The thing about reviewing books by friends is that, well, you end up writing a “friendly” review. I must confess that I have known and admired Raza Rumi and his writings for a long time. What is more, I have read, and occasionally heard as a lecture or seminar paper, parts of this book over a period of many years. That is to say, I have been familiar with bits and pieces of this handsome volume long before I saw it as a sum of its parts in its present form. Reading it again, and especially in the light of Raza Rumi’s brief but heartfelt “Author’s Note”, I am struck anew by the vigour and usefulness of its contents. And also the earnestness and intellectual honesty that lie at the heart of its engagement with the world.

A policy analyst, journalist, writer and teacher, Rumi has worked at the Asia Development Bank and, before that, as an officer in the Pakistan Administrative Service. Now, living in exile after an attempt on his life that killed his driver but spared him, he teaches at the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs in the US and also edits the Daily Times (Pakistan). Once a frequent visitor to India, he has written Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller, The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition and Identity, and Faith and Conflict. This, his fourth book, is a compilation of occasional essays written over a period of time for different fora. Taken together, they reflect his search for answers.

Yet, a common thread runs through them: “the richness, the contradictions and the power of cultural expression”. That a policy analyst and political commentator should give such importance to culture and the arts is in itself, to my mind, refreshing. Spelling out the impulse behind this collection, Rumi writes:

“Three decades ago, I asked Pakistan’s celebrated writer and intellectual Enver Sajjad to define Pakistani culture for me. I vividly remember that restless summer evening and the erudite response which emphasised the pluralistic nature of Pakistan’s myriad cultures. And the fact that Pakistan was way too diverse than I, as a schoolboy understood. Pakistan’s cultural landscape is a fascinating kaleidoscope that endures in stark contrast to the singular notion of one-religion, one-culture that we learnt at school and heard on the radio and TV. Being Pakistani is a composite, layered, and often contested idea.”

Alternative histories

Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts is important for us in India for precisely the reason that Rumi outlines above; that being Pakistani is a composite, layered and contested idea unlike the monolithic mass of popular imagination. We need to listen to voices that rise above the Tower of Babel created by strident illiberal voices and speak of shared interests, similarities in culture and literature. Above all, we must be open to the ideas of dissent and difference. Being Pakistani is the work of a proud Pakistani, one devoted to his homeland, one who sees his identity as inextricably linked with his country of birth, one who is neither fearful nor hostile to those who are not Pakistani. Refusing to be trapped in the binary of “Us vs Them” Rumi is showing us another paradigm.

Grouped under four headings – “Devotion”, “Literature”, “Arts”, and “Personal Essay” – the essays delve seamlessly into the past and the present and produce cultural icons as varied as Bulleh Shah, the Sufi from Punjab, Intizar Husain – the chronicler of the Partition and its consequences – contemporary artists Shahzia Sikander, Saira Wasim and the (late) Asim Butt, among many others. It is the alternative histories that these voices – some known outside Pakistan, others not – that Rumi documents in this book. “Geopolitics and the dominant global security discourse,” Rumi notes with some ruefulness, “have reduced Pakistan to ‘terrorism’ and military coups. Films, novels, and global media images reaffirm such reductionist frames.”

Stepping out of these frames, Rumi is drawing our attention towards vast vistas. He takes us back in time to the poetry of “The Unholy Trinity of Love: Kabir, Bulleh and Lallon” in an essay that straddles, quite literally, the breadth of the entire Indian sub-continent. Like an arching bridge with one plinth in Pakistan and the other in Bangladesh, and one central pillar embedded deep in Kabir’s holy city of Banaras at the very heart of upper India, it spans multiple faith traditions. It is important to revisit these traditions because “whether it is fighting communalism in India, or extremism in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Sufis, Bhaktas, mystics, and Bauls have much to offer to make South Asia a safer and more prosperous part of the world community.”

Turning the gaze inwards, Rumi looks at entirely local and, as it were, home-grown Sufi traditions in Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab provinces. He writes: “Reclaiming the Indus folklore along the environmental conservation is a powerful way of saving the shared heritage of India and Pakistan. The Indus is an all-encompassing metaphor of securing long-term peace in the region, documenting and preserving cultural heritage and maintaining the sublime literary standards set by the followers. India cannot be without the Indus and Pakistan cannot function as a viable ecological zone without it either.”

Here, there and everywhere

Like geography, a shared culture is as much a fact of life in this part of the world. And it is when talking of culture and literature that Rumi makes his sharpest, most cogent points. While there are several luminous essays on Saadat Hasan Manto, Qurratulain Hyder, Mustafa Zaidi, Fahmida Riaz and Intizar Husain, of special interest is the one entitled “Pakistan’s Rich Dissident Literary Tradition”. Tracing its roots to the Progressive Writers’ Movement which flourished in the decade leading up to the Partition, he draws our attention to the long spells of authoritarian rule in Pakistan which, ironically, nurtured a subversive tradition that kept yielding, year after year, a rich harvest. There is of course Habib Jalib’s scathing indictment of the Constitution of Pakistan, drawn up under the strictest supervision of the dictator Ayub Khan:

Aisey dastoor ko
Subh-e bay-noor ko
Main nahin manta
Manin nahin janta

I do not accept I do not recognise
A constitution that resembles
A morning with no light

Rumi goes on to enumerate other instances: Irfan Sattar’s poem “Useless, of no value”, Ahmad Faraz’s “Mohasara” (“The Siege”), Shaikh Ayaz’s Sindhi poem “Echo the Call”. In another essay entitled “The Verse of Freedom”, he discusses a Saraiki poem by Zafar Jatoi as well several other instances of resistance poetry by Akbar Sial, a Pashtun poet, Ata Shad, Saiyyid Zahoor Shah Hashmi and Gul Khan Nasir – all three being important Baloch voices, voices seldom heard outside their immediate areas. But here, as elsewhere, Rumi is not looking for points of departure; instead, he is interested in the intersectional spaces.

Being Pakistani should be read not just because it gives us a radically new definition of being Pakistani but also because it encourages its readers to rise above the picket fences of regionalism and literary chauvinism and look at the view on the “other” side.

Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts, Raza Rumi, HarperCollins India.