Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

'Hello, sir. Hello, Jimmy Carter'

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I first met him in the summer of 1979. I was walking down the stairway in either the city courts building or the metropolitan building of Karachi and he was on the way up. He wore a Coast Guards uniform with a subedar's two pips on his shoulders and his chest was a blaze of World War II ribbons. I, fresh out of the army, knew what the colourful ribbons meant and could recognise all of them. He wore the War Medal 1939-45, Africa Star and Burma Star. There were, besides, the Independence medal, the 1956 Constitution medal, Kashmir medal (1948) and the 1965 medals. He would have then retired for he did not have anything to show for the 1971 conflict. As he looked up, he caught me staring at his chest. The man saluted - a proper salute too, 'Hello, sir,' he said and I for a fleeting moment thought we knew each other. But then he quickly added 'Hello, Jimmy Carter!'

I returned his greeting with 'Hello, sahib,' the way we addressed Junior Commissioned Officers in the army. He was a right garrulous, jovial character and was chirping away as soon as our greeting was over. Every passerby who so much as glanced in his direction interrupted our conversation for they would be saluted with a hello either as 'sir' or 'Jimmy Carter'. Now, that was the time when the peanut farmer Carter was the president of USA whose name had somehow caught the fancy of our subedar from Coast Guards. I wasn't the only one to be called that name. We must have stood on the stairway chatting for a good few minutes before he took his leave telling me to come see him at the Coast Guards officers mess in Ingle Road where he was the mess JCO. He said we could have a cup of tea together.

When we met, his stories unfolded. I was then not yet a writer and I never imagined I would one day want to write about this wonderful man and now, almost four decades later, I barely recall his yarns. There were tales of a few brief months in France as an infantryman where he and some other soldiers regularly stole into a village for a nice tumble in the hay with a group of very willing young women. Then there was Africa, either in Algiers or Libya. Toward the end of the long war, his unit moved to Burma.

I do not recall what else he told me, but this much I remember that then, 1979, he had been re-employed by Coast Guards and for some years had been their mess in-charge. The most remarkable thing about the man was his form of address for everyone: sir and Jimmy Carter. He used it even for the mess waiters, the janitor, everyone. Everyone who crossed paths with the talkative subedar was sir and Jimmy Carter.

Since my office was very near the Ingle Road mess, every chance I got, I would go see the man and we became quite friendly. I continued to see him until about 1982. Why our meetings ended, I have no recollection. It could be that the subedar, having reached the age of superannuation (sixty years), retired a second time and perhaps went home to his village which would very likely be on the Potohar Plateau. It cannot be that I would not have asked where he came from; that I would surely have done as I still do. But I now forget. The crucial bit I forget for which I have repeatedly kicked myself many times over the past decades is his name. This I would not even have had to ask because in the services one wore the name plate above the right hand breast pocket. In December 1988, I moved back to Lahore.

Sometime in the mid-1990s on a visit to Karachi, walking past the Coast Guards mess, I decided to go in and inquire about the 'Hello, sir. Hello, Jimmy Carter' man. If I remember correctly, there was now a mess NCO and not a JCO and the man did not remember the subedar. Now, four decades later, it would be impossible to track him or his family down.

I suspect my subedar-with-no-name had been employed in the mess by an officer who looked upon the man's jaunty mannerism as something to be appreciated and enjoyed. Given that military officers are usually rather proper sticks in the mud - at least in public life, such a one would have been a rarity himself. Indeed, as rare as the good subedar who would have brought cheer to the lives of all those around him.

When I met him he looked not a day older than fifty. But to have been in the army in 1939 or the year after, he would have to be born in about 1921-22 which would have then made him almost sixty. Now, all those years later, it would be a miracle to find him alive. But surely there would be a family who still cherish the memory of that cheerful man. I wonder if some army officer who dined at the Coast Guard mess in Ingle Road in those far off days remembers him as I do. And I wonder too if there would be some way of tracking down the family of the subedar with his chest of colourful ribbons who always and to everyone said, 'Hello, sir. Hello, Jimmy Carter!'

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:02 AM,

1 Comments:

At August 5, 2017 at 1:03 PM, Blogger S A J Shirazi said...

This reminds me of Noor Ali - a mess waiter in 35 SP.

Noor Ali served as a gunner in the Unit for 18 years. He joined the Unit as a waiter the day he retired.

When I joined 35 SP, he only used to serve bed tea in the Exercise Areas. His strength was that he knew absolutely every thing in the Unit.

I wish you had met him.

BTW, your 'blogging' is flaw less now.

 

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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