Writing as inquiry, Writing as devotion: Reflecting on Sita under the Crescent Moon
On Thursday 21st November the Gurmani Centre held a talk titled “Writing as Devotion, Writing as Inquiry: Reflecting on Sita Under the Crescent Moon”. The discussion was led by Saadia Khatri, Zoya Rehman, and Saba Imtiaz. Bilal Tanweer, co-director of the Gurmani Centre, began by introducing the late Annie Ali Khan. Amna Chaudhry, the moderator and curator of the event, then introduced the speakers and gave the audience a synopsis of the book. “Sita Under the Crescent Moon explores why female pilgrims, or satiyan, travel from all over Pakistani to Sati shrines.'' she said. “Annie undertakes these journeys right alongside them and asks, who are these women, how did this relationship with Sati start and how worship can be a site of power.” She also elaborated that the talk aimed to create a space to reflect on the concerns that the book articulates: “I want us to ask what can we learn from this book that Annie has left us with.”
The discussion began with each speaker reading out an excerpt from Sita Under the Crescent Moon and explaining what struck them most about the book. Saba Imtiaz talked about the recurring presence of possession in the book and the uniquely accepting way that the author dealt with it. “The women in this book are seized by a spirit of possession that drives them to go to these shrines, get on the bus, go to Thatta,” she said, “however the book does not seek to explain this possesion through the lens of ‘rationality’.” She emphasized how this unqualified acceptance is starkly different from the way we usually hear of possession in exclusively male narratives. She also pointed out that the book gives a voice to the women inhabiting places that have only ever been presented to us as exclusively male spaces, and through male narrators. “The centering of these unheard female voices allows us to finally meet the women who are holders of the keys and maps to this country’s shrines and streets.”
Zoya Rehman spoke about the ways in which her engagement with the author shaped her reading of the book. She focused on the personal journey being undertaken by the author while documenting and narrating these stories. “While reading the book, you get a sense that the book is not just about womens’ search for faith in Pakistan,” she said, “but also about the author’s own search for faith.” She talked about the sense of junoon that seems to drive the author to “journey through dangerous terrains and make sure that the stories of her female interlocutors see the light of the day.” She then went on to discuss the broader political implications of the work and how the author has used “the paradigm of Sita to denote self sacrificing and devoted women who search for domestic peace in a world that is turned against them, rife with violence, militancy, and ethnic strife.”
Saadia Khatri discussed the fragmented and shifting narrative of the book. She pointed out how the narrative is constantly “flipping” from one subject to another and this makes the book read like a journal or a notebook. She asked the audience to consider “how a notebook or journal gives us access to women’s inner worlds in ways that a book cannot?” “It is writing that is immediate, vulnerable and unfiltered,” she said, “ and allows us access to the writer’s own interiority”. “We do not just see what Annie is recording and noticing, but also how she is experiencing the things she is describing.”
Common among their varying readings was the notion that the book was undergirded by the author’s devotion to bringing the stories of marginalised women to light, and a spirit of unqualified acceptance for the subjects of these stories. The discussion created a space for the audience to reflect on the stories told in the book, and the questions raised by them. It also offered the audience a glimpse of a deeply empathetic and feminist ethic of journalistic inquiry and writing.