After wading through the Rubik’s Cubesque visa form for India, we clamber on to the rickety PIA bus alongside a chap in a kurta, jeans and Ray Bans. The bus door flaps open like a caged bird while the passengers hang on grimly to their askew hand luggage. The bus shudders to a stop next to a small plane with an orange logo.

“Where is PIA?” I ask the driver.

“This PIA. They leased this plane.”

The kurta guy is moved enough to comment: “Mumbai jaana hai, boss.”

“This plane for Mumbai!”

The elderly passengers lumber about with diabetic feet. The lady next to Ammi talks about her niece’s wedding in Hyderabad. The foreigner in the row behind frowns, but the lady is in full flow like the Jamna. The scowling kurta guy seated in the row ahead removes his glasses, revealing himself to be a small time Bollywood actor.


Savour the flavour of five Indian cities with Maheen Usmani


“Beta, fill this out for me,” insists the voluble lady. Entitled “For Pakistani Nationals Residential Permit (Under Para 7 of the Foreigners Order, 1948)”, it requires filling out two sets of papers basically asking the same questions filled out on the visa form; queries which have apparently not been updated since Partition.

“No idea how to fill this, but I know someone who can help you.” I point to the reclining Bollywood chap and she taps him on the shoulder. Ignoring my mother’s horror, I look at an Indian couple who are twirling their toes anti-clockwise.

“Sir, can I take the window seat?” I ask the man in the aisle seat.

“Oh no, now I sit here but when plane go up, I sit by window,” he says with irrevocable logic.

Mumbai

We get a bird’s eye view as our suitcases are thrown projectile-like by baggage handlers. There is a glass section assigned to Pakistanis at the airport; static queue, palpable ambiguity.

A bazaar in Mumbai, Photos by the writer
A bazaar in Mumbai, Photos by the writer

“Madam, please sit, those people before you,” an official waves his arm towards the passengers dotting chairs.

“But I’ve been standing in line for 45 minutes!”

“Thish is token system, you sit.”

“Why don’t you give tokens? What is the procedure?”

“Madam, you please not stress me!” And, indeed, the man’s hair was standing on end.

I spot the official who had sent me into this chaos. “What rules, Madam? Immigration people change procedures every day,” he mutters, guiding me to the same serpentine queue. The tow-headed chap is scribbling into a register with four men lounging next to him. He bellows: “Madam, some patience! Should I only do your work and not these poor people?”

Ten pairs of eyes swing in my direction. “Why can’t you accommodate all of us?”

The man’s eyes pop bug-like; I am pulled away by the official to another counter manned by a young man with symmetrically parted hair. It may be his first day on the job, because he needs the help of three officials to feed the data.

“You forgot the vizzha number,” they chorus happily.

A half hour trots by and the crowd at the chap’s elbow is led by a toothy official who assures me while I stand Madame Tussauds-like; “Don’t worry Shishtar, your work will be done.”

The line at the first counter has barely moved. I ask a grave Sikh officer: “Why are five men behind that counter, but only one man is working? If they all worked, this line would move faster.”

“Yes Madam, five men are there but you see there is only one rejishtar.”

After more than two hours, we finally stagger out into the bright heat of Mumbai — a city in a hurry. The swanky airport illustrates the India Shining mantra, but it is dissipated somewhat by the slums en route to the city. Desi solution? Put up aluminium fences to block the unsightly view with tiny gaps for slum dwellers. Plans are afoot to hand over this prized land to developers, but what will become of the slum people? They will be resettled, but no one knows where.

Slums cover up in Mumbai, Photos by the writer
Slums cover up in Mumbai, Photos by the writer

“There are no longer so many beggars on the streets, did you notice?” beams an Indian lady.

“Yes, but where did they go?”

“Who knows? But at least they are not here.”

The dress code is casual chic with women mostly in shorts or dresses, the bar lounges dimly lit and vibrant. “Shahrukh Khan lives here. Want to see his house?” asks our taxi driver as we speed into Bandra.

Muslim majority areas look like they did perhaps in the Sir Syed era: cramped, messy, swarming with black burqas, churidar pajamas, skull caps and beards. Do they choose to ghettoise themselves or is it forced upon them?

I spot an old man with a white beard, a young man and a small boy, all in white churidar kurta. I ask the young man if I can take a picture of him with his cute son. “That’s his son,” he replies, pointing to the elderly man who glares at me.

Pune

Pune has been voted the safest city for women in India. A common sight to see women riding scooters, but here they do it in skimpy shorts and dresses and no one bats an eyelid, unless you count us.

An exclusive designer shop has no fan and the air conditioner is switched off. Ammi asks for it to be turned on and the owner obliges, only to furtively switch it off as soon as Ammi is in the changing room. And this when they are not battling any load shedding; no electricity, gas or water shortages during our two week trip unless you count the half hour when the light went in Pune which was attributed to Holi.

At The German Bakery, there is a poster of wanted terrorists with their ugly mugs who blew up this place in 2010. But now we are having velvet cake and sipping green tea alongside foreign yogis in pony tails with mats tucked under their arms, chattering students, merry socialites and executives in rolled up shirtsleeves.

Udaipur

Chunda Palace Hotel, Udaipur, Photos by the writer
Chunda Palace Hotel, Udaipur, Photos by the writer

The city of palaces, famed for the valour of its maharajas. Our guide Vikram boasts about the bravery of a Rajput princess whose husband could hardly bear to tear himself away from her charms to lead a vital battle. The princess said she would send him to war with a present; she chopped off her head with his sword and told the servant to present to the Maharaja on a tray. Not to be outdone, he wore her head around his neck like a locket and from then on won every war.

Salman Khan is said to be shooting nearby (yes, this trip was pre-conviction); my sister is torn between shawl shopping and homing in on Salman so I volunteer to go. No superstar, but the bouncer offers us Armaan Kohli instead. When I mention we are from Pakistan, their eyes pop open.

“Didi, you come to Udaipur after two days when Bhai Jaan is here, we will give you photo plus talk.”

I decline the generous offer, adding: “Bhai Jaan say kahaiyay ga kay unn ki qismat bahut kharaab hai, kiyun kay woh hum say mil nahin sakay.” (Tell Bhai Jaan that his qismet is very bad, because he could not meet us).

Udaipur being the wedding destination hotspot, we attend a dream wedding at the resplendent Uday Villas. The professional dancers look like they have just stepped out of Aishwarya’s Nimbooda Nimbooda song; the wedding ceremony Devdas-like with chairs of the gorgeous couple held aloft; stunning marigold, red roses and lily decorations; delectable delicacies; male guests in Jodhpuri and jackets with jewel encrusted turbans and women in stylish lehngas and saris; a circling drone immortalised the event; the dinner by the swimming pool done up in shades of peacock blue and shimmering silver that would put even a Karachi wedding planner to shame.

The Air India flying experience with their air hostess, she of the ‘no nonsense’ bun, red lipstick and sonorous voice had been memorable, but little we knew what lay in store on the Spice Jet flight from Udaipur to Delhi; shrill ground staff, constant roar of the engine and one miniscule bathroom whose door wouldn’t close. I held the door in place when Ammi was inside, leaning against a door to keep my momentum. A lopsided handle dug into my back which said: “Plane Exit Handle: do not touch.” Amidst the glare of front row passengers, I pushed it back into place with nary a crew member in sight.

Delhi

Delhi’s street kids greet you with the wild-eyed gaze of the ‘80s kid Amitabh. History whispers into your ear if you can tear yourself away from the plush malls. Whether it is the sheer purity of the Qutb Minar or the addictive serenity of Humayun’s Tomb, the past echoes around one (although it is a dampener to see college kids taking group selfies next to the graves of Humayun’s descendants).

The gaze of the men here is bold, the women riding scooters more in shalwar kameez and saris. The BBC documentary on the Delhi gang rape was banned in India for hurting sentiments and inciting rape; what was outrage-worthy was the similar mindset of the rapists profiled and their defence lawyers. Most Indians supported the ban, seeing the film as destroying India’s reputation; this violence against women happened because of outsiders from UP and Bihar; how many more rapes there are in US and UK, hain ji?

Lucknow

Lucknow delicacies, Photos by the writer
Lucknow delicacies, Photos by the writer

Lucknow brings a smile to Ami’s face and a spring in her step. The language, the warmth, the cuisine is all part of Awadhi culture. India is a gastronomic delight but nowhere is it more evident than in Lucknow: the almond kulfi, the paper thin anda wala paratha, the delicious tunday ke kabab and the gossamer light Moradabad ki biryani.

An Indian yuppie couple tell me they wept and were unable to send their kids to school in Delhi the day after the Peshawar school attack. “We felt as if those massacred kids were our own kids.”

An elderly Indian is surprised that I am Pakistani. “But you look like you are from Delhi.”

“Sir, we all look like each other.”

He smiles, nods.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 24th, 2015

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