I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cover Stories - Of Dialects, Diversions, Digestibles and Deplorables

At the start of my flood relief tour of duty in South Punjab, mixed with a sense of duty was an overpowering sense of adventure. I was being sent on a very somber and serious task and I understood it's gravity, however it was also my first field assignment and I was going to a part of Pakistan that I had never been to (and one that I would have wished to visit in more happier circumstances). Since I only had a vague idea of what to expect, I called up many of my batchmates who had gone to the affected areas in the first wave of relief efforts in order to get an idea of what I was getting myself into. I was told to expect intense heat (despite it being October), rigorous work and long periods of boredom. "You'll have to provide your own entertainment" was the general sentiment.

The first (and only) piece of instruction we received on reaching DG Khan was, "You and your team will perform the role of a 'Roving Medical Camp'". And boy, did we rove!! Every morning, a caravan of three ambulances loaded with personnel and supplies would set out on a journey of at least 30-40 km to a new destination, making the return journey in the evening. We never visited one place more than two or three times, and since our area of responsibility was the entire Tehsil DG Khan, we managed to visit around a dozen different locations; from the coast of the Indus to the foothills of the Suleiman mountains to abandoned villages and destroyed factories, and occasionally to the havelis and castles (yes, friggin' castles) of the local Sardars.I found these ambulance rides, especially the early morning one with the trafficless roads and the morning breeze highly enjoyable. Each morning, I would pop in my earphones and turn on my iPod. I made it a point of habit to listen to one single album in it's entirety during a single day's ambulance trips. As a result, I can't think of the roads and pathways of DG Khan without hearing faint echoes of Neil Young's 'On The Beach' or Miles Davis' 'Bitches' Brew' or Munshi Raziuddin Sb.'s 1988 Mehfil.

I belong to the Jhang-Sargodha-Chiniot region that borders the Thal desert and considered myself if not fluent, then at least passably well versed in the Seraiki language. Or so I thought. On my very first day's medical camp, I found myself clutching at straws as patients explained their symptoms in the thickest, most unintelligible Seraiki. Initially I thought I was getting the gist of it and tried to plow through assisted by guesswork, but I quickly saw the error of my ways when I realized that the patients who were complaining of 'Phairay' weren't suffering from Vertigo as I had imagined, but Diarrhoea. I quickly recruited a local lad as interpreter and kept him by my side for the next two days while I learnt the ropes. By the end of the month, I was so used to listening to Seraiki that on my first day of clinic duty back in Lahore, I was genuinely shocked when my first patient started detailing his symptoms in English.

Most of our medical camps were 7-8 hours long and the patient population thinned out around the 2-3 p.m mark and that's when exhaustion, heat-sickness and boredom would start creeping in. It was then upto us to quickly find a diversion or risk falling victim to cabin fever. The vicinity was scoured for potential entertainments and more often than not, one was found. A tubewell would be located nearby, dhotis and shorts would be borrowed from the locals, a local farmer would be requested to donate a few stalks of sugarcane and voila..an impromptu jacuzzi-cum-waterpark would be set up in the middle of the wilderness.

My friends and batchmates who had completed their tour of duty in South Punjab kept enthusing about the hospitality of the local population. The first evidence of this hospitality came when on the third day of our medical camp at Jhok Uttra, the father of one of the kids we'd treated came carrying a huge cauldron of home-cooked fish on his head. He'd caught a "Commando machli" - in his words- that morning and graciously had it cooked it for us.  The fish was delicious, definitely a member of the Special Services, and was destined to become the first in a long list of similarly erm, piscine tokens of appreciation. "Say it with fish" seemed to be the locals' motto and we didn't mind it one bit....at least not at first. When it seemed that we had been force-fed almost half of the aquatic fauna of the Indus, I respectfully drew the line. It got to a point where, one day, after the announcement of our medical team's arrival in a village, we had to make a follow-up announcement assuring the locals that we definitely, DEFINITELY didn't want any fish.

The locals then turned to another ploy. "Fine" they said,"If fish isn't doing it for you, we have another ploy up our sleeve" The next day, a great big vat full of milk was delivered to us. From that day on, it was the whole food-fest all over, only this time we were being pressed with jugs upon jugs of cold, sweet milk. Again, we received and imbibed all of it with thanks at first, but we had to start the whole 'respectfully decline' routine again when a constant diet of fish an milk began to manifest itself in the form of sleepless nights, frequent daily urges to shower and other signs of "Khoon Ki Garmi" that I needn't go into the details of. Suffice to say that the locals' hospitality didn't just leave a mark on my mind but also on my waistline and what Beach the butler would lovingly refer to as 'the lining of my stomach'.

The hospitable folk of Dera Ghazi Khan cannot be held solely responsible for my gastronomical excesses. I was lucky to be billeted with a group of people that can be best described in that choice Urdu phrase, "Khush Khoraak". All day, all of us would work like pack-mules, but when we gathered for dinner, there wasn't just a feast of reason and flow of soul but a meal of the scrumpciousest food that could be prepared in the middle of nowhere. Twice weekly, there would be night-time barbecues, or alternatively, reconnaissance trips in search of driver hotels (I would like to take this moment to offer an unsoliscited testimonial : the Madina Driver Hotel at Kot Chutta on the DG Khan - Quetta road is the greatest truck-stop hotel in the world)  With profuse apologies to my vegan readers, I tasted more members of our winged, hoofed and pawed companions than I could ever hope to. Apart from the aforementioned fish and the more common staples like mutton, beaf and chicken, we were treated to duck, mallard, quail, partridge, hare and veal. It seems only the wily camel escaped being invited to dinner.

Again, most of these delicacies were sent to us by the locals as tokens of appreciation. However, there were some who didn't share the same sentiment. In fact, at one or two places we met with thinly veiled contempt. One of the local Sardars-owner of one the castles I mentioned in the beginning- made it known in his village that any artisan, worker or labourer found assisting our team would have his arms and legs broken. Despite that, he had the gall to smilingly (and forcibly) conducting us all on a tour of his grand mansion, pausing every so often to deliver a Gaddafi-esque stream of consciousness rant on the hazards of universal education, the correct place of women in society, the relative merits of a girls' school versus a dairy farm and why he thought the feudal-sardaari system was the way forward for Pakistan. A week after we finished the reconstruction of a girls' school in his village, we got word that he had uprooted the new water pumps we'd installed and filled the bore-holes with concrete as well as converted the school playground to - you guessed it- a dairy farm.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cover Stories - Of Days And Nights In DG Khan

The massive floods that ravaged most of Pakistan in the latter half of last year,although sparing me and most of my near and dear ones, nevertheless left me with a feeling of extreme helplessness, inadequacy and impotence. Even though I was busying myself in helping with the various relief efforts that were being organized by a number of my friends as well as trying to do my bit in terms of monetary and material aid, I couldn't help but think that i needed to do more. Friends and colleagues from all over Pakistan were being rushed to the affected areas to provide medical relief while I was stuck in Lahore. When a month had passed since the start of the flooding, I resigned myself to playing at most a distant tertiary role in the relief efforts and gave up on the idea of working in the field.

Out of the blue, a rumour started circulating that a second wave of medical professionals was being sent to the flood affected areas to take over from where the first batch had left off. My name, along with those of ten of my colleagues, was being floated as part of this team. Sure enough, the rumor was soon followed by an official announcement. I was told I was to leave at two days' notice for a month's tour of duty in South Punjab. With that in mind, I started packing ; three or four pairs of clothes and a dozen or so books. I stacked my iPod with the complete three seasons of Arrested Development and around half a dozen Preston Sturges movies, confident that this arsenal of awesomeness would be more than enough to fight off the occasional attacks of ennui.

I was pretty excited when I left Lahore for Multan,which was the designated staging post for me and my batchmates from various other cities. After a painfully brief reunion with many of my Med School friends and an even briefer night's sleep, I was woken up at 6am the next morning with the information that a vehicle was waiting outside to take me to what would be my home for the next 35 days, Dera Ghazi Khan. On my way to Dera Ghazi Khan, I got my first glimpse of the ravages wrought by the flooding. Roads lay destroyed, fields and crops were inundated, concrete skeletons lined the road and heaped up remains of household items atop mounds of earth marked places where mud huts had stood. It was a sobering and depressing sight that prepared me for the grim task I was to perform over the coming days and weeks.

After my arrival in Dera Ghazi Khan and a perfunctory welcome, I quickly settled into a routine that I was to follow - with one or two modifications - over the next 35 days. There were two doctors sent to Dera Ghazi Khan, me and another colleague from Lahore. We would be up by 7am, have a quick wash-and-brush followed by breakfast and then set off in a caravan of three ambulances to set up a medical camp at a pre-designated location. The ambulances were loaded each morning with a sizeable stash of medicines that had been donated from various sources. We would stop at a Rural Health Centers or a Basic Health Units all over tehsil Dera Ghazi Khan. Our destinations had names like Jhok Uttra, Samina, Haji Ghazi, Nooria Kooriya - tiny villages and hamlets that weren't even on the maps.

While the camps were being set up each morning, an announcement would be made on the village mosque's PA system and the patients would start arriving. In ones and twos at first, later followed by entire clans and neighborhoods so that our average patient load was something like six to seven hundred people per day. People walked, cycled and in some cases, crawled miles to get to the camp. I had never managed workloads as huge as this and for the first day or two, was completely and utterly panic stricken. however, we soon got the hang of it, got our man-management skills in order and the operation progressed smoothly. The day's work would be over when our stash of medicines gave out, which was usually around the 4pm mark. By that time, we were supremely, exquisitely and utterly knackered and the packing-up process would begin. Packing up was a tricky and somewhat dispiriting exercise because of having to turn back (sometimes rather forcefully)stragglers and latecomers because of lack of medicines , especially when we knew that we wouldn't be visiting that specific village again. We'd load up the empty medicine cartons in the ambulances and return to base camp after seven or eight hours in the field.

The first thing to be done on returning to DG Khan would be to ask for a jugfull of what I can safely claim to be the greatest drink ever concocted by the ingenuity of man. Forget beakers full of the warm South and the true, the blushful Hippocrenes; this was the real stuff. If I ever met the gentleman who 'on honeydew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise', I'd quietly take him aside and offer him a glass of what was rather prosaically called 'Limoo paani' but i think better merited the name coined by Douglas Adams; the "Pangalactic Gargle Blaster". The first time I drank it, I couldn't believe my throat. It was cold, boy was it cold ! It was equal parts tangy and sweet and peppery and otherworldly. Over the course of my 35 day South Punjab sojourn, I must have consumed gallons upon gallons of the stuff and near the end, was so familiar with the nuances of it's taste that I could guess whether it was 'proof' or not just by measuring the layer of froth at the top of the glass. While departing at the end of my tenure, I called aside the sublime genius who was responsible for creating this elixir, warmly grasped his hand, thanked him in hushed,awed tones and gave him a thousand rupee note as a token of my gratitude.

Getting back to the daily routine; after lunch, washing up and a very brief siesta, the afternoon's activities would commence. For the athletically inclined - and as I was to find out to my disadvantage, the disinclined as well - there were daily compulsory, repeat compulsory evening sports. Cricket, Badminton and Volleyball were played at the ungodly hour of 5pm in the blistering DG Khan sun in a misguided attempt at keeping up morale. Participation, or at least attendance was compulsory and for someone as pathologically averse to pointless physwical activity as me, this was the most unpleasant part of the day and indeed the whole month.

These silly diversions ended around eight p.m, after which the entire group gathered for dinner. Here I must mention that my little medical outfit was attached with a much larger flood relief and reconstruction effort that comprised around two dozen other people. Most of them spent the day distributing rations, reconstructing damaged schools and hospitals or looking after administrative arrangements. The complete workforce of our relief operation usually gathered under one roof only once a day, at dinner. Because of this, dinner was more than a meal, it was a sort of reunion-recap-review and coordination conference.  The meal itself was a formal affair, you had to dress for it (a fact that I hadn't anticipated, hence the prevalence of tees, sweatshirts and track trousers in my wardrobe) there were three courses and a hierarchically determined order of seating. It was immediately followed by a three or four hour long exercise vaguely labeled 'Conference" that me and my fellow doctor made an early and highly rewarding habit of sneaking out of. The result being that we would be comfortably snoozing in our bed by the time the first of the dead-eyed populace returned from the conference room at 2 or 3 a.m. A good night's sleep and the cycle would start anew the next day.

For the greater part of 35 days, this was my daily routine. It was tough and at times dry and monotonous but there were occasional diversions and distractions, countless indelible encounters and stories and a great deal of culinary adventures that rendered my waistline more Pickwickian than I'd prefer. Then there's also the small matter of the five day sabbatical that I've chosen to call The Great(est) Roadtrip......but that, as they say, is a horse of a different color.