One of the most unforgettable journeys of my life was the time (December 1983) I rode the bus from Lea Market, Karachi to the shrine of Shah Noorani (henceforth SN) in the Lahut valley (Lasbela district, Balochistan). The bus was a beat-up pile of rattling tin sheets; the men rode on the roof, the women, children and the goats and sheep inside.
Departing Lea Market well after the scheduled time, we left Hub Dam Road just short of the dam, and turned into the bush. The trail was clearly marked and some devotee had set up stainless steel rice dish distance markers in order to win merit with SN.
Now, the trail is criss-crossed with streams and every time our old rattletrap descended into one, a self-appointed cheerleader (of sorts), set up the cry, ‘Bolo, bolo, bolo, jeay Shah!’ In response the rest of us screamed at the top of our lungs ‘Jeay Shah!’ And good old Shah helped the bus up the sharp incline on the other side.
On one particularly nasty stream, the driver gunned the old engine for all it was worth and we went roaring down the sharp incline into the dry bed. There, quickly shifting to lower gear, the bus stormed up the far incline with the lot of us screaming our heads off to bring old SN back from the dead. The pitch of the engine changed as we made our way up: from roar to low growl to a sort of hiccupping silence as it died barely a few inches from the top. This time SN was not obliging the pilgrims to his tomb.
The driver slid into neutral and let the bus coast back to the bottom of the stream picking up speed as it went. Not looking sharp, the driver smashed his bus into a rock and we broke something or the other that prevented further progress.
Leaving the bus there, we walked up to an abandoned lean-to, lit a fire and sat around it. Most men had some tale to tell of how SN always came to help in such situations. One related to how on an earlier pilgrimage in a similar predicament, he saw the visage of the saint in the fire he had lit. The saint assured him to despair not for he was coming.
Itching to ask how the man knew it was SN and not Lawrence of Arabia, I yet kept my peace for fear of severe retribution from men who believed the saint was only marginally less powerful than God.
About an hour into the wait, someone reported lights in the distance. Sure enough old SN was alive to our calls, for the bus en route to our destination had just the part we had damaged. See, said the one who had seen the visage-in-the-flame, Shah Noorani never lets those down who believe in him.
Presently, repairs over, we were underway again. And what a wondrous place the shrine is set in: towering tamarind trees forming a canopy that holds off the sun, thickly foliated mango and jamun trees, rich with birdsong and the heady smoke from hundreds of hashish smokers.
The tomb itself was a mid-16th century structure with a squat, heavy dome but with no other ornamentation. There were vague yarns of Shah Noorani being some Arab who had come to this place to spread Islam. Among who, one wondered, because back in 1983, we had crossed country with nary a sign of human habitation. Indeed, the shrine was set in the middle of a great nowhere.
The real name of the man was Bilawal. Having read it nearly 30 years ago, I think it is Ali Sher Thattvi’s book Tuhfatul Keram that gives us the name. It also tells us that Bilawal, a native of Thatta, lived in the time of Jam Nizamuddin Samma (died 1508). He was a bit of a nuisance not being in full possession of his mental faculties — which in our milieu is a sound recipe for anyone’s sanctification or even apotheosis. He was either run out of Thatta on royal orders or left of his own accord and ended up where he was eventually buried.
What transpired thereafter is a tale and a half.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2012.