GOOD ADVICE IS RARER THAN RUBIES
On the last Tuesday of the month, the dawn bus, its headlamps still shining, brought
Miss Rehana to the gates of the British Consulate. It arrived pushing a cloud of dust,
veiling her beauty from the eyes of strangers until she descended. The bus was
brightly painted in mutlicoloured arabesques, and on the front it said ‘MOVE OVER
DARLING’ in green and gold letters; on the back it added ‘TATA-BATA’ and also
‘O.K. GOOD-LIFE’. Miss Rehana told the driver it was a beautiful bus, and he
jumped down and held the door open for her, bowing theatrically as she descended.
Miss Rehana’s eyes were large and black and bright enough to not need the help of
antimony, and when the advice expert Muhammad Ali saw them he felt himself
becoming young again. He watched her approaching the Consulate gates as the light
strengthened, and asking the bearded lala who guarded them in a gold-buttoned khaki
uniform with a cockaded turban when they would open. The lala, usually so rude to
the Consulate’s Tuesday women, answered Miss Rehana with something like courtesy.
‘Half an hour,’ he said gruffly. ‘Maybe two hours. Who knows? The sahibs
are eating their breakfast.’
The dusty compound between the bus stop and the Consulate was already full of
Tuesday women, some veiled, a few barefaced like Miss Rehana. They all looked
frightened, and leaned heavily on the arms of uncles or brothers, who were trying to
look confident. But Miss Rehana had come on her own, and did not seem at all
Muhammad Ali, who was specialized in advising the most vulnerable-looking
of these weekly supplicants, found his feet leading him towards the strange, big-eyed,
‘Miss,’ he began. ‘You have come for permit to London, I think so?’
She was standing at a hot-snack stall in the little shanty-town by the edge of
the compound, munching chilli-pakoras contentedly. She turned to look at him, and at
close range those eyes did bad things to his digestive tract.
‘Yes, I have.’
‘Then, please, you allow me to give some advice? Small cost only.’
Miss Rehana smiled. ‘Good advice is rarer than rubies,’ she said. ‘But alas, I
cannot pay. I am an orphan, not one of your wealthy ladies.’
‘Trust my grey hairs,’ Muhammad Ali urged her. ‘My advice is well tempered
by experience. You will certainly find it good.’
She shook her head. ‘I tell you I am a poor potato. There are women here with
male family members, all earning good wages. Go to them. Good advice should find
I am going crazy, Muhammad Ali thought, because he heard his voice telling
her of its own volition, ‘Miss, I have been drawn to you by Fate. What to do? Our
meeting was written. I also am a poor man only, but for you my advice comes free.’
She smiled again. ‘Then I must surely listen. When Fate sends a gift, one
receives good fortune.’
He led her to the low wooden desk in hi own special corner of the shanty-town. She
followed, continuing to eat pakoras from a little newspaper packet. She did not offer
Muhammad Ali put a cushion on the dusty ground. ‘Please to sit.’ She did as
he asked. He sat cross-legged across the desk from her, conscious that two or three
dozen pairs of male eyes were watching him enviously, that all the other shanty-town
men were ogling the latest lovely to be charmed by the old grey-hair fraud. He took a
deep breath to settle himself.
‘Miss Rehana,’ she told him. ‘Fiancée of Mustafa Dar of Bradford, London.’
‘Bradford, England,’ he corrected her gently. ‘London is a town only, like
Multan or Bahawalpur. England is a great nation full of the coldest fish in the world.’
‘I see. Thank you,’ she responded gravely, so that he was unsure if she was
making fun of him.
‘You have filled application form? Then let me see, please.’
She passed him a neatly folded document in a brown envelope.
‘Is it OK?’ For the first time there was a note of anxiety in her voice.
He patted the desk quite near the place where her hand rested. ‘I am certain,’
he said. ‘Wait on and I will check.’
She finished the pakoras while he scanned her papers.
‘Tip-top,’ he pronounced at length. ‘All in order.’
‘Thank you for your advice,’ she said, making as if to rise. ‘I’ll go now and
wait by the gate.’
‘What are you thinking?’ he cried loudly, smiting his forehead. ‘You consider
this is easy business? Just give the form and poof, with a big smile they hand over the
permit? Miss Rehana, I tell you, you are entering a worse place than any police
‘Is it so, truly?’ His oratory had done the trick. She was a captive audience
now, and he would be able to look at her for a few moments longer.
Drawing another calming breath, he launched into his set speech. He told her that the
sahibs thought that all the women who came on Tuesdays, claiming to be dependents
of bus drivers in Luton or chartered accountants in Manchester, were crooks and liars
She protested, ‘But then I will simply tell them that I, for one, am no such
Her innocence made him shiver with fear for her. She was a sparrow, he told
her, and they were men with hooded eyes, like hawks. He explained that they would
ask her questions, personal questions, questions such as a lady’s own brother would
be too shy to ask. They would ask if she was a virgin, and, if not, what her fiancé’s
love-making habits were, and what secret nicknames they had invented for one
Muhammad Ali spoke brutally, on purpose, to lessen the shock she would feel
when it, or something like it, actually happened. Her eyes remained steady, but her
hands began to flutter at the edges of the desk.
He went on:
‘They will ask you how many rooms are in your family home, and what colour
are the walls, and what days do you empty the rubbish. They will ask your man’s
mother’s third cousin’s aunt’s step-daughter’s middle name. And all these things they
have already asked your Mustafa Dar in his Bradford. And if you make one mistake,
you are finished.’
‘Yes,’ she said, and he could hear her disciplining her voice. ‘And what is
your advice, old man?’
It was at this point that Muhammad Ali usually began to whisper urgently, to mention
that he knew a man, a very good type, who worked in the Consulate, and through him,
for a fee, the necessary papers could be delivered, with all the proper authenticating
seals. Business was good, because the women would often pay him five hundred
rupees or give him a gold bracelet for his paints, and go away happy.
They came from hundreds of miles away—he normally made sure of this
before beginning to trick them—so even when they discovered they had been
swindled they were unlikely to return. They went away to Sargodha or Lalukhet and
began to pack, and who knows at what point they found out they had been gulled, but
it was at a too-late point, anyway.
Life is hard, and an old man must live by his wits. It was not up to Muhammad
Ali to have compassion for these Tuesday women.
But once again his voice betrayed him, and instead of starting his customary speech it
began to reveal to her his greatest secret.
‘Miss Rehana,’ his voice said, and he listened to it in amazement, ‘you are a
rare person, a jewel, and for you I will do what I would not do for my own daughter,
perhaps. One document has come into my possession that can solve all your worries
at one stroke.’
‘And what is this sorcerer’s paper?’ she asked, her eyes unquestionably
laughing at him now.
His voice fell low-as-low.
‘Miss Rehana, it is a British passport, completely genuine and pukka goods. I
have a good friend who will put your name and photo, and then, hey-presto, England
there you come!’
He had said it!
Anything was possible now, on this day of his insanity. Probably he would
give her the thing free-gratis, and then kick himself for a year afterwards.
Old fool, he berated himself. The oldest fools are bewitched by the youngest
‘Let me understand you,’ she was saying. ‘You are proposing I should commit a
‘Not crime,’ he interposed. ‘Facilitation.’
‘…and go to Bradford, London, illegally, and therefore justify the low opinion
the Consulate sahibs have of us all. Old babuji, this is not good advice.’
England,’ he corrected her mournfully. ‘You should not take my
gift in such a spirit.’
‘Bibi, I am a poor fellow, and I have offered this prize because you are so
beautiful. Do not spit on my generosity. Take the thing. Or don’t take, go home,
forget England, only do not go into that building and lose your dignity.’
But she was on her feet, turning away from him and walking towards the gates,
where the women had begun to cluster and the lala was swearing at them to be patient
or none of them would be admitted at all.
‘So be a fool,’ Muhammad Ali shouted after her. ‘What goes of my father’s if
you are?’ (Meaning, what was it to him.)
She did not turn.
‘It is the curse of our people,’ he yelled. ‘We are poor, we are ignorant, and we
completely refuse to learn.’
‘Hey, Muhammad Ali,’ the woman at the betel-nut stall called across to him.
‘Too bad, she likes them young.’
That day Muhammad Ali did nothing but stand around near the Consulate gates.
Many times he scolded himself, Go from here, old goof, lady does not desire to speak
with you any further. But when she came out, she found him waiting.
‘Salaam, advice wallah,’ she greeted him.
She seemed calm, and at peace with him again, and he thought, My God, ya
Allah, she has pulled it off. The British sahibs also have been drowning in her eyes
and she has got her passage to England.
He smiled at her hopefully. She smiled back with no trouble at all.
‘Miss Rehana Begum,’ he said, ‘felicitations, daughter, on what is obviously
your hour of triumph.’
Impulsively, she took his forearm in her hand.
‘Come,’ she said. ‘Let me buy you a pakora to thank you for your advice and
to apologise for my rudeness, too.’
They stood in the dust of the afternoon compound near the bus, which was getting
ready to leave. Coolies were tying bedding rolls to the roof. A hawker shouted at the
passengers, trying to sell them love stories and green medicines, both of which cured
unhappiness. Miss Rehana and a happy Muhammad Ali ate their pakoras sitting on
the bus’s ‘front mud-guard’, that is, the bumper. The old advice expert began softly to
hum a tune from a movie soundtrack. The day’s heat was gone.
‘It was an arranged engagement,’ Miss Rehana said all at once. ‘I was nine years old
when my parents fixed it. Mustafa Dar was already thirty at that time, but my father
wanted someone who could look after me as he had done himself and Mustafa was a
man known to Daddyji as a solid type. Then my parents died and Mustafa Dar went to
England and said he would send for me. That was many years ago. I have his photo,
but he is like a stranger to me. Even his voice, I do not recognise it on the phone.’
The confession took Muhammad Ali by surprise, but he nodded with what he hoped
looked like wisdom.
‘Still and after all,’ he said, ‘one’s parents act in one’s best interests. They
found you a good and honest man who has kept his word and sent for you. And now
you have a lifetime to get to know him, and to love.’
He was puzzled, now, by the bitterness that had infected her smile.
‘But, old man,’ she asked him, ‘why have you already packed me and posted
me off to England?’
He stood up, shocked.
‘You looked happy—so I just assumed…excuse me, but they turned you down
‘I got all their questions wrong,’ she replied. ‘Distinguishing marks I put on
the wrong cheeks, bathroom décor I completely redecorated, all absolutely topsy-
turvy, you see.’
‘But what to do? How will you go?’
‘Now I will go back to Lahore and my job. I work in a great house, as ayah to
three good boys. They would have been sad to see me leave.’
‘But this is tragedy!’ Muhammad Ali lamented. ‘Oh, how I pray that you had taken up
my offer! Now, but, it is not possible, I regret to inform. Now they have your form on
file, cross-check can be made, even the passport will not suffice.
‘It is spoilt, all spoilt, and it could have been so easy if advice had been
accepted in good time.’
‘I do not think,’ she told him, ‘I truly do not think you should be sad.’
Her last smile, which he watched from the compound until the bus concealed
it in a dust-cloud, was the happiest thing he had ever seen in his long, hot, hard,