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The lack of activity on the tourism front in Lahore has become a matter of utter disappointment. Not only have I not been able to see the major places of interests here, the program of watching a Pakistani film in a cinema has stalled as well, and so seems the fate of watching a play at the Academy of Arts nearby. There are various reasons for this inertia. The most debilitating is the hesitancy that has crept in somehow. Certainly not used to being in a foreign country, every step one takes is with apprehension. I just hope this problem vanishes soon, and I also hope that the next Test finishes before the fifth day and we can get a day off.
This is the only time I have wished Test cricket was shorter in length; that too, on a day when two Indians reached closer to smashing a record which is almost twice as old as I am. This was one of the few times I have witnessed a game of cricket when someone like Virender Sehwag never looked like getting out. The monotony of his brilliance on the much-criticised pitch feels as new as the place I am in. All day long, local cricket followers showered praise on Sehwag and Rahul Dravid for taking their first-wicket partnership to 403 (10 short of Pankaj Roy and Vinoo Mankad’s 1955 record) while experts on television flattened the pitch further with their emphatic words, never failing to remind us of the dearth of life in it.
The funniest part of the match was when the batsmen walked off the field for bad light. There were around a hundred people (including the ubiquitous chacha) in the stands near the far-end sight screen. In a moment after the umpires offered light to the batsmen, they were gone, and so was that crowd at the far end. And even before stumps could be drawn, the Qaddafi ground-staff were busy sweeping that stand. It would have been a sight to behold if play had restarted and the stands were being made ready, perhaps for the next day.
The fifth day lasted all of ten minutes and the Qaddafi stadium – inside and outside – looked anything like a venue staging a Test match between Pakistan and India. Nobody looked interested in watching the game. There were around hundred people in the ground when Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag decided to have a go at the humongous first-wicket record created in 1955. That they didn’t reach it was the final straw. These are matches that should squarely be blamed for the notoriety of Test cricket among everyday fans.
Locals felt the series was better off starting at the slightly warmer Karachi, and then leading its way to Lahore when the weather would brighten up. But the idea behind Lahore’s selection as the first Test host was perhaps based on the cold weather here. This could have caught the Indians shivering while the Pakistani fast bowling talent ripped through their middle-order when thus vulnerable. It appears that Pakistan is more concerned about its batting failing in such conditions; since a green top is good for either fast bowling attacks.
There is conflicting news on Faisalabad. Some say the weather is better than it was in Lahore. Others feel it will be similar, worse still, so will be the pitch, they say.
The caterers in the NCA have been looking after us very well. They have made special arrangements for vegetarian food and this has taken them such an effort that out of some 250-300 meals they serve each day, we are the only vegetarians. So, today I pulled out a couple of ready-to-eat items that I had bought from Bangalore to let them have a taste of India. Call it truth or politeness, they liked the food.
Today was also the first day I sat in a Pakistani auto rickshaw. The difference is in the smaller seat which is about two-thirds of the Indian vehicles; the door to each rickshaw; the elevated back which makes the contents of one’s trouser pockets slid through and number of mirrors in an auto; around four. Everything else is the same. You fix a rate before you board and you stay more attentive than the driver himself as the he pretends to test ride a Formula 1 car.
An unexpected extension to our stay in Lahore, much of today was spent sleeping, and reading a newspaper, The News. The quality of the paper used is somewhere between the coarseness of the Asian Age and the smoothness of the Hindu. It is perhaps closest to Vijay Times, the paper brought out by the VRL group in Bangalore. The first sports page carried a picture of Virender Sehwag’s shot which got him out; the ball almost past the bat after brushing it, the AFP cameraman must be delighted to have caught the only wicket to fall in around three days of cricket. The report though was quite big for the ten minutes played on the fifth day; of course, the emphasis being on the missed opportunity for India’s captain and vice-captain to make the top of the record list.
There was an interesting news item in the local section of The News. A girl, aged 16, had rebelled against a bizarre custom called Vani. It is a system where a girl related to a murderer is given away to the family of the victim in marriage. This girl’s father had murdered a person ten years ago. Now, a son of the deceased, 31-years of age, and married with children, remembered the Vani and went to ask for her hand. The girl now is refusing to go with him. The reporter who had covered the story had made it a point to chronicle the two families’ lineage. So, much of the story was filled with descriptions of people which went like; X, s/o Y, s/o Z… and so on.
Tomorrow, we’ll be moving to Faisalabad. Both the pitch and the weather have an element of mystery about them. One thing we have been told with utmost certainty is the motorway from Lahore to Faisalabad. “Cars zoom at over 150 km/h consistently,” someone said.
We moved out of Lahore, first on the M2 (motorway) which eventually takes you to Islamabad, and then took a deviation towards Faisalabad on the M3. This, and the Coaster (a mini-bus of Chinese make), were the only signs of modernity evident today. Faisalabad resembles any other dusty, worn-out town of the past eras which has yet to graduate into being a proper city. The dull mood it creates would have been worse had last week’s rain persisted here.
Once we left Lahore on the motorway, the stark contrast between modern and old Pakistan was visible. The motorway, as promised by many, is a terrific achievement. However, on either side of the road, you see clusters of brick-laid houses with cows, mules and horses tethered to stables; with farmers employing mules to carry them and their carts; with people remarkably laid-back, watching high-speed vehicles on the motorway careen into, and out of, sight.
The greenery that is associated with Punjab is so evident in the landscape. Dung-cakes molded over pots adorn the brick-layered houses. Somewhere, a lone house overseeing huge areas of farms can be seen with its share of water-pumps. At other places, excavation work is being carried out even as closer by, forlorn trees survive in extremely dry conditions. Yet, all these are forgotten an acre later where the greenery returns.
Faisalabad though, is a different story. The dust raised by aging, disabled vehicles on incomplete roads presents a dull brown look to the city. Buses are brightly dressed-up for travel, and are generally full with people. Auto rickshaws, mule-driven carts, motor bikes, and occasional cars make up the traffic composition of the city.
It is quite a surprise though that despite all its modernity in Lahore, I couldn’t find a cyber-café close enough to the stadium. Here, there is one next door.
After less than a day in Faisalabad, we were forced to change plans and move out to Lahore. For reasons out of our control, we won’t be working at the Iqbal Stadium either, and hope that by the 29th, for Karachi, the bureaucratic knots untie themselves. The return trip is of very little interest as not only is it disappointing to leave Faisalabad without doing any work, yesterday’s journey is still fresh in mind. The same brick-layered houses, the mule-driven carts, rural Pakistan, calm countryside, dung-cakes in various shapes, hopeful villagers ogling at the modern motorway.
However, before leaving Faisalabad’s dusty streets and old-factory setting, I had an opportunity to see the Iqbal stadium. Very much a small, middle-level set-up when compared to the huge Qaddafi Stadium at Lahore, the Iqbal stadium has an old-world charm to it. The monotonous daily life outside, in the town, doesn’t seem to affect it. It is an appealing arena with pleasing colours and well-kept stands. Big, erect hoardings on the top row of the public stands are placed in such a way that they don’t disturb the quiet setting of the ground.
The Iqbal stadium reminded me of Rajkot’s Madhavrao Scindia stadium. Similar in size and exuding the same warmth (PS: I made another visit to Rajkot’s cricket stadium recently and changed my opinion of it), it is housed inside a similar town. The security for the Indian team’s arrival though looks as vigilant as it was in Lahore, and the innumerable policemen in such a small venue make it look like a fortress. Also, there was quite a bit of grass on the outfield and everyone expects the pitch to be similar. But the newsmen can confirm only so much that it will be better than Lahore’s.
We started for Karachi before schedule, and before the second Test began at Faisalabad. It is a 1200+ kilometers drive and takes close to a day by road. The bliss of the motorway was left back as our mini-bus, Coaster, took a deviation towards Karachi on normal, sub-continental highway roads. Somewhere smooth, somewhere beaten by wear and tear, the moment you hit it, you know the ride will be a lot difficult than earlier ones; just as India found out on the first day of the Test.
If it was any better than Lahore, the Faisalabad’s pitch didn’t hold much cheer for the Indian bowlers. When our bus was out of Lahore, an ingenious technical accomplishment provided us with a slightly interrupted display of the match in the installed TV. I saw Pakistan get to 49 without loss when, irritated by the disappointing telecast and with innumerable film CDs on hand, we switched over. Till then, R.P. Singh had swung the ball, but the pitch looked much the same as in Lahore apart from that.
The areas adjacent to the road to Karachi remained similar to what I had seen in the past few days. Green farms, mule-driven carts, farmers tending to their crops, children in various coloured clothing, cows, hens and sheep as backdrop, brick-kilns smoking black gas, motorcycles converted into auto-rickshaws and hopeful citizens.
The first major town we encountered on our way was called Okara. I call it major because it was to present us with our first important experience of the day. A policeman stopped the vehicle and asked the driver to get down. They shook hands and one from our side joined them; explaining the reason for our travel. When the policeman got to know that we were from India, he politely asked our representative to carry on, but he wouldn’t relent on the driver’s side. It meant Rs.100 as escape-fee from him. This taught us one thing – we might always be let-off thanks for our nationality, but it was necessary to cover for our Pakistani driver.
We moved away from the policeman and weaved our way through traffic which was made up of all kinds of vehicles – private buses, extraordinarily decorated trucks (Our driver, Ehsaan, says, some truck-owners spend over a lakh on decorations), motorbike-auto-rickshaw combo carrying around six people in them, motorcycles with, at an average, three people per bike, carts, bicycles, horse-driven carriages, etc. The shops lining the main road appear to have been selling the same products for ages. Welders, butchers, fruit-sellers, hardware marketers and small-time hoteliers look like they have been watching the variety of vehicles ply past them at that Okara road from years gone by thanks to the dust and dirt they have collected over time.
The road from here snaked out into rougher conditions. Either these roads were being rebuilt, and hence were in bad condition, or they hadn’t been conditioned for a long time. The result was a bumpy stretch after lunch where we met two more police patrols who were more condescending and let us go without a fine even when our vehicle had flown past them above the speed limit.
Lunch was at Khanewal, a town appropriately titled for our sake. Here, in-between trying to explain our necessity for vegetarian food to a waiter, I saw R.P. Singh get two wickets very quickly. Even by then, Pakistan had scored over 200 for the loss of four wickets.
“Vegetarian food hai yahan?” we would ask. “Kya, vegetables?” the waiter would ask, and I almost saw his face appear like someone else’s thanks to the astonishment. “Nahi, who khana jisme gost na ho.” And after much discussion we would settle for plain rice and curd. This was the order of our days when vegetarian food was not easily available.
From here, it was decided that we put up for a night in a hotel at a place called Sadiqabad, a place close to the border between Punjab and Sind. This was exactly half-way between Lahore and Karachi and would be ideal for lodging as night in some areas were pregnant with dacoits, we were told.
We reached Sadiqabad at around 10 pm and looked at a couple of hotels. The first one had a very polite manager who enquired about us with great interest and declared that he didn’t have enough rooms to spare. He apologized, in chaste Urdu, for his inability to be of help to us and directed to another hotel nearby. When we went to another hotel, I soon realized it wasn’t the one pointed to by that manager. This one had, at its reception, a muscular, mustachioed, gruff-looking man. On talking to him, it became apparent that he couldn’t care less about us. He gave us the hotel keys and said, “Ye seedi chadhke right le lena. Saare room vahin hain.” As we climbed the stairs, he said, “Garam pani nahi milega.” The one room we saw was enough to force us to seek another place. A terrifying stink as you entered the room, paan spit covering the lower-third of the walls and an unbelievably-soiled toilet, were few of its salient features. And when we thanked him to beat a retreat, he carried the same disinterested look which he seemed to have mastered over years of hospitality. For his defence, he perhaps was doing everything to put us off as the hotel didn’t look made for an official stay.
Third time was lucky as we came to a hotel called Tamaam. All this while, Ehsaan was accompanying us as most places had signboards in Urdu. Here too he came with us to this reception which was well-kept and had a dignified, polite manager. He showed us the rooms and sprayed a freshener before we stepped into them. He also gave us a discount and we settled for a good night’s sleep hoping to be up by 6 in the morning to resume the journey to Karachi.
Sadiqabad is the border-town after which Punjab gives way to Sind. The difference between the two Union Councils becomes stark as you go slightly deeper into Sind. While Punjab is similar to the Punjab of India with its fabled, lush fields, hospitable people and Aloo Parathas. Sind is closer in form to the arid areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Dry land covered, sometimes by rows and rows of Palm trees, worn-out plantain, mangroves and sometimes by nothing but sand. People were as they had been in Punjab; even policemen offered tea and snacks when they got to know about our cricket connection. But we were to find no Aloo Parathas here. It was the most difficult part of the journey when, at a roadside restaurant, we got nothing more than ghee parathas with absolutely nothing to go with them; well, for a vegetarian, of course. But everywhere, you find a television set with the cricket match being shown live. This being the second day of the Faisalabad Test, Afridi hammered 156 and perished. So did Akmal. And in walked Inzamam with a sore back as we decided to carry on, lest we end up traveling into the night.
There was still around 600 kms to cover from the border of Punjab and Sind to Karachi. As the influence of Punjab gradually wore out and Sind came into full being, the colour of the countryside too changed from green to dry brown. Where on one hand oranges, plump as you could set sight on, seem desperate to be plucked off branches, the leaves of Sind’s plantain have grown brown (perhaps the dusty roads next to them have played a part too!).
Ehsaan said he expected to take us to Karachi by 6:00 pm, “Insha Allah.” Much of this route in the highway is being re-laid and hence, some stretches of road are being used for two-way traffic. And here too, the similarity to Indian highways is evident. Trucks and buses on the other side weave out of their line to overtake smaller and slower vehicles; and when they see that they are close to hitting a vehicle, just bully their way into the wrong side. It does take a good driver to come back intact from these travels. Ehsaan points out two principles of his which he follows with great piety. The first is to keep it as safe as one should and can. The second is that he gives way to faster vehicles behind him before they can blow their horn. “I consider it as an insult if a vehicle behind has to tell me to move out.”
So, as he had said, we were at the outskirts of Karachi by 6:00 pm. And very soon, we are at the National Stadium in Karachi. The Regional Cricket Academy here is very similar to the National Cricket Academy in Lahore; only that the RCA has no television in its rooms. Once here, I come to know that Pakistan scored 588 thanks to another of Inzamam’s centuries and India had lost Sehwag’s wicket. On a more surprising note, there is a hotel, Ponderosa, which specializes in Idli Sambar, Masala Dosa and something called the Madras Thali. So what if a plate of Idli Sambar costs 65 Pakistani rupees and the Madras Thali costs Rs. 140?
The Karachi which I could see in the hour or so seemed like a good place to look around. A huge hoarding carrying a Pepsi advertisement came into view as six Pakistani cricketers looked straight into your eyes. Inzamam was the center of attraction and it was perhaps an old advertisement as he appeared much younger thanks to his clean-shaven look. Along an area called the Gulshan-e-Iqbal, vendors sold second-hand books, promised DVDs at Rs.40 and showcased their range of apparel.
Inside the National Stadium, the facilities are top-class. The practice ground, peripheral to the RCA, is an embodiment of the English tradition of the village green. A big enough ground with grass on the outfield and a set of few chairs for the dignitaries who might take the pain to watch a lower-level match, the “B” ground is as beautiful as it can get. The practice facilities too are adequate with functioning nets, and a matted pitch in the middle of the field makes up the setting.