The Dish

A History Divided

The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie tours the National Museum of her native country, noting that “it’s the pre-Islamic parts that most interest me”:

In the centre of the [Late Harappan (or Indus Valley Civilisation) Room], on a podium of his own, is that most iconic of the Indus Valley Civilisation’s artefacts: the priest-king. Unlike many of the other objects in the museum, there’s an approximate date attached to the soapstone figure: 2500-1500 BC. I look closely at the priest-king’s combed-back hair and cropped beard, his patterned cloak, the circlet at his brow. For years a replica of this figure looked out from one of the bookshelves in my family home, mysterious and distant, and now that I’m standing in front of the original I feel … quite certain it’s another replica.

At this point the director of the museum, Mr Bukhari, walks in and I ask him straight. “The original is kept somewhere,” he says, smiling a little sadly. “It’s a national symbol. We can’t take risks with it.”

With just those few words he transforms my combative attitude.What pressures there must be in running a museum that requires a Koranic inscription at its entrance to try and ward off attacks. The object that should be the centrepiece of the museum—the one Mr Bukhari describes as a “national symbol”—has to be hidden away “somewhere” that can’t be named. …

I look at what is here despite the clear paucity of funding, the external threats, the impossibility of creating a single national narrative for a country as divided about its reason for existing as Pakistan. An elderly relative who was already an adult when Pakistan was created in 1947 often remarks that at the moment of its birth the country had two opposing claims whispered into its ears: “you are a sovereign nation”, and “you are part of the Muslim world”. In this museum, both those claims are given space, and it is for those of us who wander from the Muslim Room to the Gandhara Room to the Hindu Sculpture Room to the Coin Room to the Quran Gallery to see if we can knit a single narrative out of them or if we wish to privilege one over the other. Is a nation bound by geography or ideology? If the National Museum is forcing me to think again about these questions, to which as a novelist I’ve already given so much thought, isn’t that a mark of its success?

(Image of Indus Priest/King Statue on display in the National Museum of Pakistan via Wikimedia Commons)