Saturday, May 29, 2010

VIEW: Cyber Wars: Who killed Facebook? Not I - (The Un-Redacted Version)

Published in Daily Times / 29 May 2010

By Afrah Jamal

Try clicking on a news item about Pakistani students protesting the Facebook ban in Google. Try googling Muhammad for that matter. Just try it.

You cannot, can you?
Not if your internet service provider (ISP) is anything like mine. Not since the crackdown on Facebook.

And all because of the event planned for May 20, 2010 in the far recesses of cyberspace — an event that prompted Facebook users to start a campaign requesting other users to initiate a boycott. But a simple appeal to shun the social networking site that was hosting a page encouraging caricatures of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was apparently not enough. Making the ‘choice’ to quit did not quite satisfy. No, the users had to make a bigger statement.

No one knows how the religious parties got wind of this or at what point did the Lahore High Court (LHC) decide to enforce compliance to the boycott. But they did. Give them (the religious parties) enough rope and they will hang you. On May 19, 2010, they got the rope, from the judiciary, no less, and passed the sentence.

Facebook went dark. In Pakistan anyway.

With their newly issued licence to kill freedom, Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) went on a rampage, shooting down all ‘offensive links’ that came their way. Innocent Blackberries came in the line of fire briefly.

Now this may have been joyously heralded as a victory, but the nationwide ban on Facebook signals an impending death of democracy. Banning YouTube and Flickr justifies these fears. Though the ban on YouTube and Flickr was lifted after a few days, one wonders if this is the beginning of the end.

The problem with this ‘appeal’ was that before this anti-Facebook movement was launched, few had heard of the event. It is ironic that by rising en masse, the tidal wave of protests also raised the caricature story from the depths of obscurity to the heights of notoriety. In this world notoriety is not necessarily a bad thing for attention seekers. So this was pointless. Those who use the site for ‘social networking’ were unlikely to go hunting for the offensive content. They might have come across it by mistake. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) endured far worse humiliation at the hands of his enemies. His family was not immune from personal attacks. What is more, his word was challenged often by his closest companions. The tactics he used to counter these attacks would have disappointed the present day mullahs. A lethal combination of forbearance and compassion to silence his worst critics worked wonders.

So what have the boycotters established with this charade? How much do they love their Prophet (PBUH)? Or how much did this anger the Muslims? The world knows. What they do not know and probably never will is that when the going gets tough, we do not always spontaneously combust. That we, like our Prophet (PBUH), can take this and far worse without compromising on our principles.

Trying to fight one voice by silencing 180 million is not very bright. The alternative? Life, like a web browser, has options. Facebook-wallahs suggest blocking the offensive page for Pakistan. That is one. Quit — this is for the user — two. Ignore — this is for the state — three. Or stay and make your voice heard. Surfing the remains of the internet showed a lot of likeminded individuals out there who would choose this over the ban.

Now that the doors to Facebook have been temporarily shuttered, one wonders who gains from this aside from the religious factions and the users urging the boycott in the first place. The swiftness of LHC response seems to be politically motivated. Could this be a diabolical plot disguised as a religious reform to prevent free spirited souls from speaking out? Was this ‘event’ just a pretext for authorities looking for loopholes in the free speech clause? If so, you just gave it to them on a cyber platter. Using the Constitution to target constitutional rights – that is a new one. It is a crime against the people. But this time the people happened to be complicit in the crime. After the court order, a dangerous precedent has been set. Not that there haven’t been such attempts before. Back then civil society had some say in the matter.

Since the ban, many Facebook users have been sent underground and proxy servers have surfaced. And all the while the PTA has been hot on the trail, shutting down proxy sites as soon as they are discovered. Chasing down individual users who have chosen to bypass a tyrannical ruling somehow does not fit in with the official storyline of containing violence through the ban. Forcing them out of their home is bad enough. How unsporting of the PTA to stalk them across the internet to ensure compliance.

Had the moderate forces not joined in with extremist voices, this would have fizzled out in time. Instead, the users gave them an inch (temporary boycott), now they are asking for a mile (lifelong ban). And you wonder why the Taliban feel at home here. Yahoo News finally allowed access to the students protesting Facebook ban story. Names of the dissenters had been withheld to protect their identity. Standing up for what they believe in should not give the moderates the heebie-jeebies, just as falling in line with the fanatics should not give their ‘jihad against Facebook’ legitimacy. The longer the Facebook remains on trial, the harder it is to mount a rescue mission to free our rights or prevent a recurrence.

For Pakistanis, the right to speak is hard-earned. This ban shows that their days of looking over the shoulder are not behind them yet. Is free speech dead or just stunned? The court will rule on May 31, 2010. The people can rule today.

The End

2nd Image taken from: http://www.franklyfranklin.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/facebook_blackberry.gif

Update: 31 May 2010: Facebook access: restored.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, May 22, 2010
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Barack Obama

When Senator Obama — he was a senator at the time — penned his views on the American dream, his own state played a useful role in setting the tone. He was still two years away from the finish line but was well inside the perimeter of history-making events.

The book, he says, was born of conversations on the campaign trail to the US Senate. The vision is powered by his passion to bring American policies in sync with the new world order. As commander-in-chief, he gets to field test this optimised vision and attempts to close the rift, but as senator he could play around with ideas that best represented the new politics that he believed to be the need of the day. While he impresses upon the readers the importance of propping up this world order with some good old-fashioned values, he stops to grade the policies in place at the time. Rewiring a system that estranged the US from the world and, to an extent, its own people, and defusing the globe would require a superpower with actual superpowers. And where would one even begin.

A junior senator from Illinois had an idea, several actually. His thoughts about race, religion, values and, of course, politics provide the first inkling of the kind of policies Obama championed. It is a unique manuscript that simultaneously serves as a political manifesto, a guidance manual and a reference book. It is hard not to get carried away by the image of a leadership so well attuned to the plight of its people. But today more time will probably be spent trying to figure out exactly how this profound wisdom from a (offline) repository of ideas translates to online policies.

He casts a sweeping glance at American history to locate the core values still coursing through its veins, using the constitution to get his bearings right. What we get is a refined debate on the US’s unmined potential. So he dives in the deep end to make some sense of the reigning chaos. The world of politics, in Obama’s capable hands, appears to be neither bland nor insincere and the alternate storyline he suggests sounds perfectly plausible. Yet, he calmly admits that his views could be insufficiently balanced because, he states and I quote, “I am a Democrat after all.”

He is troubled by what he sees as the “gap between the magnitude of challenges and smallness of politics”; he condemns and commiserates with decisions made in a “complex and complicated world”. When he concedes the difficulties of finding the right balance between competing values, he steps back to take stock of the time when “9/11 played fast and loose with constitutional principles”, but admits that “even the wisest president and the most prudent Congress would struggle to balance the critical demands of collective security against the equally compelling need to uphold civil liberties”.

While he stands opposed to the Bush way of waging war, believing that “any exercise of American military power helps rather than hinders their broader goals: to incapacitate the destructive potential of terrorist network and win this global battle of ideas”, he also goes on to spell out his war plan. Going after imminent threats, or taking unilateral actions, are part of the agenda. So far, he has stuck to this script.

Obama speculates about the policy challenges looming on the horizon, seeing “long-term security dependent upon judicious projection of military power and increased cooperation with other nations where tackling global poverty and failed states is tied to national interests”. He observes current foreign policy debates oscillating between two modes — belligerence or isolationism — even though he understands that the battle with international terrorism is “at once an armed struggle and a contest of ideas”.

He journeys beyond borders to tackle foreign policy matters, but strays back to address domestic concerns like fiscal reforms, racial conflicts, offering a glimpse of what a serious healthcare reform may look like and taking the impact of globalisation into account when appraising the US economy or the “ability of its workers to compete in a free trade environment”. But this, he believes, is conditional upon “distributing the costs and benefits of this globalisation more fairly across the population”. As the first black president in Harvard Law Review’s 104-year-old history, Senator Obama was already being applauded for breaking the race barrier. His accession to the White House since has only confirmed his own assessment of the racial divide where he sees “prejudices in today’s America to be far loosely held and a majority would overlook race when making judgements about people”.

Audacity of hope helps outsiders understand the contemporary US better. They also get to learn how it came to play an increasingly larger role in the world and when Franklin D Roosevelt came to the conclusion that his nation “cannot measure [its] safety in terms of miles on any maps any longer”. In 2006, they would get a virtual tour of Obamaland. The man who was soon to charm people on the campaign trail leaps out from the pages. Whether the president is in there somewhere is for the readers to decide.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan at Knife’s Edge

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in DAILY TIMES (15 MAY 2010) under the heading: Anatomy of a crisis

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Post-2001, Pakistan is braced for impact, trying to keep its strategic interests from getting tangled up with other agendas. Yet, the country is not a first-time entrant in the game of power. It came out of the Soviet-Afghan adventure with its wits intact, and went on a (mis)adventure in Afghanistan aiming to gain strategic depth immediately afterwards, with carefully cultivated ‘assets’ and quietly managed sideshows with the leftover jihadists in Kashmir, to the dismay of many.

Accepting the lead role of an impartial observer in the second round of regional power games has brought it some unwanted attention from extremist quarters and left it shaken to the core. Allies may be footing the bill for this performance but ordinary Pakistanis are paying the price. It has been an unseasonably busy few years, what with keeping terror at bay, restoring democracy, safeguarding the judiciary and preventing the trend of radicalisation from spreading.

The late Naqvi (1928-2009), a prominent journalist, is an astute observer, who provides a bird’s-eye view of a region feeling the deadly blowback of its policies — past and present — geared up for the ultimate fight for survival. Add to this an economy, which, he opines, has been made bankrupt by trying to keep up with the Indian Joneses.

Little surprise, then, that the nation is facing its most challenging set of problems in its 62-year history. The new regime has its hands full, but its present set of policies, towards India and Afghanistan at least, according to the writer, are unsustainable and a prescription for trouble. His view that the country is being run for the benefit of the top capitalists and the US reflect his feelings for the allies.

Naqvi championed human rights and founded the ‘Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy’ and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). He, like so many others, must have read the writing on the wall when he decided to fashion some new parameters for success from the outdated policies lying around.

This is a posthumous publication that follows the transformation of Pakistani civil society, the vegetative state of affairs, and picks up on the outside influences that seem to be shaping Pakistan’s foreign policy. Naqvi screens the past for signs of change, settling on the judicial crisis and Red Mosque debacle as turning points for one regime, and focusing on the subsequent spin-offs that have affected the course of another. While going back and forth between the two regimes, he casually notes that it is as if Musharraf is still running the show from his retirement retreat, for all the difference it has made.

Most of his concerns have been echoed in the mainstream media with growing urgency. He thinks that blindly following the American piper will end badly and takes stock of Western contingency plans should the unthinkable occur and extremism prevail. In his assessment, this worst-case scenario is preventable by allowing a working democracy to continue (no sudden overthrows) and “letting the rule of law prevail to facilitate economic, social reforms and using political reforms to resolve conflict situations”.

He explores options still open to a nation in freefall. His solution is to introduce some drag by asking for withdrawal from the American Asian adventure, but without working against allies or supporting the extremists. When Naqvi suggests a resolution of problems through democratic methods, not American dictates, he will no doubt find many takers in today’s charged environment.

Yet, where he ascertains the bitter cost of this strategic partnership, he is also not afraid to take a swipe at cowardly parties that decry drone attacks to gain political mileage, pointing out that those who favour this war should have the moral courage to accept the drone presence in Pakistan.

He scrutinises the new age phenomenon of the local Taliban with a practised eye, referring to the collateral damage as the Taliban’s collateral advantage. But even as he suggests a change in tactics, he is under no illusions about the Taliban’s agenda. He sweeps aside the religious undertones to reveal their true colours, pointing out that “the course of Pakistan is being subverted in the name of Islam, a favourite alias of different militant outfits fighting for their own narrow ambitions of power”.

That they must be destroyed is a given, but he has little confidence in any foolhardy approach that relies purely on military might where chances of making headway “by acting thoughtlessly like the US administration” lessen. Instead, he sees a war where civilian casualties trump militant deaths and militant recruitment increases due to resentment against Pak-US-led bombings. Shortsighted and suicidal are the words he uses for this strategy.

Pakistan at Knife’s Edge is an exploratory work that proposes alternate routes that are perhaps less likely to end in disaster. While it covers a lot of ground and makes good calls along the way, it also keeps circling back to the points already made earlier in the narrative, which can be very distracting. M B Naqvi’s parting shot aimed at the fa├žade of democracy, however, will make up for any shortcomings.

Roli Books;
Pp 260;
Rs 650
Author: M B Naqvi

Saturday, May 8, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The 50th Law of Power: Fear Nothing By Robert Greene and 50 Cent. Reviewed by Afrah Jamal.

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / 8 May 2010 under the heading, LEARNING FROM THE 50's

It is blue and gold and it is all about you — the present day ‘you’, planning a rendezvous with destiny, flanked by fear and unhappy at the prospect of rocking that nice boat. This version of you tiptoeing around people’s feelings (sweet), working up the courage to do ‘something grand’ and looking aggrieved at having missed that turning to ‘greatness’ yet again, can use some perspective.

The 50th Law of Power: Fear Nothing is a one on one session with 50 Cent and Robert Greene, designed to give everyone a shot at a life unencumbered by the fear we were just talking about. 50 Cent is a former hustler, present rapper from the hood. Robert Greene has authored books like 33 Strategies of War, 48 Laws of Power, etc.

Robert Greene you get. But 50 Cent!

Their wildly different backgrounds — one roamed the mean streets of Southside Queens, the other walked the mean corridors of power — similar experiences and combined perspectives are used to provide an accurate read of one’s inner fears. This fear manifests itself in a hundred different ways and in all its manifestations has the same debilitating effect.

While Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) models the 50th law, Robert Greene provides actionable intelligence useful in isolating fear from the complex forces that govern our lives and avail the fast narrowing window of opportunity that comes by once in a while.

The 50th Law of Power is a fascinating study into the ways of the world to give those vying for a good place a sporting chance at success. Greene runs down familiar scenarios singling out “common foes” with advice on how to defend or advance, takes apart daily encounters for telltale signs of fear and does a forensic analysis on the people we meet. He also identifies the 50th law practitioners through their “supreme boldness, unconventionality, fluidity and sense of urgency”. The darkness from 50 Cent’s repertoire of moves serves to illuminate the path to fearlessness. Together, they tap into our warped view of the world that stands in the way of all that can be accomplished and cannot be, a world where every second a victim is claimed by fear, rational or irrational; a world just waiting to be conquered. Both men have done a cold appraisal of the surroundings to create a revised dictionary of rules and regulations to match the slick new reality.

Greene’s sketches of classic fearless types who fashioned a new way from the remains of the broken yellow brick road provide the foundation for his case. He suggests using the “Fearless Approach” to reprogramme natural impulses and adapt. “Fearless types,” he reflects, “have often had to face a lot of hostility in their lives and they invariably discover the critical role that one’s attitude plays in thwarting people’s aggression” (page 129). He goes on to add that “...when you submit in spirit to an aggressor or to an unjust and impossible situation, you do not buy yourself any real peace...you encourage people to go further...they sense your lack of respect and feel justified in mistreating you.” He also notes, “If they sense that you are the type of person who accepts and submits, they will push and push till they have established an exploitative relationship with you” (page 131). “By a paradoxical law of human nature,” he continues, “trying to please people less is more likely to earn their respect in the long run.”

He rifles through the past to show that the fearless types in history inevitably display a higher tolerance for repetitive, boring tasks and that ‘aha’ moment is preceded by an intense learning process. For instance, the forced isolation brought on by London plague that led Newton away from Cambridge also led him towards his destiny (page 214).

“Keys to Fearlessness” reveal the guiding principles to abide by if one is to master the art of living fearlessly. “Reversal of Perspectives” flips classical interpretations of terms like opportunist, egotism, etc, on their head (page 45). It declares dreamers to be “sources of greatest mistakes”, showing realists to be inventors, innovators with an imagination, attuned to the environment, who make capable guides in hard times.

Featured here are the people who, instead of surrendering to their fate, discarded the assigned post of victims and came out as victors. Some went ahead to take on bigger roles of visionaries (Edison), leaders (Napoleon), and abolitionists/writers (Fredrick Douglass).

The book promises that bringing a 50 Cent style street savvy to survive works not only in the corporate world but it can also be used to thrive in any environment. But walking in 50 Cent’s shoes can be uncomfortable. The hood is hardwired with explosive situations and can go off any instant. That explains the jaded tone of the book. 50 Cent’s philosophy was to outlast, outwit, outplay. Lack of scruples, a fair amount of guile and aggression may have been a part of the game, but their presence can be disconcerting in a ‘civilised’ world. Yet, the laws, in their toned down form are sound in essence even if their origins are, well, less so. Choosing to follow the 50th law can be liberating. All it asks is for you to take back the rights to your own life story, where fear has a recurring role, and explore some alternative endings.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Boom Boom Shahid Afridi

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Book Compiled & Edited by Asif Noorani

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / 01 May 2010

Cricketers, poor souls; they carry the weight of the world and the hopes of their nation. Legends in their fields, these celebrated few have a nationwide cult following. The sporting arena confers dual citizenship on the chosen. Time stands still when these demigods are in true form. The world ends when they are average mortals. These men walk a fine line between celebrity and infamy, crossing over at inopportune moments and tried by public opinion each time they do. That is where the pitchfork-wielding public comes in. Their passion for the game runs deep.

Shahid Afridi is Pakistan’s greatest asset. But he also suffers from a condition that makes him do funny things at the wrong moments. Afridi has provided fans with endless entertainment and a reason to live. He has also stomped on their hopes and snuffed out their dreams.

Boom Boom Shahid Afridi is being touted as the first book ever written about a sportsman, who, according to one writer, ranks amongst the most feared players in the international arena. An exceptional bowler, he may be, a force to reckon with, he certainly is, but while he puts the fear of God in his opponents, many have started to fear for him, especially after his latest stunt that involved some jaw-dropping antics where literal jaw dropping and an unfortunate chewed up cricket ball were involved. That and a failure to address his core weaknesses have prompted smitten fans to be cured of their infatuation.

Yet, it is difficult to completely sever ties with someone who hits rock bottom only to emerge with a rock solid performance under his belt. His fickle nature has been touched upon repeatedly; even the writer admits that “the only thing predictable about him is his unpredictability”. In fact, his failure to stick to the script is a cause for concern. His talent, however, has never been questioned.

Into this rarefied atmosphere, the player gets a brief reprieve in the form of a little book that expands upon the Afridi mythology. Asif Noorani, a self-confessed “armchair cricketer” and a veteran journalist has simply packed together interviews and published articles in a neat little bundle. Here, Afridi’s, dare we say, stellar career spanning 13 years has been condensed into 75 pages. So, while a legion of followers wait for a soul-searching piece based on their much-idolised cricketer’s hopes, dreams and unresolved issues, they can peruse a relatively lightweight exploration of his crowning achievements, with some spectacular failures served on the side.

The writer leads with an interview with Afridi and gives way to renowned cricket commentators like Kishore Bhimani, Zaheer Abbas and Chisty Mujahid, among others. Afridi’s mentors have also been brought on board to celebrate his undeniable genius and assess his volatile history. Asif Noorani has astutely selected articles that best represent the cricketer’s fiery career — from the accidental rise to fame of a rookie player who made ODI history to the calculated arrival at superstardom of a seasoned pro.

Saad Shafqat observes a man who has produced as many “detractors as devotees” and fuelled as much “fervour as fury” (page 45). Another critic points out that many cower and some shriek when “the great” shakes their hand and walks one through his metamorphosis from bowler to all rounder, senior statesman and inspiring leader. Wasim Akram, Afridi’s favourite captain, weighs in stating that he has a “bowler’s psyche and not a batsman’s mindset, making him reckless at batting”. That his unbroken record of scoring the fastest century in 37 balls still prevented him from getting a permanent place in the test team is lamented upon in ‘Afridi’s new avatar’, given that he was an early favourite. Saad Shafqat’s riveting analysis titled ‘Flamboyance personified’ is not to be missed.

According to the writer, the book was due to be out after World Cup twenty-twenty, June 2009, but now includes figures from the ICC Champions Trophy, making it an updated version designed to give fans their daily Afridi fix in a concentrated dose. Waseem Akram’s words leap out from the back cover stating that a book of this kind was long overdue. Boom Boom Shahid Afridi can be classified as ‘Afridi for beginners’ — more of a guide book through Afridiland with pretty pictures, dry facts and sharp observations, recommended for ages 6-60 and above. For those still smarting under some recent loss or ball tampering controversy, it is a reminder of just how great he can be, when he wants.

Meanwhile, disillusioned fans, struck by the unfairness of it all mutter darkly about the egregious waste of standby talent forced to watch from the wings while Afridi squanders opportunities. They believe that the player has yet to reach his full potential despite his “significant achievements”. At the moment, they are not feeling particularly charitable towards this man. They decry him as a pariah; he refuses to stay marooned on the isle of mortification. They reserve a place for him in the hall of fame; he fails to show. His is a classic tale of love, loss, redemption and some more loss. Out now.

Images Courtesy of: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Sport/Pix/columnists/2011/3/31/1301607062529/Shahid-Afridi-007.jpg

BOOK REVIEW: Sahib: The British Soldier in India / Author: Richard Holmes

Published in Daily Times / Apr 24, 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

They came for the trade. And found something better. When the dust settled, an empire had changed hands. The architects of the change, who bore witness to the rise and fall of the mighty empire, imprinted their impression upon their adopted homeland. The land, in turn, left an indelible mark on the newcomers.

Richard Holmes, himself a soldier and a leading military historian, looks beyond the empire carved from the remains of another civilisation, steering past the colonial designs of the company and later the crown. He seizes upon the red coat and brings the British solider to life by sharing extracts from his letters and references from archived documents. Using their words to animate the land of the pagoda tree (page xxv ) — as 18th century India came to be known — and letting their experiences set the tone, he rekindles the magic that went with the trappings of a sahib and the horror inherited with and inflicted upon the land. A land seen as a “patchwork of races”, evoking the sentiment that it was “not yet a nation until time and civilisation rub off the sharp distinctions of caste and soften the acuteness of religious jealousies” (page 43).

Sahib is a leisurely stroll down memory lane — passing by old battlefields where the elements decided the fate of men more than enemy fire; quietly manoeuvring through the site of classic cavalry charges where “hesitation was fatal” and “determination won the day” and heading out to the quayside to meet the new arrivals stalked by death at every turn.

It takes the underbelly of the British Raj in “India’s sunny clime” where light and dark come together to complete the soldiers’ story. Thus compelled, one puts aside the clean cut, storybook version of the Sahib and settles for a darker and edgier alternative by entering an atmosphere charged with excitement, marked by the anticipation of victory and heavy with the presence of death. These men earn respect and admiration for enduring unimaginable hardships. Fear and revulsion swiftly follow as one goes deeper in this wonderfully rich, shockingly violent world where brutality appears to be the trademark of the outgoing and, also, the incoming rulers.

Any romantic notions of war are quickly dashed by the series of events where victors and vanquished are shown to be “equally brutish” and rules of war do not apply. Oftentimes, atrocities are committed by both — one, lashing out with summary public punishment against natives (page 58), the other, unleashing their wrath upon innocents. There are accounts of officers being tried for attacking fellow officers but rarely persecuted for doing the same to the natives. A soldier’s life is shown to be also forever affected by the “living and enduring presence” (page 81) of the Indian revolt (mutiny) — 1857.

The military man of the time comes in different shades. We meet soldiers who have vowed to die for Queen and the country and are bound to go wherever the regiments were posted, closely followed by the soldier without regiments who is an officer in civil appointments (page 198). And mixed among this noble lot are the soldiers of fortune — mercenaries driven by self-interest whose actions merited a remark in the House of Commons that “the Indian society was being corrupted by money grubbing activities of the Company’s servants in a clear breach of the sacred trust that one powerful nation held towards another” (page 52).

One sees the repugnant practices of the time and also comes across rampant racism; the natives are demons/black miscreants whose voices became discordant sounds and their wealth ended up as spoils of war.

The soldier’s vantage point enlightens and entertains. That the 73rd Highlanders (1780) could take the Indian men to be women because of their “genteel and delicate mien” is bewildering. The bond forged between the British officers and the Pathan finds a unique place and a special mention; after Word War I, the appeal of the Frontier endures, where allegiance was given not to the government but to a man. The sepoy has been singled out for praise as are the poor bheesties (water carriers) for fidelity and bravery in every Indian campaign. Contrasts are drawn between officers who “treated their servants with indifference”, and those who forged lifelong bonds. Trivial details find their way into the narrative, from the complexities of travel to the “sheer luxury of an Indian camp’s life”. The story also makes room for “the fishing fleet”, as the few European women who headed East in search of the many eligible men came to be known, and the heartbreak that routinely followed the families.

In this exhaustively researched, deeply moving epic, the Sahib masters the art of war while surviving the rigours of peacetime living, feels “like a lord”, runs into debt despite the low cost of living, and learns to “sling the bat” ending up with a dreadful concoction of English cum “Hindustani” miraculously understood by the natives, before being escorted out of the pages. He summons a bygone era and relies on the testimonies of his peers for a place in history.

VIEW: My Fair, Goon? “By Jove: He Nearly Did it….”

Published in CHOWK Aug 27, 2009

A satirical take on Rehman Dakait

Here lies Rehman

Day Job: local Godfather; often mistaken for the Fairy Godfather.
Primary Residence: the Hood – Lyari.
Forwarding Address (had he lived): the Senate?
Recently discarded Motto: ‘Be Scared’.
New party Motto: ‘We Care’.

Once featured in the sport section, a regular in crime and rumored to have been vying for a spot in the political pages – the fellow may have started his career playing football for ‘Rexer XI’ as a youngster; he spent it playing havoc with Karachi’s law and order as a gang leader. At the time of his death, however, his business card would have read ‘social worker’ and (soon to be) ‘smarmy politician’. This mystifying turn of events will leave the most jaded among us intrigued, horrified, worried and a little speechless. Here is a chap who embodied stereotypical villains - sans the cat, Al Capone - without the Fedora, and maybe Vlad the Impaler – on a good day. Isn’t political contender cum social reformist a complete departure from standard ‘Family’! fare?

Karachi’s underworld did not think so. Abdul Rehman Baloch alias Rehman Dakait (Robber) - commanded a posse of hit-men, ran a lucrative business of arms/drug smuggling, gambling, extortion and kidnapping for ransom from Lyari. It was a commercial success. His dad – Bandit Sr. would have been proud. As would be Norman Bates, for both men, it seems, had unresolved issues with ‘Mother’. Rehman’s entrepreneurial spirit earned him the title of ‘Most Wanted’, 200 registered FIR’s and a bounty on his head. The bounty remained unclaimed as he eluded capture for decades and escaped police custody twice. No one understood the importance of the 3C’s -‘clout, connections and a (getaway) car’, better than the Bandit.

Over time, the Bandits Empire grew; his ‘popularity’ with the justice department soared, and the bounty hit a 50 Lakh (5 Million) rupee mark. When the law (finally) caught up with him and his 3 accomplices (moonlighting as PPP leadership security guards), he had added ‘philanthropist’ and ‘chairmen peace committee’ to this fatal mix, ended a long running feud with a rival, recycled ill-gotten wealth by investing in social development projects and won over the downtrodden residents of Lyari by playing Santa. Needy families counted on a ‘Bandit and Co.’ sponsorship, during the wedding season.

This custom of leaving thoughtfully chosen relief packages at some poor mans doorstep was in stark contrast to the kindly messages (pay up or be kidnapped) left for the elite. But crime, it turns out, was just a hobby; politics/reformist was his destiny and the road to alleged redemption. Or maybe the bandit just got bored. In 2008, his offer to trade immunity and an end to gang war for servitude as a public servant went down surprisingly well with authorities. In his aspirations for a higher office, he assumed a mask of benevolence, a sobriquet of ‘Sardar Jee’ and became the go-to man for would-be Cops seeking recommendations.

He died as he had lived; engaged in his favorite game of ‘Cops and Robbers’ in a police ‘encounter’. His abrupt departure to the afterworld left Lyari residents inconsolable. They were last seen shaking their fists at harmless police wallahs or whoever masterminded the final encounter. Though, they did manage to give their beloved bandit a memorable send off. This bizarre, if sinister interpretation of ‘community service’, must be working as ‘Bandit supporters’ appeared to outnumber detractors who had wanted his head on a platter. What will Karachi do without a wily mobster and – what would have been an equally wily politician – a champion of liberal politics, who merged a touch of social responsibility and the right amount of moral bankruptcy with a healthy dose of unscrupulousness? Why, wait for another of course.

This husband of 3, father of 14 nominated his youngest son as his heir and next in line to a (borrowed) fortune and (bloody) empire. Here are two interesting revelations about the underworld A. Mobsters have wills and B. 6 year olds are eligible for Mobster training. Meanwhile, Rehman’s reign of terror and altruism is ‘to be continued’ as his right hand man carries on the bandit’s noble! work, oblivious to the 10 Lakh (1 million) bounty on his head.

Lyari remains a no-go area, even though, this character who sought respectability over the hangman’s noose, is being eulogized as the local ‘Robin Hood’ by his devoted subjects, a ‘Mujahid’ (Crusader) by a well respected social worker and a veritable saint by his next of kin. In life, he outsmarted the law. In death, he upstaged the system. So, if there is a lesson in here, somewhere; it got trampled underfoot by irony. True Story!

“Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.” - GK Chesterton.