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The Blessed Punjabi Landscape

SALMAN RASHID

 

 

 





Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan

Back in the mid-1990s, when the motorway M-2 was being built here by Snowy Mountains Engineering Company, they had Geoff Gowers as the Chief Resident Engineer. He and his wife Andrea became good friends with the two of us, and together we travelled the not-yet-ready highway several times.

Now, as so many people zoom up and down on it, few remark on the raised road-bed the tarmac rests on. Fewer still perhaps take their eyes off the drudgery unfolding straight ahead on the gray tarmac.

But back then Geoff and I used to frequently talk of how the raised road will once again make the magical Punjabi countryside visible to road-users.

I say ‘again’ because there was a time when travelling on any intercity road one could actually see the countryside. That was long before we indulged in mindless and wanton ribbon development, that is, building up along both sides of our highways. The unplanned jumble of houses and shops soon concealed the beauty of the countryside behind its ugliness.

After the late 1960s, young and observant travellers riding their parents’ car no longer saw what I saw as a child: the kaleidoscope of an endless and beautiful panorama.

For some peculiar reason, Pakistanis believe that only mountains and rivers can be described as beautiful landscapes. Their senses dulled by an overdose of utterly trite work that goes under the misnomer of travel writing in Urdu, they simply refuse to appreciate the endless vistas that spread to the very limit where earth and sky meet.

But it will take a particularly insensitive eye and a specially numbed mind to miss the scene as it travels along the motorways of the country. From that elevated vantage it is simply impossible to fail to notice the landscape as it unfolds and to recall how it changes from season to season.

In 17 years of driving on the Motorway, I have so often had to force myself to keep my eyes on the tarmac instead of the scene flashing past.
Begin with the January green of young wheat that bravely shimmers in undulating waves in the wintry wind under the bare branches of shisham, poplar and neem trees. The sun, low on the horizon, shines from myriad ponds and straight as an arrow irrigation channels that divide the fields into neat blocks. In the chill, the water turns to mist rising thinly from the ground as if in a sad war movie. It is so thin that it fails to drain the colour of whatever vegetation that may still be there in midwinter.

But when the fog comes, it mutes the landscape killing most, save the nearest, shapes.

As the wheat ripens in the heightened heat of April, the emerald brilliance of winter wheat gives way to endless fields of burnished gold set to brilliant advantage against the glistening green of new foliage on trees. The ponds turn dry; the irrigation channels run only infrequently as the sun beats down on a dusty earth.

With the wheat harvest over, the land looks wasted, utterly drained. Wasted, as if the delivery of this harvest was particularly laborious and painful. As the desiccated dust blows across it under the merciless sun, it seems the land has finally and irrevocably lost its fecundity; that it will never again bear a crop of green. The country is now a photographer’s nightmare. Here not even the best among them can create an image of hope and fruitfulness.

In May the sun burns the landscape to half tones: the sky a nameless colour, vegetation no longer green and refusing to be gray or khaki and even the life, human and animal, that wanders across this withered landscape is drained of colour. It becomes difficult even so much as to imagine that this land will ever again burst forth with life.

But come the blessed month of Saavan (mid-July to mid-August) recently transplanted paddy already thickening in its flooded fields turns the country lush. It was this prospect only two weeks ago that prompted me to stop on the somewhere near the Salem Interchange to savour the beauty.

Ireland is called Emerald Island by those who love her. No one has ever referred to the great Punjabi plains as the Emerald Plains -- but should.

Indeed, this verdure of the plain country stretches from the meandering streams of the Yusufzai Plain in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa across the heart of Punjab and the rest of India into Bengal. At no other time but during the months of Saavan and Bhaadon is there such a vast and uniform sea of green as now.

If you ask me, the beauty of this green sea is its absolutely featureless flatness that stretches mile after mile.

The summer sun turns the moisture of the flooded paddy fields into a thin skein that evenly envelops the landscape. In the mottled sky, the sun shines weakly yet turning the land into an open-air sauna.

But what dazzles is the overwhelming radiance of the green and its immense spread from horizon to horizon. The land that had only weeks before seemed burnt out and lifeless is transformed.

As I stood on the shoulder of M-2 gazing upon the resplendent greenness a thought coursed through my mind: death will come to me one day as it must to all living beings. When my time is come, I hope it is in the blessed month of Bhaadon and the last sight my eyes rest upon is such faultless green. If that will be, I will die happily.

But back in the present, even as I made ready to resume my drive, I already looked forward to the rice harvest. Once again the earth will return to deceptive lifelessness until we forget how rich the verdure of Bhaadon can ever be.

I wonder however if there are any who, as they zoom along the raised motorways, care to look sideways to appreciate the beauty that has so far escaped them.

The next time you take the highroad, pause a while and refresh your eyes with the best cleansing solution: the brilliant green of Bhaadon.


[The author writes travel pieces and is a fellow at the Royal Geographical Society.]

[Courtesy: The News. Edited for sikhchic.com]
August 31, 2015

 

 

 

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 31, 2015, 1:48 PM.

Whenever a grandchild asks me how to write well, I tell them to go and read sikhchic.com, the finest on-line magazine. For example, we have in today’s sikhchic.com two fine pieces competing with each other and both sharing the first prize: ‘Adventure’ and ‘The Blessed Punjabi Landscape’. Unfortunately in ‘Adventure’, the travelers had to miss out on the green landscape while arguing with the ticket-checkers. Thank you, Sher ji, for arranging the music so well.

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