Fayes T Kantawala faced the spectre of Armageddon this week – like the rest of us

I don’t think I’ve ever said the phrase ‘airspace’ as much as I have in the last ten days. It’s all I have been able to think about: What happened to the airspace? How was it invaded exactly? Is the airspace OK? They’ve closed the airspace?! Can you…do that? When does it open? What do you mean you don’t know? Why? We caught a combatant fighter pilot? So whose airspace was that in? WHY DON’T YOU KNOW?

The most recent tensions with India along our common border have shaken us all. Like thousands of others, I have been privileged enough to think of war as something “there” – something that takes place in far-flung mountains and cities where I do not live. Yes, I lived in Lahore and the threat that suicide bombers exacted on this and indeed all of our cities was real and disturbing. But the fact that all movement into and out of the country could just stop overnight, and for the foreseeable future, was one of the clearest, coldest reminders to me that the war can still exist. Not just a war fought with drones against amorphous, cellular networks, but a war of nuclear neighbouring nations.
But in the middle of that fear I was also calmed by Pakistan and its leadership, which was a pleasant surprise

As luck would have it, I had booked a flight booked out of Lahore airport, due to leave a few days after they announced the airspace closure, so my immediate reaction was shock, followed by intense self-pity but replaced almost instantly with undiluted fear. For all the years that I’ve lived in Pakistan, and for all the tense, terrifying times that I have seen the country go through, I was still not prepared for the sense of geographic isolation I felt once my movement had been restricted. No airspace access means no flights. It means countless missed connections, missed funerals, delayed weddings, lost jobs, lost money, arrested trade. But it also made conspicuous the delicate scaffolding that surrounds the things that we all take for granted. Flights always run in Pakistan. Late, sure, but they run. The fact that airlines couldn’t take off or land didn’t fit in my image of home. That didn’t happen to us. It evoked somewhere else: somewhere people don’t travel to or from, somewhere with rubble lined streets and starving people and burning tires. It evoked, in short, war.

All I could do was to confront perhaps for the first time ever what if the unimaginable did happen, what were my options? Could my family and I survive? Would we escape? Would I be able to take a train somewhere? But no, because Karachi was closed as well. But maybe one could buy passage in a boat because that still happens, right? Or maybe it’s easier to go through China? Round and round I went, muttering possible logistical routes to myself while I prepared an emergency bag of all the things that I would be able to grab and take, were things to get really bad. It included my passport, travel documents, credit cards and twelve photographs.

Visual representation of Pakistani airspace closed due to tensions with India

When I thought of war in the traditional sense, I usually thought of the stories my grandmother and her generation told me. They who had lived through the World Wars and the Partition of India, although she used to tell me very little about 1947 when I asked her about it. Were there really trains filled with dead bodies? Were entire villages really set on fire? Was it really the largest movement of human beings ever to date? Did she see anyone die? She didn’t tell me about those things, but she did tell me about how her family left Kashmir one day shortly before Partition. Her father was dead, and her mother told her and her siblings that they were going to go see her side of the family in Lahore. “We’ll only be going for a fortnight” she remembers her mother told her. A week became a month, a month a year and the years decades. Hers is not an uncommon story. I’ve read countless stories of people living their routine lived until one day the unimaginable happens. The idea that great institutions like trains, planes, even entire countries, could suddenly and overnight become not only unrecognizable but untenable was a truth according to which my grandmother and so many others who have seen war lived their whole life. “Nothing lasts forever, things can change on a dime.”

I along with my generation have lived with the looming specter of war my whole adult life. I was in Pakistan during 9/11, I was in the US in the tense years that followed, I was in Lahore when the suicide bombers came one after another. Great Events were taking place, and they would affect us all. Somewhere in there, perhaps because of privilege, perhaps because of survival techniques, most of us distanced the concept from our ‘now’ lives. Since we were all living under the constant threat of war, we assumed that warfare itself had changed forms. This week taught me that it has not.

I was truly scared this week. Scared for myself and for us all. Scared that a man like Modi who still doesn’t disassociate himself from the Gujarat massacres may well actually want to bomb our country. Scared that an election campaign across the border may well be the reason for nuclear attacks. Scared by the hatful rhetoric I saw building up on Indian television. But in the middle of that fear I was also calmed by Pakistan and its leadership, which was a pleasant surprise. I was calmed by the measures, the thoughtful way that the PM addressed the nation and demonstrated his willingness for peace in both word and gesture.

I am calmed by the fact that so many on both sides of our border work for peace. But mostly I am calmed that they announced my flight is about to take off from Lahore airport. So before I go, I wish you peace. And in the interest of peace I urge both my Indian and Pakistan readers not to type out messages of hate online. Firstly because peace is better for us both, but mostly because I am sick of reading things in CAPSLOCK ALL THE TIME BECAUSE IT’S VERY BLOODY STRESSFUL.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com