Embers from the last parables

Random thoughts during the melancholy of a fog-trapped Islamabad airport: Wparableshy is grey darker than black? How does opaque fog immobilise aircraft and blind night permit perfect airline service? Electricity?
Lights are available in both conditions. Why does fog defeat electricity? Science must have an answer, but I have no appetite for useless information while trapped in the penumbra of miserable morning semi-consciousness.

Since sleep is impossible in the twitter and tension of an airport coffee shop, the only rational option is a book. Mired in a murderous mood, I picked up Agatha Christie. The Floating Admiral is unusual in the murder-mystery genre; it becomes exceptional thanks to the prologue by G.K. Chesterton. It would be hard put to find a better description of the peculiar, ruthful-cum-ruthless British colonial mind that once ruled much of the world from London to Hong Kong. Chesterton describes an English naval officer slumming it in a Chinese quarter of Hong Kong: “Like every man of his type, he had a perfectly sincere hatred of individual oppression; which would not have saved him from taking part in impersonal or collective oppression, if the responsibility were spread to all his civilisation or his country or his class.”

Why is the Teflon music at Islamabad airport so weepy? Is there some subliminal relationship between mournful and respectable? The selection on the public address system is from a subset of familiar numbers where love is in desperate, or possibly heroic, conflict with some nobler emotion. Even the folk music trenchantly refuses to be friendly. Lilt and joy, the essence of music, have been embalmed in some pompous minder’s version of what is “good” for the middle-class masses. If, on the other hand, the idea behind this uni-dimensional attempt at entertainment is to reinforce your depression, then it works very well.

The best response to depression is, without doubt, the Arabian Nights (more accurately: Tales from the Thousand and One Nights). There was great wisdom in packing it as an alternative read. Guess who is the star-sultan of the first story, mentioned in the opening paragraph: a Sassanid king who lived in “the lands of India and China”. Why India and China? Because they were the economic superpowers of that age. If Alladin came from China then India was a preferred destination for Sindbad the Sailor (as distinct from his brother Sindbad the Porter). Young Sindbad the Sailor was “astonished to learn that there were no fewer than 72 different castes in India”. He might have been even more astonished in the 21st century. This is how Sindbad describes Brahmins: “They are skilled breeders of camels, horses, and cattle, and, though they abstain from wine, they are a merry and pleasure-loving people.”
The merry and pleasure-loving people of Baghdad, however, made it a point never to abstain from wine.

Trade, travel and political kinship between the Arab and Indian civilisations has bred an extraordinary lore of legend and belief that is accepted as truth. Memory is a form of evidence; it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. Step forward into contemporary times. When the famous Indian filmstar, Sunil Dutt, visited Lahore, the city of his forefathers, I learn from an article published in the Dawn, which floated my way through the net, he offered a donation to the Shaukat Khanam Hospital. He explained: “For Lahore, like my elders, I will shed every drop of my blood and give any donation asked for, just as my ancestors did when they laid down their lives at Karbala for Hazrat Imam Husain.”

A 7th century resident of Lahore, Rahab Dutt, of the Rajput Mohiyal clan, traded with Arabia. He promised Prophet Muhammad SA that he would stand by the Prophet’s successors to uphold the truth. And so his seven sons, skilled Punjabi swordsmen, gave their lives at Karbala in defence of the Prophet’s grandson, the martyred Imam Hussain ibn Ali, inspiring the popular saying: “Wah Dutt Sultan, Hindu ka dharm, Musalman ka iman, adha Hindu adha Musalman”. Since then it has been forbidden for Muslims to try and convert the Dutts to their faith. There is a tragic modern twist. In 1947, the Dutts, still proud Hindus, abandoned Lahore during partition.

What pearls emerge through fog! Friendship, wrote the British historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, has class variables. For the poor, it means kindness. For the middle class, it is respect. For the rich, it is adoration of those who they would not trust around the corner.

 

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