Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The illiterate Engineer

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On the highroad between Kambar and Shahdadkot (Larkana district), even the observant traveller might be hard put not to miss the large under construction domed building with its tall minaret. This is the shrine of Hakim Shah, an obscure holy man. The building itself is hardly remarkable, what is remarkable though is the fact that it has been designed and is currently being built by Din Mohammed Lashari, a man who has had but two years of schooling.

Seventy years old, he is a brick layer by profession, trained in the craft by his father who, he says, was an ustad - a master mason and teacher of the art. Apprenticeship began when he was still very young and it was a couple of years before Independence that Din Mohammed worked on his first construction site independently. But there was something that must have set the young man apart from his peers, and that surely was an insatiable curiosity - something that would have been lost on a society that cares little for such things. “In those days there was more traffic on the branch line from Larkana to Jacobabad and the wheezing black locomotives drew me like magic,” he says. Consequently, whenever there were a few minutes to spare Din Mohammed would go to the railway station to watch the dark behemoths shunting back and forth.

“This machine was made by another human,” he thought, “And that person could not have been anymore gifted than me.” And so he got it into his head to build a model steam locomotive. Armed only with a remarkable mechanical aptitude and curiosity and the very basic tools, Din Mohammed got to work sometime late in 1947. Slowly the sheets of galvanised iron, spokes from bicycle wheels and scrap metal took the shape of a steam locomotive. Where the welding needed strengthening, it was done, understandably, by cement. And if there was a stumbling block, he would return to the station to look at the machine and ponder, and the answer would come. Toiling away on his toy night after night following days of brick laying, our man took two years to produce a model locomotive measuring two feet by one foot by one foot.

Few would have believed that the machine produced with the most basic of tools and without any training would work. But it actually did and word of the prowess of Din Mohammed quickly went around. Now, this was a time that Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan was visiting Larkana on the invitation of Fazlullah Qazi. The district administration had organised, among other events, a railway exhibition. Qazi, who knew him, claims Din Mohammed, invited him to put his engine on exhibition as well. It is reported that the Din Mohammed’s engine was an instant hit with the PM. Photos were taken and the illiterate engineer of Shahdadkot was promised a prize of Rs 5000. But like all governmental pledges the prize money never arrived. Neither did copies of the photos of Khan and Qazi posing with Din Mohammed and his engine.

What he did get, however, was a free railway pass to take his creation to the Railway Headquarters at Lahore. There he was offered the job of Mechanical Foreman. But Lahore was far from home - too far for our man to like to have worked there. He refused the job, but, he says, he left his model with some officer of the North Western Railways (as it was then known) to be used in future exhibitions. That was the last he saw of it. Today poor Din Mohammed has neither the model locomotive, nor photos of his meeting with Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan to show for his labours.

He returned home to his brick laying and tinkering. Years went by and he came up with the idea of a “rocket”. According to Din Mohammed, he sent his plans to the government of Ayub Khan. They wrote him a letter of commendation and with it sent a load of technical manuals. This was perhaps on the presumption that Din Mohammed was an educated man. “I can hardly read Sindhi,” he says indignantly, “Those huge tomes meant nothing to me.” Over the years the manuals were misplaced, but somewhere in his piles of papers, old newspapers, pamphlets, magazines and HMV 78 rpm records the letter from Ayub Khan’s government still languishes together with the plans for his space vehicle. “It was for the country. But if the country does not need it, it will not be built.” He says emphatically.

Din Mohammed also claims that he can straighten the tower of Pisa! He was unwilling to talk of the exact plan, but he did say that he knew what was wrong with the ground under the foundations. A couple of years ago I had read in the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society that the tilt was owing to the earth beneath the foundations getting waterlogged. Although it is not impossible, it is unlikely that a copy of the magazine would have got into the hands of this illiterate mason from the outback of Sindh. So how did he conclude that it was not really faulty foundations but the ground underneath? “I used my head, how else?” he says. I quizzed him about the treatment of the problem, even suggesting the one that the magazine gave that is, pumping concrete under the foundations. But Din Mohammed apparently has his own solution which he was unwilling to divulge. He says if he were to be sent to Pisa he could show them how to correct the tilt. That is, in case they haven’t already done it. The solution, he says, is very simple and any civil engineer worth his name should come upon it with just a bit of thinking.

Seven years ago the gadi nashin invited Din Mohammed to build the shrine of Hakim Shah, a project that has occupied him since. There is no drawing or any other paperwork for the almost complete building, “I don’t need a plan; it’s all here.” Din Mohammed says tapping his forehead. That is how he had earlier built the shrines of Faizal Faquir and Ghafoor Shah, and it was his reputation as their architect that got him the offer to work on the current project. There is very little money in it for the construction is being paid for by devotees’ donations. Consequently, he gets a small daily allowance. “I am a mazdoor, and a mazdoor will always remain penniless.” Din Mohammed says without a shade of self pity.

Among his other talents are the ability to repair his own watch, an old mechanical model, his transistor radio and his ancient gramophone. Now he is too old and his eyes are not as good and so he does not work on all the outlandish schemes that come into his head. Now he spends his evenings not in front of the wretched television, but on the charpai on his roof listening to Begum Akhtar or Jewni Bai on his gramophone as he studies the moon and the stars through his binoculars. “The moon is a piece of dry rock. But the stars are the more intriguing. They must be something more than just pinpricks of light.” Surely he has heard this on his radio. But he says it is something that he does not need another person to tell him: he has a mind that can think.

He still sometimes plays his harmonium, but he does not sing anymore because age has cracked his voice. Other than that, he says, everything is well. “Is everything really well?” I ask pointedly. It is, he asserts, he has no complaint. Of course there are still plans he would like to work on, but he is too old and his hands are not as steady as they used to be. I ask him if it would have been any better for him had he been educated. “I am like an artist and an artist does not need to be educated.”

But getting all this out of him was difficult. He was unwilling to talk and had it not been for my friend Wali Mohammed who has known him for donkey’s years, I would never have discovered the real unlettered engineer of Shahdadkot. There was, however, a shade of sadness - but just a shade. And this because he felt he could have been of some use to the “government” something that he waited for and which never happened. There is no doubt in my mind that a man of his talents would have made a brilliant scientist or engineer in a society that offers more opportunities. But in Pakistan Din Mohammed Lashari could only be a brick layer. His talents were never utilised or rewarded. And when he is gone there will be few who will know that there are at least three shrines around Shahdadkot that were designed and built by him. And that the plans were never put on paper: they were only in the mind of Din Mohammed Lashari.

Note: I have had countless memorable connections with people met on the road. All of them are the kind that I can never forget. But Din Mohammad Lashari of Shahdadkot near Larkana made a deep impression on me. He was illiterate but he was far ahead of some of the most educated men I know. He was an architect par excellence, a man of great taste and of boundless curiosity. I wrote this about him in The News on Sunday back in 1995. Sadly, the pictures I took of him are now lost and he passed away in 1998 or thereabouts.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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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

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