A road less travelled

Endlessly flat though large parts of it may appear to be, there is much to be found beneath the surface

Ali Bhutto July 10, 2015
The writer is a sub-editor at The Express Tribune’s Opinion and Editorial desk ali.bhutto@tribune.com.pk

Many of us have yet to venture beyond the tollgates of Karachi and into rural Sindh. To the untrained eye, it may take a little time, patience and cajoling to truly appreciate environs that at first appear unforgiving. Ironically, children take no time in turning it into their playground. The rest of us rely on our primal ability to adapt. Historians’ and 19th century explorers’ vivid descriptions of the environment and topography of Sindh provide a romanticised window into the past, fuelling the imagination, cultivating curiosity.

Does the appreciation of Sindh’s environment and landscape require an anglicised sensibility, where the Western concept of aesthetic beauty is the unit of measurement? What is the perspective of the indigenous school of thought that, undoubtedly, exists, but in short supply?

Most recognised works by local historians are in English and all sound very similar, in their descriptiveness, to accounts of British officers during occupation. They all do a brilliant job in educating and providing a lense through which we can see anew. These works, old and new, deflect the reader’s imagination and curiosity into a fresh perception of the present. Yet when it comes to an indigenous angle on the topic, there is a void. A lack of a medium through which sensibilities can take shape. Whether I like it or not, my love of the desert and mountains finds expression in Western mediums. The Sindhi voice in my head remains silent. There is an appreciation, by the indigenous mindset, of the popular landmarks, picnic and tourism spots, but not of day-to-day life in the backwaters, nor of the orchestral midnight howls of jackals in foggy upper Sindh frontiers of Jacobabad district. Usually, it is shikar that draws many to the wilds, not the exploration of nature, which is secondary. Once out there, the hunters do enjoy their surroundings — it would be difficult not to. The ‘youth’, in large part, resort to escapism via smartphones. Excursions for the sole purpose of exploration are common only amongst outsiders. How many of the ‘youth’ have noticed the silhouette of red mountains on the Western horizon at twilight in winter? If Mr H T Lambrick can appreciate it, why can’t we? Our perception is shaped, partly, by the medium of expression itself. Appreciation can be acquired.

Over the centuries, local poets, Sufis and wandering dervishes, all seemed to have had a strong connection with their natural surroundings, in which they meditated and absorbed an energy that honed their creativity. Yet my fascination with life in rural Sindh and its discreet vistas is realised through Western works due to the lack of any other visible medium. The idea of mystics in the wilderness was incorporated in the English writings of scholars, officers and explorers of the colonial era. As a result, Sufi appreciation finds more of a voice in English language works and Western depictions than in local mediums.

The lack of an indigenous medium, in the appreciation of the environment of rural Sindh, is not due to illiteracy so much as a different approach and attitude to the subject. The Western attitude is shaped by the development of artistic perspectives over time. It is heavily influenced by 18th century Romanticism, which rejected the Classical principles of order, harmony and idealisation. The rise of Romanticism coincided with the emergence of British colonialism. The art of the Picturesque focused on the natural state of landscape, in all its grandeur and savagery. The art of the Sublime focused on the overwhelming forces of nature, which in this context would be the severe heat in the province, or the ‘dancing dervishes’ (dust storms). In Indian art, as in pre-17th century Western art, nature and landscape remained a background theme — a backdrop to something else, such as, a scene of battle. The garden, in Indian and Persian art, depicted nature as orderly and tame, reflecting the perfection in heaven.

David Cheesman, in Landlord Power and Rural Indebtedness in Colonial Sind: 1865-1901, attributes the allure of Sindh to “the spectacle of the Indus river”, which creates a “cycle of human existence based on confrontation with some of the most powerful forces of nature”, creating “an environment to nurture poets and mystics … stuff of heady primal poetry”.

On the road

If you can brave the desert, the oasis isn’t far. The Super Highway, from Karachi to Hyderabad, snakes its way through desert territory. The desert is dotted with cacti, like stars dotting a stellar constellation. There is a striking resemblance to the surroundings on California State Route 62 at Desert Hot Springs and the Morongo Valley (Twenty-nine Palms Highway), en route to Joshua Tree. The similarities are uncanny.

The Indus Highway branches off of the Super Highway at the entrance to Hyderabad. The purpose of the Indus Highway is to cover the western side of the province, linking Hyderabad and Jamshoro to Sehwan, Dadu, and Larkana. It is a road less travelled and certainly one that is underestimated. Whereas the National Highway gets all the commercial attention, the Indus Highway is the underdog, a treasure waiting to be discovered. And whereas the National Highway plods a dreary, uniform path, the Indus Highway takes you on a journey that pays homage to antiquity; a reminder of an ancient heritage that transcends man-made boundaries.

The stretch of desert between Jamshoro and Sehwan in particular, contains a hint of the old romance of ancient caravan routes. And with little or no corporate infestation, it is frozen in time. The Bhaggo Thoro Jabal (renamed Lakki hills by the British) appears on your left. On the other side of these mountains, which are part of the Kirthar range, lies a valley floor that once served as an ancient highway from Bambhore to Kandahar. The Bhaggo Thoro, in its folds, hosts Rannikot, believed to be the largest fort in Asia, at a circumference of 35km, and listed by Unesco as a tentative world heritage site. The origins of Rannikot are shrouded in mystery. But you have no doubt when you approach it, that you are being teleported to an ancient time of high adventure. At certain points, not far from Sehwan, the Bhaggo Thoro hills impose themselves on the highway. And as you move in their shadow, you notice a railway track cutting through their steep slopes. One cannot help but wonder how the train would withstand any loose boulders tumbling down these slippery slopes. This railway line, a precursor of the Indus Highway, dates back to 1874, when it was known as the Indus Valley State Railway. Commissioned by Bartle Frere, it ran from Kotri to Larkana. A relic of a bygone era, it looks down condescendingly upon its descendant, the modern highway that runs almost parallel to it.

There is much detail to be absorbed at any given point, and to your right, the stretch of desert comes to an abrupt end at the banks of the Indus. Alexander of Macedon set his gaze upon these very surroundings as he sailed past, en route to the Indus delta and the ancient city of Pattala (Thatta), around July, 325 BC. The mountains, railway track, highway and river Indus run parallel to each other at different altitudes on this stretch.

The British administrators in Sindh identified with Alexander’s conquest of the region and drew inspiration from it. This was the medium they used to find meaning and purpose in surroundings that otherwise may have appeared bleak. They fancied themselves as heirs to Alexander, building a new empire. However, according to historian David Cheesman, “The glamour of history, though, could not always compensate for the sheer physical rigour of life in Sindh.” Nonetheless, it was a medium through which the unknown could be familiarised. British spy Alexander Burnes, while sailing up the Indus in 1831, also identified with Alexander, claiming to be the first European in modern times to have navigated the river and more than happy to be amidst “the scene of romantic achievements which I had read of in early youth with the most intense interest”.

A rest house in Sehwan is built on the ruins of a part of an old township that once served as a trade hub of the region, but, according to folklore, was ‘turned upside down’ as a form of retribution of biblical proportions. It is a mound of unexcavated dead. This is but one example of the layers of history that lie beneath the obscure and seemingly uneventful surroundings in Sindh. Endlessly flat though large parts of it may appear to be, there is much to be found beneath the surface.

There will come a time, in the distant future, when the secrets hidden under the countless unexcavated mounds will be opened up to the world. They will prove to be missing links and pieces to a grander puzzle. Until then, we remain hopeful that we can save us from ourselves and not raze them to the ground.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2015.

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