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.
Following the end of Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement, communal tensions worsened in the Subcontinent. The introduction of religious sentiments into the political sphere did irreparable damage to the fragile relationship between Muslims and Hindus. For a more detailed and contemporary breakdown of the worsening relationship between India’s sister communities, I recommend one reads The riot-torn history of Hindu-Muslim relations, 1920-1940 by Dr B. R. Ambedkar.
The reality on the ground inevitably drew a wedge between the Hindu and Muslim leadership. Cooperation between the AIML and INC was a mere shadow of its former self. Within Congress itself, Muslim representation was at an all-time low of 3.6% in 1923. The unprecedented era of Hindu-Muslim unity was taking its final breath. However, there were still some that weren’t willing to give up on the failed dream just yet.
Many attempts had been made at achieving Hindu-Muslim unity throughout India’s history. Before the British Raj, Emperor Akbar attempted to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity by creating a new religion Din-i Ilahi, a syncretism of Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Christian, Jain and Buddhist beliefs. Similarly, many Indian saints of both Islamic and Hindu tradition advocated for greater cooperation between the two religious communities, one notable example being Kabir Das.
However, all these attempts failed to bring about any meaningful and sustained unity between Hindus and Muslims and largely lived and died with their progenitors. It wasn’t until the advent of the 20th century and India’s modern political awakening that anything close to true Hindu-Muslim unity occurred.
The first example of Hindus and Muslims bridging the political gap can be seen with the implementation of separate electorates under the Minto-Morley Reforms. The Congress Moderates, led by Gokhale, supported the League’s demands for separate Muslim representation despite opposition from those that saw separate electorates as an unnecessary provision, such as Jinnah.
The next and most successful example was the Lucknow Pact of 1916, which precipitated the golden age of Hindu-Muslim unity during the latter half of the First World War. During this period, the Indian political elite became a unified force under the Indian Home Rule Movement, leading to the August declaration of 1917 and the subsequent Chelmsford-Montagu Reforms.
This period of unprecedented Hindu-Muslim unity was brought to an end by mass agitation under the Non-cooperation Movement, which saw Gandhi’s political legitimisation of the Muslim Ulama. During this period, Jinnah went into self-imposed political exile after cutting ties with the INC, and all other political parties save for the AIML.
The majority of Indian opinion was in favour of Gandhi and the Khilafats. To oppose them would be to oppose the will of the Indian people, and so all Jinnah could do was stand by and watch as all the work he did in bringing about an understanding between Hindus and Muslims was undone. As far as India was concerned, mass agitation was the way forward regardless of how much damage it did to Hindu-Muslim unity.
Following this, multiple attempts were made at snatching back what was lost. In this essay, we will look at the first of those attempts.
In March 1923, during their annual session in Lucknow, the AIML passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a national pact ensuring unity between India’s various communities. This went a step further than the Lucknow Pact as it aimed to include a lot more parties than just Congress and the League. In September that year, during their special session in Delhi, the INC resolved to appoint a committee to help prepare a draft for the national pact. In December, the committee’s report was presented to Congress at the INC’s session in Kakinada.
The draft of the Indian National Pact consisted of the following resolutions:
It shall be the firm and unalterable object of the Indian National Pact’s signatories to secure complete Swaraj for India.
The form of government under Swaraj shall be democratic and of the federal type; however, its exact nature will be determined by a national convention.
Hindustani is to be India’s lingua franca written in both the Nastaliq and Devanagari scripts.
Full religious liberty is to be afforded to all of India’s communities as part of their constitutional right.
To prevent any religious community from being given undue preference, no government or public funds will be devoted to any religious institution or purpose.
Once Swaraj has been achieved, it will be the duty of every Indian to defend it against all attack, external or internal.
Minority communities shall have separate representation in the legislatures, both central and provincial.
No cow slaughter to take place except on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, out of respect for India’s Hindu community.
No music is to be played in front of places of worship at such times that may be fixed by local boards.
If two or more religious processions occur on the same day, they shall follow different routes as determined by local boards.
Provincial and local boards will be appointed as arbiters to prevent any conflicts that may arise during religious processions.
India should participate in forming a Federation of Eastern Countries for mutual help in commerce and emancipation from European powers with a view to support oriental culture and foster friendly relations.
The committee’s report was signed by Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, founder of Jamia Millia Islamia University and staunch supporter of the Khilafat Movement, and Lala Lajpat Rai, founder of Punjab National Bank and die-hard nationalist. Lala Lajpat Rai was part of the Lal Bal Pal triumvirate alongside Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. The three men had led the opposition against the Bengal Partition of 1905. Those who have read the previous essays may recall that Tilak had founded the first Home Rule League in Belgaum.
In regards to separate representation for minority communities, both Dr Ansari and Lala Lajpat Rai held opposing views. Dr Ansari wanted separate representation to be extended to municipalities and local boards. In contrast, Lala Lajpat Rai believed that a time limit should be imposed on separate representation, after which it should be scrapped entirely.
Lala Lajpat Rai further posited that separate representation should be in proportion to the numerical strength of each community with special provisions made for small minorities such as Sikhs, Christians and Parsis. To this, Dr Ansari suggested that larger minorities such as Sikhs and Christians may be given special representation in the provincial legislatures but only very small minorities such as Parsis may be given special representation in the central legislature. Regardless, the electorates will be joint in all cases, and there is to be no distinction based on caste, creed or colour in public services or educational institutions.
In addition to the resolutions already a part of the Indian National Pact, Dr Ansari also wanted the following clause added: No bill/clause/resolution concerning a particular community can be passed if 3/4 of the members from said community oppose it. This very same clause was part of the Lucknow Pact several years prior. Unfortunately, it never made its way into the Indian National Pact, perhaps indicating that relations would never return to what they once were. At least on the national level.
Alongside the Indian National Pact, a second cross-community pact was in development by the Bengal Provincial Congress under the leadership of Chittaranjan Das, founder of the Swaraj Party, with the involvement of Bengal’s Muslim representatives. It, too, was presented to Congress at the Kakinada session.
The draft of the Bengal Pact consisted of the following resolutions:
Representation in the Bengal Legislative Council is to be determined in proportion to population with separate electorates subject to necessary adjustments.
Representation in local bodies is to be in the proportion of 60% for the majority community and 40% for the minority community, with the inclusion of separate electorates to be determined at a later date.
55% of government posts should be reserved for Muslims.
No resolution or an enactment concerning a religious community can be passed without the consent of 75% of the elected members from said community.
No music is to be played in procession before a Masjid.
No interference is to be made in sacrificial cow slaughter for religious reasons.
No legislation is to be passed concerning cow slaughter in the Bengal Legislative Council.
Cow slaughter is to be carried out in such a way as not to offend Hindu religious sentiments.
Annual representative committees, of which half are Muslim and half Hindu, are to be formed in every sub-division to arbitrate any disputes between the two communities.
One interesting thing to note here is the resolutions in both pacts concerning music outside places of worship, cow slaughter, and religious processions. In the Lucknow Pact, no such resolutions were included. Instead, its resolutions were largely concerning representation rather than actual religious sensibilities. This shows just how much the legitimisation of religious rhetoric had impacted Indian politics. The mere fact that these issues had to be discussed by the political leadership rather than solved by Hindus and Muslims on the ground indicates just how much the communal question had infiltrated Indian politics and how pressing the conflict between the two communities was.
It should be added that there is no religious requirement in Islam to slaughter a cow. In the case of Eid al-Adha, goats and sheep serve just as well, and most Indian Muslims opted for this to avoid unnecessary troubles. At the INC’s Kakinada session, one of the Muslim members boasted that he had reduced the amount of cow slaughter in Aligarh on the occasion of Eid al-Adha from 500 cows to just two. Furthermore, in Hyderabad, a princely state consisting of a majority Hindu population ruled by Muslims, the Nizam had outlawed cow-slaughter on Eid al-Adha entirely. The current draft of the Indian National Pact contradicted that ruling.
Both the Indian National Pact and Bengal Pact were subject to debate at the December session of Congress. A debate that lasted approximately four hours over the course of which many Congress members had their input. It was then decided that a vote would be taken regarding whether each pact should continue being pursued. The overwhelming majority voted in favour of a second report of the Indian National Pact to be presented no later than the 31st March 1924. Unfortunately, no second report ever arrived.
Despite insistence from C. R. Das that the Bengal Pact was still subject to change on account of it being a draft proposal, the Bengal Pact was rejected with 678 votes against 458. The main reason given was that the Bengal Pact was specific to the situation in Bengal, and if other provinces adopted them, it would lead to more frictions between Hindus and Muslims. In contrast, the Indian National Pact was abstract without any hard figures so that it could be implemented in the provinces with respect to each specific situation. In addition, the Bengal Pact directly contradicted the Indian National Pact’s stance on cow slaughter opting to prevent its ban rather than facilitate it.
Other Congress members asked why Muslims should have to enter into an agreement with Hindus before standing under the banner of freedom when other communities didn’t need such concessions. Not only that, but what was wrong with the Lucknow Pact that a new pact needed to be drafted anyway. These were the attitudes of an Indian National Congress that refused to open its eyes to the current state of Hindu-Muslim unity.
Furthermore, regardless of one’s views regarding the relationship between Muslims and Hindus, opting to delete a draft proposal before it was even completed sent the message that the largely Hindu INC refused to even consider the needs and apprehensions of Muslims. For Muslim India, this sent a clear picture of what Indian Independence would look like. A union dominated by Hindu opinion without adequate protection to the Muslim minority. A Hindu Raj.
All in all, the Indian National Pact and Bengal Pact proved to be yet another failed attempt at Hindu-Muslim unity. It was safe to say that things were no longer as simple as back in the days of the Lucknow Pact. For Jinnah, a man who tried his absolute hardest to bring about a fragile understanding between Hindus and Muslims, this must have been a hard pill to swallow.
Eid Mubarak. May Allah shower blessings upon you and your family. Ameen.
Today marks the end of Ramadan, but it also marks one week since Israeli forces illegally entered the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. Since then, the Western-backed colonial state of Israel has placed Masjid al-Aqsa (the third holiest site in Islamic tradition) under siege, launched missiles into the Gaza strip, and continued the sadistic process of ethnic cleansing it began in 1948.
At this point in the 73-year-old conflict, there is no longer room for sitting on the fence. You’re either on the side of a fascist state armed with one of the world’s most powerful militaries or that of a native population that has been subject to the same brutal treatment enacted upon the Jewish people of Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the world’s governments have chosen to remain largely silent on the genocide currently taking place in one of the world’s holiest lands.
As Muslims across the world wake up today to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, Palestinians will be waking up to mourn the loss of their daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, cousins, aunties, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, and colleagues. So far, at the time of writing, a total of 17 children have been killed by the Israeli “Defence” Force. None of these children asked to be born into this conflict. None of these children were combatants. The only crime they committed, at least according to the Zionist apartheid State of Israel, was their mere existence.
For many of us, today will not be the happy Eid of years past but rather a solemn one. While we greet friends and relatives with smiles and break bread with our brothers and sisters, our hearts will be torn as we remember those that do not have this privilege. In many ways, this Ramadan has been a test for all of us but none quite like that for the people of Palestine.
However, it is important to remember that no matter how grim things may seem right now, whether in Palestine, Kashmir, Xinjiang, Myanmar or elsewhere, there is always hope. Indeed to lose all hope is to lose your belief in Allah. As for those who have lost their lives, let us remember that they are not really lost at all.
With one last burst of courage, Captain Robertson swiftly slipped into the room, pistol raised, to find a figure by the window dressed in black as thick as the midnight sky. He was ready to open fire, but something made him hesitate. Unsure of whether it was his keen intuition or if he’d just been out of practice, the Captain decided to go with his gut instinct and held off from pulling the trigger. After the confusing day he just had, he wasn’t sure if he could trust his head anymore. And oh boy, was he glad he did, for the figure dressed in black was none other than the Eighth Duke of Argyll with his bright orange hair being the only splash of colour to his otherwise rather dull attire. “Bloody hell! Put the gun down!” hissed the Duke. Captain Robertson realised he still had his gun levelled with the Duke’s chest and quickly returned it to its holster, “My apologies, Mr Secretary. I’m rather on edge today.” “Indeed. I’ve read the reports. It seems that our friend, Mr Dame, hasn’t been entirely honest with us, doesn’t it?” Captain Robertson didn’t answer but didn’t object either. It was somewhat true. He’d been running around with Mr Daim for nearly a month now, and everything he knew about him was dwarfed by what he didn’t. “We believe it’s time you were filled in on what’s been going on, Captain,” continued the Duke, “and by we, I mean the Prime Minister, the Viceroy and I, but first, why don’t you recount the events of the past few weeks. And please, don’t leave out any details, no matter how absurd they may seem.”
While the Captain conversed with the Secretary of State for India, Mr Daim was downstairs in his hotel room preparing the vial containing Spring-Heeled Jack’s residual aura. He started by removing the vial from the coat that Captain Robertson had lent him. Unlike his companion, Mr Daim could see the aura swirling about inside, a light pinkish-red vapour like the petals of a rose found in the gardens of Damascus. He gave it a quick but gentle flick of the finger. Satisfied with the way the pinkish-red vapour dissipated then coalesced, Mr Daim moved onto the second stage of this well-practised procedure. Grabbing his battered old briefcase from the opposite side of the room, he unbuckled the clip and rummaged around inside. There, nestled between Hafez and Ghalib, was an old compass, so old it could be no younger than five centuries, so old it was engraved with symbols whose meaning was remembered only by those who engraved it. Mr Daim carefully removed the crystalline glass cover protecting the glinting metal needle beneath, the only part of the device that hadn’t succumb to rust. It was really time Mr Daim got his hands on a new one, but this particular compass had been given to him by a dear friend. Or was it a lover? Truth be told, it was so long ago he couldn’t remember the exact status of the relationship, but he could still feel the remnants of the affinity he had for this long lost person and so opted to hold on to it. At least until it stopped functioning or fate forced him to part with it. The final part of the well-practised procedure was the one that required the most concentration. Mr Daim placed the compass in the centre of the oak desk beneath the mirror opposite his bed. He looked into the eyes of his reflection, then down to the sprangled inky hairs of his unkempt beard and decided that he’d commit himself to a grooming session before bed, but first, he had to focus his mind and free it from the distractions of the material existence. Firmly gripping the glass vial, Mr Daim began chanting in a language unknown to the Children of Adam. Continuing the incantations, he tightened his grip shattering the vial into a thousand tiny pieces. The pinkish-red vapour tried to escape but was trapped by the prison that was Mr Daim’s clenched fist. Any small fragments that tried to escape through his fingers were forced back in by the rhythm and tempo of his incessant chant. The vapour suddenly expanded, engulfing the entirety of Mr Daim’s fist, the pinkish-red now a deep burning purple, but this didn’t interrupt the sweet melody of his tongue. With the vapour reaching a fever pitch, Mr Daim hurled it into the compass, firmly sealing it shut with the crystalline cover. With nowhere left to go, the aura began aggressively swirling around inside the compass like the wheels of the steam engines back in India before being sucked directly into the compass needle itself. It was only once all the vapour was consumed, the needle a glistening violet, that Mr Daim ceased his incessant chanting. He tapped the crystalline glass cover twice, and the needle began spinning rapidly before grinding to a complete halt; however, this time, it wasn’t facing the magnetic north but rather in the direction of his quarry: Spring-Heeled Jack. Convinced everything was in working order, Mr Daim removed a bar of shaving soap and razor from his battered old briefcase and went about his long-overdue grooming session.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Captain Robertson’s jumbled thoughts were finally ordered into something a little more coherent. The mental fogginess that had been plaguing him since he left Lahore for London had faded away, leaving him with a crystal-clear picture of everything that had happened since he met the mysterious Mr Daim. Anything he couldn’t rationalise was packed away in a box labelled “lunacy” and shelved in the recesses of his mind. He was just glad to finally have someone to talk to. Someone who’d actually listen to him and give him straightforward answers. A welcome break from the ambiguity of Mr Daim. As it turns out, the Eighth Duke of Argyll and his associates, the Prime Minister and the Viceroy, had been keeping tabs on Mr Daim for over a year now. Rumours of an individual possessing extraordinary abilities had been circulating around Lahore for weeks in the monsoon of eighteen sixty-nine. Of course, these sorts of rumours were commonplace in India. Still, they had to be investigated nonetheless should the individual in question utilise the superstition surrounding them to rile up the discontents. After the events of the Mutiny, Lord Mayo, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, wasn’t taking any chances. He immediately put Mr Daim under temporary surveillance, as was routine protocol, until it could be determined the size of the threat he posed to the British Raj. Expecting Mr Daim to be deemed a none-threat, it came as quite a surprise when reports started piling in about a disturbance in one of the city’s outlying villages…
The monsoon had arrived late this year but arrived it did, and to the people of Mallianwala, it was most welcome. Harpreet was worried. Local merchants had been speaking of famines to the south. Famines meant food would become unaffordable and unaffordable food meant Harpreet and her family would go hungry. But luckily, by the grace of Waheguru, the famines to the south were halted by the cascading rains that blessed the boundless Indo-Gangetic plains of Northern India. No, Harpreet was worried for an entirely different reason. Aamir, the older brother of Harpreet’s best friend Zainab, was seriously ill. The whole of Mallianwala could hear his panicked wailing at unseemly hours of the night. The first time it happened, Harpreet had mistaken the pain-stricken cries for the local Muezzin. Now it had been a week since, and the poor boy was still unwell. According to Zainab, he had even become uncontrollably violent, forcing her father to make the difficult decision to confine Aamir to his room. Harpreet had never talked with Aamir at great length. Like most of Mallianwala’s Muslim population, Aamir and his father worked for Harpreet’s father. The daughter of a Sikh landowner conversing with the son of a Muslim peasant would be the scandal of the decade, but that didn’t stop Harpreet from catching a glimpse of the muscular boy with black wavy hair whenever she could. In the real world, a Muslim would never marry a Sikh. However, the real world didn’t apply to Harpreet’s fantasies. And so, when Zainab told Harpreet about her brother’s condition, it was Harpreet herself who pleaded on Zainab’s behalf, asking her father to see what he could do for the boy. As always, Harpreet’s father gave in to the demands of his princess. That very evening, Harpreet’s father called a village meeting. Women weren’t allowed to attend these meetings but seeing as it was being held in her family’s courtyard, Harpreet eavesdropped from her bedroom. The local Mullah had concluded that Aamir was possessed by a jinni, evidenced by the scars that ran down his cheek after being scratched for reciting his holy book. The men decided that the best course of action would be for Aamir’s father to travel to the city in search of an exorcist. Harpreet’s father generously agreed to accompany him and cover the costs of the journey. They set out the following morning and returned by nightfall. It wasn’t every day that something this eventful occurred, and nearly the entire village had gathered to witness the exorcism. Harpreet could even spot a few unfamiliar faces in the crowd. Intrigued spectators from some of the neighbouring villages, perhaps. Children watched from the rooftops while men and women crowded around the wall demarking the boundary between the private domain of Zainab’s family and the public domain of Mallianwala. Fortunately, with the help of Zainab, Harpreet was able to sneak in and get the best view in the house: a small window located in the far corner of Aamir’s room. Harpreet watched Aamir lying face down on his charpai as his father, her father, and the Mullah entered the room along with a fourth man she didn’t recognise. Harpreet deduced that he was the Exorcist her father went to fetch. Aamir let out a long inhuman groan that almost sounded like the whimper of a wounded wolf. Aamir’s mother, who was standing by the door, tried rushing into the room to tend to her only son but was subsequently shooed away by her husband. The Mullah began reciting something in Arabic under his breath which started to rouse the sleeping Aamir. The four men surrounded the charpai, ready for anything that might happen. Suddenly, Aamir’s back arched upwards, and his head slowly turned towards the newcomer. Harpreet gasped. Aamir’s eyes were no longer the beautiful bright hazel she was used to but instead a deep crimson red like the blood of a slaughtered animal. His pupils were absent, making it impossible to tell what it was he was looking at. For all she knew, he could be staring directly at her. Or rather, it was staring directly at her. This was no longer the muscular boy with the black wavy hair but something else entirely – a demon. The Demon began to slowly uncurl itself and rise up, like a puppet being lifted by its head, its limbs hanging limp in the candle-lit room until it was levitating two inches above the charpai staring down at the four men. Sweat trickled down the side of Harpreet’s face. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Fear forced her eyelids open and froze her to the spot. The Demon started talking in a language Harpreet had never heard Aamir speak before. A language nobody had spoken before. Except for the Exorcist, for he not only understood what the Demon was saying but was speaking back to it in the same strange language. Harpreet had visited the city often, but she’d never heard a language with a melody quite like this. Everyone was startled yet entirely engrossed in the conversation they couldn’t understand. Even the Mullah’s attention was stolen away from his recitation as he remained fixated on the creature that stood before him. The Exorcist and the Demon that was not quite Aamir went back and forth like this for several minutes. All was silent save for the whispers travelling through the gathering crowd, the gentle whistling of the wind passing through the trees, a clap of thunder in the far distance and the pitter-patter of the monsoon rain slapping against the ground. The Exorcist let out a sigh of disappointment, the kind of sigh one let out when their hand is forced. With a nod, each father grabbed one of the Demon’s arms, dragging him off the charpai and onto his knees before the Exorcist. The Demon let out a blood-curdling laugh that reverberated loudly into the midnight sky, blowing out the candles, bathing everything in the moon’s glow. The Exorcist folded up his sleeve, concentration etched into the wrinkles of his face as he forced his hand down the Demon’s throat as it began to violently choke. To Harpreet’s amazement, the Exorcist was almost elbow-deep, something that should have been impossible unless he was able to shrink his own arm on demand. She was either dreaming, or her eyes were deceiving her. The thing began trying to shake free, struggling against Harpreet’s father’s tight inescapable grip, but it proved futile. The Exorcist began to pull his arm back out, dragging something along with it. Now that it was removed from Aamir’s body, the Demon looked like a dark cloud, and it let out a deafening shriek as it attempted to resist the Exorcist’s grip. Meanwhile, Aamir fell unconscious at the foot of the charpai, his father by his side. The Exorcist walked towards the window, the same one Harpreet and Zainab were crouched behind, the shrieking cloud in hand. As he got closer, Harpreet could finally make out what looked like a face with the sharp teeth and pointed ears of a cat. Once the Exorcist reached the window, he launched the dark cloud up towards the sky, Harpreet and Zainab ducking to avoid the ungodly monstrosity. As the shrieking faded away into the distance, so too did the fear and tension of the past week. The ordeal was finally over.
“And you’re sure this is all true?” asked Captain Robertson. “It was witnessed by one of our own. The same officer that was assigned to keep an eye on our friend, in fact. An Englishman, so I’m certain we can trust his rational judgement. If it was an Indian, I’d be sceptical too,” verified the Duke. “I see… so what of Spring-Heeled Jack?” “That’s what we’re trying to find out. Gladstone says whatever he is, it must have something to do with Mr Dame, hence why he ordered the Viceroy to bring him here.” “So, where do I fit in in all this?” “You’re the most important part, Captain. We need you to gain as much information as you can about our friend, Mr Dame, and see if there is indeed a link between him and Spring-Heeled Jack. In essence, your orders are to spy on him. I didn’t tell you this before because I wanted to see, for myself, if the reports were true. Today’s events proved that.” It was all made clear now. Captain Robertson wasn’t just being brought home to be put on guard duty but was instead being made part of something far greater. But did he really have it in him to be a spy? And could he really betray his friend’s trust? “Is that clear, Captain?” “Yes, Mr Secretary.”
Book #18 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
If you’d been following this blog for a while, you’d know that I’m big on comic books. If you’d been paying attention, then you’d also know that one of my favourite characters is Kamala Khan, a.k.a Ms Marvel, created by G. Willow Wilson. This is what led me to my most recent read: Alif the Unseen.
The novel is set in a fictional city, aptly named “the City”, somewhere along the Persian Gulf. A heavily stratified society ruled by an elite Arab aristocracy with large immigrant populations from all over the world (think Dubai or Riyadh). It is amongst the cultural amalgamation of Baqara District where imported labour from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and the lesser Arab states live side by side that we find our protagonist: Alif.
Alif is a computer hacker; his services available to the highest bidder, whether they be the Islamists, the Communists, or the Feminists. As long as they’re against the regime, it doesn’t matter to him. Together, Alif and his computer hacking friends do everything they can to get back at the censors. A quasi-digital revolution, you could say. Unfortunately, this kind of life doesn’t come without its risks, and the infamous Hand (man? computer program? both?) is always on the prowl for anyone that dares defy the state authorities.
Everything was going to plan for Alif until the day his illicit girlfriend, Intisar, decides to break up with him after being betrothed to a member of the royal family. Crushed, Alif chooses to do what he does best, creating a computer program designed to recognise an individual by decoding their behavioural writing patterns. All so he can block Intisar from ever reaching him again (a bit excessive if you ask me). Of course, this kind of program could have disastrous consequences for Alif and the revolutionaries should it end up in the hands of the state. Which it does.
Now on the run from state authorities with his neighbour Dina, Alif comes across a mysterious book called the Alf Yeom (the Djinn’s equivalent of The One Thousand and One Nights). This opens up a new world to Alif as he straddles the line between the world of man and Djinn in his race to put a stop to the Hand. A fugitive on the run, Alif is about to be at the centre of events that will shock the City to its very core.
Willow G. Wilson creates a vibrant world filled with everything you could ask for in an action-adventure novel: Romance, Revolution, Magic, Technology, and, my personal favourite, Djinn. Not only that but Wilson also talks extensively about Islamic theology and highlights issues that are prevalent in the Muslim community with nuance and complexity in a way that doesn’t detract from the story.
Take, for example, the character referred to as “the convert”, an American woman that reverted to Islam and works at Al-Basheera University located in the Old Quarter. An American revert herself, Wilson details a few of the struggles that new members of the Muslim community face from their coreligionists through the convert’s interactions with Alif, Dina and the rest of the uniquely interesting characters that make up her novel. My favourite character being Vikram the Vampire, Alif’s Djinn protector, with his quick wit and constant banter about the fragility of beni adam.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone looking for a story that blends the seen with the unseen. Whenever I think of modern Islamic literature and fiction, this is what will come to mind. Many philosophical quandaries are proposed throughout this work, from the Qur’an and its relationship with quantum computing to the all-important question of whether it’s haram to consume virtual pork in a video game. I will most definitely be adding this to my personal canon. Highly entertaining.
The first thing to hit Captain Robertson was the pungently repugnant smell. The second was the abhorrent sight of what he believed used to be someone’s face. The third was the burning sensation of bile creeping up his oesophagus. The fourth was the sound of the Lorne sausages he had for breakfast splatting against the pavement. The fifth was the bitter aftertaste left in his mouth as he pulled out his handkerchief to plug his nose and wipe his brow. Whilst serving in China, Captain Robertson had spent time in an infirmary as men of red with holes in their chests were carried out in stretchers of white in wailing fright. To this day, he had yet to distinguish the red of their coats from the red of their blood. But even the carnage in the aftermath of battle wasn’t enough to prepare him for the brutal fate that befell the poor sod lying before him in that hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End. Mr Daim crouched down beside the body and muttered a few words. Words that he had repeated many times in his long life. Words that Captain Robertson could understand but in a language the Scotsman couldn’t recognise. “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” And so, as the angel Azrael guided the soul on its journey to the afterlife, our duo were left to ponder what had happened to its now vacant vessel. According to the officers, who had set up the cordon, the body was estimated to have walked the Earth for a grand total of eighteen years before it was left lying limp in a back alley amongst all manner of gutter trash one would expect to find littering the streets of London. It wasn’t uncommon to see unnamed labourers lying dead in unmarked alleyways. What was uncommon, however, was the nature in which this particular labourer met his fate. Not a victim of the endless march of industrial progress but instead something far more sinister, far more gruesome. “Ghul.” “What was that?” asked Captain Robertson, the handkerchief muffling his voice. “Ghul. The being that killed this young man was a ghul,” answered Mr Daim as he carefully examined the deep gashes that mutilated the body’s face. “A Ghoul?” “Jinn that try to intrude on the heavens but are struck by comets for their transgression. They are condemned to walk the Earth for eternity driven mad with insanity.” “Genie? Like in the Arabian Nights?” “Those are children’s tales, my friend. But believe me, the jinn are more real than you know, and whatever did this was one of them.” “So you mean to tell me that Spring-Heeled Jack, the criminal who’s been giving us the runaround this past week, is actually a genie gone mad?” “Yes, Jack is a ghul. If he was scum and villainy of the regular sort, you wouldn’t have been tasked with bringing me here all the way from Lahore.” Captain Robertson wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Ghuls and jinn were the work of fiction. Mr Daim was treating them as fact. On their journeys, he had come to accept that the mysterious Mr Daim was a keeper of great wisdom. However, this bordered on lunacy. “Are you sure you’re not just messing with me?” “Well, I could be wrong. It may have been a mardykhor that murdered this poor child but last I heard, they were hunted to extinction by the Sasanians. Not to mention this climate is far too cold.”
The pair were finishing up with their perusal when they heard the sounds of commotion coming from the cordon. Captain Robertson went to see what was happening while Mr Daim remained to tend to the body. After covering what was left of the young man in a white shawl, Mr Daim left the hazy alleyway to find Commissioner Henderson giving his officers a bollocking. “With all due respect, sir, they had permits signed by the Indian Secretary himself.” “I don’t care who signed those documents, sergeant. This is the city of London, not the backwater slums of Delhi. No one is permitted to interfere in police business without my say so. IS THAT CLEAR, SERGEANT?!” Commissioner Henderson admonished the officer, who replied with a sheepish yes, sir though you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming the Commissioner preferred to be addressed as sire. He now had his sights set on Mr Daim, “well, if it isn’t the Indian faqir himself. I don’t recall giving you permission to operate in this area. In fact, if I remember clearly, Mr D, I said quite the contrary. I should have you arrested.” “You will do no such thing. Mr Daim is under my protection and authorised to work here by order of Her Majesty the Queen. You lay a finger on him, and you’ll have to deal with me,” Captain Robertson chimed in to defend his charge. “Are you seriously going to take sides with this Mohammedan? Disappointing. I expected more from a fellow member of the British Armed Forces,” scoffed Commissioner Henderson. “Unlike you, I actually saw combat, so I wouldn’t test me if I were in your shoes.” Captain Robertson was in his face now. “Is that a threat, Captain? Are you threatening an officer of the law? I should have you both arrested. Officers! Arrest them!” The officers reluctantly obliged, stepping towards Captain Robertson with their batons in hand. The veteran was already bouncing on his toes, ready for a fight, when Mr Daim suddenly appeared beside the Commissioner, firmly gripping his wrist. Locking eyes with his adversary, he sternly dictated the following: “By the power of the jinn, as ordained by the almighty, I hereby order thou Child of Adam to let us depart freely from this place without molestation.” Captain Henderson stopped his struggling, staring straight ahead as though he was hypnotised and gave his men the order to stand down in a dreary, monotonous tone. No inflexion. No intonation. Confused though they were, the officers were thankful they needn’t have to apprehend a member of the British Armed Forces. After all, they were civilian police, not military police. “Hurry. We must leave. This only works for a few moments,” Mr Daim briskly led the way, the dumbfounded Captain Robertson trailing behind. “What in the hell was that?” “You shouldn’t refer to the place of punishment for evildoers when asking for an explanation.” “Oh, right. Sorry about that,” Captain Robertson apologised and waited for elaboration. Realising none was coming, he continued, “so are you going to explain what just happened?” “As I said before, you will not be able to fully grasp the extent of my talents.” “I guess I should take that as a no then.” “You should.”
The Tea House
That evening, the pair found themselves in one of London’s many premier tea houses, the kind diplomats would use to host foreign dignitaries. Tea had only arrived on the British Isles two centuries prior and had since taken Britannia by storm. Everyone from pauper to prince relished the piping hot beverage that travelled all the way from China, and soon it came to represent the quintessence of British culture. Ever-present at their greatest victories as well as most embarrassing defeats. Some even went as far as to say that to defeat an Englishman, all one must do is dump his tea in the sea. To Mr Daim, tea was just another drink in a long list of drinks consumed by mankind, from the mead of the ancients to the sherbet of the shahanshahs. “Would you like something to eat, Mr Daim?” asked Captain Robertson as he scanned through the menu. He hadn’t eaten anything since those Lorne sausages he had for breakfast. Of course, they were now splattered all over a hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End. “No, thank you,” replied Mr Daim whilst jotting down some squiggles into a brown leather notebook. At least that’s what it looked like to Captain Robertson. To Mr Daim, it was Persian. “So, where do we go from here?” “You may order what you please. I do not find myself currently in need of sustenance.” “You know that’s not what I meant.” Mr Daim let out a long-drawn-out sigh, the kind an irritated father would when tired of their infant’s endless stream of inquiries and shut his notebook closed before giving Captain Robertson his full attention. He knew the veteran needed answers. The man had just witnessed something that defied the boundaries of his limited knowledge. Like the Mayans when they were confronted with fire-breathing Spaniards riding atop strange four-legged beasts. This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim found himself with a gobsmacked companion. It always happened the same way. In the heat of the moment, Mr Daim would brashly call upon one of his abilities, usually to get them out of a situation brought about by said companion, leaving them confounded and in need of answers. There was no sure-fire way to give them answers without shattering their very perceptions of the material world. Up until now, Mr Daim had been putting off the inevitable. So he decided this time he’d just try answering the Captain’s questions as straightforwardly as possible without confusing him any further. “What is it you wish to know?” Realising he could finally get some answers out of the mysterious Mr Daim, Captain Robertson put down the menu, crossing his arms, “so according to you, genies are real?” “Yes.” “And Spring-Heeled Jack is one such genie?” “Yes.” “So, where is his lamp?” Mr Daim burst out laughing, breaking the quiet, relaxed atmosphere of the tea house and drawing the attention of their fellow diners. One such diner in a black bowler cap, complete with a golden monocle and bristly mutton chops representing the pinnacle of English sensibilities, loudly coughed and ruffled his newspaper to indicate his disapproval. Captain Robertson was beginning to feel like a fool. “Oh wow. That’s a new one indeed,” Mr Daim wheezed with laughter before collecting himself together, “not all jinn live in lamps, my friend. That went out of fashion centuries ago.” “I see that now. So how are we going to stop him? We barely got anything from the crime scene before that bastard Henderson showed up.” “Relax. You needn’t worry, for I have everything I need right here,” Mr Daim pulled out a glass vial from his coat pocket, the same coat Captain Robertson had lent him. “It’s empty.” “To your eyes, maybe. But I assure you this contains some of Jack’s residual aura, which I can use to track him down.” “Let me guess, another talent whose extent I won’t be able to fully grasp?” “Yes.” “I take it you’re some kind of genie hunter then?” “Yes, you could say that.” “And you’ve done this sort of thing before? “Many a time.” “What is Spring-Heeled Jack doing in London?” “My guess is as good as yours.” “How many other genies are there? “Millions.” “Then explain why I’ve never met one before?” “The chances are, you probably have. Perhaps you just weren’t open to the possibility that they could be a jinni.” “Are all genies evil?” “Are all humans evil?” “You just answered my question with another question.” “And the answer to both is the same.” Captain Robertson remained in quiet contemplation after that. Satisfied he’d managed to sate his companion’s curiosity without confusing him any further, Mr Daim went back to writing in his notebook. Unfortunately, Captain Robertson was even more confused than before, with a multitude of questions bouncing around in his head. Are genies really real? Can Mr Daim really track down Spring-Heeled Jack using his residual aura?Why did genie lamps go out of fashion? How did Mr Daim even get his hands on Spring-Heeled Jack’s aura? Have I really met a genie before? What did Mr Daim do to Henderson? WHO IN THE HELL IS MR DAIM? The realisation began to dawn on Captain Robertson that he didn’t really know a thing about the man sitting across from him. But that didn’t matter. His orders were to provide Mr Daim with protection, not wrap his head around the madness the world seemed to have devolved itself into. The more he could focus on his job, on what was right in front of him, the less his head would ache. Speaking of which, it was really time he had something to eat. Captain Robertson called over the waiter and ordered the day’s special. The men spent the rest of the evening in silence before hailing a growler to take them back to the hotel they were staying at. After seeing Mr Daim safely back to his room, Captain Robertson retired for the night. Ascending the staircase, trying to force the day’s events out of his head, the veteran was met with an uneasy feeling. Something was off. His door was ajar. Adrenaline kicking in, Captain Robertson carefully unclipped the holster strapped to his chest and slowly pulled out his revolver. Staying extra vigilant, he steadily ascended the final steps. A loud creak reverberated from beneath his feet. Curse these rickety floorboards! Pressing flat against the wall, he crept down the hallway, finger twitching by the trigger. Upon reaching the door, he took a deep breath like a diver about to collide with water and, little by little, he pushed the door open on its squeaky hinges. With one last burst of courage, Captain Robertson swiftly slipped into the room, pistol raised, to find a figure by the window dressed in black as thick as the midnight sky.
After their long journey westward, Mr Daim and Captain Robertson finally arrived in London, the capital of the ever-expanding, ever-glorious, ever-mighty British Empire. To Mr Daim, like many visitors hailing from the colonies, London seemed a lacklustre cesspit of poverty and desperation. Not the centre of culture, science and wealth, one would expect to be befitting of the globe-trotting Britannia whose trident commanded the waves in pursuit of her god-given right to rule the world: Dieu Et Mon Droit. Wherever Britannia’s trident pointed, her subjects would go. It just so happened that in the case of Mr Daim and Captain Robertson, her trident pointed home. To Mr Daim, the man who’d travelled as far as the imperial courts of Peking, London was the lump of coal amongst diamonds when it came to seats of power. Babylon had the Hanging Gardens, Baghdad the House of Wisdom, Constantinople the Hagia Sophia, but what did London have? A murky river polluted by the scourge of an industrial revolution, cobbled streets with festering horse faeces interposed between its furrows and a neglected palace disliked by its supposed inhabitants – one of whom tried to pawn it off on his own parliament. Speaking of which, perhaps the macabre Clock Tower protruding into a sky choking on smog was the only redeemable feature of this depressing landscape. After all, it was here that the fate of hundreds of millions of the Earth’s residents was decided. As the duo made their way across Westminster Bridge in a horse-drawn carriage, the macabre Clock Tower looming over them, it was Mr Daim this time that had trouble adjusting to a foreign climate. He had spent so long in the burn-inducing weather of northwest India that the frostbite-inducing weather of southeast England gave him a chilling shock from skin to bone. To remedy this, Captain Robertson had loaned the use of his winter coat to his charge despite the fact that summer was only right around the corner and ignoring the fact that this must have broken some form of protocol written in some kind of handbook somewhere at some point. Over the course of their journey, he had developed a burgeoning respect for his travelling companion, and his endless stream of ghazals, with the belief that the mysterious Mr Daim was a keeper of untold wisdom. The man carried himself with an aura of easiness that one could only achieve if they were to sever their connection from the pursuit of fame and glory, something Mr Robertson felt incapable of, and it is for this very reason that he began to hold Mr Daim in such high regard. The pair were due to meet with the incumbent Commissioner Henderson, of the Metropolitan Police, for a top-secret meeting at the India Office that would shed some more light on the letter Mr Daim received from the juxtaposing sepoy back in Lahore. And so off they went, through the dense crowds, past the gothic drab of Westminster Abbey housing the rotting corpses of long-dead kings and queens, past the young boy perched atop an empty crate selling copies of The Daily Telegraph he couldn’t read, and northward towards the offices of Her Majesty’s government. There, sandwiched between the overflowing treasury and the oft-vacant number ten, lay the gears that kept Britain’s imperial machine running: the Home Office, Foreign Office, Colonial Office, and all-important India Office. It was from these very rooms that Britannia commanded her vast empire. Mr Daim was about to enter the belly of the beast.
At the gates to the India Office, Mr Daim and Captain Robertson were greeted by the Secretary of State for India, the Eighth Duke of Argyll, who led them through the building, across the marble Durbar Court overlooked by interlocking crescents and crosses, up the Muses’ Staircase flanked by the fossils of millennia-old sea lilies frozen in stone, and briskly ushered them into his office, where the Commissioner was waiting. “Pleasure to meet you,” Commissioner Henderson welcomed the men with the shake of his hand. Mr Daim could tell from his vice-like grip that the man that stood before him had spent some time in the military. “I take it you are the fabled Mr Dame who has come to save us?” “Daim.” This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim had to correct someone on the pronunciation of his name. He was certain it wasn’t going to be the last, so long as he remained on the British Isles. “We’ll just call you Mr D for the sake of convenience,” tension emanating from the tendons that pulled Commissioner Henderson’s mouth into a tight grin. “Let’s not dilly-dally, gentlemen. Please, Mr Dame, take a seat,” the Duke motioned for Mr Daim to take the remaining chair beside the Commissioner, while he sunk slowly into the leather armchair located on the opposite side of the large mahogany writing desk littered with theses, pertaining to subjects as wide as ornithology to economics. It seemed to Mr Daim that the Eighth Duke of Argyll shared a greater affinity for science than he did politics. Captain Robertson remained standing by the door with the stalwart grace one would expect from a member of the British Armed Forces. “Unfortunately, Her Majesty Queen Victoria is indisposed at the moment and will not be able to greet you personally.” Mr Daim wasn’t surprised by that revelation. He had become used to the eccentric procedures of royalty and didn’t expect to be granted an actual audience with Her Majesty Queen Victoria. At least Mr Daim wasn’t being given the same runaround afforded to him by the Emperor of Mali. “I must confess that I am pressed for time, and so I’ll try my utmost best to be brief, succinct and to the point.” In Mr Daim’s experience, politicians were rarely brief, succinct and to the point, but he awaited amazement nonetheless. “Recently, there have been… unusual sightings of… some kind of… well to be perfectly candid, I’m not quite sure how to explain it other than as some kind of supernatural phenomenon. Some sort of flying creature, to be precise.” “It doesn’t fly, Mr Secretary. It jumps. And if I may be so bold as to inquire why you saw it fit to seek the aid of a foreigner in what is clearly an internal matter concerning MY department?” the Commissioner was clearly agitated by Mr Daim’s presence as if it signified the undermining of his authority in some way. “Well, the answer to that question is quite simple, Commissioner,” the hard C hiding a dozen tales of contempt, “the Met has proved itself to be quite out of its depth and now…” The Duke paused to fiddle with one of the desk drawers before pulling out and slapping the front page of a newspaper onto the ever-increasing bundle of disjointed papers that littered the varnished mahogany. “And now, the tabloids are getting wind of your failure to put an end to this threat. Hence, why Mr Dame, who is specialised in matters like these, has been brought here to see this menace dealt with. Does that satisfy your question, Commissioner?” The Duke accepted the ensuing silence as a sign of his victory. An ever so sly smile flitted across his face as he turned his attention away from his wounded quarry and towards the patiently waiting Mr Daim. “Apologies for my colleague’s rudeness. I trust you know what needs to be done?” Mr Daim nodded in agreement. “Great, well, I’ll let you get to work. Captain Robertson will remain by your side to assist you in this endeavour as your personal bodyguard. Should you need any extra support, Commissioner Henderson has been approved to allocate you any resources that could be of assistance. Although I’m not quite sure how effective his help will be. Any questions? No? Very well, I must really be off now to attend to an important matter. Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” the Duke bid his farewell to Mr Daim and Captain Robertson without extending the same courtesy to his now silent rival. The Duke was just about to walk through the door when he remembered he had one last request for Mr Daim. “I trust you understand how sensitive this matter is and would greatly appreciate it if you were to do everything within your power to keep things quiet.” “Of course, Mr Secretary. Rest assured that this menace will cease to plague the streets of London.” “Good man.” And with that, the Eighth Duke of Argyll was off to attend to an important matter. As soon as the Duke left the room, Commissioner Henderson turned blood-red hostile. “Look here, Mr Dame,” Mr Daim turned to look here, “or however you pronounce it, frankly I don’t care, but what I do care about is the safety of this city and if you so dare interfere with police business at any point during your stay, rest assured I will bring the full might of the law down upon your helpless soul.” The tip of his finger was thrust between Mr Daim’s ribs now. “So you can go out there with your little trinkets and incantations, or whatever it is you Indian faqirs do, while I’ll lead my men in capturing that… that… thing and bringing peace to the city of London. Just make sure you stay out of our way.” Was that spit Mr Daim felt splash against his cheek? “Good day, gentlemen.” Commissioner Henderson stormed out the door, down the Muses’ staircase flanked by the fossils of millennia-old sea lilies frozen in stone, across the marble Durbar Court overlooked by interlocking crescents and crosses, and briskly through the gates of the all-important India Office. It wasn’t until both men had left that Captain Robertson finally caught a proper glimpse of the newspaper. SPRING-HEELED JACK STRIKES AGAIN.
It is with the utmost urgency that I write this letter. Her Majesty The Queen requires your presence in London to see to a sensitive issue in which your particular expertise and discretion are much-needed. An armed escort has already been dispatched from Calcutta to Lahore and is due to arrive in the coming days. It is imperative that you be ready to leave upon their arrival. Time is of the essence.
Viceroy and Governor-General of India
Mr Daim was sitting on his charpai reading Ghalib when the sepoy, clad in his juxtaposing redcoat and navy blue dastar, handed him the above letter. The sepoy was most certainly a Sikh, a conclusion Mr Daim arrived at after spotting the cast iron kara encircling the wrist of the hand that graciously gave him the above letter. No more than three decades ago, the Sikhs were at war with the British. Back then, a Sikh serving the British was unheard of. Then again, so was the distribution of the above letter to individuals such as the aforementioned Mr Daim. Many of the sepoy’s fellow countrymen wanted nothing to do with the British. Not long ago, sepoys, much like the one in the dastar of navy, rebelled against their British overlords. They were joined by the likes of Maharani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and, for a brief moment, even the esteemed Emperor Bahadur Shah the Second. They lost. Why? Well, because anyone that could defeat the Sikhs, India’s greatest warriors, were able to defeat anyone. And that’s exactly what the British did. So as far as Mr Daim and the juxtaposing sepoy were concerned, India’s fate was sealed, and they had no qualms serving Her Majesty The Queen. “Meharbani,” Mr Daim dismissed the sepoy and went about packing his things. A few days later, two Bengali sepoys accompanied by a certain Captain Robertson arrived at Mr Daim’s charpai to find him reading Rumi. As instructed, the party immediately left for London.
This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim found himself voyaging halfway across the world. The nature of his work had taken him all over the globe, from the imperial courts of Peking to the dense jungle forests of the Amazon. He was sure that he must have ventured to the British Isles before. Unfortunately, the details of his last visit were so long ago that they had escaped his memories. After arriving at the foot of Mr Daim’s charpai, Captain Robertson and his two Bengali sepoys began the second leg of their long journey, this time with their charge in tow. They took a train from Lahore to Multan in the oppressive heat of India’s pre-monsoon skies which proved far too much for the rosy-cheeked Captain Robertson, who had his head hanging out the window for most of the ride. In comparison, the two Bengali sepoys, one Hindu one Muslim, remained unphased, fingers firmly wrapped around their Enfield P59s with the certainty that they needn’t grease their ammunition in pig fat nor beef tallow. The coach remained quiet among the four men. The two sepoys could speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, communicating with their commanding officer in an amalgamation of banglarised* English and anglicised Bangla. That was, of course, only when and if communication was absolutely necessary for Captain Robertson was a man of few words. In contrast, Mr Daim was a man of the world. He could speak many languages, from Xhosa to Danish. In fact, he could speak so many languages he wasn’t even sure which one it was that he spoke first. Unfortunately, Bangla was not one of them. Mr Daim decided then and there that he’d spend a few decades living in the winding streets of Calcutta upon his return so he could add another language to his ever-expanding repertoire.
It wasn’t until they reached Multan and boarded the steamboat to Kotri that the party’s silence was broken when Mr Daim pulled out some Hafez from his battered old briefcase. The Bengali sepoys spotted the poetry and, in their banglarised** English, asked for Mr Daim to read it aloud. He obliged. And so for the duration of their trip down the Indus, past the Tomb of Bibi Jawindi and its glazed tiles of blue and white mutilated by nature’s scorn, past the sand smothered mortared brick of the dead city of Mohenjo-Daro waiting to be found again, the words of Hafez brought a little life into a dying world. The Bengali sepoys, despite not knowing a word of Persian, gourmandised on the sweet ghazals with awe that transcended the borders of language. Even the reserved Captain Robertson revelled in its joy, the ecstasy of Hafez soothing the burden of a foreign climate that refused to bow down to the will of an Englishman. Before they knew it, the party had arrived in Karachi, the ghazals having carried them off the steamboat and onto the Scinde Railway, all the while blinding the men to the passing of day into night and night into day. At the city’s port, the Bengali sepoys bid their farewell to Mr Daim, Captain Robertson and the sweet ghazals of Hafez. They had served their purpose; Captain Robertson had made it to Karachi unharmed by the disgruntled natives. The Bengali sepoys, one Hindu one Muslim, would return to Calcutta, fingers firmly wrapped around their Enfield P59s with the certainty they needn’t grease their ammunition in pig fat nor beef tallow. The responsibility fell to Captain Robertson alone to see Mr Daim reach the British Isles. And so, wasting no time at all, they boarded the first passenger ship leaving port.
The ship sailed westward along the Makran coast before turning southward, weaving around Arabia and slipping into the Red Sea. They were not the first to follow this route, and neither would they be the last. Indian and Roman ships had been making this journey for centuries carrying trinkets and treasures to be sold and bartered in addition to gossip and gospel to be shared and broadened. However, one thing was different: the Suez Canal had opened, bridging the gap between what is Red and Mediterranean, shortening the distance between what is Atlantic and Indian, and more importantly, bringing Mr Daim all the more closer to his destination. And so as they passed through Sinai, sailing the thin line that divorced Africa from its beloved Asia in the cool ocean breeze, Captain Robertson was cured of his rosied cheeks. The absence of the harsh Indian sun signified the end of the Captain’s conversational reservations. In this relaxed state, Captain Robertson, the man of few words, became a man of many relating the story of his life to Mr Daim amongst a backdrop of long-forgotten kings encased in tombs waiting to be ransacked by ever-enthusiastic explorers. As it turns out, he wasn’t an Englishman at all but rather a Scotsman born to a fisherman who crossed the boundary of Hadrian’s Wall in search of fame and glory as a rifleman in the British Army. He soon worked his way up to the rank of Captain during the latter half of the Second Opium War and had only been stationed in Fort William for four months when he was tasked with escorting Mr Daim to London. During this time, he learned how to speak his anglicised Bangla and a little anglicised Hindi too. Captain Robertson even went as far as indulging in the local cuisine, something his English colleagues were not too fond of. The one thing he hadn’t become accustomed to was the weather, and he was glad to be out before the height of India’s pre-monsoon season. A little while after the ship left Port Said, Captain Robertson asked the mysterious Mr Daim a question: “So, Mr Daim, I’ve told you about me, but what about you? What’s your particular area of expertise?” “I fear you may not be able to fully grasp the extent of my talents, but you needn’t worry, my friend. All will be revealed in good time.”
To be continued…
*I made this word up, lol. If you know what the Bengali equivalent of “anglicised” is, do let me know.