Stuff of legends

13 Sep 2018


OUR appetite for the mythical and gumption for the make-believe makes life a bit more bearable. It would be so much less fun without suspended disbelief. Too much logic and accuracy do not make for good folklore, but layers of fantastic detail better not seem contrived, else it can begin to sound like urban legend.

Of late, businesses selling carbonated water may have helped promote such ‘legends’ in the guise of reviving culture. Nothing unforgivable here as many others sell worse stuff with a lot less sophistication. For all we know, the conventional understanding about the origins of the iconic Sindhi song Ho Jamalo may very well be true. One, however, hopes that alternative possibilities can be explored without hurting any sensibilities.

Wikipedia, our first go-to reservoir of knowledge these days, and many other platforms on social media would have us believe that the rail traffic on the historic Landsdowne aka Sukkur Bridge, constructed over the Indus in the 19th century, was tested by a prisoner named Jamalo Khoso because the British were not sure if the bridge would hold.

According to this legend, Khoso was promised a reprieve if he would drive a train across the bridge. As the story goes, he did so, was set free and upon his return to his native village, his wife welcomed him with ‘Ho Jamalo’, which has become an anthem of sorts in Sindh. Truly romantic, but rather far-fetched, no?

We will continue to sway and swoon to the beat of ‘Ho Jamalo’.

Before one is accused of glorifying the imperialist British Empire, it must be clarified that the objective here is to question if we are collectively gullible to yarn. Consider for a moment, the colonisers do not set out to conquer entire continents just because they are greedy, have no scruples and are of a criminal bent of mind — all required traits and present in abundance. However, the driving force, they claim, is always the ‘thrill of the hunt’. The trade routes, and the wholesale plunder of the enslaved lands all come as additional sweeteners.

So why would the Brits, constantly in a race to be the first to climb the highest mountain, cross the most inhospitable terrain, map the remotest corners of earth, swim the choppiest of waters, build an engineering monument spanning the girth of the mighty Indus and then deprive themselves of a truly historical first of driving a train across it? Why? Because they were afraid? Or they did not have confidence in their design and engineering? Remember over 3,000 bridges during the Raj were operationalised even before 1889 when the Sukkur Bridge was completed.

One fails to find any logical reason why the stiff-upper-lipped Brits would offer to free any prisoner for volunteering to drive the train across the bridge and cheat themselves out of the immense thrill not to mention the honour. Unless, of course we want to grant the Brits an undeserved benefit of the doubt and believe that this was an act of altruism.

That is to say that the colonisers wanted a native, that too a prisoner, to have the honour and feigned all that fear and apprehension just so the ‘subjects’ could have their moment in the sun. Truth be told, so much character is difficult to attribute to the colonialists.

None of this means that we will stop enjoying, even revering, Ho Jamalo. We will continue to sway and swoon to its beat and lose ourselves to the trans-inducing tune. As for the history buffs and other killjoys, they might want to research the ‘bandari’ music from south Iran, especially Bushehr and other areas near the Gulf coast. ‘Bandari’ is a derivative of ‘bandar’ ie ‘port’ and signifies the African, Arab influences that came into Iran through these ports. The beat of bandari music lends itself very well to dancing and, because of it, is sometimes referred to by the misnomer ‘dance music’.

Bandari music is actually a very vast field and its practitioners are spread all over the world. Not only is the beat very similar to the folk music in Sindh and Balochistan, one of the most famous songs, goes “Jamal Jamalo, Jamalo...” (hint, hint).

True folklore knows no boundaries and no one has copyright over it. It keeps evolving over time, as is the case with Ho Jamalo. The pre-Partition version of the song waxes lyrical over Sindh and Hind. People across the border are equally fond of it. At least two culinary establishments in India are named Ho Jamalo. One in Udaipur and another in Ahmedabad.

In conclusion, partisans of Jamalo Khoso may take heart in the knowledge that both the old and current version of the song have references to the Sukkur-Rohri Bridge, albeit the ‘beloved’ is aboard a jahaz (ship), maybe just an alternative for another mode of transport, the train. Let us just say ‘wah wah Jamalo’.

The writer is a poet and analyst.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2018