February issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

The echo of pencil heels clicking in Pakistan’s corridors of power is a sound I didn’t know I was missing — until I read Down Bureaucracy Lane. Talat Rahim’s first book is a memoir of her three decades in Pakistan’s bureaucracy to which she was a lateral entrant. Upon completing her education, Rahim entered the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), starry-eyed and brimming with enthusiasm.

Since this is not intended as a tragic tale but a fun read, Rahim refuses to be intimidated by the characters that perambulated the corridors of the PTDC, nor (later) the Export Promotion Bureau. The result: a collection of entertaining anecdotes that are chattily recounted.

Rahim took many of the shenanigans of her colleagues in her confident stride, while some were deflected by her naivety. But she “had no intention of running away at the first sound of bells ringing, whether they be wedding, alarm or any other kind of bells.” And she lived to tell tales.

Down Bureaucracy Lane is a desultory reader’s delight filled with delectable details from the author’s career as a bureaucrat.

Our publishing industry, if it can be considered large enough to constitute an industry, is filled with books by often inconsequential public servants — retired generals and bureaucrats, and politicians of all sizes, shapes and affiliations — writing some of the most boring memoirs I’ve ever had the fortune of not reading.

A word about the language used in the book. There could certainly have been less use of clichés, but terms like ‘toadies’ and ‘pin money’ create an air of nostalgia — of a time when writers like Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse were read in our literary circles.

There is also the issue of the writer’s pronouncements on morality and ethics, which the readers may find rather judgmental. Things are generally viewed as being black or white by the author with no shades of gray. But this is less problematic perhaps than the recounting of certain very incriminating stories about bureaucrats. If I were the author, I’d be grateful that this is Pakistan where one isn’t really taken to court for defamation or slander.

What the book has done is put bureaucrats on the defensive, not entirely a bad corner for them to have been pushed into given that the list of NRO beneficiaries comprises mostly bureaucrats rather than our much-maligned politicians (not that I’m siding with politicians!).

But back to the book — quite apart from its nostalgic language, amusing anecdotes at home and abroad, and the ‘files’ on high-ranking officials and politicians — Down Bureaucracy Lane makes an important contribution. A feminine voice and perspective on what is essentially a man’s world is a much-needed addition to the public record. And what makes it refreshingly different is that it steers clear of feminist underpinnings.

Travel writer Isobel Shaw described Pakistan as “Asia’s best-kept secret.” And now we know why, thanks to Rahim’s exposé of the men who manned the PTDC through the decades and their bosses’ — whom Rahim describes as “burly ministers” — insistence on treating the trips abroad to “sell” Pakistan at tourism fairs as junkets. There, far from attracting visitors to Pakistan, they squandered taxpayers’ money by placing lengthy long-distance calls to their village to inquire after the post-natal health of their livestock and repelling potential tourists by their sluggish “lolling about on sofas,” discussing business with overseas Pakistanis.

But all the book’s characters aren’t civil serpents or sinister ministers. Some charming personalities are to be found in the last section of the book, where Rahim describes her encounters with people who inspired and impressed her. Among them is a retired general who served as tourism minister — a man with impeccable manners and an amazing library of books.

Rahim also writes about her encounter with M.M. Kaye, author of The Far Pavilions, and her husband, retired Major General Geoff Hamilton. General Hamilton was invited by General Zia to visit Pakistan, where he had served during his years in the Queen’s Own Guides. Rahim describes how Kaye (which was her pen name) was busy during the trip making mental notes for turning The Far Pavilions into a film (and the couple returned two years later with a film crew).

But the highlight of the chapter — and indeed of the book — is Rahim’s own rather hilarious experience with the Hamiltons. It was an unfortunate accident while ascending to the point on a hill in Mohmand Agency where Hamilton, as a junior officer, had planted the Union Jack. She was thrown off the mule and then proceeded to ‘mulishly’ refuse to mount another animal in order to ascend the hill.

Then there’s her encounter with the charismatic Joanne Herring, the woman who helped Charlie Wilson fund-raise for the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. Rahim’s recollections give an interesting insight into the life of this colourful character.

But most touching of all is Rahim’s tribute to Lady Viqar-un-Nisa Noon. As PTDC chairman, Lady Noon took Rahim under her wing and she soon became known as “Lady Noon’s girl,” much to the envy of her colleagues at PTDC. But the benefit of the mentoring from Lady Noon far outweighed the pettiness of professional jealousies that were festering around her. An awestruck and doting Rahim describes Lady Noon’s beauty, her passion for tourism, and her extreme fondness for Rahim.

Rahim should be commended for writing her memoirs with such refreshing candour and honesty, ensuring that the colourful world of Pakistani bureaucracy does not remain buried under dusty files.

Related Article:

Read an interview with author Talat Rahim.