I had been thinking about going to Karachi for quite some time now. The first time I visited the coastal city was in 1968 when I was just four and yet to start school. Surprisingly I still have some vivid recollections from the occasion which because of their strong impact on me have stood the test of time.
One such memory is when I caught my hand in my uncle’s car door at the beach. I remember staring in pain and disbelief at my hand which was half obscured by the car door my older brother had slammed on it. Perhaps it was his excitement at seeing the Arabian Sea or just the expression of his superiority and panache that he did not notice that I was only halfway out of the car.
The second time I went to Karachi was for a few days in the year 2000 and this trip was even more memorable as it was with my dear father. My family and I have explored quite a bit of the North of the country but the South had remained unchartered for us.
‘Don’t even think about it’, many of my worldly friends remarked nonchalantly when I mentioned my intention to visit Karachi by road, ‘It’s too dangerous’ they proclaimed, citing a myriad, unlikely reasons to support their view and somehow Karachi seemed too remote, too risky, too wild. And so it was with some trepidation that I heard myself suggesting to my family one fine, May day that we go to Karachi and that too on our car.
It had come about that my son had been invited to conduct / help out with the orientation programme of the new UWC entrants at Karachi and had received free air tickets for the same. On my urging he agreed to return the tickets and come with us. My proposal generated a fair bit of excitement and I felt quite proud of myself at making this spontaneous and brave decision. This was in May and after a spell of rain, the weather had become rather pleasant making us conveniently forget of the heat to come.
As the days passed by, the temperature rose steadily all over the country and the heat wave in Karachi and Sindh became a hot topic on the TV. Being the solitary driver for the 1500 km unfamiliar, one way stretch loomed as a formidable proposition and I did think fleetingly of bowing out in time. When I tried to research the journey I could not find any personal recollections of someone who had made that journey. One blog did touch upon the topic but was brief and lacked utility. That was when I thought I would write about my experiences if and when the time came.
So it was at 3 am on Monday 8 June 2015 that my family and I boarded our Civic 2011 and left Khewra for Karachi. There were six of us; my wife, two sons and a daughter. My eldest, Asad, is 19 and waiting to join university in August…my daughter, Amen, is 17 and studying at college while the youngest, Ahmed, is in Grade 8. The fifth passenger of the car was a rather unconventional one as it had four legs and was none other than our beloved Yorkshire terrier, Tia. Tia is the most traveled dog I know having even been up to Chitral!
We entered the Motorway at Lilla interchange and then took the exit at Pindi Bhatian. The Motorway between Faisalabad and Pindi Bhatian had recently opened for use and it was easy driving with little or no traffic. We stopped at a rest area to stretch our legs, take some pictures and confirm directions as the sun rose and in about 2 and a half hour we reached the outskirts of Faisalabad after traversing rich fertile fields that are a trademark of the Punjab.
It took us another hour and a half to reach Jhang. As we were crossing Jhang at about 9 am, I casually asked what Jhang was famous for and my wife, who is also a celebrated trivia queen, informed us all that ‘Heer’ of the Heer Ranjha fame was buried here. We asked around and came to know that we were not too far away and soon we were on a narrow, dusty road that was to take us to Heer’s tomb. Crossing the ‘Mai Heer Stadium’ we soon reached a graveyard in the centre of which was Heer’s shrine.
It is a square box like structure painted in blue and white rectangles and open from the top. It houses a solitary tomb that is typical of our mazaars with a box for donations, a bowl of salt, incense and with the addition of a small cradle. Though it was early in the day there were people standing respectfully by the tomb and saying a prayer. The legend of Heer Ranjha is a well known folk love story immortalized by Waris Shah’s poetry.
Legend has it that Heer was an extremely beautiful woman, born into a wealthy Jutt family of the Sial tribe in Jhang, Punjab. Ranjha was also a Jat of the Ranjha tribe and the youngest of four brothers and lived in the village of Takht Hazara by the river Chenab. Being his father’s favorite son he led a life of ease playing the flute and trying to look soulful. After a quarrel with his brothers over land, Ranjha leaves home. In Waris Shah’s version of the epic, it is said that Ranjha left his home because his brothers’ wives refused to give him food. Eventually he arrives in Heer’s village and falls in love with her. Heer’s father offers Ranjha a job herding his cattle. Heer becomes mesmerised by the way Ranjha plays his flute and as a bonus eventually falls in love with him too. They meet each other secretly for many years until they are caught by Heer’s jealous uncle, Kaido, and her parents Chuchak and Malki. Heer is forced by her family and the local priest or ‘Maulvi’ to marry another man called Saida Khera.
Ranjha is heartbroken. He wanders the countryside alone, until eventually he meets a ‘jogi’. After meeting Gorakhnath, the founder of the “Kanphata” sect of jogis at Tilla Jogian (the ‘Hill of Ascetics’, located 50 miles north of the historic town of Bhera, Sargodha district, Punjab), Ranjha becomes a jogi himself, piercing his ears and renouncing the material world. Reciting the name of the Lord he wanders all over Punjab, eventually finding the village where Heer now lives.
The two return to Heer’s village, where Heer’s parents agree to their marriage. However, on the wedding day, Kaido poisons her food so that the wedding will not take place. Hearing this news, Ranjha rushes to aid Heer, but is too late, as she has already eaten the poison and died. Brokenhearted once again, Ranjha takes the poisoned laddu which Heer has eaten and dies by her side and so ends the love story in tragedy and heartache.
Visitors would touch the tomb and then their eyes, not turning their back toward the tomb when they exited. I could not help thinking how easily our countrymen believe in and tie their fortune to an abstract or vague notion, simply because it gives them some semblance of solace and support. I also wondered where Mian Ranjha was and did he get the same recognition after death that Heer did? Later I gathered that Mian Ranjha was also buried in the same grave!
Jhang was a typical Punjab town and it’s other claims to fame are Dr Abdul Salam, Sultan Bahoo, Mr Tahir ul Qadri and the Chenab College. We gathered that it is an exceptionally caring and religious community as was apparent from the advice given on a school wall.
And so feeling strangely melancholic we resumed our journey, reaching Multan at around 11 am…but that’s another story!