A page from a book about life in Karachi
The construction site was in the suburbs of Karachi city, on Stadium road, next door to the famous cricket ground, we were on good terms with the management, in fact the ground staff often borrowed our heavy rollers when they had a special need, we never charged them a fee, but suffice it to say that complimentary tickets to the test matches were made available to all our departments. We were employed by a well known British company engaged in the construction of a large hospital funded by the Aga-Khan. It was thirsty, and dusty work, especially in the hot and sultry Summer months. We laboured six days a week and on the seventh we did rest.
Fridays were the highlight of the week, there was no doubt, in fact, we measured the passage of time by Fridays. For instance we would say, its three Fridays since we went to the ship breakers yard at Gadani Beach. Or, don’t you remember it was the Friday after we all got drunk on big Alec's pea wine. Or. The Friday after we went crabbing in the harbour bunder boats, and got presented with T shirts sporting the motif. MI caught crabs in Karachi.”—And so on. Come to think of it, the day we all caught crabs in Karachi, was the day of Alec's pea wine. He brought a gallon of the stuff with him in his coolbox, he said it is great for sea sickness, we were inside
the harbour walls, where the water is quite calm but it was good of him to think of the poor sailors in our party. We had bunder boated before, and it made a pleasant change to our routine, This particular Friday evening a small party of us, (Dave, and myself, big Alec, and Bemie who all lived together in a company villa in addition Tommy Foy, who's wife was back in the UK. For medical treatment, and Alan, decided, after a quiet afternoon spent in our social club to round the day off with a crabbing trip in the harbour.
Alec's pea wine was well known to Dave and myself, we became acquainted with it a few years ago on the Taif job in Saudi Arabia. Alec assured us that he had now perfected the art of brewing it, and although it was not yet quite a vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, it was all the same a very pleasant wine. And so it proved, it went down very easily, and we were a merry crew before we had even reached the crabbing grounds at the extreme comer of the harbour where the sea wall meets a shallow cliff.
The Karachi crabs, are quite tenacious in their determination to surrender, and who can blame them, living as they do in a muddy stew of effluence, they practically tie themselves to your baited line in order to escape. In no time at all, we had a boat full, Our boatman was a huge scar faced Baluchi, he had deep set black maniacal eyes, which almost met across the bridge of his nose, He balanced a huge voluminous turban which, defying gravity, remained immaculately coiled atop of his bullet shaped head. This gave him the appearance of one of Ali Baba's thugs.—Ali, for such was his name of course, had been around the block a time or two, or so he re-assured us. He had a very limited vocabulary of English, which consisted of “Yeah, you bet, sure thing bass” this was delivered in a strong Louisiana accent. He always avoided questions on his sea faring experiences, I’m sure that none of them were even remotely associated with the sea. but I did learn for a fact that he was once employed as a Chowkidar (caretaker) at the American embassy in Riyadh.
Ali, despite his enormous size, was a quiet, gendemanly person, and really, in hind sight it was a grave mistake to offer him a glass or two of the deadly wine. The usual Bunder boat trip ended on a sandy beach, where the crabs would be cooked and we would all have a lovely time drinking, eating the (delicious) crabs, and singing. As I said, Ali was a quiet guy, he only wanted to please his passengers. So, that was the reason he decided to cook the crabs on board to give us more time on the beach. The cooking was done on a makeshift fireplace made of bricks, the crabs were boiled in a large aluminum pan.
After the third glass, Ali lost some of his reticence, he now was Captain
Ahab, in charge of the Peqoud, he stamped up and down the narrow boat, his
weight causing it to rock alarmingly. He wanted to keep an eye on the boiling
crabs, so he had to keep leaving the tiller to check on their progress. Whilst
checking the crabs, and keep-
ing an eye out for any approaching craft, He stood too near the well lit fire. The hem of his flowing robe caught light, Ali danced around trying to shake the flames out, he grabbed the plastic flagon of wine out of Alec's grasp and poured it over his burning dress. Now, pea wine is quite strong stuff, it must be at least 40% proof. A sheet of flame shot up Ali's body, and the flare up from the fire which caught most of the wine caused panic, every one near the cooker jumped back wards or forwards, he danced about,in fear and pain, and the inevitable happened, The bunder boat, (which after all was not much larger than a rowing boat) rocked once or twice, then capsized, into the water we went. Fortunately we were in quite shallow water and were able to swim to the shore, Abdul was nowhere in sight, I dived down into the murk, but could not see a thing, there was nothing to see, in fact the visibility was almost nil I floundered about, trying my utmost not to ingest any of the foul smelling water.
Dave yelled, “The boat, John, the boat” as he started to swim after it, I arrived there at the same time, it was upside down, and we could hear furious banging noises. I took a deep breath and once more dove under the obnoxious, litter strewn surface of the harbour. Ali was panicking, his head and shoulders were hidden by the gunwales of the boat, his legs were threshing about below, looking like a giant insect trying to scrabble out of a slippery bath. Just a faint shadow of reflected light reached the interior, there was an air pocket of about 9 inches, his chin firmly touching the boat bottom, he clung desperately to one of the seats, and pounded frantically with his free hand at the timber side, reciting his prayer to Allah the merciful, over and over again, I grabbed his arm, and tried to tell him that we must go down, under the water then we could re right the boat. Ali would have none of it, I tried to wrench his hand free, but he shrieked even louder and started to lash out at my head, Bugger this for a game I thought, and ducked back down under and resurfaced to join Dave alongside the upturned craft. “He refuses to abandon his ship” I told him, “We’ll have to tow him to shore” “Aye aye skipper” Dave laughed, he already had hold of the bow tying up rope, “I' 11 pull, you push,” We pulled and pushed until our feet were touching bottom.
We rapped sharply on the keel, and tried to right the boat, Ali was not playing, he refused to give up his life saving hold on to the seat. Alec, was not amused, he blamed our skipper for the debacle, and the loss of his pea wine, he charged into the water, and arranged the three of us holding the oar locks and with a one-two-three-heave we wrested the boat from Abduls grasp and righted the vessel, Then ensued a terrific struggle to land him ashore, although we were in only four feet of water he fought us to the last, splashing and kicking, gasping like an old bull Grampus. At last with extra help from Bemie and Tommy we managed to land him.
Ali was now a pathetic looking soul, gone was his long turban, he was soaked to the skin, his ankle length Dishdashah all ripped and scorched and obviously the wine had affected him far more than it did us, prostrated on the shingle beach, retching, coughing and spluttering, in between offering up prayers of thanks for his deliverance. Abdul was making the most of his brush with death, We stood him unsteadily on his feet, and tried to point out to him, that his bunder boat, borne on the receding tide was now drifting sedately towards the harbour mouth. This brought on another noisy bout of lamentations and pleas to his maker. Luckily for him, another pleasure boat had spotted the runaway, and swiftly re-captured it, the skipper who was a friend of Abdul's towed it back to our little beach, The engine, not surprisingly refused to start, so we boarded our rescuers craft, him, the bright pink of the breast feathers reflected in the sun-gold of the sea. We had parked up and enjoyed many such days, at this spot and always resumed our home ward way with a great sense of contentment.
Our reverie's however were shattered by the approaching sound of a straining engine, as it came close inshore, it was pursued by The Dalek like tones of a loud hailer. The cliff edge at this point was quite high, and whatever drama was unfolding below us, was taking place out of our view. We left the car, and keeping our heads down crept close to the edge. A small fishing boat, lateen rigged sail furled, was skimming dangerously close to the shore, it was being shadowed by a sleek, motor launch, standing further out to sea, painted in naval grey and flying the green Pakistan colours. Two uniformed men were on the deck, The one shouting into the amplified megaphone, and the other, menacingly sat at the trigger end of a mounted sub machine gun. It looked like game, set and match, even with rapidly falling dusk the timber hulled fisherman had no chance of escaping the clutches of the powerful navy vessel, Still, with a recklessness born of fear he doggedly continued his mad dash through the rock strewn sallows, close in to the cliff side, all the time hectored by the armed patrol boat,
They passed our vantage point, and disappeared around a headland. I looked at big Dave, aI think we should not be here me old son.”—“Aye, I think your'right an' all, lets scarper, quick.” As we jumped back into the cab, there came a distinct crackle of gun fire, several short bursts, then silence. I drove back along the cliff top track, in the opposite direction for a few miles, then swung right across the scrubby desert to where I knew we would pick up a tarmac road, which would skirt the coastline, and lead to the main road into Karachi.
During our drive back to our villa we discussed the scene we had just
witnessed. We were both of the same opinion that we did the correct thing in
keeping a low profile, it is not a good move to get involved, even as a witness
in police or governmental affairs. Besides, this area is quite sensitive, as
this stretch of coastline is the location
of the controversial Atomic power station, and we always give it a wide berth. Another subject we broached was the possibility that what we saw was a spat between rival smuggling gangs. Battleship grey paint, and naval uniforms are easily obtainable, as, unfortunately are sub machine guns. The immediate Karachi environs are reasonably safe for travellers, there is a problem further North and West of the city. There had been several high profile kidnappings, and armed robberies in recent years, the English language newspapers blamed the Dacoits, (bandits), many people were of the opinion that malcontent, political figures were stirring up trouble, especially in the mountains around Peshawar, and the remote foothills of the Karakorum and the Hindu Kush, where some regions were practically no go areas.
This episode was a great talking point amongst us for the remainder of the week, we looked in vain in the English language papers for any report of the incident, It was certainly gunfire that we heard that day, and it was frustrating not to know how things turned out. So, the next Friday, Dave and I, big Alec, and Bemie, the youngest foreman on the site, set off in two four by four trucks along the coastal road, to retrace our steps of seven days previously. We gave the vicinity of the Power station a wide berth, then, when the tall structures were no longer visible we swung back off the track towards the sea. I soon found the spot where we swam and snorkelled, so it was a case of following the cliff top past the point where we last saw the fishing vessel and the gunboat, the coast line was a ragged wall of sheer rock, but indented every so often by litde coves, and bays, and we did not have to travel very far before we spotted our fishing boat.
It appeared to have been run aground at speed, it, or what was left of it was lying at the foot of the cliff, still facing forward, and was firmly entrenched on the jagged black rocks, It was half submerged, the cabin, and super structure were intact, but window less, the mast had broken near the deck level, and, trapped in a pool surrounded by the rocks, the sail, swelled and subsided with the ebb and flow of the current, from our viewpoint high above, it took on the fanciful form of a huge white flat fish, trapped in a stony, watery graveyard,
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