The Asian Age, India
Published Date: Aug 9, 2015
Measuring Pakistan, one city at a time
Apart from the Pakistani hospitality, it is also the sheer pleasure of visiting a country where you do not feel like a stranger. It is almost as though you have walked through a mirror and found a world exactly like the one you left behind…
If anyone asks, I will have to admit that I am enjoying a rather wonderful holiday in Pakistan, disguised as a book launch and lecture tour. And with Independence Day round the corner what could be a better way to celebrate both countries?
Yes, of course, we are lecturing and talking about our books, but who could have imagined that this visit could be so stimulating, and so enthusiastically interactive? Apart from the legendary Pakistani hospitality, it is also the sheer pleasure of visiting a country where you do not feel like a stranger. Where everything seems known and familiar. It is almost as though you have walked through a mirror and found a world exactly like the one you left behind, except that the script is unfamiliar.
One of the nicest evenings with a full house bristling with TV cameras turned out to be a discussion at the Islamabad Club on my husband Meghnad Desai’s new book, Hubris: Why Economists Failed to Predict The Crisis and How to Avoid the Next One, chaired by Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s national adviser on security and foreign affairs. It began with a well thought out discussion which the economist Dr Vaqar Ahmed conducted with Meghnad.
But, it was Mr Aziz’s in-depth and insightful comments on the book that had everyone stumped. How had he found the time to read the book in such great detail? It was truly a masterful critique, followed by his own overview of the book.
Most of these book launches, organised by Ameena Saiyid, OBE, and her team, invariably included a section in which I spoke about my first book, Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt. It became even more meaningful when the audience appreciated the lives of the two actors as a truly secular story of India, as one was a Hindu and the other a Muslim. It is also a story of social mobility in Asia, as they both rose from tough backgrounds and became respected parliamentarians, and the audience recollected with nostalgia Sunil Dutt’s connection with Pakistan — after all, he never forgot that he was a “refugee” from Jhelum district, post Partition.
But let me add that in all the lecture tours we embarked upon, none was more poignant than the one at the Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi. To begin with, the older part of the campus is in a historical evacuee property, another legacy of the Partition. The structure is a grand Victorian abode, built as a residence by two Sikh brothers — Mohan and Sohan Singh. Even today, the awe-inspiring entrance, the carefully constructed maze in the garden, the large rooms with exquisite tiles, chandeliers and embellishments speak of a glorious heritage. After Partition, it was used by various leaders such as Benazir Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq till present Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif turned it into a women’s university in 1998. And today, the campus boasts of over 5,000 students! We were delighted at the response here to our books and impressed at the manner in which the university authorities have tried to preserve this wonderful property, once called the Bachan Niwas.
Lahore was also on our agenda of travel, and honestly, this could easily qualify as the culinary capital of the country. One evening we found ourselves near the spectacular Badshahi Mosque, next to Hiramandi, the once notorious red light area. It has all been gentrified by Iqbal Hussain, the artist , who is also the son of a “lady of the night”. Hussain’s efforts, as he personally told us, have taken more than 25 years, but these intricate buildings with their steep steps, which once welcomed clients for another purpose, now have enthusiastic families tramping all the way up to the terrace to get a bite of succulent flesh — cooked! We sat under the stars, at Cuckoo’s Den, whilst from near the Lahore Fort gates, musicians regaled us with Hindi film songs. One could not stop eating the wonderful mutton chops and the mouthwatering Roghni naans, marvelling at how the “food street” has transformed this once run-down area!
And does all of Pakistan love to eat out? Certainly it would seem so, when one saw the number of families, young and old, seated around large tables enjoying a meal together. It is a sight becoming increasingly rare in many parts of the world, but it appears that in Pakistan, family meals are to be enjoyed and savoured. Accordingly, we would receive a suggestion for eating out almost everyday — the Afghan cuisine at Namak and Kashmiri food at Baking Virsa (the latter in the narrow streets of Gwaal Mandi) were highly recommended.
Whether in Lahore or in Islamabad, incidentally, we noticed that families did not seem to mind a late meal together and even little toddlers were up till midnight. And yes, another spectacular view with outstanding cuisine is to be found at Monal restaurant, up in the Margala Hills in Islamabad.
Food also became an important part of the meetings we managed to have with friends such as Najam Sethi and his wife Jugnu, both sparkling conversationalists and owners-cum-editors of the Friday Times. Their son, Ali Sethi, a talented novelist and singer, is now completing his film on Farida Khanum and a new novella.
Najam Sethi conducted our Q&A session at Lahore’s Avari Hotel with élan. He brought in that quality of journalistic candour that has made him such a popular media figure. But, in case you think that all we did was eat, let it be known that we also did manage to meet and spend time with Salima Hashmi, the daughter of one of the foremost poets of the subcontinent, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, as well as Nusrat Jalal, the daughter of Saadat Hasan Manto. We also met with the rest of Manto’s family in Lahore, and in these days of confrontational politics these meetings were laden with hope. Can’t we now move forward to better times?