How selfish can we be?

COMMENT: A mysterious affair — II —Munir Attaullah

Was it all a vivid dream? This is most unsettling because, I must confess, something similar has happened before with me. Like the time one night when I thought I had solved Fermat’s last theorem, only to discover the next morning that my scribbled notes were nonsense

How selfish can we be? The country is grappling with a disaster and here am I in Morocco, trying to work out who has stolen the blueprint of my latest brilliant idea, potentially worth billions. Had I even an ounce of brotherly feeling I would return post-haste (and, downgrading myself to economy from first, donate the refund to the relief effort).

Return to do what? I rationalise matters to my satisfaction, as we all do. How would my physical presence make any difference? So I simply check with the airline the refund value and donate the equivalent to the relief effort in cash, keeping my ticket unchanged. Besides, I should get my priorities right: I could do far more in the long run after first making my billions.

Here, another thought intervenes. If I can afford that cash outlay, should I not have doubled my donation by sticking to my resolve to travel economy? But would that have been in order, given that the ticket was courtesy the Godfather? Come to think of it, how much is it that I can really afford? I mean, what are my real needs?

Not many of us are prepared to ask, or answer, such silly questions. Why has my whole life been plagued by niggling moral dilemmas such as this that have no satisfactory answer? I then remember what Charles Lamb once said: “Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; yet nothing troubles me less as I never think about them.” Extrapolating such wisdom, I resolve to stop thinking about what is right and wrong and worry only about what is profitable and what is not.

I resume my review of possible suspects. Could it be ‘Double-Decker’ (so named because an awe-inspiring set of bumpers up front perfectly complement a massive backside)? Or ‘Housemaid’, whose lack of dress sense combined with her plain looks had earned her that sobriquet? Come to think of it, there was something highly suspicious here. How had these two managed, every night, to get on that select list of the supposedly 30-odd prettiest girls in town that grace the in-house disco every night? That was not possible without the Godfather’s approval.

Yes, I smell a conspiracy here. Trust a Pakistani to work that out. Et tu Godfather?

This promising line of inquiry is brought to a halt by the appearance on the scene of friends IS and NA, closely followed by the Khadim-e-Aala bringing me a fresh Cohiba and a top-up glass. “Professor (for that is what they sarcastically call me), are you coming with us to Mega Mall for some shopping?” asks NA.

“No, I have to solve this mystery of the missing blueprint of my latest idea,” I reply.

“What idea? And what mystery?” says IS.

“You know, the one I told you all about at the card table yesterday afternoon,” I say.

“What are you talking about?” says IS, looking puzzled, as does NA.

“You know, about how I have worked out a simple and easy to use technology that will immediately reveal if a person is lying or being evasive,” I say.

“Have you gone mad, Professor?” says NA. “You never told us about any such thing, either at the card table yesterday or at any other time. But why worry about the blueprint? Make another one. Oh! I get it. You are afraid the thief will lay claim to the idea as his own.”

This is odd. Are these two also part of the conspiracy? If so, they certainly are putting up a great act. Unsure, I play for time.

“No, the blueprint is no use to anyone else. It is written in my private code. Besides, I had another reason to keep it private, not yet having resolved a moral dilemma I face. You see, the technology, because it is cheap and easy to use, could have unpredictable and devastating social consequences if put into general circulation. Divorce rates would soar; international diplomacy, even business, would become impossible; politicians, as well as democracy, would become obsolete, etc., etc. Only al Qaeda stands to benefit. For a few million dollars do I really want to take responsibility for such chaos?”

“I see,” says IS. “But why can you simply not re-create the blueprint from memory?”

“Because of a crucial hitch,” I say. “I cannot now remember the exact mathematical form of the elegant Fourier transform that is at the heart of the technology. As an algorithm, it was to be made available for downloading on to your mobile (for a fee). The algorithm would instantly analyse and recognise a characteristic pattern of electro-magnetic waves emanating from the brain. As you know, all thought is electrical activity in the brain; and electrical activity is always accompanied by electro-magnetic radiation. That tiny radiation can be captured by a sensitive, miniaturised photomultiplier type device inbuilt into the mobile.”

My friends are a stubborn lot to convince. “Whether all this nonsense is no more than a vivid dream of yours, I do not know. But I sure as hell know this is the first time I am hearing this,” says NA, as IS nods in agreement.

Could they be right? Was it all a vivid dream? This is most unsettling because, I must confess, something similar has happened before with me. Like the time one night when I thought I had solved Fermat’s last theorem, only to discover the next morning that my scribbled notes were nonsense.

Suddenly I remember something. Did I not last night, after the party, take the delectable Noora to one side, and try to impress her with my upcoming status as a billionaire by telling her of my brilliant idea? Yes, my Arabic may be poor (as is her English), but surely she can confirm to IS the gist of our conversation. “Hold on a minute,” I say to IS, as I phone her. When she answers, I give the phone to him. “Ask Noora about our chat last night if you think I am dreaming.”

They talk for about five minutes in rapid-fire Arabic, which I cannot follow. Signing off, he hands me back the phone with a quizzical look. “Professor, she says you were drunk, and all you did was lecture her about someone called Marx, and some Dialectical Materialism thing.”

Here is that infernal dilemma again, familiar to most Pakistanis. A well constructed conspiracy theory is contradicted by hard facts. What should I do?

“Let us go to Mega Mall,” I say firmly, stubbing out my cigar and draining my glass.


The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit

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