Points of Entry: Encounters at the Origin-Sites of Pakistan review: Opening trapdoors to the past

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A riveting introduction to Pakistan through imprints of history and diverse influences of conversations, music, food and life stories

By: Mini Kapoor

The curious title of Pakistani journalist Nadeem F. Paracha’s collection of essays comes from a conversation with his mother when he was a little boy. In the introduction, he recounts an overland family journey as a little boy across the Khyber Pass to join his father, who was posted in the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul. As their bus navigated that high-altitude road, his mother brought alive the terrain with stories of people — “warriors, kings and traders” — who had streamed across into the subcontinent. Answering his questions, she explained some had ventured across the pass with aims of conquering these lands, but “not all”, with many staying on. “Did they become Pakistani?” asked the boy. “No,” smiled the mother, “all this happened before Pakistan was created.” To the young mind, it created a mystique around the Khyber Pass — as has happened with generations of Pakistanis, Indians, and others.

Layers of history

The collection in hand is drawn from Paracha’s life-long realisation that there have been myriad “points of entry” through which peoples and influences swept into what is now Pakistan.

Or as he writes: “My attempt in this book is to fling open the points of entry from where all those people and influences have come in for thousands of years, to help answer that puzzling question which still haunts the country: what exactly does it mean to be a Pakistani?”

He does so through recollections of travels across Pakistan, many of them during the 1980s and 1990s, to build a profile of the country that gets more minutely pixellated upon each inquiry.

In her introduction to Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column, Anita Desai had written, “In India, the past never goes away.” It perhaps doesn’t anywhere else either, and Paracha’s book reasserts the message between Desai’s words: the challenge is to keep peeling away the layers of history in a way that one arrives at a composite, inclusive understanding of the past, and thereby oneself, and to see this as an enriching work always in progress, to forever keep inhaling the diversity that abounds all around.

And more than anything else, these lessons in history are absorbed through conversations and observations of the lay of the land. At Mohenjo-daro, the Indus Valley Civilisation site in Sindh, for instance. The name, meaning “the mound of dead men”, was given by archaeologist R.D. Banerji, who discovered it in the 1920s, and historians have debated, sometimes acrimoniously, for decades the reasons for its decline.

Away from this academic back-and-forth, Paracha’s essay (“A Past in Ruins”) is haunting.

He first visited Mohenjo-daro in 1974 on a “class away day”, recalling little of it later except the realisation that it actually existed, that “the tale of this ancient land” was not “just another fairytale”.

He went back in 1986, as a student activist taking part in political mobilisation in interior Sindh against Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. Gone were the foreign tourists who had been around 12 years back, and the site was rather deserted.

Points of Entry: Encounters at the Origin-Sites of Pakistan; Nadeem Farooq Paracha, Tranquebar, ₹499.

A conversation began with a guide hanging around, almost part of the landscape, and Paracha, marvelling at walking over the same path his seven-year-old self had, received a free instruction on a longer lineage, on how the Indus gave birth to the ancient civilisation, to India, to Pakistan, to Raja Daher who faced the first Arab invasions.

As trapdoors to the past kept opening, the men kept smoking — Paracha and his Marxist pal ‘Roosi’ their Gold Flake cigarettes and the guide his filterless King Stroke brand. As the guide himself puffed away, he advised the visitors to not smoke “in the presence of ancestors”. Young Roosi quit right there.

Jhuley Lal and more

And so the stories continue unfolding: the man from Multan who tried to chase down his Greek heritage that he believed went back to the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion; the image of Jhuley Lal, who many Sindhi families that migrated to India during Partition consider their patron saint, but other Sindhis in Sindh call Baba Sheikh Tahir; the word ‘Tulgaki’ to mean an oppressor or extortionist used in the Seraiki region in southern Punjab that is a verbal reminder of the flight of peasants centuries ago to these parts to escape Delhi Sultan Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq’s taxation policy; the Mohajir ‘Mughaliana’ cooks of Karachi’s Burns Road locality; the Sufi subculture of the Siddhis, who came to the subcontinent from north Africa centuries ago, and have been an integral part of Karachi’s densely packed Lyari area; the Goan Christians of the city who shaped its music history; the Chinese who had fled to Pakistan during the communist revolution back home, some of whom adapted their cuisine to local tastes, which Zhou Enlai sampled twice on a visit to Karachi in 1956.

Paracha’s essays are constructed around closely felt personal encounters; and in being so, they nudge the reader (wherever she may be) to look around with keener eye and ear to find the imprints of history and diverse influences in everyday conversations, in the music and food around, in the life stories of stray acquaintances. It is, in sum, a riveting introduction to Pakistan.

Courtesy The Hindu

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