When Pakistan was divided during Partition, it became a nation frantically seeking identity through religion. However it was also a country where religious minorities still existed because people would not leave their hearth and home believing that their neighbours would remain their friends and life would continue as before. But Pakistan was not what it had been and the minority faiths began to find themselves more and more marginalised and many were forced to take Muslim names so that they could go around publicly without drawing attention to themselves. 45 year old Shazia Waleed, for instance, a Hindu convert to Islam working for a prominent global NGO was Sandhya Gupta before her parents were murdered in 1981. Journalist Haroon Khalid courageously embarked on a series of articles about these communities and how they were managing to survive.
The book opens with an account of Holi in Multan and Parvati Devi who in the middle of all the rituals tells Khalid about how a howling mob chased her, her sister and her elderly mother wanting to burn them alive in retaliation for the Babri Masjid episode. Some of the temple managers still have to be careful not to attract unnecessary attention – most of Khalid’s interviews are in fact carried out on festive occasions when a large number of people are likely to be present to talk about how their lives are and how they used to be.
Despite the atmosphere of repression the young people in many communities have managed to find ways to express themselves, Christian boys going on cycle pilgrimages for Mother Mary’s sake at Maryabad, for example, or covert Shivratri celebrations. The famous Shivratri celebrations are held at Katas Raj, though for a while after Partition, the place was neglected. Then an Indian politician came on pilgrimage and that made the Pakistani Government sit up and take steps to restore the temple and its sacred pool.
Khalid’s researches covered five minorities in and around Lahore Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahais and he thereupon extended his research into this book. A White Trail is quite obviously written for Pakistani readers because Khalid takes care to clarify the religious references. For example, he describes the deity Ganesh as “the son of the Hindu God, Shiva’ and where the Sikhs are concerned tells the famous story of Guru Arjun Singh and his sword.
There are tales of the Dalit Balmikis who are registered as Christians so that their untouchable status is hidden – oddly enough Pakistan has picked up several Hindu habits without realising their non-Islamic origin.
Khalid touches on issues like blasphemy and the death of Salman Taseer, but points out that civil rights activists have on occasion raised their voices to protest so perhaps all is not as bleak as it might be in Pakistan. Of course Khalid never voices any definite opinion on the state of things in his country. Throughout the book he tries to maintain a fine balance. Presumably he could have gone deeper but admits to being unsure how far he would be allowed to go, being a Muslim and a journalist. For those who are unaware of the other Pakistan, this is an interesting book to go through.
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