By Muhammad Amir Rana
When I was a student and a struggling journalist, one English-language writer I regularly read in the newspapers was Muhammad Amir Rana. My field of interest was the same as his and so I always found his writings greatly engaging.
Rana is a journalist-turned-security expert. In his contributions to Dawn, he usually discusses extremism, sectarianism, security, counter-terrorism and politics, etc. Keeping in mind the solemnity of such topics, one might be led to believe he isn’t a very lively soul. His writings are sombre and frequently warn us about the dangers of slipping into the chaos of extremism.
Therefore, when I met him for the very first time, I made sure my otherwise joyful face was set into an expression of utmost seriousness, just so that my meeting with him would go well. In my mind, I had built Rana up as an angry, dour man, and I did not want to risk his ire. But, to my surprise, he turned out to be quite different — a great storyteller, with diverse tastes in literature, and immensely hospitable.
It may thus also come as a surprise to those who know of his name that, apart from newspaper articles and books on issues related to national security, Rana writes fiction, too. His first work was a collection of short stories published in 2002, Adhoori Mohabbatein Aur Poori Kahaaniyan [Incomplete Loves and Complete Stories]. His debut novel, Saaey [Shadows] came out in 2016. His latest is the novel Meer Jaan.
Ranging across Balochistan, the Waseb, Sindh, Oman and Africa, Muhammad Amir Rana’s latest novel is about characters who live in a world of constant movement, forcibly or by choice
Meer Jaan is about migration — a subject that remains deeply ingrained in people’s minds following the division of the Subcontinent. In this part of the world, on both sides of the border, many of us have still not come to terms with the trauma that wreaked havoc in people’s lives almost 75 years ago.
But Rana’s novel sheds only cursory light on that mass exodus of 1947. Instead, it discusses the concept of migration in a wider context. If the book were to be summed up in one line, Rana has created a ‘land of migration’, where all seven of his key characters live in a world of constant ‘hijrat’ [migration].
With other locales also playing their part, the story is set primarily in Balochistan, a region where migration is an old phenomenon. In fact, it is so prevalent that it is said that the number of Baloch people living in the country’s other provinces, let alone other neighbouring countries, is more than the Baloch living in Balochistan itself.
Along with moving within Pakistan, indigenous Baloch have also long migrated from the Makran coast to African countries — Baloch writer Yar Jan Badini has discussed this in his book Afreeqa Ke Baloch [The Baloch of Africa]. People from African nations have similarly come to Pakistan’s south-western shores. It is these specific movements that take centre stage in Rana’s novel.
It goes without saying that, although the purpose is often the search for a better life, migration brings its own set of economic, social and other problems. Sometimes, it is not a choice. Rana seeks to illuminate these woes through the travails of the titular Meer Jan, a woman who, because of various political and social reasons, is forced to spend her life constantly on the move.
Born in Mombasa, Kenya, a young Meer Jaan is kidnapped by a carpet-seller who seeks to blackmail her father during a political crisis. When her father is killed in an encounter with the British army, Meer Jaan finds herself in Muscat, Oman. There, she is sold to a trader who brings her to Gwadar. Growing up under the care of a fisherwoman named Gul Bibi, a further series of events brings Meer Jaan to southern Punjab, where a locality on a river bank ultimately takes her name as its own.
One very interesting thread of the narrative revolves around Shad, a dancer who goes to Muscat in search of work as an odd-jobs man. Gwadar in Balochistan and Muscat have long had historical and political links — Gwadar, known as the ‘Gateway of Winds’ in the Balochi language, passed into the hands of the sultans of Oman in the 18th century. After the creation of Pakistan, the government of then prime minister Feroz Khan Noon negotiated the purchase of Gwadar from the sultan of Oman for Rs 5.5 billion.
In this chapter, Rana sets the stage with the story of Sindhi Sindbad. Despite the word “Sindhi” in his name, Rana makes it clear that Sindbad’s father was from Gwadar and his mother was African, hailing from Mombasa. After his father was killed in tribal conflicts, Sindbad enlisted in the Omani army and was held in esteem by the English officer tasked with training Omani soldiers.
Then Sindbad rebelled against the army and became a qazzaaq [pirate], who would distribute among the poor the spoils from the ships he plundered.
Shad is deeply interested in this story. Digging deeper, he finds a blind storyteller named Hasan, whose father was from Mombasa and a member of Sindbad’s crew. But Hasan doesn’t acknowledge Sindbad in the negative connotations of ‘pirate’; he claims that the famed seafarer only plundered an English navy ship suspected of carrying bombs.
In beautiful, skilfully crafted Urdu prose, Rana paints a picture that is true to life, narrating the physical and mental journey of a woman who has spent her entire life moving from place to place, but never finding somewhere that she might call home. Physically in southern Punjab, mentally in Mombasa, she is forever a rootless migrant.
The author’s reach expands across the Waseb, Sukkur, Gwadar, Muscat and Mombasa as he explores how society has changed following every migratory phase of the Subcontinent, especially in Balochistan.
Rana can be considered an encyclopaedia of Pakistan, who has wandered about every nook and corner of the country to interact with people belonging to various castes, creeds, ethnicities and religions. His travels know no bounds. In precisely the same manner, his protagonist Meer Jan is never deterred on her own journeys — whether forcible or chosen — across frontier, desert, mountain, river and sea.
No matter where one moves, the soil one leaves behind continues to haunt one throughout one’s life. If one’s forefathers also happen to be migrants, then it becomes a story that wonderfully gifted writers such as Rana are meant to write.
The reviewer is a member of staff. He tweets @Akbar_notezai
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 22nd, 2022