Rajkumari Sharma Tankha
It has been a decade that anthropologist-travel writer-freelance journalist Haroon Khalid has been travelling extensively around Pakistan to document the country’s cultural and historical heritage. Author of three published books, A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan and Walking With Nanak, Khalid recently released an anecdotal travelogue about Lahore, Imagining Lahore which begins in the present and travels through time to the mythological origins of the city attributed to Lord Rama’s son, Lav. Through the city’s present – its people, communities, monuments, parks and institutions – Islamabad-based Khalid has presented a vivid picture of the city’s past.
Following are excerpts from an interview with him…
When and how did the idea of penning Imagining Lahore touch your mind and how much time did it take to put the thoughts on paper?
In many ways, I have been thinking about writing this book since I began writing professionally in 2008. For the first couple of years, I primarily wrote about Lahore. I would visit a lesser-known historical site, particularly associated with the Hindu or Sikh heritage and then write about it. Thus, this is a book that has been in the pipeline for a long time.
For any book more than the writing, it is the research and the editing process that takes longer. While there was a lot of research that I had been constantly doing over the years as I was writing about the history of the city, there was much more that I needed to do to write the book. Once the research process was completed, writing took only a few months.
As an anthropologist, what type of changes have you witnessed in Lahore from the time you first saw it, in terms of culture, people, progress… to now?
I am not just an anthropologist but also a long time resident of the city. I have spent almost my entire life in Lahore. A few notable changes from the city of my childhood to the contemporary city include the absence of Basant, the grandest festival of Lahore. I remember some of my family members living outside of Pakistan would sometimes choose to come back to the country on the occasion of Basant, bypassing Eid.
In many ways, Lahore doesn’t seem the city it was without that festival. Another change has been the all-pervasive cinema culture. Lahore even in the 90s was the hub of the Pakistani film industry, and there were numerous cinemas all around. As the film industry slowly faded away so did an entire culture that revolved around going to movies. Since then there has been a minor revival in the film industry but that has been more Karachi-centric and limited to the cineplexes.
Which Indian city you find closest to Lahore?
Delhi without a doubt. Much like Lahore, there are historical structures scattered around the city. Even the landscape of the city, with its trees and parks, in many ways are reminiscent of Lahore. There is this added connection of Punjabi culture’s dominance in the city. Many Punjabi refugees chose Delhi to be their home which also includes a large population from Lahore. Thus, there is a Lahore residing in Delhi.
How culturally similar are the people of India and Pakistan?
Much more than the people of both the countries will like to admit. However, any such statement needs to be qualified. Both India and Pakistan are diverse countries and there are vast cultural and ethnic variations between different regions within the country. For example while one would notice these similarities between Lahore and Delhi, these differences begin to fade away as one begins to move south. These similarities are shared by similar ethnic groups. For example Punjabis on both sides of the border will enjoy similar jokes, music, dance, and even revere the same Punjabi poets, such as Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain. Similarily, Sindhis on both sides of the border still hold Udero Lal and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar sacred.
Imagining Lahore documents a number of places which shall be of interest to the Indian populace due to the connect. Do such places exist in other cities of Pakistan and do you have plans to write about them in a sequel to this book, say a Imagining Karachi or Imagining Islamabad?
Yes, there are numerous such stories all across the length and breadth of the country. I have documented a few of these stories in my other writings. For example my last book, Walking with Nanak, documents several historical gurdwaras around Pakistan associated with Guru Nanak. I am not thinking about a sequel to the book but, maybe sometime in the future.
Please take us through your life…
I spent my childhood in Lahore, went to school and college in the city. My parents still live there while I am based in Islamabad. I still visit Lahore frequently.
The first time you felt the urge to express yourself through writing…
I wrote my first article while I was in university. A friend of mine had committed suicide and the university was presenting its own biased narrative to explain the event. I wrote an article which was published in a local newspaper to counter this narrative of the university.
Who has been the most inspirational person in your life and why?
There are many and for various reasons. For writing it has been my mentor, Iqbal Qaiser, a Punjabi poet and historian based in Punjab. It was through him that I was able to imagine the history of Pakistan through its monuments and structures. He has been accompanying me for most of my trips for the book. Thus it is to him that I owe my writing.
What/ who has influenced you and what were the motivations behind writing?
My biggest motivation behind writing has been my curiosity. There has always been an awkward silence around the non-Muslim heritage and history of Pakistan in the formal curriculum. Even when there is mention of the non-Muslim history, it is done in a particular context to present a certain narrative. I therefore wanted to explore these silences and learn about the diverse history of the region. Thus writing for me was a discovery process. I ended up writing books I would have liked to read about the country and its history.
These days, the market is deluged with authors of all ages. How easy or difficult is it to achieve success amid so much competition?
I think staying true to your art is essential. There will always be a few topics that would be closer to one’s heart than others. Thus I believe it is important to specialise in certain areas that one enjoys more than others.
Ever struggled with a writer’s block?
Writer’s block for me has never been about not being able to write. I have been lucky in that sense that I have always managed to write something when I have to. It is just that sometimes writing is easier and flows smoothly and at other times each and every sentence becomes a labor. This is something I struggle with every time I take a long gap between writing.
Plans for future…
I am planning on taking a little break but do want to explore more fiction writing in the future, particularly historical fiction.