Retracing the steps of Guru Nanak; Review of Walking With Nanak by Haroon Khalid
Relying on oral retellings of history, Haroon Khalid manages to bring the founder of Sikhism to life, manages to walk with him, and manages to take readers along.
Walking with Nanak is Haroon Khalid’s third book.
His first, “The White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities” was a piercing work. “Father Ansari” spoke about the religious significance of “Palm Sunday”. In Urdu. The Parsis were living up to their promise of being sugar in milk -- “invisible yet adding colour to the (majority) community”. Their fire temple did not have a priest. There was no Tower of Silence in Lahore, so they were being buried, just like Muslims, in a graveyard near Minar-e-Pakistan.
More than the angst of the minority communities, what pierced the heart most was the book’s title. Derived from the “white” in the green Pakistani flag that symbolises its minorities, that recognises the many layers of faith in the country: the layers that excite; the layers that intimidate.
Khalid, a trained anthropologist, upped the ante with his second book In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan. With 11 essays that came to define Khalid’s writing style – part travelogue, part journalism, part history, part anthropology – he took his readers to the shrines of central Punjab. The observations were stark; minus the romantic frills, minus the lamentations, yet unravelling the undercurrents of contemporary Pakistan.
With his third, Khalid has truly arrived.
He decides to revisit history, retracing the steps of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, who believed in monotheism and was against the institutionalisation of religion. He tries to humanise the saint by fictionalising his journey; a journey which was never truly recorded but could be retraced in bits by mixing fact with fiction.
Khalid reconstructs the world of Guru Nanak, straddling the tolerance of the past and the intolerance of the present, trying to see stories of tolerance in the current madness, trying to see hope in the syncretic culture of the Hindu shrines visited by Muslims and the Muslim dargahs visited by Hindus.
Relying on the oral retelling of history, scoffed at by academic historians, Khalid manages to bring Guru Nanak to life, manages to walk with him, and manages to take readers along.
He fills in the gaps, those created mostly after the Partition of India, with intuition and instinct. The world that cranes its neck out when the surface is scratched is blasphemously beautiful. But it needs heavy doses of patience and passion – both of which are Khalid’s best weapons.
Guru Nanak fascinated Khalid even before he had read a single word about him. When he did read about him – a “non-Muslim” - he was disappointed. He eventually discovered Nanak through his mentor Iqbal Qaiser, whom he first met when the latter delivered a lecture on Sikh architecture at Khalid’s university. When Qaiser recited the Babur Bani, a poem Nanak wrote when Babur attacked Lahore and some other cities, Khalid was riveted.
“It had a huge impact on me and I saw, for the first time, glimpses of the man I had been trying to discover. I realised that one way of getting to know Nanak better was through his poetry,” Khalid writes in his introduction.
The fascination grew when he learnt Nanak had spent a major portion of his life in present-day Pakistan, wandering with his rubab-playing Muslim companion Bhai Mardana.
Khalid decided to retrace this journey with his own Bhai Mardana, his mentor and guide Qaiser, to whom he has dedicated the book.
“For me the second way of discovering Nanak was by walking with him. I wasn’t interested in Nanak the saint, but in Nanak the son, Nanak the father, Nanak the philosopher, Nanak the poet, Nanak the wanderer,” he writes.
The journey was not easy. It accentuated the contradictions of Sikhism, the inversion of its very core in the centuries that flew past after Nanak. The Janamsakhis, the Sikh texts on Nanak’s life, were glorious accounts of his miracles; accounts that Nanak abhorred. The institution of guruhood was formalised – though Nanak bypassed his son to confer his mantle on his most deserving disciple.
Drawing from the Janamsakhis, Nanak’s poetry and his travels, Khalid decided to follow Nanak’s trail with Qaiser. In his head, it was Nanak travelling with his companion Bhai Mardana. The two worlds soon met and the journey became easy, unraveling the story that was never recorded.
Nanak’s mother Mata Tripta had long yearned to have a child. She undertook arduous journeys to please the gods. On one such journey to a temple outside Talwandi in Punjab, she met Naulakha Hazari, a fakir who predicted her wish would soon be fulfilled.
The temple pandit would often try to shoo Hazari away but he would not budge saying “the entire world belonged to Allah and no one had any right to banish him from anywhere”. An Auqaf booklet available at Naulakha Hazari’s shrine states Guru Nanak was born after the fakir prayed for his mother.
This is the syncretic culture of the subcontinent to which Khalid is trying to draw his readers.
Nanak and Bhai Mardana covered the length and breadth of South Asia on foot over 24 years, Khalid’s quest ended with 11 cities in Pakistan but the journey is enough to make those who care pine for more.
Stories of Neglect
In his own work Qaisar recorded that there were 174 gurudwaras in Pakistan. Most have made way for fancy housing complexes.
Khalid is, therefore, pleasantly surprised when someone refers to an abandoned gurudwara as “Sahib”, a prefix used as a mark of respect. The brief stopover at Gurudwara Sachkand is also telling of the camaraderie between Muslims and Sikhs.
What doesn’t obviously surprise are the many stories of neglect. A gurudwara served as the office of the Pakistan Rangers, who monitor movements on the border with India, with a Pakistani flag flying atop.
Graffiti on the walls asked people to pray to Allah, beautiful frescoes were destroyed, the face of Guru Nanak wiped out.
In the recent past, the Pakistan government has woken up to the potential of Sikh pilgrimage tourism and has invited the Sikh community abroad to invest in renovating gurudwaras. Whether this will change anything in a land that is becoming increasingly polarised is anybody’s guess.
While Khalid’s prose is mostly beautiful, the details are sometimes tedious and could have been presented without the flab. It is one thing to faithfully record everything but it is wise to spare readers details such as these: “...If you want to see it I can give it to you. It’s on my laptop. Do you have a USB?”
The structuring of the book, with the narration going back and forth in time, too is a trifle difficult to fathom.
Read more: A Sikh pilgrim’s chronicle of gurdwaras across the nation in 1930s
But Walking with Nanak is definitely a brave effort by Khalid. Documenting stories of tolerance in an atmosphere of intolerance in a living culture is never easy. Khalid’s weapons – patience and passion – are sure to take him on many more such unchartered journeys.
Lamat Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi