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Portrait of Jinnah

When a Pakistani friend won a promotion to a powerful job in Peshawar I went to congratulate him on his new sinecure. He is a cultivated man with a beautiful home from the British colonial era and tentacles all across Pakistan’s tormented tribal region, where he once served as a political agent – the all-purpose government official who is supposed to act as lord and regent over the fractious tribes and the inexorably rising tide of the Taliban.

As always, my friend wore a starched and pressed white shalwar kameez. While we talked he carefully untied the green ribbons on stacks of well-worn cardboard folders, signed the government papers stacked inside with a fountain pen, and then tossed the retied folders on to the floor. Every half-hour, a clerk appeared and carried away the piles of completed paperwork.

Government offices are important symbols in Pakistan – size, furniture, scope of retinue. This one was handsome, a large room set off a broad veranda in the ersatz Moghul-era quadrangle of pink stucco. A white mantelpiece signalled the dignity of the office holder. Above it hung a portrait, more a sketch in dingy brown, of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The face was gaunt and elderly – an aquiline nose, sunken cheeks, unforgiving mouth. A peaked cap high off his forehead and a plain coat buttoned to the neck with a high collar gave the aura of a religious man. The picture reminded me of the first image I had ever seen of Jinnah: a mysterious, dark oil painting covered with glass hung high on a wall of the formal reception room at the Pakistani High Commission in London.

A few months later I returned to see my friend. Same signing of documents, same clerk, different portrait above the mantel. The new visage showed a serious young man with a full head of dark hair, an Edwardian white shirt, black jacket and tie, alert dark eyes. What happened? I asked.

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