Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

We Pakistanis

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Punjabis, Pakhtuns, Sindhis, Baloch, Kashmiris and the several different ethnic groups of Gilgit-Baltistan are all part of that great horde of sub-continental people through which there runs a common thread. For want of another name, I call it our Indian-ness. Though I know only some Punjabis from across the eastern border, I suspect that folks from Trivandrum or Assam may not be very different from us in basic character traits.

Punjabis and Pakhtuns are open and amiable. They meet you and want to know everything about you from how much you earn, line of work, number of children and religious preference. And this they want to know within ten seconds of meeting you, a total stranger. Sadly, for both these people, religion since the time of the Great Incubus of the Eleven Year Long Night is to be worn on the sleeve. It has to be exhibited in the most blatant and barefaced manner. During a conversation, they will repeatedly bring religion into discussion without any context. Always, the knowledge of religion for the common man is based on hearsay or lore.

Example: Many years ago, I sat next to a computer hardware man in a coach going to Gujrat. We struck up a conversation and I asked the man questions about computers. Out of the blue, he told me how every single Arab buried all his daughters before the advent of Islam. I said that was rubbish. The man, under the impression that this was Scripture, was aghast that I was contradicting the Koran. In his late twenties, the man had never read the Koran in translation and had no idea what it said. But before I shut him up, he wouldn’t stop talking about his hearsay version of religion.

But going back to what they ask you, even if you do not tell them anything, they will still invite you home if you are on their terrain. If you pretend to be in trouble, they, especially the Pakhtun, will go out of their way to help.

Sindhis and Baloch people are quieter and keep to themselves. They could not give a damn how much you earn and how many children you have. Even after a formal introduction, they take their time getting to know you and still they do not ask probing questions. They will also not be bothered with your religious persuasion. They will invite you home only after they have full measure of you. In this the Baloch may be more inviting and generous because in his country, there are no inns and if he lets you out, you might end up spending a night under starry skies fearing wolves, vipers and witches.

There is one thing that is remarkable for the red-blooded Baloch: even today he will stand by his word. A great case is the story Prisoner on a Bus in the book of the same title. If it had been a Punjabi or Pakhtun bus crew, I would have been beaten up for rousing them so early in the morning. But since the good Baloch lot had told me we would be underway at 6.00 o’ clock, they were at least civil enough to see me off when they were late. In that same story, the conductor did not lie to me about where I could see him to collect the money he owed me. I don’t think anyone but a Baloch would have done that: the Baloch is simply not deceptive. (I know my army friends will hate me for this.) [Read the full story here]

The Baloch and the Sindhis are the most closely tied to their land. They respect the land and their culture more than the Punjabis and Pakhtuns do theirs. Even common uneducated people generally have an understanding and appreciation of Nature. The captain of our boat in Sea Monsters and the Sun God did not say rude things when we saw mating turtles. His words: ‘Yeh to mohabat kar rahe hain!’ They are making love, he said. I cannot imagine a Punjabi or a Pakhtun like that.

I hardly know the Kashmiris having travelled there only once. But the people of Gilgit-Baltistan from the east to the west are a happy, hospitable and generous lot. Anywhere in the world if you were to get into an orchard to pick fruit without permission, a hail would mean that you get the hell out. In Baltistan, Hunza, Ishkoman, Yasin or Chitral it means you are at the wrong tree. It’s the other tree with the sweetest fruit!

I first experienced this in 1986 in Hunza. In 2009, coming down from Chaprusan I said to my friend I had to show him something which I knew wouldn’t have changed in all these years. We halted at Shishkat (sadly now under the landslide lake) where two youngster were sitting by the roadside chatting. I called out to ask if we could eat some of their apricots and one of them waved an expansive arm around signaling it was all ours. As we started to pick, he called out again to go to the other tree which had sweeter fruit. Incidentally, our driver and his buddy packed two five kilogram bags right in front of the owners of the trees without a word of rebuke.

The northern people are the most civil lot. The language of educated people, even children, is so reverential it brings tears to my eyes. Janab and sahib are words that even little children will use in profusion when talking to strangers.

As for hospitality, that is universal. You find no one lacking. From the great sweep of the Karakoram Mountains through the Hindu Kush, everywhere, they will take you in for the night and rustle up a respectable meal. Back in 1986 and the year after walking solo through Chitral I came back on both occasions a few kilograms heavier. Every homestead I passed, I was hailed to stop for fruit and while we were eating that, they would bring up the parathas, fried eggs and chicken. I ended up eating up to six meals a day.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:10,


At 14 June 2013 at 11:41, Anonymous Ali Raza Zaidi on FB said...

Same time if we think Aryan invasion is true then they possibly belong to same race which came to invade this area in the later times as Afghan and current Russian states they brought nothing here.

At 14 June 2013 at 13:54, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could travel just like you. being a women in Pakistan its next to impossible

At 14 June 2013 at 14:36, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about urban rural divide? I was born and raised in Lahore and am married in and now living Qadaraabd that is not very far from Lahore. People at both places behave differently. In any big cities, folks are more self centered and keep to themselves than rural folks. Rabia Murad

At 15 June 2013 at 11:50, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Your observation on the rural-urban divide is sharp. There is a difference, but even in our cities people will still extend a helping hand when they see one is needed.

At 21 June 2013 at 17:00, Anonymous Sidra Ashraf on Twitter said...

That is a beautiful piece, Sir! I couldn't agree more about the northern people being most amiable and hospitable.

At 22 June 2013 at 11:36, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much, Sidra. I have never met kinder, gentler and more hospitable people anywhere.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days