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A Lahori's visit to the city that creates myths and explodes them too
By Ammara Ahmad
If you live in Lahore and choose to go North-West, you will be in Gujranwala in about an hour's time. And if you move from Lahore to the East, on the same Grand Trunk (GT) Road which Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan Warrior-King, carved out, in about the same time you could be standing in Amritsar -- except for the ordeal of crossing the Indo-Pakistan border.
How can one cultivate memories for a city without visiting it? Although just a few miles away from my Lahore home, throughout my life this city has seemed years, if not decades, away. Like a musty page out of history, somehow unreal, the sharpest acuity inscribed on my mind concerning it was that of the massacre that my grandfather -- who was born there -- had survived. A massacre brought to notoriety by the immensity of its scale, the chaos engendered by the Partition in 1947.
But we were here at last! As the girls with me ran off to do their shopping, I set out on a much weightier mission. The city had been stamped in my consciousness, now was the time to adjust, to fit in the pieces, fill in the colours and bond with it directly. This town of a few millions has a place in history that few towns can boast of, yet this is the last thing you feel while walking around.
The city has survived two butcheries that appeared too gory in comparison to the size of the city. Amritsar seemed too small, too delicate to have gone through the ordeals it had been through. Yet, in a way, as you walk through the narrow streets that, somehow, resemble Lahore, with their uneven bumps, numerous children and puddles, you have your chance of reliving history. The city had been linked with nostalgia and violence. Two older people in my house missing a home they couldn't revisit, talking of people who never returned.
Sometimes I wonder what perception of the Partition would develop once the older generation, the veterans and victims are gone?
It's one thing to read about Jallianwalla Bagh and another thing to live with a man who lived and grew up close by it, around the time the dread events occurred and knew those who had died in the massacre or who had lost their loved ones in it. The dread of a recent massacre is towering, almost monstrous, the injustice echoes much louder, the blood lost smells fresher and seems redder in colour. Imagine living a few blocks away from where occurred one of the biggest massacres in your country, just a while back.
The board outside Jallianwalla Bagh reads: "a Landmark in our struggle for Freedom." The entrance was unbelievably narrow for a park that has the capacity to hold so many thousands. What had anybody gained by blocking it some 89 years back?
The carnage had actually acted as a sort of catalyst for the freedom struggle, but it is hard to confirm or deny that without this blood bath, the passion would not have been strong enough to free the country from the British yoke in any case.
Due to the anguish that the massacre brought, and the sordid images that it engendered, I had never actually anticipated that through the tunnel like entrance, one enters a park, resembling the Jinnah (formerly Lawrence) Gardens in Lahore: with trees and tracks, people, greenery and gardeners. The fullness of life in the park made walking through it up to the well (in which many of the martyrs jumped and died) quite trouble-free. The well had been presented in the movie Gandhi too -- the phenomenon resembles the desperation of those who jumped from the World Trade Centre windows on 9/11, before the building fell.
The piece de resistance in Amritsar was the Golden Temple. The temple seemed floating in the emerald pond, amidst the cool breezes and the sonorous recital of the Granth-sahib by its believers. Each recitation had its own style and tune but all seemed melancholic and wounded. The whole scene had a very spiritual feel to it, almost poetic in nature, perhaps the self-same feeling that compelled the Emperor Akbar to gift land and revenue to the Guru's daughter on her marriage, which helped expand the town.
Unlike most mosques, it is not possible to lose your shoes here. They have evolved a workable mechanism for saving them. We had to go in the basement and take off our shoes where a number of old-bearded Sikh uncles gave us tokens. You get your shoes back only if you hand-over the token.
The temple is, of course, Golden -- has a golden dome which resembled that of a mosque. One of the temples is on an extension of the floor in the pond. The pond, though green, is very clean. My instinctive fear was, what if I fall into it? But the fear itself prevented suffering from such an occurrence. It had black fish in it -- which seemed to have the habit of swimming near the edge. Some of the fish even followed the visitors around the temple, or so I felt.
A place good enough for any religious activity, or any other life-affirming one: eating, sitting, walking, perhaps even raising one's children. It is too tranquil a place to be seen as a fort for militants to hide in, an improbable one for ruthless police forces to stomp in. Hard to believe just twenty five years ago just such a tragedy in this place had caused the deaths of thousands of believers in Delhi and other parts of India and ended the life of one of the most celebrated of the nation's leaders.
The religious power is not all that the Golden Temple has. It was also a symbol of the Sikh secular power, of their unity and past rule, and an historical target that had often faced aggression by invaders -- it indeed had many, many tales to tell.
The temple has special religious gravity, at least in my opinion, because the presence of the Guru Granth-sahib, the Holy Scripture of the Sikh religion, the sanctity of which is maintained like that of a living entity. Placed on the Manji Sahib -- a throne -- you have to be clean, quite modestly covered, respectful, to even think of approaching it. No eating, drinking, no one sits on a platform higher than the Guru Granth. Though not as elaborate, this treatment is rather similar to what we give the Holy book. This treatment, apparent in Pakistan and India, was radically different to what was meted out to it among the Saudis when we visited Saudi Arabia. So, there is indeed a major 'cultural' difference between practitioners of Islam here and in other parts, while we seem in many respects to enjoy closer proximity to our South Asian neighbors?
As we sat on the Tonga (horse-cart) to leave, a little kid crossed the street, bare-foot and half-naked. Perhaps my grandfather had been like this kid, seventy years back. Running around freely in a Pre-Partition Amritsar, still safe and happy in his naive childhood?
On hearing that I was about to visit her ancestral city, my mother gave me instructions to reach her childhood home from the railway station, where she had learnt most of what she knew today. If Freud was right that the first five years are the most potent in life, then this is where she had spent them. And if Nietzsche was right about the eternal return then she might continue to take birth and grow up here, eternally.
It was no use shattering such illusions, which served to comfort her. It was very difficult to announce that her nest had been altered in her absence to the extent that hardly a street matched her reminiscences. The city where her childhood existed had dissolved in the reality syrup.
When the bus moved out of the city, the nostalgia over-took me again. The one hour journey back took decades.
After visiting it, I realised Amritsar is not all about blood, massacre and escapes. It's a city with huge blocks of history, childhoods, memories and romance. The picture in my mind has readjusted. The gold of the temple is alluring, the red of the massacre is green, and the streets are as bumpy as Lahore's and, maybe, even more vibrant because of the all the choorian (bangles) and turbans. Kids run, men stare and women giggle. The city is thriving and waiting to be visited.
tourists now opt for Skardu and Gilgit instead of Swat.
Summer was usually the peak season for tourists from Pakistan as well as outside the country to visit the hilly areas of NWFP. Swat valley and its adjoining areas -- Madyan, Bahrain, Kalam, Saidu Sharif, Malamjabba -- were among the favourite destinations. Recent violence triggered by the activities of various local militant groups to take control of the area and the military action by Pakistani Army has turned this 'heaven on the earth' into a 'battlefield' where no tourist wants to tread.
"It was in August 2007 when we received our last guest," Abdul Ma'bood, owner of Hotel Riverina, Swat tells TNS. According to him there are more than a thousand hotels in Swat and its adjoining areas. "Even then it was a difficult task for tourists to find a room in this season." All the hotels now wear a deserted look due to the persistent unrest and militancy. "Most of the hotel owners are almost nearing bankruptcy. Until last year, the income of an average hotel in this area was around Rs4 million per year while earnings of famous hotels reached over Rs40 million.
According to Ma'bood Swat used to be the ideal honeymoon spot. This year, when he contacted tour operators in Karachi, Lahore and other cities, he was told that tourists were least interested in visiting Swat. "According to them majority of tourists now opt for Skardu and Gilgit due to activities of different militant groups and military operation."
Despite the fact that visiting Skardu and Gilgit is more expensive, people still opt for them because at present these are among the safest tourist destinations in Pakistan. "They are amazing places to visit" says Aamir Bilal, 45, a resident of Islamabad who works with a government department. This is his first trip to Skardu to take a break from the city's hectic routine. "Earlier Swat or Kaghan were our favourite destination in the summers. If the situation gets better in NWFP, we may opt for Swat again." According to him Skardu is a better option by all means "being home of mighty Indus, snow-capped towering mountains, biggest glaciers anywhere outside the polar region, while the people of Skardu are very friendly. We spent a real good time in Skardu."
The hoteliers in Skardu and Gilgit confirm that influx of local tourists this summer is greater than past years. "The number of tourists has almost doubled as compared to previous years. Majority of them are from Lahore, Karachi, Faisalabad, and Islamabad but many are even coming from smaller cities like Sialkot, Gujranwala etc," says Sajid Niaz, the manager of PTDC K2 motel Skardu who also manages other three PTDC motels in Skardu. He adds that all PTDC motels in Gilgit and Skardu have been booked since the last one-and-a-half-month "We are trying to provide tourists the best facilities and hopefully majority of them will come to Skardu next year too."
According to him although tourism is thriving this year, many of their potential customers from different cities could not make it because of the long and difficult journey -- at least 22 hours from Islamabad by road. "Air travel is also not a good idea since the flight schedule is always changing because of unreliable weather. If this issue is resolved and Skardu airport is provided with the latest technology to ensure safe landing even in extreme weathers, the number of tourists to the area can be doubled in one year." Sajid suggest more flights from May to August.
Like Aamir a large number of tourists this year opted for Gilgit or Skardu to take refuge from the scorching heat. Amjad Hussain, a 38 year old resident of walled city, also visited Gilgit and Hunza this year with his friends. They have been regular visitors to Swat and adjoining areas for the past ten years but this year they gave up the plan in view of the recent militant activities in NWFP especially in Swat. "Being a tourist it, it has worked for us as we got the opportunity to visit Gilgit and Hunza which we may not have gone to otherwise." He tells TNS that they were planning to go to Gilgit, Hunza next year too. "We have spent a week in Gilgit and Hunza but we think it is not enough to explore such a fabulous area.
Arif Aslam Khan, owner of Shangrila resort Skardu, tells TNS that despite the increasing number of local tourists this year, the number of foreign travellers has fallen. This, according to him, is because of the image painted by the international media about Osama bin Laden's likely presence in the area. "One can only laugh after reading the said news as no human, Osama or anyone else, can survive the extreme weather of K2 and other mountains all year round. But such news has its impact internationally and government officials should do something to protect the tourism industry in Pakistan," he concludes.