Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In time of terrorism, Pakistan seeks peace in Sufism

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 108 Vol IV, March 31, 2010

AT the first sight, it indeed appeared a bit intriguing to me to receive an e-mail invitation on 6th February for, 'International Conference of Writers & Intellectuals on "Sufism and Peace" to be held in Islamabad from March 14-16, 2010. That it was being organised by Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL)/Government of Pakistan seemed OK but it was the name of Mr Fakhar Zaman, Chairman of PAL which was reassuring and made me inclined to think positively about my participation in it. Fakhar Zaman has been, like an inspired and dedicated Sufi, steadfastly pursuing the ideas of nourishing Indo-Pak forums for friendship and creative interaction.

The tougher question, of course, seemed to be the timing of the conference - the Sufi Discourse under the alarming shadow of terror looming large on all horizons in Pakistan!

While keeping fingers crossed till the last about availing this tempting opportunity of revisiting Islamabad after more than fifteen years, I soon started pondering over all the aspects of the topic of the Conference. I could recall how as a school child of seven, I was taken by my father to the dim lit Dharamshala for an evening of Sufi music by eminent Qawwals of Malerkotla who had come to perform during the Lohri festival (1952) in our village; all that I still remember is that they were singing one of the 'Qaafis' of Bulleh Shah with its refrain, 'Aap Yaar binan nee Rabb Rehnda...God cannot live without a devoted lover!' After a few years, I chanced to find a book at home, with its sides eaten by the white ants: it turned out to be, 'Rubbayiyat of Omar Khayyam' with a remarkable poetic translation in Panjabi with full rhyme by S. Gehal Singh, a Retired judge. I could soon learn several of them by heart - and can recite even today !

Later while doing my Intermediate in the Govt College Malerkotla during 1959-61, we had a textbook of Panjabi poetry titled, 'Purana Makhio', ie 'Old Honey'. Prof Iqbal Singh, a short and rotund Sardar migrant from District Jhang with his typically pronounced accent of Panjabi, particularly vowel 'o'-a tingling for us Malwais of South of Sutluj - taught us poetry of Baba Farid, Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Baba Vajid, etc, explaining at length the meanings and contexts. All that has endured with me and how ecstatic to listen that poetry sung by talented singers like Jagjit Singh (class fellow in 1961-63), Hans Raj Hans, Jasbir Jassi etc. While doing my MA in English in Goverment College Ludhiana, we knew from friends doing MA in Panjabi how Prof Gulwant Singh was an authority on Sufism and Prof Pritam Singh has done a scholarly research on Baba Farid. After joining Indian Foreign Service, my first posting was to Iran and a rare satisfaction for me was the opportunity on 22nd March, 1977 to have made pilgrimage to Omar Khayyam's mausoleum in Nishapore. I could visit monuments of Hafiz & Sheikh Saadi much later in 2000. In Spain, I could visit the monastery of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582 AD), the Christian soul - sister of celebrated Sufi saint Rabiah of Basrah(717-801 AD)

The terrorist’s attacks in Lahore on 12th March and anxiety expressed by family and friends in this context notwithstanding, I was able to take them into confidence and boarded evening flight to Lahore on 13th March, overruling fears by my wife, reminding me of lines in Julius Caesar. I was immensely relieved to meet at Indira Gandhi International Airport other friends including author Pran Neville (famous Lahori); former VC Jamia Millia Shahid Mahdi;the veteran of AIR and eminent Urdu poet Zubair Rizvi; Satish Jacob of BBC fame who were also braving to travel to Islamabad. We were soon in legendary Lahore and were able to reach Islamabad before the change of date. The made to order beautiful capital of Pakistan is often described in words of poetic wit including its splendid isolation from the mainstream hustle bustle of life in Pakistan. The security 'Bandobast' was writ large all around - the 'masti and Josh-o- khrosh' was clearly missing, strikingly reminding me of period of long night of terror in our own Panjab. How long would the shelf life of terror be for our neighbour? I deeply felt like offering prayers to all the Sufi saints of the subcontinent for peace within and progress around for all the people of this ancient civilization!

Coming to the Conference, Mr Fakhar Zaman and his dedicated team of PAL colleagues presented a picture perfect in terms of courtesy, hospitality and facilities for delegates of more than thirty countries. The Pakistani writers and academicians were well represented. About 40 papers were presented on different dimensions of Sufism and Peace. Fakhar Zaman had himself set the parameters in his inaugural address dwelling on the role players by writers in the revolutionary progressive movements in the of world, including Pablo Neruda, Andre Malraux, Camus and Faiz in Pakistan. The strong delegation of Sweden led by eminent poet and peace activist, Peter Curman, mooted the idea of, 'Peace Cruise in the Indian Ocean' of writers and intellectuals on the similar cruises earlier in the Baltic, Black and Aegean. In a departure from scheduled programme and amid tight security, the delegates were hosted and addressed by President Asif Ali Zardari at the President's House. Sardar Asif Ali, the influential Minister of Education, also participated in this function.

Mr Zubair Rizvi of India who was not listed to present any paper but was specially asked to speak gave an eloquently detailed account of of the strong manifestations in India of the Sufi inspirations in various realms of arts like dance, theatre, painting, music, etc. and mesmerised the audience by concluding with his popular poem, 'Aman ka Geet' Mr Tulsi Diwasa Joshi of Nepal was also listened with deep interest for poetic presentation profused with his poetry in English. Mr Salman Taseer, Governor of Panjab made an impressive address, qouting Allama Iqbal and other Sufi saints in the morning of of 16th March. Mr Mahmud Erol Kilik, a prominent Turkish scholar on Tasawwuf, presented a competent paper highlighting contribution of Ibne Arabi as a Sufi philosopher. I was suddenly asked to be in the presidium in pre-lunch session. I shared my intellectual and personal encounters of the Sufi kind, particularly highlighting the unique contribution of Sufi saints in the the spiritual and literary heritage of Panjab and that Baba Farid's poetry has been given the singular honour of inclusion in the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib. There were several lady scholars who read interesting papers referring to message of love of humanity by Sufis irrespective of all divides. The cultural show with by students of University of city Gujrat on 14th March was impressive with background Panjabi Sufi poetry and, most surprisingly, Amrita Pritam's celebrated poem on Partition, 'Ajj Aakhan Waris Sha nun...I appeal to Waris Shah.’

The media attention to the Conference on a daily basis, perhaps as some calculated measure, seemed moderate though several younger TV reporters were at the venue and recorded interviews, particularly with the Indian participants to be telecast later. The TV channels seemed quite flourishing in terms of live discussions on current national issues. Mr Fakhar Zaman, in a briefing on 18th February, had said that Mohtrama Benazir Bhutto Shaheed had desired in her address to the International Conference on 'Literature, Culture and Democracy', held in Nov 1995 that such a Conference should be held, 'to highlight Pakistan's soft image in the world'.

The observers have pointed out that the rising tide of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan since 2007 had led even the Musharraf regime to turn to Sufism to counter 'Talibanized Islam' particularly after army action on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007. The PPP led Govt since February 2008 has two prominent Feudal Pirs in PM Youssaf Reza Gilani and the Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi. The PPP Govt has revived the National Sufi Council and has been seen inching closer to Barelvi movement and sectarian groups opposed to Deobandis and the Taliban. It is pointed out that the number of Pakistani madarasas had grown from 250 in in 1947 to around 10,000 in 2002 with over 1,50,000 students attending them; currently their number is 13,000 to 15,000 with highest growth in southern Panjab. The cumulative Saudi support to these madarassa has been estimated in the range of U$ 70 billion. It has been observed by the knowledgeable sources that while the Wahhabis make up only 2% of world's Muslims, they have been using their huge oil revenues to marginalise moderate and tolerant Sufi philosophy. It is also noted that while some 60% of Pakistanis are 'Barelvis' with moderate interpretation of Islam have only 13% of madrasas, 19% 'Deobandi-Salafi-JI' conrol over 70% of the madrasas in Pakistan. According to Y. Sikand, an eminent scholar of Islamic affairs, in some Sunni-Deobandi madrasas, Jihad (Holy War) against Shias is as much a religious duty as jihad against non-Muslims: any space for culture of dialogue simply does not exist.

While in modern epoch, the US/West has to share some historical blame for supporting autocrats/tyrants in the Islamic world as well for having 'mid-wifed' the one dimensional Islamic radical sect to spite the former adversary, the Soviet Union, time has indeed come calling the Islamic political & spiritual leadership around the world to rise to the occasion to face the new millennium with the pristine truth and a fresh outlook. Islam, as the largest Faith of Humanity with the most magnificent civilizational contribution in the history of mankind, has to play a vital role in furthering the cause of peace and prosperity for race of Adam inhabiting this planet. To quote one of the verses of Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273 AD) in which God tells Moses:

Thou had been sent by God, O Moses Not to divide but to unite His creatures.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Lost and Found in World of Books

The 19th Biennial New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF), was held from 30 January to 7 February, 2010, in the sprawling Pragati Maidan. The National Book Trust Directory stated that the Fair, spread over 42,000 square metres, with over 2,400 stalls and stands by 1,200 participants including 35 foreign exhibitors from 15 countries, 'showcased the diversity of one of the largest book industry in the world.' It was highlighted that the 19th NDWBF, in view of the capital hosting the Commonwealth Games during the year, had a special Theme Pavilion of books on various aspects of Sports, 'Reading our Common Wealth.' The Pavilion hosted several sports legends including Milkha Singh. There were exclusive Youth and Children Pavilions as well as the 'Collective Exhibit on and by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.' As per practice, many eminent writers were felicitated at functions of book launches, discussions on publishing and related issues.

Since returning to Delhi in December 2003, after a stay in seven different capitals spanning a period of over 21 years, I have been again an avid visitor to the last three editions of the NDWBF in the company of Vijay Mangla, my durable librarian friend of more than four decades. This year, I first visited the fair on Wednesday, 3rd Feb for a very special reason: to pick up the copy of Baba Pramatama Nand authored book, 'Gajjan Bilaas.' Why was the Book so very significant for me? Well, the family elders had always told me that I was the veritable golden apple of his eyes Pramatama Nand Ji whose dearest great-grandson I was. And it was he who had given me my name, even before I was born! He was reputed to be the most eminent scholar and Ayurved-physician of the area. He was the most revered Guru-Pitamah of my father, Vaid Haridial Nand, himself a distinguished classical scholar and Ayurved practitioner!

As a child of four I had mounted on the strong and broader shoulders of my eldest maternal uncle, performed the duty of honour to the esteemed departed by waving the sacred 'Chaur' - the fly-whisk at his 'Bavaan' - funeral procession - on October 19, 1947. My real great-grandfather Baba Giata Nand Ji, elder brother of Pramatama Nand Ji, passed away on August 20, 1951 and I had performed the same duty again. The only sister of my five great grand fathers, Chetan Kaur by name, called Bhua Ji by the entire village, had been residing in the parental home since all the members of the family of his in-laws who were doing business in Calcutta had died during the epidemic of influenza in 1918. She had survived being on a visit to Panjab and lived long enough to expire in 1960. She had been telling me all the long tailed tales of 'jagg beetian and hadd beetian' - the stories of others in the world as well as those of personal and family experiences.

Coming back to the book, 'Gajjan Bilaas', literally penned in the early thirties of the 20th century. It refers to the chronicle of the first Patriarch of our family, Baba Gajjan Shah, also called Laal Singh / Mastaan Singh, a much admired and sought after saint of great spiritual attainments of his time. The book, quoting verifiable sources like the orders of rulers of states of Malerkotla, Patiala and Maharaja Ranjit Singh, determines that Baba Ji lived from 1734 to 1839 AD. The author has adopted the traditional, 'Janam Sakhi' style of narrating the main events - including miracles of spiritual powers - of the extraordinary life his great grandfather whose parents of nobility had been blessed by Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The language of the book, originally of large sized 470 pages, in Gurmukhi script, in impeccable hand of Pramatama Nand Ji, is exalted Hindi Sant-Bhasha with frequent resort to classical poetic forms of Doha (couplets), Chaupai, Kabitt etc. I had been hearing and 'overhearing' so much about this family chronicle from my father, grandfather and great grandaunt Chetan Kaur ji, particularly quoting poetic pieces. It may be mentioned that Baba Pramatama Nand Ji had died issue-less, and while all his properties and material belongings etc were claimed by a nephew, the various books, medicines, music instruments etc were claimed by my father (Born August 30 1920) who had been studying at the feet of his Guru-Pitamah since his early life.

It was in 1992, 14 years after passing away of my father, that I could persuade my family that a few photo copies from the original 'Gajjan Bilaas' be made. The first copy was placed at the Samadhi of Baba Ji (photo on title of book); one was given to Prof Pritam Singh Ji of Patiala who knew my father and one has been travelling with me across continents. It has been indeed a brave task on the part of Dr Gurprit Kaur, Assistant Professor of Panjabi in PU, Chandigarh, a daughter in-law of Baba Ji's village, to have undertaken the task of 'Translation and Edition' of this significant work in the evolution of prose of Panjabi. I do not want at all to belittle the tons of labour of love involved in imparting a contemporary readable form to this work compiled more than four generations earlier, but would have certainly wished a much more rigorously researched approach in placing the work in its more appropriate and broader context - historical, literary, poetic and above all spiritual. The book begins with an erroneous sentence and is replete with incorrect 'Pad-nikherh' separation of words written in old all-joined style. Some portions of the original text have been omitted without giving any explanation in the preface.

The Deras have been currently more in the news for dubious deeds and divisive issues, the life and work of a saint-scholar-physician like Baba Pramatama Nand Ji certainly tell us golden tales of institutions comparable to Academies of celebrated Greek philosophers. Long before the British schools for the common people, more so in native states like Malerkotla, appeared on the scene, the personalities of the calibre of Pramatma Nand Ji were using their own resources to impart a multi-purpose education including classical languages, medicine cum pharmacy, instrumental / vocal music, not to speak of Yoga, horse riding, chess and even cooking! I am proud of my father who could come upto to all expectations of his Guru-grandfather Pramatama Nand Ji. I always pray to be fractionally as well learned as they were-without recourse to English!

As for the Book Fair, I and Vijay Mangla again roamed about in far flung halls of book stalls like 'lost and found' children, on Saturday, 6th February. We were keen to attend a meeting of octagenarian Hindi author and acclaimed editor of prestigious 'Hans', Rajinder Yadav with the readers but instead ran into Prof Mahip Singh, Hamanshu Joshi and others. I could again meet the young man at the big book stall of Bible Society whose name, surprisingly, turned out to be BR Ambedkar - told him with blunt affection that he has a tough task to live upto the reputation of his name! We bought a copy of 'Heer Ranjha' by Kaife Azmi, i.e. the text of the script in poetry of the film - we had seen this film together when I visited Delhi for the first time in June 1969 - sweet memories should not be be allowed to lapse! I also purchased a set of books to learn Sanskrit along with a DVD brought out by Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, priced most modestly - Rs 220/- only; never too late to learn something new! I also bought two copies of Krishdvaipayan Vyas, a masterly book by Bengali scholar Narsinh Prasad Bhaduri. It elaborates the most fascinating multifaceted character of the creator of Mahabharata. The visit to the eight book stalls of Panjabi revealed almost a deserted look. When i asked one of the owners about the future of Panjabi, he was candidly frank - the large Panjabi community of the capital should be interested to know what he had said. Interestingly, the book Gyan Sarovar which I had mentioned in these columns as the book I had bought in December 1957 for the prize of two rupees given to me by teacher Ashni Kumar Ji in ninth class was available for Rs 125/-still worth the amount!

The RSS had put up an impressive stall showing video film of Guru Golwarkar's life while leftist publishers appeared invisible. The books of Jyotish and Vaastu Shastra were selling like, what I learnt at school, like hot cakes. The future - and even past - would seem to hang heavy over the present which surely carries both in its soft belly! The books seem to hold key to all the three dimensions of Kaal-Time - a cyclical concept in the heritage of India. Talking about books is a never ending topic-more of of it later.