KARACHI DIARY: A nation of killjoys —Irfan Husain
Everybody knows about the betting, as they do about bootlegging, but society and the government prefers to turn a blind eye to these very normal activities. Meanwhile, the exchequer foregoes billions in taxes
Watching the early images of the impact of the earthquake that struck the northern regions of Pakistan, I was dismayed by the shambolic rescue efforts that flashed on various TV channels. I wonder what would happen to Karachi if a tsunami or a Katrina-strength hurricane were to strike our coast. Or, for that matter, a Mumbai-style monsoon deluge. As it is, a quarter inch of rainfall causes several deaths due to electrocution. The sad fact is that we are woefully unprepared for major natural catastrophes.
Shortly after Katrina struck the southern coast of the United States, a woman at a dinner party smugly informed me that this was God’s punishment for American policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Say what?” I asked her. “Surely the poor black victims in New Orleans had not ordered the invasion of the two countries. And as far as I knew, neither the White House nor the Pentagon had been affected by Katrina.” But I am sure there are many in Pakistan who hold the same views as she does.
I wonder what divine message they have read into the earthquake that has levelled entire villages and demolished so many buildings. We won’t know the exact number of those killed in this disaster for a while, but it is already around 20,000.
A year or more ago, I wrote an article in this space called “A farewell to the turf”, renouncing horse racing after my many fiascos. I had recalled my repeated attempts to spot the winning horse, and failing utterly to do so. Well, I am glad to report that I seem to have beaten my jinx, thanks to my old friend Tariq Aziz who took me along to the Lahore Race Club for an evening of racing. I was very impressed by the overhead lighting that permits the nags to be raced until well after dark, as well as the general layout of the racecourse and the electronic screens that brought the action up close.
While I did win, the odds of most of the winners were prohibitive: in one race, the winner paid 10 paisas on the rupee. You can’t retire on these odds, that’s for sure. But the fact that except for two races, the favourites won repeatedly does seem to indicate that they were fairly run.
I kept asking Tariq to let me know when a dark horse was expected to win at 6-1, but he just laughed and said I was welcome to bet on those odds, but he wasn’t going to. As it is, I was ahead by six thousand or so. This will just about pay for a meal for two when I go to London for a fortnight over Eid. But as Tariq said, it’s better than losing, so I won’t whinge.
Incidentally, the booklet giving details of horses, their jockeys and owners warns on its back cover: “Race [sic] will be Held Strictly Without Betting & Wagering.” Picture several tons of expensive horseflesh racing for fun. Our capacity for hypocrisy and self-deception never fails to amaze me. Obviously, bookies are operating at all three racecourses in the country, except that the state does not get the tax that it raked in before the ban on betting in 1977.
Everybody knows about the betting, as they do about bootlegging, but society and the government prefers to turn a blind eye to these very normal activities. Meanwhile, the exchequer foregoes billions in taxes and duties, money that ends up in the pockets of smugglers, bootleggers and bookies.
Indeed, the one act that might earn Jam Sadiq, the late and un-mourned chief minister of Sindh, a place in heaven is his decision to issue scores of permits allowing shops to flog booze to non-Muslims in his province. This way, the Sindh government earns a sizeable amount in excise duty, ‘non-Muslim’ tipplers are happy, and society can keep up the pretence that we are a pious nation. Clearly, a win-win situation if ever I saw one.
The fiscal managers of Punjab have yet to see the light, and allow the sale of booze only from a handful of hotels. Of course, all these restrictions are easily bypassed by bootleggers who supply to their regulars at short notice.
For some reason I still have been unable to fathom, we think we Pakistanis are better Muslims than anybody else. For instance, the airport duty free shops in every Muslim country I have been to stock alcohol as a matter of course. I admit I have not visited Saudi Arabia (and nor do I intend to), but other Muslim states do not seem to have the same hang-up about booze that we do. Indeed, we are the champion killjoys of the Islamic world, frowning on anybody who wants to have fun.
Every now and then, there are people who want to ban kite-flying. The mullahs’ government in NWFP periodically blocks cable TV operators. For these people, faith has been reduced to a list of things you can’t do. The spiritual element has been left somewhere in the background. I wish the bearded brigade would lighten up a bit: life is too short to go around with a frown on your face all the time.
The writer is a freelance columnist