In-Depth Arena

People of the books

Updated Jun 04, 2015 02:54pm


Calling the Pakistan Academy of Letters as ‘Letters of Academy’ once could be a slip of the tongue or a careless mistake. To do so repeatedly is easily the sign of ignorance. To put the name wrong in official correspondence of a public-sector organisation must be seen as incompetence.

White Star
White Star

When a senior officer of the Sindhi Adabi Board recently spoke to the Herald, he was guilty on all three counts. He was audibly uneasy in twisting his tongue around the name of the country’s premier literary institution; he did not seem to know what difference it really made to have the name right and he has been using the wrong name in letter after letter for quite some time. The cruel irony is that the Pakistan Academy of Letters does at the federal level what the Sindhi Adabi Board does in Sindh — promoting literature through publication of books and journals. The incorrect appellation thus becomes a measure, albeit an indirect one, of the capacity and effectiveness of the Hyderabad-based Sindhi Adabi Board.

Allah Ditto Vighio, who has been an accountant at the board before he became its topmost official – its secretary – blames this state of affairs on a severe resource crunch. The money is simply not available, he says.

The Sindhi Adabi Board receives 30 million rupees every year from the provincial government. It raises another four million rupees by selling its publications. Once in a while, it receives 100,000 rupees from the Pakistan Academy of Letters as a grant. A huge proportion of this entire sum – roughly 29 million rupees – goes into paying the salaries of its 64 employees every year. “We are still trying our best to perform our functions with the remaining amount of money,” says Vighio. Without the mandatory oversight of a board of governors, that is.

The board of governors, consisting of eminent men and women of letters, has the power to approve or reject the Sindhi Adabi Board’s budget. It also has the authority to constitute a committee of experts to oversee publications and another one to supervise finances. “As per the rules, no book can be selected for publication without the approval of the publication committee and the finance committee,” says Abdul Hafeez Qureshi, a member of staff at the board.

Though the board of governors exists on paper, it hardly ever meets. Since March 2014, when the latest board of governors was set up, it has not met even once and has not yet set up any of the two committees.

Vighio, therefore, has been single-handedly running everything since 2011. “How can a single person judge everything from the language, structure and genre of a book to its financial requirements and viability?” asks a Hyderabad-based writer, without wanting to be named. Even when someone is capable of making all those judgment calls, the writer adds, “publishing books without the approval of the two committees is against the rules.”

A lot happens at the Institute of Sindhology but almost all of it in violation of its own operational rules.

Moosa Kaleem
Moosa Kaleem

Located inside the sprawling premises of the University of Sindh in Jamshoro, just across the Indus from Hyderabad, the institute was set up in the early 1960s. The rules that regulate its operations require it to have an advisory board of eminent historians, writers and poets, researchers and citizens. This board has the power to constitute different committees to run different sections of the institute, such as publications, research and library. Not one of these committees has been set up in the past six years, acknowledges Saeed Mangi, the director of the Institute of Sindhology. Nor has there been any meeting of the advisory board over this period.

To give its operations some legitimacy, the institute has devised an alternative system. “In the absence of the publication committee, the editors working here select manuscripts and send them to experts to seek their opinion. We also get approval from the vice chancellor of the University of Sindh for the money to be spent on publications,” says Abdul Wahid Hisbani, the institute’s publications officer.

The absence of rule-based operations is having a negative impact on the performance of the institute. And that shows.

One of the board’s main functions is the documentation of Sindh’s history, geography, culture, archaeology, oral literature, visual arts, fauna and flora and the lives of prominent personalities of the province – such as rulers, sufis, poets, writers and social reformers. It has so far published more than 200 books and 35 journals. It also seems to have done some valuable work for the preservation of Sindhi music and handicrafts.

And, perhaps, that’s all.

“The Institute of Sindhology has just become a museum and a music recording company,” says the former head of a literary institution, wishing not to be named. Another Hyderabad-based writer complains the institute is wasting its time and energy on activities that do not fall under its jurisdiction. These, according to him, include organising festivals for films “which have nothing to do with Sindh”. The institute, he laments, has not yet prepared an authentic introduction to the land and the people of the province “which can be presented to foreigners to tell them what Sindh is about”. Mangi, however, dismisses these allegations as unhelpful. “The institute does not belong to its employees alone. It belongs to all those who live in Sindh. They should all come forward and play their role in improving its performance.” His call for general action, however, sounds more like a complaint about the lack of public support than an appeal for cooperation.

Graffiti in Sindhi language seen on a wall at the mausoleum of Pir Ghaji Shah near Dadu, Sindh | Abid Hussain
Graffiti in Sindhi language seen on a wall at the mausoleum of Pir Ghaji Shah near Dadu, Sindh | Abid Hussain

When in 1972 Sindhi became an official language in Sindh, the need to enforce its newfound status immediately emerged. It was, however, almost two decades later that the Sindhi Language Authority was set up in 1991 for that purpose. The core functions of the authority include efforts “to maintain and reinforce the status of Sindhi at all levels in the official and semi-official records; to coordinate and ensure correct use of Sindhi in provincial and local bodies records, notifications, manuals and publications, in the media, in educational textbooks, in permanent official documents and lasting public monuments and fixtures like foundation stones, maps, signboards, mileage stones and place names”.

By the middle of last month, the authority had published more than 150 books and 15 journals on Sindhi language. It has also brought out eight volumes of Encyclopedia Sindhiana, spending a little more than 30 million rupees. The ninth volume of the encyclopedia is in the press and four more volumes are being researched and processed. The authority has plans to start publishing a 20-volume Sindhi dictionary soon and has already spent 12.9 million rupees to print its first volume. It has also recorded different dialects of Sindhi by interviewing different people of Sindhi origin, including those living in other parts of Pakistan and even in India.

All this seems quite an accomplishment, given the authority’s total annual budget of 50 million rupees (out of which 33 million rupees are earmarked for the salaries of its 85 employees). The quality of these achievements remains questionable, though.

Critics say Encyclopedia Sindhiana – so far the authority’s most monumental publication – has serious problems of authenticity. Many writers and researchers the Herald talked to complain that information collection has not been done in a scientific manner. Most of the entries, the critics point out, are actually copy-pasted from books, newspapers and even the Internet.

The selection of entries is also seen as flawed. Why, ask the critics, should Encyclopedia Sindhiana have entries about Indian movie stars and foreign cricketers? Officials at the authority respond: we are producing an encyclopedia in Sindhi; it is not meant to be exclusively about Sindh; therefore, it must have some entries about subjects, places and people not directly linked to the province. They claim that such “foreign” entries are only 20 per cent of the total contents of the encyclopedia.

This raises the next question. Who decides which entry should be in and which should be out? Generally, the authority’s own researchers suggest entries and then the secretary and chairperson approve or reject those, says an insider. Interested citizens can also suggest entries, so can writers, poets, politicians etc, he adds. The result is an unscientific patchwork in which a book of verse by a police official sits uneasily amid the biographies of the grandees of Sindhi history, literature and scholarship.

“The encyclopedia also includes entries on unknown poets, some district and town reporters and even government employees,” says Ishaq Samejo, a writer who also teaches at the University of Sindh. “Most entries are meant to please the friends [of the authority’s senior officials] and other influential people.

The editorial style of the encyclopedia, too, is mixed up. In some entries, second names have been used, while first names have been used in many others.

White Star
White Star

Officials claim they do their best to cross-check the entries to avoid mistakes, especially about names. But no one cooperates with them, they say — not even those whose profiles are included in the encyclopedia. “We sent renowned personalities copies of their profiles, requesting them to make any changes they desired. Most of them returned the profiles without making any additions,” says Taj Joyo, who was secretary of the authority until last month and is now heading its dictionary section. Shortage of research staff could be an obvious reason for the flaws. The authority’s research section employs only five people.

But when the shortage of human resources was not a problem, their quality was. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of researchers jumped to 26, but the recruiting authorities had not employed most of those people on the basis of their expertise or experience in the field. And even after their recruitment, no solid service structure was devised for them. As a result, eight of them have been sacked since 2013, seven have been transferred to administrative posts while some others have quit their jobs, seeing no future in them.

Those still working in the authority’s research section complain they never get any logistical support to do research. “No vehicle is available if we are required to travel to different parts of the province. Neither is any travel allowance provided,” says a researcher, requesting anonymity. Even access to the Internet is not readily available. No computer is allocated to the five researchers. If they need computers, they have to wait until composers and graphic designers have finished their work.

The work of the dictionary section is facing criticism, too. Some writers believe the dictionary being prepared is not going to provide sufficient entries on technical subjects; others have an even bigger concern: a large part of it is a direct reproduction of an earlier dictionary, painstakingly put together by eminent scholar Dr Nabi Bakhsh Baloch for the Sindhi Adabi Board. “This is an infringement of copyrights and undermines the importance of Baloch’s work,” says Qalandar Shah Lakyari, a member of the authority’s own board of governors.

Joyo defends the inclusion of words and meanings given by Baloch. If words are the same and their meanings have not changed then how can we change them from what appears in his dictionary, is how Joyo makes his argument. He, however, adds that the authority is seeking suggestions from the public by propagating the dictionary project on the Internet and making the already finalised contents available online. “This way people should be able to help the authority in its work, instead of just criticising it,” he says.

Even in ensuring Sindhi’s presence in public spaces and official documents, the authority does not seem to be doing a great job. In many parts of Sindh, including Hyderabad, where the main office of the authority is located, Sindhi signage is missing from public places. Many government departments still do not use the language in their official records, notifications and correspondence even when they are required by law to do so.

Dr Fahmida Hussain, who had been heading the Sindhi Language Authority since 2008 and who left the job only last month, says the authority “writes letters to government departments to ensure the use of Sindhi language”. But, she adds, there are no legal mechanisms in place to punish those who do not follow those instructions.

These three institutions, as is obvious from their mandates, have been set up to serve the cause of Sindhi language, literature and culture and each one of them has, indeed, come into being after long struggles by writers, poets, intellectuals and activists. The only thing that may guarantee their administrative and intellectual integrity is perpetual guidance and oversight by those very individuals who have made their existence possible.

That guidance and oversight, however, seems to have altogether vanished over time. During the fieldwork for this story, the Herald approached a large number of writers, poets, intellectuals and activists in different parts of Sindh but none of them were willing to offer an honest critique of any of the three institutions. Some think that criticising these institutions may jeopardise their chances of working with them in the future. Others are already, directly or indirectly, getting some financial benefit from one or the other of these institutions. A bigger number does not hazard a comment, fearing it may deprive them of the chance to seek financial assistance from the provincial government, if and when they need it.

Money, it seems, is now a bigger concern than language, literature and culture.

This was originally published in Herald's April 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print