Etiquette is all in Punjab Club as political intrigues reach crescendo

Lahore Letter: How did Pakistani elite adopt institution symbolic of Empire’s worst excesses?

Supporters of Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf  party, listen to his speech at an election rally in Karachi, Pakistan, in recent days. Pakistan is to hold general and provincial elections on  July 25th. Photograph: Shahzaib Akber/EPA

Supporters of Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party, listen to his speech at an election rally in Karachi, Pakistan, in recent days. Pakistan is to hold general and provincial elections on July 25th. Photograph: Shahzaib Akber/EPA

 

Two cats are fighting under a peepal tree in the gardens of the Punjab Club, a screeching whirl of black and ginger momentarily disturbing the genteel tranquillity of Pakistan’s most exclusive private members’ club.

This is where the cream of the country’s elite exchange high-society gossip over single malt and cigars in the antiquated confines of the Oak Room, with its displays of pistols and crossed swords, their every whim attended to by waiters in turbans. Steeped in memories of the Raj, they seek refuge from the present-day political turmoil.

“So good to see you.”

“Where have you been?”

“It’s been so long!”

Voices echoing in the marbled lobby, they greet each other in English before launching into Urdu, these politicians, judges, lawyers and business people. Beneath the crystal chandeliers, they hold muted discussions on an allegedly dirty election blighted by rumours of military backing for cricketing legend Imran Khan. It’s a contest that could upend the current order, break the duopoly of the country’s two political dynasties: the Bhuttos and the Sharifs.

Decorum rules

The stakes are high, but voices are never raised. Etiquette is everything. Decorum rules.

At lunch, I sit next to two men representing different strands of the elite, the air fragrant with tuberose, vaguely wondering if I’ve selected the right fork for the rondelles of pink meat studded with olives.

Judging by reactions, many will vote for Khan, whose anti-corruption and social justice platform has attracted a broad church of supporters.
Judging by reactions, many will vote for Khan, whose anti-corruption and social justice platform has attracted a broad church of supporters.

Farid, a businessman from one of the country’s most prestigious families, signed me in. His loyalties are with Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Like Khan, he attended nearby Aitchison College, the Eton of Pakistan. The old boys’ network is alive and well, even if the mercurial politician has turned his back on his debonair past, making new chums like Amir Liaquat Hussain, a religious hardliner with a penchant for accusing liberals of blasphemy.

It’s so hard to work out what’s going on in this country where 'tables can be turned at any moment'

But the old chums don’t forget. Khan’s power push might not be quite cricket, but they cling to the belief he will make good on his promises of creating, well ... a country that works.

“The true Imran will emerge,” says Farid.

Corruption crackdown

Sitting next to us is Ashtar, a gimlet-eyed former attorney general, said to have the ear of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif would have been standing against Khan if he hadn’t been jailed for corruption. Ashtar is now providing legal counsel to members of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which is being targeted in an industrial-scale corruption crackdown on the old guard. He terms it a “judicial coup”.

Walid Iqbal (R), grandson of national poet Muhammad Iqbal and a candidate for Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party in the election in Pakistan, greets a local religious leader in Javed Colony, Lahore. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder
Walid Iqbal (R), grandson of national poet Muhammad Iqbal and a candidate for Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party in the election in Pakistan, greets a local religious leader in Javed Colony, Lahore. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder

“The caretakers have become undertakers for Nawaz and the cradle rockers for Imran,” he declares. It’s not idle talk. Ashtar fought for an independent judiciary during the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, landing in jail, where he suffered a heart attack.

We all look out the floor-to-ceiling windows, beyond the phoenix palms to the shimmering waters of the club’s pool. “The fish is good,” says Farid, looking slightly queasy.

With Farid’s help, I book a night in one of the sedately furnished rooms, which gives me access to the main attraction. After a refreshing swim, I chat to one of the club’s female members, who works as a psychologist. It’s so hard to work out what’s going on in this country where “tables can be turned at any moment”. But, by the sound of things, it’s harder still to understand Imran Khan.

They know Bushra is not his type of woman. He’s searching for something he can only find within

The psychologist supported Khan in the last election. No matter what, Khan is still “one of us”, she says. But his erratic taste in women disturbs her. British heiress Jemima Goldsmith, mother of Khan’s two sons, is considered his true love. Then came Reham Khan, a former BBC weather presenter, who has just dished the dirt on their 10-month marriage in a pre-election book, alleging drug-abuse and philandering. And now he’s with Bushra Maneka, a spiritual healer, who appeared in recent wedding photos with her entire face covered by a red veil.

Supporters of Imran Khan in Javed Colony, Lahore, Pakistan. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder
Supporters of Imran Khan in Javed Colony, Lahore, Pakistan. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder

What is Khan playing at? The Lahore elite know him. And they know Bushra is not his type of woman. He’s searching for something he can only find within, says the psychologist.

Political intrigues

We could talk Imran all day long, but there’s something I need to know, something that goes deeper than the current political intrigues. In the Teak Room, over tankards of sharp Murree beer, I quiz Farid and Ashtar on Pakistan’s post-colonial identity. How did the Pakistani elite come to adopt an institution symbolic of Empire’s worst excesses, the sort of place that would have once had a sign saying “No dogs or Indians” at the entrance?

The pair immediately warm to the subject. Ashtar says that top-ranking local administrators, the so-called “brown sahibs”, needed to retain power and order in the bloody chaos of partition. He understands that the notion might be perplexing. After all, the Brits dressed the waiters in those turbans to humiliate the Mughal nawabs. “It was out of spite,” he says. “If I had my way, I’d make them wear bow ties.”

Why doesn’t he present a motion to the board?

“I might just do that,” he says, a mischievous smile playing on his lips.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz await arrest on an aircraft after their arrival in Lahore. Photograph: PML-N/Getty Images
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz await arrest on an aircraft after their arrival in Lahore earlier in July. Photograph: PML-N/Getty Images

In the 71 years of Pakistan’s often violent history, the Punjab Club has served a purpose, proving a refuge where views can be freely expressed. “Respect for other peoples’ opinions is like a balm,” says Ashtar.

Only the cats serve as a brief reminder of the wild world outside the high walls. A waiter sends them scarpering with a well-aimed straw broom.

And peace returns – for an afternoon, at least.

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