Karachi, Pakistan | Echoes of the British Empire

Late October 1977

At half past midnight, the Pakistani Airlines flight rumbled to a halt out on the warm tarmac, inherited from forty-two degrees Centigrade of an overbearing sun. The passengers, mostly Pakistanis, ignored the cabin crew’s instructions to remain seated. Overhead compartment doors plopped down like camels’ saddlebags full of brass asps.

<feature photo desitraveller.com

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please return to your seats,” the stewardess said.

The western stewardess espied salvation out the starboard windows. I saw it, too. At a distance, three buses labored along, slowed by the heavy air and my tired eyes.

The Pakistanis stampeded to the off-loading portable stairways. They fought to get on the empty buses.

I was the last man off the bus at the arrivals hall. The Pakistani immigration officials stamped passports like beaver tails slapping water… until I stepped up to the counter.

The Pakistanis’ mad dashes to the idle conveyor belts were for naught. Their treasures were missing. I remarked to a white mustached fellow, “You have to wait until they unload the plane, sir.”

As he gave a silent moan I came to the conclusion that nothing happened quickly here except the passengers’ feverish panic.

Cicadas, like well-tuned bagpipes, droned in the background, ghosts of an unforgettable empire. Karachi’s all-encompassing odor turned my nose up, making it vulnerable to pesky flies that sought refuge in my nostrils. What body of men could create the circumstances that would cause an entire city to reek?

Yeah, I know, Pakistan used to be part of one big subcontinent under the British Union Jack that waved above Rudyard Kipling’s “sunny clime.”

Up until recently, upon my personnel notification of assignment, Pakistan belonged to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, purveyor of alcoholic drink and the skeleton of a casino that would have soon welcomed my hard earned U.S. dollars.

Surprise, Surprise. General Zia al-Huq, with blackened foreboding eyes, and with a British soldier’s intolerance of the Kali (a renegade religious sect), led a coup d’état to depose Mr. Bhutto (who would later be hanged). The General had recently instituted Marshall Law and demanded strict Muslim religious intolerance.

Welcome to Pakistan

photo by pinterest.com

A group of bleary-eyed Americans from the Consulate General Karachi met me during the mass exodus out the terminal. They represented the Regional Communications Office, the RCO. Their expression apologized for the state of Pakistan. I felt relieved that I was a member of the Foreign Service, here to fight the rise of terrorism, not Kipling’s “Thuggee Indians.” Our leader, RCO Robert B. Roberson, who appreciated jet lag, said the Am Consul would send a car for me tomorrow at noon. The red-faced career diplomat (who had been drinking) promised a proper “welcome aboard” tomorrow, over lunch at their favorite chicken tikka restaurant.

The Con Gen driver took the camel’s route to my abode, an old apartment building in a compound. The area called Clifton, on the Arabian Sea, was situated at the southern edge of the city. The driver took my bags up the stairwell to the third floor—no elevators here. The shadow of another man moved back into the stairwell as I fumbled with the key.

I opened the door. After the driver deposited my bags in the large living room, he left like the bugle had sounded retreat.

The musky odor fueled my sudden loneliness. I would learn that nothing escaped the Karachi heat except for the inside of a refrigerator (a British soldier’s disdain). I flipped the switch for the overhead fans that hung from high ceilings. They were loathe to start, like P-38 Mustang airplane engines, awakened by the Twentieth Century. After the fans found their wings they began to sway. I adjusted the speed to the lowest setting.

The window-mounted air-conditioners might do better, but Kipling would not allow it. In protest, I went to the kitchen and filled empty ice-trays with bottled water. The RCO office had the fridge filled with food and drink.

I fell asleep on the large overstuffed couch. Kipling complained that with my dismissal of the Pakistanis at the airport, I didn’t deserve the comfort of a bed tonight.

The knock on the door the next morning startled me. I gazed at my watch—eight a.m.—a call to formation? I listened for a bugle’s blast.

Basheer, the Pakistani Bhisti

photo by annyas.com

The man that stood in the doorway wore a white muslin outfit, like Sam Jaffe dressed as Gunga Din in the ‘39 movie of the same name. “Gunga Din,” the poet Rudyard Kipling’s tour de force, glorified an Indian bhisti, a water boy, who died after saving British soldiers’ lives.

“Sahib, I am Basheer.”

With medium height and build, the leathery-faced man’s head swiveled as he talked. The tone and drama of his voice (he had only spoken a few words!) and mannerism made me believe that a great actor stood before me. But who was he, really? Kipling would know.

Gunga Din photo by cliomuse.com

“What can I do for you, Basheer?”

He set his jaw and held out the papers while at attention.

Was it his marching orders?

I read the parched documents. Mr. Basheer, who by the looks of it was pushing fifty, apparently had worked for several members of the British Consulate over the past two to three decades. As I read the glowing reports, Basheer’s head inched upwards, perhaps to a heavenly battlefield where it wasn’t always ‘double drill and no canteen’ (RE: Gunga Din poem).

The British civil servants praised Basheer’s culinary expertise and his ability to keep their quarters in order.

“So, you are a good cook.”

Leaving no doubt, Basheer wound up and replied in a deeper voice, “Yes, Sahib.”

“When can you start?” I asked, without asking why he would jump the HMS ship for an American.

His eyes shut for the moment, as if recounting past accolades. He splayed his hands up, and with a swivel of the head replied, “Would you like breakfast, Sahib?”

“Fried eggs, over easy.”

The breakfast of eggs, banger sausages and toast, all perfectly cooked, was the first of many delicious meals Basheer would cook for me over my two-year assignment at Am Consul Karachi. Or should I say nine months, since I would be on the road over 60% of the time.


Read Rudyard Kipling’s full account of the poem, “Gunga Din”

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