Bar has been a magic word for our older generations for its paradoxical features; it has been the cradle of the civilisation of the entire subcontinent as well as a primeval jungle.

Despite having Harappa Bar has also been in the collective memory of Punjab as an arcane world, an unending circular path like Draupadi‘s saree. It was also a grassland, rustlers’ den, hustlers’ refuge, lovers’ haunt and outcasts’ hide-out. In Bar personages made history. Heer Ranjha and Sahiban Mirza left indelible marks on our culture. Inimitable Guru Nanak changed our vision of everyday living and spirituality. Dulla Bhatti and Ahmed Khan Kharal resisted the mightiest. Damodar Das, Nijabat, Hafiz Barkhurdar, Ali Haider, Sultan Bahu and Waris Shah created what emerged as our grand literary landscape. But still Bar has been a mystery, transparently opaque and opaquely transparent for its indigenous inhabitants. The people’s relationship with Bar has been an emotional roller coaster.

A fundamental transformation took place in the Bar in the late 19th and early 20th century after Punjab was colonised by East India Company in 1849. The colonisers laid a huge and intricate network of canals with a view to kick start agricultural production. Previously agriculture in the Bar had been along the rivers or depended on water from Persian wheel and seasonal rains. When all was set, the colonial administration decided to bring in farmers and Zamindars from East Punjab especially from Jalandhar Doab.

There were mainly three reasons for this internal migration: 1, people of Bar had risen in rebellion against the Company in 1857 and did not accept the new administrative set-up at the expense of their longstanding formal and informal and political and cultural institutions. 2, People from Jalandhar Doab were considered better farmers exposed to new agricultural techniques and know-how. 3, flow of people from densely populated eastern part of Punjab to the colony area was supposed to preempt any social upheaval dimming the chances of open political rebellion against the colonial stranglehold. When the settlers [Abadkar[ arrived in the Bar to move into new villages with the arable and parceled for cultivation, they felt surrounded by jungle like Bar and tribes which were suspicious of new comers motives and so-called reform.

The settlers patronised by the colonial administration and puffed up with a sense of self-importance started calling the inhabitants of Bar ‘Jaangli’ [people of jungle] as if they were uncouth and primitive. It was arrogance born of ignorance. Bar people being heirs to a great culture never ever had low image of themselves. In retaliation they just declared the new comers as ‘Shodhay abadkaar [hapless settlers]. Anyway within a few decades Bar in its natural form was wiped out from the face of the earth weighing down the locals with memories that evoked sorrow.

With the vanishing of Bar vanished the traditional freedom of its inhabitants. As the settlers’ agricultural production grew, so grew their social and cultural clout pushing the local to the margins.

But being tough people the local never gave up. We see in 1970s resurgence of interest in the Bar’s culture. Such a search for identity first surfaced in the owning of the Lehndi dialect which was looked down upon by settlers. This scribe and A.D Ejaz were perhaps first ones to use Lehndi dialect. Later Najam Husain Syed, Asif Khan, Fazal Farid Laleka, Sharab Ansari, Talib Jatoi, Ghulam Husain Sajid and Malik Meher Ali, to name a few, strengthened this literary trend. And then there was no looking back. Now we have an impressive line of writers which includes creative minds from Bar and other areas who are rediscovering historical Bar and its people who have been made aliens on their own soil.

Among the contemporary writers Rai Muhammad Khan Nasir is one of the leading literary figures who is passionately engaged in discovering why and how Bar got deprived of its cultural and literary assets resulting in a loss of its self-identity. His latest book of short stories titled ‘Moortaan [images/ faces/figures]’, with a foreword by a reputable fiction writer Parveen Malik, published by Pakistan Punjabi Adbi Board, Lahore, never ceases to amaze you with its incredibly credible stuff. Each story while retaining its individuality imperceptibly fits into a narrative that is simultaneously a paean and elegy, a salutation and valediction, a lament and rejoicing, a festival and a funeral. Rai Nasir’s makes concerted efforts to measure the depth of loss the Bar people have suffered due to colonial intrusion and political intervention. But all such elements serve as a backdrop. His creative concern is with human predicament; the living characters who carry the violence of the past that weighs them down but at the same time breathes a new life into them.What sustains his characters who look lost, mad, weird and abnormal, and humanise them is their act of standing their ground and not acquiescing to the dictates of their tormentors that could be inimical historical forces. Their ingrained community instinct and almost genetically transferred value of sharing appear lynchpin of their seemingly fragile but rock-solid existence anchored in an unshakable conviction of experience of togetherness. The past acts as a hope for future.

Rai Nasir’s stories subtly show how people through all the trials and tribulations have remained organically connected with their ancient land blessed with God’s plenty. Zahid Hasan, a known fiction writer, in the introduction of the book hints at such a phenomenon. ‘The inner mirror has always reflected the image of mother land but with the passage of time it gathered a layer of dust which Rai Nasir brushed clean with his creative act. And now it has begun glittering as it has been since time immemorial’, he writes.

Rai Nasir is truly a contemporary short story writer. His stories can rightly be called symbolic. He intersperses his sparsely descriptive narrative with abstraction leaving much to the readers’ imagination. In other words he has the courage to be true to his inner self risking his popularity. His book is not a piece of cake. It’s a serious read. It’s creatively daring act in our risk averse literary world. Don’t miss out on what this books offers. It shows battered and shattered we might be but we still have the potential to rise in defiance of all the historical odds as ancient people. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2021

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