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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2007, 17:31 GMT
Of ministers and old memories

The BBC Urdu service's Masud Alam continues his reflections on returning to live in Pakistan after an absence of 15 years.

bush house
Bush House - where Urdu journalists tear each other apart

For every BBC Urdu service programme broadcast from Bush House in London, there are at least two meetings: a planning discussion before, and a debrief after.

The first meeting is pretty sober and unremarkable, except on occasions like the Eid eve when the programme makers toss around creative ideas to treat the moon-sighting controversy in a way different to previous years.

The fun is in the post-programme meet where the whole team gets together to point out what is misleadingly termed 'areas for improvement'. It's an open invitation to find faults and be as mean and menacing as one's disposition and circumstances allow.

But it always starts with an innocuous comment or two, like: "It was an excellent programme, all major stories were well covered, and the sports segment was very lively. However..." - and that's where the meaty stuff comes out.

Harmless mispronunciations, the tiniest of fluffs, technical blemishes, ambiguous editorial decisions, choice and order of stories, time management - nothing escapes the notice of an enthusiastic critic.

In the stars

I used to enjoy these sessions and relish the opportunity to be the critic. Fault-finding comes naturally to me.

I made only one resolution: to look hard for the positive side of things

Show me something, or someone, and I'll tell you what's wrong with them. When I can't find someone or something to criticise, I take myself to task. I do it all the time and I keep getting better at it.

I read somewhere that it's one of the qualities associated with people born under my zodiac sign. Yes that'd be Virgo, thank you.

Initially whenever I was asked to review a programme, I'd get so excited that I skipped the niceties and jumped straight into the 'post-however' part of it.

That didn't make me terribly popular with my colleagues. Going by the readers' response to my 'First Impressions of Islamabad', things haven't changed much.

This New Year's Eve I made only one resolution: to look hard for the positive side of things. Find something so utterly good that a seasoned nit-picker like me can't have a go at it.

Free condoms?

I didn't have to look very hard though. Good things are happening all around me.

For one, Islamabad is about to have a mass transit system. Two air-conditioned, low-emission buses have started plying the Rawalpindi-Islamabad route that is used by 100,000 commuters every day, and the fleet is expected to grow, says a news item.

Masud Alam
I have found a story with no villains in it

Well done. But I've yet to see the buses on the road. The only one I've seen is in a picture accompanying the newspaper story.

Then the environment minister announced, with the usual ministerial fanfare, that 2007 is dedicated to 'Green Pakistan' movement which will see the plantation of so many millions of saplings.

A noble ambition indeed! Only, this minister's portfolio has been shuffled twice in four years and that couldn't be because he was doing awfully well. He could be a minister for mountains next year, making an equally grand announcement about erecting another range of Himalayas.

And here is the heart-stopper: Contraceptives are to be distributed free of cost at places of work in both the public and private sector.

The population welfare minister (yes there's a ministry charged with the welfare of the population!) said the programme is aimed at encouraging the male workforce to adopt small family norms.

But if reducing the number of babies is the objective, then why disrupt the office routine instead of reaching people in their homes where I suspect most babies are made, or attempt thereof!

Biker's breakdown

My friend Bittu took a trip to Rawalpindi - Islamabad's twin city - and came back with tears in his eyes and a glowing story to tell.

Bittu Bikewala - deeply moved by a Muslim fundamentalist

Bittu Bikewala is a professional biker from the Indian capital, Delhi. He has been touring Pakistan with his cartoonist-turned-social activist friend Sharad Sharma, taking comics to the grassroots and giving masses the weapon of doodling to fight societal ills.

Bittu is clean shaven, doesn't sport a turban, and has never touched alcohol. But he identifies himself as a Sikh.

His late father used to reminisce a lot about the house in Rawalpindi he grew up in, and forced to vacate after Partition.

Bittu wanted to see his ancestral home not just to satisfy his own nostalgic urge; he wished to see and feel it on behalf of his late father too.

Enemy country

After conducting a comics exhibition in Islamabad, Bittu and Sharad took off for Rawalpindi.

The only clues to the whereabouts of the house Bittu could gather from older relatives were: Raja Bazaar, Chitti Hattian, and the name of Bittu's grandfather, Sant Ram, who had a big business producing and selling local whisky.

They started in the vicinity of Raja Bazaar in the heart of the old city. The first person who offered to help them stayed with them all day. He was a supporter of the hardline Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party.

Bittu can't get over the irony: "There are stereotypes about fundamentalist Muslims in India too. And here's one of them, spending his whole day helping a Sikh and a Hindu from the enemy country!"

Bittu's ancestral home
The home of Bittu's ancestors is surrounded by shops

Eventually they ran into an octogenarian who seemed to know everything about the locality and everyone who lived there in more than half a century. His eyes lit up with recognition at the mention of the grandfather's business.

Bittu put him onto an equally old relative in Delhi over the phone, and the cross-border conversation jogged memories on both ends.

The old man then took them straight to the house. The Hindu mantra 'Om' still etched above the entrance confirmed this was indeed the house Sant Ram built, and where Bittu's father grew up.

Apparently he was fond of white and painted his home and shops the same colour, thus giving the locality its name - chitti hattian means white shops - that is still in use.

The current owner of the house welcomed the two strangers like long-lost relations. He took them around to see every inch of the house, introduced them to his family, insisted that they couldn't leave without having dinner, and kept repeating that Bittu and his family were welcome to visit the house any time and for as long as they wish.

It was indeed a touching moment for everyone witnessing the scene.

But for Bittu it was an emotional rollercoaster. The candour and fondness with which local residents embraced him and his cause (searching for the ancestral home) and genuinely warm sentiments expressed by the family residing in that house, tipped his composure and he started sobbing.

He was crying two days later while narrating the experience to me.

And I have found a story with no villains in it.

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