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Some of the ironies of life

October 02, 2005


LIFE, and providence, plays tricks with us. It ‘tests our mettle’. Some of us succumb to circumstances, others survive. Much depends on the accident of birth, whether we are born with good or bad fortune. And even more depends on how much we are able and allowed to learn, and how our minds have been trained (or not trained).

In life, there are occasions, under varied circumstances, when apologies become necessary if one is to make an effort to not self-destruct. The following tale serves as just one example. It is pointless taking on the world — or its women or men.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, had me arrested and jailed in 1976 (he kept me inside for 72 days). A couple of days after my arrival there was some consternation when the jailor arrived in my cell, suggested that I change and wear something appropriate (I was in shorts) and accompany him to his office where the honourable home secretary of Sindh, the infamous Mohammad Khan Junejo, was waiting to see me.

Junejo asked me to apologize to the prime minister for what I had done, in which case the great man may consider forgiving me and let me out. My reaction was that of course I was willing to render an apology and go home (thinking to myself that someone better let me know what I had done that required an apology).

At this, Junejo withdrew. He would have to refer back to his boss, he told me, and ask for further instructions as ZAB had assumed that I would never agree to say sorry.

He returned the next day, put paper and pen in front of me, and suggested that I should write ‘appropriately’. I wrote : “Central Jail, Karachi, 1100 hours Wednesday February 11, 1976. Dear Mr Prime Minister, I believe I have caused you annoyance — and if I have, I sincerely apologize. I have been your well-wisher and sincere friend and remain so. With kind regards, Yours sincerely.”

Junejo asked why I had written from ‘Central Jail, Karachi’. Because, I told him, your masochistic boss keeps a file of such letters of apology which he flaunts before his toadies so that they can all have a laugh. I just want the toadies to know the circumstances under which this letter was written. The second sentence was prompted by Junejo — ‘Aarey, bhai, kooch tariff be karo!’

It didn’t work. The great man was not satisfied. At some stage ZAB condescended to see my father, then 75, and did his best to humiliate him. You don’t know what your son has done, he told him. My father’s reply was that his son does not know what it is he has done. We would like to know, he said.

ZAB laughingly said that when the time was ‘right’ he would let us know. That time never arrived. Like the ‘Tashkent secret’, and many other secrets, this secret died with him.

In President Pervez Musharraf’s old school, St Patrick’s of Karachi, there was, a long time ago, a wise teacher, Father Petronius, whose wont was to tell his pupils that if they wished to learn about life, they should read the Bible and then Shakespeare, and if they wished to learn about states-craft they should just read Churchill.

Musharraf is now renowned as a world statesman, but like all men who reach the top he is surrounded by sycophants who cannot, under any circumstances, give him any advice that is valid or sane. In the rarified air of our capital city, whether he knows it or nor, he is isolated and alone.

For him, reproduced is what Winston Spencer Churchill wrote in the second chapter of his book ‘Great Contemporaries’ (pub.1937), a chapter entitled ‘The ex-Kaiser’, on the subject of Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

“ ‘You are,’ they say, ‘the All-Highest. You are the Supreme War Lord, who when the next war comes will lead to battle all the German tribes, and at the head of the strongest, finest army in the world will renew on a still greater scale the martial triumphs of 1866 and 1870. It is for you to choose the Chancellor and Ministers of State; it is for you to choose the chiefs of the Army and Navy.

“There is no office great or small throughout the empire from which you cannot dismiss the occupant. Each word you utter is received by all present with rapture, or at least respect. You have but to form a desire, and it is granted. Limitless wealth and splendour attend your every step. Sixty palaces and castles await their owner; hundreds of glittering uniforms fill your wardrobes. Should you weary of the grosser forms of flattery, far more subtle methods will be applied.

“Statesmen, generals, admirals, judges, divines, philosophers, scientists and financiers stand eager to impart their treasured knowledge and to receive with profound gratification any remark upon their various spheres which may occur to you.

Intimate friends are at hand to report day by day how deeply impressed this or that great expert was with your marvellous grasp of his subjects. The General Staff seem awed by your comprehension of the higher strategy.

“The diplomats are wonder-struck by your manly candour or patient restraint, as the case may be. The artists gather in dutiful admiration before the allegorical picture you have painted. Foreign nations vie with your own subjects in their welcomes, and on all sides salute the “world’s most glorious prince”.’ And this goes on day after day and year after year for thirty years.

“Are you quite sure, gentle reader (to revive an old fashioned form), you would have withstood the treatment? Are you quite sure you would have remained a humble-minded man with no exaggerated idea of your own importance, with no undue reliance upon your own opinion, practising the virtue of humility, and striving always for peace?”

Food for thought indeed — more than enough on which to ponder.