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NON-FICTION: HOW NOT TO SPIN A YARN

Updated April 28, 2017

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The rock helpfully marked with the demon Gokal’s name | Photo from the book
The rock helpfully marked with the demon Gokal’s name | Photo from the book

Panah Baloch’s Lahoot Lamakan could have been a great travel book. But it isn’t, because the writer has no standards to set his writing by. This is because the genre of travel-writing in Urdu has been completely demolished by the most celebrated Urdu travel writer. It has been turned into the bantering essay devoid of substance like that turned out by a grade-four schoolchild who describes his outing to Murree during the summer vacations.

Lahoot Lamakan was once a delightful, sylvan valley with towering tamarind, spreading mango and leafy jamun trees shading a green-domed mausoleum. During the annual death anniversary celebrations in the first trimester of the month of fasting, it was the venue of ecstasy for thousands of devotees who believe in the miracle of Shah Bilawal Noorani. These bhang-quaffing, hashish-smoking hosts turned the leafy dome grey with cigarette smoke and it was impossible even for non-smokers to remain free of the influence.

That was 30 years ago. In November 2015, this writer returned to Lahoot to find the old dome (which dated back to the 16th century) replaced by a new, larger mausoleum. Further, most of the trees were gone, destroyed to present a view of the shiny new edifice to visitors. In a word, the magic of Lahoot Lamakan stood greatly reduced.


A book that calls out for a greater exploration of a legend


However, the author of the book at hand speaks of none of that.

No blurb, either on the cover or inside the book, discloses the credentials of the author, but the writing style gives him away as a journalist of the Urdu press.

Over the course of a couple of years, Baloch bravely travels the paths that Lahootis — as the devotees of Shah Noorani style themselves — take from various towns to the valley in Balochistan’s Lasbela district.

He tells us how the devotees, done with the death anniversary at Sehwan, walk the mountain path from there to Lahoot in about two weeks’ time. Though the walk is only about 150 kilometres (three to four days’ journey for a good mountain walker), disciples devote most of their time en route to preparing and guzzling their bhang as they slowly progress westward from Sehwan. (It was just the tedium of this local version of the pub crawl that kept this writer from undertaking the Sehwan-Lahoot journey back in 1985.)

Baloch steadfastly keeps himself in devotee mode, just as he abstains from travel-writer or anthropologist mode: he does not break into any description of what would definitely — because of its comic value — have added immense colour to the narrative. Indeed, the only time he becomes a travel-writer is when he briefly describes a bus journey between Lahoot and Karachi. Mystified by the sacks left by the wayside that the bus pauses to collect, he engages the conductor: people living nearby give over the bags and money together with a list of provisions they need brought back from the metropolis. And since the entire country between Lahoot and Karachi is like his home, the conductor does the favour as if for his own family.

One would have wished the author to have done this more often. Instead, Baloch turns a perfect yarn into an insipid inventory of this tomb or that site — even the most insignificant ones — connected with some saint or the other.

Baloch is uninitiated in the magical world of anthropological inquiry, just as he is to travel writing. The result is a rather uninteresting account of superstitious beliefs connected with various sites. However, if one is tempted to undertake this journey in the company of Lahootis or without them, Baloch gives out the exact time from one point to the next.

As a believer in Shah Noorani, Baloch does not disclose the reality — if at all he discovered it in his research — that the man was from Thatta who wandered over to the well-watered Lahoot valley at about the end of the 15th century. There he was adopted by the childless Gokal and his wife. The couple owned large plantations of mango, jamun and tamarind that passed on to Shah Noorani after their death. It is not known when Shah Noorani eventually became revered as he is today. Also interesting is that Lahooti lore turns the adoptive father into Gokal the demon.

But then this would have been the output of a dedicated anthropologist or historian. Clearly, Baloch is neither. One wonders, therefore, about the purpose of this publication: devotees of Shah Noorani — generally being far from books — will never read it. New entrants to the fold will find the reading tedious. Instead, for them the bhang-drenched journeys will be much more edifying. As for the general reader, there is little of interest.

The one redeeming feature is that this book might be the cue for a serious anthropologist to study how legend magnifies with time. It will be educative to explore the large body of new mythology grafted on to the one that existed three or four decades ago.

The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel

Lahoot Lamakan
By Panah Baloch
Lok Virsa, Islamabad
ISBN: 978-9694680224
162pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 30th, 2017