Krishna in front of the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore on Sunday. (Reuters)
When the VIP decides to go sightseeing, lesser mortals grab their chance to go shopping, like mice at play when the cat’s away. In Lahore neither comes easy if you are Indian and happen to arrive appended with the title of significant visitor.
External affairs minister S.M. Krishna’s patrician crew went roaming mid-town landmarks — the hallowed dome of Daata Durbar, the Eiffelesque Minar-e-Pakistan — abjectly garrisoned.
The convoy groaned, burdened by the excess of protective metal around it. Its route lay tranquillised rather than merely sanitised. Shops and establishments shuttered, human presence temporarily erased save for helmeted troops and inscrutable intelligence apparatchiks in plainclothes.
Lahore is what its life is. They only saw a part of it barked into coma by some khaki commandant.
The plebs of the Press, meantime, pushed a politely laid barricade against movement. Unwritten instructions and anonymous advisories had flown ahead of the shopper party and brought automated steel barriers to lock down the hotel gates. Please don’t step out, for our peace of mind if not for your own safety, we don’t want an incident.
But what incident? What safety? Lahore isn’t an everyday station, surely you want us to see a bit of why it’s so fabled? Besides — and far more important, but never mind — we want to shop. Yes, of course, but no, please understand, there are orders, please.
The voice wore the authority of an elite commando — black beret, grey shirt with crisp epaulettes, olive trousers that fell on buffed military shoes. He had an automatic ready in a holster at the waist. But he only pleaded with bare arms and a smile that dissolved the brusqueness of his bushy salt-and-pepper mien.
He wouldn’t and couldn’t say it out but the cause of his — and his bosses’ — palpitating anxieties was not far to seek. This is the city where that toxic blister in the bilateral eye floats free: Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, virulent principal of the Lashkar-e-Toiba who has djinned into the benevolent robes of amir of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.
To Indians, he remains the devil-despatcher of the 26/11 horror on Mumbai and chief banker of future threat. But on this day, Hafiz Saeed merely tormented Pakistani securitymen tasked to safekeeping guests from across the border. The Indians were raring to march to the shops, the Pakistanis were on edge with portentous imaginings.
A shivered whisper had travelled the hotel lobby not long after the Indians filed in: Anyone here who wants to meet Hafiz Saeed? What? Really? Or was it just a mischievous truth-or-dare trick? But how? When? Where? It can be arranged, the whisper offered, probably here, probably somewhere nearby, within 10 minutes.
He lives in a double-storey in Johar Town, after all, and he enjoys the way of his will. Then the whisper vanished, almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Only the electric ripple of it remained. The hive of spooks and securitymen in the hotel atrium can’t not have caught a sense of it. They were on alarm, and doubly stressed by the necessity of not revealing why. Air-conditioning hummed in the shop-tour buses, their exhausts belched diesel. They were going nowhere.
But shopping is a stubborn lust. To thwart it is to make it unputdownable. Indignation foamed over the barrier and marooned the salt-and-pepper soldier.
Two thoughts may have crossed his mind. First, why don’t we let traders run ties if shopping provokes such fond fervour? Second, and more panicked, in my pursuit to prevent an incident am I going to become one myself?
Between a possible threat of mishap and an impending disorder at hand, he embraced the latter. “But not far,” went his amended concession, “not in the rushy areas”.
Reinforcements were commandeered from nearby junctions and attached to the buses, fore and aft, flak-jacketed commandos astride station wagons, guns at the ready. A siren screamed ahead, expelling high-street traffic into bylanes, leaving them looped in jams. We were off to the shops.
Of course, there was little to be bought that you couldn’t buy your side of the frontier. But goods from Pakistan come kissed by the muse of separation, it’s seldom about what they are, always about where they are from: Pakistan, that never-never land next door. The stick of surma, or eye-liner, the same you find on your neighbourhood trinket stall, feels silky under the lids if it has come from across. The bolt of cotton seems to fall better. The tailoring has a turn of cut you can never buy for a price at home. Your Indian jutti can never find the feel and fit of a Pakistani khussa on your feet, even if the two are identical of size, stitch and leather.
Where would you get a ready-as-Rambo daredevil standing guard in the shop front as you haggle your chosen wares? What price would you buy the thrill of the threat of Hafiz Saeed bursting in as you await ice-cream curl into the cone at a softy vend?
And to think that they never even charged us for the treat. “Tauba, tauba,” the vendor shrank from the proferring of payment, “aap hamare bhai hain, mehmaan hain (No way, God forbid, you are our brothers, our guests).”
And then to think we may have forced on them the return gift of a Sunday afternoon garlanded in road snarls with our security-bubble run to the shops and back.
But then, it was all Hafiz Saeed’s doing, wasn’t it? That’s what the Indians keep telling their counterparts in Pakistan.