Essay: On Sita Under the Crescent Moon by Annie Ali Khan
A remarkable testimony to the resilience of women, Sita Under the Crescent Moon by Annie Ali Khan, who died tragically last year, follows women on pilgrimages to Sufi shrines at Mango Pir, Hinglaj, Thatta, and Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan to show how, under the shadow of militant majoritarianism, women are keeping alive the memories of Sita’s exile, and her ultimate sacrificeUpdated: Aug 03, 2019 09:13 IST
There were many beginnings to Annie Ali Khan’s book’s Sita Under the Crescent Moon. I can remember some easily: a conversation about how saintliness and manliness were intimately linked in Pakistani imagination; a research project on pilgrimage routes, in Punjab and Sindh, mapped as if they were major highways and minor pathways; a remark to me, on a Manhattan street, “Prof, I will only tell the stories of women who have never been asked their stories.” She called me “Prof” because she had taken my class on walking in Manhattan. With a small cohort, the summer of 2015, our class walked in different boroughs, linking stories from deep historical past to the American now. Annie had already graduated from Columbia’s Journalism school with her Masters’ degree.
Her reporting was about movement and stillness. She would, along with Madiha Aijaz, board the Khyber Mail from Karachi to Peshawer. Her narrative, cross-cutting the role of railway for the colonial Raj, as much as for Pakistani state, was still focused on the women with whom she shared the 2nd class bench for long days and nights. When she made it to the railway engine, she would ask, are their any women train drivers? She was met with laughter. That journey on the train was certainly another beginning for her: she became interested in tracing the routes that women take. Why are you travelling, she had asked, to the women on the train? Now she was asking that question in Lyari, Karachi, in November 2016 as she observed a small group of women boarding a bus, heading to Balochistan. She learned that they sought salvation, freedom, and relief.
Sita Under the Crescent Moon is a book of journeys. Ali Khan follows women who travel from Lyari to the beach, to Mango Pir, to Hinglaj, to the desert of Thatta, to Sehwan Sharif. She follows healers, heretics, seekers, wives, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, believers all that the satiyan can grant their wishes. These journeys, in spirit as much in flesh, are a window into an obscured, opaque world. With great empathy, love, and self-sacrifice, Ali Khan listens to the stories of these women, and she writes them down, almost verbatim in some cases; capturing their dilemmas, their violences and their agencies. She eats, rests, sleeps, prays, and loves with them. She is adopted by some as their own daughter, and some rely on her knowledge of the world to help show them the way of bureaucracy and privilege.
Annie Ali Khan dedicated Sita Under the Crescent Moon to one of the greatest writers of the subcontinent, Quratulain Ali Hyder — Annie was her namesake, Quratulain. Ali Khan was taken by the women and their turbulent worlds, that Ali Hyder’s had so brilliantly captured in Sita Haran (1960) and Aag ka Darya (1959)/River of Fire (1998). It is clear that Ali Hyder’s work was itself a beginning for Ali Khan. Yet, I see Annie Ali Khan’s world-making as markedly different as well. The women in Sita Under the Crescent Moon may share the same geography of Sita Haran — Sindh — but they do not share the same class, the same agency, or even the same risks of immediate and continual violence and dispossession. Without recourse to worldly means, the women, whose stories Annie Ali Khan collected, are still incredibly brave and resourceful. I think of Annie Ali Khan’s Haseena, who gave up her whole world, with no money, to become a caretaker at the shrine of Miran Pir — finding in that one act of submission, a world of power, of healing, and of service to other women.
Sita Under the Crescent Moon also tells Annie Ali Khan’s own journey. What is the relationship between Annie Ali Khan, the journalist and writer, and Annie Ali Khan, the seeker and traveller? From her memories of Durga in the house of her grandfather’s friend, to her own experience before Durga mata in Hinglaj, the book is a memoir of a woman seeking that which heals. She remains respectful, as a reporter, and gives prominence to the stories she is telling, yet, there are moments, hints, sentences, where we can see Annie herself. She begins, and ends, the book with the story of her family, their migrations, her own life between Karachi, and New York. Her work intertwines with her life in the same ways that feminist pioneer writers had always done: Gloria Anzaldua in Borderlands/Fronteras to Quratulain Hyder Khan in Kar-e Jahan Daraz Hai — both favourites of Annie Ali Khan.
Annie Ali Khan has traced pathways invisible to all, narrated voices speechless before all. Across the subcontinent — from Pakistan to India to Bangladesh — are women silenced by patriarchy, crushed by ruthless economy. Across the subcontinent, there is little relief for the minorities, and even less for the recognition of their humanity. Any day’s newspaper carries the horrors of shootings, lynchings, rapes. Sita Under the Crescent Moon is a rare gift of a book, by a rare writer. It shows, with great empathy, how those who suffer the most make their lives possible. It shows how, under the shadow of militant majoritarianism, women of Lyari are keeping alive the memories of Sita’s exile, and her ultimate sacrifice. Annie Ali Khan’s book is an incredible testimony to the resilience of women and to their networks of caring. It also shows the love and care that Annie Ali Khan received from these women.
Manan Ahmed Asif is a medieval historian at Columbia University in New York City