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Sunday Sentiments

  • SATI LAMBAH, A PAKISTAN EXPERT WITH A HEART OF GOLD

    Posted On July 10, 2022

    By Karan Thapar

    I’ve known Satinder Lambah since my early twenties but it was during his time as High Commissioner in Pakistan that I realized what made him truly special. No one I’ve meet understood our errant neighbour better. Sati not only personally knew Pakistanis who matter, he went one step further. He saw through the façade they presented but he did so without embarrassing them. They knew that too.

     

    I remember an evening in Islamabad shortly after Benazir Bhutto had been re-elected prime minister. I had flown in to interview her. Sati was High Commissioner. “If you’re flying out straight after, you’re dining with me the night before,” he commanded. Sati’s generosity was legion but I had an almost inescapable reason to decline. “I’m with a crew that are new to Pakistan. I can’t leave them and I can hardly bring three uninvited guests.” “Who says you can’t”, Sati shot back. “They’ll probably be more fun than you!”

     

    Sati had important Pakistanis over.The sort a visiting TV crew would ache to meet. They were seated in his drawing room, a drinks-trolley placed conveniently on one side and Sati was personally tending to their needs. He introduced us as if we were old friends and then proceeded to pour everyone a large whisky. At no point did he make us feel different.

     

    Sati made his Pakistani guests reveal details they would never have shared if I had met them in a more formal setting. Yet he never revealed I was interviewing their prime minister the next morning. I learnt a lot that was put to good use and each time, in case I missed a trick, Sati would knowingly but subtly wink as if to say “remember that point”.

     

    Sati masterfully steered the conversation. If one of the Pakistanis was encouraged to tell me the inside story of their politics, another would tell the crew of the delights of Islamabad. Like a ring-master at a circus, Sati kept all his guests chatting but not one of us realised he was driving the conversations.

     

    Liqueurs were served after dinner. This time Sati asked us to help ourselves whilst he finished a conversation. We did. The crew helped themselves in wine glasses. As soon as they realised their mistake Sati did the same. Then he put his arm around the cameraman and clicked glasses with cheerful camaraderie.

     

    We left close to midnight. We were in no hurry but Sati seemed equally keen to chat. He told us tales of ‘old’ Pakistan and advised us  where to eat in Lahore the next night. When we stood up to depart, he presented the crew with a bottle of scotch.

     

    Overwhelmed by his generosity, the cameraman tried to thank Sati whilst insisting this was more than we could accept. “Nonsense” Sati responded. “You won’t get a drink in your hotel, so this’ll ensure your last night in Pakistan isn’t the worst.”

     

    However, Sati also knew how to keep his lips sealed. Years later, by when we were good friends, I tried to draw out the details of the four-point plan for Kashmir’s future he had devised with his Pakistani counterpart Tariq Aziz. “I’m interviewing Khurshid Kasuri and I want to check if what he’s written is correct or misleading.” But Sati wasn’t going to say. I tried every which way I could but the best I got was “I’ll tell you after the interview if he was right.”

     

    In the event Sati answered with a series of smiles. They were warm, reassuring, even encouraging or that’s how I interpreted them. Sati didn’t disabuse me. But, then, that was his greatest quality. He made you feel comfortable, even happy, but never gave away what he should have kept to himself. Yet he left you feeling you’d learnt and understood a lot.

     

    Two years ago I recalled this story to Sati. We were chatting at a dull dinner. “One day I’ll tell you”, he promised. Now, alas, that will never be.


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