how people smile in places that will forever haunt them

Night-calls spent taking histories as I caught up with an old friend, some freshly brewed coffee smiling with me under the calm night sky, the parents surprising me with home-cooked food at 9 in the night, knowing that I had not wanted to eat from the cafeteria, a rather spontaneous decision to stay post-call with a dear friend to accompany another friend on her call that ended in three friends laughing and studying and drinking unhealthy cups of tea with some more giggling, and a little more studying, and carefully averted panic attacks humming around an exam scheduled for the next day – some few, fond, lovely memories from our North campus’s obstetrics rotation.

But what I really learnt were a couple of lessons – golden leaves – that I can forsee shaping my unknown future.

OBS taught me how people smile in places that will forever haunt them, how to painfully relive certain moments of agony as I also live the present and talk about fungal infections. It taught me the value of last moments and desperate prayers, of exhaling regrets, of kneading your anger into an imaginary ball of fire that you can only hurl at yourself. It taught me how ridiculously invaluable compassion and empathy are. It taught me that nothing can buy us time – time to say goodbye, time to speed up a racing car, time to make a life and death decision – everything is already predestined, the laws of this universe do not allow us to click the ‘select’ button. It taught me to make peace with unanswered duas – unanswered prayers that will return home as something even better, unanswered prayers that will shield me from dusty winds, unanswered prayers that will be answered when Time itself will gravitate towards them. It also taught me that some wounds will never heal, some skipped beats will always remind you what it is to love the dying, and there are moments that our weak hearts could never have borne. And that He knows best. Always.

The miracle of life – the fetal heart sounds resonating within tiny limbs in another miracle – is much larger than the miracle of death. Life – shrieking and crying – is as enthralling as death – the end of a whole universe of feelings and thoughts as they go to sleep under the blanket of earth.

I’m glad I spent those days auscultating fetal heart sounds.
They share the same wavelength as hope.


A letter for her (IX) – The best of me

There’s something about tonight.

We have always loved the stars. And tonight, they have written us a letter. It’s rather lovely! The words are dusted with faith, punctuated by little miracles. There’s just one dialect – kindness. You asked them to send it, didn’t you? I know you did. Because they have addressed us as ‘you’:


‘There’s a picture by the beach at sunset, waiting to be taken. But the calendar has been set, fixed. The pens have also been lifted, and the ink has dried – they’ve told you that. Responsibilities and expectations surround your feet and you want to live up to them. You want to do the right thing. And we can only admire you more for that. Maybe He’ll even reward you for it. Who knows?

You’re allowed to keep certain memories. You can keep them tenderly, lovingly, like your most prized possession. Keep them close to your heart, but oh! not so tightly. Let them come to you in the middle of chaos, the happiness that smiles through your day. Let them be the peace that your tired soul craves for. Let them be your favourite good morning and your beloved good night. Let them be your moonlight under the dark, rainy sky as the waterfall plays in the background of all your dream-come-trues.

Lie down under our roof then, clutching your hearts. Let the rhythms do the talking, let His love blink it all away. Whisper – don’t shout – the “I’m sorry“; it’s better that way. Because you’ll hear one, too!

You are jumping from one corner of the heart to another, listening to the Beckoning. You weren’t given a map through this terrible maze but you’ve been gifted the heart. The seven seas and the seven skies and the angels guarding you have all borne witness to that. When your earth was created, you met your end then. This, dear children, is just the beginning. You’re on the journey. You’ll get there. With time, and patience, and compassion, and love, and kindness. You’ll get there if He wills it. You’ll get somewhere. You only need to ask. So ask again.

So now go to sleep, children! Let the angels hum you a lullaby as you loosen those knots.

Once in your lifetime, you’ll meet the purpose of this earthly, fragile existence. Whatever you, do not let it go. Do not let the sand slip away, do not let the mirror break. It’s a gift.


I can’t ever say thank you properly.

Only the best of me will meet you. Miss you more than ever.


Artwork: Safa Younis

there are no mermaids in the warm oceans and the sea is aging.

This poem first appeared on the Ziauddin University Atlas.

there are no mermaids in the warm oceans and the sea is aging.
the waves are still dancing with the moon, rising and falling with my sighs,
the notes resonating with the khamaj of the universe.
and the earth is playing the dhun loudly, hoping for a miracle,
courting the sun, beloved to the stars.
beloved to you,
beloved to me.
shadow by shadow, they prostrate to
a God Unseen, the pearls in the sea-bed
waiting for you,
waiting for me.
how many hour-glasses will we break?
the darkness of this universe is
the light within you,
the light within me.
the small galaxies glowing in the mystery of black, taking me deeper into its heart, reading out – bit by bit –
the words of Destiny,
surprising you,
surprising me.
and there are no mermaids here,
and no elves,
there’s just you,
there’s just me.

Photo: Safa Younis

“(Moses) said: “O my Lord! Relieve my mind!”

Happy times, chuckling hearts.
Falling Slowly.
Losing the Orion. Emptiness. Silence. Anger. Hurt. Disappointment.
How could this be?
Pretending to smile as you remind them who you are.
Hiding your tears when they hug you with every ounce of energy left in their body. For the last time.
Sleeping with your hand on her wrist, her pulse your lullaby.
Untouched food.
Surah Rehman.
Ambulance rides.
In and out. Up and down.
Tests, tests, more tests.
The blood pressure chart.
. bpm
Her day is fast approaching? No. No.
Whispered promises.
“I’ll come in your dreams.”
“Juldi se doctor ban jao!”
(Hurry up and become a doctor!)
Sleepless nights, studying at her bedside.
Empty fingers. The rings could have hurt her!
The Zamzam.
Mecca. Umrah. Hajj.
“Janam din mubarak ho!”
(Happy birthday!)
“Apna ghar tou apna hota hai!”
(Home is home!)
“Aap mat jana! Aap se mjhe bohat hosla rehta hai!”
(Don’t go. You give me courage!)
August 20 2018. 8 Dhu’l Hijjah 1439 AH
Muffled sobs. The last ride. “And which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?”
“Please come back. Please.”
Meandering eyes. Tearful souls.
Letters for her.
The warm Karachi air reminding you of friendly seas and lost conversations as you step out of the air-conditioned car that has fogged your glasses and you can’t see. You can’t see anymore.
You came out of the fog, but…always but.



“I hate this,” she said.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“She’s not here anymore. She’s dead. She’s never coming back. What will I do now? Where will I hide now?”



Always the silent heart beating – words imprisoned – as our thoughts dance together. The sea is growing old.
The thread is breaking.

“Qala rabbi ishrah lee sadree”
“(Moses) said: “O my Lord! Relieve my mind!” (Surah Ta’aHa. Verse 25)



2018-07-28 091213998528..jpg

A letter for her (VIII) – “Meet me in my dreams till I join you?”

I step into the house that is the “once upon a time” for all my childhood adventures. I see your red rooster proudly walking in the verandah. Every now and then, it goes to the door overlooking the sitting area and expectantly peeks inside before turning away. A little disappointed.

I enter the sitting area through the dimly lit passage. Our childhood faces gaze back at me from the walls, reminding me of what a long, long way your grandchildren have come; of how my eyes hold a few autumns and the smile is not that of a child’s who is gloating over her recent mischief.

So I enter the sitting area and my eyes automatically go to the sofa that had been your throne. Do you know what I see? I see you smiling fondly at me, your arms open, calling out to me. I rush towards you. But you’re not there. You’re not there anymore.

The ludo game sits untouched. Remember the times we’d all gather around you to play ludo, promises of chips and juices inviting us to speed up the game as your watchful eyes kept track of every unfair move we made? And those cricket matches that we’d all enthusiastically watch – cheering, shouting, eating – and you, disappointed at Inzimam’s performance, would make no effort to hide that disappointment. And the innocent way your eyes danced when they saw your favourite food. And how you’d look at me proudly as I followed your recipes and you’d tell me that I cook as well as you do? There’s no one to pamper me like that anymore. I hear your “shukriya” – the ones you’d say every time we did the smallest of things for you – coming from my lips as I now thank people.

I miss that.

I miss you.

I walk into your room, I sit on your bed. It’s so quiet in here. It’s peaceful. This – the memory of your fragrance, the memory of your hug, the memory of your *duas, the memory of your love, the memory of those sparkling eyes telling me that I’m not alone – is the only home I have now. You were home, the home that understood the difference between what it saw and how I felt. And now I feel stranded on an island, millions of kilometres away from where I should be. I will board the boat again but not now. Not now.

For all these months, you were the home that kept me safe and happy. You helped me fly with peace, you taught me how beautiful is the love that gently springs from struggling hearts, how kindness and empathy make you feel God, how patience is so much more than just watching – feeling – the seconds tick by, how there’s more to a garden of flowers than just some colourful petals and dancing dewdrops.

“Meet me in my dreams till I join you?”

The flower quivered but it was the bird that fell.

In a parallel universe, the mountains have already flown, the moon has lovingly shared its light with the sun, the neutrons are already charged with love and only love, and the night is alive with the poems of those who have lost this world to win the universe.

Thank you for being the centre of my universe for all these months. Thank you for that unconditional, selfless love. Thank you – again – for being the Rumi to my Shams. Thank you for showing me the light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you for holding my hand when I asked you if dua is the only way out.
Thank you for receiving these letters; who else will I write for?

I miss you.

Your friend.



A letter for her (VII) – the light years between mortality and Adam’s twilight at Barzakh

*Nani Jaan!

It’s early morning here and I’m wrapped in your white chicken-karri **chaadar. You know the one that you used to wear while praying? Yeah, that one. There’s so much peace in your room; maybe the walls of this room are beginning to love your memories, guarding them, frequently tossing them our way. There’s always someone to catch them here!

Your rooster still gives his early morning call to prayer. The familiarity and comfort of his loud cock-a-doodle-do reminds me of the warmth of the sunshine on wet, shivering humans drenched by the first winter rain. The heart grows accustomed to strange things, doesn’t it?

You knew I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to you. Is that why you cried in my arms on the Twenty-third? I’m really sorry. I’m sorry.

It didn’t hurt too much, right? I know it didn’t. Can you help me prepare for mine?

I wonder how I’ll feel when I am about to join you. Where will my tired, tired soul seek an exit from? Which limb of mine will let go of its last breath first? Will my eyes flutter with uncertainty? Will my tongue testify to His Oneness, too? Will my soul be pleased with deserting my body? “And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and we are closer to him than (his) jugular vein”. Will my last heartbeat – my very last heartbeat – fly out from my jugular vein? And diffuse into the stardust suspended around my earthly self, slowly covering the light years between mortality and Adam’s twilight at Barzakh? How will I feel as my soul breezes out of the home it has known so well – the last breath caught in my throat – and my eyelids prostrate one last time? And the last beats of my only heart following the tinkling in my toes, the final sense of emptiness moving up through my body as little by little, the miracle of life leaves this flesh and bones? Will the loneliness just get deeper as they carry me away? Will they suddenly become more real and will I just diffuse into the air around, the memories in the hearts, another empty space in another house? How will it feel in that triangular house of mud? How dark will it be? Will it be scary? I’m scared of spiders and snakes. How will all this – this traffic of meaningless gatherings and false colours and loud music – finally end?

There are a hundred billion sunsets waiting on the horizon, and the Known and the Unknown are shaking hands.

Do you think the sea on our earth is the sky of our skies?

Miss you. Love you.

Yours ever.

Photo credits: Vashma Junaid

*Maternal grandmother

** traditional shawl

A letter for her (VI) – It’s the last glimpse you didn’t have, the goodbye we never said, the hand that I can now never hold.

My *Nani Jaan!

Never thought I’d discover so much all at once. Again, through you.

What does death really look like?

It’s that empty sofa staring back at me with your lovely memories. And your motherly scent in the dress that now belongs to me. It’s that loving voice that I miss, calling me, “**Nawaasi Jaan!” It’s the lonely bed in the lonely room. It’s your uneaten favourite food. It’s the grief-stricken faces around us. It’s the tears imprisoned within the heart. It’s the coconut trees’ silent mourning as it moves with the wind in your courtyard, weeping and weeping. It’s the walls of your house that hold the days of laughter and smiles. It’s a heartbeat here and a sob there.

It’s the Alladin’s lamp in our shivering hands that keep safe all your simple words, and the memories that console me, and the love that makes me me.

It’s all those moments snatched away from the embers of a fire that had been put to sleep. It’s the eternities pretending to be the seconds that remain till we are reunited in gardens under which rivers flow and flowers bloom and where the cool breeze is forever dancing, forever happy. It’s also the anticipation of a tomorrow without your blessings, carrying on under the shadow of the old ones. It’s the empty casket from the dream that didn’t let me go back to sleep. It’s that feeling of unease that had been nagging me a day shy of ten. It’s the quick-sand that threatens to unsteady me, forever. It’s my soul beginning to grieve before we even said farewell. It’s the last glimpse you didn’t have, the goodbye we never said, the hand that I can now never hold.

That is death. Isn’t it?


*Maternal grandmother

** Maternal granddaughter

Photo credits: Vashma Junaid

A letter for her (V) – the rose petals are saying, “Thank you! I miss you, too!”

Nani Jaan*!

It’s been a week.

Grief has greeted me in a strange way, you know. I should have been well-prepared, I can hear you say. Yes. But I was not. Your friend was not.

Grief has so many curtains drawn over the helplessness that we court. It punches you in the face. It wakes you up in the middle of the night, just as sleep begins to throttle you. It shamelessly mimics death to remind you of how mortality draws a different tangent on your graph – the faithful heart coughs out whatever oxygen is breathing its last in your fragile body and then slowly, tenderly, a stabbing pain pierces the seven veils between you and who you were, descending to a cascade of “I wish” and you jerk your eyes open. The void in the soul is like a still from a song that has been on repeat since your first sunrise. It’s autumn, summer, spring, winter – the beads beading into the rosary as the meyna chirps outside and says the morning prayer with you, the rain washing over the fresh mud on a new grave – your grave – and the rose petals saying, “Thank you! I miss you, too!” as the moonlight flashes on the sad dance of the hearts below and the stars twinkle over His will.

“And which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?”


*maternal grandmother

the loveliest flowers in the garden of friendship

With the advent and growing popularity of women’s groups like Soul Sisters Pakistan, Superwomen of Pakistan, the Pakistani Woman, Wow -Women of Wisdom, and Deen Sisters to name just a few, it begins to dawn on you how important healthy (I repeat, ‘healthy’) female friendships are. It’s amazing and it’s overwhelming to see what a positive impact we women can have on each other solely by giving each other some heartfelt genuine support. I think I don’t realize how incredibly lucky I myself am when it comes to my own girl gang. It’s when I’m with these brilliant, brave, talented girls that I draw the curtains back and I see myself doing all I aspire to do. We fight (oh, yes! A lot!). We laugh, we giggle. We’ll even shed a few tears and throw more than a few tantrums. We’ll feed each other, we’ll tell each other to ‘woman up’. We’ll redefine each other’s sunsets, listen to those of our songs that are still a thought, and proudly be the pillar of strength in the monuments that we’re creating. I couldn’t be grateful enough.

You know how the birds return to their home as the sun begins to set? I’ve always imagined the girlfriends gathering under the neem tree, the little hair on their crowns singing to the cool breeze as they share the tales from the day before and shed off the boulders of survival to truly live as the secrets of their little hearts are unraveled, their fears battled, their joys celebrated. And then as the stars come out and greet them fondly, they hug each other goodbye and fly off to their fragile nests.
That’s us; our female friendships.

We all have a story of our own; we’re all proud ghazis of big and small battles that have shown us who we truly are, what goodness we are capable of, and that by choosing to do what we do – love each hour of our mornings, hold the candle for each other, smile and laugh and smile – we are, indeed, the loveliest flowers in the garden of our friendships.


Photo credits:

A letter for her (IV) – a hug from God

Dear *Nani Jaan,

It was the evening of the twenty-third of this month. I was about to fall and scatter into a hundred billion pieces. I was about to fall very badly. But once again, you saved me. Thank you! This life that I was playing around with, I now owe it to you.

It was a bleak summer evening. The nights have been long, too. I was losing my way …almost. But then you held the candle for me. It’s incredible and magical how you do it. So you and I have been chosen to hide away in this peaceful bond that marks the beginning of so many journeys all at once. And I just never knew!

I knew that day how restless your heart has been – how could I not? And I also knew – just like I did that starry Saturday night – what would bring us the relief that we were seeking. And so I did what I had done then, what I always do -what we always do together; I played your favourite – our favourite – Surah Rehman.

Why did you suddenly start crying? It was like the verse humming out of my phone was the voice of your long lost friend, a very dear friend. And then the way your arms went around me in gratitude, holding me close, your fragile fingers cradling me – reaching down to my soul – and tears soaking my face – I don’t know whose – and then that heavy feeling in my heart melting away into an expectant joy, like that of a child who gets excited at the thought of running in a park, chasing the wild ducks. How did it come to this? Your eyes wouldn’t leave my face, your hands were in mine, and your face was glowing. And you kept saying how you love these words, how your father loved these words. I love these words, too, Nani Jaan. I love these words, too!

Why does it feel like a hug from God every single time I meet you? Do you know that this was the best hug of all? How could you make me feel that way? That magical way that is now suddenly making me look forward to a (forgotten) happy tomorrow that I have been waiting for? It was like God asking you to pat me on the back and tell me – lovingly – that there’s a happy miracle waiting for me, that there’s something wondrous looking for me, that it’s very near and just a little more patience. Just a little more. How easy it is for our Friend to console me, isn’t it? It was a moment that I would never exchange for all the happiness in the world – your quiet prayers blessing my future, Him telling me that the morning is just a few blinks away, Him consoling me, Him promising me a reward greater than my feeble imagination, Him reminding me that His love – as always – is here, right here!

But I am also scared, Nani Jaan. I learnt to live for you, to make this journey easy for you so that He can make it easy for me – send me someone like we were sent for each other – to be your friend, your best friend. I don’t want to stop living for you, I don’t want to stop waking up for you. Or maybe I can live so that I can join you in His Gardens, then?
Yeah, I think I can manage that if He gives me a chance.

I miss you. I owe you this new life.
Thank you for listening to me in this silence, Nani Jaan. Thank you for seeing what the world doesn’t see.

You know something, Nani Jaan? A little girl cried herself to a peaceful dream the night of this twenty-third.

Love you.

Your Arfu.

*Nani Jaan: maternal grandmother

Photo credits: Vashma Junaid