Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The typical Pakistani conversation

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Pakistanis are strange people. They ask you a question with no intention of hearing a response. There is a very tiny, very, very tiny, lot of truly educated persons who when they ask mean to be told. The remainder only banter in the course of which when they have to pose a question, they really have no intention of knowing your view on it.

Shortly after I quit the army in 1978, I started out making fun of army officers. When I with my long hair and unkempt beard introduced myself to someone as an ex of their profession the question following my regimental identity usually was where I had served.

‘Five of my six and a half years of commissioned service, I served in Kharian....’ I would begin. That was cue for my interlocutor to cut in: ‘Once I was in Kharian....’ and there would ensue an endless narration of how great Kharian was in antediluvian times. Notice how every fauji will use ‘once’ instead of ‘when’ and notice too how glorious a place as dreary as Kharian seems after one has left it.

Then there was my long trek in the summer of 1990. A couple of years after that people would ask me where all that long journey had taken me and I would begin. But never did I, beginning in Naran, even get as far as Jalkhad. If it was an army man, he would interject with, ‘Once I was in Jalkhad blah, blah, blah....’ And if the other was a bloody civilian he would cut me short at Jalkhad and begin a narration of his own adventure of some years ago. Regardless that he had only passed the place in a jeep on a doomed trip to Babusar Pass.

By the mid-1990s, cut short in my narrations a million times, I resolved never to talk about my travels with anyone. If they asked, I simply told them to read my article or book. But I never again gave a verbal account to anyone. Seriously, nobody is interested in listening to you. They only need an excuse to begin their own drama on some cue or even half a cue you might foolishly supply.

Of late, I have realised that this illness does not contaminate only men in uniform. It is rampant. It is widespread in Pakistan afflicting every single one of the two hundred million of us.

Having recently met an old acquaintance after several years, we were filling each other up on what we had been doing with our lives. In fact, she was filling me up. When she thought she was done, she asked me about myself. I had barely started when I somehow happened to mention Jalandhar.
‘Hai, is your family from Jalandhar?’ she asked.

I had just uttered a yes when she started on how her own family had migrated from Amritsar. I heard the entire story from the number of murders, what they witnessed en route to Lahore and their life in camp at Walton before I was asked something else. Needless to say that my response was cut short again and with the cue being some single word, I was treated to another episode of her life.

By the time we were finished, I was more clued up on her history than anyone else even in her closest family. Meanwhile, she had only learned that my family came from Jalandhar! And that seems to be the purpose of most conversations: for one party which is adept at cutting others off in mid-sentence to teach the other all about insignificant matters concerning them. The point is that no one lets you finish a sentence.

In fact, as I sit here writing, the only two persons I can think of with whom one can actually have a decent conversation are my friends Haroun Rashid and Atta ur Rehman Shaikh. Oh yes, there is also Mehdi Mohsin.

These people are all supposed to be educated and of the world who never let you finish a sentence without interruption. And then I have in laws from Gujranwala. Since they are thirty-three year old in laws, I understand them well. Actually, I got to understand them thirty years ago.

With this lot, your part of the conversation must either be in monosyllables or is short spurts. By short spurts I mean about five words at a time, preferably even fewer. And this conversation should only be about food, clothing and what some other in law did to their in laws or how the neighbour’s daughter eloped with Jajji Pehalwan and how the girl’s brothers are out in force to shoot the two absconders. (I have never been able to figure out why nearly all Kashmiris from Gujranwala are called either Jajji or Neela.)

In these conversations I have to be essentially the listener, rarely the speaker. This latter is okay because in any case I never know what is happening with the neighbours. But if they ask me about something and I foolishly begin a sentence which cannot reach a logical end before twenty words, I am a bloody fool. I utter barely ten words and someone notices that the rug underfoot is askew and tells someone else to put it right.

Then, even as my speech peters off in mid-sentence, all attention focuses on the rug. When the needful is done, no one, save yours truly, seems to remember where the conversation was broken off and someone begins a new story about how some acquaintance’s pet dog was run over by a rashly driven car. The narrative continues for several hundred words to which I am unable to contribute even a single word. By the way, this accident causing the precious dog’s death may have occurred five years or more previously.

And the Lord save you from that one relative who having lived illegally in UK (as they like to call it) and having been deported now lives back in Gujranwala. Without any context you will suddenly hear how he just then wishes to have a mouthful of, say, king prawns. And there hangs the endless story about how a box of the delicacy could be picked up from any German store called Lidl. From the act of bringing it home to opening the carton to adding oil to the skillet to frying them is given out in minute detail including wafts of mouth-watering aroma.

And if you try the same trick of telling someone to right the askew rug, you cannot get out of smelling the aroma of the frying prawns. After the rug has been right, the recital resumes from the exact comma where it was interrupted.

Perish the thought that a member of the in law clan will ever want to know anything concerning David Damrosch’s intriguing work titled The Buried Book on the epic of Gilgamesh. Or of the work done by Megasthenes in his decade and a half in India. Never does the thought any more significant than the death of the dog in a road accident or the colour and style of so and so’s attire enters their minds.

Recently a woman from the in laws noticed how rarely I visit them. And when I do how withdrawn and quiet I am. I told her the conversation was always so lively and scintillating in their living room, that I was completely underwhelmed into silence. I have not been able to decide if she believed me or not. But thankfully this exchange took place when my wife had gone to check on what they were doing in the kitchen.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 29 June 2016 at 12:44, Blogger Faraz1 said...

Good one sir.

At 29 June 2016 at 12:48, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Faraz.

At 4 July 2016 at 17:38, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Visiting my in-laws for the very first Lahore..after some weird conversation with my sister in law whose only interest in me was ...shadi ka suit pasand aaya? Fitting sahii he?. This was a day before the wedding, half hour post wedding, and lord behold on our honeymoon two days post wedding. I am so sure even as I visit them for eid, she will again ask me about the suit fitting....when all my sanity fitting begins to go loose..I will try the rug trick.
Or do the lidl narration!!! I live in Germany hahahahahahaha


At 5 July 2016 at 17:43, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Poor you, Nargis. How on earth did you get into this one? But the rug trick works always. I hope the husband is somewhat better. No?

At 6 July 2016 at 10:04, Anonymous Anonymous said...

5am ...lahore airport parking lot-
My husband to his sister: hunn rehn de kapre shapre di aa galaa
Sister: zananiaa diaa galaa vich tu na bolii
My husband to me: welcome to the family. Wink wink
Me: is it too late to pretend I don't speak the language!!!

At 7 July 2016 at 10:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hahahaha. Suffer, Anonymous, suffer!

At 9 July 2016 at 12:13, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How To Be A Good Listener?

At 9 July 2016 at 14:15, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, have I given you the impression I am not a good listener. For the record, sir/madam, I am a damn good listener.


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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