Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Short Story: Charlie

I met Charlie for the first time inside Kunal’s Hyundai Accent. The three of them, Charlie, Kunal and the car, couldn’t have been more different from each other. The Hyundai Accent was sleek, shiny and snazzy, Kunal was short, stout, and sleazy and Charlie was, well, he was from the bogs. The orange tee-shirt and maroon jeans that he wore might have given Charlie the feeling that he was as good as any other man in Mumbai. The earring clipped to his left lobe did give him an air of dashing, but the half-broken front tooth, surrounded by the decaying, blackened remains of the rest of his teeth, was a dead giveaway.

‘That’s the building Sir. It’s on the fifth floor,’ Kunal told us as he stopped the car in what was evidently a no-parking zone.

‘Come on Sir, let’s go,’ Kunal said.

I hesitated. ‘You car will get towed away,’ I said.

‘No-parking zone. Can’t park here.’ Hitesh added. I sat back. I was just a trainee and I was darned if I moved when my boss was staying put.

‘Charlie will stay in the car Sir. Anyway, we won’t take more than five minutes.’

Charlie stared straight ahead and smiled. It was a nice smile, despite the state of his teeth. We got out of the car and crossed the road. We followed Kunal. How could someone so fat, move so fast?

‘Having Charlie inside the car as I show my clients around is cheaper than paying parking charges. And I save time as well.’

I thought no more about Charlie for a while after that since we had more pressing things to do. A new CEO was taking over in ten days’ time and the admin department was expected to have a home fit for a CEO all spruced up and ready when the new man arrived from Delhi. We had been referred to Kunal, who immediately promised to show us not less than six flats a day. ‘I know all the brokers who work for Landlords in this area,’ he glibly assured me over the phone.

‘How much do you charge? The usual one month’s rent?’

‘No Sir. One and half. I am much better than others, that’s why Sir.’

We had gone along, since we didn’t really have a choice. Kunal was as good as his word and soon Hitesh and I were at Kunal’s office, a small cubby-hole inside a shopping mall, not far from where the new flat was, to collect the keys. I was seeing Charlie outside a car for the first time. Standing behind Kunal’s chair, he looked much smaller than when he was inside the car, not more than five feet three and pencil thin.

‘Sir, thank you for coming here. If you could have told me the precise time you would arrive, I could have met you outside the flat and given you the keys.’ Kunal was as servile as ever.

‘We don’t mind,’ Hitesh spoke for both of us, though I did mind. It didn’t matter. I was just a trainee and wasn’t expected to have a mind of my own. ‘I wasn’t sure when I would be finishing work,’ Hitesh added.

‘Sir, you work Saturdays?’ Kunal sounded shocked.

‘Sometimes, I have to,’ Hitesh admitted, not trying too hard to dispel the hint of martyrdom in his voice.

‘We work on Sundays too,’ Charlie piped in. ‘Sheth works everyday and so do I.’ That was the first time I had heard Charlie speak and his accent was such that you could smell the slum on him.

As far as I could make out, Charlie had nothing much to do in that office, other than maybe clean it everyday. He definitely wasn’t capable of doing any paperwork. Why on earth did Kunal have to have Charlie with him at all times? Maybe so that he could take him in his car if he had to take a client to view flats at short notice. Parking charges in Bandra were pretty high.

‘Sir, this folder has all the documents. Your CEO’s police NoC, a copy of the leave and licence agreement…’

‘And what else?’

‘That’s it Sir. Door-to-door service Sir. You didn’t have to worry about your CEO’s police verification did you Sir?’

‘No, no..’

‘And the registration hardly took any time, did it Sir?’

‘No, no.......’

‘If you had gone on your own Sir, it would have taken you a whole day Sir.’

‘I know, I know..’ Hitesh mumbled. Why doesn’t he give Kunal a piece of his mind? I wondered. Bloody hell, we had paid this bugger three lakh rupees. He might as well fix the police verification and deed registration without blowing his trumpet about it.

‘Sir, Charlie will take you to the flat.’

‘We can go ourselves. Just give me the keys.’

‘Sure Sir. Here are the keys Sir. But…’ At that Kunal stopped and leaned over to Hitesh. ‘Please take Charlie with you Sir. The flat needs cleaning, doesn’t it? Get Charlie to do it for you. Pay him something, but agree on the price first.’

Yes, the flat was dirty and it would take some labour to get it tidy before the furniture arrived on Monday. I couldn’t think of a decent excuse to not take Charlie and get him to do the cleaning, though I could see that Hitesh would rather not utilise Charlie’s labour. I could see that he had for some reason taken a dislike to Charlie though I couldn’t figure out why. I hoped Hitesh wouldn’t turn down Kunal’s offer and ask me to clean the flat myself. For heaven’s sake, I was a trainee in the admin department and not a domestic help. Thankfully Hitesh said, ‘sure, that’s a good idea. When does he finish work? Six?’

‘No Sir No.’ You can take him now. I don’t mind.’

‘Okay. Good. Charlie, come on. Let’s go.’

‘Charlie, do a good job for Sir. Sir, please take these keys. This is for the front door, this here….,’

Hitesh pocketed the keys and walked out. I followed him and Charlie trailed us both. The moment we were out of the shopping mall, Charlie quickened his pace and started to walk by our side.

‘I have been with my Sheth for sixteen years. I started with his father. Sixteen years,’ he added in English.

I nodded my head politely, whilst Hitesh ignored him. ‘Where do you stay Charlie?’ I asked him.

‘Mira Road.’

‘You come to Bandra by train everyday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is Charlie your real name?’

‘No, it’s Kailash. Sheth’s father gave me the name Charlie.

‘I’ll take a quick look at the flat and push off. You hang around and make sure this boy cleans the flat,’ Hitesh told me. I nodded my head, but Hitesh wasn’t looking at me anymore.

Do you have soap powder and a broom? And a bucket and a mug?’ Charlie asked Hitesh.

‘Look at me,’ Hitesh said giving Charlie an exasperated look. ‘Am I carrying soap powder and a bucket?’

‘Well, we better buy them. There’s that shop over there. It’s got all that we need. We need some wifers also. Wifers clean mast.’ I wanted to ask what a wifer was, but didn’t.

Charlie elbowed his way through the rush of people who crowded around the long formica table that separated the shopkeeper and his goods from the customers. Hitesh and I meekly followed Charlie, ignoring the irritated looks we got.

‘One broom. A bucket. Mug. Soap powder. Cleaning spray. And a wifer. And three of that.’ Charlie’s finger pointed to a pile of rough towels that could be used as mops. I waited for the shopkeeper to ask Charlie what a wifer was, but he didn’t. Instead he said, ‘we have run out of ……….’ Did the shopkeeper too say wifer? I wasn’t sure. Before Charlie could respond, he added, ‘there’s a new cleaning fluid. Take it.’

‘Should we go elsewhere for the, the…. the wifer?’ Hitesh asked Charlie. Slowly it dawned on me that Charlie was talking about a wiper.

‘No, don’t bother. Those cloth mops will do.’ I knew that Hitesh would be irritated because Charlie didn’t call him ‘Sir’ as Kunal did. I was pretty sure that when he agreed to take Charlie along, Hitesh had taken for granted that Charlie would be even more obsequious than Kunal.

Charlie then raised his voice and told the shopkeeper. ‘give us a discount.’ He then turned to Hitesh and said, ‘I always buy cleaning products from here. He’ll give us a discount.’

‘I don’t care about the discount,’ Hitesh muttered to me. ‘We will be able to claim anything that has an invoice.’

I guessed what Hitesh was worried about. Whatever he paid Charlie would not have an invoice. ‘Maybe we can ask Kunal to give us an invoice for the money we pay Charlie,’ I suggested.

‘Like hell we will get an invoice,’ Hitesh’s voice was bitter. ‘This is a nice scheme that Kunal has set up. I am sure he pays Charlie next to nothing, though he uses him to save on parking fees. Instead we end up paying this bastard exorbitant amounts to get some cleaning done.’

Ha! So this was why Hitesh had taken a dislike to Charlie. ‘We don’t know how much Charlie will want us to pay him,’ I whispered.

Hitesh ignored my comment and muttered, ‘I’m sure the prices here are inflated by ten percent for people like us, so that Charlie can get us a discount.’ ‘Maybe he is getting a kickback from the shopkeeper every month for the cleaning products he buys for the people whose houses he cleans.’

As Hitesh paid the shopkeeper, Charlie told the shopkeeper, ‘give me three Frootis.’ He took out his wallet and extracted a fifty-rupee note. ‘This one’s for you,’ Charlie pushed two Frootis towards us.

‘I don’t want one.’ Hitesh’s voice brooked no further entreaties.

‘Go on, have one. I am a bindass chap. I am just treating the three of us.

‘I don’t want one.’

I had no option but to say that I didn’t want one either, though it was very hot and I would have liked to have had a Frooti. ‘Okay. I’ll just take two and give one to my Sheth. No, it won’t be cold when I give it to him. I’ll buy one for him later. I’ll only take one.’ Charlie pushed two Frootis back to the other end of the counter.

We walked to the flat, Charlie carrying the bucket with everything in it. Everything except the broom which was in my hand.

‘Once he finishes the Frooti, make sure you give him the broom,’ Hitesh told me and walked ahead. Charlie and I followed him.

‘Listen, Hitesh is an Assistant Manager in the Admin Department. He is a big guy. You ought to call him Sir,’ I suggested to Charlie in a low monotone.

‘But I never call anyone Sir. Not even my Sheth.’ Charlie’s quick response was loud enough for Hitesh to hear, though Hitesh didn’t turn back. I could however see the back of his neck turn red. Charlie finished the Frooti and threw away the tetra pack, but he didn’t offer to take the broom from me. Here, take this as well, I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

The flat was large and airy, supposedly one of the most luxurious two bedroom flats in Bandra. However, it was rather depressing inside. The previous tenants seemed to have played the who-can-sprinkle-more-dust game with mud-splattered feet, followed by who-clogs-the-drain-first. And then replaced all bulbs and tube-lights with ones that didn’t work. Finally they had probably played guess-what-I-just-broke.

Charlie took one look around the flat and asked Hitesh, ‘how much will you pay me?’

‘How much do you want?

‘Thousand rupees.’

‘Can you do it for five hundred?’ Hitesh asked.

Charlie hesitated and said, ‘No. I could go down to nine hundred.’

‘That’s still too high for half-a-day’s work.

Charlie shrugged his shoulders and stood there silently. ‘You will be paying two lakhs per month as rent for this flat. Can’t you pay me nine hundred rupees?’

‘This is not my money my friend. It is the company’s money.’

‘Won’t your company be paying the rent for this flat?’

‘Yes, so what?’

‘And it can’t pay me nine hundred rupees?’

‘It can, but it won’t. You carry on. I’ll get someone else to clean the flat.’

‘No problem. Maybe you can ask one of the neighbours if they can spare a maid.’

Hitesh looked up and down at Charlie as if he were something that should rightfully be inside the expensive but dirty toilet attached to the master bedroom.

“Give me a call, if you don’t find a maid, but I’ll never call you Sir.’ With that Charlie was off. I wished I had half, no, one-fourth, of his guts. I would have happily parted with all the money in my bank account, which wasn’t much, and pledged my salary for the next one year to have acquired Charlie’s guts and devil-may-care attitude.

After Charlie closed the door behind him, Hitesh said, ‘we’ve got to have this place cleaned up by tomorrow evening. We can’t have dirt all over the place when the furniture arrives Monday morning.’

‘We could go out and find someone else. Maybe Kunal can send someone else. Why don’t we...?’

‘Why don’t we ask the neighbours if they can spare a maid for a few hours?’

‘Sure. I hope the neighbours turn out to be helpful.’

I think I sounded hesitant because Hitesh looked at me as if I was being silly. Why on earth wouldn’t the neighbours jump at the opportunity to lend us a maid? his look suggested.

We went out of the flat and paused outside the neighbouring flat. There were only two flats on each floor. A deathly silence prevailed. Hitesh pressed the buzzer and we waited. The deathly silence continued. Hitesh pressed the buzzer yet again. It was a Saturday. Surely someone had to be at home!

Just as we were preparing to turn around and leave, the door opened and a woman in her mid-thirties stood in front of us. Hitesh and I breathed a sigh of relief. From the woman’s attire and her demeanour, it was obvious that she belonged to that endangered species referred to as ‘maids’, without whom day-to-day life would collapse all over the world.

‘Hello!’ I was tongue-tied for a moment. What should I say? That I, a mere trainee had just moved into flat 401, one of the most luxurious flats in Bandra? Hitesh obviously did not suffer from such inhibitions.

‘We have just moved into that flat.’ Hitesh jerked his thumb behind.

‘Yes.’

‘W need someone to clean the flat. It is very dirty.’

We got a mumbled response that I didn’t comprehend. What was she saying? That she would do it right away?

‘Excuse me?’ Hitesh moved forward a bit and that caused the gentle creature in front of us to retreat in fear.

‘I work here full-time.’

‘So what? Can’t you take a couple of hours off and clean our flat? I’ll pay you two hundred rupees. At that, a look of disdain passed over that gentle creature’s features who shouted out for her mistress. ‘Mem-sa’ab!’ The lady of the house materialised from nowhere.

‘We have just moved into flat 401 and I was asking your maid if she could clean my flat. I will pay her of course.’

‘If she goes to clean your flat, who will do my work?’

‘It’s just for a few hours.’ How could you be so unreasonable as to prevent your poor maid from making a little extra? Hitesh seemed to ask.

‘No.’

‘But what’s the big deal?’ The woman turned her head and said something and a big deal appeared in the form of the woman’s husband, tall, well-built and moustachioed.

‘What’s the matter?’ His deep-throated voice was a roar.

‘These men want our bai to clean their flat. I said No, but they won’t listen’

Hello! I did not ask your bai to clean the flat. He did. No, I didn’t say that, though I wanted to.

‘Just for two hours. I only…’

‘Didn’t she say No?’ Was the man a policeman? He certainly sounded like one!

Hitesh mumbled his apologies for having wasted their very, very valuable time and left.

We then took the lift went downstairs to the lobby. The concierge was very courteous.

‘I just moved into Flat 401. I need a a maidservant. Someone who can clean the Flat…’

‘Sir, you are from the company Sir?’

‘What?’ Hitesh was nonplussed.

‘Your CEO will move in on Tuesday right?’

‘I am a Manager in the Admin Department.’ Now Hitesh was angry.

‘Okay Sir. Now what do you want?’

‘I want a maid who can clean the flat. It’s very dirty.’ Hitesh managed to make it sound as if it was the concierge’s fault that the flat was dirty.

‘Okay Sir. I will ask someone to come and meet you Monday morning Sir.’

‘But I want it cleaned today or tomorrow. We have furniture arriving early in the morning on Monday. A regular maid can wait.’

‘I don’t know Sir. Today is Saturday Sir. Saturday afternoon. Let me see Sir.’

We went back to the flat.

‘You know, if I were younger, I would have cleaned it myself. It’s not such a big deal, you know,’ Hitesh told me as he flicked a piece of paper off a window sill. I ignored the remark, pointedly looking at my shoes.

‘Call Charlie!’ Hitesh finally told me, with the air of a bankrupt businessman ordering a fire sale. ‘I am going to make that piece of shit work so hard, that he will remember it for the rest of his life.’

I called up Kunal. ‘Yes, we changed our minds. We want Charlie to do the cleaning. Yes, we will pay him what he had asked.’

Ten minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was Charlie.

As Hitesh and I stood by silently, Charlie picked up the broom and started sweeping the floor in the living room without much ado. Hitesh and I walked around the flat aimlessly.

‘Please don’t go there. I just swept it. Take a look at the hall? Isn’t the floor almost clean? Once I scrub it, it will be mast.’

‘Okay.’ ‘I hate the word mast.’ Hitesh muttered to me.

Soon Charlie was scrubbing the floor with soapy water. ‘Isn’t it looking mast?’ he would ask us every few minutes. ‘Yes, it’s looking better.’ Hitesh would respond. I kept quiet.

‘If I scrub the window panes with a cloth, it won’t look mast. I need a wifer for it. Else, it will have marks all over and the window will look darkish.’

‘Never mind, just clean it with a cloth.’

‘Okay,’ Charlie agreed.

‘Aren’t the floors really mast now?’

I had to admit that Charlie was doing a good job. However, Hitesh wasn’t impressed. ‘Listen, you’ve got to clean the doors and windows, remember.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘I’m going to make this little pipsqueak call me Sir,’ Hitesh muttered to me with a smile on his face.

‘How are you going to do it?’

‘Pay him an extra hundred. I’m sure he will do it. I never call anyone Sir. Not even my Sheth’ I laughed at Hitesh’s falsetto voice.

Watching Charlie clean the place was not unlike watching paint dry. It’s relatively comfortable watching paint dry if you are sitting rather than standing. Since there was not a single piece of furniture inside the house, we had to stand.

‘I’m going to use the loo.’

‘I’ve just cleaned the toilet!’ Charlie protested as he saw Hitesh open the toilet’s door.

‘I know. Does it mean no one can use it hereafter?’

When Hitesh came out he said, ‘there’s no point in hanging around here. I am going to go down and have a bite. You stay here.’

‘Actually, I’m hungry as well. I’ll also come down.’ I could tell that Hitesh didn’t like it all that much, but he said nothing. We went down and walked a bit till we came to a small kiosk by the road. Save for a teenager standing by the counter, munching on something fried and greasy, it had no customers.

‘I’ll have a vada pav,’ Hitesh announced.

‘I’m going to buy a packet of biscuits and eat it on my way back.’

‘You won’t satisfy your hunger with a packet of biscuits. Have a vada pav as well. Go on.’

‘No. No.’ There must have been something about the way I compressed my lips as I spoke that stopped Hitesh from pressing me any further.

Hitesh licked clean his oily thumb and forefinger and then used them to gingerly prise out his wallet from his hip pocket. Holding the brown wallet in the clean palm of his left hand, he gingerly took out a twenty rupee note and paid for his vada pav. However as he tried to put back his wallet, he dropped it. Before I could pick it up, the teenager who was leaving, bent down and picked it up. I grabbed it from him and told Hitesh, ‘turn around. Let me put it back for you.’

Hitesh’s trousers must have been a tad too tight for him and I had to use a bit of force to shove his wallet back inside his hip pocket.

‘Don’t you want to buy a packet of biscuits?’

‘No, I am no longer hungry.’ That got me a strange look, but I ignored it.

We went to the flat and Charlie was still hard at work.

‘Please leave your shoes outside. They are bound to be dirty!’

We stood around for some more time, both Hitesh and I surfing the internet on our mobile phones. I really don’t know how I would have survived those two hours if I didn’t have internet access.

Soon we heard water running from the washbasin and a few minutes later Charlie stood in front of us wiping his wet hands on his trousers. ‘All done!’ But Hitesh wasn’t done yet. ‘There are some stains on the front door. Here, take a look.’

Charlie promptly picked up a wet mop and a bottle of cleaning fluid, sprayed it liberally on the door and started scrubbing it enthusiastically. As soon as he was done, he ran over to the kitchen, put the fluid and wet mop on the kitchen top near the sink and went to the toilet to wash his hands once more. I walked around and looked. Charlie had done a good job.

‘There’s still so much dust and dirt everywhere!’ Hitesh muttered to me, ‘but this is the best this bastard can do.’

‘Now watch this,’ Hitesh told me. ‘Charlie, why won’t you call me Sir, like your Sheth does?’

Charlie looked at Hitesh, at a total loss for words.

‘Not that it matters to me, but I’d like to know why.’ Hitesh spoke very gently, not unlike a school master trying to understand a student’s dyslexia.

‘I just never call anyone....’

‘Charlie, if you call me Sir, I will pay you a hundred rupees more. Call me Sir and I’ll pay you a thousand rupees. If not, I can only pay your nine hundred. What’ll it be? A thousand or a nine hundred?’

Charlie had obviously never been offered a hundred rupees to address someone as “Sir”. He was puzzled, but not angry. ‘Why not? I will call you “Sir”. And you will...’

‘Pay you a hundred extra, a thousand rupees in all.’

‘Sir.’

‘Go on!’

‘I just did.’

‘Did what?’

‘Called you “Sir”.’

‘I didn’t hear it. Come on, once more.’

‘Sir. You are a “Sir”.’

‘Okay. Good lad. Now here’s the money.’ Hitesh took out his wallet and opened it. I looked at Hitesh and not his wallet. I could see his face fall. It was not very difficult to see why. Hitesh’s wallet didn’t have a single rupee inside! His cards were there, but the currency notes were gone.

‘Where’s my money?’ Hitesh demanded of the world at large. ‘That boy at the vada pav shop must have swiped it when he fell. He must have been very quick. How could he.............’

‘Where’s my thousand rupees?’ Charlie demanded of Hitesh.

‘Don’t worry. I have the money. I took out my wallet as Charlie looked on gratefully.

‘Do you have enough?’ Hitesh asked me. ‘If not, we can go to an ATM and get some money.’

‘I have, I have.. I have eight hundred and ninety rupees. And I have some change as well. I took out fifteen rupees in change.

Do you have any change?’ I asked Hitesh.

Hitesh dug into his pockets and came up with a two rupee coin. ‘Never mind, we’ll go to an ATM and get some money. And I want to find that boy who picked up my wallet.’

‘You aren’t going anywhere. I want my money first.’

‘Here’s nine hundred rupees.’ I gave the notes and coins to Charlie who pocketed the money. ‘And we’ll give you the rest soon.’

‘No, I want it now. Or else..’

‘Or else what?’ Hitesh was furious.

‘Or else, I’ll break your nose’ Charlie gripped Hitesh by his arm. I could see the colour drain out of his face. Hitesh was no street fighter! I too drew back frightened.

‘Listen, we have paid you nine hundred rupees. That was the agreed amount!’

‘Yes, but you made me call you “Sir”. Now pay me hundred rupees right away.’

‘That was just a joke!’

‘Was it? Well, it’s your turn now.’

‘What?’

‘Call me “Sir”!’

‘You got to be kidding.’

‘You better call me “Sir” or else...’

Charlie fist was much smaller than Hitesh’s or mine, but it was a lot more menacing.

‘Sir!’ Hitesh spluttered out the words.

Charlie seemed to be shocked as well. He had not expected such an easy capitulation.

‘Once more!’

‘What! I just called you.

‘But I called you "Sir" three or four times.’

‘Sir!’ This time, Hitesh spoke reluctantly, but his words were clear nevertheless.

As we walked to the nearest ATM machine, Hitesh and I didn’t utter a single word, other than Hitesh telling me, ‘make sure you are around when the furniture arrives on Monday.’

Hitesh withdrew a thousand rupees from the ATM after which he caught a prowling auto and quickly disappeared from sight. I slowly walked on to Bandra railway station. As I entered, I saw a rather healthy looking beggar, a man in his early forties. On an impulse, I gave him fifty rupees. I decided that I would be generous with every beggar I saw that evening.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Dirk Collier's "The Emperor's Writings" – A Book Review


With the exception of maybe Emperor Ashoka, no other Indian ruler has achieved as much name and fame as the great Mughal ruler Abu’l Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, more commonly known as Emperor Akbar or Akbar the Great. Akbar’s reign has been chronicled by his court historian Abul Fazal in his works that go by the names Akbarnama and Ain-i-akbari. Other historians, contemporaries of Abul Fazal such as Badayuni, Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi and Shaikhzada Rashidi, have also written biographies of Akbar. Akbar, in addition to his obvious empire building abilities, was a lover and patron of books and the arts. However, Akbar was most probably dyslexic and could barely write. Therefore, an autobiography of Akbar doesn’t exist. Until now that is. Belgian historian Dirk Collier has written a fictionalised autobiography of Emperor Akbar in the form of a series of letters from Akbar to his son and successor Prince Salim, later to be crowned as Emperor Jahangir.

Abkar’s story, is the story of how a 13 year old boy inherited a shaky and small empire, actually a slim stretch of land along the Yamuna and the Ganges, from his father Humayun who died in a freak accident (falling down the stairs of his library) and who had to fight very hard to hold on to his inheritance immediately after Humayun’s death. It is also the story of a visionary who envisaged a country where his subjects would like in peace and harmony, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Considering the fact that Akbar lived in the 16th century where everyone, Hindus, Shias, Sunnis and Christians, took their religion very seriously, such an aspiration was truly revolutionary. Akbar’s story, as narrated by Collier, can also be construed as a treatise (not unlike Kautilya’s Arthashastra or Sun Tzu’s Art of War) on how to build an empire and how to hold on to it. Most importantly, it a father’s advice to his son who the father thinks is not disciplined enough to inherit his mantle. There are lessons on so many matters which would be of use to his successor, such as how a smaller army could defeat a larger force, how Afghans could be beaten in Afghanistan, how a defeated enemy ought to be treated and the like. It is an entreaty from a father to his wayward son to mend his ways, though Prince Salim has let his father down in the most painful way possible – by having Abul Fazl, Akbar’s trusted friend, the author of Akbarnama, murdered.

Collier has managed to capture in this fictionalised autobiography the spirit of those tumultuous days when the Afghan rulers of Hindustan were being replaced by Turkomen and other Central Asian raiders who traced their lineage to Timur and Ghengis Khan. Descriptions of battles are immaculate and more importantly, not repetitive, though there are many, many battles. Collier has also managed to convey the various facets of Akbar’s personality, his (moderate) love of wine and women, his curiosity to learn new things, ranging from religion (of all hues) and culture to western weaponry. Collier’s language is light and simple and it is a pleasure to read, never dragging at any point, though his tome runs to just over six hundred pages (including tables and annexures).

One of the good things about this fictional autobiography is that certain sections have been narrated by Akbar’s personal physician Hakim Ali Gilani, Akbar’s tutor and friend Mir Abul Latif and his favourite wife Princess Salima. This ensures that the portrait drawn by Collier is not entirely with the same brush.

Towards the middle of the book we hear Abkar tell Prince Salim and his readers that his destiny was to build a united, powerful, invincible Hindustan. After that, once in a while, one finds statements that wouldn’t be out of context even today. When Akbar is desperate for an heir, he goes to Ajmir to seek the blessings of Shaykh Salim Chisti, a descendant of the famous Khwajah Muin-ud-din Muhammad Chisti. Akbar wants his descendant to be ideally born through his favourite wife, Princess Salima, his cousin and widow of Bairam Khan, who is also a descendant of the house of Temur. At that, Shaykh Salim Chisti advises Akbar to make his firstborn ‘a son of Hindustan.’ Shaykh Salim Chisti’s wish is later fulfilled. Prince Salim is born of his Hindu wife, the daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber. When Akbar makes plans to capture Kashmir, he says, ‘Is Kashmir not our natural border? Is it imaginable, is it conceivable that I would leave such an important land in the hands of a foreign ruler? Never! Kashmir belongs to Hindustan; it is mine!

It is well-known that Akbar’s grandfather Babur did not like Hindustan. Missing his native Samarkhand and Fergana, he laments in Baburnama that “Hindustan is a country of few charms. There are no good-looking people, there is no social intercourse, no receiving or paying of visits, no genius or manners. In its handicrafts there is no form or symmetry, method or quality. There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or food cooked in the bazaars, no hot baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks.” Babur always wanted to get back to Samarkhand and re-capture it. He never did. His grandson Akbar on the other hand, made Kabul and Khandahar a part of his empire and was in a position to conquer those Central Asian cities his grandfather yearned for. However, he never did. Collier has Akbar ponder thus. “… I was strongly tempted to march north, to Samarqand – where the bones of our great ancestor Temur the Iron are resting; Samarqand the priceless jewel that was stolen from my grandfather by the Uzbeg usurpers. But then again, I thought to myself: What does this have to do with me? Why should I spend the remaining years of my life in lands where I have never set foot – lands where, reportedly, winters are long and cold, the soil barren, good food scare and the women ugly?

Collier tells his readers that he has on the whole stuck with the known truth. However, it cannot be denied that, this story, as narrated by Akbar himself, shows Akbar in a very positive light. Was Akbar such a paragon of perfection, one of forced to ask? I am no historian, but I do know from sources such as Wikipedia that Akbar was not so liberal and tolerant of Hinduism and other faiths in his early days. In The Emperor's Writings, Collier shows Akbar in the most favourable light throughout. When Akbar commits a blunder, such as when he sends an inexperienced Raja Birbal, his Wazīr-e Azam (Grand Vizier), to lead a military force into Afghan badlands which gets Birbal killed along with his troops. Akbar concedes that it’s his fault and still smells of roses. However, it can be argued that this fictional autobiography has been written as if by an ageing Akbar towards the last years of his life and his memories are doubtless coloured by his experiences and no longer contain the prejudice of his early days.

Author Dirk Collier is a multi-faceted personality. He serves on the board of Johnson & Johnson in Belgium and a number of other companies. He is also a visiting Professor at the University of Antwerp.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Can Pakistan Manage a Return to Pre 9/11 Days?

Pakistan had a good deal going until that warm September morning in 2001 when jet planes heavily laden with aviation fuel crashed into Manhattan’s twin towers and the Pentagon. Granted that in 2001 Pakistan’s relationship with the US wasn’t as warm as it had been during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan nevertheless had ‘strategic depth’ in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. A nuclear power that had just been humbled in Kargil, it continued to arm and train Islamic fundamentalists who crossed the LoC in Kashmir to keep Indian forces on their toes. India screamed and ranted, but neither the US nor any other western power took much notice. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan by the Sharia rulebook, preventing widows from venturing outside their homes to earn a livelihood and stoning adulterers, but nobody really gave a damn. It was not that the Al Qaeda wasn’t active. It was. The Al Qaeda had detonated a truck bomb under the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in 1993. In 1998, US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, killing a couple of hundred people. In 2000, an explosive-laden boat rammed into US naval destroyer USS Cole in the Port of Aden. However, neither Pakistan nor the Taliban in Afghanistan was held to account for any of these events. Why? Because until 9/11, western security experts had not seriously linked the Al Qaeda to either the Afghan Taliban or to Pakistan.

Osama bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan when the 9/11 attacks took place made it clear that the Taliban in Afghanistan had provided sanctuary to the Al Qaeda. Retaliation from the US was swift and decisive. Shock and awe from the air was followed with boots on Afghan soil. Pakistan was arm-twisted and cajoled into taking part in the war again the Al Qaeda and their local guardians, the Afghan Taliban. Slowly the fighting spread across the Durand Line and Pakistani Taliban came into being. Swat and various federally administered tribal areas (FATA) were engulfed in the violence. Pakistani Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists unleashed a wave of violence against Pakistani security forces all over Pakistan and not just in Swat and FATA. There were suicide attacks targeting Pakistani forces. Pakistani forces prevailed in Swat, but the fighting continues elsewhere.

Soon it became evident that though Pakistan was incurring heavy losses in men and materials in fighting the Taliban, it was going easy on some of the fundamentalist outfits, mainly the ones involved in the Kashmir campaign. The offensive against the Pakistani Taliban has not yet been extended to North Waziristan. The Haqqani network has not been targeted. And now, after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, it seems obvious that at least a few ISI officers were protecting him.

Can Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban turn the clock back? Can the duo persuade the US administration and other Western governments that they no longer shelter the Al Qaeda (there isn’t much left of it anyway) and if left to their own devices, will not bother or trouble the West. The promise to not cause any trouble would not apply to Kashmir, of course.

A few days ago I watched an interview of Imran Khan, former cricketer and currently leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf in Pakistan, by an Indian TV channel. Imran Khan suggested a solution to the current impasse on the lines mentioned above. Of course Imran worded it differently. According to Imran, the US should stop all drone attacks and stop violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. The US should also pull out its forces from Afghanistan as soon as a consensus government is formed in Kabul. In return for stopping drone attacks, Pakistan would guarantee that Pakistani territory would not be used for attacks on US targets or US interests. On Kashmir, Imran generously suggested that India and Pakistan should negotiate in good faith, going so far as to suggest that India was probably supporting insurgents in Balochistan and not denying that Pakistan has been supporting insurgents in Kashmir.

The billion dollar question is, can Pakistan get away with all the double-crossing it has done till date and turn the clock back to pre-9/11 days? With so many commentators (mainly Indians and Afghans) wondering aloud when the cuckolded US will divorce Pakistan, is the situation as bleak for Pakistan as it sounds?

As the Taliban in Afghanistan have got yet another credible spring offensive going, the US has come to realise that it cannot win the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In my opinion, the US can win this war only if it manages to stop the flow of funds to the Taliban from patrons in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This is a really tall order and would involve dismantling the USA’s relationship with the ruling Al Saud family, cutting down its reliance on oil, not selling expensive weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States (at the cost of many defence sector jobs) and similar unthinkable measures.

Until the US forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, the US cannot afford to not have the outward show of co-operation it currently receives from Pakistan. Supply routes into Afghanistan run through Pakistan and if Pakistan were to be openly hostile to the US, US forces in Afghanistan will have a very tough time. Cutting off aid to Pakistan may result in the civilian government in Islamabad losing control to Pakistani Taliban, resulting in chaos. The US is already thinly stretched in Afghanistan and it just doesn’t have the capacity to open a new front in Pakistan.

After the death of Osama bin Laden, it will be possible for the Obama administration to convince the US public that the US has ‘avenged’ the 9/11 attacks and met the objectives behind the invasion of Afghanistan. If the US is unlikely to make further progress in Afghanistan and the US public’s thirst for revenge has been quenched, there is a very good chance that the US will walk out of Afghanistan, leaving behind Karzai to hold the fort as best as he can. It is unlikely that Karzai will last long once US forces leave Afghanistan, but would the US really care? Just before Kabul falls to the Taliban, the US might evacuate Karzai and offer him refuge in the United States. Provided Barack Obama woke up on the right side of his bed that morning.

Of course, it won’t be as simple as that to turn the clock back to pre 9/11 days. Granted the Afghan Taliban were never particularly keen on global dominance, can it be said that the Pakistani Taliban will not want to hold the reins of power in Islamabad? Would they not, after the departure of US forces from that region, made a grab for power from the democratic government in Pakistan? Capturing power in Pakistan would give the Taliban access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Most Pakistanis do not want Pakistan to be ruled by the Taliban, though they do want Afghanistan to be so ruled. However, how many Pakistani moderates are there who would grab the family rifle and head to the mountains to fight to keep the Taliban at bay? Islamic Fundamentalists on the other hand can be comfortable in the knowledge that their supporters are willing to give or shed blood for their cause.

In order to rid the region of US forces, it is possible that Pakistan may be able to persuade the Taliban to silence their guns. Both the Pakistanis and the Taliban would know that such a cease-fire would be temporary. However, Pakistan is so consumed by its desire to win Kashmir that it may be willing to place the entire country under the threat of a fundamentalist take-over and agree to a ceasefire with militants who have killed thousands of Pakistani security forces and who might use the cease-fire to rearm, regroup and prepare for a new war.

It is possible that the ISI officers sheltering Osama Bin Laden gave him up to the US forces, knowing full well that the US public would treat Osama’s capture as a victory over the dark forces and make it easier for Barack Obama to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan prior to the 2012 US elections. It’s even probable that Barack Obama, through the CIA, made a deal with the ISI. “Hand over Osama to us, dead or alive, and we’ll leave soon after,” the CIA might have told the ISI. The story that the US found bin Laden’s trail through bin Laden’s trusted courier Al-Kuwaiti might be just a smokescreen meant to save the informants within the ISI (and the ISI itself) from the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists. It is rather difficult to believe that the US SEALS managed to carry out a 40 minute long operation in the heart of Pakistan without Pakistani air force interceptors being scrambled or the local cops coming along to see what was going on. In normal circumstances, the US wouldn’t go out of its way to explain how it managed to track down bin Laden. The fact that so many detailed explanations are being given on how Al-Kuwaiti led them to bin Laden suggests that the real lead came from elsewhere. Here’s an Outlook India article which says what I am saying.

If the US agrees to turn the clock back to pre 9/11 days, it is very likely that a full-fledged civil war will flare up in Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan National Army units are composed of Tajiks and they are unlikely to stand by as the Pashtun Taliban return. Civil war will lead to an informal partition of Afghanistan into Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara enclaves and an uneasy truce thereafter. It is very difficult to predict if the Pakistani Taliban will manage to capture power in Pakistan. In my opinion, they are unlikely to do so outside the FATA (the fundamentalists do not have a leader who can rally the common man outside the federally administered tribal areas) though they may make an attempt and this could lead to a spurt of violence in the short term. However, it is easy to predict that the flow of money and fighters to the Kashmir valley will be renewed with vigour. Would the US or other western countries really care? No, because they didn’t care prior to 9/11.