Alistair Caldicott

Batting for Pakistan

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6 - Life in Lahore

There is a Pakistani proverb which says,
"If you have not seen Lahore, you are not born."

"DISCIPLINED TRAFFIC, CIVILISED NATION", the noble sign optimistically read.

Nothing could have been closer to the polar opposite. I had an all too predictable dispute with my taxi driver about his overcharging me, but arrived at the hotel in one piece. From where it was located, I had to walk a considerable distance to see anything of note apart from different combinations of honking traffic jams. I nearly got mowed down on three separate occasions inside five minutes attempting to stretch my legs on Lahore's fume filled streets.

I had a few glimpses of Lahore's old city, as I sought out Food Street. Once more, I had forgotten the Urdu phrase for,
"Please don't make my food too hot!"

After a couple of mouthfuls, I thought I might start to spontaneously self-combust. But much to my relief, I was able to order a 'Gold' drink from the menu, followed by some ice cream. There was fierce competition for my ice cream custom. Perhaps word had spread from Faisalabad regarding my regular and lucrative nocturnal consumption habits. Luckily, there were no lurking television camera crews or necessity to conduct live cooking demonstrations.

In my hotel, which was really a hostel, I could do no better than a dorm room. As was the lottery of such places, the beds were very tightly crammed in next to each other. On one side I had the pleasure of a very good looking French girl. On the other side was a pale, bearded and ginger Yorkshire man. He turned out to be much more enjoyable company.

All sorts of bizarre things have happened to me in sleeping establishments in various countries, but never the following. After a traffic and pollution sapping couple of hours walking around Lahore, I wanted to take a shower, which was across a small rooftop courtyard.

However, as I walked out of my room with my towel around my waist, I was suddenly confronted by lots of people taking part in a full blown local music concert. People were crammed into the small courtyard enjoying this spectacle and dancing with shuffling feet with an unnatural and excessive enthusiasm. They were also very effectively blocking my path to the shower.

So out I unwittingly walked straight onto the front of the stage, like a rabbit into the headlights, slicing through the musicians, who barely paused to break sweat. I was the focus of a crowd of perhaps thirty or so people. They must have thought I was a novelty dancer or something ridiculous.

My only saving grace as an insensitive foreigner was that my towel remained firmly attached to my midriff for what felt like several hours compressed into seconds, as I did a swift about turn and headed back to the room. I would have to wait for the performance to conclude.

Later on in the week the singers performed again and I was able to properly appreciate their efforts fully clothed. I shook their hands at the end and one of them gave me three of his business cards. On it, in big highlighted letters, read,

"Most Famous Singer. Radio and TV Singer and Artist."

"We take you on tour with us as dancer!" one of the joked.

"We could tour the bathrooms of the world." I replied

Lahore is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Loh', which means unbeatable. At certain times of day it can feel unbearable. It is a city of some nine million people. And it often felt as if most of those nine million were always accompanying you wherever you wanted to go in a city which was rarely anything other than chaotically hectic.

Rudyard Kipling described the city as a "tide of unclean humanity ready to burst through its dam of rotten brickwork and filth-smeared wood." It was not difficult to envisage what he meant.

Pakistan had inherited the laws and tradition of the British empire, but it also inherited buildings from a more ancient empire, the Mogul empire. I was stood outside the gates of the old fort, which was built by the emperor Akbar in the 1560's. The Moguls came from central Asia some six hundred years ago and left their cultured mark on Lahore. Lahore used to be a city with fortified walls and twelve large gates. It was over one thousand years old as a city. When the Mogul empire declined, the power vacuum was taken up by the Sikhs. They ruled for 85 years until the British took over in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was born here in the Punjab region. It was where the idea of a Sikh nation had developed in the 1800's, which led to a succession of wars with the British. After this many Sikhs were incorporated into the British army to become some of its most reliable and toughest soldiers.

Behind the old fort proudly sits a very contrasting white and gold Sikh temple, which I didn't have much time to properly take in as I got distracted.

"Sir, I have been looking for you for long time!" came the cry. He was not to be my choice of guide. Instead, I opted for a much more mellow, laid back man named Peter to offer his services to me and show me around. He was a Christian.

The fort on the edge of Lahore's old city was built in 1673 by the Moguls. They ruled for 240 years from 1524 until 1764. They did so largely with just six strong kings. The Mogul name loosely derives from the Mongols. Shortly after they seized Lahore, Delhi went the same way in 1526. At roughly the same time as the Mogul period of rule was getting underway on the Indian subcontinent, Henry VIII was planning the Reformation in England.

Inside the fort was a palace which had three gates - one for soldiers, one for the royal family, and one for the common people. It was a bit like the seating arrangements at the cricket, but with less moustached police with sticks.

On the outer wall was a giant elephant foot with a delicate lotus flower above it. After the Sikh period of rule the fort was occupied and even restored by the British. The repairs and restoration were a forgotten colonial legacy of the British, according to Peter.

"Why cannot the British come back and run our country?" he pleaded with me.

"Probably because they are having problems trying to run another country at the moment. But we still come and play cricket here." I replied.

I was hard pressed to think of any other countries which still took my own country and its legacy so seriously in the present day. Our colonial legacy is kept alive in Pakistan and followed with dedicated resolve in places. For some people the British had become the most admired of enemies.

As well as saving a magnificent mosque from ruin, Peter told me that many people were still incredibly grateful for other enduring legacies the British had left behind in Pakistan. The railways, for instance, the court system and education.

Pakistan is, to some extent, an idea still trying to find a nation. There is religion, the central discipline imposed by the army and police, and cricket of course.

Why is the country so weak? Something to do with it would be the fact that only around one in twenty, yes one in twenty, actually pay direct taxes to the central government. Why is there no major tax revenue to speak of? Probably because the two things which Pakistan exports most effectively - guns and drugs - are rather illegal. The government spends a disproportionately large share of the money it does receive on buying more fighter planes and weapons to maintain an illusion of serious military rivalry with India.

Peter said guiding was a part-time earning pursuit for him. He was studying English, doing a PhD in English literature no less.

"You don't do poetry recitals?" I checked.

"No, I only read books and plays." Peter replied.

How did I keep attracting such learned people? Or maybe I was just rather unlearned and un-literatured myself. Maybe I should have made more of an effort to read more English.

He was 26 years old, but both his mother and father had died. He still had five brothers and five sisters. The exact number for a family cricket team, I suggested.

"Yes," he smiled, "but much arguing and fighting!"

Peter also told me where the name PAKISTAN come from?

P - Punjab

A - Afghania (NW Frontier Province)

K - Kashmir

I - Mischievously, he suggested to me this was for India

S - The Province of Sindh in the south

TAN - Baluchistan in the west of the country.

After 9/11, Peter said he no longer saw many tourists from England or America. Instead, many now came from places like the Czech Republic and Hungary. As a Christian, he was part of around five per cent of the Pakistani population, which were represented by the white strip on the national flag. The dominant dark green colour represented the Muslim majority. The crescent was to signify glory and prosperity, while the star symbolised the five main tenets of Islam.

Ironically, back in 1584, the Emperor Akbar himself was heavily influenced by Christianity. The Old City of Lahore was constructed on a model similar to that of Jerusalem, with twelve giant gates and a heavily fortified wall. The King himself used to appear in public every day by sitting out under the pavilion in his palace, in the same way perhaps as the fat police controller in Faisalabad aspired to do. It was a ritual to have contact with his subjects.

The structure of the fort and its tremendous grandeur, as well as its symmetry and balanced harmony of architectural style, reminded me very much of the Red Fort in Agra, where the Taj Mahal was also built. There were several similarities with other buildings in India. Lahore's fort was made from the same pink sandstone to be found in Jaipur.

Closer up, there was white and black marble. There were faded frescoes and cracks of earthquake damage. There was even a special entrance path for elephants to slowly plod their way up and down. They even had their own parking area as well. The gardens were symmetrical and immaculate. Some were dotted with giant canons. Others were more enclosed, filled with fruit trees.

One courtyard - there were many - had a nearby complex of extravagant mirrors and thirty two natural fountains. Legend has it that the Emperor Akbar caught one of his female courtesans exchanging an illicit look at his son and punished her by having a wall built in her dishonour with her built into the wall alive.

Fountains of water permitted the noise of private conversations to be discreetly drowned out. Dancing ladies used to perform around these fountains, Peter informed me. But none of the fountains produced the soothing noise of trickling water. The only noise came from boisterous, but orderly, school groups.

Inside one building was a large ivory model of the Taj Mahal. There were courtyards of chrysanthemum beds and orange trees. We passed a two hundred year old banyan tree, which was supposed to have contained a special milk. There even used to be a private bath and swimming pool especially for the privileged ladies of Lahore.

Peter told me that one ruler, Jahangir, once killed a deer on a hunting trip. But he was so regretfully sorrowed by the deer's beauty, that he ordered the building of a special monument to commemorate it. Some rulers built monuments to animals, while others built constructions around women who had angered them. There was however, a surprising degree of refinement and sensitivity to the rule of an empire, whilst on the other side of the world European empires were still to get their expanding and civilising acts together.

Across the entrance from the old fort was the Badshahi mosque, the second largest mosque in the world, and well over three hundred years old. Only the Blue Mosque in Istanbul was believed to have been bigger. It felt like a while since I had seen a mosque properly, but it becomes an unavoidable habit in this region of the world.

How to describe it? Bold, majestic, aesthetically pleasing, beautifully proportioned. It was built from red Jaipur sandstone in just three years and, when full, can cram in up to 75,000 people for prayers in its vast courtyard. That's roughly equivalent to the crowd for a major football game.Behind the delicately finished red sandstone, which was very hot on bare feet, were huge puffed-up white domes and spiky minarets. Inside the mosque, I noticed a huge high net, which was presumably to protect the praying thousands from mass pigeon dropping bombardment.
Colourful groups of orderly schoolchildren were everywhere. Although some were more orderly than others, walking in neat crocodile lines with the smallest at the front. There is something quite pleasing in seeing children not realising the seriousness of places of religious worship. To them it was just another, bigger playground to run around in. The Badshahi mosque was a great place to play hide and seek.

I said my goodbyes to Peter after having a cold, fizzy drink with him, and wandered back through the mazy streets of Lahore's old city. What it lacked in charm, it made up for in action.

Each street had a different and unexpected concentration of shops. From drums to dresses to dried fruits. I found more than one street completely blocked off by cows pulling carts who had got jammed in. It made a change from motorbikes and rickshaws.

Old Lahore, and the Anarkali bazaar in particular, bombarded my senses, not always in a pleasant manner either. There were open sewage pipes. The whole structure of the place looked like it would fall to bits at any moment, but it was also bursting with chaotic life. It was an intricate muddle of energetic humanity.

The buildings were faded and decaying. The sheep were fat with big floppy ears and striped with red dye. There weren't too many convenient places for them to grace. Grass and water were clearly at a premium in a overcrowded, polluted city of nine million people.

I paused to look inside the Wazir Khan mosque. It was nowhere near the size of Badshahi, but it was a sharper and more colourful contrast. An island haven of peaceful respite in a sea of swirling humanity around it. As soon as I had departed the mosque entrance, people were trying to sell me things once more. This time it was bedding mattresses, one of which might have made a vast improvement on what I was enduring in my hotel, but there was the small matter of transporting it through the tightly congested streets.

Women wrapped securely in burkas shopped for bras and knickers in one area. Nearby, one cheerful man in a bright red shirt openly sold bright lipsticks and other make up accessories. There was the wonderfully named, Ladies Own Choice Jewellers, and further along, the LUCKY SHOES STORE and the DECENT CLOTHES STORE.

One of my favourite business signs was that for New Era Trading Agencies. The place looked as if it hadn't done any business for years and must have shut down long ago. A cutting edge modern retailer it was not. Maybe it was suffering from all the competition.

Another market front was crammed with wooden drums and guitars. A short walk on past some fruit stalls was a bird market. There were bundles of scrappy feathers. Netted sacks of chickens and cockerels produced a powerful amount of noise and smell. I don't think they have an RSPCA in Pakistan somehow.

One shop went by the name of, "POPULAR BATH TUBS".

There was a very ragged looking "INTERNATIONAL DENTAL SUPPLY COMPANY".

Two very dusty dentists chairs had installed themselves on the pavement. The old man perched inside reading his newspaper looked like he had not done any fillings for years. I silently hoped I would not have any problems with my teeth in Lahore.

Nearby was the SUPER Air Conditioning Concern and the DELUXE CHEMISTS WHOLESALERS, who amongst other things offered deals in Empty Gelatine Capsules.

I saw another sign:


Being chased relentlessly by motorbikes, while trying to get from one side of the road to another just became an every minute occurrence. As they staggered across lanes of traffic, the haggard looking beggars were heroic in their defiance of oncoming traffic, which somehow always swerved to avoid them. It was as astonishing as it was tragic. They tottered armed only with a tapping stick swinging from side to side in front of them. On their backs were tightly wrapped sacked bundles of belongings. Usually the pleas were more in optimism than expectation.

But one man gripped my arm tightly with hungry desperation and wouldn't let go. I had to forcibly unclamp him and his entire body weight from my forearm. The quiet beggars were the ones who did not get fed. In the bazaars, I had heard sickening stories about gangs who actually made children disabled, so they could then use them as tools to make money from begging.

Men balanced oversized loads on their heads. Women did the same. Everything was a balancing act in Lahore. Particularly challenging was managing to keep your stomach in equilibrium for two days running. It was not something that many foreign visitors can easily manage. Sometimes it felt like a small man was energetically doing aerobics in my intestines.

Lahoris love to eat out and to eat curry. But there was no chance of finding a beer to wash it down with. Seeking a change from curry, I found a smart, air conditioned, comfortable, but not empty, restaurant. The highlight of the establishment was the most spectacular Bobby Charlton hair comb over I'd ever had the misfortune to see on the head waiter.

Also around the corner from the hotel was an almost normal supermarket. For the first time in what must have been months, I was able to purchase things like toothpaste and chocolate which wasn't three years past its sell by date.

Back in my hotel, there had been an infusion of one or two fellow English cricket fans. As it happened to be Saturday night and we were in strictly Muslim country, I accepted an offer to treat myself to an illicitly obtained beer, which was a tremendous and refreshing novelty in a dry country.

Two England guys had, unintentionally or not, managed to mix up Hera Mandi (the name of Lahore's red light district, full of 'dancing ladies' or prostitutes) with Gaiwal Mandi, which was the food district. Hera Mandi came to be known as Myra Hindley.There were entire streets in Lahore dedicated to the tailor making of the traditional shalwar khameez clothing for men. A couple of England fans had managed to have some white ones made up with giant red crosses on them down the middle, the flag of St. George on the traditional dress of Pakistan. Traditional or not, they still looked strangely like men in funny skirts to me. Normal cricket service would soon be resumed, but there was the small matter of going to see a noisy neighbour first. Purchase 'Batting for Pakistan'
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