Tando Allah Yar is a small town, a little less than an hour by train from Hyderabad, in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province. There is nothing particularly attractive about this chaotic place, but I spent a week there recently with a friend of mine, Khurshid Kaimkhani, a noted writer and social activist.
“There’s little to do in this backwater town, and I spend most of my time with my Dalit friends,” says Khurshid, author of the only full-length book on the Dalits of Pakistan, who belong to some 40 different castes and number almost three million. Most Pakistani Dalits, like most Dalits in India, are impoverished landless labourers. We pass the last houses of Tando Allah Yar and, at the edge of the town, enter a vast slum. Jogi Basti, a Dalit settlement on its outskirts, lies a hundred metres ahead. A dozen thatched mud huts are built in a circle with a small shrine on one side. An elderly Jogi man comes out and gives Khurshid an enthusiastic embrace. We sit on a cot in the mild evening sun, and the man tells me about his people.
“The Jogis are Naths, traditionally followers of Shiva, who is nearly always depicted with snakes,” the man says. Most Naths in Sindh are Hindus. Some have become Muslim but they still enjoy cordial relations with other Naths. They are a nomadic people, and travel for days searching for snakes and curing cases of snake bite.
Just behind the Jogi Basti are several other huts. These belong to another Dalit community, the Gurgulas. Like the Jogis, they are desperately poor. Most of them are daily wage earners, while their womenfolk sell knick-knacks such as bangles, cosmetics and toys. The Jogi man grimaces and tells me, “Although they are also Hindus, we don’t sit or eat with them. They are lower than us.”
“That’s a major problem we face in bringing Dalits to struggle for their rights,” Khurshid says despairingly. “The caste system has so divided them that they simply refuse to work together.” “By and large,” he continues, “the so-called upper caste Hindus in Sindh, like many Muslims, are simply not concerned about the Dalits.”
“Yes, brother,” the Jogi man says. “That is the same in India, too, so I hear.” Distant relatives of his who live across the border in Rajasthan, whom he met two decades ago when visa arrangements between India and Pakistan were far easier, had told him that life for fellow Jogis, like other Dalits, was equally harsh on the other side of the border.
The Jogi man leaves us and crouches low as he enters his hovel. He returns with a three-string instrument, a local variant of the violin, which is played with a bow made from a thick wisp of bamboo. It is dark now. Only a few faint streaks of pale orange litter the sky towards the horizon. A family of storks flies close above us, brilliantly silhouetted against the twilight sky. The man tucks the folds of his dhoti between his legs, clears his throat and breaks out into a bhajan.
“Oh God! God with a million and more names! Neither mosque nor temple contain You, but You live in the hearts of all Your creatures,” he sings, the stringed instrument letting out a long-drawn-out plaintive wail that trails behind him. “Hindus, Muslims, the rich and the poor, all belong to You,” he goes on. “From You all come and to You they all will return.”
I see the man’s tired eyes, crinkled with age and labour, well up as he passionately cries out, shaking this way and that, overcome with emotion. I discover a watery film swim above my own eyes. Oblivious to the world around him, the man carries on with the bhajan, gazing at the pale moon that peeps behind a clump of slowly moving clouds, thinking who knows what thoughts.
Yoginder Sikand is a freelance writer based in Bangalore. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org