THE WAY IT WAS: Honourable Vs pompous Indians

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The rich are thrifty in parting with money as well as in having a sense of honour. The common citizen scarcely has any money so he prizes honour. The hotel would not accept our travellers’ cheques because we were from a hostile country. A small shopkeeper from a small Indian town would not have our dignity compromised

It was late at night when our Toyota failed us on the journey back from Bombay to Delhi. It was the summer of 1968. We managed to drive on for some distance but soon realised that it wouldn’t take us to Jaipur, our next stop. Fortunately there was a shop still open in a small town, about 40 kilometres short of Jaipur, and we stopped there to enquire for help.

There was no way we could have got a replacement for the malfunctioned clutch assembly from this small rural location or for that matter from anywhere else in the country, because India insisted on manufacturing its own things and did not allow imports from abroad. But we were hoping a local mechanic could somehow fix the fault so we could move on. The shopkeeper, an amiable man of about 30, gave us an encouraging smile when he saw our somewhat worried and distressed forms approach him.

On learning that we were Pakistanis, he quickly rose from his padded seat and effusively bade us welcome and speedily brought out a few chairs for us to sit in. Would we have tea? He insisted that we must and before we could even blink, a barefooted lad was rushed off to his house to fetch a pot. Someone else was hailed and sent off to get the Mistri who presumably must have been snoring in his bed. While we anxiously waited for the mechanic we were courteously kept engaged in small conversation, politely avoiding contentious issues.

It has been a long time and I don’t remember exactly the many topics pleasantly discussed, but I do remember a sense of mutual embarrassment floating about us at having been to war against each other. There was a visible hesitation to look each other in the eye when the subject did crop up. It is amazing and, not least, tragic that people face to face are cordial and kind, whereas governments back to back are hostile and aggressive. People all over the world are uncomplicated. They are warm and helpful and wish to be left alone to live their lives in peace.

The tea arrived neatly, in a tray covered by hand-embroidered linen, which obviously was the work of the lady of the house. The qawah was poured out and served with sugar and milk to our individual preference. We were halfway through sipping our tea, when the mechanic arrived with bloated eyes, in a rather dishevelled state. He was quickly poured a cup, which helped to restore him to full awareness of what he was required to accomplish. I must say, our mistris are quite brilliant, the way they can scan and assemble things by just feeling them with their fingers.

I once took our black and white television for repair to the Gulberg main market. It was some years ago when the colour television had not come to Lahore yet. I was made to wait a while before the engineer arrived wielding a screwdriver. The television was disembowelled and prodded with the screwdriver, at its various sensitive points. He seemed to be well acquainted with acupuncture. A small tubular gadget was clipped off and discarded in the process. Several screws were tightened and others unscrewed and put in a container. Finally, everything was reassembled with his magic hands. The television worked. This was accomplished with the help of a mere screwdriver. What a feat!

But it worried me that a plateful of screws and other small items of curious shapes and demeanour were left out, including the tubular part, which had been clipped off. The “engineer”, as he was called, assured me that I need not worry, because the leftovers were quite useless and that the Japanese had put them in just for the heck of it. In spite of the fact that the television worked, it took some time before I could allay my doubts and drove back home technologically a wiser person. What do the Japanese know? After all we fought the crusades, not them!

I remember the occasion when my friend Humayun was invited for dinner at the college high table and was seated next to Prof. Arbry. Humayun who was reading economics at Cambridge had no idea that this chap Arbry had rendered the Holy Quran in English verse. The moment Prof Arbry learnt that Humayun was a Muslim student from Pakistan and expressed interest in its Islamic heritage my friend took upon himself to educate the Englishman about Islam and the essentials of the Holy Quran. Needless to say that Prof. Arbry expressed keen interest in all the young scholar was saying on the subject, spasmodically nodding to encourage him on. It was only the following morning that Humayun discovered the faux pas he had made when he proudly informed his friends, much to their merriment, about his conversation with Mr Arbry.

Our Indian automobile mechanic was a genius. He scraped the worn-out bushes off the clutch plates and riveted the new Hindustani bushes onto the old plates. “What a simple, sensible thing to do!” I thought. He assured us that these would safely take us to Delhi. In fact the clutch plates fabricated by him on the spur of a moment, brought us back to Lahore without a jerk or jolt.

We complimented the mechanic profusely on his mechanical skills but on reaching into our pockets for money, we realised that we did not have sufficient Indian currency to pay him. We offered travellers’ cheques instead, which were to our dismay politely declined. At this point our friend the shopkeeper intervened and begged us not to worry about the payment. But when we insisted, he rejoined that the money could be sent to him on reaching Delhi. At this we felt greatly relieved and with many apologies and expression of thanks recommenced our journey.

We checked in at the Jaipur Palace Hotel, well after midnight. We were up relatively early and ordered our usual breakfast, in the dining hall for a change, comprising omelette and toast with butter and marmalade. My wife preferred to have a glass of orange juice for a starter while I helped myself to sliced melons and an assortment of diced fruit. The management sternly refused to accept our travellers’ cheques and insisted that they be paid in cash. We were taken aback and quite baffled at their conduct. A small Indian shopkeeper had asked us to send the payment, which was not an inconsiderable amount, on reaching Delhi. Here we were stuck with the establishment owned by no one less than the Maharaja of Jaipur himself, which refused to accept our travellers’ cheques despite the fact that they had the facility to accept them, unlike the small rural town.

We suspected that we were being differently treated for being Pakistanis because similar travellers’ cheques were being accepted at the hotel counter from tourists of other countries. A desperate search was conducted by us to collect the required money. Musarrat went through all the pockets of her purse. Sohail roughly rummaged through his clothes looking in his trouser and kurta pockets. I did the same, not forgetting to investigate the glove compartment of the car. When all the small coins and stray currency notes added up, we were overjoyed to find that we had just made it, with some change to spare for the tips.

The rich are thrifty in parting with money as well as in having a sense of honour. They prize money more and have little value for honour. The common citizen on the other hand scarcely has any money so instead he prizes honour, which costs personal sacrifice but not money. The Royal Jaipur Hotel would not accept our travellers’ cheques because we were from a hostile country. We would be difficult to track down if the travellers’ cheques were forged or faked. A small shopkeeper from a small Indian town only about 40 kilometres down the road would not have our dignity compromised. The money could be sent later at our convenience.

Whenever I think of India, this incident comes alive in my memory. It seems as though it was only yesterday that we sipped tea with this gracious Hindu shopkeeper who came to our help in our hour of need. It makes me feel indebted to the common citizens of India, whom he represented. I have been to Bharat on innumerable occasions and have made many great friends and can report innumerable episodes where people have behaved in a manner that endeared them to me. I have also come across scores of pompous and arrogant asses.

During one of these visits while chatting with a Delhi intellectual, I pleaded that if India were to unilaterally reduce the size of its armed forces our military set-up, logically speaking, would have to be proportionately reduced. The savings could be invested in health, education and employment and so on. Was there reason for India to feel insecure and justify such a mammoth war machine, I humbly asked? My Indian friend stared at me in disbelief.

How could I be so stupid he seemed to wonder and finally blurted out with visible arrogance: “Please understand our military’s size is not determined by you. We have wider concerns in the region far beyond our national borders.” But I think little of these creatures. They are like many of my own countrymen cast in a similar mould, only wearing different caps.

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