Trip to Pakistan: Part Two

June 17, 2008

An abridged version of Trip to Pakistan appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, in July 2007

Food, oh Food!:

I love local street food. I have lived in Delhi and have done the rounds of Chandni Chowk, Fatehpuri, Karimiyas, GMW at Authority and going beyond, GT road to Ahuja Dhaba at Murthal and Puran Singh’s at Ambala. I always thought that I have had the best food imaginable but I had never been to Lahore!! And the memorable trip to Food Street in Gawalpura! A plain, non-descript street during daytime and when the traffic is blocked at either end of the street after 7pm, the Street bristles with gastronomic activities till the wee hours of the morning. Eateries on either side of the street spread the rickety tables and chairs on the street and all are welcome to partake of the delicious food simmering on tawas, kadais, tandoors etc. We settle down next to the favourite “restaurant” of our hosts, the greasy table just about able to accommodate the seven of us around it. The waiter tenderly wipes the greasy melamine plates with an even more greasy napkin and then follows a gourmet’s delight; mutton chaanp, mutton kadhai, seekh kabab, boti chicken….. Hot chaanps are devoured even before the naan/roti arrives from the “dhaba” next door. Yes, you can sit at one restaurant and order dishes from others as well. Just like being in a food court but being served centrally on your table and paying all through one single bill. So it is the special naan/roti from restaurant A and the heavenly lassi from stall B. 30 minutes later and we are all done and ready to go. Hoping I do not expose my ill-manners I discreetly peek at the bill lying on the table. Pak Rupees 1200 odd for a banquet for seven ravenous men!! That’s about the price one pays for one dish at Dum Pukht at Welcomgroup hotels and that too for a dish that is not as lip-smackingly delicious.


The following day’s dinner at Fazal Haq’s, a long drive from where we were staying, is as delightful, this time the dinner is washed down by bowlfuls of Peshawari Kahwa, a lovely warm, light green tea sweetened by gud and garnished with a twist of lime. “Aids digestion, janaab!” I do not know about that, but even a post-prandial cognac never tasted better! And all through the meal we were entertained by “Indian” songs being screened on one of the walls of the restaurant. My hosts were having a most enjoyable time recognizing the actors/movies/singers etc. We, the omniscient Indians, were required to play the referees in their guessing games. As if any of us knew any of the small time actors being betted upon. (Atul Agnihotri, who?) As we were leaving the restaurant a largish glow sign displaying a cheerful portrait of Janab Fazal Haq on the kerbside seems to be asking us to return soonest. Fazal Haq bhaisaheb, you bet I will!!


The street side action does not stop at non-veg food. Butt Sweets and Bakeries branch at Gawalpura in the Walled City has this high shelf jutting out into the street. On the shelf are three of the largest paraats I have ever seen, each a diameter of at least 5 feet. Moong daal halwa in one, pethe ka halwa in the other but I fall for the contents of the third one: creamy gajar ka halwa with tons of khoya and, hold your breath, slices of boiled eggs. 200 grams of this sinfully delicious stuff (Pak Rs 22; INR Rs 17) and you wonder if this is what they serve in jannat for breakfast, lunch and dinner! I had my eyes on the action across the street. There was this hole-in-the-wall shop with a frontage of barely 3-4 feet. An army of a million was climbing over each other to access person sitting across the counter clamoring for whatever the shop was serving. A discreet enquiry with our host for the day, the local rep Furqaan, revealed that hot samosas were being served. I had given up on getting hold of one of the riot causing savouries till Furqaan displayed the South Asian ingenuity once again (a small tip to the Butt’s waiter boy did the trick) and in a trice each one of us was gobbling the tastiest samosas we have ever had (my Tamil and Telugu colleagues second my views). I am not a specialist food reviewer, but I would certainly like to read how a specialist would describe the thinnest crust of delicately fried casing of maida holding just the right amount of mashed potatoes seasoned with the perfect mix of salt, jeera and haldi! 


The finale at the Food Street has to be the paan served so endearingly by the barely-out-of-teens boy who delicately rolls up the dark green leaves laden with thick chutney and gulkand (having lived for five years in Varanasi famed for its delicate green pan leaves and the gentle light katha-chuna-geeli supari combo I decide to opt of this) and dextrously spins his right arm and inserts the beeda between the patrons lips! “Waah, waah”, go the recipients demanding an encore in terms of a beeda getting packed (for a post breakfast round, maybe). The stylishness apart, my favourite panwallah Keshav of Lanka, Varanasi fame would squirm not only at this foppish gesture and also the recipe of the paan! The post Fazal Haq paan is a repeat save for the fact that the paan “provider” was a burly youth perhaps 25 kgs overweight!! Not that it deterred my Indian colleagues. More power to the paan-South Asian camaraderie!!



Islam taboos consumption of alcohol. And Pakistan is a dry state. We all know that. None of us had the guts to carry a bottle into Pakistan. (Not that we were checked at the customs). But mercifully for the tipplers Pakistan does not prohibit consumption of alcohol provided you are a non-Pakistani and a non-Muslim and you are consuming the daaru within the confines of your room. The mini bar is bereft of any trace of alcohol, that’s the first thing I notice when I check it. The room service brochure has an elaborate list of alcohol varieties being served: neatly classified under the heads of three local breweries (yes local! ) and under the sub-heads whisky, rum, gin, vodka, beer etc. There is a quaint line that tells you that alcohol will be served only between 8 am and 8 pm (Whisky on the rocks with toast and eggs sunny-side up anyone for breakfast?). But helpfully the literature also adds that should you wish to have alcohol after the official hours to speak with the room service manager. So, at midnight, after I check in I call this guy and he cheerfully wants to know what I wish to have. I ask for dark rum (Old Monk being my favourite). He informs me that dark rum is not available and I should opt for whisky, gin or beer. He also helpfully reiterates the names of the 3 distilleries whose outputs are on offer. Murree Distillery is the only one I have heard about (I am a quiz guy and I have heard of Murree distillery as being the oldest in Pakistan and being owned by Parsis) and I confidently order Murree whisky leaving the choice of the brand to the room service manager. Pronto the room service boy arrives with a tray full of two wine glasses, a bucketful of ice and an opaque polythene bag clad bottle of Murree Whisky supine on the tray!! And the whisky was wonderful. More power to the Murree Bawaji’s! The bottle cost me an equivalent of INR Rs 425. And 44% v/v!! What value for money!





A quick visit to Shalimar Garden on a rain soaked late afternoon and we are ready to do some shopping for our families. Our host for the day drives us (in his Suzuki Mehran, the car familiar to Indians as Maruti 800) to the edge of a non-descript lane and we find our way through the puddles of water to the shop selling women’s suit materials. Shelves upon shelves are laden with excellent quality cotton material and bolts of silk (mostly Chinese). Perhaps the first time in decades I was buying suit material and I had a blast choosing from the wonderful colours and designs. I ended up richer by four suit pieces and poorer by pak Rs 2100 (approx INR 1650). I was feeling elated at the splendid buy and ended up buying something for myself from the neighbouring shop! That is something I have never done in my trips, shopping for myself. Got hold of two Pathan suits for myself! Wonder when I am ever going to wear them. Maybe my next trip to Pakistan.





Trip to Pakistan: Part One

June 17, 2008

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??