ONLY a general survey of eateries in Lahore can reveal the potential impact of a blundering remark made by the Punjab food minister last week.
The cooks’ partiality for tomatoes in this city borders on obsession. If you must stick with the propounded Lahori image of a gobbler who is shown to be especially hurt by a bomb explosion in Food Street, then the tomato is the soul of the fare that attracts people here in large droves.
Without tomatoes life is incomplete. And once you get your tomato formula right, you can use it as a standard guide to understanding why things do not change in Pakistan even when the menu and the chefs, apparently, do. They do not change because the gravy, the juice remains the same.
The fruit (I learnt in class II that the tomato was a fruit, long before it could actually rival the price of mango) precedes the other ingredients that go into making an acceptable meal here.
The tomato curry is readymade and available and all that is needed to be added is the meat of your choice, or a vegetable under some compulsion, and that is about all the skill a chef requires to reach out to his clientele’s heart. The base, the basic, the foundation doesn’t change even if the name of the dish varies from chicken handi to brain masala.
It was this regular, this omnipresent being that the minister had the cheek to take on during one of his soulful outings to a Ramazan bazaar in the city.
The reaction was an outpouring of quite genuine emotion that has raised serious questions about the taste of a man who happens to belong to a family of wrestlers and has been chosen for the singularly important portfolio of food.
The gentleman’s suggestion to look for substitutes — curd, lemon juice — has been met with vociferous ‘nays’ by mothers forever grappling with recipes to please the young Turks under their watch. Children only eat chicken and potato chips. To this ‘must’ list has now been added tomatoes.
The honourable minister appears to be a determined soul. He has taken the incident in his stride and has since been spotted inspecting other such markets set up to ensure affordability in the holy month — limiting his reform for the moment to the mandatory reprimanding of hapless officials. And as he is confined to Lahore city, ruling-family names with greater outreach have been pressed into going that much deeper in pursuance of the people’s cause.
The media on Wednesday reported one such noble excursion by Hamza Shahbaz Sharif to a bazaar in nearby Sheikhupura. Evidently, such public service does entail unavoidable costs of its own: helicopter, motorcade, etc. The channel ended up showing a Hamza entourage that could in its size and grandeur have rivalled Prince Saleem’s paraphernalia during his hunting trips to the same area in Emperor Akbar’s time.
Things have changed even if reliance on dear ones to deliver cheap goods continues due, obviously, to the outsiders’ inability to win the ruling family’s confidence.
The dynasty today demands of princes and other royal kin to come out of their traditional habits where they actually appear to be working to improve the people’s lot. This is not to say this would have been any less desirable in the days of the kings, but visibility certainly has to increase in proportion to the people’s ability to see and perceive.
The food minister was only trying to make himself useful after he was reduced to the status of a provincial lawmaker in the May general elections. He was earlier a National Assembly member from the same locality, but had to this time make way for his relative, Mian Nawaz Sharif.
But another 2008 MNA related to the ruling family was not so lucky. Not only was he denied a re-run even when so many from among the relatives were given power roles, he could not be, or was not, accommodated even in the provincial house.
It was speculated this particular MNA had not been found up to the mark when it came to addressing public calls in his area. His example is a reminder why some others wouldn’t want to waste an opportunity of a meaningful public appearance during Ramazan.
The problem with the food minister’s appearance was that it came with unnecessary audio effects that led to some rather unfair comparisons.
The minister under the current democratic dispensation did sound as if he was giving the same economic advice to people as once ventured by a dictator. But that was where the likeness between the two men propagating alternatives to expensive tomatoes should have ended. Our food minister has not been involved in any Kargil misadventure or in pushing the country into someone else’s war. He has not been guilty of overthrowing an elected set-up or detaining respectable judges or, if the first coup could somehow be ignored, of imposing a second martial law under an emergency order.
By not indulging in any of these bad acts the minister retains the sincerity which distinguishes sound advice doled out to the needy by a democrat from the arrogant commands of someone who had imposed himself on the people.
This difference, in a nutshell, is the difference between then and now. And even if the search for similarities between now and retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s rule must be undertaken, tomatoes is not the way to go about it. There are many other more solid examples available.
Remember the recipe. The elected politicians are your choice of the meat to be added to the pre-existing, constant mix made of permanent, inescapable political and economic policies. Thus, there are so many instances to choose from where the rulers of today will be found persevering with Musharraf’s remnants and policies. Staying against Musharraf’s policies would require staying, forever, in the opposition.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.