Imitating TV reporters, Saira swung the camera towards me: "This is your first time in Lahore. Aap kaisa mehsoos kar rahe hain (How are you feeling)?"
Pretty girls deserve some ready wit, but all I could manage was a smile. Her wide eyes revealing her irritation, and nostrils flaring in mock anger, the Lahori beauty showing us around imitated a TV journalist from India, "The Nation Wants to Know, Mr Chhabra!"
"It's all the same, yet different. I feel odd," I said. She responded with a pout that held me captive for a second, then moved to her next victim.
Odd. Thank god, the dictionary has such multipurpose words.
OFF THE STREETS
We were going for lunch to some fancy restaurant. Passing us by was the Lahore I was interested in. But stopping to buy a pack of amazingly cheap Dunhills was out of the question as our contingent of 12 Indian journalists, lawyers and academicians was a high-value target on August 14, 'their' Independence Day. We were to be 49, but many thought it wasn't the right time in view of the LoC killings. For us, the trip was all the more important to strengthen a Pak government that won on the peace plank, a first in a country run on anti-India sentiment for years.
As others discussed serious stuff, all I wanted was to walk the streets of Lahore where, in my imagination, girls giggle over 'staapu' and boys play 'chiittar killa', mothers shout after vendors, clotheslines are burdened by rows of salwar-kameez, where men play 'taash' and love professed through profanities, where Punjab still lives in all its unwashed glory.
The cocooned Lahore we got to see through bus windows was more of an impish young thing like Chandigarh than the self-assured grand old city of South Asia I'd read about.
But I am officially born now; as an old saying goes, "Jis Lahore ni dekhya, o jammya hi nai (One who hasn't seen Lahore hasn't been born)."
KEEPING US TOGETHER
As our security vehicles and the bus waded through rainwater, a joke flew from a Pakistani, "Don't go by this; we do have the atom bomb!" This ignited seminar-speak about the nuclear deterrent. There was a theory how the flooded streets signified the sixth 'darya' (river), still uniting the land of five rivers. I recall all this only now. In the moment, I was busy being happy that Hina was sitting next to me, telling me how most of her friends in Dubai - she is a five-star chef there - are Indians. I've been looking for jobs in Dubai ever since.
The bus took us to The Village. Just like the Haveli restaurant in Jalandhar or Murthal. Big difference? Beef curry.
"Le, visa and such tight security to visit a fake village? I could've gone to Abohar," I jested with the golgappe-wallah, in Punjabi. "Visa? Kyon? Tenu ki lod si?" he replied.
"Lo ji! He too thinks you're a local, or a malnourished Pathan who can speak Punjabi," our guide Imran laughed, running his slender fingers over my beard. Gay vibes I've got before, but here I was repeatedly mistaken for just another local. While the turbaned Sardars got loving Sat Sri Akals and were targets of shooting cameras, I was being asked for directions in a place my maternal grandfather had left seven decades ago.
At night we met three men in their 80s who carried Pakistani passports, lived in Chicago, were visiting relatives in Lahore but insisted they were from Phillaur near Jalandhar. "Edhar udhar da nahi je saanu pata. This border needs to lose relevance," said one, mixing Lehndi Punjabi with American-accented English. My Sardar colleague Jasdeep soon had them in splits, but the old men had jokes up their sleeves that are too meaty to be reproduced here. They drank and drank - rules of prohibition do not apply to the rich - and we had to help them to their cars. "Pher milange, puttar," they said. Inshallah.
Turning back, I noticed beyond the hotel wall a sea of young men, some women, celebrating Pak I-Day with fervour that mixed pent-up energy with patriotism. Most women did not wear burqas.
SENTI GALLAN, A SMART GAAL!
Partition's pain resurfaces at most India-Pak gatherings. At a mushaira, an old man from our contingent recalled the murder of 18 relatives. In fact, when we were coming into Lahore from Wagah, he had spotted a signboard to the village but could not go due to strict visa terms. "Why do I want to visit the village where fanatics killed my family? Why is it still home to me?" he wondered aloud.
Perhaps on cue, Sabir Ali Sabir, a revolutionary young poet, summed up the emotion of then and now in two couplets that can't be translated. Clenching his teeth, Sabir left the last line incomplete:
'Saari umar saza bhugatni paindi é,
Aksar waqton pehlan hoyian bhullaan di;
Rabb de naa te bande maari jana ein,
Tere pandit, father di, te mullan di...'