Lack of love is the real malady in this world: Shabnam Virmani and Vipul Rikhi

(This article was first published by the Red Elephant Foundation’s Ahimsa Project.)

You might remember the time when Ali Amin Gandapur, who is Pakistan’s Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit Baltistan, said, “If tensions with India rise on Kashmir, Pakistan will be compelled to go to war. Those countries backing India and not Pakistan (over Kashmir) will be considered our enemy and a missile will be fired at India and those nations supporting it.”

This was around when Indias Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met with a delegation of members from the European Parliament to win support for India’s mandate against terrorism backed by Pakistan, while also trying to cover up India’s brutal clampdown on the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.

As long as India and Pakistan continue to treat Kashmir as their battleground, peace will mean nothing but a dream to most Kashmiris. On the other hand I have the privilege of sitting in Mumbai, and churning out these words as an expression of my solidarity. I wonder if it means anything to the people who have been caught in the crossfire between two nation states asserting their military might, and threatening to use their nuclear capabilities.

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(Source: Penguin)

Silence is not an option when I know that it means being complicit. I hope. I pray. I write. I seek refuge, or escape — see it as you wish — in the verse of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689–1752), a Sindhi Sufi poet who composed the poetic compendium Shah Jo Risalo. Bhitai’s poems have been translated most recently by Shabnam Virmani and Vipul Rikhi in their book, I Saw Myself: Journeys with Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, which includes extensive commentary on the oral traditions that keep this poetry alive. The book was published by Penguin Random House India in 2019.

The authors write, “The border between India and Pakistan partitioned a vibrant and immense cultural and poetic legacy of Shah Latif. As seekers of mystic philosophy, we started exploring the land of Kutch on this side of the border…seeking from time to time to breach that invisible line that kept us deprived of a fuller immersion in his much vaster oral tradition just across the border in Pakistan. But political hostilities held sway and repeated denials of visas kept us thirsty for that experience.”

I used to work with Virmani at the Kabir Project, an artist-in-residence initiative anchored by her at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. It was through her that I encountered Bhitai. Every time she came back from a research trip to Kutch, the office was filled with songs and stories. She was immersed in a whole new world, and I got to share some of it. Later, she also brought down singers from Kutch for a music festival that would help new audiences discover the beauty, wisdom and longing in Bhitai’s verse.

There was something powerful and moving about the folk music that embodied this poetry. It was not meant to lull you into a blissful state but to jolt you out of your slumber. Virmani and Rikhi write, “If one were to imagine a form that might best capture a conversation between seeker and God, between lover and elusive beloved, this might be it. No weary preliminaries, no pretty embellishments, no polite barriers, no delicate overtures, no middlemen to broker this conversation…a kind of a visceral cry, a weeping, a lament, a communion, a trace.”

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Shabnam Virmani (Source: Speaking Tiger)

The music was unsettling. It came from a deep desire for connection not with another human being but with the source of creation. It was evocative in a manner that I struggle to find the words for even though I do not believe in a creator god. I was interested in the verse as much as the music, so I began to develop a more intimate relationship with the poet by reading and re-reading Anju Makhija and Hari Dilgir’s translations of his work in a book titled Seeking the Beloved published by Katha in 2005. These translators prefer to focus on the poetry unlike Virmani and Rikhi who are also absorbed in the music, the cultural milieu, the folklore, and the mystical tradition.

“Shah Latif’s literary and spiritual influences are diverse. He always carried copies of the Qur’an and Rumi’s Mathnawi with him. At a young age, his travels with the Nath Panthi yogis gave him intimate knowledge of an iconoclastic stream of Hinduism. His poems have references to aayats from the Qur’an as well as to yogic vocabulary and practices,” say Virmani and Rikhi. This spiritual fluidity is threatening to those who abhor intermingling. Under the pretext of maintaining purity, they encourage divisiveness and spew hate. It is not uncommon to come across people who call themselves lovers of Bhitai but fail to appreciate his disregard for sectarian boundaries. One of his poems is translated as follows:

The Sufi is not sectarian

He is beloved of no one

He is always at war within

But shows nothing on the outside

Those who wish ill to him

He is their greatest well-wisher

This book recounts a story involving Bhitai. It is not clear whether there is a historical record of it or if it is apocryphal. Nevertheless, it communicates what is easily discernible to anyone who engages with his poetry with an open heart. Apparently, he was once asked whether he was Shia or Sunni. He did not feel aligned with either of those identities, so he said that he was in between the two. The person asking the question was utterly confused, and replied, “There is nothing between the two!” At this point, Bhitai said, “Precisely! I am nothing.” Humility is a recurring theme in his poems because he considers the ego as the source of all conflict.

Who can shun all markers of identity? Is it a fantasy that only the privileged can indulge in, or is it a choice available to those who have been oppressed because of their caste or race or gender or sexual orientation? Does identification fulfill the human need for belonging, or does it force one to embrace narrow loyalties out of fear? Is it possible to step in and out of identities, wear them lightly, and not be held captive by them? These questions have spiritual as well as political dimensions. I pose them here not as a challenge but as an invitation for readers to reflect on their own lives.

We can appreciate Bhitai without feeling compelled to agree with him. I, for one, cannot relate to the idea of surrendering to a god who is supposed to show me mercy. My conception of the sacred is anchored in the interconnectedness of all life forms rather than in obeisance to a superior entity. Moreover, the proposition that “the one who wounds is the one who saves” sounds too abusive to be alluring. You might say that it is foolish on my part to bring a feminist lens to poetry written so many centuries ago but this is important to me if Bhitai is to hold any relevance for me at all.

“Lack of love is the real malady in this world. The beloved as physician brings the cure,” write Virmani and Rikhi who themselves wonder if the poetry ends up reinforcing patriarchal structures. Bhitai casts the seeker as a woman, and the beloved as a man — the former pining for the latter, facing agony in the hope of grace, and eventually finding resolution mostly in death. The heroines in his poetry — Sohni, Marui, Ramkali, Moomal, Leela, Sassi, and others — are drawn from love legends popular in Sindh. He uses episodes from these stories, and turns them into spiritual allegories. They are not meant to be taken literally but they do circulate in a patriarchal society. Therefore, it is important to engage with what the gender roles might mean to people who read these poems or listen to them at concerts or in shrines.

I found that Virmani and Rikhi are open to readings that subvert patriarchy but are constrained by their heteronormative outlook. When Moomal asks her sister “to dress like a man, particularly like Rano, and to lie with her in bed,” the incident is explained away as the willingness “to make do with distractions and amusements and make-believe in the absence of the real thing.” The authors lose the opportunity to see this moment as a challenge to heterosexuality, and to binary understandings of gender. Can a woman feel complete only if there is a man fulfilling that function?

Later, in the book, as they speak of sufis — all identified as men — — who have “invoked the female voice as the quintessential seeker’s voice,” we are told that “perhaps it is time now for men to openly embrace these qualities and clothe them, as beautifully and compellingly, in the male voice (longing for a female beloved).” Though the intention here is to free human beings from the clutches of expectations associated with their gender, the authors seem to think that a simplistic role reversal would fix things.

Vipul Rikhi (Source: Speaking Tiger)

Can there be a female beloved when the divine is conceptualized using language that marks the all-powerful as male? In this context, can a man long for a male beloved in a male voice? Is it possible to have an open conversation about the erotic possibilities between the master and the disciple in a sufi context, especially when their poems are drenched in passion? Is it necessary to deny the sexual in the pursuit of the spiritual? Can the two not find a way to co-exist?

These questions are bound to come up because Virmani and Rikhi present Bhitai as a poet who was looking to transcend conventional ideas of piety and morality. However, they also caution the readers to slow down their “discursive, hyperactive minds” and cultivate an inner life will prepare them to truly receive what Bhitai has to offer. I think this is a valuable suggestion. Questioning can be helpful if it comes from a place of wanting to understand. It can be pointless if it is only meant to poke holes and smirk.

Is there any space for questioning in a tradition that demands surrender as the only path to truth? What awaits those who refuse to walk this path? Can faith and skepticism befriend each other? In a world where people in authority are trying to crush dissent in every possible way, what is appealing about a singular truth? Is it enabling, or debilitating? You might have realized that I love asking questions. It reminds me that I am alive, listening, thinking, engaging, and being responsive to the world within and around me. It is this questioning that emboldens me to imagine the spiritual as political, and the political as spiritual.

I admire the fact that Bhitai urges us to wake up, to notice the gilded cages that we have mistaken for castles, and to find a path that will liberate us from these illusions. Once we get on to this path, and stay committed for as long as we are alive, we will feel no need to dominate, control or exploit someone else. We will begin to rejoice in the happiness of others, and empathize with their sorrows. It will be impossible for us to enslave another human being, or to celebrate the occupation of a territory that does not belong to us. Call me naïve if you wish to but I believe in love, freedom and dialogue.

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