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Harappa. Photographs from Wikimedia Commons
Harappa. Photographs from Wikimedia Commons

A foreigner in the Harappan ruins

Aakar Patel gets a local ticket on his visit to Harappa

I first came to Harappa (pronounced Hadappa), on the highway between Lahore and Multan, 12 or so years ago. By the time I stepped out of the car and reached the ticket window, the fellow behind it had already punched out a ticket for foreigners, who were charged 100, ten times more than Pakistanis. How did he know I was a foreigner, I asked. “Yahan koi Pakistani nahin aatey (Pakistanis don’t visit this place)," he said. This time, the ticket for foreigners is 500, but I am handed a local’s ticket for 20, which I take without comment (in the interest of promoting South Asian unity).

At the gate two stern men in shalwar-kameez ask where we have come from and I say, honestly, Lahore. This is a mistake. After seeing the Indus Valley civilization’s ruins (large and beautiful bricks, of which most were used unthinkingly in laying the railway line under the British), we are stopped again by the men, who are from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

“Apna shanakhati card dekhayen," one says, referring to the national identity card. It turns out they are registering the entry of all foreigners.

I confess and they are angry. “Don’t you know the situation in the country (yahan kay haalaat nahin jantey)?" one man says, as he takes down our details. I look suitably embarrassed, and they are uninterested in the 500.

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The museum which sells replicas of Indus Valley seals.

From the tiny “museum" (one small room, really) I bought some excellent replicas of Indus Valley seals—you know, the ones in our textbooks. Alas, Pakistan International Airlines misplaced the bag, and though it was later located and sent home to Bengaluru, among the things taken was the packet of the seals.

I must ask friends in Pakistan to send me some again. I wish I could have spent more time with them this time.

Unfortunately, my stay in Islamabad, for a track II event hosted by politician Sherry Rehman’s Jinnah Institute and activist Sushobha Barve’s Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, is far too short.

Indian phones don’t work here any longer, which is different from how it was when I first came. On 27 February, my Pakistani SIM, gifted kindly by the Lahore Literary Festival organizers, too dies puzzlingly.

The next day I see an ad in Dawn headlined “Thank you for playing your role against terrorism!"

It explained that all SIMs not biometrically verified had been deactivated. Terrorism across Pakistan claims 5,000-6,000 lives a year. To put this in perspective, there are 800-900 deaths in India, whose population is seven times larger; most of these incidents are in the North-East (200-400) and in Maoist areas (200-400), the remainder in Kashmir (less than 200) and zero or close to zero in the rest of India. But to watch Arnab’s show is to think we are under constant siege from the Islamists.

While in Lahore, it occurred to me that it is difficult to understand Pakistan without appreciating that Lahore is on the border. The idea of the enemy so close is not something Indians have experienced in any of our major cities and it made me understand Pakistan a little better.

Anyway, an ad immediately above the SIM one, from the Punjab government, issues notice to the Pakistan Vanaspati Mills Association and says that given the circumstances (stable rupee, falling international prices) they should have reduced the price of ghee (clarified butter) and edible oil, which alas they haven’t. The notice threatens them with action under the “Price Control and Prevention of Profiteering and Hoarding Act, 1977".

How quaint. And the word profiteering reminds me of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s famous and often quoted speech of 11 August 1947 when he listed Pakistan’s problems as corruption, “jobbery" (meaning nepotism) and “black-marketing". Wonder what, and in what order, Jinnah, that old Gujarati, would list as being the problems now.

One journalist who has been talking of Pakistan’s mistreatment of its Baloch separatists is Hamid Mir of the Geo.TV channel, who was shot in Karachi in April. I take him aside at the Indian deputy high commissioner’s house where we are for a party and ask him to show his wounds. Mir strips and shows the bullet entry marks (dull brown and resembling vaccination marks) all around his crotch and a vertical, surgical scar a foot long over his navel.

He was in a car, having just landed from Islamabad, and seated in the back diagonally across from the driver when men on motorcycles shot him with 9mm pistols in the back. He reached the hospital amid intermittent firing and 10 minutes later they were still trying to get him. Meanwhile, he had connected to his studio and Geo was relaying this live. At the hospital another man shot him multiple times, this time in the front, and Mir gestured that he fell over on his back and passed out.

Geo.TV openly blamed the ISI for the attack and immediately ran into trouble. Cable operators took it off air and though the channel apologized in writing, the unofficial ban has damaged them. This has helped ARY News, owned by the late Gujarati jeweller in Dubai Haji Abdul Razzaq Yaqoob, to take the No.1 slot for news.

Not much else to report from Pakistan but I learnt later that poet Kishwar Naheed and writer Intizar Husain were in the audience when I was holding forth on Saadat Hasan Manto and Urdu literature. Had I known at the time that such giants were listening to my rambling, I’d have been scared witless.

It occurred to me on this trip that I can no longer hate Pakistan, and I will write about that another time.

To read Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns here.

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