Posing with a poster of the then much-revered (publicly) President General Zia ul Haq in a Multan street.
If India was the critical influence in my childhood, the year I spent in Pakistan was the experience that turned my early adult world completely upside down.
The University of California in Berkeley ran an Urdu language program in Lahore as a way for American graduate students who intended to pursue a PhD in Pakistani studies to come to grips with the language that was most likely to be their primary research challenge. The program was quite competitive but several people I knew had done it and raved about Lahore. Even though I had not settled on a topic for my own doctoral studies I had studied Urdu for my Masters, a highlight of which (WARNING: shameless self promotion approaching) was working with two other friends to translate into English for the first time Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s short story collection, Siyah Hashiye (Black Borders). At the time Manto was relatively unknown in the West and yet to have his reputation revived in Pakistan and India. He is now a posthumous ‘star’ with a bunch of books and a movie of his life out. A few months after our translation was complete it was published in the Journal of South Asian Literature. (Promo now ends.)
I had ambivalent feelings about going to Pakistan. I had been raised to believe it was the arch enemy state and a one day visit to Lahore from Amritsar in 1980 had been an unmitigated disaster. Me and my then wife were harassed, verbally abused and very nearly mugged in our hotel room by a succession of shysters and leering schemers. That short foray set my prejudices about Pakistan in mental granite. The place was truly fucked up. I felt a sort of pride in knowing that India had thrice beaten the Pakistanis on the battle field.
Despite that memory I applied for a place on the program in Lahore anyway, thinking a year out of Minnesota, no matter where it was, was worth a go. I was accepted and in late August 1986 boarded a plane to Pakistan where I landed in Lahore on a steamy overcast morning. As I was driven to the school my driver pointed out a big stadium. “This is Qadafi Stadium,” he said. Having just left the States where Reagan, not many months earlier had bombed Libya and very nearly killed Qadafi, I realised I was now in a different part of the universe.
The program required students to live with a Pakistani family all the better to absorb the local culture, cuisine, temper–mahol– and Urdu. Classes were held in a quiet suburban neighborhood and instruction provided by a quirky set of teachers that included a pencil-thin giggly linguist, an octogenarian martial artist cum poet cum calligrapher, a no nonsense Punjabi housewife–maasi–and a buxom Ahmadi babe not much older than some of us. The Director who led this cohort as well as facilitated the students’ immersion into Pakistani ways was a truly epic character: a tight skinned Russian American linguist (speciality: the languages of several small valleys in northern Pakistan) who was married to a local technocrat as his second wife. She rarely smiled and even in the most hot months of summer cocooned herself in a wool shawl.
We studied from 8-12 then spent each afternoon and evening in further absorption of the items already listed above, as well as several others. We rode around town on industrial grade bicycles, attended musical evenings and dance recitals in the red light district. We wandered aimlessly through the Old City, played tennis, drank G and Ts with industrialists and brothers’-in-law of local politicians at various clubs about town and had debates with an endless stream of fascinating people from philosophers and former political prisoners to human right activists, writers and feudal lords.
We travelled extensively across most of northern Pakistan, NWFP and Punjab and lived like kings on our meagre monthly stipend of Rs. 1400. We got stuck in a huge avalanche north of Gilgit and just shy of the Chinese border. When we finally got out one of our number, a tall redheaded girl from Seattle, had a new husband, a handsome border guard and we an endless source of gossip for years to come. We smoked mounds of sweet black hashish, meditated in Sufi shrines in the Swat valley, swam in several of the 5 rivers of Punjab and in the end, rode the Karakorum Highway to Kashgar, a Silk Road town in far western China.
In short, I had a blast. My mind was blown. But I mention all this not to relive the ‘glory days’ but to reflect on the deep impact 1986-87 had on my life. And in particular the ways in which it influenced me to change my direction and pursue a life that a few months earlier I had only the vaguest notion about and which I never imagined I could have.