“The Time Is Right, My Friends, to Make Miracles in Pakistan”
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
If women can revel in manly pursuits, men can be no less enterprising in feminine preserves. No cosmetic claim. The feminine streak comes tumbling in the lap of the lucky and the gifted.
A brilliant mathematician, Dr. X proved more than a researcher of ‘C Star Algebra’ at the famous Trieste-based rendezvous of Third World scientists. In the mantle of an enterprising Robinson Crusoe, the lonesome Quaid-i-Azam University professor artfully worked out the ‘parameters’ and ‘derivatives’ to groom his innate cooking talents in Mediterranean Italy while on an assignment.
One fine evening as we savored his neatly prepared peas pulao and chicken biryani in the company of an English mathematician and his Canadian wife, Dr. X delved deep on the Pakistan cuisine describing his clever innovations (a researcher he was) to make up for the vital ingredient: garam masala. The mathematician was amazed, his wife amused, as we civilly devoured our share of the choicest Pakistan dishes.
“Lucky, you came alone,” casually commented the lady. The inference was too obvious.
“Which reminds us,” I interceded, “of Francis Bacon. ‘He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.’ ”
“Mischief,” giggled the Canadian lady timely realizing her presumption.
Mischief marked the husband’s mood. “I still remember passages of Mill on the Floss. Some are entrancing.”
The wife listened with a flitting blush as the husband continued. “To quote just one passage: ‘I would like to know what is the proper function of women if it is not to make reasons for husbands to stay at home, and still stronger reasons for bachelors to go out!’ ”
A few squeals of pain marked the wife’s predicament.
“George Elliot was a lady, dear,” he innocently remarked.
“That she was,” conceded his spouse regaining her composure. “And you, Sir, often remind me of Walter Bagehhot. ‘Women – one half of the human race at least – care fifty times more for a marriage than a ministry.’
“And yet the poor girls blunder once too often.”
The Canadian fumed as Zartaj Begum (A.R. Khatoon’s Afshan character) came trooping to my mind.
I was the husband’s turn to blush and murmur:
In all the woes that curse our race
There is a lady in the case.
Timely, Dr. X reverted to C Star Algebra as the evening wore on.
Unlike commonplace VIPs used to giving repeated stock lectures like a gramophone record, Dr. X was much respected for his erudition at the UN Center. His papers served a stimulus to originality. As he packed up for his university in Pakistan, the scientific pilgrim earned quite a name for his palatable Pakistani dishes. His parting present, a colorful aromatic book titled Acha Pakwan had remained his choicest possession during his sojourn in Trieste.
In more intimate reflections on our doings that evening, I sought to force his confession:
“Who cooks at home?”
“How come? Doesn’t she know of your Acha Pakwan enterprise?”
“No. Not entirely. She has those occasional bouts of headache. They could turn chronic if my amateur cookery was discovered… I have to play safe, yaran.”
“That you must. Didn’t you hear the fidgety Dr. Eduardo complaining last night of his full-time occupation at home - cooking – since his wife is ‘confused mid-way’ while preparing meals?”
“Confused mid-way? But personally I am sweetly resigned to my amateur cooking role. To me the Begum has to be more than a mere decorative appendage.
“Aur, bhayya,” he continued, “being a husband is a whole-time job. I can’t add to the constant do’s and dont’s. Remember, we have to publish four research papers this year for the next promotion?”
“True, but conditions have changed. We are at the threshold of a new era. You could deservedly win an accelerated promotion, an increment or two, on the basis of your feminine acquisitions alones. Louisia, my secretary, is delighted. So are Mary and Eleanor. Samantha was almost in a trance. They share the triumph and nurse great expectations. Who knows, every unfolding scene could be history in the making?”
“I share the euphoria,” said Dr. X.
“So do I.”
“To yaran tae paya keh cookery is a valuable masculine acquisition,” said Dr. X, animating the dialogue. “Why don’t you try your hand? Begin with onion-peeling today.”
And onion-peeling became my lot as Dr. X left and Dr. Y moved in our Triestine apartment. We lived like the ‘Perfect Strangers’: I a starry-eyed day-dreamer and Dr. Y a hard-core practical pragmatist.
With four years of adventurous experimentation at New Castle Upon Tyne, the experimental post-doc physicist had little respect for theoretical enunciations. Acha Pakwan hardly appealed to him as he reveled in his own pakwan, combining the oriental with the occidental.
In this curiosity-driven enterprise, he would often quote famous statesmen, Mrs. Thatcher, to cite just one: “A good researcher is keenly competitive and wants to be the first. The final race for the DNA structure was as exciting as any Olympian marathon,” Dr. Y would explain as he prepared his appetizing dal-chawal specialty whose flavor and taste appeared strikingly different from both khichri and qabooli.
“You save on time, energy, and feminine rattle,” he boasted boisterously as if he had roasted a whole ox on a spit-over charcoal fire.
The feast in full swing, Dr. Y would advise against a casual approach in the kitchen. “Without a formal commitment, you should be on your own to escape a shot in the mouth (at the hands of the Begum). I can say what has gone wrong at any stage in cooking. But one should be very discreet, very cautious. Total dependence on the better-half is considered unwise in societies of every hue. Yet, total independence can also be problematic. The Begum could get wiser, nay, idler, with time.” My talents restricted to onion-peeling, I had no fears on this count.
Yet, I relished Dr. Y’s advice and company. After many years of matrimonial alliance, we lived like bachelors, falling prey to the youthful pranks of the good by-gone days. One does yearn for a second spring of youth as the mirror reveals the truth of jo jakey na aaey woh jawani dekhi. But a second surge of bachelorhood is not all the elusive. A fellowship brightens the tantalizing prospects. The rest depends on your flight of fancy.
As time rolled by, managing the household – cooking, washing, mopping floors, arranging supplies – proved an ordeal too taxing to endure. No stratagem, no planning, could succeed in trying to accomplish the (daunting) task of stepping into the Begum’s shoes. The better-half had her merits as the manager-at-home, by and by we began to gamely concede. The epithet ‘better’ had also been suitably coined, we seemed to ungrudgingly realize.
Returning to Pakistan, signs of a wholesome change were discernible. Was history in the making? There were several pointers. And as we sat before the TV set, entranced and enraptured, the poised enunciations of a bright and futuristic mind provided the needed clue. No rhetoric, no platitudes, but eloquence, ideas, and deportment at their best. Not since Professor Salam had won the Nobel Prize did I feel so proud of my Pakistani identity. “The time is right, my friends, to make miracles in Pakistan.” The message sunk in. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto appeared a picture of grace. Her eloquence was inspirational on that June 7, 1989 memorable evening.
As we ‘feasted’ on our simple middle class dinner and the erudite address that evening, Begum acted with extra alacrity. Little did she know that we shared her exuberance.