Raza Rumi, over the course of his impressive career spanning journalism, pedagogy, and political and economic analysis, has pored over and written extensively about Pakistani culture. He has examined its manifestations in visual art, poetry, popular culture, and fiction. He has also often chosen to go off the beaten path in search of aspects of this variegated culture that elude the cautious reporter.
In his latest book, Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts – a compilation of a number of his essays from the past decade (some published in prominent magazines and journals, some presented at regional literary and cultural festivals) – Rumi looks at cultural phenomena as diverse as the enduring veneration of a mighty river, the prickly revival of Indo-Mughal miniature painting in the country and its effects on the global reception of Pakistani art, the militarisation of public aesthetic in Pakistan, and the social history at the heart of Qurratulain Hyder’s fiction. The unifying vein, however, for these and other topics visited in the book, is a conviction in, and celebration of, the pluralism that characterises Pakistani culture.
The twenty-two essays in the book are divided into sections titled “Devotion”, “Literature”, “Arts”, and “Personal Essay”, the last comprising Rumi’s poignant reflections on Bangladesh and Lahore – sites of loss and political violation; memory, modernity, and regeneration.
In “Devotion”, Rumi explores the mythos of the river Indus in a deeply engaging essay, touching upon the ancient and hallowed history of the river, its etymology, and the folklore that derives from it. He locates references to the river in Vedic texts and in romances like Sohni Mahiwal, immortalised by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. He marks how the shrines of Sufi saints dot the banks of the Indus, enabling an inclusive and alternative, though increasingly threatened, belief system to thrive in a country fast giving in to radicalism. The river Indus, so knowledgeably and poetically invoked by Rumi, emerges as an entity unto itself, an almost sentient ribbon of light connecting the region’s past to its present, as it connects mountains and plains, plains and ocean.
Another enlightening essay in this section investigates “the cult of the feminine” in Sindh. Rumi proposes that the mother goddesses of the Indus Valley civilisation resurfaced in pre-Islamic Sindh in the form of Kali. He introduces the three main Kali temples present in Sindh and goes on to suggest more modern, Sindhi counterparts of these deific feminine forces, such as Benazir Bhutto. A detailed and helpful table listing Hindu temples in Sindh and Balochistan accompanies the text. The essay is informative and entertaining, and Rumi combines the narrative ease of a storyteller with the erudition of a scholar.
It is also worth noting that Rumi uses the word “devotion” rather than “religion” to examine this facet of Pakistani culture, as religion has become a rather divisive term that connotes the overwriting or homogenising of the myriad, marginalised forms of spiritual expression that inform Pakistani culture.
A similar recognition of the “unsung”, the dissident, and the humanist informs Rumi’s essays in the “Literature” and “Arts” sections, in which he looks at the practices of, among others, writer Saadat Hasan Manto and visual artists Asim Butt and Shahzia Sikander. The feature on Butt is particularly riveting. Rumi chronicles the fiery and eventful, yet tragically brief, life of the Karachi-based visual artist and analyses his work – specifically his public art interventions – with sensitivity and insight. Writing about Butt’s murals near the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, for example, Rumi deftly evokes the context for the powerful works:
“His murals at the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Karachi were electric and involved intense engagement with the transitional communities of beggars, prostitutes, junkies and other dreads of society who had been rejected by convention and were in turn extremely eager to reject convention themselves. This was also a space where Asim discovered many soul mates – ordinary, nameless people – and engaged in a collective artistic dialogue. Not unlike the archetype of a Sufi Khanqah, he replicated a parallel space outside the formal confines of a Sufi shrine.”
It is imperative that artistic contributions, like Butt’s, to public art in Pakistan (a genre dominated by representations of religious and/or military might), are remembered, discussed, and documented as brave and solitary forms of resistance against what Rumi terms the “homogenous hegemony” which threatens a “vibrant, plural society and culture such as Pakistan”.
Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts is a book that encourages, above all, an inclusive approach to reading and understanding Pakistan. The range of ideas traversed by Rumi reflects the eclectic composition of Pakistan’s culture and his essays serve up cues for further dialogue and research. At the launch of the book in Islamabad, in July, Rumi – as part of a panel introducing and discussing the book – laughed, a little frustrated, at how we need to cut back on our growing, collective obsession with politics and instead engage with the other strands of our culture, a culture that is beautifully pluralistic and should be kept that way.