Hyderabad Diaries: The kingdom of Shah Latif

September 14, 2014

From the sand dunes of Hyderabad emerge the splendid stories of lost lovers

Hyderabad Diaries: The kingdom of Shah Latif


The fakirs will come in the night after Isha prayers, dressed in black and wearing large beads and rings on their fingers, a single earring, and they will sing the kalaam of Latif Sain.

They have spent years training in raag the Sain composed love poetry to and the equanimity of their expression and the gentleness of their inward looking eyes bears testimony to how they interpret devotional poetry. One of them will read out the vai -- the wail -- and couplets or bait while others sing in falsetto, the broken feminine voice. They will sing the deep song that anyone may follow without understanding the words -- for this is the journey of the soul from the dark night into day.

The time of the Palla -- sable marine fish come to spawn in the river -- it is still early summer and there are birds in flock from far off lands, readying for flight. To get to the sand dune or bhit where Latif Sain found retreat, you have to drive out of Hyderabad across 50 kilometres past the Miani Forest and the ancient town of Matiari.

With winding lanes and old houses still lived in, Matiari was once known as a place of learning and several historians claim this is where Sain was born. So many small mosques from different periods of construction huddle together, some elaborately decorated, some minimalist, and a silent one next to the graveyard that resembled a stupa where I calmly rested and prayed with the men.

Along the road, mustard fields are in flower and the mango trees heavy with bloom, full of desire. Then the trees start thinning, their leaves becoming smaller, no longer any fruit trees as the soil turns sandy. This is the domain of Khip, Kher, Phog, Ber, Babbur -- the land of thorny trees. We are looking for the sand dune where Sain went to write his poetry, to sing it after years of wandering with yogis.

Read the first part: Hyderabad Diaries: Looking for Hassan Dars

Sain’s poetry is what every lover learns -- the pain of separation and exile. In his works, for love to be true, it has to be transgressive of social bonds because it seeks to renew the self, and love asks for sacrifice that is given wilfully, ecstatically. In these parts, poetry is how philosophy was written when it was not yet divorced from the sacral, the spiritual quest.

In using the reference of folk stories, what is taken up is merely the refrain without setting up the narrative or taking it to any conclusion. It is the journeying that is described, the state of heart of the one who searches, an introduction to solitude like that of Sohni who swims the river in storm in the dark night to meet her beloved or Sassui who walks the desert in search of him who was taken away.

People have started settling in for the night with women and children parking themselves in comfortable corners. The brightly coloured rilli is everywhere -- a kaleidoscope made of old clothes so intricately patterned it makes you marvel at the sensibility of the woman who made it -- wild and passionate at most times, incongruent yet creative colour palette breaking with expectations yet coming together within a thematic.

Meanwhile, there are children curling around you like petals in the night, pressing against you, their toes digging into your back and legs, any foothold they can find till sleep takes them, then the grip loosening, the feet relaxing to become part of your body.

The bazaar that leads up to the mound is lined end to end by small shops, an acid trip of colours merging into form, objects into objects, coming alive and at you with hand crafted, designed and painted objects of no utility at all that brim with energy, with meaning -- a conceptual art installation. Punjahkhak-e-shifa, silver amulets, stone rings, earrings, incense, woolen thread black, red and green, handcrafted earthenware, raw cotton, vegetable dyes, susichaddars… so many objects crafted with care. Why are your eyes blurring?

You have come this far to hear the story of defeated lovers.

The rest house you were shown earlier in the day is clean, offering simply cooked food. The gardener is into decorative herbs with camellias, chamomile, bay leaf, niazbo or the local variety of basil, jasmine, aloe. But no one wants to stay in because the fakirs may come soon and begin the raag.

Read the second part: Hyderabad Diaries: Philosophical deliberations on the meaning of a cake

We have a basic meal and leave, for no eating, drinking, or smoking is allowed on the premises. People who think they have come to a drug den when they visit a dargah are in for a disappointment. They will have to walk the grounds looking for help. Nothing here except for herbs, for this is a retreat of the quietist poor.

No one vaguely middle class here, no one who looks like they can speak English, for instance. You feel out of place, embarrassed, for the people here know more poetry than you do, more music too. Women smile at you, make conversation in Sindhi, ask where you are from, where are your children. Men shift to make room for you to sit, taking care never to look into your eyes. They are dressed in their best and you feel so false for having tried to dress down for the occasion.

Meanwhile, there are many people who come to say fateha, stopping at the door that leads to the grave they bend to touch the dirt with both hands then touch the heart. In Sindh, this is the usual deferential manner of meeting elders.

Unlike other places, Sehwan Sharif, for instance that draws millions of people, at Bhitshah the fakirs take care no one goes into haal or trance once the music begins. They come and stand by you if you cry too much, touch your head and offer batasha, sweet channa, and the black thread of healing. For this is a place of samaa requiring presence and attentive listening.

The fakirs have arrived with the iktara. Now begins the tale of the aristocracy of the heart, one not based on bloodline or inherited privileges but love as a way of living and of dying, the only door through the other to the divine.

Hyderabad Diaries: The kingdom of Shah Latif