On Being Grateful


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On a chilly evening in DC last weekend, I had to attend a friend’s birthday. After racing down the metro’s steps, cutting past sauntering travelers, I had reached the platform to find my train a little delayed. So much for that, I had thought, cursing the red line, which operates with about as much predictability as the murderous public buses of Karachi. Pacing around the platform, I settled on a spot to stand and wait;  one foot against the wall, fiddling with the playlist on my phone.

Then I saw him. He was steadfastly making his way through the crowd, smiling and saying “excuse me,” where he came up too close to another person. His stick gently surveyed the route ahead, alerting him to obstacles and open space. He was walking in my direction, red shopping bag in hand. As a few people in between cleared away, it seemed for a moment that he would walk into me. He didn’t though, and paused a few feet away. The gentleman was visually challenged.

Using that term, visually challenged, always takes me back to a sunny afternoon in middle school, when I first learnt of it from Ms. Saima Ammar. Ms. Ammar had come to my school to give a guest lecture, and she shared her perspective on life for visually impaired individuals, and the the steps society should undertake to ensure that they too have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. At one point, she made us close our eyes and re-imagine the world and how we might navigate it. Still in our early teens, Ms. Ammar’s lecture left an impact on all of us. At the time, she was the Director of the Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness (PFFB), an Islamabad-based NGO which was working (and still does) to develop educational material for visually challenged individuals. Several years later, I would do a summer internship at PFFB. Ms. Ammar touched the lives of many people through her work, and provided  invaluable service to the visually challenged community of Pakistan. Her exemplary grit was an inspiration to everyone who came to know her. It still is, though sadly, she passed away in 2011.

In the ceaseless bustle of everyday life, most people in fact become visually challenged, as we lost sight of all the privileges already accorded to us by life. A healthy mind, body, the ability to work, to study, play, and the list can go on. So often, one becomes mired in what one doesn’t have, what must be done, what must be acquired. We fail to get something we want, and feel tremendously frustrated and indignant. In a dynamic world, these moments can overwhelm one completely if one doesn’t take time out to think of all that one does have, and moreover, to be grateful for it. The blessing of sight is certainly one of these bounties. Being able to see, feel, and operate in a world of colour is not a privilege granted to everyone.

It shouldn’t stop there though. Being grateful for what one has and doing nothing about the challenges faced by one’s fellow citizens is not good enough. It will not lead to an equitable world. Any fair social contract must recognize the unique starting points of individuals (and the challenges faced by them) to the greatest extent possible, and thereafter assign an appropriately calibrated level of social support to those individuals. That is the mark of a truly civilized society.

The train eventually arrived. The visually challenged gentleman stepped on first. I followed, conscious of my trivial frustrations, and grateful for the few minutes of delay which had reminded me to be grateful.

FLIGHT NUMBER BISMILLAH!

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In late March, I traveled from Istanbul to Islamabad. As the flight began, it occurred to me how certain experiences were peculiar to flights bound for Pakistan. I penned the following at various stages of the journey.

Credit: M. Y. for coining the term ‘Flight Number Bismillah,’ and for introducing me to it.

…………………………

You know you’re on a flight to Pakistan when….

The overhead bins fill up faster than you can say “carry-on.”

You hear several aunties gasp “Bismillah!” as the plane begins to taxi.

There is at least one contingent of Haji’s on board, flashing smiles as they enjoy their newfound celebrity status.

There is at least one contingent of British Pakistanis on board, speaking a hybrid of cockney and Punjabi.

You are given a complimentary in-flight performance by the Pakistani Children’s Wailing Orchestra each time.

You start to see women wearing ‘joggers’ with shalwar kameez.

Instead of air-freshener, the plane smells of desi khana.

The carry-on of choice is a large black shopping bag.

You overhear the following words at least once during the flight “Who kia zamana tha jee Pakistan k liay. Bas ab halaat aisay ho gaye hain…

At least once, you also hear a mother saying to her kids: “Agar tum logon ne ab aur shor michaya tau!!!” The threat is delivered with that menacing hand gesture also known as a chapair.

This happens once during the flight: A well-to-do girl comes to sit in the economy area, and after taking a look at the masses, makes a face that says “why didn’t daddy send me first class?!”

When every glance exchange with guys your own age seems to say “Oai, kaun se visa par bahir gaye thay?”

The person in front of you decides to use their seat like their drawing room sofa.

You can go to the toilets to see a replica of Karachi’s open air sewer concept, even before you reach the actual city.

The announcement “Ladies and gentlemen, our aircraft has not reached its final destination, please remain seated and do not open the overhead bins,” has to be played multiple times.

The stampede that ensues at the end of the flight as people rush to the gate reminds you of the scene when Mufasa dies in Lion King 1.

By the time the plane reaches the gate, you have a new-found appreciation for life’s miracles.

If the Dubai, Riyadh, and Bahrain flights land around the same time as yours, you know the baggage claim area will look like a commodities packaging warehouse.

After watching Pakistani women wrestle suitcase after suitcase off the conveyor belt, while their children tantrums, you begin to wonder whether the mothers brought them along just for the extra baggage allowance.

No matter what the flight is like though, it is always great to be back in the Fatherland!

From John F. Kennedy to Benazir International Airport

The signal changes from red to green.

Audiovisual: *Sounds of honking, followed by a heated exchange. Vehicles compete for a chance to cross the signal and take their place at the next red light, about three hundred yards ahead.*

Sorry about that, dear passenger, the temperature really seems to be getting to people today. It has been a while, hasn’t it? What did you do in my absence? Ah, another driver. I see.

You don’t seem to be in a hurry, let’s stop for a glass of club soda in Jinnah, shall we? It will help beat the heat, and I can begin telling you the story of a memorable flying experience, for I flew with great people.

New York City and Beyond – Parvaaz se Pehlay

New York is one of the world’s most remarkable cities, simply because there is no one way to describe it. It’s special because it makes you feel alive. You realize that you are living at the cusp of change, never far from exciting events that shape our globe. Perhaps this was even truer a few decades ago, when alternate centers for global finance were yet to gain credibility. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, Doha and Seoul, amongst others, have gained prominence in recent years. New York, through its strong correlation with events in these cities, is on full throttle around the clock.

On my many trips to the City, there has never been a dull moment. Though I do not know New York well enough yet to guide tourists to the Chrysler building, I do know that there are just 42 seats in all of Port Authority Bus station. Yes, that is correct. I counted them to pass a long night as I waited for a connecting bus, using my suitcase as furniture.

There is so much to explore and to discover in the City – aromatic lamb-rice dishes cooked by a street vendor, the electric but warm confines of Grand Central station, German girls trying to figure out the ATM machine on Times Square, a young man carrying an impossibly large carton in his hands, your reflection in a mixture of glass and steel, a rouge scarf, directions from a kind Mongolian man, a sense of purpose. I heard that last week, if you had looked closely enough, you might even have found a Pakistani man, dressed in all-black, hailing a yellow cab to take him to the airport.

It was a gorgeous day. There was just enough sunshine and everyone seemed to be enjoying the lively breeze. As I took pictures of the city, it was difficult not to feel that one was living an American adaptation of Sting’s ‘Desert Rose’ video. New York can do such things to you, but what better place to let your imagination run wild!

Arrival at the airport, terminal 4, was smooth and uneventful. I settled down in a corner, from where PIA’s check-in counters were visible, and read for pleasure. The mix of people at JFK was eclectic, as usual.  There were grandparents, arguing on their way back from vacation, parents and their rebellious teenage children in tow, and European twenty-somethings with compact suitcases. Time came to board. My bags were checked-in and I proceeded to the gate.

Gate 31 was unlike any other.

First of all, you could hear it from a mile away. A distinct buzz that was missing from the rest of the airport. It was the sound of one of the highest birthrates of the world – yes, children. There was a palpable sense of excitement as one walked towards Gate 31. Every family seemed to have a few of them, as if it was as worthwhile as exhausting your baggage allowance. I wondered if they had snuck a few in after checking-in, before I took a seat amongst the crowd.

The flight was announced soon, and passengers dutifully moved towards the counter. In reasonably neat lines, excited to be headed back to Pakistan. However, not just yet. Two additional farewell presents for Pakistanis:

  1. Materials testing of youngish guys. A friendly policeman wiped my hands with a white paper. I asked if it smelt nice.
  2. Extra questioning of passengers just before boarding the plane. Some were taken away just before the flight.

Sigh, the blind keep walking, anxious to get back home.

In-flight Entertainment – Parvaaz Kay Dauraan

“Aap please udhar baith jain sir (Sir, please move to that seat),” said the middle-aged airhostess to another passenger, pointing to my seat. Wondering what was going on, I started to get up. “Nahi, main tau kahin nahi jaunga (No! I wont go anywhere)!” The passenger, a 40-something male, shouted back. “Meray liay easy hojayega (It will be easier for me)” the air hostess insisted. “Tang na karain mujhay mein ishi seat par baithunga!” The passenger said ferociously. “Main captain ko complain karungi (I will complain about you to the captain)!” the air-hostess had argued, still trying. “Chalain apna kaam karain (Go and mind your work)!” snapped the man. The air hostess, dejected, turned towards her station. As she did, the man jerked his head with contempt and said “Hah! Stupid kahin ki (Hah! That stupid woman)!” I stared at them, bewildered by the exchange. In my mind, a white and green balloon popped with a loud bang, releasing patriotism into the air. I asked the man to take it easy, and reminded him that it was a time to be happy – we were all headed to Pakistan.

Later, I learnt that I was sitting in a row where most of the other passengers were deportees. As they started talking, I learnt that many of them had spent one or two decades in America. Recently, they had encountered minor problems with their paperwork, and had run into severe trouble. Faced with long imprisonment terms or returning to Pakistan, they had chosen the latter. At the beginning of the flight, they made teary phone calls to the loved ones they were leaving behind.

Welcome to Pakistan – Khushamded

We landed in Lahore first. The airport was quite a sight. There were three different kinds of porters with overlapping spheres of influence. One set was in black, another in brown, and another in blue. They were all there to move your bags for you – to your car, to other terminals etc. The more enterprising of them also had an additional trick up their sleeve – the ability to lightning-track you through the long security check! Haha…desperate to do everything on my own, I held out against the barrage of porters that approached me. They all seemed to be asking me for a 10 or a 20. At first, I was surprised that they were offering their services for just 10 or 20 rupees, much beneath what I remembered to be the going rate for their services! However, I immediately realized that they were asking for dollars!!!

Later, a small plane took us on a short flight from Lahore to Islamabad. Gracefully, it touched the runway, and taxied to a halt in front of the terminal. I walked down on the steps that take you down to the tarmac – characteristic of Islamabad airport. Stepping off after the final one, I touched the ground with my fingertips. Islamabad was before us, and we were home.

It is good to see you again. Let’s try our luck again with the traffic, shall we?

From Abu Dhabi, With Affection

Dear Passenger,

We are going places, despite all odds. Islamabad airport has not changed much over the years, except the new Benazir brand name. The security officials still greet you with a smirk, and are sure to pass a smart comment, before they let you go. Booking was cancelled for some strange reason this time, and the staff dealt with it in the usual manner. “No sir, you are not in the system,” and afterwards, perhaps sensing my motivation to return to school: “Jee in ka boarding pass bana dein. Kar dein gay jee, aap fikar na karein, bhejain gay aap ko school” Haha…at least there is never a dull moment, when you travel through our country.

Abu Dhabi Airport, or as a friend affectionately calls it, Aboo Dabby, has a glossy shine to it. It is bustling with people from South Asia and Europe, and you can hear crisp Arabic announcements over the loudspeaker. The airport is modern yet of traditional design, and it functions well. As I write this though, there seems to be some long hold-up in the line for checking in. One thing is evident though, Abu Dhabi has been able to market itself as a connecting point for travelers from different parts of the world. They enjoy the hospitality and connectivity that the city and its facilities offer. One wonders whether Pakistan could have succeeded in producing a similar model. A long time ago, Karachi was touted as being on its way to becoming a regional hub for trade and commerce, and an important destination on the international flight scene. None of that ever happened, perhaps because more immediate concerns took up the attention of policy makers.

This time we journey from the homeland, not very sure of when the return will be. You would be pleased to know that Margallah Road is still happening and still offers a picturesque drive through Islamabad. You must, of course, ignore the barriers, checkpoints and soldiers along the way. They are just symbols of the times that we live in, and a reminder of the hard work that needs to be put in to bring stability to Pakistan. The city was a little dusty this time, it hasn’t rained for several months. Many people attribute this to the indiscriminate chopping of trees in the capital, others to the evil deeds of the city’s residents. Take your pick, but not a drop of rain either way.

As I wrote before, much has changed, yet little at the same time. There are new challenges, yet the strategies to combat them are old. Adornments have changed, but mentalities often remain bound to obsolete values and traditions. However, the city trudges on, and we wish it best.

I wonder how you will be, Islamabad, when I roam your streets next. Take care of yourself.

Old Corolla is purring along nicely. We have a long way to go, but perhaps it is best to break the journey for now, and give her a rest. I will go ahead and drop you home, then be on my way.

Until next time.