They say in every adult there is a child fervently kicking at the barrier of time to break the glass and re-enter the paradise of early childhood. Most don’t succeed in their effort. But those who do, often come up with a hefty scoop of reminiscences to light up their world of fond memories and enrich the intellectual landscapes of many an uninformed onlooker.
Rafi Mustafa, a chemistry professor by training and a man of varied interests and tastes — teaching, social and humanitarian work and, of late, heading an information technology company — is a prodigal son who managed to not only revisit his cradle of birth in undivided India, but also rediscover the paradise he thought he’d lost forever.
Tales from Birehra: A Journey Through a World Within Us is supposedly a work of fiction, but its matrix is that versatile and eclectic historical culture nurtured and honed through at least a millennium of Hindu-Muslim co-existence and socio-cultural interaction in northern India.
A work of fiction that is much more a reminiscence of a real syncretic identity
That hybrid, vibrant, and — until the great divide of 1947 cut it asunder — coyly-pulsating culture acquired a permanent foothold in the subcontinental psyche as the Ganga-Jamuni culture, alluding to the fertile plains fed by India’s two great rivers. That was the locus, the terrain, where the Muslim conquerors of northern India first put down roots and sowed the cultural and religious seeds they had brought in their baggage. Of course, those seeds were fertilised by the already rich soil of a prolific Hindu culture that had flourished in the lush plains for a millennia. The harvest couldn’t be more fulfilling, and quickly became the envy of the world.
That Ganga-Jamuni culture may now sound unfamiliar to those never exposed to it. Mustansar Hussain Tarar, a stalwart of Pakistan’s contemporary Urdu literature, openly disdained and disowned it in his remarks at this year’s Karachi Literature Festival. He said it was alien to him. Well, it should be to one born on the banks of the Ravi, but also intent on not knowing it.
To Mustafa, that supposedly alien cultural heritage is his identity, his persona, his asset of pride. He opened his eyes to the world in its lap, inhaled its fragrance with his first breath and pined to return to it, if not physically then intellectually at least, to put to rest his hankering to know his defining identity. He roamed the world as an expatriate, as an immigrant in search of a permanent abode. Ironically, the adult in him decided to make cold and frigid Canada his home, but in the process he didn’t forsake the child in him whose moorings are tethered, for good, to the embracing warmth of his defining Ganga-Jamuni culture.
Tales from Birehra is Mustafa’s epic journey back to his roots, but it could be the same for anyone of his generation. It was a long and arduous journey. It had to be so for one lost — for all intents and purposes — in the humdrum of a life dedicated to pursuits of things that had no truck whatsoever with his roots and, in its chemistry, happened to be poles apart from the somnolent life of his cradle.
It was said that Phagna was born feet first. According to the local superstition, if you had a bad back, you would get someone who was born feet first to kick you in the back; your backache would be gone instantly! People with bad backs went to Phagna regularly and requested him to give them a kick in the back. That was the only time he showed any courtesy to them. He obliged everyone, regardless of their race or religion — Brahmins, Muslims, untouchables — and he never asked anyone for money. Even though some people tried to pay him for his services, he always declined the offer, saying that it was a God-given gift and he would surely lose his power if he started charging them. —Excerpt from the book
The urge to know his past kept him going for 14 long years, by his own admission, making this labour of love possible. It is of little surprise that he dedicates his book to Rumi’s intro to his acclaimed ‘Masnavi’: “Listen to the flute, what it is saying/ It is complaining about separation/ Whoever is plucked from his roots/ Is always longing to return one day.”
Mustafa’s book is a rich tapestry of that culture in which the lines of different traditions, beliefs, practices and ethos were always visible, but never crossed. They weren’t faultlines, but boundaries. It may have been a stratified cultural milieu, but it held itself well without any conflict. Hindus and Muslims lived side by side, as they do in Mustafa’s fabled Birehra, a quiet, colourful village in the heart of the then United Provinces (UP) of British India, and gladly embraced each other’s diversity.
The key to that eclectic cultural ambience was not tolerance of each other, but a profound acceptance of the fact that their diversity was a source of strength and not division. Both communities were wedded to the same patch of land that nourished them. So, beholden to the bounty and benediction of their common land and remaining faithful to it, they blissfully partook of each other’s festivals, wedding and burial rituals. They shared each other’s sorrows and rejoiced in moments of joy, while inexorably holding fast to their roots.
Tales from Birehra is a rich cornucopia of that remarkable Ganga-Jamuni cultural ethos and of the practices that generously fed its growth. Mustafa has painstakingly portrayed its core strength anchored in a remarkably hospitable cultural mix.
Birehra had both Muslim feudals, wedded to their proud ancestral heritage, as well as Hindu Rajputs equally proud of their Aryan roots. Yet each respected the other without looking down upon them as inferior or unacceptable. How remarkable that the newborn son of a titled Khan-bahadur is breastfed by a wet nurse from the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system. The child grows up to revere the wet nurse as his own mother because she had nurtured him as though he were her own child. Can anybody, in either India or Pakistan of today, imagine such an effervescent cross-fertilisation of communities?
Birehra is rich in vivid portrayals of Hindu-Muslim festivals and celebrations. Mustufa has meticulously suffused his portraits of the characters with every conceivable detail. His characters come alive as people living their simple lives with the dignity and composure that comes to them from the earth they have inherently sworn to honour.
It’s a remarkable paean to a civilisation gone missing. Mustafa has come up with a gem for those not feeling shy to own, with pride, the edifying Ganga-Jamuni culture of their ancestors.
The reviewer is is a retired ambassador with nine published works of prose and poetry
Tales from Birehra: A Journey Through a World Within Us
By Rafi Mustafa,
Friesen Press, Canada
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 2nd, 2017