We have a three-hour stop over at Lahore airport on our way back to
Delhi from Islamabad. I am excited about going back home, but, at the
same time, am sad at the thought of leaving Pakistan. I don’t know
when, if at all, I can come back here, if I can ever again meet some
of those wonderful people whom I almost instantly bonded with in my
short week-long visit to the country. I wonder if I will again be
fortunate enough to get a visa to visit Pakistan.
After all, this, my second visit to Pakistan, was made possible only
after great effort and because of having friends who had the right
contacts in the right places. After my first visit, three years ago,
my applications for a visa to return, to attend conferences and meet
friends, were repeatedly turned down. The reason, so I heard: Upon my
return from that visit, some articles that I wrote on certain aspects
of life in Pakistan—the problems of Dalits and other rural poor in
Sindh and the crisis of intellectuals in the country generally—were
not quite liked by someone in the Pakistan High Commission in New
Delhi, who, so I gather, assumed that this somehow made me highly
suspect. So, he made it a point to make sure that I was to be refused
to enter the country again by putting my name on a particular ‘list’
of unwanted elements. Of course, this someone did not care to notice
the good things that I had written about Pakistan as well, and the
fact, as I had mentioned in my writings that he had seen, that we in
India face similar problems—observations which firmly contradicted the
opinion that he had formed about me.
But, somehow, I am back now in Pakistan and I feel wonderful about it
(after all, this was the home of half of my ancestors!) and this
week-long visit to Islamabad has been overwhelming in every sense of
the term. This trip has afforded me an opportunity to see a different
side of Pakistan, in many respects quite in contrast to what I
observed on my first visit. Islamabad is certainly the cleanest and
most organized city in all of South Asia, and the friends that I’ve
made on this trip have been exceptionally interesting: social
activists, religious scholars, journalists, NGO workers and
documentary film makers. All of which makes me feel a sense of loss
and a heavy sadness deep down inside at the prospect that now that I
should be in Delhi in four hours’ time and not knowing if I can ever
I spend my remaining Pakistani money at the Government handicrafts’
shop, picking up onyx vases and ashtrays and a brightly-hued tapestry.
‘I really wish I could stay on in Pakistani longer’, I tell the
friendly shopkeeper as he tots up my bill. He smiles, and says as he
shakes my hand firmly, ‘Inshallah, you will be back soon’.
I walk over to the cafeteria. A young handsome man hands me a cup of
tea and I repeat the same phrase about wishing that I could stay in
Pakistan longer, meaning ever word of it. And he answers in an
identical fashion. ‘Inshallah, you will come back again’, he assures
me. We get chatting. His name is Habib. He has just joined this job,
having previously worked in a local band. He has composed over a dozen
songs, he says, and on my pleading he sings his latest composition: a
Punjabi song about the pangs of separated lovers.
A voice comes over the microphone, announcing the imminent departure
of Pakistan International Airlines’ flight to Delhi. A line forms
around a counter, and I join it at the end. ‘I really wish I could
stay on longer’, I tell the lady who checks my boarding pass before I
head for the gate leading to the plane. ‘Inshallah, you will be here
soon’, she says coyly.
We have now taken off, and within five minutes we are out of Pakistani
territory, having crossed an imaginary frontier into the Indian
Punjab. Forty-five minutes later, as the plane begins to descend, we
are above Delhi, flying over an urban jungle that extends till the
horizon. And just then, the plane begins to quake like a leaf in the
face of a terrifying typhoon. It violently heaves up and down, this
way and that. We have been caught in a furious storm. Menacing black
clouds swell up outside the window, the darkness broken by massive
bolts of lightening. The plane feverishly resists this sudden assault,
and, I, in my panic, imagine it is all in vain.
An elderly woman next to me seems on the verge of fainting. Her eyes
are shut tight, her face contorted in terror. She buries her head in
the lap of her daughter, who is repeatedly taking the name of Allah,
exhorting Him for protection. I hear similarly desperate cries to God
and Ishwar buzz around me. We all believe that this is the end. I have
never come so close to possible death before. Being a horribly nervous
air-traveller, this experience is grueling. My heart is in my mouth,
and I stomp my feet violently on the floor as the plane furiously
tilts from side to side uncontrollably. Death has come, I imagine, and
my mind seeks to focus on God, begging for forgiveness of sins and for
His acceptance. If a violent death in an air-crash is what He has
decreed, then so be it, I scream to myself. All this while, appeals to
Allah, Ishwar and God become louder and more desperate, all of us,
Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus and Muslims finally united before the
Creator in the face of what we think is imminent death.
The ordeal lasts for almost twenty minutes. I do not know how I
survived that long. As we appear to be crashing below through the
blinding blanket of clouds a desperate voice crackles over the
microphone. I fear for the worst. The airhostess announces that due to
‘very bad’ weather over Delhi we are forced to fly back to Lahore. The
plane then veers around suddenly, as if retracing its steps. Wisely,
the pilot takes a slightly different route back, skirting the
rain-swollen clouds. But till we touch down in Lahore an hour or so
later we are all shocked into an eerie silence in our seats,
whispering our prayers to the one God with multiple names.
‘See, I told you that you would come back soon’, beams the keeper of
the handicrafts shop in the airport when we pile out of the plane,
seeking to pacify me. Habib, the young singer-turned-waiter at the
airport restaurant, welcomes me with a firm hug and an identical
reply. Yes, it is good to be back, to be back on terra firma, to be
back in Lahore, to be back in Pakistan, to be back alive.
The passengers of the aborted flight are directed to a PIA counter in
the departure lounge. There we are informed that there is no scheduled
flight from Lahore to Delhi for the next four days. We could wait till
then, we are told. I wish I could avail that option, for it would give
me four extra days in Pakistan. But, I cannot, since my visa expires
We are advised to take an alternate route: to fly to Karachi the next
evening, and from there to Delhi, obviously an arduously long journey.
I hear noises of protest. Frankly, I would not mind this option
either. That way, I could get to see a bit of Karachi, at least its
airport, said to be the swankiest in Pakistan. But the grumbles of
protest grow louder and more aggressive. A hefty Pakistani man and two
angry Indian women surround the counter, threatening to go on virtual
strike and demanding that PIA arrange a special flight to take us to
Delhi directly. I think their brusqueness is entirely uncalled for,
considering the valour of the intrepid PIA pilot (a woman, it turns
out) who steered us safely through what could have been a deadly
killer storm. But, now that most of the other passengers have joined
the chorus demanding a special flight, I decide to keep shut. So,
finally, it is decided by our strike leaders that we, a bunch of some
fifty Pakistanis and Indians, roughly equal in number, shall refuse to
fly to Karachi and, instead, shall press on with the demand for a
special flight to Delhi immediately. I quietly submit to what I think
is an entirely unreasonable demand.
Three hours later, the PIA officials relent and graciously announce
that they have arranged for a craft to take us to Delhi tomorrow
evening. We are informed that arrangements have been made for us to
stay at the nearby Airport Inn. Meanwhile, the three white passengers
have left the group, probably planning to cross over into India
through the Attari-Wagah border crossing point, thirty miles away,
which we Indians and Pakistanis ironically cannot do because our visas
permit us only to fly to India and not cross overland.
We file into vans waiting outside and are driven to the inn—which
turns out to be a modest privately-owned lodge and not the fancy,
government-owned five star hotel that some passengers were obviously
expecting, judging by the angry clicking of tongues that I hear when
we arrive at the reception desk. The lodge is short of rooms, we are
told by the receptionist, and so are to be put two to a room. This is
done in an entirely random fashion, which is, I feel, all to the good,
because most Indian and Pakistani passengers find that they are
forced, whether they like it or not, to share rooms with a person of
the other nationality.
Rehan, a businessman from Gujranwala, and I have been assigned the
same room, which is barely large enough to accommodate the bed that
occupies almost all the available space. We introduce ourselves to one
another, and, as all the other passengers seem to be doing, talk about
the harrowing experience on the flight and about how glad we are to
have been saved from impending death. We walk up to the room together
and, after a quick wash, lunge into the bed and earn some very well
It is late evening when we wake up. Rehan insists that I join him for
dinner at a nearby eatery and refuses to budge when I plead that we
share the hefty bill. In less than three hours, the panic that gripped
all of us on the flight in the face of the near-death experience has
bonded Rehan and me together in a strange, unexplainable way. He’s now
‘Yaar’, ‘Bhai’ and ‘Baba’, and I slap him on the back and he does the
same to me. I already know much about his wife and his three children,
about his income and his passion for travel and good food, and I’ve
told him likewise about myself. It seems that I’ve known Rehan for as
long as I can recall.
And this seems to be the case with most of the other Indian and
Pakistani passengers who have been herded together in shared rooms in
the Airport Inn. By now, I am on first-name terms with at least half
of the passengers. So, I know about Nathu, the Hindu trader from
Sukkur in Sindh and his passion for Sufi music. And Najma, a corpulent
Shia woman from Lahore, who is on the way to visit long-lost relatives
in Lucknow. And Haji Shams, a learned maulvi from Sargodha, who has
been invited to a conference in Delhi on ethics and biotechnology. And
Hussaini, a frail, elderly woman from Hyderabad in Sindh who is
heading for a city with the same name in India for a medical
operation. And so on. And, likewise, the numerous Indian passengers
whose addresses I have noted and whom I hope to meet once we get back
to India, Inshallah.
The next day is spent in the confines of the Airport Inn, for we have
no idea when the special craft that we have been told would be
arranged for us would depart. Rehan and I sit on the steps of the
entrance to the inn, watching the traffic pass by—cars, gaily painted
buses (each a work of art), Chinese-made tempos and donkey-carts. This
part of suburban Lahore could easily pass for any north Indian town.
Ayub Khan, the hefty, amiable armed Pakhtun guard, keeps us regaled
with stories about his village nestled in the mountains near the
Afghan frontier. Some passengers (Indians, I am ashamed to report)
interrupt our reverie with frantic shrieks hurled at the receptionist
for badly functioning air-conditioners, taps which do not work and tea
that has been served cold.
At three in the afternoon, we are told that PIA has arranged for a
plane to take us to Delhi and that it would depart at six thirty that
evening. I react to that announcement with relief, mixed with sadness
at the thought of imminent departure.
When we reach the airport we are told that the special plane arranged
for us is a forty-seater craft that flies with the help of propellers.
That sends me into a spasm of agony. Surely, I tell myself, this tiny
craft that I think uses outmoded technology will not be able to
weather a storm over Delhi, if we are again stuck in one. And the
timing of the flight is another major cause of trepidation. It is
scheduled to arrive in Delhi in the late evening, when, at this time
of the year, fierce squalls have a nasty habit of breaking out.
I ascend the ladder leading up to the tiny plane with a deep sense of
fear. I wish there was some other way of getting back to Delhi. But,
there isn’t, since our visas strictly require us to return to Delhi by
air from Lahore, and so, I tell myself, there is no point in fretting.
The friendly steward guides me to my seat, which is next to Rehan’s.
Rehan isn’t making things easier for me, as he talks about how
diminutive the plane seems, how feeble the propellers might be in the
face of a storm. Najma, the corpulent Lahori who is heading for
Lucknow, tries to make light of the situation. Surveying the miniscule
aircraft, which looks like a slightly oversized toy plane, she jokes,
‘It’s as if we are all going on a family picnic!’.
I struggle to smile.
And, then, in a short while, we are airborne and I whisper my prayers
to God. The sky is remarkably clear, a brilliant cloudless blue. The
plane sails majestically like a swallow in spring. The friendly
steward assures me, when I tell him that I am already missing
Pakistan, that I shall, Inshallah, return soon.
Barely half an hour later, plane begins to descend, and the airhostess
informs us that we should be reaching Delhi in a short while. My mind
goes to Pakistan, which we have left just thirty minutes ago, and I
also think of India, where we should be touching down in half that
time. How near the two countries are, and yet so distant!
Then an idea strikes me. I grab a scrap of paper—actually, half of the
airsickness bag kept in the pocket before me—and I scribble down the
Yesterday’s near brush with death has brought all of us, Pakistanis
and Indians, so close together. If in the face of
death, our common destiny, we can be so close, then why not in life,
too? In order to celebrate the close bonds that we all have
established in this one day, I propose that the moment the plane
touches down in Delhi, Allah/Ishwar willing, we should raise the
Pakistani-Hindustani Bhai Bhai!
Please read this note and pass it around.”
I hand over the note to the passenger sitting behind me, and it
gradually weaves its way around the plane. Just to make sure that
everyone gets the message, after a while I stand up and announce what
the note is all about. Aware that we have two feminists on board—who
had attended the same conference as I in Islamabad—I add that the
phrase “Bhai-Bhai” can be substituted by “Behen-Behen”, if the need is
A panic-stricken airhostess, hearing my impassioned speech, rushes to
my seat, wondering what has happened. ‘I’m doing my politics’, I tell
her with a chuckle, and she breaks into an approving smile when I
explain what my declamation is all about.
Five minutes later, the little plane gracefully touches down at New
Delhi airport and I hear a loud chorus repeat after me,