Five days into my 'let's explore a bit of Pakistan' trip, we drove into Multan at night, heading straight to the shrine of Sufi saint Shah Rukne Alam to pay our respects. It was past closing time and it took some cajoling, but the guards allowed us in. Who can say no to someone who has travelled half way across the country, right?
The lights illuminating the building were closed and scant few street lights were on. In the pale blue of the moonlight, the mausoleum rose like a majestic, octagonal monolith silhouetted against the inky sky. It was easy to see why art historians have long been fascinated by this building.
Next door was the 'Ghanta Ghar' (Clock Tower) - a local landmark that would become our most-visited spot within the city, since our slightly inept (but very entertaining!) driver was unable to navigate without using the roundabout as a starting point.
Driving up and down the same streets, we kept passing gargantuan hoardings of gaudy lasses painted in brash colours on the façades of several buildings. I already knew of these slightly shady theatres, in big cities and small towns alike, which catered to an almost exclusively male audience with their fare of surprisingly racy dance performances embellishing unexplainably inane storylines and masquerading as 'theatre'. I knew of them but I certainly wasn't expecting to see one in the City of Saints, just down the road from the shrine of a highly revered Sufi saint.
The local fare must always be sampled though, so we bought tickets for that night's show, starring 'Pariyon ki Pari, Basma Chaudhry' (a fairy among fairies, Basma Chaudhry) - one of Multan's most popular performers. With over an hour to kill until the show started, I suggested we try our luck at chatting with the cast. The guard disappeared for a while and returned with an invitation to come inside.
We were taken to a tiny office - hardly 6x12 feet - plastered with kitsch. At the far end of the room was a comically giant wooden desk taking up almost a third of the room, behind which sat Mr. Yousuf Kamran - the producer, director and writer of all the plays that had ever been staged in this theatre since its launch in 2003. He explained how the theatre once used to be a cinema hall, but takings took a nosedive and it was converted into a venue for live performances. It did well for a while, until anyone with access to some land put up a stage, a couple dozen of rows of seats, threw a roof over it and called it a theatre.
"Just think about it," he asked me. "How can a small city like Multan sustain 10 or 12 such places?"
We were joined by two local reporters: Rafaqat Anjum from Daily Khabrain Multan and Muhammad Nadeem, a photojournalist with the Roznama Jang Multan. This led to several rounds of piping hot milk-tea and an hour-long debate on the decline of the performing arts in Pakistan, which would take a whole other column to write about.
Later, I sat in one of the 500 severely frayed seats of the ancient Babar Theatre, Multan, watching small-town performers put on their best show. I wondered if they would make it to bigger stages in bigger cities. I wondered if ever occurred to them that they probably won't, and if it bothered them. And then - as I saw their fervour onstage, and recalled the conversations we had had in the green room - I realised that there is a life beyond that of big cities and there are people who are perfectly happy with that. Big fish in a small pond? Perhaps. A bizarre acquisition through osmosis of the archetypical Sufi contentment thanks to the many, many saints that have lived in and are now buried in the city? Who knows.
The writer is an honest-to-goodness Desi fan living in Dubai