Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Watching Sachin at Gadaffi: PartII - The City of the PANJAB

There was a very interesting observation one of my Punjabi friends made when we landed at Lahore. Apparently, all this talk of Muslims being a common community is not really true, what with India being as diverse as it is. In Lahore in particular, the common bond is of Punjabiyat, and if you can talk the language, then one is totally at home. I often think I will see a day in my lifetime when Punjabi will compete with English and Hindi to be the national language of India. And for me, the trend started with a Bollywood classic called 'Shyam Ghanshyam' which had an entire song in pure Punjabi. The same era coincided with the rise of Daler Mahendi, and post that, Yash Chopra took over to further the cause.

In Pakistan, Punjab dominates not only by its cultural strength, but by the sheer size of the state in a relatively smaller country. Punjab inhabits the traditional land-owning landlord community, and Lahore to an extent is Delhi (metro), Chandigarh (administrative capital) and Amritsar (religious and historically political center) rolled into one. Karachi performs the role which Mumbai does for India of being the financial and the commercial capital but the city and the province - Sindh - is actually inhabited by the potpourri of Indian migrants, the Mohajirs.

As soon as we stepped into Pakistan, the first issue was getting the local currency. The official exchange was closed, and we had to get the same done through touts hanging around. The exchange rate was 1.3 Pakistani rupee to 1 Indian rupee, and as we were to learn later, this was higher than the official 1.25 exchange rate. Another instance of a strange economic system in place, where the consumer has greater convenience and also better returns. The benefits of going through extra-legal channels.

We had booked ourselves in the National Hotel at Lahore, @ a rate of 21US$ per night. It was a three-star hotel, and they had sent over us a complementary pickup from the border. However, as soon as we landed at the hotel, we realised the immense power of Google. The hotel had got great ratings on the Internet, calling it the third best hotel in Lahore and eighth best in Pakistan.

At first look, the hotel looked like an upgraded version of a Paharganj hotel. The reception was fairly tacky, and they tried to charge us for the pickup from Wagah. Wonder what's all the talk about in the service industry, the delivery meeting the initial promise. We reached our rooms, and saw it fairly dirty. As we were famished with no food since the morning, we ordered some simple grub - rotis, dal, mixed vegetable, and mutton. The food was fairly ordinary, and immediately the room-service bill was presented. We asked them to add it into our main bill, but the waiter insisted on collecting it then and there. This became the trend for the stay. The next night the waiter insisted on collecting a small 100Rs. bill at midnight, when we had actually gone off to sleep.

We stepped into the city, planning to exchange more currency. Sunday is a day when Lahore is totally shut, but we somehow managed to find a place in small nook which was open. The only difference in Lahore from Delhi was the greater usage of Punjabi, though Hindustani as we speak it is a good enough language to communicate. The single biggest difference is the presence of signages in Urdu, which was further accentuated when we tried placing orders for food in smaller places. We decided to have some tea at a small stall. It claimed to be selling Kashimiri tea, and a small boy talking in pure Punjabi took our order. We asked for sweet tea, and what he got for us was a glass of hot milk, flavoured with rose and an inlking of tea, and some cream put on top. I had Kashmiri tea - kawa - once, but this was radically different from anything like that. I liked it, but all my colleagues disagreed.

After that, we had to collect out tickets from an agent of Ten Sports - Pradeep Manchandani. The guy was apparently an ace photographer, who knew all the players, and he called us for an hotel to locate which our cab-driver took us all round the city. The cabbie was an interesting fellow, prone to chatting and gossiping. He showed us the houses of the gentry of Lahore, and belonging to cricketers like Yousuf Youhana and Imran Khan. He also was inquisitive, asking us whether our religion didn;t prohibit us from smoking, and even engaging in some cigarette diplomacy, exchanging ITC's Will Classic Ultra Milds for BAT's John Player's Gold Leaf. At a traffic light where a cop stopped him from ferrying five passengers against the allowed four, he called us international tourists, raising our self-esteem by several notches. Somehow the term international/firang/foreigners for us is associated only with whites, and to be called one was for being still in awe of our ancient rulers.

We managed to collect our tickets from Pradeep, but instead of the promised 48$ tickets, he handed us over 29$ tickets. We tried to bluster our way through, claiming that we are the representatives of the official sponsors of the series. But unfortunately, with nothing but your confidence to take you through, it was to no avail. We spend 120 Pakistani Rs. in calling up our contact in India, and the lady claimed that Pradeep had been taking everyone for a ride. We called him up again, and he said he will confirm by eleven in the night, whether we can collect the ticket the next morning.

So we decided to do the next thing which was not easy to do in Pakistan - have some beer. We figured out that a 3-star hotel called Ambassador served liquor, but a journalist from NDTV whom I met at a hotel lobby, told me it will mean a permit. And getting a permit for liquor meant being white-skinned and hence not able to live without booze. The only bet remained Lahore's premium hotel, Pearl Continental, where even the team was putting up. The entire group somehow was kicked by the idea, except for our commander who was a teetotaller. Hence, he just could not fathom the joy of drinking and wasting precious time in an expensive hotel. I protested, but my remaining colleagues were simply not vociferous enough in supporting me, and we drove away from the gates of the hotel.

We went to a place called 'Minar-e-Pakistan', Qutub Minar, India Gate and Rajpath rolled into one. This apparently symbolised Pakistan, and had a plaque reproducing the 1940 proclamation by the Muslim League calling for the foundation of Pakistan. This plaque was in a host of languages, even Bengali, but no Hindi. Right in front was a huge mosque called Badshahi Mosque, brightly lit and to provide another case for optical illusions, appeared double the size of Jama Masjid.

The final destination was the piece de resistance of Lahore, a food street called Gawal Mandi. We booked a very exciting vehicle, a Suzuki motorcycle which had a wagon added to produce a decent sized transport vehicle. This was very similar to our own phatphatis which used to ply in the walled city, before the Govt. replaced them with Tata Sumos. Gawal Mandi hits you in the first look, with chicken, lambs hanging from all shops. There were a couple of shops selling whole fishes, roasted/fried. India seriously lacks such food streets, and the closest I had witnessed was Boat & Clarke Quay I had seen in prosperous Singapore.

We dashed off the two veggies to eat the only shop selling cholay bhaturay. The remaining three of us sat down to eat a joint, and were later joined by three more of our friends. My sister had recommended Patridge Tikka, which we roughly translated into bater. So we ordered a plate full of hot baters, seekh kababs, and rotis. We were full and we still managed to hog down the stuff. The dessert was very good sweet paan, which the shopkeeper took great pride in putting directly in our mouths - a great advertisement for Hindi-Pakistani bhai-bhai.

Gawal Mandi was teeming with Indians, and all the shopkeepers were taking great pains to be hospitable and increase business. There was military police at the entrance, displaying their machine guns. Another difference from Delhi where all we witness is lathi-wielding thullaas. The only sore point was the local cop stopped me from taking snaps of the street using my camera-phone, when every other person had managed to do so.

However, the Indian influence on the food street was obvious, with a joint running from a place called Vidya Niwas, built in 1914. The street was just off Lakshmi Chowk. When the Govt. had wanted to rename it Jinnah Chowk, the locals protested and the idea was dropped. While walking back to the hotel, we also saw a Dyal Singh library - displaying the origin of the Arya Samaji movement in the city. So after a very hectic day with multiple experiences, we decided to call it a day and I crashed very early around 1030 pm.

1 comment:

satya said...

Three countries now, you are International now!

I dont know about Punjabi as a language and its popularity, but read somewhere about a non-Punjabi Pakistani brother expressing opinion about the Punjabis. The context was the movie, Veer Zara. A lot of people said various things, this mr anonymous caught the issue, when he stated that, this movie was all about, how the Punjabis have destroyed Pakistan and now together they wish to destory even Hindustan.

The Beer at the Pearl sounded like a good idea, you should have done it on your own. Maybe the title of the post would have become, Beer with Sachin and Yuvraj.