AN OASIS IN A SPRAWLING DESERT

– AJEET COUR

Years and years ago, as a child learning the rudiments of geography in a school, I was given to understand that an oasis is a small patch of land surrounded by a dozen or so of trees and (usually) a spring sprouting forth in the middle of that bower. It was in this oasis in the sprawling desert, swept by swirling sands and sweltering winds, that weary travelers would seek refuge, refresh themselves and resume their long, weary journeys. This sketchy conception of an oasis set in the midst of a desert lingered in my mind for years. Later, when I grew up, I realised that though this conception of an oasis could serve well as a poetic metaphor, it did not size up to the reality of a real oasis in a real desert.

Years later, some of my Muslim friends I grew up with particularly Kishwar, offered me another conception of an oasis, this time drawing from Islamic traditions and scriptural evidence. They told me that during the initial period of Islam’s birth and growth, the faith had to contend with many hostile tribes and their self-serving heads fighting for their territorial sovereignty. This must have been leading to a lot of violence and bloodshed.

But even during those turbulent times, when the struggle for survival and supremacy must have been at it bitterest, there did exist certain ‘rules of the game’ and traditions, the rules of life in the deserts spread over miles and miles of sands, swirling scorching winds which constructed, destroyed, reconstructed the sand dimes, and all parties to the conflict would abide by it. One such rule was that an oasis represented not only a peace zone, a sanctuary for rest and recuperation, but also a rendezvous for parleys and negotiations for a possible compromise between the warring parties. A unique place of total peace where all the warring tribes could come, rest, live in total peace and reconciliation, recuperating their energy.

Within the precincts of an oasis, peace reigned supreme and unchallenged with all parties, even those with most overweening ambitions and most ruthless and savage means to realize these, abiding by what must have been unwritten, tacit agreements and conventions. Kishwar was also told me that when these trigger-happy tribesmen would enter an oasis, they would deposit their arms in the white tent of the chieftain of the oasis and spend their time in the oasis as colleagues or even as friends.

Thus even in those charged times, an oasis served as a rest resort (not much unlike the modern-day resorts) but, more important, as a place where conflict-resolution mechanisms could be worked out and tried.

The image of a desert comes repeatedly to my mind when I think of India-Pakistan relations as these have evolved over the last 50 or so years. Indeed, the subcontinent looks like a loveless desert with hot winds of jealousy and suspicion and often, with zealots on both sides of the fence fanning it, scorching, howling winds of hatred for each other blowing unabated. Whenever the undulating sands happen to form mounds of stability, of turst and commonality of interests, hot winds blow hard and devastating and blow away these sand dunes. The result : we are left once again with the unending desert with the hot winds continuing to play their macabre music to our ears.

But where are the oases that form a part of the desert imagery ? Where are those hundred of palm trees and cooling springs that would provide rest to weary travelers and warriors alike in those turbulent times ? And where are those white tents and settings where problem-resolving mechanisms could be facilitated and promoted ?

For the last decade or more, we have been pinning our hopes on the existence of the civil society in both the countries which, we believed, would assert itself and focus on the values of peace, pluralism, cooperation, friendship, a liberal social ethos, justice for the vulnerable and the marginalized, etc. The civil society, at least shadows of it if not the substance, has been there and it has done its bit in various ways. The representatives of the civil society have been visiting each other’s country and trying to create an ambience of goodwill for each other. In their own countries, they have been doing their bit through all the resources at their command. But even with the best of intentions, it has not been able to do much, as is obvious by the current state of relations between the two countries.

Writers are indeed a part of the civil society and have been contributing their bit under its wider umbrella. But writers, as a distinct group and with distinct skills, have certain additional advantages that other sections of the society may or may not have. We have pens in or hands and passion in or hearts. When we use the pen driven by passion in defence of these very values, we make a much greater impact. We are the green oasis in the deserts of political mistrusts. We are capable of doing what politicians camit.

The Word, through the print and visual media has a much, much wider sweep and much, much louder impact. I believe that we have not used these skills to the optimum. Under the banner of the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature and its Chapters in all the ‘seven sister’ countries of the SAARC region, we have been providing our mite for the causes that writers hold dear. We don’t want to grab the moon as it were, but certainly we want to create the soothing ambience of a moonlit firmament. Cool breeze, green palm trees, gurgling streams of water created by Allah for everyone’s refuge, rethinking, reconciliation. For our peoples to live under.

And for that we have to do much more than we have done so far to realize our dreams.

The writers’ conclaves like the present one thus provide the oasis that I have been talking about so far in this rather lengthy exposition. We are a congregation of concerned writers, literary critics, scholars and artists all concerned people, reaching out to hold each others’ hands, who want the hot winds of the subcontinental desert to stop blowing and to be replaced by cool, salubrious breeze characteristic of an oasis.

It is not a small oasis – both in its geographical and metaphysical reach. But we are determinded to extend the frontiers of this oasis further and further so that in the foreseeable future, it covers the length and breadth of this great subcontinent. When that happens, this whole subcontinent will become an oasis and the ever-narrowing desert will one day disappear into oblivion – never to return