In hot & sour soup

Published May 23, 2024
The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.
The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.

SOMETIMES the most innocuous acts, involving seemingly harmless objects, can trigger a torrent of events, washing away the best-laid plans in tides of blood. One of history’s worst massacres, the Partition frenzy of 1947 saw the involvement of some Muslims in Amritsar. These violent elements mocked their Lahore counterparts by sending them gifts of henna and bangles in the aftermath of RSS attacks; the gift was publicised by some newspapers in Lahore, stoking violence there.

The hyperbole of Pakistan-China relations is summarised in the prologue of Andrew Young’s book The China-Pakistan Axis: “The Pakistanis love China for what it can do for them, while the Chinese love Pakistanis despite what they do to themselves.” Irrelevant? Read on.

On June 24, 2007, the Lal Masjid brigade attacked a Chinese massage parlour in the heart of Islamabad and bundled off seven Chinese nationals to the mosque complex. Tomes have been written in favour and against the ensuing military operation. There is never a single reason that dictates policy decisions in such matters. However, one of them could have been the packets of calcium tablets sent by concerned Chinese citizens to its foreign ministry. Among its interpretations was that this was a test of the Communist Party’s backbone in the face of threats to its citizens abroad.

Food, like religion, is a big part of culture that permeates societies as a precursor and a consequence of influence or dominance. My first encounter with anything Chinese in a middle-class Karachi neighbourhood in the ’70s was a restaurant named Nanking. However, one had to wait a couple of decades to cross the dragon-imprinted threshold of this red edifice. Regarding cultural influence, the nondescript facade of Bundoo Khan Kebab House on Bandar Road did not hold a candle to the Chinese eatery’s colourful, silken adornments. The gentrification of many neighbourhoods across Pakistan can be ascribed to Chinese restaurants.

While chopsticks gained currency, we hung on to fingers.

Before the Belt and Road lasso, the Chop­stick Sphere marked Chinese influen­­ce in Southeast Asia to the extent that the erstwhile Champa Sea became known as the South China Sea. While chopsticks gai­ned currency in the region, we, in the subcontinent, have proudly hung on to fingers and chamchay to provoke and satiate alternately.

The much-abused chicken corn soup ushered in the democratisation of foreign cuisine in Pakistan. By the time we got into the hot and sour soup of Indo-China and US-USSR geopolitics, corn soup was being sold with a local twist on food carts nationwide.

The English language has 77 words to describe food texture. Despite being gluttons, our languages cannot throw up more than a dozen or so. Before feeling offended, readers should try to enrich this list: ‘kadak’ (crisp), ‘kurkura’ (crunchy), ‘phusphusa’ (soft), ‘chipchipa’ (sticky), and ‘tarbatar’ (dripping). The Chinese language has 144 words describing cooked food’s outward appearance. Only the Japanese have outdone their historical competitor with 444 such words. However, they may have cheated a bit, as their list contains sensations and texture.

The little cars zipping around our roads are namesakes of the Tang dynasty capital, Changan. However, much earlier, Qingqi had elbowed out the Italian Vespa rickshaw from our commutes. Changan is also known for its cultural bequeath: the terracotta army. The Punjabi folk song ‘Bol miti deya baweaa’ (speak, you earthen figurine) see­ms to be addressed to our idols with clay feet.

It is great that Chinese language centres are sprouting in Pa­­kistan. Hopefully so­­­on, we’ll have you­ngsters proficient in Mandarin and Cant­onese dialects, and be able to pronounce our friends’ names better than we can now. While we are at it, we should also en­­courage learning the Brahmi scripts in Pakistan.

Among the reasons for the British Raj to attack and subjugate Sindh, the least cited is the one that the opium foisted on China was at first mainly sourced from UP and Bihar. When the Maharashtra traders jum­ped into the fray, they tried to dodge the im­­perial tax on opium export using the Sin­dh coastline, particularly Karachi. Charles Napier was thus assigned by the governor general to plug this loophole, and hence the much-cited but fictional “Peccavi” (I have sinned) telegram to the governor upon achieving this abomination. Yesteryear’s brothel owners of Karachi’s Napier Road would have protested had they known their neighbourhood was named after him.

Israeli atrocities in Gaza have made it next to impossible for the US to continue to provide unconditional support to Israel. We need to put our house in order, especially the economy, lest Chinese Gen Xiong Guangkai’s purported declaration come true — “Pakistan is China’s Israel.”

The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.

shahzadsharjeel1@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2024

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