I was at the Karachi airport, waiting, and then from the blessed corner of the lounge where several rosaries were placed on a long prayer mat the azan was called. I welcomed it as an omen that the departure of my flight was about to be announced. But this azan too did not herald the awaited prize. No announcement followed. Depressed, I remarked that this was the third azan I had heard being called while I sat in the same seat.
“Just the third?” the passenger sitting next to me asked.
“It is the fifth I have heard. That is how long I have been here, waiting.”
I remembered the last time I was stranded at an airport in Pakistan. One could already offer prayers at the airports in those days but you did not hear the azan. So in an ordeal like this, the time appeared to have stopped. A reminder primarily for prayers, an azan also has a peculiar significance for the passengers. It marks the passage of time.
Once the call had stopped echoing, my mind was once again beset with apprehensions of all kinds. I was reminded of myriad passages on the theme: a piece from a novel, a scene from a play, several verses. I remembered a play I once wrote. The flood is about to wash away an entire settlement. The people have abandoned their homes and walked to a railway station. They await a train they can board and leave the drowning village. But there is no sign of a train, approaching or leaving.
Next I was reminded of a Camus novel. It describes a city hit by a plague. The town has been quarantined to contain the epidemic. Most anxious to leave the place is a newspaper reporter who had arrived eager to report on the situation not realising that he’d get stranded, the paper’s considerable resources notwithstanding.
I mentioned the novel to the passenger sitting next to me. He was amused
. “So could you be the newspaper reporter in the story? You came here eager to witness the Literary Festival and now you are impatient to leave. But that was a plagued city. The situation here is different.”
I sighed and said that in a way our plight was worse. In the novel, they were at least aware of the disease that threatened them whereas we are totally ignorant of what ails us. Our situation, in fact, is closer to Mir’s narration of the people who seek a cure where the very cause of all their problems lies.
Just as I spoke the public address system came alive. The announcement made was for a cancellation of the flight. I gathered my luggage and walked. There was a crowd in front of me and a crowd behind. There was shouting, abuse, curses. Somebody shouted angrily to challenge the announcement. “How can the flight be cancelled?” Many people stopped and turned back. I considered it best to slip out quietly. Once outside, I would relax and plan my next move.
But there was no relaxing yet. There was a hoard of angry protesters at the gate. It was as if they were about to attack. The media people had a field day, cameras clicking incessantly. Security guards were arrayed on the other hand. Their patience too was now wearing thin. Presently there was a baton charge.
I stood in a corner and wondered how I would ever leave Karachi. Railways are already a mess.
Are we approaching the end of the Ghulam Abbas story which begins by pointing to Hotel Mohanjodaro as a symbol of Pakistan’s achievements? The scientific advance is eventually condemned by a rustic cleric. In the end, there is only a wilderness. Some tourists ride a camel safari through the desert. The guide points to where Hotel Mohanjodaro had stood.
Will a camel rider kindly stop and pick a poor traveller, stranded on his way?
*Translated from Urdu
Published in The Express Tribune.