In Pakistan, there is paranoia that talking about its non-Muslim history would somehow threaten the country’s national identity, writer Haroon Khalid tells Riyaz Wani while discussing his new book Walking with Nanak. The book — which is part fiction, part history and part travelogue — is a “conscious attempt to humanise the saint” and could be the first work of its kind in the country, he added.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
After In Search for Shiva, you have come up with a book on Guru Nanak. How did this happen?
I was obsessing about Walking with Nanak, even when I was writing In Search of Shiva. It is a topic that has been close to my heart for quite a long time. In my college days I had read a couple of biographies on Guru Nanak, but had always felt dissatisfied. All these biographies were his hagiographies, stories of his miracles. It was then that I decided perhaps I should visit gurdwaras in Pakistan associated with Nanak. These are places where Nanak is believed to have spent some time. This was a spiritual journey for me. Many times I felt as I was in Nanak’s presence, as if he was around me, in those physical spaces. I have never had such spiritual experiences. I wanted to learn more about Nanak, his poetry, his legacy and his influence on Sikhism. Walking with Nanak is a product of that curiosity.
You have followed a religious movement and turned it into a historical subject. It involves sifting a lot of myth and legend from the fact.
All religious movements are a product of their historical circumstances. How a particular message is understood, interpreted and then applied depends on the circumstances of the community. In this case Sikhism is not different from any other religious movement. I wanted to understand what historical processes transformed a spiritual, unorganized religious movement of Nanak, to an organized religion of Guru Gobind Singh with the 5 Ks.
Entire Nanak’s biography is presented as myths and legends. Perhaps this was a devotee’s way of paying tribute to the saint in a way they deemed suitable. On the other hand I don’t feel we need to associate stories of miracles with Nanak to present him as somebody worthy of reverence. Nanak’s genius lies in his poetry. His humanism and his struggles to overcome his limitations is what makes him extraordinary. That’s why I wanted to write about Nanak’s life, stripped of these stories of these legends.
A Pakistani author writing books about the Hinduism and Sikhism will appear a curious oxymoron for somebody following Pakistan from outside Pakistan?
Because there has been such a dearth of scholarship about Hinduism and Sikhism from within Pakistan I felt it was important to talk about them. These religions and traditions have played an important role in the history of this land, and it would be a grave injustice to hide them under the carpet. In Pakistan there is this paranoia that talking about its non-Muslim history would somehow threaten the Pakistani national identity. I think that mindset needs to be challenged and the Pakistani national identity needs to embrace its diverse religious traditions.
Was the book received well in Pakistan. How have been the reactions and the reviews?
I am ecstatic with the response I got with the book in Pakistan. Many people and organizations have reached out and told me how excited they are about the book. I have been invited to speak to several of conferences and seminars where people have been supportive about the project. I think I am not the only one who feels that not enough is mentioned about Pakistan’s non-Muslim heritage. There are many more people like me who want to know more about this aspect of our heritage.
The perception one gets of Pakistan from the outside is of a country imploding with terrorism and sinking deeper into extremism. Is the perception any different for a Pakistani writer based in the country?
This was the perception a few years ago, but it has changed now. With the democratic revival in the country, it feels like the country is heading in a better direction. Inflation has stagnated, the economy has grown (at least by government statistics), law and order situation has improved and now there is much hype about the CPEC project which many feel would transform the Pakistani economy. So whereas this perception was well-founded a few years it doesn’t hold true today.
Sikhism, you write, was an unorganised social movement which grew into an institutionalized religion and Nanak the poet became a saint. Does it mean Nanak was against institutionalization of his message?
The only evidence I have to suggest that Nanak would perhaps been against the institutionalization of his message is through his poetry. In his poetry he continues to challenge religious rituals and pilgrimages. He criticizes the exclusivist approaches of Muslim and Hindu identities. It is with these aspects of Nanak’s philosophy in mind I wonder what he would have to say about ritualization and institutionalization of the Sikh religion. But having said that I believe Nanak was himself responsible for laying the foundation of institutionalization. At his deathbed he appointed his devoted disciple, Guru Angad Dev, as the next Sikh Guru hence making the base for the institution of Guruhood.
What about the future? Is your new book also going to be on Pakistan’s religious minorities?
My first book was on the religious minorities of Pakistan. It is a travelogue that documents several religious festivals of these 5 minorities and within them also comments on the socio-political conditions. For my next project I am working on a book on Lahore, which would draw a chronological historical account of the city, through travel and my interaction with various spaces. It should be published sometime next year.