A bunch of us were in the hills, enjoying the Californian weather, basking in the sharp sun and the cool breeze of Bhurban, a valley known in Pakistan for housing the first four star hotel above five thousand feet. Bhurban is also home to the highest golf course in the world. Even though it is unkempt and rough through the greens and the fairways, bored golfers from the capital flock to it on the weekend, looking for a challenge or just a change of scene.

I was already in the hills before the bunch got here this past weekend but that’s another story for another day.

The bunch and I decided to climb a hill and find access to a view of the range running across Kashmir. Huffing and puffing we reached the top. We talked about everything under the sun. We laughed and we went flat on our backs.

The bunch was facing the valley. I was facing the track. Knees high, feet and buttocks on the ground. I was stretched on a rock that perfectly fit into the cavity along my lower spine.

We were all perspiring, breathing in the fresh air, feeling high and the ideas broached ranged from abstract existential concepts to simple plain gibberish.

Then a loud but polite voice came from not so far away.

“Salam”

“Don’t you think you should cover your self? I mean, you’re in a respectable neighborhood and women and children live here. Can you imagine what they might think?”

When I heard this, I slowly began to get off my back until my weight entirely shifted onto my buttocks. A flurry of responses flashed through my head.

It began with an angry reformist narrative. I thought about telling the ‘loud but polite voice’ about how, on the contrary, his dress offended me, but that would have been a lie. I also thought that I was sitting on public land that didn’t belong to him; that women and children should not take offense to bare legs; that he was intruding onto my privacy and thus asking for trouble; that he has no right to tell me how to dress in the middle of a forest, on a track, specifically paved for tourists.

And then I thought about all the times I confronted authority and what that led to. I told off an army jawaan officer once at a certain army club and within seconds fifteen barrels were staring at me in the face and then pointing on my back as I was forced to look into a corner within the premises. My wallet, cell phone and car keys were taken. I was interrogated and then let off the hook by a major who, by the way, appeared in shorts! He was specifically called in to settle a fight that started because I didn’t carry my CNIC and that meant I couldn’t attend my friend’s wedding - even though other guests at the wedding identified me as a ‘real’ person on the army officer’s request. Why the jawaan went back on his word that day I still don’t know. But it infuriated me and the rest is history.

Anyway, I digress.

Besides the club episode, other similar incidents crossed my mind. Also, we were in close proximity to a ‘conservative’ village and our apartment was at least thirty minutes away on a steep down sloping track. Confrontation didn’t strike as the right kind of rebuttal.

So, after I slowly lifted my back off the ground and sat up straight, I said ‘we will not come here in these clothes again’

The gentle, polite voice was squatting on the ground, looking over the bunch from at least fifteen feet above. It was almost like he sat on a spring. His body was oscillating with the rhythm in his legs. Somewhat nonplussed with my response, he looked towards the track and then back at me.

And then he attempted another question.

‘Where are you guys from?’

‘Why do you ask?’ I said.

‘No, I was just wondering whether you were staying at the hotel or in one of the flat’s around here’

‘We are in one of the flats’ I said.

I sat there looking at the gentle, polite voice. And he sat there, not looking back, but fidgeting now with a phone he took out of his pocket. He called someone and said something. I did not understand. The conversation ended. He was still squatting. Then he looked over the bunch one last time and hopped up and onto his feet. Soon he was out of sight but the distinct taste of disapproval lingered.

‘Should we head back to the apartment? I hear the sunset is worth watching from the terrace’

In the words above, along with a few other unmentionable ones, a proposition was voiced and we were off to a confined space in the hills.

Intolerance to different custom, behavior, religion or any other kind of public practice is a serious problem in Pakistan and it is not limited to Bhurban where indigenous people resent hotel or apartment dwellers.

Even in the urban capital of Punjab – Lahore – there are many parks across the city that forbid shorts. Security guards patrolling such parks will point you in the direction of a board with a list of rules. Then they will point at the one that forbids shorts and say, ‘obscene’. The Bhurban incident is therefore hardly an isolated one and should not be seen as rural conservatism alone or snobbery. In fact, my interaction with native Bhurban dwellers has been exceptionally pleasant and I am thankful for that. Considering the amount of waste urban tourists, such as myself, deposit around their otherwise pristine homes, we really don’t deserve the warmth and hospitality.

Let us, however, return to the issue of bare, naked legs. Even a pair of hairy ones is not free from the puritanical purdah. Regardless of where you are – urban centre or rural, conservative countryside – both settings are out of bounds.

Sadly, appearances go a long way – not just in Pakistan but across the globe – and that is perhaps one reason why beards and dupattas do well to inspire confidence and to fool simple, gullible folk. It is perhaps the only reason why many ‘liberal’, foreign educated leaders will cover their heads and shins on their return to their homeland. It should be clear from this that their idea is to rule, and not to reform. That they are chameleons, capable of changing color to a changing electorate should be clear from this, but it is not.

In any case, without depolarisation and the softening of competing ideologies, infringement of the kind I described in this piece will multiply and it will not be limited to men in shorts. Also, as long as our leaders, opinion makers and political figures attempt to blend in, we can forget about cultivating tolerance for an alternate dress, let alone an alternate lifestyle.