*Recounted “off-the record” by Engineer Sajid to our intrepid correspondent, Farhan Faltoo.
ONE HOUR TO PARLIAMENTARY ADDRESS:
The cold, spartan laboratory beeped and thrummed with electricity and carried the faint odor of shaving foam.
In the middle of its creamy, quarry-tiled floor arrayed a row of slim thermoplastic chassis the shade of cotton with ribbed tubes sticking out their chest valves. Mounted atop tangerine-sized wheels, the vibrant LCD faces on these ventilators busily spat out numbers and wriggly lines.
Clad in a frumpy lime tunic and matching trousers that flapped like a tent, Minister Chaudhry waddled toward the machine farthest to the right. His stubby index finger swept across the imprinted maker’s mark, and afterward he rubbed his finger and thumb together, sneering.
A few feet away, my heart ba-dumped. Why’s he playing headwaiter? Wasn’t this an in-and-out job? I scrubbed the tea bags under my eyes, tucked the tail of my crinkly plaid shirt tighter inside the stonewashed jeans, and cleared my throat.
“Everything okay, sir?” I asked in a small voice.
He raked a chubby hand through his windswept hair and continued up the row of machines, brushing his palm over each insignia. At the end of the line, he wheeled toward me and clapped his hands twice to purge the dust.
“What’s your name, engineer?” he asked in a nasally deadpan.
I stooped a few degrees and my hands tied behind the back. “Sajid, sir.”
Stern-faced, he patted a chassis and tugged at its tubes. “Are these ready to go?”
“Yes sir,” I replied with gusto. “They’re approved by DRAP, PEC, NRTC…”
He shot up an open palm. “You think I’m new here, boy? All those certs mean zip when they’re ‘Made in Pakistan.’”
My ears burned like asphalt on a white-hot afternoon. We worked weekends like dogs to make these available and he suspects their quality? I fiddled with my rimless spectacles and licked my lips.
“They underwent clinical trials, sir,” I replied with a wan smile.
He snorted and dismissively flapped his palm. “Yes, that’s our claim about the Corona kits too.”
Anger threw me an uppercut. You fat git, don’t confuse us with those quacks posing as medical practitioners. My fingers hooked into the belt-loops over my back-pocket and again I cleared my throat.
He ambled up to me and his breath stank of burned biryani. “I don’t care what you chimps do here,” he said, gesturing round the lab. “But my ass is on the line, so I must make sure you people got the job done.”
Pity I can’t tell your ass from your face. “Well, sir, you could always get an outside opinion,” I said seriously.
He turned away, wagging a finger over his shoulder. “No time, no time. In an hour I must announce this triumph in parliament.” Then he spun round and trained his finger in my direction. “Isn’t it your job to satisfy me?” he said, scowling.
Happily, if only I had a Kalashnikov and a magic amulet to freeze time for ten seconds. I swallowed my lips to fake pensiveness and clawed at my week-old stubble. “Have the next-door hospital send over a volunteer?”
He clucked as his head jittered sideways. “No time, no time. Is there no one else around?”
I have a screwdriver that’ll puncture your lungs. No better proof than trying it yourself. I bleakly shook my head.
Scratching his belly, he fixed on me and soon his mouth upturned into a crooked grin.
The alarm bells in my brain began an earsplitting chorus. What’s that look? I slid backward a step and simpered.
He lodged two pinkies between his lips and shrilly whistled. At once the thick glass door behind us bleeped open and a tall, wiry man sporting mirrored shades and cradling a matte assault weapon clacked to his side.
My gut hardened into concrete and I gawked at them with mouth agape. “W-what’s going on?”
Minister Chaudhry tipped his head to one side and his lips pressed together like a toad. “You know, I’m a big fan of youths. But you have to help me help yourself. Your country needs you,” he cooed.
No, it can’t be that. He can’t be that cruel. My eyes traveled from the coiled ventilator tubes to the firearm’s trigger and his thuggish guard’s steely face. “H-how?”
“Well, prove your masterpiece works,” he said cheerily.
“But I don’t need oxygenation,” I replied, tittering.
“You will soon,” he said, snapping his fingers. Straightaway the guard slung his firearm onto a shoulder and cracked his knuckles.
Around me the lab warped and withdrew like plasticine and my throat lumped. “But only a doctor can insert the tubes,” I rasped.
He clucked anew and glimpsed his watch. “No worries, Teefa here is also a paramedic,” he said in a testy voice.
Teefa the thuggish guard threw me an elastic, bucktoothed smile and a crisp thumbs-up.
Barf rose from my bowels as I wiped my sticky forehead and swallowed hard. This man is mad. There’s no anesthetic here. They’ll fudge the insertion and later blame my death on Corona and burn my corpse. Teefa scalping movie tickets is one thing, but a paramedic? No way!
I fell to the floor on my knees and stared at him horror-struck. “P-please, sir. There must be another way,” I said, spasming.
He touched his forehead and suspired. “Astagfirullah, you cowards. And you wonder why we can’t conquer Kashmir.”
Teefa leaned toward him and whispered in his ear. Minister Chaudhry’s eyes lit up and his mouth shaped into an O. “Yes, yes,” he muttered.
I gripped my kneecaps tighter. Here comes the firing squad for my insolence. Chichi, my beloved hamster, meet me at the pearly gates.
He harrumphed and checked his cuffs. “Fine. Since you refuse, I’ll have you transferred to PIA as a flight engineer.”
My jaw dropped and I gulped. Forget a corpse, I'll be ashes in the nearest ocean. Those people need flight mullahs to recite the final Shahada, not engineers. “You can’t do that.”
He wore a smarmy grin and shrugged.
Mother-lover. I leaped upright and raised my hands in surrender. Then my mouth gaped. “Allahu Akbar.”
THE HEADLINE NEXT MORNING:
ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry paid tribute to scientists and engineers for producing the 'Made in Pakistan' ventilators on Tuesday, saying revealing that the first tranche would be provided to the NDMA by Thursday.
The federal minister said that the government should spend money on the youth now. "We have spent a lot on old businessmen and industrialists... Now we need to spend on our youth," he said.
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