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The Writing Tribe of Sindh

Original version below: 

Edited version printed in DAWN on Tuesday, December, 25, 2007

Perhaps the largest literary association in Asia, with a membership knitted only by the Sindhi ukhur, and woven throughout Sindh’s cities, towns and villages, the Sindhi Adabi Sangat, despite a recent structural and ideological controversy within its ranks, continues to crackle. It does so because of an innate academic and artistic dynamism that has sustained it for over 50 years. Its chapters, extending to remote Sindhi hamlets, give it an atypical range in variability and imbue its collective mind with an equal passion for both Sindhi canonical and modern literature.

This writing tribe of Sindh talks constantly and easily with each other, in magazines and forums across Sindh. They speak and write as exhaustively of Shah Abdul Latif and Sachal Sarmast’s musiqiat as they do of Biloo Dada and Pishoo Pasha, (famed Sindhi short stories).

At its recent commemorative conference, held at Karachi University, the Sangat offered its usual literary cornucopia and connections. A far cry from the days when Sindhi was officially banned from the university as an examination medium, one could see young Thari anthropologists from Umerkot enjoying fellowship with the Sangat’s octogenarian, Sobho Gianchandani. A thick black/white wool scarf wound round his head, in Sobho style, he poured love and intellectual encouragement on adoring young writers.

A glamorous economics professor, from the Sindh University, shared her Urdu poetry and Mirpurkhas roots in a bilingual presentation (Sindhi-Urdu). And where else could one enjoy a wild rendering of Ho Jamalo while a stranger (from Anjuman-e-Tarqi- Pasand- Musanifeen) triumphantly and without preface whispers that Dr. Badruddin Ujjan, [doctoral dissertation: “Literary Criticism in Sindhi Literature (1901-1990)”] has defined Sarte’s nausea in Sindhi, as ‘Undur ji Uthal”? “This hasn’t been done yet in Urdu”, he adds, as if that makes the feat more precocious.

A taste of the openness of the conference came early when Dr. Fehmida Hussein (Director, Shah Latif Chair at K.U) threw the first ember of glasnost when she said that contending Sangatees should sit together and resolve their disagreements. It was a testament to the maturity and sophistication of the organization that V.C Sindh, Mazhar Siddiqui and the great Gianchandani publicly pledged to reunite estranged members.

Diversity is a Sangat hallmark. Even its bureaucratic face was varied. Dr. Zulfiqar Sial’s (Sangat’s secretary general) movie actor looks contrasted with Iftikhar Arif’s governmental black on black outfit at the inaugural. All linguistic traditions were welcomed and honored in the Sangat. The World Pashto Conference’s Salim Sahib’s solidarity with the Sangat was palpable. Though Sindh’s Malcolm X, Joyo Sahab, was absent, Dr. Nabi Bux Baloch, the Sangat’s literary giant presided and turned ninety during the conference. Thus modern Sindhi literary life definitely came of age last weekend.

Poets and prose writers from Thatta, Sehwan, Sujawal and Sukkur; school teachers and students from Dadu, Karachi, Larkana, Hyderabad; many with frayed cuffs and malnourished bodies, listened to the brilliant Taj Baloch’s (editor: Sojhro) read J. A Manghani’s paper titled, “Shah Latif and the Present Social Order of Sindh” and to Jami Chandio’s skillful analyses in “The problems of Modern Sindhi Literature”. Their impoverished appearances belied a ‘high culture’ involvement in the discourses and intricate academic deliberations.

The applause implied that Taj Baloch spoke for many Sangat loyalists when he said, “I am willing to…..clean tables if that is what the Sangat requires”. Some Larkana teachers remembered an absent Taj Joyo’s literary expertise and sheer academic vigor. However no one seemed to mind that while the conference papers were presented on campus, the musical event had to be off campus. Music is forbidden at the Karachi University. Perhaps the Vice Chancellor (K.U) has an appreciation for the powerful bond between Sindh’s literature and her music. He bused participants to the Liaqat National Library for a Sindhi music performance, one safe hour’s distance from the university environs. But the traffic riddled journey hardly perturbed the ardent aficionados of Sindhi music.

A Sindhi literary audience is never shy about calling out corrections in chronology and pronunciation. And so it was last weekend: Presenters occasionally defended their point aggressively and a discourse turned into a quick and fiery literary debate because an unshaven youth was offended by an obscure ‘poetic’ gaffe. Although numerous other Sangats have produced greater intellectual richness, deeper analytical studies, and have better highlighted the persistent passion and intellectual drive among Sindhi writers, than this recent one, it was nevertheless amazing to watch a shabby (only in appearance) researcher lament that Sindhi poetry has not been semantically appraised with modern French prose. This was a conference where someone from Naudero could complain, “What is the point of having parts of Grierson’s “The Linguistic Survey of India (1898-1928)” and Friere’s works in Sindhi when my hometown library doesn’t have copies?” His friend added complacently that these authors have not been rendered in Urdu. And this was the same young man who participated vociferously, using high class Urdu and Seraiki, in the conference’s multilingual mushaira.

But so much more doesn’t square within this Sindhi academic/cultural/literary milieu. And just as the squalid bathrooms of the university didn’t make sense after one had admired the chiseled patrician face of V.C. Dr. Pirzada at the inaugural session, it is difficult to make sense of the rot within Sindhi medium schools in Karachi and the rest of Sindh after a Sangat experience. The standard of instruction in Sindh’s public schools is rapidly falling beyond repair and one wonders how the scholarly strength one saw at the conference will be sustained. Sindh’s academic cake seems to be disproportionate, with the icing being thicker than the sponge below. A rich literary tradition, that is deep and wide in Sindh and supported by an impressive network, contrasts oddly and inexplicably with a decrepit school system.

This issue was somewhat addressed by Dr. Qasim Bhugio in his paper titled “Language Planning in Pakistan and the Sindhi Language”. He stressed the urgent need for corpus and status planning of Paksitani languages and the bearing that this work will have on education planning. He mentioned the confusion that has resulted because of planning failures and how the public, particularly parents, struggle between medium of instruction choices that are convoluted with the problem of obtaining a decent education for their children. Dr. Bhugio’s talk suggested that Pakistan’s multilingualism is an asset to be exploited and not a liability to be ignored.

Finally, Shamsher Al-Hyderi, a historian and chair of the Sangat presented the declaration and resolutions of his Kalam Kabeelo. He asked, “How can the pen tribe look away from the plight of mankind?”

So much is interconnected in the words and spaces that encompass our lives. For instance, the Shah Latif Chair at the K.U campus is housed on the far side of even the Bengali department and the Sindhi department seems to be on a noisy sidewalk and below the broader, quieter corridor that off shoots the Urdu, Farsi and English departments upstairs. But then perhaps these locations are only significant from a paranoiac perspective. And maybe the first Sangat event at the K.U denotes a shift in the wind and the immeasurable academic cultural and literary landscape of Sindh will finally be afforded a meaningful space in her capital’s university.