In my six years of living in London and running the international business of two movie studios, I befriended through work and otherwise, several British Pakistanis and visiting Pakistanis. My maternal grandmother had her roots in Peshawar. Somewhere deep inside me there might be a closeted Muslim, probably from a past life. So, many years back, my decision to visit Lahore wasn’t entirely unusual.
When I announced that I would be visiting Pakistan, friends and family raised their eyebrows for obvious reasons but that wasn’t going to deter me from visiting the perilous neighbour.
The process of securing a visa from the Pakistan Embassy in Delhi was arduous and daunting. On my first trip I got a reporting visa, which meant having to register with the police in Lahore upon arrival and prior to departure. Ideally, you don’t want to get caught in this excruciating jumble, so travel only if you’re blessed with a non-reporting visa.
My Pakistan adventure began on a dreadful note. PIA from Mumbai to Lahore (via Karachi) was mortifying – the antique, all-Economy narrow-body aircraft was ready to fall apart. The jumbo from Karachi was as much a culture shock – on asking, I was curtly informed that the air-conditioning would be turned on only after take-off.
Anyway, after I reached my destination (in one piece), every woe ceased to matter. The feeling of being in Lahore was indescribable. I was in THE Lahore – the soil that once belonged to India, the city where Bhagat Singh died, and where the declaration of Indian Independence was passed. In many ways, Lahore reminded me of Delhi. Everything seemed the same except the signboards in Urdu.
Unlike Karachi and Mumbai, Lahore has a sleepy vibe – it is placid and does not start functioning before noon, which means that it is wide awake till the wee hours of dawn. Lahoris are late sleepers. Everything happens behind closed doors – carousing, mujras, cards, powder and much more. The home bars are well stocked and the will to guzzle would put a fish to shame.
Truth be told, Lahoris are unequivocally hospitable. They yearn to show people how much they can love, especially if they know you’re Indian. Being there truly felt like being in a home away from home.
My thrill-junkie friend Mustafa Zahid picked me up from the hotel, near the bustling shopping haven, MM Alam Road, to make me savour what is a pet experience of several intrepid, hot-blooded Lahori lads – an adrenaline-rushing sports bike race in the freezing cold, past midnight, on an ominously quiet and under-lit road by the airport. If I remember correctly, (cricketer) Umar Akmal won the race that night, but my tilted back was ready to collapse after the virgin pillion-riding experience. At 1.30 am, we rode slowly to the Lahore Cantonment, having been invited by the lovely Sanam Taseer to her home for wine and cheese.
The Punjabi-Urdu that is widely spoken gives you the feeling of being in Amritsar, which sits adjacent to Lahore, separated by the tourist-friendly Wagah border. Being at the border was emotionally riveting. India stood a couple of hundred yards from me. It felt odd to wave out to my countrymen on the other side, but I did, with a tear in my eye. The Pakistani National Anthem playing on this side was drowned by the Rang De Basanti title track on the other. The guards from both sides paradoxically thumped their chests in perfect coordination. They ultimately shook hands as a formality and performed a synchronised lowering of flags.
Lahori food is to die for, even for vegetarians like me. My carnivorous friends swear that it is a meat-eaters’ paradise. During the day, the old city (known as androon sheher) is a treasure to traverse. With a sling bag and bottle of water, as I wandered around the chaotic noisy roads, dilapidating pre-Partition edifices, swarms of hawkers and beggars, shops and eateries crammed in among the gates to the old walled city, I had visuals of Old Delhi, Lahore’s sister city. I couldn’t help thinking about the futility of Pakistan, the two-nation theory.
The historic Badshahi Masjid in old Lahore is magnificent. Behind the place of worship, ironically, sits the Shahi Mohalla or Heera Mandi. Once renowned for its beautiful courtesans, it has swiftly deteriorated into a poor and seedy red-light district.
Thanks to (singer) Ali Zafar, I had dinner at an open terrace restaurant, overlooking the massive courtyard of the masjid, followed by a chill-out session at Yousaf Salahuddin’s sprawling legendary haveli (popularly known as Barood Khaana), which has been home to many a bohemian night frequented by the city’s movers and shakers.
I’ve been to Lahore twice. The city has a heart, a large one. It loves unconditionally and extends the warmest embrace. Often, the power goes out and you’re left in darkness, before a generator whirs to life. It’s all part of the charm.
Tanuj Garg is a film producer, travel buff and aviation enthusiast
From HT Brunch, September 4, 2016
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