Modernity and mutation

Aziz Ali Dad 

With the advent of modernity, the society is faced with a dilemma of striking a balance between change and continuity. Change demands adoption of new mediums at the expense of traditional ones through which historical memory and literary sensibilities were expressed.

So strong were the winds of change that even the culture and literature of Gilgit could not be saved.

Shina is one of the major languages of Gilgit-Baltistan that is facing the dominance of written culture. The literate people of Shina language opted for the written word; thereby, causing rupture from traditional mediums of oral culture and literature.

However, introduction of Shina on the airwaves of radio has provided an apt medium to transmit and disseminate literary works orally.

Among the various genres of modern Shina literature, drama has played a vital role in the formation of discourse about self, society, religion and culture of a society that was on the cusp of change. The book ‘The Meeting Place (Bayaak)’ is comprised of seven features written by Mohammad Amin Zia for Radio Pakistan in the mid-1980s.

Mohammad Amin Zia belongs to a generation that has experienced both cultures of orality and writing. He is a well-known teacher, poet and writer of Gilgit-Baltistan. To his credit, Amin Zia has authored eight books on grammar, indigenous literature and wisdom, poetry and linguistics.

Introductory section of the book discusses the context, limitation, and brief history of the Shina programme on radio and setting of features. However, it is too short to provide the socio-economic, political and cultural context that underpins the features in ‘The Meeting Place’. A close reading in relation to its time clearly reveals the ideological context within which the institutions operated and discourse of social change took place.

It was a period when General Ziaul Haq tried to change ideological moorings of the state and society.

All the features revolve around three dramatis personae Tranpha, Taaj and Maastar Saap. They are not complex characters. The space in all features remains static as the characters gather in a public place called Bayaak (the meeting place) in Shina language. Time in the feature is ubiquitous only by its absence. The characters are representatives of a mindset particular to old and new generation. Tranpha represents traditional power and values, whereas the Taaj stands for rebellious youth. Tranpha has antipathy for modern spaces and things like bazaars, restaurants, alleys, cinemas and means of communication.

Whenever a debate reaches a point of confrontation, a teacher named Ustad appears to make a rapprochement between the contesting parties. At times, the abrupt appearance of the teacher in different scenes and the quick solutions he offers to intractable issues appears to be an act of deus ex machina. Perhaps the medium of radio imposed restrictions on the writer to give more time and thought to fully develop flat dramatis personae into round characters.

A recurrent leitmotif in all the seven features of the book is tension between tradition and modernity. Even the very space, where debates about tradition and modernity take place, belongs to traditional space and power. The very space for public discourse is threatened by encroaching modernity in the shape of rapid urbanisation and creeping consumer culture in the private domain. There is a paradox of place and themes as all themes of the features are related to urban issues, whereas the public space Bayaak is a space typical of a traditional village.

This space did not survive the rapid urbanisation of Gilgit. It is not clear why issues of urbanity are discussed in a traditional space of a village.

Dialogues between individual characters in the book epitomise the overall situation of a society that has lost the indigenous worldview on one hand, and cannot make sense of the modern order of things on the other. To avoid ‘meta-physical’ pathos of losing old certainties and inability to create new meaning in a new order, it resorts to religion for rescue. Whenever the characters face insolvable situation or crisis of meaning, they seek guidance by alluding to religious tradition and books.

With the disappearance of old ways of life, the very meaning of the same act mutates. One of the beautifully-dealt themes in the book is related to inversion of morality when an everyday cultural practice of yesterday falls into disrepute because of chance of cultural ethos in modern age. Traditionally, it was considered bad manners to call at somebody’s without a gift. Now it is viewed as act of greasing the palm.

All the features are peppered with references to the Quran, Hadith and anecdotes from religious history. This is not to say that the writer is inculcating conservatism, but to highlight reasons for dominance of religion in a society that operates in an ideological vacuum. Similarly, it depicts the process through which creativity sublimates in a state of censorship. ‘The Meeting Place’ is written in a period when Gilgit did not have local newspapers and facility of TV. In the absence of alternate mediums, radio proved an instrumental tool to express ideas within the confines of state censorship.

A salient feature of the book is that most of the similes and metaphors are derived from animals and birds’ kingdom. Even when the characters are in lighthearted mood they try to illustrate a point or situation by referring to animals. For example, Taaj quips at Tranpha on his arrival in Bayaak, “It seems you have come as a duckling isolated from the flock today”.

At points the book problematises historiography of the war of independence of Gilgit-Baltistan and points at ruptures in dialogue between old and new generations. Overall the book gives the impression that the dialogue for change is stifled by new stakeholders of power who try to provide legitimacy to their role in the new configuration of power in the garb of religion.

The writer has rendered idiomatic Shina into simple English. For Shina speakers the straightjacket of translating process becomes palpable in different sections of the book, but introduction, grammatical analysis, phonetic script of Shina text and interlinear analysis by Georg Buddruss and Almuth Degener proved helpful in overcoming this hindrance.

For general readers who are not familiar with Shina language, a list of glossary is provided in the end.

In the feature titled ‘International Year of Youth’ Taaj is consistently misspelled Taa.

Shina language does not have a strong tradition of prose. In the absence of such a base of prose in Shina, the writer unconsciously relies upon Urdu diction. There are points where unnecessary Urdu words have been inserted into dialogues. It should not be deemed as writer’s personal predilection; rather it is symptomatic of a general trend in Gilgit where Urdu has become lingua franca during the last three decades. Publication of ‘The Meeting Place (Bayaak)’ is an important step because it retrieves a genre from audio archives and provides readers of another generation an opportunity to get insights into the socio-economic, political and cultural undercurrents that have shaped what is Gilgit today — a cauldron of sectarian violence.

The writer is a social scientist from Gilgit. Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

The Meeting Place

By Muhammad Amin Zia & Almuth Degener

Editor: Georg Buddruss

Publisher: Harrassowitz Wiesbaden,

Germany, 2012

Pages: 308

Originally Posted at: http://jang.com.pk/thenews/sep2013-weekly/nos-29-09-2013/foo.htm#2

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One Comment

  1. My sincere appreciations go to the reviewer, Aziz Alidad shb, for picking such an important work by a literary giant of GB who’s contributions on Shina language et linguistics, now a neglected and fragile subject of human civilisations are much appreciable particularly in the contemporary times which could be tagged as “modernity-struck” — the ‘modernity’, the by-product of the the so-called ‘enlightenment’ again a Euro-born psycho-cum-intellectual phenomenon and that “smuggled” to all the ‘colonised ‘ countries by all the ‘colonising’ Euro contries–UK, Portuguese, France,Germany et al to many parts of Africa and Asia–India included that got partition , as a result of this ‘modernity’ driven Euro-West. This secularising-cum-individualising modernity of the Euro-West is dis-mentaling the traditional humanistic ways of thinking but with no-alternates … and now we are landed in another land of post-modernity by understanding the many malaise of that modernity.

    Now what we need is , first, stand on a land of my own with strong grip and than follow people like Amin Zia to be able to contribute to human civilisation. As a UN slogan befittingly says: Think globally act locally.

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