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October 25, 2013

A Raj legacy we could have done without

Opinion

October 25, 2013

The British came and connected us to the modern world. In the 98 years that their Raj lasted over the areas which now constitute the world’s principal Citadel of Islam, they introduced major reforms and gave us our railways, the canal network, roads, schools and colleges and that nebulous concept still dimly understood by us: the rule of law.
But they also brought some bad habits, none worse than the introduction of whisky, its imbibing, and at times its very vigorous imbibing, now part of the Subcontinent’s wider culture. The Subcontinental drink, prior to their arrival, was some form of wine. Babar was partial to arak, as was Akbar until he gave it up. Humayun was given to opium. No wonder he broke his neck while coming down the stairs of the observatory he had built for himself in Delhi.
Babar was a man of taste. He had style and a sense of humour. In his memoirs there are copious references to his drinking habits and that of his companions. On the march if any landscape took his fancy that would be an excuse for a drinking party. He would cross a river and if the prospect pleased him, as it usually did, the cups would be out and the product of the grape would flow.
Notice the circumlocution: product of the grape, instead of wine, because a direct reference to what so many of us would not admit to doing in public – not kosher at all – but do on such a scale in private, sends us ducking for cover.
Akbar was an arak enthusiast in his youth. He was also a bit of a sexual predator, it being a custom among the Mughals that the king on no account could be refused. But he mellowed and became the great king that we know of as he grew older, and turned to metaphysics and extended discussions on the true path to salvation. And, it bears remembering, he was illiterate…couldn’t even read and write.
The next great imbiber among the Mughals was of course Jahangir, living up to the Khayyam ideal of a jug of wine underneath the bough, a loaf of bread

and thou…thou being the stunning Noor Jahan. Shahjahan was abstemious, his tastes lying in other directions. When Mumtaz Mahal died he had other ladies to help him carry the burden of his solitude. Towards the close of his years his favourite was a Moroccan slave. What was not available to a Mughal emperor?
Piety of course reached its peak under Aurangzeb, the closest thing to Mullah Omar among the great Mughals. The dynasty in India began with Babar and what a delight it is to read about him, or indeed to read him in his own words, the Tuzk-e-Babari holding its own among the great autobiographies of history. And then there is Aurangzeb and reading about his piety and his hypocrisy, and his cruelty to his brothers and even his father, and the shivers come on and the soul shrinks.
Akbar’s policies could have kept the Mughal Empire alive. Aurangzeb’s piety doomed it to extinction. Within 30 years of Aurangzeb’s death, Nadir Shah of Persia had occupied Delhi. The treasures he bore away, including the Peacock Throne, still in the possession of Iran. And the women the Persians carried away – gold and diamonds and women, the principal spoils of war through the ages. Modern Caesars are into more prosaic things: oil concessions and trading rights, and long yarns about democracy and human rights. The ancients had a better sense of how to go about the business of living…and empire-building.
But the Mughal drink was arak and when the British came they brought their habits with them, and since we have aped the British in so many things – not their best things but their worst – it is small wonder that whisky now is the de facto national drink of all the countries of the Subcontinent.
Religion and competing nationalisms divide us. But among the ties that bind none are stronger than the produce of Scotland and the English language. Put Subcontinentals together and they will start jabbering in English and opening a bottle of Scotch.
Now this is a bad habit. If the French or the Portuguese had been better at Indian conquest than the British we would have been introduced to slightly more civilised things, like wine, for instance. Hard liquor doesn’t suit this climate. In summers, and Indian summers are a thing apart, anything softer (and I am again not using the word for fear of upsetting my editors) would be far better but Pakistanis and Indians, and Bangladeshis for that matter, know little of some of the finer things of life.
Now that I think about it, the fault of Yahya Khan and his coterie was not that they drank but that they drank whisky all the time, and huge quantities of it as night fell. Do this on a regular basis and you won’t have anyone else to blame for your befuddlement. Churchill of course was a whisky drinker but then he had the advantage of climate and he also used to nurse his drink, taking it slowly, as he read official papers and worked through the night. What further helped was his afternoon siesta which he never missed, not even during the war.
Bhutto had a strong constitution and could take in a lot…and get up fresh in the morning. But he could be carried away on the gusts of his own passion as the abdars (cup-bearers) went back and forth when he sat with his inner circle, consisting mostly of Sindhi feudal, discussing this and that, or what passed for high politics in those more colourful times.
Zia said his prayers and converted us to Islam all over again. We were Muslims before 1947. With Pakistan’s creation our zeal became sharper, and a bit of a nuisance for those at the other end. Then we rose to a higher level of the faith altogether with Zia’s coming. And look at the mess he left behind…a clammy legacy of which the main elements are our permanent Afghan headache and the ‘jihad’ associated with it, and far from ditching his legacy we are getting deeper into it.
But then even Zia’s era looks a model of enlightenment compared to what we have today. Savour the supreme contradiction: there was no democracy then and no freedom of speech. We have an excess of democracy today and freedom of expression enough to induce a feeling of nausea. But there is greater insecurity and a rising tide of intolerance. This is a measure of our progress as a nation.
Freedom of speech is a luxury of the middle classes. Insecurity touches everyone. Inflation touches everyone, except the upper classes, always immune to what for them are minor inconveniences.
The more things change, the more fondly, and nostalgically, we remember the past. Impossible as it may sound, the Dar inflation the Citadel of Islam is now experiencing lends, in retrospect, a kindly gloss to the banditry of the Zardari years. That was open banditry. This is a more closed shop, secrets shared among a narrow circle, and its effects are more insidious.
Not to forget that other saint, Musharraf, who, living up to the finest traditions of the Pakistan Army – traditions handed down by the British – was partial to the strong stuff and, as nefarious rumour would have it, still is. But he got so many things wrong and this probably accounts for that.
The connection should be clear to the discerning individual: whisky and action, wine and a bit of reflection. Of impulsive, strong-willed characters leading us to disaster we have had no shortage. It is the reflective kind which has been a scarcity, nothing more contributing to this sad state of affair than the corruption of old and time-tested habits at the hands of the British.
You will say that the present ruling lot is into none of this…so clean and pure. How very true and just look at their complete lack of imagination.
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