Book #35 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
The first time I heard of Saadat Hasan Manto was during the start of year 12. We used to do something called Cultural Perspective classes (CPs for short). These were essentially extra-curricular classes where we learned new skills in addition to our main A-level subjects. Unfortunately, I could not get the CPs I wanted and was subsequently put into a creative writing CP.
Funnily enough, this is where I began to take storytelling seriously. Indeed, Allah works in mysterious ways. I began working on a novella called Home Is Where the Heart Is. Like many other projects of mine, it’s still unfinished, and I haven’t touched it in a long time. Perhaps I may post it on my blog someday. That is if my one singular reader would like to see it. Would you like to see it, reader?
Alas, I have digressed. As part of the CP, our teacher asked us to bring a short story from our respective cultural backgrounds (we were a very diverse cohort). I had never read a book by a Pakistani author, so I had no idea what story I’d bring in. I asked my dad, who suggested I take in a short story called Toba Tek Singh, by Saadat Hasan Manto.
This essentially kick-started my exploration into South Asian history and literature. Every book I’ve read since, from The Sole Spokesman, by Ayesha Jalal (fun fact: her mum was Manto’s sister-in-law), to Twilight In Delhi, by Ahmed Ali, started with Manto. In fact, seeing as I started this blog with research into Pakistani history, you could say that if it wasn’t for Manto, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.
Recently, I decided to revisit Manto and purchased Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Khalid Hasan. This book collects 51 short stories, 1 play, 32 literary sketches, 15 literary portraits, 9 letters to Uncle Sam, 4 pieces by Manto about himself, as well as 3 appendices by Manto’s friends and family about the author. And so, there is a lot to get through in this here book review. But first, a bit of background about this groundbreaking Urdu writer.
Saadat Hasan Manto was born on the 11th May 1912 in Punjab, British India, to a Kashmiri Muslim family. His father was a local judge, and after his retirement, the family moved back to Amritsar, where Manto grew up. He had what seems like a difficult relationship with his father, who discouraged Manto from writing at an early age after he announced he would be writing for his school’s newspaper.
Manto struggled in school, failing his final examinations twice. Ironically, one of the subjects he failed to pass was Urdu, yet he would go on to become one of the greatest – if not the greatest – Urdu writers of all time. Despite his academic shortfalls, Manto was able to get into an Amritsar college but dropped out after failing his first-year examinations twice. It seems to me that Manto didn’t believe in “third time’s the charm.”
The biggest turning point for Manto was in 1933 (aged 21) when he met Bari Alig, author, critic and historian, who encouraged Manto to read French and Russian literature. Bari Alig persuaded Manto to undertake an Urdu translation of Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man, which he completed in two weeks and published in Lahore. He also translated Oscar Wilde’s play Vera; or, The Nihilists. During this time, he wrote his first short story Tamasha about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, which was published anonymously due to fear of British reprisal.
In 1934, Manto enrolled in the famous Aligarh Muslim University, where he wrote more short stories for magazines. Predictably, he did not do well as a student and left after nine months after being falsely diagnosed with tuberculosis. He subsequently moved to Lahore, where he got his first regular job at a magazine called Paras. He also got involved with the Indian Progressive Writer’s Movement, a group of anti-imperial writers that spoke out against British Rule.
In 1936, Manto moved to Bombay to write for a film weekly called Mussawar. Thus began his love affair with India’s movie capital. He fell in love with the city and spent the next decade living there, only briefly leaving in 1941 to work for All-India Radio. Manto would go on to form friendships with many of India’s leading film stars, including Ashok Kumar, Noor Jehan and Sunder Shyam Chadda. He joined Filmistan in 1943 and began writing screenplays for movies such as Aatth Din, Shikari, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib.
Unfortunately, due to the Partition of India, Manto was forced to leave Bombay behind and move to Lahore in 1948. This move was one that deeply saddened him, causing him to fall into the jaws of depression and the grip of alcoholism. His life in Pakistan was one of financial difficulty, emotional devastation and physical ailment. However, it was in Pakistan that he wrote his most poignant pieces on the horrors of Partition, single-handedly creating a new genre of literature.
Manto eventually lost his battle with alcoholism on the 18th January 1955 and died due to cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-two. He was survived by his wife and three daughters. Manto wrote his own epitaph; but, it did not appear on his gravestone due to his family’s fears that it would enrage the orthodox Muslim Ulama:
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short-story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he.
The 51 short stories collected in Bitter Fruit are considered by the translator to be Manto’s best works. Each and every one of them serves to bring to light the shadows of the world Manto lived in. It is for this reason that the subject matter is not for the faint-hearted. Almost all the stories tackle taboos in some way, whether it be prostitution, alcoholism or rape; however, despite the grim themes, Manto’s humanist approach shines through. The stories set during Partition are particularly gripping. The endings of which hit like the punchlines to an obituary.
While all the stories in Bitter Fruit are worthy of praise, I believe a few of them deserve special mention in this review. Here are five stories that stood out to me amongst the collection: By the Roadside, The Last Salute, The Great Divide, The Return, and The New Constitution.
The play In this Vortex is a short melodrama depicting the struggles of newlyweds Amjad and Saeeda. They had just gotten married and were on their way home when they got involved in a train accident in which Amjad was subsequently paralysed. The story follows on from there as Amjad struggles to come to terms with being an invalid, and Saeeda begins to look elsewhere for sexual gratification. While it may not be as good as his short stories, it is still a decent play nonetheless and serves as a testament to his range as a writer. I may even try to get a group of people together and perform/film it when I’m at university.
Most of the 32 sketches depict the rioting and looting that followed Partition. Being literary sketches, there isn’t much to say about them other than the fact they represent brief flashes of Manto’s imagination. That being said, they were entertaining. Here’s one such sketch:
‘I placed my knife across his windpipe and, slowly, very slowly, I slaughtered him.” ‘And why did you do that?’ ‘What do you mean why?’ ‘Why did you kill him the halal way?’ ‘Because I enjoy doing it that way.’ ‘You idiot, you should have chopped his neck off with one single blow. Like this.’ And the halal killer was dispatched in accordance with the correct ritual.
The 15 literary portraits were most entertaining due to Manto’s signature wit yet, at the same time, still deeply insightful. The one he did on Muhammad Ali Jinnah focused more on the Quaid-e-Azam’s home life than his political one, thus presenting him in an entirely new light compared to anything I’d read before. Manto also dedicated a heartfelt portrait to his mentor, Bari Alig. However, most of the portraits were of famous figures within the Bombay movie industry, so now I consider myself an expert in 1940s Bollywood gossip. Ashok Kumar, V.H. Desai and Kuldip Kaur were quite the characters.
The 9 letters to Uncle Sam are satirical letters to the US government. It is via these letters that Manto’s wit and political knowledge is brought to the forefront. Manto talks of all manner of subjects from the cold war to the differences between American and Pakistani women. He also expresses concern over the US’s military involvement in South Asia, which would plague the Subcontinent for years to come. Thereby illustrating that Manto was way ahead of his time. All in all, they make for very entertaining reads due to their absurdly wacky nature.
The 4 pieces by Manto about himself gives the reader an insider’s view into the writer’s life, much like a journal does its author. To My Readers is a heartbreaking account of Manto’s emotional turmoil about having to leave Bombay and the struggles he faced while in Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Manto on Manto, he becomes victim to the same sharp wit he so generously heaped on others.
The 3 appendices are the reflections of those that knew Manto best: his friends and family. They allow the reader to understand the kind of person Manto was behind the page. Uncle Manto, by Hamid Jalal, is the tale of Manto’s struggle with alcoholism and the strain it put on his family. It ends with a detailed account of the writer’s final moments before he died, a most tragic end to the greatest short-story writer that ever lived.
In a literary career spanning over twenty years, Manto wrote over 250 short stories alongside a large body of plays and essays. His legacy is one rife with controversy. He was tried six times for obscenity; thrice in British India and thrice in Pakistan. Yet, he is still acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century in both India and Pakistan.
In an age of political turmoil, Manto wasn’t afraid to write about the darkest depths of human depravity, and his contribution to literature continues to inspire generations of writers (including yours truly).
It had only been a week since the events at Murdstone & Co, but despite his better senses, duty forced Captain Robertson to stare into the crimson eyes of trepidation yet again. For the past week, he had been in covert conversation with the Eighth Duke of Argyll about the upcoming meeting with Spring-Heeled Jack, unbeknownst to his companion Mr Daim. Part of him felt guilty about going behind his charge’s back, but the truth was that any loyalty Captain Robertson felt towards Mr Daim was overshadowed by that which he had towards queen and country. After all, the jinni was but a means to an end. If everything went to plan in the coming hour, then Captain Robertson would finally be able to put all this madness about ghuls and jinn behind him. He even considered requesting a leave of absence to visit his parents in Scotland before being shipped off to another far-flung colony. For Mr Daim, the past week was spent in secluded contemplation on the possible implications of Spring-Heeled Jack’s assertion of innocence. He had assumed that this would be yet another routine hunt, but then again, there was nothing routine about it. For starters, he had been approached by Europeans. It’s not that Mr Daim didn’t like Europeans; it’s just that they were usually blind to the possibility of the unseen, opting to explain away the existence of jinn with flawful human rationality. So, when that letter arrived from the Viceroy requesting his services, Mr Daim was caught by surprise, his untamed curiosity driving him to comply with the Viceroy’s wishes. The second red flag was the insistence of a bodyguard. Mr Daim was used to working alone, and governments would usually give him free rein to go about his work unhindered. The Ottomans were so hands-off to the point that Mr Daim felt as though he had impunity. The British, meanwhile, were crippled by bureaucracy. Whenever he requested more information on Spring-Heeled Jack, it was classified. Whenever he wished to leave the hotel alone, it was unsafe. Even when he finally got down to work, there was always the threat of Commissioner Henderson’s interference. The British were indeed a well-oiled machine. They ran an enterprise of such proportions even the jinn were put to shame. But at the same time, one always got the feeling they were being watched. Then there was his conversation with Spring-Heeled Jack himself. Experience had taught Mr Daim that ghul’s weren’t usually so hospitable. The average ghul would attack you and rip you to pieces the first chance they got. The fact Spring-Heeled Jack was willing to converse instead gave credence to the possibility that he was telling the truth. Guilty people don’t talk; they run. Then again, there was always the chance that perhaps Spring-Heeled Jack was just a particularly cunning ghul. If so, what game was he playing? Regardless, something larger was afoot, and Mr Daim was going to get to the bottom of it.
“Of all places to meet, why here?” Captain Robertson gesticulated towards the large glasshouse bathed in the faint glow of the crescent moon. “I’m guessing he must be a plant enthusiast,” hypothesised Mr Daim. The pair found themselves standing amongst the foliage of Kew Gardens. The building that stood before them was made of clear crystal glass roofs pitched by wrought-iron ribs, the penetrating moonlight halted by the thick vegetation that lay within. Just as the Koh-i-Noor was the centrepiece of her majesty’s crown jewels, the building that stood before them was the centrepiece of her majesty’s botanical gardens: the Temperate House. “How can you be so sure he’s going to show up?” asked Captain Robertson. “The word of a jinni, ghul or not, far outweighs that of a human,” answered Mr Daim. This wasn’t true. Jinn were just as cutthroat as humans; he just didn’t want to be made a fool of. Mr Daim was gambling the entire investigation on the word of a ghul. A ghul who was either extremely cunning or extremely honest. He prayed it was the latter. “If he said he will show, he will show,” insisted Mr Daim, more so for himself than his companion. A few moments later, Captain Robertson consulted his pocket watch, “it’s midnight.” “Very well. Let us see what Jack has to say for himself. And, please, try not to shoot him this time.” “I’ll try.” Mr Daim took the lead. Captain Robertson followed.
The Temperate House
The Temperate House was packed with flora retrieved from around the furthest extremities of the globe, which together transpired to create its humid atmosphere. There were enough exotic specimens in that greenhouse to rival the grandeur of Babylon’s Hanging Gardens, from the brightest azaleas to the rarest lilium, all of which were towered over by the jubaea tree, primed to burst through the ceiling. Mr Daim was impressed. Captain Robertson, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. To him, the greenhouse was just a greenhouse. Albeit a large greenhouse – most certainly the largest he’d ever seen – but a greenhouse nonetheless. The variety of flora it exhibited were not rare specimens to be goggled at but rather potential hiding spots from which a ravenous ghul could pounce on you with the ferocity of a panther. Captain Robertson kept his wits about him. After a few minutes of aimlessly wandering about in the darkness, Captain Robertson decided to snarkily puncture the jittery silence of the night, “it seems as though the word of Spring-Heeled Jack isn’t worth much after all.” “YOU WOULD DO WELL NOT TO DISHONOUR ME,” bellowed a guttural rasp that reverberated throughout the Temperate House. Captain Robertson froze to the spot, an unsettling chill running down his spine as he remembered what it was like to be petrified. On the contrary, Mr Daim was unphased, exhibiting the epitome of politeness. “Jack, it’s good to see you! I’m glad you could join us. How have you been?” The jinni was staring into the rafters. Captain Robertson tracked his eye line to find Spring-Heeled Jack, donning his mangled tailcoat and contorted top hat, leaning against the balcony of an iron walkway in the moonlight’s bluish tinge. Just like before, his attire failed to obscure the fear-inducing countenance of his crimson fire eyes, resulting in a hauntingly peculiar appearance that made a mockery of the ideal Victorian gentleman. “I see you brought the human,” averred Spring-Heeled Jack. “He insisted he come,” explained Mr Daim, “he owes you an apology after what happened last week and wished to express his regret in person.” “Is that so…” Within the flutter of an eyelid, Spring-Heeled Jack dived off the walkway, gliding across the ground before coming to a halt, looming his slender frame over the terrified Captain Robertson with the agility of a formless shadow. Captain Robertson could feel the monster’s putrid breath against his forehead as he eyed its menacing claws, his fingers grasping for the clasp of his revolver’s holster. “I’m waiting, Beni Adam. I believe there’s something you wish to say,” sneered Spring-Heeled Jack, licking his chapped lips. “S-s-sorry.” Captain Robertson gulped down the urge to scream, “I’m sorry for shooting you. Please don’t eat me.” Spring-Heeled Jack let out a grisly guffaw, “Oh, aren’t these humans just delightful? For the record, young one, I was never going to eat you.” Captain Robertson breathed a sigh of long-overdue relief. “I’m not particularly fond of the taste of Scotsmen.” The Captain was now confused as to whether he should be relieved or offended after that last remark. “Okay, great. Now that we got that out of the way, shall we get down to business and discuss what we came to discuss?” offered Mr Daim, attempting to steer the conversation away from Spring-Heeled Jack’s discriminatory diet. “We shall,” accepted Spring-Heeled Jack as he leaned against the wrinkled trunk of the jubaea tree. “Very well. Why don’t you begin by telling us how it is you came to be living in Albion?” “I have always lived in Albion. This island has been my home for millennia, long before the arrival of the Beni Adam.” “If your claim is true, then explain why we’ve never heard your name until now?” interjected Captain Robertson, immediately regretting his pronouncement. Mr Daim shot his companion a glare that said: Stop agitating the ghul and let me handle this. The ghul, on the other hand, wasn’t agitated but simply amused by the Captain’s boldness. Especially considering that it was only a moment ago that he was terrified beyond measure. “Oh, but what you fail to realise, young one, is that I have been given many names throughout the ages. It wasn’t long ago that the people of Albion revered me as a great wizard by the name of Merlin. Of course, this was many centuries before I came to be affected by my current affliction.” Spring-Heeled Jack, formally known as Merlin, stared into the abyss of darkness in abject woe as though he suddenly remembered a life that had been snatched away from him. “I wasn’t always a ghul, Mr Daim. I was once a jinni just like you. But then I was betrayed.” “Betrayed by whom?” inquired Mr Daim. “The Company.”
“I was approached by The Company in the early spring of seventeen fifty-five. To my surprise, their board of directors were well acquainted with the existence of jinn. I have no doubt that their agents abroad had their fair share of run-ins with the unseen. My job was simple: use my knowledge and power to expand the territories of The Company. “I set sail for India alongside Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive. By this point in his career, the Lieutenant-Colonel had already achieved great feats of warfare over the previous decade, but these would pale in comparison to those he achieved when I was in his service. We arrived in Madras to find The Company’s holdings to the north in a sorry state. Fort William had been captured by the tyrannical Nawab of Bengal, who subjected his British prisoners of war to conditions that violated every modicum of moral decency. With a righteous fury, we made our way to Calcutta and, from the jaws of defeat, liberated the city from the tyrant’s grasp. “By this point in our expedition, the Seven Years’ War was well underway against our arch-rivals: the French. I remember the time King Richard and I spent fighting Philip Augustus with great fondness and jumped at the chance to wage war against our perpetual nemesis. Together we travelled up the Hooghly and laid siege to their colony of Chandernagore. “With the French out of the picture, we turned our attention back towards the tyrannical Nawab and dealt him a whopping defeat at Plassey. In time, the entirety of Bengal was liberated from his despotism, and we placed our own puppet on the throne. Clive soon found himself made Commander-in-Chief of Fort William while I returned home with the satisfaction that I had brought honour and glory to king and country. “You may think my motivation was purely economic, but the truth is that I did it out of sheer love for my people. I have lived amongst this island nation from its very inception. In that time, I had grown to love the British like a father does his children. I was prepared to do anything to help them become the greatest nation amongst the Beni Adam. You can imagine my heartbreak then when I was betrayed by those I had dedicated my life to nurturing. “As time went on, our rule in Bengal was cemented, and I returned to Calcutta in seventeen seventy. To my dismay, the state of the country was far worse than it had ever been under the rule of the tyrannical Nawab. The streets were filled with starvation, entire towns were deserted, mothers sold their children into slavery, and the land was wrought with vile bandits looking for an easy score. I was appalled by the turmoil I helped create. “Yes, it was true I wanted Britannia to rule the waves, and I was even willing to do it at the expense of other nations, but the scenes I witnessed during that great famine etched themselves into the deep rifts of my consciousness. We were meant to bring peace to that region that had so far been ravaged by ceaseless war. Yet, we depredated that land for our own senseless greed. “Upon my return to Albion, I left The Company, but of course, they were not willing to let their most valuable asset leave so easily. The directors begged me to stay. After all, I was the real determinant behind Clive’s success and had turned The Company from a group of mercantile holdings into a fully-fledged sovereign state. However, the horrors of famine were a burden too cumbersome for my spirit. “A month after I left their employ, The Company, on the brink of financial ruin, began sending envoys to my door, each of whom I turned away. Then one day, Clive, now a Major-General, paid me a visit. He had with him a wooden box that I assumed contained some sort of farewell gift. Owing to the fact we had served together on the battlefield, I welcomed him into my residence and poured him a glass of ale. He begged me one last time to return to The Company’s employ. I refused. “With great remorse, he opened the box to reveal a golden oil lamp carved upon with emerald runes written in the old tongue. Many centuries ago, I had heard tales of such vessels built by the Beni Adam to imprison jinn. How he came to possess one such vessel, I do not know. What I do know is that it is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy, for it is a fate I was subjected to for over sixty years. “For decades, I was bound to the will of the directors, forced to do their bidding. I was compelled to commit acts of great evil for the pursuit of wealth, the most wicked of human vices. The only respite I had was the confines of that abhorrent prison. My torture continued until one day a Governor-General, in service of The Company, required my usage in the summer of eighteen thirty-six. He was concerned about recent complications in neighbouring Afghanistan and compelled me to intrude upon the heavens to ascertain the trajectory of future events. “There is a reason this act is forbidden amongst the jinn. To intrude upon the heavens is no small feat, and it almost cost me my life. I had made it as far the gates before I was struck down by a blazing comet, reducing me to my current ruin. As painful as it was, it did free me from my servitude. I’ve spent the last forty years wandering the streets of London attempting to bring an end to The Company. I even travelled back to India for a short time and instigated the Sepoy Mutiny. As it stands, The Company is still operating, albeit in a vastly vestigial state, but I fear the directors are in the process of attempting one last grab at power, right here in London.” “Well, that was most certainly a lively tale,” jested Mr Daim, the only laugh being those of the crickets nestled amongst the Temperate House’s collection of flora. “This is no laughing matter, Mr Daim. If their scheme succeeds, it could spell the end of the jinn,” warned Spring-Heeled Jack. “You still haven’t explained what happened with that poor lad in the East End,” chimed in Captain Robertson with a renewed interest in the conversation that was slowly dispensing with his fear of the ghastly ghul. “That’s a good point,” seconded Mr Daim, “I was just about to ask you the same thing. What happened in White Chappal?” “Whitechapel,” corrected Captain Robertson. “What happened in Whitechapel?” “That poor man worked as a clerk at the India House and had some information regarding The Company’s nefarious plans that reached all the way to the top. It was supposed to be an easy, straightforward exchange, but we were intercepted. Just when he was about to give me names, someone attacked him.” “Did you manage to catch a glimpse of the attacker?” probed Mr Daim. “No, but he was most certainly a Beni Adam, dressed in all black.” Mr Daim wasn’t sure what to make of the ghul’s claims. For one thing, they didn’t explain how the body came to be so mutilated. Spring-Heeled Jack seemed the most obvious suspect, given his menacing claws. However, that conclusion seemed to fit a little too easily for Mr Daim’s taste. After all, who’s to say a Beni Adam didn’t take a knife to the body to make it look like the work of a ghul? “What were you doing at the bottling factory?” “I was following up on a tip I received from an insider about a new contract The Company had signed. They had ordered a batch of golden flasks studded with emerald inscriptions written in the same old tongue that confined me to my prison. Murdstone was tasked with acquiring those flasks. Mr Daim, I am convinced The Company may be planning to do what they did to me, but on an industrial scale. And I have good reason to believe you have been lured to Albion as their first victim.” This revelation was met with scepticism from Mr Daim. There was no way The Company had the means to embark on such a venture. In that same moment, Captain Robertson came to a guilt-ridden realisation. “Gentlemen, I fear I’ve made an egregious error.” All at once, the western wall of the Temperate House burst into a thousand shards of angry glass that nicked at the Captain’s skin. Chaos filled the empty air as policemen stormed through the thick jungle, firing sporadically towards the jinn. Captain Robertson was caught in the erratic barrage as a stray bullet collided with his clavicle. He instantly buckled over in agony, his consciousness receding. He spotted Commissioner Henderson, through the smoke of gun barrels, giving orders to secure Mr Daim, who lay on the ground in a befuddled heap. Upon seeing Captain Robertson’s predicament, the Commissioner ordered a medic to be brought forth to tend to his wounds. Once he was turned on his back, the last thing Captain Robertson saw was Spring-Heeled Jack perched atop the jubaea tree. Within an instant, the ghul was gone. And within the next, so was the Captain.
Jayadeep and Arbaaz were sitting beneath the shade of a mango tree in deep discussion. They had just completed their first academic year at the English college and were due to embark homeward the following week. Jayadeep, the son of a Marathi moneylender, would be travelling southward to the beaches of Bombay. Meanwhile, Arbaaz, the son of a Pashtun subedar, would be travelling northward to the mountains of Peshawar. The topic of discussion was of utmost importance, controversial in nature, but in need of urgent conclusion, for the honour of two great religions was at stake: Who had really achieved victory at the Third Battle of Panipat? Being a proud Muslim, Arbaaz contended that it had been a great victory for Islam because Ahmad Shah Abdali had only one lakh soldiers against the Marathas’ six. This was the general consensus among the practitioners of history. Even the firangi British, who counted the Pashtuns as a martial race, agreed that Islam had triumphed over Hinduism that day. As far as Arbaaz was concerned, the strength of a Muslim Pashtun was worth ten times that of a Hindu Marathi, so there was no doubt the superiority of Islam had prevailed. Of course, you couldn’t expect a Hindu to accept the truth for what it is the same way a Sayyid, like Arbaaz, can. Being a proud Hindu, Jayadeep countered that the real victory belonged to Hinduism because even though they may have lost the battle, the blow dealt to the Muslim invaders was enough to halt their advance further south. In other words, a victory to the vanquished. No more than a decade later, the Marathas had reconquered what they’d lost and installed their own puppet emperor. Thereby symbolising the inevitable triumph of Hinduism over Islam and the relegation of Muslims to their natural state beneath the heels of superior Hindus. Of course, you couldn’t expect a Muslim to see the bigger picture the same way a Brahmin, like Jayadeep, can. “Bhaijaan, what happens after battle is of no importance,” asserted Arbaaz as he ripped into the sweet flesh of a ripened mango with his bare hands, “the fact remains that we Muslims defeated your people on the plains of Panipat that fateful day.” “Arbaaz Ji, my dear friend, what you fail to realise is that what happens after battle is of the most importance,” rebutted Jayadeep as he carefully peeled away the skin of his mango with a pocket knife, “after all, as the great General Sunzi said ‘sometimes one must lose a battle to win a war.’ We Hindus did not set out to win the battle, but to simply halt your people’s advance so that we could claim the ultimate victory.” “I do not know of this Sunzi you speak of, but if he really said such a thing, then he is not of sound mind. How can one claim to win the war if they fail to win the battle? It is a delusional fallacy,” argued Arbaaz with a mouth full of mango. “You would do well not to speak ill of General Sunzi. He is the most respected figure amongst the Chinese,” warned Jayadeep. “Then the Chinese are a delusional bunch, and if you really believe what he says to be true, then you’re Chinese too,” quipped Arbaaz with a mango-stained grin stretching across his face. Jayadeep politely smiled, but deep down, he was disgusted. This man lacked all forms of etiquette. Just look at the way mango was dripping from his unkempt beard. And while yes, it was true they had been classmates for the past year, he was just another unclean Muslim at the end of the day. It amazed Jayadeep that the man had even managed to pass his exams, given his obscene insolence towards men of far greater wisdom. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand anyway. Let us discuss another subject,” offered Jayadeep. “Don’t be like that, bhaijaan. I meant no offence with my last remark. I was just playing with you as brothers do,” apologised Arbaaz, “Why don’t you explain to me how your people were the real victors of Panipat then, Pandit Ji.” Jayadeep ignored the twang of sarcasm in his companion’s voice and went about enlightening him to the truth of what happened on the plains of Panipat more than a century and a half ago. But not before he sliced off a chunk of mango and plopped it into his mouth with satisfaction. “As I mentioned before, our aim wasn’t to win the battle. It was to halt your people’s advance into our heartland. You may recall that the Muslim army of Ahmad Shah Abdali had sustained such heavy losses from the battle that he was obligated to send an envoy to the esteemed Balaji Baji Rao, begging for forgiveness after killing both his son and brother. Tell me, Bahadur Ji, which man asks for forgiveness after waging war except one who cowers before the prospect of retribution? In fact, he was so terrified of the courageous willingness with which the brave Hindu warriors gave their lives to martyrdom that he fled back to the mountains of Kabulistan and never dared step foot in Hindustan ever again. No more than a decade later, we Hindus reclaimed Delhi for ourselves and installed a puppet emperor so that your people would be none the wiser. It is for this reason that the Battle of Panipat was a great victory for Hinduism. Such is the ingenuity of the Hindu mind.” After concluding his lecture – for Jayadeep considered himself an enlightened individual whom others would do well to listen to – he returned to slicing and consuming his mango in neat little chunks. Arbaaz was rankled though he did not show it, instead opting to return a polite nod of recognition to his companion’s words. This man thought himself to be God’s gift to the world. Just look at the way he ate his mango, too afraid of getting his hands a little dirty. And while yes, it was true he considered him a dear friend, he was just another pompous Hindu at the end of the day. It amazed Arbaaz that the man had even managed to pass his exams, given his foolish delusions about clear-cut historical events. “Do you finally understand why it is you are wrong, Arbaaz Ji? Or would you like greater elaboration to widen your limited scope of view?” taunted Jayadeep, the corner of his mouth curved into a sly smile. “Bhaijaan, it seems to me that you have been carried away by your own delusions,” retorted Arbaaz, “the truth of the matter is that one lakh Muslims had defeated six lakh Hindus upon the plains of Panipat that fateful day. Let us not forget that the real reason the illustrious Ahmad Shah Abdali marched into Hindustan was to deal with the troublesome Sikhs. He was not concerned with the Hindu Marathas. After all, what threat could your people possibly pose? He had just defeated them six to one! Upon concluding his business with the Sikhs, he returned to Kabulistan but not before extracting an annual tribute of four million rupees from the Mughal Emperor. And so, you see, we Muslims were never subject to a Hindu Peshwa but a fellow Muslim Padshah just like ourselves. It is for this reason that the Third Battle of Panipat, just like those that preceeded it, was a great victory for Islam. Such is the dignity of the Muslim Ummah.” After putting an end to the matter – for nobody could deny that Arbaaz was right – he consumed the last of his mango before nonchalantly tossing away its empty husk. “You Muslims are too busy thinking like the mindless empty-headed ants that Jains take care to avoid soiling their feet with to ever see the bigger picture,” scoffed Jayadeep. “And you Hindus are too busy stuck up your own arse sniffing the psychedelic fumes of your own excrement to ever tell reality from delusion,” retaliated Arbaaz. A heated moment of quiet hostility passed between the two students. The only sound was the drip, drip, drip of mango juices from Arbaaz’s unkempt beard onto the sun-dried grass. “Bhaijaan, it seems there is only one way to settle this,” ventured Arbaaz after enough time had passed for the two young men to cool down. “We must conduct a Fourth Battle of Panipat to determine the true victor once and for all.” “Very well, Arbaaz Ji. What are your conditions?” inquired Jayadeep. “The conditions will be as follows: on the first Saturday upon our return from term break, we will meet on the outskirts of Panipat. I will bring with me seven hundred Muslims as there are seven crores of Muslims living in Hindustan, and you will bring with you twenty-two hundred Hindus to represent the twenty-two crores of Hindus. The proper thing would be to disallow the use of guns, tanks or bombs. Only the use of swords, javelins, spears, daggers, and bows will be permitted. Seeing as the inclusion of Pashtun Muslims would be an unfair advantage, I will only recruit Hindustani Muslims of good repute. I, myself, will be the only Pashtun you’ll have to face on the battlefield. Agreed?” “Agreed.” The pair shook hands, Jayadeep wincing at the sticky mango residue left on Arbaaz’s fingers. “So, it is settled then. We shall meet again after the term break,” concluded Arbaaz. “May Bhagwan bestow his ever-glorious favour upon you. And may your travels be both smooth and free of hindrance. Be sure to pass on my best wishes to your parents. Khuda hafiz, bhaijaan.” “Likewise, Arbaaz Ji,” seconded Jaydeep. “Pass my salaams onto your family. May the all-merciful Allah bless you all with a thousand blessings. As-salamu Alaykum, my friend. Until next time.” And so, the two students bid their farewell before going their separate ways. Arbaaz northward to the mountains of Peshawar and Jayadeep southward to the beaches of Bombay.
On the first Saturday, upon their return from the term break, Arbaaz and Jayadeep met on the outskirts of Panipat in a large field just south of the town. Jayadeep had with him twenty-two hundred Hindus recruited from the surrounding villages. Arbaaz kept to his promise too and was accompanied by seven hundred Hindustani Muslims of good repute recruited from the nearby city of Delhi. Neither army possessed guns, tanks, or bombs and only employed the use of the agreed-upon weaponry. The Hindu army approached the field from the east while the Muslim army approached the field from the west. Once they were a suitable distance apart, both armies closed ranks and made preparations for the upcoming battle, but not before their two generals had a chance to negotiate. “Arbaaz Ji, your army is outnumbered. You would do well to surrender and spare your mens’ widows a lifetime of mourning. Simply relinquish your claim to victory at the Third Battle of Panipat, and we can be done with this mess. Why must we waste precious lives when Muslims and Hindus are already slaughtering each other across the country?” entreated Jayadeep, his hand fiddling with the bejewelled dagger strapped across his chest. “Bhaijaan, you are well aware that I cannot relinquish the honour of the Muslim Ummah. I am too moved by the atrocities that have enveloped the country. That is why I beg you to withdraw your delusional claims and spare the lives of your good, honest men. Remember that Panipat is the battlefield upon which Islam always achieves victory,” adjured Arbaaz, his hand resting upon the hilt of his steel sabre. Neither man could bring themselves to surrender and forfeit the honour of their respective religions. Having reached an impasse, there was only one course of action: war. Both men rejoined the ranks of their troops and steadied themselves for battle. Adrenaline seeped into Arbaaz’s bloodstream as he tightened his grip on his sabre while sweat dripped down the brow of Jayadeep as he slowly unbuckled his dagger. Cries of Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev rose into the still, humid air as both armies charged towards each other in a blind frenzy. The cries of battle were suddenly cut off by the thunderous roar of gunfire from the south. Plumes of red vapour erupted into the sky as warrior after warrior collapsed to the ground in a petrified heap of death. The bullets did not discriminate as they tore into the flesh of those seven hundred Muslims and twenty-two hundred Hindus. As it turns out, a local cantonment of British troops had witnessed the gathering mass of natives armed with swords, javelins, spears, daggers, and bows. Fearing another potential cross-communal rebellion, they rode out with a machine gun in tow to swiftly put an end to the uprising. And so it was that the British were crowned the victors of the Fourth Battle of Panipat. When all was said and done, and each cartridge had been emptied, there remained a field of lifeless corpses. At the centre of which lay the bodies of an unclean Muslim and pompous Hindu.
The inspiration for this short story came from multiple places, so I thought it’d be interesting to share with you the thought process that led to this piece. If anything, the following will illustrate to you just how strange my brain is.
If you haven’t guessed already, I’m a huge sucker for South Asian history. And any student of South Asian history will be able to tell you about the three Battles of Panipat, each of which led to dramatic political shifts in the Subcontinent.
The First Battle of Panipat (21st April 1526) saw Babur, descendent of Timur and Genghis Khan, defeat and kill Ibrahim Lodi, leading to the end of the 320-year-old Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) and the establishment of the illustrious Mughal Empire (1526-1857). It also served to introduce the use of gunpowder arms and field artillery into the Indian Subcontinent.
The Second Battle of Panipat (5th November 1556) saw the 13-year-old Akbar defeat the Hindu King Hemu, who had previously served as a general and chief minister of the short-lived Sur Empire (1540-1556). Emperor Akbar would go on to become the greatest Mughal ruler, beloved by both Hindus and Muslims.
The Third Battle of Panipat (14th January 1761) saw Ahmad Shah Abdali of the Durrani Empire (1747-1823 and 1839-1842), alongside a coalition of Mughal, Oudh State, and Rohilla forces, defeat an army of the Maratha Confederacy (1674-1818). It was one of the largest battles of the 18th century, involving over 125,000 troops (lower than the exaggerated 7 lakhs of my story but still significant nonetheless) and lasting over several days. It was also the last major battle between South Asian-headed military powers until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1947.
I had only decided to write a short story centred around this topic because I am currently reading the works of Saadat Hasan Manto. For those who don’t know, Manto is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the Urdu language. Perhaps one of the greatest writers of all time. He is most famous for his short stories about Partition that capture the brutality and savagery of the times without obscuring the humanity of those lost to the violence. Manto had also written extensively about life in British India as well as post-independence Pakistan. I intend to dedicate an individual post to Manto in the future, but for now, his work inspired the setting, theme, and style of this short story.
The actual plot was inspired by something I read about in B.R. Ambedkar’s Thoughts On Pakistan. Again, for those who don’t know, Ambedkar is one of the giants of the Indian Independence Movement and one of the leading voices who campaigned for Dalit (untouchable) rights. In his book, Thoughts On Pakistan, published in 1945, Ambedkar explains both the case for and against the creation of Pakistan without being partial to either side. In chapter 12, Ambedkar referenced an absurd event that stuck with me.
It turns out that, in 1925, the controversy surrounding who really won the Third Battle of Panipat caused a certain Maulana Akabar Shah Khan to challenge Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to a Fourth Battle of Panipat in order to settle the score. The challenge was issued in all seriousness with conditions laid down as to the types of weapons and number of men allowed. They never went through with it, but the absurdity of the event laid the basis for my short story. What if some people were really mad enough to go through with the proposal?
The names Jayadeep and Arbaaz were taken from the video games Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India, respectively. According to Assassin’s Creed lore, Arbaaz Mir was a Kashmiri Master Assassin of the Indian Brotherhood of Assassins at Amritsar. He ended up marrying Princess Pyara Kaur, with whom he had a son, Jayadeep. Jayadeep Mir, a.k.a “the Ghost” or more commonly Sir Henry Green, was a member of the British Brotherhood of Assassins, based in London, during the 1860s. He assisted the twins Jacob and Evie Frye in thwarting a Templar scheme to assassinate Queen Victoria. He later married Evie Frye, and the two moved back to India.
I was in conversation with my friend Isaac, who is from Tamil Nadu, about a new character coming to League of Legends, another video game we play obsessively. The character goes by the name Akshan and is most definitely coded as a South Asian. This led to a general discussion about South Asian representation in video games which allowed me to recall Arbaaz and Jayadeep from Assassin’s Creed. When I came to writing this story and needed character names, these two were already floating about inside my head, inevitably making it onto the page.
The consumption of mangoes was inspired by the chopped mango my lovely mother prepared for me while I was writing this story. It goes without saying that my mum is most definitely better than yours ;P
For those who don’t know, I am currently on a gap year before I head off to the University of Birmingham to study Policy, Politics and Economics. One of the main goals of this gap year was to pursue acting. As you can imagine, this has been quite difficult given the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on the acting industry. Nonetheless, I have managed to take part in two acting courses with City Academy so far and have a project lined up in August that will end in the creation of a short film, Insha Allah.
During my most recent acting course, we shot a few monologues and duologues that I would like to share in this here post.
Monologue #1: Like Dreaming
The first monologue we did as a class was titled ‘Like Dreaming.’ We were only given around 20 minutes to read through the script before we had to film it. As you can imagine, nobody was able to commit their lines to memory, but that wasn’t the point. This was just a test to get used to the feeling of being on camera.
We were not given any context about the script, so we had to come up with our own. Off-camera, we did a mock interview, in character, explaining the situation. The context I came up with was as follows:
I’m a young man who is opening up to his therapist about his painful past. A woman I knew committed suicide immediately after we went to see a movie. To add some more emotional stakes to the scene, I was also in love with this woman, but I didn’t have the time to tell her. I also blamed myself for her suicide because had I told her how I felt, maybe she would still be here today. Truth be told, I kind of stole this idea from 13 Reasons Why, but, in my defence, we had very little time to prepare.
Monologue #2: Picasso Revisited
For our second monologue, everybody was given individual scripts to learn. As you will see, my script was really weird, and I had no idea where it was from. So, like last time, I had to come up with my own context. Luckily, we would be doing this monologue for two weeks which gave me plenty of time to learn my lines. The context I came up with for this monologue was as follows:
I’m a struggling comedian who is bombing on stage at a comedy club. I’m currently couch surfing between different friends and have been cut off financially by my wealthy parents for dropping out of med school. I’m desperate to make something of my life, and the story I tell in the scene is fictitious but acts as a metaphor for my desire to be affirmed by others. I just want people to tell me that I’m a genius. That I’m a Picasso.
We shot this scene a total of three times. The first two times, I hit my punchlines and was too funny, which caused my audience (my fellow classmates) to laugh. Of course, if this was a real stand-up show, then that’d be great. However, it wasn’t. It turns out that pretending to be someone trying to be funny but fails miserably is actually quite hard. So, for the final time, I decided to miss all my punchlines and add in a bunch of awkward pauses to make me seem desperate for the crowd’s approval.
Duologue: When Harry Met Sally
For the final week, we did duologues. The scene we were doing was taken directly from When Harry Met Sally (a movie I still haven’t watched). Due to a lack of male actors in the class, I got to act out the scene with two different partners, which allowed me to tackle it in different ways.
With my first partner, Nicole, I decided to approach the scene as a confident Harry. To quote one of my fellow classmates, I was a “cheeky bastard.” Here’s both our takes:
With my second partner, Karoline, I decided to be a bit more like a bumbling idiot. Still cheeky but not as confident and more conscious of other people at the wedding ceremony. Here’s our second take:
I also did a single shot of me acting to my partner off-screen as well:
Special shout out to Nicole and Karolina for being such amazing screen partners as well as everyone else on my course for being a joy to work with.
One moment, they were there, in the confines of that little office in Murdstone & Co. The next, they were somewhere else entirely. Within the blink of an eye, the moonlit interior was exchanged for a starlit sky, the hard oak floorboards were exchanged for damp blades of glass, and the scream that got stuck in Captain Robertson’s throat was exchanged for vomit that generously slopped to the ground. “It’s okay. Let it all out,” Mr Daim comforted his companion with a gentle slap to the back, “everybody vomits after their first place-jump.” “Stay the hell away from me, you devil spawn!” roared Captain Robertson, stricken with fear. The force that sealed his lips was no more. “You’re in shock, Captain. Take a few deep br—” “NO! Stay back!” The pistol now had its eye on Mr Daim, “You were about to sell me out to that thing.” “Excuse me?” “Don’t play dumb with me. I saw you speaking to that monster in the devil’s tongue.” “First of all, that was Cymric. And, no, I was not about to sell you out. You’re my friend.” Captain Robertson wasn’t going to fall for Mr Daim’s sentimentalism, “if I was really your friend, why didn’t you tell me you were a genie?” “I did!” Captain Robertson raised a sceptical eyebrow as if to say: Are you sure about that? “I did tell you. At the tea house,” the more Mr Daim thought about it, the more confidence he lost in his own assertion, “at least I’m fairly certain I did,” until eventually, he lost it all, “Okay, maybe you’re right, I may have forgotten to mention it,” the Captain was pulling back the hammer of his revolver now, “but in my defence, it was fairly obvious from the start.” “Really? How so?” “I mean,” Mr Daim chuckled nervously, “my name is Mr Daim.” Captain Robertson returned a blank stare. He wasn’t amused. Or maybe he just didn’t know. “Um… Daim means immortal in Urdu. Jinn are… well we’re not immortal… but compared to your human lifespan, we may as well be.” Mr Daim gifted his companion one of his award-winning smiles along with a thumbs up for good measure. Unfortunately, that was the very end of the Captain’s tether. “I’ve had enough of your games, Mr Daim. Tell me the truth right now, or I swear to God, I’ll shoot you where you stand.” “Very well,” the jinni had his hands up now, “what do you wish to know?” “First, you can begin by telling me where we are and how we got here.” “After you ruffled Jack’s feathers, I thought it prudent that I get you out of there before you ended up missing a face.” Images of that poor sod lying in the soot-smothered East End crossed Captain Robertson’s mind yet again as bile crept up his oesophagus. Part of him was surprised he contained so much vomit, given the number of times he’d puked these past forty-eight hours. “So, I transported us to this hill,” continued Mr Daim, “I believe it’s called Green Witch Park.” “Greenwich,” corrected Captain Robertson, gulping down the creeping bile as he surveyed his surroundings. The observatory behind them confirmed that the jinni wasn’t lying. Mr Daim nodded in recognition before eyeing the gun still levelled at his chest, “I see that my efforts in preserving your life do not warrant your trust.” “You see correctly. Now, tell me, Mr Daim. Who are you?”
Long before the advent of humankind, the Earth was ruled by jinn, beings made of smokeless flame. Like their younger siblings, the jinn were a divided people, separated into many nations from the Titanian Empire to the Republic of Atlantis. However, none could surpass the might of Mount Qaf, the city of shining emerald, the conduit between the terrestrial and celestial. It was here, at Mount Qaf, that a jinni, whose birth name has been long forgotten even to himself, was born. Unfortunately for the jinni, he came into existence during turbulent times. The Creator had conferred stewardship of the Earth to a new people: the Beni Adam. As you can imagine, this sent shockwaves across the world. If the Beni Adam were to rule, then what would become of the jinn? Many jinn saw this as a new beginning and decided to live amongst their counterparts of flesh and blood. Others were fearful of the Beni Adam’s bestial nature and retreated into their own realm. Some jinn, those of the more disobedient kind, saw it as an opportunity and began to take on the Beni Adam as worshippers, building large monuments to false gods. However, the most pre-eminent amongst the jinn, one who had come closest to the Throne of the Creator, refused to accept the sovereignty of the Beni Adam and was subsequently cast out of Heaven. As revenge, he vowed to spend eternity tempting the Beni Adam to do evil. And so, the jinni, born at Mount Qaf during turbulent times, watched humanity emerge from caves to build cities of magnificence. He watched humanity commit deeds of great malevolence with one hand and deeds of great benevolence with the other. He watched them build machines that could transport people over great distances and others that could transport messages even further. He watched them build weapons that could take a life with the single flick of a finger and others that could tear through entire battalions as they screamed in terror. Every day, he was inspirited by their ingenuity, their tenacity and their nobility. Every day, he was appalled by their cruelty, their brutality and their barbarity. Through better times and worse, he watched them grow from lighting their first spark of flame to generating their first spark of electricity. As time marched on and millennia after millennia passed by, the jinni grew restless. For all the places he’d visited, all the loved ones he’d lost, all the poetry he’d read, he was still missing something crucial: purpose. It is in search for a purpose that the jinni began wandering aimlessly from one end of the Earth to the other. He was looking for a sign. Any sign that could point to a greater meaning to his existence. What was his place in the world? One day, while passing through the labyrinth of a busy city, the jinni overheard the most beautiful of recitations. Day after day, he would return to that exact same spot to hear its message. It spoke of a gracious and merciful God who would reward those that did good deeds and exhibited the qualities of the righteous. It was then that the jinni finally found his purpose. From that day on, he vowed to break the shackles he had placed upon himself and dedicate the remainder of his life in service of his God. In the proceeding years, as the empires of yesterday were replaced by those of tomorrow, the nations of the Beni Adam grew in strength while those of the jinn fell into decline. Without safe havens to offer protection, the jinn became victim to the greed of the Beni Adam. Thus, began the Great Upheaval. In the proceeding centuries, countless jinn were captured and enslaved by the Beni Adam within the confines of enchanted ornaments, forcing those that remained to go into hiding. In retaliation, some jinn began to torment their counterparts of flesh and blood, fuelling the fear that drove humanity’s enterprise. Amidst the chaos, the jinni, as old as humankind, took on a new role. He would hunt down those that spread corruption in the world, whether they be amongst the jinn or Beni Adam. He would free the enslaved and relieve the tormented. He would take on many names. The most recent of which was Mr Daim. An arbiter between those of sounding clay and smokeless flame.
“… and that more or less sums up my life story.” Captain Robertson was astonished by what he’d just heard. The being that stood before him was as old as humankind itself. There was no telling the wealth of knowledge the jinni had stored away. The things he’d witnessed. The people he’d met. The life he’d lived. “Is that all?” asked Mr Daim, hoping his companion was satisfied enough to lower his weapon. Captain Robertson shook his head, partly to answer the question, partly to joggle his blown mind. “No, tell me exactly what you discussed with Spring-Heeled Jack.” “Okay,” Mr Daim took in a deep breath before barraging Captain Robertson with a complete transcript of what was said, “I introduced myself by saying, ‘pleasure to meet you. My name is Mr Daim, and you must be the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack everyone is talking about.’ He didn’t reply, so to break the ice, I said, ‘Depressing weather this week, wouldn’t you say?’ To which he responded, ‘Why are you here?’ If you ask me, I found that rather rude so to display my dissatisfaction I replied, ‘Sorry?’ To which he res—” “Daim!” Captain Robertson halted the jinni’s word-for-word transcript, “I’m not in the mood for this tomfoolery. You know what I mean. Tell me what it is you said in Cymric.” “Oh, I see,” but he didn’t see, “I said, ‘Daethpwyd â mi i’r wlad hon i’ch olrhain i lawr.’ Then Ja—” “IN ENGLISH!” Captain Robertson was turning red with frustration, “Tell me what you discussed in Cymric, but in English.” “Ohhhhhh,” Mr Daim finally understood what his companion was asking for, “why didn’t you just say so?” Captain Robertson held back the urge to scream. The respect he had just accumulated for Mr Daim was quickly dwindling. “I explained to Jack that I have only been in Albion for a week and that I was brought here to bring him to justice. However, it appears that things are not as straightforward as they seem,” Mr Daim’s mischievous demeanour was replaced by one of grave seriousness as he pondered how to break the news, “Jack claims that he was set up.” “But that makes no sense. Didn’t you find evidence to prove Spring-Heeled Jack was at the scene of the crime?” “Yes, I found his residual aura at the scene of the crime, but that’s not sufficient enough evidence to prove he committed the crime. Without witnesses, there’s no way to prove what happened. For all we know, Jack may have been acting in self-defence.” “You’re seriously taking the side of the ghoul here?” Scoffed Captain Robertson, “that thing tried to eat me!” “Only after you shot him. Besides, I’m not taking anyone’s side; I still need more information. If what he says is true, there may be greater forces at play here than I initially thought, which is why I agreed to an audience with our friend Jack a week from now.” “You can’t be serious,” sighed Captain Robertson as he lowered his revolver. “I most certainly am.”
There are few events in life that can be called defining moments. Moments in which you come into your own. Moments in which you found out for yourself what kind of a person you are. Moments you’ll remember and pass on to your children as lessons. Moments that make a good story for your blog. In this post, I’m going to tell you about three such moments in my life.
Before we begin, a quick disclaimer: I am in no way advocating for any of the behaviour I’m about to bring to light in this here post. Fighting is both dangerous as well as very immature. Hence, the last fight I had was more than three years ago when I was but a wee little boy (sixteen). I’m merely telling you these stories for entertainment value and perhaps even the off chance you can learn something from my stupidity. So, with the legal side of things sorted, let’s jump right into another – you guessed it – ORIGIN STORYTIME!
Fighting. ‘Tis a natural part of being human. We all fight; We’ve all fought. Every day, your body fights against foreign pathogens. Yesterday, you were fighting against your vices. Tomorrow, you’ll be fighting against an alien invasion. Right now, you’re fighting boredom by reading this post (thanks for the support, by the way, it means a lot). However, few fights are as self-defining as a good old fashioned brawl.
I’d go as far as to say that brawls are a rite of passage. You haven’t really lived until you’ve been punched in the face at least once. This is why I believe combat studies should be made an official part of the UK education curriculum. Too many people go through life without being punched in the face, and quite frankly, I find that unacceptable.
Most men have been in a physical brawl at least once in their youth. It’s how boys vent out their frustration. And it works, despite it being unsustainable (I could go into a diatribe about toxic masculinity, but I’ll save that for another day). That’s why – and I’m sure you’ve seen at least one example of this in your lifetime – boys can get into a fight one day and be best friends the next. For long-time followers of this blog, you may be able to recall that one of my closest friends actually knocked me out in year 7.
This isn’t to say women don’t fight – I went to public school in south-east London, I should know. In fact, I’d say women are even more brutal than men. A fight between two men ends with a little blood and some bruises. A fight between two women ends with a lot of blood. I’m talking on the floor, on the wall, on the ceiling and on the spectators. You break up a fight between two men, you become a hero. You break up a fight between two women, you become a martyr. Women are vicious. Y’all give me nightmares.
But regardless of who is doing the fighting, the fight itself can reveal a lot about their character. If you want to know if someone is merciful or merciless, watch them fight. If you want to know if someone is courageous or craven, watch them fight. If you want to know if someone is honourable or deplorable, watch them fight. Your actions in a fight, when the only thing that matters is your own survival, are the ones that speak most true to your character.
I’ve been in my fair share of fights, both in school and out. In some, I was victorious. In most, I was humiliated. However, each and every one of them served to teach me a valuable lesson. Either about the art of fighting, about myself or about life in general. Today, I will tell you the story of three of those fights.
The Advice That Started It All
Many years ago, before I started wearing glasses, I was attending nursery school. It was here that your boy got into a few scuffles with the other kids. Nothing major, just a little pushing and shoving and occasional kicking from time to time. After one particularly bad scuffle – the details of which have escaped me – I went home and cried to my dad.
Amidst a torrent of tears, I told my dad I hated school because none of the other kids liked me. I’ve still yet to outgrow my melodrama. I complained that none of the teachers did anything to stop it (whether this is true or not, I cannot remember). It was at this point that my dad dropped one of his many pieces of sage advice that would stick with me for life:
“Next time someone hits you, hit them back with the same force. You can’t rely on other people to save you. You have to stand up for yourself.”
To this day, those words continue to echo in my head whenever I’m confronted with a bully. In life, you have to stand up for yourself, and you have to stand up for those around you. Whenever you fail to stand up to a bully, a tyrant walks free to do what they did to you to others. Of course, now that I’m an adult, I’ll have to use methods other than physical violence, but the essence of the message still stands:
“You have to stand up for yourself.”
It would be these words that stop me from backing down from future fights no matter whether the odds were in my favour (as you will see, most of the time, they were not).
Fight #1: The Battle of the Collapsing Tiles
A few years later, after I started wearing glasses and a few more scuffles, I got into my first proper fight. It happened during my second week at secondary school. As I mentioned in previous posts, I never really fitted in and by this point into the school year, I had yet to make any friends.
We had just finished a PE lesson doing rugby. I was never really big on sports growing up, so I wasn’t very good at them. If you had to put me into a box, then I was more a geek than jock. Especially when it came to rugby, which can be quite scary for someone on the smaller side. Getting tackled by people twice your size is not a fun experience. Instead, I’d stay on the outside of the action. My worst fear was being passed the ball and then getting run down by fifteen angry lads.
Anyway, there I was, minding my own business, as we made our way back into the changing room. Our school building was very old and very cramped, evidenced by the creaking floorboards and the asbestos room we were forbidden to enter. As soon as I get into the room, I wash my hands in the sink and then turn to use the hand dryer. Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone grabs the back of my head and smashes it into the hand dryer. An eruption of guffaws fills the packed room.
I turn to face my attacker, anger steaming out my ears like in the cartoons. Standing before me were a group of students, but it wasn’t obvious which one had done it. So instead, I decide for myself who dared to do such a thing. Eventually, concluding it had to be the one with the big smug grin on their face: a kid whom we will refer to as K (seeing as his name began with a K).
To this day, I still have no idea what pushed K to shove my head into a hand dryer. Maybe it was because I was one of the smaller kids, not very athletic, and kind of strange looking with a big nose that my parents promised I would grow into. All this, coupled with my very low position in the secondary school social order, made me an easy target. Preying on the weak is a tactic many have used throughout history to gain respect and admiration, and I wouldn’t have put it past K to see me as his ticket to upward social mobility.
So there I was, angry and in need of retribution. My father’s words echoing in my head. I punch K directly in the kisser, knocking that smug grin from his face. The whole room goes silent save for someone in the back going, “OOOOOoOOOooooOOOOO.”
Now I wish I could say that was the end of it. That I punched K so hard, he fell to the ground and ran crying to his momma. That would’ve made a good story. Maybe it could’ve made it into tomorrow’s headlines: KID STANDS UP TO BULLY AND BECOMES NATIONAL HERO. But, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. All it did was make K blood-red angry. K also had something I didn’t have. K had friends.
Two of K’s friends grab me by the arms and haul me off the ground. I was now dangling in mid-air as K pummelled me in the stomach. Punch after punch, forcing air out my lungs. My eyes began to water as I clenched my jaw, trying to hold back cries of pain against a backdrop of year 7s chanting, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”
At some point during the barrage, my brain reminds me that I still have two other appendages at my disposal. With a great burst of effort, I lifted both my legs up into the air and launched them square into K’s chest. This didn’t do much, but it did force him back far enough to lightly brush the wall behind him. And that was all that was needed for the tired, old school building.
First, one tile collapsed off the wall. Followed by the one above it. Then the one above that. Until the entire wall of tiles had come crashing down to the floor in a cloud of dust. Everyone went silent yet again as K’s friends finally let me go.
“Rah, this school is older than my grandma.”
Whoever cracked that joke was a comedic genius because the entire room burst into laughter at that point. Even I managed a few fits between my wheezing. Eventually, the teachers arrive on the scene and ordered everyone to stop messing about. Then, after a stern telling off, they hurried us to get changed and dismissed us for the day. I don’t think anyone got in trouble that day; I’m pretty sure the teachers knew the school needed a renovation.
No adult found out about the Battle of the Collapsing Tiles. After all, snitches get stitches, as they say. I don’t even think I ever told my parents about it either (hey, mum and dad, if you’re reading this). I actually remember trying my best to hide the bruises from my parents. I guess I was too embarrassed to admit I’d been beaten up. A trend that continued throughout all my years in secondary education.
At the end of the day, I did learn a few lessons from this experience. Mainly not to start a fight when you’re outnumbered. I should’ve hit back with my words instead of fists. Cuss out his wonky teeth or something, I don’t know. At least that would’ve earned me the crowd’s approval and saved me from having an aching abdomen for a week. But, alas, it would take me many more years to perfect my wit.
Fight #2: The Battle of the Lunch Line
A few months later, I got myself into another fight just before we broke up for Easter. Like most Muslim kids born after 9/11, I’ve had to endure a lifetime of bullying for an atrocity I had nothing to do with. Most of the time, this would consist of verbal abuse, but sometimes it got physical. This was one of those times.
In my year group, there were only about four Muslims that I knew of. Now you’d think that us being in the minority would make us want to stick together, but alas, I was still too weird for the other Muslim kids to want to hang out with me. I guess a part of me also felt as though I wasn’t Muslim enough to hang out with them. Too Muslim for the non-Muslim kids but not Muslim enough for the Muslim kids (an identity crisis I still struggle with, but that we will save for another day). In short, I was left to navigate the Islamophobia of secondary school alone.
So there I was, waiting in line outside the cafeteria. Our school was so over capacity that there were three lines for lunch. The first line was around the corner of the cafeteria. Once you’d finished with this line, you’d get promoted to the line outside the entrance to the cafeteria. After that line, you’d have to queue one final time inside the lunch hall for your food, at which point you’d be lucky if any food was left. It wasn’t uncommon for students to go their 1-hour lunch break without eating, especially considering there were rules against eating anywhere besides the cafeteria.
Looking back, I’m surprised I managed to do as well as I did, considering the complete lack of resources. I believe this is one of the key downsides of academies. Without local authority oversight, academies get away with cutting a lot of corners to the detriment of their students’ wellbeing. And don’t even get me started on federations. *Cough* Harris *cough*. My principal was in charge of three schools within our federation, which meant she was only on-site once a week. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the federation’s government funding went into the pockets of its executives.
Anyway, we’re getting carried away. Where was I? Oh, that’s right, I was waiting in line. A couple of students behind me started making jokes about 9/11. Now considering nearly 3,000 innocent Americans lost their lives that day, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed during the War on Terror that proceeded it, 9/11 is no laughing matter.
Naturally, being the only Muslim within the vicinity, these jokes slowly started becoming insults hurtled towards me. If you’re Muslim, I’m sure you’re more than accustomed to being called all manner of slurs from “raghead” to “sandn*****” or just plain old “Osama.” However, one particular kid, whom we shall refer to as Z, got a little more creative with his insult:
“I bet your people did 9/11 to celebrate your birthday.”
Let us take a minute to analyse the inaccuracies of Z’s insult. First up, we have “your people.” Just in case you were unsure, I have zero affiliations with Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organisation for that matter, and so they are not my people. In fact, I, alongside pretty much every other Muslim in the world, consider them a disgrace to humanity.
Next up, we have the bit about 9/11 being a celebration of my birthday. I wasn’t born until the 20th of November, two months after 9/11 (y’all know my birthday now, I expect gifts). So unless Al-Qaeda was a little too eager to celebrate my incoming birth, this part of the insult is also wholly inaccurate.
I would not stand for such slander and decided to fire back with a long string of expletives telling Z to shut his mouth. Not my most elegant moment, I assure you. This got him angry enough for him to push me. Now that he’d thrown the first shot, I was well within my rights to hit back in self-defence. And oh boy, did I hit back.
There we were, in the middle of the lunch line, throwing everything we had at each other. Punches, parries, elbows, headbutts, the whole lot. Whatever you wanted, we had it. Z hit me with a very strong right hook that drew blood from my nose (the bridge of my nose has a slight scar, and I think I got it from this fight, although it may well have been another). Then, just as the teachers were about to break us up, I thought I’d go in for one last dirty shot and so kneed Z in the balls. He doubled over, and I got detention. I wasn’t too fussed about it though, I had just won my first fight.
Fight #3: The Battle of the Keyboard
The last fight I ever had was around five weeks before my GCSE exams. As you can see, the urge to fight transcends the need to study. The backstory to this one is quite long, so bear with me.
For those who don’t know, I’m British-Pakistani. If you’re a minority in any country, you’re bound to be exposed to at least some racism. But Britain isn’t just any country. The British Empire basically pioneered how we see race and ethnicity, from the pseudo-science that’s still prevalent today to racist policies that were only overturned during my parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes (the implications of which are still felt today). It is within this hotbed of racism that the word “Paki” was introduced.
“Paki” is a racial slur indiscriminately used against people of perceived South Asian descent. It is commonly associated with “Paki-Bashing”, which is a term used by skinheads to describe the act of violently assaulting people of perceived South Asian descent. My father has many stories of people he knew that were victims of “Paki-Bashing”. Luckily, “Paki-Bashing” was an outdated practice by the time I was born; however, hate crime, in general, is still prevalent throughout the UK.
For more information on the word “Paki” and my experience with racism, allow me to point you towards an interview I did with Pak-Cord: https://pakcord.com/coconut/
Anyway, leading up to the fight, there was a discussion in our English class about whether “Paki” was really a racial slur. Being the only Pakistani in the class, I assumed my opinion would hold the most weight, so I made it clear how I found the word very offensive and that I wouldn’t tolerate its use by anyone.
Unfortunately, being outnumbered, I became an easy target for harassment over this. People would pretend to almost say the word constantly. Usually, they’d go something like this:
“So Aqil, you’re a Pakiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiistani, right?”
Now you’re not really fooling anyone when you do this, but I knew that if I flipped on someone, then I’d be the one in the wrong. I bided my time and waited patiently for someone to slip up, and sure enough, someone did. We will refer to this individual as X (his name actually began with A, but I thought that’d be confusing since my name starts with A, so I opted to use the last letter of his name instead).
X was a troubled kid. His parents were very wealthy, they lived in a private estate, and he just seemed kinda out of place in a public school. You also got the sense that X didn’t get enough love from his parents, and seeing as he was also an only child, he seemed kinda lonely too. However, X was also a little edgy. We ended up finding a bunch of Nazi paraphernalia on his school computer during one of our Computer Science classes.
During another Computer Science lesson, a fellow student starts pushing my buttons. He asks me, in a mocking tone, whether the word “Paki” is offensive. I tell him yes. He then asks what I’d do if someone says it to my face. Being a sixteen-year-old male, filled to the brim with testosterone, I try to act all big and say that if someone says it to my face, I’ll punch them in theirs. This student then turns to X and dares him to say the word. X, being the edgy person he is, goes along with it and actually says the word.
Of course, I cannot promise something and then not deliver. I got up, walked over to X, grabbed him by his shirt collar, and pulled him out of his seat. We struggled for a few moments while all this was happening. He even tried removing his keyboard from his computer to hit me with it. After a few more moments of pushing and shoving, I eventually had him out of his seat and up against the wall.
Now that we were both standing, the striking began. We hit each other back and forth for about thirty seconds (which is actually a long time in a fight). Eventually, after just a few punches to the face and body, X yields and apologises. I accepted his apology and let him go. Then the SLT arrived.
The decision was made to separate us for the day. X got sent into exclusion while I was allowed to return to class. I only got off scot-free because the SLT member that first responded was one of the very few black members of staff, so he understood why I was upset and went easy on me. He was also my French teacher as well, and we got on, so maybe that played a factor too. However, not everyone was happy with his decision.
A few hours later, when I was in English, I get taken out of class by another member of the SLT. He couldn’t renege on his colleague’s decision, so he decided that he’d just give me a piece of his mind instead. He started off by saying:
“First of all, Aqil, I cannot believe he called you a Paki.”
And he just let the word sit there in the air. Now, regardless whether you think the word is offensive or not, you have just seen a student get emotionally unsettled by it. For you to then go out of your way to say that word to that student’s face is just wholly irresponsible. He then went onto a lecture about how hitting people is bad, but I wasn’t paying attention. To be perfectly honest, I was too shocked by what he’d just said to me as his opener.
It was during that lecture in the corridor that I realised you can’t fight everyone. Sometimes, people just have too much authority and power behind them. This realisation made me angry, but I was at a loss for words. To this day, I wish I said something, but I didn’t. I was too afraid to stand up for myself when it came to a teacher. After all, you can’t hit a teacher.
I vowed from that day on to perfect my ability to use words to stand up for myself rather than my fists. Now, this isn’t to say I wouldn’t physically defend myself if I’m physically attacked. If you punch me, expect it to get hella south up in here. However, if I can avoid a physical confrontation through my words, then that’s the route I take, and so far, it’s worked very well. I haven’t been in a fight since.
And that concludes the final fight of this here story. From reading this post, you may get the wrong impression that I spent my entire childhood getting into fights every other day. This is not true. In fact, compared to most other boys in my year group, I was quite timid. I reckon I had no more fights than the average boy growing up. Perhaps even fewer. I’m a lover, not a fighter.
Ultimately, fighting is just a part of life, and while we should avoid it, we shouldn’t shy away from it when the time comes. If you’re attacked, you have every right to defend yourself. While I may not be proud of the fights I got into as a kid, I’m glad I did. Now, whenever I have to deal with confrontations, I don’t back down because I know that I’ll be able to defend myself if it gets physical.
Captain Robertson slowly drew his revolver from its holster, the moon glistening off the sweat that trickled down his brow. Images of the mutilated face lying in that hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End flashed across his mind. The prospect of having a closed-casket funeral wasn’t one he looked forward to. For the first time in a long time, fear began to rear its ugly head. Mr Daim, on the other hand, was far more relaxed. In comparison to what he’d witnessed all those years ago in Cuba, this was child’s play. “What now?” inquired Captain Robertson, trying his hardest not to betray his inner turmoil. “Now, I shall head inside and have a chat with our friend.” As much as Captain Robertson would have jumped at the chance to sit this one out, the Duke had tasked him with keeping a close watch on Mr Daim. Orders were orders, and good soldiers followed them. “And what shall I do?” Mr Daim took a moment to consider the question. So far, the Captain had proved himself quite capable, and his eagerness was a promising sign. He was also a military man, making him far more reliable than some of Mr Daim’s previous companions. Not to mention the fact, he’d manage to stick around this long. That being said, they had yet to actually encounter Spring-Heeled Jack, and so there was no guarantee that he’d be able to hold it together when confronted with his first ghul. Having reached an impasse within his own thoughts, Mr Daim decided to err on the side of caution. “You’ll come with me, but stay close, and it’d be preferable if you were to refrain from doing anything rash.” Captain Robertson didn’t need his companion to spell out the fact he was referring to yesterday’s incident with Commissioner Henderson with that last remark. If the circumstances were different, he would’ve answered back that he was only acting in defence of Mr Daim’s honour, but they were not. Anxiety held his tongue.
The inside of Murdstone & Co was vast but not sparse. Moonlight trickled through large rectangular windows bathing everything in a bluish tinge. Machinery, whose purpose was too complex for our duo to discern, lined the length of the factory in neat, orderly rows. A giant clock was prominently displayed on the far wall, both hands pointing straight up to the heavens. It was midnight. Whoever ran this operation certainly prized efficiency above all else. Multiple splodges of dried blood served as a testament to the fact that health and safety were most certainly included in the list of things efficiency ranked above. As agreed, Mr Daim took the lead, Captain Robertson following closely behind, finger itching by the trigger. A bitter chill ran through the factory and up his spine, causing him to uncontrollably shiver for a fleeting moment. Once the sensation ceased, he went back to scanning the rows of machinery for any sign of their quarry. Silence occupied the room until the faint crackling of glass beneath his boot sat still in the empty air. Mr Daim turned to look down at the broken glass bottle then back up to his clumsy companion. Captain Robertson quietly mouthed his apology, making a mental note to pay more attention to where he’s stepping. They were only halfway across the factory when a glass bottle flew past, missing Mr Daim’s head by a hair’s breadth before shattering against the wall, specks of solid, liquid sand flying in all directions. Together they searched the darkness for whatever threw the bottle but turned up nothing. “It seems he must be a little shy,” murmured Mr Daim before turning his attention to the darkness, “COME OUT, JACK! WE ONLY WANT TO CHAT!” Captain Robertson screw his face at his charge as if to say: what the hell is wrong with you?! “What?” shrugged Mr Daim, “I told you not to do anything rash. I didn’t say I couldn’t do anything rash.” But alas, his smug invitation was met with an eerie silence. At least that was until another bottle found itself flying across the room. And then another. And another. Until eventually, the entire factory was filled with flying bottles; the duo left stranded in the middle of it all. “Perhaps we should depart from our current location?” “Good idea,” answered Captain Robertson as he dodged yet another bottle coming to take his head off, “lead the way, my friend.” Mr Daim obliged, leading his companion through the cacophony of shattering glass to the far wall and up a steel staircase before diving into an office overlooking the factory floor. Captain Robertson slammed the door shut behind them, drowning out the chaos as glass bottles continued to fly about outside. Convinced they had reached safety, the pair slowly sank to the oak floorboards and went about catching their breath. “Well, that didn’t exactly go as planned,” remarked Mr Daim between short, calculated gasps for air. “You can say that again,” seconded Captain Robertson, equally in want of much-needed oxygen. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen another of my kind,” announced a third unfamiliar voice.
Captain Robertson swivelled around, the barrel of his gun firmly tracking the owner of the third unfamiliar voice. The creature – human did not seem to be the appropriate noun for the being that stood before them – was of both tall and slender stature with a diabolical countenance that could instil a primal fear into even the bravest of men. “You’re under arrest by order of her maj—” “SILENCE BENI ADAM,” bellowed the beast in a guttural rasp. Captain Robertson’s lips froze shut, cold sweat trickling down his brow as his hand began to cramp around the pistol’s grip. He dared not pull the trigger. It seems hunter had become prey. “It’s okay, Captain. I’ll handle this,” Mr Daim signalled his companion to lower the weapon before turning his attention to the creature with eyes of crimson fire. He stood up off the ground, brushing shards of glass off his personage to regain some sense of presentability, and made his way across the room until he was within striking distance of the ghul’s menacing claws. The same claws that mutilated that poor sod in the soot-smothered East End. Mr Daim extended a hand in greeting, “pleasure to meet you. My name is Mr Daim, and you must be the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack everyone is talking about.” Captain Robertson was perplexed. Of all the ways he imagined this meeting going down, this was not one of them. It seems he wasn’t the only one who was confused, as the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack stared blankly at the hand that was offered to him. And there it remained, long enough to deem the situation awkward. It took Mr Daim a few moments more to read the room before finally retracting the hand he so freely gave in greeting. He had to save face. “Depressing weather this week, wouldn’t you say?” “Why are you here?” The ghul demanded an answer. “Sorry?” “What are you doing here in Albion? It’s been decades since I’ve seen another jinni.” Captain Robertson’s eyes widened. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing; however, no matter how hard he tried to speak, his lips wouldn’t budge. “It’s a long story. Would you like the short answer or the long answer?” “I have no time for frivolity. Cease your antics now, or I’ll devour that pathetic excuse for a human,” threatened Spring-Heeled Jack with a sneer that revealed a set of yellowing skewers perfect for ripping into both meat and bone. Mr Daim turned to look at the pathetic excuse for a human whose face had now been flushed of all colour. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. To be fair, he was looking at a ghul, which is arguably even more frightening considering that, unlike their nebulous counterparts, ghuls are real. Mr Daim decided to switch to another language; perhaps that would help calm down his terrified companion and save him from having to hear Spring-Heeled Jack’s disparaging comments. Unfortunately, just like at the tea house, this had the complete undesired effect. For where comprehension is lost, imagination rules supreme. Captain Robertson was now left to panic while two very real, very scary jinn conversed in a tongue he couldn’t possibly fathom. For all he knew, they could be plotting to kill him or worse. What if Mr Daim was considering offering him up as a full course meal? A closed-casket funeral was far more desirable than being digested and excreted. The thought made him shudder from top to toe with disgust. After a few more minutes of utter despair, the conversation seemed to reach its conclusion. Mr Daim turned around with that smug grin of his as Spring-Heeled Jack stared intently at the silent Captain Robertson. The ghul smiled a sinister smile before licking its cracked lips. Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph!He’s actually gone ahead with it! He’s offering me up to that monster! But Captain Robertson wasn’t one to give up without a fight. Within a split second, he raised his pistol and fired at the ghul. Just like that, a single moment was dragged out into eternity. The entire room flipped inside out as a lone bullet marched from barrel to target through a cloud of smoke. Amidst the ceaseless ringing of his ears, he could make out the creature’s faint maniacal laughter. Once the smoke cleared, the already widened eyes of Captain Robertson grew even wider as the marching bullet bounced harmlessly off Spring-Heeled Jack’s chest. Realising his mistake, Captain Robertson didn’t even have a chance to scream as the monster lunged towards him, teeth and claws bared forth in the slim streams of moonlight coming through the windows. However, Mr Daim got to him first, gripping him firmly at the shoulders. Then everything went quiet.
Captain Robertson awoke to find that he had overslept. The Duke’s impromptu visit meant that he had lost valuable hours of sleep. Valuable hours that would cost him dearly. He sluggishly sat up in bed to find that the hour hand was fast approaching eight. Cursing under his breath, Captain Robertson swiftly jumped out of bed and got himself dressed. It seemed he’d have to forgo his morning bath. Part of him wondered if the events of last night were real or if they were just a dream, but after spotting the sweat stains that lined his shirt collar, he was more than certain they weren’t the product of his imagination. Captain Robertson exited the hotel to find a clean-shaven Mr Daim leaning against a growler, reading Shakespeare. “I must say these English poets of yours are quite talented.” He resisted the urge to remind his charge that he was Scottish, not English, so he didn’t claim the Bard of Avon as one of his, opting instead for the far superior Bard of Ayrshire. But he had no time for trivialities. The Captain was keen to get down to business, “So where are we off to today then?” “Wherever this points us,” Mr Daim pulled out an antique compass from the coat Captain Robertson lent him just over a week ago, “that is where we will be off to.” The triumphant grin on Mr Daim was met with perplexity by the confounded Captain Robertson. To him, the old compass was just that: an old compass. So old, in fact, it seemed to have a broken axel for the needle no longer pointed north but south. But to Mr Daim, to whom the needle glowed a fluorescent violet, it was the key to tracking down their quarry. “Let me guess, another one of your nifty tricks, I presume?” “Indeed,” the grin growing even wider. “Well, what are we waiting for? Lead the way, my mystical friend.” The pair bundled into the cab, and off they went, growling along the cobblestone roads.
Silence occupied the carriage for the duration of the drive. Mr Daim put this down to the events of the previous day. It was a long day after all, not to mention the incident with the Commissioner, which was sure to have weighed heavily on Captain Robertson, likely subjecting him to a restless night. Mr Daim had enough life experience to understand not to force conversation out of a tired man. Overall, He was rather impressed with how the Captain handled the whole situation. Previous companions would have forsaken him after such a reality-bending event. It was partly the reason why Mr Daim navigated the Earth alone. But he was glad to retain Captain Robertson’s company, especially in this strange and foreign land. With the Captain predisposed in his own thoughts, Mr Daim took his attention to the world passing by outside the carriage window. London’s bazaars were half a world away from Lahore’s. Then again, London itself was half a world away from Lahore. Instead of open stalls lining the road in perfect chaos, each store was self-contained within four walls in perfect order. The chime of doorbells composed a pleasant symphony amongst the chatter and clatter of customers passing to and fro. Glass panes allowed Mr Daim to peer into each of these microcosms and catch sight of the goods within. Bakeries would feature an assortment of different loaves, the pleasant smell of baker’s yeast wafting through the air. Tailors would display the finest threads, many a gentleman passing through to achieve the pinnacle of sharpness. Barbers would have several men at a time reclining back upon leather seats, the faint snipping and snapping of falling hairs coating the floors in a thick jungle. Every now and again, Mr Daim would consult with the old compass and issue orders to the cabbie to ensure they were still on course. This stage of an investigation was always the most arduous. Lesser men would have given up by now, but determination drove Mr Daim forward, and duty dragged Captain Robertson along. Many a time, Mr Daim had been led over many miles in pursuit of rogue jinn. He was even led across continents a few times, once starting a hunt in the Mongolian Steppe and ending it in the Atacama Desert, but with limited ways to track down a being that didn’t want to be found, this was the best method there was. Mr Daim was just thankful that Captain Robertson wasn’t the type to complain. The man had a lot of patience for someone whose lifespan only lasted several decades. A group of intoxicated lascars bundled out a nearby tavern, one of them almost stumbling into the path of their growler. “Watch it!” shouted the cabbie. “Tor pode ekta tiktiki dhukiye debo,” replied the stumbling lascar before spotting Mr Daim in the back as they drove past, “tumi ki dekhacho?” Mr Daim didn’t need to know Bangla to know that unpleasantries were exchanged. Regardless seeing his fellow countrymen did instil a sense of comfort in him. It felt nice to know he wasn’t the only Indian currently on the British Isles.
Eventually, the sky began to darken, and the smog began to thicken. The cabbie, who up until this point had become progressively irritated with the constantly changing directions, kicked them out onto the street. He wasn’t getting paid enough for this nonsense, plus he had a family to get home to. And so, our pair were left wandering the streets of London while the cabbie returned home bracing himself for the inevitable abuse his missus threw his way. Soon after, the chill began to bite, and the night began to blind. The only light was the occasional sliver that slipped through bedroom curtains. After a long walk, the pair found themselves outside a wine-bottling factory that had been abandoned after the working day, ready to be back in operation the following morning. They could just about make out the words Murdstone & Co arching over two doors tall enough and wide enough for an elephant and its mahout to pass through. Mr Daim had yet to see one during his stay. An iron lock lay shattered upon the ground, leaving one of the doors slightly ajar. Meanwhile, the compass pointed straight ahead, which could only mean one thing. Mr Daim locked eyes with Captain Robertson. The hunt was just about to begin.
The following report was originally submitted as part of my A-level EPQ and was completed in February 2020. As such some of the information may be outdated. Regardless, I hope it proves informative for anyone who is interested in Sino-Pak relations.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, most commonly known as CPEC, is perhaps one of the world’s largest infrastructure overhauls seen in the last decade. It is comprised of 70 projects, ranging from coal-fired power plants to fibre optic cables, and is currently worth over $62 billion in Chinese investment.
CPEC is the flagship for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development strategy similar to that of the US Marshall Plan. It marks the beginning of a new venture in Sino-Pak relations which already has a strong military and political base. The aim: to ensure sustained economic growth for both Pakistan and China’s western region of Xinjiang.
However, the question must be asked: Is CPEC good for Pakistan?
By this, I mean, is CPEC good for Pakistan economically and politically? This is an important question considering Pakistan’s history of being a client state to foreign powers such as the US and Saudi Arabia. These relationships have plunged Pakistan into over $82.19 billion of external debt, with 29.5% of its population below the poverty line.
In addition, Pakistan’s involvement in the US War on Terror claimed the lives of over 23,375 Pakistani civilians while leaving the country with several terrorist organisations to deal with. Meanwhile, corrupt Pakistani officials hoard money in overseas bank accounts while the poor suffer from a crippling economy. It is no wonder why we should be concerned with the recent developments concerning Pakistan’s newfound love for China.
Will CPEC break or reinforce the status quo?
That being said, CPEC doesn’t just affect Pakistan; it could have implications for the whole world. Pakistan is located in one of the world’s most strategically important locations. The Indus River has always been the crossroads between civilisations, even being one of the cradles of civilisation itself, and ruled by great powers such as the Achaemenid Empire, Alexander’s Macedonian Empire, the Mongols, the Mughals and, most recently, the British Raj.
Today, Pakistan borders two of the world’s fastest-growing economies: India and China, not to mention the oil-rich Middle East and mineral-rich Afghanistan. With the Strait of Hormuz only 600km from Gwadar port and direct access to the Arabian Sea, Pakistan will undoubtedly play a crucial role in the global economy with the help of CPEC.
What does CPEC mean for the BRI? And what does the BRI mean for the world and its future?
In this essay, I aim to answer these questions as well as highlight the necessary steps that I believe Pakistan should take to ensure that they can get the most out of CPEC.
Are SEZs good for Pakistan?
CPEC is going to see many changes to the Pakistani economy. In particular, under CPEC, Pakistan will see the introduction of new Special Economic Zones (SEZs), areas in which the business and trade laws are different from the rest of the country.
China is helping Pakistan establish a total of 9 SEZs , which will most likely be based on the Chinese model for SEZs such as Shenzhen in the Guangdong province and Kashgar in Xinjiang. Chinese SEZs give special tax incentives for foreign investment and have greater independence from the central government on international trade activities. These SEZs are export-oriented and primarily driven by market forces. Furthermore, they are listed separately in national planning and retain the authority to pass legislation. This gives SEZs the same power as provincial-level administrations when it comes to economic policy.
Proponents of CPEC put forward the idea that these SEZs will bring about economic growth by liberalising the Pakistani economy via increased exports and foreign direct investment.
‘If there is one proposition with which virtually all economists agree, it is that free trade is almost always better than protection.’
This is based on the theory of comparative advantage (a country’s ability to produce goods and services at a lower opportunity cost than that of its trade partners). In short, by liberalising the Pakistani economy, Pakistan will be better off. This is because it will naturally force Pakistan to specialise in whichever industries it has a comparative advantage, such as raw cotton. Overall, this would increase Pakistan’s output in those industries, leading to increased exports and economic growth as a result.
Pakistan would then be obligated to increase trade in whichever industries it lacks a comparative advantage, such as dairy products. This will allow other countries to specialise in whichever industries they have a comparative advantage meanwhile trading with Pakistan in whichever industry they lack a comparative advantage. In theory, this would increase world output and, by extension, economic growth for all countries.
In China, following the establishment of its first SEZs in 1980 and various economic reforms designed to open up the country to global trade, GDP skyrocketed from $191 billion (1980) to $1.2 trillion (2000) and eventually $13.6 trillion (2018). China is a textbook case study of how market liberalisation can significantly transform a country’s economic position.
If Pakistan learns from China, there is no reason the country would not also achieve long-term economic growth. Furthermore, the CPEC proposed SEZs are said to have the potential to generate over half a million direct jobs and over a million indirect jobs in Pakistan.
However, as seen with the case of the Kingston Free Zone in Jamaica, free trade is not always conducive to the betterment of a country’s citizens. Jamaican citizens working in the Kingston Free Zone were forced to work in poor conditions on wages as low as $16.30 a week, in the 1980s, at the behest of foreign companies that were not legally required to operate according to government standards.
SEZs across the world have been responsible for the rampant exploitation of workers and loss of government revenue. Other negative socio-economic impacts include suppressing labour rights, preventing trade unionisation, and a lack of environmental standards. It is evident that without proper government regulation, the SEZs proposed by CPEC have the potential to exacerbate already existing problems concerning Pakistani labour. This, in turn, could have serious social and political implications for Pakistan, a country that already has the third-largest number of people trapped in modern-day slavery at 3.19 million after China and India.
Will CPEC put an end to Pakistan’s energy insecurity?
One major obstacle to Pakistan’s economic success is the country’s poor energy provision. Pakistan currently ranks 115 out of 137 countries for reliable electricity , with only 70.8% of the country’s population having access to electricity, leaving over 52 million people without access.
Ultimately, this negatively affects local businesses and the country’s economy as a whole by curbing investment. Private sector investors see the lack of reliable electricity as a potential risk to profit. And rightly so, in 2015 alone, power sector inefficiencies cost the Pakistani economy $18 billion (6.5% of GDP). Couple this with the associated social implications, such as increased strain on healthcare and lower quality of education, and you have a recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, when you compare this to the rapidly emerging economy of China, where access to electricity is at 100%, it is clear to see the importance of a reliable energy supply when it comes to developing a strong economy. By introducing energy reforms, Pakistan could save $8.4 billion in business losses and increase total household incomes by at least $4.8 billion a year.
Proponents of CPEC claim that it will “fulfil the electricity demand and ensure the reliability of electricity supply in Pakistan”. After all, CPEC includes a total of 22 projects dedicated to energy generation and supply, which, when combined, offer a power capacity of 12.4 GW. When this is added to Pakistan’s current installed power capacity of 30 GW, there will be more than enough energy to overcome Pakistan’s deficit of 5 GW. Therefore, in theory, CPEC will indeed fulfil Pakistan’s energy demands and leave room for demand to increase, which will be crucial to supporting economic growth in the long term.
However, the question remains: does it work in practice?
Of the 22 energy projects, only 8 are fully operational , therefore still leaving a significant energy deficit from lack of power capacity. Furthermore, transmission inefficiencies frequently lead to blackouts across the country. Pakistan’s transmission capacity sits well below the country’s current installed power capacity at 22 GW. This slow progress meant that CPEC did not achieve its 2020 goal of addressing the bottlenecks in the country’s economic and social development.
In other words, CPEC has already failed in achieving 100% energy access by its own deadline of 2020. If the country cannot even provide enough electricity for its people, how will it provide enough energy for the second phase of CPEC? Therefore, in practice, CPEC has failed to fulfil its own goals, let alone the electricity demand of Pakistan.
In due course, these projects will be completed. However, if they are to be completed alongside the same timeframe of CPEC’s second and third phase projects, there will be dire consequences for the Pakistani economy. Without sufficient energy provision, Pakistan will have to increase energy imports to complete its second and third phase projects, such as the New Gwadar International Airport, which began construction in October 2019.
This will increase the country’s current account deficit, as seen with the ‘Punjab Speed’ predicament. As a result, the Pakistani rupee will be devalued once again, and annual growth will continue to slow. Pakistan will then seek yet another bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank and other countries like China.
Even if all the energy projects are completed, they will become obsolete over the long term. Of the 12.4 GW provided by CPEC, 8.2 GW are coal-based. The negative impacts of burning coal are widely documented. For a country where four major cities (Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi) have air quality rankings ranging from unhealthy to hazardous, is it wise to invest in coal-fired power plants? While coal is more reliable and efficient, it will not last forever.
Once Pakistan exhausts its domestic supply of Thar coal, it will have to begin importing coal from abroad, most likely from China. Pakistan is already dependent on Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil and gas, making up 80% of its energy mix. Add China to the mix, and Pakistan will become even more vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers and the fluctuating prices of fossil fuels. This is ultimately counter-productive to the goal of achieving sustainable long term economic growth for Pakistan.
Is CPEC a debt trap?
Another major issue afflicting Pakistan’s economy is the ongoing debt crisis. Since the establishment of CPEC, Pakistan’s total external debt increased from around $60 billion (2013) to over $90 billion (2018). However, it is important to note CPEC itself did not cause the debt crisis.
As Pakistan accumulates more debt, it means that the country will have to use more money to service debt in the future. Pakistan serviced a total of $7.5 billion in debt, of which $2.3 billion was interest, between 2017 and 2018. Due to the increasing issue of debt servicing, the current account deficit increased from $18 billion (2017) to $21 billion (2018).
Furthermore, due to the interest of such debt having reached a high level, Pakistan has had to borrow more money to repay its obligations. Despite declaring he would rather die than go to the IMF seeking a bailout, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was forced to turn to the IMF for $6 billion in the face of a weak economy, making it the 12th time Pakistan has had to rely on the IMF.
Pakistan is in the midst of a perpetual cycle of debt that must be addressed if the country ever wants to see sustainable long term economic growth. Will CPEC exacerbate or relieve the debt crisis?
Proponents of CPEC are often quick to point out the insignificance of Pakistan’s external debt to China. Pakistan’s external debt to China is around $6 billion, less than 6% of Pakistan’s total external debt. In fact, the majority of Pakistan’s external debt is owed to multilateral lenders such as the IMF and the World Bank. However, nobody calls these organisations a ‘debt trap’ despite having plunged many more developing economies into debt than China.
On the contrary, CPEC offers increased trade, allowing the country to pay back its debt in the long term. Pakistan is forecasted to collect between $6 billion to $8 billion from CPEC toll taxes and rental fees, with 4% of China’s total trade ($154 billion according to 2015 figures) passing through CPEC. This is something that other lenders do not offer, making the debt from China less of a burden as CPEC provides the needs to pay it back.
On the other hand, Pakistan is one of 8 countries of particular concern regarding the risk of debt distress. Furthermore, China has also been charging Pakistan interest rates as high as 5% compared to the 2% to 2.5% rate given to other BRI countries. Due to the high cost of electricity and transmission losses, Pakistan would also have to pay Chinese companies for electricity that Pakistani distribution companies cannot afford, resulting in a currency crisis as Chinese companies move money outside the country.
In addition, an increase in CPEC related imports combined with decreasing exports, as the Pakistani market is flooded with Chinese products, could push the country further into a currency crisis. Therefore, it is fair to say that while CPEC represents an opportunity for Pakistan to end the debt crisis, it also poses a risk of falling even deeper into it.
There is also the concern that if Pakistan cannot pay back Chinese loans, China may begin seizing assets as it did with Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Thereby compromising Pakistan’s sovereignty as well as robbing the country of potential revenue. However, the likelihood of this occurring is very slim.
A study conducted by the US-based Rhodium Group found that most of China’s debt renegotiations end with the debt being completely written off. Furthermore, China’s long-standing political and military relationship with Pakistan, which saw the joint development of the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet, Al-Khalid tank and Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, makes asset seizure all the more unlikely for Pakistan.
If Pakistan can utilise CPEC and policy reforms to increase exports, there is no reason why the debt crisis cannot be solved in the long term. Therefore, the argument that CPEC is a ‘debt trap’ is not entirely fair. CPEC itself did not cause the debt crisis. CPEC itself will not exacerbate the debt crisis. CPEC itself will not even relieve the debt crisis. To pin all the responsibility on CPEC is neither fair nor well grounded. It is, in fact, Pakistan’s own economic policy that will determine whether the country remains in debt, not CPEC.
Does CPEC favour Punjab?
Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the country’s politics have been dominated by the Punjab province. Of Pakistan’s 342 seats in the national assembly, 174 seats are reserved for Punjabi politicians on account of Punjab making up the majority of the country’s population. By dominating the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament and contributing to 57% of the country’s GDP, Punjab has proven itself to be the most influential province of Pakistan.
This has led to controversies in the past. For example, the proposed Kalabagh Dam has been debated over for the last 40 years. The project is advocated by Punjab-based power brokers but has been opposed by politicians from the country’s smaller provinces, such as Sindh, which sees the project as a threat to its water security. Therefore, it is a viable concern that CPEC may favour Punjab over the other provinces of Pakistan.
Proponents of CPEC tend to claim that that all Pakistani provinces will benefit equally. Following the 18th amendment to the country’s constitution in 2010, many powers were devolved at the federal level and given to the provinces. It was seen as a step towards democracy as it allowed the smaller provinces greater autonomy from the Punjab dominated centre.
As a result, when it comes to CPEC projects, parliament only provides oversight and is not responsible for coordination and decision-making. It is down to the provinces to plan and execute projects with China. Therefore, it is argued that the notion that CPEC favours Punjab is a false narrative, and due to the devolved power, all the provinces are effectively in the same boat when it comes to CPEC.
On the other hand, given the history of Punjab’s dominance politically, economically, and socially compared to the rest of Pakistan, Punjab remains the most equipped and desirable province to absorb investment from China. This has led to two major controversies concerning CPEC’s lack of transparency and its alleged favouritism towards Punjab. Despite being resolved, these issues have fuelled an overall distrust of Punjab amongst Pakistan’s other provinces.
The first controversy began in 2014, when politicians from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province began claiming that the CPEC route had been shifted away from KP towards Punjab, thereby excluding the region from Chinese investment. The original route proposed in 2006 passed through the impoverished areas of Balochistan, southern Punjab and central KP, including the provincial capital of Peshawar.
Following the rise of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, which grew to threaten most of KP, the route was changed to avoid KP in its entirety. In response, PTI held a dharna aimed at dislodging the PML-N for electoral fraud with the alleged support of a former Inter-Services Intelligence chief. In 2015, politicians staged a walkout from the Senate. To placate critics, the government proposed that CPEC would have three routes (Eastern, Central and Western). By 2017, the issue was resolved . However, should there be another change in government, the debate may resume.
The second controversy is centred on the Orange Line in Punjab’s capital of Lahore. When CPEC formally launched in 2015, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit, the mass transit rail line stood out as a municipal project amongst largely intercity, and interregional connectivity focused projects. This led to an outcry amongst the smaller provinces of Pakistan.
No Pakistani city outside of Punjab’s jurisdiction, save Islamabad, has a mass transit system. Including it as part of CPEC, despite having to be subsidised at $160 million per year to keep fares affordable, is a clear example of CPEC’s favouritism towards Punjab. Following the controversy, it was asserted that the Orange Line was not part of CPEC and was instead a bilateral agreement between the Punjab government and China that had been planned four years prior.
It was not until December 2016, following document leaks confirming that the project had been on the CPEC agenda early on, that the Orange Line was formally added to the Planning Commission of Pakistan’s list of CPEC projects. Following this, additional municipal rail projects were finally added in Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar to appease the smaller provinces.
Will Gwadar Port put an end to Baloch separatism?
Balochistan has proven itself to be a difficult province for the Pakistani leadership to handle. The conflict goes back to 1948, when Kalat, a princely state that used to make up most modern-day Balochistan, acceded to Pakistan. The Khan’s brother opposed the move, and since then, multiple insurgencies have been fought against Pakistan. However, it was not until the latest insurgency following disputes between the Rajiha, a subtribe of the Bugti tribe, and the government over natural gas concessions in 2003 that anything near a unified Baloch revolt occurred.
By 2013, the insurgency subsided but is still said to be operational in the Awaran region and Makran coast. With CPEC’s flagship Gwadar port located on the Makran coast, Baloch separatism poses a huge security risk. Will CPEC placate or provoke the Baloch separatists?
Proponents of CPEC put forward the idea that making Gwadar the focal point of the economic corridor will bring about economic growth and social development for the people of Balochistan. Thereby putting an end to Baloch disenfranchisement and, by extension, the broader anti-Pakistan sentiments that fuel Baloch separatism.
Following the 2013 elections, the PML-N had to form a coalition with the Balochistan National Party (BNP). This nationalist party is pro-Pakistan yet wishes to see more autonomy for Balochistan. By maintaining the support of the BNP, the government has been able to move towards more equitable development through CPEC, thereby avoiding an intensified insurgency. Baloch politicians admire China’s ability to rapidly improve its standard of living and see CPEC as a means to uplift the Baloch people if done right. Therefore, Gwadar port is the only solution for the Baloch insurgency.
However, the BNP still echoes the view that Balochistan should have control of its resources. This view shared by Baloch separatists and has been central to the historical struggle in the province.
Balochistan is home to over $1 trillion worth of natural resources; however, despite being so mineral-rich, the region has the lowest human development index (HDI) in the whole of Pakistan. Any income that has ever been generated by these resources has largely been used for the social development of Pakistan’s other provinces, mostly Punjab, rather than the betterment of Balochistan from whence they came.
With this in mind, the BNP has called on the federal government to hand control of Gwadar port over to the Balochistan provincial government. Unfortunately, the port remains in the hands of Chinese Overseas Port Holdings Limited. This could spell disaster for Pakistan. With Gwadar now in the hands of China, resources are bound to leave not just Balochistan but Pakistan as a whole. Therefore, little to any income generated will ever reach the Baloch people. Social development will continue to stagnate, and anti-Pakistan sentiment will worsen.
The nature of CPEC, being interregional connectivity, dictates that resources are bound to leave Balochistan no matter what. To promise that no resources leave the province would be impossible, impractical and counter-productive. Instead, what can be done is to ensure that Balochistan receives a disproportionally high benefit from CPEC projects to help de-escalate the insurgency and improve its low HDI. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.
Take, for example, the Saindak copper mine project. Only 2% of revenue is awarded to the Balochistan province; meanwhile, the Metallurgical Corporation of China receives 50%, and the Pakistani federal government receives the remaining 48%. In addition, the Balochistan Mineral Resources Development Board, formed in 2015 to oversee exploration and mining licenses, is indirectly controlled by the federal government as seven of the nine members are bureaucrats, with only the final two being elected officials.
This almost certainly indicates that CPEC has so far continued the status quo. Until more is done to ensure the social development of Balochistan, the insurgency will continue to pose risks to CPEC.
Will CPEC improve Pakistan’s foreign relations?
It is almost an unwritten rule that when it comes to Pakistani foreign affairs, one has to mention India and vice versa. The Indo-Pak rivalry is virtually iconic in nature, going back to the establishment of the respective countries as they gained independence from the British, resulting in the largest human migration in history. Over a million people lost their lives, and many more were displaced in what is now known as Partition. Since then, Pakistan and India have fought a total of four wars.
Considering South Asia’s tumultuous history, there is a genuine concern that CPEC may exacerbate the strained – if not dysfunctional – relationship between Pakistan and its much larger, economically superior neighbour.
Proponents of CPEC point towards the fact that CPEC offers the opportunity to foster an economic partnership between India and Pakistan. It is within Chinese interests that as many countries as possible join the BRI as part of the country’s common destiny vision to bring peace and economic balance to the world. China invited India to BRI meetings in both 2017 and 2019.
Similarly, Pakistan also wishes for peace with India. Following the flare-up in Indo-Pak tensions during the 2019 Pulwama Attack, which saw cross-border airstrikes carried out by both sides, Pakistan released a captured fighter pilot as a peace gesture. Furthermore, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his wishes for peace following the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent 2019 Indian elections, a wish that was reciprocated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Unfortunately, India declined both Chinese invitations. This is part of India’s fear of being encircled by the BRI, thereby being shut out from international trade. As a result, India has been reluctant to join BRI negotiations so far, being critical of Chinese activities in the South China Sea and CPEC on the grounds that it undermines India’s sovereignty claims over Kashmir.
In fact, this fear has driven India to exploit the instability in Balochistan by publicly announcing its support for Baloch separatists in 2016 in an attempt to sabotage CPEC. Since then, the Baloch insurgency has been emboldened, leading to an increased number of attacks on Pakistani military personnel as well as CPEC labourers.
On the 18th April 2019, Baloch militants blocked the Makran coastal highway and executed 14 members of the Pakistan Armed Forces. This highlights how instead of being used as a tool for peace, CPEC has instead been exploited and used to deepen the Indo-Pak divide.
On the other hand, following India’s brutal lockdown in Kashmir, it was China that brought the issue to the UN Security Council on behalf of Pakistan. This was partly due to the long-standing Sino-Pak relationship but also to protect Chinese interests in Kashmir, namely CPEC. As a result, it could also be argued that CPEC, having brought China and Pakistan closer, has proven itself to serve Pakistani interests on the world stage by bringing important issues into the spotlight. Furthermore, public perception of Pakistan has significantly improved, in no small part due to CPEC, in recent years.
However, at the time of writing, the Kashmir lockdown continues , and Indian Muslims are now at risk of losing their status as Indian citizens. These issues will most certainly lead to more stand-offs between India and Pakistan in the future. CPEC may not solve the many Indo-Pak disputes; however, it has given Pakistan the upper hand in international discourse, that being the support of China.
Nonetheless, it is well known that influence goes both ways, and Sino-Pak relations are no exception. By supporting Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir dispute, China has effectively bought Pakistan’s silence on the various human rights violations that occur within Chinese borders. As of yet, Pakistan has failed to publicly address China’s ethnic cleansing of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, despite jumping at any chance to call out India. Considering the fact that Pakistan was created on the basis of protecting the rights of Muslims and that the country’s close ally, Turkey, has denounced China for its treatment of Muslims, this hypocrisy is sure to lead to some political complications in the future.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that CPEC does indeed have the potential to revolutionise Pakistan. Not just economically but socially and politically as well. However, as highlighted, more needs to be done by Pakistan to ensure that it can capitalise on this opportunity. Pakistan must ensure that it does not fall into the many pitfalls of large investment packages, such as CPEC, which many other developing countries often fall into. It is also important to remember that CPEC will not change the status quo on its own and needs the necessary policy changes to be truly effective. As such, I have decided to summarise the key steps that I believe need to be taken to ensure that CPEC yields the greatest rewards with minimal losses.
First, as recommended by Arif Rafiq, Pakistan needs to create a formalised CPEC authority that oversees all investment from China. This should be led by the Prime Minister with equal representation from all of the provinces. This will ensure that CPEC projects are distributed evenly and as well as improve interagency coordination. As a result, this will build a sustainable consensus in favour of CPEC.
Second, I would suggest that the government introduce their own version of China’s Leading Small Groups (LSGs) to supplement the CPEC authority. Every project should have its own LSG that focuses on community dialogue to ensure that local residents are kept in the loop, and their needs are addressed. This will significantly improve the public’s approval of CPEC.
Third, Pakistan needs to scale back on CPEC projects until the energy crisis is addressed. I propose that Pakistan puts all non-energy projects on hold and introduce more projects focused on increasing transmission efficiency. Once the energy projects are completed and the energy crisis put to an end, then Pakistan should begin work on other CPEC projects. This will help avoid another ‘Punjab Speed’ incident.
Fourth, I would recommend that CPEC place more emphasis on renewable energy. In doing so, Pakistan can ensure a sustainable energy supply which will help foster long term economic growth. Introducing solar panels on a local scale will be especially effective in rural communities. In fact, Balochistan has a solar power potential of over 2,200 kWh/m² per year , making it the ideal location for concentrated solar power plants.
Fifth, CPEC should invest in more welfare projects on the local level, especially in Balochistan. This will help ensure that the correct social development measures are being taken to improve education and healthcare provision throughout Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan’s HDI will increase along with household incomes. Thereby, CPEC will be able to alleviate poverty and contribute to the betterment of Pakistani citizens.
Sixth, I believe it imperative that Pakistan reviews its economic policy in order to increase government revenue and protect workers’ rights, especially when it concerns SEZs. By doing so, Pakistan will end the debt crisis and ensure that Pakistani citizens are not exploited by foreign companies. More importantly, it will provide the government with the necessary funds to continue social development throughout Pakistan.
Lastly, Pakistan needs to ensure peace with its neighbours so CPEC can continue unhindered. To do this, Pakistan must invite its neighbours to the negotiation table and discuss how Pakistan can facilitate trade between South Asia and the wider world. One such example would be to connect Afghanistan to CPEC via an Afghanistan-Pakistan economic corridor. Thereby giving Pakistan access to Afghanistan’s natural resources and giving Afghanistan access to the Arabian Sea.
 Pakistan Ministry of Planning and Development (2019). Long Term Plan for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (2017-2030). [online] Pakistan Ministry of Planning and Development. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/long-term-plan-cpec [Accessed 19 Nov. 2019].
 Ministry of Planning and Development, Pk. (2019). CPEC | China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Official Website. [online] Cpec.gov.pk. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/ [Accessed 24 Dec. 2019].
 Ministry of Planning and Development, Pk. (2019). CPEC | China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Official Website. [online] Cpec.gov.pk. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/ [Accessed 24 Dec. 2019].
 Rehman, M. (2019). Pakistan’s electricity generation has increased over time. So why do we still not have uninterrupted supply?. Dawn. [online] Available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1430728 [Accessed 1 Jan. 2020].
 Pakistan Ministry of Planning and Development (2019). Long Term Plan for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (2017-2030). [online] Pakistan Ministry of Planning and Development. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/long-term-plan-cpec [Accessed 19 Nov. 2019].
 Rafiq, A. (2019). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: The Lure of Easy Financing and the Perils of Poor Planning. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.236-248.
 Ministry of Planning and Development, Pk. (2019). CPEC | China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Official Website. [online] Cpec.gov.pk. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/ [Accessed 24 Dec. 2019].
 Kugelman, M. (2019). Great Potential, Many Pitfalls: Understanding China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.180-186.
 Rolland, N. (2019). Beijing’s Response to the Belt and Road Initiative’s “Pushback”: A Story of Assessment and Adaptation. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.216-235.
 Rolland, N. (2019). Beijing’s Response to the Belt and Road Initiative’s “Pushback”: A Story of Assessment and Adaptation. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.216-235.
 Rafiq, A. (2019). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: The Lure of Easy Financing and the Perils of Poor Planning. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.236-248.
Book #23 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
It’s no surprise to anyone that’s been following this blog that I’m a pretty big history buff and a self-taught one at that. I haven’t formally studied history at GCSEs or A-Levels, so most of my knowledge comes from books and the internet (shout out Kings and Generals on YouTube). That being said, history is just that: a story. A narrative. The prevailing narrative of world history in the West goes a little something like this:
The Birth of Civilisation: Egypt and Mesopotamia
The Classical Age: Greece and Rome
The Dark Ages: Rise of Christianity
The Rebirth: Renaissance and Reformation
The Enlightenment: Exploration and Science
The Revolutions: Democratic, Industrial, Technological
Rise of Nation-States: Struggle for Empire
The World Wars
The Cold War
The Triumph of Democratic Capitalism
But what about other parts of the world? How do they view world history? That’s where Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary comes in. Ansary attempts to retell world history from the Muslim perspective. A counter-narrative to the Western view of history that goes something like this:
Ancient Times: Mesopotamia and Persia
Birth of Islam
The Khalifate: Quest for Universal Unity
Fragmentation: Age of the Sultanates
Catastrophe: Crusaders and Mongols
Rebirth: The Three Empires Era
Permeation of East by West
The Reform Movements
Triumph of the Secular Modernists
The Islamist Reaction
Ansary does away with the diagnosis that the world’s current political turmoil results from a “clash of civilisations”; instead, he argues that it is a “clash of narratives”. Both the Western and Islamic world have gone through different experiences to get to where they are today. It is a failure to recognise these different experiences that have led to poor policy-making. Furthermore, the “clash of civilisations” diagnosis implies that Western and Islamic civilisation have mutually exclusive attributes. Secularism, democracy and science are not just attributes of Western civilisation. In fact, Ansary highlights how many things we consider to be Western achievements and ideas were actually predated in Islamic culture by centuries.
My favourite part of Destiny Disrupted would have to be chapters 2 to 4 detailing the early rise of Islam and the lives of Prophet Muhammad and the Rashidun. Ansary presents the facts, but he also explains the lessons that can be derived from them. After all, history isn’t just about the past; it is also about what we can learn for the future. For this reason, Ansary refers to this early period of Islam as a kind of theological drama. A drama that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can learn from. Ultimately, the story of the Rashidun (and subsequent Muslim leaders ever since) is a story about people trying to work out the best way to run civilisation in accordance with the Islamic social project. They may not always get it right – more often getting it completely wrong – but that is the ultimate destiny and goal of the Ummah as a socio-political body.
Many religions say to their followers, “the world is corrupt, but you can escape it.” Islam said to its followers, “the world is corrupt, but you can change it.”
Of course, as with any book that claims to be a complete retelling of history, one must remain cautious not to take its claim at face value. *Cough* Our Island Story *cough*. And this is where I must put forth some criticism. For a book that claims to be AHistory of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Ansary has left out large swaths of the Muslim world from his narrative. Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population on Earth, is only briefly mentioned once in the entire book.
Furthermore, pretty much the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa is left out of Ansary’s narrative. Perhaps the greatest crime of his work was the complete omission of the Mali Empire of Western Africa, a contemporary of the three empires he mentions during the rebirth period (Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals). I would argue, therefore, that Ansary’s work starts off as history of the world through Islamic eyes in its early chapters. But then ultimately morphs into a history of the world through Arab, Persian and Turkish eyes with some fair amount of time dedicated to South and Central Asia.
Despite its limitations, I would say that Ansary succeeded in presenting a counter-narrative to global history that proves very enlightening. I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about early Islamic history and the Middle World (what we usually call the Middle East) from a non-Western perspective.