It was almost 3 years ago.
The rented car sped through the road that snaked it way through the countryside. As far as we could see, the land was dotted with kinnoo trees, laden with ripe orange fruits. The scene looked amazing to our urban eyes. We had never seen real fruits hanging from real branches! Even the brazen December wind couldn’t stop us from peering through open windows, such was the fascination.
We had been to Amritsar and was on our way to Wagha Border, to sneak a peek into the land of our forever estranged neighbor.
That is all that I can relate, definitely in a faint and remote way, to West Pakistan. Bangladesh, or former East Pakistan, is a different story altogether. As a Bengali from the part of Assam that is culturally and geographically closer to Bangladesh than to West Bengal, Bangladesh has always been close to our heart, a bond strengthen by the numerous tales of partition and separation, lost friends and deserted homes. As a child, we would look at our grand mother’s animated face when she talked of her father’s home in Baniachong of Sylhet.
“How do you remember so much about the place which you haven’t visited in fifty or more years?”, I would ask her with disbelief!
“I grew up there, and you can never forget the place where you grow up”-she used to say with such finality that we could not question her even if we didn’t believe what she said!
So we all knew at least something about Bangladesh, names of a few districts, some anecdotes about how people from Dhaka’s certain area are quarrelsome, people from Barisal are rogue and so on. We also knew a bit about muktijuddho and Mujibur Rahman, 21st February and 16th December.
But about Pakistan? it is a blank slate. Kargil war? We all collected funds in school for that, pored over the little sketches in newspaper showing the LOC in thick red line and little Indian and Pakistani flags scattered around it to mark which country occupies which post. We all felt suddenly patriotic! We listened to “Aye mere watan ke logon” with moist eyes, our parents discussed animatedly about daily war-updates with anybody and everybody, the school prayer time was increased by one minute because the soldiers needed our prayers. There were so many little things that happened then, but amidst all those, have we ever though about the people, common people, like us, on the other side of the border who perhaps did all those we were doing? I did not.
As I grew up, the next best thing to cancelled class tests, were India-Pakistan matches. All fury and enthusiasm of a war were concentrated in the cricket field. Losing a match to Pakistan was equated with betraying one’s country. A lost match inevitably lead to a procession where the posters of Sachin-Sourav were garlanded with chappals and shoes, sometimes smeared with shoe-polish while a victory led to jubilations with crackers, colours and dance. What was the scenario on the other side?It couldn’t have been much different then this, after all India-Pakistan are like the twin-brothers of Bollywood; one police-officer and other a criminal, bonded by an eternal love-hate relation.
Pakistan is the state where fundamentalism thrives, democracy strangled and breeding-ground of terrorism. Such was my foolish and simplistic idea and if not all, I am sure there will be at least a handful of educated fools like me. But long office hours with a laptop, internet and nothing much to do(in some days) goes a long way to educate people! One cannot bring books to office to read, the technical documents soon loses their attraction and one inevitably ends up browsing online sites to download books.
Thus came Louise Brown took me to a enthralling tour through the lanes of Walled City of Lahore. The disturbingly bright colors of Anarkali Market, the coolness of Badshahi Mosque during scorching summer, the evening air thick with the spicy aroma of kebab being cooked in the open air restaurant, everything beckoned to take a peep through the window that lies forever disregarded. The book of Louise Brown is not about the beauty of Lahore or its history, it is rather about the pain of the people inhabiting the ancient pleasure quarters-Heera Mandi, the diamond market. Once upon a time, where kings and queens ruled the land, Heera Mandi used to be the home of the royal courtesans. They were famous not only for their exceptional skill in performing arts but also due to their immaculate tehzeeb and tameez. Princes used to be sent to famous courtesans to get trained on etiquette as a part of their curriculum. These ladies of Heera Mandi used fill the social lacunae that was created by shunning the ‘respectable’ ladies from social arena. Infact, if we go through the history of ancient India- during the time of Lichhavi and Bimbisara, girls with exceptional beauty and intelligence were many-a-times declared as ‘janapad kalyani’ or ‘nagarvadhu’, essentially a courtesan!
She winds her tale about the glorious past and the decaying present of Shahi Mohalla-the royal neighborhood. In the fore-ground of the tale of Maha-the lady with an aging body and declining price Tasneem-the transgender who loves polyster shalwar kameez,Mushtaq-the pimp, the charm of Lahore seeps through the pages.Through her eyes we see the sun setting beyond the Badshahi Masjid, the Dubbane-wala rattling his bottles of oils, the Gola-wala wheeling his cart through the lanes of Taxali Gate and Roshnai Gate.
As we go deeper,towards Tarannum Chowki and Tibbi Gali, Lahore starts attracting us, just the way we are attracted to an old lady,to listen about her days of glory, as she sits recounting them in a not-so-glorious present.
Karachi, Lahore are the names that are familiar to us, generally in a vague way. They wave at us sometimes from newspaper reports on suicide-bombings, ambushes, sometimes from the stories of Manto and sometimes from the slowly fading gruesome tales of partition. And it is when we respond to this beckoning, try to look beyond our ill-informed, pre-conceived notion of the land that we all love and hate at the same time, that we can see its beauty. We see how intricate the social pattern is, how very similar our plights are, how common are our sorrows and happiness are.The more we try to look deeper, clear away the years of cobwebs, the urge to stand under the canopy of the old buildings, crumpling under the impact of age and history strengthens and listen to their whispered stories. The Lahore Fort perhaps narrates the same melancholic tale of bereavement and estrangement, torn families and lost homes, like the Serai Nurmahal,if we care to listen.
“On the far horizon waved some flicker of light
My heart, a city of suffering, awoke in a state of dream
My eyes, turning restless, still dreaming,
the morning, dawning in this vacuous abode of separation
In the wine-cup of my heart, I poured my morning wine
Mixing in the bitterness of the past, the poison of the present
On the far horizon waved some flicker of light
far from the eye, a precursor to some morning
Some song, some scent, some unbelievably pretty face
went by unknowingly, carrying a distressful hope
Mixing in the bitterness of the past, the poison of the present
I proposed a toast to the longings on this day of prison-visit
To the fellow drinkers of my homeland and beyond
To the beauty of the worlds, the grace of beloved’s lip and cheek “
—–Faiz Ahmed Faiz