by Robin Wrigley
gin and tonic
The main road from Jinnah International Airport to Karachi is not a thing of beauty. Billboard after billboard advertising in huge posters every conceivable ware from soap powders to hotels. In between dust and tumbleweed and occasionally the curious head of a water buffalo, on my early solo trips in the late seventies. I always remembered the only one that made an honest and genuine statement, it read, ‘Welcome to the Intercontinental Hotel – Karachi’s only five-star resort’. I once had a coffee there. Never anything more for I was bound for a much more modest establishment. The Metropole Hotel.
Back then I had recently completed my finals as a certified accountant, young, footloose and fancy free. One of my pleasures was my membership of the local squash club in Hounslow, where I became acquainted with a fellow player from Pakistan, Abdul Zafar. He was the star player of the club as well as being Omar Shariff to the lady members.
Both of these qualities irked me, and I set out on a personal vendetta to beat him in the end of year club tournament. I inched my way through the competition and made the finals by sweat and determination. To be quite honest, at the end of some matches I wondered why the heck I was being so childish. But I kept to it.
The final match became the talk of the club at the time. All or most of the men secretly willing me to win whereas all the ladies would happily see me lose to Abdul. It was organised every year and followed by the club Christmas party the next night. I raised all the men’s expectations by winning the first game albeit by two points. But that was the only one. I was beaten, three straight games to one and Abdul and I became friends for life.
From that squash club and that final, my prize was an all-expense paid trip to Karachi to meet his father, General Zafar Iqbal. He was a wealthy retired military commander and personal friend of the leader of the country. By dint of his career and his close association with the top-brass he had acquired immense wealth. I was invited to become his personal accountant with a contract to audit his accounts annually. He would not trust one of his own family or indeed any indigenous accounting firm.
Of course, none of subsequent annual visits would ever equal that first trip with Abdul. His very name opened doors for us, and he was never shy in using it. We went pig hunting, crab catching – I still have this bright red tee-shirt emblazed ‘I caught crabs in Karachi’ which always raised a smile in my local rugby club. We even flew up to Rawalpindi, stayed in Flashman’s Hotel and drove up to the border gates with Afghanistan up the Khyber Pass. We walked through the frontier town of Peshawar and the outlying villages and hamlets such as Dumdum and watched skilled child turners making sophisticated firearms in shacks.
I could have stayed in their residence each year as I did on my initial trip with Abdul, but I preferred my independence and besides the sights and sounds of Karachi fascinated me back them. The Metropole Hotel, a name offered to me by my travel agent. It was opposite a rather unloved public park which I used as a direct connection to Bleak House Road where the Generals’ house stood. It was secured by a ten-foot-high wall topped with shards of glass stuck in cement and shiny black, wrought-iron gates guarded by a uniformed sentry in his own sentry-box. I was amused and felt very grand when he recognised me each year and greeted with an immaculate salute. He retired after a few visits and his replacement didn’t feel obliged to continue the practice.
Times moved on, my friend Abdul, who always stayed in touch usually with a picture postcard from some international playground for the rich and famous and sometimes even a phone call to the office when he happened to be in London.
His flamboyant lifestyle ended abruptly. He was killed in a private plane crash in Mexico about five years after I started the auditing of his father’s accounts. I thought the way it affected his father might well put an end to my contract but surprisingly it didn’t. The General lived nearly thirty years after his son’s death and appointed his number two son to oversee their wealth and apparently made him promise never to replace me. This news came to me via a telex a month after the General’s death.
I never managed to replace or transfer the personal friendship Abdul and I enjoyed to his younger brother. He was always polite and business-like with me which in actual fact I began to prefer. On the other hand, my relationship with various members of staff at the Metropole Hotel grew stronger each year.
The hotel itself seemed to replicate a shore tide where at different times the place changed, sometimes appearing to have been spruced up and other times for its standards to have dropped so far. At these low points it seemed quite possible that it would cease to trade as a hotel.
About the only staff who seemed to last the course was the manager, although even he changed at the turn of the millennium and the cashier with him. I’m positive that some of the guests actually lived there on a full-time basis as I did seem to recognise individuals, and they me.
Late one afternoon last week as I fumbled with my room key - I always had trouble with the ancient door locks, the result of lost keys being replaced over the years - I was startled by a nice young man. He was replacing a huge vase of flowers and ferns in the corner of the corridor.
I got the impression that he was actually waiting to speak to me because he had introduced himself to me that morning on my way out. He was better dressed than most of the staff and wearing a spotless, pressed white-shirt, tie and dark-blue trousers rather than the white shalwar kameez most of the staff wore.
These informal conversations often broke out between local young men and me mainly I think in attempts to improve their English or at least to test it. He started by being cloyingly welcoming as though I had just crossed the Kalahari Desert rather than the local park from Bleak House Road. Such over the top introductions to passing conversations always amused me if I had the time and inclination to indulge the other person.
Once he got over the preamble of his greeting, out came the usual amazement at how long I had been coming to his hotel – over forty years now! I then countered with how his spoken English was exceptionally good. This pleased him immensely and his face broke out into a huge smile and his head moved from side to side approvingly.
Seemingly this was only a temporary position as he was training to be a technician in an IT company – Microsoft no less. Now I was the one to be impressed. Apparently, it was his uncle’s company that held a franchise with the American giant company. He was in the early stages of training, dealing mainly with public relations.
Apparently, it fitted in well with this day job in the hotel as most of his other work he did in the evenings from his uncles offices where he was responsible for contacting new clients by telephone. He was quite excited to tell me most of these calls were international to the United Kingdom no less and often to my hometown, London.
The conversation continued on a little longer and then I excused myself as I needed to pack before going out for dinner. I was due on the early morning flight back home to London. The flight home was uneventful. As usual I was one of the few non-Pakistani passengers and I was lucky to get an upgrade into first class.
About a week after I returned home, I was awakened by an international call a little after seven thirty in the morning.
‘Good morning sir. My name is George calling from Microsoft. It seems you have problem with your computer.’ I recognised that voice instantly and slammed the receiver down.
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