Magical Mystery Tour

July 17, 2010

When three young women, who are journalists by profession, decide they want to spend their week of travelling through Sindh and Punjab, one might wonder if the current political and security scenario might put a damper on their plans. Or if they have any grand ambitions, along the lines of, “in the spring of Taliban violence, three women defied the stereotypes, flung their dupattas in the air and decided to rediscover their country.”

But we had no such grand design. All we really wanted was to see as much of the two provinces as we could. So, on a hot summer day in Karachi this March, we set out on a bus from Sohrab Goth to Sehwan Sharif, home to the Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine. During the journey, we passed by massive posters of Fatima Bhutto in Jamshoro, as we listened to what was undoubtedly the worst Indian music released in the ’90s, playing on the bus stereo system.

Upon reaching Sehwan we were taken aback by the extent of the belief that devotees had in the saint. Men and women circled the shrine, others muttered prayers in corners, women wept, and every so often a policeman would swing his lathi and drive out the beggars from the shrine. From the alcove, a woman began singing Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s praises, and in the market, shopkeepers hawked posters featuring the saint’s image.

From Sehwan we rented a car and set off to Khairpur, with two stops in Dadu. The first was the wondrous, haunting Khudabad Jamia Mosque, built sometime in the 1700s during the Kalhoro period. Legend has it that there’s a door in the mosque that no one comes back from once crossed. It has now been sealed. It was appalling to note that the mosque had, until recently, been abandoned. While conservation work is currently going on, one wonders what previous representatives from the tourism department were doing. The second stop was at Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast’s shrine: a more beautiful and serene shrine I have yet to visit. The tiled façade of the shrine glowed a wondrous shade of blue and yellow as the sun set. Surrounded by a compound which also has guestrooms for visitors, the shrine’s interior was another masterpiece of the artisans of Sindh. Flowers had been painted in every variation, depicting peacocks and bouquets. Devotees quietly came in, paid their respects and left, ensuring in the process that they never turned their back at the tomb.

Spending the night in Khairpur at a local guesthouse, we went to see the Khazana community centre, a 200-year-old building donated by the Mirs of Khairpur to a local NGO. Well-maintained lawns surround the building, and one can eat delicious Sindhi biryani, buy ajrak print duvet covers and attend one of the talks held regularly by the NGO.

The next morning saw us standing on the bridge next to the Sukkur Barrage, gaping in shock at what was once the River Indus, but has now shrivelled up to a shadow of its former glorious self. One has been reading news reports about the drying rivers, but seeing it first hand horrified me to the core.

The Garhi Khuda Bux graveyard that now houses many members of the Bhutto family, stands out for miles when one is driving to Larkana. With its Taj Mahal-esque exterior, billboards in the compound screamed “Bilawal Bhutto Lovers Organisation” and “Who is Bhutto’s Murderer: America.” Children peddled postcards and framed pictures of various members of the Bhutto family. Inside the tomb, visitors of all ages came to pay their respects. But with all the love for the Bhuttos that the people claim to have, one would hope that they’d also pay attention to the fact that the boundaries around the graves of Murtaza and Shahnawaz Bhutto are slightly crooked.

Moenjodaro, home to the ancient Indus Valley civilisation, was a sight to behold, with the ruins of a 5,000-year-old drainage system that its neighbouring city Larkana would do very well to replicate. The caretaker cum tour guide informed us that there are still more sites in the surrounding area that have yet to be excavated but, like Moenjodaro, are under threat due to the rising water tables.

With our whirlwind Sindh tour done, off we went to Bahawalpur by bus, hoping that, at some point, we’d come across the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) complex in the district: this is what happens when you’re a journalist and travel with two others — you see news headlines everywhere. En route to the city, my nose was permanently stuck to the glass of the bus window, hoping there’d be a sign that said, “Feeling angry? Need a bed? Rest and militancy, straight ahead.” No such luck, and we got to Bahawalpur, sans any encounters with bearded militants vowing to storm the Red Fort in New Delhi.

As the sun set on Bahawalpur, we found ourselves in the majestic Noor Mahal, once the office of the princely rulers, the Abbasis, and now being used as an officers’ mess — and occasionally for shooting TV serials — after it was taken over by the Pakistan Army in 1971. A representative from the officers’ mess gave us a guided tour, pointing out the pool table where Mohammad Ali Jinnah had once famously been photographed; later Jinnah gifted it to the Abbasis of Bahawalpur. He was quick to point out the effort made by the Pakistan Army in the preservation of the place, and even let us try out the ancient piano, which stood unobtrusively in the grand hall.

Bahawalpur also boasted the magical Uch Sharif, which has hundreds of graves (some say thousands) of Sufi saints. We walked through winding lanes, where women sold bangles even as they smoked cigarettes. On seeing us, the children stopped focusing on their studies in the makeshift classroom that had been set up in the compound of Sufi saint Moosa Pak Shaheed’s grave. And then there was the Sufi saint Bibi Jawindi’s erstwhile majestic tomb that had been destroyed by floods hundreds of years ago. The tombs in the compound are masterpieces of architecture and a testament to the craftsmanship of the local artistes, but it is a travesty that no conservation efforts are currently in progress at the site.

It was on our last day in Bahawalpur that we discovered that JeM leader Maulana Masood Azhar’s old house was in the same colony that we’d been living in. “So,” we asked our driver, knowing fully well this would be a futile question, “when was he last seen here?”

“No one knows. We haven’t seen him in years,” he replied.

One would like to wax lyrical about our next stop, Multan, with its Chowk Bazar, and the shrines that can be seen for miles. It was a wondrous place, but more than that, it was the people of Multan who restored my dwindling faith in humanity. We found them to be the friendliest people — from rickshaw drivers to storekeepêrs, everyone was willing to act as a tour guide. “We love you,” screamed two men on a cycle in Multan to a friend of mine, as we tried in vain to find Shah Shams Tabrez’s shrine while walking down the road. At Chowk Bazar, I spotted a Hindu temple, but couldn’t find a way to get to the entrance and, lo and behold, two shopkeepers led us to their building’s roof, from where one could view the temple, which is currently closed to the public.

It was at the Sufi saint Hazrat Yusuf Gardezi’s shrine in Multan that I felt the first pangs of paranoia. Karachi had experienced a series of bomb blasts on two different occasions in the month of Muharram, targeting Shiite Muslims. At the time of our visit to Hazrat Gardezi’s shrine, there was a majlis in progress, and there were more police officers guarding the shrine than there were faithfuls.

Suddenly, as we were making our way out of the complex, the police left their spots and started walking towards us, leaving the door relatively unguarded. This is it, I thought, they’re going to ask us why we’re here. We’ve probably broken some kind of law and maybe the intelligence agencies have been tailing us all along. And while we’re in the midst of answering them, a suicide bomber will enter the complex and we’re all going to die.

“Do you know the story of Hazrat Yusuf Gardezi and the lion?” asked a policeman. “I thought I should tell you, since most people don’t know the story.” I berated my paranoid self as he narrated the legends surrounding the Sufi saint, and subsequently bid us a safe journey to our next destination.

Then we arrived at our final destination, Islamabad, home to the beautiful Margalla Hills and trees of every size and shape — and since 2007, in the news for all the wrong reasons. But more than anything else, Islamabad has become the city where one can now get a Blackwater tour. It was while we were sitting down for tea at the upscale Kohsar Market that I realised how paranoid Islooites had become. Three buff, foreign men walked down the street to get into a Mercedes and drive off. “Blackwater.” Err, what about them being aid workers or something? “What aid worker drives around in a Mercedes Benz?” was the reply I was given. Later that night, I was shown one of the houses in Islamabad that the so-called “spies” had taken over. It looked no different than any of the houses one would come across in Karachi that were owned by politicians, or uber-paranoid citizens of the city. Barbed wire, ladies and gentlemen, does not maketh a spy cell. But then again, I’m also the journalist who just travelled across Punjab hoping she’d accidentally run into Maulana Masood Azhar at the local teashop and win a Pulitzer.

So despite it all, we managed to make our way back home without meeting any militants, kidnappers or rapists. We weren’t harassed or robbed, and at no point did we feel that our personal safety was at risk. No one asked us to cover up, and even though everyone knew we were tourists, no one tried to rip us off. While it is true that Pakistan is not the safest country in the world, three women managed to travel alone, use public transport and see some of the most wonderful sights that Pakistan has to offer. Nothing compares to seeing the mango trees in full bloom in Bahawalpur, or experiencing the silence of Uch Sharif or getting a glimpse of the sunset amidst towering date trees in Khairpur — and for that, I am grateful to my country.

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