How disorderly politics and economics combined to create the roiling mess that sank the domestic infrastructure ecosystem, including the airlines, in Pakistan. This was after all, one of seven Pakistani planes to crash within a decade.
Writing about the tragedy he survived three years ago helps a development banker come to terms with his conflicting feelings of guilt, relief, and wonder, as he explains in a recent keynote address at the Pakistan Literature Festival in London
In the months that followed, I found myself recalibrating my priorities, thinking more deeply about questions of my existence which I had breezed past before, and marvelling at the series of events that allowed me to survive.
Simultaneously, I also struggled with painful physical complications from my injuries that required multiple surgeries in and outside Pakistan.
I found this process of coming to terms with my mortality and my newfound physical limitations both isolating and incredibly humbling.
Horrified and devastated
I was alone in my predicament, having survived a trauma that few can claim to have experienced, while at the same time bowled over by the outpouring of love and support from family and friends, and above all, strangers, or people that I barely knew. Surviving such a disaster does that to you.
It introduces you to bizarre thoughts which you would have never imagined could exist in your brain. You feel horrified and devastated by the tragedy, but also relieved at having survived.
Despite that relief, you question why you survived. And when that survivor’s guilt gains so much as a toe-hold in your mind, you find yourself wracked by it.
You recognise that what happened was senseless, yet you still look for meaning in the debris.
It is a constant, unrelenting struggle – finding and coming to terms with grief and joy, pain and relief, depression and a renewed will to live, all at once.
Like most who have never experienced a major trauma, I had hardly considered how these complicated emotions could chase one another in a survivor’s mind with such blinding swiftness.
I had held senior positions at multinational banks across Pakistan and abroad. When my plane crashed, I was the President and CEO of the Bank of Punjab, a position I have held since April 2020. Despite growing up in a family tied to arts and literature, the foremost struggles in my life were corporate in nature, and not the philosophical kind.
So when I experienced these baffling, discomfiting thoughts, I did the only thing I could think of: Pen them down. In the process, I found myself exploring everything from the mechanics of the crash to my feelings during recovery and the evolution of life.
Writing became both a labour of love and a means of purification and emotional release for me. I have emerged on the other side with a stronger, clearer sense of who I am and what my renewed lease on life means to me.
The crash - and aftermath
The crash itself was a complicated mess. Pakistan International Airlines PK8303 was a domestic flight from Lahore to Karachi. Minutes before landing, air traffic control flagged the flight for being higher than the required descent profile. Ground officials asked the pilot to abort his frenzied descent for a slower approach. The pilots did not or could not comply with this advice.
The Airbus belly-grazed the runway with its landing gear retracted. Its engines scrubbed the tarmac three times. The pilots decided to circle the airport again. But the engines had taken a battering from their brush with the ground and stopped working midair. Unable to maintain the required altitude, the plane plummeted.
It was sheer luck that I escaped. When the plane broke apart, a miraculous opening formed near my seat, which was flung away from the burning wreckage.
Still strapped to the seat, I fell onto a third-floor rooftop. The angle of the fall reduced the damage to my body. The seat then slid off the rooftop and onto the bonnet of a car instead of landing on the hard surface of the road. There were three people in the car, two brothers and the wife of one brother, who were also miraculously uninjured. Six or seven people wrenched me away from the rubble and carried me to safety. Seconds later, the car burst into flames.
I lay out the details of this acutely distressing experience in my book, and how disorderly politics and economics combined to create the roiling mess that sank the domestic infrastructure ecosystem, including the airlines, in Pakistan. This was after all, one of seven Pakistani planes to crash within a decade.
But mostly, I use my book to reflect on life since the crash. I talk about how systemic arrogance led to industry-wide collapse and how it affects individuals and business leaders; how cognitive dissonance can derail recovery when your perception of your body’s limits does not match reality; and how developing will power can help overcome significant psychological and physical deficits.
The crash propelled me into thinking and reading about more spiritual things, including rituals and miracles, and humanity’s obsession with both.
Overcoming survivor’s guilt
For one, our understanding of miracles has been shaped by centuries of cultural and religious conditioning. This conditioning initially led me to believe I had to be worthy of being saved as I struggled to explain why I had received these miracles.
The more emotionally intelligent amongst us know that trying to become worthy of a miracle is futile. Anyone with any humility can never reach that goal.
It was only when I accepted that I had been awarded this miracle for no reason at all that I began to overcome my guilt.
I was similarly exposed to how rituals shape humanity. Senior ground-control officers in Karachi had abandoned their posts to offer prayers when my plane was about to crash. What led them to follow rigid prescriptions of a religion that is meant to be compassionate and peaceful is beyond me. Our religion tells us that work itself is a form of prayer - and yet they abandoned their posts, giving up professionalism for ritual.
In exploring this, I delved into the history of ritual behaviour, from hoarding during the Metal Ages to current Muslim practices.
I considered both the rigidity and sacrifice that some rituals entail, and the scientifically backed benefits of ritualistic behaviours, such as its positive and calming effects for athletes or fisherfolk sailing in storm-ridden seas.
I hope that these reflections will show readers that while rituals can offer great comfort, many have become divisive, political, and disruptive.
In fact, in placing such conversations at the centre of my book, I hope to encourage readers to question long-held beliefs, propel them into action, or just help them to slow down.
I hesitate to call this a self-help book; for me, it is more than a prescription of things to do or to avoid. It is merely an attempt to explain the unexplainable, to formulate ideas about the world that are couched in both historical and political context.
These ideas are fuelled by a feeling of urgency from the perspective of someone who has survived a near-death experience. I want to share this sense of urgency with those who read my story and hope that they find it helpful in some way.
(The author is a development and social impact-focused banker who survived an air crash in Pakistan in May 2020. By special arrangement with Sapan)