Friday, 30 October 2009

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

I am late for the Glasgow-bound flight, and although I do request for 'the usual number' at the check-in counter, my favourite seat near an over-wing emergency exit is already taken; I must either settle for less or none at all.

Quickly I go through the Customs who carefully read the labels of my designer under-wears, the Airport Security staff who tone my body with a metal detector, and the Immigration that asks questions that embarrass them and not me. Sweating profusely and out of breath, I arrive at the aircraft door where an airhostess greets me—she takes away whatever breath remains in my heaving chest. This is her last and final plastic smile; she has already greeted and smiled three hundred times before.


“Welcome sir! 66F is right at the back!” she stretches the vowel in the word ‘right’ to insinuate how far back the seat really is.


Something other than the location is not right about 66F. I am within sermonising radius of a team of eloquent men from Raiwind who appear to be in the right place. Since the passengers are completely lost in finding the correct allocated seats, their minds are open to outside suggestions. Raiwindian-style proselytising begins immediately and without parental consent. Overcome with religious emotions, the travelling Muslims begin to dream about instant spiritual re-birth and fumble while squeezing hand-carried luggage into the overhead compartments.


The pseudo-science of numerology tells me that since the alphabet ‘F’ represents number six my seat, 66F, represents 666, the dreaded mark of the Biblical beast mentioned in St. John’s Revelation. The portent is disturbing: is something worse than Armageddon bound to befall us?


To the left is a bald man whose pair of torn jeans attempts to poke fun at my finely stitched Cerruti trousers. His finely veiled wife carries toddling twins in her lap. As for the challenger in the right corner, he is a bespectacled software engineer from Bangalore, weighs fifty-one kilograms in the flyweight category, and carries not an offspring but a laptop computer over which he nervously taps his bony fingers.

I sink into the discomfort of the aft section to relive moments from the wonder years: sitting on the coveted rearmost bench in the classroom where, much to the annoyance of the teachers, I lent full credence to the Legend of the Backbenchers. I gladly reminisce with half-closed eyes, the neighbours remain under the distinct impression that I am smiling courteously at them. It is a great consolation to be seated a safe distance away from the sights and sounds of the toilet and the galley.


As I wonder, what air-travel might be without a demonstration of inflatable life jackets, crewmembers appear to do just that. Like agents from Camp X-Ray of Guantánamo Bay, they instruct the passengers on how to use what resemble suicide jackets loaded with C4 explosives and ball bearings. Mature fare-paying humanity pays no attention to the deadly tutorial and prefers stewing in a juice of communal ignorance garnished with the views of the spin-doctors; it licks newspapers.


The en-route forecast is unfair with respect to the weather; God’s giant shower without a silver lining is expected to pour over the entire globe for the whole voyage. Soon the airplane begins to impersonate a vengeful dhobi and we, the public, agitate like dirty laundry.

Lunch service is still three hours away. Since daydreaming is better than any on-board entertainment channel, for a while I forget my marital status and daydream.

The first move: isolate the victim. That done in a Brazilian thicket, I convince Jane to cease living in sin with Tarzan. I am barely within grapevine distance of tying with a scantily clad bride a legal matrimonial knot in the presence of two sly witnesses from the animal kingdom when suddenly——

I am back in the airplane. The twins to the left of seat 66F wake me up with a shrill jungle-call and launch an overt frontal attack on their mother. Cheap Arabian oil be damned, the only concern of the baby boys is the Milky Way. A careless sideways glance confirms they are being breastfed according to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation. The enviable provincial autonomy of the twins—one glued tenaciously to each breast—proves two things: as a nation, Pakistanis are capable of handling their own affairs given half a nipple, and that the future of the Motherland is all milk if not all honey—if that pleases the puppet masters and the powdered milk manufacturers. Breast-feeding one infant is a feat beyond the design limits of Man, a lone woman feeding two simultaneously is a miracle that few men live to witness.

My Rolex GMT Master-II comes in handy. For seven minutes flat, the twins jerk their legs to kick-start an invisible motorcycle, and once satiated, fall asleep under their mother’s black tent. After exactly nine minutes, instead of following Iqbal’s poetic recommendation of nesting on the rocks, the falcon squadron swoops in fighter-formation to unveil their mother’s face. Operation Shielded Dessert, the mother of all babbles, is underway. The coalition of the hapless parents collapses completely in the face of an assault by the militant alliance of the Milky Martyrs’ Brigade. The young mother’s face stands exposed for precisely 0.786 seconds during which I, with an audible gasp, feel privileged to appreciate indescribable beauty that honestly deserves to be protection from colonising eyes. A resentful look from her muscular husband blocks this entertainment channel, activates all the dormant religious beliefs, and forces me to lower the gaze—just as The Book commands. Civilised defence is always my best offence.


A fashion-model seated nearby explains as she bats her fake eyelashes, “The reason the burqa—the nadir of male sense of dress—is not universally accepted is very simply: the indigenous design benefits from no creative input from any Italian or French fashion house.”


My view is broader: instinctively every child desires to look at a loving motherly face not hidden behind a burqa.


“Why can’t they select a different route?” the Indian software engineer addresses me while keeping his eyes glued to the laptop, unable to prevent the machine from jumping up and down over his lap much like an irritated infant.

"Good morning India; I presume you are addressing me. You see, airplanes follow virtual roads called airways that are twenty miles wide, and whose airy rules men in black strictly enforce from the ground. The airways have names like Juliet-840, Romeo-420, Whiskey-69, and that explains the romantic streak present in all aviators. One cannot fly freely like a bird but must follow a Flight Plan, a legal document submitted and approved prior to take-off”, I answer, confidently exhaling upwards the imaginary smoke of an invisible cigarette in the non-smoking cabin.

The airplane shudders severely. The information technocrat nervously recites the names of his favourite gods, follows that up with a complex algebraic formula conceived by al-KhwarizmÄ« the Arab and even calls upon entities that belong to the pantheon of techno-gods of Silicon Valley. Surprisingly the turbulence only subsides when he wishes “the flight becomes as smooth as the bare commercial skins of Bollywood actresses”.


“Nun...nun...nicely explained but if the airplanes don’t go off into the pop...pop...poppy-fields, what causes turbulence in clear weather?” he stammers and punches the ENTER key with abnormal yogic energy.

“My friend, since this big bird is moving ten times faster than an average car, our pilot has slowed it down to ‘turbulence speed’ in order to increase passenger comfort. As for the types of clouds, some specialise in producing rain, hail and lightning while others wander about without causing much trouble. The unstable cores of certain clouds can make an aircraft sink, much like a debt-ridden economy, at phenomenal sink rates. As we fly in the vicinity of such cloud systems, layers of air rub against one another just as mentally ill men do against women in a crowded Pakistani bus”, I paint a Realistic cultural portrait with bold strokes of Dadaism—the art of the insane.


One more severe jolt; the engineer’s sweaty hand ends up over mine. Hurriedly I withdraw my hand to discourage dangerous moves aimed at making me an ‘inseparable-part’ (atoot ang) of Bharat. In any showdown, far more important than territory is morality in which the sole aim of an upright Ghauri must be to cool down carnal Agni.


There is trouble in paradise; monkey see, monkey do. Nearby wives grab their husbands’ hairy hands out of love and who, in turn, clasp their children’s little hands in fear. As half the planeload holds the remaining half’s hands, more shaking follows until the Zeppelin descends to a lower heaven.


When children are wrong—and they often are—crying without real tears wins them everybody’s love. Quite naturally, the entire neighbourhood sympathises with the little chimpanzees on my left who require a restraining order because non-stop they cry and jump. Their milk-less mother closes her tired eyes; she has done her sacred duty. The irritated father occasionally slaps the fatty buttocks of the twins and, in an authoritarian tone, threatens them to give up all agitation associated with the silly idea of freedom. Much to everyone’s amusement, the tiny air-filled buttocks protest audibly. Being a man of peace, I silently disapprove of the raw method the father employs to snatch away the birth right of the toddlers who have a hidden hand—or in this case, visible legs—in rocking the boat.


“Go on, what were you saying about the weather?” the software-man asks, nervously moving his index finger over the touch-pad in circular motion, and which makes the curser resemble a spiritually marooned whirling Mevlevi dervish.


“When a small rise in one’s body temperature from the normal thirty-seven degrees Celsius can leave one trembling and bed-ridden, imagine what changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature, wind direction, and speed can do to an airplane? This is how the atmosphere creates turbulence. To date, no jetliner has been built with shock absorbers that will suck away all the jolts.”


“But aren’t pilots taught to avoid tut...tut...turbulent areas?” he cross-questions.


“Yes they are but airplane weather radars only help in circumnavigating rough areas; to bell the CAT remains a bigger problem.”


“A cat in the air, as in Tom and Jerry?” he cackles unstoppably.


“CAT is an acronym for ‘clear air turbulence’; known to travellers by its non-technical name: air pocket. Although CAT can vary in intensity, encountering it unexpectedly may cause injury. CAT is invisible but the areas it affects are always marked on pilots’ en-route weather charts”, I expound chin up.


“Man, are you an aviation expert?” he quizzes moving a middle finger over the Intel and Centrino stickers of his laptop. Like most men today, he is a prisoner of 128-bit encryption who lives between the ones and zeros of spy technology.
“No, just a frequent traveller who actually learnt to fly a Cessna long before the September Eleven tomfoolery gave the secret brotherhood of neo-colonists the perfect excuse to launch a global war of terror—terror meaning usurped territory, stolen Gulf oil, and refined opium”, I whisper.

“There are too many announcements aboard that spoon-feed us on how to sit, when not to operate la...la...laptops, how to fold back meal tables, and what not”, he now moves his ring finger over the Pent-ium sticker which advertises neither the Penthouse adult magazine nor an expensive penthouse apartment in Dubai but rather the collaboration of Pentagon with computer manufacturers.


“Well, the law requires that the cabin crew clearly spell out and demonstrate to travellers what is expected aboard; legally we are required to follow their instructions. Besides, unexpected turbulence may re-arrange a passenger’s head like that of Linda Blair in film The Exorcist.”

“But I see the Bond-girls serving coffee during turbulence! They must have been taught tightrope-walking because nothing appears to affect their balance”, he comments looking at a stewardess.


“Cabin crew members get accustomed to vertical occupational hazards whereas the Bond-girls of Hollywood—models of physical perfection and mental decay—only worry about horizontal chores that are quite unrelated to housekeeping”, I elucidate.


The killer service-trolleys roll down the aisles, the hungry masses seem ready to be victimised by ‘traditional hospitality’, and it is time to present my pet theory.


“This walking up and down the aisles has actually helped Man’s elbows to evolve beyond Charles Darwin’s expectations. Now watch E=mc2 in action; where ‘E’ is for elbow, ‘m’ is the rear end mass, and ‘c’ stands for crew member.”


To witness a successful demonstration of my Theory of Elbow Relativity in three-dimensional space, the engineer looks at the seemingly innocent males in the aisle’s atom-smashing seats. Their elbows—sensitive NASA probes really— protrude beyond the ethical limits of the armrests to prove my theory correct in the laboratory of life.


A teenager’s elbow pokes into the ‘m’ of a serving aunt. “Sorry auntie”, the naughty teenager apologises and escapes chastisement.


A man’s ‘E’ indulges in similar un-brotherly e-activity. He immediately utters “sorry sister” and goes scot-free after receiving an armour-piercing stare.


Then a man’s ‘E’ indulges in similar un-brotherly e-activity. He immediately utters “sorry sister” and goes scot-free after receiving an armour-piercing stare. Finally, when an old gent, with neither real teeth in his mouth nor efficient guts in the stomach, unleashes his leathery ‘E’ at the hindquarters of a ‘c’, saying “sorry beta” makes the girl react by calling Big Brother for help.
A giant steward with an Occidental name, O’Brien, appears to enquire in customary Oriental manner if the elderly man has any stepdaughters or a youthful fourth wife in his earthly abode. Such unsubtle assertion of human rights immediately makes all wayward elbows obedient, the girl feels truly emancipated, and all male passengers become models of courteous behaviour and good self-governance. Suddenly every male down the aisle has a toothpick in his mouth. With the entire matter amicably settled out of court, what remains impossible to ascertain whether the use of toothpicks is causing men’s facial features to distort or they are smilingly wickedly.

It is time now for mid-day prayers. With just one airhostess is left untouched by satanic elbows and she is sent to find out from the captain the exact compass bearing to God’s House. Nobody wishes to purchase from the on-board duty-free bar, a $5 prayer rug that comes with an automatic Qiblah-locating compass. In the meantime, the congregation performs ablution as it never has before, depletes the supply of water, and re-arranges the aft toilets’ landscape. 

“Sister, we need seven prayer rugs”, the dripping prayer-leader demands from the air hostess who has returned after a successful direction-finding mission.


“The captain says, ‘Thou shalt not tempt thy Lord. And thou shalt sit in thy seats if thou art believers.’ Now if you would excuse me, I must get back to work”, she says curtly, and makes an about-turn.


The archaic instructions infuriate the congregation to no end. Had they been able to access the landing-gear bays, the surely would have set ablaze the aircraft tyres in protest.


“The devil seizeth those who toucheth not their foreheads to the ground while praying”, declares the bearded prayer-leader.


“But God’s green earth is actually thousands of feet below”, quips a beardless man.


Beardless moderation knocking sense into hairy stubbornness is akin to opening Pandora’s makeup box. However, my stubble entitles me to defend the hairless against the onslaught of the hairy ones, and this I do with great diplomacy to avoid being declared an apostate. Unconvinced, the pious congregation disperses heaping God’s curses upon every beardless heathen. The female counterparts resort to chanting aloud the creed of their religion, convinced that the ‘earthquake in the sky is a sign of an end that is nigh’. Like all doomsday cults that glorify men’s nightmares instead of God’s Word, the women later prove themselves wrong.


An aged woman watches all this with quiet desperation and thinks that ‘the captain does not know how to drive the plane’. A few emotionally charged souls blame the ‘un-trained co-pilot at the controls’. I insist that the captain is a highly trained professional, whereas the paying public loves to dabble in conjectures.


“I can’t breathe”, warns an old man.


The airhostess misunderstands it for ‘I want to eat’.


A confusing debate ensues until, unable to explain further due to shortness of breath, the old gent empties the contents of his stomach over the poor girl who runs away shrieking, “The customer is always right!”


Others begin to unburden the airline food they have gobbled hurriedly. Mothers too find it convenient to change diapers at such an inopportune time. Quickly the foul odour of a few litres of vomit mixes with the smell of a few kilograms of infant-excretion. Miraculously, the Lord of the Hosts holds back the angel of death, and all aboard, except a young Jew, survive 'the final solution'.


“The pilots, and the cabin crew are so accustomed to Nature’s bumps that one never sees them vomiting—perhaps they do when they reach their sweet homes or hotel rooms”, the engineer laughs again with his Bangalore mouth so wide open I entertain the thought of staging a leveraged buyout of his two gold teeth.


The airplane shakes viciously one last time. A hefty man, unable to keep his balance in the aisle, falls into the lap of an equally obese woman, and whose husband clobbers him until another passenger intervenes on behalf of Amnesty International. International mediation—something that turns regional conflicts into global ones—works for once. Suddenly everyone looks at the FASTEN SEAT BELT signs to realise that there is infinite wisdom in the announcement that follows their illumination.


The feed-nap-feed cycle of the twins remains unbroken until landing. By then the poor mother has not only lost a few hairs, she is without what the twins demand, and is all set to implode like the twin towers near the Statue of Puberty of Ellis Island.


And it comes to pass in the land of Glasgow, over three hundred obedient servants of God land safely one sunny afternoon. The same airhostess who once guided me to 66F now shows me the door with a sad good-bye on her rose-petal lips.


Because two days ago, on 30 June 2007, Glasgow airport experienced an explosive attack, every non-white is now a S.I.F.T: Suspected Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorist. In the English air, my nose identifies the fragrance of Common Law that makes all people ‘more equal’.

Her Majesty’s Customs has arranged for us a surprise royal party whose inedible menu is sweet and sour cream soup, sniffer Alsatians as appetisers, three-course body search, intense interrogation for dessert, and bubbling champagne. I suspect, the last-mentioned haraam (forbidden) item stands for a happy mix of ‘shame and pain’. The option of saying no to the entire menu does not seem to exist.

“What is there I would not do, England, my own?” with a sigh, a youthful Anglo-Indian Miss Pereira quotes Henley from behind.


“A family with the wrong members in control—that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase”, verbatim and aloud I quote George Orwell to counter misplaced British nationalism.


A little boy perhaps seven years old, wets his pants out of fear for the Union Jack flag and claims, “For England.”


“Oye, I can’t take that many English people all at once”, declares a Sikh tickled by eight hours of turbulence.


Lucky for all of us, nobody on the other side hears these remarks. I resort to treating the entire episode with the kind of Lahori live-heartedness reserved for the severest jolts of life, and manage to leave my royal hosts much earlier than the unlucky ones who are detained with a promise: ‘the best is yet to come’.


Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium.

The Snow Will Melt

This is the story of PIA's crashed airplane, a Fokker Friendship turbo-prop aircraft (AP-BBF), that 'came down' on August 25, 1989. The wreckage has not been found as of this writing.

When I wrote a poem in 1989 titled, The Snow Will Melt, little did I know that Benazir Bhutto would one day read and comment on it in writing.

With Benazir removed from the political landscape by the coordinated efforts of the destructive forces within and outside this country, the poem only serves as an eerie reminder of my chance meeting with her. Indeed, the Bhuttos are the Kennedys of Pakistan. Their deaths, much like their lives, will remain shrouded in mystery and speculation.

Few—not counting the battalions of jawans at the funeral—were sorrowful in 1988 when the C-130 of a military dictator crashed in Bahawalpur. Those who perished with that uniformed ‘light of truth’ left behind silent sons who chose not to reveal the ‘hidden hand’ behind the episode; they chose instead to become federal ministers.

An early warning for Bilgrami

In sharp contrast to the above-mentioned ‘accident’, a year later, the entire nation genuinely mourned when a PIA Fokker airplane vanished into the mountains of northern Pakistan. Along with all the passengers, pilots that I knew well also died: Bilgrami (Billy) and Zubair Shamshad (Dabbu).


Death has many faces and sometimes it clearly warns individuals ahead of time. Ahsan Aftab Bilgrami was warned on 4 February 1986 as he operated as a First Officer of PK-300, flying a Boeing 747-200 (AP-AYW) airplane from Karachi to Islamabad. Captain Siraj was at the controls; all three crew members forgot to extend the landing gear and ended up belly-landing on the runway. Luckily the passenger evacuation took place smoothly and no one was hurt. Oddly, while Capt. Siraj immediately tendered his resignation, Bilgrami was untouched and instead ended up as a captain flying Fokker aircraft.  

Death was not in a mood to spare Bilgrami this time. His airplane crashed in the morning but woe to the bureaucratic hurdles, it was not until the late afternoon that search and rescue operations commenced. By the evening, there was speculation that the Fokker, unintentionally or otherwise, had flown off-course into the prohibited Indian airspace surrounding the 8,125 metres high Nanga Parbat peak.

The Indian angle

Some commented that the Indians, having warned the Pakistanis not to commit airspace violations, shot the plane down. While that possibility seemed unreal, the fear of neither finding the wreckage nor seeing an investigation report was quite real. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, the loved ones gathered at Islamabad airport to blame various government agencies for not doing enough. Few realised that a forty-four seat turbo-prop aircraft, flying over peaks with an average height of 6,000 metres, was like a needle in a haystack; for it to vanish altogether was easy.


Many years later, some would report on the internet:


"The plane accidently twice crossed the border over LOC and was shot down near Neelam Valley by the Indian Air Defence's SAM missiles. Pakistan Army and Government was notified immediately by the Indian Government about this mistake. The news was put on top secret as any disclosure could had lead to severe public pressure leading to an all out war. The truth was finally leaked in 1994. Rajiv Gandhi probably called Benazir to cover it up so both countries do not go into war. The Pakistani agencies themselves leaked the report to embarrass Benazir in the coming elections. Takbeer Magazine published some wreckage pictures but nobody bothered."

A futile search

Twenty-four hours later, there were whispers that the Air Force, having conducted only a hurried high altitude survey, had expressed its inability to spare C-130s or helicopters for finding the missing plane. The crash appeared to be a less significant matter compared with the infinitely more important job of using all resources to keep the Indian Army at bay over Siachin. It was impossible to believe that none of the spy satellites recorded the accident or that satellite photos were unavailable to help locate the survivors. In the bitter cold of the high mountains, there would be no survivors, only statistics.
Days passed painfully, and desperation drove many to consult with spiritually gifted individuals. One of them claimed that he could ask Muslim jinns on our side to contact the Hindu ones across the border to help locate the missing, and that for the price of a few sacrificial black goats, relatives could see their loved ones again. Those who followed dubious modes of investigation never witnessed miracles.

The security concerns of those days required two commandos aboard each Fokker. Since the armed men always came with secret instructions from their superiors, and which they never shared with the pilots, some said that a failed attempt to hijack the aircraft to India had resulted in an explosive scuffle on board. In the face of this theory, all official mouthpieces only maintained deathly silence.

By the first week of September 1989, the search was officially over; the inexplicable accident was attributed to ‘God’s will’ by the mournful public and to ‘pilot error’ by the soulless bureaucracy. When the temporary status of ‘PK-404 delayed’ changed into a permanent ‘PK-404 cancelled’, I knew Billy and Dabbu would remain under the snow that never melted.

Ahsan Aftab 'Billy' Bilgrami owned Billy’s Super Market in Karachi, and the forever-smiling Sohail 'Dabbu' Zubair Shamshad grew up on Temple Road where I too lived. Dabbu joined the Walton Flying Club a few years before I did. The words of both the men echoed in my mind during daytime, their faces appeared in my nightmares. And somewhere over the snow I imagined lay, scattered by the wind, burnt pages of the storybooks of the lives of fifty-four people.

Enter Benazir

On 6 August 1990, Benazir Bhutto ceased to be a ‘very very important person’ (VVIP) and became just an ordinary person. On 17 September 1990, as freshly deposed Prime Minister, she boarded not a VVIP flight but a scheduled commercial one, and desired to see the pilots. The captain anxiously asked the stewardess to escort mohtarma sahiba to the flight deck.


An imposing figure, she entered greeting all with a smile. She sat behind the captain on the ‘jump seat’, diagonally across from where I could see her well. Once amidst us poor masses, she indulged in small talk. As the Sindhi flight engineer attempted to impress her by switching from English to the native tongue, the captain busied himself with enquiring about her political well-being which to me mattered not a bit.

“I’m fine but I would feel much better if I had some coffee”, replied the deposed Prime Minister when the captain asked her if she cared for tea or coffee.

The captain whispered something to the stewardess who dutifully returned with a paper-cup for the ousted ruler so accustomed to using the finest porcelain. Just when I felt a strong urge to ask Benazir about the missing Fokker, she spoke: “So what happened to that Fokker which crashed in the mountains?”
Sipping coffee, she took the words right out of my mouth. Were Billy, Dabbu and others speaking through her? But before anybody could answer, Billy and Dabbu moved my tongue to protest and I uttered the unimaginable: “You would know better, you tell us!”

The Oxford Union-trained debater, daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, kept silent. Rhetoric, political science, philosophy, all failed there and then. She knew but could not, or perhaps did not wish to tell. I clearly saw that my counter-question embarrassed her. The captain seemed visibly upset as well.

The poem

What the relatives of the perished passengers and crew members suspected, what they all truly experienced, and whatever little I knew were all woven into a poem titled The Snow Will Melt and which was published in Air Safety Magazine. I quietly handed over to her the magazine on whose page fifteen the poem started with the dedication:

In memory of our lost friends of PK-404. On August 25, 1989, PIA’s flight PK-404, operated by an F-27 aircraft on a scheduled service from Gilgit to Islamabad, was declared missing a few minutes after take-off. Fifty-four passengers, including five crew members, were aboard the ill-fated aircraft.

A voracious reader like her father, Benazir Bhutto read the poem silently as if also reading between the lines, and as if standing by the graves of the lost fifty-four persons. Perhaps that was the only way she knew of paying respect to the lives whose loss would forever remain unexplained. I could not tell if the astute politician was pained. She made no verbal comments but did borrow a ballpoint pen to scribble in the page’s border the following diplomatic words:

"This is an extremely moving poem which mirrors the anguish which the nation felt."

- (signed) Benazir Bhutto. 17 September, 1990.

But Benazir misspelled her own name as BRNAZIR. Was it an innocent mistake or did a truthful tongue make a mighty pen falter? If one looked at the keyboard of a computer, the alphabet ‘R’ and ‘E’ are located right next to one another. Was Benazir typing instead of writing?


I cannot ask her such questions. She is in God’s custody and will be thoroughly questioned upon being raised. The angel of Death correctly spelled BENAZIR on 27 December 2007 when he read the final line of the poem of her life. The anguish of a twice bitten nation prevented her from assuming the office of the Prime Minister for the third time.

No death is painless, not even the one that men face suddenly or while asleep. What is more painful than death itself is facing the sudden truth of being responsible for, directly or indirectly, the death and destruction of fellow human beings, it grinds one’s soul into hellish dust, it stretches into painfully hot eons the fading moments of life’s own snow that always melts.

Acknowledgment

Photo of AP-BBF: History of PIA
Benazir Bhutto photo: FOX News
Nanga Parbat: source of photo unknown

Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium.

In Search Of Baby Chips

“I’d love to hear the entire story”, insisted the stranger appreciating that we belonged to the same town. I switched on the projector inside my head, loaded up a dusty reel from the 1960s, and began:

“Once upon a time there lived a little boy who often visited Lahore's Anarkali bazaar, holding on to the corner of his mother's shirt; I was that boy. A permanent creature of those historic streets was a forty-something petite dark man with sunken eyes, who carried over a drooping shoulder, a transparent plastic bag full of potato chips packets.

No matter what medium they received education in; children never failed to identify from afar the brand name BABY CHIPS, printed in bold golden italics over each pack.

Acutely aware of their civil rights, young consumers routinely bent maternal willpower by using the fascist ‘final solution’ of rolling on the street in full public view, to clamour for nothing but chips. Deep into infantile collective consciousness had that lone merchant driven the nail of brand loyalty.

During late Saturday nights, with none of the anxiety of next day’s school, I questioned the lighted dots in the sky that I knew were twinkling stars and not diamonds: ‘How is it that children—no matter how sincerely they pray—can never summon the Baby Chips man, but somehow, he appears on his own at just the right moment? Is he a resident of a giant shoe-house? Are dedicated goblins doing all the chips-related chores? Is he in possession of a magical recipe that a good fairy stole back from a one-eyed genie?’

In pursuit of such impossible answers, when fragmented time turned into an eternal moment, Hypnos slickly lured me into dreamland. Once there, I would again find myself near the Anarkali toyshops, wanting everything on display, with mother insisting, ‘I did buy you that last time, did I not?’

Whether in dreamland or confronting stark reality, children’s squeals of ‘The Baby-chips man!’ always lit up the face of the smooth operator. I do not profess to know who named him that, but one thing is certain, he loved the epithet. Designed not to display nutritional information, expiry dates, or the manufacturer’s address, the Baby Chips packets were truly a blessing. We lived without ever being afraid of the demons of calories and cholesterol that haunt humanity today. Whatever the weather conditions, a mere sideways glance at the product activated our drool glands.

Not one to employ press advertising or TV-jingles, our man relied only on patent calls of 'Baaybeee—Baaybe Chips'.

Such was the myth of the man and his potato product that according to mother’s log, amidst a gathering of colourfully dressed aunts, the very first enchanting words I uttered as a boy of two were Bibi Tip. In baby language that unmistakably stood for Baby Chips. Until I was thirteen, those aunts teased me with cries of Bibi Tip to watch me blush like a bride. When I learnt the meaning of the word revenge, I happily ignored that few years’ difference in our ages, addressed them on first-name basis, and eradicated the word baji (elder sister) from my dictionary. Before love failed, my revenge crashed; they somehow adored the intimacy.

Faiz, our docile cook with ferocious moustaches, relieved mother of all chores associated with the preparation of food. With that taken care of, she had at her disposal all the time in the world to spend father’s hard-earned money on complicated necessities of life. She later made up for the loss of undivided attention by spoon-feeding us with what Faiz cooked. Regardless, I gratefully acknowledge as I stand today, the contribution mother made towards building my character mostly using bare hands.

There were two places where throwing tantrums sometimes just did not work. The first, in the dyers’ lane where men spun fabrics in large colour-filled cauldrons and young workers marched up and down to air-dry dupattas for a waiting clientele. The second, at the cloth merchant’s, where mother carried out swift quality-assessment of the latest chiffon or voile prints. My quiet incessant tugs at the side of her dress were always misconstrued as devilish attempts to test the tensile strength of the thread the tailor used. The idea was not to improve upon the sign language but draw mother’s kind attention to the miraculous manifestation of the Baby Chips angel.

Mother admitted defeat silently when the Baby Chips man neither moved away, nor ceased to shake the packets in his agile fingers. Then God removed the wrinkles on her forehead, turned all steam into ice crystals, and made her dig from a deep recess of the handbag the right amount of change. Holding four packets between five bony fingers, the magician then loosened the grip to let them fall like forbidden fruit into impatient little hands. Mother suspected that God always favoured children.

As mother looked on like a neutral peacekeeper, I handed over only one packet to a waiting younger sister. The other two packets became personal property since I had once heard father saying something about a male’s share being twice that of a female’s. Out of these two, one I consumed immediately to attain chips Nirvana. The third ‘standby ration’ packet catered to two possibilities: a giant meteorite from outer space hitting the planet, or mother extending her shopping spree. Since nothing from the heavens ever dared interfere with mother’s shopping, the quality of her zeal intuitively switched from missionary to mercenary mode. Although she never confessed, I had every reason to believe that ensuring the bazaar’s late closure was her covert mission. With the fourth packet still hidden from public view, clandestine snacking commenced as soon as I brushed my few teeth and went under the covers.

Mother’s snacking habits sometimes collided directly with our aims and ambitions, for upon running into a shopper-friend, she dutifully treated the entire party with Bano Bazaar's famous fruit-chaat. That exercise of the jaws served the secret purpose of keeping nagging children quiet—at least for a short while. The eight Anna Coca Cola neutralized the spicy chaat that hurt my sister’s throat, and the sugar-flavoured stomach gas kept both of us burping away for the remainder of the visit, during which, it was sinful to demand Baby Chips.”

“Go on, I’m all ears!” said my travel companion.

“Munching chips, time flew fast. Instead of a pendulum going tick-tuck, little soldiers marched away in our skulls: crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch. Lest a motherly inspection declared us ‘thankless imps’, the hungry soldiers left not even the tiny bits at the bottom of the packs. With a four Anna price tag, every packet was a treat worth kissing mother's hands endlessly for until Judgement Day, or the next trip to Anarkali, whichever came later.

These days mother shops alone at Anarkali in peace. ‘Nothing comes cheap’, she elaborates, ‘fruit-chaat costs Rupees twenty, and the man who once sold your beloved Baby Chips is probably dead. Your long-lasting English tin toys stand replaced by plastic rubbish that falls apart before one’s eyes. The buyers are vulgar and the shop-owners impolite; it's a different world my son.’ I always shake my head in full agreement with her maternal analysis since her fingers still remain firmly placed on the pulse of a bazaar named after a Mogul court-dancer, whereas my elitist shopping dance is restricted to a road named after a war-hero.”

The stranger in the airplane bound from Dubai to Lahore expected more but I cleared my throat to indicate that the story was finished. With a lowered face that avoided eye contact, he kept dusting invisible specks of dust off his sleeve. How grown men camouflage their tears.

A fidgety son, who said he was ten years old when I asked, accompanied the man. The pair was visiting Pakistan after an absence of a dozen years, coming ‘yeah, all the way from the US of A!’ In the son’s face was a trace of the father, but in the father’s face there lived a yet more familiar one.

Aboard the Pakistan International’s Jumbo jet, the pair showed extreme respect for the Muslim travel prayer, adored the scent of the young airhostess’s talcum powder, widened the nostrils to welcome the oily aroma of the food, and smiled at the cutlery. Perhaps overcome with excitement—if not pure emotion of the great homecoming—the boy appeared to swallow the cutlery instead of the food. The airline logo was suddenly worthier than any Italian designer label.

In order to gather basic intelligence, I questioned the boy, “So, what are you planning on doing in Lahore?”

“Have loads of fun, that’s for sure! See, I have lots of dollars”, he answered instantaneously, and produced wrinkled one-dollar banknotes from his pocket as proof.

“And, and, and my grandfather in Lahore isn’t feeling okay; I got lots of dollars for his medicines and stuff”, he elaborated.

“But what if someone steals your money?” I remarked teasingly.

“We have loads of dollars back home, don’t we dad?” he enquired shaking his father’s hand that held a spoon and which—registering EIGHT on Richter’s Scale—spilled all the beans on a napkin whose corner hung only symbolically from an open collar.

“Sorry, sorry dad—sorry, sorry dad—“, the boy became a turntable whose stylus failed to follow the desired track.

More out of embarrassment than anger for his son’s finely tuned money-sense, the father warned, “Okay, now put those dollars away before the airhostess aunty snatches them.”

The morally upright airhostess did nothing of the kind; she dutifully served the demanding boy his third canister of an iconic fizzy drink.

I reverted to the topic of chips, “What would today’s children do without carbonated drinks in disposable aluminium cans, and branded potato chips—those Lays or Pringles? In any case, today's chemical-loaded ‘real things’ compare poorly with what I tasted thirty-seven odd years ago in Anarkali.”

He smiled hiding his embarrassment, and which in turn embarrassed me.

As the airplane commenced descent, he attempted to release the pressure building up in the space between the ears—his brain—by suddenly admitting, “I’m returning to see my terminally ill father who toiled to see me educated at a foreign university.”

“Fetch me the passports please”, he then turned to his son.

“Which ones, U.S. or Paki?” he asked.

“All four; we’re American and Pakistani. And haven’t I told you not to use the word Paki in public?” rebuked the politically incorrect father.

“I hate these green Pakistani ones dad; why do they open the wrong way?” he minced the nationality hard.

“But I love them! There are no absolutes in life; right or wrong depends on which side you choose. We have everything; now stop asking silly questions”, explained the father while turning to ask the stewardess, “Don’t you have a painkiller for—?”

“Well, never mind”, he left the sentence hanging in mid-air.

The headlines inside his mind were easy to read now:

Pain of separation from children kills parents: Police clueless

Twin Citizenship Towers collapse: hundreds hurt, construction standards blamed

Alien surfer swept away by tide of success: soul discovered, body not found

One million sheep contract Exodus Syndrome: government blames greener grass of other side

Education Lab discovers cynical, luxury-loving, career-worshipping monkey

There was more but a hard landing interrupted the headlines. The stranger handed over an impressive business card that read: Vice President Quality Control, P&G Inc.

“What products do you deal with?” I queried, and he pointed at the cylindrical pack of Pringles whose contents filled both cheeks of a munching son.

“Dad can I get another drink?” the boy asked with complete innocence.

The fatigued father—exercising parental control—completely ignored the demand, and started to look out towards the parking area for someone. When my chauffer rang up to inform that a traffic jam held him back, the stranger offered to bring me home in his Pajero.

Sitting on the rear seat was a dark elderly man with a face distorted by paralysis. With a trembling bony hand, he pulled towards himself the little boy who he undoubtedly saw for the first time, and kissed him repeatedly on the forehead and cheeks. The boy judged the display of elderly eastern affection by purely modern standards, and despite his father’s best efforts, showed no sign of reciprocating.

The aged man magnanimously construed the coldness as shyness and repeatedly uttered a feeble but intelligible mantra of ‘Baaybeeee—Baaybe good boy’.

Disbelieving the tone of the word ‘baby’, I tossed and turned in bed for what undoubtedly was the longest night of my life.

A week too late, the phone rang. We spoke of trivial things for a while, and then he broke the news of the passing away of the dark old paralyzed face so full of affection: his father. “He died full of hope, and left under his pillow, a weather-beaten notebook that contained a magical recipe. He went peacefully, only a day after seeing not one but two ‘Baaybe good boys’, he said without camouflaging the sorrow in his voice.

A few months later—the acquaintance, now a friend—called from across the Atlantic to announce, “I’ve resigned at the multi-national food company, and I’m coming back to start my own brand of potato chips, if God so wills.”

God, in His infinite wisdom, withheld from me the pleasure of having the old man say his patent ‘Baaybeeee—Baaybe Chips’ just once to tickle these taste buds and transport me back in time to Anarkali bazaar.

It was my turn to observe a moment’s silence to dust something invisible off my sleeve. The friend on the phone knew how grown men camouflaged their tears.

Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium.

The Wild Side Of The Mall

Third world governments—more like dictatorships—always interfere with mass culture in the name of misplaced nationalism, and wrongfully insist on re-naming streets with unpronounceable long names.

To remind the confused citizens what the nation went through in 1947, today every town in Pakistan has Shahrahs (main roads) named after only a handful of pre-partition personalities: Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah (founding father), Fatima Jinnah (founding father’s sister, erroneously called ‘madre millat’: mother of the nation’), Allama Muhammad Iqbal (Shai’r-e-Mashriq: poet of the East), and Liaqat Ali Khan (founding friend of the founding family). Very few dare ask about the whereabouts of the remnants of the founders’ families, or how a brother-sister duo metamorphosed into parents of this land of the pure; Pakistan zinda baad.

The fact is that no citizen worth his machine-readable green passport can actually pronounce the official names of these Shahrahs and Khayabans correctly in their entirety—a sad state of affairs indeed—given the efforts that go into the formation of unpopular policies. The public continues to use pre-partition farangi names because, being concise, they slip off wagging tongues easily to nostalgically remind us of the British Raj days.

They changed the name of The Mall Road of Lahore to Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam years ago. I was too young then to object that if one must use the title of ‘Quaid’ (rhymes with Kuwait), it must be spelled Qai’d. And since old habits never die, I will—with a cynical smile—call the lifeline of Lahore by its old name: The Mall.
Masjid-e-Shuhuda, The Mall, Lahore
Comparing Lahore's dynamic Mall with Karachi's Shahrah-e-Faisal (previously Drigh Road) is like comparing apples with oranges. Why? Because every protest rally in Lahore only disperses once it has played a hide-and-seek innings with the baton-wielding custodians of law. The rowdy protesters, the law-enforcers, and the bored luckless shop-owners regularly combine their talents to provide free entertainment to the residents of adjoining localities. And located midway between Upper and Lower Malls is the famous Masjid-e-Shuhada, a white marbled structure raised in the memory of the martyrs of the 1965 Indo-Pak war; it regularly serves as the kick-off point for the unique sport played between the law-breakers and the law-enforcers.

The Mall and the mosque are only two sides of this love-hate triangle. The third one is the Civil Lines police station where uniformed men await—only at stone-throw distance from Masjid-e-Shuhada—to display the sole talent they possess: to expertly crack open human skulls with humble bamboo batons. It is rumoured that the only question an interviewee need answer correctly during the selection interview is: did your father beat up on you as a child? If the answer comes in an affirmative, the recruit is immediately selected to dish out the same treatment to the rotten eggs of society, all without the added expense of specialised training.

When my father was young he could take a quiet tonga-ride on The Mall without blackening the face with pollution; of course, the sole risk of having dried horse-dung irritate his paternal eyes was always there. Back then, instead of the noisy rickshaw, all one heard was the tonga-wallah's commentary on the latest political turmoil, accompanied rhythmically by the clang of horseshoes on imperfect roads, and interrupted musically by the ringing of bicycle bells. All the man did to make the lean animal gallop faster was produce a staccato kukk-kukk sound with distorted lips, threaten it with a circular motion of the horse-whip, and merrily one went past the motorised sahib bahadurs.
The Land-Cruiser of the public

By contrast, in my youth, motorised silencer-less Japanese two-wheelers became the preferred means of riding into imaginary sunsets. While we boys had 80, 100, or a maximum of 175 cc motorcycles, the law wielded six to eight times the horse power. The rudimentary survival strategy on The Mall was: avoid the strict traffic sergeants. Whenever they indulged in a chase—as if cutting us down to size with their monstrous Harley Davidsons—there was nothing the offices of our respective fathers could do. That was true rule of awe.

Historically, survival on The Mall has always depended on various factors; take it from someone who has spent years living near the thandi sarak (cool road) of Lahore. In the present age, if either one’s timing is wrong or one sports a beard, one may end up taking a ride in a police car to the nearest vacation spot—located across the Plaza cinema hall—the dreaded Civil Lines police station. The populace knew that those on duty at the Civil Lines never spoke politely nor asked one to have a seat for doodh-patti and biscuits from a cheap bakery. There was nothing civil in their demeanour formed by hurling insults at the scum of society destined to swing to Jailhouse Rock in the lockup.

The only way to retain one’s self-respect was to respectfully avoid even having eye-contact with these esteemed government functionaries, for to ogle at them was to court nothing but unadulterated trouble.
Mad as hell or heaven?

One will eventually reach The Mall whether approaching from Hall Road with its blaring loudspeaker noise, via the narrow Beadon Road, through Lawrence Road of Maula Buksh Paan Shop fame, or through Temple Road where yours truly resided. In a way, it is like going to Rome as all roads lead to The Mall. But it happened on 24 September 1998 when my poor accident-prone Osama look-alike friend Karam Dad Khan—affectionately called K.D.—drifted from the straight path of The Mall.

SSP (Sipah-e-Sahabah: the army of the companions), whose secret aim as an organization must be to reduce our population to a manageable number, recently lost four valuable souls during a sectarian rivalry tournament. After the body count, the SSP called on the membership to gather for a strong protest at the famous Masjid-e-Shuhuda. The police got wind of the plan and, with a surprisingly smart manoeuvre, made history for their sense of humour in the national press. This is the true story of their happy reaction.

Before proceeding further, there is one more location I must introduce to those not born in Lahore: Lawrence Gardens. This beautiful location on The Mall, now called—you guessed it—Bagh-e-Jinnah is a symbol of undying love to luckless lower class couples. On 24 September 1998, the law sent fifty bearded policemen in plain clothes to join the SSP protesters at this amorous location. Posing as SSP Lahore chapter members, they lured the unruly mob towards the charming Lawrence Gardens for a bit of judicial romance. Once there, an overcome SSP membership found the iron hand of law stuffing them into police vehicles for a joyride to the nearby Civil Lines. In the meantime, the police combed buses approaching Lahore from far-flung areas and turned hotels near the Lahore railway station upside down in their search of SSP-supporters heading for The Mall.

At 11:45 a.m. the innings reached its zenith when the SSP protesters realized that the balls were—metaphorically speaking—tampered. But they did not go quietly, and despite a baton-charge, bravely pelted stones that re-arranged the tastelessly decorated glass showcases of The Mall shops. This activity forced the police to retreat temporarily and call for an early lunch break. The force returned shortly thereafter—toothpicks visible—with a fresh supply of tear-gas shells. In the ensuing battle, the residents and nearby school students received a free dose of the gas. The SSP protesters—wet handkerchiefs in hand—scaled the mosque's walls as victors, while the law followed—with boots on—and lovingly baton-charged them inside God’s house. That morning, the Lord indeed chose to move in subtle ways.

The police 'giving it to them'
When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. While the SSP-men, armed with sophisticated weaponry, were promptly arrested, innocent passersby such as my bearded friend K.D. got trampled like the grass. All the poor soul wanted to do was get to Temple Road where yours truly awaited his arrival for a modest lunch. When he failed to show up, I correctly assumed he was rounded up for intense questioning, and enjoyed the company of the Civil Lines’ sub-inspector as an esteemed guest of the State.

Regular traffic—always a mess— remained suspended at The Mall till 4:15 p.m. on that fateful day of September. Shop-owners, fed up with the damaging nuisance, pulled down shutters and headed home to kick pet dogs, abuse wives, and thrash the children for imaginary disobedience. When business is bad, fathers do lose all composure.

To add more to the comedy, the SSP protesters played their final trick: they accompanied a fake funeral procession from Anarkali Bazaar. An old man volunteered to lie down on a rented funeral cot after he was promised that if he died in police custody, the sacrifice would entitle him to an allotment of a plot of unimaginable dimensions in heaven.

Efficient informers of the Special Branch out-manoeuvred the fake funeral, and thus it all came to naught when the police intercepted the mob that insisted on offering the funeral prayers at (you guessed it again) Masjid-e-Shuhuda. Amidst ear-shattering slogans and verbal insults justifiably hurled at the rulers, the protesters suddenly found themselves surrounded by the law. They had seen riot police in battle regalia before but not with grins over their faces; something was not right in the state of Denmark.

Then all hell broke loose, a severe baton charge followed, and more tomato ketchup oozed out of the skulls of SSP protesters to flow over God's green earth. The fake dead man, wrapped in a white burial sheet, wasted no time in taking to his heels. Normally, tear-gas shelling alone made Lahorites cry; this time they shed additional tears induced by laughter at the sight of a dead man escaping a police baton-charge. The moral of the story for that day was: even dead men take to their heels at the sight of Lahore police.

The police, for the first time, took photographs and paw-prints of activists. A video film was also shot to help identify future repeat-offenders. The police blamed the SSP leadership for failing to guarantee a peaceful protest. In turn, the SSP leadership mercilessly cursed them for taking un-Islamic photographs for recordkeeping.
The 'law' will always bite at your protesting tail

Miraculously, Karam Dad Khan—good for him—entirely missed the cruel party at The Mall. I brought the shaken soul home after arranging for his bail, and after an early dinner followed by tea, I asked him to reveal the torture marks of a real man. Disappointingly he had not a single love-mark or police tattoo on his entire hairless torso. My mother asked K.D. if he wished he had no beard. “My beard surely got me in trouble auntie but during interrogation, when I thundered, ‘my name is K.D. Khan, don’t you know who I am?’ the sub-inspector became respectful. This time we all laughed until more tears flowed out of our eyes.

And there remains till this day, no doubt in our collective consciousness that the threat of ‘don’t you know who I am?’ always works in this Land of the Pure.

Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium. This article was originally printed in the daily DAWN newspaper.
Tongawalla photo by APP/Dawn
Masjid-e-Shuhada photo

Uncle Sam Talking in His Sleep

Let us take a look at assorted pearls of wisdom from the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. State Department--never weary of issuing statements for the well-being of its citizens--is in a bizarre state these days. Moreover, our Motherland’s beloved military rulers might one day emulate its style of issuing motherly cautions to American travellers. Since Uncle Sam ‘moveth in mysterious ways’--much like the Lord Himself--we will examine closely in this article what those ways are.

Modern tourism--meaning unstoppable adventurism in foreign lands--takes American citizens to far-flung corners of the globe, almost like peanut butter spreading thinly over a slice of white bread. Unaware of the true dimensions of the chaos created by the policies of their government, American travellers regularly receive larger doses of advisories from U.S embassies and consulates. The notifications have legal ramifications, for if the American citizens are not advised well ahead of possible unrests brewing in foreign lands, the State Department can face much complaining in the shape of suits of the legal kind.

What wonderful sameness, last week was just like any other week here! In a local English daily of Pakistan, appeared yet more pearls of wisdom issued to American travellers by the U.S. State Department.

1) ‘Don’t act like Americans, or show behaviour typical of Americans’ was the mother of all warnings. Just yesterday, on my way back from the Federal capital of Islamabad, I was able to spot all the Americans aboard the airplane as easily as spotting close relatives. When questioned about the travel advisories, the fair-skinned men dressed in Shalwar Qameez suits and Chitrali caps admitted that asking a leopard to have its spots dry-cleaned was the State Department’s cruellest joke.

Not a single American can change his or her behaviour at the flick of a switch, or by inserting a new chip into his brain, unless he has been to the Cuban concentration camps where Uncle Sam organises group therapy sessions for alleged terrorists. Not even a massive Truth Injection in the rearmost fatty part the anatomy--for the want of a better place--can make an American change what is indeed a part of his indoctrination since childhood.

2) ‘Avoid behaviour that could cause you to be singled out as obviously Americans’, the State Department explained further. Obviously, Daniel Pearl is being referred to here; the Wall Street correspondent who literally went to pieces in Pakistan, and who was singled out when unable to camouflage his unique American identity. The more one hides, the more revealing one becomes; I wish they would explain this fact to tabletop dancers across America as well.

3) ‘Don’t wear white socks, and tennis shoes’, the Department stated the obvious. Let us tackle this one by first referring to an historic event.

Alexander of Macedon, who some claim was Great, insisted on making Persia his private property. When Darius I, the Persian king, heard of this, he had a ball and mallet sent to the youthful invader, insinuating that ‘playing games would suit his young age and lack of experience better than war.’ Alexander replied, “The ball is the earth and I am the mallet.” The overt reference was to the game of Polo.

That the thoughts of the State Department and Alexander are remarkably similar need not shock anyone; we have all grown up watching international conflicts on television in the very comfort of our living rooms. It is economic acumen when one government insists on treating the whole world as a ball while imagining itself an unbreakable mallet. Considering that nations have risen and then consigned to history, such delusions of grandeur are perfectly forgivable, but to indulge in conquering while wearing tennis shoes and white sports socks reflects poorly on the American idea of high fashion.

In any case, gauging a government from the kind of socks and shoes it encourages its citizens to wear remains a trait of European foreign policy right down to the present day. The international dress code is in danger as more and more American delegates flout U.N. rules by wearing cowboy scarves and torn jeans in order to romantically drive home a point if not their girlfriends. As of this writing, the United Nations Organisation is hotly debating why the Americans must love their apparel to death.

In the light of the directives issued thus far by the State Department, it is, therefore, a major shift in the living habits of Americans is entirely unjustified. If not tennis shoes and white socks, what will my American friends wear--crocodile-skin cowboy boots from Texas, wooden sandals made my Buddhist monks, or Peshawari chappals?

4) ‘Don’t complain if asked to share a bathroom’. As for their obsession with bathrooms, which they call washrooms, Americans are justified in spending nearly half of their lives in that space. How can they ever imagine sharing it with others, least of all foreigners who love eating raw garlic? Again, the State Department has misunderstood the living style of Americans. A washroom has already been defined by the architects of Disneyland as ‘a space where one may--not necessarily in this order--read newspapers, sort junk mail, prepare business plans, smoke in order to relax anal muscles, order pizza, and then repeat the routine at least one more time just to be sure.’

Washrooms are un-shareable with aliens even if the rest of the Third World got rid of lotas, and dictators--interchangeable terms really. The cooperating government of Pakistan edging rapidly closer to the day when it will proudly announce that American paper policies can also be safely used as toilet paper. Our washing habits will never be the same.

5) ‘Never threaten to sue over bad service, bad television reception, or the weather’. As for suing, all my American friends thrive on lawsuits if not Italian suits. Suing is the second biggest business after a business, which they claim is beyond compare: show business. It is un-American to spend an entire day without uttering ‘you’ll hear from my lawyer’. Users of the popular phrase readily admit that it carries tremendous weight when shouted within the hearing distance of an entire neighbourhood. Of course, there is at least one lawyer available in every locality and quite ready to serve the needy.

It is a fact that the average American has spent nearly ten thousand hours watching television by the time he is thirteen. Television is mom and dad, an alluring goddess worth worshipping, an awe-inspiring Big Brother. An American threatening to sue a hotel for poor television reception ought not to surprise any self-respecting establishment. If a hotel cannot receive all uselessness channels perfectly, it has no business being in business.

It’s time now for a short emotional break; don’t go away We’ll be right back after Bruce Springsteen’s eerie song: Fifty-seven channels and nothing on

That being the nature of the television beast; does one take God to court for bad weather? Can one get rid of the pests and flies of the Third World by threatening to sue the peoples or the poor debt-ridden governments? The State Department of America has it all upside down. Tell an American he cannot litigate and he will surely suffocate, after first serving one with a finely printed legal notice.

6) ‘Make complete and up to date inventories of household effects’. American trashcans prove that paperwork has broken the back of an average citizen. And when paper-shredding happens to be the fastest-growing religion, having citizens maintain useless inventories of household effects is an exercise in futility, an attempt to keep them obsessed with personal belongings. One can safely label such warnings as over-reacting to scenarios portrayed in movies about alien conquests. Contrary to popular belief, it does not even seem remotely possible that Saddam Hussein plans to destroy America’s proudest weapons of cultural destruction: torn jeans, white socks, and smelly sneakers.

7) ‘Maintain adequate supply of food, water, and necessary medications in regions of political unrest’. The average American abroad need not worry once he has filled his refrigerator with the kind of tin-canned balanced diet highly recommended by the State Department. Travellers will now be condemned to reading nutritional information printed over packs instead of reciting the Holy Bible.

8) ‘Keep a car in good working condition with a tank full of gasoline’. As for automobiles, good Americans folks love their cars. They can eat and sleep in them, will shampoo them, and may talk with them while asleep. To insinuate that their tanks are empty is adding low-octane fuel to a raging fire--metaphorically speaking. Their tanks are always full--just in case the State department, at a short notice, asked them to drive into the sunset without getting a speeding ticket.

The oilmen ruling Washington have guaranteed the American public that while the street-urchins may eat out of garbage-bins, their car-tanks will remain forever full of cheap gasoline freshly pumped from the Persian and Arabian wells. The world’s oil belongs to America until the commodity and the patience of lesser nations runs out. American soldiers would rather die and be posthumously decorated than believe the war is about oil.

Alexander--let us affectionately call him Alex--must be turning in his grave. He died in an unhappy death in Babylon, Iraq. The Americans insist they must conquer the ancient land in order to place over Alex’s memorial a large wreath. Saddam insists on an express delivery of the wreath by the courier service of his choice. Good couriers are hard to come by these days. Who can one trust with a wreath from Washington--Richard Nixon?

All governments lie to varying extents, Uncle Sam being no exception. The reason the entire globe feels the pain is because the great American finger, instead of staying comfortably inside its own bleeding nose, is poking into dangerous nostrils while singing the tune of freedom, restoration of democracy, and free-market economy.

Having finished this piece yesterday evening, I visited my barber for the usual. I threw my head back and asked for a massage of the upper storey, the epicentre of pain. I must emphasize that barbers of the East are unlettered sages who can perform circumcision, cut hair, and cook exceptionally well. Mine, as he poured mustard-seed oil over the remains of what was once a thick forest of hair, remarked philosophically, “Sir jee, Amreeka wants our oil. It needs a good maalish too.”

It struck the right chord. The entire population of the salon burst out laughing as the implication was that the country in question deserved a Divine Thrashing. I cared little about agreeing verbally with my barber because the massage automatically shook my head in a manner that appeared to convey, “Yes, yes, yes.” Moreover, the heads of the rest of the customers, much like mine, shook in agreement in exactly the same way.

One man’s dream is another man’s nightmare. The Red man, the Black man, and the Yellow man have all paid dearly for the American Dream. Is it now the Brown man’s turn to bow his head and quietly become a part of the sacrificial queue?

I left the salon dreading what a swift retribution might be like if a powerful nation continued trying the patience of the Greatest Superpower--God Almighty.

Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium.

The Yellow Coup

Are we all really living in a yellow submarine?

How can we forget 12 October 1999, a fatefully delightful day; for the fourth time in the nation’s history, the army conquered the civilians thinking the plainclothes men were inferior to the men in khaki. Governance was a business beyond the comprehension of an elected government.

Although, Islamabad’s sunrises occur at Kahuta, and the sunsets take place at Wah Ordinance Factory--both danger areas--on that particular day, the sun set at the Prime Minister’s house on Islamabad’s Loony Hills. The moon too almost appeared cleft asunder, along with other signs associated with a political doomsday.

There was not even a hint of the events that were about to unfold as I hurriedly boarded the 7:00 p.m. flight to Karachi. But somebody strange was in the air: our beloved army chief. On the way back from Sri Lanka, his airplane was not allowed to land at Karachi because Nawaz Sharif and his bad boys wanted the chief to proceed on a one-way ticket to a hostile neighbouring country. For the first time ever, police officers, airline bosses and civil aviation big wigs worked with enviable coordination to do Nawaz’s bidding. We were to learn later that the house of cards came crashing down when this hare-brained bunch were arrested for ‘attempting to kill all aboard that fateful flight’ from Colombo.

I had not yet taken my seat when the airplane’s captain announced about the sudden closure of Karachi and Islamabad airports for an indefinite period. That was unheard of. One could visualize a strike, or a protest rally paralysing Karachi, but who or what could shut down Islamabad? How could the seat of greed and connivance be threatened? Some speculated that Israeli and India had joined hands and attacked our nuclear assets--Kahuta and KANNUP. The common consensus was that we were being punished for actually going nuclear whereas the Indians had gotten away by faking an atomic orgasm.

Since there was no point in punching one another out over the issue, well-connected passengers began punching the number-pads of cellular phones. It was a planeload of three hundred souls with one nearly hundred such instruments aboard, and each with a distinctive ring or chime. Therefore, every earpiece had three human ears glued to it; such was the desire to hear what the voice at the other end said. As more return calls started to pour in, the atmosphere became emotionally charged. Obviously, people on the other side of the line sat glued to foreign television channels to provide a blow-by-blow account of the power struggle. Emotionally weak ones aboard wept and blew noses so profusely that the stewardesses ran out of serviettes.

My role was that of a pacifist. I discouraged anti-State rumours to the best of my ability but soon lost to wagging tongues. A few claimed the Americans had landed on our soil to get hold of Mr. OBL. A college professor interrupted, “Silence please. Why would anybody wish to attack this peaceful atomic nation and physically land here to apprehend an alleged terrorist? All they have to do is pay a collaborating feudal to strike a deal for a quick arrest and extradition of a wanted man to USA. They did it to Aimal Kansi and Ramzi Yusuf; so talented are they at this sort of thing.” Many agreed with the outspoken professor, the likes of whom are severely lacking at our educational institutions, precisely because honorary doctorates are conferred upon military dictators.

With three hundred adult tongues aboard, some felt the political Titanic was sinking. That inspired somebody to hum Celine Dione’s famous song from the Hollywood movie of the same name. Then a mobile phone rang; it played the Three Blind Mice melody and replaced rumours with real news: a coup was indeed underway. Like all half-baked yellow public projects, Mian Sahib’s yellow coup appeared heading for a disaster by turning khaki in colour. The college professor uttered, “Wake me up when it’s over”, and went to sleep.

The crowd demanded of the cabin crew, “Turn off that insipid boarding music.” People hushed each other in an effort to hear gunshots yet nobody knew for sure how many outlaws the cowboys had killed in the fight. First, the news of the army chief’s replacement by a new general came in. Then we heard that the elected ones were placed under arrest after the original chief struck back at the conspirators. In the end, we found out to our utter disappointment, that it was a bloodless coup because the blood of the conspirators froze and could not be shed.

Everybody aboard the airplane reacted differently. A jovial Lahorite remarked, “Partial law or martial law; we will never reform.” Important executives in dark suits fell into their seats and asked for black coffee. As if hypnotized, they loosened their Italian silk ties and sat aghast. Many swore they heard them mutter: ‘what will happen to those illegal permits; how will I recover what the Sharifs owe me; will the Chief of the Ehtesab Bureau save me from the fire of hell?’ The moral of the story: the higher you rise, the harder you fall.

Originally seated in the cattle class of the airplane, I conveniently migrated to the business class to appreciate the goings-on there. Fashionable ladies took out bottled mineral water from foreign shoulder bags and, for a change, infants stayed silent without the aid of soothers. The nation’s mouth was indeed stuffed with military soothers.

It was 8:00 p.m.; the passengers were allowed to disembark the aircraft, and move into a lounge. Many cancelled the trip out of fear of being blown out of the sky by a misguided American missile. The rest decided to wait and let the airline refresh them with stale snacks. I fell into the first category--minus the fear element, of course--and walked out of the terminal building with all thirty-two natural teeth in tact.

It was unnerving to think that Lahore airport--just like all major airports in the country--was situated in the cantonment area, therefore, whatever one saw of the military was not a special appearance but routine business. There were no armoured vehicles, only truckloads of soldiers and officers walking about briskly. Nobody got beat up or held at gunpoint. Martial law was not proclaimed, and the politicians had not struck back; they lay stupefied. It was clear that while Mian Nawaz Sharif achieved distinction as a forgettable face at a Catholic school, the generals attended Staff and Command College courses; the latter were certainly armed to the teeth and prepared for such obvious eventualities.

Taxicabs were available in abundance and without the usual hassle. Disgusted policemen were not slapping drivers, who generally asked for exorbitant fares. People just stood discussing the fluid situation in small groups of more than four, which meant Section 144 was not in place. Spin Doctor Mushahid Hussain’s ice sculpture lay liquefied. There was a silent relief, a state of near satisfaction, which indicated the citizens had welcomed the coup. Nothing surprised them anymore; they had seen it all so many times before.

The human mind cannot stay silent under trying circumstances. A man who had the potential of becoming a cricket commentator drove the taxi I took. He added more to the drama by indulging in non-stop commentary and which did not require any verbal input on my part. I promised him a hefty tip in case he shut up. He did.

The neighbour’s dog howled at the moon and the family gave me a hero’s welcome when I rang the doorbell. The spouse, the kids, the servants, and especially the pet dog, all wanted to know what was happening out on the streets. I whispered in my dog’s ear, “It’s a bitch”, and he understood.

I needed to misinform myself some more. Having no access to a satellite dish, my head became heavier while watching Pakistan Television. PTV was duller than usual and telecast only national songs that failed to pump up the pulse rate. Ad nauseam, a female announcer informed the viewers that the army chief would soon address the nation. That soon took forever as she kept repeating the pre-recorded announcement in two mother tongues. I could imagine speechwriters stretching the limits of political correctness and flowery language while preparing a convincing text for General Musharraf. That night the camera operators, the make-up artists, lighting assistants, audio and editors worked over-time to make the grand appearance of the coup leader look even more winsome.

I waited for the event until midnight but then the meaningless milli naghmas took their toll on the senses. Imaginatively, PTV re-ran tapes of singers we saw during Yahya-Bhutto days. In a situation like that, waiting for the promised speech was like expecting the promised messiah. The choice between going to bed out of boredom or staying awake was not a difficult one.

The next morning, the very few who lived to hear the army chief’s speech said it was a short affair. It was nostalgic: the same accusations, the same recycled reasons for a military take-over and the same sameness. CNN-BBC propaganda was jammed by the State and replaced with more potent PTV-stuff. And because mobile phones were jammed, the end-users got a day off talking uselessly.

Flights to Karachi and Islamabad resumed late in the afternoon with a notable difference; armed officers took familiar faces off foreign and domestic flights. The way they recognized all those cronies and crooks dressed up with nowhere to go was by employing army sleuths, doorkeepers of the assembly halls, and policemen.

They took hundreds of such respected men for ‘questioning’ to remote locations under ‘protective custody’. It was not difficult to imagine persuasive law-enforcers trying ways and means to obtain thumb impressions from the said gentlemen over ready-made documents. Shortly thereafter, the movement of notable politicians, attempting to band together for a counter-coup, was physically restricted. The army wanted all the overgrown political babies to stay with their mamas, or--in the case of Nawaz Sharif--with abba jee.

More than three years after the Yellow Coup, the feeder of democracy is still not ready to be handed over to those who have been kindly ‘chosen’ at the GHQ for us. More milk will be spilt, and more crying will follow in the days to come.

Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium.