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Raza Rumi may be one of the last few to insist that Pakistan be understood on a larger scale by linking it with India through history, culture, geography and more. While modern-day Pakistani authors — of both fiction and non-fiction — are keen on owning the narrative on Pakistan and its recent history without focusing too much on the largely unacknowledged and inherited pre-1947 history, Rumi in his exiled state seems to be going native, intent on preserving what has been ignored and linking it to the present country as an alternative of what should have, and could have, been.

Rumi’s collection of essays, Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts, stems from the idea that while Pakistan has undergone much transformation, it is increasingly imperative for the nation’s inhabitants to know their pre-independence history. Given the decay in tolerance and blindness towards historical consensus — which resist any form of shared identity across the provinces under a unified force — Rumi’s book is excellent for defining and building a ‘Pakistani’ identity.

Pakistan has a huge population, a majority of which is aged under 50. More and more Pakistanis are becoming aware of their political rights, of economic issues and of demographics. Add to that the unpredictable dynamics that access to the internet and social media engender, and you have a nation that could either implode because of a lack of understanding of what it means to be Pakistani, or explode into regional areas as a result of a lack of appreciation about the country’s wider geographical ties and cultural links. Consequently, Rumi’s book emerges at a crucial time when the current government pledges to make a ‘Naya Pakistan’ and, as civil society eagerly waits to see what is on the menu, it makes sense to serve his book as the first course.

In a collection of essays, Raza Rumi goes back into a shared history to understand what it means to be a Pakistani in current times

Rumi is not new to this sort of exploration. Having lived in numerous countries while consistently maintaining strong links with Pakistan, his connection seems to have deepened as he lives in exile after a horrific assassination attempt in Lahore. For this book, he weaves together various strands of culture, literature, religion, art and geography to put forth the idea that South Asia, or the subcontinent, is actually a cradle of civilised thought and that, despite the horrors it has suffered throughout the ages, remnants of that inception remain scattered across broken identities, craggy borders and ancient ruins. It is imperative that one revisit them in order to go forward.

Most heartening is how he connects everything on a global level, indicating that, perhaps, if this part of the world is to be understood — not feared or touted as a hotbed of hatred — then one needs to examine its historical and cultural links that stretch across the world. Analysing abstract topics is no easy feat, yet Rumi’s succinct examinations — not arguments; he is offering a tour of the past here — are easy to digest as they look at what ‘was’ and what ‘is’.

The first essay, ‘The Unholy Trinity of Love: Kabir, Bulleh and Lalon’ is a philosophical look at the subcontinent’s brand of mysticism. Although Sufism existed through shrines dotted around the country, Pakistan rejuvenated and modernised it through music and fashion in the 1990s. Viewing this as a means of keeping spirituality alive, Rumi examines how pain and suffering can be transformed into something other than violence and hatred. Purity of the soul does not belong to any particular religion; it is, in fact, a universal quest for love. He pinpoints this through Lalon when he writes that, after his death, both Hindus and Muslims were eager to claim the Bengali mystic as their own. In one swipe, Rumi eradicates religious and ethnic differences between India and Pakistan — and within Pakistan as well — based on history, religion and culture.

Given the decay in tolerance and blindness towards historical consensus — which resist any form of shared identity across the provinces under a unified force — Rumi’s book is excellent for defining and building a ‘Pakistani’ identity.

In ‘Devotion, Syncretism and Politics: Myth and Legends of the Indus’ Rumi portrays the river not as just a source of water, but as a huge entity that cultivates beliefs and legends that enrich the soil along its banks in the form of a culture that fosters love, tragedy and people who fight for a divine cause. The author’s writing takes on a spirituality that goes beyond the realm of the physical impact of the river and focuses on what the saints of the region offered and pursued. The mere idea of this river being witness to the changing landscape, the ferocity of love, the devastation of tragedy and triumph of hatred fills one with awe. Seeing how a body of water can transcend man-made issues of politics and geographical borders, shows it is time to accept and give what Rumi calls “belief systems” the respect they deserve.

In ‘Through A Screen, Darkly’, the author observes how drama serials, or ‘soaps’, have captured the imaginations of people who prefer to live through the characters they see on-screen. It is somewhat frightening to see the control these soaps exert on people’s everyday lives and how they stifle any effort to become enlightened: in ancient times poverty and suffering were seen as a path to love and spiritual belief was a form of wealth; today, wealth means — as seen on TV — walls plastered with gold wallpaper.

‘The Cult of the Feminine: Kali and the Sindh Province of Pakistan’ is a fascinating insight into this particular patch of land where, historically, the female was appreciated in every form. For her ability to give birth, she was viewed as a goddess. Her dancing was seen as artistic expression instead of objectified entertainment or taboo of any kind. It makes one lament how this matriarchal society changed. Rumi maps how appreciation of the female led to the creation of female cults, that of Kali being one of the more famous ones. Temples dedicated to the goddess can be found across Pakistan — there are three in Sindh alone. Rumi looks at other strong women who carved their own spiritual and cultural paths: Mokhi, Kasu Ma Sati, Mai Bakhtawar and Marvi, culminating, as he writes, in the modern-day Marvi in the form of Benazir Bhutto.

Inversely, the damage done by denying the female form its historical respect is explored in Rumi’s thoughts on Saadat Hassan Manto who, traumatised by Partition, poured out his anguish at female suffering in stories that talked of violence, poverty and prostitution: all societal issues that generally target women and children.

In ‘The Enigma of Dual Belonging: Qurratulain Hyder’s Enduring Popularity in Pakistan’, Rumi treats us to the writer’s novel Aag Ka Darya, whose magnificence cannot be emphasised enough. As he duly notes, the structure, history and language with which Hyder explores the subcontinent is staggering. According to him, Hyder’s works are a sociological understanding of a society that has been shattered by historical events, whose impact is felt even today. As a result, new identities have formed, crossing over and creating individuals who are walking, talking melting pots, showing what it means to have a myriad of identities poured into one and still exist. Rumi explains how post-colonial identity has become a huge issue, causing many young people to question their origins and their present. If this issue is not addressed constructively, it can be detrimental — as is seen so often in the case of our history, where there is the expression of a need to align with a pan-Arab identity via religion. The concept of cultural identity as an individual has somewhat eroded in search for a unified, singular homogenous macro identity.

Pakistan stands in isolation today. If it does not foster bonds on a regional and international level, it is likely to remain alone. Rumi’s book offers a peaceful and encouraging alternative that allows one to acknowledge a history pre-1947. A diet of post-1947 nationalism, mixed with religion as a political tool, has clearly not created the heaven that was promised by those who brewed this lethal potion. It is time for people to explore their own country, what they have inherited and figure out what they want by learning from their own history.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based writer

Being Pakistani: Society, Culture
and the Arts
By Raza Rumi
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9352776054
312pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 14th, 2018