The Sound Of The Airplanes - Bassama Tanvir
Akram is standing in front of the kitchen counter. A pale yellow chopping board lies in front of him. It has obvious knife cuts on it – a mark of its undeniable importance in the family kitchen. He silently chops ginger in the julienne cut. The kitchen door is left ajar and sunlight is pouring inside; some falls on his shoulder and some on his face. It is the month of February and the sun doesn’t feel as strong or as sharp as it does in summer. It is a relief. Mrs. Pervaiz, his employer, is standing beside him. She asks him to chop the onions and tomatoes into small squares after he is done with the ginger. They are planning to cook chicken qorma for lunch. It is cold today so the idea of hot and spicy gravy in one’s mouth feels appealing to Mrs. Pervaiz, the children will love it.
Another regular day in the Pervaiz household, nothing out of the ordinary. The birds, especially the crows, are sitting on their favourite tree branches; the usual spots. Airplanes are flying during their usual time slots. Suddenly a strong, piercing sound goes off above their roof. Mrs. Pervaiz looks at Akram as he looks outside the kitchen door at the blue sky, which appeared so calm and still. No bird is flying now. The sound was too piercing and unexpected. It may have scared the birds away. The Pervaiz family lives near the airport and is used to the shooting, bursting sound of airplanes that spreads to every corner of the sky once every hour but this sound…they aren’t familiar with this sound. This isn’t normal. This sound is deafening, silencing. It left them with an unsettling feeling in their stomachs.
“What do you think it is?” Mrs. Pervaiz is still looking at Akram, alarmingly.
He is now looking at his half chopped onions lying on the chopping board, some still stuck to the steel blade of his knife. He pauses for a second and then turns around to look at her. He had heard it just now, for the first time, the same as her. How should he know? But he may have an idea, even though he doesn’t want to say it, “War?”
Of course: war. That’s the only thing that comes to mind when that’s all that anyone has talked about for the past couple of days.
Mrs. Pervaiz shakes her head, “No, of course not. Those are just rumours. Nothing like that can happen.”
Mrs. Pervaiz sounds so certain but in reality she doesn’t believe any word that she just uttered. She doesn’t know what will happen and is only saying this to gulp down her own fears. She has to be strong, you see, she is a parent. She has to remind herself that everything will be okay in order to go through the day. If she stops all of her routine work, then it will become difficult for her to survive. In fact, she does sometimes. She has her fears. It is only for a split second but her mind wonders sometimes. She stops everything to look at her children. They are so young with so much to see in the world. They can’t… die. She shuts out all of her thoughts at this point. So she keeps reminding herself that everything will be fine, nothing is happening.
Akram silently nods to whatever Mrs. Pervaiz just said. But, like her, he doesn’t believe a single word of it. Of course he doesn’t know what to believe in but war can happen too, just like it cannot. He cannot ignore the likelihood, the possibility, the realness of it. He is a husband with a sick wife; a man who dreams of a future that is healthier, happier and kinder to them. A future that may never exist, but keeps him going. He doesn’t want the illusion to break anytime soon. But a war will ruin it, like many other things that war ruins. He seeks the future that he has envisioned for his family. What will he do if the war breaks out? They will send him to the front. Who will take care of his wife? He needs to know just how possible the war is so that he can prepare for himself, but more importantly, for his wife.
They silently return to their work.
An hour later, it is announced that all flight operations have been cancelled and no airplanes will fly for an indefinite period of time. Indefinite period sounds so uncertain. What does indefinite mean? Does indefinite mean forever? Or does it mean war?
Another hour passes by before the prime minister decides to address his anxious nation. “There will be no war,” he announces. “We cannot afford war. It’s easier to start a war but difficult to end one. We never know how and when it will end.” The prime minister is sitting in his wrinkled, white shalwar kameez and a black waistcoat as he stares directly into the camera. His voice is firm but cracks up a bit at the end of every sentence. There are visible wrinkles on his face but more evidently, everyone can see all of his apprehensions on his face. It looks like he has aged ten years overnight. He appears uneasy and concerned. Of course: concerned. He has to be concerned. Who knows what will happen? How will he cope with the situation? How will he take care of his country? All of these thoughts are bouncing in his mind. But he is the prime minister and it is his duty to give his nation some false hopes to keep going. Mrs. Pervaiz’s children are silent and their eyes are fixed on the T.V screen. Occasionally, they look at each other but they don’t know what to say. Mr. Prime Minister's words don’t sound assuring enough but at the same time, they are very hopeful. War will not happen.
Eventually all of them get up and go outside to sit in their lawn and sip into their chai. It’s a beautiful clear day. There is a cool breeze and the eagles can be seen sitting on the top of the tall trees. Everything seems like it always is. But their hearts and brains know something is amiss. They are looking at one another with a disturbed expression on their faces, hoping that someone might have an answer to what they are missing.
“No planes are flying now. It is terribly silent,” Mrs. Pervaiz remarks.
Yes, that’s what their hearts and brains are missing: the sound of the airplanes; the loud, bursting sounds of airplanes that have been a part of their lives since forever, so much so that they stopped noticing it, just like crickets at night. Crickets are always there. When you are a child and you start noticing it at first, you get annoyed by it. You think, why are crickets always making these weird, chirping sounds at night? But then you grow up, start going to school and getting homework. Your brain becomes entangled with other ideas and preoccupations that it gets so easy to forget about the crickets. But in your heart and brain you always know they are still there, chirping at one corner of the house or another. It’s just that your brain has stopped registering it as an anomaly. Living near airports and listening to the sound of airplanes is just like that, just like listening to crickets. Will it always be like that? Will they never get to hear the airplanes again? Will it always stay this silent? All these questions erupt in the minds of these four women as they quietly sip into their chai.
Mr. Pervaiz leaves for the office at 7AM and comes home around 6PM. He is always tired but cheerful nonetheless. Today when he comes home, he seems quiet. He changes into something more comfortable and then switches on the T.V instead of having his dinner. The T.V. is talking about the war again.
“Will war happen?” Aliza, the eldest of them all, asks Mr. Pervaiz. He doesn’t say anything and his eyes are only looking at the T.V. Aliza is pretty sure that he is not listening to anything being said on the T.V. He is thinking. Probably the worst, just like the rest. This is how it is, isn’t it? We tend to think of the worst first. Then when all these thoughts become too suffocating, we stop ourselves and calm down by telling ourselves this may never even happen, you know; things have a way of turning around for the good. Guess human beings aren’t as different as they pretend to be or maybe they are and it’s just their fears that are similar. But wait, women have different fears than men. So maybe, it is the process of processing their fears that is similar: think of the worst first, then calm yourself down - that’s the rule.
It is only evening and this day already feels so long. All these thoughts about impending doom, pounding every second at one’s head like a hammer. It is an exercise in exhaustion. And the night still has to come. What is the night going to offer them? More fears, apprehensions, scenarios, anxiety, what? Fear works mysteriously; only when you are in fear, you count each and every second of the day, you notice the rhythm of your breath, the rate of your accelerated heartbeat and the frustrating ticking off the clock. And then, as if searching for a miracle, you look across the sky and hope to see the airplanes zoom above your head, all in vain.
It is nighttime. The three sisters like to sleep under the same quilt and snuggle since it is so cold. Mrs. Pervaiz comes to close the lights of their room. She never does that and it’s only 9PM. Why are lights being switched off so early? Black out?
The night is even quieter. No sound of anything. No sound of the airplanes, not even the crickets. It is amazing how the airplanes’ sounds used to annoy them before, yet after only one day of suspended flight operations, they already long for its presence.The sound is the reassurance that everything is normal. They want everything to be normal, back to normal. There is calm in normalcy, in the sense of being cliché, in the daily routine which is only appreciated when that same monotony is disrupted; probably appreciated more than ever now because this disruption comes with a promise of war.
Mehr has opened her laptop. She has logged into her twitter account and is now scrolling down her screen. There is this promoted tweet that has got her attention. It is about the effect that nuclear bombing between her country and the neighbouring country will have on the world. According to the post, both countries will be removed from the world map. And some days later, dark, thick clouds will appear on European skies, staying there for almost a decade. Temperatures will drop and earth will freeze, because there will be no sun to warm the Earth anymore. She stops the video because she couldn’t finish it. Why are they talking about nuclear war? This seems so real now. She scrolls down the screen further when a retweet catches her attention. “This is a very important night for all of us. We may be attacked tonight. The opposing side has better equipment. We only have our soldiers and officers to rely on. Please pray for all of us.”
This tweet is like the ten thousand other tweets that passed right in front of her eyes but this particular tweet brought tears in her eyes. She turns around to see Aliza and Zara. Both are peacefully sleeping. She can cry freely now. She can cry for her fears; the fears that are shared by so many women.
Her eyes, though fixed on the block print of her quilt, are not actually looking at it. At this point, her mind has become a web of thoughts and scenes that she isn’t even sure will actually happen. But she can feel it all too real, too closely. She can see how all of her dreams seem useless, all of her plans of visiting Florence, reading good books, cooking good food, meeting old friends seem stupid. She can see it. She can see men dying, leaving the women behind. She can see women jumping in wells again. She can feel it. She can feel all the strange men and their hands touching her neck and body and choking her. Thousands of women are sitting next to her and their hair is being pulled, their clothes are being torn. All of them are crying as if in a choir performing a morbid chorus. A cold wave passes through her body. The room is already cold and her fears are making it colder. She can feel it. All the emotions building inside her and the trembling, body heat and redness on her cheeks as she feels once again how she is being touched without her consent. She can feel her mind screaming, “You should have jumped in the well, and you should have died. You should have, you stupid coward. You are a woman…a woman. War is for men…stupid…for women? Don’t you know you are a woman? Men start everything knowing that they’ll die…just one time…they think you will die too…why don’t you tell them you die every day with the way they look, they touch…how can you die now…you are a woman…should have jumped into the well.”
She lets out a big sigh, “War may not happen” and closes her eyes to the night with no sounds of the airplanes.
This story was written in the context of Pulwama Attacks.
Bassama Tanvir is a medical student based in Lahore who likes to read and bake in her spare time. South Asian peculiarities interest her and she aims to explore them further in times to come. Email address: email@example.com