Letters from Pakistan
By Elizabeth M. Marshall
When Agnes Olive moved with her husband Dave to Lahore, Pakistan, in 1984, she had no idea what to expect. The sights, sounds, colors, smells, and masses of humanity assailed her Canadian senses with wonderment, chaos, color, traffic, and noise.
Letters from Pakistan is a delightful, chronological compilation of selected letters she sent to family and friends during their three years in that country. Her descriptions are vivid and often funny. She describes Pakistan as “a country of many contrasts” and uses many of the letters, notes, and newspaper clippings included in the book to illustrate these contrasts.
As part of the perks of living in Pakistan, the Olives were able to hire several servants, including a person to clean the house, a cook, a driver, and a gardener. The funny stories Agnes relates regarding the hiring, firing, and misunderstandings between her and her house staff are especially amusing. Throughout the book, the author includes several handwritten letters from staff explaining, in broken and misspelled English, why he/she could not come to work (someone was “ded” in their village—no that is not a misspelling) or why they threw away her banana tree.
One of my favorite notes is from a man who came to their door asking for a small amount of brandy for a sick friend. Because physicians prescribed brandy when they thought it would help the patient, the Olives gave the man a very small amount. An hour later the man returned and handed them the following handwritten note.
“Sir, I have come from a distance of 500 kilometers for this medicine. The said medicine is not available in my village. The medicine, which is given to me, is too little quantity to treat the patient. Please give a little more so that we may save the life of a human being. Thanking you in anticipation.”
Also interspersed throughout the book are clippings of newspaper articles, which round out the feeling, culture, and customs, as well as the treatment of women in Pakistan. Included are articles about bank robberies (“Gun slinging desperado kills ASI, loots bank”), camel races, blue movies, and snow.
As an established artist in Canada before moving to Pakistan, Olive continued her artistic life and was happy “to find beautiful design in everyday objects.” Her descriptions of mounting an exhibit at the Alhamra Gallery, decorating the gallery, and arranging the display of her artworks are strong and interesting. The reactions to her exhibit and the use of paper as an art form are equally interesting.
Letters from Pakistan may be checked out at La Biblioteca and soon may be purchased at La Tienda, the Literary Sala Book Fair on December 5, at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference this coming February, as well as from the author.