Summer always reminds me of family holidays. In our case, it was the road trip up the Grand Trunk (GT) road which were very much part of the experience. Imagine the Family Griswald from the classic comedy Griswalds with the ever-optimistic father Chevy Chase, and then transplant that into the Pakistani context. We had moved back to Pakistan after an extended nine-year stint abroad, when we had travelled extensively internationally. After returning to Lahore, it was time to explore our roots.
We were spurred by my father’s desire to write his books on early images and maps of the provinces of the Subcontinent, from the 18th and 19th century, and my mother’s desire to escape the heat of the plains to return to the mountain scenery of her childhood.
All five of us would be packed into a Pajero jeep. We would pass long hours on often unmetalled roads in the Punjab and later the north hunting for old forts outside Lahore, Buddhist Stupas on the way out of Taxila and historical temples. It was like akin to a modern-day treasure hunt around villages, to photograph the present with our hand-sized Canon cameras. We would compare images of the 19th century to the modern age.
Our driver, William, a young man from the Old City, was our silent long-suffering companion. Forced to listen to 1990s pop, he would retaliate by emitting silent and noxious gases after road-side lunches. To combat this, we would open all the windows, in silent unison and then sing aloud to the Petshop Boys, Wham, Madonna and whatever else we were bequeathed in the form of cassette tapes.
The pause between the driving was of more interest to us – at breakfast, we would be dreaming of hot parathas and tea, and by lunchtime, we would beg for hot naan and the curries that would be served at roadside dhabbas. After lunch, we would predictably want to go to the bathroom and count hours until we would roll into a PTDC rest-house.
At each stop, we would eye-roll as my father would recount the history of these sites, which travelers had visited over two centuries ago. The guidebooks were insufficient. We would be asked to see the landscape through the eyes of 19th century wanderers like G.F Atkinson or William Simpson.
Now that I recall these trips, we absorbed so much of our local history and context, as though we were time-travelling through these magnificent landscapes. Even thirty years later, Attock Fort stands out in my mind, with the imperial fort standing at the confluence of the powerful silt brown of the Indus and the translucent colors of the Kabul River.
One faced the fort surrounded by a high wall on top of a hill. Time still stands still and even now one can see oxen travelling the road and surrounding villages. The new royalty is now the army and so the Fort, like many other monuments in that area, is overseen and managed by the army. Recently, on a trip to Derawar Fort in Southern Punjab, I was also struck by how the best view from the fort is a small but well-appointed army rest house on a promontory facing the fort.
There is a priceless nostalgia that comes with family road trips. The idea of being packed at close proximity with each member playing a role and the sights and sounds and smells of these trips up the GT Road will remain with me forever.
Galbraith once famously remarked about the Subcontinent that one sees 5,000 years of transport on one road and that certainly still holds true for the GT road. One can see everything from large trucks with the beautiful vibrant colors of truck art, cars, bikes, donkeys, horse carts and even the occasional camel. Once in between all of these, we even saw a man on a wheelchair. He propelled his vehicle in the middle of the road, enjoying the thrill of competing with trucks honking impatiently while they were forced to follow him at his pace.
As teenagers, my sister and I were obligated to sulk in turn and fight at the back, and with my brother burst into wrestling matches. Our attitude did not faze our parents – they would still point out things of interest and the refrain would be to look outdoors rather than at each other.
We did not realise it at the time. These were moments which would be carved into our memories of childhood, along with the charm of PTDC motels with their broast chicken meals, without the distraction of Apple gadgets and I-pads. As a parent myself, I now think of how much positive energy and resilience it takes to cope with disinterested and disengaged children and am grateful to my parents for having ignored our mood swings!
Wrapped up in those vacations was Pakistan’s history, the history of India, particularly the Mughals and British India, as well as the Hindus and Buddhists. As I look back at it now, it was also the history of our own family making memories and recording history as we saw it.
Our journeys were well planned – like historical caravans of those who had walked before us, whether British imperial travelers or local tribes – looking out at the same vistas, the forts and villages and then being able to observe village life at play in local shrines and mosques all over the four provinces.
We watched the world go by during those car trips and we in turn grew to enjoy them – the sticky heat of Punjab, which would make our backs sweat in the car giving way to the cool pine scented air of the hills, the browns turn to green and the scenery becoming more and more spectacular.
As an adult, I try to recreate the magic of those road trips to my own complaining teenagers. We have planned a long one this summer – though swapping out the history of the Subcontinent for the coastal blues of Maine and New England alongside college visits. I was well trained by my parents: our intended trip was to follow the history of authors and poets who lived and wrote of these landscapes. I will forever be grateful for those journeys for in doing so, they taught us about the land and history we inherited.
What better way to create our own family tapestry of personal memories and stories?