Saturday, 19 July 2014

Best Spring Seats 1

                “One of my fantasies in my life has been that I was granted access with a    
                  camera to go back in time, and to film the actual campaign of Alexander
                  crossing into India through Iran and Persia.”
                                                                                                       Oliver Stone

The green lushness outside the dilapidated bus distracted my agitation with the brown leering inside. According to the karma of past actions, one’s Destiny unfolds.
Mine unfolded a map of the two countries straddling the Punjab. By the time our bus arrived at the frontier, we were the only ones on it.
“Welcome to PIA Flight #1, from Lahore to No Man’s Land.” Said the Pakistani official, stamping us out. He was stoned, and offered us a favorable black market rate for our rupees. We crossed between the trenches to a table of three seated giants, full bearded immigration officers, wearing double patti saffron turbans, and steel bangle karas on their wrists. They could have passed for a Sikh version of the three mystic monkeys of Confucius. Their nametags all read ‘Mr. Singh.’
“Is this India?” Robyn asked. When they bobbled in unison, I swear the music played in my head.

                               “Singh, Singh, Singh, everybody start to sing,
                                 Like dee dee dee, bah bah bah dah
                                 Now you're singin with a real good swing.”

They stamped our passports, and invited us to sign the guestbook.
‘It’s good to be here.’ I wrote, and meant it.
We boarded a bus for Amritsar, which baked for an hour before the driver materialized. He took two hours to drive the twenty-two kilometers, our first trip along the Grand Trunk Road. There were more passengers on top of the bus than on it, and there was no word for ‘hurry’ in Hindi.
We stepped down into the Sikh spiritual center, the ‘Pool of the Nectar of Immortality.’ Amritsar had been founded by Guru Ram Das in 1574, on land he bought for seven hundred rupees from the owners of Tung village. It had a small pool in a dense forest, later to become a temple of gold. Like Manhattan. Amritsar’s narrow streets evolved inside a central wall in the 17th century, with unique defensive residences, called katras. Some of the worst communal riots during Partition occurred here, between all the other massacres. Amristsar was the furthest eastern point of Alexander the Great’s conquests. Coenus, one of his staunchest generals, had told him to. ‘Sir, if there is one thing above all others that a successful man like you should know, it is when to stop.’
I headed in the wrong direction off the bus, but Julie and Robyn dragged me back up the hill and past the station yard, down below a traffic circle, to the Tourist Guest House.
“Tony Wheeler sent you.” The manager said, welcoming us with a Guru beer, and a clean room with high ceilings and an ‘entertainment console.’ The only thing that worked, however, was the sign, and that only worked to provide false hope. We showered and set off, past the beggars and chaos, to the A/C Kwality Restaurant, at the end of Lawrence Road. The manager was Mr. Singh. His waiters were dressed in black and the cook was sitting over huge pans of boiling milk, and frying puris and round rings in pure ghee. There were large glasses of buttermilk, spinach with cheese, curried vegetables, rice, and contentment.
Two discoveries were waiting, back at our guesthouse. The first was that my dysentery had dysappeared. There was something about Islam, and remembering to use your right hand in the kitchen and your left in the toilet, that was fundamental in fostering the flux. For the first time since landing in Karachi, I wasn’t up all night because of diarrhea. The second observation was that, despite every possible placement of our two floor fans, I was up all night because of the mosquitoes.
Robyn and Julie had Vegemite on their chapatis next morning. I held my nose, and ordered an omelette. Two man-powered rickshaws pulled us through the dense oriental bustle of the narrow streets, to the magnificence of the Harmadir Sahib gudwara, the Golden Temple of Guru Ram Das.
Entering through one of the four exterior portals, Robyn received a headscarf, and I a dhoti, to cover my legs. We left our shoes to wash our feet in marble pools, and descended the inlaid steps through the Darshani Deorhi Arch, along and between the golden lanterns lining the causeway, to an exotic serenity- the gold-plated ‘Abode of God,’ perched on a marble finger, projecting out into the sacred ‘immortal nectar’ Sarovar pool - Dumballa turbaned warriors with quarterstaffs, and women in multi-colored saris, offered clasped palms of welcome. Halfway back around the marble terrace we met a young Sikh scholar, who invited us into a huge hall decorated with frescos and gemstones, filled with four long rows of sitting pilgrims. A short incantation was followed by warm chapatis dropped into our hands, and bowls of dhal. Sitar, tabla and musical wails reverberated off the rectangular lake.
An ethereal scene like that just wasn’t meant to last. Less than a year later, the calm and tranquility we experienced was shattered. Indira Gandhi’s infantry, artillery, and tanks and armored vehicles launched an offensive known as Operation Blue Star. The fierce fighting that ensued killed 83 soldiers and 492 civilians, and severely damaged the holiest ‘Abode of God’ of the Sikhs, and burnt down the library. She was trying to kill separatists. Instead, many more were created. Four months later, she was murdered by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
In the late 1980s, there were two additional military operations against the Golden Temple, named Operations Black Thunder. Sometime before the black and blue, I bought a silver kara outside a golden temple, as a souvenir of the serenity I had found inside.
“It will remind you to always carry out righteous deeds and actions.” I remember the vendor saying. But it no longer fits over my hand.
Julie met Robyn and I under a billboard illustrating the electromagnetic bridge between Heaven and Earth. It didn’t seem to have an earthly purpose. We walked less than five minutes to the site of another tragedy. On the 13th of April, 1919, hundreds of unarmed defenseless Sikhs were mown down by twenty minutes of continuous rifle fire, on an order from Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was a colonial endgame example of less than zero tolerance. The memorial would have been more poignant without the pruned shrubbery, sandstone rocket ship monolith, and circled bullet holes.
Our evening dissolved into games of chess and scrabble, and my soft mournful harmonica on the dark empty streets, just before midnight.
The guesthouse manager waited with us, so it wouldn’t miss us. We were waved on so quickly, the bus barely stopped. I hung onto seat number six, near the door. The trip would take two drug-crazed Sikh drivers sixteen miserable hours of death-defying curve bending and incessant Indian nyah-nyah music, broken only by the occasional supplement microphoned karaoke of their assistants, and long rest stops in the middle of nowhere. If you could find any middle of nowhere in India. And you could, in the direction we were heading. For we were traveling north, to the Land of Kashyap Mar, the land desiccated from water. Kashmir.

                   “Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
                     I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been...
                     When I see, when I see the way, you stay...
                     Let me take you there. Let me take you there.”
                                                                                  Led Zeppelin, Kashmir

Friday, 18 July 2014

Mound of the Dead 3

                       “He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah      
                         on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House,
                         as the natives call the Lahore Museum... Who hold Zam-Zammah, that
                         'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze
                         piece is always first of the conqueror's loot.”
                                                                                                      Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Lahore is at least two thousand years old, and has been invaded, at one time or another, by almost everything that moved in middle Asia- the Shahi in the 11th century, the Ghaznavids in the 12th, the Ghurids in the 13th, the Mughals in the 16th, the Sikhs in the 18th, the British in the 19th, and an Australian, Kiwi, and Canadian trio in the 20th. Of all of the occupiers, the most recent were also the most desperate.
The Lahore YMCA was built in 1876, to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. We arrived by rickshaw to meet the corpulent Christian custodian, who provided us with three orange sodas, and a wait of as many hours. When it became clear that our room was still not going to be ready for several more hours, he let us into another, for ‘refreshment.’ I used my knife to auger the rust out of the holes in the shower rose. It provided just enough anemic brown water to double bend the legs of the iron tub beneath it, and spill a soapy lake onto the bathroom floor.
Somewhat revived, we emerged for a corrosive curry at the Pak Tea House, a venerable old intellectual café more renown for the Urdu poetry meetings of the literary Halqa-i-Arbab-e-Zouq ‘Circle of the Men of Good Taste’, than anything good tasting. We wrote postcards, and returned to the YMCA. Our room was ready. It took all that time to clean because it was the size of a basketball court. It needed be that big, to let the curry monster out.

                                “Young man, there's no need to feel down.
                                  I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
                                  I said, young man, 'cause you're in a new town...
                                  It's fun to stay at the YMCA...”

Our first stop next morning was to buy more toilet paper. Rudyard Kipling, in a dispute with his American publisher, handwrote the text of his satire, Putnam, on toilet paper, with chapters on ‘Explosion’ and ‘Exhaust.’ It was going to be a Rudyard Kipling kind of day. His novel, Kim, was set in the vicinity of the Lahore Museum, and Rudyard’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, had been one of the earliest and most famous of its curators.
Inside the Mughal-Gothic building, among the collections of doorways and musical instruments, and jewelry and coins, textiles and pottery, and arms, was a stunning display of Gandharan sculpture, and one in particular that changed my view of Buddism forever. If there ever was a convergence point where East and West actually met, it would have been here, where Alexander the Great conquered this ancient kingdom in the vale of Peshewar, and where his Greek soldiers intermarried into a Buddhist civilization that lasted another fourteen centuries. My previous mental image of Buddha had been the jolly fat cartoon Chinese kitchen Buddha, but here, in the Lahore Museum, was a realistic Bactrian Greek statue of an emaciated bearded Siddhartha.
The blue schist stone Fasting Buddha was an image of extreme asceticism and renunciation. My own asceticism was the direct result of my stomach’s renunciation of corrosive curry, but the pain and suffering in his sunken eyes was not dissimilar to my own. He looked like a starving spider, caught in his own web of bones and sinew and shawl. He was magnificent.
Kipling waited outside the museum as well. The Zamzama was a large bore cannon, now also called ‘Kim’s gun.’ It was cast in 1757, from the copper and brass kitchen utensils requested from the residents of Lahore by Shah Wali Khan, prime minister in the reign of the Aghan King Ahmed Shah Durrani. One of the Persian insciptions calls it ‘a destroyer even of the strongholds of heaven.’ The Zamzama is over fourteen feet long, and it’s name means ‘fire-dispensing dragon,’ a term now borrowed by local men to describe other sorts of prowess.
After fire-dispensing the remnants of the previous day’s corrosive curry monster we took a rickshaw to the old Lahore Fort, over twenty hectares and thirteen gates of Shahi Qilais citadel, dating from before the emperor Akbar. I stood on his Diwan-e-Aam balcony, in front of which a thousand year old gold coin had been unearthed, twenty-five feet below the lawn. The place was that old. Six hundred years after someone dropped the gold coin, Shah Jahan added the Shish Mahal Hall of Mirrors Palace, the Moti Masjid Pearl Mosque, and the Diwan-e-Khas Hall of Special Audience.
But it was his Shalimar Gardens, for which the Express that brought us here was named, with its three terraces of Pleasure, Goodness, and Life, designed to mimic the Islamic paradise of the afterlife described in the Koran, that Lahore remembers him best for. In Persian, Shalimar means ‘Abode of Love.’ What else could it have meant? The Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir, created by his predecessor Jahangir, would soon have more meaning.
When the British arrived at the citadel, they demolished the southern wall, in an attempt to defortify the Fort and the mythology that persisted. Their attempt, as the conductor in Rohri had remonstrated, was ‘incomplete.’
We followed the inlaid courtyard through to the gardens, and the open expanse of the Badshahi Mosque. The Moghul emperor Aurangzeb built it over a two-year period in 1671. You can see it from fifteen kilometers away. Capable of accommodating over 95,000 worshippers, it was still the largest mosque in the world during our visit in 1983. We climbed one of the minarets for the view and the vertigo.
A rickshaw pedaled us back to the ‘Y’, and the smooth soporific cycling lulled us all into a new magnanimity and forgetfulness. We tried a different chicken dish back at the Pak Teahouse.
The night was invaded by the masala monster and, at one time or another, by almost everything that moved in middle Asia. It didn’t matter. The next destination was only twenty miles and two hours away, and we were leaving the next morning. Three years from a field of buttercups, and my first ride, I was heading for the jewel in the crown.

                            “This is a brief life, but in its brevity it offers us some splendid
                              moments, some meaningful adventures.”
                                                                                            Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Mound of the Dead 2

                    “Asia is not going to be civilized after the methods of the West. There is
                      too much Asia and she is too old.”
                                                                                               Rudyard Kipling

The baby-blue beekeeper, sitting across from us in the crowded heat of our half-ton, couldn’t have been smiling behind the mesh. Julie and Robyn stared too. Dressed in full metal niqab, playing goalie for Team Mohammed, she was our first introduction to the veiled threat of Islamic influence on women in Pakistan. The next lesson was coming inside the waiting rooms at the railway station in Larkana, the Eden of Sind. But first we had to negotiate around the camels, off through the driver’s ludicrous ransom demands, and onto a more commodious government van.
We were actually going to Lahore, but you couldn’t get there from Quetta directly, only 700 kilometers away, because of the Sulaiman Range. All northeast-bound trains needed to first travel south, over 350 kilometers to Rohri, before turning north to Punjab, and the Khyber Pass. Mohenjo-daro had been on the way.
The next train to Rohri wouldn’t leave Larkana station for another six hours. The chief local object of interest, outside the station’s first class waiting room, was the tomb of Mir Shahzaib Khan Jalbani, but we needed to get out of the blast furnace, and the girls were all rubbled and bobbled out.
The chief local object of interest, inside the station’s first class waiting room, was about to be me. While Robyn and Julie slumbered on rattan, I spent the time killing flies, drinking mango juice, and cursing the temperature and the country. Inevitably, as my stupor got the better of my torpor, I lost my battle with the flies. Much later, when the girls were out trying to buy our onward tickets, the crashing door startled me awake.
“What is going on here?” It shrieked. I detected that something wasn’t happy, in the rapid ascent to consciousness. My vision picked up an indignant railway official on the perimeter, head bobbling in overdrive. Outside the screen door, was a screen wall of baby-blue beekeepers.
“This first class waiting room is a ladies first class waiting room.” He fumed, gritting his teeth in righteous indignation, protector of the faith, hero among infidels. There would be no defiling the sanctity of the separation of the sexes on his watch.
“Where’s the first class mixed waiting room?” I asked.
“Don’t be so foolish. There is no such thing.” He spat, incredulous at my ignorance. I had been totally prepared to be accommodating, but the ‘foolish’ part was hurtful, and unnecessary. I put my legs back up on the rattan, and pulled my red baseball cap, back down over my eyes.
“Well, I’m not leaving my friends, so you’ll just have to find one.” I muttered.
His screams drew a crowd of spectators. Julie and Robyn’s faces reappeared among the beekeepers. I had just trumped the tomb of Mir Shahzaib Khan Jalbani. Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.
Clearly, some form of mediation was required. It arrived in the form of the local doctor, stethoscope dangling, divining for rapprochement. I apologized for taking him away from his duties, and the railway official and I made peace. Julie and Robyn celebrated with me, across the street, with coconut ice cream, another mango juice and six raw eggs, which I set to boiling on our return to the platform.
Larkana had not quite finished with our lesson in Pakistani railway etiquette, however. There was still the matter of securing the right onward tickets from Rohri, and the main leg of the long journey to Lahore. For this we were required to meet the station manager, and for this, after sundown, we were required to wait the appropriate amount of deferential time, in his antechamber. When enough spectators had joined us, we were ushered into his office.
He was a short, moustached man, greased between the last few whisps of hair glued to his head, shining under the fluorescent light. Geckos sprinted behind him, catching and eating flies. Bureaucracy had been both kind and cruel to him. This was his universe, and he needed us to appreciate his omnipotence within it. He leaned over his collection of glass orb paperweights to find his lighter. Leaning back into his chair, he pulled a long drag from an Embassy cigarette.
“You are wanting to train to Lahore.” He exhaled. It was an authoritative statement, a sign of his understanding our request. I hadn’t realized that ‘train’ was a verb. Our heads bobbled in unison. In exchange for my commitment to future enhanced cultural sensitivity, he provided us with bad information, and worse ticketing.
We boarded through the spectator steam on the platform to the prying pressure cooker confines of our third class carriage. There was no relief from the heat, or the invasiveness of the staring moustaches. As the train lurched to life, one of the outside onlookers sang a song, and another threw a toffee into my lap. I unwrapped it, as we crawled out of Larkana. It was another lump of hashish. I looked back at smiling teeth. If these people would have just stopped throwing all the other stuff at us, they could likely have dispensed with the railyard formalities.
It was a hot, drenching, stinking, miserably slow, black trip. At every stop we stumbled out onto the tracks, gasping for whatever was available in the way of air. Three hours later, we detrained in the Indus floodplain town of Rohri, and humped our packs the length and breadth of the station, looking for our carriage on the overnight Shalimar Express. The conductor told us our documents were ‘incomplete,’ and directed us to the ticket office.
“You must go to the Reservation Office.” Bobbled the vendor behind the bars. We went to the Reservation Office. It was padlocked. The whistle sounded on the Shalimar. We looked at each other, and ran back the length of the train to the one conductor we could see near the engine.
“There are only first class sleepers left.” He said. We looked at each other again.
“Good enough.” We said in unison. A friendly assistant helped Robyn and Julie onto the train, while I settled with the conductor. A few moments later, I heard a thwack and a wallop, and the friendly assistant jumped off the coach running, holding his face. The girls told me he had helped himself to breasts and bottoms while showing them where to
stow their packs. In exchange, he received a commitment to future enhanced cultural sensitivity.
There was a lot happening within the edges of my upper berth but, despite the growl of the ceiling fans, and the clanking of the traintracks through the deep corrugations of my rattan mat, I slept like the mound of the dead.
An attendant woke us for breakfast at sunrise. He asked if we would like to change to a sitting car. We asked him why. His head bobbled.
“Air conditioning.” He said. Not a few moments later, we were consuming bad fried eggs, bread, butter, jam and chai, and basking in the breeze from the machine. The Seven-up was complimentary.
Kurt Cobain used to say that he’d rather be dead than cool, but Kurt didn’t die in Pakistan. In the early morning aircon of a first class carriage, on the Shalimar Express to Lahore, he might have found Nirvana.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Mound of the Dead 1


                               “Speed the soft intercourse from soul to soul,
                                And waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole.”
                                                                     Alexander Pope

The owls glared down on us from the rafters. Squadrons of mosquitoes raided the steamy darkness between us. Despite our fatigue, it was impossible to sleep. We had arrived in a backwater shell of a railway station around 3:30 am, draping the clumsy bone weariness over our packs, impatient for the dawn. A large sonorous adenoid snored loudly on a broken rattan recliner, in the middle of the cement platform.
Robyn prodded me more awake at first pale gray light, pointing to the moustached brown man in the powder blue pajamas, wearing a green shawl, and an iridescent Sindhi pillbox hat with a cutout forehead.
“They sent a limo.” She said, pointing to the battered red horsecart he was standing beside. The cartwheels were splayed, and retreaded with bits of nail-on bicycle tire. The tiny gaunt horse in the harness looked a bit the same way.
“Mohenjo-daro?” I asked. He bobbled his head from side to side, almost imperceptibly.
“Is that a yes?” Asked Julie.
“Oh, most definitely.” It was the adenoid, now awake. “The listener is in agreement, and has no problem with the message currently being conveyed.”
“Is that a yes?” Asked Robyn.
It wasn’t as if we had a choice of transport. We all piled into the back of the cart with our backpacks. The cartwheels splayed some more. The little pony sighed. He knew that we were thirteen kilometers from our destination. No one told us.
A whipcrack lurched the cart into the dim daybreak.
Our eyes became fixed on what was filling the horizon. It started as a perfect curved glob of red lava, pushing away the sky. It rose magnificent, a smooth molten discus, tethers falling away, buoying itself over the rice swamps and sandpipers and water buffalo and three exhausted travelers. I remember the exact azimuth, the precise angle at which the leading edge of the red ascendant star suddenly gleamed white, like the scimitar it was to become. Solar flares cartwheeled off the sun’s surface. The sauna shockwave of heat that hit us broadside nearly unloaded our carriage. The sweat that poured out of us, left in so much of a hurry, as if to have never existed. And it wasn’t yet seven o’clock in the morning.
The highest temperature ever recorded in Pakistan was 53.5 °C (128.3 °F), in Mohenjo-daro. It was not only the hottest reliably measured temperature ever recorded in the continent of Asia, but also the fourth highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. It didn’t seem like Earth. It seemed like Mercury. No one told us. The little pony sighed.
As if sensing our discomfiture, our driver stopped at a stick and burlap kiosk, adorned with a string of tiny green pennants, above a giant aluminum kettle. The smell of shit was strong.
“Chai?” He bobbled. We bobbled back.
We were served cups of pure sugar. Liquid was obviously in short supply. It turned our thirst into pain, and our mouths to ash. Our pony plodded on, penetrating the stifling heat, to the ruins. Everything was closed. We weren’t taking prisoners anyway. Dropping our packs behind the open counter at the museum entrance, we climbed anergically to the stupa.
“What did this place die from, anyway?” Asked Julie.
“No one really knows.” I said. “Some think it was flooded out. Most likely the river disappeared, it ran out of water, and settlement headed east. There’s even an outlandish theory that it was flattened by a thermonuclear explosion.”
“Put me down for that one.” Said Robyn. “We came all this way for a pile of rubble?” I explained that it wasn’t just a pile of rubble. Mohenjo-daro had been one of the largest settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the world’s earliest urban centers, contemporary with ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Crete. It was twenty-six centuries old.
“A twenty-six hundred year old pile of rubble.” She said. I accepted that fatigue was ruining their sensibilities, but I was impressed with the acres of red brick rectilinear grid structure in the Citadel and Lower City. There were assembly halls, a central market place, wells, and covered sewers. From a colonnaded courtyard, steps led down to a public bath, the clay ground now parched and cracked from the heat. Salt flowers blossomed, where the water should have been. Our lips were heading in the same direction. Mudsweat streamed down our faces, and dangled off the ends of our noses, like self-generated Chinese torture.
I mentioned that Mohenjo-daro had been successively rebuilt and destroyed seven times.
“Should have left well enough alone.” Jules muttered. I told them about the bronze statuette of a dancing girl, with her pouting lips and impudent posture, found here almost sixty years earlier. I looked up, into pouting lips and impudent postures. When the word ‘bloody’ arrived in front of the rubble, I knew it was time to go.
We retreated to the only nearby building, and the stark green lobby of the Paki Modern Hotel. The moustached brown desk clerk immediately recognized our distress, and plugged a large fan into the corner reception receptacle. We collapsed in a heap in front of the slowly twirling blades, cartwheels of cooler but not even approaching cool. He asked if we wanted something to drink. Our heads bobbled in unison. He brought us a Coca-cola, the only one they had. It was warm.
“What exactly does Mohenjo-daro mean anyway, Wink?” Asked Julie, always the inquisitor.
“It’s Sindi.” I said.
“For what?” asked Robyn.
“It translates literally as ‘Mound of the Dead.’  I said.
The fan slowed to a stop. We looked toward the desk clerk, eyes pleading.
“Chai?” He bobbled.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Rose in Every Cheek 5

                    “Will hashish help me to do that?" asked Rose with an eager look, which
                      made the young man flush...”
                                                                        Louisa May Alcott, Perilous Play, 1869

On our sixth day in Quetta, we made contact. I was sending a telegram home at the GPO, when Robyn and Julie spotted the orange and cream Bristol Lodekka bus. The small print on the side of the double-storied FLF said ‘top deck travel.’ We all climbed aboard and found Debbie and J.B., who initially wondered why a thin Canadian was also hugging them hello. The bus pulled up at the Imdad Hotel, and the rest of the day disappeared into cheese sandwiches, cold Indian beer, and explanations.
But the next morning, while the Antipodeans were at the reunion, Abdullah was at a crossroads. I was torn between my increasing enamorment with Robyn, and my plodding along my very long unusual road, as a messenger of the world invisible. I had committed to leaving for Afghanistan with the mujahideen, in just two days time.
Lala knocked on our door at the Naveed just before noon. I had also promised to visit his family, and this was the time. We took a rickshaw, through the mud and dust streets, to a dung-colored dwelling on the poor side of the tracks. He ushered me inside a simple clay courtyard with clay walls. The guy ropes of the squat A-frame tent were held down with clay bricks.
Lala’s mother ascended out of the subterranean clay floor, dressed in a snow-white cotton kalaa Afghani with hand-embroidered tombaan pants, parahaan overdress, and chaadar head covering. I still wonder how it was so white, in the brown dust of the refugee camp. I still wonder how she produced the complexities of the spiced lamb and eggplant and peppers, and the simplicity of her calm cherubic smile. We sat on thin mats and thick cushions, under the dozens of posters, wallpapering the Jihad back home.
His little sister looked Greek. She brought us yoghurt lassi ‘Afghan drink,’ and melon, and then chai. She produced a tape recorder for Lala. He pressed the ‘play’ button. And charging into the basic small space inside a tent in a courtyard of an exile camp in the desert, came the sounds of explosions and machine gun fire, the screams of dying comrades, and a singular roar of recruitment.
“Allahu Akbar!” It screamed. And Lala pointed to his chest, and stuck it out just a bit further, in bashful pride.
I didn’t know what to say, but it wouldn’t have mattered, since I couldn’t communicate to anyone in the tent, with words. Amazing how brotherhood squeezes through the language barrier, anyway. We laughed, patted each other’s shoulders, and basked in the smiling approval of his mother and sister. I thanked them sincerely, as we left to visit other courtyards and other tents, and other sad stories of displacement and asylum.
After the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Red Army in 1979, approximately ten million Afghans migrated to Pakistan, almost four million who still reside in Quetta Kuchlak, Killa Abdullah, Chaman, Pishin, Noshki, Zhob, Loarali, Muslibagh and Ziarat camps in Baluchistan. I can still taste the spices.
He came with me to the Imdad, to meet up with Jamila and Najiba and the Top Deckers. The look on their faces, when the mujahideen mountain bear Lala the Magnificent, walked into the fan-cooled hotel restaurant, was worth the price of admission. We sat for a long time over cups of dud patti cardamon chai, until I summoned the courage to tell him that I wasn’t going to Afghanistan. You couldn’t measure the disappointment in his face, but you could see it. I told him that we all had our Destiny, and I felt I needed to go with mine.
There are still times when I wonder what would have been, if I had gone with him and Habibullah and my Olympus XA rangefinder, by camel and motorcycle, to Kandahar, to shoot, or shoot at, Russian tanks. But I never saw them again. I suspect that Lala was killed at the Battle of Arghandab in 1987, but it may have been someone else. I want to believe in the worst way, that it would have just been impossible to hurt a genuine man like Lala.
Robyn and Jules and I rickshawed down to the China Café, later that evening. We sat in the front garden with Debbie and J.B. and the overlanders. There was real grass and trees, and white wrought iron tables reflecting the luminescent miniturrets of the mosque next door. Allauh Akbar echoed down into our conversation. I was reminded of clay and Arabic script, and cherubic smiles. Inside, we sat at raucous long tables, and ate several courses of Chinese food, in between dysentery diversions, until the ice cream came to the table, and we went back to the Naveed.
Robyn and Jules and I left Quetta next day. We spent the morning in the District Commissioner’s office, getting tickets for our train journey to Mohenjo-daro.
The curious crowds on the platform were suffocating. I had made the mistake of pulling out my harmonica. We sought refuge in our first class compartment. Debbie and J.B. waited for us to leave, outside our horizontal window bars. Behind them was a sea of brown heads and eyes, all fixed on our every word and action. Youth in Asia. One of them was becoming far too impertinent, and I let him know. He shook his head back and forth, threw something, and disappeared into the mob. I thought he had thrown it at me, but it was to me, and I picked it off the seat. It was black and sticky, like Vegemite, but it wasn’t. I was holding a large lump of hashish. Debbie and J.B. smiled.
“Have a good trip, Wink.” Said J.B. And the train shuddered, and began to move. We waved goodbye, and threw kisses, and were pulled along into the mountain desert scenery. We passed camel herds and troglodyte dwellings, and oases punctuated with palms, along the sinusoidal sand serpents of dry gravel riverbeds. Shafts of sunset diffused cloud-filtered spots on the craggy horizon. A humid blanket of heat and midges tucked in the corners of our carriage. We played scrabble, until the words ran out.

Monday, 14 July 2014

A Rose in Every Cheek 4

                 “I am a messenger of the world invisible...For years I have travelled by
                  sea and land, over mountains and valleys...Do not imagine that the
                  journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this
                  unusual road, for it is very long. One plods along in a state of
                  amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.”
                                                       Farid ud-Din Attar, Conference of the Birds

Quetta took its name from the Pashto word kuwatta, which means a fort. Fort. The morning after our chicken curry at the Oriental, you wouldn’t have dared spelled it with an ‘a.’
I was resting on my haunches in our private hole in the wall, when Lala arrived with a friend. I’d been there most of the morning, peeing out the wrong orifice. Lala’s friend with the dashing shalwar kameez and Gilgiti pakul cap was named Habibullah. He was the chief engineer for the Afghan mujahideen. Robyn and Julie opened the door. I heard them enter.
“Where is Wink?’ Asked Lala. The inadvertent noise I made gave away my position.
“HaHaHaHaHa.” He said, reverberating into and throughout the interior courtyard.
Habibullah brought us up to speed on the war. He was recruiting foreign photojournalists to go by motorcycle and camel to Kandahar, to shoot, or shoot at, Russian tanks. My small Olympus XA rangefinder was good enough. I was inducted. We would leave in a few days, if my dysentery didn’t kill me first. I needed more film, and an Afghan name for the mission.
“Abdullah.” He said. “Gift from God.” I could hardly wait to get home and tell my mother.
“What about us?” Asked Julie.
“Yeah, What about us?” Echoed Robyn. “We want Afghan names, too.”
“Jamila.” Said Habibullah, pointing to Julie. “Najiba.” He said, christening Robyn. Perhaps not the right word, but you understand.
Julie asked Lala if he was married. He made like he was blowing his nose in his hand, and throwing the contents on the ground. A bachelor never makes the same mistake once. She asked him if he had other family. He told us about his mother and baby sister, here in a refugee camp, and his brother in Alaska. Now that would be culture shock. We salaamed and agreed to meet again soon.
Robyn and Jules and I went out into what used to be ‘Little London,’ before all the water dried up. First, to the Habib Bank for the compulsory third world traveler’s cheque exchange experience in triplicate, and then to the Tourist Office. This one was a bit different, starting with the moustached brimless Sindi cap behind the counter.
“If you are wanting to sell your whiskey to buy hashish, I may be of service.” He said. We explained we were looking to visit some of the regional attractions.
“Perhaps you are seeking a favorable black market rate for rupees.” He added. Nope, we explained, just plain old tourists.
“Well, you certainly must be seeing and purchasing the excellent local carpets.” And he pointed us in that direction.
We didn’t get far before another sort of local expertise intercepted our trajectory. Behind his round coke-bottle lenses and long white beard, he was eighty-one years old, and a famous soccer star in his youth. He even had a signed photo of himself, although I thought the background a little more recent than his vintage would have suggested. He introduced himself as ‘Friday.’ Behind his single bottom tooth were twice as many tongues. He took us into a courtyard and, like magic, I had bought a carpet before I even realized it. When Friday left us, he forgot to use his cane.
We stopped in a small bookstore, and met Stan, an Aussie dressed as a genie, specializing in mind-altering substances. After a tentative meal of lamb and salad and apple soda at the Café Farah on Jinnah Road, Stan found my Duty Free Johnny Walker, and began an intense short-term relationship. I’m afraid my own participation pushed under the apple soda and up hard enough to cause the loss of the lamb and salad. Robyn asked me if I was sure I was a physician. We slept together as quiet as we could be, under the sheets and the Sulaiman Mountains. Destiny has two ways of crushing us - by refusing our wishes and by fulfilling them. The ceiling fan whirled above them both.
There were visitors to our courtyard quarters next morning. First came Friday, to read our palms. Apparently I had ‘fire hands.’ Not as fiery as Stan’s, who arrived next, to finish off my Duty Free Johnny Walker. When the genie was out of the bottle, he was out the door. At that point Robyn decided that I needed a haircut and produced a pair of small nail scissors from her pack. I pulled a chair out onto our interior courtyard balcony, and she began to cut. In a matter of minutes there were a hundred moustached males leaning over five stories of railings, glued to the action. Haircuts in Pakistan are, evidently, a spectator sport, passing for what, in other cultures, might have been a sexual encounter. We moved inside.
When we moved outside again, it was a circus. It actually was a circus we came across, although it was initially difficult to be sure, as it seemed at times that all Quetta was some farflung magnificent turbaned Far Pavillion sideshow, in the barren jagged mountains of Faroffistan. The lions and tigers painted on the powder blue panels above the entrance gave it away, portrayed in various poses, among the even larger handpainted portraits of the circus stars- tightrope walkers and trapeze artists, strong men and acrobats on stilts, and complete Asiatic pandemonium. Bright red banners with too much white Arabic script hung over the festivities. The food vendors were as surreal as their snacks. Disco music blared out over a stoned pair of dancers on the main stage. There were barbell weights I lifted, lighter than they looked. Admirers and applause arrived in an instant. One was a small monkey in a dress, clapping more enthusiastically that his tethered owner. I slipped away from my congregation quickly.
Later that evening, my hauteur, and the Rex Restaurant curried chicken I ate for dinner, took their revenge, and another night disappeared through our private hole in the floor.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Rose in Every Cheek 3

                         “Shining eyes, cheeks that glowed with a deeper rose each hour, and an  
                           indescribably blest expression in a face which now was both brilliant
                           and dreamy”
                                                  Louisa May Alcott, A Modern Mephistopheles, 1877

The Bolton Mail thundered on through the desert night, onto the Iranian plateau and through the Sistan Basin. We passed by the Kharan, where Pakistan had detonated her first real mushroom cloud, only five months before our arrival. But it was on beyond Quetta, and through the mouth of the Bolan Pass, where Mohammed Omar’s ‘fire and hell’ was really happening.
The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan four years earlier, and they were quickly absorbing the lessons that all previous invaders had learned. When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains, and go to your gawd like a soldier. The Russians called the tribal resistance ‘dushman,’ enemy. The name the rebels had chosen rolled off their tongues more eloquently. Mujahideen.
Robyn and Julie had stolen into my sleeper berth. I sat up, half asleep and rocking with the rails. A crescent moon carved an arc through the horizontal window bars of the dark compartment. There were no doors between the carriages. The only other light filtered back from the next one, through the framed rectangular entrance at the end of the cabin. Fade to black. I looked up in my stupor, to a halo of thin rays struggling to bend around the obstruction. Whatever it was, it was big.
At first I thought it was a bear, but I’d never seen one with a turban, wearing orange pajamas. The rest of him was all black beard and white teeth. I could hear him thinking whether he wanted to be friendly or not.
He entered the cabin, and hovered above.
“Sit down.” He ordered. I was already sitting.
“Am-er-ica goo-od?” He asked. I nodded in the affirmative. He was pleased.
“Rus-sha goo-od?” Was the next question. I had it covered. Definitely not good. His teeth were blinding.
“Come.” He ordered, pulling my elbow with a hand the size of the rest of me. We went forward through several empty cars, until we reached the Afghan enclave in cattle class. The carriage ascended to the rafters with u-shaped tiered wooden shelving, packed solid with turbans and beards and teeth and weapons. A single filament bulb swung from its ceiling cord, keeping perfect time and pitch with the tracks. I was glad I had arrived with a date. A chair was placed in the middle of the remaining floor space.
“Sit down.” Said the bear. I was already sitting. He raised an index finger to the rest of the tribe, and there commenceth the lesson.
“Am-er-ica goo-od?” He asked. You dance with the one that brung you. I knew the drill. They were pleased.
“Rus-sha goo-od?” Was the next question. I went for broke.
“No!” I exploded, cutting the air with my right hand. If teeth were the measure of success, I should have thanked the Academy. It felt good to have so many new friends.
The bear’s name was Lala, a big sweet earnest puppydog guy, who we would get to know and love in the days to come. But it was still night, and in the still night, he escorted me back to first class.
“Sleep.” He said, handing me a fistful of guavas.
“Who was that?” Robyn asked, running her fingers through my hair.
“Lala.” I said.
“What does he do?” She asked.
“Public relations.” I said. And slept.
The train continued on up towards the hills and the surreal sunrise on the copper red and russet sloped rock outcroppings and crests. We stopped for heavenly chai ambrosia at some obscure station about six am, making room for two railway guards, who shared their chickpeas and candies the rest of the way to the ‘Fruit Garden of Baluchistan.’ Time is more jagged than we remember. Beneath the brooding craggy peaks of Chiltan and Zarghun and Koh-e-Murdar, we finally pulled into the Oriental bustle and confusion of Quetta around ten thirty. There were baggy pants and big moustaches vying for our attention, but Lala took us in hand, and through the mob.
The four of us piled into a richly ornamented three-wheeled motorickshaw, packs and all. Tearing into the traffic, we two-stroked down dust roads filled with camelcarts and pushcarts and horsecarts, bicycles pulling milkcans and foodstalls, chand gari moon cars, magic buses, and other vehicles of every description. We roared along white ornamented mosques and mudbrick bazaars with cement wainscoting, corrugated tin roofs and sliding accordion doors, all trapped in a web of naked power lines. I looked around and directly into the left eye of a horse’s head that had momentarily found its way inside our vehicle. Around the next corner, our driver had his license suspended for overcrowding. It was like being fined for chaos.
There was no sign of Robyn’s sister and brother-in-law at the hotel they would be staying at, so we switched to two motorickshaws, and ningningninged and potatopotatopotatoed down Mission Road, to the interior courtyard of the Hotel Naveed. We bought Lala a Coke and he said he would return for a visit the following day. Robyn and Jules and I settled into a fifty rupee three-bed room, with a private hole in the floor. It would become a cherished possession in the next week.
We went out for chicken curry and lassis at the Orient Restaurant. Next door to our hotel, a signboard stood outside what passed for a chemist shop in these parts:

                                        “Piles Cure
                                         Hemorrhoids Cure
                                         Hemorrhage Cure
                                         Fissure Cure
                                         Fistula Cure
                                         Constipation Cure
                                         Flatulence Cure”

“I wonder why there seems to be so much emphasis on digestive problems.” Said Julie. The answer, waiting for us at the Orient, would put a rose on every cheek.