Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pilgrimage to Dalbandin

Although I had travelled the "Lonely Line" between Quetta and Zahedan (Iran) seven years ago when I was doing what I called "The Little Railway Bazaar" after Paul Theroux, this journey had a special meaning for me. I was on my way to Dalbandin to see the house where my father had lived when he was posted there as Assistant Engineer (AEN) on the North Western Railways from April 1943 to December the following year. For me it was like a pilgrimage. But that was not all, I had also wanted to see if this train continued to be the festival on wheels that it once was.

In my six berth "First Class Sleeper" Agha sahib sat serenely and allowed the big, crinkly haired man and his friend to fawn over him. He wore the round black turban and the matching robe of the Ayatollahs of Iran. His chinky eyes, very Mongol face and sparse beard screamed that he was either a Hazara or a Chengezi, like his attendants, and claimed descent from Chengez Khan. He was a quiet man who did not speak much and when he did it was difficult to catch his soft whisper. Mostly he just sat there looking regal with his pout, occasionally flicking some unseen particle of dust from his robe with ring laden fingers.

The crinkly haired man said Agha sahib was returning to Qum in Iran where he was a teacher, after visiting with relatives in his native village not very far north of Quetta. The master spoke only Persian and I, despite my illiteracy in the language, was asked to see that he was not inconvenienced in any way during the journey because he suffered from a sick heart, high blood pressure and diabetes. I hadn't the faintest idea how I was to accomplish what was expected of me but the nod and the smile from the man of God assured me all was well. Then suddenly, as we sat their exchanging nods and smiles, all hell broke lose.

The lad burst into the compartment surrounded by the characteristic smell of lower class trains. His hair was wild and dirty and his face unshaven with parched lips flaked with dried spittle. His clothes were dusty and on filthy feet he wore the slippers that every worker from the Middle East wears. His eyes swept over the four of us and in a state of agitated frenzy he asked if we were all travelling in the same compartment. Since it was just Agha and me he relaxed, but only a fraction, turned about and swept out of the room.

A moment later a red shirted porter dumped a large case sewn in khaki cloth and measuring about one metre by half a metre by half a metre. Then another, and another. And they kept coming until they were all over the four free berths. Crinkly Hair got up and asked how many more were coming. "No more, no more." said the boy breathlessly and leaned out of the window to shout to the coolies to bring in the rest. And they did; until there were nineteen khaki cases each weighing over fifty kilograms and there was no room for Agha sahib and me to do anything but sit on our berths with our knees tucked under our noses.

"How do you expect Agha sahib to get to the toilet?" demanded Crinkly Hair.
"No problem," said the man, and to demonstrate he climbed over the cases, opened the door and jumped into the toilet. "It's easy." he said looking desperately at Agha sahib.
"Get this bloody stuff out of here!" Crinkly Hair exploded, "We are not paying good money to see our religious mentor hassled by the likes of you."

What Ali Raza, whose name I was to learn much later, said next blew my brains out. "Please bear with me." But Crinkly Hair was not impressed and insisted that he book his stuff in the luggage van. Raza begged to be allowed to keep his cargo under his watchful eye; Hair remained implacable. The argument dragged on, Hair got extremely worked up and Raza was virtually grovelling when in came two other boys who were clearly his brothers.

The trio begged, wheedled and made promises they were never going to keep but Hair was adamant: the stuff had to go. In the course of this carrying on one of them disappeared to return a moment later with a young woman carrying a child and dressed like the women of the Ayatollahs' Iran - black chador and all. She turned out to be the eldest brother's wife who joined the chorus of entreaties giving Hair a new angle to his argument. "Baji, there isn't room in here for a decent woman. Also this is a very long journey and I am not allowing my sister to be inconvenienced."

The farce kept on for almost three quarters of an hour when at lenght Hair gave up and called for the conductor. After several more minutes of the three brothers and the wife individually and collectively imploring Hair and the conductor to relent, the nineteen crates were removed to the brake-van. And so the Taftan Express bound for Zahedan finally steamed out of Quetta over two hours behind schedule.

Clearly Raza was the architect of whatever was happening. The eldest and the youngest looked utterly miserable and it was certain that they were not having anything to do with future madcap schemes; but the wife, remarkably unperturbed, was buried in a cheap Urdu magazine. Raza lived and worked illegally in Meshed and since it meant much more money than living and working illegally in Karachi he had come home to fetch his two brothers and the wife. Now they were travelling on pilgrimage visas valid for only two weeks which were going to be "easily converted into residence visas". None of them could tell me how a family on pilgrimage was going to explain nineteen crates of assorted onyx handicrafts to custom officials on either side of the frontier, especially when there were no export papers. But then good sense and logic were not this family's forte.

Raza began by telling me that Karachi was soon going to be independent like Hong Kong, but he was utterly incapable of telling me was how they proposed to attain "independence" and, more importantly, sustain Karachi as a viable economic entity. He seemed to believe that when they really wanted to be like Hong Kong they would simply have to wish and they'd be. I asked how the Sindhis were going to put up with this independent Karachi. He thought a moment and very airily informed me that they would join Karachi because they had had enough of living with the Punjabis. "You Punjabis will starve to death when Karachi isn't there to feed you," he said smugly. Five minutes later he was telling me that the Punjabis did not realise other people's problems because they had too much to eat: "Aap ko to rotian lagi hoee hain." At this point I told him to shut up.

Outside, the wind sculpted crescent shaped sand hills looked like chocolate icing in the gloaming. We had crossed the last ridge of low hills into the desert that stretches clear across to the Iranian frontier, over six hundred kilometres away. Beyond Nushki the desert took over completely; in the dark landscape of a moonless night there was no reassuring flicker of a man made fire.

Until August 1916 the "Nushki Extension Railway", as it was called, terminated at Nushki beyond which travel was by camel. Then in 1915-16 disease destroyed thirty thousand animals and they said that a traveller could pick his way to the Iranian frontier by the carcasses littering the desert. When work began on the extension the English called it the "Lonely Line" for in the one hundred and sixty eight kilometres between Dalbandin and Nok-Kundi there is just one station: Yakmach -- One Date Palm. It is a great unpopulated wilderness with little vegetation to break the monotony of the wide open plain covered with dark rocks and occasionally punctuated by sand hills.

Ahmedwal, seven years after my first visit still is an important watering stop on the line. As before there were hordes of children and adults selling tea and eatables and several men with live chickens tucked under their arms to be sold to travellers presumably for slaughtering and cooking on board. Earlier I had seen no stoves on the train; now none of these men attracted any customers. Evidently the chickens never changed hands; and the Baloch entrepreneurs never gave up.

In World War I when fear of a German invasion of India rode high the line was laid to enable British troops to join the Russians in patrolling the area between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Subsequently in 1932, with this threat subsiding and with little passenger traffic on it, the line between Nok-Kundi and Zahedan was pulled up. Then came World War II and the line was revitalised in April 1942. Exactly a year later my father, fresh out of Thompson College of Civil Engineers (Roorkee, India), arrived at Dalbandin.

We arrived in the middle of the night, with a good part of the desert deposited on my person and crunching between my teeth. Half asleep I staggered after Ramzan, the man I had been handed over to in Quetta. The rest house, a majestic high roofed, mud plastered building painted the perscription pale yellow of all rest houses, had no electricity and, unable to read, I lay awake until just before dawn when I was roused by the chowkidar come to show me the Assistant Engineer's residence.

It lay behind a high brick wall in the midst of a sprawling not very well kept garden with a few patches of vegetables and looked as dusty as the desert that surrounds Dalbandin. The facade was taken up by the glass windows of what probably meant to be a sun room. In the backyard was the mandatory masonry pedestal with its structure of pipes for the fan (with the fan missing), a swing and a fish pond. Except for the addition of a powder room the interior was exactly as my parents remembered it. But there was very little furniture. The spacious drawing and dining rooms were empty, only the bedroom was equipped with a bed and a dresser. What struck me as unusual was the complete absence of any form of reading material. Fifty years ago an avid reader like my father had piles and piles of books in the house ("A Penguin was only ten annas at Quetta!"). Now there was not even an Urdu pulp digest, and since the AEN was away I could not find out how he kept his sanity in a place like Dalbandin. Doubtlessly, like most of us, he too whiled away the tedium in aimless gup shup.

The high point of this pilgrimage came when upon my asking for the oldest railway man they brought Mohammed Sharif who had joined the railways in 1942 and retired twelve years ago. "Baba, do you remember the AEN posted here in April 1943?" I asked.
"I remember him well," said the old man, "It was Rashid sahib."

This was remarkable. Forty nine years after he had left Dalbandin never to return, my father was remembered by a man who had worked with him. "Baba, I am his son," I said, and all that escaped his lips was "Oyy!" as he grabbed me in an embrace; then he kissed me on either side of the face in proper Baloch fashion and held me away to regard me through misty eyes. And then the stories came pouring out. What touched me deeply was the untainted sincerity of Sharif's words and actions; it was all spontaneous and straight from the man's heart.

There were also insistences to stay. "I am a poor Baloch, but Baloch nonetheless, and you are not allowed to leave without proper hospitality." He expected me to stay with him for a few days at least. But this was one of the two days in the week that I could get the flight back to Quetta and after much pleading I was let off with a lavish tea of several different kinds of biscuits and the promise that I would one day return to Dalbandin to be hosted by Sharif. He then showed me the AEN's office where my father had worked many years ago.

I asked if he remembered my mother. Of course he did. My father had received his transfer orders when he was going on leave to be married. When he returned with my mother they stayed just long enough to put their stuff together, in the meantime the twice a week service returned from Zahedan. "Rashid sahib was transferred to Mach and I went with them to see that they were comfortably settled there." His memory was uncanny; my father had indeed gone to Mach. And that was where I was headed.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of eight books including The Apricot Road to Yarkand.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What is blogging to you?

Internet is a lonely place without Blogging; a fine art, science, also economics. Blogs are different to different people. Fine Art of Blogging asks you to share your views on what is a blog to you?

You are invited to contribute your thoughts in general. In particular, write how you blog? Why? How blogging matters in your life and work? Success stories, motivations and inspirations. Answer these questions and more (add what you feel is important dimension) in a post and send in word document.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kalma Chowk flyover opened for Lahori’ites

Amir Waqas Chaudhry

Punjab Chief Minister Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif has said the Kalma Chowk flyover project has been completed in a record period of 135 days by working round the clock         and this project is a shining example with regard to speed, quality and transparency. 
“The flyover will be a model for the projects throughout the country and this culture will be promoted in the country, including Punjab. I have announced the gift of a splendid project to the citizens of the provincial metropolis on the occasion of Independence Day and, thanks God, flyover has been opened for traffic on the Day. The Kalma Chowk Flyover is a master piece of construction and by completing it in a record period, we have proved that if work is carried out with sincerity and dedication, there will be no hurdle. We will make the future of the country bright with same spirit and hard work,” he maintained, while addressing the ceremony held in connection with the inauguration of the Kalma Chowk flyover on Ferozepur Road on Sunday. Senior Advisor Sirdar Zulfiqar Ali Khan Khosa, Provincial Ministers, MPAs, Quarter Master General, Director General NLC, officers of NESPAK and concerned departments as well as a large number of people attended the function.The CM said we had set a new tradition in the world of construction as besides saving in the estimated cost, and timely completion of the project, night culture had been introduced in the world of construction. “This project is unique as for the first time in the history of the country, it has been completed in a record period by working day and night. Six months ago, the cost of this project had been estimated at Rs 2.30 billion, but despite increase in the prices of construction material during this period, an amount of Rs 300 million has been saved by completing the project at a cost of Rs 2 billion, for which officers and officials of the Communication and Works Department and the concerned contractor deserve appreciation,” he said, adding that best traveling facilities would be available to the people with the completion of the project while trade and economic activities would also be promoted. He mentioned that four lakh vehicles pass through the Chowk daily and sometimes people had to face difficulties and mental torture due to traffic jam and their precious time was also wasted. He said ambulances taking patients to the hospitals were also stuck up in the rush of traffic but after completion of this project people would get rid of these problems. “Misappropriation of funds, nepotism and corruption are rampant in the name of development projects in the past and Faisalabad-Sumundri Road, Hafizabad Pindi Bhattian Road, Lahore Kasur Gunda Singh Road, Thokar Niazbeg Defence Road, Thokher Niazbeg flyover and Lahore Ring Road are proof of this fact. These projects bespeak of poor planning, dishonesty and plunder of the former rulers. We have changed these graveyards of plunder into monuments of development. The Barkat Market underpass will be completed at a cost of Rs 100 million by September this year and the speed and quality of construction of the Kalma Chowk flyover will also be maintained in this project,” he asserted.While paying rich tributes to the officers and workers who took part in the construction of Kalma Chowk Flyover and completing it in a record period, he said today was a historic day when a big project of public welfare had been completed in only 135 days. He announced cash prize of Rs 1.5 million for labourers, who took part in the construction work and directed to constitute a committee which would distribute this amount among the labourers in a transparent manner.The CM said the performance of the officers working on this project was also excellent and he would give them his new shirts and ties as gift. In a lighter vein, he said, “giving shirts and ties does not mean that I have started wearing shalwar qameez.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rebuilding lives

When the Indus River rose in August 2010, Wahid Buksh and his family fled their village Malhar Sheikh near Gambat (Sindh) for their lives. From the high ground of the raised bed of the road leading to the new Khairpur-Larkana bridge across the river, Wahid watched the fertile farmland around his village go under the swirling, brown eddies. But the water would not stop rising and by and by his poor mud brick home too was lost.

When, two months later, he returned from the displaced persons’ camp to what was his village, he found few homes standing and all of his four acres of sugar cane and two of cotton wiped off the face of the earth as if they had never existed. In his twenties, Wahid was no land owner, merely a sharecropper. Even so, his loss was great. As the summer drew to an end, he had little hope of raising enough funds to purchase wheat seed and fertiliser for the December sowing. But a man needs to win bread for the family and so Wahid Buksh resorted to daily wage labour in nearby Gambat.

In February he heard that Participatory Village Development Program (PVDP), an NGO based in Mirpur Khas, supported by Church World Service (CWS) of Islamabad was offering three-month skill training programmes at the newly-established Construction Trade Training Centre (CTTC) in Gambat. The training on offer was for the trades of plumber, electrician, welder, carpenter or mason. There was no educational requirement other than the ability to read and write Urdu which suited the man. Wahid applied and was selected to train as a mason.

Earlier, CWS had run similar training courses in Mansehra and nearby districts after the earthquake havoc of October 2005. Consequently, a large work force of young construction workers has since been at hand rebuilding the damaged villages. The centre in Gambat was on the lines of those that had been so successful in the north.

Classes were from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon leaving no time for a daily wage earning labourer like Wahid to work after hours. The upside was that there was the two hundred rupees-per day stipend for all trainees. Even though he was required to pay fifty rupees for the lunch provided by the centre, Wahid was still able to take home some money for the family to get along by. At the end of the three months, the government’s Trade Testing Board examined the trainees and issued certificates. Each successful candidate was to receive from CWS-PVDP a complete toolkit appropriate for his trade on the day the testing board issued the certificate.

Early in June, Wahid Buksh, the unskilled labourer of only a few weeks earlier, went to work with a building contractor as a brick layer. I found him in a Gambat back street in the shade of a building preparing iron bars for the construction of columns at a nearby site. He pointed to the under-construction building with visible pride and said it was all his own handiwork. And it has to be admitted that the work was neat.

In late July, seven weeks after he had graduated from the training centre, though he had passed the test, Wahid Buksh had not received his certification from the Trade Testing Board. Delays being normal in governmental working, he is not bothered. However, because of that he was still deficient of his mason’s kit and was obligated to work with a contractor.
‘I get six hundred rupees per day because I use my contractor’s tools. When I get my own equipment, I’ll be making eight hundred per day,’ says Wahid.

That is a darn sight better than being either a farm labourer or even a sharecropper. If things were good, he had to cope only with market fluctuations and his landlord’s cavalier attitude. Otherwise there was always the danger of floods or drought or crop failure. For the number of man hours he put in as a sharecropper, his net earnings were less than meagre. He also remembers times when he went into debt because of poor harvests – debts that took years to pay back. Now Wahid takes home a steady income and has a weekly day off to boot.

Almost bashfully he notes that having been born in poverty and with only five grades of schooling, the end-all of his life once seemed to be farm labour or hauling bricks at constructions sites. He could not imagine himself a skilled brick layer so early on in life.

Neither could the other seventy-four young men, all of them locals whose lives were destroyed by last year’s floods. With fifteen in each class, the Gambat centre turned out seventy-five trained technicians in the first batch. All of them immediately went either into self-employment or were hired by construction firms.

Dominic Stephen of PVDP says that given the educational level of these young men, there was no way they could have been gainfully employed. They would never have been anything but unskilled labourers, shop keepers or sharecroppers But now with just three months of training, they are useful members of the society sought after for their technical expertise.

When I was there, the second batch of seventy-five was half way through their session. Raza Hussain of village Khemtia was a shopkeeper until last year. Then the flood took his village shop and set him back by about three hundred thousand rupees. There was no question of being able to restart the business and so with a family to support, he resorted to unskilled labour until he enrolled in the training programme in June.

With a high school certificate to show for himself, he joined the electricians’ class and was doing rather well. ‘The way I see it,’ says he, ‘the stipend is equal to what I earned as an unskilled labourer. Then I had no future to look forward to. But now, after I graduate from the centre, I’ll be a trained and properly equipped electrician ready to go to work.’

Initial funds provided by CWS for the CTTC were for only two sessions of seventy-five students each. However, even half way through the second session, the value and utility of the programme became more than evident and it was extended for a third session due to begin in September. But then funds will dry up and the centre will fold. Already dozens of young men come calling every day to ask why only flood-affected men are being trained and if there will be sessions for others as well.

Dominic who supervised the establishment of the CTTC at Gambat is worried. At the end of the third session there will be two hundred and twenty-five technically trained men in the field. Going by the beneficiaries’’ own reports, the training and the complimentary toolkit has set them up as entrepreneurs as they could not have done on their own. Now the sky is the limit for these skilled technicians.

But the flood did not only disrupt the lives of these two hundred and twenty-five. There are countless more. There are also all those young men who have the will to learn but lack the required education to join the government’s poly-technic institutions. It is them that Dominic is looking out for: why should this facility not be extended to them?

Even as you read this, PVDP is hard at work to raise funds to sustain this unique and very useful programme. The funds will arrive, that much is certain, but from where, it is hard to say. Meanwhile, the number of youngsters waiting in the wings to join grows by the day.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Charles Masson in Rajasthan

Salman Rashid

In the autumn of 1826, Charles Masson, one of the more enigmatic travellers of his time, having passed through the Rajasthan desert arrived in the erstwhile State of Bahawalpur. Enigmatic he certainly was because under his pseudonym he traipsed around India pretending to be an American when, in reality, he was a deserted of the army of the East India Company. But he was a very gifted person: in fourteen years of travelling, from 1826 to 1840, in Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Afganistan, Masson emerged as a man of great erudition. To this day he is acknowledged as one of the earliest, and ablest, numismatists and historians of this area.

Time was when people read different meanings in his work. Many assumed he was a spy; perhaps for the Company itself, but ordinary readers have all along only enjoyed and benefited from his four-volume Narrative of Various Journeys. A quarter century ago when I first read Narrative, I undertook several short journeys in Masson’s footsteps to discover for myself the country he had known. One journey remained; and that was to Allahabad, in Masson’s time part of the State of Bahawalpur, now in Rahim Yar Khan district.

Masson had arrived in Ahmedpur, today better known as Dera Nawab Sahib, where he was ‘entirely prostrated’ by an ‘intermittent fever.’ To compound that, the Nawab of Bahawalpur not being available for an audience, he could not get along with a minor court functionary. And so, despite his fever, leaving his meagre baggage behind, he set out for Allahabad ‘taking nothing but my sword.’ His narrative gives not even the shadow of an idea of what the purpose of this visit was. Such secrecy perhaps gave rise to the notion that Masson was spying for someone though it beats me what he possibly could have sought in Allahabad.

He tells us the distance between the two places was ‘twenty cosses’ (about seventy-five kilometres) which is a trifle exaggerated because Allahabad lies just fifty kilometres southeast of Dera Nawab Sahib. But his fever prevented Masson from travelling rapidly and he took over a week for the journey, in between pausing for three days at a roadhouse in the village of Varni. Like most inns of those times, this one was also run by a woman.

He was apparently well looked after by the inn-keeper because he was soon fit to resume the short march to Allahabad. Masson wrote, ‘The approach to this town was more pleasing than I had anticipated, for the jangal ceasing, I came upon a rivulet of running water, beyond which stretched a large expanse of meadow, and in the distance I beheld the cupola of the principal mosque of the place, embosomed in groves of date-trees.’

Over the years I had learned that it is impossible to expect the scenery to be even remotely as described by Victorian travellers, but somehow Allahabad remained fixed in my mind as a village that might still be picturesque. Just outside the village, again overcome by fever-induced fatigue, Masson rested under a spreading pipal tree near which he noted a pavilion. Later he saw several other such buildings and commented on their simple yet elegant style of construction. Allahabad evidently lay in the middle of a shikargah for Masson writes that the Nawab of Bahawalpur used these as hunting pavilions.

As evening fell, Masson left the shady pipal and approached the town. At the entrance he was greeted by a ‘well-dressed person’ who immediately invited him to his home. There this kindly person called the local physicians to minister to his guest’s health. But Masson was not convinced that the ‘conserve of roses and sugar-candy’ could cure his fever and so he got the local barber to bleed him in both arms.

Thereafter Masson recovered quickly. Surely the generous spread that his host Salam Khan Daudpotra daily laid out for him had much to do with his recovery. If his treatment at Dera Nawab was niggardly, this good man left Masson quite breathless with his kindness and largesse. And when it came time for Masson to return to Dera Nawab, he rode on horseback with Salam Khan acting as escort.

Unlike Masson, I approached Allahabad from the south and not on foot but in a car. The ‘jangal’ of his time was gone and the countryside lay fallow after the cotton harvest. From the distance the town, sitting on a high mound, even today looked rather picturesque with its central part dominated by tall brick buildings but the mosque Masson had seen was nowhere visible. Imran, my guide, was waiting for me at the union council office and without wasting any time took me walkabout.

We stopped at a haveli undergoing some repair work. The family had come to Allahabad from Patiala in 1947 and the patriarch, about seventy, mouthed the big untruth that we all like to so believe: ‘This is a tiny house. In India Muslims had the biggest palaces ever.’ Few rich Muslims left their homes in India; it was only the poor and some of the middle class and only after we arrived here and took over evacuee properties did we invent stories of the riches we had left behind. These yarns became gospel for succeeding generations until the unpleasant truth of past poverty was lost in it.

The beautifully carved timber door into the main family room was so thickly plastered with off-white paint that I cringed: it would take serious sand-blasting to restore this one. But I know, even before this building can be rescued for preservations, this door will be wrenched out and sold for a few rupees. In its place they’ll content themselves with a lousy chipboard thing.

Though the ground floor façade had been painted a similar shade, the delightful brickwork of the first floor was still intact. The arrangement of cut-brick florets in zigzagging lines to create a pleasing array of squares together with pyramids, inverted as well as right side up, caught the eye. Above this panel were five arches, two of them open, two with windows and one blind. Square wrought iron fanlights, eight in all, surmounted the arches and above ran another repetition of cut-brick trimming. We were led to the upstairs rooms to check out the gaily painted ceilings that echo across this country from Sindh to northern Punjab.

This house could not have been built earlier than the 1930s and whoever it was that spent a pretty penny on it from his hard-earned money, sadly could not live very long in it. I wondered if the real owners had ever returned for a visit. Would they have wept? Or did a strange equanimity come over them? Do they still keep their ownership documents and hope they can one day return in better times to reclaim what is theirs? To reciprocate, will these people return to Patiala to the untruth of the palaces they very likely do not wish their children to know?

We checked out a number of other havelis, but all of them in advanced stages of dilapidation were locked and abandoned. Imran, my young guide, said it was too expensive to restore these buildings inside the narrow alleys because the only way to get building material in was either to man haul or by donkey. A two-rupee brick, he said, could cost as much as eight in the central part of town. Consequently people were simply moving on, letting these priceless buildings, raised by others, to fall to pieces.

Imran walked me around the entire central part of Allahabad. The narrow streets of the bazaar were roofed with tattered jute matting to keep out the intense summer heat, just as Masson had seen it. Otherwise, the shop fronts now had steel shuttering instead of the old-fashioned timber doors. Everywhere we saw abandoned buildings in various stages of decay and heaps of debris. The new children of Allahabad who mostly seem to have come from Patiala have not looked after their town well.

Since the Daupotras are now also surnamed either Abbasi or Kalhora and because I wanted to meet with a descendent of the good Salam Khan who tended to Masson, I asked if any of the two clans lived in Allahabad. There was one Kalhora who was ‘more than a hundred years old’, said Imran. This man lived some ways outside the town, but he could reportedly not remember anything. My guide did not know of any other old Daudpotra family native to the town nor had he ever heard anyone flaunting the name of Salam Khan.

This thing about a plethora of centenarians in Pakistan is hogwash and when I said so, Imran told me there was one who was a hundred and twenty-five years old. A local journalist was called who had interviewed the man only six months before my visit and his Urdu newspaper piece, which he brought along for my edification, said so. I said it could mathematically be proved that this was nothing but rubbish and so with the journalist in tow we drove a few kilometres from town to meet with this marvel.

The man was clearly about eighty or so. He said his age was forty-five and I thought we had another gaga on our hands. But then he corrected himself: ‘One hundred and forty-five.’ On my prompting, the journalist said the last time he had seen him, the old man had said he was a hundred and twenty something and now, within the space of six months, he had aged twenty years. The man did not remember if he had been interviewed, but he insisted he remembered the onset of the First World War when he was in his ‘thirties and married with grown children.’

A little bit more quizzing and I realised that it was the Second World War the man was talking about. I tried to tell him that if he was in his thirties in the First and nearly a century and a half now, we must be living in the year 2029. Simple arithmetic not being their forte, no one seemed to understand what I was carrying on about. Also everyone being so proud of having such a Methuselah amongst them, they did not wish to believe otherwise. I tried another angle and his son, about my age, shut me up saying he was already seventy therefore his father could not be any younger than he said he was.

The usual tripe about pure and good food was trotted out. I angrily turned on the man about what good food a poor man could afford. A hundred years ago, a handful of millets was all anyone as poor as they said they were could get for a meal a day. Good food, I cruelly rubbed it in, meant fresh fruit, vegetables, beans, dairy and some meat. But reason shall not prevail. We left the octogenarian and his son convinced that the man was a century and a half old. Indeed, even the journalist was not impressed by the sums I did to show that the man did not know what he was talking about.

Allahabad keeps some of its old flavour, but Masson would scarcely recognise it today. What little remains will be lost in a few years. If it were within my province, I would declare Allahabad a national heritage site, acquire some of the better homes and set them up as show pieces. But then dreams are not horses.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.


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Friday, August 12, 2011

Holiday Park Apartments

Holidays have become a lifestyle. What is more, people’s desire to see whatever is possible has grown as a result of growing prosperity. Everyone likes to travel and have holidays for leisure or pleasure at different places.

I have been traveling whenever I could. When it comes to holidays every time I need the best and new places to go. As more and more people are traveling, and getting what you want may become difficult sometime. The best is plan ahead and book ahead.

I came upon Hotels in Majorca while looking for my next holiday destination. Voted one of the most popular hotels in Santa Ponsa, Majorca gave me a reason to plan my holidays there. Have a look at - users friendly and neatly laid out site and see what they are offering and how. Better still book in advance.

Best thing is that you can book online. Simply enter your dates, members and number of rooms you require and they will tell you the availability as well as the fare. Have a ook at the picture gallery to have a feeler of the place you will be staying in. Also have HD video tour of Santa Ponsa Majorca. This will help you make informed decision.

What else, I should be planning my stay in one of the Hotels in Santa Ponsa rather than writing this.

The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara

After what seemed like an endless run of geopolitical roadblocks, “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” has finally come, six months late, from Pakistan to Asia Society. Is the show worth all the diplomatic headaches it caused? With its images of bruiser bodhisattvas, poly-cultural goddesses and occasional flights into stratosphere splendor, it is.

A figure of the Buddhist deity Hariti, an infant-gobbling demon, is on display in "The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara" at Asia Society Museum, New York. That all but a handful of the 75 sculptures are from museums in Lahore and Karachi is in itself remarkable. Any effort to borrow ancient art from South Asia is fraught, even in the best of times. For an entire show of loans to make the trip, and in a period when Pakistan and the United States are barely on speaking terms, is miraculous. (Without the persistent effort of Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, the exhibition would almost certainly never have happened.) So the show has a cliffhanger back story as an attraction, and some monumental work, like the fantastic relief called “Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise.” (Dated to the fourth century A.D., it’s a kind of flash-mob version of heaven.)

But most of what’s here is neither dramatic nor grand: a chunk of a column; a head knocked from a statue; a panel sliced from some long-since-crumbled wall. Like most museums shows aiming for a big-picture view of a vanished world, it’s a scattering of small effects: precious scraps and remnants. For every stand-back-and-stare item, there are a dozen others that require close-up scrutiny and informed historical imagining to make their point.

The multi-layered and time-obscured history of ancient Gandhara is particularly difficult to grasp. The area, which encompassed what is now northwestern Pakistan and a sliver of Afghanistan, was a crossroads for international traffic. If you had business that took you to or from the Indian subcontinent, you passed through Gandhara. If you were in the business of empire building, you made every effort to control it.

Persia, under Darius I, colonized the area in the sixth century B.C. Two centuries later Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek and a conquest addict, charged in and charged out, leaving behind a Hellenistic occupancy, which held firm even as Gandhara was absorbed into the Mauryan empire of India, South Asia’s first great Buddhist power.

Over time Greco-Bactrians, Scythians and Parthians dominated the terrain. Then, around the first century A.D., the Kushans, originally nomads from the steppe-lands north of China, settled in, extending their reach down into the Indian subcontinent.

They were genuine cosmopolitans, linked to the Mediterranean, Persia and China, and tolerant of religions. It was under their aegis that Gandharan Buddhist art, compounded of foreign and local ingredients, flourished.

The exhibition, organized by Adriana Proser, a curator at Asia Society, begins by showing elements interacting. The first thing you see is a substantial female figure carved from the dark schist that was the common stone of the region. She has a funny look, familiar but not. She’s dressed in a sort of cocktail-dress version of a Roman stola; her hairdo is pure 1970s Charlie’s Angels, long but with back-flipped bangs.

Because she wears a helmet, she’s been called Athena in the past, though she probably represents some regional genius loci modeled, at a remove of thousands of miles, on Greco-Roman prototypes. Another female figure with comparable features has more certain identity. Much as she resembles a Roman goddess of good fortune, the three clinging children she juggles mark her as the Buddhist deity Hariti, an infant-gobbling demon, who, after a little enlightenment, changed her ways.

The culture mix thickens further. On a fragmentary stone panel we find in relief a Persian-style column with an Indian nature goddess posed in front of it. A squat stone figure in baggy Kushan pants turns out to be Skanda, the Hindu god of war. And a stele devoted mainly to sober scenes from Buddha’s life doubles as a playground for dozens of cupids.

The point is, Gandharan art was all over the map. Yet confusion sparked innovation. The first known figurative images of the Buddha are thought to have emerged from this region. So did, despite all the crazy components, an instantly recognizable sculptural style, on persuasive display in the second of the show’s three sections.

Here we find the classic Gandharan Buddha. Dating from the second to fifth century A.D., he is a standing figure in an ankle-length tunic and a toga like cloak that falls in rhythmical folds, with hints at the shape of the body beneath. The facial features are symmetrical and crisply cut, and idealized, though on ethnic and aesthetic terms different from those of a Greek Apollo. 

On the whole the image is naturalistic in a way that the purely Indian equivalents being carved from sandstone farther south were not. And the naturalism is especially pronounced in Gandharan images of bodhisattvas, those evolved beings who postpone nirvana to aid struggling creatures on earth.

One example from the Lahore Museum suggests a leader-of-the-pack biker: slightly paunchy, with a handle-bar mustache, a cascade of curls and a challenging stare. Technically, he’s Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, though judging by his ornamental hardware — bicep bracelets, neck chains — he still has something to learn about the spiritual path of less-is-more.

The show’s highlight, “Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise,” is in this section too, and culturally everything comes together here. The big Buddha seated at its center wears an off-the-shoulder robe, South Indian tropical attire, while a couple dozen of mini-bodhisattvas around him mix and match international fashions, with no two outfits, or gestures, or poses, quite the same. Two figures gaze raptly up at the Buddha; another, chin propped on hand, looks daydreamingly away; far below, two tiny observers feed lotuses to fish in a stream.

Was this really designed as a vision of Paradise? We don’t know, though we might if we had some clue as to the piece’s original setting, probably as one of several related panels in an architectural context. But, as is true of most Gandharan art collected before very recent times, such information went unrecorded, and an accurate sense of what this art meant to its makers and early viewers is lost.

Ms. Proser addresses the issue of context in the exhibition’s last section, which is in its own gallery, by going with what we know: that much Buddhist art from Gandhara took the form of carved narrative panels depicting episodes from the life of the Buddha; that these panels once appeared on the walls of sanctuaries or cylindrical stupa mounds; and that many of the artists were entertaining storytellers.

Their skills are evident in the sequence of a dozen or so panels arranged around a stupalike structure in the gallery. In one, the Buddha’s mother, Maya, anticipates his birth in a dream, and the artist has made her look like a Roman matron en déshabillé and asleep on her couch. But in a second panel, carved by a different artist and showing the infant Buddha being examined by a sage, we've switched countries and cultures: now we’re in a land of turbans, boots and layered outwear.

A third episode takes place after the Buddha’s enlightenment, as the lords of the four directions, essentially Vedic or Hindu beings, decorously offer him bowls of food. And a panel set next to that is packed with the figures of demons who had tried hard to prevent that enlightenment. The scene looks like a Wookiee convention. It’s very funny, but also rich with information about armor and weaponry in use centuries ago.

For historians the value of an exhibition is in just such details, while for nonspecialists the main attraction is likely to be visual impact. Ordinarily, I’d rather look at Kushan-era Buddhist art carved farther south from rosy Indian sandstone than at sculpture made in cold, dark stone in Gandhara. (Asia Society had a show of both in 1986.) But that’s just personal taste, and, besides, the show has changed my mind about this: it pulses with human warmth. That’s one of the things we go to great art for, though in this case, and against very long odds, some of that great art has come to us.

“The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” remains through Oct. 30 at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street; (212) 288-6400, {with thanks from Munir Alvi}

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Different Sort of City

Most people will be surprised to know that urban planners can influence people’s socializing habits and their choice of friends and acquaintances within a city. They can plan cities in ways that can increase ethnic tensions and they can organize cities in a way that can help people live harmoniously.

People are social animals and human beings are inclined to meet and befriend people if the right conditions are present. And vice versa: if the correct obstacles are present (whether by design or by accident) we become less inclined to meet people. The latter can lead to dangerous cases of the ‘other’ and can strengthen existing biases of people. One example of this was in the 1970s and 1980s when low income housing and urban projects in American cities reinforced segregation because black communities would not be found in predominantly white neighbourhoods. In this essay I will highlight three things that are essential for cities to connect people: transport systems, parks and squares.

The railway infrastructure connecting Pakistani cities is rapidly declining and the one within cities is almost non-existent. Pakistan needs an overhaul in its intra city and inter-city transport network. Within our cities we need to have an organized and spread out system where someone can easily travel around the city without taking any cars. If Pakistan does not have the funds to start such a project, it should ask China for help in investing in a joint venture. The Chinese are themselves building a bullet train system that is to surpass even America’s rail infrastructure; their input will be extremely useful. It would be nice if any urban development that does take place has a Pakistani signature on it. Perhaps our trains can imitate Pakistan’s famous bus art in this respect.

While transport systems are vital to help people connect, so are their destinations. Parks are essential for socialization in a city. They improve family life, and the health of parents and their children. A good park must be secluded from the city’s noisy and smokey streets. It must be welcoming. It must also be placed at a location which allows people from different neighbourhoods to access it equally. Children, regardless of whether they are from rich or poor families, should have the luxury of playing and enjoying themselves in parks with friends.

Another very important piece that most of our cities are missing are squares or meeting places in the heart of the city, where people can just linger and where pigeons can be fed to their hearts content. London has its Trafalgar Square, Turkey has its Taksim Square and we all now know of Egypt’s Tahrir Square made famous because of the revolution it spawned. Such meeting spaces are important because they help people meet and socialize. Various interest groups, social organizations and civil society can gather there. This can further promote our democratic culture and strengthen civil society groups. In Karachi the only venue that serves this kind of endeavour is the Karachi Arts Council which has over the years has generously given its space to numerous social and progressive causes and campaigns.

Today young people will often be heard complaining of boredom in the city. There is nothing to do except eat and for most young people the only way to meet new friends is through school or tuitions. A city square would provide a creative outlet for the youth to engage in. Artists could come and display their work, musicians could perform their raags to people passing by, and circus performers could enthral the on looking audience. These city squares must of course be easily accessible by bus or train, but it would be best if we can have as few cars as possible. Nothing ruins the soul of a city more than cars and traffic jams, and the noise that accompanies them. City squares can also pay tribute to our heritage of mushairas (poetry recitals). Once while interviewing gentleman about former East Pakistan for an internship, he told me that there was a large tree in Dhaka where every evening poets would gather to recite their poetry. I do not know whether this place still exists in Dhaka but a similar sort of arrangement could be organized for our major cities that are devoid of both trees and culture.