Pakistan - Yaqoob and Musaleem, by Peter Liver (1987)

The BA manager’s house in Karachi was fairly new, hardly more than ten years old, but was run by old men. Mohammed the chowkidar or night watchman, Neemat the sweeper, and Yaqoob the cook were all over sixty. Musaleem, the bearer, must have been over ninety. These last two remain particularly in my mind.

Musaleem was a hill man from Swat in the far North West. He had joined the Indian army of the Raj as a syce or groom when he was a teenager, losing an eye to a thorn bush in some northwest frontier skirmish.

Mornings started with his curt “Bed tea, sahib”, as he delivered his strong reddish brown brew. He remained remarkably agile and fit. One night I left the kitchen door bolted on the inside and was woken by Musaleem appearing at the first floor bedroom window, having reached the ledge after an epic climb round the house. He was apologetic that he couldn’t bring the tea with him.

A devout man, Musaleem was always ready with a benediction. They did not always come out quite right in English. Once when I was leaving for Lahore with my wife, he bade her farewell with a cheery “God help you, memsahib!”

Party nights saw him dressed smartly in his white tunic with medals, turban with starched puggaree sticking up like a fan at the back, and new henna in his moustache.

He guarded the Quetta gin and Muree beer, fiercely disinclined to serve it even to the Christian local staff. The booze cupboard key was safe with him.

We were much intrigued by the many letters of reference or chitties he had collected over the years and that one of my predecessors had put in a plastic file for him. It contained a cavalcade of officers and imperial officials, giving way later to consuls and businessmen. They had all benefited from his loyal service and had written so in handsome terms.

Musaleem told my wife that one of these officers was somewhat slow on parade after heavy nights in the mess. The solution? “Ice down the pyjamas, memsahib.”

Musaleem argued with, but was aided by, Yaqoob the cook. Yaqoob was not a hill man but was an Ismaili from Delhi. He had been taught by Irish nuns and had a shaky hold on the quantities required while cooking for a small household rather than a convent. My wife came upon him one Christmas up to his elbows in cake mix, well on the way to producing a cake that would have done a convent proud, with some left over for the poor.

Usually Yaqoob was a man of few words in either English or Urdu, but had eyes that often sparkled with amusement. On one occasion a number of local beauties, who had been interviewed for cabin crew posts, were brought up to the house in the BA minibus. As they spilled out on the drive chattering and laughing in their brightly coloured shalwar kameeze, Yaqoob clapped his hands in delight and, suddenly voluble, said “Look at that. Just like opening a cage of tropical birds.”

I shall not forget his amazement when my wife brought back from the UK some lemon scented plastic bags for the swing bin. How could anyone use such things for rubbish? He washed and dried them carefully after use and no doubt took them home for more honoured usage.

It reminds me of the memsahib who came home to see the cook straining the soup through her husband’s socks. “Oh don’t worry, memsahib,” he cried, “They are not his clean ones!”

I often think of those old men whose problems became my problems but who gave back in more than full measure a loyalty that solved so many of my own.

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