Pakistani journalist and author Bina Shah has written extensively about Pakistan and Western perceptions of Pakistan in op-eds, including “Not My Homeland” and “The Legacy of Benazir Bhutto” at the New York Times. In her novel A Season for Martyrs, she reveals a story at the crossroads of the personal and the political and shed lights on sheds light on the region and culture of Sindh. The Sindh province of southeastern Pakistan is home to the fertile plain of the Indus River, the great mystical Sufi saints and a rich history that binds Muslims and Hindus alike.
Young Ali Sikandar is from a long line of landowners in Sindh, a fact he has hidden since his father abandoned the family. Relied upon to support his mother and siblings as a TV journalist, he finds it impossible to refuse even the most dangerous assignments. One day in October 2007, Ali is ordered to cover the controversial return of Benazir Bhutto following her eight years in exile. Bhutto’s very presence invites protests and assassination attempts, but to Ali she symbolizes his struggles with his father, his fervent longing for a better life, and his identity as a Sindhi. Read an excerpt shared by permission from Shah’s A Season for Martyrs.
* * *
Shah Latif rose from his chair. He went silently to the door, gathering up his long cloak and his walking stick. He did not need to tell his wife that he was setting out on a journey: she was used to him walking out of the door and returning later that evening, or after a month. It was one of her gifts to him, the ability to endure his absence without resentment. He did not know where he was going, but he knew he had to go; his soul was most elevated when his feet were moving. Sayedah Begum too got up and began to grind wheat for the evening meal. Already her face was composed again, her eyes large and gentle, fringed with lashes like the graceful chinkara that lived in the Thar Desert.
They did not exchange any words, any farewells or entreaties to take care, to go in safety. Her faith in God was absolute: she entrusted her husband to Him every second of every day, and so there was never a need to acknowledge the connection that could never be severed.
His two pups, Moti and Kheeno, leapt up when they saw him emerge from the door, but he did not reach down to pet them as he often did when going to the village. They whined and scrabbled in the dirt, then sat on their hind legs and watched him go.
After a time he came to the shrine of his grandfather, Shah Abdul Karim. Its green flags fluttered in the wind; people were milling around, some with purpose, some aimlessly. The urs would be well underway tonight, with thousands joining in the celebrations, reciting poetry, listening to music, dancing in ecstasy. The market bustled with farmers and traders selling their wares; tables groaned under the weight of gold and silver, silks and embroidery, leather and brass amidst the bleats and cries of goats, sheep, even camels in a small camp set up on the open field in front of the dargah where a man had come all the way from Thar to sell his precious beasts. The sound of santoor and tabla, reed flute and violin mingled with the scent of incense and roses, weaving a tapestry of aural and sensual pleasure that the Lovers would feast upon tonight.
A few malangs came up to Shah Latif, spotting him standing a small distance from the crowd. Dressed in their robes with begging bowls hung around their necks, they greeted him and sought blessings from him, a few lines of new verse to be sung at the festival tonight. But Shah Latif was silent, and soon they dropped away from him and melted back into the crowds. The truth was that his heart had been broken by the slanders, and he had nothing left to give to any of them.
He turned and walked away again, and as he walked, he recited the verse that he had written soon after his marriage, never telling anyone that he had written it for her:
The heart has but one beloved,
Many you should not seek:
Just give heart to one,
Even hundreds may seek;
Weasels they are called,
Who get betrothed at every door.
But the camel seller, the man from Thar, called out to him as he passed. “O great Shah! Where do you go?”
Shah Latif stopped, surprised that this man, a stranger, recognized him. “Peace be upon you, o Man of Thar. How do you know me?”
The man laughed. He was thin and dark, weather-beaten, and wore an ajrak wrapped into a turban on his head. “Who does not know the Shah of Bhit, whose Risalo has spread far and wide? As long as there are men in Sindh, you will be known. But why do you walk away from the urs, when most people are only just arriving?”
Shah Latif said, “I am called away on urgent business.”
“But where do you go?”
“I do not know.”
“Then that’s urgent business indeed; God’s business. When a man is called but knows not his destination, only the Creator knows what’s needed. But He’s told me to tell you where to go.”
“Where is that, then, my friend?” Shah Latif leaned forward, curious and interested. He was not surprised that Allah Saeen had entrusted this simple desert man with such an important message. There were signs everywhere, if you only knew how to look.
“He bids you to go to my homeland, into the desert.”
“So it shall be done. I thank you in His name.” Without another word, Shah Latif turned and began walking east. The man from Thar stood watching him as he went, shading his eyes from the sun, the tall figure growing smaller and smaller as he vanished into the distance. Never had he seen someone so eager to obey God’s word, the desert man thought to himself, before turning back to tend to his beloved camels.
Shah Latif walked and walked for many days and nights, sheltering under a tree at night, drinking from the river in the morning, eating a simple meal of flat bread, and taking a cup of goat’s milk wherever it was offered to him. Some people knew who he was, some did not. But everywhere he went he could hear snatches of his verse being sung, recited, used as weight in arguments, admired, appreciated.
Beloved’s separation kills me, friends, At His door, many like me, their knees bend…
…Countless pay homage and sing peace at his abode…
…Tell me the stories, oh thorn-bush, of the mighty merchants of the Indus, of the nights and days of the prosperous times…
Then one day he climbed a small hill and came down the other side onto a sand dune that ran parallel to the winds, rows of undulating ridges rubbed into the sand like the lines on the roof of his mouth. Nearby, he saw a group of women dressed in the bright colors of the desert, their arms covered in white bangles up to their elbows. They were cutting at a small scrub tree with hand-axes, and singing as they worked:
In deserts, wastes and Jessalmir it has rained. Clouds and lightning have come to Thar’s plains. Lone, needy women are now free from care, fragrant are the paths, happy herdsmen’s wives all this share.
And when he recognized their song, he knew that he had arrived at his destination.
* * *
Bina Shah is a regular contributor to the International New York Times and frequent guest on the BBC. She has contributed essays to Granta, The Independent and The Guardian. She holds degrees from Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is an alumna of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Workshop. Her novel, Slum Child, was a bestseller in Italy and she has been published in English, Spanish, German and Italian. She lives in Karachi.