Not Quite a Full Mehman

Karachi, Pakistan
May 30, 2019

Arriving at the airport, I found neither of the two ATMs worked and the currency exchange was closed. But this apparently was no problem; I was driven to the hotel, where the driver insisted on seeing me safely inside and then drove me to an ATM and brought me back to the hotel. This is courtesy to a fault, in keeping with what I have heard of Pakistan. And so it has been since. Welcoming and courteous with a dash of diffident curiosity is the reaction I get.

Following advice from travelers, I brought traditional clothing ostensibly to help me not stick out like a sore thumb. I need not have worried; I am not paid a second glance. They simply assume I am from here but living abroad. The only questions I get, are where I live now and how long I have been living there. I don’t quite get the full-mehman reception; I am just a half-mehman of sorts.

Only in longer conversations does it arise. A shopkeeper who patiently explained to me that the salwar I wanted was long out of fashion and that I should get one in the current style, asked where I was from. On hearing that I am from India, the conversation turned to getting visas. He would like to go to India for business, but visas are an obstacle he said, as we commiserated over the difficulty. A couple of other conversations turned predictably, to Bollywood movies and inevitably to the usual questions. Did I know this actor or that actress? And equally inevitable – did I sing or dance? I get paid not to sing, I replied.

I have been brandishing a stuttering version of Urdu which is rapidly becoming more fluent with practice as I jabber away with anyone and everyone, enjoying myself thoroughly. And enjoying specially, the thread of humor that weaves through everyday conversations. This is as much a part of life here, as it is in India. Quips, retorts and jokes pepper my conversations and those around me.

At the railway ticket counter where the queue coalesces into a crowd three deep, I finally belly up to the counter and ask for a ticket to Larkana. Wishing to ensure I have a berth to sleep, I ask
“Sone ki berth milegi?”
“No Madam, sone ki nehi milegi, chandi ki milegi”, comes the reply.
Chuckles erupt around me and I laugh out loud.

A grandmother eating ice cream with her grand-daughter at Baloch Ices, presses one on me. That is very sweet I say, chock full of sugar. No worries, she replies, I told them to fill it up with all the vitamins – A, B, C, D. It will counteract the sugar, she says with a grin.

Even my half-mehman status elicits a warm welcome. After his shift is over, the manager Ashik shows me the bustling sights around Saddar. I trail after him looking at the streets and stalls that spring up late at night and he puts up with my many questions with a humorous tolerance. And berates me for going to Larkana. I should go to Nawabshah instead, he tells me; it is his hometown.

I am having a blast! My only regret is the self-imposed rush; I could so easily while away a few days more in Karachi.

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