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December 30, 2016

Dangerous pastimes


December 30, 2016

Islamabad diary

How many persons died from drinking tainted liquor in Toba Tek Singh? Some reports say 35, others 44. Either way it’s a sad event. The dead are Christians who, presumably, were trying to get into a festive mood for Christmas. This is what their festivity turned into.

More than a question of harmful pursuits and their consequences, it is a question of class…of money and status. If these prospective revelers, become premature tragedians, were not so down and out – and from all accounts they were far from being well-heeled – they would have gone to Faisalabad, the nearest big town, and using the services of a spiritual counsellor, otherwise known as a bootlegger, got themselves a bottle of Murree Brewery – this establishment still turning out golden liquid in the Islamic Republic… for export and for the use of those minorities, as we like to call them, who on religious grounds are permitted the consumption of the stuff forbidden to the faithful. Lucky faithful.

But they had not the money and went for what they could get: straight out of a nightmare, something toxic brewed from aftershave lotion – quite similar to what happened recently in Irkutsk, Russia, where 75 died after consuming fake liquor made from bath oil…this in the quintessential land of vodka.

Toba Tek Singh I can understand but Irkutsk I find astonishing. When I was in Russia all those years ago – second secretary in the embassy in the mid-1970s – vodka was as plentiful and as easily available as bread, milk, yogurt and sausages and the price was fixed, not only of vodka but of all basic food items. A loaf of bread was for 13 kopecks  –the equivalent of 13 paisas; milk was similarly cheap and absolutely pure, with no my lord the chief justice having to inveigh against the evil of adulterated milk; and the price of a journey on the Moscow underground, no matter how long the journey, was five kopecks – five paisas. These prices had not varied from the time of Stalin.

You couldn’t get toilet paper in the shops and there were no fancy boots or fancy clothing – certainly no designer labels – except in a few hard currency shops set aside for tourists, diplomats and privileged party officials. But a bottle of vodka, come hail or sunshine, was for four roubles, the equivalent at the black market exchange rate, of 12-14 rupees. A bottle of Russian champagne sold for about the same…and the great thing was that even in a restaurant or café these prices remained unchanged.

We have to keep in mind though that the Russian average wage in those days was 150 roubles or thereabouts a month. The four roubles vodka bottle has to be measured against that. Even so, the thought of anyone having to rely on moonshine was inconceivable. Mikhail Gorbachev among the other disasters he visited upon his country not only made vodka more expensive but tried to control its sale. That’s when the use of spurious liquor began to spread.

This is what comes of making an ass and idiot of the law. They tried prohibition in the United States and what they got for their piety was Al Capone’s Chicago empire of organised crime and massive bootlegging. This is what comes from moral policing. Far from working it produces other deviations. Human beings can be put into concentration camps. They can be imprisoned or shot for their beliefs but when it comes to the weaknesses of the flesh – these weaknesses being part of the human condition – preaching and strictures have little effect. This is human nature. Does sex die in prison camps? Does the urge to drink or smoke evaporate in dire conditions?

Why do we call that other thing the oldest profession? Because it has been around for as long as we can tell. With the imposition of prohibition all drinkers in Pakistan should have taken to drinking sugarcane juice in the evenings and gone to bed early. And they should have started offering regular prayers. And the brotherhood of bootleggers, now an honourable profession, should not have emerged.

More than that, Pakistan should have become a pious society, a model for others, where bribe-taking should have ended and tolerance and virtue should have been the reigning values. With the harsher penalties for deviant behaviour in the Hudood laws, waywardness in society should have ended and the dancing girls of Lahore, instead of seeking better opportunities in Dubai, should have bid farewell to their time-honoured pursuits and taken to such more uplifting alternatives as household work, dish-washing and floor-scrubbing, for their betters.

And Pakistan would have been a happy place and the Gross Domestic Product would have been such that we would be the envy of others. Pilgrims from all over the world of Islam would come to watch our holy endeavours. At immigration counters around the world at the first waving of the green passport there would be a scramble to stamp them. These should have been the fruits of prohibition.

But since the results have not been that encouraging and moral conditions in Pakistan far from improving are, to our great sorrow, perhaps worse off than they were when prohibition was first introduced in 1977  – this being a long enough time to assess the results and come to a judgement – it may be time to look afresh at this whole business.

Drinking is bad. Let’s not quarrel about this. But making tainted liquor is – and I think even moralists would agree – worse. So what do we do about the business of making spurious liquor which has now spread, and this is no exaggeration, to every township, big and small, in the Islamic Republic? I well remember that before prohibition there was no great thirst for the spiritual stuff in my hometown of Chakwal. Now the thirst is so great that the veritable cottage industry which has sprung up to cater for it can’t keep up with the demand.

The health of citizens – those misguided enough to still stick to the pernicious habit – is being affected even as the state loses much-needed revenue. But we don’t even discuss this problem much less do anything about it because a rational discussion on such a subject is taboo in Pakistan.

There are two faces of Pakistan – one represented by what we profess and proclaim, and the other by what we actually do, and we live happily with this split personality, oblivious to the fact that the resulting hypocrisy has become a national characteristic. Not only in relation to drinking but to so many other things, we say one thing and do something completely different, without this contradiction disturbing us unduly.  

Indeed one thing about our country is hard to understand: instead of worrying about ourselves, why do we get so worked up about the behaviour of others? In other countries, say somewhere in Europe, when Muslims fast in the month of Ramazan the fact that nightclubs and bars are open and women dress as they like does not bother them, and does not affect their fast.

If they are on a flight and the person next to them is drinking even as they observe the fast, they take the circumstance in their stride. If anything, their fast takes on an added meaning. But anything remotely disturbing their equanimity at home sets them immediately on the warpath. Why?

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