Somewhere only we know...
To be able to do
something that Mohammad Yusuf Hussainabadi pulled off in the shape of his
private museum, one needed to be possessed. That or one had to be completely
mad. And he says about himself that he is both possessed and majnun (Arabic
It was this same condition
of the mind that had taken him walking about the villages armed with a tape
recorder and notebooks to interview dozens of men who had taken part in the
battle for freedom in 1947.
It all started in 1976 when
he completed his master’s degree in Islamic studies and wanted to proceed
with doctoral level studies in the subject. His elder brother told him that
while his idea was admirable, he must remember that this was something
thousands of other young men were doing. What was ever more important was
that he do something for Balti culture and history.
Strangely enough however
for a young man who had already taught himself Arabic in order to fully
understand the Quran, this was not disappointing. There began those long
treks around Skardu to interview the survivors and unrequited heroes of the
struggle against the Dogra forces of Kashmir that delivered Baltistan to the
fledgling state of Pakistan. His obsessive perfectionism, sometimes, returned
him to his interviewees again and again in order to get tiny details right.
Thereafter he visited the sites where the battles had taken place.
The result of this exercise
was the Urdu title ‘Baltistan Par Aik Nazar’. Appearing in 1983, the book
was an instant hit and quickly lapped up not just by Balti people, but was
sold out in the bookstores of Islamabad and Lahore. Several years later, he
authored another one titled ‘Tarikh e Baltistan’, a much more substantial
work on the history of Baltistan from very ancient times to the modern age.
The earlier work on the freedom fighters became part of this book. This book
is currently in its second edition. It says much for its substantive value
that it has also been translated and published in China.
But, says Yusuf, it needs
be remembered that he is in reality a maulvi. “At 18 I fell in love with
the Quran. The prophets and walis of God had been and gone. Now all that
existed as my link with my Maker was this book.” His single-minded
commitment led him to teach himself Arabic at a time when this language was
studied only by professional mullahs.
Those were days when he
worked variously as a teacher in a Skardu college, with the local government,
followed by an appointment as the district project manager for Nai Roshni
education scheme of the Junejo government. This long stint with the
government finally ended in 2010 when he resigned from his post of district
registered for the Islamabad-based Open University.
responsibilities with his research work, Yusuf was yet able to complete the
first ever translation of the Quran into the Balti language. He says it was
as if a divinely ordained miracle brought two young men to him shortly before
he had completed editing his manuscript. The youngsters who had acquired one
of the first computers in Skardu, requested him for all his composition work.
Only days earlier he had received a gift of Rs 15,000 from a government
functionary who had seen his monumental work in manuscript. And so the
translation, started in 1987, was published in 1992.
Incidentally, Arabic is not
the only script Yusuf has mastered. He can read Brahmi, Devnagri, Tibetan
and, most importantly, Kharoshti. Now, this last is the script that was used
widely in northern cities like Taxila, Swat and Pushkalavati for writing all
dialects of northern languages. The ability to decipher this script makes
Yusuf Hussainabadi the last surviving reader of a forgotten form of writing.
The crowning glory of his
sixty-four years of life is the small museum that is taking shape under his
watchful eye. Just outside Skardu, in his birthplace Hussainabad he has a
property where Yusuf built a little getaway home with a couple of rooms, a
kitchenette and a servant’s room. Smothered with creepers, trees and
flowering shrubs this was his little haven where he could get away from the
hubbub of town to spend quiet hours reading.
But soon others like him
who needed a pretty place to escape to, began using his property as a park.
The crowds of visitors disturbed his peace and so he decided to turn the
place into a museum. Last June, a new construction of a hall twelve metres by
eight was in rapid progress to properly display a collection then crammed
into what had once been Yusuf’s bedroom.
Though the collection began
as recently as 2007, the idea for it may have lain barely recognised in
Yusuf’s mind since as early as 1970. Only two years earlier, the jeep road
pushed through the Indus Gorge reached Skardu and for the first time
outsiders started to come to this remote little town in numbers. Ten years
later the road was widened to bring in lorries and the number of visitors
increased. But the floodgates were opened when the road was tarmacked in
Pathan dealers who had
experience of selling artefacts from Swat, Chitral and other parts of the
province, streamed into Skardu to roam around the countryside lapping up
everything that looked ancient. As replacement they offered the simple
villagers cheap and trashy modern alternates. Yusuf saw vast loads of Balti
handicrafts; ancient weaponry and other items of everyday use disappear down
the new road.
In 2007, when he juggled
his time between the Open University and the first ever English medium school
of Baltistan run by his family (since 1992), he thought of collecting what
little had been left behind in remote villages of Baltistan. The sole idea
was to preserve Balti culture for the future. “This was a vital need for
Baltistan and for the future generations. Right now people do not realise how
important it is for them to understand their history and culture. Years from
now, when they do, this little museum will be their source of inspiration and
knowledge,” says Yusuf.
Once again, as
he had travelled to dozens of villages to interview freedom fighters, he now
undertook another yatra. This time he went asking for anything and everything
families held in their storerooms that had once been in common use but was no
longer so. He quickly realised that the Pathan visitations of the past
decades had changed the perspective drastically. Now there was no longer the
innocence that the Pathan dealers had used to their own advantage. Now even
the simplest villager in the remotest village of Baltistan understood that
the stone cooking pot or old wooden slippers he held in a dusty and forgotten
wooden cabinet were worth several thousand rupees.
Over the five
years beginning 2007, Yusuf spent Rs 2.5 million to assemble together a
fantastically fascinating collection of Balti artefacts. The 1,675 pieces in
his assortment range over everything the Baltis used before moving on to
aluminium pots, steel spades, plastic shoes and nylon clothing. Here are
stone oil burning lamps, iron swords, leather buckets, brass pots and even a
wooden staff said to be a copy of Moses’ staff and used for driving out
is as interesting as it is amazing. It is a remarkable effort on the part of
a single individual and a mark of extreme commitment to an idea. The museum
that Yusuf Hussainabadi has so painstakingly assembled together is a one-room
history and anthropology class that elucidates the course of two thousand
years of evolution of human society in Baltistan.
Indeed, it is
the only complete Balti chronology under one roof. The nearly seven hundred
books and assorted manuscripts are besides these artefacts to make the study
ever more replete.
display is moved to the new hall that was coming up in June 2012, there will
be a visitor’s fee. Though that will not be much, but the establishment has
to get something in order to keep the place self-sustaining. Yusuf is
steadfast against ever requesting or receiving government grants for his
museum. For the former one must bow and scrape and for the latter forever
remain subservient to government directives. In the meantime, Yusuf is hard
at work preparing a catalogue of the collection. No simple index will this
be, however. Besides placing the object in its correct chronology, it will
detail the use of the item.
However, Yusuf is not sure
if this private museum will survive to the year 2112. “None of us who are
alive today in my family will be around in that year. My grandsons might have
some interest in my work, but after that everything is uncertain,” he says.
And so he has instructed his sons that if they ever begin to lose interest,
the collection should be made over to a museum in the West. He is unsure that
the collection will survive the greed of rapacious civil servants and
politicians in a Pakistani museum.
Tailpiece: The oldest relic
in the collection of Yusuf Hussainabadi is a small statuette of the Buddha in
meditation. Recovered from Khaplu, this is unique because most sculptures
found in Baltistan are in soft soapstone; this is in hard stone. The reverse
of the piece is carved with the image of a dagger and printed with the word
‘Eeday’. Now, Brahmi was the script used in Baltistan before the 8th
century CE when the Tibetan script replaced it.
Of somewhat lesser
antiquity is the stone lintel of a door jamb. On it the writing is in Tibetan
script and dates to the 8th century.
Waqar Ali rests his
head against the wall, his unruly hair blending in with the arabesques
glistening off the tiles behind him. “I come here every weekend. I like the
way they sing our stories,” he says, pointing in the direction of the Shah
Jo Raag fakirs. For more than 250 years, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s verses
have echoed all around this courtyard, bringing tales of love, valour, and
melancholy to all those who come for a visit.
Colourful tassels hang off
the necks of musical instruments; black threads bunched up in balls, placed
next to the singers. Clad in black, they sit in a semi-circle facing the
sarcophagus. They sing of legends, pose questions, and advocate defiance.
Every question is aimed at
the listener, each command directed at the individual. There is no
intermediary. The language is malleable and shifts shape to accommodate
anyone eager to pay heed. There appears little rigidity in what is being
offered and even less in the manner in which it is offered.
Numerous sanctuaries, such
as this one, exist all across the country, where love, nostalgia, succour,
music, and, perhaps most importantly, relief from being constantly judged for
one’s religion, ethnicity, gender, caste and creed abound. You are allowed
to make of it what you will and are permitted to answer any query addressed
to you in your own unique way. For many, this place is their only refuge.
countless individuals like Waqar Ali, this private and personal public space
is under threat. Targeted by those who consider everything other than their
own view of the temporal and the spiritual as blasphemy, these places have
become symbols for all that has ostensibly gone wrong with religion. For the
other, often equally self-righteous and patronizing section of society that
finds the notion of faith nothing less than intellectual heresy, such places
epitomize what is wrong with religion.
you are seeking Allah
Then keep clear of
Those who have seen Allah
Are away from all
Meanwhile, within the
confined space afforded him by well-wishers hell-bent on saving him from
himself, Waqar Ali continues to make his weekly trips to see Shah Abdul Latif
Bhitai and to hear of myths and legends.
*Verse from Shah Abdul
Latif Bhitai’s ‘Shah Jo Risalo’, translated by Professor D. H. Butani.