I have found that there is disconnect between the people of Pakistan and that makes us citizens of two different Pakistans.
Pakistanis who were born before the 70s saw a different Pakistan that is unimaginable for our younger generation. The cultural tolerance of different communities was still intact despite the communal riots of partition. Religion was a devotional experience and had not become a ritual. Minorities and different faiths were not considered as the ‘other’. Cultural activities weren’t the basis of division as today, but points of connection even between Hindus and Muslims. These two instances of my early childhood might explain the different Pakistan that we grew up in.
In the early 70s, I remember visiting my maternal grandmother’s village a few kilometers away from Kohat. It was lush green with guava orchards surrounded by mauve, olive green, ultramarine, yellow ochre and burnt sienna mountains that formed a perfect reservoir for Tanda Dam, the hot spot of family picnics. We often used to walk or hire a tonga to get to the village. My mother and other female members would gather in a large compound under an old peepal tree. Us boys would rush out with our cousins to collect fresh guavas. This village had only few mud houses on either side of a mud road.
Of the two deserted houses, there was one with low walls that looked like a haunted house. It had only one room in the middle and we could see cobwebs on the broken front door and window from the road. We never ventured going close to that mud structure, hurriedly crossing it on opposite side of the road. We were even frightened to ask our cousins about this house. A few years later I asked my chum Sajjad, about the deserted mud house. He laughed and said, “Oh! That was a mosque”. I asked him why it was always deserted. He replied, “No mullah stayed for more than few days as there were very few namazis”.
Three years ago, I visited the village after more than 30 years. This time I saw concrete houses with electricity and a school just opposite my friend’s house. Sajjad, who is now a grandfather, told me that cable TV is not allowed in the entire area. Upon inquiring he told me that the elders of all the surrounding villages were summoned by the tablighi jamaat center and they decided “voluntarily” to not allow cable TV in the entire area. Later on my way back I saw that the 200-kanals expanse that housed the tablighi centre on the road that goes to Hangu and then to Parachinar. Tanda dam that was once a favourite picnic spot for families is now deserted after the Taliban threatened families.
Our house in Kohat was at the back of PAF barbed wired boundary and guava orchards. A Balmiki mandir was the only building close to our house. I remember the festivals and stage plays performed at this mandir. For the first time, I saw Valmiki’s Ramayana and Mahabharata during those festivals. A mud raised platform served as a stage. The garuda was made with shining cardboard, cardboard crowns and wooden swords covered with silver paper. A Muslim actor performed as Rawan whom I often saw in the bazaar. I liked his acting and was mesmerised to see him gulping kerosene oil and then spitting it from his mouth to create the impression of a fire emitting monster. I remember a mixed audience that included Muslims and the distributing of parshad on banana leaves at the end of the play.
I recognized the play of Pandavas and Kauravas as my mother was a great story teller. I heard from her stories of Mahabharata, Samson and Delilah, Yousaf and Zulekha, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, Laila and Majnu and many others. We left that house and moved to Peshawar and forgot about those stories.
Some 10 years later students of our arts college toured India and I saw Mahabharata again on stage. This time it was the powerful acting and expressive voice of Naseeruddin Shah as Karna and his dialogues with his mother Kunti. Like my city actor who played Rawan, it was the character of Karna that inspired me, again played by a Muslim actor.
In hindsight, I remember my final year thesis painting was titled, ‘The fall of Lanka’. The painting showed a cow inside an elephant in a turtle. Sita is sitting inside the lakshman rekha and Rawan appears as a beggar to trick her to come out of the circle. Lanka is shown as a row of houses, with Hanuman jumping on the roofs with his tail on fire setting ablaze all of Lanka. The main idea was that imperialism has reached deep inside our societies as symbolised by the goldern dear, the rakhshas who changed into a shining golden dear (the shine of money) to attract Sita.
My teacher objected that people wouldn’t understand the symbols in this painting. I pointed out that I have seen these stories being performed and people do know about them. I called a labourer who was white washing the walls of the studio for the final thesis exhibition. I asked him if he could recognise any characters in the painting. Hesitantly, he recognised the figure of Hanuman.
‘So let the labourers be your art critics and evaluate your painting,’ shouted my teacher and stormed out of the painting studio.
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