The impact of extensions

Extensions can have meaningful effects on our lives. In February 2017, I got a pacemaker implanted in my body that gave me a new lease of life. My quality of life has improved and I feel more optimistic about things. I’ve had over two and half trouble free years, for which I’m grateful to Allah Almighty, doctors and modern technology.

Extension in service can be different from an extension in life. It can be a relief for those about to retire but not for those waiting in the wings. I can recount two occasions when an extension in a senior officer’s tenure indirectly impacted on my life. The first time it happened was when I was commanding a battalion on the Line of Control. My unit was being rotated out to a peace location and the new one had already moved in. Since relief and rotation on an active border is always a serious affair, we were following the SOPs diligently to avoid being surprised by the enemy. Some of our non-essential stores had already been sent to our new destination. I remember this included innocuous items like the first field dressings (this can be lifesaving stuff for a wounded soldier). More importantly we had handed over the heavy weapons in situ to the unit relieving us. Suddenly our move was put on hold and we were told to form part of our formation’s reserve. Intelligence had been received that the enemy was upto some mischief and that we should be ready to counterattack in an area where it was weak. We immediately began to reconnoiter our likely objectives and diligently rehearsed our attack procedures. We had been in the defenses for three long years and needed to get back into the offensive spirit. Soon word spread on the grapevine (langar gap) that this was merely ‘tension for extension.’ Our corps commander with a stellar professional career was about to retire and he wanted to keep his boots on, at this ‘sensitive’ time. Mercifully it never came to such a pass and our commanding general rode into the proverbial sunset without any extension. A foolish charge of the light brigade on an inconsequential hilltop would have certainly not brought us any tactical, operational or strategic gains but would have certainly cost some of us our lives. Posthumous gallantry awards would have been small comfort to the families of those killed in battle.

Next time it happened was when I was in the GHQ. The question was not about an extension because the chief being the president of the country was already giving himself new terms in office. It was about him shedding his uniform. As it happened, the chief had given a firm commitment to the nation that he would be doffing his uniform by the end of 2004 but he was now having second thoughts. One morning our DG, a major general, after the morning brief asked us about our views on the subject. We were an assorted assembly of officers with varying degrees of professional experience and lengths of services. This included grade twos (majors), grade ones (lieutenant colonels), deputy directors (colonels) and directors (brigadiers). Most of my colleagues who could sense more accurately, which way the wind was blowing said that the rank and file would be happy if the chief continued wearing the uniform. This would give him more strength to take decisions of national interest. There was need for continuity of command in these difficult times. I thought otherwise and said that this would ethically be incorrect for the chief to renege on his promise. In order to articulate my thoughts in a better fashion, back in my office, I drafted a long memo and sent it across to my superior officer. The thrust of my argument was that it would be bad for the image of the chief and the institution. Later in the evening I was assailed by more sobering thoughts.  I feebly joked with my wife that the chief may not give up his uniform (he would later say that uniform was his second skin) but I would surely lose mine. My hunch proved correct, I was considered for the next rank a few months later and was not approved. I’m sure there were good reasons for my not being promoted but it didn’t help matters with my unsolicited advice.

In hind sight this proved to be a blessing in disguise. An early retirement helped me pursue a second and more fulfilling career in the academia but that’s another story. In the unlikely event of having been elevated to the status of a four star general, I would have most fallen for the temptation to seek an extension to my service tenure.

Personally I feel in compelling circumstances, a chief may be given an extension but it should not be made a routine. Experience tells us that every army chief barring a few have asked for extensions. General Asif Nawaz died in office before completing his term. His successors Generals Abdul Waheed and Jahangir Karamat declined an extension. General Karamat actually resigned a few months early on principles because his remarks had irked the PM.

A better option could be to give the army chief a standard four years in office instead of three and there should be no extensions unless there is a genuine national emergency and not one based on petty personal or politics interests.

PS. Any similarity in the examples that I’ve quote to the present events is purely co-incidental.


Harnai – A lost railway town in Balochistan

chappar riftNot many people in Pakistan are aware that there is place called Harnai. This small town in Balochistan lies 168 km east of provincial capital Quetta and takes about three and a half hours by road to reach. Harnai district was carved out of the larger Sibi district in 2007. Harnai gained importance at the end of the nineteenth century as a railway station on the now defunct Sibbi-Khost railway line. The bridge on the Chappar Rift has a special appeal for railway buffs all over the world. This was an engineering marvel at the time of its construction. The first railway link to Quetta was inaugurated in 1886 via Bolan Pass. A year later another rail route to Quetta was opened via Harnai, Khost, Chappar Rift and Bostan. The gradient of the railway track leading upto the Chappar Rift is 1 in 40 and rises to a maximum altitude of about six thousand feet above sea level. The bridge was opened by the Duchess of Connaught on 27th March, 1887 and came to be known as the Louise Margaret Bridge. This alternate railway route to Quetta was used for about fifty five years until it was washed away by a flash flood on the night of July 10, 1942. Despite the loss of the Chappar Rift Bridge, the 133 km track between Sibi, Harnai and Khost remained operational until early 2006. The track is operationally (but not officially) closed due to damaged bridges. The previous government actively considered making the Sibi-Khost route operational again but presently this project is halted in its track.

Harnai’s other claim to fame are its woollen mills, which closed down in 2004. On the 14th January 2019, the Balochistan Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that the federal government reopen the closed Harnai woollen mills for boosting economic activities and providing employment opportunities to local people. Harnai woollen mills is still registered as a company and has its offices in Karachi.

For me, Harnai holds a special importance. This is my father’s birthplace, where he was born on 25 April 1927. From his humble beginning as the eldest son of a minor railway official, my father made a successful career first in the air force and a later as a diplomat; retiring as an ambassador. I and indeed all my siblings were lucky to have him as our father. He was the best of fathers and a real model for all of us.

A visit to Harnai had always been on my wish list. In some small way I wanted to pay homage to my father. This wish was fulfilled on November 29, 2019. It was a cool and sunny day that we moved by car of a relative living in Quetta to our destination.  As we drove past Baleli ordnance depot and turned right towards Kutch, the sun rays glinted on the mulberry trees near Bostan, highlighting their golden autumnal colours. The drive through the windswept steppes of Balochistan is always an exhilarating experience. And this one was no exception. The road follows the gentle turns of a former railway track and after having been upgraded, it has shortened the route to Punjab. It will eventually become part of the CPEC.

One town along the route that caught my attention was Shahrag. Literally the jugular vein, miners had struck a rich vein of coal deposits here. Coal is still excavated in commercial quantities. One of my maternal uncles was born here. I remember from my maternal grandfather’s autobiography that the place was infested by scorpions. Next of course was the famous Chaapar Rift. The pillars of the bridge and the mouth of the tunnel are visible from the dirt track below.

Short of Harnai, an arch over the road welcomes the traveller to Harnai town. On the right hand side is a hotel much favoured by truckers. We stopped and drank some delicious piala chai and resolved to have our lunch there before leaving. The aroma of lamb meat and tandoori naans wafted in the air whetted our appetite. A stream of clear water flowed next to the hotel that added to the idyllic look and the timelessness of the place.

Soon upon entering the town is the the railway station, now sadly bearing a deserted look. A new building stands half done. An ugly structure has replaced the earlier more traditional colonial architecture that typifies railway station buildings all over Pakistan. More painful was the fact that the project had been abandoned by the new government (after sixteen months in power, not so new actually). The station master was missing and his office was boarded up and locked, so I could not check the records to find any mention of my grandfather Malik Muhammad Din (I’m really not sure if the title Malik was entered in the official records). The railway huts were in various states of dilapidation and decay. In one of the still functional rooms, a Sindhi from Sindh had taken up residence. He now sells chickpeas in the streets of the town and earns enough money to send back to his family. I’m sure he uses technology for money transfer, probably easy paisa.

I tried to imagine, which particular railway hut my father was born in. Who delivered the child? Was there a midwife? How did my grandfather inform his family in his native village Maira Akku, near Golra, now next to the federal capital? Did he send a message on the railway telegraph system to Golra junction, asking one of his colleagues, did he write a letter home and was a few years later that his parents saw his parents saw his offspring(s)? Where in Balochistan was his brother in law, the railway doctor? Did he come see his sister and his new born nephews? Did he travel by train? Was it already hot by the end of April in Harnai? What arrangements did my grandfather had to keep his wife and son cool?   A host of questions came rushing to my mind. I had no answer. Perhaps if I had a time machine, I could have travelled back in time to see how the young family was coping with the arrival of their first son, so far away from home in the wilderness of Balochistan.

The town was dusty and had narrow streets like any other small town in Pakistan. We turned back and had our meal (a really tasty one of typical Baloch meat dishes), offered our noon prayers and drove back. Another cup of tea and prayers in Bostan reclining against bolsters lying on the floor and then past Kuchlak, a town that still looks more like an Afghan with tribesmen wrapped up in blankets looking every bit the Taliban that dropped the kidnapped son of the Governor Salman Taseer (he who was assassinated by one his body guard for sympathizing with Asia Bibi) next to Al Saleem Hotel. As a parting gift, they left the Governor son with enough money to buy roast from Saleem Hotel and make a telephone call from the kiosk next to the hotel to his home in Lahore. This hotel now capitalizes on its notoriety and does brisk business.

As we entered Quetta, a setting sun was throwing its light on the surrounding mountains. A host of thoughts struck me: Would I ever be able to go back to Harnai again? I wondered. I once thought of establishing a school library in Harnai and Mastung (my mother’s birthplace). Perhaps I’ll donate some books to the FC School that I saw near the railway station. Would the children read books? I’m told that reading has gone out of fashion, in the age of the Internet. Perhaps someone will read this blog and may be somebody in the government may consider reopening the Sibbi-Harnai railway line?  May be the glory of the railways will be restored?

 

 

 


Timing is critical

al-Baghdadi-crop-2Timing of an event can have strategic effects!

Consider this: On 28 October President Trump tweeted that Abu Bakar Al Bagdadi, the shadowy caliph of the so-called Islamic State (IS) has killed himself. In his gleeful Trump described Baghdadi running weeping and whining into a dead end tunnel before blowing himself up. Three of his children also died with him. Special Operation Forces and a dog of their unit were credited for the kill in the remote village of Barisa. A person close to Baghdadi had ratted upon him and is likely to receive a bounty of US dollars twenty five million and a relocation for him and his family to a safer location. Like Osama bin Laden (OBL), Baghdadi was quickly buried at sea. A few days later IS confirmed that their leader had been killed and announced his replacement – a person calling himself Abu Ibrahim Al Hashmi Qureishi.  At the height of his power Baghdadi had ruled wide swathes in Iraq and Syria. He controlled oilfields and generated enough revenues to issue his own currency. It is interesting to note that the killing of Baghdadi came at an important juncture. Trump is up for re-election and is also facing impeachment charges for influencing the President of Ukraine to open corruption proceedings against Hunter Biden, the son of his political rival former Vice President Joe Biden.

On May 2, 2011, OBL the chief of Al Qaeda was eliminated in the vicinity of Pakistan Military Academy in the town of Kakul in Abottabad. The bold special operations mission deep into Pakistani territory left the national authorities red faced. They were taken by surprise. Leon Panetta – the director CIA – gloated “Pakistanis were either incompetent or complacent.” Pakistanis may have been collaborating with the Americans but their strategic ally did not consider it necessary to share the timing of the raid. There was a reason for utmost secrecy for the Obama administration. The president was up for re-elections and failure was a risk he could ill afford. Arguably Carter had lost his re-election operation in the botched operation to rescue the hostages from their embassy in Tehran. Pictures were flashed of a somber looking Obama – the commander in chief – sitting in the command post in an unnamed location intently watching the live streaming feeds of the operation to kill the elusive OBL in far off Pakistan. Obama’s approval ratings soared and he was re-elected. Whether Trump can repeat Obama’s feat is yet to be seen.

Two killings of high value targets (HVT), as the American are won’t to call high profile objectives, have also adversely affected Pakistan. In the first case the Afghan peace talks were sabotaged and the next one indicated a clear Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban. In July 2015, as serious negotiations were under way with the representatives of the Taliban in Murree, the hill resort near the Pakistani capital Islamabad, information was leaked that Mullah Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban was dead. He had been dead since April 2013. The news was broken by Afghan intelligence agency – the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The aim was disrupt the talk and in this they were successful. The negotiations that were poised meaningfully were suspended and the Taliban delegation left immediately.

Mullah Omar was replaced by Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Mansoor was killed in an American drone strike on 29 July 2015, while travelling through Ahmed Wal in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Pakistan got a lot of bad press and Mansoor’s gory death was taken as smoking gun evidence against it.

Americans have also created situations leading to the executions of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president in Egypt was removed through street protests in 2013, most likely sponsored by agencies and governments opposed to the Muslim brotherhood. He had barely been in power for a little over a year. He died of a heart attack in  a court hearing in June this year. He had been prison ever since his removal nearly six years ago. These deaths have compounded unrest in the Middle East. Timing has been critical. ME has to be kept on the boil for those with vested interests.

 


Post Conflict Rehabilitation in North Waziristan and the Role of Pakistan Army

North Waziristan, now a district of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa is a wildly beautiful place. It had recently been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A rugged place, this had come to be dominated by the Taliban. It took enormous resources of the state to wrest it back and restore its writ. I visited the area as part of a university research team to find out how the post rehabilitation was taking place on the ground.

We left Islamabad, one muggy August morning – a little late in leaving because of administrative snags. The journey was uneventful. From Bannu we were given a military escort and it was dusk, when we crossed Saidgai check post and it was nearly dark by the time we entered Mir Ali Cantonment. For me this place has special nostalgic value. I trained here for my ISSB physical test in 1974. An uncle of mine was commandant of the Tochi Scouts training centre located here. The training centre is still there. It is now part of Frontier Corps KP (South). The existing facility had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed by the militants. An army brigade headquarter is now based in Mir Ali. We had a fruitful discussion with brigade commander on the dinner table of he views, about the situation and what tactics and strategies are being adopted to bring back normality. The next morning, we visited Golden Arrow Army Public School (GAAPS) in Mir Ali. This wonderful new building and a dedicated staff indicated Pakistan Army’s resolve to rebuild the lives of the people, particularly the younger generation.

From our early morning visit to the school, we moved to Boya to see the copper mines. En route we stopped at Gardai, where my unit was deployed on the eve of independence. An old fort is still there and commemorates the fact that Ayub Khan as a young officer served here. We also utilized the short break to visit a local government school and meet the teachers and students. The teachers were hospitable in the tribal tradition and the students knew their lessons. Boya, our destination has been a known site for copper exploration for a very long time. The locals had been extracting raw ore and selling it in the open market as far away as the Hatar industrial state. Now a copper plant has been established here under the supervision of Frontier Works Organization (FWO). A formula has been devised to plough back 50 per cent of the earning for the welfare of the local people. A team of competent engineers and workers are overseeing the entire project.  The heavy transport and machinery has been borrowed from the locals thus fueling the local economy. At Boya fort one could see the hulks of vehicles destroyed in IED attacks. Beyond is Khar Qamar, scene of one of the worst ambush sites and scene of an unsavory demonstration. On our return we visited an orphanage in Mir Ali being run by Pakistan Sweet Homes. Orphans are a sad reality of this war ravaged area. But the spirit of the orphans was uplifting. They sang patriotic songs, celebrated the birthday of a young peer of theirs. After the celebrations we played an even more spirited game of football.

The next day, we visited Razmak, a hill town at the height of over 7000 feet. Razmak had been a British outpost to control restive tribes on both sides of the Shora Alqad. There is a beautiful scouts’ mess here and a cadet college in Razmak. The operations of the college were disrupted twice in the past but normal activity has resumed here for the past few years. The people of Razmak refused to be taken over by the insurgents. They had been the greatest beneficiary of the fruits of education through the cadet college, even though the war did effect it as well. The current GOC is an alumnus of Cadet College Razmak.

After over nighting in Razmak, our next step was Alexandra Fort on our way back. It was captured by 3 Gorkha Regiment (Princess Alexandra’s Own) in 1922. The piquet is named after Alexandra and provides a very nice panoramic view of the area. A PTV booster is also located here. There are plans in pipeline to install a chairlift for tourism.

Our next stop was Miranshah, another British outpost from the days of the imperial Great Game. Miranshah is a fort and the HQs of Tochi Scouts (established circa 1904). The British had deployed aircraft squadrons within the fort from 1922. In 1928, the famous spy TE Lawrence served here masquerading as Leading Aircraftman TE Shaw. The PAF maintained its presence here till 1961 for operations against Faqir of Ipi, who wanted Waziristan to join Afghanistan. The Faqir died in 1960 and with him ended a saga. A monument for the PAF squadrons deployed in Razmak Fort stands next to the runway. My late father served here in 1950.

Pakistan Army has done a wonderful job of reviving Miranshah. The bazars have been reconstructed and a modern state of the art hospital is fully operational. The Medical Superintendent gave us a detailed briefing. His worry was power outage that affects the operations of this facility. During our stay in Miranshah, we were also able to meet some former militants and obtain their views about the future. The Army is doing its best to engage all strata of the society, including the Maliks (the tribal elders), and the old as well as the young generation. The new civil administration, the judicial system and the police services (comprising the former khasadars and levies) are at the moment struggling to establish their presence.

Our last stop the next day was Ghulam Khan border-post. The commandant of Tochi Scouts gave us a thorough briefing from a vantage point and indicated the fencing activity and the series of forts on the crest line to guard and manage the border and a new border terminal to regulate the trade.

After a week long hectic and often intense study tour, we moved back to civilization. As we traveled under military escort and saw the reassuring sight of soldiers patrolling the roads and civilian traffic moving peacefully past check posts without any undue interference. Soon In Shaa Allah, the Army will go back and the civil administration will take over. On the way back what caught my attention were endless date orchards in Khajoori. It is quality date producing area and the fruit grown here is much sought after. Before we entered Bannu, we saw one last remnant of conflict – IDP camp in Baka Khel. Once these internally displaced people go back, true peace will return to Waziristan. I’m sure this day will be soon.

Long live Pakistan.

 

 


Kashmir Post 370

The mandatory mourning over the repealing of Articles 370 and 35 A can last a few day, a week or may be a month depending on the degree of sympathy that one has with the Kashmir cause and the Kashmiris. It seems that ultimately become another scar on the much bruised national psyche. It will continue to remind the nation of its travails in times of despair and dismay but nothing more will come out of it. The show of domestic moral support may end by the 5th of September i.e. a month from the day that the announcement was made to absorb the disputed territory formally into the Indian Union. It may get a momentary boost on the 6th of September that being the defence day of Pakistan. Patriotic fervour thus generated may keep the feeling alive for a few more days. The state TV and radio will continue showing video and audio feeds of the sufferings of the Kashmiris forever but interest will certainly subside. The TV anchors will speak less of it over time and the government even lesser. People will become inured and will go about their businesses with numbed senses. The delayed diplomatic offensive will likely peter down, if efforts to host a special session of the OIC does not materialise and moving a motion at the UN Generally Assembly or the Security Council may also not take place because of lack of support. There will be no meaningful third party mediation or arbitration by an honest broker. The world will advise the two nations not to disturb the regional peace and find an amicable solution bilaterally, notwithstanding the fact that India is unwilling to engage in any kind of direct talks. The sad happening of Kashmir being forcibly made part of India will be relegated to the back pages of the newspapers and the headlines will be replaced by another crisis or tragedy. The national and international attention span in this digital age is very short indeed. As the breast beating subsides over what is considered another insult and perfidy by arch enemy India, it is time to ponder why it happened and what we need to do in the future.

The doing away with Articles 370 and 35 A has been on the card for a long time. The Indian leaders of all shapes and hues have been calling Kashmir their country’s atoot ang (unbreakable part) for ages. Modi hasn’t helped matters. When he got elected as the prime minister for the first time in 2015, he tried his level best to get 44 plus votes in the state assembly. Such a majority would have given the legal leverage to get the approval of the majority of the state legislature to repeal the irritating clauses of the Indian constitution that gave the only Muslim majority state a special status and flag and protection from others buying properties on the peace of land referred to as heaven on earth. What Modi couldn’t do after the last elections, was fairly simple to do after his re-election. Since the Assembly had been suspended and there was no chief minister, all he needed to was to sign a presidential order to be announced by his sidekick Amit Shah, ending the special status and carving up the state into two union territories, one of Ladakh without a legislature i.e. reporting directly and the other of Jammu and Kashmir, with a legislature. Without going into the actual disputed status of Kashmir, which is recognized by the United Nations, it is quite clear that India had made Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh with its substantial Muslim population in Kargil, their own territory. Therefore, this legal sleight of the hand will not much will change. The repression on those demanding azadi (liberation) and human rights violations will continue unabated. Modi had made his intentions quite clear, when he moved in 35000 more troops in the occupied territory and authorities cancelled the Amarnath Yatra and issued advisories to tourists and workers from outside Kashmir. From now on, he will suppress the calls for liberation ruthlessly. The world by and large hasn’t spoken against it and Pakistan seems hopelessly alone in this moment, when it needs help the most. Pakistan has itself to blame for its present state of affairs, it is heavily under debt and its economy shows no signs of improvement in the near future and the threat of FATF continues to hang over its neck like the sword of Damocles. The law and order situation is not as bad as it was a few years ago but an occasional bomb blast still breaks the peace. Soldiers fighting the terrorists still get killed by random IEDs in the erstwhile tribal areas and Balochistan and this usually happens in tandem with ceasefire violations along the LOC.

Things are bad but all is not lost. Current and future leaders need to put their house in order. The focus should be on long term objectives. There should be no knee jerk reactions. The policy should be to place national interest before party or personal interest. Pakistan has a host of domestic problems that need to be tackled on emergency basis. The galloping population needs to be controlled. Investment should be made on the increasingly young human resource. They should be provided an education commensurate with market requirements and jobs should be created for the young people. Brain drain should stop. Corruption must be eradicated with across the board accountability. The system of justice needs a massive overhaul. Police should be re-configured to provide protection to the people and not be tool for terror and extortion. The health system should be revamped. Polio program needs to be made more effective. The massive incidence of HIV AIDS in Sindh needs to be arrested. Safe water should be made available for drinking purposes and more for agriculture and producing electricity.

The list of domestic problems is endless but in all this Kashmir should also find a place.  There should be a long term plan for Kashmir. We should be very clear what do we want. A Kashmir that is part of Pakistan or an independent Kashmir or we are willing to live with the status quo? If there are any other choices they should be explored. No stone should be left unturned to build a national consensus on this plan. The hopes and aspirations of the Kashmiris (in occupied territories as well as those living in Pakistan and abroad) must be made part of this plan. Once a plan is in place, all resources of the state should be used to achieve this ultimate goal. Timelines must be set to monitor the progress of this strategy. A fulltime focal person with direct access to the head of the state should oversee this program and should be laterally in contact with all ministries for the fulfilment of this plan.

The mourning once it is over should be followed by real action. Good preparation, hard work and diligence will definitely yield positive results.

 


Prague: A quaint old European city

charles bridgePrag/Prague/Praha is a quaint old European city that can cast a spell on you. Urdu poet laureate Ibne Insha expressed his feeling of Prague enchantment in a poem of his: Ya shab ki siar Praha ho, jahan nazrain their thitki hoon, jahan dil ka kanta atka ho (allowing for a bit of artistic license it can loosely be translated as follows: “The evening walk in Prague can bewitch and captivate you”). Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic. It has been the part of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Austro Hungarian empire. In 1918, after the First World War, it became the Republic of Czechoslovakia. It was occupied by Germany during the Second World War and after the War it was in the the Soviet zone of influence. After the fall of Soviet Union, it broke into the Czech and Slovak republic. With its historic castles, churches, well laid out gardens and cobble stoned streets It is now a very sought after touristic destination. The term bohemian lifestyle comes from this place. The alternate life style that it symbolizes is from the Roma, who are said to have come from this place. Although I rather believe in the theory that the dark skinned migrated to Europe from Rajasthan in the hoary past.

It was dark by the time we reached Prague. The June day was hot. Our train from Berlin Hauptbahnhoff had been cancelled, a rare happening in clockwork perfect Germany. So we traveled by Regiojet bus. The travel was uneventful. The bus had good on board entertainment system. In the four hours journey, I saw a movie based on one of favorite TV programs Man from Uncle. The stewardess offered us cappuccino coffee and the good thing was that it was on the house. The internet was working so you can check up on the social media..

The bus stop at eleven was closed and so were the money exchange. The only place open was a convenience store being run by a young Bengali boy. He changed us money at a slightly unfavorable rate of 24 Czech Korunas for one Euros. For further help he asked a to the Sikh boy, who had just entered the store. I forgave him for making money off us because Gagan was really helpful and hailed us an uber taxi. It is going to cost you 177 korunas to your hotel, we were told. The driver wanted us to pay 200 korunas but we stuck our ground and paid according to the meter and won the first round. Tourist advice was that taxi drivers in Czech Republic can be highhanded. The hotel Jeleni Drivus (Jeleni means moat in Czech) was nice and the receptionist Rustam from Kazakhstan was helpful. He gave us two coupons for beer downtown cafe associated with their hotel. We were able to exchange the coupons for two cups of coffee. The first night that we spent was in a room looking out to the tram station just next to the hotel. Brussnice (it sounded like that) was a busy station and the wife had a hard time sleeping. Next day we got the room changed the one overlooking the castle. Better view and better sleep. The breakfast was good and plentiful and was enough for us for daylong tourism.

The Czech language is woefully short of vowels, so it is different to pronounce their words. Prague has a multi ethnic society. Until the Second World War, it had three distinct populations namely the Czech, the Germans and the Jews. Many Jews were sent to their deaths in the anti-Semitic purges made by Hitler. After the War Germans were forcibly evicted from Czechoslovakia. The Jews spoke German and even had their own variant the Yiddish language. One famous German speaking Jew from Prague was Franz Kafka. A troubled man Kafka had an unhappy childhood and youth. Like Urdu short story Manto (another troubled and misunderstood man), Kafka died in his early forties. I confess I’ve always found Kafka difficult to comprehend. Kafkaesque for me  is something dark and foreboding and Freudian. Sigmund Freud as we know was n Austrian Jew known to us for his method of psychoanalysis. There is a figure of Freud hanging from a pole in Prague. A visit to Kafka’s museum was on my bucket list. Kafka museum is one of the many small and large museums that dot Prague. Someone said that Prague has the most museum per square kilometer than any other city. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this statement but Prague is a small city and if you have time, you’ll be able to see most of the museums in the city. The average admission price to these museums is about koruna 290 per adult. Adult citizens (over 65 can claim some rebate) The only other museum that I saw was the museum of communism. Interesting but a canned version of history. A much bigger and grander one is the national museum at the end of the Wenselas square in the newer part of the city.

Prague is a city than can be enjoyed through leisurely strolls. One is bound to come across most of the important landmarks on the must see list. There are many castles and towers but the Prague castle has to be seen to make you genuine tourist. Old steps takes you the Vltvala River and over the 14th century Charles Bridge (German: Karl Bruecke, Czech: Karluv Most). It’s quite a coincidence that Bosnians also call their bridges Most. There is the Stari Most or old bridge in Moststar. The Charles bridge has eleven arches and there is a statue on each abutment. The bridge is a busy place. Trinkets are being sold and artists are making a quick buck drawing caricatures. Some are not willing to work for the koruna. Beggars prostrate themselves with hands folded in supplication. Their caps lying in front of them for alms. Their dogs are also lying with them, sorry for the fate befallen on their masters. Boats full of tourists float past on an idyllic summer day.

Through the winding streets one comes across vendors selling Prague’s trademark Trdelink confectionery with ice cream stuffing. This chimney shaped bakery item came from Hungary via Romania and is now presented as the original cuisine of Prague. There are open air theaters in the evening and lot of cultural activity for those inclined towards such activity. Mozart had quite a following in Prague, when Prague was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. If you have interest in architecture, you can enjoy the famous barque style of construction. The astronomical clock is quite a sight and is full of tourists, when the clock strikes another hour and all the puppets come twirling out. Prague is also well-known for its puppets. A visit up the Petrin Tower is worth it. It was modelled after the Eifel Tower and was opened to public in 1891. A funicular tram brings you up to the hill. The original funicular had an interesting system of water balancing, in which the wagon on the top was filled with water to drag it down and pull up the wagon at the bottom. Water was released at the bottom, as the wagon on the top was filled with water to repeat he performance. A climb up the tower will again cost you at least three hundred korunas. The exhibition in the basement is for free. Prague has a very elaborate public transport system. The tickets can be bought from kiosks or machines at the bus/tram stops. Some trams have machines installed inside the wagons. Tram 22 takes you past all the historical sites or at least most of them.

We returned to Berlin by train by the fast ICE train. The top speed was 200 km. Our wagon was not hitched to the engine for operational reasons and the lady conductor accommodated us on the seats reserved for the invalid, expectant mothers or the really elderly. We had paid extra money for the seats and I guess we could have saved. The Internet was free and the trip was heavenly. To add more value to to the trip, there was a blonde German Sikh boy on the train with his girlfriend. He obviously didn’t have any reservation and was sitting on the floor next to the door. Gagan at the Prague bus stop had cut his hair. The only religious accouterments was his bangle. The German Sikh had long hair and a turban to cover his ‘kais.’ The bangle with Gurmukhi inscription was adorning his right wrist for good measure. Sat Sri Akal! Back in Berlin, there are more Turks than Germans. World has become a different place. More cosmopolitan and I hope a little more tolerant.


Berlin’s Downtown

alexander_platz_berlin“There is no downtown in Berlin,” said my architect son in law authoritatively. “True there are places like Unter den Linden, Bradenburger Tor, Potsdammer Platz and the Alexander Platz but there is no place like the typical European old city downtown,” he told me with someone, who is knowledgeable about cities and town planning. But despite this expert advice, I have given Alexander Platz the designation of Berlin’s downtown. It is a sheer delight to visit this town square. There is so much humanity and cultural activity in this place that it veritably pulsates as the heart of this old German city.

After two very hot days in Berlin, when the mercury had reached the uncharacteristic 34 degree Celsius in the first week of June, there were light showers in the late afternoon and light gusts of wind. Later in the evening the showers would turn into a torrential rain. As we emerged from the Ubahn station into the Alexander Platz the activity was subdued. There were no break dancers or jugglers. A lone drummer sat in front of the Galleria Kaufhaus and was giving an animated performance to a group of toddlers, who were gathered round him, watching him with earnest attention. A vigorous boy among the rapt audience (average age two years) was actually tapping his feet and swaying to the rhythm. The proud mothers were busy capturing the moment on their smartphones. Some amused passer byes threw coins in the hat of the musical mendicant without stopping. A few scavengers looked into the waste bins looking for glass bottles to claim Pfand (refund). Eureka, one seem to have found a priceless bottle.

Towards the left and beyond the train station, the Fernseh Turm (TV tower) rose up into the dark skies. Yellow trams clattered in and out of the station as commuters came out and climbed into these gleaming wagons. Past the C&A store and other malls, stood the clock tower. Another relic of the Cold War it gives accurate time across the world irrespective of the Western or Eastern sphere of influence. On the top of the tower planets revolved in their metallic orbits in infinite motions. On one side of the square the ugly fountains threw water into the air. School children carrying ruck sacks sat on the edges of the water tank surrounding the fountains.

Two Pakistani vendors stood in their appointed spots selling Soviet military caps, gas masks and other trinkets from the Cold War. They are always there. I mean the persons may change but it is always Pakistani salesman trying to make a living from the East-West conflict of the previous century. Suddenly a slight wind blew off the cap of one of the balding sellers, as he tried to settle a bargain with a Central Asian client trying out a Spetznaz (Soviet Special Forces) red beret. So as not to leave the business unfinished, he looked around for help as his hat drifted farther away. Out of a sense of loyalty to my countryman, I went after the cap and returned it to the gentleman, who could have been from Rawalpindi, Kharian or Gujrat or even Sialkot. “Shukria Bhaijan,” the grateful businessman acknowledged his thanks in a familiar Jehlumi accent.

The crowd moving around the square represented people from all over. Girls wearing smart hijab, form fitting jeans and designer sun glasses perched on the top of their scarves could have been anywhere else in the Middle East. Portly matrons in billowing dresses could be part of the Turkish diaspora living in Berlin. The city has the dubious distinction of being the second largest city of Turkey. Slant eyed South East Asians sat sipping coffee in wooden cabins or lighting up their cigarettes under the awning to cover themselves from the sudden increase in rain could have been from Vietnam or the Philippines or any other place. Berlin also boasts a little Vietnam. The Dong Xuan Center in Berlin has many warehouses belonging to one successful Vietnamese businessman.

Berlin is a vibrant city. It has rebuilt itself after the re-unification of Germany. Immigrants have made it good in this city giving it a distinctly metropolitan look that is most evident in Alexander Platz.