Muharram is an important month in Muslim countries around the world. In Pakistan, it is also a time of caution and marks an upsurge in security measures taken. As religious processions are underway, it is best to be careful on the roads, since many of them become blocked, so that people can go about their prayers and perform rites with ease.
Of course, I still had to head out.
After an uneventful excursion that involved a trip to Islamabad, I returned to find the traffic blocked on Mall Road, Rawalpindi. I was in the 77, and sat tight as we inched along. It was difficult to see what was causing the blockage, but I knew that it would take me quite some time to get back. Three hours though, was not the figure that I had in mind. Constant gear shifting and staying at a speed below 20 km is not fun. Add to it constant honking and people trying to move ahead (by imagining that their cars are shape-shifting) and you have a thoroughly frustrating milieu. Nevertheless, I persisted. Return home one must.
There was only one road that could be taken. Hence one cannot claim that your driver made the wrong choice. Where I did go wrong though, was forgetting to put more fuel into the 77. One hour passed, then perhaps another. The crows in the sky became interesting, the radio’s five stations insufficient, and the pateesa sold by a turbaned man for 10 rupees, a great bargain. Intermittently, I would roll down the window (quite a task in old betsy), and extend my head outside to monitor what lay ahead. I did this regularly until an army truck positioned itself next to me. With my head out the window I was looking ahead at the dismal traffic situation (this changed nothing but at least it made me feel as if I was doing something about it. I was not taking this lying down!), when the cars in the adjacent lane moved. The truck followed suit. As its engine roared, it blew a plume of smoke straight into my face! Coughing and tasting diesel, I brought myself back inside the car and rolled up the window. Things seemed to be getting better. Bored and a shade of charcoal darker, I kept up the clutch-accelerator charade. Slowly and surely, the fuel continued to be depleted. I watched this happen until I pressed the accelerator and nothing happened. A delightful moment indeed.
At least now, I had something to do! I tried the ignition a couple of times in hope of a miracle. However, as memories of being stranded in storms and of friends pushing the 77 immediately came to mind, I realized that we were going nowhere. Surprisingly, I smiled as I got out of the car to face angry drivers, smog and dust. Making a gesture, I asked a few cars to wait a minute to allow me to push old 77 to the side. Thank goodness there was an empty plot on the side of the road. I grabbed the steering, swerved left and began pushing. This is Pakistan though, and such burden is never placed upon one man alone! Immediately, two overenthusiastic young men came to my assistance. They had a number of suggestions, which I ignored, and we began pushing the car to the side. An impatient driver in a jeep was in our way, and the boys in their enthusiasm pushed the car too far so that it grazed the jeep’s fender. Chuckle….
The jeeps paint came off, slightly. This was also accompanied by shouting and a flash of teeth from inside the vehicle, all of which I ignored with a smile and reassuring hand gestures (these can get you far sometimes!). As the car reached the plot, I was happy to part with my ‘helpers’ and begin the walk home. This was certainly not as easy as I thought it would be. I was moving faster than the cars, thankfully, but there seemed to be no end in sight. My black pants and overcoat contrasted perfectly with the dust that was in the air. Since there was no footpath, I walked along a stony, uneven path along the road. I soon discovered that motorcyclists were using this to make their way through the traffic. Every few seconds, I would hear a honk, which would give me a fraction of a second to jump out of the way. As I would taste the watan ki mitti, a bike would speed by. I kept walking, feeling brave and persistent, till I realized how long it would take me to get home. After this realization, the best option seemed to hail down the bikers to led me ride pillion along them! So I did, and no one stopped for me…..watan ki mitti zindabad.
However, one thing I have seen, is that Pakistanis can surprise you with their large hearts. After a little while, a motorcyclist, who was coming directly at me, saw me walking. Reading the expression on my face, he made a gesture with his eyebrows, and without me saying anything, stopped his bike next to me. I jumped aboard, thanked him, and asked him to take me as far as he was going. He said that he would drop me off before the next police checkpost, a few kilometres ahead. We sped through the traffic in what was one of the most exciting drives that I have had for many years. Kicking up the mitti, we zig zagged through cars of all shapes, trucks, buses, cyclists, donkey carts, and other people. My overcoat flapped from the wind resistance and I frowned as the sun was strong in our front. Pindi’s scenery passed by, and looked different from this new perspective. I felt more free and able to explore routes where my car could not go. The police checkpoint came all too soon to end this cathartic ride through the city’s back streets. The biker apologized for not dropping me off at my final destination, and I proceeded on foot from there on. I passed by a market and contemplated eating the fresh samosas that were being sold at one of the shops, but then remembered how much trouble I was going to get into upon returning home without my car! Best be over with it as soon as possible, so on I walked. I reached the railway tracks, which were closed because the train was about to pass. I noticed that many of the bikers that had left me behind quite a while ago, were there waiting for the gates to open! Pakistan’s trains are beautiful, green and off-white relics of a bygone colonial era. The train moved along at a good pace, the tracks rattling beneath it. Passengers stared out their windows, taking in the surroundings.
I crossed the tracks as the gates opened and started giving bikers the thumbs up again. This time I got lucky early on, and we sped along the railway tracks towards home.
The last part of the day’s journey involved being dropped off near a garrison. From here I walked home, crossing several checkpoints along the way. I stopped at one from where only people were going in. They spread their arms, were searched by a military person, and then let through. Menacing barbed wire and armored vehicles were placed strategically along the journey. I too completed the process and was allowed inside the cordoned-off area. It was an Imambargah, that had been given extra security for the occasion. As I walked by it, I wondered why in this country (as in many others around the globe), one cannot worship in peace and without the need for protection. I felt a little sad, because Jinnah had warned us about such a problem in 1947, and yet no one heeded his words. It will be a great day in Pakistan’s history, and that of the world, if its citizens are allotted the space they need to practice their religion free from fear. I got home safely that day.
Life is long. Sometimes you are in the driver’s seat, other times in the passenger’s, and yet other times outside, just watching as the world speeds by. Along the journey, it is important to remember though, that we share a space and must contribute to making it comfortable for all. Equal rights in joy and in sorrow.
Old 77 was still there waiting patiently when I returned with a litre of petrol. I could feel it coming back to life as I poured it down the fuel chamber. Ignition, roar, and we drive again.