To begin with, Abubakar Shaikh’s first book, a travelogue titled Nagri Nagri Phira Musafair, evokes sadness, even grief, and deeply instils it in the reader. Failing to absorb the sense of gloom is impossible because of the powerful writing style and the poetic turn of phrase. The latter is picturesque and met with on virtually every page. The sense of sadness is ever more true for readers who have themselves seen what the writer laments.
For someone who roamed the Indus Delta country four decades ago and knew the land when it was still a semblance — a mere semblance — of what once was, long before the dams damned the river downstream of Kotri, the sense of doom is very real. It is only redoubled if the reader has, in the past half century, returned periodically to this once very productive land and seen it being claimed by the sea: in the 19th century, representatives of the East India Company noted that the delta country was the richest among its neighbours in terms of agriculture.
Today the story is vastly different. Today it is a tale of poverty, deprivation and hunger.
A travelogue of great erudition, but also a heartfelt lament about the ecological degradation of the author’s native land
The articles that form this anthology were written over the last few years for Dawn’s Urdu website. The depth of the writer’s knowledge comes from three decades of travelling in his native land, the Lar or Lower Sindh, and from an avid interest in its history.
From Achro (White) Thar through Gori Temple and the nearby inland port city of Pari Nagar, once fabulous and celebrated and whose ruins — seen until the late 1980s — now lie under the feet of natives of nearby Virawah, the writer swings north to far away Taxila. Shaikh is very much at home among the ruins of Sirkap, the second city of Taxila, and in the peaceful solitude of the Jaulian monastery. But it is essentially the delta country in Thatta and Badin and other water bodies, such as Makhi in Sanghar, that draw him back to Sindh.
The lament is very strong as we read of the devastation caused by sea intrusion because of a drastic reduction in the Indus River’s outflow downstream of Kotri. Returning again and again to places such as Keti Bandar, Jati and Mughalbhin and other villages that few Sindhis, leave alone Pakistanis, would have heard of, Shaikh documents the destruction of life and livelihood: the swaying fields of cotton and over a dozen varieties of rice now stand replaced by fields of glittering salt.
The blue, sweet water lakes of the delta, hemmed by coconut and mango trees as late as the 1980s, have been mostly destroyed. But if man-made dams were the bane of much of the delta, the recurring cyclones over the last three decades have turned the lakes into dead pools of brine. The writer seldom calls out ‘climate change’, but that is where he points as he reminds us that such storms will only get more frequent and violent.
If the focus of Shaikh’s book is environmental degradation and ecology, there are several segues into historical events and personalities. Many may have stood before the scintillating opulence of the tomb of Jam Nizamuddin Samma on the Makli rock, but few would know of the stature of the king who can only be billed as the greatest ruler Sindh knew since Chach. Nizamuddin’s adopted son and general of his army, the principled Mubarak Khan aka Dulha Darya Khan, buried nearby, is celebrated with the same passion. From Shaikh’s book, we learn of Darya Khan’s heartless murder by the Arghuns, whom he had earlier defeated in battle near Sibi. These are men who should be celebrated, and why not? These two worthy luminaries of Sindhi history are incarcerated only in sources such as Masum Shah’s history, from the early 17th century. The common reader can only now get to know these 15th century heroes.
We also meet Mir Ghulam Mohammad Talpur, the remarkable wadera [landlord] who favoured education for all and, from his own resources, founded Lawrence Madressah (now Government Higher Secondary School) in Tando Bago. Long after this good man passed away in 1932, the school was annexed by the government, which did not care to call it after its founder. That was left to the locals, who even today know it as Mir Ghulam Mohammad High School.
The overall complexion of the 50 stories between the covers of Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir is mostly sad. But the lament is not misplaced. That is how every thinking person should feel. We, who do not know of the plight of the late Adam Patel — a prosperous landholder who died in poverty when dams restricted the flow of sweet water to his fields of wheat and rice — or octogenarian Mai Matto — whose village was destroyed by the intruding sea — cannot feel what we should. We cannot even celebrate the glory that once was and has since been lost. The reason: these stories are never told anywhere in the mainstream media.
Having read Shaikh’s work, one wonders why there is such a famine of vernacular writers of his erudition writing on the country. Here, sadly, travel writing has been reduced to the level of a fourth grade student’s essay on what they did in their summer vacation. Shaikh’s book is a useful addition to the collection of both the naturalist and the layperson. If this were another country, this book would light the way ahead to preserve what we are fast losing, whether that be our natural or built heritage. It is essential reading for others simply to savour the feeling the author has for the land of his ancestors.
But in the end, it is feared that those who matter will not be aware of this important work. In the end, it will only remain a requiem for Sindh. That will be the ultimate tragedy.
The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel
Nagri Nagri Phira
By Abubakar Shaikh
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 14th, 2018