The route to Umerkot (or Amarkot) from Karachi is a study in contrasts, the most obvious being the landscape. The arid terrain leading up to Hyderabad transitions into cultivated fields of rice, sugarcane and wheat, interspersed by mango and chikoo trees, as well as the occasional small herd of cattle and goats, on both sides of the double carriageway up to Mirpurkhas. Then, the road narrows to a single carriageway, but the distinct agrarian ambiance stays.
I arrive in Umerkot at dusk, almost seven hours after leaving Karachi. The city has descended into darkness due to a power shutdown but the mid-March evening is pleasantly cool.
Like other cities in the country, rickshaw drivers are the only tourist guides for visitors who do not come with references or have friends or relatives to go to.
I find the hotel hunt to be the most exciting part of going to a new place, and this time is no different, but for an average visitor this can be quite a daunting task.
Every town or city affects its first-time visitors with two or three things before opening up to reveal more. Seamlessly blended communities belonging to different religions (mostly Muslim and Hindu) engage one’s attention and are obvious in the most mundane of settings.
Two adjacent signboards in a commercial district, for instance, capture this: one says ‘Parshotam Khatri Advocate’; the other ‘Abdul Aziz Advocate’. The same goes for various shops and other businesses.
Mind you, this ethnic diversity is absent in large cities but characterises many towns in Pakistan; more so in rural Sindh and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and it has done so for centuries.
Umerkot and its people capture what life is like in a quintessential rural town in the country
Mosques as well as temples abound. My rickshaw driver-cum-tour guide, Shahid Ali, referring to the communal harmony points out, “We don’t feel any difference living side by side in more or less equal numbers.”
There is a long crooked street with numerous jewellery shops, mostly owned by Hindu jewellers selling ethnic silver ornaments that Thari women wear. Reportedly, the population of non-Muslim Pakistanis in this region came down from 80 per cent at the time of Partition.
I ask for directions to the Kali Mata Temple from a vendor in one of the narrow streets. He instructs one of his colleagues to escort me there, who complies courteously. The temple is located in a cul-de-sac.
“Can I go inside?”
“Will anyone mind if I took pictures?” I ask after entering the imposing temple.
“No one minds. Go ahead.”
What spurred my interest in Umerkot was its crumbling fort, and the historical fact that the Mughal Emperor Akbar was born a few kilometres away from here. The Umerkot (or Amarkot) Fort was the property of Hindu Rajputs, the Ranas of Umerkot, before being taken over by the government.
The entrance of the fort is a smaller version of the Shahi Qila, Lahore, while the inside is a miniature version of Mohenjodaro. At both, the site and museum, there are more staff than visitors. Nothing much to write home about this historical site, except that the museum is better than the one in Karachi.
But there is plenty one can say about the people of the city. Having lived most of my life in Karachi, the dichotomy of temperament of the residents of Umerkot — or for that matter Bahawalpur, Khushab, etc — on the one hand, and Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad on the other, is like the difference between two planets.
We seem to be disconnected from, if not oblivious to, the real Pakistan; the one outside the beaten tracks and urban centres of Karachi, Multan, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar.
Even Quetta seems to have drifted away from the mainstream imagination of the country, although it used to be, along with cool, green Ziarat, a popular holiday destination for families until some years ago.
For four days in Umerkot, I did not see uniformed law-enforcement personnel or arms being publicly displayed, and neither felt the insecurity to miss them.
Interestingly, on the last day, I saw half a dozen breathless, overweight policemen, frantically intercepting intercity buses to stop and reprimand them.
I was surprised, until I noticed an overdressed young man, in a dark suit and tie, accompanied by a senior police official in a car with a government registration number, apparently issuing some instructions.
Perhaps a new magistrate or deputy commissioner was making rounds of the district. The show lasted for about 15 minutes and then everything returned to ‘normal’.
Somehow, the bulk of real people from smaller towns and rural areas appear to be absent from the national discourse.
Consequently, their problems and issues such as roads, electricity, water, and hospitals, etc, also remain neglected, mostly because their leaders are settled in big cities along with their families.
It is not that rural or small-town residents are destitute or helpless. In fact, they are very enterprising, self-sufficient and to an extent thriving — in spite of having been elbowed out by an urban elite class, which is actually the minority in the country.
Being pushed to the margins seems to have spurred entrepreneurial spirit in these areas. For instance, I spot more alternative energy sources such as solar panels in far-flung mountain hamlets and in towns such as Umerkot than in mega cities.
With their can-do attitude and celebration of religious diversity, the people of Umerkot capture what many towns in rural Sindh are like.
It’s only when one veers off the tried-and-tested routes that one explores the heart of true Pakistan. Indeed, there is no substitute for exploring a new place than through the eyes of the people who reside there.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 8th, 2016