A man grappling with another individual in a bid to be the first to reach the huge dish heaped with rice; another person dressed in Western clothes hitting the one next to him with a plate to clear his route to the food station; people falling over each other and scuffling in a race, where the prize is a plateful of chicken botis and pulao. These are not scenes from a famine and hunger stricken land, but from our very own ‘land of the pure’, with real life people – people, who have three square meals a day, but who act shamelessly like animals converging on meat and bones tossed to them.

The mayhem described above is also not a figment of my imagination, but was seen by millions of Pakistanis on television, during an event organised in Faisalabad in the honour of some luminaries from the ruling party. Not that this behaviour is unique to political workers alone, it is endemic to us as a nation - at wedding feasts or any other place where a large group of people, however well fed they may be, are served free food.

I have seen smartly attired, educated guests at dinners rush to the buffet table, shoulder themselves edgewise into queues with utter disregard to gender or age and then heap their plates with meat as if they were the condemned and this was their last meal. Having once raised my voice at one such spot, I became the focal point of numerous pair of eyes that indicted me as a freak.

I even incurred the wrath of a distant relative, when I left his wedding reception after witnessing the stampede that left me and a few others standing forlornly for a long time, while a sea of guests swirled around the tables not willing to move away after serving themselves. The scene forced me to walk up to the host and stammer some flimsy excuse and permission to leave the event, as a “civilised dinner was awaiting me at my home.”

At another wedding that was serving live barbeque, a commotion drew my attention to a spot where unprintable language was being hurled at a poor waiter. I was later told that a group of guests had lunged at the poor creature in a bid to get at some freshly barbequed kebabs and in the ensuing melee had upset the tray. The resultant mess was immediately attributed to the poor man’s clumsiness and he became the centre of retribution, without cognisance of the fact that the whole episode had been initiated by a pack of human hyenas.

There is a spot in one of Islamabad’s many commercial areas known as Rana Market, where a free evening meal is served to the public every evening. While this is a great gesture and will surely earn the sponsor a lot of merit in the eyes of the Creator, it amply reflects our nature, for there is never a day when the place does not become an arena of conflict.

One look at the regular diners, who frequent free dastarkhwans around the country is enough to indicate that a vast majority of them are professional freeloaders, who ought to be ‘splitting rocks’. It is ironic, but this professional freeloading has its lighter moments. I once attended a wedding dinner in Bahawalpur Club, a long time ago, where I spotted two very robust looking men attired in expensive ‘Do Ghora Boski’ kurtas loading their plates with chicken pieces. Always in search of new material for my columns, I decided to follow their movements as discreetly as was possible. The pair moved into the two distant corners of the marquis, but staying in eye contact. Chicken pieces flew into their mouths with unimaginable speed and even more unimaginable wastage. I watched them gobble two platefuls of our ‘national bird’ before descending on the dessert.

It was then that I decided to ask my hosts if this pair had been invited by him. He not only responded in the negative, but mustering four young men from the family, walked up to the one nearest to him and asked him whether he was part of the ‘baraat’. It was at this point that the scam artist’s luck ran out, for another guest, who happened to be the local Head of Police, chose this moment to enter the marquis and walked up to the little group. I couldn’t suppress a twitter as the uninvited guest looked around him and then lunged for the entrance of the dining area with a couple of waiters and two constables in hot pursuit, much like the scenes in the hilarious ‘Keystone Cops’ movies.

I would, perhaps, understand the reasons for this shameless and animalistic behaviour in people stricken with poverty, but when educated, well fed and perfectly normal individuals exhibit the same, I start raising questions, the answers to which lie, perhaps, with social scientists and psychologists. To an untrained mind such as mine, this is an aberration that needs analysis; for such behaviour disfigures our national image in the eyes of the civilised world.

The writer is a freelance columnist.