The Tortoise Always Wins


*Recounted “off-the-record” by Fayyazul Hassan Chohan to our intrepid correspondent, Munna Manhoos.

ONE HOUR BEFORE THE PRESS CONFERENCE:


The hellish monsoonal storm again rumbled through the cavernous room.

My buckled suede sandals that minutes earlier waded through dirty rainwater now encrusted with muck, while my charcoal-gray salwar drip-dripped onto the ornate cut-pile carpet.


Allah truly works in mysterious ways. Master’s degree holders drive taxis in this country, yet the one with the taxi driver brain heads Pakistan’s biggest province. No more.


Grimacing, I shifted in my cushy, dimpled chair and flapped my soggy salwar with pinched fingers.


CM Buzdar's office was a colonial masterpiece: high-ceilinged with a pristine whitewash and a sheeny cherrywood floor. The room also housed card tables, coffee tables, and dressing tables carved with florid patterns and buffed as glassy ice.


Before me, across the ponderous kneehole desk overlaid with seaweed-green leather, Buzdar sat humpbacked in his deluxe ergonomic chair munching on square crackers from a tin box.


On the jetted breast pocket of his peacock-blue jacket he’d pinned the national flag, and as he munched, his deep-seated eyes fixed on me with a depressing vacancy.


My face twitched from the massive urge to cuss him to kingdom come, but instead I stooped to wring the water out my salwar with unnecessary gusto.


Afterward, I straightened toward him and cocked my brow. “Do you know your portico is flooded?”


He tipped sideways and reached under his blocked-front desk to produce a tortoise the size of a cigarette box that cinched in its beak a coin-shaped slice of cucumber.


He set the critter on his balding pate and threw me with a goofy smile. “Is it now?” he drawled.


My lips pursed. I bet the tortoise has a higher IQ. Right now, we’ll get less flack for replacing him with a horny mule.


“Haven’t you stepped out all day?” I asked sharply.


His shoulders shimmied as he hissed a laugh and the tortoise bobbed atop his head. “In this weather? Are you crazy?”


I scratched my salt-and-pepper stubble and deadpanned, “Why don't we have all of Punjab join you to escape their waterlogged and power-less homes?”


His eyes widened with shock and his lips slightly parted. “No, no, Fayyaz. We’ll catch the flu. I have a sensitive constitution,” he said, his head jiggling in dissent.


I produced a supercilious smile and nodded along. “Perhaps you should consider a career as a mental patient.”


He scoffed another cracker and patted the tortoise; who nibbled at the cucumber with the languor of a nine-lived cat.


“I’m quite comfortable here, thank you,” he said casually.


No shit. By right, a ding-a-ling like you should be shoveling manure in the country club. My lips smacked and I laced my fingers over the lap.


“Look, you either need to shape up or ship out. I’m tired of defending your incompetence before the press; something I’ll suffer again in an hour.” I snapped.


He gaped at me with his brow arched high. “But PM Khan is happy with my performance,” he said, tugging at his collar.


I snorted. There are days when I’m certain they separated you two at birth.


“I don’t know how you’re hoodwinking him or the others, but I’m through with you,” I said, jabbing a finger in his direction.


His painter's brush mustache quivered and his crows-feet tightened. “B-but, I’m a good boy,” he said in a weepy voice.


Babies, the lot of them. I face-palmed and suspired. “Then maybe you should ask the kaptan to find you a kindergarten.”


A fizzing sound pricked my ears. Squirming, the tortoise withdrew its scrawny neck into the shell.


The free-falling cucumber ricocheted off Buzdar’s conk and clung to his lapel. He uprolled his eyes and whimpered, his double-chin trembling.


For the love of God. Then they bitch that I shed crocodile tears. My head dipped and I touched my forehead, tut-tutting. “Calm down you fool. It’s probably taking a nap.”


His features hardened and his eyes flashed fury. He gently lifted the tortoise and replaced him under the desk. Then he rested his elbows on the leather-top and eyeballed me. “You want to know why I’m still CM?”


A knife-like sliver of fear lanced my gut and I clenched my jaw. Something’s off here. The air round him changed. “Go on.”


He trained his index finger toward the ceiling and outthrust his chin. “Because I deal with things at my own pace.”


“What the hell does that mean?”


He twirled his mustache and again shot a hand somewhere below the desk. A snake charmer’s flute appeared this time: pregnant from a chocolate-brown bulge halfway down its slick mahogany body.


I gripped the armrests and gawked at him. Does the CM panhandle off-hours? Or moonlight at the circus?


The nipple-shaped mouthpiece set on his stiff lips. “Let me demonstrate.” He blew into the flute and swayed in his seat.


My nostrils flared. I bolted to my feet and scowled at him. “All right, I’ve had enough of your…”


At once my limbs and vocal cords locked up, and my mouth froze open mid-sentence. Each exhaled note from his flute nicked me like a switchblade and my nose crinkled from pain.


Then a thousand cobras writhed beside me, and invisible marionette strings yanked my arms and legs in different directions.

Every nerve in my remote-controlled body screamed SOS. Goddammit, I remember swigging enough bhang to dry Afghanistan, but the hallucinations were never this vivid.


His face flushed the more he blew, and the entranced cobras feverishly rocked in a seesaw motion. Soon my legs buckled under me and I slumped to the floor, kneeling.


Then my arms unwittingly raised above the shoulders, and my flattened palms pressed together to resemble the king cobra’s hood.


On autopilot I snake-danced to his tune: my torso gyrating to the hypnotic rhythm while my eyes stared at him horror-struck.


Allah save me! This man is a sorcerer. I promise I won’t ever pinch money from the poor! I’ll even renounce my foreign assets if I must. No wonder everyone defends this fiend. Anyone would after tasting his torture.


The demonic viselike grip on my body yielded asudden. I crumpled as a rag doll, my head flat against the hardwood, and panted.


Footsteps clacked toward me and halted beside my lank arm. He took up the teapot pose and frowned. “Now you know. Will you still oppose me?”


I gulped. Who in their right mind would? But mother-lover, if his ways continue, I won't ever win another election. And all I’ve ever known is politics. Hell, I couldn’t even bake tandoori roti to make ends meet. Then again, people have already egged my car twice today. Pushed enough, they’ll set my house on fire next.


I inched upright on the floor and massaged my brow. “And what should I tell the media?” I asked dully.


He hee-hawed as a yokel would. “Simple. The tortoise always wins.”


THE HEADLINE NEXT MORNING:


Chohan defends Buzdar's performance, says CM Punjab 'working at his own pace'


Punjab Information Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan on Friday defended provincial Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, who has recently come under criticism for his 'below-par' performance, saying Buzdar has been delivering on his responsibilities with ease.


The federal minister went on to add that Buzdar has made a constructive plan to deal with a rainwater crisis that threatens the province during the ongoing monsoon season. "Usman Buzdar is serving the people at his own pace without making decisions in a hasty manner," he added.



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