Culture shock: Dinner in the dark

October 06, 2013

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“It is not allowed” is a sentence I heard very often in Pakistan, always accompanied by a light swinging movement of the head; the meaning of this gesture can vary from regret to real worry to indignation. If the disapproving person is a woman, the head shaking would often express surprise or even fear, in any case it would mean: “How can you dare?” In my travels through Punjab, I would come to appreciate all these meanings.

I left my beautiful hotel for honeymooners in front of the Lahore Fort very early. A rickshaw set me down at the Lahore bus station. I got my ticket in the ladies’ line, waited for the bus in the ladies’ room and took a place between an old woman on the right and a young lady on the left, on the other side of the aisle. The old lady was speaking to me in Urdu so I asked the girl to translate. Thanks to the conversation, the seven hours to Bahawalpur flew by quickly. Meanwhile, I made friends with the young lady, Asma, and told her that I wanted to go to the bazaar and buy some fabric for a shalwar kameez.

“You want to go to the bazaar alone?” she asked with such an expression of fear in her face that I didn’t dare to say that I always did so. She hurried to say she would accompany me. Grateful, I accompanied her to the Working Women’s Hostel where she lived then returned an hour later to pick her up. The guard at the hostel eyed me from head to toe suspiciously before he decided to open the door. Asma was not alone, Marja came too. In this formation we went through the narrow lanes of the bazaar, straight to our goal: the cloth section.

What beauty! What a stream of colours! Embroideries of golden filaments and stones, precious fabrics: the dresses the shopkeepers spread with gestures of grandeur in front of my eyes were not made for normal brides, they were fit for queens or goddesses! Eventually however, we found the right shop offering cotton fabric with simple, nice embroidery. I bought two. Now we needed a tailor: Asma knew one and we went to his shop.

The tailor barely looked at me, he just handed the yardstick to the girls, who determinedly took all my measurements: arms, shoulders, waist, from shoulder to the calf muscles, width of the neck and edge of the dupatta; price and delivery, everything was discussed, evaluated, agreed. Grateful, I let them decide for me. Then the two girls disappeared into their hostel, 8pm being the curfew, and I went back to the PTDC Motel, the only hotel in the town which was allowed to host a foreigner.

“It’s very late, madam”, said the guard in a scolding tone. It was a quarter past eight, but the blackout, which had swallowed the entire town, shrouded the road, the little building of the reception and the cottages in the garden in shadows; the white roses guided me to my room.

The moment I put my foot inside, I felt hungry. Armed with a torch, I went back to the reception. A man stood up from the darkness and went to the desk. “You have a restaurant service, don’t you?” In the torch light, the face of the man was a mask of deepest regret as he answered: “I am so sorry, madam, we don’t.”

“Could you prepare at least a sandwich for me?”

A sad expression appeared on the face looking at me through the shadow. I tried to hide my disappointment: “Well, never mind. I will look for a restaurant in the town.”

The shaking of the head in front of me took on a frenzied pace. “This is not possible,” the man said. There was a note of finality in his voice; obviously I had tried to breach some unbreakable code. But I am stubborn. “Why not?”

A flash of desperation crossed the face of this employee of the PTDC Motel. In front of such hopeless insanity he needed help. He disappeared into the darkness and came back with a second man to whom I repeated my request. “Shall I go to bed hungry?” I asked, now really angry.

“It is not allowed,” said the second man as an answer.

The sudden reappearance of the electricity didn’t make things better: the emptiness of the hall with the old-fashioned, shabby furniture looked even less inviting under the spare light bulb. Meanwhile, the men were speaking Urdu to each other ignoring me completely, until a man in a colourless shalwar kameez appeared; he stood unwillingly some steps away. His presence allowed the staff to find their PTDC pride again: “What would you like for dinner?” asked the first.

Taken aback, I stuttered the first dishes which came to mind — daal and vegetables, chapatti, tea. The man wrote it down on a large sheet of paper with the PTDC logo, with exaggerated accuracy; he asked conscientiously how many chapattis I wanted, then finally handed the paper to the waiting servant.

“He will bring the dinner to your room.” I was dismissed.

Half an hour later, they knocked on the door and the servant came inside with a tray, put it silently on the table, handed me the bill, waited for me to count the money, let the bakshish disappear below his large kameez, and turned towards the door.

In that moment, with a feeble click, the electricity went away again. I saw the shape of the man hesitating at the doorstep.

“Never mind”, I said to the shadow. “I have my own light.