The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro – By S. Mausoof

I first experienced TEOTWAWKI (The end of the world as we know it) as a lead up to Y2K. It salivated the appetite of the akhrat (the nihilistic end) crowd, but the sky is falling prophesy was fulfilled only by 9/11. It gave the six billion inhabitants of the world ( minus the 3000 unfortunates who died in the twin towers), a visceral audio-visual experience of a calamity. However, outside of continental US, such instant catastrophes had plagued the less fortunate, and I found it apt to visit one such site and my favorite dancing girl.

I landed in Karachi in December 1999 from Chicago with plans to visit Mohenjodaro, foremost of all it gave me bragging right over others who were going places like new York, Giza or Belize. However, my respectfully married friends, turned my esoteric trip into a family picnic. It was ramzan and the economy was suffering under the friendless government of General Pervez Musharaf. This general, an ex-commando, had survived his sacking by an elected premier by commanding a bloodless coup while he was marooned in international airspace. He carried good will and a progressive agenda, but unfortunately, the alcohol ban was still in effect. So we opted for a train ride, as it made carrying clear liquid easier. This was explained to the children as an adventure, but they were promised a plane ride back, On 1.1.2000. The specter of aviation electronics failing on these 1950’s era turbo prop antiquate Fokker Friendships did not bother Pakistan International Airline or us, and as my friend said, according to our calendar, it is only 1420 A.H.

However, train tickets were hard to come by as Eid was just around the corner. At the ticket counter of the Karachi Cantt station, I was laughed away, but a friend pulled on some serious favors to get us an entire bogey on the Khushal Khan Khattak express, which is the contrabands favorite as it runs all the way to the Afghanistan border. On the night of 30th December, as eleven children and fifteen adults piled their westernized baggage in the last bogey, it became clear that this would not be a comfortable journey. The train’s 2nd class seats were wooden planks and it had no running water or electricity. It was stifling hot as the over crowded train took three hours to pull out of Karachi metropolitan, as we struggled to block people who tried to squeeze in through windows. Children dreaded going to the bathroom by candlelight and adults murmured about giving up New year parties for this harrowing train ride. As we crossed Kotri barrage, the train picked up pace, and various crispy friend snacks and nuts were passed around, it fell on us to entertain the children. “Mohenjodaro is a city of bhoot!” Faraz’s six year old daughter had said, to which he had replied, “No, no, it is an archeological site, but should I tell her about that night we spent in Mohenjodaro?” He had looked at me, and Shiraz. The kids, so far disconnected to the magic, were drawn in like flies as he told them of the time when we had visited Mohenjodaro. A time when interior Sindh was ruled by dacoits and Pakistan by another General.

That was in the eighties when the akhrat crowd was fighting the cold war. Russia was at the doorstep of Baluchistan, a few days march away from the much coveted warm water ports. In its way stood our mard-momin, (or as we said mar gaya momin mar gaya haq) General Zia-ul-Haq, a middle class migrant from Eastern Punjab, much different from the Sandhurst educated generals of the past. He was a man of impeccable honor but acted with terrible foresight as he defended the honor of novelist Naseem Hijazi’s mystical (and mythical) Muslim warriors. He had little time for pre-Islamic civilizations, especially one’s near the power base of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who he hanged without due diligence. Under his reign, rumors did float that it was petty revenge of a peasant who was ridiculed for his English accent by the anglicized and thoroughly feudal Bhutto, or so said Sir Salman in his book Shame. However, Pakistan was flush with cash from Reagan’s America and Saudi petro dollars and we had ended up in Larkana, as Faraz was given the task of surveying a warehouse. As teenagers who suffered greatly under Zia’s Islamization, we valued every journey outside the urban strongholds of Jamat-Islami. We completed our business in Larkana, paid homage to the shrine of Shaheed Bhutto and visited the Mohenjodaro ruins, which were deserted except for a lone Japanese backpacker. The famed dancing girl of antiquity did not hold our interest for long and we were soon on a Tonga towards Larkana in search of live one. Failing in our search, we had ended up back at the archeological rest house where we had opted to stay, to listen to chowkidaar’s tales of ancient spirits that roam this mound of dead (Mohen-jo-daro). Satiated with our thirst for adventure, we crossed the marbled ballroom past a commemorative plaque. It thanked the Shah of Iran for funding some of the construction for the airport from his friend Z.A Bhutto. As we climbed the grand staircase by candlelight, our shadows falling on posters of the bearded priest- kings of this city state, Faraz, cheekily reminded us that both Bhutto and Shah died horrible deaths. With no power, dozens of mosquitoes and the howling wind, it had made for a difficult night.

At dawn, our journey continued on the KKK express as it chugged black smoke through the early morning mist, past collapsing electrical poles and crooked trees where crows cackled at passing locals. Sitting on the edge of the entrance, sipping a cup of chai while smoking a cigarette, I spied a teenage girl covered in a faded red chadar, skip her way across a narrow path between padded rice fields, her image gliding across the shimmering water. Miss Mohenjodaro: Her Age is Her Great Attraction was an advertising campaign launched to attract tourism in the sixties. It was inspired by the 10.8 cm bronze statuette of the dancing girl, who was described by the archeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler as “There is her little Baluchi-style face with pouting lips and insolent look . . . She’s about fifteen years old I should think, not more, but she stands there with bangles all the way up her arm and nothing else on. A girl perfectly, for the moment, perfectly confident of herself and the world.” Call it the luck of the Paki, but at partition, as the cultural heritage was divided, a coin flip settled her destiny. India got the dancing girl and we got the other, a 17.5 cm tall sculpture of a bearded priest King, the hair carefully combed, eyes incised and a shaved upper lip.

On our arrival at Larkana station, we were met by the earnest manager of the sparse, but clean PTDC hotel. After breakfast, we accompanied the impatient kids to the site where we found a lone Tonga around the entrance where a metal sign said Mohenjodaro, in English and in the un deciphered heliographic script. A young boy sat outside the big iron gate on a wooden bench with a small white ticket book. “ Salam, sir, four rupees each.”, The smallest denomination we had was a hundred rupee note. The lad yelled out to a hawker for change for a hundred. “Keep the change, we will be coming and going in all day,” said Faraz as we walked in, hoping that the children will be impressed.

Walking up the dusty path, we passed the museum, laboratory and the archeological rest house. We had wanted to stay here, but its roof had fallen down. On the other side, is the faded building of National Bank of Pakistan, a desolate souvenir shop and next to it is the archeologist John Marshall jalopy. Ahead the path leads to the Buddhist Stupa, the most visible structure on the site. Climbing the broad steps, we are joined by the local elderly tour guide. “Sein, here to see Mohenjodaro, that Stupa, it is only 1600 hundred years, old, build during the Gandhara civilization. Watch your step, sein, the sand here is very loose.”

The guide showed us the heated baths, the street lights with provisioning for street lamps, the sewage system, the uniformed earthen bricks used in construction. I asked him to pose for a picture, but he refused. “ It will steal my soul,” he remarked as he continued the tour of the unexcavated areas pointing out the sad state as it succumbed to worsening salinity or som. “This place has been neglected for decades. I knew Sir John Marshall, he did a lot for Mohenjodaro, but now nobody cares. We get some occasional Japanese tourists, I see many Arabs coming to Larkana, but they just come to hunt birds, they never visit this site. I yearn for the time of Sien Bhutto.”

I had had the good fortune of a visit in the seventies when the hotel, airport, museum, grand lodge and PTDC office were better managed. I had ridden squeezed between aunts in a green Jeep Wagoner with wooden panels, counting migratory birds on their way to the many lakes in Sindh, marveling at the immensity of the Sukker barrage, and being disturbed by the pair of gigantic sandals outside the shrine at Sehwan Shareef. They belonged to a servant of Lal Shahbaz Qalander, Alam Channa, who would eventually be granted the title of the tallest man in the world by Guinness. We had arrived at Mohenjodaro at dusk after a long day of riding. This was a time before air conditioning and we immediately headed for the air conditioned museum for high tea. I was only six and the seals, toy ox carts and statuettes paled in comparison to the cold Fanta that I had sipped, but the replica of the naked dancing girl had left an impression. For all their faults, Sien Bhutto and Reza Shah Pehalvi (egotism and megalomania come to mind) both appreciated history. Today, Mohenjodaro is caught between the inefficiencies of the government, the bigotry of our masses and the lack of support that this world heritage side has from academic circles around the world. We still know precious little about language, culture, religion or even what they called this thriving metropolitan of the Harappa civilization, except that it stopped around 1900 B. C. Theories as to what happened are numerous. Was it ravaged by chariot warriors from the north or was it an ecological disaster that made farming an impossibility. Today, as water logging and salivation ravish the Indus plain, some blame this on the British build Sukker barrage that diverts the Indus for irrigation, and it is possible that the Harappan tried something similar and paid the ultimate price. At least, this is what we told the children.

That evening, after a short nap, I was awoken by the laughter of children playing in the empty pool. The pious opened their fast, others deciding on what to wear for the millennium. Fortunately, I was devoid of both worries and joined a ghazal mehfil, by a roaring fire. The singer was the bhangi (bathroom cleaner), as someone artfully mentioned it in front of him. The only other guest, in the motel was an Minnesotan, vacationing from his posting in Islamabad. He was referred to as the Jasoos (spy) by us, as he never told anyone what he did for a living. However, he was a good sport and accompanied us for a midnight sojourn to the site where the guards fired celebratory shots, children chanted slogans of Pak-American friendship and I made a video of the millennium party.

As the festivities ended and others dissipated, I stayed behind as the shuffling of sandals on worn out steps subsided, and the halo of mercurial lights receded into the darkness. As silence spread its wings, a westerly wind slowly picked up over the Indus and stirred the hair on my neck, reminding me of a culture whose destinies were played out to an ignoble end. A five thousand year old TEOTWAWKI that remains forgotten today by its own. Some have wondered that maybe it would be better if Mohenjodaro is buried again only to be rediscovered by a better future, but I think we just need the Baluchi girl to dance back into the land of Indus and rescue us from the bearded priests.

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