NON-FICTION: CULTURAL COUNTER-NARRATIVE – Newspaper

Do Raahay: Muqamaat, Bhaasha, Asateer, Aqaaid
By Farrukh Yar
Maktaba-e-Danyal, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9694191034
237pp.

Identity is a contested issue in Pakistan, with two conflicting narratives arising. The dominant narrative links Pakistani identity to foreign lands, honors invaders and takes pride in imagined history and adopted languages.

The counter-narrative, though marginalized, defies that; it links the Pakistani identity to indigenous territory, honors local resistance heroes and prides itself on the languages, literature and history of the land.

Poet and scholar Farrukh Yar’s book Do Raahay: Muqamaat, Bhaasha, Asateer, Aqaaid [Crossroads: Locations, Language, Fables, Beliefs] is about this alternative narrative. The author asserts that the main contesting point of all cultural issues is the non-conformation of our land, atmosphere, seasons, places, languages ​​and voices. Our identity is devoid of history and culture. He hopes that a dialectical perspective will emerge within us, and let us look at situations, events and society from an evolutionary point of view.

The author asks all the pertinent questions: ‘While talking about the basic principles of Muslim identity in South Asia… why are we so ignorant and reluctant about our surroundings? Why are the Tigris and Nile more important to us than Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum? Why are our heroes aliens? When will history be written and read on a non-partisan level?’

A book attempts to discover the various influences, the evolution and development of our syncretic culture and ethos

He tries to answer these questions by exploring — without being pedantic or academic — the syncretic roots of the Subcontinent’s shared culture to discover the various influences that have spurred the evolution and development of our syncretic culture and ethos.

In his quest, the author delves into the indigenous. He believes that our existence and unconscious references have risen from the soil where our ancestors breathed. In its forests, fields, mountains, meadows and plains, our collective dreams were born. He considers it a prerequisite that an organic relationship with oneself and immediate surroundings should be formed.

Each of the book’s six sections discusses several disparate terms in the encyclopaedic form, but in no particular order and relation. Fluidly, entries venture across and overlap the categories.

The first section, about faith and mythology, starts with the Nirgun Bhakti — a syncretic movement that started in the eighth century and was made popular through the poetry of Kabir, Rai Das, Guru Nanak, Dadu Dayal and Meerabai in the 15th and 16th centuries. . Indigenous to the Subcontinent, the movement fought against the rigidity of organized religion, especially the ritualism of the Brahmins.

‘Nirgun’ is a Sanskrit word, meaning ‘without form’. The movement preached peaceful co-existence and used vernacular languages ​​as the vehicle of expression and communication. Farrukh Yar regards Nirgun Bhakti as ‘the creative consciousness of cultural harmony’ that gave creative and cultural support and created an atmosphere of confidence and encouragement for the socially backward classes.

Throughout the book, the writer sheds light on Nirgun Bhakti’s role in shaping the music, poetry and ethos of tolerance for which our land is known. The similar Baul Movement — a syncretic mendicant sect of Bengal — absorbed various mystic currents in one stream. Baul songs significantly influenced Bengali literary giants such as Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Lalon Faqeer.

This section also discusses, among other things, diverse terms such as Khalifa, Taqya [theological concealment]marhi [burial place of ascetics]Koonda Chari [food served in earthen pots] and Rawal [wandering snake charmers and mendicants] and describes how these terms went through a transformation in the local context.

The section on history starts with Sikh warrior Banda Singh Bahadur, who was instrumental in eroding the Muslim elites’ influence and establishing Sikh rule in Punjab. Farrukh Yar thinks this movement ‘created to stir among the local labourers, peasants and cultivators against the tyrannical rule of the Mughals. During the Mughal era, tax rates were lower for foreign feudal lords and they enjoyed preferential treatment.’

The writer’s view is that, because of Bahadur’s agrarian political insurgency movement, the Mughals changed their policy of handing over government property to a small number of foreign settlers in Punjab and improved their relations with the local landlords.

The author links the rise of banditry with the local Punjabi population’s resentment of foreign domination. Individual acts of valor, and the image of dacoits robbing the rich to feed the poor, entered mass consciousness. Despite negative publicity against dacoits, a soft spot for them began to be reflected in folktales.

This section also looks, in detail, at the 1857 War of Independence, in which thousands of soldiers, ‘rebels’ and ordinary people were killed. Though the war failed to achieve its objectives, it is still remembered as a collective response against British imperialism.

The writer highlights the roles of octogenarian Raja Babu Amar Singh, Tantia Tope, Maulvi Liaquat Ali, Maulvi Ahmedullah Shah Madrasi, Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla and others, who led this popular uprising. He also discusses the terms Dars-i-Nizami, Havelis, Khataks, Shahs and the mourning rituals of Gamay Shah in Lahore.

In the entry about the Hindu Kayastha caste of scribes and recordkeepers, he errs in stating that Sindh’s Kayastha affixed the terms “Aalim”, “Kaamil”, “Faazil” and “Advani” to their names. Government functionaries were called Amils, not Aalims, and Advani was just one of the families among Hindu Amils. There is also a very interesting entry about charas, or hashish, and its usage throughout Subcontinental history.

The section on language deliberates on word etymologies, evolution and linguistic relations. Some words discussed are part of the slang, or secret vocabulary of social or professional groups. “Chesa” and “chamka”, for instance, are used by transgender and courtesan communities for ‘attractive effeminate male’ and ‘male lover’ respectively.

The fourth section is on society and, again, some interesting terms are explained. The writer considers bajra, or millet grain, to refer to chastity, even virginity, in folk songs. An oft-recurring theme in this section is the debasement of indigenous Dravidian people. They were consigned to menial jobs and the lowest stratum of society. Farrukh Yar etymologises the term “bhangi” [sweeper] to prove his point.

The section on the arts deals with various music-associated classes, families, instruments, ragas and folk songs. One issue deliberated here is how indigenous nomadic communities had to give up their adopted professions of dance and music and turn to farming — or, in some cases, sex work — to survive in a changing cultural milieu. The fate of the Perna, Kanjar and Nat tribes proves the point.

The last section discusses the history and the meaning and origins of the names of various places such as Jhelum, Jhang, Kandahar and Kahuta among others.

The book’s scope is quite ambitious; it can’t possibly encompass the whole gamut of its extensive theme. Also, the writing is more amateur dabbling than a professional or academic undertaking. Some entries get ample space; others are dealt with superficially. The etymologies of words, place names and terms are based on popular lore rather than a sound linguistic foundation. Despite references, the book lacks scholarly rigor.

Still, it’s a genuine attempt to present an alternative narrative. Readers will discover some interesting facts and it is sheer joy to read about our shared, but lost, heritage. From the writer’s fond descriptions of rituals, seasons, crops, songs, heroes, history and society, the picture emerging is of a vibrant, tolerant, culturally dynamic land.

It is a pity that this lost culture can now only be found in books such as Do Raahay. There is a need for more books like this if we hope to reclaim the genuine voices which have disappeared in the constructed ideological cacophony.

The reviewer is a short story writer and translator.

I have tweeted @manojhalai

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 17th, 2022

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