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.

A Sudden Trip to Pakistan: A Book-Lover Sets Out for Pakistan

I have been invited to speak on the possibilities of a visa-free South Asia at a seminar in Lahore - chief city of Pakistan - on September 16, 2006. The train to the border-town of Amritsar will leave from New Delhi Railway Station on the evening of September 14.

Bothered about Books

It is yet undecided as to what books to take along. I was reading Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan — the Julia Child of Italian cuisine — but it is not clear if the cookbook could complement my short stay in Pakistan.

In that case, should I take V. S. Naipaul's twin books on travel - Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples? (The books should be read in this order only.)

Mr. Naipaul, in spite of having a Pakistani wife, had been extremely critical of the way Islam is practiced in the countries he traveled — that included Pakistan — and so perhaps it would not be wise to have the book in my shoulder bag.

However, there's a small comfort: when I traveled to Pakistan for the first time, earlier this year, I hardly found any good bookshop and worse, I failed to meet any Pakistani who was fond of books. So who will bother about Mr. Naipaul? But again, if the custom officer accidentally happens to be a literate fellow, fond of reading book reviews, if not books, and familiar with the views of Mr. Naipaul, than I could be turned back. It is a disturbing possibility.

No thanks.

Appeasing the Muslims

How about prominently displaying Martin Ling's Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources while crossing into the country? That is certain to make a good impression on both the pious and fundamentalist Muslims alike.

Mr. Lings was an acclaimed British scholar of Sufism who studied at Oxford, taught English at the University of Cairo, and concluded his career working in the British Library in London. In between, besides converting to Islam, he annually used to produce well-reviewed Shakespeare play editions. In fact, his biography of Muhammad reads like a delicately written novel, at times appearing like a melancholic Shakespearean drama.

Even for those who detest Muhammad, and there are many, this book remains a necessary read for the sinful purpose of pure pleasure alone.

But why I'm so inclined to take Martin Lings? Is it to please the Muslim Pakistanis? A Muhammad book for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? What next - a Talmud for Haifa? Isn't it circumscribing one's choices to the expectations of narrow-minded religious conservatives?

No, no Muhammad for me.

Of course, I need to pack Shame

Midnight's Children was not the only classic by Salman Rushdie. Shame, which has Pakistan as its principal theme, just as India was of Midnight's Children, is an equally exciting, entertaining, comical, daring, and depressing novel. The Pakistan of Shame could be Pakistan of Present - a failed nation, a broken society with hopes destroyed, future uncertain, and all of it made embarrassing by a heart-breaking comedy played by the country's rulers on its hapless subjects.

If I was a Pakistani, I would have died many times while reading the novel. But since I am an Indian, I had great fun.

Yes, I must certainly take Shame. But no! How could I be so stupid as to pack a Rushdie! Rushdie - the vile anti-Muslim author of the unholy The Satanic Verses!

It is likely that I could be slaughtered in Lahore if some mad mullah spotted me with a Rushdie. Unwise idea indeed!

So what books do I carry to Pakistan?

I do have the first edition of Daughter of the East, autobiography of Benazir Bhutto - Pakistan's first woman Prime Minister. It is a very handsome, US-published edition but unfortunately Benazir's ghost writer had a literary style slightly inelegant, tending to be a bit too melodramatic for a subtle taste. Besides, it is not good manners: Pervez Musharraf's government has given me distinction by awarding this rare visa, and he dislikes Ms Bhutto. I must be considerate to Mr. Musharraf's sentiments.

But there is a book that created a quiet stir in the post 9/11 world, at a time when General Musharraf's name had started getting popular in the American drawing rooms. It was Mary Anne Weaver's Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan. Ms Weaver is a New Yorker magazine correspondent and, since she writes for such a great institution, her account is well-written and filled with fascinating anecdotes. Still, a feeling lurks that the book was a racy read that lacked in that higher level of literal achievement that would insist on a re-read.

However, there have been other books on Pakistan written by Americans, like The Idea of Pakistan by Stephen P. Cohen. Unfortunately, Mr Cohen concentrated all his attention on fueling the vapid imaginations of think-tank intellectuals and university professors, ignoring the common vulgar people in the process. Perhaps he does not think highly of lay readers like me, looking for some enjoyable hours.

Oh, I'm in a real danger of going bookless in Lahore. Were these the only Pakistani books I have? Is my library so poor? Is my collection, painstakingly built with much thought and care, so lacking in choice?

A Prostitute Mother and a Parsee Child Comes Handy

But wait - I must not be dejected. It so happens that few months back I read a book by a British writer who had lived with a family of sex workers in Heera Mandi - Lahore's red light district. Based on her intimate relationship with Maha, the fat and ageing prostitute, and her five children, Ms Louise Brown composed an affectionate, sensitive, at times extremely sentimental but never dramatic, account of the lives of prostitutes. She exercised her choice of words with so much dignity and understanding that it made the reader feel "normal" and at home with the dark lives of those unfortunate women.

The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District is one of the more beautiful books I was introduced to since the start of this year. It will be nice to smuggle it across the border. Once in Lahore, I will go for an excursion to Heera Mandi and will get the book inscribed by a prostitute - the older the better! (Maha the prostitute-mother was in her mid 30s.)

However, Red Light memento will present an incomplete picture of Lahore. If there are seedy lanes of Heera Mandi to explore, then there are also elegant addresses where rich, sophisticated, English-speaking Parsee people once used to live, laugh, and play bridge games.

The novel Cracking India, set on the eve of Indian partition, is the fiction memoirs of a privileged Parsee child, Lenny the lame girl, who goes on to describe her little world, even as the bigger world around her was gradually vanishing into oblivion.

Cracking India, which was later made into a film titled Earth by Deepa Mehta (the maker of Water), vividly captured a Lahore strictly belonging to a particularly momentous time in history when the sun had begun to set on Hindu-Muslim unity, giving eloquence to the anguish of a great city whose cosmopolitanism would be irreversibly destroyed due to religious divide. Lahore would never be the same again - and hence Cracking India would be a gentle reminder to the present-day Lahoris of what great elements their city was once made of.

So, on with The Dancing Girls of Lahore and Cracking India, on to Pakistan.

Pakistan's Greatest Rebel Leader, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, is Killed

"Instead of a slow death in bed, I'd rather death come to me while I'm fighting for a purpose." Nawab Bugti in 2006

In the Saturday night of August 26, 2006, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was killed in a military operation in the region around Kohlu near Dera Bugti in the gas-rich Pakistani province of Baluchistan. He was 79.

Islamabad Hurts Itself

Pakistani establishment is once again on a suicidal mission.

After being informed that Nawab Bugti has been killed and his body is lying buried under the rubble of a stone cave, General Pervez Musharraf, in a shocking show of insenstivity and complete lack of tact, gleefully congratulated the secret service chief who carried out this operation, knowing fully well that he was a much-loved leader for a considerable section of Pakistan's population.

This unfortunate episode is not an occasion for cheer. It is a time for concern and mourning in Pakistan. It is a moment for introspection on how things came to such a pass that a popular leader had to be killed by the country's armed forces.

Nawab Bugti was one of Pakistan's most charismatic politicians; one of the most genuinely loved leaders of his people; one of the most awe-inspiring warlords; and now he has reserved his place as one of the legends of this Islamic nation, a land that is still steeped in the ancient codes of blood-killings, tribal honor and unshakable loyalties.

The Roots, The Legend, The Life and The Resentments

It is important to note while evaluating his legacy that the life of Nawab Bugti must be seen in the context of his setting - the place where he comes from has values and principles completely different, sometimes at odds, with those of the West. He could mean different things to different people: an opportunistic politician of nuisance value to many middle-class Pakistanis; a traitor to the generals in the Islamabad cantonment; and a terrorist-like figure to CNN-watching Americans.

To his people, though, he was a hero.

Fondly known as the Tiger of Baluchistan, Nawab Bugti was educated at Oxford in England.

He was the head of the Bugtis, a warrior tribe that looks upon Islamabad with distrust and has always resented what it perceives to be the heavy-handedness of the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populated, powerful and richest province.

A popular Baluchi leader, Nawab Bugti went on to serve as the Governor and Chief Minister of this desert province.

He was also one of the greatest and most violent warlords in Pakistan's history. The legend says that he killed his first victim at a young age of twelve. In 1992, he is said to have killed more than hundred members of an enemy tribe for the revenge of his son’s assassination in the city of Quetta, Baluchistan’s capital.

Like many other non-Punjabi citizens of Pakistan, he believed rightly or wrongly, that the National Government as well as Pakistan's army have always exploited the resources of other provinces to fill the coffers of Punjab. There is a widely accepted assumption that the wealth produced from Baluchistan’s natural resources, such as its vast gas reserves, has never been used to invest in the development of the province. It is this grievance which Islamabad has consistently failed to address and the consequence of which could be disastrous.

The Beginning of the End

This last chapter of Nawab Bugti's life started in the early spring bloom of 2005. Provoked by the rape of a Baluchi woman doctor by a Pakistani army officer in a remote natural gas plant, he started a violent insurrection against the authority of the army-dominated Pakistani government.

He launched successful raids against elements of the infrastructure and military installations. Early this year, an attack on a gas pipeline caused widespread outrage throughout the country with people being forced to cook on wood fires from Rawalpindi in the north to Karachi in the south.

The Gwadar Controversey

There was already simmering unrest over the construction of a seaport in Gwadar – originally a fishing village on the Arabian Sea in Baluchistan.

Gawdor Port is the Pakistani government’s dream project of recreating a mix of Dubai and Las Vegas by constructing a warm-water gateway to the coveted gas and oil destinations of Central Asia. But Baluchis see this Chinese-assisted grand undertaking as yet another strategy from Islamabad to deny the province its deserved share of development. They also look with suspicion on the settlement of more and more non-Baluchis in the port area.

This molotov mix of Gwadar mistrust and rape crime were the primary reasons for the bursting of a pressure-cooker of Baluchi sentiments that were simmering in rage and resentment, and this outrage consequently led to the resultant erruption of an uninhibited conflict between the Pakistani state and its most annoying rebel leader.

Unfaithful to His Nation; Unremarkable to His Province

Nawab Bugti had a complicated profile as a rebel. He was not always an insurgent. In spite of being involved in failed insurgencies in the years between the 1950s and the 1970s, he had also served as the Chief Minsiter and Governor of Baluchistan for various short tenures. But his reigns were disappointing and dull. Inspite his complaints against Islamabad for ignoring Baluchistan's development, he himself failed to perform when he had the opportunities to do so.

A Book Lover, Too

While being a full-time war-lord, Nawab Bugti, surprisingly, was also an avid reader. He was known for his great library built in his fragile clay castle that was lined with hundreds of books on philosophy, western and oriental religions and the European classics. Sadly the castle, and the library with it, was destroyed by army cannon fire early this year.

Tomorrow is Darkness

What will happen to Pakistan, now?

The manner of Nawab Bugti’s death, the present turmoil in his restless province, and the disconcertingly celebratory attitude of the Pakistani establishment will only assist in romanticizing the legend of this complicated tribal leader. Nawab Bugti’s life, and his death, are likely to inspire others to follow his violent path.

Pakistan stumbles into yet another dark quarter.

Serious Satire: Pervez Musharraf's Independence Day Address to Pakistan

A speech that Pakistan's dictator ought to make but never would.

Bismillah -Ar-Rehman-Ar-Rahim

My dear countrymen, Assalam Alaikum.

My greetings to you on the occasion of 14th August - the day Pakistan achieved its independence from the British and came into existence.

The country has witnessed a series of changes under my leadership since 1999. The newspapers write with more abandon, there is a splurge of private television channels, there are dozens of FM radio stations voicing independent opinions. Pakistan is truly reaching a level of democracy which it did not witness in the earlier so-called democratic regimes.

I have also spared no attempts to normalize relations with India. Pakistan wants peace with honor. It is essential for an everlasting harmony between the two neighbors that the core issue of Kashmir should be solved to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned.

My fellow Pakistanis, I have noticed that in spite of an all-round development, in spite of the rising indices of the Karachi Stock Exchange, in spite of our shining motorways which can shame our neighbor's infrastructure, in spite of our ample foreign reserves, the country appears to be less hopeful on reaching the 60th year of its independence.

There must be no confusion about Pakistan's success as a country. This humble man, who was born in Delhi and migrated later to a newly created Pakistan, went on to become the army chief and President. Certainly it is not possible in a nation which is not confident of itself.

Dear countrymen, on the seventh year of my rule, I wish to share some of my reflections with you. A country is bigger than an individual. The presidents die and are buried in the graveyards but the nation lives on. A good ruler might introduce far-reaching reforms but a responsible ruler has to make sure that the changes survive his power tenure.

Therefore I offer to resign as Pakistan's President and Army Chief at the end of this year. I also invite former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharief to end their exile and return to Pakistan and test their popularity by contesting elections and prove their honesty by fighting the corruption charges. I give assurance that this government would not interfere with the court proceedings and neither would it influence the national elections whose date would be announced later.

A true democracy consists not only of voting in a government in a free and fair election, but also voting out a government. This is a pleasure that has never been exercised by the people of my country. I propose to bring about laws in the constitution which would render it impossible for anybody to topple a government with undemocratic means. Stringent laws would be devised to guarantee that power changes are brought about only by the people of Pakistan or their representatives in the parliament.

Fellow countrymen, you realize well that what dangers are being faced on many fronts. There is unrest in the province of resource-rich Baluchistan. Al Qaeda is trying to spark trouble in the North West Frontier Province. India is threatening to target Azad Kashmir .

While I am prepared to accept the legitimate demands of the wayward leaders of Baluchistan and would make sure that the province receives its due share of development revenue from its gas reserves, I would not encourage any activity that might endanger the sovereignty of Pakistan.

As to fighting Al Qaeda and the threats from India, I propose to give a greater responsibility to the Pakistan army. There is envisaged a reduction in the role of Pakistan army in the day-to-day function of the administration so that more attention could be paid to the nation's security concerns. It is intended to completely phase out army's role in an arena which is rightfully the preserve of the civilians.

Finally, dear countrymen, I declare that Nishan-e-Pakistan - the country's highest civilian honor - will be awarded this year to Mukhtaran Bibi. She was an illiterate woman who took her rapists to the court, rather than hiding herself in shame which is normally the fate of victims like her. Later, with the financial help she received from her well wishers all around the world, she chose to open a girls' school in her village.

Pakistan is not honoring her to win a good impression in the international opinion, or due to pressure from any New York Times columnist, but to make a point that what happened to Mukhtaran was terrible and remains a world-wide scourge, but how our Mukhtaran responded was the essence of an unique Pakistani sprit.

Let the dreams of our founder leader - Muhammad Ali Jinnah - come true.

May Allah guide us on the path of truth and honor.

Allah Hafiz. Pakistan Paaindabad.

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.