The Flight to Freedom
Like every child, I'm a fussy eater. So, when I finally finish eating after what seems an eternity, mom goes, "Everybody clap! Naveed has finished eating." The statement hasn't changed after all these years when I finish eating as mom goes, "Everybody clap! Naveed has finished eating and there's STILL some food left for all of us!" In fact, it's not a recent phenomenon, but from as far back as I can remember. So much so, that Alam Auntie has to intervene by pleading to the little boy Naveed, "Aren't you going to give some to your Alam Auntie?"
I may be a little boy, but to me, chivalry is far from dead. Ok, fine, here you go, Alam Auntie. Take some. But not before I reprimand mommy, "Ammu, can't you make this at home? This is the best I've ever had!"
Mom smiles—partly at the little boy's statement and partly because she and my elder sister have just been spared of starvation.
All the fuss is not over any gourmet concoction. In fact, no one really knows what it is that has been "served" to a small crowd of dishevelled Bengalis. This is probably the Baluchi equivalent of Boro Baaper Pola Khay where the ingredients are up to anybody's imagination. It is a sea of oily gravy with specks of sheep (I hope) fat floating around and served in a huge bowl to be shared by 20 women and children. Oh, there's a huge, coffee table sized bread to be pecked from.
Parents, including myself, who freak out at children who "simply don't eat at all!", just starve them for a day. Trust me, they will eat leaves from a mango tree with relish.
Anyway, back to the sheep feast. We are at the smugglers' den in Balochistan, still well inside the borders of (West) Pakistan that we are fleeing from. And not only that, a few weeks ago we are apprehended in Quetta—all 10 Bangali families who'd boarded a train in the dead of night from Karachi. But sure enough, we get a warm welcome from armed policemen waiting exactly at the right time in front of the right carriages to apprehend exactly the specified number of Bangalis. If we complain about no harmony among ourselves, just imagine that time when many are sitting on the fence. Some disgruntled uncle or auntie had tipped off the (authoritarian) authorities. After all, two Bangalis form three parties—I'm one party, you're the second party, and together we form the third party.
And you think we 50 odd FBI (Full Blooded Indigenous) Bangalis are a cohesive "The few, the proud, the Marines" solely because an enemy's enemy is a friend? Absolutely not! As we are escaping from Pakistan, a little boy falling off a speeding jalopy four-by-four in the Balochi desert is quite acceptable compared to losing a coveted Samsonite suitcase.
But we escape from our Quetta "jail" and we move directly out of jail and do not pass "Go" and do not collect 200. In fact, we pay much, much higher than 200 to smugglers to smuggle us across the border into Afghanistan through stealthy train rides, betrayals, incarceration, desert treks on jalopies, camels and foot (including through waist deep streams) and morsels that at best can be described as food. It is still far less a trauma than that of going through the near-death experience of fighter jets dropping munitions on a petrol pump just half a mile from our house in Karachi as we cower under the stairs amidst air raid sirens and total blackouts. That's no carnival—fighter jets are sexy only during a peacetime air show or when Lt Maverick, aka, Tom Cruise, flies one in Top Gun.
Balochistan, Kandahar, Kabul. A geography lesson etched in stone a long time before the Soviet invasion, Dr Najibullah, the Mujahedeens, the Talibans, al-Qaeda, the US invasion teach the whole world their own share of geography lessons.
We are finally in Kandahar, then Kabul, then (New) Delhi, then Calcutta (Kolkata) and finally into "Dacca". A harrowing flight to freedom taking a whole one month in lieu of a two-hour flight. Forty-six years later it is STILL our Dhaka, our Bangladesh. We moan, groan, complain, but you know what, it's all fine—better to be a poor yet independent soul than be a rich, second rate citizen.
Naveed Mahbub is an engineer at Ford & Qualcomm USA and CEO of IBM & Nokia Siemens Networks Bangladesh turned comedian (by choice), the host of ATN Bangla's The Naveed Mahbub Show and ABC Radio's Good Morning Bangladesh, the founder of Naveed's Comedy Club.
Email: [email protected]