Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Nilofer’s Pakistan and mine

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This article appeared in The News on Sunday sometime in March or April 2007 and it is still very pertinent. Nilofer, my grand-niece, is now twelve years old.

Nilofer Rolston is a delightful five year-old who lives in Toronto, Canada. She is my grand-niece who, along with her brother Jibraeel (age seven); I met for the first time last winter. There was a little confusion about the word ‘Mamu’ for they have one in Canada and I, much older, had suddenly materialised from a place called Pakistan. But in the end we all agreed that I could also be Mamu to them – just like I am to their mother and to their real Mamu. In the two weeks I spent with them we had good fun and the bonding was complete.

I recently received a little drawing from Nilofer. One side of the paper says, in that large scrawl typical of any five year-old just beginning to learn the secrets of the written word, ‘Dear Mamu I hope you have a good tine (sic) in Pakistan love Nilofer.’ No punctuations, nothing; but the message is full of love and feeling.

The other side has a banner reading PAKISTANS on top. Below it is a radiant sun next to which a rainbow casts a joyful light on the landscape of three flowers – yellow, turquoise and blue – and two smiling faces. That is the way young Nilofer sees Pakistan: a country of smiling people, sunshine and rainbows coloured by the glory of myriad flowers. Her Pakistan is a joyous, blissful country. The charming, untainted innocence of my grand-niece took me to a time when this country actually was as she depicts it. And it was not because all was good and well with the new Pakistan. It was radiant sun and rainbows and smiling faces because there was hope.

That was the Pakistan we inherited on that August day sixty years ago. People died, they became homeless, lost their loved ones, gave up the hearths that carried the warmth of fires kindled by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of generations of mothers, abandoned the courtyards that bore the memories of as many generations of elders passing down family lore and set out on a harrowing trek down a road where one-time friends waited with honed blades to shed their blood and prevent their passing to a new home in Pakistan. They parted from the graves of their forefathers – a hard thing to do – with the hope of living in a new country where all would be well.

And the 1950s were indeed a period of hope – despite the bumbling politicians, over-ambitious bureaucrats and blundering generals (these latter yet on the sidelines, but clearly meddling). There was the hope, albeit among a few idealistic people, of building up a great country. Isn’t it Hector Bolitho in his Jinnah of Pakistan who is full of admiration for the hundreds of men who gathered to put a derailed locomotive back on its tracks with their bare-hands? This was at Jungshahi near Thatta and the people were all Sindhis who we were later to condemn as something less of Pakistanis than us patriotic Punjabis. That was the country and the nation we were back in those heady days.

But we (or the politician-bureaucrat-general troika) did everything wrong. Within a few short years we set the pace for the ceding of Bangladesh by not permitting the Bengalis to form the government when they had won the majority. For the vested interest of one man (who fell shortly afterwards to the assassin’s bullet) we imported new mohajirs and sowed the seed for endless trouble in Karachi.

My earliest memories of living in Lahore go back to 1957 that was when I was the same age as Nilofer today. On the inside cover of an old copy of Divan e Ghalib owned by my father from those days, there is a picture of a house with a gabled roof, windows on two floors and a path leading up to the front door. On either side of the path there are trees and potted flowering plants and in the background a radiant sun setting in the V of a mountain range. Atop the house there is, fluttering in the wind, a flag of Pakistan with its crescent and star. I did not see Pakistan then very differently from the way Nilofer sees it now.

My Pakistan was Lahore and the Grand Trunk Road to Rawalpindi. It was also Chicho ki Mallian, a little village near Sheikhupura, where the family owned some agricultural land. My Pakistan was a country of Sunday outings to the farm and seeing lotuses blooming in the ditches alongside the road that whizzed past the speeding car and anglers fishing in the turbid waters of the Degh Nadi or the canal or two we crossed. My Pakistan was also country roads that were a tunnel of green shaded by the wonderful acacia and pipal in which golden orioles sang and weaver birds nested. It was also the Grand Trunk Road with its banyan trees that spread so wide that people parked their cars under them to get away from the hail stones coming down as large as chicken’s eggs.

My Pakistan was Durand Road and Davies (that’s how it is spelled!) Road and Elgin Road in the cantonment that we now call Sarwar. And it was also cycling up all the way from Durand Road and watching the flights of hornbills above. My Pakistan was also a country where I, no more than five, ran across the road to stop the birdman who sold colourful avadavats. In the bargain I got hit my a car and in my Pakistan the kindly driver who had seen me dashing out of the gate and barely managed to stop, brought me home in his arms. There was only a slight bruise and in my Pakistan the man was given a glass of water and asked if he would like a cup of tea as well. He was also told to put himself at ease as I was none the worse for wear and it was entirely my fault for not watching the road.

In my Pakistan of the decades preceding the 1970s people cared. In my Pakistan of the late ‘50s the FC College bridge was a part wooden, part concrete structure where my uncle used to take us kids sometimes for a drink. In those days we only had Coca-Cola and the bottles came from a tin box filled with ice (and not a freezer) kept by the khokha-wallah a few yards down toward the college gate.

In my Pakistan of sunshine and smiling faces there was the speeding car coming up from Gulberg and I sitting on the railing of the bridge with my Coke. As the car came abreast I held up the bottle and screamed, ‘Have a Coke!’ The car made a fast turn on Canal Bank in the direction of Jail Road, screeched to a halt and came roaring back in reverse. ‘Thank you!’ said the man at the wheel and with rubber burning sped off again.

In that Pakistan we used to sleep outside in summer. On cool white sheets, charpais laid on a brick-paved drive cooled by a sprinkling of water with the old pedestal fan sending out a very storm of wind we would lie to a grand vista of stars above. That was when I was first introduced to red Betelgeuse and Aldebaran and blue Rigel and also to Mars and Jupiter and Saturn by my father. In the thickets around the walls and in the far reach of the garden, fireflies flashed on-off, on-off as if to lull us to sleep.

We used to sleep outside without a chowkidar guarding us and no fear for the armed dacoit who would come to rape and loot in the dark of night. The worst was the oil-slicked, loin-clothed thief who would climb the roof, tie a rope to the bar across the ventilator and slip down the rope unseen into the house while everyone dreamed on outside. All he would take would be some clothes and pantry appliances.

In the magical pre-dawn light the sound that woke me up was either the screeching parakeets feeding in the neem or the pipal or the rhythmic roar of the lion in the zoo. In a straight line the zoo was perhaps just a mile from our Durand Road home and the King’s roar carried. I also heard it in the dark of early morning in winter as I lay in the quilt contemplating the cold. Those were days when midwinter mornings meant a lawn covered with frost and the garden hose frozen solid so that when you turned it own, the ice broke through the other end with a crackling sound.

My country in the decades preceding the 1970s was a country where girls could cycle around freely. It was country where holding hands – not men but woman and man – did not invite stoning to death. It was a country where courtesy was not a sign of weakness, where bribing a policeman was done discreetly and people yet had the shame to not flaunt ill-begotten wealth, regardless that they referred to it as Allah’s Bounty – Allah di Rehmat. That was also a country where women and men had religion in their hearts and souls and not on their sleeves or on the tips of forked tongues. The mullah had not yet launched his unholy war on religion and we were certainly better humans for we had not mastered the craft of hypocrisy that now passes for religiosity.

By 1972 we had lost half the country, but somehow hope for what was left yet lived on. For me the country of the radiant sun and rainbows and houses with the Pakistani flag atop died a little in 1977. After that the slide began. And now there is simply very little hope. An eight year-old will be flattened by a mad wagon driver before he can cycle ten yards on Durand Road; a girl on a bicycle jeered to heaven knows where. The hornbills are confined to just a few islands in Lahore for we have destroyed all those majestic pipal trees. A driver knocking down a child will be lynched and his car burnt, and no speeding driver will pause to make a child’s day with a thank you – it is just not worth it.

The stars are lost to filth in the air, the roar of the lion smothered by the blare of air pressure horns, the Degh poisoned and fireflies exterminated by a wanton use of pesticides. We now have gun-toting dacoits who flaunt their religiosity and instruct their victims to say their prayers and pay the poor-due but who think nothing wrong with robbing and killing. The country reels from one debacle to another and the sun, rainbow and smiling faces are increasingly obscured by darkness. But young Nilofer in Toronto still wants to look upon the country of her Mamu as one where the sun still shines and people smile.

What a long way young Nilofer’s priceless gift took me. Every time I hold the page with its message and drawing, I think of the country we had and what we turned it into. And I think: has it been worth it? Was this what part of my family died for in that home in Railway Road, Jullundhar on a humid August day in 1947?

Related: Another Pakistan 

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 14 August 2014 at 12:28, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow beautiful!!!! You paint with words and this piece has some of the most delicate strokes you have ever produced...Swad aa gaya.

At 14 August 2014 at 16:02, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Memoona.

At 23 March 2015 at 20:09, Blogger afatqiamat said...

My Pakistan was the Plaze B Flats... me and that cute little fairy Parsi girl sitting on the Stairs with Glass jars in one hand with Tadpoles in them , whom we considered fishes ...and in the other .. Milk glasses with RoohAfza in it...and cookies in a plate nearby ....and watching her mother draw the traditional drawing , those Parsis do front of their doors on Nouroz....and my grandmother looking at Us lovingly ... ...Sigh...
..that fairy looked just like Nilofar and I .....? I don't know....but was of the same age....

At 24 March 2015 at 09:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Afat, what an image you paint. I could just see two five year-olds on the stairs with the tadpole jar. The brightness in the eyes, the milk glasses, the cookies. I can see them all. Beautiful image. And what a great memory to cherish. That was our Pakistan.

At 24 May 2015 at 12:56, Blogger Unknown said...

This almost made me to cry.
As you written above, about the great old times, this was exactly the same country & very same lahore my father used to told me about.
I wish if i ever could be able to experience such Pakistan that has gone long ago.


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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

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