetly in their cage in the corner of the airy living room.
As I was finishing up my breakfast, Farzana got a call from Inam, who had been making arrangements for my visit that morning to the Public School Hyderabad. I had two particular reasons to be excited about this visit, namely two people: my adi (respected sister) Shagufta Shah, who is on the senior faculty of the school as an art teacher, and also Priya, Inam’s eldest daughter, who has also been teaching there (in a different section) in the couple of years since her graduation from university. From adi Shagufta I had been hearing about the merits as well as the tribulations of this venerable institution for quite some time. And in my previous trip to Hyderabad, when I first met Priya, I learned about the school from her perspective, though at that stage I had not realized that the school Priya was describing was in fact the same one that I already knew about through adi Shagufta. In both cases I had hoped to visit the school, and so I was all the more delighted when I realized on this trip that the schools were one and the same. The plan now was that I would first go and see adi Shagufta in the senior girls’ section, and she would show me around her part of the school, and eventually lead me to the section for the younger boys, where we would find Priya.
Since it was a Friday, which is the holy day, classes would let out around noontime. This meant that I needed to get going quickly -- it was already mid-morning -- if I wanted to see any of the classes still in session. So I grabbed my purse and wrapped myself in my dupatta and started out the door. Farzana pressed a piece of paper into my hand as I left, saying, “Shah sahib khe ddey” (‘give this to Shah sahib’). It was a little note written in Sindhi explaining that the driver should go to the main gate of the school and ask for Shagufta Shah. The driver, whose first name I don’t know since everyone simply calls him “Shah sahib,” was already familiar to me -- he is Inam’s most trusted and reliable driver, so I had no qualms about being taken into the city otherwise alone in his car. But he speaks little English, so it was kind of Farzana to write him a note in case I might have difficulty telling him where I needed to go.
Note in hand, I trotted down the stairs of Inam’s house and through the courtyard to where the car was waiting for me. Shah sahib, a soft-spoken man with a gentle face, held the car door open for me and closed it after I had succeeded in gathering my various folds of cloth--dupatta and dress--inside the car. Pakistani readers may wonder why I describe such banal details, but I think my average Western reader will understand what is special about them. In our daily lives we rarely experience these touches of civility and service. The idea of “having a driver” is something reserved only for the very rich, and no one would expect any chivalry from an American taxi driver.
Once Shah sahib was situated behind the wheel, I handed him the note and said something like, “Public School halandaaseen.” He looked at the paper and nodded, “Ji ha, madam.” Though Inam’s house is out a little ways from the hustle and bustle of the city, it was still only a short drive to the heart of town where the school is located, via the “Auto Bhan” road. (That road was of course named to suggest the high-speed German Autobahn highways, though the name has been very lightly misspelled. Cars on the Hyderabadi Auto Bhan, however, do not reach such break-neck speeds, as there is simply not enough room on the road for that in this densely-packed and lively city.)
When we reached the gate of the main section of the school, we found it guarded by a pair of armed policemen. This is not the least bit unusual -- as I have mentioned in other blog entries, nearly everything in Pakistan is patrolled by armed guards. Although that presents an initial shock to the Western traveler, it is surprising how quickly one becomes accustomed to it, and somehow the guards never seem menacing, despite their heavy weaponry.
Shah sahib rolled down the window and asked the guards how he should proceed in order to meet with Madam Shagufta Shah. Adi Shagufta is a well-known personality at the school, so there was no doubt that the guard would know how to direct us. From the glance that he gave me, it seemed possible also that he knew who I was, and why I would be coming -- because through my connection with adi Shagufta on Facebook, I was already fairly well known in this school. He told us that we would find Madam in the Girl’s Section, and pointed us down along the road to a different gate. The school grounds are expansive enough to merit separate entrances to the boys’ and girls’ sections, it turns out. And beyond the senior boys’ and girls’ sections, there is yet another building, devoted to the younger children (elementary school age), which is where we would find Priya later.
She handed me a bouquet of bright flowers, beautifully bundled -- mostly blossoms of bougainvillea, I think, though somehow I didn’t manage to keep a picture of them. I do recall that they had been gathered and arranged from right there on the school grounds by one of the gardeners, and that they do that regularly for honored guests. Tending to those expansive school grounds is a large job, adi Shagufta told me, and the gardeners on staff work long hours and are paid very little, but still they put a great deal of love into their work. The campus is indeed lined with many flowering bushes and graceful trees, tended by the same hands which had prepared my bouquet.
At this point we exchanged the same kinds of loving pleasantries that one might expect -- along with an exchange of gifts -- my Sindhi friends are generous beyond measure, and adi Shagufta is especially so. She gave me some beautifully stitched clothes (a dress and more), and a locally made dupatta, which she was pleased to see matched the simple traditional dress that I was wearing at the time. So I pulled off the dupatta that I had been wearing and replaced it with the new one, which you’ll see here in the photos. I gave her a diary sketchbook, because I know she is fond of sketching and thought she might like to record her visual thoughts in this way.
“Oh, of course! So nice to have a face to go with your name,” I said, and returned her hug. She was indeed known to me on Facebook, but she like many other Pakistani women does not use her own photograph on her profile (or even her precise name), which is why I had never seen her before. The reasons for such privacy among women on Facebook are complicated and varied -- sometimes it is societally induced, sometimes it is the behest of a father or husband that a woman not show herself, and sometimes it is simply modesty. I’m not sure which of these reasons keeps Asma from sharing her own picture online, but out of respect for it I will not share any pictures of her, even though she was our companion for the rest of this visit. (Adi Shagufta, meanwhile, has been very progressive in her stance on photographs online. For one thing, she knows that she is a public figure -- she is well-known in Sindh for her writing in many genres as well as for her artwork -- and she does not feel the need to keep her face hidden, and most of the time she does not cover her head with her dupatta. That does not mean, however, that she lacks modesty; she is instead a fine example of a different way in which traditional Islamic modesty can combine with more progressive and liberal views.)
“Would you like to meet the students?” adi Shagufta asked me. I answered “of course,” and so we strolled right into the first classroom.
To my great surprise, the students all stood up at once as we entered, and said in a slow and rhythmic unison: “Assalaam-o-alaikum!”
“Walaikum assalaam,” I responded, no doubt smiling broadly. I realized at once that this must be a school custom so ingrained as to be completely automatic for the students -- but for me, such elaborate displays of respect and discipline are still a source of amazement. A group of young American students might be induced to say “good morning Mrs. So-and-So” on command, but only sometimes, and usually grudgingly. But for them to stand up immediately upon a guest’s entrance into the room and offer the greeting cheerfully -- that would be extremely unusual.
I was first introduced to the teacher, who greeted me with a hug and did not seem to mind our interruption of her class. Then adi Shagufta turned to the class and introduced me to the girls. “Many of you will already be knowing Ms Emily Hauze from Facebook, especially if you are connected with me there,” she said. Many of the girls smiled and nodded. “Do any of you have any questions to ask Ms Emily?
A blush of shyness came over most of them, but one girl in a middle row piped up, “Do you like Sindh?” To which I explained what my blog readers will already know well, which is that indeed I love Sindh and it is a second home to me. The girls giggled contentedly at my response.
We repeated that same pattern of meeting-and-greeting in several other classrooms, and in each one I was pleased to be met with the same charming salute of “Assalaam-o-alaikum” from the students.
We had a peek also in a couple of science labs, not currently in use. The chemistry lab was enchanting to my eyes -- very old-fashioned in appearance, with ancient-looking bottles of chemicals lined up on carrell shelves. There is something both good and bad to be said for the “modernizing” of classrooms. A comparable American chemistry lab would be fitted out with more digital devices, and any bottles of chemicals would be stored away in locked closets as per safety codes. The students might be able to perform more accurate experiments, and more safely, in the American setting, but at the same time, very few of the students would feel the magic of it--and the net result of learning is probably no higher. The older-seeming equipment of the PSH laboratory carries a hint of excitement, an invitation to learning and experimenting. For higher education, more advanced equipment would certainly be necessary -- but for the level of science needed to get teenagers interested, the chemistry lab I visited seemed ideal. I hope that the young women of Public School Hyderabad are indeed being inspired to advance in scientific fields.
And finally we arrived in a hallway that was already very familiar to me from adi Shagufta’s Facebook timeline -- her art department. Some of the younger girls were in an art class at that moment, and we said a quick salaam to them before going to adi’s own office-studio at the end of the hallway. It is a large open space with a desk in one corner near the windows, which look out on adi’s familiar view of the open field and the ceramic-tiled roofs of the school building. The walls are lined with student art projects (and also some of adi’s own drawings), arranged neatly with a gallerist’s sensibilities. One long table at the left side of the room was covered with student craft projects -- purses, fans, and other decorations designed loosely with Sindhi traditional themes and young girls’ imaginations. Adi told me that these were to be given to guests, and that I would be welcome to take any of them. Trying not to linger too long on my choice, I picked out a small and simple purse and an ajrak-patterned fan. On the other side of the room was a cabinet containing more student creations: decorative boxes and dolls and vases filled with tiny arrangements of colored baubles suspended in gel. I was offered any of these that I might like as well, but, worrying for the weight of my suitcases, I had to decline. (I try to leave space in my suitcases for gifts whenever I travel to Sindh, but I invariably end up filling them to the brim nonetheless, because of the extraordinary generosity of Sindhi people.)
The area around the Junior Section is charmingly landscaped, with sculpted hedges and immense flowering trees that blanket the building itself in their colorful shade. A few children were milling about, meeting their parents, but mostly it was quiet. We inquired inside at an administrator’s office as to where we might find Miss Priya, and were told that she was in a meeting with the principal.
And, once again, my recounting of a visit ends in a moment of shared tea and Sindhi hospitality. (After this short meeting with the Principal, we all piled into Shah sahib’s vehicle once again, and he dropped adi Shagufta and Asma off at their respective homes before delivering Priya and me back to Inam.) In this case, however, I am aware that I haven’t told the whole story, and the omissions weigh heavily on my mind. I have not intentionally obscured any harsh truths, but have perhaps avoided them out of an excess of caution, because I do not yet know enough about them to evaluate them fairly. What I am hinting at here are problems in the administration--issues of corruption and ineptitude, which are common to all levels of Sindhi bureaucracy to varying degrees, and education is an area in which corruption is especially deep-seated. I was told by various teachers at Public School Hyderabad, for example, that they often have to go without their own paychecks for months at a time, not due to an actual shortage of funds but due to some administrative inability to allocated the funds at the right time. Months with no salary at all -- and the salary that they do receive is extremely humble, even though they are teaching in one of the most elite schools in the second-most important city in Sindh. One can only imagine what injustices, by comparison, are faced by teachers and staff at schools of less privilege. Further there is a history of nepotism and cronyism and unfair hirings and firings -- all the same pains that chronically afflict so many areas of life in my beloved Sindh.
So why didn’t I spend more time talking about them here in this surprisingly long account of my visit? Two main reasons. The first is that I simply do not know enough about them to speak authoritatively -- I don’t know who is to blame, I don’t know the extent of the problems, and it would take a lot more investigative journalism than I am capable of doing in a 2-hour visit in order to report fairly on them. And secondly, I don’t feel that investigative journalism of that sort is my main purpose. I do not like to turn away from harsh realities -- but nonetheless, my inner calling is to celebrate what I find in Sindh. The problems are everywhere -- I can’t and don’t want to hide from them. But still I love what I see. I love what is shown to me. At Public School Hyderabad, I saw dozens of beautiful young faces whose eyes were bright with learning. I saw teachers who work hard to offer the gift of knowledge to those young ones who come to them. I saw gardens tended by unseen hands of gardeners who get paid almost nothing, yet keep countless flowers blooming. I saw cleanliness and discipline and passion and creativity. Perhaps in the future I will have cause to investigate the problems of the school or other educational institutions more deeply. For now, my primary message highlights what is going well: learning is alive.
My wife, Emily, is the adventurer in our house. She has spent almost a quarter of the last year traveling in Pakistan, and, while I loved my short visit there and look forward to returning, I am, by nature, much more of a homebody. I generally prefer to be at home and, as a pronounced introvert, I do best interacting with those I have known for a long time. For the last nine-and-a-half years I have taught at the same small college in a small town in Pennsylvania, the same college that Emily and I both attended. I tend to prefer slow, gradual change.
On this last day of 2015, though, it seems appropriate to recall December 31, 2014, a day that was, without question, the most adventurous, varied, and unexpected of my life.
New Year’s Eve was my eighth day in Pakistan with Emily. It was our first trip there (she memorably recounts our journey in her first four blog entries). I had had a wonderful time. Though I was quite sick for about three days at the start of the trip, I was given such extraordinary care by the Sangi family that I look back on the whole trip with an enormous sense of joy and gratitude. Neither of us had met anyone we visited on that trip in person before: our sole interactions had been through Facebook and, with the Sangis, Skype calls. Yet, by the end of the trip, I was known as “Andrew Sangi Hauze,” and I truly felt a member of the family.
Though Emily would stay in Pakistan until the middle of January, I needed to come back to the U.S. to work, and so, on New Year’s Eve, the time had come for my journey home. However, as with every other aspect of our trip, the journey would not be complete without some intensive sight-seeing and hourly surprises along the way!
The day started in the Sangi house in Larkana with several delicious cups of milky tea and sad goodbyes to all of the Sangis. In just a few days they had become my second family I felt amazingly close to each of them, and I was sad to leave them when we’d only just begun to know one another.
I was to fly to Karachi from Sukkur, a city about an hour-and-a-half from Larkana. I was a bit nervous about this, as it would mean taking a very small plane (we had driven from Karachi to Larkana initially), and it didn’t seem that the ticket had actually been purchased yet. (It was difficult to get a clear answer from Papa Saeed on the exact status of the ticket, but his friend and travel agent was calling him quite frequently that day!)
Before we approached the shrine, though, we were tempted by street vendors with their wares spread out on blankets before the entrance to the shrine. We bought some baubles for some of our young friends and family at home, and Papa Saeed bought candies for our journey that day. Next to the vendors was a musician with a fine voice, singing to honor Sachal Sarmast and accompanying himself on a tamboora and, sometimes, with jangles as well. Papa Saeed is never one to let such a musical opportunity go by: he sat down by the musician, gave him an offering, and asked if he might try his tamboora and jangles. The man went on singing, accompanied by Papa’s improvisations, while Emily played the jangles and worked to keep them all in time. Amazingly, in the midst of all of this, several young men approached and sat by us, greeted warmly by Papa. They were some of his many medical students who had also come to visit the shrine on that day, and so they sat with us until their professor was finished trying out the instruments!
After paying our respects at the shrine with the magnificently fragrant rose garlands that seem to be omnipresent in Sindh, we were back in the car, on our way to the second sight of the day, the fort of Kot Diji. Papa tended to know the general direction in which to drive, but when he needed more precise directions, he would simply stop one of the many people walking by the side of the road and ask them the way. They were unfailingly kind and smiling (though often quite surprised to see us in the car!), and always pointed us in the right direction.
Crouching to make our way through the smaller, human-sized openings within the spiked doors, I was struck that there was no one selling tickets or keeping watch over the fort or the safety of the visitors. We had quite a climb ahead of us, up mud brick steps and sandy paths, and yet there were no railings or safety precautions in sight. It was wonderful to visit such a site on our own, without the feeling that we were constrained by barriers, yet, at the same time, it is sad that the fort is generally not cared for by the government. (This regret that would be echoed later in the day by one of the descendants of the Talpur rulers.) There is litter everywhere, and one alcove we passed was filled with what sounded like thousands of bats! (We only know that they were bats because Papa Saeed stuck his camera in the doorway with the flash on and bravely snapped a picture.)
Our next stop was to be the Faiz Mahal. I knew little about it then, other than that it was some sort of palace. Once again, Papa Saeed would stop people on our way into the city of Khairpur to ask them the way to the Faiz Mahal. We soon found the walls surrounding the palace and could see the gentle pink color of its highest towers, and yet we could not find an entrance anywhere! Papa drove all around the block occupied by the palace several times until, finally, we found what seemed to be a back entrance gate. We drove through, parked, and were met by several guards (armed, as usual, with AK-47’s). Papa began to speak with them in rapid Sindhi, while Emily and I stood and smiled at them, hoping that this might help. They seemed quite skeptical of us at first, though Papa seemed to insist that one of them take his identity card inside. The man disappeared with Papa’s card while Papa explained to us that, as the royal family was at home, the palace was closed to visitors. (The royal family, I learned later, are the modern descendants of the Talpur dynasty who ruled the Khairpur region for centuries.)
I was getting a bit more nervous as the day wore on, as we only received confirmation that I did in fact have a plane ticket after we left the Faiz Mahal, though we still had to make the journey to the Sukkur airport. On our way to Sukkur, Papa was making arrangements with his friend Sajid Mangi to bring us dinner, and, as we drove down a road adjacent to the Indus, there was Sajid Mangi, waving to us from a motorcycle. He had brought us bags of fast food, which we took down to the beach to eat. Before we could reach the beach, though, we had to pass through metal detectors! At first I thought this might just be normal security, but, no, it was in fact due to the imminent arrival of a Hindu holy man whose arrival would be celebrated by many pilgrims visiting the Hindu temple just across the river. Many boats, loaded with pilgrims, were launching from the beach where we had arrived. We sat and at our chicken fingers as we watched the glimmering water and the brilliant colors of the shrine and the pilgrims’ clothes. Just as we finished eating, the holy man arrived, surrounded by a throng of people packed tightly around him. They all got into a launch and headed for the temple as we walked the other way, back towards our car. Unfortunately the extra activity had made the normally congested roads almost impassable, and I was getting more and more nervous that we might be stuck in a traffic jam and miss my flight. Fortunately my flight didn't leave Karachi until 3:30 AM (it was now about 5:00 pm), and so I anxiously calculated that, if necessary, someone could drive me to Karachi (though that journey itself would take at least seven hours, and there are bandits on the road at night).
I hadn’t been in such a small propeller plane since I took a puddle-jumper from Reading, PA to Philadelphia in 1997, and I didn’t realize that I could not bring even my backpack to my seat, as it was too large. Fortunately, the gentleman sitting next to me noticed that I had nothing to read, and he offered to give me one of the English newspapers he had with him. Over the loud noise of the engine, he asked if it was my first time in Pakistan. I told him a bit of our story, and he told me that he was a Parliamentarian, heading back to Karachi as Parliament had been recalled on New Year’s Day. I had noticed him in the VIP lounge, and he had seemed to be a man preoccupied with much important business to conduct on his cell phone. I was pleased that he was so kind to me, and we wished one another well as we stepped off the plane in Karachi.
While I would have preferred to sit in the Karachi airport, stationary and settled for the seven hours until my flight, I had one more taste of Pakistani hospitality to accept. The day before, Papa Saeed had taken us to visit a farm owned by Sarfraz Jatoi, a prominent lawyer in Sindh. I had spoken with Mr. Jatoi on the phone to thank him, and, when he asked about my travel plans, and I told him that I would be in Karachi the next day, he insisted that I come to dine with him. While very grateful for the hospitality, I had read in the parliamentarian’s newspaper on the airplane that New Year’s Eve would involve many road closings in Karachi, as well as “celebratory gunfire” at midnight. I wasn’t exactly excited about being out on the Karachi streets at this particular time of year.
Mr. Jatoi had given me his number and told me to call him when we left Sukkur. When I called from the tarmac, he told me that he was sending a driver to meet me. Unfortunately, I could not see a driver anywhere, and my plane had been quite late. I looked everywhere for him, but soon found myself with my bags outside the Karachi airport, unsure of what to do. Ready to give up, I called Mr. Jatoi again. He told me that his driver had no cell phone, so there was no way of finding him, but he suggested that I take a taxi, and that he could give the driver directions over the phone. I tried several taxi stands, but they all had waits of at least 45 minutes (it was New Year’s Eve, after all). Ready to give up, I called Mr. Jatoi again, but he suggested that I try some more taxi stands (his desire to have me to dinner did not give up so easily!). Fortunately, I was in luck at the next stand. Mr. Jatoi spoke with the dispatcher on my phone, and they ushered me to a beat-up old car driven by a man of about seventy. He had no teeth, but a very kindly smile. The dispatcher gave him the directions that Mr. Jatoi had given them, and we were on our way. I sat in the passenger seat, a bit nervous that the gasoline gauge read “E.” As we reached the highway, and a Karachi New Year’s traffic jam, I tried to clear my mind of visions of our running out of gas by the side of the road. The driver said something to me in Urdu as we sat in traffic. I had to say, “Maaf kijiye, me Urdu nahin boltahun.” He smiled, nodded, and said “Ah.”
Fortunately the traffic soon cleared, and as we arrived in a residential neighborhood, he began asking me which house it was. Of course I didn’t know, so I called Mr. Jatoi yet again and had him speak with the driver. He let me out in front of a tall building with a white tent on the yard in front. The tent was illuminated from the inside, and I could hear lively music. I walked inside, and seemed to be in a hotel lobby. There was no one there, though a large party in the tent adjacent to the lobby. I called Mr. Jatoi again (I must have called him ten or twelve times that night!), and soon he appeared, smiling, and gave me a big hug. The dinner to which I’d been invited was, it turned out, actually a wedding dinner! (I believe it was his niece who had just been married, though I could be wrong.) Immediately a servant put my bags aside and Mr. Jatoi ushered me (not very formally dressed) straight onto the dais, where I met the happy couple and many members of Mr. Jatoi’s family, including his daughter Marvi (a lawyer in Boston) and son-in-law, Awais. They were flying with their baby son back to Boston that very night! I was grateful to have them to speak to, as they were close to my age and understood a little better than most how disoriented I was feeling. They were tremendously kind and helpful to me while I was feeling pretty worn out, as by now I had traveling for twelve hours or so, with a long journey ahead.
Mr. Jatoi sat me at a table with many other wedding guests, many of whom had studied in the U.S., so we chatted amiably about the differences between our countries. They were curious to hear my impressions of Pakistan, and we all enjoyed a delicious wedding banquet. I was getting nervous about the time, though (I did not want to be out during the midnight celebrations), and Mr. Jatoi arranged for his driver to take me back to the airport. I wished everyone goodbye and thanked Mr. Jatoi for his remarkable hospitality (I’ve often wondered if the married couple look back at their wedding photos and wonder who the strange mustachioed American was!).
I was relieved to approach the airport in Karachi, though a little taken aback when I saw the armed guards at sentry posts by the side of the road leading to the airport (a sensible precaution, though, given the terrorist attacks there in June, 2014). Being without Emily made everything more tense for me, as I speak no Urdu, and so would be entirely dependent on the ability of everyone I met to speak English. Fortunately everyone was kind and understanding, and the trip from this point forward was uneventful. I was so happy to arrive back in the departures hall at Jinnah International Airport, though sad to be parted from Emily, and wistful about leaving this remarkable country and the myriad adventures it brings.
After breakfast in Irfan’s office (at which I was most pleased to see that delicious makan’u-maaki once again), we were introduced to a young man named Zawar Hussain, who, we were told, is a “rising star of Sindh.” I didn’t know what was meant by that until, moments later, he burst into song. He is a slim young lad whose physical presence takes up very little space, but his voice is strong and easily could fill much larger rooms than the one we were in. Although most of the Sindhi poetry he was singing is still far beyond my level of understanding, I was able to recognize the text as Shah Latif’s tale of Sassui and Punhoon. The legend has it that the Baloch prince Punhoon had traveled all the way to Bhambore in Sindh to see Sassui, so renowned was she for her beauty. The two fell in love and were married; but this angered Punhoon’s brothers so much that they drugged him and dragged him back to Balochistan on camels. The song of Sassui is, therefore, one of grief and longing, as she sets out on her own to follow him across the desert. She is willing to face all the blistering hardships of the terrain in order to seek her beloved. And this is what Zawar Hussain sang to us that morning:
Palak’a na rahey dil to ree’a -- war'u miyan Khan Baloch
Utha charindiyas un'a jaa, mathaan takar tore.
My heart cannot beat without you; come back, Baloch King
I will climb every mountain to feed your camels.
A small thicket of child-sized shoes had covered the floor right outside the studio door, to which we (Irfan and I) dutifully added our own shoes, and then attempted to enter the studio as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the program in progress. But surely it must have been a great distraction to the children and the program host to see the station director enter their space along with a clearly foreign female guest. But, like the dauntless radio reader the previous day, the present crowd also kept their focus admirably -- at least the ones who were currently speaking into the microphone. The younger children on the periphery did turn their large eyes to us to stare with an expressionless curiosity.
“Yes,” said the unsuspecting boy.
“That’s great,” continued Irfan. “But have you ever met a real Angrez in person before?” (In South Asian parlance, any native English speaker counts as being “English,” including Americans. Being a lifelong Anglophile, I love being referred to in this way as an “Englishwoman.”)
The boy shook his head in an innocent ‘no.’
“Well, now you have,” said Irfan (still speaking in Sindhi). “My guest, Ms Emily, comes from America.” And he handed the microphone to me. I said a few words about how lovely it was to be visiting Mithi. I tried to keep my language very simple, though probably it was still too much for most of the children listening to the program. Nonetheless, I suspect that our young fellow who loves English class at school was able to understand a bit of it.
After we applauded Zawar and bade him farewell, we set out again for a village. We were going this time to the village of Mustafa, the chef. We took two cars now -- Mustafa and Hanif (Irfan’s driver) led the way in one car, and Irfan drove the rest of us (me, Naz, Khatau Jani) along behind.
Yesterday’s village had been tucked into the side of a sand dune and had appeared to us out of that misty sunset as if from a dream. Mustafa’s village, by contrast, was set mundanely on more even ground, and the clay walls and mud roofs felt perfectly solid as they stood fending off the beating sun. There was far more trash on the ground, gathered in heaps and scattered all about the sandy earth. Trash collection is lacking even in urban areas of Sindh--so what are desert villagers expected to do with it all? It can hardly be surprising that wrappers and plastic trimmings of modern consumerism, having reached the village, have proceeded to pollute it.
Irfan told me that Mustafa’s female relatives had wished to meet me, so I should walk with him towards the nearby cluster of huts. My buddies, being male, were not invited, but they would be nearby, visiting with the village menfolk. So I followed Mustafa across the sandy terrain and asked him a few questions. He could speak only a very tiny amount of English, but we managed to communicate in a mixture of Sindhi and Urdu. He told me that his sister and his mother especially were excited to meet me. I asked if he had learned to cook here in the village. He said yes, but was eager to tell me that cooking was not his only profession: he had also worked as a photographer and a makeup artist. I was impressed that he had found opportunities like this that brought him out of the village -- he had found work with some sort of a broadcasting company in a major city, perhaps Hyderabad -- though I wasn’t able to catch all the details.
Mustafa’s sister was talking -- partly to him, and partly to me, though I sadly wasn’t able to understand much of anything at all. I am not even sure at this point whether she was speaking Sindhi or Dhatki; if it was Sindhi, then it was in a local accent that my mind could not penetrate. Without understanding the words, I could nonetheless perceive a certain intelligence and clarity in the way she was expressing herself. I wished that I could leap forward several years in my language learning to be able to connect with her in some real way.
I responded rather helplessly--and probably in English--that they were nonetheless rich in spirit and hospitality. By this point I had been presented with a cup of hot and milky tea, which was as delicious there in the village as it is anywhere else. Sindhi hospitality is a theme throughout this blog--in a way, all of this writing is an ode to Sindhi hospitality--and this is a quality that is common to all the people who have welcomed me into their homes and lives during my travels. Guests are always honored in Sindhi culture, even among people who have almost no possessions to call their own. I felt this as I sat in perfect comfort on the khatta in the shady house, drinking sweetened milky tea, protected against all the hardships of life that these villagers face each day. Because the others were out and about -- working, hauling water from wells, herding their livestock, tending their children. Theirs is not a life of idle tea-drinking on comfortable cots. But for a guest, they will always take time and care to make a comfortable space for visiting, which is an honor indeed.
I knelt down to stroke a small goat who was loitering about in the courtyard. Anyone who knows me knows my curiously intense love of goats -- somehow I can’t resist them, with their blunt round heads and rambunctious energy. I love the simple joyfulness in the way they prance about butt into things, and their complete lack of shyness, and the way they try to munch harmlessly on anything they can find. I could happily spend hours in the presence of goats. I seek them out here in America, too, but they are harder to find here. You have to go visit distant rural farms and petting zoos to find a goat. In Sindh, however, goats and goatherds can be found anywhere, even in cities. But they are a part of the fabric of life in villages especially, and their hardy gentleness fits most naturally into this context.
Some of the village children were watching from a slight distance and saw me smiling at this small goat. One of the children picked up another, even smaller goat, and brought it to me. I sat down on the ground so that I could take the little goat into my lap. Mustafa seemed worried for a moment, and said, “na Adee, tawhaanja kapra kharaab theenda!” (No sister, your clothes will get dirty.)
“Na na, mushkil konahey,” I managed to respond (‘no no, it’s no problem’), trying to convey that a bit of dirt on my clothes was a small price to pay for the innocent joy of holding a goat, in my opinion.
And I would have happily stayed there with those children and their goats and lambs for hours, if there had been no time constraints. But the day was advancing, and the time had come for me to rejoin my buddies. So I walked with Mustafa down a lane and then across a sandy passage to where the menfolk were gathered. They were outside as well, in another courtyard, where there were three cots arranged in a U-configuration. This area was a little bit shadier due to its proximity to various spindly desert trees and high shrubs. And a charming gathering it was -- several generations of men and boys were clustered around my buddies.
“He has been telling me,” said Irfan, “about how much he loves to listen to the radio. He listens to my station, of course, but he also tunes in regularly to the BBC Urdu Service. He has been a loyal listener for decades. Look, he brought out his radio to show us.”
The elderly gentleman lifted his machine onto his lap -- a sturdy metal box of an older vintage such that I haven’t seen in many years. This was a radio from the days before cheap electronic displays, from the analogue days, when you would turn a smooth dial to navigate across the radio spectrum, across seas of static onto small islands of active signal. This radio has been working for decades, keeping its owner connected to the broader world (the BBC! the same radio service that keeps me connected to the world every day). And somehow this steadfast machine has continued to capture those signals, despite lost knobs and warped metal and decades of desert sand threatening to grind down its inner workings.
But we took a different route this time -- not the new commuter road that had carried us so smoothly before, but another, rockier one, which led us to a different exit of the desert. But before that exit, just inside the desert gates, there was an old fort, Naukot, which was our reason to take this route. Naukot has a similar design to other Sindhi forts I have visited (Kot Diji and Ranikot), with vast mud-brick battlements, and rounded towers. Of those three, Naukot is the newest -- only 200 years old, compared to Kot Diji’s 250, and and Ranikot’s exact age is unknown. It was built by one of the Talpur emperors, Mir Karam Ali Khan Talpur, in 1814. This same Talpur is also the one who built and is buried in the Hyderabad tombs, which I wrote about in an earlier entry. And our same buddy, Ishtiaq Ansari, who oversaw the beautiful restoration of those tombs is now also heading the effort to repair and renovate Naukot Fort. Our visit there was a short one, however--owing in part to my own travel-saturated exhaustion. We drove right inside high gate in our car--a gate that would be more naturally traversed on camel-back, or even better, on an elephant. But we drove right in. And we saw the sights, climbed the ramparts, took some pictures.
The rest of the ride back to Hyderabad was, for me, a rough one. This road was not smooth and straight, as the previous day’s road had been, but rather something of a ruin itself. Our intrepid driver, Hanif, had to keep constantly alert so as not to slam too riotously over the numerous speed-breakers -- and Sindhi speed-breakers are no gentle speed bumps like we know here in the States, but rather steep and pointed little walls, which Papa Saeed likes to call “car-breakers.” And apart from that, pot-holes like small canyons sank into the road at regular intervals, the results of flooding and erosion and neglect. And Hyderabad itself seemed elusive on this afternoon, because when we finally approached the city limits, we found an enormous traffic jam blocking the way completely. A long detour and second attempt met with yet another closed road, and only the third lengthy detour succeeded in delivering us all back to Inam’s house.
But all in all, what tiny difficulties those were--surely not even worthy of minor grumpiness as I sat in the car. After all, I had a comfortable reclining seat to myself, in a safe if bouncy vehicle, with climate control, and kind friends as well. To quell my grumpiness, I’d have done well to remember the diligent Sassui, who braved a far longer journey in the same direction, and without any vehicle at all, and no comforts, and no companions. That legendary queen traversed her desert homeland with nothing at all to protect her, apart from the love of her heart, as she sang:
There was almost no light left as my traveling companions and I departed from the village, rumbling along that strange hilly road whose edges were now even more obscured by dust and darkness. I think we were all quiet for some minutes then, allowing the strangeness and mystery of the place to sink into us a bit longer.
Or perhaps only I was quiet, sitting there in the front seat and watching the shadowy dunes drift by, while my buddies were pleasantly chatting in the back seat. The three of them, Irfan, Naz, and Khatau Jani, all squished together in that small space into one affable lump of friendliness. And I should also count our driver, Hanif, among my companions, because he was also a pleasant presence in all these various scenes that I am describing.
As we left that broad wild desert terrain and reentered the narrow streets of the city, I inquired as to what we were doing next. “We are going to visit that mandir!” answered Naz.
And I recalled that earlier in the day, my buddies had asked around to find out what times prayers would be offered at the Hindu temples (mandirs) in the city, and they had determined that the Shri Krishna Mandir would be holding prayers at just the right time in the evening. I cannot remember now how many mandirs there are in Mithi, though I did ask -- it was something like 8 or 10, perhaps. In any case, it needs to be a substantial number, to serve the majority Hindu community in Mithi (see my previous blog entry for a bit more on that topic).
Our car stopped in one of countless shadowy and bustling streets in the city of Mithi, near the Press Club, which would be our destination a little later when the inevitable need for tea would arise. From this spot we could easily walk to the mandir in question -- easily in terms of distance, though the walk was a bit harrowing to me in another sense. There is no separate place for pedestrians to walk in those narrow streets -- not here or in any typical Sindhi town. So people of all ages traveling on foot must share the path with vehicles of all sorts and moving in all possible directions -- cars, motorcycles, carts, and not a small number of wandering cows and bulls (a sacred symbol, of course, in Hindu Mithi). Of these, the only ones that I find genuinely stressful are the motorcycles, which seemed to rev about with wild abandon, squeezing themselves suddenly through tiny spaces between pedestrians. Avoiding their paths seems to be second nature to my Sindhi friends, but for me it is a rather enervating pursuit, especially in such darkness, where tripping on stationary things is also a distinct possibility.
“Yes, that was intentional,” I responded. I was wearing a very simple traditional suit that day, modest and loose-fitting, with colorful embroidery and mirrorwork. All of the Sindhi clothes that I wear are gifts that I have received from family and beloved friends, and of these, the majority are traditional in style, meaning that they are examples of Sindhi handicraft -- and not necessarily the sort of clothing that urban women in Sindh wear on a daily basis. But I’ll save the differences between those kinds of attire for some other blog post. Suffice it to say that the outfit I had chosen for that day not only disguised my Western-ness, but also my modern-ness, making me appear -- at least from a distance -- something like a local. And though the lightness of my skin always draws the attention of those who notice, there is never any hesitation among Sindhi people to accept me as one of their own, and quickly, seeing that I am comfortable in their cultural attire.
Inside the mandir, there is really only one thing (apart from the highly decorative walls), and that is the central shrine. In this case, the shrine is not in the very center of the room, but not up against the far wall either -- the reason for that being, I would soon discover, that it is necessary to be able to walk behind it, and to circle all around it.
The statue of the god in the shrine itself is, to the best of my understanding, the most important element of the temple. In this case, of course, it is a statue of Krishna, though in other temples you would find other gods -- the powerful Shiva, Ganesh with his elephant head, the monkey-god Hanuman, etc. And it is believed that these gods come to inhabit their statues during worship; thus offerings are made to the statues, and incense and candles lit in their honor. (Again I want to stress that my understanding of the subject is minimal, but that I know there are thousands of layers of symbolism and complexity to all this, which can be understood by those who wish to learn.)
But it was a fortunate coincidence for me that the iconography of this particular temple was all devoted to Krishna and his associates, simply because Krishna happens to be the Hindu god with whom I am most familiar. Through my study of kathak dance and rudimentary knowledge of the Mahabharata, I can at least identify Krishna as the blue-skinned god of the dance, playing his flute to the delight of his love-intoxicated Gopinis (cow-herding girls); I can recognize him by his peacock feather and his bansuri (wooden flute), and I can identify the woman at his side as Radha, his partner and beloved. And these were the scenes illustrated on the walls of his mandir.
I came to realize around this point that the reason the interior of the temple was empty was that the worshippers were gathering outside and preparing to enter. Naz alerted me to this fact and I went out to watch and to record the proceedings. A small crowd of people of various ages, men children, had gathered with candles at the door of the mandir. (In my memory there were women also - but my video doesn’t reveal any. Possibly they were present but avoided my camera.) They began by ringing that bell loudly and persistently, adding also to that sound-texture repeated strikes against a small gong, and tones from a kind of a fluty whistle. Then they entered the temple and stood before the shrine, where they began to sing. It was a chant, I suppose, and not a song, but they sang it with full voices, invoking words that they all must have memorized long ago. They sang most of the lines in unison, but at key moments they broke into two-part harmony. After a few verses had past, a gentleman who seemed to be the leader came forward and received a tray with a candle from within the shrine. He swayed it in circular motions as the chant continued, and then eventually led the group in a procession around and around the shrine, all still singing, but now and again pausing from their circling walk in order to touch the small cradles that swing at the base of the shrine.
| || |
I have uploaded a video so that you can see all of this. It’s not the complete prayer service, but representative parts of it, edited down to this short video. And although the form and content of this particular worship
2. Lights, then Music
Our next destination would be the Mithi Press Club, but we stopped along the way at a brightly-lit bookshop that seemed a colorful oasis in those dark streets of the city, by virtue of its densely lined walls of brightly colored (mostly Sindhi) books. It was explained to me that this shop was owned by Khatau Jani’s family and run (I think) by his brother Kishore (if I am remembering his name right). That family connection seemed enough reason to stop in, but I soon realized that we had a more pragmatic goal to accomplish, which was to make a photocopy of my passport. The guest house where we were staying had asked for such a copy, so I had entrusted my passport to Naz earlier in the day. But photocopiers, it turns out, are a little bit hard to come by in Mithi, and that was the reason we had come specifically to this bookstore to make a copy.
This was the last that I would see of the inner city of Mithi, for this trip, anyway. It was by this point about 8:00 in the evening, which is still a bit early for dinner (by Pakistani standards, anyway). So my buddies told Hanif to drive us to a place called Gaddhi Bhit, which translates roughly to “High Dune.” A wide plateau has been leveled upon this high dune, with a big open space (seems like it would be perfect for concerts, though from what I gathered it isn’t often used that way) next to a large monument of relatively recent construction. The monument itself forms a partial wall at the edge of the mound’s plateau, intercut with archways, beyond which you can see all the lights of the city of Mithi as it lies nestled into the desert.
I sat down on the floor of this arched monument for a while, looking out at the expanse in the darkness. My buddies were standing somewhere nearby, chatting pleasantly as they do. I think they are probably used to these moments when I sit slightly apart, in silence -- at least, they don’t seem bothered by it. I think they know that it is not a sign that I am moody or unhappy, but merely that I need some time to absorb everything. While I am in Sindh, I try to be like a sponge. I take in as much of that universe as I possibly can, so that I can bring it all back with me, and present it all again here in my blog, and tell the stories to anyone I meet. In these several quiet minutes, sitting cross-legged on the cool stone floor of the monument, I was not re-playing any specific episode in my mind, but simply inviting it all to sink in a bit deeper. And I was absorbing this new scene as well, the blanket of dimly glowing lights from this lovely small city below.
Khatau Jani was looking at his watch, and I heard my buddies saying something about “roshni” (light), though I wasn’t sure of the rest of what they had said.
“Soon the lights will come on in the city!” Naz explained to me, as we all turned our attention back out to the city view. That’s when I understood why the city streets had seemed so unusually dark to me while we were walking down below, and why the urban scene was only dimly glowing at this point. Of course there could be no other answer: load shedding. For those unfamiliar with Pakistan (and who haven’t read my other blog posts), load shedding is the result of the country’s dire electricity shortages. Most cities have to tolerate several hours per day without electricity, usually at fixed times so that you can anticipate the cut. During those hours, people have to fend for themselves, resorting to generators and large batteries. So, Mithi had been glowing dimly thus far because it was running on only auxiliary power. And now, just as Khatau predicted, all at once, the city doubled or tripled its brightness, as electricity was restored - and that dim city was dim no more.
This long and eventful day is beginning to draw to a close -- but not quite yet. My buddies had told me that Thar was not only famous for its food, but also for its music -- and I had been promised a performance. Very soon after we returned to the rest house, our singer and his accompanying musicians were ready for us.
The musicians set themselves up on a blanket on the floor of the large lobby of the rest house. It is typical of all traditional South Asian musicians to sit on the floor to perform, including the singers. The reasons for that performance posture probably extend back centuries and would be worthy of proper research, which I have not yet done. But I would conjecture that, in addition to practical concerns (not needing tables for the drums this way, for example), sitting on the floor emphasizes that the musicians are rendering a service, with all the humility that comes of serving. Western culture has moved towards placing its musicians on higher and higher pedestals--even though that may not be true to the spirit of the music itself. By contrast, a traditional South Asian musician assumes a posture of submission and reverence -- whether he be submitting to his esteemed audience or to his Saint or to his God -- or to all of the above at the same time. And that attitude of reverence is part of what makes Sufi music in particular so deeply affecting. In humbling himself before God, the Sufi musician somehow opens up a space in which all who listen can fall naturally into the same divine continuum--no matter what their own religious beliefs may be.
For the modern Sindhi musician, the “Faqeer” status is more symbolic than literal. A young musician these days is not expected to cast off all worldly pleasures in exchange for his art--though perhaps some of them still do, to varying degrees. The title of “Faqeer” comes now more as a philosophical concept and a symbolic link to the traditions of the past. I think this is how our singer for that evening in Mithi, whose name is Rajab Faqeer, would probably describe it himself.
And our Rajab Faqeer is a young man with a round face and a trim mustache. He has a pleasant aspect from the moment you see him, but only when he begins to sing can you appreciate the full sunniness of his personality. His is a beautiful voice, which you can hear in the videos I’ve uploaded here. But I must apologize that the sound quality of my camera’s microphone does not do Rajab justice. You can get an idea of his voice, but only an idea--much of the sweetness and brightness of his tones is lost in the recording.
Rajab sang in several local and regional languages, though Sindhi is his own primary language. I recorded several of his songs, but sadly was not prepared quickly enough to catch his very first number, which proved to be my favorite of the night. It was a telling of the Punjabi romance “Heer-Ranjha” by the poet Bulleh Shah. I was only barely familiar with this story at the time, and certainly couldn’t decipher the words being sung. But Naz translated the essential lines for me even as they were unfolding, so that I could understand the sentiments that go with the melodies.
And these lines made quite an impression on me. The poet is using the voice of the heroine of the story, Heer, who is suffering in separation from her beloved Ranjha. And says:
“I went searching for Ranjha… and I could not find him… I didn’t find Ranjha, but I found God….
and alas -- God was not enough like Ranjha!”
The first of these contains poetry by the Punjabi Sufi poet Sultan Bahoo as well as the Sindhi poet Aijaz Ali Shah Rashdi (though the language throughout, as best I can tell, is Hindi-Urdu). It asks,
“Why should I have to worship using physical pearls -- when my own inner pearl is the true source of contact with God? There are so many different names for God… Do not confuse me with such details. I am a resident of the Village of Lovers (Prem Nagar), thus I love everyone.”
“Kaun hoon, main kaun hoon -- mujhe jaanta koi nahin;
Maujood hoon main har jagah, par jaanta koi nahin.”
“Who, who am I? No one knows me; I am present everywhere, yet no one knows it.”
And on that note of universal mystery -- I will close this second episode of my Thari travelogue…. But in the third episode, coming soon, we will finally see what desert villages look like in the harsher light of day.
portrait by Pakistani artist
Imran Zaib, based on one of my own photographic self-portraits in Thari dress.