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Pakistan Diary III- Day 1

In Lahore: Of Nomadic Odhs
And Parathas

By Yoginder Sikand

18 October, 2006

My host in Lahore is Saeeda Diep, a social activist and a truly remarkable woman. Diep and I have met only once before, and that too very briefly, but we have been in regular touch by email. I think it looks odd staying with someone one hardly knows, and I have said this to her. But Diep is not one to take 'no' for an answer. I have to stay with her and that's that, she insisted when I informed her that my visa had come finally through.

Driving down from the Tourist Centre to Diep's house in Jauhar Town, I jostle between trying to answer Diep's litany of questions about friends in India and trying to spot every small detail that passes by. What strikes me particularly is how identical people look to folks back home. I am quickly disabused of the notion that Pakistanis are physically somehow distinct from Indians, somewhat more 'Aryan'-like. I see all shades of skin on the streets. Few faces stand out as distinctly Central Asian, which is how many Indians imagine most Pakistanis look. Almost every person I see can well be a Hindu of some caste or the other. The fact that few sport visible signs of Muslim-ness, such as beards and burkhas, makes this resemblance even more striking. Many people are dark-complexioned, almost Dravidian, undoubtedly of 'low' caste background. I feel I have not left Delhi at all.

Didi, Diep's sister, has prepared a sumptuous Punjabi meal of parathas, maa ki daal and dahi bhallas. There are probably just a few dozen vegetarians in all of Pakistan and Diep has the proud (or dubious, depending on which side of the culinary divide you are on) distinction of numbering among that rare species. I have been told that it is next to impossible to get decent vegetarian food in Pakistan. 'Even if you ask for daal, it is likely that you'll find bits of meat in it', a friend who has traveled in Pakistan had warned me before I left. I am a committed vegetarian, and I must admit the prospect of spending a month in Pakistan surviving on bread, cheese and the like had been deeply troubling. So, quite naturally, I am ecstatic about Didi's revelations about Diep's eating habits, which most Pakistanis would find utterly eccentric and perhaps somewhat un-'Islamic'.

We chat about this and that, but mostly it is about my utter amazement at how everything I've seen so far, from the border onwards, seems so comfortably familiar. We rue the Partition, curse British and American imperialists, berate Hindu and Muslim chauvinists and religious fundamentalists, denounce politicians, landlords and industrialists and discuss dreams of a South Asian Federation. All these points are to be repeated in innumerable conversations with friends I meet throughout my stay in Pakistan, in every town I visit.

If Diep had her way, we could have gone on with our haranguing session all night, but I am exhausted after the long journey and the thrill of making it across the border. I am led up to a room that Diep has done up for me. I curl into a ball under a mountain of razais, stunned at the reality of being in Pakistan, and not quite sure if I'm dreaming.

I am woken the next morning at the crack of dawn by the muezzin's mellifluous cry emanating from a nearby mosque. Which is just as well, as I tell myself I must try to sleep as little as humanly possible in the next one month so that I can see as much as I can of this country. Who knows if and when I'll be able to come back?

Diep is up and about already at this early hour. Like me, she never gives up giving up smoking, and so although last night we promised ourselves that we have had the last cigarettes of our lives, we have now, quite predictably, firmly changed our minds. We warm our toes before the room-heater and, over hot and sugary cardamom tea, puff away at our cigarettes, desperately seeking to stave off the biting cold. Cigarettes, I am to discover to my relief, are considerably cheaper here than in India, and so are mobile phone cards. Almost everything else, however, I am told, is somewhat dearer.

I go out for a walk and intently survey the surroundings. This could be any lower-middle class locality in New Delhi. Children in their uniforms trudging to school, bearing bags almost half their size. Pot-bellied Punjabi housewives sunk in cane chairs, drinking in the sun in their verandahs. Old men leaning on canes, carrying home metal flasks of milk. A large neglected patch of dried-up grass that serves as a public park, boasting a couple of ugly cement benches and a swing that is no longer functional.

I peer in at what appears to be the main store in the neighbourhood, a modest, somewhat bare structure. I chat up Naved, the friendly owner, who has never seen an Indian before and is, consequently, as intrigued meeting me as I am meeting him, the first Pakistani shopkeeper I have met. Much of what he is selling, he says, is imported from China. Pakistan makes a limited range of quality consumer goods, he explains with patriotic pride, most of these being produced by multinational corporations based in the country. But now, he rues, local industries are facing stiff competition from China, whose cheap goods have flooded the country. 'The British and the Banias have gone, but we are still a colony', Naved laments.

I am famished and Naved guides me to an eatery a short distance away, which seems to be the only one in the locality. Outside, a huge, soot- stained cauldron squats on a pile of burning logs, sending up spirals of acrid smoke. Open drains laden with filth and refuse encircle the building like a quadrangular decoration. Inside, bearded, heavily turbaned old men sit on broken chairs, puffing away at clay hukkahs, coughing and burping loudly. Vast armies of flies angrily hover around plastic plates containing bones and bits of meat.

I ask the owner of the eatery, who has just grabbed hold of a squawking hen by the feet, probably taking it to meet its end, if he has anything vegetarian to eat. He looks at me as if I have asked for the impossible. The eatery leaves a lasting impression on me. Little do I realize then that since I am going to rough it out and consciously stay away from 'fancy' eating joints throughout my trip, I will be forced to eat in scores of places almost as depressing and filthy as this one, with which Pakistan seems to abound. Clean and cheap restaurants are an absolute rarity in the country, even in Lahore, which boasts of a supposedly sophisticated culinary tradition.

I settle for a local cold drink, which seems the only safe thing on sale in the eatery. Walking ahead I come to a vast, dusty square that has been converted into a temporary slum, consisting of dozens of tents made of pieces of cloth and plastic stitched together. Desperately poor people live here, daily wage labourers from impoverished southern Punjab. Yellow- haired babies suffering from malnutrition play in the sand with broken dolls. Elderly women sit ladling little tin pots and feeding leaves to bearded goats. Young men joke with each other over a game of cards. From their facial appearance and complexion these people strike me as being of 'low' caste origin.

'We are from the nomadic Odh caste', says an elderly man who calls me to his tent and tells me to sit down. 'We converted to Islam four generations ago. Before that we were Hindus but we were treated as untouchables by the Brahmins. In Islam there is no such thing. Islam teaches equality of all Muslims'.

I ask him if caste and caste-based discrimination are still a reality in Pakistan. I know it cannot be half as bad as in India, where it receives theological sanction through the Hindu religion.

'Yes, you see, most Pakistanis were some sort of Hindus at one time and many of them still retain their caste identities and caste prejudices', the man explains. 'So, even though we are Muslims and can pray in the same mosque, we are still sometimes treated as an inferior caste ( kammi). Most marriages in Pakistan take place within the biraderi and that is how the system continues. Few Syeds or Rajputs would think of marrying an Odh girl'. 'And', he adds, 'there are so many other such Muslim biraderis, who, like us, were considered as untouchables by the Hindus and are still looked down upon as low after converting to Islam. While we are recognized as fellow Muslims, power and wealth is largely in the hands of the more powerful biraderis and most of us are very poor'.

'Of course this is completely un-Islamic', the man insists. 'But', he philosophically asks, 'how many people in Pakistan can be said to be truly Islamic? If they really were so, we would not be living in a slum like this, unsure of where we will get our next meal from'.

Sweeping a wide semi-circle with his arm, indicating with his finger the ostentatious mansions visible beyond the slum, he adds somewhat mockingly, 'If Pakistan were truly an Islamic country as it claims to be, do you think these rich people would be living in these huge buildings and we in these hovels? Nothing has happened for us ever since Pakistan was made, I tell you'.

Our conversation is interrupted with Diep calling me on my cell and telling me that she's waiting for breakfast. I trudge back through piles of garbage and concrete waste from abandoned construction sites. I think of the 'Hindu' Odhs I've met in Rajasthan, whose living conditions seem no less pathetic than the 'Muslim' Odhs I have just met. They look the same to me and appear to speak in the same sort of way. Barring their names and claims of being associated with different religions and religious communities they seem no different at all.

I ponder on what religion actually means for such poor people, for the millions of 'low' caste Dalits, 'Hindus' and 'Muslims', in India and in Pakistan. In my mind I try to trace a complex web between power, religion, caste, class, identity and the politics of numbers. Mind-boggling and distressing it is.

I think of how 'upper' caste prejudice, both Hindu and Muslim, must surely have at least something to do with the fact that probably not a single of the literally hundreds of books about the trauma of the Partition focuses on what the tragedy meant for the millions of Dalits on both sides of the border. I wonder why it is that Dalits, whether 'Hindu', 'Muslim' or other, have virtually no place in official or 'mainstream' Indian and Pakistani historiography, being, instead, carefully and calculatedly invisibilised. Perhaps, I tell myself, cross-religion and cross-country Dalit solidarity is something that urgently needs to be explored as a means to promote better relations between India and Pakistan. But in my mind I can see numerous 'upper' caste Hindu and Muslim 'luminaries' in the NGO circuit, who have made a neat packet and a name for themselves by claiming to champion India-Pakistan dialogue, cringe at the very suggestion.

These depressing thoughts drive me to Diep's doorsteps, where she's impatiently waiting for me with a column of parathas delicately balancing on a plate.

'Eat', she insists, 'or else how will you get the energy you need to trundle around all the historical monuments in Lahore that you plan to see?'.

I do as I am told and am pleased. Diep's Lahori parathas, I must admit, put the fare available at Delhi's Parathewali Gali to shame.



Pakistan Diary- Part I
Heading for the Border

Crossing The Border- Pakistan Dairy: II
By Yoginder Sikand

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