Sunday, February 28, 2010

Steeped in history

Salman Rashid

Sometime last year Nadeem emailed a photograph from England. He wanted to know what it was. I wrote back to tell him this was on the banks of the Sindhu River in the fair city of Rohri a group of graves known as Sut Bhen -- 'Seven Sisters.' Nadeem wrote back to say he had to see this group of remarkable graves for himself. I also told him that of all the cities in Pakistan, it is Rohri and Rohri alone that still preserved its medieval air.

Two years earlier we had travelled together in Afghanistan and fetched up in Herat. Both having read Robert Byron's beautiful, beautiful 1920s travel book 'The Road to Oxiana,' our minds were flooded with images of that city. We were not disappointed and we absolutely agreed with Byron when he said Herat was the only city in Asia without an inferiority complex. If I am not wrong, while walking the wide avenues of that magical city or exploring the crumbling hulk of the old fort or the grand mosque so lovingly being restored, I had said to Nadeem that we in the Land of the Sindhu River too had a city to match Herat. It was Rohri. And if Herat is the city to die for, Rohri is even more so.

And so like mad dogs (neither being an Englishman), Nadeem and I took the Karachi Express aka Night Coach to Rohri in the middle of May with the temperature in Lahore touching the forty degree-mark. As we waited on the platform (the train, shame Pakistan Railways, originating in Lahore was two and half hours late), he told me that the army officer husband of a cousin of his was surprised that he wanted to see Rohri. 'There's nothing to see in Rohri!' Nadeem had been told by one uninformed fauji.

We shared our sleeping compartment with two ISI types who denied having anything to do with the army (liars!). And we had good-looking Usman Chauhan, a student of the University of Engineering and Technology at Lahore. And there was the quiet Baloch from Lyari who simply regarded us with a benign smile never joining in the banter. The minute he entered and sat down, Usman began to blab. He had been in the army to study engineering, but he was too bright to remain there and so he decided to quit. Now he was top of the class at UET and there was no one in the world that could solve integral calculus faster than him. As if we had doubted his prowess in algebra, he challenged Nadeem and me to find a man in the world who could between him at calculus.

Within five minutes I had had enough of him. But for Nadeem, everyone is material for he is Nadeem Aslam, the author of two acclaimed novels. 'Maps for Lost Lovers' about honour killing in the British Pakistani was long listed for the Booker Prize and, going by Maps, the forthcoming one, 'The Wasted Vigil,' on Afghanistan (for which we went a-travelling that land), is sure to bag the prize. And so Nadeem stared wide-eyed, as if the man had just sprouted horns.

Then Usman told us how the evil West was prejudiced against us Muslims and was planning to lay us low. I told him we didn't need any outside help, not in this case at least. To highlight his argument he said his 'very educated' grandfather had been denied a job in British India when every other Hindu was getting a job. I told him his grandfather was a good for nothing nalaeq because my own grandfather had served honourably as a civil surgeon and my father was an officer in the North Western Railway while my uncle a doctor in pre-partition India. That well and truly shut the man up.

The Karachi Express once proudly began as a non-stop train between Karachi and Lahore, doing the nearly thirteen hundred-kilometre journey in fourteen hours. But like all things in the country, faster than it completed that journey, it went down the tube of rot. Like all other trains, it now takes nearly thirty hours for this journey. With Usman having shut up, Mohsin (the ISI man-in-denial) said that non-stop pronounced naan staap (non-stop) in Punjabi had a different connotation: the train stopped at every tandoor where they were baking naans. Sure enough, we had barely crossed Lahore cantonment station when we stopped and right outside our window was a naan shop! Thereafter we stopped at every other naan shop until we had gained another hour and a half till we got to Rohri. Gone are the days when trains actually 'made up' for lost time; now they only add to the delay.

I was returning to Rohri after eight years. Every time I return somewhere in Pakistan, I have been disappointed. I have seen pristine alpine forests devastated, picturesque cities (like Shikarpur and Bhera) laid low by greedy property sharks and antique-collectors, temples and old baradaris destroyed by treasure-seekers, high altitude camp grounds turned into rubbish dumps and fresh, clear water rivers into sewers. And so as we rode the rickshaw from the Circuit House to downtown Sukkur, I was apprehensive.

But the tower of Mir Masum Shah was as I had left it years ago. The stubby tower built in the last decade of the 16th century, is eighty-four feet tall, has a girth of equal feet at the base and eighty-four steps to lead you to the balcony on top. When I first saw it a quarter century ago, it had the iron cage all around the top which it still retains. At that time word was that heart-broken lovers routinely flung themselves from the balcony to a gruesome death below. At some point, some thoughtful city administrator had the cage installed to preclude such fatal adventures. But even then no one could tell me when this act of compassion had been done.

We walked to the nearby Clock Tower. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the encroachments that all but hid the lower part of this crumbling Raj building had been removed. I sent up a silent prayer for the good man who would have taken the step. Otherwise, nothing had changed and my spirits rose: perhaps Rohri too will still hold its old air.

Over the Lansdowne Bridge it was into Rohri. English language newspaper reporters, pretending to know the language but never having read anything in their lives have some rather picturesque names for this marvellous piece of 1880s railway engineering. It has variously been called Lance Down, Lanus Down and Lands Don. There was once even a spelling that would make my editor blush so I omit that one. Opened in March 1889, it made way for trains from upcountry India to reach Quetta without the hassle of disembarking at Rohri, taking the ferry across the river to Sukkur to entrain again.

It served well and proper for a good seventy-three years when, in 1962, rail traffic was transferred to a new steel arch bridge right next to the old one. Lansdowne then became a road bridge. Five generations have gone by since the Lansdowne Bridge spanned the river and save the informed natives of Sukkur and Rohri, few know that the span crosses two channels with an island in between.

Since the early years of the 13th century, when an earthquake shifted the course of the river from a channel six kilometres east of Rohri to make it flow between the rocky outcroppings of Sukkur and Rohri, the tear drop-shaped Bhukkur had been an island. At the narrow northern end sat the massive walls of Bhukkur fort while the broader south end was a holy site. From the early Middle Ages, they who held the fort of Bhukkur were the undisputed masters of upper Sindh. Many great yarns revolve around this magical place, yarns of intrigue, murder and buried treasures, but I have two favourites and the need be told.

The year was 1222 when the shameless coward Jalaluddin Khwarazm having been routed from the field of battle by Chengez Khan sought to take Sindh. Bhukkur had for some time firmly been in the hands of Nasiruddin Kabacha. Alarmed by word of the impending arrival of Jalaluddin, Kabacha loaded up his treasures in a boat and sought to make off for Thatta in the south. In his frenzy, he somehow upset his boat which went down treasure and all. The magnificent Sindhu, unrestrained by these accursed dams, was a river among rivers; flowing deep and fast, its eddies rarely giving up what they claimed. And so Kabacha's treasure lies at the murky bottom of the river somewhere near the south end of Bhukkur.

Some years before Charles Napier took Sindh, the British Indian government needed to use the Sindhu River as a conduit for transporting military goods for the First Afghan War. So they signed the well-known Tripartite Treaty with the three ruling families of Sindh. Among other clauses, one stated that the British will not take possession of any fortress on either bank of the Sindhu. The ink had barely dried on the document when the Brits quickly seized Bhukkur. The ruling Talpurs protested. But, said the wily Brits, Bhukkur, being an island, lies on neither bank and therefore is outside the clauses of the treaty!

But today the mud-brick walls of this medieval fortress are barely discernable. And what has been left is fast being neutralised by the army which has taken over this national monument and prevents nosey Indian spies like Nadeem and me from exploring the place. Across the river, the road winds this way and that and then of a sudden there appears the magnificent eight-storeyed Kanhayalal Cottage. Built in 1934, this lavish building would have been the pride and joy of its owners. The lower three floors are constructed from dressed sandstone while the upper part seems to be of brick. Back in 1984, when I first saw it, the lower floors were whitewashed while the upper part was very tastefully painted in a pastel pink.

This time round, the pink had been replaced by a somewhat louder brick-red wash. Yet it took nothing away from Kanhayalal Cottage: it still looked as magnificent as ever. The building seems to have been divided up into several apartment houses with at least the upper part in Muslim hands, yet it has been preserved with much love and care. And this is what I admire the most in the Sindhis: they are proud of their heritage and will make a greater effort than us Punjabis to preserve some of it.

We had planned to check out the Akbari Mosque inside old Rohri, but having seen it ravaged by the ignorance of illiterate 'conservationists' back in 2000, I did not have the heart to return to it again. We took in Sut Bhen, instead. The fortunate among us who know the medieval Sindhi tradition of carved sarcophagi called Chaukundi, know too that this art can hardly be bested by any other. The intricate tracery of curvilinear forms, the brilliant three-depth rosettes, the multitude of geometric shapes and the exquisite calligraphy find no match anywhere. And the crowing glory of the art is that it is rendered not on timber but on sandstone. Nadeem was spell-bound; he had not expected anything like this at all.

The ruins of Alor a few kilometres east of Rohri brought back memory of my earlier jaunts there. Then, a quarter of a century earlier, the hills were littered with stone tools crafted by our ancestors more than a hundred thousand years ago. But when I returned in 1988, I was shocked to find teams of men and women sweeping the hills and carting off the gravel to be crushed for cement factories. In that gravel were millions of pre-historic stone tools. Horrified I reported this robbery to the then Secretary Culture of the province. Nothing happened. At least not right then, and if the crime was stopped later, I do not know of it.

In another country, the chert and limestone hills around Sukkur and Rohri would have been declared an open air museum. But here we have destroyed a site where our early ancestors crafted their spear heads and hand axes with blades so sharp that they can even today draw blood.

Faiz Mehal in nearby Khairpur was as immaculate as ever. But the old Punjabi caretaker who said he was from the army (could not name his unit) and was probably an army mess waiter (the mannerism was unmistakable), said we had only three minutes to see the palace. He ushered us into the main audience hall, shoved us in the direction of some black and white photos on a wall, delivered his spiel and shoved us out of the door again. All the while he breathlessly mumbled on about the impending arrival of colonel sahib from the Rangers.

He told us we were free to spend as much time in the garden however, so we tooled about taking photographs. His Highness Mir Ali Murad Talpur, the head of the Khairpur family, is famous for the work he has done to preserve wildlife in Khairpur and we got a taste of it in his garden. Golden-backed woodpeckers, grey shrikes, jungle and common babblers and koels thronged the trees around us. A silent prayer for His Highness was duly sent up, but I also worry if his family will be able to carry on his good work in perpetuity.

When we were eventually leaving mess waiter offered us tea, more by way of saying something than actually meaning it. Still smarting from the treatment he had given us inside the palace and also because no colonel or even an NCO had turned up, I let the man have it. Though I only said he had not permitted us to savour the beautiful interior of the palace and here he was now offering us tea, but Punjabi being the language it is, the man was skewered through and through on my barb. His face was a very picture. He gawped first at Nadeem, as if expecting him to tell me off, then, when nothing happened, at me. I simply glared back and the man turned about and walked away. Needless to say my behaviour shocked Nadeem.

For someone who had been told Rohri had nothing to offer, Nadeem was by now thoroughly overwhelmed. I instructed him to kindly educate our major friend, but I know Nadeem never will and this responsibility too now devolves upon my shoulders. In due time, the man will be made aware of his utter ignorance about a city that is as beautiful as it is steeped in history.

This is Pakistan

A camel welcomes guests at the inaugural ceremony of National Solidarity sports festival in Rahim Yar Khan - Dawn.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Puran Bhagat

Salman Rashid

All of modern day Pakistan saw prolonged Greek influence beginning with Alexander in the 4th century BCE and ending (with a century-long Mauryan interlude) with the coming of the Sakas in 110 BCE. That was time enough for stories from one culture to take root in the other

Gulbahar, fancifully renamed about twenty-five years ago, is almost a suburb of Sialkot for it lies just a few kilometres from the cantonment on the highroad to Chaprar village. It is unremarkable in every way save for the well of Puran Bhagat. Women come here to bathe in its blessed water as a cure for infertility. Religion is no bar and they come from across the spectrum of religions in Pakistan. Years ago, the elderly attendant had told me they came from ‘as far away as Karachi and Quetta’.

Puran was the first-born son of Raja Salvahan of Sialkot and his queen Ichhran. Upon his birth, astrologers advised the king to sequester the infant prince away from the parents for the first twelve years of life, failing which great calamity was to befall the kingdom. And so, the prince was sent to live in a part of the palace where neither parent was to see him. There he grew up at the breast of wet nurses. There he was provided tutors when he came of age to learn everything a future king was meant to learn.

At the end of the twelve years, he was brought into the presence of his father who greeted him as joyfully as only a father would greet his first-born. And then Salvahan bade his son to go pay respect to his two mothers because in the interim, as Ichhran had failed to produce any more children, the king had wed Luna as well. Puran’s reunion with his mother went well, but Luna, seeing the strapping twelve year-old boy, was instantly besotted.

She took Puran by the hand and would have had him in her bed when he fled. That evening, as Raja Salvahan came to his bed-chamber, he found the corridors dark with nary a lamp lit and a dishevelled Luna sprawled out on her bed in a great show of distress. That stud of the prince that the king had sent to pay respects, she told Salvahan, had attempted to rape her. Truly ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’

Without even attempting to verify the facts, the gullible king ordered his son’s hands and feet amputated and his body dumped in a well outside the city walls. And so it came to pass. There in the well did Puran lie, not yet dead and hardly alive. For a full twelve years did he lie there until the great Guru Goraknath tarried by the well with his disciples. Now Guru Goraknath was the founder of the sect of Kunphatta jogis — jogis with pierced ears, whose monastery was located on the hill of Tilla Jogian near Jhelum.

Puran was discovered by one of the disciples and on the orders of the guru pulled out of the well. Hearing the hapless prince’s sorry tale, the guru was moved to run his healing hands over the mutilated body. Miraculously, Puran was restored to fullness again. The guru now ordered the prince to return to the palace of his father and tell him the real story of Luna’s calumny. But Puran refused. Instead, he joined the guru’s train, went to Tilla Jogian and eventually became a much accomplished jogi himself.

Thereafter he did return to Sialkot and ended up telling his father the truth. The repentant king wanted Puran to remain with him and take over the crown for in the interim years, neither of his wives had borne any more children. Puran refused, but he did tell his father that he was to have another son, from Luna this time, who would inherit the kingdom and make a name for himself. And not long afterwards Salvahan did indeed beget Rasalu, who straddles Punjabi myth and history as a great demon-slayer, hero and an able king.

Because the infertile Luna brought forth a son upon being blessed by Puran Bhagat, the well where he had spent twelve years struggling between life and death became sacred. Henceforth its waters were to cure infertility.

Now, we know that Raja Salvahan, a contemporary of the more famous Vikramaditya of Ujjain, ruled over Sialkot in the 1st century BCE. The story of Puran Bhagat therefore goes as far back. There is, however, every possibility that the story was extant even before with characters of different names. But it is now impossible to sift the chaff of mythology from the grain of historical fact and we cannot really know what must have transpired in reality. Puran may have been banished or, like his contemporary Raja Bhartari, the philosophic elder brother of Vikramaditya, may have voluntarily given up the crown to lead an ascetic’s life. All that is immaterial to the story, however. The fact is that this story has been current for close on two thousand years and that it has a parallel in Greek mythology.

Hippolytus, the son of Theseus the King of Attica, was similarly libelled against by his step-mother Phaedra. There too the king did not deign to verify the facts and banished his son. But not satisfied by expulsion alone, Theseus evoked Poseidon to kill what he thought his errant son. As Hippolytus of the philosophic bent of the mind rode his chariot along the coast one day, Poseidon reared up from the sea in the form of a hideous sea monster. Hippolytus’ horses panicked, throwing off the prince and dashing his head against the boulders.

Whether of Hippolytus or of Puran, it is a poignant and extraordinary story, but what is remarkable is that the two parallels exist so many miles apart from each other. We know that all of modern day Pakistan saw prolonged Greek influence beginning with Alexander in the 4th century BCE and ending (with a century-long Mauryan interlude) with the coming of the Sakas in 110 BCE. That was time enough for stories from one culture to take root in the other.

Alexander took Taxila without a fight because its king, Ambhi, had already made peace with the Macedonian even when he was still in Afghanistan. And when the invading army arrived in Taxila, there were friendly games between Punjabis and members of the Greek garrison. It is not difficult to picture the foreigners in repose around the campfires in the evenings being visited by the Punjabis they had met in the arena earlier in the day. Friendships were made and yarns swapped. Among them would have been the tale of the calumnious step-mother libelling an upright and philosophical prince.

What cannot be determined now is whether the story came with Alexander’s army and was adopted by the Punjabis or it was already prevalent here and it so moved the foreigners that they took it home to make it part of their mythology. Equally, if the Macedonians brought it with them, it greatly impressed the minds of the Sindhu Valley for the story is not restricted to Sialkot alone. We hear it told in Taxila and far away in the south near Hyderabad. On that, next week.

Salman Rashid is unarguably the only Pakistani to have roamed virtually the entire country from the frigid, wind-swept valleys of Shimshal or Chitral to the deserted beaches of Gwadar and Jiwani, from the red sandstone gullies of the Karonjhar hills outside Nagarparker to the bleak salt pans of Mashkel on the Iranian frontier. There are few places in Pakistan that remain untrodden by his feet. Salman Rashid is not just a travel writer who tells of his exploits in places that most Pakistani do not know exist, his accounts are a coherent and scholarly mix of geography, sociology, history and high adventure. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Owais Mughal

On our last trip to buy oriental grocery we were surprised beyond words to find 'Tsingtao Curry Samosa' and 'paratha - which taste like authentic Indian' in a refrigerator.

Both of these items were made in China. We immediately bought both items and I must confess they both tasted very good. Samosa filling was made of Chinese curry and parathas were puff parathas. You gotta taste them to belive me.

Today I couldn't resist and took these photos of 'made in China' samosa box to share with all of you. For those who are really interested in knowing the recipe' of this Chinese samosa, here are the ingredients which I am faithfully copying from the box: Cabbage, Wheat Flour, Water, Potato, Mushroom, Onion, Carrot, Vegetable Oil, Sugar, Salt, Soy Sauce and Curry powder.

I believe there is a big food export business going on between China and South Asia. On a trip to China in 2001, I met a businessman from Mumbai who was manufacturing 'Chinese dumplings' in India and exporting them to China.

Now after writing all this I must also advertise that China or India, no one can beat the taste of 'samosa' that are sold in United Bakery, Karimabad chowrangi Karachi. A sample is given in the photo above. A poet has also said in Punjabi:

jo maza chajjoo de chobaaray
O na Balkh na Bukhaaray

(The enjoyment that one gets socializing on a native street corner
cannot be found in intellectual cities like 'Balkh' or 'Bukhara')

Tags: Apetisers, Society,

Monday, February 22, 2010


The growth of Fasilabad has far exceeded the pace at which the city can support its inhabitants. The result is that city is facing problems in providing basic amenities to its citizens. Largely, the burden of solving them falls on municipal authorities. These problems are exacerbated once the civic authorities (and other city development agencies) do not have funds, will and expertise to do that. Inhabitants of only 100 years old city are suffering mainly due to quantifiable deficiencies.

In 1896, a new settlement was founded by Lieutenant Government Punjab, Sir James Lyall, in the area known as Sandal Bar. The plan of this habitat was prepared on the pattern of British flag by Sir Ganga Ram, a civil engineer, town planner and renowned philanthropist. The construction of eight bazaars and adjoining colonies was completed in 1902. There used to be sweet water well and an old `bargad’ tree in the centre where ghanta ghar was erected in 1918.

People of the city played an important role in Pakistan Movement. Quaid-i-Azam visited the `heart of Pakistan,’ as he called it, when annual session of Muslim league was held in the city. Over 100,000 Muslims of area welcomed the Quaid on November 17, 1942 and presented him rupees 500.00 in a reception held at Dhobi Ghat

Lyallpur, named after Sir James Lyall was initially called Pakki Mari. The name was changed to Fasilabad by General Zia ul Haq on the recommendation of a local photographer Aziz. Era of industrialization started in 1930 and Fasilabad was declared as an industrial zone in 1955. Earlier, complexion of Sandal Bar area changed with the excavation of Lower Canal originating from khanki in 1892. Presently, this `Manchester of Pakistan’ has one of the biggest and best Yarn Markets in the world. Fasilabad has grown the second biggest industrial city in the country after Karachi.

The world is becoming more urban as people are moving to cities in search of employment, educational opportunities and high standard of living. Population growth in Fasilabad has been very rapid. In 1947, the biggest of all the Kachi abadies in the country came up in the city that was later converted into Sir Syed Town and other residential colonies. Jinnah colony, Ghulam Muhammad Abad, People Colony, Afghanabad, Nazimabad and Ayub Colony came into existence in first 10-15 years after the independence. This human settlement of only 9191 people in 1901 (first census) is now home to three millions. The municipal area of the city has expanded up to 45 square Kilometres.

One of the main problems facing the city is congestion: in open spaces, public transport, housing, roads and streets. Presence of Goods Forwarding Agencies and oil tankers’ `addas’, Iron Market, Sabzi Mandi and numerous industrial units inside the city has adversely affected the cityscape. The administration has not been able to shift them out despite recommendations in Fasilabad Master Plan and complaints by the concerned citizens. Presence of these agencies in the city, particularly in the areas from Chowk Ghumti to old municipality office on Circular Road, Kachary Bazaar and Railway godown have made the lives of the citizens difficult. Though there is a ban on the entry of trucks and heavy vehicles between 7 AM to 8 PM under police act 23 but still much of heavy traffic can be seen in the city where a fleet of more than 52000 donkey carts is also playing. By the way, donkey carts have been banned to go downtown recently. An owner of a cart told that he earns between rupees 500 to 1300 daily. “The poor perform most of the manual labour in this rich city — which would be paralysed without its rehri walas. Their children work in life and health threatening situations: on power looms, kilns and in carpet centres. They live without any civic facilities,” he says.

Eight bazaars are the centres of trade and always bustling with activities. They are over crowded and full of encroachments. The shopkeepers and cloth merchants throw all the packing material — plastic and paper wrappers and other crap that cannot be sold — in front of their shops that are promptly lifted by children with large sacks on their shoulders roaming about in the markets for `raddi’ collection. A shopkeeper in Bhawana Bazaar told, “any thing that is not cleared by them stays there because sanitary workers of Fasilabad (FMC), responsible for keeping the city clean, do not perform their duties.” The city is divided in two sanitary zones each headed by separate health officer having an army of sanitary workers and inspectors on their roll. Thanks to FMC, even public parks are not being cleaned. “In an industrial city like ours, they (the planners) should look at every thing including waste as a resource and provide incentives for recycle business,” he says.

Punjab Government has banned the manufacturing and uses of polythene shopper bags but how seriously this ban has been taken can be seen in Fasilabad. One finds them every where. “The polythene bags along with other industrial effluents are causing soil pollution when they reach the fields being irrigated by Rakh Branch Canal” informed an official from Irrigation Department.

Green spaces and vegetation covers — so important for ecological balance — in the city are decreasing. The `green belts’ in front of the houses, particularly in Madina Town and People Colony have been turned into filth depots because people deposit their domestic waste out side their houses and no body comes to lift it or are being used for parking. Gulistan colony, Shamsabad, Ghulam Muhammad Abad and Fateh Abad are other neglected and adversely effected areas. One can see, smell, hear and even taste the pollution in the city.

Municipal bodies, city development agencies and the traffic police seem to be at war with each other instead of jointly serving the tax payers. Muazam Ali, a resident of People Colony complains, “what is our fault if FMC or traffic police fail to pay the electric bills? WAPDA disconnects the supply to the street lights and newly installed traffic signal system. We suffer in the process.” And, “WASA alone needs rupees 3392 millions to provide full fledged sewerage facilities for the people of Fasilabad by the end of year 2000,” informed an official of WASA during a briefing to a foreign delegation.

There is no single authority to coordinate and oversee the growth and development in the city that was laid out under the concept of radical planning with clear zoning of different land uses. People now have converted their houses into industrial units. The Fasilabad development authority (FDA) has been lying useless since 1982 for the want of funds'. The Director General has pointed out, in case it had escaped the public notice, that the FDA with many officers and no assignment should be downsized. On the other hand, FDA has decided to sell its 470 residential and commercial plots and other assets to over come its financial crises. Naturally, thefinancial crises’ are for the salaries of the FDA staff. What else!

The Agricultural University (established as college in 1906), Punjab Research Institute of Agriculture and Biology, National institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, National Institute of Fertilizer, Forest Research Institute, Textile Engineering College, Punjab Medical College, Government Degree college –where I participated in declamation contest in 1972 — and other educational institutions have played very important role in spreading awareness and education in the country. The government has promised to open an other university as well. But, sadly, “thousands of children in the city do not get the see the school, though. They are engaged in various forms of labour to earn for their living,” claims a socialite Muhammad Ijaz who is working to end this servitude in collaboration with ILO and other agencies.

The problems of Fasilabad are specific and need specific solutions. FMC with its small annual budget needs to improve the services, which profoundly affect the daily lives and well being of the people. Requirement: promoting democratic rule, exercising public authority and using public resources in all public institution at the levels in a manner that is conducive to good governance.

Marvi Love

Previously, one only chewed over and thought of such far away places, or read about Thar's unusual life, of people, who sang and danced with exciting rhythm and melody, radiant colours in dress, Manik Chowkri, a beautiful and intricate design on ajraks and chadars and colours of rolling miles of desert sand. The remote area on the Southern edge of Pakistan, which is devoid of the basic infrastructure necessary for life or development, is a tourists' attraction.

Antiquity is the first message. The scenery is attractive in its own way. Goths (villages) and hills quaintly intersect the desert soil, open all around. The roads, wherever they are, swings and curves up and down. The vehicles bump up and down the roads and sandy track, giving fleeting glimpses of a rougher, more elemental existence. Villages pass by, with trees surrounding them and beautiful birds swashbuckling on the branches, like crows on a rainy day. The vegetation is reduced to the undergrowth and thorny shrubs. Cows move silently, hordes and hordes of them, jingling cowbells around their necks, and doves flutter in front of the moving vehicles, which may be struggling in the fourth gears. Fine waves of sand with bright silvery particles sparkle in the sunlight.

Sea was here in the past but it has now moved further south. That is why one still finds salt lakes along the roads. People of the area get the salt for their consumption from these lakes. Small mounds of salt are seen on the banks of the lakes. At places, crushers are seen working refining the salt and processing it into a powder form in the old fashion way.

British functionary Parker did so well in south-east Sindh that the district of Thar was renamed Thar Parker. But the things have not changed much since then in Thar region. The refusal can be felt everywhere. Whatever development has occurred in the other parts of the country, has bypassed Thar? The round mud dwellings with thatched conical roofs look good in photographs but may not be as comfortable to live in. Thar is supposed to be one of the most densely populated deserts in the world. If nothing else, one should remember how certain parts of the Thar had become the scene of battle during the previous wars with India. Once again it has become a political battleground these days.

Major attraction and one of the claims of the Sindh folklore to fame is the village Bhalwa where my curious sense was at its peak. Marvi -- Sindhi heroin famous for her chastity and patriotism -– lived in village. Just on the periphery of the village is a shed where it appeared that a tea stall had been set up during Marvi's melo (festival of Marvi). A few steps away is the "Marvi jo Khooh" (the well of Marvi) from where she used to provide water to her goats and sheep and where Umar Soomra had caught a glimpse of Marvi and had become so head-over-heels that he held the girl against her wishes. Lost in the magnificent stronghold, Marvi's longing for her native terrain gave birth to one of the most moving folklore of Sindh. Her tale has been immortalized by great Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. It is an integral part of our oral and folk heritage. Most Sindhi girls know all about Marvi. Ironically, Marvi is credited only with a dilapidated and poorly written sign in Sindhi and English languages.

Marvi has been treated in a manner as any other national legendary character. There is nothing inspiring about the village these days. The physical venue -- old well -- had been plastered over and totally replaced by an unmarked cemented structure, an absolutely uninspiring job. At the moment, the well is dry and no Marvi can come there and have her pitcher filled. All that is seen left of Marvi is her undying desire and ache for what is no longer there.

A mela organized here in her name has become one of the biggest social and business events in the Thar area. Local cultural committee organises the annual mela of one of the celebrated figures of Thar, with traditional zeal and enthusiasm. But the committee has no resources. Thousands of Tharis participate in the two-day mela. Scores of camels and horses are brought to the mela from various villages to take part in races. Malakhro (wrestling) also is held on the occasion. The stalls under shamyanas or in huts made of straw are set to do the business. One resident of Bhalwa said, "We Tharis realize that a nation which loses its connection with history soon loses its identity. Hence, we gather here to pay glowing tributes to Marvi, the legendary woman." Sadiq Faqir, Karim Faqir, Ustad Hussain Faqir, Yousuf Faqir, and Jeendo Khaskheli among other vocalists of Thar mesmerize the fans of the mela with their folk songs.

Further on the way from district headquarters Mithi to Nagar Parkar, Virawah is another important historic town. It used to be a seaport in the past. Remains and relics are scattered in and around this sleepy little town. But one notices the town afterwards. It begins just like any other typical dust and flies town on the roadside anywhere in remote Sindh, and it ends just as abruptly too. Before one could decide if this is the best place to explore, one is almost out of the village. The abrupt change in the landscape tells that village is left behind. Climb the nearby Karunjhar Hill and you can see landscape intersected by conical huts. At night I saw a series of lights from the hillock. Haloes of iridescent lights glowed in conical huts all around. This would be the place to come and take a look on Diwali nights when Hindu living in the area lit earthen lamps to mark the festival of lights I thought.

A segment of a wall existing there in the form of mountain of debris and some engraved stones give an ancient look in town that I photographed though the veracity of the wall's association with the past is yet to be discovered. But the site does give evidence of its distant past.

How do you people survive?" asked one of my more urban companions. "The greatest contribution of us Tharis is that against all odds we have kept the place inhabited for Pakistan," the answers came from one of the locals.

If those who are at the helm of affairs in the government have taken for granted that Thar does not occupy a significant place in the geography (and history) of the country, then they should read the Sur Marvi of the Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. For the record sack!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A new day

Salman Rashid

Twenty-seven year-old Ali Buksh comes from a poor Shahwani Brahui family of Mastung. His father is a watchman with the Meteorology Department at Quetta. It was no small miracle that on his father’s meagre salary Ali Buksh managed to complete eight grades of school — especially when there were six other brothers as well. Then, in order to augment the small income, it was into the grind of unskilled construction labour for him. Over time, realising that this was not the end-all, he learned driving. By and by he got a license and became a pick-up truck driver.

That was a good deal better than the back-breaking labourer’s work, but working as a paid driver Buksh’s income was never more than two hundred rupees a day. The rattle-trap that he drove would habitually break down and more often than not Buksh was expected by the owner to get it going again. As time went by, more than the driving, it was the tinkering with the engine that Buksh began to enjoy. And so, having done his day’s work as driver, he went under the wing of a master mechanic in Quetta.

By and by the intricacies of the internal combustion engine came to be known him and he had sufficiently honed his skill to overhaul an engine all by himself. But the niggling thought remained: there was something that was amiss; something he did not really know. A good few years down the road, he was still unable to put his finger on that one something that he did not quite grasp.

In January 2007, answering an ad in a local newspaper, he found himself before an interviewing team of army officers. This was not to become a soldier, for nothing could have been further from Ali Buksh’s mind. If he was selected, he was to join the newly established Balochistan Institute of Technical Education (BITE) in their auto mechanic training programme. With his mechanic’s background, selection was a cinch.

When training began in February, the big surprise for Ali Buksh was the kit he received: overalls, mufti, shoes etc. And the cream on the tart was the thousand-rupee monthly stipend. Four months later at graduation time he knew what it was that rankled when he learned his craft at the mechanic’s elbow: lack of theoretical knowledge. Now he knew what compression ratio was all about and why there was so much difference between the top and bottom dead centres of the pistons in diesel and petrol engines. For the first time he felt fulfilled.

He did well in his final exams and when BITE offered to retain him as an instructor, Ali Buksh readily signed up. Teaching is a rewarding job in more ways than one, he says with a smile. One, he gets to train others and then, because school finishes at two in the afternoon, he has the rest of the day to work with a mechanic running a successful workshop in town. With his lop-sided grin Buksh says that he already has the owner’s respect because he can not only dismantle and put together an engine, he can actually explain to the master as well as to curious customers what goes on in that block called the engine.

From less than two hundred rupees a day only a year ago, Ali Buksh has moved on. The BITE salary is Rs 4000 per month while the workshop owner pays him fifty rupees daily just for being present besides an additional four hundred rupees at the end of each week. That takes his monthly income to Rs 7000. With the skill under his belt, young Ali Buksh knows that now only the sky is the limit. He now envisages, apart from the on-going teaching assignment, his own motor workshop in about a year’s time. A life is beginning to change.

One day in October 2006, as Ali Buksh drove his pick-up truck about the smoky streets of Quetta, far away in Rawalpindi General Pervez Musharraf was discussing with his aides the idea that was to change this young man’s life: to establish a technical training institute under the training centre of the corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (EME). The institute was to provide technical training to women and men aged between sixteen and thirty-five and subsequently assist them in placement. Courses offered to men were auto mechanic and electrician, home appliance repair, carpentry, welding, turnery and motorcycle mechanics. Women could take up needlework and computer operating or opt to train as beauticians.

Seed money to the tune of Rs18.942 million was provided by the National Vocational and Technical Education Commission (NAVTEC) and BITE took off with the first training session beginning on the last Monday of February 2007. In June, two hundred and twelve men and thirty-two young women graduated not only with certificates but with professional kits and five thousand rupees each to get them going in their respective fields. Of these graduates, one hundred and forty were immediately soaked up by various organisations; others opted for self-employment.

Interestingly, when the first course was advertised, there were so few applicants that the session ran below strength. But word gets around fast and for the three hundred vacancies of the second session; BITE was flooded with ten times as many applications from the remotest corners of Balochistan province. Even as you read these lines, BITE is preparing to begin with its third batch of trainees. As Major Tajamal Hasnain of BITE says, the institute has not just given skill training to so many youngsters. It has prevented this many from falling into the wrong hands of miscreants whether religious or political. BITE has, he says, built lives that had every potential of being wasted. A new day has dawned in Balochistan.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Jail Road to Mail Road

This year it seems that Spring has not come to Lahore. From Winters, we are straight into Summer. Still, the government is trying to celebrate the advent of Spring and provide entertainment for terrorism-weary Lahories in the form of the Lahore Festival, programmes for children, a dog show, a cricket match between lawmakers and film actors, another cricket match for the visually impaired, flower-arranging contests, poetry readings, and face-painting, heena contests and decorating the Lahore Canal from Mall Road to jail Road. At night one can see a number of illuminated boats representing cultural themes, fountains and flower courts.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Samarqand Fort

Salman Rashid

Chakwal district, once part of the old Jhelum district created after the British annexation of Punjab, lies in the heart of the Salt Range. This is a country of low hills (Chehel Abdal near Choa Saidan Shah, the highest, being about 1200 metres) and deep gullies that mostly run with a trickle of water that turns into a torrent with a fall of rain. The ravines, eroded over millions of years of flowing water, have wind-sculpted verges of fluted pillars that recall the work of some Gandharan master mason. And the land is tinged red by the sodium in the salt that this district is famous for.

In this country, barely twenty kilometres west of Kallar Kahar, in a landscape dominated by the picturesque Gambhir River, hidden among the shallow folds of phulai-covered hills lie the ruins of a fort called Samarqand. But first of the Gambhir. As evocative names go, this one is remarkable: in Sanskrit it signifies ‘deep’. To my mind it recalls that far-off time when the singers of the Vedas first came to the land of the Sindhu River. Those were days of much greater precipitation and this winding river caught between jagged cliffs flowed deep carrying its red-tinged alluvium.

The newcomers may have had to wait on its far bank for it to subside and permit them across. Although they sang hymns to the Maha Sapta Sindhu and to its various tributaries, they do not mention this river; they only gave it a name. For them this was the Deep River. Even today when the rains come, the Gambhir, without a bridge in this reach of its course, becomes impassable.

West of this river one fetches up in the sleepy little hamlet of Maira Emma. Ask anyone of Samarqand Fort and they will point a low hillock about three kilometres to the south. Local historians being as ignorant as they are, one fool living in Bhaun village would have people believe that this Samarqand was the ‘city’ that gave its name to the more famous one in Uzbekistan. According to this ‘historian’, Salt Range Samarqand folks left this town in the reign of the great Kushan king Kanishka to migrate across the mountains and establish its namesake city in Central Asia. Of course this ‘expert’ offers no proof to substantiate this idiotic theory.

This man, who has published this spurious ‘research’ in local rags, has never read Alexander’s history to know that Samarqand (Maracanda in Greek annals) was taken by the Macedonian conqueror six hundred years before Kanishka. And that it was here he committed the shameful act of murdering his general Clietus the Black — the very man but for whom Alexander would have been cut down in the battle of the Granicus River in Turkey.

Dr Saifur Rahman Dar carried out an archaeological survey in the Salt Range back in the early 1990s. I have had access to his report (which sadly remains unpublished to this day) and know Dr Dar postulates that the fort was built in the 13th century. During this work he was also given a copper coin by a local who had found it at the foot of the hill upon which the fort stands. Badly eroded, the coin only yields this little information: ‘Sultan (illegible) Shah and that it was minted at ‘dar ul mulk Delhi.’

Samarqand today comprises of only a few bits of walls here and there and three or four circular turrets now completely filled in with earth washed down by rainwater. These structures sit on the northern slope of the hill, while the south side uses the sheer side of the hill as its defence.

Now, this fort does not lie on a main route through the Salt Range. It moreover sits on a hill that is difficult of approach: on all sides it is surrounded either by low, desiccated hills and troughs or by narrow chasms that can suddenly be flooded by rain. In the valley below Samarqand, a tiny stream flows that could never, not even in those distant times of greater rains, have supported a large city as the local ‘historian’ claims. Anyone can see that there is room neither for a large city near the fort nor for agriculture to support its population.

Since Dr Dar’s survey, no other archaeological investigation has been carried out to add to our cursory knowledge of Samarqand in the Salt Range. Consequently, it is easy to try and build a scenario.

In February 1221, Jalaluddin, the fugitive king of Khwarazm, was defeated by Chengez Khan on the west bank of the Sindhu River. The battle took place a hundred kilometres northwest of Samarqand where the village of Nizampur today stands in Nowshehra district. Jalaluddin shamefully fled across the river leaving his family and concubines to the pleasure of the Mongols.

Many of his soldiers followed him across the river and soon the man had a force of about one thousand. He immediately set upon plundering local villages for rations and arms before eventually heading out for Delhi to seek the help of Sultan Iyultimish in his struggle against the Mongols. Fearing for his own safety the Sultan refused and Jalaluddin returned to the Salt Range disappointed.

Chengez Khan, who had meanwhile withdrawn to Afghanistan, heard of his enemy’s activities and sent out another force against him. Without giving fight Jalaluddin fled to Multan and Uch but, with summer progressing, finding it unbearable in the south and with the Mongols retreating once again to the highlands, returned to the rather moderate climes of the Salt Range. Here he made peace with the local chieftain Rai Khokhar Sangin.

With the Mongols still breathing down his neck, Jalaluddin would have asked what Khokhar Sangin did in the event of pressure from an enemy. Why, we have this fortress difficult of approach and even harder to take because of its location, the Rajput chief would have said. Having seen the remote fortress, Jalaluddin may have funded his new-found ally to enlarge and strengthen the existing fortress so that the two confederates could hide away in it should the Mongols come against them yet again.

Even as work progressed on the fort, the summer monsoon arrived and the normally harsh and barren hills broke out in verdure. I have seen these parts in the blistering dry heat of May and again in August and the contrast is remarkable. Perhaps it was one rain-soaked August afternoon, the sun low in the west in a sky fleeced by piled up cumulus, a cool wind scudding over the hills, birds creating a riot of song in the phulai and sanatha when Jalaluddin looked out across the spreading vistas.

Pining for his distant home, now squarely in Mongol hands, with little hope of ever returning to its vineyards and farmlands, he may have sighed out loud and said ‘Oh, Samarqand!’ and the name caught. Conversely, could it be that moved by the monsoon verdure, he asked his Rajput ally to name his secret refuge after the home he had to abandon on pain of death?

We may never know how it actually came about. But the scenario I paint is not implausible; it may very well have unfolded. Howsoever the name came to be, one thing is certain: no one ever left from this Samarqand in the reign of Kanishka to establish a city of the same name in distant Central Asia.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A modern legend

Salman Rashid

The fortress of Bijnot lies way out in the Cholistan Desert — a hundred and twenty kilometres southeast of Derawar Fort and just about twenty-five from the Indian border. Dating back to the 8th century, it is now in a state of utter ruin — ruin that was caused not by the passage of time, but by the accuracy of Indian artillery shelling during the 1971 conflict. The story to recount is not of the fort’s history and glory; it is the story of two outlaws who frequented this area.

Madho Singh (aka Jagmaal Singh) of the clan Rathore was a native of Bikaner and one of the three sons of a Thakur who held two villages as jagir. One day the Thakur was rudely put down by a neighbour whose cattle were grazing in the Thakur’s fields. The incident much distressed young Madho Singh and catching the offender at a lonely spot did him in with his steel-tipped staff. The long arm of the law reached out and Madho Singh became a fugitive.

Moving to Jaisalmir, the man fell in with a gang of petty thugs who terrorised local traders to collect a daily stipend. With his six-foot three-inch frame, handsome face and proud Rajput bearing, Madho Singh soon became the leader of the gang with Krishen Singh, an older member becoming his closest confidante. Petty crime leads to bigger evil and soon it was time for the gang’s big heist. Bhoor Singh, a man of good means, was the chosen unfortunate one whose house was raided in the quiet of night. The robbers made off not only with two hundred thousand rupees, but the man’s daughter as well. The girl was eventually returned untouched for Madho Singh had laid down the law: death to rapists and squealers.

With the police hot on their heels, the heat in Rajasthan got unbearable for the gang and the lot escaped across the new border to Pakistan. This was the year 1948 and Madho Singh and his men chose to live in the neighbourhood of Fort Abbas (many miles north of Bijnot). That was a time when there were no border fences or ditches and the gang began to make plundering forays into India. But crime, they say, never pays.

One day a posse sent out by the Rajasthan police engaged the gang in a fire-fight by the fort of Bijnot and Madho’s deputy Krishen Singh went to his Maker. To this day a simple structure a kilometre to the west of Bijnot marks the spot where Krishen’s body was cremated. The ashes, it is told, were somehow sent off to be dispersed in the Ganga River.

Madho Singh now petitioned the killadar of Derawar Fort for an audience with the Nawab of Bahawalpur. The interview was granted and the Rathore Thakur, a fugitive of the law of India, presented the Abbasi ruler of the state with a richly caparisoned camel. Shortly thereafter Madho Singh and the remainder of his gang came to live at Dera Nawab, the seat of the ruler of Bahawalpur.

Traditionally, the Nawab’s harem guards were Poorbia Rajputs. But after the merger of Bahawalpur with Pakistan, these people were expatriated home to India. And so it fell upon Madho Singh and his gang to take up this responsibility. Members of the princely family, who had seen the Thakur, relate that he was known to be a man of honour who kept his word and was fair in his dealings. They say that having pledged loyalty once, there was nothing that could then sway Madho Singh. And so he and his men stood guard at the home of the Nawab.

But the stringent discipline of the royal residence did not quite suit the free-spirited man. Not long after taking the assignment, Madho Singh requested permission to go live in the desert. It was granted with some reluctance and the gang moved to Bijnot. Once again they began to operate across the border and in a few short months Madho Singh or Jagmaal became a byword for terror. Rajput mothers would get unruly children back in line with a whispered, ‘Jagmaal ayo ray!’ By 1963, so legend relates, Madho Singh was wanted in one hundred and thirty-five cases in India.

Having long harboured the notion that his mate Krishen was killed because the two had raided Bhoor Singh’s home, Madho had nurtured the thought of avenging the death. During a cross-border raid in 1963, Krishen Singh kidnapped Bhoor Singh and dragged him across the desert to Bijnot. It is said that a heavy posse followed him and that the Indian government even requested Pakistan Air Force to flush the man out, but the outlaws could not be caught. Ten days, they say, a running fight was kept up across the dunes, but Madho and his gang remained one step ahead of the Indian police and our air force.

When the dust settled, Madho brought the hapless Bhoor Singh to the very spot where many years earlier Krishen Singh had breathed his last. There, telling him that he was to pay for that long ago death, Madho Singh needlessly did the poor man in. Not long afterwards, Madho Singh was shot in the arm and he and his gang taken into custody. But there were no cases against the lot under Pakistan’s law; they were held to be repatriated to India as her citizens. But Madho who had already sent his wife and two sons to India, refused to go.

Caught in the byzantine corridors of bureaucracy, Madho Singh and his gang remained in custody for fourteen years without trial or conviction. Abid Minto, the renowned human rights lawyer, took the case to the high court and in 1978 secured the gang’s release. Madho Singh and his associates Moolji, Pannay Singh and Gopi Singh were free once again. Now they were also were granted Pakistani citizenship. Madho alias Jagmaal Singh was an outlaw with a known record of crime. Upon his release he was swamped by offers of haven from law-abiding, god-fearing people were he to return to his old sinful ways.

Madho Singh, now almost sixty, was finally looking for peace. He refused. An aging and peaceful person is good for nothing and is only a drain on the larder. And so the offers of protection were withdrawn. Madho and his men ended up at the threshold of Lal Mian Abbasi of the princely family who offered him shelter against the pledge of abiding by the law. But little was left of that action-packed life. In 1983 Madho Singh, tall, slim and erect with little subtracted from his proud Rajput countenance, passed away.

Upon his deathbed, it is told, Thakur Madho Singh Rathore extracted a promise from his three accomplices: to forever be law-abiding citizens of Pakistan and to remain unflinchingly loyal to Lal Mian Abbasi and his family for taking them in when no other would. The word was kept until Moolji, the last of them, passed away in 1999.

But for this family of the Abbasi clan and a few elderly people in Bijnot, Madho Jagmaal Singh fades from memory. And so I tell this story not to glorify an outlaw and murderer but to preserve a part of history that will never make it to the books and will by and by be forever lost.