The way it was: To Thal with friends

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

A friend had taken the precaution of having a few parathas and shamis packed for the journey. These came to our rescue when the car broke down. It took almost an hour for the car engine to cool off. The moment the radiator stopped coughing steam it was replenished with three large bottles of mineral water and with some tribulations we ventured to drive on

My friend Humayun was required to visit and inspect a piece of agricultural land in Thal allotted to one of the family elders in the fifties. Since I have been casually associated with a bit of farming I was asked by my friend to accompany him on the trip.

It was planned that we would stay the night at Trimmu Irrigation Rest House and proceed to our destination the following morning. The Trimmu Head works are located beyond the confluence of Jehlum and Chenab about an hour’s drive from Jhang. We left Lahore on a Wednesday at about quarter to one. Logistically not a bright thing to do, because it was a little early for lunch and trifle late to have it on reaching the next convenient stop. The delay in our departure was actually no one’s fault. We couldn’t possibly commence our journey without having our booking for the night at Trimmu, confirmed. We were of course repeatedly assured by a retired but influential friend who was managing the booking that we had nothing to fear as ninety five percent of it should be considered done. I was adamant that I was not stirring out of my house because ninety five percent of my worries in life were always caused by the unaccounted five percent, which in this case accounted for our late departure.

Fortunately Sheikh sahib — Humayun my friend — had taken the precaution of having a few parathas and shamis packed for the journey. These came to our rescue when the car broke down a few kilometres short of our point of exit from the Motorway. It took almost an hour for the car engine to cool off. The moment the radiator stopped coughing steam it was replenished with three large bottles of mineral water and with some tribulations we ventured to drive on towards the exit leading to the town of Pindi Bhattian. It took over an hour and half to put back enough life in the car for it to be slowly driven back to Lahore. Apparently one of the rubber tubes had leaked, causing the engine to heat up and burn the gas kit or is it the gasket? Whatever it is.

While a mechanic and his team of young apprentices probed the engine — under, over, in and around — Sheikh sahib and I sauntered around the adjacent bazaars surveying the local scene. Since it had rained a day earlier, anxious vehicles were unable to raise clouds of dust, which storm human and vehicular traffic and sheath foodstuff hawked by vendors. To pass time I purchased a quarter kg of peanuts and asked my friend, who is in a perpetual state of anxiety to stop prancing up and down the streets. I persuaded him to sit down on a stray wooden bench lodged between several vendor trolleys and view the pageant of life in style and comfort. To which he agreed. The peanuts were not as good as I had thought. A lesser, scorched and shrivelled variety had been rudely mixed with the better quality nuts I had inspected. Obviously a bit of monkey business had gone into the bag. I saw a vendor walk his cycle with a basket of delicious looking bairs — not the round but the oblong ones — but felt reluctant to hail him in the crowded street. The rehris (trolleys) and shops were full of deep orange kinnoos. The small ones which had dropped off the tree on their own, called kera, were being sold for ten rupees a dozen. The big sweet ones spreading at their bellies were priced at five rupees for a single fruit. One could surely haggle for a dozen. The kinnoos, because of their demand in the Gulf States in the last few years have become expensive. At one time Iran was our chief importer of oranges. I wonder considering our relations with the country these days, if kinnoos are being exported to Tehran. It is about time that we repaired our fences with our old friend and steadfast neighbour.

Humayun had quietly arranged an alternative means of transport. As soon as it arrived we merrily resumed our journey, no longer tense but sated with memory of motley images of jaunty colour, blended odours and blaring but happy sounds of the bazaar from which we had sped away with great relief. Meanwhile the sun had sneakily descended from behind a placid grey stratum of clouds, which stretched across the horizon. Lively green prospects were with unexpected haste plunged into darkness. After a while when Sheikh sahib rolled down his window to have a puff, the fresh night air was nippy and bracing and unusually laden with moisture for that time of the year.

Humayun made good speed and adroitly managed to weave his way through dark passages between overloaded trucks and tractor trolleys, without taillights — one didn’t know whether they were coming or going. Soon we realised that we would be late for Trimmu to order dinner. The Sheikh who was by now feeling a little peckish smacked his lips, instantly agreeing to the suggestion and that it would indeed be an excellent idea to halt at Jhang and pick up some food. On entering Jhang we discovered that the town had been without electricity the whole day. Fortunately some shops had their private generators working.

Independently we tore into a succulent chicken tikka, while we waited for other items of food being cooked for our dinner at Trimmu. While I was at it I also probed into a seekh kebab, which was being done. The best way to have a seekh kebab is to pick parts of it off the seekh with your fingers when it’s sizzling hot, just off the pit. And this is precisely what I did, burning my fingers in the process. This strangely reminded me of the Fifties and the great Khalifa and his proverbial kebabs. Khalifa sold only the seekh kebabs from a small shop beyond Wazir Khan’s mosque on the street leading to Ganda Engine. He was the only one of his kind in those days. If I am not mistaken the tikka shops at Gwalmandi started their business much later. The best kebabs were supposed to be crisp and expected to fall off the seekh with one shake of the wrist, not like the ones fabricated today, which cannot be diced even with a knife. Khalifa’s kebabs were absolutely superb, though a bit hot for people not accustomed to sharp invasion of chillies. A bowl of yoghurt from the adjacent shop always helped to cool down the ignited palettes.

Humayun loves to advertise a Spartan outlook and make friends laugh at the astute ways of the Chanioti Sheikhs. There was time when a friend spread the rumour that Humayun was a direct descendants of one of Emperor Akbar’s Naurattan’s, the great Todar Mall but that is not true. Todar Mall did not hail from Chaniot.

Humayun quite contrary to the sheikh tradition is generous. In reality he possesses an insatiable capacity to over indulge himself. He likes advising his friends to be moderate and self-restrained, but if Sheikh sahib were thirsty he would empty a well and when hungry would nibble across a table stacked with food, sampling dishes picking the tastiest bits. Since on this occasion he had built up only a small appetite, he placed order for only one mutton karahi, one kg deep-fried fish, two large helpings of daal mash and aloo matar ki sabzi. A bit excessive for the two of us and the driver, I thought. Later I discovered that this was not all and that additionally one chicken karahi and dozen shami kebabs and a dozen Nan had also been packed for good measure. On arriving at Trimmu, after the rest house staff had handled our luggage, the affable head bearer deferentially walked up and informed that the dinner was cooked, when would we like to have it served.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist