Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Pakistan the world does not see

This was written in May 2005

So I went to Pakistan last month and came back with a glow inside – am sure you can still see it outside and all around me too.

Never in my life have I felt so cherished and cared for. Each time one said “yes” to ‘Aap India se aaye hain?” it simply meant the rolling of the red carpet – everywhere I went and from everyone I met.

It began right from the time I set foot into the PIA aircraft on the flight to Karachi and surrendered myself to the caring ministrations of this beautiful stewardess who looked like Saira Bano in her hey day, to the ego boosting query from the chief purser on my return flight a week later, “well young lady, a last cup of black tea before we land?

The “young lady” (it’s at least 30 yrs since I could have technically got away being called “young lady”) was more welcome than the cuppa but what touched me even more was the fact that he had noted that I had asked only for black tea throughout the flight. PIA scores for sure.

Landing and walking into Karachi Airport evokes the same hopeful and at the same time hopeless query that a visitor from Bombay to any airport in the world has been asking for years, “Oh why cannot the airport in Bombay be like this?”
Both Karachi and Lahore airports are esthetically and functionally admirable and traveler friendly. Willing, helpful hands saw to it that not even once did I have to lug the luggage (is that why we call luggage luggage? Because we lug it along?) on to the X ray machines.

Whatever trepidation one might have had at the prospect of an unfriendly or severe Immigration Officer, fast melted away. The officer on duty at the desk took one look at the Indian Passport and beamed at me. While asking me to fill the Police / Security Registration form he must have seen the nervousness flit across my face. In the next second he had leaned over the counter, taken the form and my Passport from my (slightly) trembling hands (I am a frequent but very nervous traveler especially when it comes to Immigration counters) and actually filled in the whole form. Not even wincing once at the twenty two alphabets my full name has.

With his patiently given advice on what I had to do to register with the Police in the city and his “aap hamari mehman hain” ringing in my ears I walked out into the sunny warmth of Karachi . It felt like home, like Bombay .The sky and the sun and the wind were the same that I had left behind just a couple of hours ago. It was the same Arabian Sea’s moist embrace I felt on my bare arms and face. Delhi or Chennai needs more adjusting to was my first conscious thought.

With grateful relief I saw my name on the hotel placard and after that by now familiar to the frequent business travelers sensation - the instant acknowledgement of two pairs of eyes searching , questioning and recognizing each other , had been done with , I saw that the Pharma company I was visiting on work had also very kindly sent an associate to receive me with armed security guards.

I was told later that it was company policy that all visitors be accorded this attention and believe me, at no point in time during my week long visit, be it in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad was I without this security and the most chivalrous escort of a member of the company. And of course the armed guard rushing to open the car door for me every single time quite spoilt me forever I must say.

Unnerved at first with all this attention I eventually surrendered myself to the cool interiors of the limo and soon we were cruising along wide, smooth roads of Karachi towards the hotel. The driver of the car kept up a steady stream of conversation, all the time holding my eyes in the rear view mirror with his warm welcoming gaze. When he found out I was from India and indeed Bombay, his first comment was, “Aap India mein to bahut aage nikal gaye hain”. I must confess I had reservations about that comment especially when I began to think of the conditions of the roads in Bombay we needed to take to get ahead of anywhere and anyone at all!!!

He told me about his parents’ family roots being in Allahabad and his hope that one day he could visit India too. Everyone I met, simply every single person I met in Pakistan had this desire to come to India once at least. It was like being wrapped in the softest of all pashminas, this open, warm and unconditional love and affection that radiated from everyone. Later that day, at the hotel, the elderly person from the laundry who came to collect my sarees for ironing spoke to me for all of fifteen minutes about his Walid’s home in Agra and his Walida’s in Lucknow and said that he would love to see the Taj Mahal once. He admired my sarees and said he was so happy to be able to offer his services to his Bahen from sarhad paar. By the way in Lahore, the young ladies of the hotel staff could not stop admiring my sarees and swore to let the management look at changing the uniform code of the hotel staff in favour of the saree!!

“As’ Salaam Alleikum” is the greeting with which one is welcomed each time. From the doorman to the young executive at the reception desk to the staff in the coffee shop. Every one says “As’ Salaam Alleikum” to each other. And responds to each other with “Waleikum as salaam.” “God bless you “and “May you too be blessed by him”. This is the greeting mouthed into the cell phone by everyone too, not “Hallo! Where are you?” This greeting and the Allah Hahiz” and “Inshah Allah” that peppers all conversations are still ringing softly in my ears.

This sincerely stated implicit faith and hope in the power of the Almighty to care and look after his people is the humblest of all attitudes I have seen ever. It was with the greatest of pleasure that I began to return the greeting. The appreciative nod from the hotel doorman later in the week was my reward.

Pakistani men are indeed the most chivalrous men I have ever met. This was proved over and over again but on my first evening in Karachi I had ample evidence that quite made up my mind for me. Dr Wasim, my colleague in Pakistan came to see me at the hotel (we were meeting for the first time) with a lovely bouquet of flowers and a little gift. His absolutely spontaneous and charming demeanour as he stood outside my room with the eager question- “Do you guess who I can be?” simply endeared him to me at once. Wasim had also so very thoughtfully got me a SIM Card for my cell phone so I could be connected in Pakistan. This was taking care and concern to great limits actually. Once we had exchanged pleasantries he was all set to escort me to the Police Station so I could register my entry into the country- the FIRST thing both our Governments need to do is to abolish this requirement that like some criminal or Tadi Paar, Indians and Pakistanis need to go and do Haazri at the Police Chowky.

Any way to go back to the need to visit the Central Police HQ in Karachi, of course by the time we reached there, they had closed the counter for the day, being as it was well past 6 pm.But there was this very courteous security guard who gave us all the information needed for us to come back the next day.

One of the requirements was four copies of my passport sized photos with which I had to report at 9am the next day. Meetings with Novartis were to begin at 10 am so you can imagine the press for time. And, I did not have even one copy of my mug shot let alone four. (Rule no 1 for traveling – always carry copies of mug shot) No sweat said Wasim Bhai; all we need to do is get to a photo studio and get a quick Polaroid job done. So off we went to the Sadar Bazaar area near by and as luck would have it Karachi was actually facing a shortage of Polaroid film so that was that.

Row upon row of little photo shops put up their hands in a gesture of helplessness. It was definitely not the will of Allah or so it seemed. Any photo studio, even if it was open at that hour, it was close to half past 8 by then, would take 24 hrs to get the job done!! Wasim was not one to give up so easily and we went hunting for a studio that would do an “emergency urgent” job for us and we found one – the magic “ India se Aaye Hain” words were invoked and 200 rupees exchanged hands and Wasim agreed to do duty at the studio so the owner did not have to pull down his shutters and close shop while he disappeared into the inner depths of the market to get my pictures developed by a “good emergency friend”.

So I was taken inside, given a mirror to arrange my features into a pleasant countenance and privacy to accomplish that really difficult task-have you ever seen a passport size photo make you look good? However hard you try to re arrange your features? Anyway, the chap was so eager to please and clicked away and in 20 minutes flat, returned with actually pretty decent pictures and as a special gesture, the negative too. Wasim was Rs 200 poorer and me 4 copies of my picture richer and speechless at the speed, efficiency and good humour and good will all this had been achieved with.

Earlier in the evening I had realised that though I had brought my cell phone with me, I had oh so foolishly forgotten to bring the charger but nothing seemed to be a problem for Wasim and soon we were zipping across the Karachi streets to this brightly lit, bustling bazaar which he told me stocked anything I might need under the sky to do with electronics and soon enough he was back with my SAMSUNG charger. All that was left was for me to do was to change some money so I could pay Wasim back and that was taken care of by him too. We found one money changer still open at that late hour and I was equipped with Pakistani rupees. The one thing Wasim did not do was accept the money I tried to repay him! Well, you can’t have every thing your way I suppose.

Next morning it was off to work with another associate I was meeting for the first time. What immediately warmed me to him was the fact that he had the most impeccable taste in music and had my favourite music playing in his car stereo. It was enough to break the ice and soon we were trading opinions on our favorite songs. Hindi film music by the way is all that you hear in Pakistan- in everyone’s cars, in hotels and restaurants and open air food courts, little chai ka addas and music stores. The roof top restaurant in the old Lahore bazaar where we had dinner it was Lata Mangeshkar’s ghazals we were treated to, in the hotel coffee bar in Islamabad the crooner was singing old Kishore Kumar numbers, the folk musician at the ethnic restaurant by the beach in Karachi played old evocative S D Burman and Madan Mohan tunes on his flute. He was delighted to add a couple of Roshan (Roshan Sr by the way) numbers to his repertoire for the night on my request. Again the “aap India se hain?” syndrome working its magic! At a music store in Islamabad, while I was searching for some Nusrat Ali favorites of mine I had to literally wade through countless Indian music CDs to hunt for them. The store was stocked to the gills with Indian movie DVDs and CDs. And it’s not all old music all the time - Dhoom and Veer Zara are reigning supreme there just now. Just for the record, I was not allowed to pay for the CDs I bought eventually. Including the very popular number ‘Lamhe” from the film Zeher which is all the rage now in both countries, sung by the Pakistani singer Atif.

Talking of stores, for the mehman from India, everywhere there were special prices. My colleague’s wife was indeed the perfect shopper’s guide taking me to little places where I could choose from distinctive hand woven material and traditionally crafted ear rings all brought down to the special visitor friendly prices. My only regret was that I was carrying my small cabin size bag and could not therefore shop to my heart’s content. The tight schedule which saw us fly to the three major cities and at times go straight to the hospitals and patient meetings from the airport itself meant that I travelled very light and efficient. I had sworn to myself I would travel sensibly and not end up with embarrassingly large and cumbersome luggage. So shopping was minimal.
Lesson no 2 learnt is, when traveling to Pakistan carry a bag as large as their hearts and to hell with worrying about what the guys will think of all your excess baggage!!

So this was all food for the soul and what about food for the stomach? Pakistan believe me, is a food lover’s paradise. Let me tell you I ate the most fragrant rice and the rotis that melt in your mouth and the best makki ki roti and saag ever.

I ate at the home of Wasim, whose lovely wife Zohra Jabeen (Wasim says he sings “Ae mere Zohara Jabeen’ to her often) served the most delicious cutlets for high tea the day I visited them keeping my vegetarian sensitivities in mind and was so disappointed when I told her I was an impure vegetarian and had been enjoying lovely kebabs and other such delicacies since the time I had been there.

At my cousin Shelley’s home both she and her lovely husband Haseeb fed me like there was no tomorrow and one night we all went to eat at this place called The Okra which had some awesome Italian food and atmosphere to go with it .

In Lahore we ate, at a place called Coco’s – on the roof top one magical night, looking out on the imposing domes and minarets of the Badshahi Mosque on one side and the Lahore fort on the other. The kadhai chicken and sheek kebabs fought for attention with the aromatic black dhal. The golden brown paranthas were to die for. I was told that Coco’s is run by the son of one of the dancing girls who lived and worked in the four storied haveli that now housed it – he is also an artist and there were some very lovely paintings on display –poignant paintings portraying the lives of the women who lived and worked there - not much of the décor had been changed it seems from all those years ago. It was easy to get lost in the atmosphere and think back to what it must have been like during the times when the beat of the ghungroos and tablas and the music of the sarangi would have been ringing in those rooms where we now sat listening to mujras from old Hindi films.

One night in Karachi we ate at the Village which is this sprawling ethnic restaurant by the side of the sea and I have never seen a buffet spread as all encompassing as this one was…you name the kind of food and it was there and the best sugar cane juice ever.

Another meal that was unforgettable was the one we had at an Afghani hotel in Islamabad, sitting on the sidewalk under a cool black sky. It was at the end of a long day when I thought things couldn’t get better than the delicious lunch of makki ki roti and Saag we had had at the Pay First food court – or the leisurely 5 o’clock chai in an adda in a sunken garden- a day when my gallant escorts had taken me boating on the Rawal Dam and up the mountains for some stunning views of the city

It got even better is all I can say that night when upon our return to the hotel (I was staying at the Marriot) while entering the hotel who do I bump into; literally bump into, to my shock and absolute delight- but President Mushharaf. There he was just handshaking distance away with his Begum, very calmly walking out the door, if you please. At the same moment, it registered that four black Mercedes Benz cars had indeed drawn up beside the kerb and a gun toting guard too had materialized. Good thing one of the persons with me put out his arm and restrained me for I was about to lean forward with my hand out stretched. In an undertone he also muttered – wait, the guard will shoot you first and then ask questions if at all. Well, I said to myself, someone back home is sure to ask me,” So, you went to Pakistan eh? Did you meet Mushharaf and give him my regards?” I had an answer to that predictable question – an unpredictable answer at that. “Yes indeed, I did and I don’t know about anybody’s regards but I sure said Namaste and got a smart salute and charming smile in return”

Inshah Allah next time I will convey your regards.

April 2005


austere said...

Thanks for sharing.
Will return to read more, Inshallah.

Raji said...

Wonderful pictures and wonderful impressions - such nice memories to share!

Bassister said...

That sounded BRILLIANT!
I've always always wanted to visit Pakistan- The account of your awesome trip just corroborated it..
: )

Amitabh said...

very well written, almost as good as a travelogue as there can be

sks said...

Loved it. Lahore is high on my bucket list ...

venky said...

Reading your narration once again especially after viewing last evening WC 2011 game India vs Pak I feels good reading it & after what Afridi saidafter the game.Wonderful!

Prakash Sridharan said...

You have truly captured the heart of Pakistan and felt warm reading the article... The kind of portrayal in our media is clearly not that of its people.