By Sonya Rehman
Dressed in a bottle green T-shirt and jeans, the young Pakistani author and researcher, Haroon Khalid, comes across as an unpretentious, easygoing guy when I meet him at a local café in Lahore.
Currently working on his third book, based on the life of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, Khalid states that Walking With Nanak is both a combination of fiction and non-fiction. Part travelogue, too. “I’ve read his books and have tried to humanize Guru Nanak,” Khalid says, “I hate everybiography written on him…they aren’t biographies, just stories of his miracles. Through this book I wanted to know who he really was.”
Initially, the first Editor that Khalid’s agent had pitched the book to in India had “dissed it.” Khalid laughs. “He didn’t think I was capable enough to write such a book, and then there was also the question of me being a Pakistani Muslim writing on such a subject.”
Khalid has a certain kind of openness about him which allows him to be both non-judgmental and receptive to his surroundings. Perhaps this is his uniqueness as a writer and researcher which aids him in unearthing storiesand viewing history, religion and heritage from an unemotional, unbiased perspective.
Having penned A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities in 2013 and In Search Of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan last year, Khalid’s passion for unearthing captivating stories that mainstream media has overlooked, is moving.
Take for instance, his fascinating piece published last year on an old pre-partition Hindu temple in the historical town of Malka Hans in Punjab, now functioning as a madrassah. With its architecture and idols completely intact, the madrassah is currently being run by Minhaj-ul-Quran, a religious organization set-up by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri: the Pakistani-Canadian Islamic scholar and politician.
Then there was another gem: an article published this year on Khalid’s visit to the shrine of the Sufi saint, Peer Abbas, in Pattoki (Punjab). As mentioned in Khalid’s intriguing piece, the saint was known as ‘the master of dogs’ because wherever he went, Peer Abbas would travel in the company of stray dogs, feeding and looking after them.
Having traveled extensively in Pakistan for eight years (and counting), Khalid mentions his mentor, Iqbal Qaiser, a well-known historian and anthropologist, who inspired his work. “I’ve always had a lot of interest in archaeology,” Khalid states, “But during my undergrad program at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) I met [Qaiser] and through him started exploring temples, shrines and abandoned gurdwaras. Through that process, Lahore, essentially, grew in my mind. I began understanding the city in a very different way. And somewhere in the process, I realized how happy I was doing what I was doing.”
Speaking about his first research trip, Khalid mentions his visit to Thokar Niaz Baig in Lahore with Qaiser. “I used to live close by and always passed it without ever giving it much consideration. But when I first heard [Qaiser] give a talk at my university about the history of the area and that it was between 500-600-years-old, I was very intrigued,” Khalid says. During the trip Khalid saw an ancient temple in the area, banyan trees and “beautiful architecture.”
He was hooked. “Thokar Niaz Baig is something that still continues to fascinate me.”
Standing as one of the few, rare Pakistani voices documenting the country’s long-forgotten past and archiving local heritage and culture through his works, Khalid states that he never finds it troublesome researching a story that has never been documented before.
“It’s a blessing,” he says, “It gives me more freedom; I can write about these things and not become a cliché you know, there’s nobody writing about it, so it gives me a niche. Also, I’m glad that I’m able to lay a foundation as a researcher so that others like me can get inspired to do what I’m doing.”
While the media at large continues to produce stories that depict only one aspect of Pakistan: terrorism, refreshing voices such as Khalid’s bring forward a myriad of facets of culture, religion, tolerance and intolerance that help in understanding the strange, beautiful, disturbing and complicated identity of a misunderstood nation.