The new nobility

Published January 20, 2022

FEW people will recall that the State Bank of Pakistan was seeded substantially by funds provided by industrial families. At Quaid-i-Azam’s behest, they (notably the Valikas) contributed a percentage of their annual profits to sustain the bank.

Its operations were shifted to its present premises in 1961. The new building was inaugurated by president Ayub Khan. Governor S.A. Hasnie escorted his guest around it, showing him the garden on the third floor and his grand office with its huge 40 x 21 feet carpet, specially woven to fit its expansive proportions.

After seeing the marbled toilet facilities en suite, Field Marshal Ayub Khan commented that he understood who the new nobility in Pakistan was.

Such a cutting observation by the son of a risaldar major did not deter him from affiancing two of his daughters to the sons of the ruling Wali of Swat. Second-hand nobility was better than none.

Dust covers every space that once held value.

Since then, Swat and other principalities — notably Khairpur and Bahawalpur — have lost their independence, status and wealth. Their erstwhile rulers retained lineage, inadequate inheritances and the onerous responsibility of maintaining palatial residences on faltering incomes.

Some fiefdoms such as Swat, like their Indian counterparts, converted their homes into hotels. The Taj Lake Palace at Udaipur is a spectacular example of mediaeval self-indulgence adapted to the appetites of a modern nouveau-riche.

Others like the Abbasis (who ruled Bahawalpur since 1609 CE) are finding that their dead ancestors enjoy better accommodation in their well-preserved tombs than they themselves do in crumbling mahals.

I first visited Bahawalpur as a child in the 1950s when my father owned Bahawalpur Textile Mills. He remained friends with Lt-Col J. Dring (then prime minister of Bahawalpur state). I have a photograph of my father hosting an avuncular looking Dring over tea in London in 1953.

Dring had converted Bahawalpur from a desert backwater into an agri-economy. Today, the number of trucks perilously overloaded with sugarcane and other produce plying its roads is the fruition of his far-sighted stewardship. The proximity of Bahawalpur to the Indian border explains the presence of the armed forces there. But what becomes apparent is the pervasive presence of khaki in non-combat areas.

The Noor Mahal, for example, had for years been the Garrison HQ. It was closed to civilians until recently. Visitors can gain ent­ry by paying a fee of Rs200. How many such fees will be needed to recoup the amount expended by the army on its refurbishment is a forecaster’s nightmare. Clearly, the Abbasis never had that kind of money at their disposal.

The only room in Noor Mahal worth seeing is the former Darbar Hall. Its arched roof is embellished with multicoloured rosettes painted by craftsmen with more talent than taste. At one end, set against a gigantic mirror, is an elevated platform upon which stands a wooden throne — a diminished symbol of generations of rulers whose unsmiling portraits adorn the mahal’s upper alcoves.

The extent to which the military still controls Noor Mahal is crudely apparent during the nightly Son et Lumière. Ticket holders must yield place to VIPs, colonels and majors and their progeny.

The S&L projection is refreshingly professional, using images, silhouettes and sounds to present a cavalcade of local history. The pre-1947 period of British suzerainty shows a succession of nawabs alert to the strains of God Save the Queen. Images of water rippling over the facade sound achievements in irrigation. The presentation ends with a dramatic crescendo from the sti­rring ‘Mars’ suite from Holst’s The Planets.

The next pitstop — Sadiqgarh palace — is the last private property over which the Abbasis have ownership. It is a decrepit version of the Noor Mahal, repeating its public features — an empty durbar hall with crumbling ante-chambers. Once elegant lamp posts stand at an angle, like inebriated sentries. In its basement are Chubb safes where the nawabs kept their jewels. Dust covers every space that once held value.

Behind the Sadiqgarh palace is an enclave of smaller zenana mahals. These were linked by tunnels to the main mahal to allow for discreet subsurface movement.

Nowhere is the difference between the civil and the military starker than at Darawar Fort. The fort is in control of the Punjab Archa­eo­l­ogy. Its dilapidated condition reflects the paucity of the PA’s budget. Nearby, is an underfunded, therefore underutilised TDCP rest hou­­se. Beyond it is the Darawar resort — built at self-indulgent expense by the military for itself.

Its elevation provides a spectacular view of Darawar Fort. That is when one realises who­se budget has first claim on Pakistan’s resou­r­ces — civilian departments (such as the Dep­art­m­ent of Archaeology and TDCP) or the military.

Had Ayub Khan visited Darawar today, he would know soon enough which is the new nobility.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2022



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