Saturday, July 8, 2000
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Young millionaires of Pakistan
By Khushwant Singh

AT long last Pakistan has produced a novelist writing in English who is every bit as good as the best we have inIndia. He has the additional gift of mocking at himself, the society in which he lives, the yuppies of Pakistan — without ever losing his temper and instead using subtle humour to make his points. I found his novel particularly absorbing as it is set in Lahore, a city I lived in and loved for many years. It may have been still my home but for the partition of the country in 1947. Also the close parallels I found between the rich, spoilt brats of the city I left and the young sons of millionaires of Delhi. You change their names from the Muslim to Hindu or Sikh and you find them to be much the same.

Moth Smoke (Penguin) is Mohsin Hamid’s first novel. He draws inspiration from the war of succession in which Aurangzeb got the better of his elder brother Dara Shikoh to grab the Mughal throne. In the novel set in Lahore of 1998, there are three main characters: Ozi (Aurangzeb), his beautiful wife Mumtaz and Ozi’s closest friend of school and college years Daru (Dara Shikoh). Ozi is the son of a civil servant who amassed a vast fortune by corrupt means and after finishing with government college, proceeds to study business management in New York.

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There he runs into Mumtaz, a much sought-after beauty. They get married and have a son. By the time they returned to Lahore two years later they are into high society where scotch is consumed as liberally as pot is smoked. Daru is an orphan and has no godfather: Though a much better student than Ozi and a good boxer, he is unable to go abroad and has to settle for a measly job in a bank. Though Ozi resumes friendship with Daru he has a different lifestyle. He lives in a large mansion surrounded by high walls and guarded by armed sentries. He rides a Pajero. Daru lives in a small one-roomed apartment and rides a small Pak-assembled car. On occasions he is invited to Ozi’s parties. He does not have the means to return hospitality. But he cultivates friendship withOzi’s wife. Unknown to her husband, she begins to write investigative articles about corruption in Pakistani society which are published in a widely-read paper under an assumed name. She even goes to Lahore’s red light area Hira Mandi with Daru as her escort and interviews the madam of a brothel patronised by the elite. She visits Daru in his flats, they enjoy smoking charas and become lovers.

Daru is dogged with ill-luck. Once returning home from one of Ozi’s parties he is hauled up by two policemen. His papers are intact but his breath smells of liquor. He has to empty his wallet before he is allowed to leave. Then he gets into an argument with one of his bank’s clients who is into laundering money in a big way and is fired from his job. He exhausts his saving. He is unable to pay his servant’s wages, electricity and telephone bills. His electricity is cut off and telephone disconnected. No electricity, no fan, only candles with moths hovering over them and dashing themselves against walls. Daru gets his warped badminton racket and batters them mid-air. In his desperate bid to get money, he sinks further into crime. From buying charas and heroin for himself and his friends, he becomes a drug-pusher, selling contraband at high prices. Then goes on to armed robbery. He is taught a lesson by being badly roughed up, is left with broken limbs, broken teeth and blackened eyes. His servant having deserted him, there is no one to look after him except Mumtaz who visits him surreptitiously as often as she can.

An important episode in his life occurs when while driving in his small car he sees Ozi drive past at great speed in his Pajero and kill a boy cyclist at a road crossing with the red lights against him. And speed on. He is the only eye-witness to the crime. He does not rat on his friend but loses the little respect he had left for him and tells Mumtaz about the incident. She writes about it and leaves her husband.

In the novel are also reactions of Pakistanis to Pokhran II and the jubilation over their going one better than India in exploding nuclear devices. Some in India condemned Pokhran II as a gratuitous act of sabre-rattling.Hamid condemns both India and Pakistan as well as ‘fundos’ — religious fundamentalists of both countries.

Hamid has a sensitive eye for nature. He gives a memorable description of the onset of the monsoon in Lahore. His forte is his wit. He has this to say about his partner in crime, Murad Badshah, who runs a fleet of rickshaws and through whom Daru keeps Lahore’s rich supplied with heroin. He is a fat man who asks himself: ‘‘What is fat?’’ And answers, ‘‘Fat is a small word which belies its size in the girth of its connotations. Fat implies a certain ungainliness, an inefficiency, a sense of immobility, a lack of industry, an unpleasant, unaesthetic quality; unmotivated, unloved, unnatural, unusual, uninspired, unhappy, unlikely to go places or to fit under the ground with a heart attack at fiftyfive. In short, fat somewhat paradoxically involves the lack of many attributes which, you must concede, are generally held to be good.

‘‘When the word fat is mentioned, people do not tend to think of awesomely powerful rhinoceros, the supremely efficient and magnificent sperm whale, the deadly grizzly of North America. They do not say, ‘fat is a well-fed tiger.’ No they say, ‘fat as a big creature which eats its own faeces’ and has never in our literature been a symbol of dignity.’’

‘‘Very well, then. The collective consciousness has assigned to fat a meaning and as I speak this language I must accept fat on these terms. Fat is bad.’’

Comparisons with India’s rich brats are startling. Pakis ride Pajeros; Delhi’s boys ride BMWs. Both kill innocent people and get away by bribing the police and eye-witnesses. Both drink, smoke pot and molest girls. Both carry guns and use them if their demands for liquor and sex are not acceded to. When they are nabbed, they spend a few days in jail, then manage to get bail. For a while there is a lot on them in the Press; then all is forgotten.

Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke is sheer delight to read. He has done his country proud.

The golden triangle

There are many golden triangles in the world. Wherever there are three places worth visiting, they get to be known as the golden triangle though there is nothing of the precious yellow metal in them. The best known to me is the triangle formed by Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. For most tourists who schedule a week or 10-day sightseeing trip in India, this golden triangle is top priority. They start from Delhi by taxi, tourist-bus or train, spend a day and night in Agra, proceed to Jaipur, spend 24 hours there and get back to Delhi. If they have some days to spare, they will do Varanasi or Khajuraho. Then fly to wherever they have to go next.

I know the three cities of my golden triangle like the back of my hand. I have written a few books on my home city, Delhi. I wrote a small guide book on Agra for the tourist department. And though I have not written on Jaipur, I have visited it scores of times, stayed there for a month and seen all that is worth seeing. So when I came across guide books on these cities — there are dozens of them — I simply skip over their pages, look at the photographs, read their captions and toss them aside. There is nothing that I do not know about these places.

The most recent arrival on the subject is Delhi, Agra & Jaipur (Dorling Kindersley Travel Guide), compiled by Anuradha Chaturvedi, Dharmendra Kanwar and Rayana Sengupta and published in England. It is as complete and comprehensive a guide book as I have seen. It has monuments, flora, fauna, people, places of worship, religious rituals, what is worth-seeing, where to stay at what price, and for the sake of queasy-bellied foreigners how to avoid getting Delhi-belly, malaria, cholera and other diseases which are our daily companions.

Short ‘n’ sweet

Bill Clinton lands in Mumbai and in spite of his already hectic schedule, he was specially requested by a group of medical students to address a seminar on the topic ‘sex’.

Though Clinton is in a tearing hurry to leave for Hyderabad, he agrees to address the elite gathering. He arrives at the conference hall and starts speaking. He makes a six-word speech: ‘‘Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me immense pleasure.’’

(Contributed by Shashank Shekhar, New Mumbai)