COLUMN: Haleem Brohi: The non-conformist

Published December 22, 2013
Amar Sindhu is a Sindhi-language poet and teaches philosophy at Sindh University, Jamshoro
Amar Sindhu is a Sindhi-language poet and teaches philosophy at Sindh University, Jamshoro

“Humour or satire, is it your being or a mask?” This question was the first one I intended to ask Haleem Brohi, the great satirist of Sindhi literature, when interviewing him for a profile.

“Life has suddenly become easy but it had almost killed me,” he said. “I had ruined myself, and others joined to help me do it.” Almost 10 years have gone by, but I still feel the bitterness of his broken smile down to my bones. After a pause of a few minutes he laughed. “But remember, I am made up of material which is determined to create a mess and I fear that I will repeat, time and again, the same troubled things which ruined me.”

Meanwhile, I did realise that it is not an easy task to write about a person with multiple identities as Brohi, undoubtedly, had. He was a novelist, a short story writer, a columnist, a historian and a linguist while astronomy was his hidden passion. He was Haleem Brohi, the most popular humourist of Sindhi literature, whom I couldn’t get to agree to any formal interview but continued to visit and exchange ideas with till his death on July 28, 2010.

Haleem Brohi, the son of a police officer, was born on August 5, 1935, in Hyderabad. He acquired a degree in law but couldn’t continue with the practice. After trying different businesses, Brohi joined the University of Sindh where he remained till his retirement. But his time there was full of troubles for him with controversies regarding his professional and literary work.

The author of many books in Sindhi and English, Brohi contributed countless articles to almost all English dailies and many Sindhi newspapers. However, not many people know that his first book, published in 1967, was on the subject of law under the title Security Proceedings in Criminal Law. He also published another book that year, Nothing is Particular and Nothing is Earnest.

“When pop music has been accepted, why shouldn’t there be pop writings too,” he used to say. Thus Pop Writing was published. The book contained both serious and satirical articles.

Brohi has more than ten books as well as countless booklets to his credit and they were all self-published. He distributed almost all of them free to the readers, earning nothing through them. He earned nothing through publications except fame among his readers.

At the same time, Brohi was severely criticised by his contemporaries and his work was never taken seriously by Sindhi literature critics. However, he never bothered with this literary class of ‘giants’ and instead made them into objects of humour, representing them as caricatures in his writings and calling them “the heavyweight champions” and “the Tarzans” of Sindhi literature. Unlike other writers, Brohi made jokes about literary titles and speeches. For him, they were no more than exercises in personal relations and not worth a damn. These formalities are necessities for pseudo intellectuals and mediocre writers and scholars, he felt, but not for the genius. “If I am a fool, I would prefer to stay a fool than join the cunning, merit-less and shallow sycophants who fall prostrate before everyone and who relish their success by trampling a person of merit under their feet and ignoring him.”

Brohi deliberately evaded being part of the mainstream but he was very popular among the readers, especially the enraged and alienated youth. “How is our Haleem Brohi?” I was asked many times by people during my travels in remote areas. “Who?” I would often say, pretending to be ignorant. “The person who writes for Kawish (a Sindhi newspaper),” people would say. “What he writes directly touches our hearts and minds.” Well-read in Western literature and philosophy, Brohi’s sensibility was deeply rooted in the classic Eastern literary traditions of Omar Khayyam, Hafiz, Kabir and others. Khayyam was a passion with Brohi and he once wrote, “for expressing myself better than I actually would do, I quote him.”

However, Brohi was of the opinion that Khayyam was misunderstood by everyone, including his readers, lovers and haters. They misinterpret his rubaiyat and have failed to find the ecclesiastical beauty within. For Brohi, the rubaiyat of Khayyam were not the reflection of the life he had lived but the lamentation of life that he had been deprived of as Khayyam was too poor to be drunk or a debauchee, though he wanted to be both. Brohi further wrote about Khayyam that “Omar Khayyam weighed heavier than the firmament he explained and threw in the dustbin that firmament. The firmament is the pot, the wine is the potter.” Brohi also translated the rubaiyat, under the title R’baiyyat of Omar Khayyam, in his own invented Roman script.

Brohi’s work on the Roman script was not only a major cause of distance between him and Sindhi intellectuals but it virtually divided readers and scholars in two opposite camps, those who favoured the Roman script and those who feared that by adopting it, Sindhi may lose its historical roots in Eastern culture and civilisation. Haleem Brohi’s Roman Sindhi, Brohi’s work on the Roman script, appeared in 1991. This script was not only meant for Sindhi but provided an opportunity to all the local languages that lacked a script, such as Marvari, Dhatki, Brahvi, Hindko, Siraiki and Balochi. “The script is based on sounds, pronunciation and articulation, that is, on phonetics, and offers an optional replacement for all present-day scripts,” Brohi claimed in the preface of his book. “It is meant for all languages. All the possible sounds are there for any reader or writer to write in any language he wishes.”

This new script become the bone of contention between Brohi and the established linguistic scholars and was considered Brohi’s original sin. Consequently, instead of getting applause, admiration or feedback on his sincere efforts, Brohi was subjected to brutal condemnation by the mainstream literary class.

As a result, none of his work was taken seriously by local critics except for Fahmida Riaz who cited his novel Odah (Inferno) in her book Pakistan: Literature and Society as a landmark in Pakistani literature. This novel was based on the Freudian concepts of male sexuality. “We have this fantastic short Sindhi novel Odah by Haleem Brohi,” Riaz wrote. “It is a minor classic about male sexuality and about the sexual act turning into a terrible mental torture. It has unforgettable sentences such as, ‘I am walking, endlessly, in this thick white marsh, under a mercilessly blazing sun.’” Riaz also mentioned this novel in her recent interview with Herald magazine.

Unlike his serious writings, Brohi’s humourous writings were widely read with the same interest by both his lovers and haters. He often laughed over the fact that he has been read more by those who dislike him.

Brohi’s articles on the history of South Asia, its languages, ethnicities and races often appeared in English newspapers but went unnoticed by scholars. In his view, the Indus Valley civilisation is not from the north originally, or have roots in the Arab civilisation, but is actually an extension of the south. For him, the present map of South Asia is a political one, whereas culturally it is a single entity, a land with undefined borders. “The history of South Asia is enchanting, with a touch of mystery. It requires the nose of a detective to sniff out the history from the manipulation by the bigots who settled in South Asia. It was not South Asia but Mahabharata.” What is now known as SAARC Brohi called the seven limbs of the same culture. He believed that the academics and scholars who are influenced by the theory of cultural connections between Sindh and Arabs are simply fooling people and spreading lies about the history of Sindh.

Brohi found himself unfit in the society where he was destined to live. “I find myself placed in society which is dedicated to the purpose of eliminating merit, talent, creativity, efficiency, honesty and labour, and to do it once and for all,” he said. “Where the will of the mediocre and outright duffers prevails and every whim of the libertines is carried through; where plebeian public relations counts as the single quality for survival as a human being.” He also wrote that “It is a society that can rightfully boast of having to its credit the cultivation and promotion of a culture that has produced truckloads of pseudo scholars, pseudo literati, pseudo teachers and pseudo administrators.”

Brohi was an extraordinary person living in the age of mediocrity. Due to his unconventional attitude he suffered both in his personal and professional lives. “With our playful hands we often break the toys we adore the most but it is irrelevant that I broke all my toys long ago and my playful hands have seen no more since,” he described painfully. To explain himself he often said, “I am a writer by habit not by design. I have not mattered much to myself. I have no other words to explain my idiosyncrasies.”

Brohi touched the heights of great humour in Sindhi literature. “The humour of any humourist sustains only for 10 years, therefore you should count the life of a satirist as 10 years only. And those who prolong their humour for more than 10 years have readers laughing at them rather than at their writings.”

Deeply influenced by American humour writer James Thurber, Brohi also worked on the texts of old fables with the tools of the social values of modern times. His stories of kings and queens were about the miseries of common people. In fact, the king and queen of his stories were none other than him and his wife; their relationship always remained troubled. “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humourist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people — that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature,” said Thurber.

There is a very thin line between tragedy and humour but in Brohi’s case, this line disappears. The man who dared to laugh at every folly of the heavens, society and even himself is now resting in a graveyard. He has left behind no literary corner, his birth or death are not marked. But countless bundles of files with hundreds of written pages are left for those who loved him, with all his faults and follies.

In the end, let me confess that I too was one of those to whom Brohi handed over the files of his published and unpublished work but I am still waiting for an official literary authority, be it the Sindhi language authority or the Sindhi Adabi Board, to come forward to publish his work. Some of his unpublished work is on the history of the language and literature of Sindh. But they will never step forward because his entire remaining work is not in Sindhi but in English and they would have the excuse that they have nothing to do with any language other than Sindhi. Brohi would be the only who can laugh at this level of mediocrity which he had always faced when he was alive.

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