Monday, August 15, 2005

The long road home

Standing in front of a PIA passenger plane, staring at the green streak on the white body of the aircraft to my mid-morning walk in North Karachi, I seem to have travelled light years. And yet here I am, where I had always been.
The plane journey was uneventful. It began with the mild nuisance of dealing with people crammed in a small space. Travel agents across Toronto had told me that seats weren't available for PIA flights till August 18th. And yet, the seat beside me sat empty. I could picture someone in a PIA uniform laughing somewhere, and had to shake my head to get it out of my head. On the other side of the aisle, a passenger got too chummy and inquired whether I was returning home to get married. I mumbled something about Pakistanis in general, and that was the end of that.
On the window seat was M, who did a wicked impression of a PIA hostess announcing a flight when we landed at Manchester. Highlight of the whole 18 hour flight, I assure you! She pointed out that PIA was probably the only airlines crossing the Atlantic with an all male steward crew. No sir, we're just too proud to parade our women in a small space serving tea and selling duty-free cigarettes. (btw, wicked rates here for someone used to the prices in Canada.)
I landed at Islamabad airport at around 6pm. The doors of the plane opened, and a humid air surrounded me. It clung to me like a long lost relative, embracing me as if I was the one it had missed all along. And i was a child again, struggling in the bear-hug of an old aunt, desperately wanting it to end.
As I waited for my luggage, I looked at the staff staring stiffly at the few women daring enough to have come home in western clothes. This is still consy town, no matter what they show on television. Once my luggage had arrived, I ventured outside. I was to continue my trip to Lahore on bus from here. But, outside, the vultures had gathered to skin me alive. One cabbie demanded that I pay Rs. 500 for a trip from the airport to the Daewoo bus station. We settled at 120.
Pindi appeared to be a mess on first glimpse. The streets were ripped everywhere. Huge construction equipment sat blocking traffic on both sides. As we approached Saddar, I was struck with disbelief. Every corner that I had known, from the PC hotel to the race course grounds had been bulldozed over. No more trees lining the sides, and footpaths to walk on. An endless spread of grey being trampled upon by cars and trucks of all sizes. In the war with progress, the dark barks and the green leaves had no one on their side.
The Daewoo station looked like a train wreck. Cars here, buses there, and all the passengers in between. I recalled a small station with an even smaller waiting area. By comparison, this was an airport with people strolling in and out, a crowded ticket counter where one would have to lean in just to hear the person on the other side. Getting the ticket turned out to be a semi-jihad, that I fought with an ever decreasing vigour.
Once the bus started moving, all I could hear and see were cellphones. Thumbs started ticking, buttons flew, and ring-tones vaguely familiar began to sound off. I felt like I a small town simpleton dumb-founded by the city experience. But that impression didn't last. A Maulana was sitting in front of me. His discussion with his family implied that he was returning from a trip to Sawaat. Another sat behind me. During the trip, the air conditioner broke down, and we had to take an additional stop, where I phoned home to let everyone know that I was on my way. My brother asked whether I was calling from Toronto. "Nopes", I replied, "Kalar kahaar!"
At the unscheduled stop, the Maulana sitting behind me disappeared. The AC was fixed and we were ready to leave, and a hunt was launched for him. He and his fellow traveller had ordered dinner at the local restaurant and were adamant that they wouldn't leave without eating. When the driver threatened to leave without them, they returned to their seats, and immediately asked the stewardess to bring them the complaint book. Then, they sat back and wrote for a full hour. I could hear some of the subject as was being dictated by the Maulana to his accomplice. I wondered if I could have come up with a better improv, and that too, on paper.
The stewardess was called every fifteen minutes after the incident. Twenty four hours ago, the people around me would have considered this behaviour outrageous. But righteously so, this is consy town, where a dose of harassment dished out by a loud Mullah was ignored by all.
Finally, I reached Lahore. Met my parents after a good three years. Mom looked like she had lost weight. No doubt, every ounce gone was spent worrying about me. Dad seemed composed, but later on, I noted that his temper comes quicker now. A slight nuisance, and his nerves give way.
From there on, I spent a few days in Lahore, and now I am in Karachi. With cousins and family, I barely get time to read. This is the first time I have ventured online in almost two weeks. Pamuk's Snow is in my briefcase, and every time I open it I wonder when I will get a few hours of down time to enjoy it.