My book holds up a mirror to the Pakistani society, using the poetry and character of Nanak: Haroon Khalid

"Nanak’s message was that anyone who was willing to learn (Sikh in Punjabi) could be his follower. In that context, I have no qualms in admitting that I am Nanak’s Sikh."

Haroon Khalid, an educationist, freelance journalist and a travel writer hails from Islamabad, Pakistan.

He has been traveling extensively around Pakistan, documenting its historical and cultural heritage. He has authored “In Search of Shiva“, “A White trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities” and the latest one “Walking with Nanak.”

Haroon Khalid speaks to NaradaNews.com about his book, Pakistan’s identity crisis and how India and Pakistan are moving further away from each other by re-imagining their respective past.

Q. How did the new book come about? The selection of Guru Nanak as the subject for a book seems unusual for a Pakistani?

The idea of the book had been in my mind for a long time, almost as long as I have been writing professionally, I have been meaning to write something about Guru Nanak. In fact, the idea of the book is actually an amalgamation of three different ideas that I combined in this one book. I wanted to do a book on Nanak’s gurdwaras around Pakistan and talk about their context in a Muslim Pakistan that defines itself in exclusive religious terms, almost in contradiction to Nanak’s message of religious inclusivity. The second idea of the book was an exploration of Nanak’s story. After reading every single biography of Nanak I had been quite disappointed. All of them are stories of his miracles, rather than a story of Nanak the man. I felt this was a grave injustice to the legacy of the man who himself in his poetry speaks vehemently against attributing stories of magic and miracles to religious saints. The fictional biographical part of the book that deals with the story of Nanak the man, and not Guru Nanak the saint was therefore rather an attempt to write Nanak’s biography that I had always wanted to read.

Finally, I was also fascinated with exploring the history of the evolution of the Khalsa, a distinct religious identity. I find this aspect of Sikh history rather fascinating because Nanak’s entire message, as expressed through his poetry and his life stories has been against distinct religious identities. He talked about a blurring of religious divide. In addition to that, he spoke against religious rituals and dogma. I was therefore intrigued to know more about how a religious movement against institutional religion by Nanak eventually took the form of an institutional religion of the Khalsa. What were the historical contingencies that led to this? Predominately it is these three themes that I explore in the book.

As far as me being born into a Muslim family in Pakistan is concerned – I feel that has nothing to do with me exploring the message of Nanak. Nanak is someone who at least before Partition was celebrated by not only Sikhs but also Hindus and Muslims. There is a popular story attributed to Nanak, who is believed to have two companions, Bhai Mardana, a Muslim and Bhai Bala, a Hindu. Once they asked Nanak what religion should they follow to become his followers? Nanak is reported to have said that they should be good Muslim and Hindu respectively to be his followers. Nanak’s message was that anyone who was willing to learn (Sikh in Punjabi) could be his follower. In that context, I have no qualms in admitting that I am Nanak’s Sikh.

Q. Your two books explore the commonality and shared history between India and Pakistan at a time when the neighbours are defining their nationhood in opposition to each other.

I think this is a rather unfortunate time for India-Pakistan relationship. However what is more disappointing is that how this conflict between these two States is presented in a civilizational framework. I understand the political differences between these countries but here this political conflict is presented in the form of a conflict between two civilizations. The Pakistan State imagines itself to be the descendant of a mighty Muslim Empire that once ruled over India, while the Indian State is increasingly imaging itself to be the successor of a mighty Hindu civilization, which was once dominated by the Muslims but has now freed itself from the shackles of Muslim imperialism. In their desperate attempts to cast each other in these two oppositional eschatological roles, they keep on reinterpreting history and historical characters. While Pakistan continues using past Muslim Kings as symbols, the Indian government is now increasingly “purifying” its heritage of its “Muslim” influences and recasting prominent Hindu Kings.

This is a grave injustice to history here. Stripped off their political and historical realities these Kings become mere puppets which each State projects in whatever way they find expedient. In fact these Kings and the history we associate with them rather becomes a projection of how these States want to see themselves as opposed to a real historical image. I also follow this theme in the book, in which I talk about how our heroes from the past become figments of our own imagination and rather become an extension of ourselves. We see them as we want to see ourselves as opposed to how they actually were. This is what happened with Guru Nanak as well. After his death he was cast in a new light, becoming a symbol of how the community and its leaders wanted to see themselves (expressed through Nanak) as opposed to how he actually was.

Q. How has been the response to your book in Pakistan?

So far the response to the book in Pakistan has been phenomenal, much better than what I expected. I followed a unique literary device in the book, merging fiction with non-fiction, magical-realism with academic historical writing, and I was quite scared about the response I would get. But I am humbled at the appreciation I have received so far. I think one important reason why there is so much interest in the book in Pakistan is because the book is not just about Guru Nanak. It is also a story of Pakistan. It holds up a mirror to the Pakistani society, using the poetry and character of Nanak, to tell it what it has become. Things have been bad in the country in the past few years with religious extremism on the rise. However, in juxtaposition with that, there has also been a rise in the number of voices who want to salvage our history and heritage from the clutches of the extremists. I don’t think we could ask for a better symbol than Nanak in these troublesome times.

Q. One of the reasons for the rise of religious conservatism is the believed to be its movement away from Civilisational India and increasing Arabisation over the past several decades.

Absolutely. I think one reason why the State of Pakistan finds itself in such difficult waters is that it has in the past seven decades failed to define its identity. From its inception, there has been an attempt to move away from the identity of the country from its “Indian” roots, which has been appropriated by India. Finding itself in a precarious place the State then started increasingly casting itself in a Middle-Eastern Islamic lens. In many ways, this is a phenomenon that is as old as Islamic empires in this part of the world. For some inexplicable reason, they have always been embarrassed about their indigenous identity and have always looked towards the west for its identity. Under the Mughals, it was Persia that was seen as a shiny example to be emulated, while today it is the Arab world.

This is another reason why Nanak’s movement was so significant. He lived and wrote at a time when Arabic and Persian was the language of the aristocrats. Being highly educated he too understood these languages and could write in them. However, unlike religious scholars of his time, he expressed his spiritual message in the vernacular. That is the genius of his message and one of the main reasons as to why his message became so popular so quickly. In the spiritual tradition of Punjab, one can see that whoever has shunned the language of the elite and expressed their message in the vernacular have become immortal – Baba Farid, Guru Nanak, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah are all part of that tradition.

Q. The photographs in the book show that most of the gurudwaras in Pakistan are well-maintained?

There are about 130 odd gurdwaras in the country that are in one way or the other linked to the legacy of Guru Nanak. These are places where Nanak either stayed or “performed a miracle”. However out of these, only a handful of the gurdwaras are under the protection of the government and that too is a recent phenomenon. Since the 1980s the Pakistani government has woken up to the potential of Sikh tourism in the country, which has led to many of these gurdwaras being renovated. However, there are still hundreds of them which have either been converted into residential houses or lie in shambles. The process of renovation is happening but at a slow pace. At this speed, many of these gurdwaras would be destroyed by the time the government even realizes there was a gurdwara associated with Nanak here.

Another sad aspect is that almost all of these gurdwaras had vast tracts of land that was associated with them. This was allotted to them by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 19th century. The British also allowed these gurdwaras to retain their property. However after the Partition of India these properties were abandoned which led to squatters and land grabbers taking over these lucrative properties. Even in cases where these gurdwaras have been renovated the acres of properties linked with them has been lost forever.

Q. What is the new light your book sheds on the relationship between Guru Nanak and his Muslim companion Bhai Mardana.

In Sikh hagiography, Guru Nanak is presented as a saint while Bhai Mardana is presented as his loyal companion. In these stories, Nanak is stripped off his humanity and presented as a saintly figure who doesn’t get hungry, sleepy or possess any human emotions. Bhai Mardana, on the other hand, is almost presented as a comical interlude, who succumbs to human weaknesses because of which he finds himself in these particular circumstances, which allows Nanak to preach a message. In reality, however, I feel that the relationship between Nanak and Mardana must have been more complex. Whereas in some circumstances Nanak was the teacher and Mardana the student, there must have been other situations in which Mardana must have served as Nanak’s master. I think particularly with music, it must have been Mardana, being a professional musician, who would have introduced Nanak to basics of music. The music then becomes an important part of Nanak’s religious message. All his teachings were expressed through music.

Having traveled for more than two decades together I feel there also must have been a genuine friendship between the two. There are a couple of versions which record Mardana’s death, one of which states he died in Baghdad. If that was the case I feel his death would have had a huge impact on Nanak and perhaps might even have inspired him to finally settle down after spending almost half his life traveling the world. Cut off from all his relations it was Bhai Mardana who was the only constant in his life, arguably his most intimate relationship.

While one part of the book deals with Nanak and Bhai Mardana, the non-fiction travelogue narrates my journey with my Guru, Iqbal Qaiser, an expert in Sikh history, and the author of the book Historical Sikhs shrines in Pakistan. At a lot of places in the book, I have attempted to understand Nanak and Mardana’s relationship through our relationship. Earlier I mentioned how our heroes become a reflection of how we want to see ourselves. I think this is something that I also actively engaged in while writing and reflecting on the book.

Q. Much of your writing is focussed on the forgotten minority shrines and religious places in Pakistan and their history. What explains this curiosity?

I think one important reason has been the dearth of scholarship in this area. Pakistani history and authors, at least till the recent past, have been deafeningly silent about their non-Muslim past. This, of course, is an integral part of our history and its void needed to be filled and explored. It has a huge impact on our contemporary identity. Without exploring this aspect of our history we would never be able to understand our present day selves.

Another reason why I have focused on the non-Muslim history of the country has been the realization that there are these Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras scattered all over the cities and villages of the country. The architecture of these places has been preserved but most of these places have been converted into residential houses. When I put on the glasses of a researcher and observed for the first time I realized that the testimony of this history was all around us, yet ignored so brutally. I knew that I had to explore it.