Driving down Mall Road in Lahore this morning on the way to the Home Ministry Office to apply for a visa extension – sweaty palms, dry throat – I fail to appreciate the sunshine, bouncing gaily off the orange funnels of tiger lilies colouring the median divide. A puff of cotton, hovering over the cars ahead, catches my attention. Hoping to escape the anxious whatifs in my mind, I latch onto the white-haired seed, following its rise and fall through the air … now just missing the raised white glove of a traffic policeman, now gliding behind the young motorcyclist whose t-shirt logo inspires me this morning: “Think DONE!”
The traffic light turns green. As the car speeds forward, I crane my neck to catch a last glimpse of the white puffball rising above the blue smoke of the spluttering autorickshaws. What a din of mufflers!
Soon, I discover the source of the cotton: the tall shimul trees (Bombax ceiba) bordering the road, with powder-puff seeds still attached to their split pods. A few months ago, these branches were a glorious crimson, sporting the fist-sized, fleshy flowers that also speckled the grounds below. Now the bloody tiger-claws of Erythrina indica cheerlead the summer blooms.
We pass the Avari Hotel, which recently hosted its first Hindu wedding in 18 years. A couple had tied the knot and walked the sat phera (seven circles) around the sacred fire. What were their names? Rama and what? Come to think of it, I haven’t met or heard of a single renowned, extant Hindu in the two years that I’ve been frequenting Lahore. Considering the fact that this was once a major Hindu and Sikh city (I haven’t met a Sikh yet either), that is a sad reminder of the legacy of Partition.
Further along, I spot another of my favourite plants, the rain tree, Albizia lebbeck. My heart wells with sad-sweet memories of evening strolls with my mother, the air perfumed by the cream pompoms of shirish, as they are called in Bengal.
I am delighted that I should find all of these old friends here: the tiger lilies that used to border the driveway of our house in Dishergarh, a small settlement on the banks of the Damodar River in West Bengal; the shimul, the grand monarch of our garden; the shirish, which lined the road outside. So far north and west from my childhood home, I never expected to find them here in Lahore. As we continue to cruise, I even spy a paulash tree rearing its spectacular head from behind a compound wall – the flame of the forest (Butea monosperma), the flower that symbolises the onset of spring in Bengal.
Putting down roots
One familiar shrub and tree after another, my ride along Mall Road is like a trip down memory lane. Before long, I forget my visa fears. I begin to enjoy the drive, amidst the companionship of the ancient trees – peepul, neem, arjun, seesham, amaltaas, alstonia – old trees with gnarled and knotted branches that mesh overhead in a green, leafy canopy. Many of these were growing more than 60 years ago. How ironic that the people they had grown with were uprooted, while they have held their ground!
We pass the High Court, a beautiful red brick building that harmoniously combines design elements of Mughal and Gothic architecture. Above the plaster-raised design of the Scales of Justice waves the green Pakistani flag. I look at it with interest. Tomorrow, if I were to seek a permanent solution to my visa issues in order to live in Pakistan, I might need to change my citizenship. For while other foreigners (except Israelis) can opt for a seven-year residency permit as a relative of a Pakistani, I, as an Indian, can only stay here on temporary month-long visas, despite being married to a Pakistani. I can try to prolong my stay by pleading for extensions, but the length of stay appears to depend mainly on the discretion of members in the upper echelons of the Home Ministry.
The Indian spouse of another Indo-Pakistani couple managed to obtain a six-month residency permit from Islamabad. They were told that that was the maximum length of stay allowable for an Indian spouse; if she wishes to stay longer, she must apply for Pakistani citizenship.
The Indian laws, concomitantly, are no less stringent. Restricting long-term residency permits and requiring the sacrifice of birth citizenship make settling down in any one country – India or Pakistan – a huge impediment for crossborder couples. The duo mentioned earlier eventually became so frustrated with manoeuvring through the red tape that they opted for an unconventional marriage. They now maintain parallel homes in the two countries; they meet whenever the visa regime is merciful, or else plan one rendezvous or another in neighbouring lands like Nepal or Sri Lanka. This, however, is an option that few would be able to exercise. After the initial resistance, most couples eventually yield, and one partner sacrifices both passport and citizenship.
For Siddiqa Faruqi, a Karachi lady married to a Lucknow cousin now residing in Delhi, changing citizenship was a traumatic decision, put off until circumstances made it absolutely unavoidable. Predictable grief ensued: Siddiqa was not able to get a Pakistani visa in time to attend her brother’s funeral in Karachi.
Chakh ke dekho
The car slows and we swing left at Kim’s brass canon, Zamzama, made famous by Rudyard Kipling. The Lahore Museum, whose first curator was Rudyard’s father Lockwood, is on the right. The other day I met Naheed Rizvi, the museum’s present director, at a lawn party. She has undertaken significant renovation work in the museum, uncovering the original ceiling, which had once held glass that had naturally lit the halls.
We spoke of the Bengal School of Paintings, part of the museum’s most treasured assets and a reminder of an important cross-Subcontinent connection. Abanindranath Tagore, the school’s founder, had taught at Shantiniketan, which is about 150 km from my hometown of Dishergarh. As an amateur artist, I had been profoundly influenced by what he had instructed: “If you want to paint a tree, look at it, sit in its shade, observe it change through the seasons. Then, go home and paint it.” The celebrated Lahori painter Abdul Rehman Chugtai had trained at the Mayo School of Arts, now renamed the National College of Art, and was taught by Samarendranath Gupta, a Bengali artist. His paintings use both the Bengal School techniques and Persian miniature styles.
We arrive at our destination, a typical matchbox office building. ‘The Education Department’, a signboard announces. I walk up to the Section Officer’s desk, housed in a dark room off a long, cramped corridor. I know the man. I frequent this place. He smiles and says: “I thought you must have left!” I am assured a two-month extension this time, but warned that for any further extensions I’ll have to go to Islamabad.
We are driving back. Released from yet another immediate visa crisis, we give in to a traffic-light vendor selling falsas (Grewia asiatica berries). S buys a packet of the magenta-coloured fruit for 10 rupees. Taking the small newspaper cone through the car window, he asks the youngster, “Are they sweet?” He replies: “Munh ka zaiqa badal dega” (They’ll change the taste of your mouth). I pop a salt-sprinkled berry in my mouth and wince. It’s tangy!
The next time someone asks me why I opt for all this trouble, what holds me here in Pakistan (S aside), I’ll steal this falsa-seller’s line and challenge: “Chakh ke dekho. Munh ka zaiqa badal jaega!” (Sample it. It’ll change the taste of your mouth).