The greatness and importance of education isn’t confined to the examinations and diverse degrees of the educational institutions. There is also a whole world outside these certificates and degrees, where immense knowledge is present in every grain and speck. It is a fact that as we get more and more educated, we realize how little we know.
Mr. Altaf Shaikh is one such personality who, along with being a marine engineer, has shared and dispersed knowledge. He has also shared his experiences with society in the form of 80 travelogues written by him.
Which part of Sindh was your original abode?
My home town is Hala New a place about 60 km north of Hyderabad Sindh, in Matiari district. I was born there and my father and grandfather were also born there. This is called Hala New because the old one, 3 km to the west on the bank of Sindhu river got destroyed due to the rising level of the river in the past.
How did you come to Karachi?
Actually for studies, I left Hala for Petaro (and then for Chittagong) in 1958 when I was 14 years old. I came to Karachi at a later stage of my life when I was in late forties and posted in Karachi, as Head of Marine Engineering Department of Pakistan Marine Academy. Before that my visit to Karachi was subject to my ship’s routine call of home port Karachi. The Head Office of our shipping company PNSC was in Karachi.
Why did you take your earlier education from Cadet College Petaro?
In those days-in late 50s, it was a unique type of educational institute, newly opened for the province of Sindh where besides academic subjects, emphasis was given to military training, sports (including Horse Riding and Swimming etc.), debates and OLQ (Officer Like Qualities) etc. Its yearly intake was only 30 top candidates. The selection for it was a challenge and I wanted to give it a try. I got selected and joined in 1958 and left in1963 after passing Intermediate.
Why did you choose Marine Engineering?
During school days while visiting Keamari (the southern tip of Karachi touched by the Arabian sea) and Manhora (an island 3 nautical miles south of Keamari sea shore) watching sailing ships from foreign lands and its officers in smart white uniform always fascinated me. I also wanted to be a ship officer and visit foreign lands. So after Intermediate I joined Pakistan Marine Academy, Chittagong. It was a newly opened Marine Academy on the style of Duffer in Maritime Academy near Mumbai which had opened in 1927 and which later on shifted to training ship Rajendra in 1972 and now after 1993 it is on shore based ship T. S. Chanakya, at Palm Beach Road of Mumbai.
How did you start writing travelogues?
Actually I was fond of reading from childhood. I started writing small essays and stories for the children page of Sindhi newspapers in school days. I was appointed editor of the college magazine.
Who are your favorite authors?
There have been various at different times. I read the maximum books during school & college days and also while at sea. I think I read nearly all the books of Richard Gordon (Doctor Series), Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, V.S. Naipal, John Updike, Albert Camus,
Which countries, other than Indo Pak subcontinent, did you visit?
Usually ship people these days get very little stay in ports. I had a chance to visit even small and remote islands like Bermuda, Trinidad, Tobago, Cape Verde, Bahamas, Las Palmas (Canary) and Fiji.
How many travelogues have you written so far?
Till now the number of my books published is 82. Out of them some 70 are travelogues while the remaining are essays & translations. Two of the books are proverbs of different countries. One in Sindhi “Ruthee Aahe Ghott Saan” and the other in English “The Proverbs of Far East) contains Malay, Chinese & Japanese proverbs…. They are the countries in which I lived for a longer period.
People of which area do you consider to be the best on the touch stone of humanity?
We Asians are very touchy and sensitive. In my opinion people of most of the western countries are best as they give top priority for care and respect of human beings. Ratings for human rights are much higher. I enjoyed in countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland…. even in Denmark, England, Belgium & Holland was very high. For that matter, even our Asian country Japan is the best.
Many of your friends work as ambassadors abroad. Have you ever thought of yourself becoming one?
No, I never wished to be a government servant as I feel that there is more freedom of writing in private jobs. As a sailor I could move about to every place and meet anyone I liked. Later on in the teaching profession also, I got more time and freedom of judging, observing and experiencing things which can be interest reading for my readers.
Has there been any change in the feudal system prevalent in Sindh after Partition?
I don’t think there has come any change for the better in feudal system in Sindh after the partition of India. In fact it has become strong and more harmful for the common man. There is a feudal system in Malaysia, even in Japan, but there feudal lords take care and think of the betterment of whole community & village. Here, to our bad luck the greedy feudal lords want everything for their families. They want their children to get university degrees without attending classes and also get higher posts in bureaucracy without merit, seats in Assemblies and hold on business and factories.
What are your suggestions to improve Indo-Pak relations, enabling Sindhis living on both sides of the border to come closer?
People of India and Pakistan have many things in common: food, clothing, language and culture. I find them very close to each other when they are in foreign countries. They feel more at ease with each other than with Arabs, Malaysian, Europeans or Africans. The governments of both countries must try to improve official relations & confidence, also provide better facilities so that people of both countries can visit and do business with each other.
How is it that the influence of Urdu language has affected to Sindhi language?
Urdu in Pakistan is like Hindi in India. Infect both are the same languages in the spoken form. So it is the language of communication of the sub-continent and also to a certain extent of Dubai, Maldives, Iran etc. with the changing trend in culture and education and the advent of technology the language too has a harsh impact of it.