meets a porter…
What a devil!
Reconnecting, after a gap of 20 years, with an old friend Khushal Khan whose verve of those years past still lightens his soul
By Salman Rashid
It was July 1990 when I first met Khushal Khan. Lean of body and lightly built, he had a strong and effortless gait. To match that, he had an almost visible aura of mischief about him. I was in Skardu hoping to walk the length of the Biafo Glacier, across the Sim Gang and over the Lukpe La to Shimshal and he had been introduced to me by a dour, Passu man.
Khushal was from Shimshal but he did not know the way over the 5800 metre-high Lukpe La. He said his "father in law" did. And so with me funding his trip back to Shimshal, he disappeared to bring this father in law. In the event we did the traverse and what a great walk it was -- making me the first Pakistani trekker to cross the pass and with the Great Asiatic Divide that bifurcates the waters between the Indian Ocean and the deserts of Chinese Turkestan.
Khushal was a right devil then. We were in Shigar, north of Skardu walking past a home where a Balti stood outside his door. Khushal walked up to him and delivered a long and seemingly friendly lecture to the man. The man smiled, they cordially shook hands at the end of the harangue and Khushal came away in stitches. He had told the man how keenly he would establish all sorts of illicit relationships with the women of his family.
I was scandalised. How could he ever get away with it? Not to worry, said Khushal with a laugh. He had delivered his spiel in Wakhi, Khushal's mother tongue and a language the Balti was ignorant of. Thankfully, we left civilisation in Shigar, climbed up the high Skoro La and descended into the upper Braldu Valley safely out of other Balti homes and thus harm's way.
On the walk, Khushal could lug a 25-kilogramme load with the greatest of ease. As he walked up the sheer slopes of Skoro La, he whistled tunefully nearly all the way up the 1000 metres from the shepherds' hut at the bottom of the pass to the top. On the Biafo and over the Lukpe La he virtually swam along the ice.
In Shuwert, the Shimshali summer pasture, he fed me nearly to death and we parted in Shimshal with promises to meet again. Twenty years went by and no meeting occurred. In the interim, I once received a call from him. But phones then being what they were, we only could get a couple of hellos across. That was that.
Recently in Passu, I was following young Yahya Beg on my way to Shimshal when I asked if it would be possible to meet Khushal. "Why, he runs a hotel in Passu," said Yahya. "If you had mentioned it last night, we could have gone to see him, perhaps even stay at his hotel." And so when I came out of Shimshal about a week later, I went to see Khushal whose hotel sits behind the army telephone exchange.
By that strange mechanism that I have known for so long yet not been able to fathom, he already knew of my presence in Shimshal and was waiting for me to return. It was a very warm reunion. Tea and biscuits were laid out and Khushal shouted for his man to prepare a room for me. But I was hoping to get on the helicopter for Gilgit, I said. If I have to stay, it will be another time. "Ok. Don't prepare the room," Khushal shouted to no one in sight.
Life had not been so bad, said he. Several more years of playing mountain guide followed our adventure together. Then with things going down the governance tube of the country, the tourist traffic began to peter out. It became more and more difficult to make ends meet in the tourism trade and Khushal had children whose schooling had to be paid for. Meanwhile, the summer of 2007 turned out almost dry in terms of visitors to Shimshal.
The ignorant, semi-educated television anchorpersons of the several Pakistani channels, who cannot tell the difference between the bottom and topside of a map, lumped FATA with Gilgit-Baltistan. We heard the phrase repeatedly vomited out by these duffers that terrorism originated in the 'Northern Areas' and the few tourists who had hoped to go walking and climbing in Hunza and Gojal stayed away.
Khushal spent two very anxious years. Desperate, he sought the help of a well-placed uncle. And so it was that he was able to lease the government building, then in disuse, and turn it into Shimshal Hotel and Restaurant. It is a doss house, spartan in the extreme, but for me it is run by good old Khushal Khan who walked with me from Skardu to Shimshal when he was 26 and I 38. When I am again in Passu, it will be at this serai that I will happily stay.
Now, 20 years on, I was middle-aged and Khushal, still as lean as ever, hiding his bald pate under a baseball cap that seemed glued to the top. But the verve of those years past still lightened his soul. If he wanted to, he could still hop across the treacherous crevasses of Sim Gang Glacier and race up the ice cornices of Lukpe La, he said. But he has a living to make and this hotel was just about doing it for him.
We talked of that trek of so many years ago. "I was like a bird," said Khushal. "No load was too big for me and I flew." That was no exaggeration. It was no boast. That was what Khushal was like. I know he is still the same, the years having taken little from him. I reminded him of my own shortcomings. The difficulties I had on the grind up the Skoro La, my shameful collapse on Lukpe La and my irritability and stinginess all along the journey.
But my failings were forgotten. That was a measure of the largesse of Khushal's spirit; the same that I had experienced in Shuwert where he had actually force fed me with cheese, yogurt and ghee without any question of compensation. It was his home, and I was no longer a client he had contracted to ferry across the glaciers. Now I was a guest meriting due protocol. That was what I got with unfettered generosity and all the goodness of the heart.
Khushal Khan walked me to the helipad and as the chopper came whup-whupping in, we hugged again. There were more promises to meet soon. As I said my final good bye to board, Khushal shouted above the din of the rotors, "See that you don't hold the next meeting for 20 years!" If I have it my way, I will not.
Portly meets a porter…
It's been so unavoidable to impersonate Adnan Sami Khan at the VIP domestic lounge
By Fasi Zaka
I am not a gambler. But I do have a weakness for it when it comes to flights. I look at every plane ticket and calculate just how close to the time before the counters close I can arrive. Because I travel a lot between Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, it's helped me getting to know the staff at the airports. They always remember the stringy haired, fat man rushing through -- trying unsuccessfully to charm his way into a plane.
It's gotten to the point where I shamefully admit one airline has staff who prints my ticket whenever they see my name on the passenger list. I thought it was standard procedure. They told me they did it because I never had a printout with me.
Before Adnan Sami Khan massively reduced weight, some people used to think I looked like him. In fact even now occasionally my ego is humbled when I think people recognise me for my own work, only then to ask if I am the singer.
Shamefully, I must admit there is one place where I impersonate Adnan Sami Khan willingly -- at one of our domestic hubs in the VIP lounge, on the rare occasions when I have a business travel ticket. The only real difference between it and the regular lounge is the sofas, fewer passengers and a jazzed up toilet. They also serve tea and sandwiches there.
Several years ago, I was there one day sipping tea when one of the elderly waiters approached me and asked about my father. He kept asking about Arshad Saab, and I realised he was asking about Adnan Sami's father, the former ambassador.
I kept insisting I wasn't Adnan Sami. But the fatherly figure was having none of it. He presumed, I suppose, that I was being an arrogant celebrity. He then fondly told me of how his service during his lifetime had coincided several times with Arshad Sami.
At that point I gave in. I told him that I would pass on his regards to my "father". It pleased him to no end, as if it was enough to reacquaint himself with his fond memories of the man. As it happened, for next two years whenever I was in the same lounge, I would pass on the regards "sent" by Arshad Sami Khan, adding little details of my own for the benefit of waiter. My fictitious message would prompt a story about Arshad Sami by the elderly man, reminiscing each time we met.
I never knew why I couldn't insist enough to dispel the impression the man had that I was not who he thought I was. It was just that look in his eyes when I had denied I was Adnan Sami, as if I was trying to avoid conversation with him. Whenever we talked, I did feel apprehensive that another passenger would overhear us and chide me for impersonating someone else; and it would have probably gutted the man that someone could pull a charade for so long. My pathetic explanation of how I fell into the situation would probably not count for much.
The elderly waiter spoke in extremely soft tones. I usually couldn't make out most of what he was saying but got the gist of it. Before the foreign service, Arhad Sami Khan was an Air Force war hero. I can't quite remember if the airport service employee was ex-Air Force. I think he was. It's something I cannot place accurately in my mind.
I remember reading a year ago that Arshad Sami Khan passed away after a battle with cancer. At that point I realised I could not accept condolences on behalf of Adnan Sami. And so cowardice took over. I never use that airport lounge anymore. I just hope someday Adnan Sami chances upon that man during his wait time for a flight. It would be the right thing to happen, for both men, the son and the friend of the father.
The writer is a columnist and a radio talk show host.