Smokers’ Corner Who’s to say
While on a recent trip to Germany, I had the chance to catch up with the mutual friend of an old buddy of mine.The buddy’s name was Nasir and we were members of a progressive student outfit at a local college in Karachi in the mid-1980s. Nasir came from a lower-middle-income group and lived with his family in a tiny apartment in the city’s Burns Road area. I remember he used to have a large collection of Urdu translations of the works of Marx, Mao, Lenin and Trotsky.In those days we were also great admirers of Benazir Bhutto who was in exile.Just before Benazir Bhutto decided to return from exile in 1986, a group of activists from my college were planning to travel to Lahore, where she was to hold her first public rally after her return.Nasir and I journeyed to Lahore with this group and stayed at a rundown apartment of a friend’s cousin in a congested area where our group gathered to plan its bit in making Benazir’s rally a success.Right behind the apartment building was a mosque with a booming loudspeaker. We were in Lahore for about three weeks, and every Friday, the cleric of the mosque would deliver a fiery sermon in which he would urge mothers to send their sons to take part in the armed struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan.Most of us would be sleeping at the time of the sermon, thanks to the long nights we used to spend discussing politics. But some parts of the sermon almost always yanked everyone up, before we tried going back to sleep again.One such Friday, Nasir got up grumbling like a cranky old man and then suddenly announced that he was going to the mosque.Most of us in the apartment were surprised by this dramatic declaration because he was considered to be the most surkha (Urdu slang for communist) of us urban, wayward Cold War ‘Marxists’. He asked me to accompany him.What for?” I protested.Abay buss, inn molvi sahib sey milna hai (I just have to meet this cleric),” he said, washing his face in the tiny bathroom. “Just come,” he said.So I did. When we reached the mosque, the cleric was done with his loud ‘let’s go to Afghanistan’ sermon and was in the process of leading the Friday prayers. We waited, even though I still had no idea what Nasir had in mind.Once the prayers were over, we moved in. Nasir went straight for the cleric. Speaking in Punjabi, he asked him why it was important for us to go to Afghanistan.The cleric gave him a smug smile.Nasir continued: “The thing is, maulvi sahib, these sermons have really inspired me to go to Afghanistan and fight alongside our brothers against the communists!”“Bless you!” Replied the cleric — a sturdy and stern looking man, maybe in his early 30s, and (as we later learned) a passionate sympathiser of one of the many puritanical groups that had begun to sprout during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship. “I have sent many brave boys like you to Afghanistan,” he proudly claimed.“Bless you!” said Nasir, echoing the cleric. “So be it! My friend here and I shall leave tomorrow for the Afghan border.” But the cleric’s smug smile rapidly turned into a nervous droop, when Nasir added: “… and you are coming with us!”Looking at the cleric’s expression, I got into the act as well: “That’s true, maulvi sahib. We have heeded the call of our great leader (Zia). You must accompany us as our mentor.”The cleric’s smug smile had by now turned into a twitchy grin: “Sons, my health is weak, and I have a job here at the mosque. You go, I will join you later.”Maulvi sahib,” Nasir replied, “your body is like steel. Your strength is equal to the strength of both of us. Your booming sermons and voice have such power; they will instil fear in the hearts of the Soviets. All those young boys you have sent to Afghanistan would be so inspired and thankful when they see you fighting alongside them. So it is decided then. We leave tomorrow morning after Fajar prayers. We’ll pick you up.”The cleric just tamely shook his head and hastily bid farewell.The next day, just before the morning prayers, we went to a nearby office of the student organisation that we were members of and managed to borrow a jeep from the office in-charge whose brother was attending college in Karachi with us. We then drove towards the mosque. After much convincing and another emotional spiel from Nasir, we finally got the cleric to accompany us.Now what?” I whispered to Nasir. “Afghanistan?”Just see,” he whispered back.We got into the jeep and started driving towards Islamabad. As Nasir and I sang praises of Ziaul Haq, the cleric remained conspicuously quiet. However, after about 20 minutes, he broke his numb silence and asked us to stop.Kyun, kya hua maulvi sahib?” (Why, what’s the matter?), Nasir asked.I need to go to the washroom,” said the cleric.We are fighters, maulvi sahib,” I said. “We can face torture with a smile, so what is facing going to the washroom to us? We can surely hold it far longer than the Soviets, can’t we?” I asked, with a serious, straight face.“Bilkul, bilkul!” Nasir added.Son, I have a condition, that’s why I am asking you to stop,” said the cleric. “I’ll just take a minute.”So we stopped the jeep near a few bushes. He got off and disappeared behind the bushes. Nasir followed him. “Abay, yeh kya kar raha hai?” (Hey, what are you doing?), I asked.“Come, come,” said Nasir, hurrying after the cleric. “There’s a road behind these bushes.”And lo and behold. There indeed was a road there, and on it was our passionate enthusiast sprinting away, chasing first a rickshaw, and then a bus. In a matter of minutes he had scrammed a good hundred yards away from us.Nasir shouted: “Maulvi sahib! Par jang ka kya hoga?” (Moulvi Sahib, but what about the war?)Then looking at me, he smiled: “At least we won’t be hearing his sermons for a while.”Later in 1986 Nasir was arrested. He was released in January 1989 soon after Benazir was elected PM. But after being completely disillusioned by her first regime and then disgusted by the Benazir-Nawaz-Military tussles of the 1990s, Nasir managed to slip into a European country in 1997.His last words to me were: ‘This country is going to implode, friend. It has created too many monsters.’I never saw him again, till 18 years later in Bonn, Germany, where the mutual friend informed me that Nasir was in Rome for some years (where he had worked as a waiter), and was now in Brussels, Belgium.‘So, what is he up to now?’ I asked, smiling.