December 1971. It was around two in the afternoon. A cold day but sunny, with bulbous clouds in the sky. A silence lay over our government housing colony on Garden Road. No sounds of buses and cars from the nearby main road, no cry from a cart vendor, not even a stray dog barking. Nothing. Just cold sun and silence. Nobody would have guessed that we were in the middle of a war with India. Bengalis in East Pakistan a thousand miles away were nearing victory in their bloody, nine-month long battle for independence and that war had now come to West Pakistan.
I stood in the middle of our small front garden, idly checking the windows of our apartment. Grim-faced politicians and army generals looked back at me. I had taped old pages of Dawn newspaper over the windows for blackout. A few flats in the colony had used the recommended black paint. Other windows displayed an assortment of materials nailed or taped over them: plywood, brown packing paper, cardboard. The couple with the two small boys in the flat above ours – who were Bengalis like us – had hung bed sheets on theirs. Nights were spooky now. Shops and bazars were closed; street lights dimmed; a few shadowy cars, headlights painted black, crawled on deserted roads. Venturing out at night among the buildings and trees in the colony one would see beams of torchlights flicking on and off in the dark like mysterious signals from afar. Gone was our night-time bustle, the badminton games and the chatpati-wallahs with their incandescent gas lanterns. No city lights, no glow in the sky, to be visible from the air that could make it easy for Indian aircraft to find Karachi at night. Just the dark and the silence.
The windows all looked good – no rips or tears in the newsprint.
Immediately after the war began on the third the older boys of the colony had gone around to each flat reminding the occupants that all windows had to be blacked out. We knew all about the blackouts since civil defence measures were being continuously broadcast on radio and television after the state of emergency was declared last month. The older boys, however, liked to act officious, so at each apartment they announced loudly, ‘We are at war with India. Please observe blackout. Thank you.’ All the while trying to peek past whoever opened the door for a glimpse of the younger women inside. Air raid safety measures also called for slit trenches to be dug for shelter during bombings. So a couple of days earlier they had scrounged a shovel and a pickaxe and proceeded to dig one near the edge of the centre field, away from the cricket pitch, which was holy. Karachi’s hard, unforgiving soil was tough going. After five minutes of scratching around they gave up and went back to their usual hangout spot beneath the large neem tree. There they resumed shooting the breeze about the correct procedures to be followed if an Indian plane was shot down and the pilot parachuted into the colony. Later that day labourers came by in a battered old municipality truck and dug the trenches. The older boys had gathered around them, handing out advice which the labourers had pointedly ignored. Now we all had a slit trench in front of all our apartment buildings, gathering refuse. The war talk beneath the neem tree usually was led by Tariq, nicknamed Kowwa (crow) for his high-pitched, cackling laugh. An amiable ex-bodybuilder, he was the youngest son of a large Punjabi family who lived in the flat next to ours. His uncle had been in the tank battle at Khem Karan in the 1965 war. Tariq considered himself an authority on the fighting capabilities of the Indian armed forces. ‘Indians,’ he would laugh, pulling back the sleeves of his white kurta to reveal massive, hairy forearms. ‘Whoever heard of them being good fighters? Aray yaar, they will get a bloody nose again.’
A pricking, a tiny shiver of electricity at the back of my neck made me look up. In that instant I saw something glint – a flash of pure silver – just below a fat cloud. Instinctively I knew it was an Indian plane. Our colony was near to the two air force bases at Mauripur and Drigh Road and we were used to jet fighters flying overhead, not just in wartime. We would be playing cricket as a couple of F-104 Starfighters above put on a show, leaving looping jet trails in the sky. We would jump up from our lunches at the sudden sonic boom. We saw them at national day fly-pasts, in 1965 war newsreels and on TV, the beloved F-86 Sabres, the F-104s, French Mirages, Chinese-made F-6s. We knew their shapes and the way they flew. Yesterday evening, two Mirages had flown majestically over Karachi, their delta wings glowing orange from the setting sun.
This silvery flash felt alien. It was too high up, too remote. As I kept looking at it, the dot became fractionally larger, became a tiny bullet that slid into a half-roll and angled downward for a dive.
I turned and ran as fast as I could out of the garden.
For me the war began in the predawn dark on the fourth. My father shook me awake from sleep. ‘Get up!’ he commanded urgently. As my head cleared I heard the air raid siren. And through its wail came, muted but steady, a droning noise, like heavy motors in neutral gear, from somewhere in the sky. Bombers, I realized. I scrambled out of bed and we – my parents, younger brother, sister and our servant boy Bhola – hustled out of the side door to stand beneath the main stairs, which is what the civil defense authorities recommended during bombing raids. The upstairs family – the two small sons not quite fully awake – were already there. The other upstairs family had stayed put. The side door of our neighbouring flat, Tariq’s, was ajar and I heard voices coming from inside. But they didn’t join us beneath the stairs. We knew why. We were two Bengali families standing there, and they were Punjabis, there was no way they going to cower with us beneath the stairs, bombs or no bombs, air raids or no air raids. Especially not during an Indian air attack. Pakistan was in its death throes and this war was the final act of separation between East and West Pakistan.
Seconds later the anti-aircraft guns opened up with a vengeance. Light, medium, heavy guns – they were throwing the kitchen sink at the Indians. Through the open entrance we saw searchlights criss-crossing the dark sky, and tracer shells arcing upwards in fiery lines. Then the bombs landed, a string of crisp explosions followed by a heavier series of blasts that shook the ground. Larger guns joined in the firing, booming. ‘Navy guns. Shore batteries,’ muttered the head of the family upstairs. We knew then that the action was taking place in the port area, which was not far from the colony. Whenever the noise of the guns subsided for a moment I could hear that metronomic droning noise. Then there was a tremendous explosion, a crack and a whump as our faces were buffeted by air. My father, alarmed, tersely ordered, ‘Inside. Now.’ Given the amount of lead tearing through the air, standing at the open entrance seemed too dangerous. The ack-ack guns again went into a frenzy. More bombs landed. The upstairs folks vanished up the stairs as we stepped back inside our flat and sat at the dining table in the verandah. ‘I am going to make some tea,’ my mother said, and disappeared into the kitchen with Bhola, who throughout had been stoic. My father lit a cigarette, turned on his transistor radio and put it to his ear. After about five minutes the ack ack firing began to lessen and soon the droning went away. A kind of wondrous silence settled over and all around us, a silence where I became conscious of ordinary sounds again like the tap running in the kitchen and the tinny sound of the radio. My brother and I opened the front door and peeked out. All was quiet. We walked out of the garden gate, stopping dead in our tracks as we caught sight of huge thick black columns of smoke billowing into the sky. The oil tanks at Kemari, near the port, had taken a direct hit. We saw strange bits of twisted, burnt metal strewn on the ground; they were pieces of shrapnel from bursting ack-ack shells. Tariq was standing outside too, gesturing and talking with his father and a couple of the older boys. On seeing us, he rolled up the sleeves of his white kurta exposing massive forearms and shouted out to nobody in particular, ‘Oh, that’s just the Navy smoking a cigar!’ And let out his cackling, high-pitched crow laugh.
Lunch that day was special. My mother, unaccountably and mysteriously, broke into her hoard of fine basmati rice and ghee, which otherwise was reserved for guests dropping by unannounced or for special Eid day occasions. She sent me with Bhola to get a good cut of meat from the butcher shop, near the servants’ quarters. No servant family actually lived there since these quarters were rented out by the colony families to poor people. It was now a mini colony of its own, a warren of small buildings overrun with small children, snot-nosed babies, scrabbling chickens and louts on charpoys. Across a small road in front of it was a dry-cleaning shop, the butcher’s and a small grocer’s – the latter run by a clean-cut older man rumoured to be the local police informer. The butcher was a burly young fellow with a rake’s air and a bandit moustache. He brought down his cleaver hard on a big white bone, and said to the gathered customers, ‘See, that is what we should do to India.’ Then he began his usual pestering of an old man who stayed in the quarters and had a young wife, ‘Come on, give me one night with her. I’ll give you free meat for a month. Just one night. Come on, I beg of you.’ As always, he said this while mincing meat, never taking his eyes off the old man, never looking down as one hand patted and shaped the meat on the block while the other worked the cleaver up and down in a blur, his fingers slipping in and out from beneath the blade. As always, we stared, fascinated, waiting for him to chop his fingers off, but he never did.
Outside the garden I raced round the corner of the hedge, dashed into the main entrance, and hit the stairs like a slingshot. Two easy flights of stairs to the upstairs flats, and another two to the roof. As I neared the top I heard the roar of jet engines coming from the front side of the house, which faced the main road. I burst out onto the roof, and was astonished to see two jet fighters headed dead straight for me. The lead one was about a hundred yards away and thirty feet above me. It had a nose cone, a distinctive one. A MiG-21! I recognized it from the photos of the Vietnam War in Time magazine which arrived weekly on our doorstep. Riding hard on its tail was a Sabre F-86, instantly familiar all over Pakistan, with its open snout of an air intake. Just as the MiG came to within twenty yards of the roof I heard a series of rapid clicking noises and saw a line of sparks along both wings of the Sabre as if from a gigantic cigarette lighter. The whole sequence was over in a flash, yet I seemed to see it like a stuttering movie reel, with the scene freezing at every ten frames. As the planes streaked by overhead I saw the Indian flag and colours on the MiG’s fuselage and tail, and glimpsed the pilot’s head inside the canopy, a helmeted skull face of goggles and oxygen mask. Then both planes were gone in a flash, the Sabre on the MiG’s tail, both hurtling towards Jinnah’s mausoleum, whose tip could be seen from our roof. I swivelled with the planes and ran across to the opposite railing. Both jets were now angled upwards, gaining altitude. The Sabre kept firing its guns, with every fourth or fifth round being tracer bullets – the ‘flaming onions’ of RAF lingo – that flared bright orange and died away. About a quarter mile off the Sabre suddenly banked hard left, but the MiG continued to fly hell for leather in a straight line. It was then that I saw another Sabre emerging from a cloud high up on the right, diving at the MiG. Again, I could see tracer bullets spitting from the second Sabre, but it was in too long a dive. The MiG pointed its nose upwards and began a speedy climb and by the time the second Sabre levelled off in pursuit it had disappeared into the blue yonder. The first Sabre was nowhere in sight.
I slowly went down the stairs, feeling my being unspooling.
In the war of Bengali independence, between us and the Pakistan army, a war which now was also between India and Pakistan – an India aiding us to be free – there was no doubt where our hearts and loyalties lay. No question.
But the Sabre, the gallant F-86?
Brother James had started it. When my father was posted for two years in Chittagong in East Pakistan, my brother and I attended St Placid’s Boys High School, run by French-Canadian missionaries. Brother James, a Rock Hudson lookalike, was the school’s chief enforcer, able to silence a gang of unruly boys with the lift of an eyebrow. It was in the school library that I discovered Classic Comics: Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, The Invisible Man, Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick. I was hooked. The Last of the Mohicans. Huckleberry Finn. A Tale of Two Cities. The Call of the Wild. During recess, I would fly there and read. One day I looked up from a comic book – I was the only boy there – to see Brother James standing in the doorway looking at me searchingly. Then he turned swiftly on his heel and walked away. The next day when again I was in the library, in came Brother James with a tremendous pile of brand-new comic books held against his chest. The library had long wooden tables and I was sitting at one end of a table. He stopped at the other and unloaded the comic books in a way that the pile riffed and slid like a deck of cards across the whole length of the table to me. As I looked at him astonished, Brother James said, ‘That should give you something more to read.’ Then he swiftly spun on his heel and strode away.
This new batch contained comics very different from the Classics: Disney comics, Archie, funnies, private detectives, Superman, Batman, and most curiously, war comics. Little booklets 7-by-5 1/2 inches from Britain that I had never seen before. They opened up the whole Second World War to me. Commandos with sten guns scaling battlements. The German troops – ‘Jerry,’ ‘Kraut,’ ‘Hun,’ ‘Boche’ – with their stick grenades and SS officers with Lugers. The British Tommy with his round helmet. Occupied France and the Resistance berets. Gull-winged Stukas dive bombing at Dunkirk. D-Day. Convoys in the Atlantic in the periscope sights of the U-boats. Radio operators. Rommel, the Afrika Korps and Monty in the windiest khaki shorts east, or west, of the Suez. Operations rooms with huge wall maps. What really got me, though, were the air battles. Very soon I was knee deep in the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes, Stukas, Messerschmitts, Junkers. Bomb sights and bombardiers. Dogfights where fighters pounced from above with the sun behind them, or got behind – ‘at 6 o’clock’ – for the kill. The language was mesmerizing: ‘Bandit’ was enemy aircraft, ‘Bogey’ was an unknown one. There was also ‘ek dum’ (Hindi for at once) and dhobi. It was always ‘ack-ack’ when the British were firing at the German planes, but when you were the tail gunner (‘arse-end charlie’) in a B-17 over Germany it was ‘flak’. Brother James brought in more comics, and with them came the Pacific War. Midway, Guadalcanal. The Americans brought a different style to the combat. GI Joes in Willys Jeeps bouncing over rutted roads. They played a lot of poker and talked a lot about girls. Their artillery was different and they had a whole different language: ‘dog tags’, ‘pineapples’, ‘platoons’ commanded by ‘Sarges’, inflatable ‘Mae Wests’. And away from grey European skies, in the more sunny and Asian-seeming climes over the Pacific, the air war seemed different. Launched from aircraft carriers, American pilots wisecracked in the middle of the most vicious dogfights – ‘into the drink,’ if they were going down – wheeling in and over islands, the Hellcats and the P-51 Mustangs up against the ‘Nips’ in their Zeros.
Later, after we came back to Karachi I found a corner-shop ‘lending library’ – for four annas you would get, for two days, eight War comic books with a James Hadley Chase thriller thrown in for good measure. There were movies: The Guns of Navarone, Triple Cross, Ryan’s Express, The Great Escape, The Longest Day – I saw them all, at the Bambino, Lyric, Capri and Rex movie theatres. By then the comic books had moved on to the Korean War, where I first met the F-86 Sabre battling it out with MiG-17s and 19s. And when I saw Sabres fly out of comic book pages into the sky over Karachi, they seemed unreal. There it was – a beautiful, doughty, stubby, broken cigar of a plane, a stubborn veteran who never knew when to quit. But the Korean War also brought the first sense of unease with the Americans: why were they there? Later, during the Vietnam War, when the Americans seemed to be insanely pulverizing villages to bits I moved away. They could keep their wisecracks. But the Sabre stayed with me. Ever since Brother James had slid those comic books at me, Western flying machines, their lines, their speed, their afterburners, their language – I couldn’t really let go.
But as I stepped back into the garden I knew I was finished with the Sabre. Vividly and undeniably, it had fought for them, against me. Pakistan was dead. I could tell that from the way my father lay in bed smoking, sunk in contemplation, in the way that my mother didn’t care about basmati rice and ghee hoards any more. Pakistan was history and a new nation was being born a thousand miles away, amid war and debris and ruin. I knew, intuitively, that we were done here, and that if not today, then tomorrow we would be leaving Karachi behind.
It was time to let the Sabre go too.
‘Dogfight Over Karachi’ is taken from Shooting at Sharks by Khademul Islam.