The Fifth-biggest City in Pakistan

We’re spending a week in rural Punjab. BH throws a fit whenever I refer to it as rural Punjab. When we first got married he tried convincing me it was the fifth biggest city in Pakistan. I began counting in my head. I counted Peshawer, Quetta, Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi. I added Multan and Faislabad. These are all the cities you read of and heard of as prominent ones as an urban child reading a Pakistan Studies book. Gujranwala never reared its head. I apprised BH of my conclusion; it wasn’t the fifth biggest. He laughed and tried to brush off the matter gamely.

Every time I come, it is the same and a little different. There is a brand new road outside our house. The traffic is worse than ever. Rickshaws (or tu-tus as Mac insists on calling them) crowd out the main gate to the house. The noise is deafening. Cars inch along yours going in the opposite direction, or pause in front of you if the owners are feeling charitable so that you may make that final turn towards the gate. Rickshaw drivers grudgingly move their rickshaws aside so that you may drive into your own driveway. Koob, the driver, gets out to open the gate. We drive in as the inevitable beggar, standing ready by the gate, makes a last-ditch effort to extract some change from us before we disappear behind our gates.

The noise of the road is ever-present inside, though no effort has been spared in making the house as comfortable as possible for its inhabitants. Still the road, omnipresent, makes its way in through cracks underneath the doors and between the window-panes. I hear cars honking, rickshaws tearing away. And the newest plague – the thundering roar of generators making electricity as the city struggles to cope with the energy deficit Pakistan has been plunged in. It seems so simple – the Kalabagh dam, a natural dam on three sides, needing only the barest construction to bring it to completion – it can bring the cost of electricity from Rs.28 a unit to Rs.1.50 a unit! And how hopelessly and shamelessly it has been politicised leaves me reeling. But ‘shame’ is a word that has been landing people of the stature of Imran Khan into trouble lately so perhaps I should keep my thoughts to myself.

The smell is different here. Of course there is smoke and dust. But there are also some old, musty smells lurking in unused rooms in the house that are peculiar to my memories of it. And the water tastes a certain way. I can taste the inside of old taps when I rinse my mouth out after brushing. 

Life is sloooooow. The internet is unreliable. The people are forever smiling, forever trying to please. And there are no secrets. Your most embarrassing medical problem can easily be discussed at the dinner table. Some things are exactly the same as they once were…    


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