Dean of the Faculty of Languages and Literature at the International Islamic University, Islamabad, Professor Najeeba Arif’s new book, Raagni Ki Khoj Mein [On A Quest For the Soul’s Music], is a memoir — confessional, filled with portraiture and transformational. It is an honest, original and authentic account of a self-proclaimed “duniyadaar” [worldly person] out on a ‘Baba’-hunt — ‘Baba’ meaning a spiritual guru.

“I have been fond of meeting Babas since my childhood,” reveals the narrator at the outset. But why? Because she wants a “reconstruction of [her] personality from its debris”? Because she is looking for a capacity-building programme as she does have “a desire to love, but not the capacity to do so”? Or because she needs a light-booster for an eye that was embarrassed of her athletic father “working out in a ‘langot’ [briefs]” or “smoking hookah in a ‘dhoti’, a loincloth”?

Raagni showcases the socio-spiritual portraits of several writers, professors, doctors and judges, including Mumtaz Mufti, Qazi Ahmad Saeed, Rubina Qazalbash, Hadia Zafar, Mir Zafar Ali, Khwaja Muhammad Ahmad Samdani, Jawad S. Khwaja, Umar Memon and Rafique Akhtar, among others but, most importantly, of Ubaidullah Khan Durrani, the scientist-saint who, as the book convincingly tells us, transformed the lives of thousands and continues to do so through his mureeds, or mentees.

An electrical engineer and educationist by profession, Professor Durrani powered Qadir Nagar — a village he founded in District Buner, Swat — with electricity he generated through his own resourcefulness. Before that, owing to his faith in training people to do practical work, he had founded Aligarh Muslim University’s technical institute (which later became University Polytechnic, AMU) and also served as the principal of the engineering college at the University of Peshawar. Lovingly called ‘Baba Jan’ by his followers, Professor Durrani did phenomenal work for their spiritual awakening and growth, raising them above petty differences.

In Rubina Qazalbash’s words from a chapter in Raagni titled ‘Yeh Pari Chehra Log Kaisay Hain [Who are These Angel-Faced People]: “Baba Jan was against division. He preached unity. All of us are equal. We all drink from the same headstream. No matter what order we belong to … Baba Jan never compartmentalised humans. He was paid visits by Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews. Was there anyone that didn’t come to pay regards to Baba Jan? When a Christian would come to see him, Baba Jan talked about Prophet Isa [Jesus]; when a Buddhist would visit him, he spoke about Buddha.”

A writer’s confessional memoir about the search for a guru is filled with portraits of several writers, professors, doctors and judges who offered hope for spiritual salvation

Baba Jan Ubaidullah Khan Durrani sits at the heart of Arif’s book, commanding the writer to find or locate others on other thrones in time and space, intimate and distant, high and very high. The book, on most of its thick, glossy pages, speaks Baba Jan’s tongue, more exclusively on its opening pages and in its last section, which is an Urdu translation of his English-language pamphlet ‘Whither Ye Sadhu’. The eco-spirituality of the pamphlet’s first chapter, geometry of the self and self-determination in its second, and the alchemy of making gold out of ashes in the third, with Arif’s annotations, teach and preach novel ways of looking at life and being.

But the book is not all about Professor Durrani, nor is it limited to just speaking spiritual truths. It is also, importantly, about Arif’s own journey through a crowd of wise men and women: rationalists, dreamers, intellectuals, scientists and saints.

Kayaking in an ocean of opinions, she tests many waters, their depth and discourses. Carrying a self-prepared rubric, the voyager is in search of the ‘right’ guru (and this gives the book a universal appeal). Many fail the test. Others refuse to take it, while interactions with yet others make her change her mind and methods.

Along the way, we get to hear a lot of emotional and historical truths, and educational, spiritual and transformational lessons. The writer talks about her own childhood, not only in bright light but also in dimness — for instance, her father in a court of law opposing her mother, to claim custody of his daughters.

She writes of our histories from Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Pakistan’s former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, from Partition to the Fall of Dacca [Dhaka] and to the Talibanisation of Swat. She explores our system of education that either offers disconnected, zigzag routes to uncounselled millions, or sells MBA and MPA degrees that openly teach exploitation: “How to commodify all things and humans? How to abuse every particle of the universe?”

Raagni also carries manuals on how ‘not’ to destroy ego and greed, but rather expand them, to include all humanity in their circle, to be proud of and greedy for everyone; on how a saint could beat French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre by seeing a clean slate in a sceptical mind; and, most importantly, on how to believe in someone being a Baba: not by looking for their magical powers or mystical miracles, but by studying their days, their deeds.

Truths and lessons come through various voices in the book, and why not? Informed by the philosophy of a search for truth, and written in the tradition of talaash [search] literature, the book is inhabited by people who think, and “alaap” [sing] a lot of tough questions.

Some of these people may not make sense to some readers because of the advanced metaphysical level to which they belong. Some readers may also find their untranslated, foreign-language — English, Hindi and Persian — words and verses inaccessible. But the imagery is so stunningly clear that any loss is more than made up for: a collage of faces that smile electric smiles, an array of hands that give, of hearts that love.

They are strange people often seen as sitting alone in meditation, but standing together against evil, against division, against ignorance. At one moment, I see Rubina Qazalbash distinctly as she sits upright on her chair, book in hand, speaking slowly and softly to a patient in a homoeopathic clinic. The next moment, I see galaxies of stars sharing one sky, lighting with their shy starlight a yard in Jauharabad, with Arif sleeping peacefully under its cool ‘shade’.

Any voyager, pilgrim, searcher or seeker would do well to make Raagni Ki Khoj Mein their next read.

The reviewer is a novelist, translator and head of the Centre for Language Teaching, International Islamic University, Islamabad. A collection of his Urdu short stories, Maati Kahay Kumhar Se, is to be published shortly. He tweets @SheerazDasti

Raagni Ki Khoj Mein
By Najeeba Arif
Qosain, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697260034
280pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 23rd, 2022

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