An abridged version of Trip to Pakistan appeared in Deccan Herald in July 2007
Flight Into Lahore:
The 55 minute PIA flight to Lahore from Delhi is short and uneventful. Perhaps aided by the recital of a selection from the Quran just before take-off. What I was not prepared for was the organized and neat airport and immigration. For a resident of Bangalore (and a frequent flyer) Lahore airport came as a pleasant surprise! To start with: the airport is named after a poet and not, as one would expect in the sub-continent, after a politician. (For those who may not remember, Allama Iqbal is the poet who wrote the famous “Saare jahaan sey achha….”) The immigration is staffed by smartly clad women with their heads covered. No fuss, no delay and we are out of the terminal building quickly. The drive into the city is smooth, largely due to the holiday that day in Lahore for their local festival Basant. And the Bangalorean in me can not help but wonder about the quality of the roads! Six lane roads, well maintained. The trees are bedecked with lights, again for Basant.
Basant and Kite Flying:
Basant is one perfect example of what a secular festival ought to be about, people celebrating and having fun on a day which does not have any religious connotation, just an occasion to have fun and good food. This is a much looked forward to festival in Punjab. Basant heralds the arrival of the spring season and is marked by kite flying and late night revelries in the public places with famous musicians/ bands belting their stuff and food stalls doing brisk business. Women dress in their festive best and largely in spring colours of yellow, green and red. The local Kite Flying Association of the city decides the day on which Basant would be celebrated. This year the dates decided were 24th and 25th February. This decision was marred by controversy as the state government had to step-in and pass an ordinance to remove the ban on the celebration which was placed by the Supreme Court. I was in the Old Lahore area (called the “City” by the locals) and I could see crowds of people on the building terraces flying kites. I have not seen the Ahmedabad Uttarayan festival, maybe it is as big. But that day the Lahore sky was dotted by lakhs of kites. And at least twice I heard gun shots as I was walking around the gullies of the “city”. My colleague laughed when he saw me flinch; “They are only celebrating cutting someone elses kite, so relax!” Bo kata!! The real danger is not from gun shots going astray, but from the murderous manjha of the kite thread slitting people’s throats, especially those of commuters on two wheelers. Apparently several people die each year on the road during the Basant season due to these threads. The ingenious South Asian mind has found a solution here as well. All the bikes I saw on the streets had this curious rod fixed front to back on the bikes arching over the rider and his pillion. Crude, but an effective answer to a floating manjha thread! Basant must be a big deal in Lahore as the papers next day were full reports of musical soirees held all over the city. The popular band Strings played in one of the functions and the President also visited Lahore to take part in the festivities.
Big Brother India:
Ehtesham, our colleague based in Islamabad, is a devout Muslim, full beard (no moustache), namaaz five times a day etc. A quiet and genial sort of a person and ever willing to help. He narrated a quaint incident where he had gone to a Nikah ceremony where after the Nikah was over a young girl interjected, “now that the nikah is done, when will the couple take saat pheras.” I would have taken this story to be just a story when he narrated one more. A few weeks earlier while Ehtesham was saying the evening namaz, he would hear the bell on the door tinkle every few seconds. (His wife had hung the bell at the door as a decorative device.) He got up after the namaaz and checked what was going on. He saw his little four year old daughter jumping up to ring the bell and then folding her hands in Hindu namaskar style was reciting some Quranic verses she had been taught! We all had a laugh at this little story, including Ehtesham. But these are telling evidences of the influence of Indian serials on the Pakistanis. Apparently, from 8pm to 11pm no one watches Pakistan TV channels but tune into Star, Zee et al! Far cry from the days of Doordarshan monopoly when the video cassettes of teleplays from Pakistan were much sought after in India.
Nearly all Pakistanis I met have better knowledge on Hindi films (referred to as “Indian” films) and serials than an average Indian. Talk to a Pakistani and within a few minutes the discussion inevitably veers around to Hindi films. The Fortress Stadium market is like an over ground Palika Bazaar with similar merchandise and scores of shops selling pirated movie and music software. And nearly 75% of the software on display is Hindi movies and music. Latest DVDs (Eklavya, Guru) going for an equivalent of Rs 75. “Excellent quality, janaab!” And a whole range of older Hindi movies; I could spot old gems like Dilli Ka Thug, Half Ticket, Kohinoor. I asked for Agnipath which was not available but the shopkeeper guaranteed to have a copy ready for me the next morning should I care to drop in! And, of course, the choicest compilations of Hindi film music; you name it and they have it (or promise to compile it overnight), just Rs 75 an audio CD. I helped myself to lots of Pakistani music, Munni Begum, Abida Parveen, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan etc. Prefer these to the current rage in Pakistan: Remixes of Himesh R.!!
The shopkeeper not only had total knowledge about the stock he had but also had his own take on the Indian film industry. No sooner had I opened my mouth he figured out that I was from India (I later checked with Ehtesham as to how he had managed that. “Simple”, he said, “you asked for Hindi movies, and a Pakistani would ask for Indian movies!”). And he regaled me with details of his discussions with Javed Akhtar and Yash Johar who apparently had visited his shop sometime in the past. He also said that the credit for taking Indian films to these heights belonged to four heroes; Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan.
What the two sarkars could not do in the last sixty odd years, maybe Bollywood would. Who Knows??