“Given the state that Pakistan is in, anything can be construed as a provocation.” — Haroon Khalid
Haroon Khalid is an educationist with an academic background in anthropology from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums). He has been a travel writer and freelance journalist since 2008, travelling extensively around Pakistan, documenting historical and cultural heritage. He has also written for several newspapers and magazines.
His first book, A White Trail: A Journey Into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, documented the religious festivals of five Pakistani minorities: Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Baha’i and Christian.
His latest book is called In search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan that looks at Muslim shrines of the country. Following are excerpts of his interview with Books&Authors:
Your first book, A White Trail, was a sensitive portrayal of Pakistan’s religious minorities. How did you get from that book to this one, and do you think the two books are linked? If yes, then how?
My generation is the post 9/11 generation. Religion is a contentious issue in our times. We have people who want to blow themselves up in the name of religion and then there are others who want nothing to do with it. The point is, irrespective of one’s ideological beliefs one cannot avoid this debate. I guess that’s where my fascination with religion, its practices and its links with politics emerged. These are topics that A White Trail also brings up. How is Islam linked with Pakistani nationalism? Where does that leave the Hindu or the Sikh minorities of the country? How do they fit into the nationalist framework and how do they understand their own Pakistani national identity. Broadly speaking it is the same issues of nationalism and religiosity that I look at in this book.
You have once again chosen the form of a travelogue. How does this genre compliment the point you’re trying to make with this book?
I am particularly drawn to travelogues because they can add life to subjects such as the ones I am dealing with. They are not just physical journeys, but intellectual ones as well. Through my interaction with my friends and my environment, I wanted to highlight some of the different realities that converge into the shape of our society. My friends and I are a symbol of urban educated youth whereas these shrines and practices represent a completely different reality, which could only be understood in comparison to ours. However, even though both of my books are travelogues they are quite different in their narration. I am an active voice in this book, almost like a character, whereas in A White Trail, my companions and I don’t exist at all. So even within travelogues there are different styles of narration.
The inclusion of Shiva’s name might seem like a provocation to some Pakistani readers. What led you to make that decision? And what should Shiva mean to Pakistanis?
Given the state that Pakistan is in, anything can be construed as a provocation. Anyone who tries to criticise the illiberal aspects of our society is instantly accused of being a traitor. But then I also understand why. There is a lot of inaccurate portrayal in the international media, and they don’t serve our best interest. But as I mentioned earlier I have a fascination with how national identities come into existence.
Almost 70 years after Partition, India and Pakistan are still constantly referring to each other in order to construct their own national identities. Pakistan is everything India is not, and vice versa. But then what about our shared history? Who inherits Allama Iqbal? The Mughals? Ranjit Singh? Guru Nanak? Bhagat Singh? Kohi-i-Noor? Rigveda? These are historical realities that one simply cannot shun. The truth is that Shiva originated in the ancient Indus Valley cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. We as a state are the guardians of that legacy. How can we then remove Shiva from its heritage? It becomes difficult because Shiva is now also one of the most celebrated deities in India. The truth of the matter is that a majority of the practices and traditions that I talk about go back to Shiva. How could I have called the book anything else?
How does shrine culture continue to survive against the onslaught of puritanical thought?
I think a monolithic interpretation of Islam in Pakistan has failed. If it had succeeded we would have perhaps seen an end to sectarian conflict. In fact I would argue that these different sectarian identities have become even more hardened over the years as a puritanical school of thought has started exerting itself more aggressively. I also think it would be simplistic to see this conflict as a conflict between regional Islam and a puritanical Islam. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between the two. There are many reported instances of local folk religious leaders now associating with more orthodox religious leaders of Islam. I think the state itself is also confused as to what aspect of religion it should promote. During the ’80s, we saw an emergence of puritanical political Islam, which has now backfired. I think the state now is actively trying to project itself as more tolerant and inclusive which is why now it is promoting a different version of Islam, marked by Sufism, qawwalis, etc. So it’s a complicated issue where sometimes it is impossible to differentiate between the different groups.
What do you hope to achieve with this book? Is there any hope for cultural syncretism in today’s Pakistan?
I think one thing that I would like to achieve with this book is a discussion on national identity. Why do we have to be so embarrassed about our past? Why can’t we talk about our ‘impure’ Hindu heritage? Would that make us any less Pakistani? Iran embraces its past and continues to have a proud Iranian national identity. Even Afghanistan takes pride in its cultural heritage. The festival of Navroz is celebrated there every year. We continue to be embarrassed of our past. It as if we are ashamed to be a part of this land’s heritage. As soon as someone talks about the heritage of this land, which will include its non-Muslim past, they are labelled anti-national. How can you even have a national identity and yet be embarrassed of the land your nation exists on? This is a contradiction and perfectly explains why Pakistan is regarded as a land of contradictions.