My three-day visit London last week after nearly two years was both happy and sad. Happy because I got to meet my daughter, sisters and niece and three very close friends. Sad because I didn’t have time to meet many of the others, though there are not so many left, most having handed in their dinner pails.
Geoffrey Tucker the raconteur is dead. His wife Naomi has established a round table in his memory in the Stafford Club in St. James’s. Great lunches and dinners he used to host, old Geoffrey. Going to London is no longer the same. One learned a lot from him. I miss Geoffrey. I miss his wisdom.
Colin Kilkelly has been driven out to Morocco because of the high cost of living and the low return for one’s labour. He used to be the bureau chief of ‘South’ magazine in Karachi during the Eighties.
My visit was sad too because after nearly two years the decline was palpable, the air of doom and gloom overhanging. If you live there you don’t feel it so acutely. London is no longer so joyous and vibrant; more like a hideout for the filthy rich. From being the playground and investment hub for Arabs it has become a playground and investment hub for Russians. It was like everyone was waiting for worse. At the rate the world is going, it will come.
The first friend I met was General Pervez Musharraf; you’ve heard of him I’m sure. He was hale and hearty and in good fettle, going to Dubai the next day. I won’t blame you if you don’t believe me, but we hardly talked politics. We hardly ever do, even when he was in power. Amongst many things, we half-seriously talked of writing another book. Now that’s grist for the mills of some baldies, though this time we will talk of people bewigged and hair-transplanted, not of slapping coots on the shiny pate. Why not? His first book, ‘In the Line of Fire’, was an international bestseller, on top of the charts for at least a year and translated into 30 languages. Its has huge earnings, yet people wonder, “Where is all his money from?” Not to mention the some dozen lectures he delivers every year for which he gets between $100,000 to $350,000 each. So perhaps a second book will be written, telling all I hope, if not for now then for posterity. Only then will you know the other side of the picture. Anyway, the general’s table was great considering his wife Sehba wasn’t in town. I’m sure my friend Hussain Haroon would have approved of the repast.
The second friend was Doctor, now also Lord Khalid Hameed. Great guy he, one of the last of the gentlemen of Lucknow of yore. He’s setting up a heart, brain and cancer hospital in London. We went to the Bombay Brasserie, now sadly a shadow of its former self. It was virtually empty. Hussain Haroon-like, he sent back the chicken tikka as too dry. The maître de and chef were mortified and couldn’t stop apologizing. My daughter Fazila found it funny. “The customer is king, kid, even when he – or more likely, she – is wrong.” She immediately labeled me sexist, an opening I deliberately gave her to wind her up. Its great fun. Khalid and I didn’t talk of old times; we rarely do. Our crowd lives in the present and talks of the future. Odd bods we perhaps, never remaining mired the past, good, bad, ugly or even beautiful, for it can fast become a mental quagmire. The only past we talk of is about our friends gone to live with the stars, God bless them all.
The third was Shaukat Aziz; I’m sure you’ve heard of him too. We didn’t talk of the past either. He had just finished with an all-day board meeting of one of the many companies on whose boards he is, I don’t know why. Nattily dressed as always, he took me to the new branch of the famous Chinese restaurant Hakkasan off Berkeley Square that is the flavour of the palate these days. The food was glorious. If Hussain Haroon is reading this, which he most likely is, he must make it a point of going there the next time he’s in London. No political talk at this one either. Instead, we spoke of the global economy. The picture painted was gloomy too, but not as gloomy as some say. We all have to pay for our greed for that is an imperative of the process of seminal change. Then guess who turned up from the past? Hasan: the man who was always behind Shaukat in more ways than one. Now he is with foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar who was on a visit to London too for some meeting that was forgotten before it started.
Then there are things that are happy for some and sad for others. I was happy because we had whitewashed England in the cricket Test series. To the English it was an unmitigated disaster. Mention cricket and the hangdog look became more hung. “What is the world coming to,” they asked, “the number one team in the world being pasted like this?” By that time they had won two of the One Day Internationals, but they were not to be consoled. “That’s not real cricket. Test matches matter, not these slam bam games.” They are quite right too. They know their cricket. They are purists. No wonder, considering they invented the game.
“Let me put it in a nutshell,” I said. Bowlers win Tests; batsmen win slam bam. Pakistan has great bowlers, so we won the Tests. Pakistan has unbalanced batting, so we lost the slam bam. Its as simple as that.”
Our captain is actually Sleeping Beauty in Misbah’s body. At the crease he goes to sleep and puts his team under pressure. He just cannot score when needed. After the Test series win, the team should have been on a high. Instead, its morale fell precipitously. Could the late addition of Sania Mirza’s husband have something to do with it? Old warhorse, he’s been in great battles but should now be put to stud. Another old warhorse, Shahid Afridi, also entered the fray. We had won everything before these two warhorses appeared; we lost everything except one after they came. Great showman though he is, Afridi rarely comes good with the bat these days, but nearly always with the ball. Could his swagger have something to do with the decline in the mood? Afridi’s personality and demeanour are larger not only than life but also his batting statistics, though he is one of the top three slam bam bowlers. Worse, Sania Mirza’s husband smells of bookies; Afridi has been caught cheating twice, but to make Pakistan win, not lose. But cheating is cheating, no matter what the objective. It is this sort of mindset that pollutes the dressing room. Which is why we should never include our three jailed cricketers back into the side, however sad you might feel, unless you wish to teach young minds that cheating pays. If you get caught cheating it should be the end of the road for you.
Then came devastating sadness for me on the last day of my trip. “Have you heard the news?” asked Ali G as I call my son on the phone from Islamabad. “No, what?” I asked, fearing the worst. “Your friend Marie Colvin is dead, killed in Syria.” Fait Maison, the restaurant I was having breakfast in with my daughter Fazila swam before my eyes. I had so wanted to meet Marie during my visit, not least to talk of the Middle East and get a firsthand account from her, but I knew that she was in Syria. “Next time,” I thought to myself. Next time will never come now – a curse on the house of Assad many times over. Is power so magnetic that it is worth committing genocide for it, crimes against God? I feel sorry for people in power. Satan enters their souls.