Walking With Nanak~Haroon Khalid

While travelling by air, one of my favourite ways is to spend some time at the airport bookstore. There have been many gems that I have picked at the airport including this book “Walking With Nanak”. It was the title and the cover of this book which first attracted me. On reading the blurb I realised it was written by a Pakistani author, Haroon Khalid, whose earlier book, “In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan”, I had read thanks to Kindle Unlimited. I was intrigued and had to buy this book; I was not at all disappointed in my choice.

Guru Nanak was the first Sikh Guru, born in Nankana Sahib. He travelled extensively over long years and over thousands of kilometres before settling down at Kartarpur Sahib. He travelled by foot in all the four directions, including to Bengal, Mecca and Sri Lanka. The Partition of India not only divided the country but also made some of the holiest pilgrimage sites associated with Guru Nanak inaccessible to the Sikhs as most of the sites, including Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib, were located in Pakistan.

Haroon Khalid’s book “Walking With Nanak” tries to trace the Gurudwaras and the places associated with Guru Nanak in Pakistan. Interspersed in between is the story of Guru Nanak’s and Bhai Mardana’s travels, along with brief notes about the Gurus who followed Guru Nanak. Using the stories from Janamsakhis as the basis, the author has written fictional accounts of Guru Nanak at various places. He also draws inspiration from his mentor, Iqbal Qaiser’s book, “Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan”.The author writes about Sikhism and the difference in Sikhism from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind, including the militarisation of Sikhism. Part Travelogue, part spiritual, part anecdotal this book is a deeply personal journey taken by the author which becomes the reader’s journey too.

The book talks about Gurudwaras some which are abandoned and dilapidated, some which have been occupied, some whose Sikh History is being erased and are being converted to Muslim Shrines and some, which have been destroyed completely. If the Gurudwara was famous, like Nankana Sahib, it would be in a better condition, due to some of the Sikh community still living there, with usually a Sikh family taking care of the Gurudwara. Quite a few times the people were unaware of the religious significance of the places they inhabited. In some cases, the author was pleasantly surprised when even though the Gurudwara he was visiting was abandoned, the local population still remembered the stories and teachings of Baba Nanak. There are instances in the book where you come across not only Islamic fundamentalism but also the narrow outlook of the Pakistani Hindus. The author points out that the Pakistan Government has started renovating a few of the abandoned gurudwaras as they have realised the huge revenue potential from Sikhs, especially those settled in western countries. The book offers a glimpse into life in Pakistan, especially rural Pakistan, where the author travelled extensively and shows the life of ordinary people on the ground.

Haroon Khalid’s book is a brave account. He is Pakistani writing about the first Sikh Guru and Gurudwaras. He is particularly scathing in his criticisms of the current state of some of the gurudwaras in Pakistan and also of the increasing religious intolerance and Islamisation of education in Pakistan. This book, thus, cannot be judged only on the basis of its subject and treatment ( both of which are engaging), but it has to be looked in context with the current conditions in India and Pakistan. With rising religious intolerance in both the countries, as well as the habit of both the countries of aggressive posturing, this book breaks the norms.

While reading the book I was reminded of the book “The Radiance of a Thousand Suns” by Manreet Sodhi, where she wrote that Sikhism was the handshake between the Muslims and the Hindus. In today’s age of politicisation of religion, this handshake becomes more important than ever. Haroon Khalid is an outsider who is looking into the world of Sikhism, and sometimes outsiders see things which are hidden in plain view. Through his book, not only does he attempts to understand Guru Nanak himself but also manages to draw the reader closer to the teachings of Guru Nanak.

Haroon Khalid shows that in this day and age of hardened lines between religions and communities it is still possible to be a Sufi.