A few months after taking charge of credit for Pakistan, I was told to tour Pakistan in order to get a first-hand feel of the country.
This was in the mid-1990s when relations between India and Pakistan were not quite cordial but not openly hostile either. Being an Indian, I was wary about going to Pakistan; but a direct order from the boss had to be obeyed. After a long interview with the somewhat suspicious consul general of Pakistan, I finally got my visa.
Patrick Declan O’Connor, a true-blue Irish name if ever there was one, was our country manager in Pakistan. On hearing that I had got my visa, he said, “Good! I want you to bring some booze for me.”
An Indian bringing booze into Pakistan? Was he nuts?
But Patrick was most insistent and very reassuring. “No worries, mate, no worries at all. We have terrific contacts at Karachi airport. I will make full bandobast (arrangement). My PRO Karim will meet you at the aircraft door and escort you right through the airport.”
Somewhat reassured, I said, “Okay, Patrick, since you insist. What do you want? A bottle of Black Label?”
Patrick guffawed and replied, “No, no, more scotch is drunk in Pakistan than is brewed in Scotland. I want wine. There is not one bottle of decent wine to be had out here. I will mail you a list.”
What was this mad mick talking about, I wondered. A list?
When the list arrived, I nearly fell off my chair. Here is what Patrick wanted:
- 5 boxes of various wines (wine also came in 4-litre boxes, you know)
- 2 bottles of Hennessey
- 2 bottles of cherry brandy
- 2 bottles of Crème de Menthe (for Mrs O’Connor, as I found out later)
I grabbed the phone and yelled at Patrick, “Hey, are you mad? 26 litres of booze? No way am I going to do this.”
But Patrick swore on his mother’s grave and on St Patrick (the most serious oaths for any Irishman) that nothing, absolutely nothing, would happen to me. It was perfectly safe. He had the best bandobast in Karachi.
Reluctantly, I packed a suitcase with the 26 litres of alcohol and set off for Karachi. Patrick was true to his word. Karim, indeed, met me at the aircraft door and whisked me through immigration and customs.
The only hitch arose when the guy at the baggage scanner frowned and asked, “Yeh kya hai?” (What is this?), pointing at the boxes of wine.
“Wine hai ji, wine, Angrezi daru,” replied Karim. (It is wine, English liquor)
“Haan haan, main wine janta hoon. Lekin yeh toh baxa mein hai. Wine toh batli mein aata hai. Yeh zaroor toner hoga.” (Yes, yes, I know wine. But this is in boxes. Wine comes in bottles. This must be toner.)
Apparently, the bandobast had been for alcohol, not toner for photocopiers on which there was a 200% import duty. No problem. Karim moved swiftly, spoke to the big boss in customs, and I was let through.
The next morning, I went to the bank and Patrick introduced me to Afzal, the head of corporate banking. He was quite wary and a bit diffident at first, but soon he warmed up to me and we began to feel comfortable with each other. Proof of the cordiality arrived when he invited me to dinner at his home that evening.
Dinner in a Pakistani home is a bit different from that in an equivalent Indian home. There were three other guests, all male—a businessman, a bureaucrat and a corporate executive. Afzal’s wife did not appear at all, though we could hear her yelling at servants somewhere inside the house, unlike a wife in India who would appear briefly when business guests came home, exchange pleasantries and leave the men to their business.
The evening rolled on with whiskey and kababs. After the third drink, the bureaucrat opened up.
“You Indians want hegemony over the entire sub-continent,” he started.
I was surprised; Afzal was embarrassed; but the bureaucrat was in full flow.
“You stole Kashmir, which is rightfully ours.”
“You took Hyderabad at gunpoint.”
“You snatched Goa from the Portuguese.”
“You instigated the Bengalis to break away from us and tore our country apart.”
“You annexed Sikkim.”
“You even sent your army into Sri Lanka!”
“Only Pakistan stands between you and complete hegemony, and Inshallah, we won’t let you have it as long as a single breath in left in our bodies.”
Afzal quickly arranged for dinner to be served and the awkward evening was finally over.
The next morning, I started my whirlwind tour of all our clients in Karachi.
The first meeting was at 8am. Forewarned, I had skipped breakfast at the hotel but was still not ready for the deluge of food presented at every meeting—tandoori chicken, seekh kabab, nihari, samosas, umpteen sweets.
I had been told that not eating a 'reasonable' amount would be an insult to the client, so I did my best.
By the time I had finished four meetings, and reached a posh hotel for lunch with yet another client, I had already had lunch three times over. But there was no respite. I had to eat.
Another round of client meetings followed lunch—yet more food and heavy, rich food at that. At 5.30pm, I was briefly let off for a break before dinner and, for the one and only time in my life, I shoved my fingers down my throat and vomited into the toilet bowl, just to empty my stomach for the next round.
At this point, I must say that everyone I met was extremely cordial, whether because I was an Indian or a big boss from the head office, I don’t know.
I didn’t hear one more word about Indo-Pak enmity. Perhaps only bureaucrats harboured such feelings in Pakistan, or maybe they were the only ones who would voice them openly.
A 'tea party' preceded dinner with an important client at another posh hotel. The tea was served cold, with ice, poured into large cups from a flowery teapot. You can guess what the 'tea' was—scotch brewed in Pakistan.
On a day trip to Hyderabad (in Sindh), I was taken to meet a prospective client who wanted a loan to expand his business. He turned out to be a massive fellow dressed in a starched white salwar kameez and sporting a huge handlebar moustache. Apparently, he was the feudal zamindar (landlord) of the area.
During our discussion, I happened to mention that we were having difficulty in recovering money from a client in Hyderabad.
The zamindar laughed and said, “Kaun hai yeh banda? Naam to bataiye. Dekhta hun kaise bank ka paise wapas nahi lautata.” (Who is this fellow? Just tell me his name. Let me see how he avoids returning the bank’s money.)
After polite nods and 'wah, wah' all around, the zamindar went on to explain that he was the chieftain of this area. Which debts got paid and which remained unpaid was determined by him.
How are we going to get our money back from you if we are crazy enough to lend to you, I asked myself.
The meeting was, shall we say, unfruitful—from the zamindar’s point of view, of course, not mine. I had averted a major future bad debt.
I learnt a lot in Pakistan!
(To be continued….)
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)