The way it was: For butter or for worse! —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

I am sure the cows and buffaloes, even the goats that can nibble at anything, find their repast deliciously crunchy and varied in taste — a kind of mixed grill, though I wonder if cows really care to savour flavour of plants individually

The sky is getting dusty again. No one remembers the untimely shower of rain. Most of the wheat has been finally sown. I am told that to get best results the seed should have been in by the middle of November. Fodder fields, speckled with mustard flowers, spiced with radish and turnips, are spread like ornate carpets near mud-built habitations. I am sure the cows and buffaloes, even the goats that can nibble at anything, find their repast deliciously crunchy and varied in taste — a kind of mixed grill, though I wonder if cows really care to savour flavour of plants individually, like we do with kidneys, liver, lamb chops and pieces of beef steak. In some restaurants a pair of fried eggs is slipped on to the mixed grill, thus subduing the carnivorous appearance of the concoction, but it makes the whole thing look like a big mess.

One reason, while we were students, most of us ordered mixed grill because nothing else on the Shezan Continental menu could be adequately fathomed. Chicken Stroganoff, Steak Poive, Spaghetti Bolognaise etc, etc. No one liked to look foolish asking the Shezan waiter, spotlessly dressed in white and flaunting a crimson belt and turban with gold decorations, to explain something the substance of which should have appeared to anyone quite plain. So we kept our right eyebrow up and simply asked for the familiar mixed grill. Personal dignity was far more important than what one ate. Never had the bloody thing ever again.

In passing you may perhaps find it interesting, if I were to draw your attention to the striking similarity between he manner late Shemza signed his paintings and the way the word Shezan is inscribed. This is because the artist was commissioned to design the logo. You will agree that the task was rather elegantly done.

I wonder why mixed grill should remind me of a story recounted to me by Abdul Butt, whom you have already met in one of my earlier renderings. We sat in the neighbourhood of a Pepal tree, encouraging our bodies to be warmed by the sun struggling to emerge from the morning mist. It was a bit early for idle gossip. Apparently Abdul Butt had nothing better to do that morning. He looked relaxed, dressed in a fresh shirt and a dhoti with a hand-woven shawl neatly wrapped about him. Unfortunately I had not yet assembled my thoughts. I was still feeling groggy and my mind was full of many stray concerns, which needed to be fixed together.

Impatiently I sat with the amiable Abdul Butt, listening to his placid conversation, irritated that he should take so long in revealing his intentions. But soon, quite contrary to my mood and expectations, I found myself getting absorbed in what he proceeded to unfold.

There were these three brothers who travelled far from their poor village and arrived at a kingdom where everything was in abundance and equally priced. Kidneys, liver, steak, eggs, vegetables, fruit, roti and rice and everything else including chocolate, milk and butter cost the same. A pound of every edible was priced the same. It did not take the three brothers long, who had good business acumen, to decide what would be to their best advantage. If the price for a kilo was to be the same for all edibles, then it would be best that instead of buying a pound of wheat or carrots for a meal, to eat instead a kilo of butter. It was therefore easily resolved between them that they would only eat butter for food. Let other foolish people buy carrots and turnips or whatever they liked. In a matter of weeks the three skinny, famished characters inflated into balloons. They lived happily, content with their buttered lives. The hard times were over or so they believed. They often wondered why they didn’t think of leaving their wretched village before.

There is no reason why they should not have continued to live their inflated lives, had an unfortunate incident not taken place. One dark eerie cold night, while the kingdom uneasily slept, someone for reason best known to him killed another in the neighbourhood of the sultan’s palace. The three brothers ignorant of the deed happily snored on their squeaking beds. Early before dawn when the heinous crime was brought to the knowledge of the sultan — a man of justice, always anxious about the welfare of his subjects — he, instead of having the crime investigated, ordered that all those who had thick necks should be immediately rounded up. The sultan ruled his kingdom well and never let a crime go unpunished. He always employed simple methods to solve even the most complex problems that would baffle others. If he had uniform prices for edibles he also had simple solutions for crime. When all subjects with thick necks had been assembled before him each neck was carefully measured. The three brothers to their misfortune had the thickest necks of them all. They were politely asked to step aside and then summarily executed.

What was the point or the moral of Abdul Butt’s story? He was obviously alluding to something. It was a bit early for my antennas to receive subtly coded messages. You are welcome to draw your own conclusions. If I were to venture a guess, I should gather that excess of everything is bad. It is best not to be greedy and preferably have your neck the same size as others.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist