Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

In search of the self

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Nyla Daud

“IT could be the folklore, the history, even the promise of unravelling the long established mystique behind a landmark, or some reference in a book of history or gazetteer, that gets me; that makes me go hankering in search of the identity behind places. This is pristine land overflowing with stories. Only nobody cares to listen to them. The people, the shrines, the sceneries of this land where my ancestors have lived for countless years are waiting to be discovered.” Then Salman Rashid gathers together his sleeping bag, shoulders his backpack, puts on his walking shoes and its off into the unknown, in search of identity.

“I have no idea how long I am gong to be away and Shabnam never questions me about it either. I could be gone for any length of time. I have all the freedom to wander at will.” Good for Shabnam indeed, that she learnt to respect her husband’s wanderlust! The longest period away from home so far has been a continuous three months when he covered 1100 kms across the country from Kaghan to Chitral.

And just then the phone rings. Rashid proceeds to grill the caller like an ace FBI man: conversation concluded, he turns round, brimming with excitement at having discovered a lead to the headman of the Brahvi Powindahs, a gypsy clan that routinely travels from the highlands of Kalat to Sibi in the south, following the course of the seasonal Rout Bahar. “That’s one journey I have been trying to do for a long time ever since I got to read of it in Thornton’s Gazetteer which gives details of countries adjacent to India in the northwest. All I now require is to find out the exact time of the year the Powindahs start their journey south and then I shall be off.” Then Rashid will cash in on his network of bureaucrat friends or wife Shabnam’s NGO connections to pin down resource persons and it will be the road to discovery once again.

Travel person by nature, travel writer by inclination, documentary author, environmental and development journalist by commission, anchor person for television travel series “Nagri Nagri Musafir” and “Sindhia Mein Sikandar”, Salman Rashid’s curriculum vitae, even his personal version of the document, reads as eventfully as does his own life. From the hot summer afternoons spent cycling around the Lahore of the fifties, to arguing with his Brigade Commander as a young army officer (“That culminated in a demotion and finally resignation!”), to simply being drawn into travel journalism courtesy an assignment requiring a planned itinerary for his multinational big boss (“which introduced me to Humsafar and the PTDC magazine), to the recent launch of his Prisoner on a Bus: Travels Through Pakistan, it has been a continuous journey.

The rewards have been fame and freedom; the first much appreciated, the second much sought. And all of it comes from the pen of a man who in his own words, is, apart from his ‘ro, ro kar kiya hua FSc’, entirely self educated courtesy the library of the department of archaeology, Karachi. Apparently Rashid, as the story goes, was cornered into studying maths even though “I couldn’t put two and two together!”

As luck and inclination would have it, six years as a commissioned officer in the Pakistan army culminated in a fiasco because “I was ‘unofficer like’ enough to call my senior a moron and then I was argumentative. So I called it a day as the senior-most captain in the Pakistan army.” Impishly he muses, “You know I always suspected that the ISSB chaps who selected me were Indian agents!” A stint at agriculture, followed by a supervisor’s job at RC Cola (“that was some comedown from being an officer”) finally landed him at Siemens. “that was when I got my first break as a travel writer”.

There was however always one constant along the route: an insatiable wanderlust, henceforth to be supported by wife Shabnam who became party, whether heading to the deserts of Sind or... when deciding to resign at Siemens and relocate in Lahore to write freelance for a living. Entirely estranged from the immediate family, which had by then given up on him, Rashid managed a ‘good life’ in spite of all. Today, as he sits talking in his book-filled study that looks out on to an orange tree, he can well afford the vicarious pleasure of retelling his story of struggle; the bus rides, the penny pinching to add up for the house rent, the travails of broken parental relationships.

“No I have no regrets,” he says, the ponytail of grey hair bobbing as it would on a highland trek. From the initial struggle to get his travel pieces printed in various newspapers to winning recognition as a widely-read travel writer, Salman Rashid has enjoyed the going because the only thing he has ever really wanted is to preserve the adventures of travel he has gone through.

“Always there has been more to find out, about people, about places, about folk fables. I learnt too to support my findings about these way out places through research and systematic reading instead of depending upon the local versions. You see television has destroyed the ancient art of storytelling but I do still manage to come across people like Hasil Chandio, whose mind is still uncorrupted and who can tell you that look, there on that mountain are the hieroglyphs drawn by my great grandfather when the mountains were not so high. Now this is collective memory coming down from fifteen thousand years when the mountains of the area were low enough for a man to stand up and draw on them.”

Among other things, Rashid has been infinitely drawn to investigate places that support a Pir prefix. “In the last few years, beginning with Channan Pir and Moosa Ka Musalla (re: Prisoner On A Bus) I have discovered that all shrines on hilltops have originally been pooja places of Dharti Maan and which have been converted to Islam by us people over the centuries. Then the locals weave stories around the sites, like the one about Hazrat Ismail being buried at Pir Ghat.”

Up hills and down dales for Rashid the road has more, often than not, been the one not taken. At times fraught with perils to life and limb, each foray into the unknown has come with its own discovery, not the least being a “discovery of the self. I have found myself to be a son of the land of the Sindhu River, of Moenjodaro and Harappa and of Mehergarh. There is still more to discover of myself so I intend to carry on”.

And in this process of infinite self-discovery chance encounters with dacoits the likes of Dadam Chandio are something Rashid takes in his stride. “I ran into Dadam Chandio sitting in the boondocks of the Kirthar mountains...” Always trusting in the intrinsic goodness of human nature, Rashid interviewed Dadam right after he had broken jail in Sukkur, a much dreaded hunted man on death row. He has proud memories of befriending the hunted dacoit as he has of the illiterate Leghari clansman sporting a binocular to study the stars somewhere in Shahdadkot. In this second man he had also found an inveterate architect talking of putting in arches and cusps in the village mosque there in the great outback!

So much for high adventure. There is also this one journey from Solun in Himachal Pradesh to Jullundar that Rashid would love to do if perchance he manages an Indian visa, because that for him still remains an enigmatic route: the one a late uncle had taken in the August of 1947 and during which members of the family had been massacred.

Right now even as he works on the compilation of his next book, Sea Monsters under the Sun God at fifty plus, Salman Rashid can at times feel the compulsion of passing time. Travel becomes an ever increasing luxury not only because of the old knee or heart but, because there are other commitments on his creativity; like stories of human development and environmental degradation.

With the Herald deadlines hovering over the horizon, travel into the wilderness is possible only after delivering commitments in this genre. “That sort of work sometimes cramps my enjoyment but it has got to be done.” For him as for any other person straining to live by creativity, there is old age to look forward to. There is the house to be paid up for. But “When I finish my current assignment I will do a spurt of travel followed by writing. That is always my big break.”

“It’s been an interesting, exciting life, never dull or uneventful. I like the freedom to work from the house but that too has required immense discipline. When an assignment dictates it so, I am at my computer at three thirty in the morning. I work right through the day when I know that I have to deliver and then I really enjoy the discipline it takes.” Discipline indeed, and Rashid gives a full throated laugh as he connects the word with the restless young man who got kicked out of the army just for a lack of it! Perhaps the creative world needed him more than the army!

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:36 AM,

3 Comments:

At March 22, 2013 at 7:36 AM, Anonymous Kausar Bilal said...

Very interesting article. Despite the absence of proper career counseling services, life finally takes us where we should be, provided we are fortunate enough. Great that all the professional experiences added to Salman's life and finally he could opt for pursuing his true passion.
This blog is very interesting and motivates me to visit all these places myself and discover the other aspects of the places as well, like past and present social and cultural aspects and issues. But it needs another lifetime.:)

 
At August 28, 2014 at 6:19 PM, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Salman Sb is a beacon of Hope in Pakistan, who has taken upon himself to discover this beautiful land and explore its magnificent past. Dispelling myths and folklore, he bases his opinions on precise historical facts, thanks to his vast study of actual History Books. But more than anything, he has an uncanny style of sucking the reader into his writings with the web of Nostalgia that he spins in his unique ethereal manner.

We the mere mortals, can only hope to follow in his footsteps.

 
At August 29, 2014 at 10:29 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you for your kind words, Rehan.

 

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days