In their quest to create an identity distinct from India, Islamic identity has only proved regressive for a vibrant plural society.
For the people of any country engagement with their lived reality plays a significant role in renegotiating an identity that is distinct from the political identity thrust upon them by the nation-state. Such an identity describes the history from below, concerns itself with the ordinary people, the ruled, and how they define and steer history rather than the rulers. It is such a social history that lends colour and agency to the barren economic and unintelligible political history of a country. Contrary to how a country may be seen and understood, exploring it through aspects of arts, literature and heritage offers a distinct reflection on its society and people. Pakistan is one such country whose politically constructed one-religion-one-culture identity has subsumed a vibrant narrative on its pluralist identity, typecasting it as a national security state. Through insightful and revealing essays, Raza Rumi constructs an alternate view of the country that has continued to be in transit since its traumatic birth in 1947. Pakistan of the present is not what it used to be in its formative years, the partying, drinking and dancing country of the seventies has long ceased to exist. Gone are the days when bars were commonplace in major urban centres, and when musical fanfare at the shrines of saints defined the cultural outlook of the country. The ruling elite had other plans, though. In their quest to create an identity distinct from India, an Islamic identity only proved regressive for a vibrant plural society. Being Pakistani is a bold attempt at capturing the multilayered narrative in search of its lost identity, dislocated in the linearization of its predominant Islamic narrative.
Rumi argues that the country’s identity has tragically been imagined by the ruling class only within the context of militarization and jingoism, characterized by an anti-India strategic worldview which has gripped the state and society beyond redemption. It has seemingly gone beyond repair as global media has consistently reaffirmed such reductionist image of a country. Although there isn’t much being done to denounce the culture of militancy as yet, there is simmering discontent and an undercurrent of dissension emerging among the writers, artists and musicians who have begun to contest the one-dimensional image of the country.
The very fact that there are poets and writers challenging the rising tide of extremism and violence in the country – regardless of who the originator of such crises maybe – is a welcome shift, and a testament to the rich heritage of country’s literary history, and its dynamic present. Reflection of such expressions in the works of the present generation of poets, writers, and miniature artists should be important for the region, as it reinforces the shared cultural values of love and compassion expounded by none others than Kabir, Bulleh and Lallon.
In drawing this emerging image of Pakistan, Rumi is convinced that much of it rests on the idea of civilization which a separate nation has only tried to suppress. Written with a compassionate concern, the essays dig deep to acknowledge the impact of shared sub-continental identity which the constructed reality of nationalism has only tried to undermine. One begins to empathize with the author, whose personalized sense of alienation in his own country reflects his unrequited love for his homeland which, he says is not-so-silently imploding.
Without doubt, such genuine voices can hardly appease the repressive regimes on either side of the borders. No surprise, Rumi is living in exile after an attempt on his life that killed his driver but spared him. As an erstwhile officer in the Pakistan Administrative Service, he currently teaches at the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs and also edits the Daily Times, published in Pakistan. In challenging his reductionist identity, Rumi draws a broad canvas of the most populated multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural region from in the context of building a holistic understanding of civilizations, nations and communities.
If Pakistan is not a monolithic mass of popular imagination, so is the entire region which has historically been a multi-layered composite of immense diversity, argues Rumi. For peace and prosperity to dawn on this region, there is a compelling need to revisit and revive its rich traditions because “whether it is fighting communalism in India, or extremism in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Sufis, Bhaktas, mystics, and Bauls have much to offer to make South Asia a safer and more prosperous part of the world community.”
Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts is a call to listen to voices of shared interests and similarities in culture. Rejuvenation and preservation of our cultural memory is essential to our collective survival, else a thousand years of history will get rubbed into the dust of jingoism.
by Raza Rumi
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 302, Price: Rs 399
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)