Chilgozas anyone?

February 15, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

KEEH janaan main kaun: — how do I know who I am? — says the Sufi. Yet Raja Sahib, our neighbour, insists that the wise ones have ways of knowing how much someone is worth, what treasures he is in possession of and how much of it he can readily, easily or unavoidably part with at a particular moment in his eventful economic life.

Raja Sahib gives the example of the local plumber. The plumber has no scientific way of determining which client pays how much for a given job. Instead, he uses signs that are not always simple to explain to estimate the worth of an assignment.

For instance, for the same work, the plumber charges those in the immediate surroundings of his base — his adda outside a sanitary ware shop — less than what he charges homes in the next housing sector. This sector, otherwise adjacent to his adda, comprises comparatively larger living units and supposedly houses people who can pay more.

How much who can pay — actually this is the formula that determines the price difference, not the price itself in many of the usual purchases and services. It gives birth to a formula which is then taken to its logical conclusion in the words, works and policies of our very worthy state officials.

The experts go over the gas bills from the last season and decide to charge the comparatively bigger consumers.

So here’s the formula for anyone who has wondered how these officials — geniuses who must be primarily responsible for running the national economy — find about the wealth we have quietly stacked in our safes, and how they tick names to collect their latest donations or taxes. All they have to do is consult the local sabziwallah about how much he was charging the buyers in his locality, and how much who was able to afford to buy, and then fix their rates accordingly.

Take a look at the latest activity by the Sui gas bosses who remind us that having anything resembling a hot bath in the winters is an ayyashi — or an unaffordable and avoidable luxury. It is the point where you stop deliberating on how more and more experts go about categorising people purely on the basis of their habits.

This is how it has to be because the experts on other occasions have been telling us that they do not have sufficient data to be able to exactly tell how rich — of the filthy variety if he happens to be a non-ayyash type — a Pakistani who is prone to hiding his wealth may be.

In the absence of these figures, the experts conveniently go the way of the old meter reader who didn’t quite have the time to visit the sites to record the latest readings and would frequently revise the bill upwards on the basis of past averages.

The experts go over the gas bills from the last season and decide to charge the comparatively bigger consumers. These consumers who are asked to pay more do not have to be in the category of high earners to be picked for this additional levy. Just the fact that they are shown to have been using more gas places them in a privileged position where those in the government — and the IMF — know that they can pay.

The same formula is used to raise revenues in other areas where maximum public economic activity is guaranteed. The minister stands up in parliament and with the self-righteousness and modesty of a tribal chief, declares that he and the others in the exalted company must pay an exorbitant price in taxes for the mobile phone they use. And his words soon become law and everyone in the cabinet is happy for their colleague to have unearthed the mantra just when it was desperately needed.

People do from time to time come up with their own little inventive ways to beat this formula but their success against the powerful system is limited. As in the following case: one night recently, Mahmood, in his 60s suffering from multiple health problems, called his son to his bedside and told him that he had a wish for him to help fulfil.

It wasn’t quite the moon. The father spoke of a craving for chilgozas that he was finding hard to suppress and as he repeated his desire a few times in his unconscious state the son went on his motorbike to the nearest dry fruit shop. He returned with a fistful of chilgozas, pine nuts, to satisfy Mahmood’s urge. This proved to be the ailing gentleman’s last wish. He couldn’t eat anything after he had had his fill of chilgozas and died a few days later.

On account of the evidence, how would you describe Mahmood economically? He died under the private care of doctors, which not many amongst us can afford. He was lucky in that he died with his family around him, and he died after having had a dry fruit forbidden to an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis because of its price.

On the basis of these indicators, the experts might be tempted to classify him as a privileged soul who departed in reasonable comfort pursuing some of his old expensive habits right till the end.

However, a deeper look at the details of his life might reveal an altogether different image — of a man who had little in terms of material wealth to show for his long journey as an ambitious man in search of his vocation which he was never quite able to discover.

The man went pretty much empty-handed but perhaps in the statistician’s diary for the month of January 2019 he would still be marked as someone with the most prohibitive pleasures for an ordinary Pakistani in his grasp. He was a man with habits that overlapped many localities, beyond the clever estimation of the local plumber. The Sui gas officials can find out by sending the man’s survivors the bill for the latest month.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2019