Departure from Lahore

Harrowing. The single word that comes to mind following a trip to the toilets at the Lahore airport this morning. Early morning cups of tea and a bladder that has seen three child-births do not sit well together. Particularly after a long car ride from Gujranwala to Lahore.

When Lahore airport looms up before you, your heart swells with pride. Pakistanis are like that – solid, physical evidence of imaginary prosperity makes them happy. The new Metro-bus, unabashed, petrol-guzzling abomination is a prime example. The airport is nothing less – you drive up the road gazing over wide fields of rain-drenched grassland being tended to by faceless minions. The solid brick building, its design ostensibly derived from Mughal architecture, sprawls before you. It has arches that point upwards in the middle, blue and white tiling running along its length and breadth. It speaks of grandeur, times past. It has been built for cargo shorts wearing teenagers from Defence, in flip-flops, with messenger bags slung across their chests, leaving Pakistan to study in Ivy League schools in America. But first they must get past the coolies who will tell them relentlessly to put their messenger bags on the conveyer belt for scanning, regardless of whether or not they are fully aware of security procedures at the airport. Or if they have pre-empted the coolie, they will still be instructed to ‘go through that gate sir jee!’ ad nauseum until they do.

That’s where it all begins to go terribly wrong. Beyond the security checks and the frisking, post the boarding passes, said teenager may feel a need to answer the call of nature. The size and span of the airport, the fact that it has only recently been erected would suggest that the toilets are of an impeccable standard. But something visceral within him makes him rummage in his bag for tissues before embarking on his trip. At first glance, the toilets seem to be tolerably clean. There is no odour. No sense in standing about however, resigning oneself to the reality of needing a toilet, he might reason. There is always the danger of an intimidatingly voluble bathroom attendant turning up and reminding him in indiscreet ways of the fact that it is the third day of Eid and that the meek have a right over the mighty. Best to find the closest toilet that looks passably clean and disappear.

The closest toilet is wet. That’s *clean* in Pakistan. You ‘wash’ bathrooms here. And you don’t wait to dry them. Washing is cleaning. Wet is clean. He is bound to mutter at least a few curses under his breath, use his one or two tissues to dry what he can…

His business done, he might now want to wash his hands. There are two soap dispensers at two ends of a row of sinks. One dispenser will dispense squirts of air. Walk over to the other one. Oh wait, here’s a plastic cup with ‘Pepsi’ emblazoned around it. He may smile. He knows what that is – that is soap in a cup, evidence of the janitor’s sense of thrift. He may peer inside – the cup has a suspicious-looking, viscous mouldy green liquid in it, with bits of scum floating on top. Onwards towards the second soap dispenser. Which is broken…with a pool of rusty water standing below it. More curses. What is a mortal to do? Rinsing his hands well under the tap for a good five minutes seems to be the only option. During which exercise, he may notice just how old and shabby the sinks are. They have stains on them from shoddy cleaning. The taps look old and tired, they do not shine. What kind of cleaning materials are used? Keeping buildings spick-and-span is not rocket science surely. The only thing that actually does what it is supposed to is the hand dryer. Yaaaargh.

Back in the waiting lounge, the seats are beautiful, many-coloured, well-designed. The adjoining side-tables are a disgrace. They seem never to have received any attention from the cleaning staff, stains from people’s cups of tea and bottles of water mar their sleekness.

Why are we incapable of maintaining the things we spend millions of rupees on to an acceptable standard of quality?

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