I returned to Bahawalpur after nearly a quarter of a century in what was the fulfillment of a long anticipated trip. Twenty four years earlier, I had cursed my lot on being informed that I was to take up assignment in this desert city. No amount of commiseration by friends and family could alleviate my mood, until a complete stranger came to the rescue. “You will arrive tearfully here and depart tearfully too”, he said. The full import of this statement hit me, when I was leaving the place after having spent four wonderful years and making lasting friendships.

Bahawalpur, rated as the twelfth largest city in Pakistan was once the capital of a former princely state with the same name. The city itself continues to be identified with its former splendor that includes palaces with exotic names such as Noor Mahal, GulzarMahal and Durbar Mahal.

I still remember my first trip to a bazaar inside the Shikarpuri Gate, where time had stood still for more than a century. After making her purchases for a goodly sum, my better half fished into her purse and was horrified to find that she had left her wallet at home. Terribly embarrassed, we decided to return what we had bought. To our surprise, the shopkeeper gave us a smile and told us not to worry and take the stuff home. We stammered our inability to do so as in our reckoning this was not the proper thing to do. The man said, “I trust you, pay me later” and instructed one of his salesmen to put everything in the car. Needless to say that I rushed back to the shop within the hour and gratefully paid the man, making my first friend in the process. 

I met Sardar Jalwana at a social gathering and took an immediate liking to him. I knew fully well that this venerable old gentleman had a first name, but did not feel the urge to ask him what it was, because just knowing him was one of my greatest assets. Sardar Sahib came from a sterling line that had served the Rulers of Bahawalpur State in very high capacities including that of the Prime Minister. He was an individual with no pretenses, great humility and one consuming passion – cultivating some of the most exotic roses that I have ever seen in my life. His land holdings and urban property was extensive, but there was not an iota of feudal spirit in him. Sardar Jalwana left us in mourning at the loss of an unforgettable friend.

I first tasted camel meat during a trip to a hamlet on the outskirts of the city. I found that the barbeque included chunks of a dark colored meat that was more substantial than beef. My taste buds released a silent hurrah as I bit into the succulent cubes and left me yearning for more. My friends from Bahawalpur tell me that camel steaks are protein rich, but lean in fat and uric acid, but I don’t need their endorsement as I am already a ‘ship of the desert fan’ – a barbequed ‘ship of the desert’ if you please.

Mangoes and dates are two of Bahawalpur’s well known agricultural produce. The mangoes grown here are exquisite in taste and so are the dates. The latter however, has an interesting story connected to it. This sweet nourishing fruit requires a dry, hot climate (and believe me Bahawalpur is definitely that) to ripen. It is said that whenever threatened with wet weather, date growers bury a donkey waist downwards in a hole. Then begins a ritual, which if true, is apt to raise hell with animal right groups - for the poor beast is clobbered with sticks to the extent that its cries drive the rain away. Let me hasten to state that what I have just narrated is merely hearsay as I have not seen the barbaric act with my own eyes.

Bahawalpur is witnessing another change and a happy one at that. Sensible policies and work by the Army is forcing the desert to recede. Shady trees and green crops are now visible where sand dunes once stood, transforming the city and its surroundings into what is certainly ‘a jewel in the desert.

    The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study

    of History.