Chaanga Maanga, what a name! There is no other name in the entire country quite like it. Bhai Pheru and Kala Shah Kaku (Brother Turner and Black Chicago respectively) come close, with Chicho Ki Mallian as a runner-up.
The title may seem like a strange suggestion. You will probably suspect Disney World or some western entertainment giant paying me to discredit the national picnic spot. During the wonder years American names such as California, Rocky Mountains, and West Virginia influenced my mind beyond repair. You cannot beat New York for the sheer number of songs written for it. New York is a great place. On three different occasions, kind passers-by borrowed my wallet in the spirit of liberty and equality. I am hoping they will return the contents along with the money we paid for the F-16 fighters.
Having grown up in Lahore, plans of visiting Chaanga Maanga always failed for one reason or another. The trauma of adolescence, the pressure of attending college, the heartaches of finding a decent job, and finally selecting a suitable spouse; all stood as obstacles on the way to Chaanga Maanga.
Chaanga Maanga is located eighty-five kilometres southwest of Lahore. My friend Farid organized a family picnic one weekend. Led by the guide, we drove along the tree-lined University New Campus road. The spouses looked excited and the kids squealed frequently. Farid sped away in his Swift, uncaring that my old Lancer had a history of prostrate problems.
After half an hour of pedal-to-the-metal, I found myself honking incessantly for an emergency stop; the car's radiator heated up and started to leak. A roadside tap was at hand. The kids could not stop laughing as this was the first hand-operated water pump they had ever seen. I flushed the radiator, splashed some water all over the steaming apparatus, and took to the country roads again. It was Chaanga Maanga or bust.
An aviator by profession, taking to the road seemed unnatural. Passing through each human settlement, everything seemed dusty and unwashed; or virgin as Sheikh Rasheed would put it. Milestones were notoriously invisible. I reckoned the highway department had decided to do away with such silly facilities considering the population's literacy rate.
It was 11:15 a.m. The entire male population appeared to be having brunch. Gnawing at four-foot sugarcanes appeared to be a favourite activity. The juice-less remains, conveniently ejected out of the mouth, and on to the road, served as food for homeless buffaloes. It provided great roadside entertainment and acted as a deterrent to toothpaste manufacturers whose formulae claimed to strengthen decaying teeth. All the advertising agencies need is a testimonial from a carefree villager claiming: Oye ... yaar, hore ganna choopo; it is good for gums.
We dared not stop for snacks out of fear of beggars and flies. There were no McDonald's; only franchised outlets of Majey Da Tandoor along the way. The roads were in an appallingly bad state. The highway department had understood long ago that only four-wheel drives and fifty-foot trailers took to these broken roads. The masses destroyed their automobile suspensions and the poor had New Khan Bus Service written over their fate lines.
Midway, the kids decided to respond to Mother Nature. Public lavatories?—no such luck. Scot McKenzie’s famous song ran through my mind:
If you're going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
You're gonna meet some gentle people there
There we were, going to Chaanga Maanga instead of San Francisco without an ample supply of pampers. I asked my spouse, 'Okay, which cotton-field?' She pointed towards a convenient one and I trespassed over the property to allow my infant son to irrigate the field. This action destroyed visa-less alien American sundies infecting the cotton crop. Even though local farmers, with turbans over their heads cooperated willingly, my son was unable to do more for the motherland. The kids loved this newfound freedom. The ability to pee-as-you-see was more mind boggling than the Internet.
From this point onwards, for the next many kilometres, the roads looked as if they had been carpet-bombed by the Vietnam veterans. Large moon-craters laughed at my humble means of transportation. The road's charcoal had melted deforming skywards, making it look like a cheap carpet that never stays flat. The road deformations caused my steering wheel to turn violently at each crossing of a cargo-laden truck. The resultant wind gusts made my car want to commit industrial suicide. This mysterious driving pleasure had previously been unknown to me. God saved us all from becoming accident statistics.
At the sight of a sign that read 'Welcome to Chaanga Maanga,' everybody thanked the Creator. The final three kilometres that led to this paradise seemed more like three thousand. No automobile shock absorbing system in the world could withstand the beating. All the careful alignment and wheel balancing went out of the window. Guest-houses, or rather ghost-houses, that belonged to the Tourism Development Corporation as well the Forest Department littered the place. A boy stopped us at the gate for tickets to the dusty parking lot. Suddenly two Punjab University buses appeared out of a cloud of dust. Rowdy students with ghetto blasters jumped off the vehicles like unleashed animals. Humans by accident, occasional yells of, 'Yo ... man,' indicated they had all been watching too much MTV.
Entry tickets were cheap; five rupees an adult and three per child. What I had imagined was nowhere. There were no 100-foot trees or lush-green chunks of forest. The spouses and kids were more grateful overall; all they wanted was a picnic. We walked some distance to settle over a piece of land. Farid had convinced us that lunch and other eatables would be available on location.
A nearby bridge stretched over a lake containing troubled waters. Upon closer inspection, the lake appeared more like a stagnant and shallow pool. I saw no goldfish, swans, or glimpses of nature; only weed in muddy water. It was indeed manmade; what kind of a man had conceived it was beyond me. Luckily, a boat-ride was available. Everybody expected the boat-ride to last till eternity. Exactly fifty seconds later, the operator brought us back to the departure point. I was sorry I paid a hundred Rupees.
It was lunchtime. More villagers and pseudo-yuppies from nearby locations descended upon the park in full battle regalia; over-dressed-to-kill mothers, fathers in starched shalwar qameez suits, pretty girls with ugly make-up and infants wearing shoes that made funny noises.
Farid arranged for a round of spicy Gol Gappas that promised to cure piles. Everybody got up to explore but there was nothing worth the effort. What do you expect for a five-buck entry-fee? After ten minutes of wandering aimlessly, the picnic party re-settled at the original spot. Using un-parliamentary language, I could not stop expressing my views about the lack of everything. Farid snapped, 'Shut up and enjoy.' He was right; he had been there before.
The next must-do item on the agenda was the famous train-ride. Every corny Pakistani movie I had ever seen during my wonder years showed the hero and the heroine singing in an empty Chaanga Maanga train. I fantasized about something similar; though the strictly family-affair put a damper over unfulfilled desires. The steam train's romantic whistle had indeed woken up the boy in me.
A baby-sized train, loaded with merry-makers, approached the mock-up railway station. Hardly had the train stopped when, with true national zeal, everybody rushed to grab a seat. With great difficulty did we find sitting space. Land-grabbers had metamorphosed into seat-grabbers. After a short while, the train whistled and started to move towards the great unknown.
Expectations turned into disappointments as more bland scenery greeted us. A comparison with foreign entertainment parks was unavoidable since none of what one expected could be found anywhere: no cultural shows, no scenic spots and no surprises. Expecting to find a souvenir shop was insanity. I wondered: even if they had one, what sort of merchandise would they sell; crude earth-ware with political slogans inscribed over them, poorly stitched T-shirts with 'I wish to be buried in Chaanga Maanga' emblazoned across or jungle-soil samples? The children, nevertheless, grabbed at passing shrubs to collect innocent souvenirs for their science teachers.
The train's seats, designed for local hunchbacks, were uncomfortable. Reputable Italian industrial designers were obviously neglected. By the time the thirty-minute ride ended, my back had deformed semi-permanently. I kept asking the children to refrain from sitting over the train's steps but warnings fell over deaf ears. While busy taking useless photos of trees, I suddenly heard a cry. The next moment, I saw my six-year old daughter fall off along the rail-track. Before I could jump to rescue the weeping child, the conductor grabbed hold of her. Farid too disembarked as the train-driver slowed down the train. All the passengers stopped chirping during those few tense moments.
To witness the apple of your eye fall off a moving train was a most horrifying experience. Miraculously, my daughter suffered no injuries; she was under shock nevertheless. I wiped off her tears and thanked God. While there were ample provisions in the coaches for train-riders to commit suicide, a complaint book was missing.
The train stopped at a village within the forest. Vendors appeared with eatables and began hollering. A boy with a twisted face sold Rayori, a local sweetmeat; while another displayed homemade Samosas. The vintage Samosas created quite a demand. Paper-plates were non-existent. At the time of handing over each deadly order, the boy would poke a hole into the Samosa with his finger and pour some greenish chutney into it—environment-friendly innovation at its apex.
Wild uncut grass, crooked trees, and crows made up the scenery. The train travelled the exact same route back to the station. I hung my head out of plain boredom. The same impatience greeted us at the station when the next batch of rowdy riders raided the coaches. An old man very nearly sat in my lap in an effort to grab a seat. That was no disembarkation; it was an escape.
It was 4:15 p.m. We all wanted to reach Lahore before the sun set. Somewhere along the way, I took a wrong turn and wound up on a perfectly smooth road. We stopped at an unknown place to have tea. It was a small wooden kiosk run by a young boy. Finding himself out of milk, he shouted at a nearby milkman. Presto! We had fresh-squeezed milk. Tea prepared with it tasted radically different and better. All the pain and hurt suddenly vanished.
Our infant 'Amreekan sundi-exterminator' son was out of milk. The milkman obliged with more fresh milk at rupees twelve a kilo. The chai-walla boy, the milkman, and even the obese cow; all smiled at us as we drove into the sunset. Swearing never to visit Chaanga Maanga again, I secretly courted the idea of returning for some great tea and cheap milk if nothing else.
Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium. This article was originally printed in the daily DAWN newspaper.