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.


  1. thanks for your comment! a huge dylan fan, i see! so at least we have that in common...

  2. As huge as they get, and getting huger by the minute.