Composite illustration by Farooq Saati
Composite illustration by Farooq Saati

When I was informed that I had been chosen by the government to fly around the world in 80 days (the time limit for such excursions set by the United Nations on some Frenchman’s — Mr. Jules Verne — advice, I believe) to promote investment in Pakistan, I was more than flattered.

Until I figured out the reason for this selection. My previous high-flying stint as a non-sleeping, vocal backbencher in the assembly, along with my efficient shorthand English that left foreigners awestruck, might’ve helped the decision-makers.

Frankly speaking, I have always enjoyed these official foreign visits, because they permitted me to explore the world on behalf of 220 million-plus Pakistanis and become their eyes, ears, noses and what not, and in a rather carefree manner. (Private visits are always marred by the search for budget hotels and you don’t get to absorb the world properly).

For example, on my last official visit to Egypt, I was able to ethically convince myself to travel that extra mile to see the Eiffel Tower in order to enhance my vision of serving my country better. It was a risky trip but, with luck and prayers from the public, I was reimbursed the extra sum on my return through a clerical oversight.

An intrepid, patriotic parliamentarian takes to the skies for the sake of Pakistan’s image

I imagined that I would be offered a Boeing 747 for this special assignment, as anything smaller would hurt Pakistan’s image. I gathered that it would not be economical for the exchequer if the jumbo carried me, pilots and flight attendants alone, so I started calling my near and dear and their friends to get ready for the trip of their lives. However, the government had a great surprise in store for me.

they told me that my journey would be via a giant balloon emblazoned with the slogan “Invest in Pakistan Please”, the earth shook beneath my feet. My experience with balloons was limited to inflating them on children’s birthdays. This was asking too much.

But they encouraged me by saying that there was no better PR man to carry out this novel mission, and my nomination had come from the very top. There were other resourceful men vying for the job, like an Instagram influencer with a following greater than the PM and his cabinet combined, a daredevil railway minister and a death-defying stuntman. However, my government had resisted all pressure. They told me that when people from various regions of the world would see my handsome persona in the open balloon, they would be in awe of Pakistani courage.

When I heard all this, my heart was filled with deep patriotism and I felt my ego literally bloating inside. My country needed me and I became determined to fulfil the trust reposed in me by the government. I was also politely told to shed some pounds, so that the lift-off was trouble-free.

On the big day, all my relatives and well-wishers came to bid me goodbye. My youngest wife was in tears, thinking I was going to the heavens and that too without sufficient good deeds or a proper coffin. When I put my first step in the large basket which they insisted was the cabin, my heart raced. Two uniformed guys were to pilot the balloon. It seemed a well-selected team, with sparkling eyes reflecting aviation depth.

Inside the ‘cabin’, there was a portable TV set, a picture of the PM and a lota. Before the journey, some newspapers had suggested there would be two lotas inside. I could not find the second one.

Just before the lift-off, my eldest wife came running and hugged me with great passion. Then she handed me my mobile which I had forgotten, wrapped in her shopping list, and asked me to keep her posted via WhatsApp whenever I entered rain clouds or flew through a rainbow. I was also supposed to send her a memorable last selfie in case something went awry.

In a grand backdrop of gunfire, salutes and tears (and some guffaws of pride), my balloon finally took off near the Margalla Hills. I don’t quite remember it but my team members told me that I gave a gurgle of laughter, shivered and then fainted, probably due to the egoistic boost as we headed upwards.

The gunfire and the fireworks started again after some hours, making me think we were probably over Pakistan’s territory with people still rejoicing. But when one bullet flew by at a close distance from me, I realised that it was no extended farewell but, in fact, we were being targeted.

The pilot assessed our altitude and direction of the wind and announced that we had inadvertently entered the zone near the Line of Control. I felt like crying. As our hot air balloon slowly started moving westward, I called my connection in the forces and he assured me in a soothing tone that if I ever came down crashing, it would not be due to a Pakistani bullet. He also promised that I would be given a ‘free of cost’ state burial worthy of a shaheed in case of any untoward incident.

With time, the gunshots and artillery’s ominous sound gave way to peace, and we knew that the direction of the wind had aided the balloon to escape the jaws of death. I was getting hungry. I ordered the co-pilot to serve me dinner. What he brought made me furious.

There were raw vegetables, potatoes, spinach, okra (bhindi) and a packet of basmati rice. From where should we bring fire to cook them? The only flame was above us, providing the lift. It was insulting. A high-ranking member of the parliament sent on a great expedition of national importance was treated so shabbily, especially at thousands of metres above the planet. Not able to find a solution, we had to eat everything uncooked.

Soon, we were holding our stomachs and the lota became a sought after item. Now please don’t ask how big or private the toilet was!

Away we went at the mercy of the wind, not having a clue which country we were flying over. The pilots, as it became apparent, were trained only through an app they had downloaded the previous night. They had no clue how to navigate the winds or lower the balloon. Who selected them for this epic air journey was a deep mystery.

Before the flight, I had dreamt of closely observing many great monuments of the world, like the leaning tower of Pisa. My aerial observations would have helped to explore the possibility of slanting our own Habib Bank Plaza at a similar angle to attract tourism. I had hoped to fly over the statue of the Sphinx and River Thames, while promoting Pakistan to foreign investors. Alas, due to recruitment blunders, we were stuck in the high sky. My mobile had also given out and the TV set never worked in the first place. There seemed no way this rising star could be brought down.

Previously, I had not found the courage to look down. But when all hope seemed lost, I decided to see what was below us. It was pitch dark, the winds strong. I could not make out anything below. Suddenly, there was a hissing sound. When I looked up, my breath stopped. The balloon had punctured and one could see the air leaking from the canvas. Soon it became unstable and we started falling over each other. I noticed, for the first time, that the balloon was made of shamiana material.

It all dawned upon me. This was a sinister plan to get rid of one of the most upcoming politicians of the country. The government knew that I was gaining popularity among the masses, that I might form my own party. So, they sent me on this mission with the perfect arrangement to make my return impossible. The uncooked vegetables and the untrained pilots (who I discovered belonged to Pakistan Railways’ excess employee pool), it was all part of a larger design.

I started cursing the government. Those power-hungry rogues got scared of my intelligence and meteoric rise. They planned a heavenly murder of a great awami leader in the making. The blame also lay on my modesty, as I never realised I was becoming such a VVIP who required elimination.

To be truthful, I wept like an infant who had lost his pacifier. I wanted to live on for the sake of the 220 crores that I had been promised on my return. I also knew Pakistan would be that much poorer if I departed. Who would steady the ship in the years to come, eradicate poverty, make Pakistan the envy of the West, invite Silicon Valley to shift to Swat Valley, bring the IMF to its knees, work to make women right? The vision that was second to none. Who would Habib Bank lean on?

It was only a matter of time before we would crash. I closed my eyes and plugged my ears with the raw bhindi. At least one thing was guaranteed: with my pious personality, I was destined for paradise. Thousands of hoors would be lining up to embrace me on arrival. Plugging my ears did nothing to stop the thunderous blast I heard as the balloon hit the ground.

Your rising awami leader of great foresight then became numb. When I opened my eyes, I expected beautiful women leaning over me, smiling, ready to take me to a nearby hammam. Instead, I found myself surrounded by men sporting long beards and smelly clothes. Unbathed angels, my first impulse suggested. But when they all pointed their guns at me, I realised they were members of ISIS and that I was still on Earth.

Showing great presence of mind, I started chanting slogans in favour of Osama bin Laden and Baghdadi and used all the swearing I knew to denigrate America. However, it was not until I said Bush and spat thrice on the floor that one of the older bearded men put down his gun. Others followed suit and they started spitting in unison. Finally, when the grand spitting carnival ended, I was given clothes to wear and greeted with smiles.

Overall, they have been hospitable people. When you stop shaving, do not look askance at their women and spit after taking various Western countries’ names every now and then, you feel a strong sense of affection developing towards you. However it is not mutual affinity which has kept me here for the past year. It is the prohibition to leave their secret hideout in Syria that has made my return impossible.

Lately, I have been participating with them in combat drills, beheading animals and learning to strut in heavily-pocketed vests, which they soon plan to stuff with ‘riches’ that can transport me to the ladies of my dreams. I am not quite sure how though. These memoirs that I am smuggling out, hidden in the body of a foreign journalist, hopefully will be published some day, revealing one of the most hideous conspiracies to kill a popular MNA.

My rescue depends on these papers reaching the right hands.

The writer is the award-winning novelist of Melody of A Tear and The Liar’s Truth and can be reached at harooonkh007@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 8th, 2022

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