Making hay while the sun shines” is all fine and dandy when honestly and truthfully done. But one has to wonder why it is that so many Pakistanis see absolutely nothing wrong in attempting to profit from lies and blatantly exploitative manoeuvres. Take on street, seasonal ‘business’ vendors in the overcrowded, currently beggar-ridden, tourist town of Murree, for instance, to whom lying is first, not second, nature and where at least 95 percent of money-minded vampires, both on the street and off, would not understand honesty if it leapt up and hit them in the face.

“Cherries, fresh cherries,” shouts a vendor proffering a basket full to the brim with carefully rolled cones of recycled paper partially filled with small plums – not cherries, but plums and only partially filled as the bottom part of the cone is stuffed with either grass, leaves or scrunched up paper. “Local cherries,” he continues. “Freshly picked local cherries only Rs 50 and sweet as sugar.” The plums, not cherries remember, actually are reasonably local in that they come from orchards midway between Murree and Barakhau. But unsurprisingly, they are as sour as can be and those unwise enough to buy without testing get a very sharp shock, and those who accept them as being ‘local’ cherries, should have paid more attention in school.

Another street vendor sits beside baskets of huge, perfectly formed, brilliant red apples, again these are being sold as ‘local’ and ‘fresh from the tree’ and yet anyone with an ounce of commonsense only has to look around them to realise that Murree apples, there are very few this year and these few are all badly scarred with hailstones, do not ripen until the Autumn and, when they do, certainly are not worth the asking price of Rs 50 each no matter how elderly and venerable the seller may appear. The apples, along with the majority of plums, apricots and peaches being sold at astronomical rates to tourists are purchased, by the box, from the local fruit and vegetable market early in the morning, repacked in baskets and paper cones and sold at rates at least 10 times higher than if one was to buy them from a fruit and vegetable store. One can argue that yes, buyer beware. But one can also question the ease with which lies trip so easily and rapidly off tongues which, when the time comes, rush off to say their prayers.

The beggars, including hordes of quick fingered children, who, given their personal circumstances and upbringing, know no better, are inventive to the extreme. It is only ‘real’ locals or repeat visitors with an eye and a memory for detail, and who see the very same beggars year in and year out, who are aware that these beggars change their whining tunes in line with whatever the latest news happens to be: some of them, from way down country judging from their accents, mode of speech and general appearance, are still pleading for assistance as they were rendered homeless by the huge earthquake of October 2005!

Others demand help to rebuild their lives after losing their homes and possessions as a result of military operations in Bajaur, Dir, Swat, Waziristan etc. Yet, once again judging from their skin tone, facial characteristics and lack of even basic Pashtu, they originate from the south of the country, some are even Bengali, certainly not from the troubled northern regions and others wail and moan about what they lost in the massive flooding during recent summer monsoons and so on. They change their stories to suit the situation and their moods, being earthquake affected one day, flood affected the next or displaced due to military operations if that tale happens to catch their imagination and, incredibly, tourists seem to fall for their stories at least 90 percent of the time.

Street vendors and beggars both soon learn to stay clear of local people, who recognise their lies for what they are and it must be said that despite laws to the contrary, the local police who are always around, take no action against these beggarly nuisances whatsoever, which means that navigating the overcrowded ‘Mall Road’ can be, and usually is at this time of the year, far from being the pleasant experience anticipated by many.

Then there are the storekeepers themselves, who, apart from a mere handful of old, established businesses with reputations to guard, seem to change with the weather that is, as anyone who has visited Murree knows, extremely variable indeed, These transitory traders merrily lie through their teeth when, if they were honest, they might actually make more sales and thus a better standard of living. A certainly not antique silver, mass produced, tribal style necklace on sale for Rs 1,450 in one store, for Rs 1,250 in another and Rs 950 elsewhere can actually, for instance, be bought for just Rs 250 from an honest shopkeeper, who is still, obviously, making a profit and who, as a result of honesty and a good reputation, turns a higher daily profit than his dishonest counterparts, which is proof that honesty does have its just reward. So why - oh why - have cheats and liars become so numerous of late?

n    The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.

    Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com