It is raining on the tarmac below. You can see it on the screen showing live imagery from the camera attached to the belly of the plane. The crew announces turbulence and seatbelts. Your hands act on the instructions. Through the windows on your left, you look at the night sky glowing with lightening. The plane shudders and sinks. A heavy muffled thud and the sound of tyres trying to stop. 4:30 a.m. landing at Islamabad. Scampering after the cabin luggage. Long queues of amphibian creatures. Your turn at the stairs. A bus takes everybody to the main building. Waiting for the bigger suitcases. Shuffling feet and trundling trolleys. X-ray machines displaying everybody's pudenda in colour codes. Sky blue shirts and dark blue trousers with badges on their shoulders rub sleep off their eyes and monitoring screens. Outside.
Worried haggling with a taxi driver about the fare to the bus terminal on Peshawar Road, Rawalpindi. 820 rupees. Shuttling in a rickety taxi that does not stop at red signals during the nights while the driver blames the government for all the lawlessness and corruption. He also praises Zia ul Haq for transparency and honesty. All the previous martial laws were okay. This one is really bad. The prices have gone up. Especially petrol which controls the prices of everything else. Too bad. Too bad. Yes, only Allah is running this country. Yes, of course. What is written on this CD hanging from the rear-view mirror? The prayer for Allah's protection while travelling. Yes, we all need protection from our own selves.
The bus terminal. Magazine stalls. Public telephone points with operators dozing at the counters. Efficiency and early morning drowsiness. One ticket to Lahore please. 520 rupees for our luxury bus service. What does that involve? A meal and a lot of legroom. Does it have a toilet? No. What kind of a luxury is this? Isn't this bus service a multinational presence? No, it has localised itself by simultaneously upgrading the standard of Pakistani transport industry and downgrading the international buses. Take your ticket please. Get your luggage scanned for bombs with metallic parts. Oh who is this woman? Our ground hostess. She echoes the departure and arrival and serves food while college boys enjoy their risque laughter. The road is smooth. It is the motorway: Pakistan's symbol of clean modernity that bypasses all other symbols on the way to Lahore. Above the driver, ads and entertainment silently interrupt each other on the TV in a programme called Consumer Plus. If you put the headphones on, you can hear the latest song of Jawad Ahmad.
A child cries in the rear. Mother tries to calm the baby named Osama. Nothing in this common Arabic name. Put the headphones on. Plug the jack in. Turn the volume up. Lose yourself in groovy Punjabi pop that glorifies the girls of Lahore. After the first part of Consumer Plus, the bus stops at a roadside restaurant. Shuffle out of the bus.
See the world that you have been away from. An incomplete past run into an imperfect present while nostalgia and desire remain intensely elusive. Come back. Sit in the bus. Brood all the way to Lahore. The bus terminal in Lahore. The thick sheet of noise and smoke under the dust-covered sky. Breathe while trying to arrive all the time. Take another taxi. Get swindled. Do not worry. Try to justify the legerdemain of the driver by thinking that he is a dehumanised person who can only survive by lying. Think that the system is dehumanising. Somewhere deep down you know that you are using dead metaphors, shortcuts to the death of your own thought. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Listen to the prayer calls. Listen to the sound of honking horns of commuter vans. See. You are made of dust that is why you have to inhale smoke. There is no logic in the journey from nothingness to dust to compost for hemp plants in the Miani Sahib graveyard. Only the implacable logic of things. Contradictions sustain human societies and their graveyards like the persistent hands of the beggars at traffic signals.
Enter home. Lie to your parents. About what you have been doing in the seductive and uncouth Europe, which was called the Sub-continent before colonialism made it a continent. You had only been studying (Sub-)Continental Philosophy. You never made love, never drank and became a vegetarian because halal meat was difficult to find. Take a shower. Find an empty room. Bolt the door. Sleep. Sleep through all the prayer calls, pretending not to hear them. Come out in the middle of the night when everybody is sleeping. Go to the roof of the house. Not a single star in the sky. Human beings have eaten the stars while running on the roads. Night thoughts. The sounds of tyres cutting the heart of tarmac in the distance. Sit for a while on a chair broken by the inclemency of life. Your words sentence yourself. Go downstairs. Sleep again through the prayer calls till late in the morning.
Breakfast table. One relative tells you that it may be possible to get a good job through some of his connections. You are divided among many people and you are being spoken in many voices. You are many people at once because you are no one in particular. A hand pours mineral water for you from a bottle of 'safe' water. A voice informs you that it is the only water that is safe to drink in Pakistan. You drink safety poured from a plastic bottle. Water and plastic are both indestructible. When you are destroyed, plastic will survive you. You think about starting a poem about Lahore, modelled after T. S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland': 'April is the month of abandoned plastic bags flying in the streets.' No. Not a good idea. Eat your share of chapati and think about your entrails while relatives dish out small talk in ladlefuls. Try to look engrossed, interested. Impure life. Go into the empty room again. Lie on the sofa.
Published in The News on Sunday
dated June 22, 2008