My night in Thar had ended in music, and so too did the next day begin.
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:
And Zawar’s song sets the tone for what follows. Soon after this performance, my buddies and I set out to visit a village where the means of living have changed very little in the centuries since the Sassui of Latif's tale set out on her journey.
But -- first I would like to step out of order here to recount one other story from Radio Mithi, which actually took place after our breakfast but before hearing Zawar’s song. As Mustafa (Irfan’s chef) cleared away our breakfast dishes, Irfan mentioned that there was a children’s program currently live on air, and would I like to see it? And of course I was eager to see it. So we left his office and crossed the now-familiar small and sunny courtyard to the production side of the radio building.
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.
Irfan and I sat down on the floor, where about a dozen children were gathered around a pair of microphones. A man sat at one of the mics, interviewing a boy seated at the other. Irfan waited until they had reached a pause, and then borrowed the presenter’s mic. Irfan spoke in Sindhi, which the children there must have been able to understand, though I think they were primarily Dhatki speakers. And I could not understand everything that Irfan said, but I understood when he asked the boy at the other mic, “I heard you say before that English (Angrezi) was your favorite subject in school, is that right?”
“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.
Then I handed back the microphone to the regular presenter, and we let them all continue with their show as we slipped out again, as quietly as we could. We returned then to Irfan’s office, which is where young Zawar Hussain was waiting patiently to sing for us -- but I have already narrated that part.
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.
The sand of the desert is a bright white in the noon-time sun. This is my least favorite time of day for photography -- when everything is awash with too much light, and colors tend to lose themselves in the glare, and eyes wrinkle up into squinting expressions or are lost behind dark sunglasses. But I was fortunate to be visiting in the cool of November, when only light is a problem, and not heat. The November sun, for all its brightness, is mild in its temperature. I can only imagine what that glare must feel like in the stinging summers.
It was only a short ride to Mustafa’s village, and we parked our cars on a stretch of white road that was almost indistinguishable from the gleaming sand around it. A pair of young girls who were standing there looked up at us with forlorn expressions as we got out of the car.
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.
There were no peacocks wandering in the shadows. There weren’t as many sources of color anywhere--not as many bold and beautiful rillies, not as many women draped in queenly colors. I might have thought that the comparatively muted colors were the result of my faulty memory, but my photographs seem to confirm it. I, in my hot-pink dress, was far more brightly dressed than the village women. However, many of the women I would soon meet did not wish to be photographed, so the photographic record can’t represent the full range of what I saw that day.
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.
We crossed into a sunny courtyard, where a few children were wandering at the edges, and a few small and sleepy-looking goats were resting. It seemed very quiet and still -- perhaps many villagers were indoors avoiding the bright midday sun. But after a few minutes some more women and children started to emerge, and Mustafa pointed to his sister, who was carrying a very young child. She approached and greeted me warmly. She was a very short woman of a rounded figure, and she seemed to be of an indeterminate age. Her appearance seemed much older than her brother -- and I could not tell if this was the result of years or of the difficulty of her lifestyle in the village. One of her eyes gazed at me clearly and solidly, but the other seemed enlarged and discolored, perhaps the result of some childhood disease,. The child she was carrying, though only a toddler, seemed quite large against her squat frame, and it seemed to me he would be quite heavy in her arms. But she was also spirited and strong, despite those other visible signs of hardship.
Soon I also met her mother, who appeared in the doorway of one of the huts. To my eyes she looked almost identical to the daughter - only a little bit farther along on the path of time and aging, but not so very much farther. This led me to wonder whether perhaps the hardships of poverty are weighted unexpectedly early in life, causing women to age more quickly in early years. And perhaps that is the case in any situation where childhood is so promptly followed by -- or in some cases even overlaps with -- childbearing.
I was invited into one of the houses, which was in this case not one of the round huts, but a rectangular and more spacious one, built of the same smooth-edged mud clay material. There was very little inside it apart from two khattas (four-legged cots with woven surfaces for sitting or lying on). I was urged to make myself comfortable on the khattas, while Mustafa’s sister sat on the other with her child, and Mustafa remained standing. My eyes adjusted to the dimness inside the house, which was a stark contrast to the flooding sunlight just outside the door. I was asked if I would take some tea--to which I naturally said yes.
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.
As it was, I caught only a few words and ideas -- particularly the word “ghareebi” (poverty), which she said more than once. “We are very poor people,” she told me. I wasn’t sure if she was telling me this out of self-consciousness, or perhaps some degree of embarrassment at the comparison to myself coming from visible privilege, or to gain sympathy, or for some other reason entirely. But I felt all of these things on her behalf, upon hearing her speak.
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.
Mustafa had taken my camera into his hands and was snapping pictures of me there with my tea. The results are mostly not in good focus or properly exposed, but that is only the result of my not being able to communicate to him well enough how to use the settings on my camera (he does have, after all, some experience in photography--just not with my camera model). And he held on to the camera as we went back outside, instructing me to go and pose in front of this or that hut while he took pics.
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.
The children seemed delighted -- though certainly not more delighted than I was -- and one by one they kept bringing me more small animals to play with. Mustafa still had my camera and took some more pictures as all this happened, there on the smooth clay floor of the sunny courtyard. The warmth in the children’s smiles and giggles as they brought me their animals is probably my sweetest memory from Thar.
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.
As I approached, the small crowd parted for me, clearing off one of the cots completely so that I could sit on it undisturbed. The fellows who were thus displaced moved instead around the edges of the gathering and stood while I took my place on the cot. Though I certainly didn’t need all that room to myself, I did appreciate their courtesy. A lady can always expect such courtesies in Sindh, I have found -- especially as an honored guest. Occasionally I have been asked if I had ever felt threatened or preyed upon by men during my travels, and I’m happy to respond that no such thing has ever happened to me, and that my presence and person have been given more respect and honor in Pakistan than anywhere else I’ve been. And that this courtesy is the same among all classes--whether I am in a village or among intellectuals or in the presence of some high official or other.
In any event, we did not linger very long in that setting, with the three khattas and the sun and dappled shade. But we stayed long enough for Irfan to introduce me to one of the oldest gentlemen gathered there.
“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.
That old gentleman must have thousands of fascinating stories to tell from his own life -- for a man who listens is one who perceives -- but unfortunately I was not able to stay and hear any of them. It was already time for us to be leaving. We were expected back in Hyderabad by early evening, and we had a long road journey ahead of us. So we said our farewells to Mustafa and his fellow villagers. Among the children who had gathered near us in those last moments were the two girls who had been standing there by the car when we arrived, and whose faces had struck me as forlorn. But in the whirlwind of new sights, I had not noticed that these were the same two girls -- but fortunately my camera has preserved them so that I can make the connection. First impressions are often deceptive: those faces that had seemed rather blank and lost now seemed calm, curious, radiant. Their lives are difficult, no doubt, and they live under a constant strain of poverty -- but you cannot fail to see the grace and depth of their spirit when you spend even a small amount of time with them. I would have loved to spend much more time at their side.
But as it was, we climbed back into our two vehicles, which proceeded to grind their way back out on the sandy roads. When we reached the edge of Mithi, we got out and said goodbye to Khatau Jani, who then headed back to his normal life in his small and beautiful city. And our driver, Hanif, once again took the wheel, while I sat in the front seat, with Naz and Irfan in the back. And the four of us were on our way out of the desert, soon to leave that strange and wonderful place, with its peacocks and its prickly shrubs and ancient radios.
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.
It was a brief but interesting stop, worthy of further thought -- perhaps in a future chapter in which I detail my visits to the other forts as well. But for now, it is simply a bit of a post-script to the other parts of my Thari journey.
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:
“Palak’a na rahey dil to reea, waru miyan Khan Baloch….palak’a na rahey.”
Photos from this episode.....
Image at top left is a digital
portrait by Pakistani artist
Imran Zaib, based on one of my own photographic self-portraits in Thari dress.