Upside Downside
By Shoaib Hashmi

'Whatever the New Year brings, it brings nothing new.' So lamented a favorite poet whose name I can no longer recall. But no matter. It is good to be at the stage where one's reaction is, "Who needs anything new"? I am perfectly happy with the old and tried and true. Among them are friends, and one oldie who, in my opinion is well on the way to becoming a Golden Oldie is Qasim Jafri.

He remembers to send messages all round, for the New Year and other occasions, and he has developed the beguiling habit of lacing his missives with little snippets, oft times in Persian; and the great thing about Persian is that it is such a treasure house that every so often one comes across a real gem. Here is one from Hafiz: "Sirr-e-Khuda keh Aarif-e-saalik ba kas na guft; Dar hairatam keh bada farosh az kuja shuneed"! (It is the secret mystery of creation, and the pious man of God never breathed a word of it to anyone. And now I stand wonderstruck: Where did the wine seller get to hear of it!) I didn't, so I will merely follow my New Year's resolution and continue telling you lesser secrets, of much less purport, but perhaps useful nevertheless.

If you have been on a train lately, or ever, you will no doubt recall that very compartment has this little red box on the wall, which is called a 'Janzeer' in the vernacular, and which everyone knows from birth, is pulled in an emergency, like if you fall off the train and such. It is a tempting little gadget, and the railway people know that, so it carries a warning legend, "Penalty in case of misuse: Rs 50/-"! That is to stop you yahoos stopping the train for a lark every time you want to impress a girl. What is more the legend - and the penalty - has remained unchanged for sixty years that I can remember, and for many centuries before that probably; and thereby hangs a tale.

The value of money changes, see, and fifty rupees hardly suffices to purchase a decent helping of 'Pathooras' nowadays, but at one time it was a princely sum. Before that, when the railways first came, it was a king's ransom. And the natives grew restless at the thought. It is said that the people screamed that that was too harsh a penalty for what could be an honest mistake. There were riots and protests, and the MMA and ARD of those times vowed to go on hunger strike unto the death unless the rule was nullified and the Sardar swore to shed the last drop of his people's blood. The King then ruled from England, but he was concerned about the feelings of his people. He also had a crafty old Englishman working for him as head of the new railway. The man knew his King's soft heart, but he also knew his passengers. He changed the rule.

If you frivolously pulled the chain to impress your companion, and stopped the train and were caught, you wouldn't have to pay any fine. But you would have to push the train up to the next station! They asked for the old rule back, and it has stayed so ever since. This is brought to mind because along with all the other good things happening with the rumors of spring, the Chief Minister's Task Force is also up to good stuff. Chuffed by the roaring success of their 'Old Masters, New Voices' exhibition of art, they are now planning to make the Lahore Marathon a permanent feature.

But I am not worried because I remember the other story. Young Linus - of the 'Peanuts' comic strip - was learning to swim, and after one lesson he came home looking very smug. He had just swum all of seven feet. "If ever I am shipwrecked, and my boat sinks seven feet from shore - I won't have a thing to worry about". I have made a quick calculation and confidently estimate that I could give Linus a good run for his money over the same distance in a foot race. I guess I don't have anything to worry about either. How long could a ruddy Marathon be?

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.