Monday, 12 September 2011

Through the eyes of a three year old

by Farhan Ansari


When I sit here today, recollecting the images from my childhood the earliest memories which have left any worthwhile prints on my mid were those of the war of 1965. I was only three, at the time. My father (then Squadron leader Saeed Ansari) was a pilot in active service and carrying out his flying duties from PAF base Masroor (Mauripur as it was called then) in Karachi. I have vivid memories of living in an apartment style officers’ family accommodation. Ours must have been located at the first floor, as I remember we rushed downstairs many times a day during the war. This maneuver usually followed a loud noise of a siren and the sound of airplanes. The roar of several airplanes starting up together at dusk was very unique and produced a deafening noise that I can still hear, almost half a century later. I remember my mother and her friends notably Auntie Rafi (wife of squadron leader Rais Rafi) standing outside the house and counting the number of airplanes flying past our house as their husbands ascended into the skies. They gazed the black silhouettes of the aircraft, till they disappeared into the red horizon of the September sky.

The next scene I can see is that all the wives (of the Pilots) were sitting in the ‘drawing room’ not on the sofas but on a white bed sheet spread on the carpet. All the ladies were either reading the Quran or doing Tasbeeh. It was like a night vigil. It was like their lives were hanging in the balance. It was like a Russian roulette. There was a high chance that one of the men might not return. This pattern repeated night after night after night. I also remember there were times of bouts of laughter followed by long periods of silence. It is now easy to understand why the euphoric episodes during times of extreme stress.

I used to ask my mother when Papa would come back. I was given explanation in a very adult style conversation, that Papa had gone to kill the Hindus and he would come home when he had finished them. I was quite O.K with that explanation. Half an hour later I asked again ‘How many Hindus are left now’. The deafening silence in the room was broken by the faint sound of aircraft approaching from a distance. This had a mixed reaction of joy and anxiety. The ladies would start dialing the squadron headquarters to get information, if all of the pilots had returned safely. A uniform smile across everybody’s face meant that all of them were back. It is also absolutely clear in my memory that my mother would grab me up in her arms and rush towards the road where the squadron bus would drop the pilots to their residence. I remember my father had to walk a short distance from the drop off point to reach home. I remember him wearing his flying attire (coverall) with an additional item, which was a pistol tucked in a holster like a cowboy. This was for his own defense in case he was shot down behind enemy lines.

Six years later in 1971, it was a similar story as far as the families were concerned but this time I was older, I was almost nine. I was petrified of the war. I was more aware of what was going on. There was TV in almost every house broadcasting national songs followed by news and more national songs followed by more news. I could hear my mother crying many a times after hearing the news, as often the names of the Shaheeds announced, were very close family friends with whom my parents has spent good part of their lives in the Air Force. At the time I was too young to understand why these wars were happening, I was satisfied with the holding the belief that we Muslims were winning everything. Little did I realize that there are no winners in wars.

Many years later, I entered the medical field as a doctor and decided to take up surgery as a Profession. This career path took me to Europe, the Middle east, the Far East and Australia. I found that the world had truly become a ‘global village’. I interacted with nationalities from all over. In this day and age any international hospital of any worth has a multinational staff. That includes Indians as well. I interacted with them professionally as well as socially. I found them to be excellent human beings. They laugh like us, cry like us and have all the emotions just like us. In fact having worked as a doctor in eight countries spread over five continents I can almost say that I have operated on every race on earth. Believe me, they all are exactly the same when I opened them up. To put it mildly, ‘it is the same cake with a different icing’.

Few years ago when I was working as a surgeon in Australia, one of my Indian surgeon colleagues invited me to his house for dinner while his mother was visiting him from India and he very much wanted me and my family to taste the ‘Puris’ and Aloo bhaji’ made by his mother's hands. We went for dinner at their place and enjoyed their hospitality par excellence. During the course of the evening we were exchanging various views about Indian customs and Pakistani customs etc, etc and everybody was laughing and enjoying . Then my Indian colleague’s mother told us that her husband was a Pilot in the Indian Air Force and she could recall the 1965 war. Her husband was posted at the Halwara Indian air base. She said ‘I can never forget how terrified we used to be when the Pakistani airplanes used to come at night and drop their bombs. Rajneesh (pointing to my Indian surgeon colleague) was only three at the time and he used to clutch to my neck with fright upon hearing the thunder of the dropping bombs. In the line of duty my father and his colleagues carried out several attacks over the Halwara air base and pounded that air base with bombs as hard as they could. I told her of our suffering on the other side of the border was not much different where a young mother was bracing another three year old who was impatiently waiting for his father. In war there are no winners. It was very strange that two little boys from similar backgrounds on opposite sides of a conflict, per chance grew up to choose the same profession and decades later, meeting each other at an entirely different level.

Whenever I press my rewind button and see these scenes again, and analyze now, sitting in times when I am older and hopefully a bit wiser. I am able to fill in gaps and make sense of many things that were blurred at the time. However, I am sad to say that we as Pakistani people have forgotten our past. We have dispensed with memories of our mistakes as well as ‘our finest hours’. We are just like a rudderless ship caught in a storm in the midst of a rough sea. Look at where India is today and where are we. I don’t know who, how or when did someone sow the seeds of hatred among people inhabiting the troubled colonies of Karachi and other places. These were the people who have lived in relative harmony for years.

This is not much different to how things started in East Pakistan which led to its dismemberment. The basic ingredient here is the same, ‘Seeds of hatred’. When the nation is busy fighting internal insurgencies, it becomes vulnerable to the prying eyes of opportunists. People have no reluctance today, talking about their demands for half a dozen new provinces in Pakistan. It is not rocket science to put these all these on-going events together, and make an intelligent prediction of what we are heading for.

The author is Chief of Surgery at a leading hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.