By Muhammad Amir Rana
When I was a student and a journalist, Muhammad Amir Rana was an English-language author that I read regularly in the newspapers. My area of interest was the same as his, and I have always found his writings very captivating.
Rana is a journalist and security expert. In his contributions to Dawn, he usually discusses extremism, sectarianism, security, counter-terrorism and politics, etc. Given the solemnity of such subjects, one might think he is not a very lively soul. His writings are somber and often warn us of the danger of slipping into the chaos of extremism.
Therefore, when I first met him, I made sure that my otherwise happy face took on an expression of utmost seriousness, just so that my meeting with him would go well. In my mind I had turned Rana into an angry, sullen man, and I didn’t want to risk his wrath. But to my surprise, he turned out to be very different – a great storyteller with diverse tastes in literature and immensely hospitable.
It may come as a surprise to those who know his name that Rana writes fiction alongside newspaper articles and books on national security issues. His first work was a collection of short stories published in 2002, Adhoori Mohabbatein Aur Poori Kahaaniyan [Incomplete Loves and Complete Stories]. His debut novel Saaey [Shadows] was published in 2016. His latest is the novel Meer Jaan.
Spread across Baluchistan, Waseb, Sindh, Oman and Africa, Muhammad Amir Rana’s latest novel is about characters living in a world of constant flux, whether forced or willing
Meer Jaan is about migration – a topic that is deeply rooted in people’s minds after the division of the subcontinent. In this part of the world, on either side of the border, many of us still have not worked through the trauma that devastated people’s lives nearly 75 years ago.
But Rana’s novel sheds only a cursory light on this mass exodus of 1947. Instead, it discusses the notion of migration in a broader context. If the book could be summed up in one line, Rana has created a “land of migration” in which all seven of its key characters live in a world of perpetual “Hijrat”. [migration].
Since other locations also play their part, the story takes place mainly in Balochistan, a region where migration is an ancient phenomenon. In fact, it is so widespread that it is said that the number of Baloch people living in the country’s other provinces, let alone neighboring countries, is more than the number of Baloch people living in Balochistan itself.
Indigenous Baloch people migrated not only within Pakistan but also from the Makran coast to African countries – the Baloch author Yar Jan Badini has discussed this in his book Afreeqa Ke Baloch [The Baloch of Africa]. People from African nations have similarly come to the southwest coast of Pakistan. It is these specific movements that are central to Rana’s novel.
It goes without saying that migration, while the purpose is often the search for a better life, brings with it its own economic, social and other problems. Sometimes it’s not a choice. Rana attempts to illuminate these sufferings through the struggles of the title holder, Meer Jan, a woman who, for various political and social reasons, is forced to live her life in constant motion.
Born in Mombasa, Kenya, young Meer Jaan is kidnapped during a political crisis by a carpet dealer who is trying to blackmail her father. Meer Jaan finds herself in Muscat, Oman, when her father is killed in a skirmish with the British Army. There she is sold to a trader who takes her to Gwadar. Raised under the care of a fisherwoman named Gul Bibi, another series of events takes Meer Jaan to southern Punjab, where a riverside location eventually takes her name.
A very interesting thread of the story revolves around Shad, a dancer who goes to Muscat in search of work as a casual laborer. Gwadar in Balochistan and Muscat have long been historically and politically linked – Gwadar, known as the ‘Gate of the Winds’ in the Balochi language, passed into the hands of the Sultans of Oman in the 18th century. After the establishment of Pakistan, the government of then Prime Minister Feroz Khan Noon negotiated the purchase of Gwadar from the Sultan of Oman for 5.5 billion rupees.
In this chapter, Rana sets the stage with the story of Sindhi Sinbad. Despite the word “Sindhi” in his name, Rana clarifies that Sindbad’s father was from Gwadar and his mother was African from Mombasa. After his father was killed in tribal conflicts, Sinbad enlisted in the Omani army and was held in high esteem by the English officer tasked with training Omani soldiers.
Then Sinbad rebelled against the army and became a Qazzaaq [pirate]who distributed the spoils of the ships he plundered among the poor.
Shad is very interested in this story. Digging deeper, he finds a blind storyteller named Hasan, whose father was from Mombasa and was a member of Sinbad’s crew. But Hasan does not recognize Sinbad in the negative connotation of “pirate”; he claims the famous navigator just looted an English Navy ship suspected of transporting bombs.
In beautiful, intricately rendered Urdu prose, Rana paints a lifelike picture and narrates the physical and spiritual journey of a woman who has spent her entire life moving from place to place but has never found a place to call home could. Physically in southern Punjab, mentally in Mombasa, she is forever a rootless migrant.
The author’s reach spans the Waseb, Sukkur, Gwadar, Muscat and Mombasa as he examines how society has changed after each phase of migration of the subcontinent, particularly in Balochistan.
Rana can be viewed as an encyclopedia of Pakistan, which has roamed every nook and cranny of the country to interact with people belonging to different castes, creeds, ethnicities and religions. His travels know no borders. Likewise, his protagonist Meer Jan never lets herself be deterred from her own journeys – whether forced or chosen – across borders, deserts, mountains, rivers and seas.
No matter where you go, the soil you leave behind haunts you for life. If the ancestors also happen to be migrants, then it becomes a story for wonderfully gifted writers like Rana to write.
The appraiser is an employee. He tweets @Akbar_notezai
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 22, 2022