“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.