Squadron Leader Muazzam Ali Khawar was among the four Pakistan Air Force pilots who died in a fatal mid-air collision of two aircraft near the Rashkai area on Thursday. It was the sixth Pakistan Air Force crash in seven months and the second in a week, according to reports.
“You are star child,” I told him, referring to the textbook lesson Mr Noonari had taught in class that day.
As the English teacher paced about in the class, his prized orator picked up the book to read the master piece by Oscar Wilde. I instantly decided who my target would be. You see, the abridged version of “Star Child” describes, in detail, the features of cursed “star child.” It was such an apt description of the commoner sitting in front of me (and the victim of my poking) that we instantly, collectively, decided it would be a suitable pseudonym for Muazzam Ali Khawar.
In schools such as the PAF College Sargodha, you can only plan so far as the next day. You don’t know if the person sitting next to you, your dorm-mate, your roommate, your table tennis partner, your bench-mate, will be with you for a few months, years or may be decades. Fortunately, people rarely think in terms of the future. With his average appearance, curly hair, humble background and government-school education, I perceived, Muazzam to be a loner. It took me 18 years to realise I was wrong.
The brick-paved pathway, which began from the mosque, ran through the hockey fields before ending at Sabre House. Muazzam was a proud Sabrite and stuck to house motto in true spirit. The motto “Never Give In” was from Sir Winston Churchill’s famous speech at Harrow School, in October 1941. The determination, Churchill wanted to instill in the youngest imperial flag-bearer had somehow transcended to Muazzam, who belonged to the southern Punjab town of Layyah. Once we moved out of the mosque after the Maghrib prayer, he managed to get hold of me for humiliating him in the morning. I was alone at that time and my clan had disappeared. Before his fist could leave a mark, as permanent as my words had left on his heart, Mr Patni, the Islamic Studies teacher appeared out of nowhere and brokered peace between us. What started at the mosque, ended before the pathway could end. Passing across the Sabre house, we hugged each other. Like a good mission school student, I resolved in my heart to avenge and like a typical government school student, he decided to forgive and forget.
In the years that followed, Muazzam’s story moved as that of Star Child. He graduated with flying colours, managed to become a wonderful pilot and to top it all, an admirable human being.
After a decade of knowing each other, we had become close friends. Every now and then I would give him a call. A favor here and a call there and he always complied with deliberation. I once reminded him, how I ridiculed him in the college and he said he did not remember it at all. My instincts told me he did. Only, he was a better and refined gentleman, who would not tread on the path that could lead to emotional hurt.
Squadron Leader Muazzam Ali Khawar’s father with Pakistan Air Force officials.
On hearing about the crash, I called his home, the phone line was busy. After an hour, somebody answered the phone. Instantly, I asked, “When is the funeral?” And before I could realise it was too soon, a shrieking voice replied: “puttar meray kol janazay da kee puchna?” (Son, why are you asking me about the funeral?). I shouldn’t have asked his mother. Two weeks ago, when he was visiting his family, he told them that if anything happened to him, the authorities should name an airport after him. His insight never bluffed him.
The last salute – Squadron Leader Muazzam Ali Khawar is laid to rest.
A day after that fateful call, a smartly-dressed guard saluted him off to the grave. Outside his house in Faisalabad, people gathered instantly. Almost the entire city had come to say goodbye to this son. Muazzam was never a loner. By his grave stood officers, his schoolmates, his team-mates, his bench-mates, his partners at table tennis.
As the sun sets in at the grave yard, Mr Noonari walks into the class. I can hear the prized orator reading from Oscar Wilde’s Star Child.
“Some woodcutters were in a pine forest in winter. All the animals, from wolf to linnet, turtle doves to woodpeckers, rabbits, squirrels and great horned owls knew that the snow is cruel to those who sleep in her arms. One cried out, there was a thing of gold lying on the white snow, a cloak of golden tissue, wrought with stars, and wrapped in many folds, and within, a little child asleep. They knew it was a gift for them they called him Star Child…He gave bread to the poor, and clothes to the naked, and there was peace and plenty in the land.”
The author knew the deceased pilot from their school days and was a close friend.