Folklore exists because we miss our loved ones

A teacher at a govt. school in the Rawalpindi district, my mother-in-law is a working woman. And a hard-working one at that. In the morning she has her school and in the evening, her home. With six children and a modest house to take care of, you’d think that all that working may be a little too much for her. But it doesn’t appear so. At least not from all the things she keeps making and sending us.

I married one of their first-borns, you see. The better one of the eldest twins. While the other one likes to go out and shop, the one I married is indoorsy and poetic. Since she never really bugged her parents for things, they compensate that by overdoing what they can for her. Hence, all the things my mother-in-law keeps making and sending us. Maybe the fact that we live in the same city also helps.

But the things she makes are not your usual eatables. From a certain type of panjeeri to a particular kind of pinni, they are the best of Punjab’s traditional confectionery items. Made with many ingredients put in right proportions, preparing them takes time and effort.

One day when we were at their place, I asked her to be a little easy on herself and not make and send us so many of those items.

“My mother used to make these; I do this when I miss her,” she said.

The Modern Man

“I wish I could work like you: not bound to an office and just working when I need to, wherever I be,” a friend who works at a reputable international development organization said today.

“This lifestyle is not that easy, neither is the work,” I tried to comfort him.

“You know we have a little patch of land back in the village,” he went into a deep melancholia, “And we have been planting some some fruits there. Some vegetables too. I go there on some weekends. Plough the land. Sow the seeds. Water them. We have two guava plants and a few orange trees and you know they were just laden with fruit. I don’t even have lunch when I am there. I think I want to stay there. Kind of getting tired of life here.”


“Going for the whole day to sit at a desk and coming back after dark, it’s not really very fulfilling. It seemed fascinating when we graduated but it doesn’t anymore. All these meetings and conferences. God knows what I am eating. A couple of months back, I thought I was having a heart-attack. Was hospitalized for two days. It wasn’t a heart-attack but I don’t know what’s happening. I exercise and all.”

“You should take care of your diet.”

“It’s not that. I just don’t see a point of a successful life in the city. I feel better at the zameen.”

No, it cannot be said

“I might be committing a blasphemy here,” she said and then paused for a while as if reconsidering her choice of words.

The topic under discussion was a lack of connection with the land among people our age—including us. From owning history to languages; the sense of belonging; the gratification from the soil; and all. It’s not like we hadn’t talked about this before but that day she had something more.

“I was playing this Punjabi qawwali and a few lines just had me captivated,” she said. “You know what they say about the Koran that such verses cannot be written again. I think I felt that.”

And then she sang one of the lines: ‘Harrh wangon charhiyaN nein nainaN dian naddiaN.’

“I don’t think it could be said in another language. It would at least lose its luster. No, it cannot be said.”

The national cannot describe the regional

When the important people from good neighborhoods of our cities speak of the Pakistani literature, they mean the works produced in English and Urdu. The literature being created in hundreds of languages spoken throughout Pakistan is termed “regional” and hence less worthy of attention.

But this mainstream ‘Pakistani literature’ misses greatly on the lived experiences of the many peoples of Pakistan. There are things that are only being said in the regional languages. There are things that could only be written by a regional writer. The national, for many reasons, cannot describe the regional. The national does not read the regional. The national is living in a bubble.

Last year when I was in Lahore, a Sindhi friend of mine, Aadarsh Ayaz Laghari, would visit me every weekend and in the intoxicating moments after dark, we would read each other poetry. I would read poetry in Punjabi and he in Sindhi. We learned that our languages share very many words. We learned that the poetry we were reading was more intimate than what we had ever read in Urdu. It had a different tone and a different atmosphere. It had the heat of the desert, the roughness of the terrain, and the shadow of the trees. Why don’t others read this literature, we used to wonder.

We could only continue it for about four to five weeks. But those sessions of exchange are the kind of memories I would cherish for the rest of my life, I know.

3G Coverage Map for Pakistan

I didn’t really like the 3G coverage maps provided by the telecom operators, so I created one for all of them. Have a look.

You are going to die like this

I had just talked to the embassy and had the flight reservation page open when the the phone rang.

It was a friend who had spoken to me two months earlier about joining him in a software project. It would have required me to stay put for about 6-12 months. We couldn’t agree on the price for my time then. He was calling today to say that they are willing to pay what I wanted.

But I had just talked to the embassy and had the flight reservation page open.

I had been thinking about this trip for over a year. I had been dreaming of backpacking across Africa. Vast stretches of plains, immense herds of wildlife, great lakes, and a variety of captivating cultures. That’s a lot to regret not seeing.

So I told him that I cannot join because it will just take another year out of my life and who knows if I will be able to travel next year or not.

“Tera kuch nahi banega, you are going to die like this, kabhi yahan kabhi wahan, I’ll place a bottle of liquor at your grave when you die because that’s all that you care about,” he said.

“Why do you sound like it’s a bad life?” I laughed.

Why do you travel in Punjab?

“At any hour of the day or night, I can shut my eyes and visualise in a swarm of detail what is happening on scores of streets,” a recent writeup in The Economist mentions a New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell having said that.

When people ask why do I travel in Punjab, I don’t always have a clear answer because it’s difficult to explain and I fear that people won’t get it. But I think this —becoming familiar— has been one of the primary attractions. I have walked in countless streets and neighborhoods across the towns and villages of Punjab. And by walking through them, I have made them mine. I know those streets and I recall those neighborhoods. The voices I heard, the faces I saw, the turns I took, the food I ate, the air I breathed, and the dust that covered me. I know them. I can go back to them. They are mine and I am theirs.

That’s why I travel in Punjab. To make it mine.

Dunyadari da khayal

It was late and having consumed four to five glasses of jaam-e-sheereen, I was a bit high when I left for home. The tax-driver I found was a jolly old man who, throughout the ride, kept telling me that everyone deserves a chance at a carefree and fun life because “that’s what life is for.” What a great pindiwaal, I thought.

Mid-way, he suddenly asked, like they all do at one point, “Where are you from?”

“Pakpattan,” I replied.

“You are from a great town, young man.”

“Ahaan… Yeah.”

“Tell me a miracle of Baba Farid.”

“Well, I don’t recall a miracle right now, but I can read a line of his poetry if you say?” I said.

“I’d rather take a miracle,” he insisted.

“Too bad, I can only be poetic in this state,” I smiled and then read this verse of Baba Farid’s: “Main bhulawa pagg da matt maili ho jaaye/ Gehla rooh na jaan-ee sirr bhi mitti khaaye.” (Fareed, I was worried that my turban might become dirty. My thoughtless self did not realize that one day, dust will consume my head as well.)

“Pagg, I think, means our status in the eyes of other people, we care too much about what they would think, I think he’s saying that we shouldn’t,” I gave my interpretation.

“Hanji, dunya-dari da bohta hi khayal rehnda sanu,” he commented. (Yeah, we do care too much about our status.)

A surreal affair

“When are you going back to Pakpattan?” she asked as we were sitting outside the Lok Virsa building where we had gone to find a book she thought I should read before venturing into Sindh. It’s been places like these where we had been meeting for the past few months: in a garden, at a festival, in a bookshop, in another garden, and at a library.

But before I could answer, she said, “Wait, what am I asking, you don’t plan your trips, you just leave, just like that.” She had started talking to herself. Maybe it was her fears talking. “But still, when are you going back?”

There was a story I had been following in Pakpattan that only she knew about. It started with a surreal meeting with someone at Baba Farid’s shrine and turned into something out of a book. Pretty much like herself, now that I think about it. I had to go back to find more. It couldn’t just be her fears, there was that story too that she didn’t want me to leave in the middle.

“I don’t know really,” I said, “I am waiting for a sign.”

“A sign?”

“Yes, like it says in the article that we read the other week about the malangs of Punjab.”

“Like how they wait for a saint to tell them where to go next in a dream?” she smiled.

“Yes, something like that.”

She looked into my eyes to see if I was just saying that. I don’t know what she saw.

That’s how it has been for us.


My Indian connection

My father and I were talking about his recent trip to Indian Punjab when I asked him if he spoke to the people there in Punjabi. We were talking specifically about the policemen who accompanied him wherever he went. He replied that they speak very fast and with a different accent and that it was a bit difficult for him to comprehend them at times.

“Oh, it’s not that difficult. They just combine and shorten some words like kara’taa instead of kara ditta. And they say j instead of the z sound. And sh instead of chh like pishaaN. And…” I went on and on. Just stopped short of telling him where did I learn all that from ;)

Introduce yourself

“Since when have you been running this tandoor?” I ask the woman who owns and operates this tandoor that provides me with rotian for lunch and dinner here in Pakpattan.

“I have been here for decades, you are the newcomer, introduce yourself,” she says.

“Oh, I am a writer and, for the time being, living just two streets away from you.”

“That’s not an introduction, kaka. Name someone from the family.”

I tell her my mamu’s name who heads a government school in one of the villages outside the city.

“Oh, you are Rasheed’s nephew? Suleman’s grandson?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“How’s your grandfather? He now lives in Kasur, no? And what about your other mamu — the doctor in Lahore?”

“Oh you know them all.”

“Of course, I do. You are the new one here, not I,” she smiles.

The tree that used to cry

“Was there a tree in the house?” she asked.

“Yes, there in fact was one. And it used to cry.”

She looked at me as if I was indulging in poetry. We were talking about my grandmother’s house in Pakpattan, where I had lived when I was growing up and where I am living these days.

It is a typical pre-partition house, with a baithak and a deorhi on the front, followed by an open vehra, a covered veranda after that, and finally two rooms side by side in the end.

The tree was in the courtyard, along the right wall. It was a sufaida. As tall as they all are. Blessed with a lot of leaves. Whenever there was a storm, it used to cry. The leaves made a sound like someone was crying. A human cry. It was real.

“Why does it cry, Bibi?” I remember asking my grandmother.

“It’s not the tree. It’s the wind that cries.”

“But why?”

“An innocent person has been killed somewhere. The wind is mourning the death.”

Flowers in Full Bloom

Look at the photo above. From a coffee table edition of Bashir Mirza’s paintings to a history of calligraphy to an overview of Punjabi plays, these are all great books. But look at the one in the bottom left corner. The one with flowers on the cover: Bann Phulwari. Flowers in Full Bloom.

Compiled by Afzal Pervez, a musician with Radio Pakistan Rawalpindi, and his wife Razia Pervez in the 1960s, it’s a collection and study of Punjabi folk songs from Pothohar. Self-heard, hand-picked folk songs. From the mirasis and the hijras. From the men and the women. From the elders and the kids. Because the women of Pothohar wouldn’t agree to sing in front of Afzal, Razia would do that part.

Post-partition, not many people have done hardcore field-work to preserve our folk literature. Specially not in this part of Punjab. Afzal Pervez’s work is one of the few exceptions. And is highly regarded by the fellow researchers of folklore here in Pakistan.

I had seen this book when I was a kid. In my father’s library perhaps. But when I actually got interested in the folklore about 8 years ago, there was no sign of this book anywhere. I asked around but everyone said that the book, printed about 3 decades ago, was not going to be found anywhere but at an old book shop. They were occasionally visited. But in vain.

Where was this picture taken, then? It’s a long story. There’s this girl who writes short-stories and reads about the Jogis. A lot. So much that I often just ask her when I have to confirm something. We sometimes meet to exchange books, ideas, and glances. At unusual places. A good-old garden. Under a tree. Such hipsters we are. And, like the plan was yesterday, at Lok Virsa—the Institute of Folk Heritage. She was to show me a book in their library that chronicles a journey inside Sindh, much like the one I want to attempt this year. But there was a festival going on there. Music, dances, and handicrafts. From all over Pakistan. It was in that festival that I spotted a little book stall by Pakistan National Council of the Arts. And there it was. Bann Phulwari. Flowers in Full Bloom.

Rawalpindi as seen from Haveli Sujan Singh

The marvelous view of the Rawalpindi city, as seen from the rooftop of Haveli Sujan Singh, right in the heart of old city.