Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Tareekh Ke Musafir

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The genre of Urdu travel writing in Pakistan is dead, brutally butchered by a narcissistic writer whose travel fiction — written more like the post-summer vacation essays of a class four student — has destroyed the genre. Over the past four decades, his countless books, produced as travel literature, were more about the writer than about the place. The result is that most readers of Urdu now believe that what they have so avidly consumed is travel writing.

Now, travel writing is not just a narration of a journey — though there have been some fabulous and substantial books of this sort, too. It is a presentation of history, culture, geography, sociology, even a little bit of geology and, sometimes, anthropology. In Urdu, this was just not done. The trend of spurious writing spawned several copycat works, none of which made an impression on the reader.

Abubaker Sheikh stands apart from the run-of-the-mill travel writer in Pakistan. Tareekh Ke Musafir [Travellers of History] — the book under review — is his second work and, in keeping with its title, it is truly a journey through history.

Sheikh’s first book, Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir [The Traveller], was a grieving for Sindh, especially for the Indus delta region that has suffered immensely because of sea intrusion, resulting from a cutting-off of water downstream of Kotri.

This new book is a departure. While there are a few chapters on the death of the delta, the rest is a tour de force through history that almost leaves the reader breathless. Sheikh unveils such obscure, but colourful, characters as Lutfullah Thug, who lived in the first half of the 19th century and wrote of his life in English. Or, we learn of the intrigues and deceptions of the Tarkhan rulers of Sindh in the 16th century and how they called blight upon the once fabulous and rich city of Thatta.

The attack on Thatta could have been an outright invitation to the piratical Portuguese, then established at Goa, to partake of the treasures of Sindh for siding with the Tarkhans against the Kokaltash of Rohri. On the other hand, it was just the nature of those colonisers to loot and plunder.

The tour through history is not restricted to Sindh, however. Sheikh travels far and evokes Buddhist life in the monastery of Mohra Muradu in Taxila. With equal ease, he follows Dara Shikoh — the hapless heir apparent of the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan — from the battle of Samugarh, through the vicissitudes of his fortune on the run from his brother, Aurangzeb, and brings us to Sindh. The device of following a historical figure to places is used to wonderful advantage by our writer. This is especially true as he follows the British explorer Richard Burton from Karachi into upper Sindh.

Tareekh Ke Musafir is remarkable because of its vast geographical range, which matches the intellectual spread of Abubaker Sheikh. His reading is vast and he paints a canvas matching it. As always, his writing is poetic without being hyperbolic, with the capacity to evoke scenes and the reader’s emotion and empathy. Like the best of writers, he gets into his thoughts with ease, which get the mind of the reader also going: “The most positive and at the same time the most dangerous thing in this land is the process of thinking. This is what differentiates between good and evil. But when expediency crosses all bounds, the line between the two disappears.”

However, the issue closest to Sheikh’s heart is the rapidly deteriorating environment. His lament on what we are bequeathing to the coming generations continues in this book with the same feeling as in the one before. He tells the reader that, to prevent the sea intruding in the once very fertile delta of the Indus, and to promote regeneration of the dying mangrove forests, 27 million acre feet of water need to pass down the delta into the sea. However, the delta does not even receive one-third of this requirement.

From nearly 400,000 hectares a century ago, mangroves today cover barely 70,000 hectares because of the reduced flow. This has resulted in a drastic decline in the crustacean population, because shrimps and prawns spawn amid mangrove roots. Simultaneously, sea intrusion is destroying livelihoods by flooding fertile farmland and reducing once affluent farmers to poverty. Our writer bemoans how the growth of agriculture and affluence among upper riparian landowners is depriving delta dwellers and fishermen of their livelihood.

From a pure environmental writer, Sheikh has nicely transformed into a teller of historical tales. If the archaeologist talks of bricks and pottery shards, it is writers such as Sheikh who populate ruined sites with human beings. His writing carries the reader along and, with just a little imagination, one can actually see and feel like the author.

History needs to be written not in the stultifying manner that we read in our classrooms, but has to be made alive with real characters while connecting them with real places. That is what the ancient Greek writers did. And this is what Abubaker Sheikh is doing for readers of Urdu.

Tareekh Ke Musafir

By Abubaker Sheikh

Sang-e-Meel, Lahore

ISBN: 978-9693532593

214pp.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:41,

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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