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PAKISTAN PAGE – Looking for Roots – JANUARY 2006

15 March , 2008

Asalaam Ailakum from Pakistan.

Eight days later, I am beginning to gain some perspective and digest my experiences here like paan, bitter at the beginning with short shots of sweet throughout. I have always identified in some way with Pakistan. My father’s family came from this side of the border pre-Partition, and the Punjabi dialect they spoke, which I associate with my grandmother and paternal aunts, is a sweet, lyrical language that  descends from the hills surrounding Rawalpindi. Over 55% of Pakistan is comprised of the state of Punjab, and I felt that the associations due to that fact alone would link me to this country, regardless of lines of control, or religion. My physical features linked me back to this side of the border and I was sure that nobody here would be able to tell I was an outsider, simply from looking at me. The sufi soul, which resonates deep inside me, was at its strongest here, I believed.

In addition, I had visited Lahore briefly about 12 years ago, on part of my mission to cross from India to China via Kashgar, although extreme sickness in Lahore made me turn back to Delhi on that occasion. My memories were hopeful – I recalled a land of extreme hospitality, where strangers would approach you offering to share food at their homes, and ever-present chai. I remembered a land where, as an Indian, I was welcomed. And I remembered being pleasantly surprised by the lack of purdah in the bazaars of Lahore.  

So, when the offer of lecturing at the Pakistan College of Law materialised, out of the blue, and my friend Nadia was staying in Lahore too, I welcomed the opportunity to discuss freedom of expression and human rights in a military dictatorship, since it gave me an opportunity to go back and seek out some of earliest roots. 


How different were my very first impressions! I arrived in Lahore after 10 days in permissive Goa, and a couple of days bus-stop in Delhi to fill up on aloo tikki and martinis (see my earlier Delhi Diary words for an exposition on my Punjabi gluttony).  It was the day of Eid-ul-Azhar (or Eid –ul –Bakr as it is sometimes known in India due to the vast numbers of goats sacrificed on this auspicious day in the Islamic calendar). I was offered the English daily “The Nation” on the short-hop from Delhi by PIA. The entire front page was dedicated to two causes – firstly, the glory of sacrifice in Islam, which although purporting to talk about animals scarcely hid the reference to humans (talking about the passion of spilling blood), and secondly an analysis of why Halal slaughter was the only humane way to kill. On a day where over 60,000 animals were slaughtered in Lahore, it was rather fortunate they felt that. However, the newspaper was written in appalling English, with over 80% of the definite/indefinite articles missing, and the editorials and letters pages were devoted to anger against the introduction of Western morals in Pakistan. There seemed to be extraordinary outrage that people in Pakistan celebrated New Year. Immediately, I gained the impression of a country at stark odds with itself, unsure of how to define itself and swirling with veils of barely-concealed hatred.  


Pakistan, of course, is a country whose history is defined by bloodshed in the name of the creation of a religious state. In order to distinguish itself from India, it can’t refer to its own history since that would include the history of a nation it despises. Bordered on the one side by progressive and progressing India and China, and on the other by regressive Afghanistan and Iran, it is caught mid-direction. My feeling was that the mass would prefer to re-write history by reference to mediaeval Saudi Arabia, whilst the army and chattering classes look firmly West, to aspirations of Chloe handbags and Prada shoes, which apparently sell out faster here than in Harrods. Lahore itself, whilst home to both these bastions of extremity, is barely able to lift itself out of grimy dust.

 Despite the past glories of thie city, a layer of brown crumbles like old paint over the city’s walls and buildings. If the trees were once green, they are now sickly and exhausted by the people’s pollution. This vitriolic pollution, designed to slowly suffocate inhabitants, seeps into the lungs, creating “Lahore pollution flu”, which I had succumbed to in less than 24 hours. Rickshaws there are still leaden and black, and the difference between Delhi after the compulsory introduction of clean natural compressed gas, and the blanket ban on goods vehicles travelling by day in the city, was painfully apparent.

Despite the presence of some parks, in which my friend N and I tried to seek refuge (Shalimar Gardens, Jinnah Gardens), the dust and lead is all encompassing and paints the trees, parks, buildings and inhabitants brown. As women sitting alone drinking pepsi in a park café, we stood out as foreigners. The parks are the preserve of men and women from the lower social classes, fully cloaked. The upper classes seem never to be seen in public spaces here. I felt oppressed by three things immediately – the pollution, the lack of colour and the attitudes towards women. 


 Despite the firm denial by the upper classes that the purdah is popular (I heard people quote that less than 1% of the population wore purdah), the streets see very few women, and those out and about tend to be veiled in purdah or chador, in marked difference to my last visit here some 12 years ago. Colour – Inevitably black. Supposedly for the protection of women, something needs to be done about the lascivious attitudes of men. Delhi is hardly Ibiza, but there one knows the risks to women are largely from being alone in taxis at night and wandering alone in parks. Not dissimilar to London then, except it is true one covers up more flesh in Delhi. However, in Lahore, I was always tightly wrapped in shawls so that the female form is invisible. Half a population swathed and forgotten.

In Lahore, the public transport system in non-existent except for the efficient railways which carry people out of Lahore, and then back in. Lahore, even in the day, is lascivious. What most stunned me was that supposedly “theek-thaak lok” (respectable people attired in business suits and in expensive cars) would stop to try to attract any woman walking without a man on the street, in daytime or at night. It was astonishing. Not just rickshaw-wallahs, the plague of India – but at all levels of society. One is forced to resort to rickshaws since there is no taxi system to speak of at all, even in big hotels. Inhaling the fumes, you have to climb in to a considerable height (so I would walk around muddy all day since I could not climb easily at that level) and you are then cordoned off, so no-one can see you and you can’t see where on earth you are going. Although I ususally orientate myself quickly in new places, I never got a hold of bearings in Lahore since I never had any idea where I was going. 


I had remembered a dreamy Lahore, full of letter writers outside courts, barbers on the street corners and bazaars full of pomegranate juice. The latter still exists but they sell cheap junk from China. The other 2 also exist but there are no visible signs of advancement in the city at all. Of course, they do exist. N and I were priviliged to see the other side, where people drink and throw parties in in their homes, where an ancient Haveli is the setting for Indian film stars, mujhras and the avant-garde of Lahore, and the art galleries display some stuninng contemporary art which made me realise that there is still a thriving arts scene, hidden away behind the dust and fervour. From Burkhas to original Buddha Bars within one day. Still, there appears to be very little room for independent thought or niches of non-conventionalism. 

Of course, there are the stunning architectural pieces – the Badshai masjid, the fort and the gurdwara all sit aside each other in the old town. But they don’t compare to the forts and mosques one sees in India, even in Delhi alone. And the usual solace that fills my heart when I see places of worship next to each other didn’t soar into my heart when I saw these 3 together in Lahore, since of course the state represses any other religion but Sunni and Shia Islam. Even Ahmadis are banned. A celebrated UN lawyer from Pakistan, Asma Jehangir, is married to an Ahamdi. Since the law does not recognise the right of women to marry “outside” Islam, she lives under threat of stoning since she apparently is committing fornication, unsanctified by marriage. 


And yet, tolerance and a prettier side did eventually emerge. One simply needs to understand at a deeper level the way society works there. Whilst it is true that the religion is shaping the country at all levels, in my view in an unhealthy way, there is still unnerving hospitality from the people. As I searched for the streets on which my grandfather used to live and own, indeed the street where my father was born in Rawalpindi (away from the plains and in the hills going towards the Northern Frontier and Kashmir), ordinary people welcomed me in and spoke fondly of their memories of the Sikh families who used to live there. I was offered tea, even though no-one knew the new names of the streets so I had to guess I had found where they lived, rather than be sure. People are also kind, and want to ensure they do everything to help you to enjoy their country, and since tourism has suffered a massive blow, this was especially keen in some places.

One needs to understand Pakistan’s religious fervour to understand what is happening in sections of the British Muslim community back home. Trapped in poverty and anger, people seem lost without a clear historical identity, I felt this was a country that didn’t want to identify itself with hatred, but from which hatred towards the West, towards India and towards its own upper classes, was defining its current status quo. 


I found myself in the process of a crude attemmpt at conversion in Rawalpindi – a rickshaw-wallah, finding out that I was a Sikh, tried to encourage me to “be” with him and convert to Islam in order to save my soul, and to come away from Dar-al-Kufr (the land of the kaffirs). Astonishing, and a little frightening as it was, it gave me a real insight into why the middle ages maulvis outside the mosque in the streets where the Sikhs used to live in Rawalpindi, glared at me, then followed me, with open hatred. They don’t practice a tolerant form of Islam, which of course so many do practice but are hidden by these vocal and mass majorities globally. There is a genuine belief that they must submit to Allah, and those who don’t will go to hell. People truly do glorify suicide bombers in this land, they celebrate sacrifice, and this is not endemic only to the lower classes.

I do not know the direction Pakistan will go next, but what is happening on the streets is not what Musharraf is saying he is achieiving in talks with India. For goodness sake, I witnessed the Kashmir Liberation Front offices openly advertising and practising in Rawalpindi. And in the homes of some of the wealthy, there are discos contructed in the living room, so people who can afford to can ignore the constraints of their religious state, and bootleg whiskey and beer to their hearts’ content. 


Let me say a word about Taxila. It is the most mind-blowing set of ruins I have visited anywhere in the world. Standing on Greek columns in Turkey at Ephesus is one thing, but finding Greek columns and ruined temples isolated in the hills north of Islamabad, surrounded by bleak mountains and Pathan shepherds, is incomprehensible. This is the land where Alexander and his army walked. Deeper into the mountains yet, one can find isolated Buddhist monasteries over 2000 years old, with complete glowing stupas and statues of Buddha. The prayer rooms are lined with images of Aphrodite, and Bactrian Greek coins are still found bearing the heads of Kings of Punjab! In this civilisation, people had folding chairs, childrens’ toys like a Trojan horse and water cooling systems. They had complex assembley halls and rituals, and the paraphernalia of an advanced civilisation. The same band stretched to Bamian where the Taliban destroyed the massive Buddhas on the hill.

As I sat in those mountains, in the cold air, surrounded by nothingness, I felt a deep connection to where our people came from. I didn’t find it in Rawalpindi, or in Lahore or in heartland Punjab here. I didn’t recognise many of the cultural practices and ways that I have learned are my own. I realied that my roots lie in India as an abstract entity, a place which once covered this soil on which I was standing too but whose politics and people now reside in a different place east of a man-made border. But there in the mountains of Punjab, moving towards the Afghan border, I felt a rising connection with my ancestors, be they Buddhist, Hindu, Zorastrian or Greek. And from there came the Sikh gurus, and are still the holiest of Sikh sites at Panja Sahib and lower in the plains, Nankana Sahib. The gurdwaras are poor, Muslim guards stand at the gate and say Muslims are not allowed in (which I thought must be a way of Muslims trying to prevent their own people from acknowledging the Sikh presence, since the gurdwaras welcome all religions and peoples).

I know India has so many problems, stemming from genocide or attempted genocide at the highest realms of power. But people do practice their faiths alongside each other, there is an intellectual and spiritual tradition that has alllowed and encouraged equality. But, here in Pakistan, the use of religion is oppressive and all-consuming. Let that be a lesson to the  Hindu right in India – India has advanced so extremely, but if any religion is allowed to colour human value, human thought process and political goals to this extreme, the country will stagnate in a pool of hate caused from within. 


I came away from Pakistan feeling there was a great deal of soul searching to be done there. The gap between the rich and poor is more extreme than just the ability to have clean water. I kept feeling that India was the more flamboyant neighbour. There is an absence of colour, I felt, in today’s Pakistan that history shows was always there before. The people and the politicians need to inject reds and blues back amongst the prevailing Saudi green. 

I am heading back to Delhi now, for a bright orange mango martini.

 Khuda hafis. Sat Sri Akal. Namaste. 

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