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Monday, April 24, 2006

Has anything changed in 15 years?

I Will Not
[by a Grade-5 Student of Karachi High School on Earth Day 1991]

Today on Earth Day we are celebrating by making promises
But I will not
I will not stop throwing paper on the ground
I will not stop using plastic bags
I will not go to clean the beaches
I will not stop polluting
I will not do all these things because
I am not polluting the world
It is the grown-ups who are dropping bombs
It is the grown-ups who have to stop
One bomb destroys more than all the paper & plastic
         that I can throw in all my life
It is the grown-ups who should get together
         and talk to each other
They should solve problems and stop fighting
         and stop wars
They are making acid rain and a hole in the ozone layer.
I will not listen to the grown-ups!

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

We done it!

Yes. All of us! By sitting on the fence; by not paying attention; by not protesting against the bullshit fed us by those caricatures of humanity that pass off as religious leaders and scholars. I refer to our collective guilt, even complicity, in the horrendous act that shocked (really? why?) Karachi and the country a few days ago.

Individual violence, as an act of sudden anger, is a form of temporary insanity. Not condonable, but understandable. On the other hand, pre-meditated acts such as this, where the victims are not even personal enemies or even known to the perpetrators of the crime, are not results of immediate individual reactions. Nor can they take place merely by an interested group hiring a mercenary, at random, and asking him to die, blowing up a crowd, for a cause that he does not intensely identify with. Both, the intense identification and the association of violence with a positive contribution to 'the cause', take time. Such ideas and prejudices have to be nurtured. As the lyrics of the 'South Pacific' song so rightly state: You've got to be carefully taught!

And, let's face it, we are all taught this. In our schools. In our homes. In our communities. In our places of worship. In our media. Many have managed to not be affected strongly enough to commit acts of such extreme violence (although, I suspect that self-preservation instincts, too, have held more back from doing so than we'd like to admit ... but the 'potential' exists). But if one were to broaden the scope of the word, Violence, to rightfully include other aggressive or hateful behaviour, harms done through abuse of power, through acts of bigotry, even through inaction when confronted with such an act being committed - Bertrand Russell held, "There is no such thing as an innocent bystander" - not many of us could be pronounced 'Not Guilty'.

Although such hortatory material, as inflammatory speeches or texts, have been widely available in pamphlets and on audio-cassettes, the comparatively recent addition of videos (whereby direct or subliminal manipulation is possible in numerous and much more powerful ways) has added to the explosive situation. And TV channels multiply this danger several-fold with their increased immediacy, the presence of authoritarian figures twisting edicts to suit themselves, and sleazy comperes pandering to them. To be fair, a couple of channels are beginning to host religious programs that feature the 'moderately enlightened'. But don't rejoice; this is not reflective of a trend. These programs exist only because they are necessary to get advertisements that cannot possibly be run during the Beardo vs. Weirdo shows.

In varying forms, one naive question - considered, I guess, in our unquestioning society as 'daring' - that is frequently put to these extremely well-fed (and, on one occasion, burping) guests, both by the compere and callers, is why they, the religious leaders, do not use their positions to forge unity among the sects instead of stressing upon and exploiting the differences. Can any question be more stupid? Would there be sects if there were no religious leaders, with their own agenda?

In addition to TV channels, the vernacular press has mushroomed and numerous irresponsible rags, featuring columnists who range from the fanatical to the absurd (usually the same), are finding their way into the hands of those who can read but can't think or analyse, as a direct result of our education-cum-indoctrination style of formal and informal teaching. These hate-mongering papers and their contributors take full advantage of the ignorance - particularly inter-communal ignorance - of their readership, sowing further seeds of hatred.

This last fact has been dawning slowly upon me over the past few weeks as I am fed tid-bits of information that a member of my domestic staff has read in one of the newspapers with Islamic sounding names. The tactic followed in the columns or editorials is to invent falsehoods against other communities, safe in the knowledge that the reader is unlikely to investigate things further, or even consider that the 'writer-aalim' could be guilty of duping him for baser reasons.

After the Hindus and the Jews - and no distinction is made here between Jews, Israelis, and Zionists - the Shias are a regular, though subtle, target in these Sunni-run papers. I am sure the reverse is true of the Shia papers. But Shias are a sizable minority and not as shrouded in mystery as the smaller sects and subsects. It is far easier to demonize 'the other', if you know nothing about them.

One target of such dastardly propaganda has lately been the Aga Khan community, with made-up stuff about their beliefs & origins and, in particular, about their 'common agenda with the USA and Israel to introduce a new syllabus here that would be secular, even anti-Islamic'. (Bohris are perhaps considered too harmless, and Bahais too few to be on the radar. Yet.)

However, for really grand-scale madness these purveyors of pandemonia are always ready to play the Ahmadi card. After all, who in his right mind would even risk saying a word in their defense? With their books banned and their views unavailable for scrutiny or counter-arguments - and they, themselves, hardly in a position to raise a voice - just about anything goes! Short of accusing them of cannibalism, as the Shias and Sunnis did, in my childhood, warning each other's children to not loiter among the Muharram Jüloos crowd, lest they were kidnapped and used in the traditional Haleem by the others!!!

So, it came as no surprise when my 'help' - a warm, wonderful, and amazingly efficient man, and one whom I'd really not wish to lose - told me that he had, on good authority, discovered that the recent blast could be the work of Ahmadis, "just like the anti-Prophet cartoons that were actually instigated and propagated by them through their Headquarters in Denmark." Huh? Hello?

"That's not true at all" I said. "The Ahmadis have a different view of the finality of prophethood," I told him, "but do revere the Prophet of Islam as a Prophet; after all they believe in the Qur'an." "Oh no, they don't!" I was informed. "Do you know that during their wedding ceremonies the bride has to trample over the Qur'an with her feet at the time of being handed over to the groom?" .... A choking sound is all I could muster.

Of course, it is hardly possible to hold a logical discussion or debate with someone who has been fed this kind of 'scholarly' writing. But it is possible to weep. And be really scared. And to wonder what it would take to reverse the path we are going down.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Letter to a well-wisher(?)

Your mail (portions quoted in red, below) arrived on my desk as a 'Forward'. I hope the reason for not including me on your original list wasn't that you considered me expendable, and thus decided that I need not be warned, but was just due to your suspicion of my usual cynicism in such matters. To be fair, the report did raise some questions in my mind which, I am sure, must have also occurred to you as a lawyer. My comments are in italics.


This was on Pittsburgh's WTAE Channel 4 News. A few days ago, Actually in 2004 (in some Indian backwater) as Googling the incident revealed a person was re-charging his Cell Phone at home. Just at that time a call came in and he answered it with the instrument still connected to the outlet. OK After a few seconds How did anyone establish the time frame Electricity flowed into the Cell Phone un-restrained How is this deduced? It could have been that the batteries had been heating up (known to happen with many faulty batteries, including in laptops - several of which have even exploded or caught fire) and the young Man was thrown to the ground Would 'fell' have not described it adequately? 'thrown' would indicate force ... difficult to ascertain by one not present, unless the man was thrown a distance away ... one wonders if he was still holding on to the phone after this? with a heavy thud. OK. So that's why ... His Parents rushed to the room only to find him unconscious, with a weak heartbeat and burnt fingers. He was rushed to the nearby Hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival. Glad they did not do what many could have accidently done under the circs: Pick up the phone! Strangely, the story - wherever it, or its variations appear - contains no information on whether the phone was found burnt, whether the charger was checked, nothing - in fact - that would make sense if such a warning was to be really helpful and not just a scare. BTW, the Pittsburgh broadcaster's English is pretty suspect, but at least they pronounce their capital letters clearly!


My conclusion: 'Answering' the phone would have nothing to do with it. Just picking it up would have been dangerous enough! Like picking up any electrical object that was short-circuiting. In which case it must have happened the moment he picked it up!!!


Although the U S Consumer Product Safety Commission does not identify using a charging cellphone as an unsafe practice in its recommendations, here's some serious advice based on the incident (since it's always better to be cautious):


TO CHARGE
1. Switch off the socket power where the charger is to be connected.
2. Insert charger lead into phone
3. Insert charger plug into socket
4. Place phone away from self
5. Switch on socket power


AT THE END OF CHARGING TIME (OR TO ANSWER PHONE) there are TWO options:
The FIRST:
1. Switch off power to charger
2. Disconnect charger from socket
3. Disconnect charger from phone
4. Use phone
The SECOND (in order to avoid the above 4 steps):
Get the nearest available mulla to pick it up and pass it to you!

Cheers.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ups & Downs - Part 2 - Mainly Lahore and Back (twice!)

Note: This is Part 2 of a long and personal posting so it may not interest many of you. But I am doing it as a form of catharsis.

[The last post ended with this: Before we took off, Ghazala and I bumped into Unaizah, a wonderful kid we both first got to know via Qavvaalis and, later, I met (and became very fond of) through Insiya and her parents who have family ties with Una. She and her young hubby were travelling together. For them, the flight would soon take on a whole different meaning.]

The flight to Lahore was not too eventful (except for the screaming child in the seat ahead who, yet again, made me wish Birth Control could be retroactive!) until we were 10 minutes away from landing. The announcement caught us by total surprise! Weather in Lahore had made it impossible for us to land and we were being sent back to Karachi. Islamabad weather, we were told, was just as bad and no airport close-by could take such a large aircraft. Damn.

The only thing that brought a smile to my lips was the barjastah recital of a suitable Faiz line by the very young man who had been sitting to my right, in fashionably tattered jeans. Always excited at meeting young people who still have links to their heritage, I started talking to him just when the young sarangi wizard, Murad, appeared and said I was being called by Ghazala (who was sitting with Shubha and company on the upper deck). As Murad turned, the young man - whom I later got to know as First Class cricketer Agha Sabir (with a passion and confidence in whatever he does that all the young should have) - said, "Isn't he the person who accompanies Shubha Ji?". This floored me. A rare treat, indeed, to meet someone in that age group who is aware of such things. When I told him that Shubha was on the flight and, yes, I knew her, he requested me to let him have a photo taken with her. "When it rains", he told me, "our house is filled with her songs". I hope their house infects the ones close to them; Karachi could do with more such homes.

{Later, in the lounge - I know I am jumping the gun a bit, but it won't do any harm to the main narrative - I called him over (he had been standing at a distance, not willing "to intrude upon friends talking to each other") and arranged his photo-op. He thanked her profusely, disappeared and returned with a box of chocolates that he shyly handed over to Shubha and slunk away. The next day he phoned me (we had exchanged cards) and thanked me for being so helpful. This, Mr. Lahori Businessman, is Pakistani culture AND decent upbringing!!! }

Back to the chronological events: The flight delay had ruined our plans. We had all been looking forward to an evening at Coocoo's or Food Street. The rains and the aankh-micholi that the bijli would now play was sure to prevent this even if we did go back soon. We were were full of disappointment and confusion. Shubha and company were of the view that they should cancel their Lahore trip and take off for Delhi the next morning from Karachi.

When the plane landed, as is the usual method in PIA, no one was willing to keep the passengers updated. Even an announcement saying that a decision would be taken in a few minutes and could we relax would have made us feel better and stopped many from getting up and opening hatracks and pulling their luggage down. Adding to the confusion were passengers spreading different stories, which they received from the various stewardesses and stewards whom they cornered and who, in turn, rather than admitting that they did not yet know, spun a quick yarn to be able to get away from the passengers. Soon we were told that only those pasengers who had no baggage in the hold and wished to stay back in Karachi could disembark. The rest were to wait while the plane refuelled and made another attempt to go to Lahore, since the weather had improved there.

As I sat, I saw Una in the aisle, looking around with a worried face. She caught my eye and signalled for me to come to her and her husband. I thought they were going to ask for my opinion in order to make a decision about disembarking or staying aboard. When I got to her, she told me - almost inaudibly - that she had called up Lahore on her cellphone to tell them of the flight change and had been informed that her mother had just expired in Lahore, the body was being flown back, and she wanted to get out.

Nothing prepares one for such situations. Perhaps she felt that, as an older person, I'd be able to do something. But what does one say or do? I ran to tell the hostess the problem and get her to let Una out. ASAP. But, in any case, the doors had opened and the young couple rushed out. I sat, dazed, thinking of Tayyaba, Una's mother, a truly wonderful, gushing and warm person whom we had become close to fairly quickly. She had gone to attend her nephew's wedding and, at an age with which death is not usually asociated, she was suddenly no more! No warning! (And, as I learnt later, at the Soyem, wrong diagnosis. As a diabetic, she had a massive silent heart attack .. and no one at the hospital she was taken to diagnosed it until many hours later, when it was too late.)

Almost 20 minutes later we were told that everyone had to proceed to the Transit Lounge and await the next announcement. I was horrified, as I entered the lounge, to see Una still sitting there in tears. She and her husband were not being allowed out because the security guys needed to see the couple's airtickets stamped by PIA and the airline didn't have the stamp with them and had sent for it from some other department. I lost it! While I ranted and raved at the desk about how Una must be feeling and that their inefficiency was no reason to penalize her in her state, a government official of sorts overheard the story and told the desk guy to forget the stamp and just get someone from PIA to accompany her out. Someone immediately did ... and I hope Una was out quickly.

On entering the Lounge we were handed little green cards that many passengers thought were coupons for beverages to be consumed while waiting. So there was a rush to the refreshments counter and loud arguments on learning that they were not entitled to anything unless the delay was fairly long. Don't know what long means ... it certainly seemed long to those who wanted a beverage. Smokers, of course, could not wait and are above the law in this country. They smoked everywhere and one threesome looked around proudly, feeling especially cool and having their photos taken with mobile-phones while they smoked leaning against pillars with 'No Smoking' signs. Officials from airlines and CAA passed by with no effort at directing them to a designated area.

At some point we headed back to Lahore where we were driven by Najji to her house - a home where hospitality is king! - and where, like nowhere else, do I resent my having developed Diabetes! Waiting for us (well, not for me, I guess) were Shahid Sajjad, Salima & Shoaib Hashmi, and a couple of other friends. Going out was, as expected, OUT! But, an elaborate meal (with REAL Chapli Kababs from Dir!) was followed by a long night of fun. The visiting team kept us in stitches with their impersonations of singers and even dancers(!) ... and we left to rest.

I stayed with the Hashmis, from where I phoned Ragni who seemed to be feeling much better. I managed to check my mail and re-read her amazing letter from the cyber café again. The fear that there might be complications was heightened by her description of the accident, despite her wonderfully humourous approach to the whole thing --- Here's a kiss for your bravery and resilience, Ragni! --- and the subsequent way in which it was (mis)handled until the pain got worse and she saw a doctor.

Later in the day Nuzhat arrived. We spent the evening with our visiting friends and then all of us went off to Salimas, where a musical performance had been arranged, with Lahore's glitterati of stars in attendance: Naheed Siddiqui and Arifa Siddiqui, with her Ustaad-Husband Nazar Husain sahab, the last of our Sarod players, among them. I would have mentioned the father and son duo who turned up, but their poor and uncouth behaviour left me too disgusted to stain my blog with their names.

Back home (I had shifted from Salima's to my usual haunt) I slept badly - having been unable to contact Ragni. Woke up at 4 AM to check mail and see if there was an update ... and, yayyyyy! ... the report, which Professor Hayden had kindly sent on as soon as she had received it, showed that there was no fracture! Does one need to describe my joy? She has to wear a neck brace for 2 weeks, can start walking, going to classes from Monday, stay straight, and not pick up any weights. Of course there will be constant monitoring. But, heyyy ... the first news had nearly killed us!

The next day we saw Shubha, Aneesh, Sudhir, and Murad off in an emotional farewell. But not before Najji had served a breakfast that was as lavish as it gets. Superb quality and enough, in quantity, to have served 3 times the number present. This was followed by a visitor who also invited Shubha to return to Pakistan and perform in Lahore - and to not do so in Karachi! (I wonder if she's related to Mr. Businessman ... since this was certainly not an example of Lahore's usual hospitality.) I am sure that, despite some rather odd experiences they had with a couple of our musicians, they enjoyed their trip as much as we did theirs. Of course we had the further advantage of hearing them perform.

The evening was spent at BNU, where I presented the Faiz project to a small group. Professor Gulzar Haider, the Dean of the Architecture School, someone I respect immensely and have gotten to know very recently (he has just returned after many years in Canada), embarrassed me with an extremely generous but uncommon introduction that modesty prevents sharing with you.

But the week's ups and downs, smiles and tears, were far from over. Sabeen phoned and gave me the shocking news that a friend (and also the husband of a friend), had been found dead. The worse was to be revealed when the papers splashed it all over: He had shot himself!

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Ups & Downs - Part 1 - Mainly Karachi

Note: This is Part 1 of a long and personal posting so it may not interest many of you. But I am doing it as a form of catharsis.

The excitement had started building up much earlier. Shubha and Aneesh were, at last, going to be in Pakistan. Their musical talents and my fan-ship for their group (which includes Sudhir and Murad) aside, my greater thrill was that we'd be able to spend time together, relaxing, chatting, laughing, behaving insanely, and indulging unashamedly in gheebat (nothing beats this for fun, na?)...

The wonderful foursome arrived on the 22nd and headed off to a Press Conference. Those who know how these work are excused for having ignored the reports in the papers the next day because they are almost always inaccurate. Spellings are ignored, names mauled, quotations made up, and facts distorted. But enough people did get to know that she was performing at a fund-raiser for Mobile Hospitals so badly needed in our country, especially during the post-quake period. Enough, at least, to have the telephones ring frequently to ask for free passes. That night I met Sudhir and Murad for the first time and was overjoyed at their warmth.

The evening of the 23rd was really memorable: I had invited Zehra [Nigah] Apa to my house, especially at Shubha's request. Her poetry, in content and style, is unmatched. Whether she recites her powerful, brief nazms taht-ul-lafz or her classic ghazals in tarannum, her work grips the audience. Almost everyone was close to tears at the poems relating to Rape, Dacoity, Sectarian Murders, and Karo-Kari. One among the handful present said to me that, had she read just one more poem that evening, he would have started weeping loudly. The evening ended with a short, informal, impromptu performance, for Zehra Apa, by the group which spoke of this being the best evening they had spent in Pakistan. How I missed Ragni!

I mustn't forget that, earlier in the evening, Arshad Mahmud had dropped in to meet Shubha. Both he and Zehra Apa had, only that morning, been awarded the Presidential Pride of Performance Awards — as had our favourite qavvaals, Fareed Ayaz and Party. I pestered Arshad, as usual, to sing a bit - something he does far less often than he should - and he affectionately agreed, reciting a few couplets from Faiz Sahab, Suroor Bhai, and Parveen Shakir. Some day I hope to have him agree to do a whole CD-full.

The concert on the 24th went more than well, in so far as the performance was concerned. Kudos to Sadia Khan for just the right lighting and to Faiza Kassim for the best sound arrangement we have heard in recent classical concerts. (APMC, please take note, since Sound is the weakest link in your wonderful chain.) The audience had many stars from all walks of life, among them Zia Mohyeddin, Arshad Mahmud, Ustad Imdad Husain, Nayyara Noor, Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad, Naseeruddin Saami, Salima Hashmi to name just a few that I spotted bestowing daad galore.

Just before the show someone complained (I don't know why to me, since I am not a part of the Accident & Emergency Foundation which organized the show ... maybe my friendship with Dr Ghazala Aziz who made the event possible made me 'guilty by association' in his eyes) that the absence of a compere, of the stature of Anwar Maqsood or Shoaib Hashmi was 'criminal'. Given what transpired, one can admit that while the knowledge of these two in the field of music was missing, the compere for the evening certainly left them far behind in terms of humour. Sadly, it was inadvertent. She made simple names like Pandit Ram Ashreya Jha (Shubha's guru), despite pre-announcement tutoring by Sudhir, sound like Danny Kaye's memorable tongue-twisters.

The 25th evening was spent at the French Beach, with Fareed Ayaz and party performing exclusively for the visitors and a few friends. During the performance I decided to call up Ragni, who is studying in Cuba this semester, to let her have a few words with Shubha. It was then that the evening took a different turn for Nuzhat and myself, and a few close friends. Ragni, in a voice that seemed weaker than usual, and almost unrecognizable - a fact that, in the beginning I attributed to a bad connection since communication links with Cuba are tricky, at best - informed me that she had fallen and hurt her spine and had, temporarily experienced a loss of limb movement and was still numb in places, while undergoing great pain in the neck region. This scared the hell out of us, as it would any parent. And Cuba was so far away. No embassy here, no direct flights ... and knowing no one there. It's impossible to pen what we went through.

Rushing home, we phoned her again, and had Dr Hasan Aziz talk to her, too. We learnt that, while her movement was back (I sent off a silent 'Prayer' and a 'Thank You', in the general upward direction, addressing it 'To Whom It May Concern'), there was a chance that two of her vertebra may have been fractured. Still very frightening. An MRI Scan was scheduled for the next day and reports were due in two more days. We did not share this with too many people since answering calls and repeating the story would have been more strenuous.

The next morning we received a note from one of her Professors, Jackie Hayden, who very kindly kept us updated over the next few days. Apart from her health issue, of prime concern at that time, it also stated that Ragni was doing well in her academic work. To prevent her from stressing out over the inevitable loss of classes, regardless of whether the damage was severe or slight, her professors did something that I believe is uniquely human and warm: They decided to visit her at her house daily and deliver her classes to her individually!!! Given my own memories of Cuba, among my 25 years of seafaring around the world, I can imagine no other place where this would have happened. It's an amazing place with amazing people.

While we, in Pakistan, thank them for the nearly 2500 doctors they sent us to deal with our earthquake patients - a staggering number for a small country to send out - how many have stopped to think that, had the situation been in reverse, Cuba would not even have been on the radar for many Pakistanis to have considered such large-scale voluntary help (one which would also have been strongly discouraged by our current allies, anyway), despite our warm and caring culture. Thanks and Bravo, Cuba!!!

The 26th was a small informal get-together at Ghazala's and we went there only because we would have fretted away at home. In any case, contacting Ragni was only possible via a cellphone ... booking calls to Cuba rarely materialized, for some reason. And, until the MRI results came, we would only have spoken to Ragni for the sake of love and bonding but been none the wiser. We were thrilled to hear her sound better and slightly cheerful, possibly with the lessening of the pain. That night we came home to a surprise: She had been extremely considerate and, despite her condition, stopped by at a cyber café on the way back from her scan, to write to us (which put us tremendously at ease) and even included a digital picture of her in her neck-brace. Seeing her smile in this condition raised our hearts and hopes. Thanks, Ragni. Hugs and kisses!!!

On the 27th I travelled with Shubha to Lahore, with Nuzhat joining the next day. We were going for a Beaconhouse-Apple meeting and the timing was just right!!! I was also going to make a presentation of the CD-ROM on Faiz Ahmad Faiz I had authored years ago and had developed - with a dedicated team and a great deal of encouragement and support from friends - when I owned and ran ET. Since then, Sabeen (who programmed and designed most of the stuff) and I are running b.i.t.s.; Nuzhat (who did the bulk of its research) is running Solutions Unlimited; and Jehan Ara - who was key in securing the contract with the now-defunct Singapore-based Publishers - now owns and is running ET and taking P@SHA places! [BTW, I am now working towards a new and expanded version of the Faiz project. So if anyone has ideas or stuff to contribute, do email me.]

At the airport, Shubha was accosted by a "businessman from Lahore"... That's all he said; did not bother to give his name. But here's the scene: The man sweeps past us, does a double-take, and comes back to Shubha. The conversation as I best recall: "Are you Indian?" "Yes!" "Where have I seen you?" "Maybe on Indian TV..." "Are you singer?" "Yes" "Why are you here?' "For a concert!" "You will sing in L'hore also?" "No. There's no program there." " Well, next time come there, instead. We are very more cultured. Karachi is OK, but we have more of edge." ... with this he left ... Shubha sat down. Within minutes he was back with a friend armed with a mobile phone-camera, sat down next to her, leaned much closer than would be considered reasonable, had the friend take a picture - requesting permission, of course, not being part of his culture - and then handed Shubha a pen and asked her to autograph the shirt he was wearing, which Shubha declined, preferring to sign on a piece of paper despite his insistence.

Before we took off, Ghazala and I bumped into Unaizah, a wonderful kid we both first got to know via Qavvaalis and, later, I met (and became very fond of) through Insiya and her parents who have family ties with Una. She and her young hubby were travelling together. For them, the flight would soon take on a whole different meaning.

[Part 2 coming very soon!]

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