Rear-view Mirror | Murree Road and Bashir Fruitvala

The commute between Rawalpindi and Islamabad has been a constant factor in my life as far back as memory goes. While several roads have opened up now, in previous years one could only use Murree Road to get to Islamabad. I have many memories of sitting in the back of the old corolla as a kid, and counting the cars going by, or making fun of the antics of different drivers on the road. The traffic on Pakistan’s roads operates much like a symphony – onlookers can often be amazed at how everything manages to hold together. I always wondered why Murree Road never had anything in common with Murree (a British-era hill station in the Margallah Hills a few hours drive from Islamabad). Murree road was chaotic, choked with traffic, dusty, and noisy. Though it has improved since then, making it through the road used to take some perseverance in those years.

The most important reason for the congestion and clamour was the fact that the Road was lined with shops. Several kilometres of shops of all types – furniture, appliances, hardware, jewellery, restaurants, newspapers, halwais, cinemas, pharmacies – selling everything and anything. Shoppers thronged these stores from morning till midnight. Hawkers would yell out advertisements, people would jump off wagons as they would skid to a halt, and cars would suddenly swerve to the left-hand-side to let yet more shoppers out. The little hatchback suzuki mehrans and FXs were the worst, you could never predict their behaviour with certainty. As we would weave through the traffic, my father’s patience often being tested, I remember usually feeling appalled by how congested everything was. Most of the shops were built into the facade of old residential buildings, many from pre-partition days. Where ‘modernization’ and ‘progress’ hadn’t spoiled them already, beautiful facades containing old-style stone and woodwork would be visible.  Most of these residential buildings were built closely together, not designed for vehicles to pass through. I remember wondering how in the world people managed to live that close, and how cumbersome it must be. In later years I found out that my father’s own family had started off living in one such housing housing colony, called ‘mohallah‘ in urdu along Murree Road. Perhaps it was these experiences that first fired in me a drive to observe and address the socioeconomic conditions that characterized the lives of most residents of cities like Rawalpindi.

Once one made it through the honking, yelling, and general shor sharaba (clamour) and got close to Kashmir Highway, Muree Road improved. Shop density decreased, and gave way to the Federal Agricultural University. Looking to the left as one approached Kashmir Highway (which led to Islamabad) one could see the University’s ground beyond its boundary wall. And before its boundary wall, as sure as the sun rises, sat Bashir fruitvala (Bashir the fruit-seller). At this point, my father would often say “I think we should get some fruit,” and wonder aloud whether good old Bashir had the season’s fresh stock in store. Depending upon how much time there was to go before we were due at our destination, the idea would elicit agreement or protest from my mother, seated firmly beside him on the passenger seat.

Bashir was not really a big believer in advertising. In fact, if you didnt already know he was there, you would probably pass by without noticing what was being sold! Which raises the question (a good one), of how we came to know about Bashir in the first place. Who knows. His fruit setup was simple. There was a dusty, tattered tent-cloth propped up on wooden sticks, about 25 yards in length. All along it, from the floor up, were set up wooden fruit cartons. These special fruit cartons are called petis, and they’re made out of thin strips of wood. Bashir would greet my father, and then walk him around, offering samples of different fruits along the way in case he was interested in browsing, or taking him straight to it in case he was interested in something specific. The selection process was rigorous. It depended upon a combination of colour, smell, taste of the sample, suppleness, and importantly, the part of Pakistan it had come from. Different combinations for different fruits. Nahin bhai, yeh tau kachha hay (this one isn’t ripe yet), one would hear my father say. With lavish criticism and careful praise, the process would go on, until the fruit was selected. Then came the price arguments. I never understood what the real value of any of the fruit was, or how one came to distinguish between a good and bad price for say, pomegranates. However, I could usually tell by my father’s expression who had won the battle of prices that day.

Off we would go then, with the fruit. If it wasn’t being taken for someone we were going to see, then I would have the immense joy of later ripping the wooden boards of the peti to reveal the day’s loot – cherries, guavas, pomegranates, mangoes, apples, pears, and apricots (depending upon the season) – carefully wrapped in old urdu newspapers.

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From John F. Kennedy to Benazir International Airport

The signal changes from red to green.

Audiovisual: *Sounds of honking, followed by a heated exchange. Vehicles compete for a chance to cross the signal and take their place at the next red light, about three hundred yards ahead.*

Sorry about that, dear passenger, the temperature really seems to be getting to people today. It has been a while, hasn’t it? What did you do in my absence? Ah, another driver. I see.

You don’t seem to be in a hurry, let’s stop for a glass of club soda in Jinnah, shall we? It will help beat the heat, and I can begin telling you the story of a memorable flying experience, for I flew with great people.

New York City and Beyond – Parvaaz se Pehlay

New York is one of the world’s most remarkable cities, simply because there is no one way to describe it. It’s special because it makes you feel alive. You realize that you are living at the cusp of change, never far from exciting events that shape our globe. Perhaps this was even truer a few decades ago, when alternate centers for global finance were yet to gain credibility. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, Doha and Seoul, amongst others, have gained prominence in recent years. New York, through its strong correlation with events in these cities, is on full throttle around the clock.

On my many trips to the City, there has never been a dull moment. Though I do not know New York well enough yet to guide tourists to the Chrysler building, I do know that there are just 42 seats in all of Port Authority Bus station. Yes, that is correct. I counted them to pass a long night as I waited for a connecting bus, using my suitcase as furniture.

There is so much to explore and to discover in the City – aromatic lamb-rice dishes cooked by a street vendor, the electric but warm confines of Grand Central station, German girls trying to figure out the ATM machine on Times Square, a young man carrying an impossibly large carton in his hands, your reflection in a mixture of glass and steel, a rouge scarf, directions from a kind Mongolian man, a sense of purpose. I heard that last week, if you had looked closely enough, you might even have found a Pakistani man, dressed in all-black, hailing a yellow cab to take him to the airport.

It was a gorgeous day. There was just enough sunshine and everyone seemed to be enjoying the lively breeze. As I took pictures of the city, it was difficult not to feel that one was living an American adaptation of Sting’s ‘Desert Rose’ video. New York can do such things to you, but what better place to let your imagination run wild!

Arrival at the airport, terminal 4, was smooth and uneventful. I settled down in a corner, from where PIA’s check-in counters were visible, and read for pleasure. The mix of people at JFK was eclectic, as usual.  There were grandparents, arguing on their way back from vacation, parents and their rebellious teenage children in tow, and European twenty-somethings with compact suitcases. Time came to board. My bags were checked-in and I proceeded to the gate.

Gate 31 was unlike any other.

First of all, you could hear it from a mile away. A distinct buzz that was missing from the rest of the airport. It was the sound of one of the highest birthrates of the world – yes, children. There was a palpable sense of excitement as one walked towards Gate 31. Every family seemed to have a few of them, as if it was as worthwhile as exhausting your baggage allowance. I wondered if they had snuck a few in after checking-in, before I took a seat amongst the crowd.

The flight was announced soon, and passengers dutifully moved towards the counter. In reasonably neat lines, excited to be headed back to Pakistan. However, not just yet. Two additional farewell presents for Pakistanis:

  1. Materials testing of youngish guys. A friendly policeman wiped my hands with a white paper. I asked if it smelt nice.
  2. Extra questioning of passengers just before boarding the plane. Some were taken away just before the flight.

Sigh, the blind keep walking, anxious to get back home.

In-flight Entertainment – Parvaaz Kay Dauraan

“Aap please udhar baith jain sir (Sir, please move to that seat),” said the middle-aged airhostess to another passenger, pointing to my seat. Wondering what was going on, I started to get up. “Nahi, main tau kahin nahi jaunga (No! I wont go anywhere)!” The passenger, a 40-something male, shouted back. “Meray liay easy hojayega (It will be easier for me)” the air hostess insisted. “Tang na karain mujhay mein ishi seat par baithunga!” The passenger said ferociously. “Main captain ko complain karungi (I will complain about you to the captain)!” the air-hostess had argued, still trying. “Chalain apna kaam karain (Go and mind your work)!” snapped the man. The air hostess, dejected, turned towards her station. As she did, the man jerked his head with contempt and said “Hah! Stupid kahin ki (Hah! That stupid woman)!” I stared at them, bewildered by the exchange. In my mind, a white and green balloon popped with a loud bang, releasing patriotism into the air. I asked the man to take it easy, and reminded him that it was a time to be happy – we were all headed to Pakistan.

Later, I learnt that I was sitting in a row where most of the other passengers were deportees. As they started talking, I learnt that many of them had spent one or two decades in America. Recently, they had encountered minor problems with their paperwork, and had run into severe trouble. Faced with long imprisonment terms or returning to Pakistan, they had chosen the latter. At the beginning of the flight, they made teary phone calls to the loved ones they were leaving behind.

Welcome to Pakistan – Khushamded

We landed in Lahore first. The airport was quite a sight. There were three different kinds of porters with overlapping spheres of influence. One set was in black, another in brown, and another in blue. They were all there to move your bags for you – to your car, to other terminals etc. The more enterprising of them also had an additional trick up their sleeve – the ability to lightning-track you through the long security check! Haha…desperate to do everything on my own, I held out against the barrage of porters that approached me. They all seemed to be asking me for a 10 or a 20. At first, I was surprised that they were offering their services for just 10 or 20 rupees, much beneath what I remembered to be the going rate for their services! However, I immediately realized that they were asking for dollars!!!

Later, a small plane took us on a short flight from Lahore to Islamabad. Gracefully, it touched the runway, and taxied to a halt in front of the terminal. I walked down on the steps that take you down to the tarmac – characteristic of Islamabad airport. Stepping off after the final one, I touched the ground with my fingertips. Islamabad was before us, and we were home.

It is good to see you again. Let’s try our luck again with the traffic, shall we?