The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Travelling by train across the Indo-Gangetic plains after the monsoon has spent itself is a refreshing experience. What was a couple of months ago a khaki, dusty flat land is now different shades of green as far as the eye can see. Haryana looks what its name denotes, a green land, green as green could be. On both sides of the rail track are long stretches of water, overgrown with water hyacinth or green scum. Water buffaloes wallow in them with only their heads above the water. When they get out to munch grass, snow-white cattle egrets follow in their footsteps.

The scene remains much the same till you reach the foothills of the Shivaliks. Then there are thick jungles of lantana, mesquite (keekar), covered with yellow blossoms, the ever-in-bloom Ipomoea with purple flowers and thorny cactus.

The Shatabdi Express reaches its terminal at Kalka. It has the longest platform I have seen. And unlike other stations where there are stray dogs, Kalka has goats. They are familiar with the trains. They jump down from the platform to the tracks and leap up just as a train pulls up.

The hills are also greener and appear more forested. Streams which are dry most of the year have water gushing over rocks and boulders. There are not many flowers to be seen along the road, but it does not matter: for the eyes, green is the most soothing colour. All along the route is the fragrance of farm-fresh bhuttas, roasted on charcoal amber, being eaten by men and women.

I wish there were fewer trucks and buses on the road. They belch smoke, their engines make a lot of noise as the grind their way uphill, their horns pierce one’s eardrums and they slow down other motorized traffic. A journey which should take no more than 40 minutes takes one and a half hours.

Mind your own business

I get news of what goes on in Lahore’s prostitute quarter, Heera Mandi, from The Christian Science Monitor. The author, Elizabeth Ghauri, describes it as Pakistan’s cultural centre. It was no such thing at any time in its history. It was always a red-light area, combining dancing and singing (mujra) with straight-forward sex for money. Most non-Lahoris writing about it translate its name as Hira Mandi — diamond market. So does Ghauri.

It never was a diamond market; only clusters of whore-houses alongside narrow, smelly lanes. The name is derived from Raja Hira Singh Dogra, a favourite of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who had his haveli there. Its nebulous claim to being a cultural centre is that Allama Iqbal, Pakistan’s greatest poet, also had his haveli close by. His grandson, Yusuf Salahuddin, has restored the ancestral haveli as his residence.

Despite the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, a succession of military dictators and pseudo-democratic rulers committed to making Pakistan a pak (pure) state, Heera Mandi has flourished as a mandi (market) for the flesh trade. It continues to be the main supplier of film scarlets and dancing girls for the Pakistan film industry.

I have a young Pakistani friend based in Chicago who spent his childhood years in Heera Mandi. He narrated a lovely story about Heera Mandi. Early winter mornings he used to go to school with a satchel full of books on his back through one of its streets. He was intrigued to see women sitting on their door steps taking in the sun. He asked his mother who these maasees (aunts) were and why they were the only ones to be seen in the street so early. His mother reprimanded him and ordered him to take another route to his school.

This made the boy more persistent about going the same way because occasionally one or the other maasee asked him to tell the chaiwala at the end of the lane to bring her hot tea and gave him an anna or two as a reward. The boy asked his mother what the maasee did for a living.

“Ask them,” snarled the other. “May they go to jehannum (hell).” So the boy asked his maasees what they did for a living as his mother wanted to know. “Tell your amma we do dhanda (business),” they replied. The boy told his mother. “Ask the bitches how their dhanda is doing'” The boy went back and put the question to his maasees. They replied, “Tell your amma jaan our dhanda is doing very well. We don’t even get time to put on our salwars.”

Pens are not for writing alone

Kuldip Munshi, a hotelier from Kasauli, has a fetish for pens. Whenever he drops in to see me he brings half-a-dozen pens as gifts. They are not the common kind of ball point pens available for Rs 10 or less, but fancy ones I have never seen before. One is a combination of a pen and a torchlight. It has a tiny bulb close to its nib, so you can write in the dark. Unscrew it and it has a stronger bulb which can light your way.

One has the picture of a comely woman draped in a long black evening dress. You turn it down and the dress slips off the young lady. There are others of different colours — red, green, yellow — and believe it or not, gold.

Amir Tuteja of Washington also has a pen fetish. When I was in Washington, he took me to his favourite pen store. Although I did not need it I was forced to buy one. Tuteja bought three or four. Whenever he comes to Delhi, he brings a few pens for me. And with every set of newspaper clippings he sends me, there is a catalogue of the latest kinds of pens.

I too have a fetish for pens. I have a varied collection: Cartiers, Mont Blancs, Parkers, Cross, Watermans — you name it, I have it. Quite a few have been stolen from my collection. So I keep them locked in my cupboard. I keep the favourite on my person when I go to bed at night. Despite my collection, whenever anyone gifts me a new pen I am mighty pleased. However, when it comes to writing, I use those I steal at board meetings of the Le Meridien Hotel.

I wonder what Freudians would make of this fetish. For them a pen is a phallic symbol. This does not apply to Munshi who, though still in his forties, has taken a vow of celibacy. Tuteja, in his sixties, has had many lady friends but is still a bachelor. And the phallus is far from my mind when I see a good pen. The same applies to gifts I give to lady friends. My first choice is a wrist watch; next comes a trinket like a pearl, garnet or silver necklace.

A watch is also a Freudian symbol for a woman’s private parts. It has never crossed my mind when I buy one as a gift. Usually I ask the lady in question, “What would you like as a birthday gift'” More often than not the reply, is, “Give me the watch that you have worn.”

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