Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Basant and bed-sheet diplomacy

On Saturday, we were supposed to meet my camper Neeta for a walk in the morning. Neeta was a PS, and she was at my table. She overslept, so instead, we went to another café for a latte and a blackcurrant minicheesecake. Much of my stay, as you can see, revolves around food. With a little serendipity, there was the orientation session for potential Seeds campers, so I attended the session for campers and parents. I gave my insight and helped calm the parents’ worries about the camp. I also got to see more of my kiddies, and possible upcoming bunk if I return.

After I went with a bunch of older Seeds back to the Lahore museum, which was nice but out of order. They had some fascinating artefacts, but there was little order to how things were displayed. There was a lot on the Pakistan national movement, which was interesting too.

Following the museum, we went for lunch. A few hours before, Aneeq casually mentioned he didn't have a driver's liscence. I asked him who gave him the car, he replied that his father did and taught him to drive a few years prior. Acha, acha (I understand). Of course, we proceeded to get pulled over for "running a red light." The light was yellow, but the cop didn't care. He pulled Aneeq over the side of the road. After a little wrangling, Aneeq paid off a backsheesh bribe of 200 rupees ($3.33). This was the first time he had to. It wasn't even an issue that he didn't have a liscence. All the cop cared about was a little something for his troubles. Aneeq was annoyed that he had to pay 200rs, as the going rate is 50 rs. He had to pay more because it was Basant and there was a foreigner in the car. Meanwhile, a ticket itself would have been 600 rupees, 300 for the yellow and 300 for the driving without a permit. I love the developing world. This is why I always keep at least $20 on me, anything that costs more than that, I want to contact the American embassy.

After the incident, the seeds treated me to lunch at a yummy bourgeois restaurant (I have been treated a lot, I have paid for few meals of the many I have eaten). Later, I drove with Aneeq to pick up his friends for the Basant festival. First we stopped at his university, which had a striking resemblance to Brandeis, save the giant domed mosque in the middle of the campus. The school is co-ed, but strictly separated.

Basant is a spring festival that is huge here. People fly kites, shoot fireworks and celebrate royally. We caravanned into the old city, to the roof of someone’s house. The night was lit up with lights and kites. I have never seen so many kites. Kites flying overhead- soaring and diving. Kites fighting. Kites running across the night sky.

Meanwhile, music was pulsating and people were dancing on rooftop after rooftop. It was fantastic. Giant fireworks lit up the sky and raced across the purple horizon, and the crack-cracking of guns filled the air, as people fired to the skies in celebratory joy- thankfully nowhere near me. It was a sight to be seen, and something to never forget.

Meanwhile, there was a bit of a speakeasy on the floor below the roof. We sat in a sealed off room, on the floor and had Rasputin- pineapple vodka made in Karachi (for the record Aneeq didn’t have any, and even though he is no longer a Seed and is 18 and in college, I would have felt funny drinking with a camper). Not something I expected to find here, but if I had a steak in Bangalore, then why not?

As were were having drinks, everyone began crowding in, and the night became ubersurreal. I became the center of attention, as an Afghan introduced himself to me (my friends were translating). He said he hated Bush, and I replied I didn’t especially like Bush either. He said he wanted to have umm…intimate relations with Bush’s wife, to which I replied that I wouldn’t mind intimate relations with his daughters. More and more people had crowded around. A guy from Waziristan (tribal areas) introduced himself saying his brother is a terrorist, and he was trained as a terrorist. But after some amiable discussion over intimate relations with the Bush clan, and some Paul-waxing- humanistic over the nature of mankind, governments-vs-people, and the warm hospitality I was receiving in Pakistan, they all declared I was their brother. "Bush is a son-of-a-bitch, but you are our brother. Bush is a son-of-a-bitch, but the American people are our brothers. You are our blood brother, and your brother is our brother (Harry, you are in!)." Ah, the life of a true ambassador for America. Turning a new page in American foreign policy vis-a-vis the Muslim world- all of the animosity and angst smoothed over by a threesome with the Bush twins. Hugs, laughing and cheering followed, along with more dancing on the roof.

Eventually we left, after more oaths of eternal fidelity to me, for an amazing 2am meal of a spicy chicken stew, seekh kebabs (ground meat grilled on skewers) and mutton tikka, with sesame studded naan. After all the commotion, I was glad to get a little silence as we devoured the food.

We went to one more Basant roof top party, with the same lack of girls (a hallal sausage party), as all the parties are. The night ended in the wee hours of the morning. My descriptions here don’t even begin to get into the surreality of all of it.. But, I am doing fine, very well fed and very happily enjoying one of the more different travel destinations I have been to.

People are always curious about the image of Pakistan in America, to which I explain that the image we get is of the little madrassahs in the village areas proclaiming "death to America." We don’t see the Basant festivals, the cosmo life of Lahore or any other images that stray away from the pre-conceived notions of what life in Pakistan should look like. With that said, I was reading this morning about a gruesome honor killing in Pakistan, which I am sure will make the news. The situation here, as everywhere, is very complex and the outlets and avenues of media just aren’t capable of displaying this.

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