Video: Interpreting Sindhi Folklore with Bina Shah
Drawing on Sindh’s rich cultural heritage as well as its spiritual legacy as the birthplace of generations of Sufi saints, pirs, and mystic poets, in A Season for Martyrs Bina Shah interweaves the present with vignettes of the past from crucial moments in the province’s history. As a Sindhi, it is apparent from Shah’s writing that she feels a deep affinity to her roots, her central character acknowledging an ‘all important truth that everyone had forgotten about Pakistan: if Punjab was the heart of Pakistan, then Sindh was its soul’. In this fascinating interview with Papercuts reportage editor Shahbano Bilgrami, Bina explains why she feels the province’s folklore and history are the perfect backdrop to a novel about contemporary politics, along with details of her sources, her early interest in mythology, and her views on the relevance of folktales and Sufism to modern times.
On the seeming contradiction in A Season for Martyrs, a very contemporary novel about political disaffection that is rooted in the ancient folklore and history of Sindh.
What I was doing in the novel seems like it was at cross-purposes – portraying a modern nation on the one hand and Sindhi folklore on the other. But I always felt that you couldn’t understand modern Sindh unless you knew something about its mystical roots. Just as modern Western culture today is built on the mythology and folklore of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, so it is in Sindh and Pakistan in general. It’s just that we’re closer to our folklore and our myths and fables and they still have relevance for us today. They are morality tales based on Sufi Islam which I think will continue to guide us for generations to come.
On the role of folktales as living history and their relevance in today’s society.
The interesting thing is that both the most influential figures in Sindh and the poorest of the poor revere our Sufi heritage. Each draws inspiration and guidance from the saints, whether their aim is to survive day-to-day, or to climb to the heights of power. The folklore is not some distant, removed past, but a living history that is even now the engine of Sindh’s soul. I wanted my readers to understand that.
On her research and sources for the folktale elements.
I read up on some of the folklore that I didn’t know enough about, like Zinda Peer, and I uncovered even more layers to the mythology — like the belief that he met Alexander the Great. I also researched Shah Abdul Latif’s life and the events surrounding the Hur rebellion and the hanging of Pir Pagaro for historical accuracy. I found all this information either in books in my father’s library or information that I found on the internet. I pressured myself to be as precise as possible with things like dates, places, and names. I felt a great responsibility to the material and the people in the stories, and it also helped give the sections some structure. But once I felt confident about those details, I let my imagination run wild. For example, Shah Abdul Latif wrote about the Seven Queens, but I made up the part about there being an Eighth Queen. Why did I do that? Well, it tied in Benazir Bhutto, whose life is already becoming legend, into my narrative. It gave the story a nice sense of connection and completion, even though that’s not really row it ended in real life.
On her earliest memories of folktales.
I’m afraid I don’t really have a favorite Sindhi folktale. I did read Greek and Roman mythology as a child and found it fascinating. They were tales of adventure and love, and the gods and the mortals, and to me they were very dramatic, teaching me about the big issues of life: love, death, fate, destiny. As I grew older, I began to read the Quran, with its many historical stories which have also entered the canon of legend and folklore. And then I started to read Sufi literature and I began to appreciate fables and folklore for what they are: allegories and metaphors for the relationship between the Creator and the created. Fables and folklore are our way of trying to understand our place in the universe vis-à-vis divinity.
On what the myths surrounding the pirs and mystic poets of Sindh mean to her and to the region at large.
What I was most fascinated with was the way history changes over time and becomes myth and legend. I included one story about an ancestor of mine called Jeandal Shah. My father had always told me that legend – that he’d fought a cheetah and survived. I found the story fascinating and wanted to incorporate it into the book. It was a morality tale about not selling your soul in order to gain power. The stories of the saints and pirs and mystical poets are always about the triumph of good over evil, the external as well as the internal struggle of the soul to overcome the ego, and a paean to human rights and women’s rights. If you notice, the themes are always of struggling against oppression, moving towards greater freedom, and eventually, becoming united with God. Our history mirrors these themes, and I think our future will as well.
On the role of Benazir Bhutto in the novel, illustrating how myth-building and folklore continue to prevail in modern Pakistan.
The one drawback of relying on prophecy is that you’re always waiting for a savior to come and make things better. That is simply not what happens in real life, and it won’t happen in Pakistan either. Every time we’ve put our faith in a savior, we’ve been disappointed because they are human, with flaws and failure written into their DNA. Ali Sikandar knows this very well about Benazir Bhutto, but by the end of the book, he too, is drawn to the mythology of the savior. You could say it’s his undoing, because of how the book ultimately ends. I don’t have much faith in saviors myself, not in human form anyway. We have to work harder at saving ourselves.