The Governor, the Child, and a Mouse

My 19-hour flight from Islamabad to New York

Just as I was about to leave for Islamabad airport in the late afternoon to catch an evening flight to Abu Dhabi, and onward to New York, a fierce windstorm hit the city turning everything dark, and stirring up dark thoughts in my mind.

Would the flight take off on time? If not, will I be able to catch the connecting flight to New York or end up spending the night at the airport or in some random hotel? Such thoughts and many more assailed my mind. I even considered canceling my flight. To calm myself I took an anti-anxiety pill and left home for the airport.

By the time I reached the airport, the storm had died down and the sky cleared up enough to allow the incoming flight from Abu Dhabi to land and then take off back to Abu Dhabi, on time. Many things we worry about don’t actually happen.

The journey from Islamabad to New York, with a three-hour layover at Abu Dhabi, takes about 19 hours. Spending those hours on the plane can be a challenge for most people, especially those who can’t sleep on a flight. I’m one of them. Finding an interesting person to talk to always helps. And I found one across the aisle.

He was dressed in a jacket and tie. I immediately recognized him. I had seen him on TV and in newspapers. He had been governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KP) at one time. I said a polite hello to him. He warmly returned my greeting and seemed friendly enough to talk to. We entered into a tentative conversation, across the aisle, about where each of us was going and then gradually moved to other topics.

Since the governor of KP is also the executive head of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, FATA, I was curious to know his views on FATA’s special status and whether or not it be merged with KP province, a popular topic of political discussion in Pakistan these days. So, I asked him about his views.

He immediately warmed up to the subject. It seemed as if I had asked him his favorite question. He asked me to move over to the empty seat next to him so that we could talk more easily, which I did.

He spoke at length, with passion and conviction, against the merger of FATA with KP. He wanted the status quo to remain including the old laws — both formal and traditional — that governed the people of the tribal areas, with some modifications. I thought differently and was not quite convinced with his reasoning but listened patiently.

He said he had also written a paper on the subject and that he would gladly send me a copy if I give him my address. Since I couldn’t readily find a piece of paper I wrote my address on a paper napkin, which the stewardess had given me earlier along with the glass of orange juice, and handed it to him. He read the address, unfolded the napkin, tore off the blank half of it, folded the remaining half that had the address on it, and carefully put it in his jacket’s inner pocket. I was impressed with his meticulousness.

We disembarked at Abu Dhabi, said goodbye to each other, and proceeded to our respective lounges. He was going to London. I never received the paper the governor had promised but our conversation did help pass the three hours rather quickly.

I spent the layover at Abu Dhabi airport drinking lemon-mint, checking and sending messages on my phone, and watching people. Watching people at airports can be an interesting study of human behavior. I especially envy the people who can fall asleep sitting in their chairs using their carry-on luggage as a footstool.

It was past midnight. The flight to New York took off on time. Spending the next 13 hours on the plane was not a comforting thought.

A 4-year old blond child came to give me company this time. Soon after the seat belt signs were turned off and the flight steadied, the child freed himself from his mother’s lap across the aisle, and started moving up and down the dimly lit cabin, examining people in their seats. After making one or two rounds of the aisle, he gingerly walked towards me, studied me carefully, and grinned at me. I smiled back and, and to amuse him made funny faces at him. He giggled and darted back to his mother, a rather wholesome woman. He soon returned with a sheet of paper and a pencil and gave them to me. He had scribbled a few random lines on the paper and, obviously, wanted me to draw something for him.

I had never been good at drawing. The only thing I learned to draw, as a schoolchild, was a mouse. Most children in my class did it for fun. So, I proceeded to draw a mouse for my young acquaintance.

I drew a large Urdu numeral <, 7, which would become the mouse’s snout, then attached two Urdu 8s ٨٨ to the upper leg of <, which would be the mouse’s ears. Then I drew the mouse’s body, which was simply a balloon lying on its side. To the balloon, I attached two feet underneath and a tail. A dot in the snout, representing the eye, completed the picture. I also signed it.

As I drew, the child watched me intently. He seemed amused by the final result. He took the sheet from me, scrutinized it, giggled, and darted back to his mother handing the paper to her. As she examined my drawing, I could see a faint smile on her face but couldn’t tell what she thought of it. She then took the pencil from the child and did something to the sketch and gave it back to him. The child came running back to me with the edited sketch. The mother had added whiskers to the mouse’s snout, which I had not. She was right. A mouse is never without whiskers.

The child and the mouse kept me occupied for some time, but then the pill took over, the pill I had taken before starting my journey at Islamabad to overcome anxiety. It had a soporific effect. I couldn’t resist sleep anymore. I pulled my seat into a bed, covered myself with a blanket, turned off the lights, and went to sleep. I kept drifting in and out of sleep, but when I woke and looked at the flight path on the TV screen, only three hours were left to JFK. I must have slept a long time, the longest ever on a flight.

Passing the next three hours looked easy. I decided to watch a movie. After fiddling with the movie menu, I chose an old movie, ‘Chocolat’. The story was set in a fictional village in France where people closely adhere to religious traditions. A young attractive woman, a single mother of a six-year-old girl, who also happens to be not a believer in religious traditions, moves to the village. She is a chocolatier and opens a chocolate shop during Lent, the period preceding Easter when the Christian Church is devoted to fasting and abstinence. Among her other “deviations”, she wears more colorful clothing than the village women. The village mayor doesn’t like her nonconformist ways of life and uses the parish priest to turn the folks against her, but the woman stands her ground. Ultimately her delicious chocolates and her friendly and alluring nature win the village, including the mayor and the priest, to her side.

It was a charming story with a profound message. The story might as well have been about present-day Pakistan except that it wouldn’t be a happy ending for the young woman.

While the movie credits were scrolling up on the screen, the PA system crackled with the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll soon be landing at JFK. Please fasten your seatbelts …”

What a relief! The 19 hours journey was finally over.

The journey that had started with a sense of foreboding passed rather pleasantly, thanks to the governor, the child, and a mouse — and the pill.

July 1, 2016

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