Originally appeared in Us Magazine, The News. 5/9/2014




You know, I have this theory about travelling. Calling it metaphysical should be a great euphemism for the bogus philosophy it is, but it’s this: you leave a bit of yourself at every place you travel to. Not in some masochistic self-reducing way but in the way things are with knowledge: sharing it is spreading it. Sharing yourself, similarly, with places is like extending your being. Ask Captain James Cook, or Ibn Battuta. (Don’t ask Christopher Columbus, to be on the safe side). Anyway, if you haven’t turned the page already and are still with me, let me start with my ‘saga’.

And so it was, as I made a public avowal of my plans to visit South Punjab (on Facebook, of course), I was met with numerous responses. Some thought it ought to be South ‘Africa’, others came up with offers of visiting other places, all the way from Chitral to Europe. (And Sri Lanka too, only it had to fall along this route). The majority, however, thought medical studies were finally taking the toll, and they chose to remain quiet in condolence. My dad, very interestingly, really wanted me to go only so that I could repent my decision later (parents and the lessons of life, eh?). But thank God for tourism companies. Thank God for completely judgmental, discouraging friends who continue to be by your side no matter what! And as they say, the rest is geography. In the next paragraph!









The (questionable) recourse

Bahawalpur was once a princely state. It was once a province. Founded by NawabMohammad Bahawal Khan in 1748, the city is now home to an estimated 8.5 lac people. Vacillating, and perhaps shady developments merged it into the Punjab province. Far more importantly, Bahawalpur is where my parents once lived. (Two of my sisters beg to differ – for them Bahawalpur’s only claim to fame is that it’s their birthplace). Given the general ruckus over South Punjab’s underdevelopment, I was expecting the city to be something between an over-sized village and a shabby (sleepy? garrison?) town. Pleasantly, I was wrong. The city’s more like the love-child of Lahore and Abbottabad – and that’s saying something, even if the expression reeks of perversion. It’s laid-back, and it’s beautiful. Some additional points that work up to Bahawalpur’s benefit follow: it’s the twelfth largest city of Pakistan. It’s perhaps one of the cleanest cities of the country. The traffic is human (Abbottabad, take notice!). The people are welcoming. It houses the second largest public library in Punjab. It’s home to  Sadiq  Public School (google that). And the hotel we stayed in had absolutely wonderful bathrooms (don’t google that)!










To Bangladesh, with (debatable) love…

There once were a number of cycle rickshaws in Bahawalpur – these used to be the city’s prime mode of transport. But now only one remains: inside the Museum. They say the government picked all these rickshaws up and sent them over to Bangladesh. Probably for free, just imagine! So the next time you’re watching a cricket match and see Bengalis supporting Pakistan (when Bangladesh has obviously been ousted from the series), remember that you now know the reason!   








A leap of (blind) faith…

Inside Noor Mehal, there are various paintings of the nawabs of Bahawalpur. Amusingly stern-looking, they seemed to have jumped out of a William Dalrymple novel charmingly titled, “The Angry Nawabs”. Throughout the region, the extreme reverence for the nawabs among the locals is palpable. One rickshaw wallah told me the reason his city was so beautiful (the best in Pakistan, he claimed) was because of the nawabs. This, in all probability, was true. Another told me that the nawabwho built the Noor Mehal  had had the hands of his labourers cut so that they wouldn’t be able to re-make such a structure. Now if this story doesn’t remind you of something related to Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal, you’re either living in a chamber-pot. Or are that rickshaw-driver!  








The angry Nawabs: (a teaser)…

Many of the buildings and palaces of the nawabs in Bahawalpur, beautiful as they are, are now owned by the Army, and it goes without saying have been closed to the public. Noor Mehal’s visit is possible, though, and the sheer genius of the rules of entering (you can take all sorts of digital cameras but not DSLRs inside) strikes you right in the head. Yes, because all the terrorism in the world emanates from focusing, defocusing the lens. The saddening thing is that the nawab descendants (those who haven’t shifted to the United Kingdom yet) don’t seem to care a bit about the rich archaeology and architecture they’re the inheritors of. And you can see the proofs throughout the Bahawalpur district, especially in the desert. Anyway, the          Sadiqgarh Palace, located in Ahmedpur Sharqia, is facing custody issues since pretty much every remaining nawab claims it’s his. Accordingly, the grand building is completely neglected, and could very well be used for shooting a horror flick. Interestingly, you’re told not to wander off into the palace as some  nawab (some of whom live just behind the palace) might spot you and get angry (ha!). Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s only to scare us. Horror, you see, works well for the  nawabs and their places.   









Into the dust (allergies?)…

The geography refresher: The Cholistan Desert, in the extreme South of Punjab, extends into Sindh as Thar and India as Rajasthan. The history refresher: it was once a productive green area, before the river that fed it dried up. Presently, the desert has a number of camels, nomads and heritage sites (and no Baby Doll type belly dancers, if you’re wondering). To remember where we had set our camp, we took the aid of a few completely defaced heritage sites. We named one Mohenjodaro, another one Harappa and yet another one Mehrgarh. (Our camp was a little towards the east between Mohenjodaro  and Harappa). Back to the Fort, which perhaps is the desert’s biggest crowd-puller; it remained firmly closed all the time of our stay. People in numbers waited outside the Fort’s locked gate every day, hoping they’d be let in to have a view. These included yours truly; I wasted some good thousand calories just to go to the gate time and again, hoping to see it open. But no, the nawabs had landed into some scuffle with the government, and making the calorie-burning populace suffer was their best move. Hundreds of people went back disappointed, some saying things that need to be censored. But seriously, do the nawabs even realise how many kilometres it is from Abbottabad to Cholistan? (I know, thank you Google Maps!). The only consolation was the mela set up near the Grand Mosque – shops were there selling all sorts of spicy, lip-smacking scrumptious Punjabi delights. (Also known as gastroenteritis, in more conservative medical terminology)!         








Of jeeps (and apparent jeeps)…

The banners by the government of Punjab purportedly serving as invitations to the annual Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally were displayed overwhelmingly in Lahore, and in other places. And that perhaps was the government’s greatest bet on the rally – the preparations at the venue were at a bare minimum. The track wasn’t even properly chalked out; it had no boundaries for sure. Though I do remember seeing a huge air balloon like structure at the venue … if that counts. Anyway, jeeps kept on speeding past us. Some like thunder, some like defused bombs. But there would be a whirlpool of dust in the wake of every jeep, turning us blind and goofy. Dressed exquisitely in the quintessential Ninja Turtles’ attire, we figured how to anticipate the coming of a jeep by its swooshing sound (and to jump off the track in time). Jeeps came and went, the competition kept on progressing, Nadir Magsi  won the rally; while the Ninjas remained completely busy in coughing up sand.    









Part one: the (cheesy) romance…

One morning, we stopped at a road-side (drivers) hotel for breakfast. A cool breeze was blowing from the east, making the lush green fields around the hotel spring to life. And then there passed a tractor: Atta Ullah Khan Esa Khelvi blaring from its speakers in folk  Seraiki. We were served pure desi yoghurt (desi makhan, anyone?) with crisp parathas. Everything around us fell into unison to put up this show of hospitality. It is moments like these you travel for: when some place opens up its heart for you so erratically, so warmly!     








Part two: the (terrorising) intimacy…

The only thing that nudged us back from our newly-discovered Southern Punjabi utopian identities was being molested by a group of beggars. Often. The beggars, a common sight in the region, are perhaps the best indicator of the region’s (lack of) development.  They push and pull, grab you by the arm and God knows will tear off your shirt if granted the dubious opportunity. For all the talk of increasing Talibanisation  in South Punjab (which, I’m in no way implying is untrue), this was the closest we got to extremism.






Into the wild… (not really)!

We couldn’t get into the Lal Suhanra National Park. Generally when it’s about a national park, you’d think getting out should be the problem, but not here. Misdirected boards and abandoned gates teamed up maliciously against us. They: 4. We: 0. So as our van sought a way in diligently, I was happy to remain occupied with the views of the beautiful canal that ran beside the narrow road, frequented by fancy birds you wouldn’t spot elsewhere. Once inside the park, we discovered the most notable animals were a pair of rhinoceroses – the government of Nepal apparently hated these, so it sent      them   here. The second most interesting animals in the area were the ones that looked exactly like us (or was it us?). The rest of the animals pretty much existed only on signboards. There are the region’s specialty Black Deer, too, but a better deal would be to save your petrol and see these in Bahawalpur’s zoo. Speaking of which, the same zoo had about seventeen lions when my parents lived in the city – the most in any zoo of Pakistan. Even now, there were around ten. Presenting a family insight for you finer taste again, a monkey of the same zoo caught a fist-full of my sister’s hair back in the day, and it just wouldn’t let go. As you can imagine, there was quite a scene that followed. And I think I’m completely ready to be disowned by my family for revealing this bit of classified information.   








Metaphysics revisited. (or philosophy harassed)…

Someday, when I’ll be wasting my life taking quizzes on  BuzzFeed, and the website will ask me something about the greatest moments of my life, I’m sure one will be this. I’m sitting with my friends upon a rock (near Mohenjodaro), facing the great wall of   Derawar Fort well past midnight. The wall, impressively illuminated, gleams like gold against the shade of blue hinting through the skies.It’s inarguably the best conclusion to the night we’ve seen the desert come alive in.We sit in complete silence; an unspoken understanding between us of how important it is to absorb this moment.


You know I have this theory about travelling. And when I’ll be old and cranky and dreadful for most of the human population; I’ll visit these places again. And there I’ll meet this younger version of myself, living so very happily in the moment. Then the older me will thank the younger me – for not listening to the detractors and investing the effort to do what I thought I should. For adding to my experience while I could – for giving the older me something to romanticise, reminisce and laugh about when he’s dreadful for most of the human population.For making use of my mind when it hadn’t dimmed and of my body when the bones hadn’t yet started creaking. This is my theory about travelling. I’m pretty sure the dust, heat, shrines and beggars of the region will be happy to play witness to this very private meeting – the stake-holders of my wanderlust!


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