Tea Brewed From A Brass Kettle In Abdul's Palace



I've mentioned Abdul before. He was, among other things, the small, soft spoken, dark-skinned old fellow who ran into me with a forklift at the military airport in Karachi, Pakistan, and left me with a hip that's still a problem 50 years later.

He was also the only person I ever taught how to drive a forklift.

He was the same cheerful, old guy, who spent a whole year standing bravely by with the horn of a large fire extinguisher pointed at the engines of our cargo aircraft as they started up.

He never bothered to mention to me, that my predecessor had emptied that particular fire extinguisher, when he used it to cool down a case of beer.

I don't mind telling you that I got a bit of a shock when I decided to use that extinguisher for some hands-on training for the eighteen Pakistani cargo handlers I had working for me.

And then there were the three cans of international orange paint that I had to order from Japan, five thousand miles away, all three of which which Abdul managed to run over with the forklift as soon as we got them off the aircraft.

None of that is what I remember Abdul for.

An Air Force cargo aircraft dropped in one weekend, quite literally out of the blue, and the only help I could drum up to help me unload it were Abdul, our clerk, Hasan, and Colonel Guelich's chauffeur.

After the four of us off-loaded 22,000 pounds of cargo in sweltering 115-degree heat, I drove Abdul home in my jeep. He invited me in for a cup of tea and I accepted.

Years before, some American embassy officer had arranged for Abdul to be housed in NCO quarters on the Pakistani air base. The quarters weren't much, just a ten foot square front room that served as kitchen, sitting room, and eating place, and a much smaller room that served as a bedroom-cum-whatever else.

Abdul's wife, like Abdul, was a dark-skinned Dravidian.

They came from Mysore and were members of the dark skinned race that originally populated the Indian subcontinent and was driven farther and farther south by a succession of ferocious invaders.

Abdul's wife--I'm sorry to say, that I don't remember her name--was also blind, and charming, and one of the sweetest little old ladies I've ever met.

She didn't let her handicap prevent her from keeping a spotless house, nor did it stop her from making tea for us that day on an old kerosene stove -- though I watched with considerable trepidation as she placed a hand over the flame to check its height, and adjusted it just right for a small brass kettle that was soon cheerfully puffing out steam.

There was very little within those walls where I sat drinking tea that day--a few cooking utensils and dishes, some well-worn garments hanging on nails, and a few sticks of furniture.

But, that house overflowed with something that made up for the absence of worldly possessions--love.

It showed in two elderly faces, in the tone of their voices as they spoke to each other, in the way Abdul gently helped his wife serve the tea, and in the way they sat together hand in hand as we drank it.

Seeing the love that linked those two together was a beautiful sight, one I will never forget.

It was, I think, about six months later that I found Abdul sitting outside the embassy, looking like the bottom had dropped out of his world.

I asked him what was wrong and found that the Pakistan Air Force had thrown him out of his quarters, that he had been to everyone in the embassy who would listen, that everyone had tried to get the decision reversed, and that they had failed.

"What are you going to do?" I asked.

He just shrugged.

"Can you rent a place?"

He looked up at me with those soft, sad eyes of his, and shrugged again. "No money, Sahib."

I knew what he meant. He was getting 18 rupees a month from us, the equivalent of three American dollars.

Even in Karachi, and even in 1960, it was not enough to rent anything, let alone enough pay rent, and feed, and clothe two people.

I thought about seeing if I could get him a raise, but I knew it was a hopeless cause.

The official policy was to pay workers on the local scale to avoid political problems, and no amount of talking on my part was going to change it.

A local policeman, for example, made 30 rupees a month--less than five American dollars.

"What will you do?" I asked again.

He shrugged a second time. "If I had money, Sahib, I could build a small house. Land is free to anyone."

From the look on his face it was obvious that the amount of money needed for such a thing was beyond his wildest dreams, but I asked the question anyway.

"Well, how much would you need, Abdul?"

"Too much, Sahib. Such an amount! Oh, it is impossible!"

"Well, how much?"

He shook his head. "More than two hundred rupees, Sahib."

And so, as I'm sure you've already guessed, Abdul built a house.

In the end, Abdul's house cost four hundred rupees -- yes, a whole sixty American dollars -- but that was because Abdul's tiny 10-by-10-foot-square home included a few minor amenities I insisted upon: A door instead of a ragged piece of cloth. A real glass window that opened and closed. A few pieces of furniture. A decent kerosene stove. And a bed with a cotton mattress, instead of a raised slab with a straw pallet on it.

You and I would say that what that house didn't have was more important than what it had.

It had no running water, electricity, toilet facilities, heat, or any of the other things we would say are absolute minimum requirements for a human habitation.

I don't mind telling you, when Abdul's wife ran her work-hardened palms across my face and thanked me for providing them with what she called a "palace," I found it very difficult to hold back the tears.

I could think of about a million questions to ask right now. You could too, I'll bet.

I won't ask them, though, because I can't think of a single good answer.

I don't suppose there are any.

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