DAWN - Features; September 18, 2008

Published September 18, 2008

Mysticism seeks relief for the perplexed mind— Amar Jaleel

By Naseer Ahmad


Having endured the horrid heat of the past several days, few people would believe that Karachi once had pleasant weather conditions, with a breeze sweeping across the city interspersed with drizzles and rains for seven to eight months of the year. Reminiscing about pre-partition Karachi, noted mystic writer Amar Jaleel insists that when he was a schoolboy, studying at the Ratan Talao primary school, the pleasant weather here rivalled that of many hill resorts. To prove his point, he says all old buildings do not have provision for ceiling fans.

He was born and brought up in this city when, according to him, it was inhabited by hardly 250,000 people. “It extended from Keamari to Takri, the mound where the Quaid’s mausoleum rests now. The heterogeneous population of Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Sikhs lived here homogeneously. There was also a sizable population of Marhattas and Jews. Close to the Takri lived rich Hindus on one side and Parsis on the other. They were all at peace with one another. They wholeheartedly participated in one another’s festivals. They would go to one another’s places of worship without any inhibition,” says one of the top short story writers of the Sindhi language in an interview with Dawn. “All that seems a fairytale now.”

Amar sahib is dismayed by the current crises gripping the country from within and without. He was among the people who were not happy at the partition of India.

“I was born in the Indian city of Karachi. As primary school boys, we were filled with nationalism, impatient to drive the British out of our motherland. Singing with verve Allama Iqbal’s poem Saray Jahan say achha Hindustan Hamara/ Hum bulbulain hein is ki,yeh gulistan hamara, we would chant slogans the British must quit.... must quit India.” He also recalls his beloved school which was burnt down by a frenzied mob, “And I still don’t know why it was done, though it was not the only school burnt to ashes.”

Asked if he was opposed to the creation of Pakistan, he says: “Not opposed to. I was flabbergasted, …. surprised that how could a mother be bifurcated. There are certain things that cannot be divided and subdivided. And this feeling has supplied the source material for many of my creative writings.”

He says when Maulana Deen Mohammad Wafai, a well-known scholar, heard the news of partition, he became very disturbed. He was seen praying and crying incessantly for hours. When his young son asked about the reason for it, he said: “From now on the Muslims of the subcontinent will never have peace.”

Well, both the opponents and supporters of Pakistan have equally forceful arguments. “When an Indian asked me why it was that India had criminals working underground and Pakistan did not have such dons, I said in Pakistan dons don’t need to operate from the underworld.”

Professing to be a Sufi, Amar says mysticism is prevalent in all major religions – Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism. “Mysticism is the independent views of the mystics about their religion. It is different from the religion of the cleric. They interpret the religion according to their own understanding. For instance, Shah Latif says praying and fasting is absolutely necessary. They are part of your faith. But there is something else that brings you closer to your Creator. On the other hand, the mullah would say that it is fasting and praying alone that gets you closer to God. So, it is a deviation from the established tradition. It is a sort of reinterpretation of religious thought, which seeks relief for the perplexed mind,” says the mystic writer, adding:

“For instance, if you put a question to the mullah that if a Muslim astronaut goes into space, how would he offer prayers there as there is no sunrise and sunset in space, the mullah would have no convincing answer. But a sufi may tell you that since he prays five times daily to get closer to God, why can’t he remain in constant touch with him by praying on without waiting for a specific time. If the book says that you offer prayer five times, okay. But there is no harm in it if you pray 10 times a day.”

He says sufism of various religions is as different from one another as the religions themselves. “But all Sufis believe in one Creator. Their definition of the Creator may vary from religion to religion.”

Besides Shah Latif, he is also a great admirer of sufi poets such as Sachal Sarmast, Baba Fareed, Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah.

Asked what future he saw for Sindhi fiction, he says: “Whether Sindhi, Punjabi or Pushto, these languages have roots here. And such languages do not die.” He says Sindhi literature has a very bright future as so many writers are doing their job very well. “I do not have authentic statistics, but I believe four to five books are published in Sindhi daily. Besides, there are five Sindhi TV channels and several newspapers, all promoting the language.”

Born on November 8, 1936, he has been writing for TV channels for the last 35 years, but he is sceptical about TV channels’ capability to promote literature. “Although TV channels give better remuneration and one gets instant recognition, writing for the channels is not literature. If it were so, Haseena Moin would have been the best writer in Pakistan.”

A collection of 30 short stories in English, Love, longing and death, is being published from New Delhi. “Being a Sufi, I am not supposed to have an ego. But somehow I have never gone to publishers to get my books published. And this publisher from New Delhi also contacted me to say that he was interested in the publication of my stories, outlines of which he had read in my Dawn columns.”

He has 15 collections of Sindhi short stories to his credit. His short stories have been translated into several languages. Amar sahib is also working on a novel in English to be titled Thus spoke the dumb.

He contributed a weekly column, Mystic Notes, to Dawn for about 13 years. He has contributed columns to a Sindhi newspaper for many years. His columns are different because they are wrapped in mysticism, generally in the form of a short story reflecting on the current situation.

During his career, he has worked as a programme manager with the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, as a director and later the vice-chancellor of the Allama Iqbal Open University, and also as the director-general of the Pakistan National Council of Arts, Islamabad. He takes pride in being from the first batch of students of Karachi University’s new campus, where he earned a master’s in economics and history. He recalls many illustrious names who were his contemporaries at the university, including Shaista Zaidi, Syed Safwanullah, Waheed Murad and Salman Farooqui.

Karachi can be far more beautiful than Paris: Penalosa

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim


If there was one thing Enrique Penalosa noticed, while on his way from the Quaid-i-Azam International Airport to his hotel, it was that the Karachi roads were wide enough for the bus rapid transport system (BRTS) to be implemented.

Not just that. He also saw the immense potential of turning the city around, that we, as Karachiites, seem to have given up.

“This is a crucial moment in Karachi’s history. You have a fantastic opportunity now to make your city much better, with parks, pedestrian walkways lined with tropical trees, footpaths and bicycle ways. It can be far more beautiful than what Paris and London are because you still have un-built open spaces,” said Mr Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, currently visiting Pakistan under the auspices of the Clinton Climate Initiative (a programme of the Clinton Foundation) and delivering lectures in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

In Karachi, the lecture on Sustainable Urban Development and Mobility was organized by the Karachi Mass Transit Cell of the CDGK and an NGO, Shehri-CBE.

To him, “a good city is one that has parks, and such fantastic ones that even the rich are forced to use them… which has an efficient public transport system that discourages people from using their private cars… where children, the elderly and special people could be out in the open because it is safe for them.”

The best designed cities, according to Mr Penalosa, are in northern Europe, like the Dutch and Danish cities. A “failed”, on the other hand, is one that has shopping malls and where pedestrians are killed by cars.

“People behave in the way they are treated, and most cities do not respect pedestrians,” he remarked.

With his voice resonating to match the passion in his eyes, he almost implored the citizens of Karachi “to learn from the mistakes made by urban monstrosities that are Tokyo, Bangkok and Mexico City.”

To him, the sidewalk is a sign of true democracy. “It’s not just about being able to go out and vote; democracy means where public good prevails over private interest,” when elected leadership has the will to place the needs of the masses above those few who wield the power, that tiny minority who drive cars.

During his three-year term (1997-2000) as mayor, he literally turned Bogota around. A city of seven million inhabitants, it now boasts wide tree-lined sidewalks, bicycle paths, restricted use of cars during rush hours, pedestrian-only zones. But most importantly, he implemented the BRTS (originally developed in Curitiba, Brazil, in the 1970s), called the Transmilenio public transport system. The system that comprises two-part hinged buses and carry 160 passengers each drives on lanes reserved for their exclusive use, at a speed of 30km/hour/direction. But all this was possible because he had all the required powers, he said.

At the moment, 1,027 diesel-powered Transmilenio buses operate in a 84-km road network catering to the needs of 1.4 million passengers per day of whom 21 per cent own cars. There are 114 elevated stations in the centre of the roads. Users pay the fare at the station. The doors of the stations and the buses slide open simultaneously to allow passengers’ entry and exit.

The National BRTS programme has been implemented in six Colombian cities.

“It’s a lie when governments say that they have to make highways, expressways, even elevated ones, and bigger roads to resolve traffic problems. More road infrastructures bring about more traffic jams and wide roads do not necessarily solve traffic problems,” said Mr Penalosa, giving the examples of Seoul and Boston which are demolishing highways they had built earlier.

But he also realised that fighting to put a ban on highways was a losing battle. “I am not going to convince you not to build big roads or expressways, but if you have to, build them for buses.”

He observed that all such decisions are “political” and not “engineering”. “We are making cities for cars, not for people,” he remarked.

“But Karachi can still make amends. You have the space, you can make parks and pedestrian zones, and people will be happy.” He apprehended that after fifty years from now, the children of today might have no parks.

The only way to resolve Karachi’s traffic woes, according to Mr Penalosa, is to embark upon a BRTS which is far more difficult than building trains and subways but 10 times cheaper. “For the BRTS you need strong political will and managerial skills. Without these two, you may not succeed.”

“You will be able to carry 50,000 passengers/hour/direction but let’s do a good job of replicating (BRTS) and have a truly integrated system with good buses, pre-paid stations, exclusive bus corridors, etc.” He favoured the private-public partnership and a system of contracts with traditional bus-owners.

Any half-hearted measures might render the bus system a failure, he warned, pointing out that this had happened in Delhi, where old buses operated along with the BRTS buses thereby compromising the efficiency and speed of the latter.

At the same time, said Mr Penalosa, there was a need for availability of pedestrian bridges, pedestrian walkways and bike ways.

He was sure that if implemented in its true sense, the BRTS would bring down the number of cars plying on roads. “Everybody wants cars. I say let them have cars but restrict their use.”

His suggestions include levying of tax on gasoline yet subsidizing it for public transport; charging of parking fee; keeping cars off sidewalks; having car-free days; and restricting use of cars during rush hours in certain zones of the city.

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