The last time I went to Pakistan was in April, 2010. Walking aimlessly in Lahores Mall Road, I met a mechanic. When I said that I was from India, his eyes turned dreamy, and he started second-guessing my name. He asked me, Is your name Rahul, Vijay, Raj or Anil? The mechanic had learned these names from Bombay films. When I told him that I was from Delhi, he started asking me questions about the city. That made me wonder what his responses would be if he actually visit the Indian capital. What would he think of the hippie district of Paharganj, the skyscrapers of Connaught Place, and the fancy malls of Gurgaon, Delhis own so-called Manhattan? What would he make of the economic transformation of India, I mean some parts of India? By seeing the dazzle of new India, would he care to notice the wretched poverty all around?
One recent afternoon I bumped into a three-member Pakistani family from Karachi in Gurgaons Metropolitan Mall. The mother, Fauzia Shakeel, was in Delhi after a gap of 25 years, while daughter, Urfa, and son, Rizwan, had come for the first time. They were staying with Indian relatives but were on their own in the mall.
Theres nothing like this in Karachi, exclaimed Rizwan while comparing Gurgaons skyline to that of his city. A young man of 24, with gelled hair, he was in a blue Tee and white cotton capris. No, capris are what the girls wear, Rizwan explained. This is called three-quarters. He said it with an authority befitting an ambitious fashion designer, which he was.
Brought up in Karachis middle-class Baloch Colony, amidst a family business dealing in the wholesale of cycles, Rizwans career choice had created ripples. His father, who wanted him to be a banker, was upset. Papa said that a fashion designers job is not real work, Rizwan told me while peering into the Swatch showroom. The mother had then stepped in and convinced her husband to let the son do whatever he wanted.
A black sheep in his family, Rizwan was looking exactly that in the mall, while walking between his traditionally dressed mother and sister. In their long-sleeved shalwar suits, both stood out among Delhis jeans-clad mallrats.
Rizwan agreed that it demands more hard work when one is trying to carve an identity that is separate from that of the family. Even before he completed his graduation from Karachis Asian Institute of Fashion Design, he had hired a tailor and jumped into the business. The initial orders almost all were for mens wear, especially shirts were from friends. Once they were won over, more orders came from their friends.
We have many good designers in Pakistan but no big fashion houses, Rizwan said. And I want to run such an emporium where under one roof you could get a complete range of wedding designs from clothes to cards to jewelry.
For some reason, the mall was decked with the Indian tricolor flag. Mamma, at least get a photo done against their flag, Rizwan called out to Fauzia. Thatll be a proof that we were really in India.
While taking the escalators to the first floor, Fauzia grew nervous. She finds it difficult to maintain balance on these self-automated stairs. They are there in our Karachi malls also, she sighed. However, supported by her laughing son and an embarrassed daughter, they landed safely and stopped outside a saree showroom. Rizwan pointed to the embroidery work on a Kanjeeveram silk hanging on the display window.
Every store is offering discounts, whispered Fauzia. Yet I cant see anyone carrying a shopping bag. Next stop was at a mens salon where Rizwan wondered about getting streaks done on his hair. Our wallet will be emptied in one go, said the mother. Things are so expensive in India.
Later, the family sat down for a meal at Haldirams, a popular vegetarian restaurant chain, on the malls third floor, and ordered masala dosa, a south Indian dish. While waiting, Rizwan looked around and said, In Karachi if we spot a girl in jeans or shorts, we say Wow, its an Eid today. Sister Urfa smiled. I saw girls riding scooters here, she said. In Pakistan, they always sit with both their legs on one side. Rizwan added, The number of Pakistanis who wear short clothes is very small and belongs to a special class. The discussion stopped with the arrival of the dosa.
Whats this, the mother pointed to the crisp layer. Is that a wrapping? Clueless to the world of South Indian cuisine, the three Karachi wallas peered inside the dosa, tapped on its surface, tried to turn it around, and discovered potato stuffing inside. They referred to sambhar gravy as bhaaji and stared at the white coconut chutney with complicated feelings. Urfa yearned for a KFC burger but the mother said that she could always have that back home. In other peoples countries, you must try their dishes, she said.
By the time the family walked out, it had grown dark. Having bought nothing, they sat down on a grassy slope and quietly looked at the neon signboards blinking on Gurgaons several malls. Indians have now more money, the mother said. We also have these kind of malls but yours are flashier. They then decided to try out Delhis famed metro train the next morning.
The writer is a Delhi-based writer and photographer. He runs a blog called Pakistan Paindabad