Akhtar Baloch, also known as ‘Karaanchi Wala’, had his own mode of resistance.

He resisted cultural decay by frequently detailing the erosion of our heritage in his blogs for Dawn, which attracted readership both nationally and internationally. He also resisted human rights violations in Pakistan — especially in Sindh — through his work for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

He fought for the rights of marginalised citizens, ranging from small ethnic and religious groups to the transgender communities and people of diverse sexual orientations. An activist with an academic touch, he had a keen eye for old books, buildings and manuscripts. He frequented old book stalls as a compulsory ritual and rummaged through literature, collecting nuggets of humanism from poetry and prose. His death on July 31 — at the age of 55 — has left us poorer in an already depleted intellectual legacy for he was a fine journalist and a caring friend.

This is not an obituary, rather an attempt to give my readers a glimpse of what Akhtar Baloch stood for. Born in Mirpurkhas in 1967, he spent the first 30 years of his life there. During his college years, he participated in various literary and political activities. This was under the dark time of the Gen Zia regime.

Akhtar Baloch was an eyewitness to the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD). Even as a teenager he could feel the pain and oppression of the brutal crackdown that General Zia and his cronies meted out to all who dared to dissent. Akhtar Baloch’s literary pursuits started when he read extensively in Sindhi and then translated some selected Sindhi writings into Urdu. His love for languages honed his skills as a renowned translator and by the age of 30, he was already making waves as a journalist and a translator of repute.

Activist, journalist and researcher, Akhtar Baloch, who passed away on July 31, will be remembered for the vast and well-documented archive he leaves behind on Karachi’s forgotten streets, history and overlooked communities

Next, he headed to Hyderabad where he emerged as a fearless defender of human rights. The HRCP benefitted from his efforts as he became its provincial coordinator. His name did not go unnoticed by the oppressors as the country was now reeling under another military dictatorship led by Gen Pervez Musharraf. On Pakistan Day 2003, Akhtar Baloch was abducted by “unknown persons” who threatened him and tortured him for days before releasing him.

The last 20 years of his life were spent in Karachi where he established a large following among his friends, fellow journalists, readers and students. His ever-smiling face endeared him to many as he became a source of knowledge for them on commonly ignored issues. He also became a reputable researcher after extensively working with the transgender community in Sindh. In 2010, City Press in Karachi published his book tilted Teesri Jins (The Third Sex). Ilm-o-Adab published its third edition in 2020.

The Third Sex

Teesri Jins, a marvelous work of both primary and secondary research, outlines the travails of transgender persons in Sindh, and deciphers their esoteric language called ‘Farsi Chand’. The transgender community has their own language that other people struggle to understand. Akhtar Baloch spent considerable time with transgenders to document the intricacies of their language — an assorted mix of diverse expressions from different tongues. Some prominent transgender persons’ such as Bindya Rana, Guru Keta, Shahana alias ‘Shaani’ and Yasmeen Faqeer’ trusted Akhtar Baloch and shared with him what they had not disclosed to anyone else.

Akhtar Baloch’s book Teesri Jins
Akhtar Baloch’s book Teesri Jins

He visited many cities in Sindh where the transgender community had a dera (settlement). Within Hyderabad’s city centre, transgender people have their base in Khadra Gali which Akhtar Baloch frequented. The best feature of Teesri Jins was its focus on the community’s historical background. Through detailed interviews with activists and leaders of the transgender community, Akhtar Baloch gathered invaluable information that hitherto was not available anywhere. Based on nearly two dozen in-depth interviews, the book unfolds a terrifying saga of exploitation and marginalisation the community.

The book became an instant hit; it is still a unique source of academic information. Full of authentic accounts and references that give credence to his narrative, Akhtar Baloch gave voice to a community which is a target of coercion and repression.

Humanism in Urdu Literature

Urdu Adab Mein Insaan Dosti (Humanism in Urdu Literature) became another bestseller by Akhtar Baloch. In this purely academic work, he analyses the humanistic tradition in Urdu literature from the 17th to the 19th century. It is a treasure trove of nuggets from Urdu literature that enlightens readers about its humanistic credentials. In it, Akhtar Baloch defines the concept of humanism and how it is related to literature. The very essence of creative writing appears to be an endeavour of a humanist approach to life, which states that when hatred and love vie for space, love triumphs.

He began his research by going through the writings from the early period of Urdu literature that emerged in the Deccan, the southern part of the Subcontinent, and tracing the elements of humanism in the Deccan milieu where Urdu was taking shape. Then he moves on to the 18th century in which the subject matter of literature and poetry developed a tinge of political disintegration as reflected in the poetry of that period.

Akhtar Baloch discusses the reservations held by Mir Jafar Zatalli and his contemporary poets towards a rapidly transforming society. Chaos and mayhem across India influenced the literature of that time, and authors and poets could not remain aloof to the social and political realities. From poets such as Mir and Sauda to an emerging Urdu prose towards the end of the 18th century, Akhtar offers us vignettes of Urdu literary gems in this book.

His interest was not confined to any one genre of literature; he branched into multiple modes of expressions circulating from the 17th to 19th centruries. He proves that all genres in Urdu literature shared a recurring theme of humanism. By studying the merits and demerits of prominent writers, Akhtar Baloch unveiled the literary trends emerging out of the first century of colonial rule. For instance, Mirza Ghalib, his favourite poet, illustrates his humanism and continues to dominate Urdu poetry to date.

Urdu Adab Mein Insaan Dosti concludes with a discussion on the society that was emerging in the aftermath of the 1857 War of Independence. Akhtar Baloch charts the changing patterns of norms and values in Urdu literature during the second half of the 19th century, especially in light of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Aligarh Movement.

THE KARAANCHI WALA

In 2013, Akhtar Baloch started writing the ‘Karaanchi Wala’ blogs about old buildings, personalities and the streets of Karachi. His writings appeared on the internet simultaneously in English, Sindhi and Urdu, causing many newspapers such as Intikhab and Azaadi in Balochistan, and Mashriq from Lahore and Peshawar to carry his pieces. His quest for historical accuracy was unmatched as he searched for references from the most unlikely people and places. His unique style made him a credible source even within the highbrow academic community.

Akhtar Baloch’s Karaanchi Wala is a compilation of his blogs
Akhtar Baloch’s Karaanchi Wala is a compilation of his blogs

He wrote about karo-kari (honour killings), the Jirga system and issues that the scheduled castes and other marginalised people faced in Sindh. He also taught as a part-time teacher at the Federal Urdu University. Through his popular blogs, his identity as ‘Karaanchi Wala’ received wider acceptance.

These blogs touched upon subjects of history that many people considered taboo or not worth discussing. For example, in 2016, when his first collection of blogs appeared in book form, the episode about the marriage proposal between Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Ruttie sparked the interest of readers. To corroborate this anecdote, our researcher frantically looked for a book by Sharif uddin Pirzada and referenced it properly. His telling of this episode is to the point and lacking sensation.

Scrutiny of facts was his forte and, at times, he spent weeks — even months — searching for material to verify the sources that he used for his blogs. As he was passionate in his quests and dispassionate in his analysis, his writings were impartial and unbiased. At the end of his blogs, he invited his readers to enlighten him with additional information, which portrayed him as being an intellectually flexible person. He often accredited Dr Mubarak Ali, Hussain Naqi, I.A. Rehman, Saba Dashtyari and Tuaseef Ahmed Khan, all of whom he considered his guides and mentors.

In following their footsteps, Akhtar Baloch deviated from the usual track of history that many textbooks in Pakistan promote. His detours facilitated a unconventional approach to history and led him to discover some lost pages from our recent past. His primary interest was highlighting those buildings and people that deserve our appreciation and attention. His blogs focused on researching the cities and towns of Sindh and its people, bridging the gap of representation between them and the mainstream.

Akhtar Baloch’s corpus resists, upends and challenges the official narratives of history that mutilate our past by clarifying misconceptions and debunking misrepresentations of history. He developed a body of work that remains unparalleled. He was a true proponent of people’s history in Sindh and paved an alternate path for fellow researchers and students which was nonconformist.

Over the years, his first collection of 40 blogs, ‘Karaanchi Wala 1’, was developed into three editions, prompting him to compile a second collection in 2020 comprising 30 blogs that were deeply informative. His blog discussing the Lahore Resolution of March 1940 became popular as it challenged the date of its passage and instead proved the correct date to be March 24th rather than 23rd. In another blog, he highlights August 15 as Pakistan’s actual Independence Day.

His blog on Jam Saqi and Nazir Abbasi talks about the difficulties of carrying out left-wing and progressive political activities under both civilian and military governments in the recent history of Pakistan. Being a secular activist, Akhtar Baloch underscored the positive interventions by various religious communities in Sindh. One such personality that piqued his interest was Bhagat Kunwar Ram, a promoter of harmony and love among diverse communities. Bhagat was a Hindu musician, singer and altruist. Akhtar Baloch details that a fanatic follower of Pir Bharchaundi Sharif assassinated Bhagat in 1939.

Akhtar Baloch was an investigative genie par excellence who often became a victim of plagiarism by other so-called journalists and anchorpersons. One notable instance is when an anchorperson plagiarised Baloch’s complete research on the Jewish synagogue in Karachi without acknowledging the source. Even the photos that Akhtar Baloch had taken and used for his blog were downloaded and used without any credit or consent. However, this was not a one-off incident as the same anchor later copied Baloch’s blog on the funeral of Fatima Jinnah — reproduced by many newspapers as some acknowledged Baloch’s efforts while others did not. One person even published a 36-page booklet on Fatima Jinnah’s funeral using Baloch’s blog with no mention of the writer. While Baloch was happy his work was being widely circulated, it was unfortunate that he could not claim credit for his efforts. Adarsh Ayaz Leghari and Arif Anjum translated his Urdu blogs for Dawn in English, while some other Sindhi magazines also translated and published them.

Meanwhile, he always acknowledged even if somebody made a minor contribution to his blog and for this he gave credit to our late friend Musaddiq Sanwal from whom Akhtar Baloch learnt a lot.

His third book of the ‘Karaanchi Wala’ series, which he asked me to review, appeared in 2020. Sadly, I kept postponing it for one reason or another without realising that he might not be here when I finally sat down to write about him. Wusatullah Khan called him Sir John Marshal of Karachi — Marshal had discovered the ruins of Mohenjo Daro. Akhtar Baloch laid bare the bones of old Karachi and encouraged us to appreciate its rich past.

The writer is a columnist and an educator. He can be reached on
Twitter @NaazirMahmood.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 28th, 2022

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