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October 24, 2017

Not a perfect dish


October 24, 2017

What’s the worst kind of dish you can have on an empty stomach in a cheap restaurant? Certainly a poorly cooked one. Here’s why: when you’re ravenous, your central nervous system puts all sense perception and cognitive reasoning on hold, as every synapse and every fibre in your being works to process your appetite and find the means of satisfying it.

That is usually, and ironically, also the moment when you have complete clarity of your culinary expectations. Complete clarity right down to taste, temperature, appearance – but not quantity. Because that’s where your stomach usually allows you to make the first important mistake: you over-order. And so arrives the poorly cooked dish – the half-baked, half-stewed, half-grilled, half-tempered concoction – thrown carelessly together by some hack posing for a chef, pretending to cook up what you ordered. That’s when your stomach makes the final important mistake: you overeat.

That is what the hack chef is counting on precisely. Because he or she knows that your appetite will allow you to accept something created in complete contradiction, and criminal disregard to what was described on the menu. Because all that sensory overload built up till the moment your dish is finally served will require an immediate, frantic release. So when the floodgates containing that volcanic hunger are finally opened, the hack chef knows you’ll wolf down more than you need without batting an eyelid, pay your check and walk out silently. 

The bad dish analogy cosily captures what’s been ordered and dished out to the people of Pakistan in the guise of politics and governance – not to mention their response to it – time and again, since Pakistan’s creation to date. Take the hack chefs first: the political parties on one end of the leadership spectrum and the military dictators we have endured, at the other. Both have based their actions on the smug conviction that the masses are wretched and hungry for any kind of deliverance from their present condition. Democratic tenure after democratic tenure, and from the rise of one military dictatorship to the fall of the next, our hack chefs-in-charge know that the basic problems remain the same: health, education, employment, economic sustenance, law and order to name a few – and behind them the much needed bureaucratic efficiency and political foresight required for lasting change.

But because the masses have endured near-malnutrition in all these domains, the hack chefs know that all that is needed is an attractive sounding menu card with the right descriptions to all the required dishes – improved literacy, better health, rising GDP, safety and security. So whether they ride into political office with heavy electoral mandates or bully their way in, they know they only need to sweat it till they get inside the National Kitchen and start serving up their peculiar brands of gastronomic dishonesty for the same unwitting, yet ravenous masses.

Which brings us to the change we have experienced in the last two decades, and –  hold your breath dear reader – it gets worse. Here both civilian and military hack-chefs have decided they are going to share the National Kitchen. This has not happened through any reasoned, educated, well thought out strategy for culinary perfection, but simply with one party arriving at the cooking line through the ballot and the other charging in through the back door and snatching at spatulas and woks as desired. Ever been to a professional kitchen? If you have, you know how the line works. The line cooks have to operate in complete harmony and discipline, each completing his or her task with the desired economy of motion, speed and consistency. There’s no stepping back or left or right. You know the secret to the best cooking line? The line cooks cooperate completely, each one doing what he is supposed to do best and not stepping into the next line cook’s domain.

Now imagine the cooking line we are dealing with. You’ve got a bunch of line cooks with oversized egos, squeezed next to each other, and who make no bones in showcasing their obvious dislike for each other. Each of them, wearing a chef’s hat and standing in front of the blazing wok of national strategy, scowls and jeers, elbows and nudges the chef next to him. Each is convinced of his/her unique understanding of what to cook up and how to serve it and is tasked with delivering economic progress, wealth equality, regional security, a stable currency and employment. Any guesses as to what’s going to be served up?

And then you have the opposition who are supposed to be tasked with monitoring the line and ensuring the right order reaches the right table. One half of that opposition has been asleep for the last five years while the other keeps running out of the kitchen to bang and clang pots and pans on the street, calling for half the line cooks to be arrested or debarred from the Kitchen.

The problem with the ravenous customer in the cheap restaurant is that in the moments leading up to the arrival of his poorly cooked dish, he survives completely on hope. Hope is a good thing. In Pakistan, we continue to survive on hope either because we have no choice or because we simply love our country and don’t want to leave it. There is some hope to be found perhaps in recent events. With the army chief’s recent success in Kabul and the foreign and interior Ministers’ respective achievements in the US, not to mention the Pakistan Army’s successful operation to recover foreign hostages from the clutches of terrorists, we can only hope that the right balance on the cooking line can yet be achieved.

Because this is what we need the chefs in our National Kitchen to understand: there’s a deadline for jiggery-pokery, gentlemen. There’s only so much half-cooked, half-stewed fare the country and the world will afford an appetite for. It’s time for some serious cooking of the right kind. The world is watching and we have too many mischievous and disgruntled neighbours and impatient foreign sponsors breathing down our necks, not to inspire us to get our cooking act together. It’s time for some quick fast stir frying and bold use of peppers and spices on the national economic and domestic security fronts. It’s time to overhaul the recipe and the cooking style on the foreign policy and regional security fronts.

And for the overall democratic formula we need some sous-vide cooking, if not some slow tempering to allow for the perfect marriage of spices – till the oil separates and floats on the top and is ready for the addition of the final ingredients to serve up the perfect dish.

The writer is a freelancecolumnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir


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