When last we met, I was regaling you with tales of my recent road trip from Lahore to Karachi and had left you in Gari Khuda Baksh, admittedly a scary thing to do. After spending an hour at the Bhutto tomb the five of us drove on, bypassing the many Bhutto post cards, key-chains and pictures one could buy to commemorate the pilgrimage. Incidentally on our way out we were kept waiting at a junction for a gleaming white, twenty-car motorcade that people told us was the President himself on his way back from the shrine. I wondered why he didn’t just fly but whatever-type-scene, this is his ‘hood, not mine.
The sun was setting as we drove to Larkana, the stop for our second night on the road. Larkana is much bigger than I had imagined it. It has expansive Cantt areas, a plethora of bridges (some with three bridges merging into one inexplicable Megabridge. Suck it, Lahore), wide roads and bustling market areas. The hotel we had booked was located in an older market, opposite Mehran Hotle and Tires (sic) and reminded me of grimier parts of old Lahore. I can say with confidence that most urban development in our country is uniformly ugly. We have a penchant for shiny, silvery buildings – the kinds that look great on a computer but shouldn’t exist next to a chapli kabab place– only if we havent already tiled the outside in pink. The hotel staff was mortified that we were travelling together and kept trying to find out if the girls on the trip were from my “gharana” lest the ISI check up on me. No joke, but also hardly unexpected. After concluding I am a cross between a feudal and pimp, they let us be and directed us to “downtown” Larkana, where we sat in the first store we found and bought obscene amounts of bedspreads. Dinner was perfunctory (deep fried fish w/eyes, mutton handi) which we enjoyed in the “family room”: a table with curtains around it.
To travel the route with girls is to see a wholly different side to life in Pakistan. People stare at girls all the time. All. The. Time. In Sindh, the toll operators would recoil in horror when one of the ladies stuck out a hand with 20 Rs, choosing instead to let us pass unimpeded (not true in Punjab, who never refuse money). There were also advantages in thick traffic, where at the mere sight of long hair roads were cleared and trucks pulled aside so our little car could sputter through.
We woke up early the next morning to drive the twenty minutes to Mohenjo Daro. Known to every school child as the “Mound of the Dead” the Indus Civilization is the oldest settlement in the country and one of the oldest in the world. It’s exactly like it looks in pictures, though it was cool to see the old riverbed of the Indus in the distance, now visible only by the thick foliage that has grown in the snaking path of rich soil in an otherwise white, salty plane. We hired a guide who took us through the Museum, which was diverting but not fascinating. One quickly realizes that Mohenjo Daro (or the 2% that is visible) is a giant homage to the flush, a kind of Dead Drainage Disneyland. I was told in excruciating details how solid and liquid waste were accumulated and separated. Or where the loo’s were. Or how long they took. Or how different the priests loo’s were from the slaves’ loos. It’s remarkable of course, when one considers how the site and its inhabitants were around 5000 plus years ago. But there is only so much one wants to hear about ancient toilets when one is so far from modern ones.
The thing that I was dismayed to learn was that Mohenjo Daro was only excavated between 1918 and 1922, when the British accidentally discovered it while laying railway lines (“Oh look, an old loo!”). There has been no work done there after. Consider that: for all the stamps and posters and PIA flights devoted to Mohenjo Daro, the state of Pakistan has never excavated the site. At all. That’s embarrassing. By comparison modern Egyptology started in earnest around the same time with Carter’s discovery of Tutenkamun’s tomb. The money we’ve lost in film rights alone is lamentable.
Our guide, sensing my mortification, tried to make up by happily boasting that the floods wash up all sorts of treasures on the ground, which are then picked up by anyone around. He then invited me to the third Stupa behind the (you guessed it) toilet, to buy some “genuine” artifacts. I am sure others would indulge, but I found something off-putting about such a sordid cultural exchange. It’s a site worth seeing, and it deserves more than we’re giving it.
After a relaxing lunch, we went on to Sehwan Sharif, mecca of Sufis and resting place of the saint Lal Qalandar. At about 100 km away it should have taken us an hour and a bit. The guide assured us there was a great expanse of luxurious road. The guide was a liar.
We never found out if the roads were in perpetual construction because of damage during the floods or because a bureaucrat deserved to be slapped but between Larkana and Sehwan the path was made entirely of rocks. Not dirt. Not mud. Not brick. Rocks. The journey took us six hours with no breaks at 10 km/hour and my bladder still hasn’t forgiven me. Driving as we were at snail’s speed (you try speeding in an obese Vitz) the villagers had time to call the next village over to tell them to see the weirdo’s coming in the car. We were deeper in Sindh now and there were some parts where things got real. We drove by mistake into a vegetable market in a hamlet called Mehar and were enveloped by carts with dying fish and green veggies. The villagers were curious and then obsessed when they saw a girl was driving. We snaked through inch by inch, and slowly the crowd became a throng and people were pushing up against the window, staring inside with abandon, groping, knocking, laughing, scowling.
“This is getting kind of sketchy guysss…” said one girl.
“Totally,” agreed the other two. With flourish and perfect synchronicity all three covered their heads with dupattas, which only intrigued our audience more. An angel rescued us, literally dressed in white, and pointed out the convoluted way to the main highway. We pledged to use a ‘bypass’ wherever possible to avoid these situations again, but that didn’t work out so well.
We reached Sehwan with light heads and full bladders and ran into the nearest Cadet school. It was night by now and we were meant to have reached Karachi. Having come this far we went into the shrine of Lal Qalandar, which was a very intense experience. There were hands everyone, people asking for money, demanding it: Little kids, old women, scary women, policemen, beggars, lepers, guards, shopkeepers. They just kept coming.
The exterior of the shrine though hidden by the market around it, is beautiful; shiny gold script against a lapis blue. The central chamber is tall but modest and the courtyard to the right of the grave held about two hundred people in various stages of ecstasy, called Dhamal. Abida Parveen was on in the background, and about a hundred girls were face-down, sitting on the floor whipping their long black hair round and round (“I whip my hair back and forth!”). To the left seventy men were dancing and singing. It was jubilant but we had to run.
We prayed there, since a dark highway stretched before us and it couldn’t hurt to have a saint on your side, but the road was lovely. With no lights to speak of, a half moon illuminated the Kithar range and surrounding desert as we went through, and I have rarely felt such peace as I did during that drive. We were still in what people think of as “dangerous Sindh” but nothing happened. The roads were fairly empty, and all the night-riders were very well-mannered.
We flew through at warp speed, stopping for a second outside Hyderabad and about three hours on, smelt Karachi in all its glory. At the Karachi toll plaza a friend called saying he was flying up from Lahore for the night. Despite us actually being in Karachi, he beat us to the city by an hour.
In all it took three days and years of driving, and I am sorry I can’t share the countless stories, all the small instances that showed me what a wonderful, generous, hospitable and stunning country we all live in. What I can share is my deep gratitude for having embarked on a trip but returned from a journey.
Write to Fayes T. at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @fkantawala on twitter
A version of this article appeared here.