Learning By Foot
by Awais Leghari
I have a confession – one that isn’t so dodgy or isn’t as surprising as one would expect – but no matter, it still is a confession, which makes it exciting. I have lived for eighteen years now, and I do not know how to drive. There you go, the inflated balloon has now flown past you with such a demeanour that it doesn’t even deserve a second thought, but whatever. I modestly know how to code, I modestly know how to solve calculus problems and I can even cook the hardest things on the menu, but I have not learned the art of manoeuvring the modern vehicle.
To every confession, there is an underlining story often ignored. The story actually forms the gist of that confession; makes it exciting and gossipy as it should be. Why is it ignored, then? Simple. You don’t question about the ingredients of a Lindt chocolate that you enjoy – you merely consume it, revelling in it’s seemingly everlasting taste that can lift moods. I can safely assume that you are all smart enough to recognise the potency of this analogy, so may be I won’t draw the connection to an obvious point; not by the words at-least.
So what is this apparently ‘complex’ underlining story? Yes, it is complex because I think it’s never been heard of – or at least I haven’t. It’s this unwavering desire to walk. I know that walking around the city isn’t a feasible idea and I don’t intend it to be the only option available on the table. Of course, a day will come when I will master the art of driving a car like any other thing that I have managed to conquer so far, but not today and not in the immediate, foreseeable future.
Walking does a lot of things to me. In times like these when we’re connected so impeccably to our loved ones, and to the people we do not even know of, I feel that sailing in such a one direction often leads to a life not fully realised. May be the idea of social networking has taken its toll too much on us, and even the reality of social life on ground is a bubble. When you walk, surrounded by the real reality of life; when you see people around you and witness their life and contrast theirs with yours like a child unable to control his or her urinal sphincter, you learn with each step that you take.
So I tried this one, amazing thing – trying to harness the potential bestowed to me by my gap year. I walked all day from the morning to the evening, all alone, around the city of Lahore. I did not tell any friend that I’d be doing so, and I lied to my parents. With just a few banknotes, I took to the city to discover the life beyond my own.
I travelled without a mobile phone (well, it’s broken anyway) and any other device that could help one trace my trail. My parents, thankfully, trust me enough to be assured that I won’t engage in something dangerous. Equipped with that feeling of confidence, I felt enriched and ambitious and the first thing that creeped into the annals of my neurones was the idea of trying to see things from a different perspective – and not my own – not the one which I initially had when I decided to take foot. I have not calculated how much money does an average Pakistan live on by each day, but I’m pretty much sure that his mode of transportation is either by travelling on foot, or by the public transport. After walking what I think was just a meagre mile, I came across at a junction best suited to take me to the other end of the city via a bus, so I ventured, embracing the uncertain ahead of me with open arms.
Unlike the cautious one-timer traveller, I was relaxed on the bus. Yes, there have been tales around the air that pick-pockets are active on public transport, where people are crammed into each other, holding onto bars perpendicularly emerging from the upper end of the roof’s frame. Given the conditions, opportunity to sneak away with possessions is rife. And that’s funny. Opportunities, you see, was the first lesson I stumbled onto. I learned about how opportunities to ‘do something’, to ‘potentially gain’ is always there around you. You could, with some luck and with some skill, rob someone off a treasured possession and by the end of the day, you would’ve gained something. I’m not endorsing such opportunities of course, for I am not a thief or a lawbreaker. But with or without the law, the possibility of earning a living is out there. Out there is dust, mud, Sun and smoke, all enough to make your skin secrete sebum and by the matter of minutes you could look physically unattractive, or could experience a downright drop to a lower economic class. But yes, you have to make an effort – I’m not asking you to wear the most expensive clothes and apparel – because without them you could look like a beggar and with a few theatrics, or even without them, generate enough money to see off the day. Opportunities, my friends, are everywhere – all that you need to do is to just open your eyes.
Luckily enough, I was not robbed off the little amount of cash I was carrying with me and that enabled me to settle the fare of my ride. My stop now was a place that is usually considered posh. Towers raid the sky, and people from all economic backgrounds inhabit the streets. Big cars and small cars whiz past you by the road adjacent to the grandeur of the shopping malls. It is a beautiful sight. The next time you visit a buzzing shop-zone, be sure to give yourself some ‘me time’. You could argue that ‘shopping time’ is ‘me time’, but please fuck it – stop and forget for a second why you went there. Stand and observe. Look around you. Let the beautiful pace of life come to you. Breathe and understand. I’m sure that soon enough, you will embrace a unique feeling. Its absolutely amazing to see life from a lens, from an isolated view. It’s good to be not part of something that you are part of, just for a few minutes. Right there was my city, my people, shopping, chatting and shuffling around the streets, trying to fetch all their desires. And then there were people from the lower economic class – the working class – the poor class. They were obviously tired, and upon closer inspection, you could see that their eyes reflected of unspeakable dreams; dreams to one day don the Mercedes just ferrying past their lives. Whether one can see defeat on their faces or not is a little difficult to ascertain, so I won’t make a judgement on that. However, desires and dreams are the rallying theme of such areas, where the rich, or perhaps more suitably the consumer, walks past a flurry of shops trying to catch onto the ‘right thing’ with an unrelenting excitement, one that still shines on their faces even though they smell of frustration. Shopping is something fun, even in your unconscious. It gives you the ability to possess something that you could master. Being a master of something is a powerful feeling on every level, big or small. A proof for a psychological theory or just a silly assertion? Whatever it is, it still is something that I learned through this experience.
The thought of a home cooked meal was now lingering on me, and no, I won’t lie like most of the people that my stomach was grunting. It remained calm, but I could feel the hunger thriving inside. A corn stick? Yes, definitely sounds like a good idea. I don’t think you can find corn sticks as readily on the streets as you find them in Pakistan, and that too with a hefty layering of ‘chat masala’. If you haven’t ever consumed such a treat, then what are you doing? Stop reading this and buy a ‘chat masala corn stick’.
Anyways, moving on, I decided to go to the ‘undroon-e-Lahore’, or what is known as the ‘Old City’. Despite having spent all my life in the city of Lahore, I don’t really know of this mystique location, the ‘undroon’, as much as I should. So perhaps it had to be this day to discover what lies there. I could not walk all the way to the undroon, obviously, but then there is this beautiful project recently completed, commonly referred to as the Metro-bus project, of which I took full advantage. The system is impressive, perhaps too impressive for a ‘third world country’ like ours. It was truly a spectacle; a true masterpiece. Let me allow you to try and explain my awe. When you need to get around the city and you don’t have a car….well, now you understand, don’t you? Magnetic tokens and steel barriers, and even more surprisingly a straight queue of people waiting for the bus with remarkable patience – I mean come on, this is special. Contrary to the popular belief, the busses were well maintained and air-conditioned. It was an experience worth paying Rs.20 for.
I landed straight in front of the ‘Data Darbaar’, the shrine of a prominent figure in Islamic history. There were literally hundreds of people trying to enter the premises of the Darbaar, so I entertained the idea of offering a visit. The path to do that, however, was not as easy as I first imagined. People were tugging and hugging each other, like push-hugging, to gain access to the ‘straight line’ of people that led to the doors. During that moment when I was absolutely squeezed, short of breath at certain times and resigned to float amidst the torrent of people rushing ahead, I realised the power of a mob. The mob – yes – the ultimate tool used to change the course of history. The kind of mob that changed Egypt and Tunisia, and the history of many other countries. The kind of mob where people are desperate to go ahead because they see some sort of a survival challenge when they’re in it. It’s a Darwin-istic sort of a feeling; survival of the fittest dawns upon you once you start tugging for control. Thankfully, without sustaining too much wrinkles on my shirt, I made it inside. The Darbaar is beautiful, grounds paved with marble and there is a lot of space to move about. Accommodating just as the man on whose tomb all of this is erected. The people there mostly are the poor, the one who carry the burden of hope of a better future, the ones who believe in the true reverence of this place. An unfamiliar kind of respect radiates from all angles and sometimes you’re forced to believe that every man, no matter how good or bad, has to the potential to be good, and respectful of someone who was greater than he or she is and will ever be.
After paying my respects, I wandered off to the adjacent streets. Baryani, Haleem, Chicken Karahi and a mixture of all of the good eatables had this tantalising aroma that greeted my nostrils. This was unfair to my pockets, or so it seemed. For just Rs.35, I was able to afford a plateful of chicken curry. And as they say, ‘Lahore Lahore aye’. For a foodie, this place was heaven. Forget the expensive multinational looters, forget their burgers and drinks and all kinds of crispy products. This, right there my friend, was the real deal. The real thing. Chicken with an unparalleled taste. I swear even my mother can’t do better. It’s this good. The roti was of same price everywhere (Rs.5) so may be not everything comes cheap here. Nonetheless, to eat out here, on plastic chairs amongst people a rich, snobby child would not be so comfortable dining with, is a worthwhile experience. No one here will judge you. No one will look at the finesse of your dressing or the dazzling looks of the rich. You will find yourself at peace, only if you allow yourself to delve into such a state. My friend feels uncomfortable to take his driver along into a Hardees court, albeit my friend does buy his driver something, but he won’t take the poor guy in. It’s that social taboo that most of us, if not all, have promoted. May be a difficult life teaches you to be humble, teaches you to accept reality and hope, or there is something about these people that is so amazing, I don’t really know. For a second I felt like I belonged here, with my people, with their difficulties and with their ways of living life. It felt more natural, more organic and more ‘real’. To be in such a state could lead one to dream big or to dream extremely small, but the beauty of choosing between extremes can define a life that could impact a lot of people. The potential here is amazing.
Furthermore, I noticed a similarity. The people here, shopping, were as excited to engage in this activity as the people in those posh areas were. The attitude was strikingly similar, with the same frustration on their faces hiding the excitement. However, the retailer/seller/shop owners were more confident. They were here amongst their own company, so perhaps that sense of inferiority was lacking in them, as it was profound in those workers strutting at the posh locations. This made me stumble onto a conclusion – obviously it could be right or wrong, it is completely up to you to decide, or may be not because everything here is subjective, so by default, both you and me are right. But anyways, the conclusion was that no matter how rich or poor we are, we are amazingly similar in things that we enjoy and the feelings we emit from doing the same kinds of activities, in this case shopping. I can imagine that if money was not the barrier for these poor people near the Darbaar, they would’ve enjoyed themselves on the same levels as those who do now in those posh areas. More so, a rich man could enjoy the treats of the old Lahore too; the aromatic Chai from a Dhaba and sizzling Kebabs off a local BarbQ set-up. We are all the same from our base and money does not really change who we are, it only changes what we do.
So this was my ‘shameful’ confession. Yes, I may not be able to drive just as yet, but who cares? I might have not learned so much if I had known how to drive and in knowing that, I am content with myself.