Thursday, December 2, 2010

Memories of Pakistan


   A grave may seem an unlikely setting for a celebration, but every Thursday night the derelict tomb of Baba Shah Jamal in Lahore, Pakistan, attracts those seeking spiritual ecstasy through dancing, drumming and-in some cases-hashish. Shah Jamal, a 16th century Sufi saint, used drums and ecstatic dancing to spread his faith throughout Pakistan and devotees have been upholding the tradition for more than 300 years. Today, the ministry is carried on by Pappu Sain and his two students, Gonga and Mithu Sain—resident holy men at Shah Jamal's tomb, which is also a shrine.

A feel of relationship with country and its spirit

By Aakar Patel  

It is said that right up to the time of the field marshal Ayub Khan, Pakistanis could drive across the border into India, and Indian movies were shown in all the halls of Lahore and Karachi.

A piece I read somewhere mentioned how in the 1960s a couple of men, one of them a writer, decided one afternoon in Amritsar to drive over to Lahore for lunch.
It is difficult to comprehend such a time now, and it is not easy to imagine when such a time will come again. The way that the two nations see each other is poisonous, and it will require time, and perhaps something other than time, for this view to alter.

For those who have been reading newspapers for 25 years or so, as I have, it is apparent that things have become worse over the years rather than better or even stable.

It is strange, therefore, when a person from either nation visits the other and sees that it isn’t as he imagined it to be, because we are so conditioned by what we are told.
I first came to Pakistan a few years ago, during a cricket series. In that period – this was when Musharraf and Vajpayee were in power – there was a whiff of friendship in the air, and visas were more easy to come by.

I had a very enjoyable time then, and again later on a second visit, and it is appropriate at this time to write about these visits and those I met.
One of the best people I know, whether Pakistani or anywhere else, is the man I lived with when I was in Lahore, just behind the LUMS campus. He was retired colonel, from Musharraf’s batch in the military academy. He was unlike a soldier, because he was curious and read a lot. He was open-minded about the nature of the world, and about religion.

I am not attracted to faith myself, and it is easier to find common ground when such things are set aside first. This applied to that man also, and his range of friends included his former army buddies, who were quite unlike him, and some intellectuals of the sort that only Lahore seems to produce. One in particular, whose writings I had been acquainted with, was every bit as wise and knowledgeable as I had expected him to be.
Lahore produced many memories. One magical night was spent at the shrine of Shah Jamal, where we heard the drummer Pappu Sain play with another man, perhaps his brother, on drums and a third man, playing trumpet. This man played only one short hook, perhaps no longer than five seconds, through the night. He did not play it continually, but every few minutes, and you began to forget him, especially given the smoky haze of the place, when again, like an old memory, he would introduce his theme.

What struck me at the place was that the audience, other than a very small, tiny really, group of middle class and wealthy people, was drawn from the poor. There were a couple of thousand people there and most of them might have been autorickshaw drivers and labourers, going by their dress and their faces.

We were taken to the shrine by a serving officer of the Pakistan army, a young man, who was looking to leave soldiering and get a corporate job. Another young man, I think his cousin, was a rising star in the bureaucracy, and we had an interesting discussion with him defending the ‘doctrine of necessity’ unemotionally and with reason.

I visited the house of Sa’adat Hasan Manto, in Laxmi Mansion just off the Mall. One of us, a girl from Lahore who was then living in Bombay, knew the family and on a whim, we knocked the door and were invited in.
Manto’s daughter Nighat is married to a Gujarati, Bashir Patel, and we returned a couple of other times to spend an afternoon with them. Nighat says that all the years that the Manto children were growing up, they did not know, or at least did not hear others talk about, their father as a mighty writer. It was only much later, in the 1980s, that he became the figure he now is both in Pakistan and in India.

Leaving Manto’s house, we stopped at the stall of Goonga Kababwala. Our little party, two men, a woman and a child, were immediately spotted as Indians and while the small office crowd waited for their lunch, we were served first. A delicious meal topped off with an enormous glass of thin, salted lassi.

Khalid Hasan began translating the works of A Hamid after I left Lahore, but it would have been interesting to see then how the places written about, Tollinton Market and Nagina Bakery, have changed in the decades since.

I did of course go to Pak Tea House, which I think used to be India Coffee House before the Partition. There are still dozens of India Coffee Houses around the country, run by the government, and Lahoris who go to one will be struck by how similar they are in atmosphere to Pak Tea House.

I do not like to pose for photographs, but one was shot very consciously next to Zam Zama, the great gun from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the finest novel about India.

In Karachi I stayed with a friend’s uncle and he was a most gracious host. He lived above, and was related to, Sultan Khan, foreign secretary during Ayub’s time, and Yahya’s. I met Mr Khan, a handsome man who was one of the few people present when Richard Nixon decided that Pakistan would help him connect to China through Kissinger. Sultan Khan wrote about this in his memoirs, and though I have the book I haven’t yet read it.
My host, Sultan Arshad, used to be head of PIA in Bombay, and his leaving the city was mourned by the Times of India, which carried a large piece on him. He was popular with Bollywood actors and singers, and lived in a lovely flat in South Bombay.

Arshad Chacha, as I know him, is related to my friend Farah, whose Sheedi family descends from the nawabs of Sachin, near Surat. Every month, Arshad Chacha gathers a group of people in Karachi and they sing karaoke to Bollywood numbers from the 50s and 60s.

I found Karachi to be more modern in its architecture than Lahore, and with less sense of history. It was different from Lahore in that many homes were guarded by men carrying automatic rifles. We were taken to a temple in the city that was functional, and which had devotees and also not a few Muslims who had come out of curiosity. I do not think that would have been possible in Lahore.

I was not in Karachi long enough to meet some of the Gujarati businessmen I had hoped to meet, and perhaps that will happen another time. Culture shows in us more strongly than faith, and I think I would have been able to, had I known him, connect to Quaid-e-Azam better than most Pakistanis.
Writers often dismiss Islamabad, and one of them referred to it as being “half the size of a New York graveyard and twice as dead.” But I like the city. It does not have the urban anarchy of the cities of Pakistan and India, and its surroundings are quite lovely. I prefer it to Rawalpindi, which is just like any other town in our parts.

Before I went to Islamabad, we had been to Multan, a very sleepy city where I stayed with another retired army officer and his wife, a teacher who drove us around. I liked the architecture of the tombs of Rukn-e-Alam and Bahauddin Zakariya, and there was qawwali outside, just as there is in a thousand shrines in India.

Driving from Multan to Islamabad, we stopped at Harappa. It was deserted and there were no tourists. The man punching tickets handed us foreigners’ tickets (which cost a little more), though we hadn’t introduced ourselves. How had he known, I asked. “Yahan Pakistani kam aatein hain,” he grinned. Harappa is magnificent. Its bricks are like nothing now made. Many of them were taken to build the railway line by the British till they discovered how valuable the site was. In those ruins of 3,500 years ago, before Islam and before even Hinduism, we share a history and a culture that defines us even today.

The writer is a director with Hill Road Media in Bombay. Email: aakar

Source:  PK Articles Title Image  Umair Ghani

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