When I was in boarding school, one weekend every month was designated as a long holiday, and I would head to Lahore. The going part was easy; anxiously awaited, and celebrated all the way. Ande jande stationaa toun kulfiaan khawaan gay sorta thing. The coming back part was hard. Calling friends, trying to find out who was leaving when. Fitting it into Mammu's schedule so he could drop me off. Waiting in the heat to buy the ticket, and wondering what movie, if any, would be shown on the rudimentary in-bus entertainment system.
I'd grab anything to read during the ride, which contributed to the exodus of books from my Naana's house. But the roads were bumpy and the buses - don't get me started on the buses. I could have done what the majority of people did: engage in chit-chat, discuss politics and weather, or muse over what was in-store for us all, in the great land of the pure. But I was headed to boarding school, leaving family in Lahore, for reasons I didn't understand and wasn't eager of being reminded of.
On one such trip, an elderly looking gentleman sitting beside me started 'making conversation'. Although he appeared harmless in his starched-cotton kurta shalwar, bulging belly and the fruit basket he'd dip into from time to time, I was instructed to be wary of strangers. As soon as he asked me my name, I gave him a false one. Then he proceeded to interview me about my family, and the reason behind my travelling alone. I told him I was headed to boarding school, which was true, and for the rest of his questions, I made up answers on the go. I can't remember what story I came up with, but it must have been believable. The gentleman asked me to join him for dinner when the bus stopped midway at a small roadside dhaaba in the middle of nowhere. My instincts were to say no, but I was having too much fun conning him into a meal. I was twelve years old and loving it.
The trip ended with me getting off the bus safely at my destination, and relating the story to the rest of the boarders.
Now, those of you who haven't been in boarding should know that inspite of the charm associated with living away from the prying and preening eyes of family members, boarding school gets boring just like all of everyday life. The story sessions after the lights-out deadline, specially ones after a long weekend, were enchanting and entertaining at the same time. Lahore, Multan, Muzaffarabad, D.G. Khan, were all there in that dormitory, ensnared in our imagination, golden in the nostalgia, almost romantic after midnight.
In two days, everyone was asking me about the game. I was the kid who'd bull-shitted his way to a free meal, I was a con-artist. Without realizing, I had made it into a select group reverred for their antics and anarchist behaviour on campus. I had done no such thing, and was mildly amused that they thought I was cool. That evening, when the usual suspects were rounded up for yet another prank, I was there, too. When the nightly session was over, I was brought in into another session, held in a different dormitory where I came to know the people behind the pranks and antics that had remained unsolved. My own buddies, but with a slight gleam in the eyes, bemused smiles and a bring-it-on attitude. If this was the real boarding, where had I been living?
Until I joined university, whenever I travelled, it would be under guise. The rules were simple. I had to get them to pay for my meal when the bus stopped. It could be as small as a coke or pepsi, or as large as a three dish meal. I would take no money in my hand (which was offered once). I'd accept contact information, but never actually contact, and I'd provide no such thing for myself. There were no rules for the story, except that it had to been done then and there. I could be anyone, as long as I had not been that particular anyone before. At various times, I was the rich kid partying without a sense of future, the boy following his heroic uncle's footsteps, the kid with an outrageous disease, the over-achiever from a poor family, the downtrodden restored by destiny, the orphan, the ghazal singer, and best was, a colonel's son on special assignment. It worked every single time!
The victims were fellow travellers. An auntie who held me up as a role-model to her two kids, a German tourist on his way North who said he went there every summer since his retirement. A female student of QA University who tried to convince me that life had meaning beyond love (I had lost my girlfriend in an accident, you see), and gave me her phone number which I sold for cigarettes (This was the only time I was tempted to break the contact rule). Most of them were common people, city folks headed one way or another down life's treacherous path.
Now, planning a trip to Lahore, I wonder whether my improv skills are up to it or not. The only way to be sure is to try, and hopefully, I'll have a story for you guys, too.