Chapter 16: Reconnaissance in Pakistan

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

Sugar beet breeding in Britain as elsewhere was a highly seasonal pursuit, determined by seed time and harvest like any other work with crops. There were periods when there was no problem in my being away for a while. The international meetings took place in February and June, before and after the spring peak of work. Other opportunities arose from time to time and, especially if they involved travel to new places, I used to seize them if I could. One such chance cropped up at the very beginning of 1964. By very beginning I mean January 1st, though I did leave Heathrow Airport on December 31st 1963 and saw the New Year in at Athens Airport. I was on my way to Pakistan to plan a feasibility study into the expansion of a beet sugar industry there under the aegis of the British government’s Department of Overseas Development.

I was very lucky indeed to have Richard Goddard-Wilson as a companion on this trip. He had had a remarkable career. At Oxford he had taken a degree in botany, but this was in 1938 and, seeing the war looming, he joined the Indian Army. Of course he got to know quite a bit of the Indian sub-continent very well and he probably did his career prospects no harm by marrying the daughter of the commander-in-chief. The war over, he had joined the British Political Service and served in places like Mosul, in Kurd country in northern Iraq and in Libya. Like Pen Hudson he was an amazing linguist and soon became fluent in whatever language was around. So I had a very knowledgeable companion and interpreter for my first adventure into the Third World and one who turned out to be a very good friend for the rest of his days.

The trip went strangely at first. Stops at Athens and Cairo on the way to Karachi were normal but rather frustrating, since I had never set foot in Greece or Egypt, and on this trip, I was confined to the transit sections of the airports. On the way into Athens I did see the floodlit Parthenon at least. From then on, things went awry. Our Qantas Boeing 707 was asked to divert to Bahrein to pick up passengers left there when a misguided Arab had driven a truck into the side of their B.O.A.C. 707. We landed in Bahrein and the engines were switched off. Unfortunately our plane had Pratt and Whitney engines and Bahrein only had a starter for the Rolls Royce variety. So there we were, stuck in the Bahrein airport for New Year’s Day! I found it bare, dusty and dull and we were not even allowed to go into town. Lots of little planes flew in and out, some with oil workers and some with Arabs, ranging from the scruffy to the sumptuous in appearance, some with their wives, covered in dark-coloured cloth like walking tents. Their husbands were wearing long, white drapings and head cloths held on by circular ropes. I was to get very used to such sights but they were strange at first. Much frantic telephoning ensued, but most of the places contacted were not operational. It was New Year’s Day, holiday time. Eventually the required starter was and flown in and we finally arrived in Karachi very late indeed, after a stop at Abadan in Iran. The whole trip had taken about 27 hours. We were met in Karachi by the British Commercial Attache Tony Fryer and his wife and taken to the Metropole Hotel.

Karachi was a new experience too. The hotel had spacious rooms with many servants (locally called bearers) waiting on one’s every need and calling us sahibs. It was as if the British Raj was still in its full glory. The traffic in the spacious near-by streets ranged from Cadillacs to camel carts, with the occasional, apparently unattended group of humped cattle wandering along on their return from their pasturage. There were little three­wheeled taxis, built on the basis of Italian scooters and gaudily painted. The shopping centre, where we wandered in the evening, was different. Its narrow streets were seething with humanity, selling all kinds of things from open-fronted stalls or roasting various confections over charcoal fires in the street. Above, a large number of kites were circling. These birds did not need to be protected and nurtured, as in Wales. Here they were doing just fine and had the reputation of being ever-ready to swoop down and snatch any piece of meat left on a plate.

It is said to be a small world. We had occasion to visit an office in town and, after being met at the entrance by a manservant bearing a tray on which we placed our visiting cards, very formal and old-fashioned, we were ushered into the presence. Sitting at his desk was a certain John Wright. He had my card before him and said “Ah, Woodham Mortimer, do you know George Baker?” George Baker lived just down the road from Woodham Mortimer Hall and I knew him well! That evening John and his wife Irene entertained us at the Sind Club, formerly a very exclusive club open only to the British, but now equally exclusive but open to Pakistanis too. Not quite grasping the word Sind, I thought for a while that I had been invited to the Sin Club and was wondering what was in store! When we returned to Karachi at a later date, John and Irene took us sailing in the harbour. It was warm sunny and smooth, just right for sailing, I thought. I don’t like the sea to be too assertive when I’m in a boat. John Wright was near to retirement and we were to see a lot of him and his wife in later years, for they built a house and settled in East Hanningfield in Essex, a very few miles from Woodham Mortimer.

We spent January 3rd visiting various V.I.P’s in Karachi and then left for a trip to the north, to visit sugar factories and seek out possible areas for field trials. There was a small beet sugar industry in Pakistan already and the question was, should it be expanded? We left very early the following day to fly to Lahore, some 700 miles away in the Punjab. Again we visited various officials, culminating with the Minister of Agriculture, and then took a taxi ride through the city to the famous Shalimar Gardens. These are huge, and had been fantastically laid out in the Persian style in the days of the Mogul emperors. Unfortunately, in mid-winter, the hundreds of fountains were not playing. The gardens incidentally form quite a bird sanctuary, with flocks of green parakeets, also Asiatic thrushes, kites, vultures and other birds. One discordant note: a little stand with an inscription in Urdu, but on the other side the more familiar slogan, ‘Ice-cold Coca-Cola’. You can’t get away from it.

Also visited were the Mogul fort, with its beautiful architecture in the style which had spread west from Persia to Moorish Spain, and also east to India. Here again are secluded formal gardens, decorative brick pathways and fountains and as at Shalimar one could imagine the ladies of the imperial harem wandering around in splendid seclusion. It was nice to see that careful restoration work was going on where necessary. Nearby is the Great Mosque, the biggest in the world, with its beautiful triple domes and high minarets. We picked up overshoes at the entrance and slipped them over our own shoes. I was surprised to find that a very large part of the mosque was one big open space, surrounded by a high wall with a tall minaret at each corner.

We took a tonga, a horse trap with a canopy, and went slowly through the old town. There were masses of people intermingled with animals: humped zebu cattle, buffaloes, camels and donkeys pulling a wide variety of carts or with loads on their backs. Row upon row of open-fronted shops were concentrated into different areas where a particular commodity was sold. It must have been a bit like that in medieval London, as placenames like Haymarket and Poultry would indicate. Various tradesmen plied their crafts right out in the street: shoemakers, barbers, coppersmiths and others, and we saw men with typewriters, ready to type out letters for illiterate clients. There were water-carriers offering drinking water from goatskins (I didn’t fancy it) and porters carrying loads on their backs or heads, including one spectacularly high load of dried cow dung, presumably for use as fuel. There were beggars too and it was very disturbing to see some of them with young children with a withered limb, no doubt deliberately produced by a ligature, to make their begging more effective.

We flew to Peshawar, some 250 miles to the northwest and near to the Afghan border and next day rented a car, complete with driver. Pakistan seemed to be a home for superannuated American cars and ours was a venerable Chevrolet. We set out for our first two sugar factories, Charsadda and Mardan. It didn’t feel a bit like the Pakistan I had imagined, for it had rained, rained, rained for 24 hours and the locals, wrapped up in dark­coloured blankets to try to keep out the cold, looked pretty miserable. We saw many fields of sugar cane, now being harvested and quite a few orange groves. I liked the oranges. They were sweet and convenient, for they were full-sized but had loose skins like tangerines. Fruits with a skin to peel off were safe and did not carry anything nasty to give one amoebic dysentery or any other health problem. At the Charsadda factory we were entertained by the owner, a Pathan named Col. Khalid, in his magnificent boardroom-cum­guesthouse built over the factory office block. The Prophet might have been distressed, but we drank gin nevertheless. Not very good gin of local manufacture. We nearly wept for our host in his misfortune, for his family estates had been reduced to a mere 40,000 acres or so by the land reform which followed partition. He was only allowed a much smaller area, but had managed to leave a large parcel of land each to a great many of his relatives. To keep his fortunes in good order he had a younger brother who acted as a full-time lobbyist in Rawalpindi, the temporary provincial capital. Provincial, because at that time East Pakistan had not defected and turned itself into Bangladesh. The sugar factory was built to handle beet as well as cane, the only such in Pakistan at the time, but they seemed to have little idea how to grow beet.

At the second factory, Mardan, we found well-informed, competent people, but their factory handled cane only. Richard and I were fixed up with a suite of rooms each in the factory guesthouse, with a personal servant and a cook. Next day we had meetings and then went on to the Takht-i-bhai factory. It still rained and the factory had a power failure. Outside was a long line of miserable-looking ox and buffalo carts laden with cane and another line of lorries with their ornate painting with roses and other flowers, castles, birds and now, a newer tradition, aeroplanes. All were standing dripping on a road full of muddy puddles, waiting for power to be restored at the factory. They seemed quite used to power failures and were meeting this one with quiet resignation. In all these places Richard seemed quite at home, talking in the local language when appropriate and often swapping reminiscences about the old days in the Indian Army. Here we talked to the factory manager in his thick-walled office with windows high up on the walls and a little annexe where an assistant kept his hubble-bubble pipe going and from time to time passed it in to him for a long drag and the emission of a dense plume of pungent smoke.

Next we drove over the rugged and barren Malakand Pass, only 2,700 feet high at the summit it is true, but the rocky and barren gateway to exciting frontier country, the near-autonomous state of Swat. There was an army post at the entrance, where we had to sign papers and forts at intervals all the way up. As the valley narrowed we saw a lovely, rushing river and orange groves, rice paddies, olives and sugar cane. The villagers boil down the cane in huge pans; to produce a crude sugar called gur. The only significant town in Swat is Saidu Sharif and we stayed in the one and only hotel there, run by an English couple. In the rooms were roaring and aromatic wood fires, by which we sat while the jackals howled outside.

Next morning we were able to meet the Wali. What a title! He was the all-powerful ruler. He seemed to be progressive and benevolent, but he also held court at 11 o’clock most mornings and meted out gruesome, Islamic penalties to wrongdoers. We discussed our beet-testing project but the erudite Richard also fell to discussing the campaigns of Alexander the Great and Gunga Din in Swat!

We took a stroll round the bazaar, then drove a little further up the valley before heading back, taking soil samples on the way. We returned to Peshawar and paid off our rather dopey driver with his shaky car. Then we took to rail transport, heading east to Rawalpindi on the Khyber Mail, equipped with blankets lent to us by the British Council. I had always thought that they lent out books was surprised to find that they provided a blanket service too! The mass of people on a Pakistani railway station platform has to be seen to be believed. The track was broad gauge, 5ft. 6ins. and there were no less than five classes of carriage. We shared a roomy sleeper with a newly married couple who remained very discreet in our presence. It must have been very frustrating for them.

It was sunny in ‘Pindi’, but still very cool. It was the seat of government but its days as such were nearly over, as the new capital of Islamabad was being built just to the north. We saw some of the agricultural big-wigs and then headed up to the Murree Hills, up to 7,000 feet, for a sightseeing trip. There were deep snowdrifts and, in the distance, views of the high peaks of the Himalayas. Back in Rawalpindi we were booked to fly east to Lahore, but there was a little time to spare, so we took a taxi to Taxila, 20 miles away, an enormous archaeological site. There was an ancient city dating from several centuries B.C., then a Greek city founded by Alexander the Great and still later a third city with several large Buddhist monasteries. Richard knew all about it, indeed he said that he had done a good deal of his courting there!

It does not seem to take too long to get used to a new environment. City centres crowded with people and animals and full of varied, rich smells were becoming the norm, as were groups of pack-camels on the roads and carts hauled by buffaloes with their surprising pale blue eyes and long glamorous eyelashes, the rest of them being far from glamorous. Little groups of men were seen sitting around with a giant hookah between them, passing the pipe around and each in turn puffing out a dense cloud of smoke. The women, duly veiled, might at the same time be drawing water from the well, returning with one, two or occasionally three pots balanced on their heads. Compared with these hard-working women, the men seemed to be just lazy lay-abouts.

Back in Lahore, we had to stay a couple of days longer to see various officials. We then visited Lyallpur, of which more later. We also went back through Lahore and the last trip before returning home was to Sialkot, sixty miles away and right close to the border of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which was in India though the Muslim Pakistanis believed that it should have been their territory. The whole trip was aimed at working out plans for our field trials and getting them agreed with government and the sugar industry. For me, though, this first visit to the Third World created an impact which can never quite be repeated.

So we picked on trial sites, at Lyallpur and Sialkot in the Punjab and in Swat in the far northwest. On the face of it, sugar beet is a hopeless crop in these latitudes because of the fierce summer heat. When the night temperature exceeds 80°F (27°C), sugar ceases to accumulate and beets tend to get very sick. Equally it is not very good for cane, because of liability to winter frosts or at least very cold weather. This excludes productive tropical varieties and limits production to poorer sorts. For sugar beet, however, there is a trick, a trick I first learnt in the Imperial Valley in Southern California. You sow the beet in the autumn instead of in the spring and harvest it in the early summer before the temperature peaks. Even then, as soon as it is out of the ground it must be whipped into the factory and processed in the absolute minimum of time, or it will rapidly burn up its stored sugar and also develop all kinds of rots. Fungi and bacteria really flourish at high temperature. In California, with good roads and efficient transport, growing the crop in this way is possible. In developing countries it very nearly needs a miracle.

My job was to work out trial plans and locations, pick a range of varieties, which seemed to be worth testing and advise on the practical problems of seedtime, cultivation and harvest. This meant going out for fairly short periods; while we had people permanently out there, Nicholas Craze and Richard Constanduros.

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