Friday, September 29, 2006

A Sudden Trip to Pakistan - Last Day Reflections in Lahore

[The author traveled to Lahore, the most celebrated city of Pakistan, in September, 2006.]

The cool air was still and silent except for the subdued chirping of sleepy birds, their soothing noise filtering out from the leaf-padded branches of the Peepal trees. The street outside the guest house, in Gulberg - a premier residential and commercial district of Lahore - frequently tinkled with the ringing bells of early morning cyclists. The dawn darkness of the sky was streaked with the orange rays of a rising sun.

It was a new day in Pakistan, but my last here. The three-day visa was expiring in the evening. Four in the afternoon is the closing time for the gates at the nearby India-Pakistan border. It was time to leave and to make farewells. So, I concentrated on memorizing the scents and sights.

Not being sure of a repeat of the good fortune of landing up with a surprise visa to Pakistan, not being able to believe in the assurances that it could not be the last trip to Pakistan, I opened my eyes wide apart to take in and preserve the entire scene - the brown color of the brick-walled guest house; the vines of the money-plant that had crawled around the roof of the foyer, the footprints of various people that had pressed into the gravel walk; the quiet deadness of the metal gate, and the orange shade of the sky that lay above Lahore. I sucked the air in, too.

Deep inside the guest-house, beyond the living room, beyond the grand piano, beyond the dining hall, across a narrow gallery was the kitchen where the cook, busy making oily parathas (a kind of bread; can also be described as an Indian version of pancake) for the breakfast, was awakening every sleeping soul by the continuous clatter of his cooking weapons. Not caring for the cook, I walked towards the metal gate. The Dawn newspaper was lying outside.

The heart smiled a sarcastic smile. It appeared so normal to wake up in the morning, to brush the teeth, to take a warm-water shower, to come out and pick a copy of The Dawn, to have tea, to contemplate about the breakfast menu, to plan for the day ahead.

To plan for the day ahead...but today there was no need to exhaust the mind. The itinerary was already fixed: a typical Pakistani breakfast of parathas and chickpeas curry, and then to Wagah, twenty miles away from Lahore - where Pakistan ends and India starts; where my real life would be waiting in revenge, eager to re-possess my soul let free for few days.

The life that I lived in the past three days was already becoming blurry. I had come to Lahore as a part of a delegation of Indians to demand, with the similar-thinking Pakistanis, a visa-free South Asia. I had dutifully done the things expected of me: patiently sitting through the agonizingly long speeches and seminars, secretly praying for them to be quickly over in order to gorge on the customary banquets that take place at the conclusion of such events.

I had also visited all the necessary tourist traps - the forts, the mosques, the shrines, the food streets, the museums, and the gardens. I knew I would not miss them.

But I was feeling for the friends I would be leaving behind - for Mr. Abdul Rauf Malik, a soft-spoken, ageing communist and a collector of Lenin and Mao books; for fat and robust Mr Mohammad Yosaf Baloch of Balochistan, who travels to Afghanistan almost every week; for the young, beautiful, Canada-born Ms Nusrat Sheikh, who lives in Islamabad; for the silent, sensible, book-loving software engineer Rizwan, from North West Frontier Province, who unsuccessfully helped me search for a fresh fruit juice stall one hot, muggy morning after I could no longer partake of oily curries as breakfast.

I was also sure to miss Ms Bakht Arif, a smart engineering student whom everyone called Rosy and who played the younger sister in a play organized especially for us visiting Indians on the evening of our arrival; the always-smiling biryani-seller Mr Nadeem Khan, of Rawalpindi, who spent good two hours gently trying to convince me to convert to Islam; the exquisitely beautiful Saira, a thirty-something dancing girl of the red light district of Heera Mandi, who seduced me with her eyes and anklets.

I do not imagine to easily forget Mr Naeem, the sculpturer, who gave me a ride in his vintage car, driving me through the old quarters of Lahore, and later treating me to dainty drinks in expensive cafes and to goat's testicles in cheap eateries during the midnight hours.

These men and women were good, honest and loving. Except Saira the dancing girl, I met all of them more than once. Except Saira, they all hugged me warmly each time we meet. Except Saira, they all exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers and promised to stay in touch.

Alas, it would be tough to meet them again. It is difficult for an Indian to get a visa to Pakistan; and for a Pakistani to get a visa to India. It is impossible to cross the border without it. Most sadly, it is hard to nurture friendships, however passionate, that are made so quickly and, particularly, when there are so scant hopes of meeting again.

The journey to Pakistan was almost over; and my dream was begining to end.

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