Charanjeet Singh Minhas
A few months ago, my wife and I decided to do the unthinkable: visit Pakistan.
Before boarding the Philadelphia-Lahore flight last month, I wrote an op-ed for Pakistan’s The Daily Times, but never anticipated the reaction on social media. Some of my fellow Indians — not only Modi devotees — were offended by my positive mentions of Pakistan and Muslims. The Patel community was most upset.
With this uncertain start, how could we believe that our maiden Pakistan visit would be such a joyous experience? From the moment we arrived we were treated like celebrities. Shopkeepers and restaurants would first refuse to accept money.
It is important to mention here that I was in a country and among people I had done my best all these years to avoid.
This side of Punjab has a lot of camels. I also observed rampant pigeon grooming for gambling. In Faisalabad (old Lyallpur), I was awestruck to see its sky blanketed by colourful kites. The city’s Gobind Pura, Nanak Pura and Harcharan Pura show its inseparable Sikh connection.
When we arrived at Lyallpur Khalsa College (now Municipal Degree College) on a late Friday afternoon, the college appeared to be closed. The security guard pointed us towards the principal who was just opening his car door. One of our local companions hurriedly approached the principal. I will never forget the principal’s words: ‘It is their college, their property. They built it. Who am I to give them permission to tour it?’
Pakistani Punjabi has always been endearing to me, even though my friends and I often made it a butt of our jokes. That its speakers found my Punjabi interesting and original was a pleasant surprise.
Outside Lahore’s Defence Raya Golf and Country Club, I was introduced to Lt Gen Zahid Ali Akbar (retd). Although 88 years of age, he seemed fit enough to finish a marathon. ‘What a joy to speak real Punjabi with you. What they speak here isn’t Punjabi. Teach them some before you leave!’ he said, pointing to my hosts.
At the Punjab Club, Lahore’s colonial hangover is unmistakable. Its dress code and no-photo policy are non-negotiable. Thanks to an invitation from Riaz Ahmad Khan, retired chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court, and his wife, we were allowed to visit and eat there.
It was a remarkable journey. I have lived in England as a student and visited many European and Central American countries for business and leisure. I have seen more expansive physical beauty and natural diversity, awe-inspiring infrastructure and impeccable systems. However, never before have I seen such hearty hospitality or experienced an abundance of love that so contrasted with a country’s image abroad. No wonder that we frequently asked each other, ‘Are we in Pakistan?’
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