Unwilling helpers, lies and warmth: An Indian diplomat in Karachi 

As an Indian diplomat in Karachi, Prabhu Dayal once had an opportunity to “break the ice” with two counter-intelligence agents tasked to tail him everywhere – like the little lamb that always followed Mary, though he notes the duo were “more like fearsome wolves”.

“If I went into a shop, they would also come in and stand quite close to me. If I went to a restaurant, they would come inside to see who I was meeting there…. If I went to anybody’s house, they would stand outside the gate. Later, they go inside the house to enquire why I had come there…,” he recalls.

One night when Dayal had a flat tyre, he found a radically easy way to deal with it – he requisitioned their services, telling them he didn’t know how to change it, and if they didn’t help, all three would be stuck there. After a bit, they complied before resuming their duty.

“Surprisingly, they became a bit friendlier and less intimidating after this incident. The ice had been broken, and a hit of cordiality came into our relationship. I would smile when I saw them, and they would smile back…”

This, in a nutshell, is an abiding paradigm of India-Pakistan relations – prickly and frosty because both sides are conditioned to view the other with suspicion and distrust, and have no first-hand experience of each other – not that there are many opportunities. And while, on a personal basis, there can be some amount of bonhomie, rarely at the establishment level despite outward appearances.

And Dayal provides many examples in this slim, humorous, but always keenly perceptive, memoir of his stint (1982-85) in Pakistan’s financial capital, midway through Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s rule, when the seeds of the lethal problems seen now had just started germinating. But, like several others such as the late B.G. Verghese whose own incisive account of India-Pakistan relations came out last week, he also contends some date from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s time.

Dayal, expecting to be sent to Europe or the US after three and a half years in Cairo during a crucial period for Egypt and the Middle East – the Camp David Accords, and President Anwar el Sadat’s assassination – had never thought of Karachi as his next assignment and he embarked on his stint “with little enthusiasm”.

He however noted it “turned out to be unforgettable” and nowhere else in his diplomatic career (he was later envoy to Kuwait and Morocco and retired as consul-general in New York), “did I feel such an overpowering sense of a common heritage as I did in Pakistan”.

But balancing the “warmth and affection I sometimes received there” from common people and some others was “the unabashed lying and duplicity that Pakistani leaders have developed into a fine art” and was “difficult to digest” (like Karachi Halwa, which then Additional Foreign Secretary S.K. Singh, who was behind Dayal’s posting to Karachi, told him he found “delicious but often gave him indigestion”.)

Zia was a master of this “duplicity”, camouflaged by charm, as in the way he won over then Prime Minister Morarji Desai with his “interest” in urine therapy and helped frustrate any hostile designs on Pakistan’s nuclear set-up. We also learn why Zia was ready to climb five floors of a Delhi hotel, why he was thought to be Islamabad’s leading TV mechanic and who was the only South Asian leader to openly snub him (hint: it was a woman prime minister but not Indira Gandhi!)

Dayal offers many more absorbing recollections including a rare visit to Mohenjodaro and to Multan, among others, while shepherding the Indian cricket team around Pakistan – with some revealing insights into the effects of cricket matches, and then his own take on the whole troubled relationship, spanning well beyond his own involvement, and suggestions – such as regular but wider engagement.

A valuable addition to the growing shelf on the complex, vexed affair, Dayal’s account holds its own by being gently persuasive than dogmatic, markedly realistic but always interesting – and enlivened with caricatures by his trained artist wife Chandini.

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