We were a little worried about how much sightseeing we would actually get done, considering that our guide was as familiar with Multan as he would be with Amritsar probably. We were also a little apprehensive because the nuns had informed us that someone from the Intelligence Bureau had called the Convent the previous night, asking about our plans (worried, meaning, A and I were worried, T was concerned, R was apprehensive, and P was the aspen leaf trembling in the wind). Anyway, after another exceedingly polite breakfast, we set out to explore Multan with our inadequate guide and a little bit more helpful guidebook.
We were on our way to the Fort area of the city when we spotted THEM on motorbikes behind us. Two nondescript looking men who became conspicuous because they had to keep their eagle eyes fixed on us while appearing nonchalant and maneouvering their bikes. Not easy. Anyway, initially we thought it was amusing, and we even looked back and smiled at them. Big mistake. Suddenly they went ahead of us and stopped our car, asking if we were Indians etc. Then we learnt that the Multan Police and an official from the Intelligence Bureau were to be our guides for the day. In between, of course, P and R had almost gone apoplectic, and my stomach had started its usual wild savage dance. We composed ourselves, however, and reached the Fort area, where we met the five policemen(!!) who were to stay with us for as long as we were in Multan. VIP treatment is not all that its cracked up to be. But it is better than getting lost in a foreign country with a geographically challenged guide.
So, we first took a look at three dargahs at in the Fort area; the dargah of Shahrukh-e-alam, that of Bahaudddin Zakaria and that of Tabrez. At the risk of some part of the readership snoozing off, let me enlighten you. Multan is one of the seats of the Suhrawardy sect of Sufism, while Ajmer is the seat of the Chishti sect. The dargahs are splendid, with exquisite inlay work in lapis lazuli, a sea of shimmering blues. The cops ensured that we got free chadars, free memorabilia that we didn't really want anyway, and that we met two kinds of people--- one kind who overwhelmed us with their absolute sweetness (like the old man at the dargah of Tabrez who couldn't believe that people from THE OTHER SIDE had come to visit, like it was a testimony to the power of the saint himself, and the wizened old beggar who hid his outstretched hand behind his back when he learned that we were from India where all the other great saints rested...awwww) and the other kind who asked in surly tones why non-believers should be let into the dargahs, and gave us the chadars etc with pinched faces and hostile eyes. I didn't mind. It is a part of the baggage that history has handed down to us, and that we refuse to let go of so consistently. Perhaps it would be a bit too much to expect everyone to be able to forget all that and be pleasant. Oh, and the dargahs had their very own minstrels, and the most wonderful music.
The fun really began when the cops took us shopping. We first went to the Hussain Agahi Bazaar which is supposed to stretch over some 28 miles (or kilometres, I forget which). The thing is, they were very nice and courteous cops and all, but they still suffered from one problem--they were men. Hence they expected us to go into one shop and buy everything and be done with it. They discovered that five inveterate shoppers from India did not give up easily. Poor things. They began to tire after the first couple of shops, even as we were getting lost in a delightful array of cottons and silks. After about an hour of this, they shepherded us out of the bazaar to a shabby little restaurant called Multan Food City for lunch. Now the thing with eateries in Pakistan is that they serve chicken by the kilo, instead of by the plate, and one of their rotis equals three of ours. So we asked for a half plate of chicken and they gave us a whole chicken and a mountain of rotis. We started ploughing through, when cop # 1 started expounding on the virtues of Islam, and how a man could stay unwashed for 20 days, but if he said a certain verse of the Quran, he wouldn't stink. I mean, I was uncomfortable, not only because of the tremendous inappropriateness of the conversation but because I had a mad urge to laugh and start talking about deodorants. P was making polite noises and the rest of us were concentrating on getting the darned chicken down our throats without choking.
Meal over, the cops took us to one shoe shop and made us complete our buying from there. Imagine a city with atleast nine Bata stores and I didn't get to go to one. Then they took us to buy son halwa, which I think is overrated, and they had one entire case as a free sample, I think. There was some more shopping, believe it or not, but this isn't an inventory. Anyway, they took us back to the Convent, and very politely forbade us from leaving it at night. That night we had a very cosy little sitdown with the nuns, who had gotten us all gifts...they are so very kind. One of them was above 90, and had a memory disorder probably. She asked T when we were going back to India every fifteen minutes, and T patiently replied every single time. She was my clear favourite. One of the nuns was talking about how minorities face discrimination in Pakistan. She said that India was ready for freedom in 1947, but Pakistan was not. Its incredible how there is such a strong belief in Pakistan's separate existence before 1947, infact right through history.
Well, the next day, we made an early start and had our little motorcade taking us to the bus station. Some hapless car came between ours and the police van, and the furious gesticulation at the driver made a rather amusing picture. Anyway, we bade farewell to the cops and to Multan, and I won't pretend that I was too sorry to leave. Now i know what they mean about gilded cages, even the nicest ones.
P.S.: - You're walking, and its going to rain, and the dry leaves are rolling about, and its beautiful. Then the sun peeks out, just for a second, and there's a whole new kind of perfection. You're cold, you clutch your jacket closer, but its just an automatic reaction. Sometimes letting the chill winds touch you does a great deal of good work in taking off unnecessary loads from your mind. And then you think, "Why on earth did I let them worry me so?"