Night Flight

The more the cost is passed on, the higher it becomes – but pay someone must



Certain things have an afterlife. And certain a life after. It is in the latter category that leaves or flower petals pressed in the pages of books and certain books themselves fall. In early seventies of the century gone by when Sartre and Camus had already been deconstructed, in a manner of speaking, in our mind’s eye – suddenly Andre Gide, who was their senior, began to fascinate us. In our trilingual mindspace, where Urdu and Kashmiri occupied equal salience and Iqbal, Ghalib, Faiz and Manto were discussed as animatedly as Akhtar, Nadim, Kamil and Rahi, there was something awe-inspiring about the authors from shores afar who came to us enveloped in the heady smell of some exotic paper crackling like fresh currency notes directly off the shelves of Kashmir Book Shop. A visit to the bookshop was a rarely missed ritual and a new arrival would cause feverish excitement and the news of that arrival would go around a group of people very quickly indeed. So, it was the time when we would be discussing the ideas of Ayn Rand in the University Campus that an old French writer made an appearance on the bookshelves of Kashmir Book Shop. Antoine de Saint-Exupery had written the book ‘Night Flight’ in 1931 and it had shortly become an international bestseller. Incidentally, Gide wrote the foreword to its first edition. In 1932 it was translated into English by Stuart Gilbert and the next year – 1933 – turned into a movie starring Clark Gable. It was recreated in an Italian opera in 1940 and continued to be printed in modest numbers for many years in editions in French, English and several other languages it was translated into. The book had enjoyed a fair run of success and almost completed its life cycle without being classified as a classic. However, it appeared that in the early 70s the book, Gilbert’s translation of it in particular, got another lease of life internationally and also in Kashmir. Suddenly it became de rigueur to read or appear to have read it.
The book is about the night flight of an mail carrying aircraft of Patagonia Mail which its owner forces the pilot to undertake during a thunderstorm. Now, in 1930s there were no flight instruments and facilities either on board or on ground and night flying was akin to a game of Russian roulette with the odds heavily stacked against the pilot. If a thunderstorm is thrown into the mix, one can see the kind of stage Saint-Exupery has set in this novel. The owner is in radio contact with the pilot as the situation becomes progressively more dangerous for the flight and then the radio contact is lost. It is here that the book ends.  A major concern of the novel is whether ‘karma’ (the imperative of action that defines life) is more important than life itself.
Having read the book in 1972 or thereabouts, I did not remember all this – the plot and the background of the writer and the book. There was a vague memory of a speech by a character that had stayed, in some form, with me. And the other day it haunted me to the extent that I had to get hold of a copy of the book and re-read it after forty years. And there was that speech again – "We don't ask to be eternal. What we ask is not to see acts and objects abruptly lose their meaning. The void surrounding us then suddenly yawns on every side." It was then that the answer to the question: “Why do some books have a ‘life after’?” hit me. Some books, like some events and some people, have certain truths within them which make us revisit them across time. It is not like clothes or hairstyles, that tend to get repeated in a cyclical manner. The truths in these books, or events, or people – are immutable. And these are the kinds of truths that define civilization.
"We don't ask to be eternal. What we ask is not to see acts and objects abruptly lose their meaning. The void surrounding us then suddenly yawns on every side" – two young boys had lost their lives in Sumbal, a loss so utterly heart-breaking and sense-defying to me that it stirred a forty year old memory. What is the meaning of a teenager dying at the hands of people whose ostensible brief is to protect his life? Who is doing what ‘karma’ here and what will the result of that be, for the result will certainly be there. The more the cost is passed on, the higher it becomes – but pay someone must. In the unfortunate situation Kashmir finds itself in, it has become easy for everyone to blame everyone else except himself or herself. But at the end of the day and in the scheme of things that exists in statute books, it is the civil authority that must cop the ultimate blame. The army, indeed the whole security apparatus, is answerable to civil authority and not vice versa. If the Chief Minister has to put up with actions of a force which is not answerable to him he should quit office. Similarly, if the Prime Minister can’t rein in his generals he has no business being in office. Because both of them, the Chief Minister as well as the Prime Minister, are answerable to the people. They are answerable to the bereaved of the innocent children who lost their lives in Sumbal, who today are seeing acts and objects abruptly lose their meaning. And the bereaved in this case are all Kashmiris, wherever they are.

Lastupdate on : Thu, 4 Jul 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Thu, 4 Jul 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Fri, 5 Jul 2013 00:00:00 IST

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