By Vir Sanghvi
published here Express Buzz.
I wrote, a few weeks ago, about how much the attitude to Indians had changed in the West. Once we were regarded as losers, people who inhabited a desperately poor country, continually ravaged by famine or drought, incapable of making a single world-class product, and condemned to live forever on foreign aid. Now, we have the world’s respect and, more tellingly, the West’s envy as more and more jobs are Bangalored away from their high-cost economies and handed over to Indians who perform much better for less money.
That piece was prompted by a visit to London. This one too has been inspired by a trip abroad and by saturation coverage of the Pakistani cricket scandal in the press and on global TV channels. But my concern this week is not with how the West sees India.
It is with the transformation of the image of the global Pakistani.
I was at school and university in England in the Seventies and lived in London in the early 1980s. This was a time when Pakistan was regarded — hard as this may to believe now — as being impossibly glamorous. The star of my first term at Oxford was Benazir Bhutto. In my second term, she became president of the union and was the toast of Oxford. Her father was then prime minister of Pakistan and lucky students vied for the opportunity to visit Karachi or Islamabad as guests of the Bhuttos. They came back with stories of unbelievable hospitality and spoke knowledgeably about Pakistan’s feudal structure, about landowners like the Bhuttos, about an autocracy that had reigned for centuries etc.
Even on the other side of the ideological divide, Pakistan was all too visible. He had come down from Oxford nearly eight years before, but a former president of the union, the charismatic Trotskyite Tariq Ali was still the sort of chap who made English girls swoon. For her first debate as president of the Oxford Union, Benazir asked Tariq Ali to speak. He agreed but then, rather inconveniently, he was detained by the police on a visit to Pakistan. No matter. He phoned Benazir who spoke to daddy and — hey presto! — Tariq was out of jail and on a plane to England. Pakistan was that kind of country, the British chortled delightedly.
In those days, us poor Indians hardly ever got a look in. The Pakistanis were dashing, far richer (they spent in a week what we spent in the whole term), always going off to chic parties or nightclubs in London and charming the pants off the British (often, quite literally).
In that era, the Arabs had just emerged on the world stage (following the massive oil-price hikes of 1973/4) and the Pakistanis were almost proprietorial about them. A Pakistani graduate student at my college, even affected Arab dress from time to time and bragged that he had taught Arabs how to fly planes.
My college-mate was merely reprising Z A Bhutto’s philosophy: the Arabs were rich but they were camel drivers. They needed Pakistanis to run the world for them and to teach them Western ways. It was this sort of thinking that led to the creation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the first global Third World bank, run by Pakistanis with Arab money. For most of the 1980s, BCCI was staffed by sharply dressed young Pakistanis who entertained at London (and New York’s) best restaurants, hit the casinos after dinner and talked casually about multi-million dollar deals.
Their flamboyant lifestyle was matched by other rich Pakistanis. In his autobiography, Marco Pierre White, the first of the British super-chefs (he was the original bad boy and Gordon Ramsay worked for him), talks about the Pakistanis who were his first regulars. Michel Roux, then England’s top chef (three Michelin stars) would fly out to Pakistan to cook at private parties thrown by wealthy individuals. In the late 1980s, a friend of mine went to dinner in Pakistan and was startled to be asked to guess the vintages of three different bottles of Mouton Rothschild, one of the world’s most expensive wines.
In that era, Indians knew absolutely nothing about wine or French food and the few Indian millionaires who vacationed in London were vegetarians.
Pakistanis were sex symbols too. The first international cricketing stud was Imran Khan (who finished at Oxford the term before I got there) and his sex appeal was so legendary that even Benazir joked about it. Told that Gen Zia-ul-Haq called him the ‘Lion of the Punjab,” Benazir said, “Yes but Zia pronounces “Lion as ‘Loin’ and this is appropriate.” Years later when Imran spoke about his love for Pakistan, a British columnist sneered, “His heart may be in Pakistan but his loins are in the King’s Road” referring to a trendy (and expensive) London area.
Even Pakistan’s millionaires were more glamorous than ours. In the Eighties when the Hinduja brothers (“we are strictly vegetarian”) first emerged in London, the Pakistanis stole the show with such flamboyant high-profile millionaires in Mahmud Sipra who financed feature films and kept a big yacht in the South of France.
So what went wrong?
It’s hard to pin point any single reason but I can think of several contributing factors.
First of all, much of the Pakistani profile was based on flash and fraud. BCCI collapsed amidst allegations that it was a scamster’s bank. Mahmud Sipra left England with the Fraud Squad in hot pursuit even as he
declared his innocence from beyond Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction. Many big-spending Paksitanis turned out to be heroin smugglers.
Secondly, Indian democracy came to our rescue. The Brits who bragged about Bhutto hospitality and the Pakistan aristocracy missed the obvious point: this was a deeply unequal and therefore unstable society. When Bhutto rigged an election, this led to his downfall.
Thirdly, Pakistan signed its own death warrant by trying to out-Arab the Arabs with a policy of Islamisation. This reached its peak under General Zia who declared a jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan and invited Arabs such as Osama bin Laden to come to Pakistan to fight the holy war. Ultimately, fundamentalist Islam devoured what was left of glamorous Pakistan.
Fourthly, the world just moved on. Flash can only get you so far. In the end it is substance that counts. And plodding, boring India came up with the substance.
It is hard to think, when you look at today’s Pakistan team, that Pakistani cricketers were such sex symbols in India in the 1980s that Imran Khan was able to brag to an interviewer “Indian actresses are chickens. They just want to get laid” (In all fairness, Imran later said he had been misquoted.)
Get laid by today’s team? You must be joking.
Even the Pakistani playboys who are still around no longer seem exciting or glamorous. Poor Imran just looks tired. And the rest look like Asif Zardari — pretty much the archetypal glamorous Pakistani of the Eighties — though perhaps not as disgustingly sleazy.
Of all these factors, two remain the most important. A nation created on the basis of Islam was destroyed by too much Islam. And a nation dedicated to democracy flourished because of too much democracy.