A PASSAGE TO PAKISTAN.
I set off from Heathrow that August. I had gone to a clinic just before boarding the airport bus and been informed that I did not have a fatal disease. Quite good timing. It was indeed good to be spared a terminal illness. It was doubly good not to be going abroad for a couple of months in the knowledge that I had a dreaded malady.
I fly with Turk Hava Yollari – Turkish Airlines as they are now. I remember nothing of the flight out. I spent a couple of hours in Istanbul airport. As I walked from the aircraft through the disembarkation bridge I came into the terminal. Suddenly I was dazzled by blazing light and strong heat. I thought at that moment that the sun of Asia had hit me. It was a foretaste of Pakistan. Of course many Turks will tell you their country is EUROPEan and not Asia. I think that that is balderdash.
I flew on through the night to Pakistan. I sat beside a Pakistani who was perhaps ten years older than me. He was tall, slim, good-looking and attired in a cheap dark blue western suit. I tried to strike up a conversation with him. He waved his hand from side to side and indicated he spoke no English. He managed to communicate that he spoke only Italian because he had lived there for several years. How odd – a Pakistani who spoke Italian without first having learnt English.
To my other side was a cute, slender young blonde. She was Danish and like your average Scandinavian spoke flawless English – in her case with an unmistakable American accent. Her nose stud, hair bandana and tie dye skirt marked her out as a Hippy chick and no doubt a believer in the virtues of free love. It was a shame I did not keep in touch with her. She went to an Atlantic college. She had a Pakistani friend at school and she was going to visit her. THE delectable Dane told me she wanted to go on to study art.
As the plane slowed down and circled around to land I began to ask myself what I was doing. What a place to visit. Pakistan fascinated me as did South Asia in general. I was curious about the new military government. My money would go far in this poverty-stricken land. However, an Islamic state seldom attracts the fun crowd. I had been offered to do on a debauched lad’s holiday to Thailand with Thomas and Horace my prep school mates. I had turned it down. I had hoodwinked my old school out of a few hundred pounds to go to Pakistan on the basis that I would be retracing the footsteps of an old boy of the school who had carved out the British Raj and given the jihadis what for well over a century before. In fact I would not be venturing into the tribal areas as I did not wish to have my testicles stuffed in my mouth but I did not tell the travel grants commission that. I could easily have spent the loot on sleazing it up down the decadent dens of Patpong. I could have penned a tale of daring in the Hindu Kush and sent it back to the travel grants committee. But muggins here passed off the opportunity to defraud the old school and I did more or less as I said I would. I did at least visit the right country.
I landed in Pakistan’s Quaid i Azam International Airport late at night. This is the main port of entry of the whole country and is in Karachi – the largest city though not the capital. The airport was clean, calm and well-organised – the very opposite of the rest of the country. In the queue I met some wiry Danes who were there for rock climbing. I saw some Asiatic men with those wind-burnt features that speak of steppe, desert and snow-bound peaks. One of these men of indeterminate race had a curly grey beard just starting to go grey. He spoke good English and I noticed he held a Danish passport but he told me he was Afghani. Many Afghan refugee fetched up in that liberal land and became citizens. Denmark being the country that gave the world Danish bacon, outre porn and the highest rate of birth outside wedlock it was the antithesis of the medievally intolerant world of ultra-Islamism that was Afghanistan at that time.
I went through customs without having drugs planted on me. Before I knew it I was out in the arrivals hall. I prayed that the cash machines would be generous. It worked for me. Soon I had picked a hotel from my Lonely Planet guide – borrowed from the library. Before I knew it I was in a cab driving through the empty streets towards Hotel Dubai. As we left the airport car park I noticed a small military base. This made an immediate impression on me. Here was a country where the military had a conspicuous presence. I must confess to being an enthusiast for the rule of General Musharaff.
Around midnight the car parked outside the hotel I had selected. It was for the price and location that I chose it. The driver rattled the locked slide across metal gate. The receptionist came down and in I was. The hotel was grotty but that was what I had been expecting. The lavatory was a squat pot – well not a pot, a squat hole in the ground but that does not rhyme. I had studiously avoided using these the year before in India. I had crossed cities to avoid them before. This time I got used to them.
The grime encrusted carpet and bad taste decor made the whole experience oddly exotic.
The next day I checked into a neighbouring hotel that was a little cheaper. The new hotel was no worse than the first I got to know the area well. Despite the postal address the place was known as Iraq Road. The streets were grey and the sun was bright. There were innumerable dingey shops selling electrical goods and hideous western clothes. There was strong preference for sickly colours.There were power cuts most days and then countless generators would start up and create a din as they spewed out dark fumes. The atmosphere was almost inky.
Although I am no fan of Islam I will say this for it – it does encourage kindness towards outsiders. I was very well-treated by Pakistanis. The great majority were helpful and generous to me despite being much poorer than me. The hotel staff all wore Pakistani clothing. In quiet periods they crouched on the floor behind the reception desk to eat food from plates on a tray. They asked me to join them and they fed me. I asked on whom he thought was the best ruler of Pakistan. He said Zia ul-Haq. I asked why and he said because he enforced Islam strongly. One of the receptionists was a slim and dark skinned young man with a pointy short beard named Suleiman. He told me he was a Christian. I was surprised but of course they are Pakistanis too and why should they not wear ordinary Pakistani clothes? His name is a version of Solomon. He was a Protestant to be exact.
Nine out of ten people I saw on the streets were male. I was to discover that in the hinterland this amount of female presence on the streets would have been considered scandalous. Yet there were some women around.I went to an internet cafe that was run by a young woman. Here in Karachi at least one could see a female face. I found the higher up society one went the more broad-minded people were. The illiterate classes were the most obsrucantists in their religious observances. They tried to gain respectability by being ultra puritan.
I saw some well-appointed buildings such as the Supreme Court of Sindh. I notice the Aligarh Muslim University Old Boys of Pakistan Club. What about the Old Girls’? I went into St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was the day of the last Empress of India’s hundredth birthday. There was a statue of the saint of our isle at the gate. There he stood robed in a green vestement, crowned with a mitre, bishop’s crook in hand with his face finished off with a sage’s white beard. One Sunday I was so bored stiff that I actually heard mass. As I WAITEd I was spoken to by an old Pakistani. This slim, bearded man wore glasses and a pale blue shalwar kameez. This surprised me as for some unknown reason I assumed that Pakistani Christians would wear western garb. Why? Christianity has nothing to do with such clothes. He asked me to make a donation to the church. I opened my wallet and I had only rather large denomination banknote. I said I had only something big. ”But this is for the church” he insisted. There was not a bat’s squeak of embarrassment about asking in his voice. Faced with that authoritative tone I handed over 1 000 rupees. He quickly put it in his wallet. I do not know if it ever saw the inside of the Church’s coffers. Only now do I wonder if I was had.
When mass started I saw that almost every other person wore traditional Pakistani attire too.
I spent a couple of days visiting various sites in that huge city. I went to thE qUAID i Azam Mausoleum. The Mausoleum was bright white – the only clean thing in a fairly unwashed and tatty city. It is built up high – almost like a pyramid. I was a little underwhelmed. The Mausoleum though dignified is not large. One climbs many steps to it and the traffic whirls around manically below. Inside the Mausoleum those who come to pay their respects to the dear, departed father of the nation do so in soft tones. Four sailors stood sentry – one at each corner of the tomb. The Quaid was in many ways the heir to the Mughal emperors. These were Muslim emperors who ruled India from about 1500 to 1707. His mausoleum is a cheap imitation of theirs. Like their tombs in Delhi and elsewhere at the centre of it lies his actual tomb – a stone coffin inlaid with grouted leafwork imagery. It is very poignant to me. Whatever feats one may have achieved in life – however magnificient one was in the end one is just a man and a dead one at that. That is the symbolism I divine from a tomb so small. Every two minutes the officer in charge of the sailors gave a blast on the whistle and they would stomp to a new position, changing corners. They went around in a circle as it were. I felt that the whistle blowing rather detracted from the silent solemnity of the place.
WHO WAS THE QUAID-I-AZAM?
Quaid-i-Azam is a name that is applied to many buildings and institutions in Pakistan. It means ”The Great Leader”. It is a title given to Mohammed Ali Jinnah. He was the first Governor-General of Pakistan and the Speaker of the National Assembly. The Governor-General was more or less the Head of State. In fact the British monarch was the Head of State of Pakistan until Pakistan became a republic in 1956. Until that time the Governor-General exercised the competence of the Head of State on behalf of the far distant monarch just as happens in Australia today.
Without going too far into a history lesson, Jinnah was the man without whom Pakistan almost certainly would not have been created. It was he who turned the Muslim League from being an organisation campaigning for Indian Muslims to being an organisation that campaigned for Indian Muslims to have a country called Pakistan. Jinnah died within a year of Pakistan becoming an independent country. His emaciated and frowning features adorn many a room in Pakistan.
I had a light blue shalwar kameez run up for me. The smiling little bearded tailor had a black mark on his forehead. I was soon to figure out why so many Pakistanis have these. As they lean forward for their orisons they rest weight on their foreheads as they touch the ground. This black mark develops from putting weight on it when in the attitude of prayer and it seen as a badge of pride – the surefire mark of a pious MuSLim.
I spent a couple of hours in a fruitless attempt to get some student railpass. I spent some of the time perusing ”Pakistan – a dream gone sour” by Roedad Khan. The title says it all. Khan came from the NORTh West Frontier Province of Pakistan. He was a leftist supporter of the Pakistan movement in the 1940s. He became a civil servant and rose to the top of the bureaucracy in Pakistan. He served the political masters of the day despite his misgivings about all of them. This book is intriguing – an insider’s view of what happened at the top of Pakistani politics. He praises Zia ul-Haq’s personal integrity and modesty as contrasting with Z A Bhutto’s bombast and snootiness. He observes that the referendum that gave Zia ul-Haq a supposed mandate to rule was largely a sham. In the end the book is a lugubrious comment from an honourable administrator. The outlook for Pakistan looks bleak. It has got even bleaker since that book was published.
As I was intending to be in the country for over a month I had to register with the police. I took a hotel receptionist with me to sort it out. We were in the police HQ. I had to wait a couple of hours. A small bribe got this down to about 10 minutes.
I went into a bank for some reason. It was in a small tower building – the Shaeehen Complex. Shaheen means eagle and is the name of one the Pakistan’s nuclear missile systems. I am not sure whether this building was named in honour of the Pak nuclear programme or not. The handsome young teller saw I had a guide-book and voiced surprise that I WAS trying to get around Pakistan with the aid only of that slim volume. He told me his name was Shadab and gave me his number. I leapt at this overture of friendship.
I called Shadab later. I asked him what he made of the military regime, ”actually we shouldn’t even be talking about this stuff on the phone.” It was telling reply. The walls had ears. He spoke about one of his colleagues, ”you know that female who was sitting beside me at the bank?” I cannot remember what he said about her but I remember her being pretty. This phrase has stuck in my mind because of the Subcontinental distinctiveness of the usage of the word female.
I went to meet Shadab at a hotel where a computer fair was on. A Pathan taxi driver took me there and then refused to take a fare, ”you – guest.” I was impressed by this extraordinary liberality towards a rich infidel. I sat in the lobby and read current affairs magazine. A slim and oily young Pakistani minced over to me. He wore tight trousers and a shiny shirt. Long, lank hair was swept down diagonally across his forehead. ”Bitte schon”, he greeted me in German. He then gabbled a bit of German at me a language I did not understand at tht stage of my life. He then switched into English and told me he was a teacher of German. He eyed me in a disconcerting manner. He smiled at me with his twisted gappy teeth and fluttered his suspiciously long lashes. I could tell he was as queer as a three pound note. I am not anti-gay but prefer for gays not to crack on to me. How could I intimate to him that I was not interested without accusing him of a felony? Only now do I look back and wonder if he was a rent boy who tried to pick up clients at the hotel.
Just in time Shadab showed up. The gay said he wanted to spend some time with me. Shadab told him firmly that I had to come with him and had no timesit there. Off we went. Shadab looked at some computers but bought nothing. HE Was quiet at first and I feared it would be a dull evening. Fortunately I had misjudged things and he became more loquacious. He told me he was doing and MBA. He asked me if I know what it was ANd I did. He drove me to the Clifton Beach area that evening. We had some fruit drinks. Shadab told me why it was good that Pakistan had been created – the Indians would not give them rights. I thought that this was so much tosh and that it was Pakistan that discriminated against its religious minorities whilst India did not. However, I kept my mouth shout on that one. This habit of keeping my opinions to myself was something I was going to have to get used to in Pakistan. He talked about joining the Pakistan Army. I thought if he was going to do so he would have done so already. Again, I kept shtum about that one. He had his elder brother with him – I shall call him Javid. Javid did not speak such good English and worked with their father in the family carpet business. Shadab was 26 and short compared to me. He had good features and had been a male model. In the car I asked if they were Punjabis – no. WERE THEY Mohajirs – wow! They were clearly impressed that I knew of their community. Their father had fled Shahjahanapur in India at the time of partition. They are URDU SPEAking. Their language is Hindi written in Persian script and with some Persian words. It is the official language of Pakistan but only Mohajirs speak it as their day-to-day language. They are a majority in Karachi and a few cities in southern Sindh. In the rest of the country they are a small minority.
Shadab and his brother told me about walking through shopping malls to try to pick up ”chicks”. Their pronunciation of chicks was a little off and their lame imitation of Western culture was to me contemptible. However, I felt sorry for them. Here they were in a Muslim country only trying to live with the freedom I took for granted. They were at least freer than most other Pakistanis. They lived in the most liberal city and had money. He took me to his house in the prestigious Defence Colony district and had me wait with his brother by the door. He went around into the garden – presumably to ask permission of his parents. Then he introduced me to his parents. His father was about 70 and very tidy – his hair slicked to the side. He wore Western clothes and had a packet of cigarettes in his breast pocket. His mother was decorously reticent and smiling and wore Pakistani dress. The family consisted of three boys of whom Shadab was the youngest and a little sister who was a hefty teenager. She beamed but did not say a word to me. That would have been tantamount to fornication.
The father on hearing I studied history said – ”History – Henry VIII marry a girl and next day he cut the head off.” I couldn’t help thinking maybe he was conflating Tudor history with Arabian Nights. I did not think it prudent to correct him. Henry VIII never executed a woman before he was married to her for at least 2 years.
There was another Pakistani couple there who were having a bit of a spat. They lapsed into Urdu which was discourteous. They warned me to be careful in Pakistan – not to be too trusting of people.
The father was a serious-minded man who spoke very directly. THEY asked me what I did. I was an undergraduate. They asked where. When they heard I went to Oxford SHadab mouthed ”wow” at me.
They treated me to some mango ice cream and some other flavour. They asked which I liked better. When I said mango a cry of delight went up.
Shadab told me he did not drink his whole family did not. He showed me around the whole house. It was large and well furnished over three floors. He showed me a photo of a relative who played cricket for Pakistan. He was showing off in a way that I considered to be poor form and distinctly immature. He was plainly elated to have a white friend. I was a status symbol. On the roof of the house he smoked but said he never did so in front of his father because that would be disrespectful. He took a meditative drag on his cigarette, ”Islam is a very hard religion. It says if a boy does not pray after the age of 12 to bet him.” He was surprised I was so young – he thought I was much older. Looking back at the photos of me then I look so boyish. I realised how free I was – how free of my family. Shadab disliked being told what to do by his father but he nevertheless went along with it. I felt like suggesting he move out but thought the better of it.
On the main street near my hotel a wizened little old Pakistani with a silvery beard asked me if I wished to buy hashish. I loudly refused. I always made a show of saying no in a very emphatic and stentorian manner. I wanted there to be no way anyone could accuse me of buying drugs. If I had I probably would have been arrested on the street corner. Dealers are often partners of the police – setting people up to get nicked for a share of the bride the imprudent Westerner pays to get out of chokey.
I often went about my cab as I did not know the bus system. There is no underground railway there. The city of ten million souls is crying out for one. The traffic is very overcrowded and the lack of road sense makes for a veritable demolition derby. The city is so polluted by exhaust fumes that the atmosphere would almost choke an ashtmatic. On Sundays the roads are pleasantly empty. SOMETimes a taxi driver would not understand what I was saying. He would get out and call over the first man in a shirt-pant he saw, ”bhai sahib” – meaning ”brother sir” which is a polite way to address a stranger. Wearing a shirt and trousers rather than Pakistani clothing marked on out as an office worker and therefore one who spoke English. The office worker would be asked to translate.
I did take a bus on one occasion. I was wearing my spanking new shalwar kameez. There was no door to the bus – an open doorway. This was dangerous because someone could fall out but Pakistanis are indifferent to safety. It is all the will of god and they just accept that. In a country of 150 000 – many of them in dire poverty – with a rapidly growing population life is cheap. The black of doors and the glassless windows brought welcome ventilation in the packed and otherwise stifling bus. The passengers were almost all male. Female passengers sit in the front near the driver. SOME affable English-speaking Pakistanis spoke to me. They told me about their work in various companies. They handed me business cards and asked me to contact them should anything go wrong. I got off the bus and immediately felt a sharp prick in my finger my right ring finger. I ignored it and walked on. Then I notice drops of blood on my shalwar kameez. Blood was pouring fairly fast from my finger. I felt I was bleeding like a shaheed. The handle by the doorway of the bus must have had some sharp part to the metal. I had gripped it as I descended. I was close to my hotel. I got home and cleaned and bandage the wound. I was a little worried as Karachi is not a clean place and that handle on the bus doorway must have been filthy.
THE OUTGOING BROTHERS WHOSE NAMES I FORGET.
In a a low grade restaurant I dined on greasy rise and lamb curry – my favourite Pakistani dish. The table had a wipe clean plastic table cloth. Cauldrons of food bubbled away happily. On the next table two boys about my age chatted to me. They wore tasteless western clothes and they had the Pakistani habit of turning and spinning their hands to show the palm – pointing the middle finger and forefinger at their interlocutor as they spoke to emphasise a point. They spoke fractured English and invited me to their house. When I went by cab to their house the next day I saw Pakistani flags were everywhere as Independence day was coming up.
I got to their house near Shaheed-i-Millet Street. This name means ”martyr of the nation.” It was not a handsome house. It had two storeys a courtyard. They brought me into their drawing-room. It was large and largely empty with bare white walls and a bland carpet. The two brothers were of modest stature. They greeted me with a handshake. As they shook my hand they would put their left hand on their heart in token of their sincerity. I notice many Pakistanis doing this and I started to copy it. It took me a little while to shake off the habit when I got back to the British Isles. One of them said to me, ”you are very beautiful you know.” He was far from beautiful himself although I did not give him the benefit of my assessment of his pulchritude. His comment was not making a pass at me. In a country where boys hardly get to see girls and homosexuality is not acknowledge they become un-self-conscious and recognising male beauty. They had an elder brother with a full beard. He looked normal but did not make eye contact. He did not speak so much as grunt. They explained that their big brother had mental problems. One time they got a phone call from the police in Chaman on the border with Iran. Their brother was found on a bus to Iran. They used his identity card to found out where he lived. The big brother had got on the bus for no particular reason.
Their mother and sister came in carrying trays of tea and snacks. These females wore Pakistani clothes with a headscarf draped loosely over their hair. They were short and fat. They looked ugly and semi-Chinese. I suspect that some inbreeding had gone on. In Pakistan it is quite acceptable for first cousin to marry first cousin. Moreover, sister and sister marry brother and brother from the cousin’s family. For example Prince William marries Princess Beatrice and Prince Harry marries Princess Eugenie. Then this is repeated down the generations. The daughter of William and Beatrice marries the son of Harry and Eugenie. They keep doing this – reinforcing and reinforcing bad genes. I know that European royal families have done this. Elizabeth II is the second cousin to her husband Prince Philip. However, marrying first cousins has been taboo since William and Mary although it is not illegal. Since the 1940s the British Royal Family has at least eschewed endogamy.
One of the brothers suggested that I go into the clothing business with them. I told them I knew nothing about it and did not wish to. They accepted that straightaway. Later they told me what they made of General Pervez Musharaff. It is as though the butcher who kill the goat try to become the barber who cut the hair. He told me that the British rAJ WAS very good and excellent government. They expressed support for the late President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, ”ok he was corrupt – little bit” he conceded.
These boys were amicable and giving as are so many Pakistanis. We went for a walk to a hilltop park. In the playground I notice a model of a nuclear missile. The Pakistanis were so thrilled that they had become a nuclear power that they were enthusing even toddlers with the joys of mutually assured destruction. Whereas buses in India are adorned with colourful kitsch portraits of Hindu deities in Pakistan buses are covered in images of nuclear missiles. They paint the missiles in dark green army camouflage. Why? SO you do not see it as it hurtles through the sky at 10 000 miles an hour? So you do not see it when they parade it through the streets on Independence Day?
I FOLLOWED MY NOSE TO THE NORTH, TO THE NORTH.
I decided to go north. I went to the railway station the day before to purchase a ticket. As I queued beside the scrum at the ticket counter a Pakistani approached me. He was about 5’8”, slight, very pale for his nationality and he had a comically oversized moustache. He was Masood. He was a 27-year-old accountant and he wore what Pakistanis call a shirt-pant. That is to say Western clothes – a shirt and pair of smart trousers. It was a dark green hair of trousers rather too big for him – Pakistanis always seem to wear belts with trousers even when they do not need them. I dislike this. Above his billowing trosuers was a very pale green shirt. He looked like Borat’s shorter bother. He asked me where I was going. I told him to Garhi Khuda Bakhsh Bhutto, Moenjodaro and Larkana and he told me he was going in that direction and he suggested we travel together. He seemed trustworthy and perhaps rashly I accepted. I was still not sure I would go with him.
However, on the evening in question I did show up at the railway station just in time. I had been going by taxi and thought I might be late. I considered that this could be a positive thing because of course Masood might be up to no good. In the event I got there on time. The station was not large or imposing. Masood was waiting eagerly on the platform for me. The tickets were little pieces of grey cardboard.
I boarded the train. The difference between Pakistani trains and Indian trains is immediately apparent. Pakistani trains are much worse. This one hadn’t been repaired in years and was none too clean. The whole contraption creaked. I only remember seeing mail passengers. Ere long our train was rattling its way northwards. I spoke to Masood a little but was still withdrawn – not knowing whether he was an honest person or not. I spoke to a plump off duty Pakistani policeman who was in our carriage wearing a shalwar kameez. He resembled a teddy bear. He had dark skin for a Pakistani and thick hair. His bushy moustache set off his impressive pectoral beard. He told me he was part of the police anti-corruption cell. Pakistani certainly needs to combat corruption being one of the most corrupt countries on earth according to the IMF.
I drifted to sleep on my bunk. I awoke in the morn as dawn broke over a pink sky. Soon we got off at the station for Mohenjo-Daro. This is a town so well known that even my spell check recognises it! Not having been robbed by Masood in my sleep I began to trust him and speak more freely to him. The sun rose rapidly as so did the temperature.
We ate in a tiny unclean little restaurant in the village. The tables and chairs were plastic and tawdry ads for coca cola adorned the place. Some wretched beggars gathered outside. I said to Masood should I give something to one poor old woman. If you do then everyone will come. I heeded his advice. This old woman was brazen enough to show her face. I notice that every woman here – and there were not many about – wore a blue all over burqa outfit. A gauze in front of the eyes allowed her to see out. I was hardly to see a female face between Mohenjo-Daro and Lahore. I had grown up in the middle East where females nromally go out under a black abaya – hiding their face. I had never thought about living under fundamentalist Islam from a female perspective. Now I did. ”They are treated like prisoners” I protested. Masood’s face expressed discomfort. ”It is their tradition you know”, he demured. Looking back on it I feel sorry for him and I feel guilty about my tactlessness. Masood had some sympathy for my point of view but at the same time felt honour bound to defend the customs of his nation. I had put him in an invidious position. I thought it was dreadful that these poor ladies were not even allowed to show their faces. Of course if one grows up in such a society and everyone else behaves like that one may never question it. One may accept it or indeed be positively happy. One may see it as honourable to maintain feminine purity beneath the veil. It is just like in Western culture girls go out on the town of a Saturday night clad in no more than hotpants and a boob tube. For us this is normal and even commendable. One seldom questions it. These Pakistani ladies may feel sorry for the Western womenfolk who feel pressurised to expose themselves to such shameful lasciviousness. However, I suspect, given an equal choice, most women in the world would opt for something closer to Western mores. At the very least it must be fearfully hot under those robes. On that day it was getting very hot – especially when lugging my rucksack and other bag around. I had foolishly worn black jeans – black, just the colour to attract the heat.
.A bus load of German tourists went past to the ancient ruins. I am not sure how I knew they were German. Masood found out for the locals that once a week a charter flight came to the local airport carrying a planeload of gora log grockles. Gora log means ”white people.”
We went on by horse-drawn carriage a mile or two. Then wer came to the mounds and ancient streets. The houses still stood but the roofs did not. I had read about this ancient town since I WAS 9. It is about the oldest town in South Asia. It is not very memorable. A boy 100m from the ruins tended a camel. The boy paid no attention to the ruin or me. I suppose he had lived there all his life and the ruins meant nothing to him. Apart from the camel herd we had the place completely to ourselves. Masood went off to answer a call of nature and squatted down in the bushes.
We had been able to leave out bags at the two floored rectangular musesum there. Later we looked around its uninspiring exhibits of shards of pottery recovered in aracheological digs. I saw a plaque commemorating the fact that President Ayub Khan had been graciously pleased to perform a tour of inspection there in th 1960s.
We went on to Larkana. We got there by bus. We rode on the roof of the bus. It barreled along the narrow road at a good 40 miles an hour. There were perhaps 50 inside the bus and 20 on the roof – and a crate of chickens. The trees were just about head height as I sat. The bus conductor climbed out the window and collected the fares. He held on with one hand and then took the money with his free hand. Then, to my horror, he let go of the bus and just balanced as he counted the takings. I do not know how he didn’t tumbled over and dash his skull open on the tarmac. It was certainly some way to travel – an exhilarating experience. This was air con class! It was a ride to dine out on. Shade trees lined the road and drainage ditches were there for when the monsoon came. We passed many houses. Often they were made from reeds or were on room shacks. The people here were dirt poor. The landscape was very flat but the fields were emerald bright with rice and crops.
We got down at Larkana. I put my rucksack on my back and under the noon sun I was soon perspiring liberally. I was reminded of the line in Lawrence of Arabia about the Nafud Desert – it is the sun’s anvil. Here the sun hammered down on me. We walked through the shabby streets with open sewers. The stinking black water there made a gruesome sight. The odd dank side street that we passed looked at least to be seductively cool. People started when they saw me. ”They are surprising to see you” , noted Masood. Maybe 1 in 10 000 people in Karachi is white. In the interior of SINDH It must be more like 1 in 1 000 000. We went into a pharmacy for some reason. The air conditioning was a blessed relief. The pharmacy seemed incongruous – an limpid island of Western civilisation in a rather primitive and very poor town.
We got a taxi to Garhi Khuda Bahksha Bhutto. This village is the ancestral home of the Bhutto clan. We passed many black banners hung from tree to tree across the road. The banners bore slogans in Urdu which Masood told me related to the Bhuttos. He told me ”you would not have found without me”. He was only too right.
GARHI KHUDA BAHKSH BHUTTO.
As I WANted to find this place in SINDH I had th right man. He was a Sindi and from the village of Dhairki. Dhairki is in the north of the province near the border with the Punjab. In this area of north Sindh they speak Seraiki. He spoke SERaiki and Sindhi at home. He learnt Urdu as the national language. He spoke English. I believe he spoke Punjabi as he lived in Lahore. He wished to learn Farsi as many people in the North West Frontier Province speak that tongue.
I had also chosen the right man as his family were supporters of the Bhuttos – like most people in SINDh. If I had asked someone who backed the wrong party I would have been given short shrift. Pakistani politics was very polarised between the Pakistan People’s Part and the Muslim League. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is an heirloom of the Bhutto family. Masood told me when the 1988 election was held he was 19. The voting aged was 21. He had three ID cards all with his right name but all saying he was 21. He voted three times. I asked if the senior PPP officials were aware that he cheated on their behalf. I wanted to believe that the PPP high command were not in on the electoral fraud. He said they must have been because they wanted credit from the leader Benzair Bhutto for getting as many votes as possible even if by unfair means. If is perhaps churlish to moralize. If the other party was cheating its arse off they may as well play dirty too. If they do not then they will be disadvantaged and have no hope of winning. Masood grew disillusioned with the PPP’s corruption. They turned out to be little better than the PML (Pakistan Muslim League) or the military government of General Zia ul-Haq. He was no longer involved in politics.
There was a huge flattened rally ground in front of a very large building. The large building was edged in turquoise and midnight blue tiles. There were many public lavatory cubicles. It gave me some idea of how many people gathered here for political speeches. The building had only a ground floor and there was a first floor which had been started but abandoned. The caretaker told Masood the situation and he translated. The PPP government built this mausoleum when they were in office. When the PPP lost office the project was discontinued. The PML government were not going to pay taxpayers’ rupees to honour the leader of the PPP. Inside that building were the graves of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his ancestors. This Mausoleum is supposed to be PPP’s answer to the Mausoleum of the Qaid-i-Azam. The PPP have accorded Z A Bhutto the title of Quaid-i-Awam – ”the leader of the people.” None but a PPP partisan uses that term though. While Jinnah is a man who is near universally exalted in Pakistan, Z A Bhutto is a deeply divisive figure. Z A Bhutto was Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1971 and then from 1972 to 1977 President of Pakistan. There is something to be said for him but much to be said against. He was overthrown by the military in 1977. He was found guilty of murder. He is widely believed to have ordered the assassination of many of his opponents. However, it is generally held that he was not guilty of the particular killing of which he was convicted. It begs the question – why not charge him was a murder he actually committed? WOuldn’t that be a lot more just and better for the image of the military regime. I do not understand. Anyway he was sentenced to death and despite a chorus of appeals for clemency from most governments he suffered death by hanging in 1979. I am against the death penalty but have little sympathy for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Anyone who models themselves on Mao Zedong is dangerous indeed. He did at least avoid a flirtation with Islamic fundamentalism – this was to stain the reputation of his successor – General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.
PML members supported the military government. The urged Chief Martial Law Administrator Zia ul-Haq to do away with the wretched Bhutto. They were jubilant at the death of Z A Bhutto. They handed out sweets to mark the occasion. Being Pharisaic Muslims they could not crack open the champagne although it would not surprise me if a few did that in private. Though much of the Pakistani elite professes Islam they often thin that obeying its strictures – like taxes – are for the little people.
I walked into the large building with a very high ceiling. The floor was tawny earth. I saw several small graves. This had been a typical outdoor graveyard. During Benazir Bhutto’s time as Prime Minister they began to construct this huge building over the graveyard. She served twice — 1988-1990 and then again 1993-96. I think it was during her second term of office that the built this building or rather half-built it.
A Bhutto family retainer was there. He did not speak English and spoke to Masood. Like just about everyone in the interior of Sindh he wore Pakistani clothes and had a moustache. He showed us Zulfiaqr Ali Bhutto’s grave. It was a high tomb such as one would see in a European graveyard for a rich man – a big rectangular box. There was an embroidered satin cloth on it edged in cloth of gold. The dulcet smell of flowers wafted around the place. Masood bought more flowers there to scatter and add to the powerful aroma. The graves of various other members of the family were there stretching back some generations. The Mausoleum building was perhaps 100m by 100m.
When Z A Bhutto was given the long drop his corpse was flown from the now demolished Rawalpindi Prison to a nearby airfield at Larkana. Bhutto family retainers met his coffin. One of the servants who had known him since boyhood described the cadaver of the martyred Bhutto, ”He looked like he did when he was 16 – his face shone like a pearl.” Then it was taken by helicopter to the village where after namaaz i janaza – family prayers – he was interred. Little did I know when I visited that grave that his daughter was also to be killed prematurely.
Masood and I traveled by minibus to Sukkur. I sat in the very back. Two children – a girl and boy – sat in front of me. I think I had been given the biggest seat but still the leg room was insufficient. I almost had my knees up my nostrils. I had to sit diagonal to try to squeeze in and even then my knees were jammed against the seat in front. I was uncomfortable. I was hot, tired, dehydrated and irritated after the day. I had seen a lot though.
Fortunately we soon got to Sukkur. It sits astride a large river. We walked over a bridge and saw boats made of reeds. Thick rushes lined the rushing river. Looking at those muddy waters I was struck by the strange serenity of the place. I asked Masood to take a photo of me there. He said he could not because the bridge was considered a military installation and we may be arrested on suspicion of espionage. Pakistan had a poor relationship with India. Pakistan often said the Research and Analysis Wing (the Indian secret service) was spying on them. No doubt it was. As we passed the bridge I saw a teenage boy in a black shalwar kameez shirt and white trousers. Masood informed me that one could tell from the boys garments that he was a Shia. Shia are the minority Muslim sect. About 10% of Muslims worldwide are Shia. I suspect that in Pakistan it is lower than this. Curiously some of the most prominent Pakistani families have been Shia – the Jinnahs and the Bhuttos. There is some extreme anti-Shia bigotry among a handful of Pakistani Sunnis. There have been cases where Shias have been murdered by Sunnis for sectarian reasons in recent years in Pakistan. Surely the fact that the founder of the nation was a Shia must stand them in good stead. On the other hand for Sunni extremists Shias are not even Muslims and furthermore the Quaid was a bad man for making Pakistan merely a homeland for Muslims instead of an Islamic State. The Hardliners wanted Sharia law to be the law of Pakistan. Frighteningly in some regards it is now the law of the land as well as the law of the Koran.
In Sukkur we found a place that would let us take a shower for a few pennies in little cubicles. I needed that! The dusty streets wound this way and that. Sukkur is the site of a barrage across the river and in the event of a fourth Indo-Pak War it would be a top target for the Indian Air Force.
Masood told me about dacoits – pronounced ”DA – kooz”. These are bandits who roam the interior of Pakistan. These armed robbers once stopped a bus that Masood’s brother was travelling on in the middle of the night. The dacoits took everyone’s wallets but did not harm anyone. I became a little worried. I knew that Westerners had been kidnapped in Pakistani for ransom money. My father had voice this concern before my departure.
We found our way to a bus to go to his home village. I said I would only get on if I could get a seat and it looked jam-packed. WE climbed aboard and Masood asked a man to vacate his set because I was a guest. The man happily did so. They are an exceptional people, the Pakistanis. Try doing that in the British Isles. Excuse me Mr Britisher, would you please give up your seat to this 20-year-old because he is a Pakistani and we want to be nice to foreigners. You would be lucky to escape with an unbroken nose. I sat down and savoured the seat, it was amply big. As usual on Pakistani public transport everyone I saw was male. Everyone had either a beard or moustache. They probably all wore Pakistani wear. Well what would one expect. In America they mostly wear American clothes and not Pakistani clothes. I was aware that being white, clean-shaven and in Western clothes I stood out like a syphilitic prick. I was worried that someone might tip-off the dacoits that there was a good ransom to be had.
Our bus roared down the road as evening drew on. It was a journey of up to an hour. It was close to sunset when we alighted in his home village of Dhairki. As I got off the bus by the front door I saw a hijra climbing onto the back door. She, as they are known, is a transsexual. Normally they are castrated men. She was wearing a garish dress of purple, pink and violet. She was adorned with too much makeup making her look very pale but that is what rings their bell in Pakistan. SHE WAS short and rotund. Her face was not ugly though. She stood hanging on by the handle to the back door facing her public. She cried out gaily in her raspy, scratchy voice. Several men looked at her excitedly and hooted their merriment. She blatantly was enjoying the attention. It is too bizarre for words. In a land of the strictest moral represssion it is unacceptable to see a woman even in body hugging or semi-revealing clothes. Homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment. Yet for a man to be castrated and to titillate sexually frustrated youths is quite permissible. These poor boys could eye her up and lust after her and persuade themselves that they were not really gay because ‘she’ did not have balls or perhaps a dick. I asked Masood why someone would become a hijra. ”For money” he said. I had seen plenty of hijras in India but India is not at vehemently illiberal as Pakistan on sexual matters. Hijras exist for religious reasons there – to be present at the birth of a child and absorb any homosexual tendencies the child – if a boy – might otherwise have. A few Pakistani and even Indian men pay for anal sex with hijras. Masood had told me about the chalk and paint messages on many mud buildings we passed by on the train. These messages mentioned sexually transmitted diseases and how to cure them.
There was a main road bisecting Dhairki. A few rundown restaurants and grim little shops lined it. We walked down a couple of unpaved and unlit streets to his house. Everyone wore Pakistani clothing here. Most of the houses were made of mud. It was a small one storey buildings and I only ever saw two rooms of it beside the bathroom. The house was cluttered with old wooden chairs, grimey sofas and one small bed. The floor was of turquoise stone with speckles of different colours decorating it. The white walls were bare. An old television set flickered in the corner. I met maybe 20 of his relatives only one of whom stands out in memory’s view. I did not meet a single male relative of his – not even a baby. His male relatives were, in some cases, comically hairy. Their jet black beards were so dense that these men looked like little bears with hair coming out almost from their eyes.
I was served a tasty meal there. One of Masood’s relations carried it in on a tray. It had been brought in from the female quarters. The ladies of the house observed strictest purdah. Purdah is the Urdu for ‘curtain’. That is to say these live away from the eyes of men. They go out as little as possible and when they do they do so only under the cover of their burqa. This is considered an honourable way to live. They took me to one of those roadside cafes for a treat. In a manky little restaurant on wooden benches we were served what they called falooda milk. It came in old coke bottles. I drank some and instantly disliked it. This slightly yellow milk was discoloured by the nuts and spices they had put into it. I found it impossible to hide my distaste. My hosts took it well. I never tried that drink again.
That evening we sat on some chairs outside his little house. Under the stars we chatted a little. Some of his relatives spoke some ENGLISH. Masood acted as interpreter much of the time. He told me his ancestors came from Turkey. Perhaps they were Turkic people from Afghanistan or another Central Asian country. His father died some years before. His father had been very pro-British for running the government so well – ”my father LOVE the Britishers.” I have only known Indians and Pakistanis to use the word Britishers. I have started to use it too.
I remember one of his relatives. This youth stands out in mind as he was the only one without a beard or moustache. Perhaps because he was too young at 17 to grow one. He was fairly dark-skinned, lean and wore glasses – sometimes. HIS hair was carefully brushed and he sat byronically. He spoke a little English but was timid. Masood told me this boy had been married for two years but had no children yet. Masood asked him if he was happy in his marriage. The boy smiled with embarrassment. ”From this we can tell he is satisfied – he is more than satisfied”, Masood quipped. I reflected that it was not bad as a boy to be getting a regular shag from the age of 15. Masood told me that he himself was due to wed his cousin. Have you met her I inquired. In Pakistan that is not an idiotic question. ”Thrice” came his reply in delightfully antiquated English. Almost all weddings are arranged in Pakistan. As one’s blood relatives are the only one whom one gets to meet it makes sense to marry them. At least one knows what she looks like and how she behaves.
We went to sleep in the main room. I was given the bed as an honoured guest. Masood and a few of his relatives dozed on sofas. I was worried that the dacoits would have got word that a Christian was in town. They may come with their guns in the middle of the night and whisk me away to their hideout while they demanded a few lakh rupees for my uncircumcised self to be returned. I got through the night managing not to be abducted.
A TOUR OF INSPECTION.
The next day Masood and his family decided to take me to see the tourist hotspots of Dhairki. I was feeling dispirited and wondering why I had come. I was anxious to get on to Lahore. The town was small, unclean, dull beyond words and I was anxious that the dacoits might come for me. I had come to trust Masood implicitly. If he meant no good he could have robbed me by now. Try as his relatives might to defend me from the dacoits if these ruthless thugs came well-armed there was nothing Masood’s clan could do to save me.
We walked out on another blistering hot day. We walked down the dirt road. I saw the ubiquitous open sewer by the roadside. Effluent trickled past. Masood told me that the saddest thing was that there was enough public money to put all the sewers in pipes underground which would work wonders for public health. Meningitis, encephalitis, cholera, typhus, typhoid and many more must fell people because of these open sewers. The public money intended for sanitation was filched by corrupt bureaucrats and local politicians.
We went to visit a local small time politician. This man was short but had an enormous belly and a fearsome moustache to crown his ample jowls. He was very unpleasantly arrogant as only a small town statesman can be. He was like a Pakistani bad guy straight from central casting. I shall call him Iqbal. He was a member of the Tahrik-i-Insaaf. This political party – translating ”the movement for Justice” was founded by Pakistani national hero and cricket captain Imran Khan. Khan’s party had a meteoric rise and flop in the space of a couple of years. They failed to gain a single seat in the 1996 elections. One of the first things Iqbal did was to show me a photo of him with Imran Khan. Pakistani politics is almost tribal. The loathing between the two major parties – the PPP and the PML – is so intense as to be almost violent. It goes far beyond the sparring between Labour and The Conservatives of Republicans and Democrats. Pakistani politics – in the countryside at any rate – is almost feudal. Landlords will deliver the votes of thousands of their tenants. The Bhuttos were major landlords. Bhutto was a very unconvincing socialist. Like many socialist doyens he was also a snob and a boaster. ”My family have owned not thousands of acres of land but tens of thousands of acres.” He refused to give it to the peasants though. His rodomontades were very distasteful. One thing this vulgar man never learnt from his British classmates at Oxford is that a gentleman does not crow. A true aristocrat is content with himself and feels no need to show off.
Later I was taken to see two schools. I went into one schoolroom very close to Masood’s house. The classroom had no door on the doorway. I saw a class of children of about 8 years old – girls and boys – seated at ancient wooden desks. I was surprised that their young schoolmarm wore a headdress but immodestly showed her fetching face. The bare stone walls were cracked and the roll down blackboard was tattered. The children were attentive and impeccable in conduct. It makes me think of the British Isles where classrooms have state of the art equipment. The solution to under achievement or appalling misbehaviour is always to throw more money at it. Here these children were learning in the most rudimentary of conditions and their conduct would put their British counterparts to shame. 50% of the population of Pakistan were illiterate at the time. These children appreciated being in school. Their parents had to pay for them to attend even a state school. It was either learn to write or else face a life of the most back-breaking toil and unremitting poverty. British children take education for granted – it is even compulsory till 17. They often resent it and rebel against it. Such are the wages of over generosity. Because school has no cost the pupils sometimes think it has no value. A couple of them performed a song routine they were rehearsing for Independence Day -”dil dil Pakistan” – ”heart heart Pakistan.” This was long before the accursed day of 9/11. That day was ghastly not only for the 3 000 murders but also for the anti-Muslim bigotry it provoked. It was not right to be prejudiced against Muslims after 9/11 – it never is, never was and never shall be – but unfortunately that is how some people are going to react in such situation. A great fissure opened between much of the Muslim world and much of the Western world – it had been opening for some time but that event ripped it wide open. I hope those children I met in that classroom thought back to my visit to think that white Christians are not all bad. I am not a Christian but I was brought up as one – they would view me as one.
I was taken to another school in a small two storey mud building. The last person to visit it was Imran Khan. I a young undergraduate who had achieved nothing in my life was being put on the same rung as the cricket star solely on the basis of my nationality. Who says the Pakistanis are anti-British? I was in a small, uninspiring and overcrowded classroom of girls and boys – all aged about 11. The girls and boys sat intermingled – odd that. The children were given a chance to practise their English on me. ”What is your name?” and ”What is your father’s name?” were the only two question. I remembered being asked. I was asked the same ones by several children. Pakistani being a sexist country the did not ask about my mum. On one’s identity card it has one’s father’s name or if one is a married woman the husband’s name.
The teacher told me that one boy was named Saddam. He was called this because he was born in 1991 and his parents were admirers of the President of Iraq for standing up to America. There was another child there and he was a Christian I was told. I asked him if he was a Protestant or a Catholic. He was the latter – like me.
Masood asked me if I wished to see the church. I did and was taken there. I was a short walk. It did not resemble a church – it was a small white rectangular building down a narrow lane with low brown brick walls around it. There was no spire or cross on the outside. There have been many murderous attacks on Christians in Pakistan. It does not pay for them to advertise themselves. That would be seen as provocative. The doors were wide open. An aged stubbled doorman sat by the door fanning himself. I went on. The floor was linoleum and there was a little altar with a modest tabernacle and cross. There was no seating. I do not remember seeing any other Catholic iconography about. I knelt on the floor and recited a few childhood prayers for the sake of old times.
I was brought to see a factory. There was a series of large chimney pipes and some single storey buildings that hummed with machinery. I was told that an American company owned it but there were no Americans here now. I saw only Pakistanis. Being an untechnical person I cannot remember what contraptions I saw. I was taken through to some canteen for a snack.
Masood later told me he met some Western cyclists in 1993. Apart from that I was the first Westerner there in years.
In the late afternoon we went by car a few miles into the countryside. On a bed with a hammock like structure made of leather straps two old men rested. They had a mud bungalow behind them. They had a mangy dog to guard them. We spoke – via Masood. They looked so old due to their white beards. I asked if they remembered Partition. They had been born after it! A hard life had aged them quickly. There was a man-made pond with wish in it. A 16-year-old boy climbed into some large metal bowl and used it as a boat on that pond. He wore a cloth to cover his male parts. He had trouble not capsizing and he and we all laughed about it.
They gave me a rifle to shoot birds. I fired a few shots but never hit a thing. I was concerned lest the rifle later be used for a murder that was then pinned on me. The landscape was arid – almost desert. Thorn bushes and low trees dotted the uneven ground.
I met another boy of about 16. I shall call him Mehdi. He was darker than average for a Pakistani and wore little round glasses. He had tousled hair and like virtually everyone wore a shalwar Kameez. He was a serious but not a humorless boy. His father was a teacher and Mehdi spoke good English. His one slip was when he did not understand something he said ”what?” rather than something more courteous. He wanted to go off and be an officer in the army. This is the most noble pursuit in the eyes of Pakistanis. He told me he did not want a war with India but if one came Inshallah we shall beat them. Allah was on their side and the Muslims were not defeated, well they were but very few times, he corrected himself. I asked him if this was the first time he had ever met a native ENGLish speaker. Mehdi told me that it was. His English was all the more startling bearing in mind he had never had a chance to use it with an Anglophone. I asked him why he did not take the train and travel around Pakistan. He told me his family did not have enough money. I felt bad at my crass insensitivity. I should have thought of that. Pakistan was cheap as chips for me but for a boy from a middle class family in a small town train fares were steep.
”CHALO LAHORE” – ON TO LAHORE
The next morning I got up and we were going to head to Lahore as I had said I wished to. Masood agreed. We walked to the main street and were due to catch a bus to the railway station. On the main road I met a fairly tall Pakistani of about 30 who was the only person in Dhairki I distinctly recall wearing western clothes. His black jeans, patterned T-shirt and baseball cap were a little incongruous amidst the off white sea of shalwar kameezes. This round-faced man exuded an air of confidence and jollity. He asked where I was from. I told him Ireland. He immediately told me that he held the IRA in high regard for their valiant efforts. I told him plainly that I hated the IRA and they were terrorists and most people in Ireland did not like them one bit. ”They fighting for freedom”. I replied that we already had freedom and the IRA were trying to take it away. He smiled and did not retreat one bit. Patently he was not well-informed on the complexities of the Northern Ireland conflict.
Soon we stood on the platform as the sun beat down on the little railway station. A few minutes late the train hoved into view. We were aboard in a moment and rushing towards the second city of Pakistan as I buried my nose in a book about the country by Emma Duncan.
We got out at Lahore a few hours later. The main railway station resembles a fortress. The British Raj authorities had intended it as such in case there was ever mutiny in the city. It is a noble building. We got a rickshaw to Masood’s flat some miles across the city. He lived in a decent flat overlooking an area of open ground. Untended plants grew on that open space and there was a little murky pond there. A few other Sindhis – all of them students lived there. I cannot remember their names and only two stand out in my mind. One of them was a skinny boy whom I shall call Iftar. He was short, thin and constantly smiling – not in a maniac way. He had a dark complexion and a quiff – yet he was not too vain. The other was Muneeb as I shall call him. Muneeb was of the same modest stature and physique as Iftar – not overbearing. Muneeb had a Charlie Chaplin moustache. Both were not much more than 18. Some of the students spoke Seraiki which the others could not understand. I all sounded the same to me – incomprehensible. Why did they all stick together? They came from roughly the same area. There is also considerable anti-Sindhi prejudice. In both India and Pakistan I have heard the trope – if you see a snake and a Sindhi on the road, kill the Sindhi first because he is more poisonous.
The flat was clean considering that half a dozen young men lived there without the feminine touch to keep the place ship-shape.
In Lahore kite flying is the passion of many. I often say people fly them in the early evening.
On my first afternoon we had a walk around the central area. One of Masood’s mates asked me if there was a special Oxford accent. Had he detected my plummy tones? I think not as his English was not up to much. I told him there was no special Oxford accent although there was an upper class accent. Maybe that was what he was driving at. I never told them the name of my university. The streets were not as wide as in Karachi and there were no skyscrapers. Karachi was a medium-sized port on the Arabian Sea when it suddenly became the capital of the newly created Pakistan. Within a couple of years its population had increased tenfold. Its expansion continued over rapidly for decades. Even when the capital was shifted to the purpose-built site at Islamabad in 1962 Karachi continued to grow exponentially. Lahore is in the middle of the historic province of the Punjab. This is a province in which Muslims predominated in the west and Sikhs in the east – with a goodly scattering of Hindus across the whole. When Partition came to India in 1947 the thankless task of drawing the line fell to a British don and civil servant Sir Cyril Radcliffe. It was impossible to draw a line that was remotely fair or logical without angering everybody. It was touch and go whether Lahore would be awarded to Pakistan at all. In the end it was. Lahore though was the traditional capital of the whole of the Punjab and in the 18th century the capital of a Sikh Empire. It is much more historic than newcomer Karachi.
We walked around the ruins of the old fort. Its reddish walls still stood sentinel. The place was in a poor state of repair. THERE were no signs explaining what was what. This is a common disappointment in places of historical import in South Asia. However, refreshingly one was free to clamber here and there. Grass and bushes sprouted from the cracks in the many rocks there. From the fort one had a good vantage point to survey the whole romantically chaotic swirl of a city. There was no sea breeze to waft me, unlike Karachi. The sitting heat of a Punjabi August beaded my fair forehead in glistening perspiration.
Along the street from that storied fort stood a Sikh Gurdwara – or temple. Its golden dome glinted in the sunset. I had seen one orange turbaned Sikh riding his scooter through Karachi. There are very few Sikhs in Pakistan. They used to rule Lahore. At the time of Partition they and the Muslims were, in all too many cases, at each other’s throats – I mean literally. The Sikhs who remain have often found it prudent to keep a low profile. Not all of them are part of the Khalsa. Not all of them observe the rules about not cutting the hair on their heads or never shaving their beards – wearing the special undergarments, carrying a comb and knife. The Sikhs in India are among the most nationalistic Indians – they are well-over represented in the military, their homeland (the Punjab) is on the frontline with Pakistan. There is no other country outside India that has a large Sikh community. I do not call 500 000 Sikhs in the UK large.
We went to the main mosque. It is an impressive structure but not the most attractive I have seen. As I stooped to remove my sandals I felt a cord go around my neck. I was frightened and grabbed at it and ripped it off. I turned to see what I was holding – a garland of fragrant little white flowers. An oldish woman had put them around my neck to force me to buy them. She was not wearing a burqa or chador – now I saw why she felt no need to hide her beauty. She had hideous burns on her face – the victim of an acid attack I wondered? I felt sorry for her but did not put it. It is not right to put a cord around someone’s neck without asking them – especially from behind!
With a pair of Masood’s chums I sauntered into the mosque. I do not remember anyone staring at me. There are a handful of pale-faced Pakistanis from the extreme north of their country. The army of Alexander the Great passed through what we now call Pakistan. People say his soldiers married local women and some stayed behind. Some historians think there is something in that. In certain remote valleys there are fair-skinned folk who could pass for Europeans. Alexander of Macedon left his mark on the place in terms of cities named in memory of him such as Iskanderun. The boy’s name Iskander is a version of Alexander.
The chums did their ablutions – Muslims have to wash before praying – and performed their prayer ritual as I had a look at the place.
I saw fewer women about here than in Karachi. To smaller the city and the further north and west one goes in Pakistan the more traditional it become. In the North West Frontier Province females are almost invisible. From now on I shall call that province Frontier as the did in Pakistan for short at the time. There was a family living in the flat above us. When they saw me going out one day on the back of a scooter with Iftar the girls called out from behind the curtains to me ”I love you” and giggled. That evening they came to visit me. There were four fat sisters – no brothers. Their pudgy faces were blemished – they were not veiled. They spoke with confidence in reasonable English. The contrast with Dhairki was marked. Masood would not dream of letting me meet a female relation of his from a new-born to a great-grandmother. Here in the big smoke four girls aged about 13 to 23 had trooped down into the flat of another man to visit a Christian foreigner – they were not chaperoned. I suppose many of these women are heavy because they have no chance to take exercise. Sport for women hardly exists.
I visited the Minar-i-Pakistan. This means the tower of Pakistan. It was here in 1940 that the Lahore Declaration was made. It has since been dubbed the Pakistan Declaration. I refer to it by its original name since the word Pakistan does not appear once in it. The Minar-i-Pakistan marks the spot where the Declaration was made. Muhmmad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All India Muslim League, made this declaration calling for the Muslim majority areas in the north-east and north-west zones of India to become independent states. It even implied that there should be more than one Muslim country in India. When asked by a journalist whether he meant one Muslim country or two Jinnah said that he meant one. We know that Pakistan was founded in 1947 with West Pakistan and East Pakistan. East Pak split off in 1971 and became Bangladesh.
Jinnah read out his declaration in front of a huge crowd and the world’s press. On that occasion Jinnah spoke to the assembled foreign journalists in English. The crowd groaned as very few of them understood English. Jinnah being from Karachi and having spent most of his life in Mumbai did not speak Urdu – the official language of Pakistan.
The park around the Minar-i-Pakistan is very crowded. There is hardly room to sit down. Many paths criss-cross its short desicated grass. The tower itself it supposed to be white but has been stained a pale grey by the acrid pollution. It is narrow and is almost triangular. I walked up. The stairs are too narrow. The white walls were stained black where a million shoulders had brushed the marble. The lift was under repair and sparks from the joiner’s blow torch flew around wildly. The view from the top was fascinating but I cannot say serene.
Sometimes it rained as it was monsoon. As the rain came down the pond in front of the building filled up and a chorus of a hundred frogs croaked the night away in celebration.
ON 14 AUGUST – Pakistani independence day – I arose early. We went to a stadium to see a military parade. It was a roasting hot day. We got there to see the place deserted – it had been cancelled owing to a bomb threat. There are a great deal more of them now. I think it was the place that the Sri Lankan cricket team were attacked a decade later. tHERe WAS A RETIRED midget submarine on a pedestal outside the stadium. I liked seeing the soldiers’ uniforms. They had black berets and their shirt tails hung out of their baggy trousers. It looks a bit too relaxed for a military uniform but it suits the climate. Shadab my Karachi friend was one of the English-speaking secular elite – as a mark of this he shaved his face and wore Western clothes. He told me that Pakistani clothes made him feel too casual – it made him laze around. Well – they are like pyjamas.
Later we took the bus to Waggah Border as they call it. This is the only legal land crossing between India and Pakistan. With 150 000 people on one side of the line and 1 000 000 000 on the other one would expect there to be staggering numbers of people crossing daily. In fact it is only a few hundred. What a loss of trade! Around there the land is as flat as a pancake. The green field are covered in grass. There are only a handful of trees. Trees line the road for shade though. I could see some guard towers a hundred metres or so the side of the road on both sides. Masood did not go with me – he entrusted me to his mates. He said if I wished to take a photo – ”enquire, eh.” As Pak was run by the military they were very sensitive to issues of espionage. They are very worried about RAW spying on them. In this case it was risible. These soldiers were within plain view of hundreds of Indians in a little amphitheatre on the Indian side of the frontier. Hundreds of Pakistanis were there to egg on their side. The civilians were like crowds at a football match – high-spirited and partisan.
The Pakistani troops wore grey tunics and baggy trousers. They had white boots on with puttees. Their hats had pigrees on them – stiff pieces of silk that stood erect. The Indians were in a beige dress uniform. The Pakistanis seemed to be selected for their height. Apart from these soldiers I only ever met two Pakistanis who were taller than me. These men strutted around as proud as peacocks. They huffed as orders were barked out in a stagey fashion that was almost beyond parody. They puffed their chests out and did extra high kicks of their legs. The Indians went in for much the same overblown display. Crowds on those sides chanted and hooted. On my side the crowd – every one of them male – cried ”Pakistan – Pakistan – Pakistan”. There was genuine fervour but I did not sense any belligerence on either side. Just as well – these soldiers did not carry guns. That was just as well in case someone got a little carried away by all this chauvinistic posturing. The soldiers marched so fast that it lost any martial dignity. Though India are supposedly their deadly enemy the whole spectacle was totally coordinated with the Indian Army. At precisely the same moment they haul down the flags and shake hands before slamming the gates shut.
We took the bus home. In the centre of Lahore it seemed that every male in the city was on the streets. Traffic was even busier and more crazy than ever. Men tooted their horns in celebration of the national day. I saw a van crash into a motor rickshaw but it looked like no one was seriously injured. The atmosphere was jubilant. We walked around some of the central streets. Boys began throwing fire crackers. These French bangers are illegal in the United Kingdom. They made an awful racket. The boys liked to be really audacious and throw them into a crowd of other people. They threw them at us and the ear-splitting bang made me furious. Outside an ice cream parlour some teenager boys threw whizz bangs at the police. The police had a sense of humour failure and lashed out at the youngster with a few well-aimed blows of the lathi. A lathi is a stick about a metre long that police in this part of the world use for crowd control and summary justice. I have never seen one unjustly used. I wish that police in my part of the world used them on rioters.
I managed to get back on a motor rickshaw eventually.
Walking down the street a few huge buses rumbled past. They were packed inside with men and boys leaning out of the windows. Some were crouched on the roof. Every last one was in Pakistani dress. Every post pubescent face sported an untrimmed beard. Many had green headdresses with a long band flopping off the back of it. They carried the black and white striped flag of the Jamiat-i-Islam. This is the Islamic fundamentalist party. These fundos jeered and laughed at me. When I say fundamentalist in Pakistan I really mean flat earther, adulteress stoning, gay bashing, hand chopping, sot scourging, Hindu hating Jew genociding fundo – THAT sort of fundamentalist. They were amused to see an infidel yet somehow not hostile.
Masood took me another night to the house of his friend. I shall call him Mubashir. The house was big inside but again hardly furnished. The dining room was badly lit with white stained walls. Mubashir was an accountant and rather tall for his race. He had the obligatory moustache. He told me they say the England and Wales accountancy exams. I was surprised but pleased that this manifestation of the informal empire still existed. I met his father briefly. This shrunken old man who seemed not quite all there. He pumped my hand like a well handle and smiled moronically but his eyes were far away. Mubashir had a younger brother whom I shall call Ejaz. Ejaz was a teenager with a breaking voice. He was weedy framed.
The next day Ejaz drove me around on the back of his scooter. I went to the British Council and red a bit. He got bored and complained we soon left.
I went to Pizza Hut with Iftar on one occasion. It is considered a very smart place to eat there – well beyond the price range of the man in the street.
I regret not visiting the red bazaar. That is the red light district. It had a barrier across the road to it. Police stood there. What went on in the red bazaar they would ignore but the iniquities committed in there had better not spead out to the rest of Pak. I did not intend to partake of the flesh ther – just to experience sin city. One of my schoolmates Graneville had been there the year before. He described seeing the nautch girls there dancing as ”about as erotic as a visit to the abattoir.” Their looks left a lot to be desired. Nautch is an honourable term for an elegant concubine. Now they were refered to by the more disparaging Urdu term – tavaif, roughly ‘whore’.
After a few days in Lahore it was on to Rawalpindi by train. The city is called ‘Pindi for short. Masood took me to the railway station. We had a chat on the platform. I praised him for being a reasonable man. It would be very easy in Pakistan to be swept away by bellicose rhetoric laced with religious mania. There is an awful lot of that about from any number of demagogues. Masood did not think like that. He was bravely moderate and wanted a negotiated solution to the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. There are plenty in Pak who would say that Kashmir is their – and they will never yield an inch of its sacred soil to the Hindu aggressors who have outraged the honour of Muslim womanhood.
Masood led me to my seat on the chair car. It was late at night. He found my seat – I was beside a couple of boys of about ten years old. They are likeable little chaps. ”You gonna have a nice time with these boys” said Masood in an avuncular fashion. Once he was gone I chatted to the boys. They told me about their school life – the study of Islamia was the most important subject it seemed. They asked me sing them a song. In a low tone I sung them an Irish republican song. They listened intently but did not catch most of it. One of the father’s came along. He was a clean-shaven, upbeat man – young to be the father of a child of that age. He was keen to talk to me. WHEREAS Europeans take summer holidays by the seaside in the Subcontinent people take summer holidays in the hols where it is cooler. Pindi is not quite the hills but it is higher than Lahore and therefore cooler. Pindi is the jumping off point to get to the hill stations such as Muree.
I slept most of the journey. I awoke to a drizzly dawn as we pulled into Pindi. I got a cab from Pindi all the way to the capital Islamabad. I checked in at a decent hotel there and completed my slumbers. The en suite room was the best I had stayed in Pakistan. The hotel was all white.
Outside the streets were wide and the traffic infrequent. There was a lot of open space. The city was verdant. Hills could be seen in the distance. Tall and broad trees shaded me. The whole place was calm and serene. I quickly decided it was by far the most pleasant city in Pak. It is however a little dull. It was only just over 30 years old when I visited it. Why is it that countries that cannot afford to move their capital? Brazil, Tanzania , Pakistan and maybe more. Haven’t they more pressing problems to sort out?
I went to the British Council. I saw a poster on the wall – education is the best economic policy we have. When I am reduced to reading most of the day I know I have been in a place too long. I walked around the city. The central boulevard was impressive. It was used for military parades and lines showed the soldiers where to march. I saw the hotel where President Asif ALI Zardari was almost assassinated by a massive truck bomb some years later. One of the streets was called Constitution Avenue. Perhaps it ought to have been renamed Autocracy Avenue as the constitution had been suspended.
I went to the King Faisal Mosque. It was a huge hulking white building and fairly aesthetically pleasing. It was right on the edge of the city. It was named after the King of Saudi Arabia who stumped up the cash for it. SAUDI Arabians have funded many religious projects in Pakistani – especially the indoctrination of the young in a rather obscurantist brand of Islam. The mosque inside is plain but pleasant – a clean red carpet adorned it. For those of you who do not know a mosque is empty inside. It is a space to pray. Plant patterns may be used as decor. There can be no animal or human images int he detail in case this leads to idolatry. There is the nihab in the direction of Mecca . this is a recess in the wall. The faithful pray in the direction of Mecca. There the Kaaba – a meteorite – is considered a gift from god. Why couldn’t he give them something more useful or fun like winning lottery numbers?
Outside I saw the tomb of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. He was killed when his plane crashed in 1988. Who killed him has never been proved. The tomb is very small – a white sepulchre, not enclosed. I saw a sticker on it – I love Saddam. Zia ul’Haq called himself a true soldier of Islam. He was not anti-wESTERN. He could not afford to be. India was backed by the USSR. He needed arms. He was diplomatically isolated after the execution of Z A Bhutto. When the USSR sent troops into Afghanistan many in Pak were worried that the Red Army would storm over the Khyber Pass and into Pak. Therefore Pak sucked up to Uncle Sam and was armed gratis courtesy of Mr and Mrs Taxpayer USA.
I should have gone to Abbotabad Fort and a few other nearby places. That was the fort where Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif was imprisoned when he was overthrown.