People & Society Persona

How Ayesha Mumtaz safeguards Lahore’s passion for food

Updated 22 Apr, 2016 12:29pm
Illustration by Zaka Bhatty
Illustration by Zaka Bhatty

At the sombre office of the Punjab Food Authority (PFA), in a tiny driveway, a child whacks a ball with a bat. Inside, a lone staffer sits by a door that reads “Director (Operations)”. “Madam Ayesha Mumtaz is usually in the field,” he says, and as much is obvious: she is not your usual desk warrior. The man by the door, her assistant, now sighs: “Ay Mussalmano, kyun har cheez mein milawat kartay ho?” (Why, O’ Muslims, must you adulterate everything?)

A strange statement to make: while tackling food adulteration is the main task of his department, one expects bureaucracy-speak over religious rhetoric. Yet all is made clear when his boss arrives and the office sweats in deep December. The ongoing campaign against food adulteration in Lahore is no ordinary government drive — this is a mission, and the messiah could well save our souls (or at least, our innards).

When Ferdinand II founded the Inquisition – to maintain Catholic orthodoxy over an uneasy Spain – desperadoes would roam among the converts, to purge the wicked and unclean. Pop culture turned it into a faceless, fathomless dread. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” goes the Monty Python comic saying.

But everyone expects the director of operations, who has inspected around 12,000 eateries in her first 187 days at the job, averaging 64 inspections a day. In 2015, her department became a whirlwind: it put up 27,174 improvement notices at eateries, sealed over 2,600 premises and made 384 arrests — the kind of thunder that shook even Lahore awake.

Yet there were few forecasts of Mumtaz’s success. A career civil servant since 2001, she landed in the unheard of PFA in June 2014. Armed with what she calls “zeal and zest,” she has since inspired adulation, envy and at least two impersonators.

Read more: Cash cows

How she did it is easy to understand — she does not discriminate. Targeting everyone from Gloria Jean’s Coffees to food stalls in Gawalmandi, she says, “I find it shameful that we distinguish between people in the application of law in this country, pushing the weakest to the wall.”

As for her work, she describes its three basic ingredients (if one can forgive the expression): God, humility and noble intentions. Unlike today’s public servants with their mile-long motorcades, Mumtaz is content with her sparse office and its blank walls. “Kaanay ho toh kisi ki ankh mein ankh nahin daal ke dekh saktay” (If one is guilty, one cannot face anyone), she says. “One must have the audacity to confront these people. I won’t succumb to pressure … it is not in my dictionary. When people with connections show me their cards, I say the bigger the card the greater the snubbing.”

As Mumtaz smashes old idols, she also shatters older conventions: as a female officer in the field from dusk to dawn, as a food safety boss who has captured the public imagination and a civil servant improving the lives of citizens.

In a way, Mumtaz is the Great Incorruptible, to plagiarise a title from the book of French revolutionary turned dictator, Robespierre. And the Terror of Ayesha Mumtaz, spoofed in the news and serialised in text messages, is only too real. “Northern Lahore has a culture of its own,” she says. Women who sighted her in the midst of her raids began beating themselves and crying, “Haye marr gaye, lutt gaye” (Oh, we are done in, we are robbed).

This is to be expected: the PFA often finds itself in the heart of Lahore, a city with food in its heart. During the recent urs, the death anniversary of the beloved Data Ganj Bakhsh, her team fenced off the area around the saint’s mausoleum to ward off the likelihood of food manufacturers escaping. As the officials moved to seal an eatery named Pakwan Centre, an elderly citizen came out crying, “Hang me, why won’t you hang me and be done with it?” The man’s cries caught on and the locals gathered. Interest gave way to anger, and the crowd gave way to a mob, hooting for their hero. “Try shutting it down,” they jeered. The director and her food safety inspectors were surrounded.

Mumtaz did not fear them — for, she tells me, she fears only God. “Any jackals that think they are lions, step forward,” she called out. The crowd shrank, shrivelled and died. Pakwan Centre was sealed. Besides her belief in the divine, experience has helped: as the first female district officer at Lari Adda, the famous bus stop in Lahore, Mumtaz faced off the trucker mafia. Her moral rage at any and all mafias borders on the Robert Kennedy-esque. And like Kennedy, the doomed American attorney general, she refuses to relent “until the mafia realises it is over for them.”

But Mumtaz has had to contend with swanky lobbies first: the Lahore Restaurant Association (LRA) has moved the Lahore High Court (LHC) against her, staying her hand from uploading photos of their premises — the ones that have shocked the country. “We respect the court, so we are not uploading any photos, of the petitioners or otherwise,” she says, referring to a tableau of blood, grime and faecal matter that often features in these photos. “So now they think, let us keep delaying the case until the madam leaves.”

Mumtaz is also amused by their plea; that their reputations have been savaged. “They never challenged the actual fact of those pictures, that they were false or mala fide. Instead what is paining them is that we uploaded them in the first place; filth that could be seen by the naked eye. [This plea] is an indirect admission [of guilt].”

Read more: Person of the Year 2015

Much younger than our vintage-era babus (those that employ human keyboards on government salaries), Mumtaz understands connectivity and is hampered by its loss. In her book, judgment is rapid: the Almighty doth not give stay orders. “There are no lawyers in the Hereafter,” she says. “God decides then and there.” As for the petitioners against her, her puritan streak shines through. “When I see their faces, my blood curdles,” she says. “Who do they think they are representative of? Certainly not Lahore. They represent the same four places on M M Alam (Road). That is where they start and end…posh places think they are above the law.”

Feeling the heat of her fury, the LRA has tried to add more ammunition to its armoury: that the restaurant boys are all honourable taxpayers, and that the director is no food technologist. When challenged, Mumtaz again acts contrary to our officialdom; she does not parry criticism as much as she bulldozes it. “They don’t do us any favours,” she says. As to her qualification, she acts solely in her administrative capacity. “Is the secretary health a heart surgeon? No, he is looking at service structures and system transfers.”

Nor does she sally forth without trained food inspectors in tow.

During an iftar raid at a famous coffee chain (her team is as likely to storm in at midnight as it is at high noon), Mumtaz discovered expired syrup bottles from 2012. The excuse: to display what bottles from the previous years looked like. “I thought this was a coffee shop,” she said, “but you are selling historical artefacts.”

She has a dark sense of humour about her raids. “I tell myself I am not in the [Punjab] Food Authority, I am in the National Geographic,” she says. During one reported inspection, she asked the management of an eatery whether it used the deep freezer to bury the dead.

Much of her blitz is courtesy the (otherwise nervy) Punjab government: Mumtaz has carte blanche, with “not a single phone call” of intervention from the famously food-centric Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN).

Yet whatever the Raiwind Rulebook says, could this become another cliché of individual over institution? If one hears and believes Mumtaz, her effort is institutional: the PFA is mulling expansion in all directions, drawing up second shifts, divisional task forces and branching out into the rest of the province. It has discarded thousands of litres of bad milk, ceased the en masse slaughter of sick animals and trampled on the don’t-ask-don’t-tell pact between the lazy foodie and the lax restaurateur.

Their leader bears witness – rats in the urinals, roaches in the chillers, shaving kits in the kitchen – and she points to matters societal: a broader culture of bad hygiene got us where we are. From Lohari Gate to Akbari Mandi, a swathe of the Old Lahore famous for its wholesale markets and traditional cuisine, “is where the resistance [to food inspections] is,” she says. “You show up there and all of a sudden there are locks on all the gates and everyone disappears … they say their fathers’ fathers did it, and so should they.”

But even as Mumtaz smashes old idols, she also shatters older conventions: as a female officer in the field from dusk to dawn, as a food safety boss who has captured the public imagination, and as that rarest of unicorns, a civil servant improving the lives of our citizens. More than any government functionary in the outgoing year, Mumtaz restored the people’s faith in service delivery. Thus her nomination for the Herald Person of the Year for 2015; hence her status as a one-woman wrecking ball.

Read more: What's on my plate

Asked whether protecting the culinary concerns of 100 million people was overwhelming, she smiles. “I feel thrilled.” This seems like coming from an old world zealot but that may be missing the wider picture. Part of the reverence Mumtaz inspires is because she stands at the intersection of all that Lahore is about: food and politics, in that order. And to hear a famous playwright describe the latter, they may be one and the same: “This is gastric juices churning, this is enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movement and blood-red meat — this stinks, this is politics … the game of being alive.”

And by exposing the game’s rotten underbelly, Mumtaz may be bringing Lahore back to a cleaner life one raid at a time.

This was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue as part of Herald Person of the Year section. To read more subscribe to Herald in print.