AS a visitor from provincial Delhi, I always feel refreshed by the sea breeze in Karachi and the varied lives it governs and enriches.
It was refreshing last week, for example, to meet Rajinder the room boy at the city’s colonial-era Sind Club. He helped me decode a scribbled Urdu note left for me by the club’s senior member Iqbal Siddiqui.
In a way Rajinder, whose ancestors came from a small town in Uttar Pradesh (as did nearly all the room attendants at the club), showed a better grasp of the script over mine. His skill reaffirmed the view I have used to slam India and Pakistan — that a language has little if anything to do with religion. It has stronger roots in geography and assorted ethnic linkages that thrive as cultural oxbow lakes, of which a part of Karachi is.
It is an inescapable fact that Urdu was foisted on Pakistan just as Hindi was forced on unsuspecting Indians as a perverse or at least hurried interpretation of what a link language ought to be between our linguistic oxbow lakes. In all probability, the author of the scribbled note himself would testify to my submission.
His sister Salma Siddiqui who lives in Mumbai is a writer in her own right. She was married to Krishan Chander a celebrity of Urdu literature in India and Pakistan. So, we don’t have to go all the way to Chakbast or Sarshar to plead that though they were Hindu they wrote beautiful verse and prose in Urdu. The ‘though’ is wrong.
Examples are legion, but it’s safe to say that Nehru’s Urdu was inevitably better than Jinnah’s or Rajendra Prasad’s. Geography and job hunt played a role. Nehru’s Kashmiri forebears came to work in the court of Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar. They had to be skilled in Persian, and later in Urdu too.
Karachi asserts the point emphatically. Ghazala Rehman who I met during a seminar on ‘history and war’ is busy researching ‘Sind Abhyas’. She startled me by claiming that the Sindhi language was older than Sanskrit. In India, Lal Kishan Advani, whose fractious politics feeds on stressing the primacy of Sanskritised Hindi over other linguistic and cultural motifs, which include his own Sindhi language, would squirm.
His reaction to the claim by an ostensibly Muslim scholar who challenges a potentially exaggerated notion about Sanskrit’s primacy would be interesting. There was not enough time for the Sindhi scholar to share the burden of her argument with me. However, if a Dravidian language such as Brahui could be still extant in Balochistan in Karachi’s neighbourhood then anything is possible.
Karachi tests common axioms. One of its popular figures B.M. Kutty runs what his friends jokingly call a one-man Baloch Separatist Party of Kerala. How this scholar and left-wing activist came to ensconce himself in Karachi is recorded in his very readable autobiography Sixty Years in Exile: No Regrets. Kutty Sahab is best known for editing the autobiography of Mir Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo from the notes left behind by the iconic Baloch leader with whom he apprenticed as a young communist.
Last week, I waded into a sea of his admirers who had assembled to celebrate him. Kutty was embarrassed by the ovations. I found time to wander off in my mind about the targeted killings and the so-called ethnic divide that has tormented Karachi of late. The city needs to be urgently deweaponised, but it’s easier said than done. As an Indian, I know how there are huge political stakes in keeping the ‘identity pot’ boiling.
Listening to Kutty’s friends was a treat in contrast to the banal politics of murder. There were Baloch comrades and there were their Urdu-speaking sympathisers. There were Punjabi communists and Pushto-speaking critics of religious sectarianism. Kutty, of a remote village in Malabar, had become their anchor and hero.
The lanky Usman Baloch, jailed frequently for his radical albeit secular idealism, merrily mocked the failure of the left in Pakistan. “Marx made the mistake of going to Punjab first,” he guffawed. “They gave him lassi and put him to sleep.”
A visit to Karachi can never be complete for me without a meeting Saleem Asmi who retired as editor of Dawn a few years ago. His convivial life in Dubai and later in Karachi was packed with painters, musicians, poets and liberal dilettantes. There are fewer of them going around these days. In any case Asmi Sahab has painted himself into a corner by indulging the liver with all its cravings. But he feels as engaged with life in his recently acquired wheelchair as he once did in the editor’s chair.
Asmi reminds me of the difference that Noam Chomsky noticed between Indian and Pakistani journalists though there are exceptions on either side of the border. Human rights activist and senior journalist I. A. Rehman spoke at a function at the Karachi Press Club to celebrate his friend Asmi. Both had been to jail a few times.
It is almost a tradition for good Pakistani journalists to have been to jail. They face threats from religious extremists and the state alike. There are journalists who work for both though. But disappeared journalists are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan, and Daniel Pearl was just one who met a gruesome end.
Unlike the leading editors and former editors I encounter in India, journalists like Asmi and I.A. Rehman lead simple lives, which is restricted to Pakistan’s unending struggle for justice for all — chiefly for women, religious and ethnic minorities, and not the least for journalists and their right to speak and write freely. Rehman Sahab flew in all the way from Lahore to lead the speakers, while I was there, at a three-day seminar on media challenges.
It was organised by the department of mass communications of the Federal Urdu University. Was there a single speaker who did not impress with a plan to thwart the encroachment of business corporates, about the need to recast the media as a secular and concerned body of people? As usual, the sea breeze in Karachi was refreshing last week.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.