Trailing spouse. That’s what I was. I’d chucked up my job, packed up my home and decided to accompany my husband to a posting that was about to change our lives. This wasn’t just anywhere in the world, this was across the border – in Pakistan.
Was I scared? Strangely, I was never more certain of what I wanted to do. I was fascinated by the country – where my grandparents were born, the country that they had to leave behind. And while I couldn’t retrace their steps completely, what I learnt about the country changed the way I felt about it.
Based out of Islamabad, barely 12 hours from New Delhi by road, we were so close, yet so far. Especially since we were on a restricted visa, which meant we couldn’t step out of the capital city, even if our lives depended on it.
You see, we had been warned aplenty before we’d left and the advice kept rolling in even when we reached there: You’ll be under surveillance. Look over your shoulder constantly. Try not to stick out like a sore thumb. Be careful about who you meet. Don’t dress inappropriately. And for God’s sake don’t shoot off your mouth.
We needn’t have worried. For, from the time we landed in Isloo, though it was nearly midnight, it was as if the city was waiting to receive us. The first thing that struck me was that everyone was just so courteous – from the flight stewardess to the taxi driver to the hotel staff – and that everything was just so green. After all, the new city of Islamabad, at the foothills of the Margalla Hills, was made with the terrain and the weather in mind. Plus we’d landed at the end of summer and the leaves were already turning an autumnal auburn.
I had carried my dupatta with me, just in case I felt I would have to cover my head. But to my surprise I saw only a handful of women wearing the hijaab or burqa. And while salwar kameez suits were the main dress code, they were worn so trendily, that I instantly wanted to go shopping. Over the next couple of months I learnt that pants and jeans were just as easily a part of their wardrobe as they were ours.
So, were we tailed from the moment we touched down? Yes, of course we were. We were followed when we went to buy cleaning supplies for the house, followed when we went to the bank to open an account, and followed especially when we headed out to meet people. And yet, the people who tailed us were polite and non-intrusive.
As we learnt to recognise them and greet them each time we saw them, they just became part of who we were. We realised that it was a lot easier leading a transparent life, over that of secrecy, only because they’d get to know everything in any case. The walls really have ears here.
But that didn’t stop me from exploring and meeting new people. In fact, one of the first things I did was trawl the Internet to find out what happened in the city. And you’d be surprised at what I learnt.
FOOD = FRIENDS
I learnt that Islooites love their cars and that the underground racing circuit was buzzing! Late into the night you could hear cars whizzing past only to find out they were racing. I also learnt that Pakistanis love food, which is perhaps why every couple of blocks you’d see new restaurants opening every couple of weeks. How good they were was slightly suspect, but as the weeks turned into months, we picked out our favourites.
My love for food took me down another path. I found out all about the farmers’ market that had just about started. Fresh herbs, organic vegetables, local artisanal cheese, beautiful flowers and enough home-baked goodies to stock up for the rest of the week. That’s where I made my first few friends and got talking about all things food.
As a regular to the market, I was soon asked if I’d like to cook there each week. I jumped at the opportunity – I could experiment with the seasonal produce and give out samples to people.
I met some of the nicest people at the market, people who I’m proud to call my friends, people who made a difference to my life. But that didn’t mean the surveillance ended there. Every once in a while one of the ‘bhais’ as they were fondly called, would come to the market and then “surreptitiously” take my photograph on their mobile phone cameras.
Which brings me to the part about how our phones were tapped. To be honest, I found it quite amusing that they felt I was important enough to have my phone wired, considering most of my conversations bordered on girly issues and planning a family wedding. It was quite something when we realised that the authorities knew where we were going even before we got there.
Despite that, we ended up going out almost four times a week. There were social occasions we’d be invited for, dinners at people’s homes, and regular curious visits to places that had been recommended to us. I also ended becoming part of the Islamabad’s Supper Club and hosted the first-ever dinner of full-fledged Kerala cuisine.
But it didn’t just stop there. I realised there was a segment of Pakistan so steeped in culture that some things just had to be done. For example, the vibrant theatre scene included watching the performances of the local production house, Insolent Knights, and the productions of the acclaimed playwright Anwar Maqsood. And a bharatanatyam recital, which ran to a packed house.
But the real deal was at people’s homes. This was where Abida Parveen took centre stage. This was where the qawwal Sabri brothers performed. I was lucky enough to be invited to listen to their goosebump-inducing Sufi music.
It’s true when they say that it’s the people who make the country, not the government. We got to see that. It’s true when they say that there are many Pakistans within Pakistan. Because we got to see that too.
I got to see a Pakistan that wasn’t all bombs and shooting (although they were several of those incidents while we were there). I got to see a Pakistan that my grandparents talked about – of benevolence, of giving, and of an era that seems almost forgotten.
From HT Brunch, August 3
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