“What would you know about our struggles? You are the privileged class!” the mere sentence saturates me with memories from my past, recalling one of my earliest lessons in life – the absence of a loved one; a glitch in your childhood and what is considered a typical nuclear household.
I cannot recall if it was the weather or my memory playing tricks on me, but it was a foggy, gloomy day, I woke up to my red nosed mother, cheeks flushed and eyes struggling to conceal tears. My father stood in the doorway, surrounded by packed bags, his face mirrored my mother’s expressions. At that moment, nothing was said, but I had an unexplainable gut feeling that led me to my father’s embrace. The ensuing silence was deafening.
I apologize for the gaps in my memory. Perhaps it is because I was too young, or maybe the brain automatically buries the most traumatic memories deep within the mind’s google drive, making them harder to retrieve. What I do remember is my mother frantically cleaning the entire house, searching for the right words to explain the occurrences from that day and the events that were to follow.
At such a young age, I struggled to comprehend the gravity of the situation. All I could gather was that my father was going away for a year or more to live ‘on a mountain peak’ named Siachen, where he (as a doctor) would treat the soldiers battling to defend our country.
“Is it dangerous because he can fall off the mountain, mama?” My innocent questions betray the tender age at which I was expected to assimilate the upheavals in my life. To my surprise, it was not solely the mountain’s altitude that engendered peril, but rather the merciless conditions it welcomed you to. No longer did I paint snow-capped peaks in my portraits during arts class because now their beauty harboured malevolence and only entailed that my father could be a victim of frostbite, leading to paralysis or amputation in worst case scenarios. Labelling Pakistan’s boundaries on my geography notebook and indicating its neighbouring countries was an experience that transcended mere scholastic education for me, as it hit close to home. The classroom discussion was no longer confined to general knowledge of world geography and Pakistan’s topography, but instead, my personal apprehensions about avalanches and their incidence rates took centre stage. Upon learning of climate change, it was no longer a global issue, rather the thought of melting snow caps and run-off of glaciers would make it harder to fall asleep only to be woken up by nightmares. Above all, the concepts of “war” and “enemy countries” were no longer merely anecdotes of conquest and defeat, but a bitter stark reality that engendered both a sense of trepidation and patriotism in my three-foot-nine-inch frame.
The annual tradition of discovering a surprise present tucked away in ‘Papa’s’ cupboard on my birthday had become a distant memory, and the prospect of an Eid reunion, while eagerly awaited, was also tinged with bitterness due to the inherent risks involved. During ‘bad weather conditions’, the plane would either remain grounded or meander aimlessly in the sky, failing to reach its intended destination. Given the limited duration of the Eid holidays, the prospect of waiting an additional day for the flight to take off seemed like an imprudent waste of valuable vacation time, resulting in my father frequently opting for a road journey instead. I feel that it is pertinent for me to mention here that the early 2000s hadn’t seen the infrastructure and road links that we have now become accustomed to and as such, unlike other fathers that I saw and heard of, mine had to literally undertake treacherous mountain climbs to see us and reach “home” from his “office.”
My recollection of the last ‘roza’ of Ramzan of 2003 is hazy, but I distinctly recall eagerly anticipating my father’s arrival for ‘iftar. However, it was several hours after the meal had concluded that I hastened to greet my father at the door, who flinched a little as he enfolded me in his arms. It wasn’t until later, when he was comfortably reclined on his bed, that I noticed a bluish-black hue and crusted blood encircling his toenail. He had to explain a landslide to me, which had impeded his vehicle and destroyed the road ahead, forcing him to summon his inner superhero and transform into “Spiderman”, swinging down the treacherous mountain terrain to evade the landslide, which ‘only caught-up to the superhero’s toe.’
While browsing through the category of superheroes and fictional characters, my mind’s google drive instantly retrieves a similar recollection. The aftermath of the devastating earthquake that ravaged the country in 2005, left the entire nation gripping with sorrow, fear, and an acute sense of vulnerability. Sleep evaded us all, and the only source of solace was the comfort and reassurance we derived from being nestled alongside our loved ones, bracing ourselves for the inevitable aftershocks that rattled our homes throughout the frigid winter nights. However, the prevailing sense of paranoia and anxiety that had taken hold of the nation intensified tenfold for me and my family when the ‘superhero’ had to be sent to a rescue/ relief mission at Bagh Kashmir, the epicentre of the disaster.
Given the scarcity of communication and the unreliable state of our networks, receiving a phone call was akin to having a wish granted by a genie in a magical lamp. I have a faint recollection of a conversation I had with my father a few days into his mission, during which he regaled me with tales of his ‘camping expedition’, describing how he had set up his tent beneath a walnut tree, the fruits of which he devoured during the day and how ‘Jerry’ (from Tom & Jerry) gave him company every night. However, on the previous night, ‘Jerry’ had been especially mischievous and had pricked my father’s thumb, “he must have mistaken it for Tom’s paw” he had chuckled into the receiver – the darkness of the humour that I now comprehend more deeply.
“You are provided with all sorts of comfort and facilities in your publicly inaccessible cocoons (cantonments).” Hearing this further drowns me in my reminiscing as I recall my ‘VIP Buckingham palace suite’. My room was a car porch cum bedroom, one wall had holes in it for ventilation purposes of the porch, which I later tried to conceal and embellish with my artistic endeavours and one wall had a window that oversaw my parents’ room. Our limited resources allowed for the installation of only two air conditioners. One unit was designated for the drawing room to cater to guests, and the other was installed in my ‘suite’. The rest of the house, however, was bereft of seeing this luxury. The window in between the two rooms of my ‘suite’ was a magic trick that allowed for the shared use of one air conditioner, providing a cool blow for both spaces and consequently saving on utility bills.
During summer break, children in my school and in my immediate relatives had to travel all the way to London Zoo and the Kenyan safari to see wildlife whereas I had been ‘privileged’ enough to eagerly await the arrival of, and fearsomely wave at a monitor lizard every afternoon from my very own backyard in Multan and find scorpions in the toilet flush and snakes under my bed in Bahawalpur.
“You probably have never even seen electricity loadshedding in your prestigious cantonments”, this notion elicits a wry smile from me as it invokes a sense of nostalgia reminiscent of the bi-hourly activities my siblings and I used to engage in on a daily. Unlike the common practice in the households of my friends and relatives, where the house help would be summoned to start the generator during power outages, the loss of electricity in our home was welcomed by a lively commotion. My siblings and I would run, often bumping our toes into tables and sofas, to spray each other with our water guns and race to the lounge window to catch the ‘best and most frequent angle’ of the blow of breeze (mostly heat currents) coming through the window, hitting against our drenched clothing turning into our ‘personal portable aircon systems.’ The sight of a generator or UPS in neighbouring houses of the cantonment would either mean they had won a lottery or had saved up for a year to be able to afford such a ‘luxury’.
While I heard other fathers engage in discussions, often critical of the military for its efforts to “wipe out terrorism” that has plagued the country for decades, from the comfort of air-conditioned rooms, for me however, it was much more than a coffee table discussion. Regardless of whether it was seen as a failure or triumph, my father was obliged to leave us and venture into the barren, dangerous war zones while we struggled to sleep, our minds preoccupied with prayers and concerns about his safe return.
My train of thought is abruptly interrupted by the sound of my phone ringing; it is the driver (a facility enjoyed after thirty years of my father’s service) informing me that he has arrived, “So Your majesty, your ride, paid for by our tax money is here”. I grin as I ignore the taunt, invoking the times when my mother would drive us to and from school irrespective of weather and climate, in a car that often broke down halfway home, while ‘kaala daalas’ and other protocol vehicles adorned with gunned men came to pick the other ‘underprivileged’ children and I now wonder whose taxpayer funded those shenanigans. “The princess is generous enough to offer you a drop, if you desire” I respond, laughing off the thought and the weight of the criticism.
Now that I have grown and learnt to gracefully bear with these ‘civilian’ (but less than civil) taunts, my predicament continues. If I succumb or become apologetic, I feel as though I were betraying the pride that my father and family hold for their service. On the other hand, a befitting retort would further deepen the divide which I dread for the country’s sake. My predicament notwithstanding, this scathing and blanket ‘general’ bashing is not serving the purpose of critique: course correction. Instead, it only exacerbates the disconnect and disenchants the earnest blood who aspires to serve their country with pride.