Friday, September 29, 2006

Travels in Pakistan in April, 2006 - First Day, First Impressions

The author made his first trip to Pakistan early in 2006. This is the first of a series of articles detailing his experiences there.

"You mean there are no trains to Karachi?" I was horrified.

"They are all booked. We will get you a bus. It will take only 20 hours." Mr Mirza assured us unconvincingly. We were a group of 14 Indians, a 'peace delegation' from Delhi on our way from Lahore to Karachi to attend the annual World Social Forum gathering.

Mr Mirza was our point man in Pakistan entrusted to escort us to the coastal metropolis. He had a dark-red, sun-tanned complexion on his fair features that were dominated by thick wet lips. He looked meaty, in the sense that he had chunks of fat rolling out of his flesh, and he was extremely pleasant.

We drove from the international border straight towards the Lahore bus stand; a distance of not more than 25 miles.

I had Maggi noodles in a border eatery minutes before crossing into Pakistan. In spite of my nervous excitement and anxiety, the actual walking into the other side seemed very normal. But there was a stark difference: While the Indian side was all green and fertile, the Pakistani was brown and barren. It was as if the earth had been dug upside down.

We had special permission from the Indian Home Ministry to 'walk over' the boundary instead of taking a train or a bus, and this simple act consisting of taking a few measly steps was quite far-reaching in essence.

As we looked at the imposing green dome of the Pakistani entrance gate, I knew we had come far. That the Pakistani eateries had young helpers, who seemed to hail from Afghanistan or Frontier Province, with that peculiar fair skin one notices in BBC dispatches from Kabul or Peshawar, was an indication enough that we had arrived to a different world.

It was an uncomfortably hot sunny evening and we were merely one hour away from the holy Indian city of Amritsar as we entered Lahore, the fabled city I have read so much about in the books, a city that has been a muse for so many writers and film makers, and a great town suffused with history and legends!But horns were honking, buildings were gray and decrepit, and traffic was sluggish. Roadsides had slums, the skyline had factory chimneys, people were poor, and college compounds were too prim and artificial. It was like a provincial Indian city — brown and very dusty. At least there were no cows around. They were all eaten up, or so I presumed.

Oh, was this the place once described as Paris of the Orient?

As the ramshackle van fumed its way through Lahore, we passed by two pretty girls with rosy cheeks riding in the back of a tonga (a kind of horsecart popular in the Indian subcontinent; there are lots of tongas in Lahore!) I was about to wave but checked my instincts in time. This is Pakistan, I reminded myself.

In travelogues on Pakistan, there is always this observation of rarely any woman being seen in the streets. Happily I could not find any evidence of such a claim. There were women in all their hues and varieties: students, housewives, many looked newly married, some with seven children, some pregnant, some driving cars, some begging, few picking rags. And no, not all were in those black shrouds called burqas.

Soon the van turned right, crossed a street, passed by magazine stalls, (I tried to figure out the magazines, but we were driving fast and it was all a blur) and abruptly stopped with a great thud in an open ground where there were lots of brightly colored coaches. Mr Mirza, sweating in copious amount, herded us out. "Quick, quick, get down quickly. The bus will be leaving any minute."

This was too much of a harried affair. We did not even have the time to look around. I especially wanted to go to the magazine stall to find out just how exciting Pakistani publications are. I had always read The Dawn online and now wanted to get hold of a physical copy of that excellent newspaper.

Mr Mirza was an impatient person and in a hurry. Even before we were told which bus to board, all of them already burping and in different stages of motion, Mr Mirza hoarsely shouted, pointing out the roof of a red-colored coach, noting that our bags had already been packed there.

That bothered me. I wanted to have my copy of The New York Review of Books and Pride and Prejudice by my side during the journey but now nothing could be done. It would have been too lordly to request for someone to climb up, look for my bag, and take out the books.

Mr Mirza was a commanding person and he quickly shoved all of us inside. Some of the peace-delegates were indignant at the treatment, but admirably clutched onto the remains of their dignity. Fortunately the bus was clean and air-conditioned. The seats were soft and thickly padded and could be pushed back for comfort. The windows were large and offered a wide view. There was also a television, which was playing a Bollywood film.

"I especially wanted you people to have a VDO coach," Mr Mirza triumphantly declared as he adjusted his overflowing body beside me. He meant 'video.'

”You are very thoughtful,” I said, hoping he was not taking me seriously. By now Lahore was losing its novelty. I found myself fitting seamlessly into its rhythm and it already felt as if I had lived my entire life there. I had taken the window seat and Mr Mirza pointed out the great landmarks: Minar-e-Pakistan — the Arc de Triomphe of Pakistan — and Badshai Masjeed — a grand mosque built by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, but I felt no rush of excitement surging through me. They looked as if I had passed by these landmarks everyday during my commute to work.

"But where is Heera Mandi?' I demanded. Heera Mandi is Lahore's legendary red light district and many Pakistani starlets are believed to have their roots traced to there.

Mr Mirza gave a naughty smile and whispered, "Heera Mandi is finished. The police gave so much pressure. Now they go everywhere. You can even find them standing at Alamgari Gate!"

"You mean now you don't get them in Heera Mandi any longer?"

"You can get them anywhere now," Mr Mirza explained.

Meanwhile the bus was filling with passengers at various city stops. Again, just like India!

Except for one furious-looking woman holding an infant with a dripping nose, all were men — some handsome, some scary, some rugged, some with glittering Sindhi caps, some with beards and no one without a moustache. Some wore magnificent turbans, and some were draped in Ajrak, finely patterned colorful shawls of the Sindh province of which Karachi is the capital. Many had eyes lined with kohl and some even had henna dyed on their hands.

Most looked like robust, martial Pathans of the romantic Khyber Pass postcards. I could easily imagine them with Kalshnikovs slung on their broad shoulders, while hunting errant tribe women for honor killings.

The Pakistanis were staring at us aliens: clean-shaven, in jeans and tee shirts. I had this urge to scream 'Hey we are Indians and we love Pakistan' and wanted to kiss them all, but they were so grim and unsmiling in their demeanor that I did not dare.

One young man with a stubble had a gun peeking out of his blue Ajrak. Mr Mirza explained that armed escorts were necessary since the highway was quite vulnerable to attack by robbers.

"Is it? We can be attacked by robbers?" I spread my eyes wide in thrill. Back in the bus stand, I had desired to secretly slip into a greenish-yellow lorry that was bound for Peshawar. Karachi seemed too tamed and civilised. But this robber scare filled me with a renewed sense of adventure.

"Inshallah we will reach Karachi safely," Mr Mirza admonished me and touched his ears.

"Allah be praised." I too intoned, all excited.

We were out of the outskirts of Lahore. The sun had set. The road was smooth, broad, and decidedly better than the average Indian highway. All eyes were concentrating on the film. It was very badly made, but everyone was deeply engrossed, including my Indian 'delegates.'

There followed a scene in which the heroine's desperate mother rushed shrieking to a temple. The camera was moving 180 degrees to the background chant of Vedic mantras. Then came a close shot of Lord Shiva that disconcertingly stayed on the screen for more than half-a-minute. I felt odd and uncomfortable listening to Hindu chants being uttered so loud in such an assertive Islamic country. But Pakistanis did not revolt. No one stood up in disgust at the celluloid sight of a stone idol. No one cried for Jihad against the infidels — it was merely a film after all!

There was nothing spectacular outside the window. The flat countryside was crisscrossed with green farms. Scores of fancy imported cars were bypassing our coach and I observed lots of rich well-nourished woman, heads appropriately covered, sitting on the back seats. They all looked typical Pakistani women, the kind who read news in Pakistan’s national television — with fair complexion, colored lips, and dyed hair. Of course all the men, whether they were driving tractors or Mercedes or peddling cycles or riding buffalo carts, were dressed in blue or brown or gray pathan suits — long shirts and loose baggy trousers. Our own Mr Mirza's was light blue in color.

A couple of hours slipped away in this fashion before I woke up feeling desperate for a leak. It had grown dark and the sky flashed with lightning every now and then. Some new film, again of Bollywood, was now playing in the 'VDO'.

”Can't the bus be stopped, Mr Mirza? I need to go to the loo!”

"Mayank sahab, wait for an hour. We will stop for dinner and then you can relieve yourself."

”But I can't hold it till then."

"You'll have to. The bus won't stop here. Anyway it is raining outside."

It was true. I tried to distract myself. The hero of the film was accusing the virginal actress of having an illegitimate child. He was thundering and his noisy delivery was vexing my poor nerves. I turned to observe Mr Mirza. His features were very mobile and they were constantly changing with the changing emotions of our film hero. If he laughed, Mr Mirza smiled; if he was angry, Mr Mirza frowned. •

It later turned out that Mr Mirja had four children, three girls and one boy, and he was merely 27-years-old. It came as a surprise since I had taken him anywhere above 40. Mr Mirja's father was an infantry soldier in the Pakistan Army who was killed in Kashmir. Mr Mirza therefore was not able to continue with his education and had to immediately found an employment to support his family consisting of a widowed mother, four sisters and three brothers; one of whom, claimed Mr Mirza, looked like me. The second youngest sister whom he had married to a Rawalpindi trader a year before was widowed and had returned home.

One incentive for Mr Mirja in accompanying us to Karachi was that his in-laws were from Sindh, although he himself was a Punjabi.

Mr Mirza had never been to India and it was his dream to visit Delhi and to particularly see Singapur, which he insisted was in Delhi. I was puzzled by this 'Singapur' and on further prodding, it seemed that he meant Gurgaon — a glitzy Delhi suburb best known for its fancy malls — which some acquaintance of his had boasted to be like Singapore.

After two hours I woke up again. It was impossible to control. I had to pee.

"Mr Mirza, when will we stop for dinner?" It was half past 11.

"Just another hour." Mr Mirza pleaded, averting his eyes from mine.

The bus came to a stop. All of us, except that angry woman, trickled out and stretched our arms and legs in the cold. My hair was ruffling in the wind. It was drizzling and I found my teeth chattering as I relieved myself.

We were in the middle of a vast empty petrol pump before we walked to a far corner where stood a hut that had electric lamps burning in it. Bearded turbaned men were sitting on string cots. Baby goats were scampering around along with clacking roosters. Shadows loitered in the inner rooms. A middle-aged man sitting behind the cash counter had great sizes of numerous silver jewelries dangling from the large holes of his ears. From this distance our coach seemed like an abandoned space probe on a ghostly moonscape.

Food orders were being shouted upon. Spicy sharp aroma of hot mutton stew was wafting around. The crackling smell of Nan-bread made me long for supper. I lingered my way to a cot lying empty in a dark corner and surrendered myself to the comfort of its loose string hammock. The cold wind was now caressing over my face and I was content.

I ordered Mutton curry, Tandoori roti, and Chicken Biryani. The curry was piping hot and steamy and the mutton pieces were thick, fleshy, juicy and its nourishment gave me warmth and infused my being with a renewed vigor. The Biryani was lukewarm, faint of flavor and not even passable; albeit the crème de la crème of my first Pakistani meal had to be the humble tandoori roti. Coming straight from the pit of the tandoor, it fizzled with orange sparks, smelled of burning coals and hinted of a thousand and one secrets of cold rainy nights. It was unusually large, big and perfect in its roundness. The roti was so delicious and I was so greedy that I was forced to have another one for the sake of taste.

We lumbered back to our seats after the dinner. Mr Mirza made a headcount of all of us 'delegates' before he let the coach start. I was shivering and feeling very drowsy and my eyes were half-closed. Mr Mirza draped me with his blanket. I was thankful to him from my heart, but was too sleepy to express my gratitude. I knew he understood.

"Tomorrow you will wake up in Sindh," I heard his sing-song voice.

Sindh? My slumbering conscious stirred somewhere deep inside the silence of my soul.

Sindh — where the great Indus flows, walked over by Alexander the Great, the site of Islam's first South Asian conquest, the land of Benazir Bhutto. Sindh- the legendary Sindh.

Sindh. I smiled in my sleep. Mr Mirza continued murmuring, unaware I was hardly listening. He had promised that I would open my eyes in Sindh and I believed him. It was a dream whose day was approaching.



Usman said...

Mayank - Very interesting blog. It's refreshing to see the views of an Indian visitor that does not see only the bad in our country.

Three days is not enough. You need to spend time in Nagaan Valley or even further north. There are some beautiful, wonderful people there.

Fried Freshwater fish with Naan at a riverside restaurant in the middle of mountains in not bad either!

On a more important note, who is that cute chick manika? In the interest of peace and people-to-people contact, I think you should introduce us.

- Usman

DesiCritics are very close to kicking me out! It's an all out assault.

Usman said...

I just realized you might be a vegetarian and I recommended fish.

I am an IDIOT!

Mayank Austen Soofi said...

I'm a non-vegetarian. Is it a myth among the Pakistanis that all Hindu Indians must be vegetarians? Smile. In fact most Indians are non-vegetarians. Yes, of course I know three days are not enough. Can you please share your experiences on the pleasures of eating fried freshwater fish in the middle of mountains (in Nagaan Valley?) for this blog? I'll appreciate it.

Usman said...

Just read the last part of your blog where you attack chicken and mutton like there is no tomorrow. Good Job!

I have two very dear Indian friends from overseas - both are vegetarian. They form my limited understanding of ALL indians!

Usman said...

Mayank, after reading all that negativity on desicritics about Pak, I have decided to start my own blog.

My friend, You are my first invite.

You will like some stuff and hate some!

Please leave atleast one paragraph on the models post!

- Usman

Usman said...

Mayank, did you read the article on Musharraf versus democracies?

Did it change your mind even slightly about Mushy?

Usman said...

mayank, how do i contact you via email?

Usman said...

mayank, where is the link to my site boss?

Mayank Austen Soofi said...

Usman boss,
It will be done. But why do not you write to me at my mail address?

Usman said...

mayank, visit forums for a huge selection of pictures of pakistan. also, the people there are decent and I think you will be a valuable addition to this forum.