Footloose in Pakistan

  • Avirook Sen, PTI, Lahore
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  • Updated: Apr 03, 2004 23:22 IST

The beard has been a tricky question, specially in post-9/11 Islamic history. It’s validity underlined by the fact that it made Pakistan pace ace Shoaib Akhtar say something very bright. Saqlain Mushtaq and Inzamam-ul-Haq sported faithful beards, Shoaib was asked, so why didn’t he have one. Shoaib came up with something very profound (and very quotable): “Islam mein dari hota hai”, he said, “par dari mein islam nahin”.

Beards are various in Islam. The Shia minority in Pakistan (Saqlain, incidentally, is Shia) has its own beard regulations. At maximum length, a Shia beard should fit in the wearer’s fist. But if you sport one that’s understated, then it needs to be visible from a distance of 40 yards. From pictures, the architect of the Islamic revolution in Shia Iran, Ayatollah Khomeni, didn’t seem to be following the rules, I suggest. A local Shia rejects the observation with a very sophisticated argument: “Has it occurred to you that he could hold a lot more in his fist than most people?”


If there is one thing that Pakistanis are really good at (now that we have to discount cricket) it’s decorating their trucks. Truck art is wild, colourful and everywhere. It takes a couple of lakh rupees to get one of these (16-foot high) babies made up to come out in public, but against the the flat brown landscape that dominates Pakistan, they look nothing short of magnificent. Forget the rudimentary ‘ok tata’. There are full shayarees on these things (okay, sometimes they’re words from Hindi film songs); and paintings on the sides; and portraits (sometimes of General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler, sometimes of ‘legendary’ local cops, which would probably help the poor truckwallah more). The most striking thing, however, is the unique canopy jutting out above the windshield. Different people have different explanations for this: some see shades of Sufi shrine architecture in them. Truth is, it creates a space for the helper to sleep at night. It also leaves enough room for the standby driver to jump in, I’m told.

In the vast, open, spaces behind Pervez Musharraf’s back, Pakistan is blaming him (in collusion with George W. Bush and A.B. Vajpayee) of taking away a few more of their freedoms. Their freedom to cheer their cricket team as it crushes India; and, in the present case, to mourn their defeats without the now mandatory smile. Pakistan isn’t winning. The Awaam doesn’t like it. And in its search for an answer to the ‘why’ question its gulping down the dregs of reason. That conspiracy theory: that these matches are have been fixed at the “highest level”. Poor bookies.


There’s a reason why Pakistan is doing this. Cricket between India and Pakistan had, at one time, fewer inhibitions than either love or war. With peace thrust into the equation, the game has changed. The cricket ground was one of the few places where expression was unfettered. The peace process has desecrated this sanctum sanctorum — where, not very long ago people prayed, praised and mourned.

All they come away with now from their stadium shrines is impure thoughts they cannot fully express.


Do you, sir, as a soldier, not feel upset by the way Pakistan has treated the heroes of Kargil? His gaze even, the colonel says: “I’m a Pakistani first. And I accept state policy as any other Pakistani should. We have taken care of their families, in quiet, but adequate ways.” The colonel, now retired after 25 years in the army, runs a Pakistan State Oil petrol pump. He’s among about 600,000 retired servicemen that Pakistan carries along. He fought in ’71, on the Western sector. Saw living Indian officers for the first time just before the war. Thereafter, never. Over coca-cola, the conversation moves to nukes and Musharraf, but it almost never enters non-army territory. What happens when sadar-saab has to give up his uniform (in October)? “It will make no difference. Everything will remain under his thumb”, says the colonel, the first hint of mischief quickly supplanted by ‘discipline’: “He’s a fine, frank man.” And what of the military? Does Pakistan really need one so large for a country its size? (It’s the fifth-largest force in the developing world, after China, India and the two Koreas. It costs each Pakistani about $ 30 a year to maintain — about a month’s salary for the poor.) “Look”, says the colonel, “A nation must choose, either we capitulate, or we fight.” Nice motto — for a cricket team.


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