The other day, a young friend of mine introduced me to a man about my age. Very enthusiastically, he told him I was a travel writer. The gent, who had never read anything but Urdu newspapers, and for him writing was only what papers had, asked if I travelled from place to place gathering news for a paper?
No, said I, young Mikhail is such an incorrigible practical joker. “I am actually in the leather business.” And then I recalled the time I fed this line to another person many years ago. Entirely to my detriment, the man was quite in his cups and also knew someone in Germany in the leather business. He gave me his friend’s name and address and for the rest of the evening pestered me to contact him ASAP so that his friend could get first-class leather. The persistence of drunks is legendary.
Thereafter, I have never been a tanner but have tentatively masqueraded at different professions, always hoping the other person knew nothing of what I was pretending to be at that particular moment. Now, ‘travel writer’ is what no one seems to know in Pakistan, but I am averse to using the Urdu term safar nama nigar. The minute I utter these three words, I am at once likened to an Urdu writer who deceives undiscerning readers by pretending to be a travel writer, which he, by any stretch of the imagination, is not.
Meanwhile, I have become acquainted with the various terms people use for what I do for a living. I have been called a traveller writer, travelling writer and a writing traveller. In the beginning, I attempted to correct/educate folks about travel writing, but then I discovered we have the attention span of a goldfish (three seconds), as epitomised by our incumbent prime minister. Giving up, I resolved to put up with whatever came my way.
The policy I now follow is to say I am a retired government school teacher. And that works quite nicely: People feel sorry for me and I just love the look of pity on their faces.
Recently, on a train home from Jacobabad, I found myself in a cabin with five other men. The one about my age carried the day with his pointless banter about the various kinds of kebabs he had tried in Lebanon (the only foreign country he seemed to have visited) as well as across Pakistan. He had just begun to expound upon the number of times he had come down with food poisoning, when he fortunately segued to ask me what I did for a living. I say fortunately because from the way he was telling us the details of kebab-making and eating, I feared we would have been subjected to the sounds and smells of his bowel movement.
Engrossed as I was in Babar Ayaz’s book, I foolishly let slip that I was a writer, using the Urdu word likhari. Giving off his narration, the Kebab-Eater focused on me. What sort of writer, he asked. I fumbled for an appropriate line before saying I was a poor sort. This was easy because with my frayed collar, worn out photographer’s vest and tear in my work pants, I looked suitably down and out.
The man asked if I was an arzi navees — an application writer. Now, this was way better than being a writing traveller, which always conjures images of me on a bicycle with a typewriter secure on the rear carrier. Here was another picture: a skull-capped I outside a courthouse, sitting cross-legged on a tattered cotton khes folded four times, surrounded by my two tin boxes of various documents and the almighty ushtaam (stamp paper) and pen behind the ear, swam around my head. I decided that was what I was going to be in this incarnation in the train.
The man asked where I kept office and, finding myself in a situation similar to the tanner-with-the-drunk, I foolishly said Model Town courts in Lahore. And what did we have? He frequently came there for business! Assuring me of his patronage, he asked for my business card. I told him I was too poor to keep cards. His speaking look told me he ached to ask me how on earth could I afford the air-conditioned sleeper fare.
Thankfully, night had fallen and pretending to be tired, I lay down. The day was saved. But I think in future I will revert to being a writing traveller.