In the narrow streets of old Lahore, you are either a very good driver or a terrible one. There is no middle ground here. But you don’t have to worry too much: the terrible ones get to hear some high-quality impromptu humor. I have only seen them smiling most of the time.
Basically, it’s a big mess of jolly people. Ah, how I wish you could be here the way I am.
Fakir Aijazuddin, author of The Resourceful Fakirs: Three Muslim Brothers at the Sikh Court of Lahore, visited Khushwant Singh on March 4 this year — just two weeks before his death. What happened there has been told in a couple of English articles since then but Aijazuddin shared the original Punjabi conversation today at a lecture in Lahore, which I was lucky enough to attend. I’ll share that with you:
“Tenu pata hai main Pakistani haiga aan?” this wasn’t something Khushwant Singh hadn’t expressed before but it was different that day, a mere foreword to what he really wanted to say.
“Tusi mere toh vadh Pakistani haige ho,” Fakir Aijazuddin courtly replied.
Having just celebrated his 99th birthday a month before, Khushwant Singh held Aijazuddin’s hand, looked right at him, and said: “Mainu maran toh baad Pakistan Hadali vich dafan kareen, jithe main jammya paleya.”
It was a request; he was serious. Maybe he thought the descendant of the three resourceful fakirs of Lahore had the powers even today to make it happen. Aijazuddin wanted to tell him that it was beyond his authority but instead said what we generally say when someone speaks of dying: “Tuhanu meri umar vi lagg jaye.”
“Main 99 varheyan da ho chaleya waan, rab kare toon vi 99 da hoven par hun pata nahi chalna… Mainu Hadali vich dafan karna.”
“I asked him to demand less advance on rent because people can’t really pay much upfront,” that was my grandfather telling me about his interaction with the guy who manages the financials of a house in Kasur on behalf of an uncle.
The manager, who also works at a bank, asked my grandfather in a tone the ‘educated’ people take when they want to shun an argument: “Tusi kinna parhay ho?”
“I told him that that was besides the argument and also that I learned Gurmukhi—Babe Nanak da ilam—before Pakistan came into being…”
That’s when I intervened, “What! You know Gurmukhi?”
“Yes, I learned it from a cobbler,” was his reply that demanded further explanation which followed without I having to ask: “It’s the story from before the partition. He was singing something from a page when, passing by, I remarked: I can recite it better had I knew how to read.”
“‘Why not learn?’ asked the cobbler but I told him it was probably too late, I was already 18. ‘No, it isn’t,’ he said and asked me to bring some sand. He then taught me how to write the letters. We didn’t have pen or blank papers to practice. Sand was my tablet, index finger my pen. He taught me all of it: oora, eera, eeri, sassa, hahha. Long story short, within a month I was able to read Gurmukhi text.”
“And numbers up to a hundred,” he added after a while.
Because straight answers are too mainstream in the rest of the world, Lahoris will likely give you a humorous or sarcastic one.
Just this morning, I went to the service center of my smartphone brand which, according to Google Maps, was on the very famous “mobile market” on the Hall Road. Failing to locate it, I asked a phone retailer if he knew where the service center was. He told me that they have moved to the ‘larnass’ (lawrence) road. Acting like a clueless Isloo boy, I further asked: “road de utte hi hai ya aale duale hai kite?” (Is it right on the road or somewhere nearby?)
“Chhad vi aaiye?” (Shall I take you there?) he replied.
Before leaving on this Philippines trip, I had tried to read a little about the people and their culture. One of the few things that stood out were ‘hiya’ (sense of shame), ‘amor-propio’ (avoidance to losing face), and not saying an outright ‘no’ because of the former two.
I don’t know if other attendants of the conference knew this. I told them about ‘the Filipino time’ (more on that later) but that was about it. But now on my last day in the Philippines when I look back at the time spent here, I can see these values were at work many a times.
When, for example, others who had a day to the flight after the conference asked two Filipino girls, from the host organization, to accompany them to a volcano and to a beach. They didn’t say no. They just couldn’t.
When, after spending a long evening talking about all things writing, poetry, and Philippines, La Verne couldn’t say no when I said “isn’t it too early to have dinner?” upon her suggesting we go out and eat something. It was the right time. Everything was closed by the time we went out.
And a few more times when I can recall this happening. They culturally don’t outright deny a request. Maybe this is why the rich people across the world think Filipinos make a good maid?
My pre-travel reading on Philippines had also warned about the inquisitive nature of the Filipinos and the “intrusive” questions you gets asked everywhere you go. Good thing that I don’t mind the people anywhere I go (can’t stand “the development” though, but you know that very well by now). Anyway, following is just a few of the many conversions I had which follow pretty much the same pattern but with different verdicts.
“Where you from, sir?”
“You alone, sir?”
“Where’s the missus, sir?”
“I’m not married.”
“Oh, too bad.”
(I just laugh.)
“Where are you from?”
“Ah, Pakeestani! How old are you?”
“You don’t look 30.”
“Ah, really?!” I don’t believe her.
“You are very handsome,” she says in a genuine expression.
“Aww, thank you!”
“Are all Pakistanis handsome like you?”
“Yes, very much so.” (Because I couldn’t break her heart, I lied for you.)
“Where are you from?”
“How old are you?”
“You look like a father.” (it was a kid who had taken place of her mom in the bakery.)
“I should think about that. But have you done your homework today?” why not act like a father, I thought.
My online searches had resulted in the advice to book tickets in advance for there are only four daily buses for Sagada from Baguio, the hill-station I had arrived yesterday. But who follows advice when they are young? So there I was, standing at the bus station just before 12pm after making a short tour of the city, and there was no bus for 12pm, the last one leaving at 1pm was already full. I was offered to take one of the few remaining small folding seats. A 7-hour mountainous trip lay ahead. Because I am so young and the journey was so short, I took it.
I am in the bus now. We have covered about one-third of the journey. The route is infamous for accidents. Yesterday’s ticket to Baguio was coupled with an insurance. And it’s raining cats and dogs today. The visibility is so low I can’t even see where the bus will fall if that is to happen. The big sign in the bus—Please report reckless drivers at 444-9938—doesn’t help either.
At the solidarity dinner on the last day of conference, I was introduced to an AccessNow guy as: Meet Sohail, he’s the anti-surv rockstar in Pakistan. I laughed so hard. But if I die today, don’t blame the lSl, it will be my athri jawani.
It was a long long day. The bus from Manila took a good 6 and a half hours to reach this beautiful hill station of Baguio I am writing these lines from; and made quite a few stops along roads that were certainly not the highways; but I got to see three cities and numerous villages and small towns I would have missed had I taken a direct bus.
The day was a stark reminder of how I felt after leaving Bangkok to see the rest of Thailand. It is a different country once you step out of the infamous capital. Philippines, too, begins after Manila. And boy, what a beginning it has been today. It’s one surprise after another.
Philippines is a pretty neat country. Everything—from the entrances of the villages to the countless churches to the local markets—is so tidy. The landscape, on top of that, is beautiful, very beautiful.
I am already feeling for the large number of Filipinos working in the service industry throughout the world. You have no idea what they have to leave to provide for their families.
Manila was hazy the day we arrived. It’s the 3rd day today. Manila is still hazy. It rains a little in the evening at irregular intervals. Every day. Nothing to worry about but still a good idea to carry an umbrella.
The workshop is over now. It was great. The hotel we were staying at was great. Three malls in the vicinity were also great. Lots of shops, big brands, food, and entertainment. Like the malls are.
There were 12 of us from 6 countries. Each of us was swiftly escorted to the hotel as soon as we landed at the Manila airport. That’s where we have mainly spent the three days so far, except for the dinner outside last night and the post-dinner trip to a bar with live music. Most of us are leaving Philippines tomorrow. A car will take us to the airport and we’ll be back in our countries.
That’s what these official trips are about. Great work, great hotels, great food, great shopping, but no or few genuine experiences. There’s no need to feel envious. Pity us. Pity us who have to go through this just to be in the same room with people from other parts of the world. We shouldn’t even be allowed to check-in from these cities we travel to because we don’t. This isn’t traveling.
“This used to be the red-light area of Lahore,” I told my friend and ex-colleague, Muhammad Bilal, who had come to Lahore to be the first claimant of the offer that any of my friends who want to visit/tour Lahore can stay at my flat. We were passing through the market of musical instruments near Taxali Gate, the last leg of our heritage walk from Delhi Gate to Lahore Fort.
“Nobody knows when did the sex-trade start here but it is said that initially Mughal children were sent to this neighbourhood for schooling in the social norms,” I continued my tourist guide commentary, “But nothing of that sort exists now. There was, people say, a crackdown a decade or two ago and they had to relocate to other parts of Lahore. Now it’s just this market of musical instruments and a dance school around the corner.”
That’s when someone started walking beside us and said: “Mauj karni ae?”
“Kih?” my friend asked.
“Sohnay piece nein, vakha dene aaN.”