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This essay on Pakistan first appeared in “On The Abyss”, a HarperCollins anthology shortly after Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup.

A Peshawar street; photo by cricrich in Flickr

Chacha said he was like a father to me. He would not let me go. “In any case, I don’t think the flight will leave, it never does at times like these,” he announced. “I’ll wait for you outside, you’ll come back.” An ashen, monster of a storm was flaring above Peshawar. Rain and wind were about to stir a reckless cocktail of the elements. “The plane won’t go, you’ll come back,” Chacha repeated as I bid goodbye, adamant I had to leave. Chacha’s prophecy of my return would come true, but not that day. I had appointments to keep in Islamabad. Besides, the telex lines from Peshawar had proved as unreliable as promises that one of the mujahideen groups would smuggle me across into ‘liberated’ Afghanistan via Khyber Pass. I had a pile of rotting stories to file. I had to leave.

There was no one at the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) counter, not even passengers. I enquired at the duty office and they said they had not called the flight yet. But they hadn’t cancelled it either. “There is low pressure turbulence in the area, the flight has come but it may not leave.” I could see Chacha beyond the glass panes, waiting. It annoyed me to see him there, as if his presence was holding up the flight.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a burst of commotion in the terminal. Two young soldiers entered carrying briefcases and behind them strode in a senior Pakistani Army officer, a brigadier. He walked straight to the PIA counter and asked about the flights’ status. The PIA staff probably told him the same thing they told me but then I saw the brigadier shaking his head and asking to speak to someone higher-up. A phone was hurriedly brought to him and he made a short call. “I have to go, I have to be in Islamabad this evening,” I heard him tell someone. His tone was flat and declarative. “The flight has to leave, we can beat the storm.” He put the phone down, instructed the PIA personnel to ready the flight and then left for a far corner of the terminal asking his two subordinates to check him in.

Five minutes later, the PIA Dornier was airborne with the brigadier, his soldiers, two old Pathans carrying sackloads of fabric, and me. No cabin crew — the space is too cramped and the flight too short. We flew an opaque sky, tempting the eye of the storm racing close behind us. Pilots in a Dornier aren’t partitioned off from the passenger area so we could hear the nervous exchanges on the radio between the cockpit and the control tower as the tiny sixteen-seater got thwacked about air. The Pathans had their rosaries out, I dug out nails in to the life-line on my palm, the brigadier sat expressionless through the turbulence, leaving his men no option but to do likewise. We landed in Islamabad slashing flying time by ten minutes. There was a strong tailwind pushing the Dornier but I suspect the pilot too had exerted the throttle to stay adrift of the storm.

Hail came sweeping over Islamabad airports moments after we got into the terminal. I met the pilot in the lounge and he said we had run barely two minutes ahead of the low pressure core. “I had refused to fly in such conditions but the brigadier was insistent. There were no military planes available, he had me overruled. He had some important meeting that could not wait, something about the Afghan crisis.”

This was late April 1992. The Watan Party government of Dr. Najibullah had just been ousted in Afghanistan; Kabul had at last fallen to the mujahideen. But the celebrations had been short-lived. Along with victory was born its terrible twin: a wild war of succession. Rival Afghan militias were lunging for power, playing buzhkhashi (a medieval Afghan game in which horse riders fight one another over the carcass of a sheep) over Kabul. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Islamabad’s pet Pushtoon, had burst the bottle and was pounding the Afghan capital from the south, irate that he hadn’t been handed absolute power — he had only been given the prime ministership. Sigbatullah Mojaddedi and Burhanuddin Rabbani of the Afghan National Liberation Front would rotate the provisional presidency according to the Pakistan-brokered, UN-blessed peace formula.

"May 25, 1992: Ahmad Shah Massoud (2nd from left) signing agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most wanted criminal in Afghanistan, in presence of their Pakistani and Arab masters." Photo credit: Rawa.org

“May 25, 1992: Ahmad Shah Massoud (2nd from left) signing agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most wanted criminal in Afghanistan, in presence of their Pakistani and Arab masters.” Photo credit: Rawa.org

The ‘liberation’ of Kabul was to have been a medallion on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s bosom but it was suddenly stained by fratricidal bloodletting between the rival warlords, Hekmatya the most ambitious and ruthless of them. His blistering revolt against the peace settlement had poached an egg on Sharif’s face. Internattional pressure for peace was mounting up but the horse Pakistan had backed all the while had run amok. The brigadier had been sent to Peshawar with a message to the Hekmatyar camp. He was in a desperate hurry to relay the response to his bosses; he could brook no delays.

On the long drive into Islamabad from the airport, I wondered whether an Indian army general would have been able to commandeer a commercial flight without making noise or news. I also wondered whether the army would have been such a key player in what was essentially a political and diplomatic affair. It was dark and thundery and wet and the traffic stood blocked on the approach to Islamabad, shivering on the rain-slicked road. The generals were on their way to meet the prime minister.

What would happen to Nawaz Sharif over Kargil in the summer of 1999 was happening to him over Kabul in the summer of 1992. He had lost hold over events. He was going about pretending to be grandmaster of the Afghan chessboard when he actually had his hands tied behind his back. When he travelled to Kabul to sign the accord that installed the mujahideen, his minders accompanied him: army chief Gen. Asif Nawaz Janjua and the ISI boss Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, both eager to embarrass their prime minister and underline their own ascendancy. Prodded by international pressure, Nawaz Sharif had come round to that view and persuaded the pro-Hekmatyar Pakistani Army and ISI to agree to the deal. On paper, Janjua and Nasir agreed to let the Mojaddedi-Rabbani combine assume reins but on the chessboard, they arranged a siege by Hekmatayr’s forces. Nawaz Sharif was a pawn faking prowess. He had one thing, the army and the ISI did another.

Musharraf to Nawaz: For you. A 1999 photo.

Musharraf to Nawaz: For you. A 1999 photo.

Nawaz Sharif sent foreign minister Siddiq Kanju to negotiate a deal with Hekmatyar but the army and the ISI flagrantly sabotaged talks, feeding Hekmatyar’s ambitions and arsenal. Nawaz Sharif promised Benon Sevan, the UN negotiator on Afghanistan, that Hekmatyar’s guns would be silenced and, sure enough, Hekmatyar launched the bitterest rocket attacks on Kabul from his bases on the southern peripheries of the Afghan capital the following morning. I remember Benon Sevan returning from a meeting with Nawaz Sharif one afternoon, puce with anger. “We do not know what to make of the Pakistani prime minister,” one of his staff told me. “We suspect the prime minister does not know what his government is doing, or, if he does, he is helpless. He is not in control, we don’t know who is.”

One afternoon in Peshawar, crossing into the gun-ridden Hekmatyar-held quarter of town, I had asked Chacha that question: Who’s in control? I was only half expecting an answer but Chacha had it ready. “Nobody,” he said, “and everybody. This is a tribal country, might is right. You have the gun, you have the men, you rule, you control. At the moment, we are being run by Afghans.” He pointed to the gunmen on the rooftops of buildings and in the bazaars. “Look everywhere, Peshawar is not run by Pathans, it is run by Afghans because they have the big guns. The only other people with the big guns are the army and they are with these Afghans.”

Chacha looked upon the entire Peshawar operation — the raising of Afghan militias in preparation for an assault on Kabul — with a mixture of dread and disdain. He was an old world creature, schooled in the values of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Peshawar’s disowned deity. He never spouted platitudes on Ghaffar Khan or Gandhi or non-violence but he was suspicious of the politics of guns. “We Pathans love our guns,” he used to say, “look where they’ve got us.”

I had met him quite accidentally in a barber shop in the back alleys of Peshawar while trying to lose my tail. I had grown one immediately upon landing there and after four days in town, I still hadn’t managed to shake it off. The tail must have been at the airport to receive me but a colonel I met on the flight from Istanbul had offered me a lift to the hotel. He had lost me even before he could find me. So he came to the hotel late that first night, knocked on my door, saw me, mumbled something apologetically about mistaken identities and slunk off. He was probably wanting to put a face on the mane he had been assigned to watch. The next morning, he was in the hotel lounge, pretending to read a newspaper.

Somewhere between the lounge and the porch, he appointed himself my unwanted attaché. After that he went wherever I went, on his red Honda motorbike. It must have been a dull and tiresome job lumbering behind a journalist whose most clandestine activity in Peshawar was leaping down narrow lanes to give the bladder a break.

The barber’s, I thought, would be a good place to snip him off. I went in for a haircut. He parked his Honda and walked in too, taking a vacant place in the waiting lounge and promptly burying himself in a magazine. “Want a haircut?” the barber asked him, his scissors chip-chopping on my nape. “No” he replied bluntly,” just came in to read the magazines.” The barber flicked his brow and went about his business as if nothing was odd about this. Pakistanis are perhaps used to visitors who don’t explain themselves.

The man who was about to become Chacha was getting his moustache trimmed in the next swivel, a Clarke Gable cut running close and thin over his upper-lip. Apparently amused, he turned to me and asked, “India se?” (from India?)

We got talking. Chacha was a retired engineer, his sons were in the carpet business and prospering. His daughters were both married abroad. His wife….. “Well, she cooks and knits and I like calling myself a gentleman of leisure.” He was seventy-five but trim and ramrod straight. The next morning, he came to my hotel in his elegant Peugeot. He insisted on driving me around. “That is all I do in any case,” he said, “Indians rarely come to these parts now.”

You found news wherever you went in Peshawar. The town was teeming with Afghan militiamen waiting their turn to join the raids on Kabul. They roved the bazaars; they lolled about in the chai-shops, Kalashnikovs slung on their chairs like satchels; they jammed the exchange counters of Yaadgaar Chowk, buying and selling Afghanis, arguably the most volatile currency on earth in addition to being the most worthless. It was traded by the sackful.

An Afghan money changer near Yaadgar Chowk in Peshawar. (Photo credit: AFP, 2008)

An Afghan money changer near Yaadgar Chowk in Peshawar. (Photo credit: AFP, 2008)

At four every afternoon, we would head past the cantonment to the Hezb-i-Islami’s headquarters for Hekmatyar’s daily press conference. It was a dreary settlement populated by armed men and squat mud mosques. Hekmatyar would speak to us on a tenuous one-way radio line from an unstated location close to Kabul; it was less a press conference, more his message to the world. He would daily condemn the mujahideen council that had taken over and swear to dislodge it in the name of the Almighty. Daily he would claim new victories, also in the name of the Almighty. He was fighting and he would win, with or without help from Pakistan. The day Sharif signed the accord in Kabul, Hekmatyar sounded livid; he called Sharif a traitor to the Afghan cause and flayed the Pakistani government to shreds. The audience — militiamen and local youngsters gathered on the terrace where the radio receiver was installed — clapped everytime Hekmatyar challenged Islamabad’s authority and made dire threats. Kalashnikovs were brandished and the terrace trembled with bellicose cries of ‘Allah-ho-Akbar’. Peshawar did not seem like a place in Pakistan, it was an anarchic tribal outpost. Nobody was in control.

Though he was always a shadow, the man on the Honda never bothered us. One morning, coming out of the hotel, I was tempted to invite him for breakfast; god knows at what he had arrived to wait for me to emerge. But Chacha dissuaded me. “It would embarrass and compromise him, it may cost the poor man his job.”

I complained mildly about being followed so doggedly to an official in Islamabad who was friendly and gutsy enough to call an Indian home for dinner. “Oh, I know you have been followed here too,” he said. “Reciprocal measures. You do it to our people, we do it to you.” But senior journalists in Islamabad told me they do it as much to their own. “We call them farishtas (angels),” one of them said, “they are ever-present and you never know who has assigned them. Often it is not the government. Often it is the ISI or the army acting on their own. They even keep tabs on prime ministers and president.” But in a society where suspicion and mistrust are equally distributed, Indians are a little more equal.

My journalist friend suggested that Chacha too was a monitor attached to me. But Chacha never did anything that hurt me, then or later. The closest he came was wishing my flight didn’t take off in that storm. Pakistan is a small pond, things ripple back and forth quickly. If Chacha had been reporting on me and our conversations in his Peugeot, I would perhaps not have been granted permission for subsequent visits.

My first crossing to Pakistan — to what was then only a semi-romantic idea forged by exaggerated doses of myth and censored history — was prompted by death of dictatorship and the birth of democracy. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq had been killed in an air crash and Benazir Bhutto had made a triumphant entry riding the near-holy ghost of her father. The Bhutto legend had burgeoned, fed by Zia’s repression. Next to US green cards, Zulfiqar and Benazir were the biggest Pakistani craze in 1988. The evil that Bhutto did had been interred with his bones, the good lived for him. “Jeeway Bhutto, Jaavey Zia” was the slogan Pakistan was pirouetting on, freed suddenly from the yolk of military dictatorship. The mood was like Rajiv Gandhi’s sweeping victory in December 1984: euphoric and expectant. But in many ways it wasn’t like Rajiv Gandhi’s election at all. Rajiv was elected  to power and he assumed prime ministership. In Benazir’s case, it wasn’t as simple. She too had been voted to power but she had to wait to be handed power. With the Mohaji Qaumir Mahaz (MQM), she had won 107 seats in what was then a 207-member National Assembly. But her majority was no guarantee to power. The Establishment, which in Pakistan has always meant not party-political authority but the army and its allies (the intelligence setup, the Jamaat-e-Islami, big businesses that profit from military dictatorship), took its time giving her the nod.

Ghulam Ishaq Khan, then president of Pakistan, was a creature of the Zia regime. He was reclusive and taciturn and maintained a sinister proximity to the generals and Islamic fundamentalist groups. He was suspicious of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP); they were Zulfi Bhutto’s people, enemies licking old wounds, perhaps even seeking retribution. (Benazir herself remained suspicious of the president through her truncated tenure. S.K. Singh, then India’s high commissioner in Islamabad, told me that when Rajiv Gandhi was in Islamabad for his celebrated summit with Benazir, the latter suggested they talk all ‘important business’ while taking walks on the lawns because there might be bugs in her office.) The Nawaz Sharif-led Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) had managed only fifty-one seats but there was still speculation, realistic speculation, that the IJI might be handed power, or, at least, time to muster a majority through defections. It was a clean verdict; the pall of intrigue and conspiracy that hung over Pakistan seemed unnecessary. But it had been deliberately crafted. The Pakistan Times, a government-supported English daily, reported midway through the declaration of results that the ‘IJI is leading with ninety-two seats, PPP trails with seventy.’ When all the results were out, another government- subsidised daily, Siyasi Log, headlined its lead: “Nawaz Sharif will be Prime Minister.” The story said the IJI had secured ‘secret support’ from the MQM and independents and was in a position to stake claim to power. Journalists in Islamabad and Lahore began to speculate whether the delay in appointing Benazir was actually meant to give time to Nawaz Sharif to cobble a majority.

Day after day, uncertainty mounted. It was almost as if Pakistan were two nations. The streets of Karachi and Lahore were in raptures over a new era, Islamabad was eerily sullen and suspenseful. In Lahore and Karachi they thought they had become masters of their destiny again but the real masters were still in Islamabad and still in control of the nation’s destiny. They were yet to give their verdict on the verdict of the people. Anxiety swelled around Benazir Bhutto’s Niazi House camp headquarters in Islamabad, day after day the suspense mounted. Benazir was impatient but nervous; the delay was rankling her but she did not want to displease the Establishment. She, herself, did not complain. Despite her victory in the elections, all Pakistan was aware it was still upto the  shadowy forces of the Establishment  to hand over power to Benazir.

She was forever accompanied by Gen. Tikka Khan, her father’s defence minister. The ‘Butcher of Balochistan’ had turned democracy’s archangel. He was shriveled as an ageing bird and made laconic statements about the strange ways of army generals. Their only worth was their richness of irony. Gen. Tikka Khan was as clueless as the rest. Will Benazir get a call or won’t she? There was no word from Aiwan-e-Sadr, the imposing Presidential Palace which sits overlooking Islamabad, hawk-like.

During the days of uncertainty, I went to Lahore to see Mazhar Ali Khan, one of Pakistan’s most respected intellectuals and editor of the leftwing weekly, Viewpoint. He was despondent despite the return of democracy. “Nobody can be quite sure what will happen in Pakistan,” he said. “Democracy for us is like a leaf in a storm.” Mazhar Ali Khan had suffered personally during the long years of military dictatorship. For years he hadn’t met his son, Tariq Ali, who was in exile in England; he had been harassed for his liberal, anti-Islamist beliefs; Viewpoint itself had hiccupped through troubled times. “It is good that democracy is getting another chance but when that will suddenly change nobody knows. Elected prime ministers can take office but they can also be bundled out.”

Benazir was eventually named prime minister. Democracy had returned to Pakistan after too long. The world was watching as though what really mattered was that the US, which subsidized Pakistan hugely, was watching. It was too soon to subvert democracy. But the Establishment extracted a price anyhow. Benazir had to surrender the key foreign affairs portfolio to an outsider — Sahebzada Yakub Khan, foreign minister in Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s Cabinet, continued to sit in Benazir’s Cabinet and run Pakistan’s external affairs.

And despite her accession to power, all Pakistan knew she could be thrown out any moment, which she was in less than two years. The Eighth Amendment which empowered Pakistani presidents to cast an elected government in the dustbin, or worse places, was still part of the Constitution. Not that the Establishment necessarily needed the Eighth amendment when it made a grab for power. Nawaz Sharif scrapped the amendment after securing a two-thirds mandate in 1997 — a victory fashioned by Asif Ali Zardari who lubricated Benazir Bhutto’s fall with oily scams whose stains have spread as far as Sussex — but it still did not help. The Establishment ejected him, Eighth Amendment or no.

A few days after Benazir Bhutto was installed prime minister, I went to Rawalpindi to meet Aijazul Haq, son of tha late Pakistani dictator. He still occupied Army House, from where Gen. Pervez Mushzaraff now rules. Power had trundled a little down the road to Government House where Benazir Bhutto sat dismantling Zia’s portraits but Aijazul spoke the language of a man just beginning to plot his part. “We’ll be back,” was the first thing he told me, throwing a crisp towel around his neck, “we as in I and my father’s vision. He was what Pakistan needs, a man who speaks with the authority of the Almighty and ha s the guts to implement it.”

We were in the outhouse of the sprawling colonial era bungalow. Aijazul had just finished his daily tenure on the squash courts; the outhouse was in his changing room. He was built slighter than his father but he had hints of the same hooded eyes and he had begun to groom his father’s trademark handlebar moustache. He was shy neither of what his father did nor of his own ambitions. “There are people who respected my father and what he did,” he told me, “they want a mantle bearer of General Zia’s legacy and I am here.”

He could perhaps read the expression on my face as he said this; perhaps by some insight he divined I was mentally dismissing his statements like the fantasies of a semi-important fool even as I took notes. It was tough to take him seriously at that time. Zia was a reviled man in the Pakistan of 1988. He had been buried unmourned, Zulfi Bhutto had been resurrected.

Aijazul nodded to himself and wagged his forefinger at me and said, “You are Indian so you will have problems understanding the way things work here. They work differently. I have important friends.”

Later that evening, Aijazul Haq drove me from Army House to Islamabad, past the airport which sits betwixt Rawalpindi and the modern capital. He was meeting President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. “Just a courtesy call,” Aijazul winked as if to say he meant quite the opposite. “GIK is one of our many friends.”

It did not take too long for Aijazul Haq to begin charting his promised comeback. He became a minister in Nawaz Sharif’s first government and has since hung close to the centre of power in Islamabad.  He fell out with Sharif when the Sharif-Ishaq Khan relationship soured but remained afloat in Islamabad. Aijazul retains strong links in two key movers of power in Pakistan that have often collaborated to kill democracy: the army and the Islamic fundamentalists. Who knows, Aijazul Haq may be the man Pervez Musharraf picks if he needs a civilian façade to broaden his regime’s acceptance. He may yet be right about making a comeback. Who knows?

I went back to Peshawar. I wasn’t suppose to return there but ‘they’, the popular Pakistani way of referring to the military establishment, changed my plans.

Hussain Haqqani, Nawaz Sharif’s spruce spokesman, used to be a powerful man in Islamabad those days, or at least he liked to think he was. I met him at an arms dealer’s soiree where, typically, the menu was gossip and Scotch, the ladies were perfumeries quaffing wine, the carpets Persian and the loos porcelain. The one I used had a lapis lazuli elephant the size of a St. Bernard and a musical toilet tissue holder. “Once more, my love,” it intoned when the body had given all to the bidet.

Haqqani was holding forth to a fashionably attentive audience on the ‘New Pakistan’ emerging under Nawaz Sharif: democracy had dug deep roots, socioeconomic emancipation was underway — “Look at the number of shopping plazas coming up in our cities” — and liberalism was gaining acceptance. Three cheers to Glenfiddich! I realized it was in my interest to give him room to expand on the theme. “We are an open society, a confident, modern, democratic nation….We are proving that to the world….” I then suggested to him to let me visit Pakistani Kashmir. For all the room I had given him, Haqqani suddenly seemed wedged in a corner. But he was too savvy a party animal to stay stuck there long. “Sure, sure,” he offered, “no problem. We will arrange for you to go to ‘Azaad’ Kashmir, you can see it for yourself.”

When I met Haqqani at the appointed hoor in his office the next morning, he was singing another tune. “The government would have been happy to send you to ‘Azaad Kashmir’, we have no problems, but they are not agreeing.”

“They?” I knew who but I wanted Haqqani to spell it out. “Well,” he said, “between you and me the army says it will not be possible to arrange such a trip at the moment. Why don’t you go and see Mohenjo- Daro? We will be happy to arrange that.”

I said no, thank you, and went back to Peshawar.

The little boy began to fire in the air no sooner had we reached his shopfront. His body shook uncontrollably with the rat-a-tat of the gun; he was too young to absorb even the blunted recoil of a Kalashnikov. But he fired a whole round and then held out the weapon like a bouquet. “Very good gun, Sir, easy to fire,” he said.

We were in Hayatabad, a hamlet in one of Pakistan’s seven federally administered but hugely autonomous tribal agencies. It lay en route to Khyber Pass from Peshawar, close to the end of the Grand Trunk Road’s run from Calcutta. My visa didn’t allow me entries into tribal areas but Chacha said he had friends who would let us in without asking questions.

We had sped past the post manned by federal policemen, raising barely an eyebrow though many chutes of dust. “We’re there,” Chacha had said slowing the car down, “in the land where there is no law but that of the gun. The government does not impose its will here, they leave everything to the tribesmen, even the law and its implementation.”

Hayatabad was just two columns of mud-and-timber shacks serried on either side of the road. Men, young and old, lounged on benches in the shopfronts, breathing dust. “Kya chahiye, kya chahiye?” one of them called as we rolled by. “Want to take a look?” Chacha asked me. We went inside the man’s shack. It was a liquor parlour, unlit and bare. Plastic tumblers lay on planks arranged along wooden boxes they used for chairs. “Anything you need, anything,” the man said as he ushered us into an anteroom. It was stacked with cratefuls of booze: a dozen premium brands of Scotch, white run from Jamaica and South Africa, Napoleon brandy, Stolichnaya vodka, even locally bottled mao tai.

A  1996 photo by Jason Webb

A 1996 photo by Jason Webb

The walls were a rash of revolt against a society that imposes restrictions on overt interaction between the sexes: nudes and semi-nudes of the fairer form stuck with apparent lack of sophistry but alluring enough in themselves for the seeking client. Veils and billowing chadars (sheets) can starve you of the sight of a female face in and around Peshawar. Here, in this duty free shop of human indulgence, was room for release. Among members of the scanty collage were Helen and, for those who might still remember her, Faryal of the stretch pants and the slanted pout.

Little kiosks, which first looked like cigarette shops, sold narcotics with stupefying openness. Ganja, hashish, smack, speed, all neatly wrapped in cellophane and arranged by weight. Japanese refrigerators and air conditioners were piled in some shops like untended bricks. There were reams of Russian cotton, crockery from Oman and Iran, carpets from Central Asia. “Cheap sir, and original. If you have problems with customs, we will ship it for you,” the shopkeeper offered.

Contraband couriers were established business. You paid half the amount on purchase, half after delivery at your doorstep. The dealer took care of the courier’s charges. Their profit margins must have been huge.

But the gunshops of Hayatabad were by far the most engaging. Any make, any vintage and they had it somewhere. If not in the shop, then in some storewell nearby. And given enough notice, they were ready to produce rocket launchers and hand-held anti-aircraft guns. That would only require a short expedition to Darra Adamkhel, the famed cottage industry of armaments whose artisans, through centuries of honing, could produce replicas of any weapon they laid their hands on. The story, perhaps apocryphal, was that in the late 1980s a team of arms experts from the US had gone upto Darra to have a look at their ways of working and the gun merchants offered them a deal: give us an F-16, they said, in return for as much land as you want in the Peshawar valley, and we shall make you a replica of it. The American declined, of course, but that is the kind of reputation Darra Adamkhel has.

“We have more guns,” the little Kalashnikov boy said, ducking into his shop, “fresh from Darra. Chinese Kalashnikovs. More expensive but lighter and easier to fire.” I playfully asked him how I would take the gun out of tribal agency, and he said, “No problem. Everybody does it. The policemen will not check you, we are here.”

On the drive back, Chacha slipped a lapis lazuli lighter, the shape of a revolver into my palm, a memento from Hayatabad. “You could have got away with a real one, but this is absolutely safe to carry.” I lost it at Peshawar airport on the way out.

Before leaving Hayatabad, I asked the Kalashnikov boys’ father, an old Afridi tribesman, how the vice vends he and his clansmen ran squared up with their puritanical faith. He rearranged the elaborate turban on his head, pawed his saucepan beard, and sai0d,” Islam is dearest to us but we also have to live in order to follow it. The worldly and the ecclesiastical must coexist.

There was another question troubling me about Hayatabad which I put to people in Islamabad on my return: Who needed Hayatabad? Why did these free-trade zones of malignance exist in Pakistan? The foreign minister, the portly Siddiq Kanju, offered an expected answer “They exist because they have been like this for ages. The tribals have their ways and we let them be.” A journalist friend said no politician in Pakistan would give a different answer. He explained things more truly and reasonably. “Hayatabads exists because everybody needs them,” he said, “They bring drug money and gun money. They supply alcohol for the glitterati. They supply guns and men to the military. Where do you think the Taliban come from? Their minds are conditioned in the Hayatabads of Pakistan, their guns are provided from there. Hayatabads are crucial to the powers that be in Pakistan.”

Successive governments have let the federally administered tribal agencies (FATAs) flourish because they have served their varied interest. Some, of course, have profited more from them than the other.

The maverick chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, comes from a tribal agency like Hayatabad in the frontier province. In the past decade, Rehman has sprinkled Pakistan with deeni madrassas, religious training school that breed the Taliban mindset and feed the mills of Islamic fundamentalism and militancy. But his original raising grounds for guns and jehadis (holy warriors) who wield those guns remain the FATAs.

Though he began electoral politics as a Nawaz Sharif ally in 1988, Rehman broke away in 1992 and endured himself to the military establishment by rattling their favourite tunes: we need more militant, more Islamic Pakistan, we need Kashmir from India at any cost. He never won a decent segment of the popular vote but what he could not achieve through politics, he always secured peddling the volatile fruits of Hayatabad: money, guns, men with guns, men opiated on Islam. Hayatabad is a laboratory like Fazlur Rehman need to keep in business to sabotage experiment in democracy, few and fraudulent though they have been in Pakistan. Rehman was among the first to applaud when Musharraf snatched power.

Nawaz Sharif won a landslide victory in the elections of January 1997, an unprecedented two-thirds majority. But there was another message hidden in the mandate which made itself apparent only after his dismissal by General Musharraf: only thirty-five per cent voted in that election. So although Pakistanis are putting their faith in Nawaz Sharif, it was probably the last chance they were giving; their disenchantment with politicians was near the brim. No wonder no tears were shed when Sharif was bundled out.

But in January 1997, Sharif was still the toast of Pakistan. I missed the fireworks in Lahore — I was in the insulated refrigeration of Islamabad’s winter, watching the fifth change of guard in Pakistan in a decade — but when I arrived two days later, Lahore was still celebrating. Shahid, whose taxi I hired at the airport, had a huge Nawaz poster emblazoned on the back seat. Sitting there, I had the strange feeling I had my arms around the prime minister’s shoulders. But Shahid was a die-hard Nawaz fan even though he accused his men of cheating him. He had done some campaign trips for them and was owned Rs 5565 — he had the bill pasted on his dashboard — but they kept asking him to come later.

Shahid reminded me a bit of Chacha in a loving way he imposed himself on me. “I’ll drive you, till you are in Lahore, I’ll drive you. Give me what you want.” He had a thing for Indians, he said, and my name had got him going about his favourite film Sholay. “I must have seen it twenty times. So are you the Sholay kind of Thakur?” He did imitations of Gabbar Singh: “Aao, Thakur, aao.” He was the kind of Pakistani that can easily give you the silly idea that they want to be one nation with India. He loved aspects of India like its films and music, as most Pakistanis do, but he was a proud Pakistani, as most Pakistanis are. “I love Ameeta Bachchan and your Madhuri Dixit but I don’t like what you do in Kashmir. And when you beat us in cricket, that is the thing I dislike the most.”

That night Shahid took me to what he called a Sholay kind of place — to Bundu Khan’s open-air eatery near Lahore’s Fortress Stadium. The Sholay bit was a whole lambs skewered and roasting over a massive circular pit. “Very exclusive place,” Shahid said, “top army people come here.” Nothing better to recommend a place in Pakistan.

It was cold, dewey night and it was warm around the glow of the pit. The air was festive — a new government, a new beginning, the leftover fireworks were still bursting in Lahore’s skies in ones and twos. Bundu Khan’s was playing a live recording of Iqbal Bano singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz, songs of repression and rebellion. “Hum dekhenge, hum dekhenge, Jab takht giraye jaayenge aur taj uchhake jaayenge, hum dekhenge….” (We shall see, we shall see, the day the thrones are razed and the crowns are tossed away, we shall see, we shall see.) Shahid took me to a shop in the Fortress Stadium where I bought Iqbal Bano’s music and some more songs of Faiz by Nayyara Noor.

We stayed out late. On the way back to the hotel, Shahid susconsciously  hummed the Faiz song. An election had just been held, the army had been out of power for close to a decade, but Faiz’s poetry of freedom lost and freedom regained still strummed a chord in Pakistan, as if the nation remained afraid of losing what it had longed still for what it had not.

Shahid wasn’t coming the next day. It would be 5 February, Kashmir Day in Pakistan. Not safe on the streets for Indians, he said, and not safe to be with Indians. He was frank enough. He took a break. I ventured out on my own mid-morning. Anarkali Bazaar was drowned in a normal day’s bustle. Along the adjacent Lahore Mall, now called the Shara-e-Quaide-e-Azam, about twenty demonstrators were staging a protest: black flags, blue breasts, blazing slogans: Kashmir mein Katl-e-aam band karo, band karo! Kashmir hamara wapas do! India hai, hai! India hai hai!

Nobody paid much attention. I bought several pairs of socks from a street-corner stall as I watched the procession pass. “Guaranteed to last,” the salesman said. They were soft and fawn. The salesman was right. They did last. They are still often on my feet, as cuddly and as soft, though not as fawn. Pakistan, meanwhile, has slid back under the jackboot.

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