Harry plucked the boiled eggs from a steaming kettle and placed them under the cold tap. “This helps separate the shell from the inside with ease,” he said with great authority as he removed the shell deftly and handed it over to place on what was meant to be my breakfast toast. I gazed at my breakfast despairingly and made a note to visit the Karachi “Seven Day Coffee House” just down the road for a little more nourishment after bidding Harry farewell for the day. I had auditing appointments in Karachi, Lahore and Faroukabad before moving on to New Delhi and as Harry was familiar with the area he’d offered to meet me in Karachi on this my first trip.
Well Harry was not his real name but to protect his privacy we’ll call him by that name. We were in Karachi and this was my first opportunity to really get to know Harry. He was one of those mission brat kids whose American parents had wandered the Punjab from their base in Lahore before British India was divided between India and Pakistan.
Harry had grown up in the Punjab and explored every inch of Lahore with his local friends. From them he’d learned the art of survival in the sub-continent and was fluent in Punjabi and Urdu. Apart from his white skin and blue eyes his language and mannerisms were so perfect locals instantly warmed to him and he could move in circles no foreigner would normally be permitted to enter. Seeing him in action one was reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim.”
Harry could switch effortlessly between languages without a trace of an accent, and this was unnerving if you were working in a room and another voice suddenly materialized without evidence of anyone walking in.
But of course light skin and blue eyes was not an unknown thing to the natives of the sub-continent. Alexander the Great had found his way to the Indus Valley at the height of his conquests and some of his soldiers had been smitten by beautiful local maidens and remained behind when the army drew back to their homelands. To this day up in hill country to the north of India and Pakistan tribal countrymen and women with light skin and blue eyes remain to vouch for Alexander’s visit.
I later heard stories from some of Harry’s Punjabi friends, told with obvious affection and without malice. It appears in his youth he happened on a crowd gathered around a post office window. I’m not sure if you can visualize this, but most government offices in the villages of the sub-continent sport small windows with strong iron bars around which crowds gather in a disorganized way with dozens of hands protruding through bars while urgent voices clamor for attention. Those in authority always find their way through the maize inside the building and do business through the back door, but for the population in general that small barred window is their only means of getting business done.
Harry surveyed the disorganized gesticulating crowd, strode back several paces and took a flying leap into the crowd scattering those in his path in all directions. Naturally this created intense angst. No foreigner should be permitted such sacrilege. Foreigners meant colonialism, and Gandhi was already working sentiments toward freedom with his “Quit India” movement. Under normal circumstances Harry would have been beaten to death for this provocation, and that would be understood in the context of the times.
But in a loud clear voice Harry said in flawless Punjabi, “Why are you so angry with me? I was born here and everything I’ve learned was from Punjabis! I have a suggestion. If everyone will form a line I’ll get on the end of the line and we’ll be attended much sooner.”
The crowd’s anger dissipated and they roared with laughter. Slapping Harry on the back they formed a line and Harry took his place at the end. Those relating the story to me roared with laughter themselves as they told the story. He was one of them.
I’d watched Harry in action with locals the evening before. Squatting on the floor with legs crossed in his grey khurta and pajama pants, the national dress, he gave darshan to those squatting in a semi-circle around him. Now and then he’d slip into English to give me some idea of the conversation. The solidarity of the group was apparent.
But the classic of all stories about Harry was one he told himself. Apparently he was on a train from Lahore to Karachi, squatting cross legged on his seat dressed in his favorite clothing, grey khurta and pajama pants. An army officer entered and took his place opposite, placing luggage on the rack above as he greeted Harry warily. One must be careful when dealing with strangers, but it’s natural for those from Southern Asia to draw out details of their traveling companions.
A typical conversation goes something like this. “What is your good name? What salary do you have? What is your native place? How many wives and sons do you have?” I hasten to say this is considered to be polite conversation and an attempt to establish rapport for the usual long train journey. People from the sub-continent are sociable friendly people, though the uninitiated westerner may misunderstand this approach when confronted with this barrage of questions for the first time.
Well Harry answered all these questions in flawless Urdu, all the time studying the army officer’s face. He detected puzzlement and could easily guess the man’s dilemma. Here was what looked to be a very tall foreigner squatting cross legged on the seat in national dress speaking flawless Urdu, and he said his home was in Lahore? Furthermore at more than six feet tall he towered above the average Pakistani.
After some time Harry casually remarked in Urdu, “Do you know some people mistake me for a foreigner.”
The army officer looked embarrassed as he realized Harry had guessed his inner thoughts. “I’d never have thought that,” the officer quickly said.
I looked at Harry when he finished telling me his story. He was smiling contentedly as he reflected on how well he’d accommodated to the country he’d been born and now lived in. He was a loyal citizen of the country of his parent’s origin, but a citizen and friend of the world as well and counted all as his brothers and sisters.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2013 All rights reserved”
1 Deshi means country of birth in loose translation
2.Khurta is the long shirt worn over cotton pants referred to as pajama
3. Darshan. Actually this refers to insight given by guru to chela (pupil) and is used lightly in my usage here.