It's about Abbotabad, Kohat and Kasur. So, come down to earth and hear the ace pilot's first-person narrative not about UFOs but dead men walking.
Afireside tale turns into a Hitchcock thriller. The narrator is none other than the handsome Abbas Khattak. He lights up his cigar and begins. The hair is frosted, but the purple smoking jacket is missing. What is it that he will reveal, we sit up in anticipation.
Will the retired Air Chief Marshal unravel the unsolved mysteries of Mirages 2000-5 that caused a sonic boom in Islamabad's corridors of power during the '90s? Will he regale us with stories of palace intrigues straddling two continents or maybe three? Will the retrofitted Falcons that France delivered to Islamabad form the thread of his cliff hanger? Will Paris nights feature?
Alas, no. It's about Abbotabad, Kohat and Kasur. So, come down to earth and hear the ace pilot's first-person narrative not about UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) but dead men walking. Playing chief detective after he retires as air chief, instead of writing his memoirs on shooting enemy aircraft, Khattak goes snooping and digging for an army major who vanished without a trace. The missing major was his next door neighbour in Abbotabad. He begins the story
“My wife Samina inherits a summer home after my father-in-law Saadullah Khan dies in 1997. The deceased has spent last 30 years searching for the owner of the abandoned plot next door. Where is he? Is he dead or alive? Who is he? Apart from wild cats and dogs, human rats eye the plot. His faithful chowkidar chases them away. He puts out advertisements in newspapers; he requests the GHQ to help; he asks old residents of Abbotabad to assist him in the search. Someone called Major Yusaf Chaudhry is the owner, that's all the family can gather.
“Samina and I try coming up with our own answers. Maybe the missing major has migrated to the US or Canada or Australia without telling his children about the plot; or he has died a sudden death and had no time to tell his family about this plot. During my three years as the Air Chief, the issue gets put on the back burner. There are bigger issues for me to solve at the Air Headquarters. The cat and mouse game between our chowkidar and the local land mafia continues during this time and I let Samina take care of the matter as I have already had a nasty scare when I tried claiming my land in Kohat 20 years before.
“I had been awarded half a square of agricultural land for my Sitar-ie-Basalat for chivalry during 1971 war. I was told the land would fetch me a tidy sum if sold. One day, with some friends, I landed in Kohat to claim my 'prize.' The fields looked lovely swaying in the wind. My happiness was short-lived when I saw four Mehsud tribesmen, as rough and tough as they come, sipping tea under the shade of a tree with semi-automatic rifles beside them. After the traditional salutations, I informed them that this was my land. The answer I got “Let us get this straight young man, this land first belongs to Allah and then to us brothers! Any questions?” No, I said and ran for my life.
“Seven years down the road, I meet a senior army officer at a social gathering. I tell him my story. He's sympathetic but he can't recover my land from the squatters in Kohat. The matter is beyond anyone's control! As compensation, he offers me two squares of undeveloped agricultural land in the Kasur 'border area scheme' which is meant to be great shakes! I am excited once more. But on inquiry am told that the land is useless. I don't even bother visiting it.
“Fast forward to 2005. I have retired and moved to Peshawar. I get a phone call out of the blue to inform me that I have died! The caller, Ahmad Nawaz, reads out my 'death certificate' lying right in front of him at the revenue office in Kasur. He's the same property dealer who had earlier contacted me and offered to buy my land that I have never set eyes on because I was told it was worthless. 'Sir, that land is no longer yours', he announces in Punjabi, saying it's been transferred to my 'son and heir, Arsalan Abbas Khattak'.
“The cause of my 'death' as written in black and white reads “Multiple ailments after prolonged hospitalisation, leaving behind an old and ailing mother (my mother died in 1976) and a lone son (I have two sons, neither is called Arsalan!). I immediately alert the Punjab chief minister who has the patwari, numberdar and the lawyer who signed the false affidavit arrested. My 'son' slips through the net and the 'dead man' who is yours truly gets the land restored to his name!
“Back to our summer home in Abbotabad. Two years ago Sardar Riaz, a local mobster, sells the vacant plot next door to a real estate dealer called Jadoon. I shoot out frantic letters to the GHQ pleading with them to help trace the major once more. CORO (central office for retired officers) finally pulls out some names and addresses of the major's relatives. A relative working for MI (Military Intelligence) is requested to visit the Pindi home in SatelliteTown where the major's widow lives. He draws a blank.
“Meanwhile, a sign saying that this property is under 'litigation' giving a cell number suddenly comes up on the plot one fine morning. I call that number. Mazhar Khan, son of Jadoon answers. He tells me that the plot was sold to him by Sardar Riaz. I go meet this Jadoon fellow. He tells me that Riaz took him to Lahore to meet the major's 'widow' but found her to be actually a 'madam' from the red light area! A couple of weeks later I get a call from Riaz offering to sell the same plot to me. I alert the local police who throw Riaz and his accomplices into jail for fraud. “Just when I have had it with the whole sordid affair, a grandson of the major is discovered living in Lahore. The major's widow (this time real) is living with him. She has been traced by the pension cheques that she gets from the army. Another bonanza awaits me Tanvir, the son of the major lives in Islamabad. 'I have good news for you', I call him excitedly 'but you'll have to come to Peshawar to hear it'. I tell him.”
As it turns out the major had never told his family about the plot. Chief detective Air Marshal Abbas Khattak may not get another Nishan-i-Imtiaz pinned on him for doing this yeoman's job, but bitten by the Alfred Hitchcock bug, he's already on to another case... Watch this space.