Linguistic identities

February 11, 2024

Exploring the multifaceted journey of Sindh through Rana Mehboob Akhtar’s narrative

Linguistic identities


indh Gulal (Sindh is Red) makes its readers believe that “I travel, therefore I am.” The first person pronoun delineates a subjective realm through the objectivity of places visited. It also undergoes an eerie experience of blurring the boundaries of personal identity as well as the places and spaces. The geography outside comes to reveal - and nudge - the landscape inside.

Travel is enriching; sometimes at each step of the journey. On other occasions one stumbles upon a treasure at the end of a voyage. There are all sorts of treasures, just as there are many kinds of journeys. We may travel to distant lands or traverse the deep waters of our psyches. We may set off into histories, forgotten memories and semantic realms of the words; into the tapestry of notions, ideas and philosophies. Our feet, mind, imagination and thought keep finding places and spaces to traverse.

Rana Mehboob Akhtar, a Seraiki intellectual and author of the book under review, undertook scores of trips to Sindh. In his preface to the book, he states that just like Dante and Iqbal, who had made celestial journeys in their books, Divine Comedy and Javed Nama, respectively, he had made earthly excursions into Sindh. The comparison is bold, although he intends only to emphasise the earthly nature of his travel and the gains resulting from it. He divulges that the voyages were undertaken in the company of Rifat Abbas, the celebrated Seraiki poet and fiction writer, and the River Indus.

Akhtar visited all kinds of places, ordinary as well as historical. These included forts and shrines. He also met the people of the soil. Travelling over 45,000 kilometres, he sought to glean — and then narrate the cultural spirit of Sindh. He also entered the ancient as well as recent history of Sindh narrated by various historians and lived by the people of the land. He concluded that history books are a complex collection of truths and myths. You have to glean the truth and bust the myths. He asserts that the myths can only be deconstructed by standing for the wretched of the earth, ones who suffered numerous atrocities while they lived and were misrepresented by historians.

Travelling across the places and chapters in the history of Sindh, Akhtar seeks to grasp the common thread running from the story of Sambara, the dancing girl of Mohenjo Daro to the narrative verses of Shah Jo Risalo.

Though the book under review is a product of travel, it doesn’t fall neatly into the straitjacket of the travelogue genre. As the writer moves across physical, cultural, historical, intellectual, imaginative and psychic geographies, he also trespasses on the traditional boundaries of various genres. First, he seeks to get to know the authentic - yet multiple - historical narratives of the places of Sindh he happened to visit; then sets out to experience its current reality. His effort has been to fill the gap between textual and experiential realities. A highly creative style—unfamiliar to history books—employed throughout the book also seems to serve the purpose of eroding the difference between what is narrated in the books and what exists on the ground and how all this appears in his psyche. Unravelling the historical narratives of Sambara, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Odero Lal, Vataio Faqir, Dodo Somro and Shah Latif, Akhtar’s personal-experiential touch seems to work. He sets off tying the elements of cerebral to sensual, intellectual to intuition, facts to poetic.

We might set off into histories, forgotten memories and the semantic realms of the words; into the tapestry of notions, ideas and philosophies. Our feet, mind, imagination and thought keep finding places and spaces to traverse.  

The central thread—and what can be called the author’s position- that runs across the pages of the book is anti-colonial. The author seems to believe that it was not just the political and intellectual geography of Sindh that was mapped by Aryans, Arabs, and European colonisers, but the imaginative and narrative spaces of the land were also turned into colonies. The impact of thousands of years of colonisation penetrated deep into institutions, ideas, stories and rituals. In some places, this impact is obvious; in others it is obscure. It is interesting to note that where the bearings of colonisation are obscure, their effectiveness is so enormous that it exceeds the colonisers’s intent. The truth is that when colonialisation gets embedded in the epistemological, psychological, narrative and ritualistic realms, the functionality of its power becomes less visible, yet more immense. In narrating the spirit of Sindh, Akhtar underscores the colonial wounds and stigmas the land has had to suffer over the course of history. He asserts that native people are first pushed to the margin and then either misrepresented or kept out of the history books written by the power elite. The portrayal of indigenous people as wicked, barbarian, uncivilised and devilish is a form of distortion of their human identity. Akhtar laments that colonial structures, myths and cultural institutions remain functional. The contemporary reality of Sindh and of the entire Indus Valley is tainted with a series of stigmas, humiliations, distortions, myths, falsehoods and figments. He it takes upon himself to not only bust colonial myths about natives of this land but also retrieve the truths about their original identities and their contribution to Sindh’s rich culture. He comes to believe that the true heroes of the land are not those in power, rather those deprived of power, the wretched of the earth—the Dravidian, Untouchable, Kohli, Bhel, Malang, Mawali, Mirasi, Mochi, Kumhar, Lohar, Mohany and Mor etc. Here he offers a new concept of the hero. One who rules, kills and subjugates is not a hero; rather, a person who stands the trials and travails of kings and history and doesn’t compromise his indigenous identity qualifies to be called a hero. Tragically, these heroes and their siblings still suffer poverty and powerlessness on their ancient land. They are still waiting for their Godot,

Akhtar exhibits the courage to touch on some historically problematic issues, though in a careful manner. One such problem area is tasawuf (mysticism), particularly the popularity of Wahdat al-Wajood in the Muslim world soon after the siege of Baghdad by Mongol army during the 13th Century. The basic principle of Wahdat al-Wajood, designating the oneness of all existence, is problematic. Akhtar, circumventing the religious, metaphysical connotations of the concept, raises the question: how can the ruler and the ruled, the invader and the victim, the killer and the killed be part of a single wahdat (oneness)? He seems to point out a politics in the construction of metaphysical theories. In a sceptic vein, he catechises implied readers of the book if any nexus between metaphysics and politics can be reflected upon? We know that the powers that be seek to legitimise their atrocities through various theories and ideologies, and sustain them through institutions. Not all these theories have been secular and mundane. However, he asserts that the Wahdat al-wajoodi tasawuf played a role in the creation of a syncretic culture in Sindh and other parts of the Muslim world. It came to discard the tyrannies of religious, linguistic, tribal, racial and gender-based identities so that the Sufi shrines became places associated with tolerance and permissiveness.

While beholding dhamal (ecstatic dance) at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine, Akhtar comes to realise that the nature of the ecstasy is not solely spiritual; it also has a political dimension. Dhamal is a sort of blowing together. The people who come to blow themselves together are called Malang and Mawali—common folk, sons of soil, wretched of the earth, whose bodies and souls are torn apart by the blows of invaders. They seek refuge in dhamal. This dance transports them into a state of forgetfulness of their past brimming with memories of poverty, dependence, despondence, torture and violence. Dhamal doesn’t necessarily designate a kind of spiritual awakening, a sort of transformation into a visionary being; however there are signs of a celebration of primeval desires in the swirls and eddies of dhamal. So, it has a sort of psychic-cum-aesthetic role to play in the lives of Malangs and Mawalis and those joining them during their visit to the shrine.

Akhtar also highlights the role of women and the downtrodden in creating the syncretic spirit of Sindhi culture. Starting by eulogising Sambara, he vehemently composes a paean to the seven heroines of Shah Latif’s poetry. He avows that Shah Latif’s Risalo is like a Quran in Sindhi. River Sindh and Risalo are two most venerated, most loved things in Sindh. One runs across its land and the other flows within the souls and intuitive places of the people of Sindh. Akhtar says the seven heroines of Risalo—Sassi, Sohni, Momal, Marvi, Noori, Sorath and Lila—represents the feminine, creative, aesthetic principle in contrast to the patriarchal symbols of power. The word Gulal encompasses the universal redness. In the book, it designates the particular of the celebratory syncretic culture of Sindh.

The reviewer is a Lahore based critic and short story writer. He pioneered postcolonial discourse in Urdu. New editions of his books on postcolonial study of Urdu literature have been recently published by Sang-e-Meel. These include Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadeed.

Linguistic identities