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Sailaab Temporalities

‘Sindh sailaabon ki dharti hai’ my friend Ibrahim commented at the Moenjodaro museum. The text  at the entrance attributed the end of the Indus Valley Civilisation to a series of great floods that  had accompanied a major shift in the course of the Indus River. A worker at the museum pointed  out his nearby village as we stood at the elevated height of the ancient city. More than two  months after it had flooded, his village was still submerged. Just yesterday, we had been wading  waist-deep through festering flood waters in Warah, trying to wrap our heads around the  inconceivable scale of destruction. Have you ever seen a flood like this before? The elders  recounted the dates of every flood they had witnessed with ease. They had always known when  to expect it, they understood the cycles. And then, something ruptures, entropy. The cycles start  to spiral, time tangles and the dates no longer make sense. Hamara system ab kaam nahi karta.

‘What is it that causes nature to lunge in this cataclysmic way?’, Caribbean poet Kamau  Brathwaite asks in a 2005 interview speaking of hurricanes. ‘These are all aspects of that same  original explosion.’ It has now been five months and the cascading crisis of Pakistan’s 2022  floods persists in its brutal unfolding. The water had surged from every direction: relentless rain,  gushing hill torrents, bursting embankments. Where there were once homes, fields and villages,  now: a toxic sea. In some places the water was 12-14 feet deep. For miles and miles, there was  no dry land to rest. No dry land even to bury the dead.

Buildings and bridges crumbled to dust. Livestock swept away. Families swept away. The state, largely absent. Viral audio of a desperate farmer in Dadu asking the National Disaster  Management Authority helpline to just bomb his village and end their suffering. Viral footage of  dozens of men in Mehar piling their bodies together to block a bursting embankment. Real end of  times shit.

But it was also just a beginning. The beginning of an unprecedented crisis that continues to ignite massive outbreaks of waterborne diseases, food shortages, widespread hunger and  displacement, and incalculable death, especially among children. These floods were described in  international media as one of the first major events to mark the arrival of a new era in the climate  emergency: ‘apocalyptic’, ‘a wake up call for the world’. But this relentless rain, the melting  glaciers, the crumbling infrastructures are all resounding reverberations of that same ‘original  explosion’. The cataclysmic upheavals of colonial expansion, extraction and dispossession and  the entrenchment of an ecocidal ideology that lives on today in our displaced, choked, poisoned  water bodies and a relentless state with an insatiable appetite for disastrous and hubristic mega development projects. The false, frayed, fragile edges of colonial ideology and infrastructure  coming so irrevocably, devastatingly, spectacularly undone all across our land and all we love.

‘… We swore upon the shrine that we will never let this dam be constructed.’ 

Most of Sindh, the province I come from, was under water. Sindh is named after Sindhu, the  ancient river that flows, expands, contracts across its surface. Sindhu gave birth to Sindh. It is a  profoundly sacred and deeply revered river. The Rig Vedas were written at the banks of this river,  and they mention Sindhu over 150 times: ‘For thy course Sindhu, Varuna tore open a path as you  hastened towards flood’. Elsewhere: ’Waters, the worshipper addresses to you excellent praise…  the rivers flow by sevens through the three worlds; but the Sindhu surpasses all the other streams  in strength.’ This river predates the Himalayas. Through the massive geological shifts that birthed  the highest mountains on the planet, the Sindhu endured and softly shored a path.

River worship is an ancient and ongoing tradition here. Our patron saint is Jhoolay Lal, considered  by Muslims to be an apparition of Khwaja Khizr and by Hindus to be an avatar of ocean god  Varuna. The devotees of Jhoolay Lal were known as the Daryapanthi: those who walk the path of  the river. My friend, activist Arfana Mallah speculates that perhaps the reason why river worship is  more entrenched in Sindh compared to rest of riverine Pakistan is our dry climate. ‘Hum darya ke  liye taraste hain’ she says, in the language of a true lover. Another name for Sindhu, and therefore  for Sindh, is Mehran. A name etymologically connected to Mehr/Mitra – the Indo-Persian diety of  water and friendship. Mitr. Friend.

That the descendants of river worshipers now inhabit a political culture of which river defence is a  central tenet should come as no surprise. The Sindhu is not only one of the most sacred rivers of  the world, but also one of the most brutalised. Anti-dam resistance has been constitutive of and  central to Sindh’s post-partition cultural and political identity as well as Sindh’s generally  antagonistic relationship with the Pakistani state. In a dhaba in Warah I spoke to comrade Sartaj  Chandio, a lifelong member of leftist party Awami Tehreek, who recently defeated a local feudal in  elections. He remembered the early days of resistance against the Kalabagh Dam, a controversial  project the state has been threatening to build on the Indus since the 1980s. ‘We are not  particularly religious people,’ he said, ‘but we made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif  Bhittai, and we swore upon the shrine that we will die to defend Sindhu.’

To die to defend a river. The language in which Sindhu is spoken of is often anthropomorphising:  ye Sindhu ka rasta rok rahe hain, inhon ne Sindhu ko qaid kar diya hai. The poet Amar Sindhu (her  name means eternal Sindhu) said: ‘Sindhu hamara devta bhi hai, hamari shanakht bhi’. It’s like the river, mitr, is a mirror. Our destinies are intertwined. After all, these spectacular infrastructures  crowded all along the Sindhu’s path, drying, displacing the river, are the tools and the systems by  which the state distributes life and death among us all. Dams and drainage canals like the LBOD  (Left Bank Outfall Drain) and the RBOD (Right Bank Outfall Drain), funded by international  institutions like World Bank and Asian Development Bank, were crucial faultlines in these floods,  and are all infrastructures locals had contested. The destruction of the environment and the  communities that inhabit it is not the collateral damage of these development projects, it is their  very aim. But Infrastructures also end. These floods have left us all too aware of their fragile,  feeble materiality.


Like the river, a lake can also be a mirror.

The Manchar lake is one of South Asia’s largest  freshwater lakes. Char means boundless, horizonless water. And Mann is one of those impossible  concepts to translate – heart, soul. The boundless waters of the soul. Manchar is home to some of  the most ancient fisher communities of Sindh, now barely surviving, and is remembered for its  rich, aquatic ecology – a major resting point for thousands of migratory birds. But this ecology, the  stuff of poetry and legends, has systematically been torn apart by dams, barrages and toxic  effluent, and climate migration has reduced the population drastically. In these floods Manchar  overflowed its banks so much that it became one with Hamal Lake 100 miles to its north.

I asked Mustafa Mirani, Manchar local and Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum activist: ‘What do we lose  when we lose a lake?’ He said: ‘Jab ek jheel tabah hoti hai toh ek poori tehzeeb tabah hoti hai’.  We lose a way of life, a whole conceptual universe. ‘Hamari bahut sari rivayaat theen magar hum  un ko ab nibha nahi paa te’. We are no longer able to fulfill our traditions.

Manchar’s is an enchanted ecology. In my notebook Ghulam Mohammad Mallah of Manchar  Bachayo Tehreek drew a map of the dozens of shrines located along the peripheries of the lake.  The sacred geography is a kind of archive, dozens and dozens of portals into history, into worlds.  And he hadn’t even gotten around to the shrines and saints inside the lake yet. At the urs (death  anniversary) of Manchar saint Shaikh Dhaman Shah the devotees, this year mostly flood  affectees, arrived as per tradition in boats. Fatima Majeed, another Fisherfolk Forum activist, once  told me that boats are so sacred that Mallah (fishers) remove their shoes, some even do wuzu  (ablution), before entering them. ‘Beda paar’ is the metaphor used to reach one’s (spiritual)  destination, one’s maqaam: may your boat cross over, may your boat reach its shore.

The Mallah, too, is a sacred figure, a guide, a navigator to the divine. It is said that all Mallah are  descendants of Noah. In Sindh it is the Mallah, not the mullah, who is the bridge and the medium  between worlds. In sufi kalam invocations of the Mallah/Mohana are frequent: Bedi wara ada  Mohana, Lal te thi wanjan (brother mohana, bring your boat, I must go to my Lal). Mann atkeya  beparwah de naal / mintaan karaan mallah de naal. (My heart is entangled with an indifferent  beloved / I plead with the Mallah)

The folk tale of Noori, the fisherwoman of Keenjhar who is pursued by the king Jam Tamachi in an  epic tale of caste defying love, is the only folktale in Shah jo Risalo with a happy ending. Noori  argues in the Sufi tradition of how love for the individual is simply a vessel towards true love: love  for the collective. She tells Jam Tamachi, if you love me you must love my people, my community,  my lake, my fish, my birds, my landscape. Noori teaches the alienated king a new mode of  relationality, the boundless waters of the soul, intertwined destinies, wahdat ul wujood. The floods  arrived as a reminder of what many already knew, had argued, had fought for: the waters are  inhabited, the boundaries between self, land and water are mere illusion.

Musafir pakhi

That day, still wet from the floodwaters of Warah, we visited the home of comrades Fozia and  Seengar Noonari in Nasirabad. I had never met Fozia in person before, but knew her from seeing  breathtaking footage of her rallying the women of Nasirabad every day to march across the city a  year earlier. They were marching for the recovery of Fozia’s husband Seengar after he was forcibly  abducted by the state for his work as an activist in the left. Fozia along with her comrade Abida Channa spoke of the relief work they had been doing as part of the Women’s Democratic Front and the complete absence of relief efforts from the state. Just weeks earlier the flood waters had  flowed into the same home we were sitting in. Even now, across the flood affected areas, the first  responders are the last responders. When the few NGOs and state initiatives that showed up to  provide aid have packed up and left, locals, activists, are still working – mutual aid, collective  survival.

Abida’s husband Naji Channa gave me a book – a recently published compilation of essays on the  environmental martyr Nazim Jokhio. Nazim had been brutally tortured and killed in November  2021 for circulating footage of a PPP minister and his Arab dignitary guests hunting the beautiful,  endangered Houbara Bustard. Despite its vulnerable status, the Pakistani state issues permits  every year to royalty from across the Gulf, who hunt the bird for sport and for its meat which is  said to be an aphrodisiac. Migratory birds like the Houbara Bustard are called musafir pakhi in  Sindh, travelers. Traditionally, hunting or eating a musafir pakhi is haram, a deep violation of our  traditions of hospitality. Arfana had explained to me, ‘hum un ki rah dekhte hain’, we eagerly await  their return.

That day, across Sindh, people were mourning the death of Ustad Juman Darbadar, one of  Sindh’s most beloved poets and elders. Fozia told us her toddler hates the sound of her sweet  singing, as it reminds him of the long laments she would sing every night when Seengar went  missing. But she still sang a song for us that day, for Ustad Juman Darbadar. This song is  considered one of Sindh’s national songs, an expression of Sindh’s fundamentally revolutionary  spirit. Ustad Juman wrote this song at the height of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy  that had raged across Sindh in the 1980s against the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq. After  witnessing the murder of a young comrade in struggle, he wrote these words that people all  across Sindh were singing that day:

Wathi har har janam warbo
Mitha Mehran mein milbo
Mitha Mehran mein milbo
We will return in every lifetime
We will meet by the sweet Mehran
We will meet by the sweet Mehran

This text was written in and through conversation with Ibrahim Buriro, Arfana Mallah, Amar  Sindhu, Ghulam Mustafa Mirani, Fatima Majeed, Majeed Motani, Ghulam Mohammad Mallah, Taj  Joyo, Leela Ram Kolhi, Chaman Lal Kolhi, Fozia Seengar, Seengar Noonari, Abida Channa, Naji  Channa, Sartaj Chandio, Shahana Rajani, Anam Abbas and others.

Commissioned by Khoj International Artists’ Association. Khoj’s participation in World Weather Network is supported by the British Council’s Creative Commissions for Climate Action, a global programme exploring climate change through art, science and digital technology.

For more weather reports from Khoj’s weather station at 28th Parallel North, visit the World Weather Network