I finished my tour of Karachi and flew to Lahore, a beautiful city with many huge parks. Friday fell in between and I had a day off to relax. A major client invited me for lunch at his 'chota sa' (small) farm.
He arrived on Friday morning in a Toyota Land Cruiser, the double cab version with an open deck at the back where sat two gunmen carrying—what looked like—sub-machine guns. Another gunman sat next to the driver. On the way, he explained that these were necessary precautions. The Land Cruiser was a prized vehicle in Pakistan, especially in the frontier areas, for ferrying drugs and weapons across the Afghanistan border over rough terrain. Car-jacking was a constant hazard, and the gunmen were just a deterrent, nothing serious.
The ‘small’ farm turned out to be 220 acres full of many types of crops, fruit trees, ponds and even a grove of trees. Ducks and chickens roamed around, pecking at insects. But the real wonder, for me at least, was something else.
As the car entered the gate, I saw about 50 people, including women and children, lined up in neat rows. One by one, they prostrated themselves full length on the ground and placed their heads on my host’s feet. Apparently, this was the way a zamindar was greeted by his lowly flock of farm labourers. Pakistan was still feudal at heart.
When this ritual was finally over, my host turned his attention to lunch. He pointed at a plump duck and said something in rural Punjabi, at which the unfortunate duck was grabbed and removed, presumably for slaughter. Next came a few chickens which shared the same fate. At a word from him, three fellows jumped into a large pond with a net. I gasped, but the pond turned out to be just chest-deep. A large fish was soon caught and held up for approval, but the boss shook his head and it was dumped back in the pond, presumably spared for another day. After several failed attempts, a very large fish was ensnared and the boss approved.
Finally, the boss rattled off a torrent of Punjabi of which I only caught the word 'teetar', at which an elderly man nodded his head, went into a small structure and returned with a double-barrel shotgun. He went off to the grove of trees with three boys in tow. The boys made a racket, a covey of grouse flew out, the shotgun fired twice and about half a dozen birds fluttered down.
Preparations for lunch were complete.
The host took me for a long walk through the farm, pointing out the various vegetables and fruits that seemed to grow in abundance. We came back a little tired and hungry and sat down for lunch. A mountain of food appeared – fried fish, chicken legs tandooried to perfection, slices of succulent duck, breast of teetar, and piles and piles of various vegetables.
I protested at the amount of food. The host smiled and explained that whatever we could not eat would be distributed to the farmhands. A visit from the lord and master meant a feast for them.
After this taste of Punjabi hospitality, I continued my Lahore rounds until it was time to take a flight to Faisalabad, a very dirty industrial town. It had been a hectic day; I was very tired, and fancied a drink. The hotel manager verified that I was not a Muslim (thankfully he did not ask me to pull down my pants to provide proof) and produced a four-page form for me to sign. It seemed that alcohol could be served to non-Muslims, but only for medicinal purposes—hence, the form-filling.
When the 'medicine' arrived, I found it was some rot-gut local whiskey and I could manage only one small drink. When I left Faisalabad the next evening, I pointed to the nearly full bottle and raised my eyebrows at the room boy who was watching me pack. His eyes lit up in delight. He nodded vigorously, grabbed the bottle and thanked me profusely. It seemed he was in dire need of medicine!
Patrick O’Connor had timed my next visit to Islamabad and Rawalpindi, to give me a day off to see some sights. After many meetings, I was entrusted to a driver on Thursday evening. He whisked me off in his car to Murree, a hill station about 30kms from Islamabad—altitude 7,500 feet, a proper hill station. Patrick had rightly decided that I deserved a quiet weekend in a salubrious atmosphere after my hectic travel through Pakistan.
I was quite surprised when the bellboy took me to a lift after checking in at a hotel, and pressed a button to go down, instead of up, as one normally does when going to one’s room from a hotel reception. The reason became clear when I entered my room. The hotel was built on a hillside facing a wide valley. One entered the hotel from the roadside on to the top floor, where the reception was located, and descended to the floors below to get to the rooms.
My room had a deep and wide balcony overlooking the valley. The view was magnificent, and I thought of driving around a bit the next day to see more of the lovely landscape.
The next morning, when I asked the driver to take me around, he looked me up and down sceptically and nodded. Then he made a somewhat scary statement.
“Janab, aap to shakal se Pakistani lagte ho. Urdu bhi kaafi achcha bol lete ho. Lekin, kisi se mat kahna ki aap Hindustani ho, nahi to log aap ko udhar hi qatal kar denge.” (Sir, you look like a Pakistani, and speak Urdu quite well, too. But don’t tell anyone you are an Indian, otherwise they will kill you then and there.)
After this chilling warning, I decided to keep my mouth tightly shut and enjoy the view on the ensuing drive. And what a view! I had been to Kashmir several times before all the trouble started, but the natural beauty of Murree and its surroundings matched, if not beat, anything I had seen in Kashmir.
We even went into ‘Azad Kashmir’ (Pakistan occupied Kashmir or POK in India). At one point, the driver stopped near a small bridge that spanned a rivulet and said, “This is as far as we can go. Only the army, not even the police, dares cross that bridge.”
After a bellyful of Pakistan, it was time to return to Karachi and take a flight back to base. Apparently, I had struck a happy chord with my colleagues in the country, because they gave me a big send-off at which they presented me with a carpet for which the credit boys in every city had contributed. I accepted with gratitude and pleasure—I still have that carpet at home.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)