Up until the early 1990s, the portion of the Thar Desert that lies within Pakistan was largely devoid of blacktop roads, with the nearest one ending at the desert’s western periphery in Naukot. All travel from this point onwards was done either by camel, vintage Reo trucks from the Second World War — locally referred to as kekrra [crab] — or privately owned jeeps.

Back then, the journey from Naukot to Nagarparkar, which lies at the easternmost edge of Tharparkar district — today, a five-hour drive — would take up to 14 hours, writes Salman Rashid in his new book, Mithi: Whispers in the Sand.

Rashid’s canon of work — especially his articles based on travels across Pakistan — has, over time, garnered something of a cult following and is widely viewed as a reliable source of history on the region. Travel writing on South Asia has historically been dominated by the narrative voice of European colonialists. Rashid, however, provides the perspective of a local, carefully sifting through the accounts of colonial adventurers, highlighting their biases and handicaps and setting the record straight where necessary.

The author first drove across Tharparkar district in 1984, wife and friend in tow. “It was like stepping into a country still in the 19th century,” he recalls. He would, over the course of four decades, keep returning to this remote region — including Mithi, the district’s largest town — and witness it transform. In his research for the book, he refers to the limited material available, including the works of British administrators such as Stanley Napier Raikes (magistrate of “Thurr and Parkur” in 1847), gazetteers, folklore and the “collective inherited memory” of locals, some of whom had received eyewitness accounts of events from their grandparents.

Salman Rashid looks at Thar beyond man-made borders, connecting the dots between personal observation and historical sources

During his numerous visits to the district, the last of which was made in 2017, Rashid conducted a series of interviews with residents. These include a green-eyed Sodha thakur [landlord] whose ancestor brought the Rajput caste to this part of Thar in the 13th century; an affluent trader who has no desire to travel out of the region or enter politics, despite the insistence of many; nomadic jogis who believe that cobras never die natural deaths and can live for thousands of years, eventually shape-shifting into eagles or peacocks; and a retired official of the Wildlife Department, who saved the Indian gazelle from extinction and helped create a wildlife sanctuary in the district. These portraits form a significant portion of the book and provide readers with a nuanced understanding of life in the desert and how it is changing.

Like a detective, Rashid connects the dots, picking up on clues drawn from personal observation and various historical sources. He learns for instance, that the lost city of Pari Nagar, located at Virawah near Nagarparkar, dates back to the fifth century CE and once thrived as an international seaport, at a time when “an inland arm of the sea extended through the Rann [of Kutch] and right up to Virawah.”

The latter geographical detail is confirmed in the work of an anonymous Greek seaman who, having sailed past the Indus Delta in the first century CE, arrived at a gulf that lay west of the Gulf of ‘Cutch’ and wrote about it in a handbook titled Circumnavigation of the Eastern Ocean. Using Google Earth, Rashid sees the dried-up remains of this gulf, which culminates near the ruins of Pari Nagar.

Similarly, Rashid draws the attention of archaeologists to a mysterious site referred to as Singharo. According to Raikes’s Memoir on the Thurr and Parkur Districts of Sind, the fort — already in ruins by the mid-19th century — was built by the Talpurs, but Rashid estimates it to be far older, dating back to the 15th century, and serving as a residence of a Rajput prince. Its intricately carved blocks of white marble and architectural “lavishness” set it apart from the Talpur forts, he observes.

It was on his first visit that Rashid was introduced to the folkloric legend of “Turwutt” — a larger-than-life character who, according to a local of Nagarparkar, used to climb up the Karonjhar Hills daily, “to keep an eye on the world.” After a close reading of Sindh’s history and a biographical paper published in Britain in 1875, Rashid discovers that this is a reference to George Booth Tyrwhitt, a deputy collector of the district in 1857, who learned to speak the Thari language and is revered by locals to this day — much like John Jacob, an East India Company officer and the political superintendent at Jacobabad.

While history would have us believe that there was, throughout Sindh, “a quiet acceptance of imperial presence”, Rashid’s research suggests otherwise. He finds evidence of a Thari uprising against British rule in 1859, led by a celebrated military commander named Rooplo Kohli, and Rajput chief Rana Karan Singh Ranpuri. The former was hanged at Saigam, just outside Nagarparkar, and the latter imprisoned at Kala Pani, or the Cellular Jail on the Andaman Islands. Tyrwhitt’s popularity among locals is all the more puzzling in light of these events, especially since he was instrumental in ruthlessly quelling the rebellion.

Change, however, is inevitable and has its advantages, admits Rashid. Within a few years, the Thar that he saw in 1984 will be no more.

Today, Tharparkar district is reputed to be one of the safest regions in the country and a place where, according to the locals, theft does not exist. But, as Rashid points out, it wasn’t always like this. Nicholas Withington’s account of his journey across Thar, starting in December 1613, paints a very different picture. As the English merchant approached Nagarparkar from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, he kept receiving news of “the murder by robbers of some hapless peripatetic trader.”

Travelling from Nagarparkar to Thatta, he was robbed numerous times, while the three Indian traders in his party were executed and dumped in “a hurriedly dug hole.” He decided to turn back, but was robbed yet again and this time was also deprived of his clothing.

Withington — who, according to Rashid, was the first European to visit Nagarparkar — notes that the residents of the region between Nagarparkar and Thatta did not pay tax or allegiance to the Mughal court and were answerable solely to local chiefs. Their favourite pastime was to rob travellers and then safely escort these victims out of their territory so that others could rob them.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Baloch marauders used Mithi as a base to conduct raids on Kutch towns, notes Rashid. This practice only came to an end after the British gained control of Thar in the 1850s. “Wily as British administrators were, they knew how to tame the unruly Baloch ... within a couple of decades ... they were given policing and military duties in Thar,” he writes.

Rashid also questions the interpretations of some of the local lore. Referring to Marui’s defiance of Umar, the Soomro king who kidnapped her, he writes: “Marui’s tale has long been sung as a love song. It is very strange that intellectuals failed to look at it as it really is: a story of resistance to the powers that be ... In Thar, and perhaps all of Sindh, it is Marui alone who stands out as an extraordinarily rebellious heroine: a young and defenceless woman who resisted the overtures of an all-powerful monarch and yet regained her freedom.”

He resents the way the government has “pimped up” the historic site of Marui’s well with modern structures and alien conocarpus trees, stripping it of its primal aura. The well is no longer accessible to Thari women, who would come here to fill their pitchers.

The Thar that emerges in the book is one that transcends man-made borders. Prior to Partition, Nagarparkar lay at the centre of all the action, as a way station on two ancient trading routes — one from Gujarat to Shikarpur and the other from Gujarat to Thatta. Up until the earthquake of 2001, Nagarparkar’s bazaar, with its terracotta roofs, resembled “a village in Lombardy.”

Change, however, is inevitable and has its advantages, admits Rashid. Within a few years, the Thar that he saw in 1984 will be no more. Phhoto, who belongs to the jogi cult, the members of which for centuries have wandered from place to place and exhibited serpents for a living, tells him, “Perhaps it is good that our children are turning to education and business. At least their lives will be better.”

The reviewer is a journalist. He tweets @_alibhutto

Mithi: Whispers in the Sand
By Salman Rashid
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693533248
216pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 25th, 2021

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