. . . . . .  

Returning from Karachi to Lahore this week was like sliding down a thermometer from cool to freezing. One had forgotten how delicious the enervating sunshine of Karachi could be, or how within a fortnight Lahore could descend into a misty, bone-chilling Antarctica.  

The Super Highway connecting Karachi and Hyderabad remained under-utilised after it opened in the 1970s. Soon, overladen trucks discovered its utility. After that, the heavy traffic resulted in deep ruts in the road, like those caused by chariot wheels in ancient Pompeii. Today, its surface is again serviceable.

En route to Hyderabad, if you want a vision of the future, take the turning into Bahria Town 1. You cannot miss it. It is marked by an empty idol-less temple whose sandy columns copy those of Luxor in Egypt.

Bahria Town like Islamabad is not designed for pedestrians. Well-maintained avenues sweep through caverns of innumerable flats, some complete and others under construction, all speaking of quality. One hill is crowned by the private sprawling villa of Bahria Town’s prime movere – Malik Riaz. Its green lawns cascade down the hillside. On the crest of the second promontory is the majestic white mosque which, when complete, will rival the Badshahi mosque in Lahore, without its history.

From Hyderabad, the route to Sehwan passes along the spine of Pakistan’s agronomy. Some fields are still inundated with flood water, their hapless tillers sheltering under make-shift tents, waiting for a hollow future.

Sehwan still retains its sanctity – if you can find it. In 1846, Lt. William Edwards wrote of it: ‘In its environs are many fine mosques and tombs, and within the city is a remarkably splendid masjid, built in honour of the celebrated Muslim saint, Lal Shahbaz.’

Considering it was a Thursday, the gold-domed shrine had fewer devotees within its precincts than the beggars cadging for a living outside. Here, belief is forced to ignore hygiene.

Previous travellers had spoken of the hazards along the Sehwan-Sukkur route. It proved remarkably clear and comfortable. Date palm orchards gradually gave way to sugar cane plantations that feed sugar mills which in turn feed the Zaradari family.

One does not stay in Sukkur for its nightlife. It has neons but no entertainment. One stays overnight out of necessity. If you find the right room in a hotel on Military Road, you are insulated from the noise of a constant convoy of traffic, day and night. From on high, they seem like a column of dusty ants, moving in both directions, intent only on avoiding collision.

Crossing the mighty Indus is a humbling experience, for here is the river that irrigated a civilization and gave India its name.     

One could have continued to Lahore, had one not been tempted to stop in Multan to see the enviable library of a local notable. His lineage extends into the mists of history, and proudly he shows the pedigree compiled by his forefather and which he has genderised by including the names of the females in his expansive family.

His collection of manuscripts and modern first editions and a stable containing carriages in which his ancestors travelled deserves a public building. The land he and his relations inherited in Multan have been dissected among generations of claimants and in time by their children. As an American billionaire once observed, nothing remains beyond the third generation.

One would have preferred returning to Lahore by the Motorway, had the unwelcome fog not intervened. The longer route along the N5 is a painful journey, made uncomfortably tense by the undisciplined traffic that, following the example of our political leaders, recognises no rules. Sauve qui peut (every man for himself) is the credo. The endless stream of traffic became so crowded spewing exhaust fumes that one longed for a break in which to breathe fresh air. We already have bottled water; when will we market tinned air?

Lahore’s political atmosphere is anything but chilly. It is incendiary. Sparks fly within the PTI-PML-Q alliance as PTI chief Imran Khan and his partner CM Punjab Ch. Parvez Elahi clash for authority. Imran Khan is still smarting from the lash of the No-Confidence motion that removed him from power in April 2022.  Ch. Parvez Elahi has been out of power too long to relinquish it on his partner’s say-so.

While they squabble like two bald men over a toothless comb, the country suffers gas shortages, cap-less price increases and foreign exchange famine. What could be more demeaning for a nation that has arable land and the Indus than to import its wheat from war-torn Ukraine?

It is reported that the new COAS General Asim Munir has made a week-long trip to Saudi Arabia. He has been received with the same condescending cordiality as his predecessors. Will that include monetary largesse?




[DAWN, 12 JAN. 2023] 

12 January 2023
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