Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A kind of Life

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People get the impression I am rich. I am not.

I was commissioned in the army (Air Defence, then called Anti Aircraft Artillery) in April 1972. I wasn’t the classic heroic soldier. Being the first ever in the entire family to have joined the profession of arms, I had no idea how it worked. But that’s not the point.


The point is that I have been broke all my life. When someone – I don’t now recall where it was, but it must have been in the last week in the military academy – advised us cadets on how much Defence Services Officers Provident (DSOP) fund it would be useful to have deducted every month from our salaries, I was quite averse to the idea. Why save, I argued, when by the time you were ready to use it, it was devalued way below what you were so diligently putting away. Consequently, I opted for the minimum deduction of Rs 25 per month. This too I made because by army rules I simply had to contribute a DSOP.

In early 1978 I resigned my commission. It took fully six months for the process to be finalised. On 10 September that year I was finally SOS – Struck off Strength. In all this time, six years and five months of commissioned service I had steadfastly continued to contribute Rs 25 to my retirement funds. Except in the last few months when a man as diligent, bookish and exact as Major (Later Lt Col) Habib ur Rehman Kyani forced me to increase it to Rs 250 per month. And that also in order to pay a lower income tax.

Now in the months between giving in my resignation and my final demobilisation, I made plans. Between them my father and uncle owned three hundred acres of agricultural land in Thal near Mankera. Rather fancifully, I had hoped to go there and become a gentleman farmer. My uncle, the doctor, then on secondment to the government of Libya, had as much faith in me as my father did not. He promised to buy me a tractor and with some funds set me up in the enterprise.

My father told his brother not to do it. That I, the rotter, was simply incapable of hard work and that in a few months I would have shot the money and come back to Lahore to be a burden on him. In order to ensure it did not happen, the six months between my resignation and my demobilisation were gainfully used by my father to dispose of the land. And he did it for a pittance!

I returned home to Lahore and dashed hopes.

A couple of weeks after I was demobilised, I received a cheque of a couple of thousand rupees, the sum total of my contribution to my DSOP fund. In effect, I was broke. Meanwhile, my father too had gone bankrupt. And having spent his last few rupees to send my brother to USA to study psychology, he was left with nothing.

I had no education – ours having become a short course in view of the 1971 conflict, we got no degree. Nor too did I have any skill. I did not know what I was going to do with a few thousand rupees in my pocket. That was time when everyone was heading for the Middle East to relieve the ignorant, illiterate, appallingly uncultured Arabs of their petro-dollars while they stripped us of our self-respect and pride.

Espying a job ad in a paper for an opening in Riyadh to be security supervisor in an American company, I applied. It all worked out until the day came when I was called to Karachi for some final paperwork a week or so before departure. Hating the notion of going to live among ignorant savages and rather despondent, I was walking down Victoria Road when I encountered my old army mate Daniyal Naveed who was then flying military choppers.

He had heard I had left the service. So what was I planning to do? He asked. Well, I was on my way to Saudi Hateful Arabia to work for an American firm, said I.

Daniyal was aghast. Knowing me as he did, he knew I would never be able to live in that dour, cheerless, uncultured country among the hordes of bed sheet and fan belt wearing baboons – and those too only semi-evolved from the sea anemone.

He asked if I would like to work for a German company. It turned out that his uncle was the second top man there and only that morning had asked Daniyal if there was young captain-type to manage the office administration. Daniyal took me by the hand and into the foyer of ILACO House. We rode the lift up to the fifth floor; Daniyal parked me in the reception and disappeared. A few minutes later he came and took me to his uncle’s office. We had a longish chat and the gentleman asked me to come back the next day.

I walked into an ambush of eight very business-like gents; two of them Germans. At the end of the long session I was told to join immediately. This, despite one sonofabitch with a twitching scarred face who clearly did not want me in, was a bit of a surprise.

Like I had quit the army after six and a half years, I quit the firm after an equal length of time. But unlike the army I received gratuities to the tune of Rs 150,000. Now, in November 1986, this was a good deal of money. Even for a pauper like me with a hole in his pocket!

In the next few years, I wanted to undertake a mountain walking expedition. I thought this sum would set me out on the journey that would establish me as a travel writer. Therefore, in order to keep the wealth safe, I invested it in two different ‘investment companies’ hoping to withdraw it when my time to embark on the journey came. This was December 1986.

By March 1987 having received only about three or four thousand rupees in dividends, I was stone-cold broke. The ‘investment companies’ had disappeared overnight. Incidentally, one of the two, namely, Pioneer was owned, run and managed by bearded mullahs of the Tableeghi Jamaat! They were serving Islam for an afterlife of sexual orgies and binges of drinking and eating, but they cared naught about depriving us of our money.

Upon leaving the commercial firm I was once again as broke as I was when I left the army. It was suggested by a friend’s wife that I get another job or we’d soon be out on the street with the begging bowl. It goes entirely to my wife Shabnam’s credit that she stuck to it and said that if I wanted to be a travel writer she was not having it any other way.

With no money and with house rent and utilities to pay – and a wife who then did not work – I put my head down and got to work. I wrote not just with both hands but with my hands and feet. I had a car, but could not afford to travel on it. Instead I went the cheapest way possible – sometimes taking slow busses on country roads that took up long hours; slogged for miles on foot even in the humid heat of southern Sindh and Balochistan, slept in wildernesses and deserted tombs, got by on minimal and sometimes poor or even no food. But I kept at it. Never once did the thought cross my mind that I was doing it wrong.

Then, in late 1987, things went really bad for Karachi and we resolved to move back to Lahore. Meanwhile, the Government of Sindh gave me an assignment. The promised Rs 25,000 for the job seemed good to me who was then truly down in the dumps. It turned out to be a gross underpayment. But Shabnam and I were stuck. We kept at it, delivered our part of the work and fled.

Once again there was no money. Not even enough to pay the fare back to Lahore. I borrowed some from Hameed Haroon and another bit from Lt Col Yusuf Saad, who was my instructor in Ack-Ack school (Malir) and later second in command of my regiment, 67 (SP).

Back in Lahore in December 1988, I started life from scratch again. We lived in a lower class area on Multan Road, commuted by bus and wagon, Shabnam began to teach (grossly underpaid) before eventually moving on to an NGO. I wrote for The Pakistan Times – then the only English paper in Lahore. There I. A. Rehman sahib was the editor. One day, if I outlive this great and wonderful man with such a gifted sense of humour and incredible humanity, I will tell a story that I cannot divulge right now for I will only embarrass this good and true man.

Time went by and things started looking up. By the mid-1990s, we were back on our feet. Our three-room flat (rented of course) in Gulberg III became the weekly Friday haunt of nearly every expat living in Lahore. We had Brits, Aussies, Americans, Germans, Dutch, French, what have you coming to breakfast of anda-paratha-channay that began with screw drivers! The living room in that dinky flat used to be crowded with upward of forty people – most of them diplomats.

In September 2000 we completed our home where we now live since January 2001. Life was good since we now knew no one could turn us out either for not liking us or for default on rent payment. Shabnam had risen in her organisation and I had money coming in from consultancies for NGOs and donors. I thought I had made it.

In 2007, the crunch returned. NGO funds dried up because the rising terror situation in Pakistan curtailed their work. For two years I used up some little money I had saved. But in 2010, things took a turn for the better once again. The floods that destroyed so much of the country also meant more work for a report writer like yours truly. Over the next four years all was, once again, hunky-dory.

And now, since 2014, I have lived on my wife’s salary. I have no work. The NGOs that I worked for are facing difficulties and I am reduced to only an assignment or two a year. My bank accounts have dried up. In a way, I am right where I was when I first went to the military academy, or when I went to live in Karachi in January 1979, or after I lost my only money in March 1987, or again just under two years later in December 1988 when we resolved to relocated to Lahore. That is, I am broke. As broke as anyone can ever be at age sixty-three.

Somehow I rarely find myself fretting. And when I do, I tell myself this too is a kind of life. For how many would like to choose it for themselves. But that does not mean I chose it for me. This was the only work I was capable of doing. I have no other talent. I cannot make money: I simply do not have it in me to engage in some kind of business.

Some years ago friend Miguel (last name forgotten) was teaching at LUMS. He invited me to speak to his students about a life beyond the corporate world. That there was a life – or at least a sort of life – to be made being unconventional. During my nearly thirty-five-minute-long spiel I saw this smile on the faces of all the kids. It was somewhere between sarcastic and bemused: they simply could not reconcile with a life like mine. A life in which, even when you were sort of famous, you could not call yourself rich.

All these kids were working for their MBAs. They had stars in their eyes and they looked out to a time when they’d go to work every day in crisp suits, sit behind fancy desks and push files this way and that to make huge sums of money for their employers. They looked forward to picking up the drippings from that wealth. At the end I asked if any one of the students would even consider a life like mine. The answer was an unequivocal Are you kidding?

As I said, I rarely find myself fretting. And when I do, I break out laughing. Sometimes even as I lie in my bed ready to fall asleep. What a life it has been. Really, what a strange and wonderful kind of life that no one else in Pakistan would want to live – especially not children these days who get MBAs and other fancy degrees to populate the corporate world of Pakistan.

I do not believe in another life again therefore I cannot say I’d live this same life again all over if given the chance. But I’ll say one thing: this one life, lived to the fullest leaving me no regrets, bitter and sweet in unequal measure, has been worth it. I do not care for another one.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

34 Comments:

At June 10, 2015 at 8:57 AM, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

You are the Richest man in Pakistan that I know of. May your continue to prosper.

 
At June 10, 2015 at 9:41 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Amardeep. My dear friend Brig (retd) Mukhtar A, Chaudhri, many years my senior, and I were talking and I said I was peeved when people took me for a rich man. The good Brigadier reeled back in his chair and said, "Hain? Even I thought you were pretty well off!" In the Punjabi it sounds much better. "Hain? Main vee samajhda aan tu bohat ameer aen."

 
At June 10, 2015 at 10:30 AM, Anonymous S A J Shirazi said...

I contributed double than you to my DSOP fund. I have not even hit 'zero' so far.

Do you want to trade your life with me? My advice: Don't even dare!

 
At June 10, 2015 at 11:08 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

That is heartening to know, Javed. And thank you so much for your support. But I won't switch this life for another. Never.

 
At June 10, 2015 at 11:10 AM, Anonymous S A J Shirazi said...

Ah! that is why people think you are very 'rich'. Stay this way, always.

 
At June 10, 2015 at 11:23 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much, once again, Javed!

 
At June 10, 2015 at 3:58 PM, Anonymous Moazzam Salim said...

Sire, pun aside, religion has this ability to simplify life issues by assigning responsibility to the divine blunders. But I know that you are not the religious kind and would like to think that whatever has happened, has happened because you decided it to be so. I am not sure about the other decisions but about this I am absolutely certain that the decision to devolve the responsibility for a 'good' or 'bad' life on the the Divinity or yourself is yours and yours alone. If you decide that the decisions have all along been yours then stop being a self pitying pessimist and take life head on. Otherwise you can always blame the Divine decisions for your plight and be a maulvi for the rest of your life.

 
At June 10, 2015 at 5:36 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Moazzam! Stop being your usual self again. I am not pitying myself. This is just a statement of life.

 
At June 10, 2015 at 7:38 PM, Anonymous Moazzam Salim said...

Its a dark dark statement and because it is coming from you hence I dont like it. You being a guy with the most positive outlook on life cant retreat into this dark corner brooding and being generally bitter. Snap out of it and be the man with the eternal smile that you really are.

 
At June 11, 2015 at 12:38 AM, Blogger Ali Usman said...

Your are greatest travel writer of Pakistan. Still remembered your documentary on Alexander route in Pakistan.You explorations gives, vision directions to new readers. Unfortunately there always been donkeys on main ruling position in Pakistan, who never cares about history and creativity.

 
At June 11, 2015 at 8:07 AM, Blogger Suleman Hasan said...

Time spent with your story was worth every micro second. What a marvelous life you had. You're an inspiration to people like me. Thanks for writing and sharing it with us.

 
At June 11, 2015 at 8:08 AM, Blogger Suleman Hasan said...

Time spent with your story was worth every micro second. What a marvelous life you had. You're an inspiration to people like me. Thanks for writing and sharing it with us.

 
At June 11, 2015 at 9:47 AM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir you are rich in words and heart. People possesing money but having nothing to give to the others can not be called rich in comparison to those who provide satisfaction to others and get prayers and good wishes.

 
At June 11, 2015 at 10:22 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ali Usman, Suleman and Athar, I am very grateful to you for your kind words and support. Thank you so much.

 
At June 11, 2015 at 10:59 AM, Blogger Fiaz said...

Very interesting story. Thanks for sharing

 
At June 11, 2015 at 1:43 PM, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

God deals the cards same to all of us at birth. It us up to us to play the game to win or lose.You have played the game well my friend. Life without events is just existance , not living. Please continue to Live.

 
At June 12, 2015 at 2:33 AM, Blogger Mujtaba Ezaz said...

A wise man once said "A man isn't poor, if he can still laugh"
Sir people dreamt of life like you are living :)
So Yes you're the richest.
You are the Legend Sir.

 
At June 12, 2015 at 12:15 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Mujtaba Ezaz. Two things I have kept to this day: never taking myself seriously and the ability to laugh the loudest at my own self. I thank you for your appreciation.

 
At June 26, 2015 at 11:48 PM, Blogger Gypsy in My Vanity said...

You are funny Salman. I have always dug your sense of humor and your freewheeling lifestyle. I am like you too in many ways. Actually you are one my role models who have inspired me to choose the lifestyle I have led all my life and still do. Thanks for bumping into me in 1989 in Skardu and thanks for introducing me to Vodka and writing. Truck on...

 
At June 27, 2015 at 2:47 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Brahmanyan. Re cards, I always say: Life is like a game of cards. You're dealt a hand and you have to play it as best as you can. I suppose my best was quite good.

 
At June 27, 2015 at 2:47 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Geypsy, we've met? In 1989 in Skardu? I do not recall. Unless you are WM. Please do tell who you are.

 
At June 27, 2016 at 1:04 PM, Anonymous Ali Kazmi said...

If anything, you make the best cocktails in the world! And you are a story-teller Jis ka dasa paani nahi maang paata! You keep on recounting the anecdotes and the listener never gets to know when did they become a part of the story. Stay young!

 
At June 28, 2016 at 10:12 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ali Kazmi! Thank you. When you return to these shores, you come back for some more. Always an open house, as you know.

 
At June 29, 2016 at 1:22 AM, Blogger Athar Saeed said...

Sir, you are one of the best writers I know, you can make people laugh and cry, and your Alexander documentary should be a part of the curriculum in our schools (minus the galloping horses sound effects). Also, life begins at 63. Abhi tau party shroo hui hai.

 
At June 29, 2016 at 9:36 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Athar Saeed, I am grateful to you. thank you very much.

 
At June 29, 2016 at 10:08 AM, Blogger Haris Kayani said...

Sir, your life also motivation for 1000s those like to live the life the way they want, not our surroundings.

 
At June 29, 2016 at 10:49 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Haris, the choice is hard. It's a difficult step to take. In this society, no one would want to live without money. Without faith they will live happily, but not without money.

 
At June 29, 2016 at 4:58 PM, Anonymous Mutamin ul Mulk Hashmat Jung Fakhar ud Doula Nawab Bahdur Arastu Jah said...

I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.

Joseph Campbell

If that is what life means you are a winner and will have a peaceful old age knowing you followed your bliss and did your best.

 
At July 20, 2016 at 11:04 PM, Anonymous shahal khoso said...

I am so proud to acquaint with you, dear Sir. You are not poor, you are not rich but what you are, is a man who is learned beyond the intellectual capacity the babus and the waderas possess. You Sir, are an inspiration and a fighter. Kudos to you, for this live you've lived. Very proud of knowing somebody like you.

 
At July 21, 2016 at 10:00 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Shahal Khoso, I am deeply gratified by your words. Thank you very much.

 
At July 22, 2016 at 9:06 AM, Blogger Konsultramesh said...

Salman saab ... I know you through twitter less than a fortnight. Must tell you that no day begins without reading one of your facts-laden superb travel cum historical stuff. Your felicity with language is the biggest hook. Plus you are never afraid of pulling punches. I was literally laughing out loud on your description of saudis ... The RICHEST in the world perhaps. God bless you!

 
At July 24, 2016 at 10:56 PM, Blogger shaharyar ahsan said...

Sir, honest as it is written.

 
At August 1, 2016 at 2:51 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Shaharyar Ahsan.

 
At August 1, 2016 at 3:14 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Konsultramesh, I am grateful to you. thank you very much.

 

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days