Have will, will travel! This personal motto has taken me places and has given me experiences that have enriched my life. The spirit of exploration inculcated in me by my father, who would bundle us in the car every other weekend, and take us to a new place along with his equally adventurous friend, embedded the wanderlust in me.
A developing love of history and geography during school days through excellent teachers, I would grab any chance to see and learn a new place. Barely out of school, and many fellow Karachiites thought I was ‘done’ with Chawkundi, Dumlotee, Bhambore, Haleji, Keenjhar, Makli, Thatta, Hyderabad, Hala, Bhit Shah, Moenjodaro. Little did they, or I, realise, that it had only whetted the appetite for more.
Come university time, and the Geography department afforded me many more opportunities to explore the wonders in and around the city, and deeper into Sindh, like the remains of Neolithic and Mesolithic sites behind the hills across the university, where now whole new townships have sprung up.
The more I have seen of Sindh, the more deeply appreciative I have become of the depth and richness of its history and vibrancy of its culture. Traverse the layer below deliberately divisive political agendas, and you can be fascinated by the mosaic of ethnicity and the openness and acceptance, diversity and plurality of the land and its people.
A land where you see a clear confluence of cultures in the graves at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Makli Necropolis, where crafts of the artisans of kaashikaari of Persia and the stone engravings of the local Jains come together with Muslim Quranic inscriptions along side pre-Islamic celestial signs and Hindu emblems.
This is a land where, according to a German research team, there is the highest density of archeological remains in all of Asia. They dot the hot and dusty Kohistan in Jangshahi and Thano Bola Khan, keeping the secrets of those interred within. Then there are the magnificent, opulent shrines of the Sufi saints like Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Lal Shahbaz Qalander and Sachal Sarmast, among countless others.
There are imposing forts like in the mind boggling Great Wall of China-esque Ranikot Fort in Dadu, Hyderabad, Kot Diji, Naukot, and several others. Then the palaces of Mirs and other rulers of Sindh, and not to forget treasures in Khairpur, which before Pakistan was a state but now a part of Sindh.
The palaces of rulers of Khairpur and their game sanctuary at Mehrano is a piece of history not too many people access.
There are stunning rock formations in Rohri, which also has the oldest mosque said to be built by Mohammad bin Qasim in Arore, centuries-old temples in the nearby caves in the hills, dedicated to Kalka Devi, that rises in front of a mosque and madrassa which share the same water well.
The cultural confluence is also visible in Sukkur, where not only one looks at with wondering eyes at the engineering marvel of the Lloyd or the Sukkur Barrage. One is also intrigued at the Tomb of the Seven Sisters, a shrine dedicated to Khwaja Kizr, and the Sadh Belo mandir and gurdwara that sees two major faiths and their manifestations through artworks that rival the best found anywhere.
And Tharparkar is a world unto itself — because of its culture, and the historical heritage that retains the remnants of its Jain history as well a celebration of its Hindu and Muslim past and present. The cultural affinity of its inhabitants that blurs any religious difference makes it almost representative of the ethos which the land of Sindh has always represented.
While there are many places endowed by nature which Sindh boasts of, like the many rivers, lakes and streams, and the Gorakh Hills which are awaiting development as a proper hill resort, it is the people of Sindh whose lives are reflected in all of the places mentioned. They are rich in letters, poetry, literature, art, craftsmanship, rich traditions and history of political awareness and activism.
Strangely, I feel both frustrated as well as fascinated about Sindh. Because the people have been unfairly dealt with. The degradation of land has happened in living memory. The once rich agriculturists and traders are finding it hard to get by. The resource allocation is so lopsided that alongside palatial homes and shrines, of ‘notables’ of past and present, one sees squalor and crushing poverty stripping people of basic human dignity.
Not one town of Sindh is more than a few hours driving distance from its capital city, that huge ‘engine of growth’ that, despite its tottering structure, epitomises the progress and modernity of the 21st century. However, just a couple of hours off the main National or Super Highway, there are people stuck in a time warp. They have no access to the basic necessities that should be theirs by right, like clean drinking water, sanitation, education, healthcare facilities, electricity, livelihood options. And, seemingly, no accountability for why they are like this.
The people are willing and able to pull them out of this situation. They are born entrepreneurs. They are extremely hardworking despite the harsh conditions they exist in. I have had the chance to work with them during the devastating floods of 2010, and then 2011, and since then have stayed engaged.
I have seen firsthand how they are just waiting for an opportunity to turn their lives around: Like the women in village across Katcho area in Kingri, where they were provided assistance by the Heritage Foundation to ran their own boat across the river to earn money. Like Veerji Kohli, a poor, downtrodden woman who stood up for the rights of her people by standing in elections against the powerful of the area. Like Khursheeda in Gharo, who now runs an entire enterprise of women’s livelihood through crafts. Or like the village women of Mirpur Sakro, whose exquisite embroidery has been wowing connoisseurs not just across Pakistan but internationally through the Al Falah Volunteer Trust.
Or the men and women across the fishing communities on the coast whose land is being encroached by sea intrusion, and they are battling displacement but are grabbing any opportunity coming their way through NGOs to better their lives. Or the people benefiting from Small Grant Funds Programme bringing energy efficiency and eco-friendly housing to the people who are sometimes forced to adopt an unsustainable way of living as a handout.
There are people who have given up on the government delivering on their promise of providing them electricity, and have made a social and business commitment with Indus Earth Trust to eliminate cancerous gutka from their lives, and, in return, set up mini-solar grids on an equity to light up their lives.
There is so much potential for good here in this land that was rich once. Surely the cultural riches were in tandem with the inheritors of that culture also being rich. Right now Sindh slides down so many human development indices. The rate of stunting is highest here, so is open defecation and attendant health problems. Education is in a shambles.
Unless and until the time machine is reversed, and those deprived of the fruits of development brought into the present, merely glorifying the past will not do much good.
We want the world to come and see the glories of Sindh. Learn from them. But we need to make those places accessible, comfortable, secure and educative. Not undoable. All it needs is an appreciation of the riches we have, and to deliver their benefits to the common person who should be their real custodians.