Visiting the Kalar Kahar region is like having a strong shot of espresso coffee: it sets me brooding. In the monsoon, the usually scraggy, brown mountains acquire all the mind-bending shades and shapes of green. I have never tested this theory but I think this region should not be visited by anyone under the influence of any hallucinogenic drug because, even normally, the mountains look like fossils of alien creatures imagined by a crazy science fiction writer. Because of this untested hypothesis, I arrived ? with a friend who has a keen interest in art, design and architecture – totally sober.
First we turned left after taking the Kalar Kahar exit on M2 and arrived at the Kalar Kahar Lake and the PTDC motel. There were Ferris wheels, swings, and merry-go-rounds and hordes of tourists there. Burger and kebab vendors were enjoying a brisk business. This was not the right place for a collaborative session of brooding-while-looking-over-the-mountains and photography. So we asked for directions to the ruins of Katasraj, hoping that the remnants of past civilisations would be the right place to spend some hours recovering from our daily 9-to-5 and 5-to-midnight grinds in Lahore. We retraced our tyre marks to the M2 and took the right turn and over the bridge and across to the right side. After driving for 25 kilometres, past the monstrous cement factories and rolling, scraggy green hills, we arrived at the magnificent ruins a couple of hours before sunset.
I was ready to just sit and brood without tea, coffee or moonshine and contemplate the impermanence of civilisations and their ideas of self-importance; so I left the luxury of photography to my companion. But as soon as he took a couple of pictures, a guard arrived and stopped us: "You are photographing the building without a human being in the frame. This is not allowed." I was intrigued. It reminded me of the Soviet bureaucratic logic. We were guilty of some capitalistic pleasure if we photographed just the building. And it was a new logic which we had never encountered before at other sites managed by the Punjab Department of Archaeology. All the desire for brooding on the fate of past civilisations had evaporated. I was worried about the survival of the one in which I was living.
My friend found a curious solution. He asked the guard to be in the photograph to satisfy the requirement of having a human being in every frame. The guard was convinced but only after one picture he realised the camera angle was putting him on the left margin of the frame – for cropping him out later on. So he forbade us altogether and took us to his boss who said we had to go and get permission from the director of his department whose office was in Lahore. We were speechless because we had just driven from Lahore. So we left the ruins and the bureaucratic nightmare and went looking for a cup of tea. There was a dingy hotel nearby with Bollywood remixes blaring on the TV. Suddenly it felt like the narrative of Mahabharata was continuing without any break from the ruins of the Katasraj to the post-modern remixes. But the local jobless men sitting wide-eyed in front of the electronic spectacle were also there adding complexity to the illusion of the monolithic narrative.
The chai was not as karak as TV advertisements tell it is in rural or non-urban settings. So we left for the more predictable smoothness of the motorway. Soon we were in the 50 km/hr speed zone going uphill and downhill. There we saw another marvel of engineering. There are ramps on the left side, going up from the third, the slowest lane. They are meant as emergency stopping measures for those vehicles whose brakes have failed on the hills. I asked my friend: "What will happen to the unstoppable vehicle who has gone up a ramp?" He was quiet. I persisted: "How will the bed of the ramp keep the runaway vehicle there? Will not descend back to the road?" There was no clear answer available. We both concluded ours was a confusing civilisation with no clear cut answers and travelled back to Lahore.
The next day I went to my office and googled "katas ruins" for images. There were 13200 images available in various sizes. The Department of Archaeology had certainly been very efficient. Then while surfing the net I came across a sentence by Nietzsche which explained many things: "Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule."
Published in The News on Sunday
dated August 24, 2008