April 8, 1984. My 29th birthday. I stood alone on a dune in the Thar desert and looked at the sand around me as the sun set. As I watched the colour of the sand change from gold to silver and then white, I remembered the words of a folk song my uncle’s driver used to sing in his Rajasthani dialect, in which the dunes and the hillocks of Marwar were said to shine like gold. The song also spoke of trees that shone like diamonds and emeralds. But here, in the desert, I’d seen only scrub and thorn bushes. As we drove away, though, I saw a slim moon rising in the darkening sky.

On the way to our hotel, the driver pointed out a pavilion on a nearby hill and said: “this is where Momal waited for her lover, Rana Mahendra.” The sense of déjà vu I felt — I’d only once been in the desert before, on a train trip to Bahawalpur — increased. I’d known that tragic tale of love and betrayal since my childhood, and later heard singers — including the magical Reshma — sing songs about the beauty of Momal’s kohl-lined eyes.

Although it took me two years, I put all my visual impressions into one of the earliest short stories I wrote. A few years later, in London, three other writers and I were asked to read a piece of fiction about a landscape of the mind. Though I’d often written about the sea of my native Karachi, I chose to read from my story about Momal and the desert. I’d spent years reading and listening to the kaafis of Khwaja Ghulam Farid, and marvelled at his ability to evoke the rocks and stones, the peelu flowers, crops and peasant women of his native Cholistan region in a few lines. I’d also read two exquisite Urdu fictions by Jamila Hashmi — the classic novella Rohi and the lesser-known story ‘Dasht-i-Junoon Parvar’ [The Maddening Wilderness] — which mirrored in prose the lyricism, if not always the verbal economy, of Farid’s poems.

Longing for anywhere else but the place I’m in is a feeling I’m deeply familiar with. During the lockdown it becomes more poignant; day after day we are warned not to travel to the places we love best. On the other hand, I can return in imagination for hours to the places I long to revisit. Immersed in songs and stories, I’m drawn away from London’s summer to the rice fields of Java, the fruit groves of Punjab and the desert that crosses provinces — divided on the map, but actually the same body of sand.

One July afternoon, I shared my desert musings with fellow-writer Ayesha Siddiqa, who’s also experiencing a sense of longing for the desert which is, for her, an ancestral land. We listened to several versions of Khwaja Farid’s ‘Dilri Luti’ [My Stolen Heart] and discussed the relative merits of the recorded renditions; the words as well as the melody that haunted us for several days. My Seraiki is imperfect to say the least, but Ayesha, who has native fluency, commented on how the singers changed words to introduce variant images into the poem.

Longing for anywhere else but the place I’m in is a feeling I’m deeply familiar with. During the lockdown it becomes more poignant; day after day we are warned not to travel to the places we love best. On the other hand, I can return in imagination for hours to the places I long to revisit.

What all renderings share is the strange spring season, thorns, hot sands, a place where lovers thrive. The poem is at once an evocation and an absence; the narrator addresses an absent lover, asks him to turn his camel away from Rohi desert and come back to her. Where is she? In a town some miles away from the desert’s edge? Has she ever seen the landscape of Rohi which she evokes with such wonder and pathos? Unlike the narrator of Kalidasa’s poem ‘Meghdoot’, who asks the eponymous cloud to take messages back from his place of exile to Malwa where his wife awaits him, the broken-hearted singer of ‘Dilri Luti’ doesn’t tell us where she is or why she can’t join her lover in Rohi. In a strange sleight of hand, Farid brings the desert vividly to life from a perspective of absence which we, who are stranded between nostalgia and dreams of return, can well understand.

I reminded Ayesha — who happens to be Jamila Hashmi’s daughter — of the story ‘Dasht-i-Junoon Parvar’ which, in fact, gives us a reason why someone might leave home to cross Cholistan on camelback. The narrator is a young researcher who wants to find about the khip grass which is used by the inhabitants of the desert settlements to weave various sorts of fabrics. In his long journey with a caravan of nomads, the narrator encounters changing times of day; senses the presence of ancient, vanished cities abandoned because of changing weather; sees clear luminous ponds; the flight of birds such as black partridges and wild deer in the bushes; hears birdsong and the surreal music of bells around the necks of herds of sheep; joins the songs of the travellers and watches a woman’s dance of “junoon” [ecstasy].

The story’s major epiphany is the narrator’s experience of a night-long rainstorm, which a young boy smells shortly before it descends; people run back and forth to salvage their things and cover the narrator in a new shawl to protect him from the cold of the night in this “land of sand and storms.”

Like the narrator, Hashmi was not a native of the region, though she seems to know its ways and the nuances of its speech intimately. Like Farid, she depicts both the beauties of the desert and its harshness in equally striking phrases. Though the story is interwoven with allusions to the crops, weaving, preparation of wedding dresses and portents of changing seasons, the narrator seems to abandon his research and sink into the rhythms of desert life.

The leader of the caravan cryptically tells him: “What difference does it make to a man if the world moves forward or back? There must be many people like us — or better than us — but where are they? Good, bad — death makes us all equal.”

The columnist is a London-based novelist and short story writer

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 31st, 2020


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