Saturday, January 24, 2004

Pakistanis are like us only
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghACTUALLY it is a whole lot of letters from men and women who I have never met and am only vaguely aware of their stature as writers of prose, fiction and poetry. I have an insatiable appetite for everything produced in the country which was once my homeland. I went through the entire menu offered by A Letter from India: Contemporary Short Stories from Pakistan, edited by Moazzam Sheikh (Penguin). Some were originally written in English, others translated from Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi and Pushto.

My first reaction was that the two-nation theory which was the basis for the demand for Pakistan was, and is, a lot of hogwash. Pakistanis are not only the same race as we Indians, they eat the same kind of food, speak the same language and have the same emotional reactions to inter-human relations as we Indians. However, Partition ushered in some differences in our respective linguistic maps. In India, English retains its predominance as the language of communication for the entire country. In Pakistan, English has receded into the background and Urdu effectively replaced it as the national language ó a status Hindi never attained in India. In India regional languages flourish in their own regions; in many like Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, they have overtaken English. In Pakistan, regional languages like Sindhi, Saraiki, Punjabi and Pushto have dwindled and Urdu reigns supreme. As a consequence, Urdu has produced better poets, short-story writers and novelists than all the languages put together.

Moazzam Sheikhís compilation ó including his own, an excellent piece of writing ó relies heavily on Urdu contributions. The most outstanding among them is a Letter from India by Pakistanís leading writer Intezar Husain. It is based on one lone letter from one Qurban Ali, living in some small town in Madhya Pradesh. It is dated October 15, 1974. They are a Shia family which has seen better days during the Raj. The focal point is the family cemetery, where their forefathers sleep in their graves festooned by haar-singaar creepers ever in full bloom. Comes Partition and some members of the once closely knit family go to seek their fortunes in neighbouring countries: Pakistan, East Bengal (later Bangladesh) and Nepal. Some fall in battlefields, some are killed in Hindu-Muslim riots in India, some in Shia-Sunni riots in Karachi. Others just faded out into the unknown. The world also changes: some women discard their burqas and modernise themselves, and horror of horrors some even marry non-Muslims. Haar-Singaar flowers wither over crumbling graves. The members of the family who had lived in peace with their Hindu neighbours sense a growing hostility towards them. Qurban Ali has much to reminisce about and mourn. He does so in terse, beautifully written prose. It is about the best that I have read on the tragedy we call Partition.

Two other things about the compilation impressed me. A fair number of contributors are women; of them, two stand out: Soniah Naheed Kamalís story Papaís Girl written in English is as open about sexuality as any I have read. And Fahmida Riazís Hieroglyphics is as subtle as her poetry. The other pleasant surprise was to see two Pakistani Hindus included in the collection. Unfortunately, neither make good reading.

The other things I learnt are from the introduction. According to Moazzam Sheikh, before the Gurmukhi script was evolved by the Sikh Gurus, Punjabi was written in a script called Shahmukhi. And that the most popular lines in Warris Shahís Heer (Doli Charhdian maarian Heer Kookan, Manoon lai chaley Babla lae challey ó as she got into the bridle palanquin, Heer cried out to her father, they are taking me away) were not composed by Warris Shah but some other poet many years later.

Ho, Ho, at Lohri

By the end of the first week of January, small groups of boys ring my door bell and start chanting some kind of doggerel with each line ending in Ho. In my village home, we gave them crystal sugar, seasame seeds (til) or gur. In Delhi, they expect money. Turning them back empty-handed is regarded inauspicious. They curse you as they leave with abuse, describing you as a close-fisted miser with ho, ho appended to the curses for good measure.

Lohri marks the end of winter on the last day of Paush, and beginning of Magha (around 12th and 13th January), when the sun changes its course. It is associated with the worship of the sun and fire and is observed by all communities: Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. To the best of my knowledge, it is an exclusively Punjabi festival. Ceremonies that go with it usually comprise making a small image of the Lohri goddess with gobar (cattle dung), decorating it, kindling a fire beneath it and chanting its praises. The final ceremony is to light a large bonfire at sunset, toss seasame seeds, gur, sugar-candy and rewaries in it, sit round it, and sing and dance till the fire dies out. People take dying embers of the fire to their homes. In Punjabi village homes, fire is kept going round the clock by use of cow-dung cakes.

Assa Singh Ghuman, who teaches English at Guru Nanak Khalsa College, Sultanpur-Lodhi (Kapurthala), has put all that is known about Lohri in his recently published Sundri Mundary Ho... Lohri day Lok Geet (Waris Shah Foundation). Apparently the central character of most Lohri songs is Dulla Bhatti, a Muslim highway robber who lived in Punjab during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Besides robbing the rich, he rescued Hindu girls being forcibly taken to be sold in the slave market of the Middle East. He arranged their marriages to Hindu boys with Hindu rituals and provided them with dowry. Understandably, though a bandit, he became a hero of all Punjabis. So every other Lohri song has words to express gratitude to Dulla Bhatti:

Saalee paireen juttee

Jeevey Sahib dee kuttee

Kuttee no nikalya phoraa

Jeevey Sahib da ghora

Ghorey uttay kaathee

Jeevey Sahib da haathee

Hathee maarya padd

Dey maaee daanya da chajj

My sister-in-law has slippers on her feet Long may live the Sahibís bitch. The bitch developed a sore Long live the Sahibís horse. The horse has a saddle Long live the Sahibís elephant. The elephant let out a loud fart It gave the old woman a start.

Ladies first

In Kolkata, one day I approached a building entrance behind a grey-haired, distinguished-looking man. A young girl arrived at the same time and he held the door open for her. She said, "Donít hold the door for me just because Iím a lady." The man was silent for a moment, then said, "I didnít open the door because you are a lady. I opened it because Iím a gentleman."

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Rezpur)