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Bottoms-up Islamabad!

From Zia the Puritan to Musharraf the Epicurean, Pakistan has come a long way. And now, with democracy restored the changes are likely to be greater and faster, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: May 17, 2008 23:20 IST

There are many ways of measuring how much a country has changed. Perhaps the most unusual is the attitude to alcohol. When it comes to Pakistan this is also the most telling.

My first visit was in March 1980. The Soviets had just marched into Kabul and I stopped in Lahore en route to Afghanistan. A stranger to the city, I was told to contact Farid Riaz, the son of one of Pakistan’s eminent civil servants and my cousin Ashok’s close friend.

“I’ll pick you up at 6:00,” Farid said. Then, almost parenthetically, he asked, “I hope you’re fond of lassi?”

Perplexed I muttered assent but couldn’t fathom his fascination for buttermilk. It must be a Lahori custom, I concluded. How wrong I was.

Farid arrived bang on time. Ten minutes later, seated in his drawing room, I started to realise my mistake. “How do you take your lassi?” he asked.

“With sugar,” I replied. I have a very sweet tooth.

“Sugar,” he gasped. “That’s bizarre! Over here people prefer soda or water.”

“Hang on. What sort of lassi is this?”

“Black Label. I hope that’ll do?” Farid sounded almost apologetic. “Single malts are pretty difficult to find.”

It didn’t take me long to discover that more lassi was drunk in Pakistan than produced in Scotland! That was certainly true of the Black Label variety. But in those early days of the Zia dictatorship no one called whisky, whisky. It was referred to by code, drunk surreptitiously and you had to trust your bootlegger for quality.

Fifteen years later I noticed how much things had changed. Benazir Bhutto was prime minister and I was staying at what was then called the Holiday Inn in Islamabad. Alongside the room service menu, I found a bar list on my bedside table. The first item was Murree beer.

“Can I have a bottle of well-chilled beer?” I asked. It was a hot summer day and I was longing for a long cold drink. Murree beer was Daddy’s favourite from pre-Partition days. I was keen to try it.

“Just one, Sir?” came the reply. “Or would you prefer two?” And then, after a pause, the voice added: “You see Sir, it might be easier to bring both together.”

Minutes later the beer bottles materialised in an old wicker-work fruit basket carefully wrapped inside large white napkins. In fact when the waiter appeared at the door, I had no idea what he was carrying. I thought he’d come to the wrong room.

“Your beer, Sir,” he said, sensing my puzzlement. “It’s safer this way. No one knows what it is.”

The waiter opened one of the bottles with the flourish of a well-practised barman. The other he popped into the fridge. “Just call when you’ve finished,” he said as he left. “Please don’t leave the empties outside the door.”

By the mid-90s, hotels were offering alcohol in the privacy of a guest’s room. They were supposed to ensure only non-Muslims were served but rarely did they check. The conspiratorial smile on the waiter’s face suggested he couldn’t have cared less.

Twelve years later the camouflage and the secrecy have been done away with. Last Friday I spent the evening in one of Islamabad’s better-known restaurants quaffing whisky. There were at least 50 other diners. Practically everyone had a drink. Some, I later discovered, were diplomats. Their table boasted bottles of red wine. And no one was embarrassed or hesitant. In fact, the restaurant displays photographs of General Musharraf who, I gather, is a favourite customer.

“Does he drink too?” I asked.

“Don’t be a spoilsport and kill his fun,” was the discreet but subtly informative reply. It sounded like a yes but I couldn’t be sure.

From Zia the Puritan to Musharraf the Epicurean, Pakistan has come a long way. And now, with democracy restored and fundamentalism and militancy abjured, the changes are likely to be greater and faster. Of course, officially alcohol will remain ‘haram’ but then, as Pakistanis have learnt to accept, the best things in life are bad for you!