By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
12 Jan 2013
It certainly seems uncanny, but I mustn’t think that it is anything other than a mere coincidence. Hardly a fortnight ago I penned an essay about him, suggesting that it was unlikely that we would ever meet again, for, given his age, it was improbable that he would come to India and I certainly didn’t want to go back to Sindh, where he lived. And just this morning the Karachi-based Dawn announced his death, at the ripe age of 80. ‘Renowned Scholar Kaimkhani Dies’, reads a short notice in the paper.
A friend of mine from Sindh who also knew him called me on the phone to share the news. ‘Bechara,’ he said, ‘Bechara Chacha Kurshid has gone.’
‘No, there’s nothing bechara about that, Bhai’ I replied. ‘He’s simply gone where he had to, and where all of us will soon go, too.’
Life wasn’t particularly easy for Khurshid Khan Kaimkhani. And so, maybe he was glad to finally go. His prolonged illness, which I didn’t realise was so serious till just this morning, might well have made him want to get over with it all as soon as possible, and with the least amount of fuss.
I can’t say that I knew him intimately, but we were close enough for me to call him ‘Chacha’. From the little that I knew of him—through several days spent together over the years and numerous letters that we exchanged—it was apparent that he had suffered immensely almost throughout his life but also that it was this suffering that had led him on to do the amazing things he did and to become the amazing man that he was.
Chacha could never reconcile himself to having been torn away from his home—in a village in Sikar, in present-day Rajasthan—and forced to shift to an alien land, to a ramshackle town in Sindh, by political big-wigs and religious bigots. That, I suppose, was at the root of his visceral allergy to nationalism and religion of all types and forms. His horror of both led him to resign from a fairly senior post in the Pakistan Army (which he had joined possibly simply because that was the sort of job what most Kaimkhanis, martial Chauhan Rajput converts to Islam, did for as long as they could remember) in protest against Pakistan’s brutalities against the East Bengalis in the name of Islam and Pakistani nationalism. He travelled abroad extensively after that—his father had left him a modestly-sized farm, the proceeds from which helped him fund his journeys—and this exposed him to ways of living and thinking that made him a true internationalist humanist.
He would come to India as often as he could get a visa. I know he wanted nothing more than go back to his village in Sikar and settle there, but I suppose he realized that there was no point in trying to reverse or defy history. He was convinced that religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism—Muslim as well as Hindu—posed a major threat to the peoples of our shared subcontinent, and was an enthusiastic supporter of better understanding between the peoples, as opposed to simply the governments, of India and Pakistan. He wrote much on that subject, and even penned a book, in Urdu, about the village where he was born, Sapno Ka Des (‘The Land of Dreams’), wherein he reflected on the futility and horrors of Partition and reminisced about the harmonious relations between Hindus and Muslims in his village when he was a child. I offered to translate it into English, as well as another book of his, Bhatakti Nasley (‘The Nomadic Races’), a collection of his articles on the Hindu Dalits and ‘low’ caste Muslims of Sindh.
Those were promises that I failed to fulfill. But I did keep up my promise to send him Indian Dalit literature, bits of which he translated into Sindhi and published in Dalit Adab, Pakistan’s first and only Dalit periodical, which he founded along with some Pakistani Dalit friends. He was one of the pioneers of the fledgling Ambedkarite movement among Pakistan’s three million Scheduled Castes. He was convinced that ‘low’ caste Muslims and Hindus (who, he argued, accounted for the majority of Indians and Pakistanis) were at one time a single people and that they should recover and celebrate their lost pre-Islamic and pre-Vedic traditions and ancestors. That, he firmly believed, was the most effective way to undermine the hatred in the name of religion that powerful sections among ‘upper’ caste Muslims and Hindus (both of whom he branded as descendants of foreign invaders) used in order to keep the ‘low’ castes of both countries and communities permanently divided. You might not agree entirely with Khurshid’s understanding of history, but you can’t deny that his was a novel approach to Indo-Pak and Hindu-Muslim camaraderie.
Khurshid must have been a tough man, despite his butter-soft heart, to be able to survive in a society where religious obscurantism is rapidly becoming the norm. It must not have been at all easy being a hardened atheist—for I think that was what he was, although I never knew exactly—in a country carved out on the basis of religion. To live with the accusation of being pro-India (just because he didn’t hate the land of his birth and wrote and spoke out against the Partition) in a land that defined itself on the basis of anti-Indian hatred must certainly have been daunting. Yet, Khurshid never budged from his stance.
Unlike some folks whose radicalism doesn’t go beyond rhetoric, the little that I saw of Khurshid indicated a man who lived pretty much as he preached. He had a modest home in Tando Allah Yar, not far from the Sindhi town of Hyderabad, where I visited him some years ago. His little farm, which he had inherited from his father, he had given to Balu, a Hindu Dalit and childhood friend, to manage. Over a dozen other impoverished Dalit families lived there, too, but they worked on other people’s lands. Khurshid had generously permitted them to live on his farm because elsewhere they may not have been safe and could easily have been targeted by dacoits or by dreaded landlords, whose word was law in interior Sindh. Khurshid and the Dalits on the farm were one large family, as was evident from the way they behaved with each other—joking and laughing and eating with each other and sitting together at night and singing songs of love by Kabir and Mira Bai: quite unthinkable behavior for any ‘respectable’ Pakistani (or, for that matter, Indian) farm-owner.
One of the most moving memories that I have of Khurshid—and this rushes to my mind as I write these lines—was when we went out to the Dalit slum just beyond Tando Allah Yar. As we entered the locality of the Jogis—Shiva-worshipping snake-charmers—a train of little children, undernourished and dressed in miserable rags, rushed out to greet him. He enveloped them in a giant hug. Then, he introduced me to his friends, pathetically impoverished Jogi men and women, with whom he spent much of his time. He showed me around the little Shiva temple at the corner of the locality. Some of the bells and statues inside he had brought back from his frequent trips to India.
He wasn’t at all, as far as I know, a believer in god—in any god for that matter—but he did see something akin to divinity in the children of his Dalit friends—the poorest of Pakistan’s desperately poor. ‘Look at them,’ I remember him saying to me, ‘What beautiful smiles! What innocent eyes! What poor souls, uncorrupted by hatred in the name of religion! How I wish I could kiss their feet.’
Khurshid Chacha, wherever you may now be, I promise you: I won’t ever forget you even though I know I may never meet you again.