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The term 'boat people' includes migrants of various nationalities, including Pakistanis, desperate to obtain asylum in a better country.  We read reports all too frequently of our countrymen, women, even children, perishing in ill-equipped vessels of dubious ownership.

Last week, two more people of a separate class lost their lives in a horrific accident in the Atlantic Ocean.

Shahzada Dawood (grandson of Ahmed Dawood) and his 19 year old son Suleman Dawood were two passengers in the submersible vessel Titan that disappeared in an attempt to view the sunken remains of the Titanic. Over a century ago, in 1912, the luxury ship Titanic, while on its maiden voyage to New York, hit a massive iceberg and sank.

Since the location of its broken fuselage in 1985 at a forbidding depth of 12,500 feet (3,800 metres), and more so after the success of the 1997 blockbuster film, the remains of the Titanic have assumed a macabre attraction for high-end tourists, keen on viewing its wreckage close-up.

They could do so only from a high-tech submersible designed to withstand the enormous pressure at the ocean floor. Such an once-in-a-lifetime joyride is not only expensive ($250,000 per head) but inherently hazardous. It demands specialised nautical knowledge, technical expertise and considerable capital outlay.

Among the five men who went down in the Titan submersible, three were persons with earlier experience in such perilous adventures. Two more passengers than crew were Shahzada Dawood and his teenage son Suleman.

I knew Shahzada through his father Hussain Dawood. In the 1990s, Hussain’s business interests in the family’s fertiliser complex Dawood Hercules kept him in Lahore. We would meet occasionally, socially.

One day, Hussain called me to ask whether I could help young Shahzada with his GCSE accounting paper. (At the time I was teaching Financial Accounting at LUMS.) Shahzada came over to spend an hour or so with me on successive Saturday mornings. I helped him unravel the accounting knots clogging his mind. This continued for many weeks until he felt comfortable with the subject.

Some months passed. One morning, a huge bouquet of flowers arrived at my office. With it came a note from Shahzada, thanking me for helping him secure Grade A+ in his Accounting paper. It was a warm, generous gesture.

After Shahzada joined his family business, whenever we met, he would invariably express a remonstrance. He complained that ever since his success in Accounting, he found himself being importuned by his siblings and other family members to handle all their financial matters. He blamed me for this onerous expertise.

Shahzada and his wife Christine moved out of Lahore and lost touch. His precipitate death has brought back poignant memories of a young genial student who became a friend.

However many condolences - deeply felt and  expressed here with sincerity - one may offer his parents Hussain and Kulsum Dawood, none can  assuage the trauma inflicted on these elders in the evening of their years at losing two generations of their family at once. Cruelly, the ill-fated Titanic has claimed yet more victims.

The grief of the Dawood family will be private. The loss of over 200 anonymous Pakistanis on a migrant ship off the coast of Greece has been made an occasion of public mourning. Our national flag was lowered to half-mast - a moving gesture. The functionary who thought of it should have realised that it was repudiation of this very flag and the hollow nationality it represents that drove those hapless migrants to escape in the first place.

Sociologists analysing migrations will recall the brain drain of the 1970s into the 2000s. During these decades, the top soil of Pakistan’s intellect moved in droves for better prospects, more lucrative opportunities, for safer havens.

In 1947, an ostensibly unsinkable Pakistan was launched. It boasted room for passengers of every class, every religion and political persuasion, with unlimited space in its West and East wings for Muslim migrants from India. Today, their descendants find themselves again migrants, voting with their feet, buying dreams for dollars. To them, Pakistan seems no more sea-worthy than a rusting wreck.

During the oil boom in the 1970s, the demand for Pakistani labour in the Gulf created an army of manpower agents. They could operate only under licence from the government.  Today, it is a free-for-all, with unscrupulous middle-men risking the lives of the gullible with a one-way ticket to an unknown paradise.

In the Atlantic, after days of anxiety and a costly search effort by US, Canadian, British and French resources, the fate of the Titan has been confirmed. It imploded instantaneously. Its remains have been discovered near the Titanic’s bows.

If only fourth-world migrants on death boats could attract such a flotilla of attention. 



[DAWN, 29 JUNE 2023]



29 June 2023
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