Monday, 13 May 2013

Travelogue: Khewra Salt Mines and Kallar Kahar

Pakistan's Motorway
Last weekend, my husband and I travelled to Islamabad. My husband had a business meeting scheduled for 4 pm on Friday afternoon. After stopping at a petrol pump to refuel and check tire pressure, we started on the motorway at 10 am that morning.

In this round trip, we planned to visit the famous Khewra salt mines. These mines are known to be Pakistan's largest and the world's second largest salt mines. I had 'googled' the directions and distances, but I wasn't sure about the time that the return journey to the mines would cost us. The roads off the motorway are usually single roads with different traffic patterns. So we decided to undertake that venture on Sunday when we would have more time on our hands to spare.

As we crossed Bhera service area, it occurred to me that we could take a quick tour of the Kallar Kahar lake. My husband agreed. I had visited the lake area way back in my childhood, long before the motorway was laid. During my countless trips back and forth Islamabad-Lahore via the motorway, I had spotted the water body several times from the motorway with colourful accessories in its surroundings. Today I got the chance to visit it up close.

We turned the wheel towards Kallar Kahar. The toll person inquired about our proceedings. We told we were on our way from Lahore to Islamabad and wanted to stop briefly at Kallar Kahar. He noticed the e-tag and let us go. We followed the signboard that pointed towards "Kallar Kahar". There were shops along the road that we took. It suddenly struck me that we were going into the Kallar Kahar town and not towards the Kallar Kahar lake. My husband asked a few men sitting on a charpai about the lake's whereabouts and they guided us to move in the opposite direction and then take a right.

We soon found a signboard reading "TDCP Resort 2 km". We followed the winding path eventually reaching a set of tourist resorts with a huge common neat and clean parking lot. We offloaded ourselves and went to explore the lake. It was actually hard to find the lake! To our sheer amazement, the entire water body was concealed by dense green marshy material. The water was barely visible. 

A long wooden dock led to an area where several brightly painted boats were parked. The dock neck had to its left and right humongous wild grass that way surpassed my decent height. This wild swampy grass reminded me of nothing but the gruesome alligators and crocodiles from the National Geographic videos that my husband keenly forces upon everyone to watch in the TV lounge. There were swings of various kinds in a small amusement park in the tourist resorts. Of course, they weren't open in that scorching heat of the afternoon sun. We spent a total of seven minutes in the region and then continued our journey towards Islamabad.

Then two days later, on our way back towards Lahore, we noticed a sign reading Salt Mines Resort 48 km for a route off the motorway just before we started ascending the salt range. A corresponding sign indicated Lilla to lie straight ahead on the motorway. I had earlier noticed that the Lilla / Pind Dadan Khan interchange was located between the salt range and Bhera interchange. We kept with our initial finding and waited for the Lilla turn.

After curving along the twists and turns of the magnificent salt range hills, we exited the motorway from the Lilla interchange. There was marked a 30 km ride towards Khewra. For half an hour, the road was straight on levelled ground with plain flat ground on either side. There was decent traffic on this single road comprising trucks, wagons, motorcycles and cars. There were camels and salt-like deposits off the road in the scant vegetation surroundings. Then we were directed by a road sign to take left towards the hills. 

The last fifteen minutes were city drive through the Khewra town. We noticed donkeys of a different colour and kind as compared to the animal species we were familiar with from Lahore. We crossed a railway track that perhaps was laid by the British in the bygone development days. We also passed the PMDC resort to our right. At the end of the road was the entry to the salt mines. 

To my surprise, the salt mines parking lot had some thirty vehicles parked across its entirety. We parked our motor vehicle and got entry tickets from an office towards the left. Then we made our way towards the mines on the right. A concrete bridge across the dry valley connected the two hills. We found a loaded blue and white electric train emerging from the mine. We didn't wait for it and started our way inside the mine. There were loads of families walking back. We went on and on. Finally, my husband asked a person how far deep inside we go? Around 8 km was the reply!

On and on we walked noticing the salty walls of the tunnel we were in. It was exciting and pleasantly cool though slightly claustrophobic inside the tunnel. Knowledge of recent earthquakes made it further uneasy. We appreciated that the rocky interior was carefully held in place by huge neatly assembled wood supports. On top of it, it was amazing to find lots of men, women and children there inside with us. 

As we had reached the mines quite late (post 5 pm), we did not want to get stranded inside. So we walked till the end of the train track, explored the interior quickly, and hopped in the train to take us back. Though noisy, the train ride was fun and airy and full of life and action. So in this trip to Islamabad, we were successful in exploring two K's off the motorway!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Today I Voted

Today I voted - once again. The previous elections were the first time when I became eligible to cast my vote. Back then, I voted for PML-N. PPP won and formed the government. PML-N formed the provincial government of Punjab. Today I voted once again - but this time I did not vote for PML-N.

My father has influenced my political beliefs quite a bit. He never advocated Imran Khan. His reasons have been manifold. In the morning today, my father did not know whom he would vote for. He did not want to vote for Imran Khan. He did not know if he had a better option. He decided to look at the contenders that stood for our NA and PP constituencies. He agreed that the PTI candidate was known to be good. He short-listed him and on a personal scale gave him further points for being Arain. Then he looked at the provincial candidates. He had some know how about the PML-N candidate who stood for the Province of Punjab and he was not in favour of voting for him. So having no better option, he had to stamp the bat twice! For me, history has already been made!

Another source of inspiration added in my life last year in the form of my husband. Though a supporter of Imran Khan, he has his own concerns regarding PTI's shortcomings. Yet, he clearly considers Imran Khan to be better off than the rest. He admires the political fervour that this political faction has been successful in generating in the past few months. He speaks for Imran Khan's seventeen years of persistent effort in maintaining ground in the messed up political arena of Pakistan. He sees people like Engro's former CEO become part of the PTI mission and finds hope in their struggle. He hears Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Abrar ul Haq, Junaid Jamshed and Attaullah Khan sing for the PTI campaign and his hopes get pumped up with the wide acclaim the party is striving to muster by approaching the youth, the truck walas and the masses alike. He participated in the jalsas in Lahore and took me with him to show the zeal and enthusiasm of the party supporters. Yet, he never forced me to vote for his liking.

Today I voted for PTI. As I landed the stamp on the party symbol, I had a deep regretful feeling. A feeling that worded that I did not do the right thing. No matter what the world around me said, I feel uneasy having voted for PTI. I agree the message PTI wants to deliver is right. I appreciate their high spirits and ambitions. I respect their mission and struggle. I wish they can do what they have set out to achieve. But I am in Pakistan. I have been living here since more than two decades now. I know the systems and I can sense how bad things are deep inside. The systems here are too messed up to set right. I fear PTI has raised hopes and expectations which will await quick revolutions. I hope PTI wins and succeeds in its mission and continues to muster support for its legitimate aims and ambitions. Good luck!

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Servant Trap

Trapped Being born in a country that is categorized to be a developing third-world nation, it is amusing to find the ‘poor’ of Pakistan live more aristocratic lives than many in the developed lands. I refer to the state of servant exploitation in Pakistan. Availability of cheap labour is the primary driving force for this cultural distinction. As a consequence, while citizens of most developed countries are self-sufficient and independent on a daily life basis, Pakistan – a world in its own – has become inseparably reliant on labour to carry out simple daily household chores.

The debauched mindset in Pakistan is to underscore the glaring difference between the different financial classes in society, and subsequently, hiring labour for middle class and upper class households from the lower class is exploitative. I say ‘exploitative’ because seldom do such employers take into account minimum wage requirements that the government fondly expects employers to impartially meet. More even so, some people consider that when they are compensating for someone’s services, it is equivalent to purchasing that human being in totality. The employers assume that they automatically get the unrestrained right to stretch their employees to the utmost to maximize potential net gains.

Some people prefer to employ children to carry out their household tasks as it is less expensive and easier to manage children with lesser grievance tales for the employers to listen to everyday. The tender years of childhood are for laughter and play. Forlornly, children who are born into financially distressed families are forced to do physical work that is nowhere appropriate for their innocent ages and feeble physical strengths. Wonder what the young growing minds gather when they work in houses of their age-mates who are several financial tiers above them. It would be quite testing for them to see the elite kiddos get everything that they place a finger on while the not-so-fortunate children continue to dust cobwebs and mop floors. So much for basic human rights.

The West might be alleged of consuming unhealthy foods, but I believe they still have a healthier lifestyle than the nawabs of Pakistan. With the same twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week and fifty-two weeks in a year, the western world has raised kids and worked inside and outside the house without any additional helping hands. Meanwhile, Pakistanis have woven for themselves a lavish lifestyle with servants running around to fulfil the commands of the dictators. Sadly, this dependence on ‘external help’ to fulfil one’s own household responsibilities has diffused a sluggish attitude across the Pakistani community. Our diminishing indulgence in household chores is making us less active overall and increasing concerns of ill-health.

On the other hand, in this vicious dependency game, servants are tactfully acquiring their stranglehold on houses, sometimes more than the owners themselves. Since they have been handed over the responsibility to take care of household chores like cleaning the house, managing the kitchen, doing the laundry, and so on, they know the working of the house inside out. They know where things are placed, what stock has depleted, and how things get done. Assessing the significant role that they play in the household, servants tend to coerce their employers to accede to their requests and get petty favours. Consequently, the hiring authorities feel appalled with all the stress that they end up consuming at the expense of getting their daily chores done.

People complain about how servants rule their lives more than providing a service and how they would love to just live on their own, but never really do. Meanwhile, the distressed labour class has limited options to earn finances from, given their adversity and low skill set. So much for the whining employers and employees, both are still entangled in a nasty mesh of unremitting dependency.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Election Saga

Pakistan Elections
The much awaited elections are finally a day away. Again, major events mark the arrival of this revolutionising affair. PTI's leader Imran Khan witnessed a nasty fall during one of his final election campaigns. Then Former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani's son got mysteriously kidnapped from an election rally in Multan. In Lahore, the old LDA Plaza building stood ablaze.

Determined activists of PTI and PML-N are advocating their respective political parties, while PPP hangs on to the dying Bhutto dream. MQM stronghold stays rampant in the dreaded city of Karachi though Zardari holds high fame in the province of Sindh. Amusing symbols - traffic light, lantern, cycle, bed, giraffe, generator, bucket, suitcase, electric heater - line up on the contesting candidates chart.

Let's hope for the best future for Pakistan.

Depressing Dramas

Depressed FlowerThere used to be a time when Pakistani television was acclaimed for its brilliant masterpieces. That was the era when there used to be only one Pakistani channel on television. Then decades later, when media got liberated, a multitude of private television channels sprouted. Tough competition among these bustling media hawkers drove them to seduce potential customers by offering enticing entertainment. 

With the passage of time, Pakistanis dramas recorded a comeback in their appreciation score among the viewers. However, the quality and style that these new productions behold no-where-so-ever matches the crispness of the historic works of classical art. Worse even so, the content that the recently aired drama serials deliver is no less than a ticking time bomb that is steadily preparing to create social havoc.

A drama needs to be the hottest thing on television. The selling strategy of a soap opera is to essentially accentuate a plot that entices the viewer to stay hooked to the story through the chain of episodes. Else the drama serial would gradually lose appeal and subsequently lose its clients. In the aura of aggressive competition in the media industry, Pakistani media channels are exploiting ripe spicy stories from society – or more explicitly societal sins – to create overwhelming dramas to grab viewer’s unwavering attention. Moreover, they adorn the storyline with an ingenious amalgamation of spice and deception to appeal to taste of their audience.

As I am compelled to whiz through these dramas – since they are begged to be ‘popular demand’ – all I get to see is condemnable inhumane behaviour. Among jealousies, materialism, discrimination, arrogance, dishonesty, deception, mockery and snobbish behaviour, I find heart-breaking examples of divorce and second marriages and broken homes and frenzied children and spouse maltreatment and disgust and a burgeoning material race. The moroseness of such television serials and the gloomy stories that they narrate is suffocating. And yet, people are crazy about them. I fail to understand how such sheer depressing stories are winning popularity among the masses.

What shakes me to the core is to hear people justify these stories by acknowledging that this is what exists out there. “Well, this is what is happening out there. The drama narrates a story close to reality and then tells how the issues under discussion could be resolved.” I would not go by that argument to hold on to the negative undercurrents of a drama serial for a multitude of weeks to only eventually depress myself to death. Personally, it gives me no pleasure to see a husband divorce his wife to renounce his first family for another being. It beats me how people can enjoy seeing such grave atrocities with such calm and excitement.

The message these soap operas are passing on is killer. In several drama serials, I have been appalled by the blatant use of the word talaaq. Once upon a time, it was considered taboo to discuss such mortifying issues in public. I wonder what young minds would be gathering from such outrageous display when such barefaced exhibition of social life shakes me to the core. With the onset of globalization, divisions in the social framework have grown much further than the simple rural-urban divide. The changing society brings disturbances and undercurrents and the differences are highlighted in these dramas.

Media is a strong means of persuasive information dissemination. I feel sad because all that I see and gather is depression and feelings of extreme negativity. Dramas should be a source of motivation and positive inspiration. But sadly the ones under discussion are not. It makes me wonder whether these dramas inherently seek to diffuse a subliminal message that would eventually shatter the society into zillions of unidentifiable fragments. I wish we could be saviours.

The Name Change

My Nikah was solemnly performed in a mosque, not due to religious dispositions, but primarily due to the austere time constraints dictated by wedding halls in Lahore these days. 

After the Nikah proceedings were securely sealed with the qabool hey, qabool hey, qabool hey, everyone congratulated me. I was excited and awestruck with the status change finally happening.

In the midst of rising excitement and mixed emotions, I heard someone say “Mrs. Rehan”! I looked around and found my Nano smiling at me and addressing me as “Mrs. Rehan”. That sounded so awkward and aunty-like. It looked as if she was addressing one of her own age-mates! Yikes! I lightly objected on the face of it, but secretly enjoyed being so closely associated with the one whom I just got officially and legally hooked to. Now I was Mrs. Rehan. 

I wanted to get my name changed to include my husband's name as my surname. So I visited the NADRA office to request my name change, address change and marital status change. I was given a token over the counter to wait in queue. After a few minutes, someone called out, “Sarah Rehan”. That was supposed to be me. It felt so odd. I walked up to the source of the sound, and updated my information with the national database. Then another person asked for “Sarah Rehan”. Yes, that was me again! I was required to give my finger impressions, and new signature to go with my new name. Moments ago, I had renounced the name that I had signed across so many places all my life. I had become so used to signing my maiden name. And here I found another small but sentimental change closing in. I clumsily signed Sarah Rehan on a piece of paper. I quickly practised the new signature a few times, and submitted the sample. There, my name changed! 

I used to wonder why people say that a new life starts after one gets married. I now know the feeling. It is a new life, a new name, a new family – a new existence altogether. I believe that among the tirade of tricky transitions that happen from 'single' to 'married' status, the name change is a small but significant transition. I moved to a new city, a new home, and got blessed with new parents. My surroundings changed altogether, and the change was not just that alone. I was now sharing my life with someone. Amidst these changes, I felt incomplete to not be associated with my husband in the socially recognized representation. I found the name change to signify the unity of the bonding that I share with my husband, as we have been united as husband and wife. Now we are called Mr. and Mrs. Rehan. It gives us societal representation as a connected entity and brings forward the name of a new family that would mark the start of another lineage. My new name makes me feel securely attached to my life companion. 

As expected, the name change necessitates a series of tedious, time-consuming and laborious documentation changes to validate the national and international identity documents, and objects like driving license, club membership cards, bank credit/debit cards, and academic/professional certificates. Moreover, the name change can prove to be an emotional transition for the girl who is already undergoing a host of changes with the marriage reality settling in. Prior to the marriage, the maiden name of the lady represented her in society and presented her to the world during her formative years. It was the name that supported her to become her identity and proof of existence. Of late, some women in Pakistan stick to their maiden names after marriage to maintain their academic, professional and social identity as it existed prior to their marriage. My husband had no issues with me maintaining my maiden name post marriage. He fully supported whichever made me more comfortable. 

However, the charm of being attached to a new person and a new name after bearing the name of the family that reared you all along the youthful years, is warm and unique. Further, it would give the man one is now attached to the pleasure of your confidence in him. in the marriage to feel esteemed and happy that the woman who has joined him is ready to embark the life journey with him as one unified entity. It is heart warming for the society to welcome aboard the new family that has emerged post the marriage. I knew what I wanted. I welcomed the marriage. I welcomed the name change. 

Just submitting this article with my new identity feels so great. It gives me the strength and security of the companion who stands with me every moment. It reflects the newness that I have undergone with the marriage.

This article was also published in The Express Tribune on 22 July 2012:

Make Life Worth Living

Happiness and Contentment
Life is a matter of choices. We all get the same twenty-four hours in a day. The way we make use of them is up to us.

Everyone has a different taste for enjoying life. Some are driven by sports. Some are driven by music. Some like to create. Some like to explore. Some let their imagination run wild. Idealistically, one should engage in activities that augment one’s bucket of happiness.

The correlation between contentment and specific activities varies from individual to individual. Some activities enliven us while some make us dull. For some, household chores such as cleaning and cooking drastically influence their level of satisfaction, while for some such activities would be a sheer waste of potential when more could be achieved in the same time. Some would feel more constructive if they have on their platter technical tasks or enterprising assignments that facilitate their learning and growth. Some might be honoured to offer their services for social welfare and development.

If one is engaged in work that one does not enjoy, one would not be content. The diminishing level of happiness would adversely affect the collective happiness of his surroundings. Great caution should be exercised in spending time wisely, for if man can waste time, time can also waste man. To live life to the fullest, one should live life doing what one is passionate about. One should undertake activities that lighten up one’s mood, and reflect as happiness both internally and externally on one’s soul. Those would be the passions one feels fervently about.

Passions do not thrive well in an aura of inhibitions and limitations. One should not be bound by one’s surroundings for doing what one wants. If one is constrained by one’s environment in ways that disable the individual from nurturing oneself, it would be a sad affair. In the social mesh that the world has intricately knit for us, we often have to compromise to accommodate the whims and wishes of those who matter to us. Inhibitions - be they socially-gifted restrictions or self-created silhouettes - bar an individual from living life freely. As someone once wisely said, “It is a characteristic of great people that they can just be, in the current moment, without worrying about the future or the past.”

Living Without Regrets

Life is a roller-coaster ride. Fun and thrilling, it has its ups and downs. In dismal moments, everything might seem to be screwed up. Decisions of the past that have led to unkempt outcomes might be seriously regretted. 

No RegretsAt such a point, life would horrendously come to a dreadful standstill with optimism crashing like the stock market and no vision for hope for the future. Life would become no less than a ceaseless chain of depression cycles - a ripple effect with one wave chasing another. The mocking despair would leave no purpose for life.

That is why one should not regret any of one's decisions. One should appreciate the acumen that was put in to take any choices in the past, and dynamically move forward, coping with any obstacles and challenges that come in the way. Sure, the futuristic vision should entail the cautious approach to not repeat mistakes. 

They say one should learn from mistakes, but then our nature entices us to pick the same options that we have always gone by with. However, a bad experience with a particular decision in the past might pave way for a different mindset to approach the same scenario in the future.