A governor who loved his cigarettes, coffee and Cavalli and could out-party anyone in Lahore

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By HINDOL SENGUPTA
  • Published 9.01.11
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The aide-de-camp offered cigarettes. “Special,” he said. “Specially rolled for Governor’s House. Have you had the coffee? You will like it.”

Last year in February, Lahore was having its first fashion week. But there were no banners on the roads. No hoardings. No posters. No one seemed to know but governor Salmaan Taseer.

Now sitting in his aide-de-camp’s office, it was apparent that Taseer kept track of these things. “You could almost say,” said one quiet civil servant who popped by for a smoke, “that the governor is the spirit of such things in this city.”

Fifteen minutes later, on the expansive lawns a pebble roll from the iconic, and heavily fortified, Pearl Continental Hotel, my cameraman got ready to shoot a strolling interview. An orderly ran up. “Too much wind,” he said. “Saab’s hair will fly. Can’t we do something?”

About the wind?

“He should not look bad,” said the man, placing a small mirror, a comb and sunglasses on a small table. When he arrived, Taseer looked like a matinee idol in autumn. The aquiline nose, the thick black hair that seemed dyed but could easily have not been, the big-stepping gait of a man used to striding in with someone else always opening the door, the slightly corner of face grin. A bit like a Pakistani Uttam Kumar post-Amanush.

I asked him whether Pakistan now needed an image makeover. “We are the sons and daughters of the Indus. We have a tradition of poetry and music. All this violence and extremism is not part of our culture,” said the man, dressed impeccably in a black shalwar kameez, black patent leather shoes, black jacket and Roberto Cavalli sunglasses.

“Everyone gets threatened. But nothing has stopped. We have fashion shows. In fact fashion is thriving here. One of the newspapers I own has a big extravaganza, too.”

He stopped. The orderly brought the comb. He combed his hair. “This wind,” he raised his eyebrow. “Too much.”

After the interview, I asked him why, even with support from politicians like himself, there was so much secrecy about the fashion week.

“See, this is the problem,” the governor shrugged, like a man used to squatting idiots and resigned to doing it often. “These guys don’t get it. They just want to bomb and kill and blow up things. They just don’t want to let people have a good time. But life is about people having a good time! So we do our thing but some things need to be done for pure security.”

I asked him — did he ever feel scared? “Are you kidding me? They have been threatening me for years!”

Leaving his bungalow, another bureaucrat: “You met the governor? Good, good. Bade shaukein hain (He is a colourful man). Aap toh India se hain, aap ko to pata hi hoga.” The reference was to the governor’s estranged partner, veteran Indian journalist Tavleen Singh, with whom he had a son, the writer Aatish Taseer.

Suna hai,” said the bureaucrat, “baap-bete mein kabhi jami nahin. (Father and son never got along.)

Later in the evening, he was on the front row at the fashion week. A fashion editor sitting next to me grinned lovingly. “Salmaan Uncle is too cool,” she said, fingering her pack of Dunhills. “He has lots of girlfriends. But he is the man to watch out for against the fundoos (the fundamentalists). Do you know he recently sent roses to Nawaz Sharif? You interviewed him? Today? Yesterday was his big party.”

She winked. “The party went on for a long time. The guv must have made you wait a bit.”

In a way, Taseer was everything Pakistan loved and hated. A stylish wealthy man who loved his women and wine, a man who had made his money in business but his heart remained in politics. A man who threw big parties. Invited many women. Indeed was known to love many women. And partied like only Lahore, a city where I have friends who delicately soak up coke lines like Coke carried on silver trays by old retainers, can.

In a city that never stops eating, Taseer was said to be able to out-eat and out-drink and out-party almost everyone. As a lawyer told me: Taseer was old Lahore. Indeed old Pakistan. The Pakistan that parties. The Pakistan that, until now, was untouched by the rising tide of religious extremism in other parts of the country. Untouched by the fundoos my friends laughed at. Those idiots, they said, would never darken their door. And if they did, they had enough money, power and muscle power to “kick their ***”.

I met Taseer again two months later. In April, as part of a tiny troupe of Indian journalists who were invited to Pakistan to travel to the North West Frontier Province and see evidence that the Pakistani Army was fighting the battle against terror.

Tea was at Governor House.

Taseer looked a little weary. Yes, they were fighting, he said. Yes, they would win, he said. When I went up to him, he smiled and said — did you have a good time at the fashion week?

He began to leave. Then stopped. Someone ran. The governor was looking for his sunglasses. I was putting on mine. He looked at the Ray Bans and grinned: “Move up to Gucci or Cavalli.” He put his sunglasses on and was gone.

Hindol Sengupta interviewed Salmaan Taseer as Associate Editor of Bloomberg UTV. He is now Senior Editor at Fortune India