Pakpattan (Sacred River-Bank) is a city in Punjab, famous for the shrine of a 12th century Sufi, Baba Farid, more commonly known as Ganj-e Shakar (Treasure of Sugar). The legend goes that a merchant once passed through Baba’s city with a caravan of camels laden with sugar. When Baba asked the merchant what his camels were carrying, he mockingly replied, “salt,” and upon reaching his destination, discovered that the sugar on his camels had turned into salt. The merchant hurried back, the legend continues, to apologise to Baba, who magnanimously turned the salt back into sugar.
Baba’s shrine has two large gates, Nuri Darvaza or Gate of Light and Bihishti Darvaza or Paradise Gate. There is a common belief among the faithful that whoever passes through the latter will have their sins (however grave they may be) washed away, thus ensuring an entry to paradise. There is a caveat (like in most patriarchal cultures): no woman is allowed to pass through the gate, or even enter the shrine. The rule was changed, however, to allow the late prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in the shrine. As elsewhere, it is generally one rule for one and another for the rest.
The gate remains closed for most of the year and is only open during the death anniversary of the Saint. This narrow opening to the paradise attracts throngs of believers to the fabled threshold. In 2011, 27 men died and over a hundred were injured during a stampede at the door to paradise. At least they died with the consolation of a blissful afterlife.
“She was eight feet tall, so dazzlingly beautiful that you could not fix your eyes on her for more than a few seconds. I was returning late from a wedding on my motorbike, Princess, when I saw her standing alone near a cemetery. She asked me in eloquent Urdu to give her a lift and for some reason, I could not say no. After a while, I noticed that the back wheel was growing heavy. I stopped to look and noticed that her feet were turned backwards and I instantly realised that she was a chureyl (demon).” Thus claimed the majority of the (allegedly) true stories that the readers used to send to the Sunday edition of Akhbar-e Jahan (World News). After skimming through the pictures of brightly-dressed socialites located at the heart of that colourful magazine, I would eagerly fly to the segment redolent with the stories of supernatural.
I never questioned the widespread occurrence of the inexplicable, eerie phenomena, scattered everywhere around me. My aunts had a little chest in which they kept the auburn bark of a tree, which they used as an intimidatory device sometimes. “Eat your greens or the djinn (genie) of the chest will be very angry.” There was an abandoned house in our neighbourhood with a starved acacia tree peeping over one of the walls and everyone in my class knew that it was one of the favourite hotspots of the local djinns. A haunted house was known locally as a heavy house or a house with sayah or shadow.
Around that time one of my neighbours with a repute of playing hooky, started having fits, during which he would swear like a heathen in a very deep voice. After regular doctors proved to be incapable of diagnosing his condition, a spiritual amil (agent) was recommended to the family. A drowning man clutches at a straw, as the saying goes. The helpless family took Shizo to the spiritual sage, who straightaway declared that the lad was possessed by djinns. “He urinated on one of their kids under a tree and they are taking their revenge.” He took a dramatic pause before continuing, “I can cure him but that will require the sacrifice of a billy goat. A black one!” For some odd reason, all witch doctors demanded a black he-goat as the compensation for their labours. A few months and at least half a dozen black goats later, Shizo stopped having fits, when his elder brother suddenly discovered a relation between the occurrence of his fits and some exceptionally tricky school tests.
I have lived in the west for over a decade now, where supernatural is resurrected every year as a part of the feast of halloween. I sometimes wonder if there are still any heavy houses in the east and whether men still ride with gorgeous demons in desolate suburbs.
One of the regular visitors to my childhood home was, I remember vividly, a middle-aged woman who talked ‘funny’ and collected litter from every household in our street. To this day I don’t know her name and doubt that anyone else in my family (or for that matter any other family in my street) did either. Her visits were categorically brief and she rarely stopped to chit-chat. Nonetheless, we kept a special teacup for her – in case she would ever want to stay for a cuppa one day. The thing with this special cup was that it was never used by anyone else (or by her, as far as I can remember). Soon I discovered that our rubbish-collector, like all the other rubbish-collectors, sweepers or sewage-cleaners in the city, was Christian. Now I don’t know whether it was their profession or their being non-Muslim that the cleaners of the city had to be served tea in special cups. It could be both – but there was certainly an idea of ‘dirtiness’ attached to them. That was my first encounter with Christians.
Later, when I went to the high school, our religious studies teacher told us that it was forbidden to greet Christians (or any other non-Muslims) in the prescribed religious way (salam). “Do not say ‘salam aleikom‘ to them unless they do it first,” he advised. I found out that their forefathers – who had allegedly come from the untouchable caste of Hindus – had been converted by British missionaries in the colonial times – perhaps to escape the injustices of the Hindu caste system. Unlike the majority of people in my city, Christians or Massihis did not speak Lahnda but an eastern dialect of Punjabi – so they must have migrated from somewhere in the eastern Punjab – perhaps after the Partition to run away from the bloodshed.
There was a separate neighbourhood and a special cemetery for Christians, with the abodes of both living and dead being adorned with crosses. The only time I visited one of their homes was with one of my friends, R. He was an employee of the city municipality as a clerk in the sewerage department, and thus had many Christians as his acquaintances. “I might partake in some wine-tasting,” he warned me before we stepped into the home of two of his colleagues. “You’re welcome to join us.” Christians were exempted from the alcohol ban that affected Muslims in Pakistan. The men greeted us reverently – out of respect for their boss or our religion, I cannot be sure – and took us to a cot in the shady verandah. The walls of the Massihi home were decorated with the kitschy and gaudy portraits of Mary and other Catholic icons. “Please, Khan sahib,” one of the men brought a bottle of wine and a glass for my friend, leaving me to wonder whether they too had a special glass for their Muslim visitors.
I had seen them many times before, standing still with their backs to a side wall of St Anselm’s church and with their heads low as if they were hiding some guilt, conversing with each other in a low murmur – and constantly waiting. I had heard that they were faujis or illegal immigrants (literally soldiers) and that they spoke Punjabi. But it had never occurred to me that despite a common language and a shared sense of being away from home, we might have anything to say to each other – that is until I was looking for a topic for a short documentary for my filmmaking studies. I was reluctant to approach them at first, thinking they might not be willing to be filmed. Instead, and to my surprise, I found them very warm. They opened their hearts before me – happy that someone was listening to them. I was touched. I could also see a glimmer of hope in their eyes – hope that being heard was equivalent to being rescued perhaps – but I could not do anything for them. What you are seeing below is the fruit of their honesty and openness.
“The Indians know neither how to dress nor how to eat – God save me from the fire of their dal and their miserable chapattis.” Thus writes Mirza Ata, “the most articulate Afghan writer”1 and chronicler of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842).
The first time I came across the derogatory term ‘lentil eater’ was whilst watching a Youtube video containing Dari dubbing of a famous scene from the film 300 (please don’t ask why). A character representing a Pakistani/Persian ambassador brings a massage for an Afghan/Spartan ruler, who addressing him as dal-khor or ‘lentil eater’, reprimands him for having the weekend on Sunday instead of Friday, unlike other Muslim countries, and in blatant violation of the rule ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ throws him down a bottomless pit. I must say I was quite amused and a bit perplexed by the term.
The slur, it would seem, has been around for quite some time. A few months ago, whilst reading the exciting Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple, I came across the afore-mentioned historic account of the term. Dalrymple goes on to note, “Afghans still have a tendency to talk about Indians and even Pakistanis in this way. As rice and meat eaters they see themselves as infinitely superior human beings.” However, it would also be a bit unjust to say that the term, though originating from Persian, is only limited to Afghans. Kashmiris use it apparently for other Indian groups (especially South Indians) and Cimmerians used it for Cimbrians.
I am aware that this is not the only pejorative term originating from the eating habits or choices of an ethnic or linguistic group. But in my opinion ‘lentils’ or ‘pulses’ are a very non-offensive sort of food. How could that offend someone is beyond me (although it does remind me of the equation of veganism with weakness in some people’s minds). Well, what do I know? I am not even a full-time lentil eater.
1Dalrymple, William (2012) Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan, London, Bloomsbury Publishing
After a long day at work sometimes when I come home I just want to switch it all off and so I switch my television on (for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, television or tv is a box which shows moving, talking pictures of people, animals, imaginary beings and ideas and most of the content it shows helps to kill your braincells). So what’s on? A man wearing a cloth cap is reciting poetry in a regional dialect. His words touch my soul. He is talking about the common man in the street, and the common woman, and their hardships and suffering and woes. I feel moved. Tears swell up in my eyes, blurring my vision. Soon a cathartic river would be flowing from them. It would cleanse my soul. But no, before I could find a hanky to dry my eyes, the man finishes his poetry abruptly and on the screen the logo of a major high street bank appears. What in the fornication’s name is this? I feel cheated. Why is a banker reading poetry about the common person? Why does a piece of advertising propaganda need to be so dramatic? What’s it got to do with poetry or the woes of a homeless person? And why do they need to be so sly and cryptic? All these questions and more raise their thorny heads in my mind.
I see that they are all doing it now. Another banking ad is showing emotive images from a family’s life, children of different ages and sizes snugged up on a sofa with their numerous parents talking about the Suez Crisis, while it rains heavily in the window pane. What’s that got to do with the price of fish? Another bank is using nostalgia as a selling device by showing homeless cartoon characters from my parents’ childhood.
I realise that these are all ways to gain my, your trust, the trust they lost after plunging you and me and the common person in a knee-deep bog of debt after the bubble crunched in 2008. Most of the merchants of costly dreams were then bailed out by the state instead of facing the song of justice and now they are back, prowling surreptitiously on their prey. Their duplicitous ways have been magnified rather than corrected. Why regain trust by being trustworthy when they can spend millions emotionally manipulating the public, sneaking their message in our private space, as we sit on the sofa after a long day and finally put our guards down. A loan should be a loan not a sonnet of misery.
The legend goes that when the superb Urdu short-story writer, Saadat Hassan Manto, migrated to Pakistan after the Partition, one of his first excursions was to a corner shop. “Do you have a bottle of Jonny Walker?” he asked the shopkeeper.
“Yes,” the shopkeeper replied fetching a bottle.
“Yes, sahib, here you go,” the eager shopkeeper produced another bottle gleefully.
“Great. I don’t want to buy anything. Just wanted to make sure Pakistan had plenty of alcohol.”
Manto did not, however, live to see the prohibition of alcohol in 1977 by the government of Z A Bhutto, himself a self-alleged whisky connoisseur, whose appeasing policies gave in before the increasing pressures of aggressive fanaticism. One of the obvious effects of the ban was an increase in the illicit distillation of alcohol. Thanks to the non-standard distillation methods and in the absence of any regulatory measures, the home-produced alcohol, locally known as tharra, kuppi, arrack or sag-kush (dog-killer) can easily be fatal and I personally know some victims (including the brother of my erstwhile inamorata). However, it does not hinder people from producing and consuming more and more sag-kush. As William Dalrymple1 remarks, “Pakistanis believe illegal drinking to be rather chic, and will go out of their way to show quite how drunk they are”.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when they arrive in the West, due to curiosity or perhaps owing to a sense of liberation, many Pakistanis give in to the temptation of consuming something that would not kill. The choice of poison, however, hasn’t changed much since the days of Manto or Bhutto, it would seem. Most boozy Sues from Pakistan I have encountered go for whiskey (and then for other types of spirits). The reason is obvious: apart from the taste, it is the idea that if you are doing something bad, you should do it to the extreme. As a very dear friend of mine once told me, “if you must eat a dog, at least eat it to your heart’s fill”.
Urdu poetry borowed many alcohol-related themes from Persian in which mey/baadeh or the wine was predominantly spiritual or the intoxication was usually caused by the beloved’s eyes. One of the greatest Urdu poets, Ghalib, famously expressed the difficulty of relating themes of divinity without the mention of “wine and goblet”2.
“I’m half-Muslim,” Ghalib is said to have replied to the haughty Colonel Burn, the military governor of Delhi, who asked the poet if he was a Muslim during the interrogation of mutineers after the failure of the War of Independence (or what the British would later remember as the Great Mutiny) of 1857.
“What do you mean by half-Muslim?” Burn asked arrogantly.
“Sharab peeta hoon, suar nahin khata,” Ghalib admitted. “I don’t eat pork but I do drink.”
Many modern bards, on the other hand, choose to write about the ‘real thing’ instead of a metaphorical, divine and undrinkable substance. I remember the huge popularity of the Sharabi Ghazalen or ‘Boozy Ghazals’ records sung by the Indian singer, Pankhaj Udhas in the 90s. The lyrics were normally of low quality and tasteless but ‘they touched the thirsty soul’.
1Dalrymple, William (1989) In Xanadu, London, Penguin Books
2Harchand ho mushahida-e haq ki guftogu
Banti nahin hei baada-o saghar kahe bagheir