Sami Arain is a funny man. And when I say funny I don’t mean that he makes people laugh, although he does make people laugh, it’s just that he doesn’t intend to make people laugh and yet people snigger. He doesn’t mind that. But sometimes he does. It depends on his mood.
Sami Arain is also a funny-looking man—six feet three inches tall, wide built and plump—you wouldn’t know what to do with so much human mass—crop-cut salt and pepper hair, fair complexion (something us South Asians die for) and baritone voice, square rimmed glasses on the nose; fifty-five and yet always immaculately dressed (with smart-cut ties and close-checkered suits), you would be slightly intimidated if you were meeting him for the first time. But that notion would soon dispel as you meet him a few more times. Especially after-lunch hours. Because he does not look the same Sami Arain you knew in the morning. His coat would come off, shirt would be tucked out from pants, tie loosened up, collar buttons undone and his hair would stand at their edges, their salt and pepper color separated.
He calls it his relaxed hours, hours of lesser productivity. ‘But that doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to work,’ he says poking his fat finger at the shoulder of one of his subordinates. ‘You are supposed to work with the same level of energy. Only your boss is allowed to relax,’ he tells him smiling slyly while his subordinate tries to lengthen the space between him and Sami to get away from his constant stab of finger.
Sami Sahab or boss as people in his department often call him, comes from a land holding family of Punjab. One of those landlords who are neither too big to join politics nor too small to be known as farmers. He tells his story proudly, tapping his cigarette lightly on the ashtray, ‘I don’t know why my father thought I could study out of all my siblings. Probably because I was the youngest,’ he shrugs. ‘He sent me to Aitchison, expecting I’d become some big shot lawyer studying with the sons of judges and politicians. But he was mistaken.’ He lowers his voice conspiringly, ‘they always think the youngest ones should be the best in everything. What the older ones couldn’t achieve, the younger ones should get that badge and put it on their goddamned chests. If you ask me, younger ones like to live up a little too.’
He repeats his story every time a new employee gets transferred to his department. ‘Look at what I have achieved. Nothing. My older brother would have done so much better. So much better I tell you!’ his voice rises sharply. ‘He only studied till tenth grade and he’s sitting in the US today running three fuel stations. Two of his children have gone to Ivy League colleges while white people cry about their children getting into drugs, and my children don’t bother to raise their heads up from their cell phones to respond to me.’ He takes a large drag from his cigarette shaking his head.
‘Khair yaar, you tell me, why did you get transferred here, what did you do, huh?’ He asks the newly transferred employee dramatically taking off his glasses.
Honestly I think Sami Sahab underestimates himself. He passed the exam of Superior Services of the country at the age of twenty-nine and was appointed as a civil servant, although he couldn’t get the first department of his choice. Or rather, in his words, he got selected into one of the least preferred ones.
‘By that time I was so sick of switching jobs that had they given me the Postal Group, I would have taken it too.’ Postal Group is supposed to be the most unwanted department. But when I object that he should be proud that he’s serving the country in the highest of offices, Sami Sahab has a rigid response, ‘don’t tell me about this highest of offices crap Nasir, these are nothing but the remnants of the British Raj. What have we done for ourselves? For this country, huh? He gives a dramatic pause, ‘I’ve been in this job for almost twenty-six years, have you seen any change in the system?’ he asks Nasir irately.
Nasir is his Personal Assistant who you would always find in Sami Sahab’s office, never outside at his desk; sometimes making phone calls, other times just giving him company while Sami’s subordinates and guests come and go. Nasir never answers his boss. He only nods. So Sami resumes. ‘Except Bhutto Sahab, no one brought any reforms to the civil service. And were those really reforms?’ He asks taking a long drag of smoke and shakes his head. ‘He deformed this bureaucracy. That bloody genius of a politician.’ He throws his remaining cigarette forcefully in the bin under his table, his long fingers hitting the pen holder in the process.
Sami Sahab is an expressive man. Larger than life that he already is, his presence can never be missed in a company. When he talks, his large hands mimic the gestures of his tone, moving in all directions, sometimes bumping into things and people around him.
But what I appreciate most about Sami Sahab is that he is an honest man. Never involved himself in kickbacks and under-the-table deals. His promotions have been delayed, he has been transferred to far flung areas of the country, but he has been relentless. With a meagre government salary it’s difficult to live a comfortable life unless you have ensured some other means for yourself. And Sami Sahab’s family is used to a very comfortable lifestyle.
His wife, a daughter of a Lahori businessman was brought up in a well to do family and went to all girls Liberal Arts college in Lahore. Living in a household of four sisters, all loud, chatty, highly opinionated and prodigal, there was always something or the other going on the house—birthday parties, lunches and dinners full of cousins and dozens of friends invited by each sister, Seema had never witnessed a dull life before, devoid of human chatter and activity, until Sami was posted in Khuzdaar, a far flung district in Balochistan, right after their wedding.
‘You know my wife hates me.’ Sami repeats as matter-of-factly whenever he asks Nasir leave to his room for some privacy to talk on the phone each time things heat up between the two. Nasir says it’s always Seema who hangs up the phone first. I may be naïve but I don’t understand how two people could be so unhappy with each other, when they married out of love—another of his famously told stories.
He had seen her at his best friend Salman’s wedding, the typical way of finding girls in Pakistan for young men. She turned out to be the friend of Salman’s sister. Sami Sahab must have been a very handsome young man in his twenties and early thirties I suppose. Gubroo jawan. They met a few times through his friend’s sister after which Sami’s father went to the girl’s house to ask for his son’s hand in marriage. Seema’s father nodded at Sami’s credentials; however he couldn’t decide his ethnicity.
‘Bhai Sahab, is your son a Pathan in any way?’ he asked trying to confirm if they belonged to the North Western province of the country—where people are light skinned and heavily built—unsure of what he really wanted to know.
‘No no Choudhary Sahab, we are purely Punjabi, Arain at that. My boy is only fair skinned because of his mother.’ He blushed.
And so the wedding took place with usual extravagant shenanigans. But Seema did not like Khuzdaar or moving from one place to another for that matter. Although Sami had a government car, a uniformed chauffeur and a large furnished house—something that’s a matter of pure luck for new servicemen, Seema wanted activity around her. She liked her life back in Lahore, where women indulged in kitty parties at Lahore Gymkhana or Polo Lounge to discuss their change of furniture and imported china and marble tea-sets and their Shahtoosh shawl collection, while young girls talked about their secret boyfriends they were seeing without their mothers knowing. She missed the weddings where mother-in-laws would compete on whose daughter-in-law who was wearing more gold and gossiped about whose designer dress cost the most.
Seema also missed shopping in Liberty Market—the fancy malls hadn’t opened yet. And so she would silently sob in front of Sami who thought she missed her parents and would send her to Lahore every fortnight to see her family. But as soon as she would come back home, Seema would complain about her boring life.
Eventually they were posted to Gujranwala in Punjab, a town near Lahore. Seema couldn’t be happier. Her weekends would be spent in Lahore never missing a wedding, birthday, baby-shower or a funeral. But this happiness was momentary. As soon as the couple started having kids, their expenses increased. Sami had never been a saver. He complained. She complained too. Of boring life, three little kids, and lack of money. ‘We need to look at the education of our children, Sami.’ She told him. ‘I don’t want my kids to study in low standard schools of little towns where teachers don’t even know how to pronounce things properly.’
That was the first time Sami actually tried to get himself transferred to a ‘big’ city. After a year of rigorous efforts, he was posted at Karachi in Ports and Shipping Ministry. Seema wasn’t happy but she couldn’t complain. It wasn’t Lahore, but it was the largest city of the country, with better schools for children and a variety of shopping options. She had also heard that because Shahtoosh shawls, after being smuggled from Indian Occupied Kashmir, were first brought to Karachi before being shipped to Punjab, there was a considerable difference in prices, and of course more variety.
Although she was a stranger to the social scene of the city, Seema was excited at the prospect of meeting new women who shared her interests. And so Sami was given the first task of getting membership of Karachi Gymkhana to begin with, after admitting his kids in a Convent School of colonial inception. Poor Sami couldn’t afford it. But Seema was adamant. ‘I will die of boredom and depression if I don’t get out of the house and meet other women.’
This was the beginning of sale of Sami’s agricultural lands which he had inherited from his father.
The lands were sold for club memberships, change of cars and a plot that Seema bought in Defence (in the early nineties)—the city’s affluent neighborhood facing sea whose land was still sparsely populated.
It took four years to finish construction of the house while managing Seema’s extravagant finances. When they were ready to move in, Sami realized that he was heavily indebted. But frugality was not a word in Seema’s dictionary. Debts would be repaid regularly with more debts, and sometimes by emptying his service Gratuity Fund. But Seema would never know. This was Sami’s area to take care of.
Soon Seema regained her purpose in life. Although Karachi women could never be compared to their Lahori counterparts in social life, Seema was excited to be invited to be a part of launch parties, beach birthdays and Qawali nights at Mohatta Palace among other things. She would call her sisters and tell them about her new happening life and friends who complimented her sense of style. Living under the shadow of three sisters, it was as if Seema was finally making her own mark.
But Sami’s honesty at work soon landed their relationship in hot waters.
After his second promotion, when Sami was asked to do a Director’s bidding in return for kickbacks, he did not say yes. Within twenty-four hours, he was transferred to a different department in Quetta, a city where even army officials are reluctant to go. But Seema would not have it. After a yelling match that went on for an entire night, it was decided that Sami would leave for Quetta and Seema would stay in Karachi with kids.
However, for what seemed to Seema like the end of adversity, it was only the beginning. Their government cars in Karachi, drivers and cook were taken back. Access to various clubs—some of the finest in the city— given as an unofficial perk, was revoked as a reprimand.
Seema left for Lahore along with the kids after a week of Sami’s posting. But Sami did not budge.
Soon their parents got involved. Sami’s father called him and swore at him for being a good-for-nothing public official. ‘What have you given your children, huh?’ he asked. ‘If your children are not happy with you at the end of the day, what’s the use of your noukri?’
But when Seema called him and sobbed, ‘I am scared for you. You think I don’t care for you but have you seen the unrest in the city you’ve been sent to? I don’t want my kids to grow up in a city like that,’ he took the next flight to Lahore and went to see his wife overcome with love.
In the end it was decided that Seema and the kids would stay with her parents till Sami was posted at Quetta. There were compromises. Sami’s life was important but their kids’ life was more important (Sami had argued). Their house was in Karachi, but it was no use living there without Sami, house-help and other government facilities (Seema had decided). So the kids would be admitted in schools in Lahore and would live with their grandparents who were now alone and bored in their huge house after marrying off all their four daughters.
For what seemed like an undesirable decision for Sami in the beginning probably turned out to be the best. ‘I feel ashamed to admit but it’s true,’ Sami Sahab smiles his playful smile whenever he retells his memoir, for it gave him the time to pay off his debts while keeping his wife happy in Lahore.
Sami stayed in Balochistan for seven years. ‘Our system is fucked. If it does not work for us, we call it corrupt and blame the people. Don’t we Punjabis know why the Baloch are thirsty for our blood?’ he asks one of the days, reminiscing about the weather of Quetta and its people.
‘No one made me feel alien the entire time I was posted there. Not one local. You know why?’ he asks me rhetorically. I nod for him to continue. ‘Because I listened to them. I worked for them. I didn’t suck their blood.’
Of course they didn’t hate me!’ He smiles and slaps the table like he has the perfect answer.
After being transferred to three other districts in Balochistan, Sami was called back to Karachi seven years later when the head of his parent department changed. The new head, Hussain Bukhari had been called from his US deputation to serve in the country with some special assignments to pursue.
Sami couldn’t be happier. He had been reunited with his family. The children had grown up and were going to middle and high school. Even Seema was happy to be coming back to Karachi. Lahore gets too suffocating sometimes, she had confessed to Sami.
It looked like Sami was starting all over again under a new leadership and fair chances of growth. But it all was momentary.
The two men could not get along.
Hussain Bukhari, the Head of his department in Karachi was not an easy man. And Sami was not a people pleaser. Bukhari found faults with people that were otherwise easy to dismiss.
It started with asking Sami to stop smoking in his own office and go out at the stairs to take a drag if need be.
‘Why does he think I would do that?’ Sami asked us.
Soon Bukhari began interfering in Sami’s way of doing work. This would enrage Sami. He was not used to taking dictation as long as the work was done.
One of the days Bukhari’s Assistant would come running in Sami’s office while we would be in a meeting and tell him to see Bukhari, and Sami Sahab would respond plainly, taking a long drag from his cigarette,‘tell him that he’s not in the mood to see white meat today.’
This would make us snigger, and nothing pleases Sami more than amusing his audience. ‘No, seriously.’ He would look at each of us plain-faced. ‘This man has come from America, huh? But the moment a gora looking man like me talks about principles of honesty and not doing some politician’s bidding, it makes him furious.’
Bukhari’s Assistant would be embarrassed. ‘Sir, what do I tell Bukhari Sahab?’ he would nervously ask. Sami would shake his head. ‘Yaar tell him his disloyal dog can’t wait to see his face today.’
The problem is, it has been more than seven years since Sami has been posted in Karachi but there has been no growth in his career. And yet he would do anything but ask for his transfer for the sake of promotion.
Often Sami complains to his friend Salman—whenever he comes to see him—about the lack of justice in bureaucracy. Salman, who has made property in every livable city of the country through the same service and is a grade senior to Sami, today curses him for being so ‘goddamned adamant’.
‘Think of your children, Sami. Your boys are still using your car and not even complaining. Ali couldn’t even go to UK to study because you couldn’t afford his tuitions. My wife would have killed me if I didn’t send my son abroad for the lack of finances.’
But Sami would argue about the principles of honesty and instilling the same in the children, and the battle between principles versus family comfort would never end.
Although Sami Sahab has always been a hotheaded man, lately we have been witnessing his bitter side more than ever before. While he would usually call us to his office through Nasir, these days he would cry out our names out loud from his room and expect to see us the next moment.
‘Yaar Zaid, take care of your minions today, I don’t want to see anyone until you guys have finished your homework on Italian shipments. Bukahri is chewing my head off since morning and I have to take Seema out for dinner too.’ He told me one day waving his hands in a semicircle on both his sides. ‘It’s our wedding anniversary today apparently.’ He rolled his eyes which made me laugh.
‘Don’t laugh at my misery, yaar. Get out of here.’ I told Nasir on my way to my seat to make chai for him. ‘That bad inside?’ Nasir asked rhetorically.
Nobody asked him the next day how the dinner with Seema went. But we heard him humming Beatles the whole time. Next day he was the same Sami complaining about his poor financial management and giving free advice to the young team under him. ‘Beta, whatever you do, never have more than one child. Plan your family properly. The Chinese are so goddamn smart. They did what we could never even think of in a hundred years. Look where they are today. And look at us,’ shaking his head, ‘these mullahs tell us it’s haram,’ he put both his hands on his ears, ‘the way we are producing, we think it’s trees not humans! Ha!’
Two of Sami Sahab’s boys, aged twenty and twenty-one are in college whose expenses he’s paying through debts. His daughter, is soon going to leave for college too. I understand his financial position. Even though I am ten years junior and earn a lot less than him, Sami owes me money. So do most of his friends and subordinates. But to a person like him, we can’t say no somehow.
And Seema bhabhi is no help. The other day, Sami Sahab called me to his office and asked Nasir to give us some privacy. After Nasir left the room, Sami Sahab gave me a blank cheque and told me to get it cashed as soon as the coming month’s salary was transferred. ‘Yaar Zaid, my sister-in-law was visiting us this week and has her flight back to London tonight. I have to give her some money before she leaves.’ I could tell he was uncomfortable saying this, because he hadn’t asked for such a large sum of money on such a short notice before. ‘Here’s a blank cheque, you can write your sum and get it cashed as soon as the next salary is transferred. But right now I need two hundred thousand rupees for a present to my sister-in-law before my wife calls again to confirm.’ Sami Sahab is not usually a shy person but he was looking out of the window.
I didn’t know what to say. Although the amount he was asking for was nothing compared to what I had in my account, but considering that he already owed me a double of what he had asked, made me consider.
‘Tell me Zaid, how do you save so much with a wife and kids and still have enough to lend me?’ he had already assumed that I was going to lend him the amount. This made me smile.
I wanted to tell Sami Sahab that I was neither as honest as he was, nor did I live in a house whose maintenance cost a quarter of my salary. But I silently took the cheque and made arrangements for the money.
Sami Sahab, who is always the first to reach work didn’t come to work this morning. At 10am, his friend Salman called Nasir to let us know that Sami had a cardiac arrest last night and was in hospital in critical condition.
It was a silent day at work. No one called my name out loud. No one went to Sami’s office to whine about Bukhari. Nasir sat outside Sami’s office at his own desk, and when he couldn’t, he visited the hospital twice to find out about improvement in his health but here was none. Bukhari sent flowers to Sami Sahab the second time Nasir left for hospital. ‘What does he care for the flowers now?’ Nasir mumbled to us. ‘That asshole didn’t care for Sami Sahab when it mattered.’
After four days, Sami Sahab had an open heart surgery which went on for ten hours. His father came from Lahore to live with the family. Nasir took a leave from work and brought homemade food three times a day to hospital for the family.
Three days after the surgery when I go to visit him at the hospital, Seema smiles at me and asks me to come inside the room. Her eyes are swollen and puffy from lack of sleep.
‘Such beautiful flowers, Zaid. Sami would be very happy. Come inside,’ she says waving her hand towards the room.
Sami has a bowl of hot corn soup on the table beside him. Seema picks it up and helps him slowly take some sips.
I put the flowers at the lower edge of the bed. ‘You gave us a scare sir jee.’
‘Oh come on Zaid,’ he smiles. ‘You know I’m not gonna leave this goddamn world so easily.’ Seema shakes her head. ‘Stop saying it already Sami.’
He takes another spoonful of soup in his mouth. ‘Where are the kids?’ I ask.
‘Abba and the kids are at home. Been very tiring for them, this whole fiasco.’ He waves his hands around as if we are not talking about him but some political scandal.
He asks me about work and Bukhari—who hasn’t visited him yet—and his replacement during his absence, while Seema calls for some tea.
‘Zaid you know, Sarah has been accepted in LSE on full scholarship.’ I can tell from his excitement that he couldn’t wait to tell me the news about his daughter. ‘He has told this news to ten other people who have visited him since morning today.’ Seema smiles.
‘Why not?’ Sami asks me. ‘That’s the kind of kids you want to have. No?’ He looks at me and then at Seema and smiles. ‘No burden on parents, even making them proud. I always knew my girl was smarter than the boys.’
I nod. ‘We are proud of Ali and Sufiyan too.’ Seema asserts just to make things clear.
‘Yes of course, of course. But I’m more proud of Sarah.’ Sami insists and smiles. ‘I think this news has helped me recover overnight. Seema I think I’m ready to go to work tomorrow.’
Seema shakes her head and helps him with the soup, smiling.
Paras Abbasi is a poet and a short story writer. Her work has been published in Confluence magazine UK, East Lit Journal, New Asian Writing and local news websites in Pakistan . Her essay, "The Art of Language and How it Matters in a Pandemic' is forthcoming in The Punch Magazine. Paras lives in Karachi, Pakistan and can be reached at ofconversations.wordpress.com and on instagram: @ofcoffeeconversations Image: A panorama of Seaview Road in Karachi (Saqib Qayyum, wikimedia)