The very endearing spirit that compelled Raza Ahmad to adopt the mystical name ‘Rumi’ hums through the pages of his book Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts. Humanism, Sufism, appreciation of creative expression and sheer humility of the writer are overtly manifested in the body of this work. Raza Rumi strives to reflect, as the proverbial Indus man discovered during excavations, on the cultural remains of an old, enduring civilisation.
This book contains four sections: Devotion, Literature, Arts and Personal Essays. In the preface to the book titled: ‘Author’s Note’, Rumi writes about his fascination with the cultural landscape of Pakistan which is a “kaleidoscope that endures in stark contrast to the singular notion of one-religion, one-nation, one culture that we learnt at school”. Rumi’s essays are reminders of what Pakistan inherited as its cultural heritage and where it is today. And within the constructed homogeneity, there is ample variation and diversity.
The first essay of the book embodies tales, philosophies and poetry of three saints; Kabir, Bulleh Shah and Lalon — the three majestic poets, who shared “tune of love, rejection of formal identities based on caste, organised religion and class”. Kabir was a weaver by profession. His poetry reflected the feelings of common men and portrayed their tribulations. Thus common folk found catharsis in his soulful poetry. Bulleh Shah — a Syed i.e. direct descendent of the Prophet — developed a spiritual bond with Shah Inayat, an Arain from a lower cast. He embarked on a journey of self-negation and spiritual realisation. His poetry has recently seen a popular revival of sorts. Lalon Shah, a Bengali Baul was born a Hindu but was brought up in a Muslim household. Bauls are wandering singers who render folk wisdom in verse. Lalon was adopted by a Muslim couple Malam Shah and Matijan. His profound and passionate poetry was revived by the great Rabindranath Tagore.
One piece touches upon the many elements and people associated with the great waterway river Indus including the boat people of Indus called Mohanas, belief systems emanating from its sacred waters, mystical pure and impure parts of the watercourse, enigmatic and colourful folklore related to it and mystic stories associated with the river.
‘Through a screen, Darkly’ is a take on the soaps that sneak into the Indo-Pakistani households. The patriarchal genesis of the Indus civilisation still holds strong on the television screens displaying traditional value system where men are fulcrums in social units. The author puts forth a convincing observation when he argues that in the glitzy world of modern electronic media, market forces drive the production houses to churn out programmes lacking in quality, aesthetics and social responsibility. Thus arises a need to fashion policies bringing in more responsibility to the production houses.
Matriarchal societies may be primitive in anthropological context yet the pivotal role of a woman remains a reality in modern Sindh. Rumi elucidates his contention in the last essay of the first section with elaborate commentary and peppers it with interesting facts. He concludes the piece by declaring Benazir Bhutto a Marvi of modern times. Benazir also claimed herself to be Marvi of the new age in a letter addressed to the famed journalist Khalid Hasan.
Raza Rumi has an affectionate obsession with Qurratulain Hyder: the person and her cordon-bleu writings. The second section of the book titled ‘Literature’ commences with an essay, ‘The enigma of dual belonging: Qurratulain Hyder’s enduring popularity in Pakistan’. He has touched upon three prominent elements in her writings that point towards her phenomenal artistic talent: Hyder’s command over the social history of sub-continent and its sparkling literary portrayal, touching depiction of post-colonial traumas emanating out of migration and beyond, and her expansive chronicling of the Indo-Muslim civilisation. Raza draws a parallel between the real social history narratives and its official versions. Hyder excels as a social historian when she captures the lives of marginalised religio-ethnic minorities in minutest details. We can see the floral dresses of Parsis, hear typically broken dialect of Anglo-Indians and smell the cheap perfumes of prostitutes. She dreams big, writes magnificently and compares herself to “that little bird which foolishly puts up its claws, hoping that it will stop the sky from falling”.
Saadat Hasan Manto — a humanist to the core — championed the cause of the meek, the downtrodden and the brutalised segments of society. And he extensively wrote about women. His compassion knew no boundaries of religion, creed, ethnicity and language. Rumi has compassionately and in detail analysed the creative instinct of Manto that invented these ladies. He aptly comments “Not only did his female characters fight against the constraints of society, some of his male protagonists were also feminists”.
Rumi’s piece on Intizar Husain is a delicately written memoir-cum-literary analysis of the maestro. However, there is a significant and pertinent point not to be missed which explains the literary regression of Urdu writers/ readers, “On many occasions, I witnessed a rarest, civilised discourse on language between Khaled Ahmed and Intizar Sahib. Khaled Ahmed’s thesis that Urdu has been appropriated by extremists and therefore become a vehicle of retrogressive ideas, was politely challenged by Intizar Sahib, who always maintained that Urdu was, in fact, a vibrant language in both Pakistan and India. Such discussions in the age of talk shows on TV and abusive social media interactions appeared as a leaf from a fading world of ideational exchange”. An era can be attributed to Fahmida Riaz, whose poetry reflected the anguish, tribulations, struggles and above all romantic impulses of women; therefore, it is the only chapter in Rumi’s book which is simply and aptly titled: ‘Fahmida Riaz’.
Rumi’s commentary on contemporary terrorism-infused Pakistani literature encompasses English language Pakistani literature, Urdu prose and verse and writings in local languages. In local languages, he has emphasised on Pashto literature as Pashtuns are the most affected people in the ‘War on Terror’. In English language Pakistani literature he touches upon three novels — The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, No Space for Further Burials by Feryal Ali Gauher and A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. He briefly mentions an Urdu poem by Kishwar Naheed and then moves on to Pashto literature.
The resistance against dictatorships by the literati of Pakistan remains a glorious moment in the dynamic literary history of Pakistan. Two essays ‘Pakistan’s Rich Dissident Literary Tradition’ and ‘The verse of Freedom’ chronicle the resistance shown by the writers in Pakistan including Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib, Ahmad Faraz, Ustad Daman and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi.
Being Pakistani also includes a number of essays on Pakistani arts. Rumi focuses on Minar-e-Pakistan and Islamabad in one of his essays on architecture, while ‘Global icon, unsung at home’ focuses on the artist Shahzia Sikandar whose style generally integrates Mughal miniature painting with Hindu Rajput style. Rumi also touches upon the neo-miniature art, Saira Wasim’s artistic endeavours, the majestic singer Mehdi Hasan, pop icons Alamgir and Runa Laila, deceased artist Asim Butt’s activism and ends this section with the lament that this society is still in search of its identity.
The last section of the book encapsulates personal essays. The first essay is the rediscovery of Bangladesh by a Pakistani. The second essay, which is also the last of the book, is a love letter to Lahore. Rumi amalgamates the interesting history of the city with his personal memories. The diversity of topics covered in the book is amazing. The way Rumi has weaved personal opinions with analyses is not unlike the intricate patterns on a Kashmiri shawl.
Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts
Author: Raza Rumi
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2018