A letter for her (XXXII) – a few disconnected thoughts

I think as difficult as this time is, I’m going to miss living it. Even the uncertainties seem to have warmed my heart and I’m nothing but surprised; surprised at how far we’ve come, surprised at the light sneaking out from that haunted house; how the hospital beds have nestled hopeful dreams and difficult patients no longer make you anxious. But COVID-19 and patients who lie still do.

“Farz chhorr k nafl kar rahi houn!” (Its like I’m leaving my real job to offer voluntary services!)
These are physician mothers who have not met their kids for months since the pandemic.

I can’t wait for a tomorrow that is peaceful, less frightening, and that will finally see the end to a journey of patience that has lasted for as long as I can remember. Because getting exhausted is the very proof that you need to believe that you’re a human, too.

Its amazing how life unfolds and you get answers for questions long forgotten. Almost like tumbling across a 1000-rupee note in the pocket of your old jeans. Or finding your favourite chocolates at the back of the fridge. But despite this all, some emotions linger on, the subconcious plays it’s game and tricks and corners it’s questions and queries about the the little universe within its own self, just like these disconnected thoughts. That’s life.

And sometimes I can’t distinguish between breathing and breathing from behind the tight-fitting N-95.
Is it the same struggle?

A letter for her (XXXI) – Al-Baatin

11:00 AM | 11 May 2020

It’s very rare – and very fascinating – to see the child that has grown within someone you call your grandmother because when you’re a kid, you think all grown ups were always all grown up.

You loved making sandcastles. The way your slender fingers would expertly build another home is a fond memory etched over the papyrus of time now. You’d place a chair on the shoreline and go and sit there, letting the waves sink the plastic chair deeper into the moist floor, the salty water playing with the seams of your saree. And you’d sit there and smile beautifully and gaze back at the sun, your sunglasses making you look like a diva. You were gorgeous!

Life has become pretty much like the waves you’d sit with. One after another, rushing in; leaving no time for the first wave of a new realisation to engage with the brain before sweeping in another extraordinary feeling that I have to struggle to recognise. I really can’t decide whether to laugh at that or to continue to be surprised. Or why not both?

I don’t have answers to any of the questions. I don’t even have questions anymore. I wanted to climb the highest peak of Tawakkal. I wanted what Hazrat Umar wanted: “Oh, Allah! Make us of your few servants!” And this is mighty difficult, Nani Jaan. You used to say, “Allah Mian bohat piyaray hain! (God is lovely!)” He really is. I don’t know anything at all except the fact that He makes me take out my phone and open up the dua, “Allah alone is sufficient for us, and He is the best disposer of affairs for us.” (Quran 3:173) when my boss is creating a difficult situation for me in an OPD swamped with more than thirty patients. All I know is that He relieves my anxiety when my brain – more than my heart – tells me that no power is bigger than God and what will only happen is what only He wills. All I know is that these last fourteen days passed by without cough and fever and in the line of duty because He is the Omnipotent, and there’s work threaded in the lines of my palms only. All I know is that if He’s giving enough strength to the two people who brought me into this world to also send me out on this new battlefield, then only He can turn the Impossible into Possible. All I know is that if I find myself calling out to Him for help when I’m stuck in the restroom with no water or when I find myself whispering to Him to grant me the motivation to drop another few extra pounds on the weighing scale or when I make a quick dua for my favourite food, I’m free from the chains of human dependency and unfulfilled expectations. All I know is that when I find myself writing unsent letters that have no address, my soul is testifying to the power of duas made long ago, to His promise of not returning us empty-handed, to the very special heartbeat that He has hidden inside me. All I know is that when lost in the blurriness of this cacophony, the only lantern I am able to hold is that of istikhara; for every tangled knot, for every aching breath, for every dark alley. All I know is that ever since I’ve started playing this game of Tawakkal, He is increasing not only the level of difficulty, but also my bonus points, my resilience, my Love for Him, and how somehow, I know we’ll be able to fill in this crossword puzzle. Because He is our secret inner companion, after all.

And all of this because of your magical duas. I see them protecting me, making me stronger, happier. Little by little, every day. The dewdrops falling on me, calming the storms within, now comfortable with patience, waiting for and amused at the unknown path, but the known heartbeat.

Thank you, Nani Jaan.

A letter for her (XXX) – hearts are prettier when they’re thankful

2:18 PM | 6 May 2020

There are two things that define those miraculous six months we spent together preparing to say goodbye to you: unconditional, unquestionable faith in God, and unconditional gratitude.

Two years down the lane, and can you believe who I am now? It’s an addiction now, Nani Jaan. I am addicted to being grateful to Him. What pain? What loneliness? What of anything at all? This ‘Alhamdullilah’ is unveiling itself with full force. Every time I feel the kheyr in a difficult situation, I feel my body dancing on the lightness of happiness. It’s such a strange kind of happiness! It’s like my heart is heavy with the lightness of nothing. It’s overwhelmed by how nothing ‘right’ that is happening is making me happy. I really don’t get how this science works, Nani Jaan. I’m beginning to think that this was the secret you referred to that day. Remember that day when we were all gathered in your room – a daily routine then – and you said, “Arfa knows everything”? There was awkwardness and confusion on everyone’s face. You just looked at me – everyone else an irrelevant entity – and repeated the words that now bring me so much comfort: “She knows, she knows everything!”

I miss you. I love you. I’m really happy that you’re in a much, much better place and even though I can’t wait to join you, I’m not prepared, yet. I’m preparing.

I love this cloud, Nani Jaan. It’s the softest. It’s the stardust I’d always wanted, the dream I thought I didn’t deserve. “Becoming bros with Him!” How did you know this would happen? How did you know this would happen like this? How did you know that laughing at pain would sound so melodious? How did you know that the peace that will marry this happiness will be so loyal? You knew it all along. It was our special secret all along.

This pandemic has broken the old frame that was keeping together this picture. It’s a crazy world right now. The toxic workplace, the political manipulation, the exposure, the sick friends and colleagues, being directly exposed, family safety – all of this has faded into the background of His ‘Kun Faya Kun’, His mercy, and my heart bearing witness to the fact that He’s taking care of us all and there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of if only I trust Him with Love: there’s coal-black, and ash-grey, and neon-yellow, and navy-blue, and deep red, and emerald-green on the canvas. There’s a roughness to it that feels gritty against the palm, hiding the smoothness of the good that is to come. Why can’t they see it, too?

Alhamdullillah. Alhamdullillah. Alhamdullillah.

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

A letter for her (XXIX) – I’m not scared today

4:20 PM | 8 April 2020


The last few letters that I wrote to you were all written in a hurry, like a quick update to my best friend so I can feel her around. It reminds me of how we draw back the curtains on a sunny day to let the sunlight in without letting the room heat up.

It’s going alright. It’s going okay.

When we wake up from a long, long sleep – literally – there’s a fresh glow on the face that prepares us for what is to come – the squabbles of the day, the empty milk bottle in the fridge, another terrorising shift in the middle of human bodies breathing in money. A little bit of that and a lot of our own misgivings, our own trials being judged by our God. So there was that finally. It’s a good start, you’d say. At least enough to let one stand up again.

What’s the point of this all anyway? What’s the point of being defeated in a battle that was never mine?

There’s a long, long journey lying ahead in the count of whatever miles we have left. And I do not want to sin by wasting them. What answer will my soul have when I stand in front of Him then? Your resilience taught us to stand firm on our faith – the faith that asks us to believe in His powers, in His wisdom, in His mercy – and not give up. The last six months of your life ask me to honour that. How can I turn away now? I’ve come so far on this journey and on the journey of my heart and soul. I’ve lost the way to go back. There are no sign-posts behind, there’s nothing; some people take away all of us when they go. You know that.

In a parallel world, if little fn was stepping on these same pebbles, falling and hurting herself, giving up, crying and praying, what would have I done? I thought long and hard about this, Nani Jaan.
I’d have told her to stand up for herself. Finding happiness within ourselves is pretty much like laughing at the balloon you just threw in the air. Or the thorny rose you plucked from the garden – the gardener snoring blissfully – to hide in your ‘Dear Diary’.
I’ll fight everything – the injustices, the cruelty of this world – and I’ll also pick up the shattered glass pieces that have pierced the gentleness of what I so freely and happily gave. But with the smile of my soul, the faith that you had, and the miracle of prayers. And some forgiveness. That’s going to be hard. But I shall try because I want to be true to the promises I’ve made.
Do you think I can do that? Do you think you are still proud of me?

It’s so quiet in here. So very quiet. The quiet dripping of the water from a broken tap. The childhood memory of the meyna chirping at 3 PM in the afternoon, only the sun keeping it company as young kids slept before a daily ritual of tea and Gluco biscuits. The sharpening of the pencils before starting off the exam paper as small hands brushed the shavings underneath the desk drawers. The lovely, lovely scent of baby powder as a new born slept peacefully – curtains drawn, innocence and happiness frolicking in the air – and grown ups looked down at it in awe and envy.
It’s so quiet in here. So very quiet.

I’m not scared today. Maybe because I’m your granddaughter. Maybe because I’m the daughter of a woman who sends out her heart everyday when she drops me off at the hospital, duas and “Beta, apna bohat khayal rakhna!” making the seconds go by. Maybe because I come from a generation of women whose strength and courage in the face of life’s challenges have always, always won. Women who have truly been women, God’s gentlest, strongest creations. So now I’m not scared of anything anymore. Because you weren’t either.
And because she isn’t, either.
And Insha’Allah, she won’t be, either.

A letter for her (XXVIII) – so I’m posted in the ER now

What an interesting year to work as an intern, right? It’s now mandatory for us HOs to work in the ER for 15 days on 12-hour shifts. If we don’t, we won’t get our HJ certificate.

Mine starts tomorrow. How do I feel? Unsure of what to expect. If we express concern and worry, we’re blamed for being too sensitive and negative. Our families are worried. We are worried for their safety. Where do we look for the support? Where do we young doctors go? Am I afraid of death? Now I am because I am no saint. I’m not prepared to meet my Allah. But hold on – as I wrote “my Allah!”, it just struck me that if He’s mine, He’ll listen to me. So obeying Him by wearing the headscarf; at least one thing I tried to get right, right? This whole experience is so…. spiritual. It’s like I’m getting ready to face the fact that death could be a millimetre away. And so I absolutely must do what I can to seek His Closeness. So I guess Alhamdullillah for this, too?

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

I pray my family and loved ones stay safe and healthy. I worry about them. Ammi and Abu are just always worried about my safety. You would have been, too. I know what you’d have done: you’d have called me up early morning to speak to me and give me duas. Dadi Jaan has been giving my sadqa everyday, you know? So don’t worry about that. But, of course, you know that already.

I miss you, Nani Jaan. Your duas will always keep me safe, I know. And Ammi’s.

A letter for her (XXVII) – it’s exhausting being a warrior

10:00 PM | 29 March 2020

I’m so tired by all this.

Ammi and Abu worry constantly. I don’t want to give up my work – I know I want to do this. I want to use my skills, my knowledge. Even if it’s a little. I don’t want to sit here and not do anything when I’m already in the workforce.
I want to help as much as I can – even if it’s through the platform of my blog, by reaching out to people. Every bit counts, right? But this constant threat looming above us all is just so exhausting. Doing all of this alone is so exhausting! It’s a lonely journey even if I’m not the only one on the frontline.

And where’s the healing? How much am I supposed to handle? I give and I give and I give. Can I have at least something back? I chose the path of kindness. But I only expect the good from Him. Or I’m trying to, at least.

Alhamdullillah. Alhamdullillah. Alhamdullillah.

I do see the blessings in disguise. I do see how it’s all going to be fine. But. I always sigh at the end of the day.

I really, really miss you, Nani Jaan. But I’m glad you’re in a good place. Alhamdullillah.

A letter for her (XXVI) – There’s too much in the air besides COVID-19

A little particle suspended in the air, threatening to zoom out and hit one of us, one by one. Our hands – even if gloved – knowingly carrying this tiny angel of death. It’s like instead of watching a sci-fi movie, we’re living one. Or aliens on an undiscovered planet are playing this deadly video game: a single swipe of their fingers and we could bump into this virus. Or each other. And slowly, it’s BOOM!

I graduated with an excitement that was ambitious to see me excel as a physician, Nani Jaan. I find myself, however, being held in this unexpected tornado of a global health emergency. With little experience to back us up, we’ve been thrown in the face of this challenge: to do no harm to our patients, to help them recover, to protect them, to protect ourselves, to protect our families!
There’s little we know about COVID-19. There’s a lot we’re learning. Global public health policies – and even those of medical education – are going to see a new day soon.

And everyday, whenever I come home, there’s this fear in my heart and a question on my mind: will I ever be able to forgive myself if I give it to one of my family members? Tell me. Would you have advised me to quit or you’d have encouraged me to go out their, willing to embrace shahadat, even?

It’s interesting, you know, to realise that for someone whose had a growing interest in public health and hospital management is now working in the middle of this pandemic. It’s a lot of learning, of course. And it’s also exactly why I’ve been trying to raise public awareness and be the voice of my colleagues at work.
We must look for the good in everything, right? I’m doing that. I’m looking at the bigger picture, trying to not let it be blurred under the microscope examining this fearsome virus. It’s a classic example of the ease that comes with hardship. And I can’t help but sit back and read this story – the one unfolding right in front of me – in awe, in amazement, in gratitude; truly, nothing is impossible, no one is capable of escaping destiny. No one. Indeed, Allah-o-Akbar.

a virus, small and tiny
with powers beyond that of money:
“how much will you take to go away?”
a thousand lives or more.
or just a vial of kindness, a tablet of some spiritual reawakening
and a double dose of all that is needed to make us humans, again.

It’s more than fighting without arms. With little experience, we are trying to do what we can. We, too, like the rest our senior colleagues are new to this. In fact, we’ve started off our careers with a hounding pandemic that none of our textbooks had prepared us for. We, too, don’t know what to do, how to do. We’re looking straight ahead, praying, and doing what’s safe. It’s like this is a tiny, dingy lane and we’re trying to walk through this without getting our clothes dirty. Or again, one of those video games where we have to save ourselves from the surprise attacks of the aliens springing at us from unknown places of the buildings we pass by.

There’s too much in the air besides COVID-19; uncertainties, fear, cancelled plans, opportunistic businesses, unempathetic employers, and an irresponsible public. But there’s also some hope, a lot of prayers, the dedication of those willing to help, and a very, very clear message  for those who can hear and see: “Verily, with every difficulty, there is ease!” (Quran – 94:5). There’s a lot that God has been saying. I hope we all can listen to Him.

A letter for her (XXV) – it’s a scary time

6:37 PM | 22 March 2020

This is probably the scariest time of this century. And I do feel scared. Of what is to come. All the developed nations have succumbed to this pandemic and yet, Pakistanis are still living in a fool’s paradise. My hospital is not providing us with any PPE, we’re being asked to see patients without proper protection, the suspected cases are kept in the private rooms despite the hospital having an isolation unit – they are scattered all over the hospital – and are allowed to roam around freely. To make it worse, they’ve been hiding the test results, giving us confusing answers. How – in the midst of this – are we supposed to work? I signed up for a profession where I’ll serve humanity, but I did not sign up for a profession where I’ll be endangering the lives of those around me by exposing myself and them to this pandemic, especially when Abu falls in high-risk category. I’m emotionally exhausted. I’ve been banging my head against the wall in trying to fight for what is a basic right as an employee and as healthcare worker during a pandemic. Taking the lead, being the voice of reason, raising awareness through whatever little means I have – it’s exhausting. The toxicity of this hospital is getting to me. The uncertainties are overwhelming.

I know you’ll tell me to breathe, to take a pause. “Allah rehm karyn ge!” I can hear you saying that already. But I feel like I’m just pushed from one hole into the other, from one challenge to another.

As healthcare professionals, we’re a part of history. But will we survive this?

A letter for her (XXV) – Pul-e-sirat

11:47 PM | 20 March 2020

I just received this message from a doctor friend:

“The Sindh Government urges all able-bodied young women and men to come forward to help in the war against coronavirus-2019.
The expo center Karachi is due to be set up as a field hospital and isolation center for all COVID-19 positive patients. We require volunteers for health care assistants (HCAs), doctors, registered nurses, and supplementary staff.
Personal protective equipment will be fully supplied. The safety of healthcare workers is our prime priority. If PPEs are not available, recruitment will not take place. Please fill the form attached to lend a hand in the nation’s time of need. Pakistan Zindabad!

https://forms.gle/j9eYYgxp342Y7w3v6

I feel like a warrior out in the battlefield without any weapons.
My hospital isn’t providing us with any personal protective equipment, we’re being asked to see patients in OPDs, and prepare patients for elective surgeries. These aren’t easy conditions to work in. But I’m doing what I can, Nani Jaan; raising my voice, trying my best to do whatever I can. I was always interested in public health, remember? I guess now is the time to honour the oath I took when I graduated. As a human, as a Muslim, as a doctor, as a Pakistani, I carry a huge responsibility – to heal, to protect. As I intend to do that, I’m also caught in a conflict between my duty to my community and my responsibility towards my family. I do not wish to endanger them. But then see which way things are going! It really does seem like the world is ending anyway so why not just dedicate the rest of my life to healing humanity? Yes. I do wish to volunteer for this camp. But it also depends on what the situation at my hospital is. I’ll let you know, of course. I never begin anything without your blessings, do I?

On the Day of Judgment, I will be asked about how I made used of my knowledge, my health, my abilities, even whatever small talent I have. This health, this knowledge, this talent – it’s all His amanat. That’s what you taught us, didn’t you? This, too, is jihad.
So when I have nothing else to present to Him, maybe these small efforts will make it easier for me to cross Pul-e-Sirat. Because this is Pul-e-Sirat; both in this world and the next.

Need your prayers more than ever.

A letter for her (XXIV) – Love In The Time Of Corona

I never thought I’d be working as a doctor during one of the most critical times in history. The pandemic of the COVID-19 has locked down a huge percentage of our population inside their homes.
It’s not scary, it’s terrifying to be working at the frontline in times like these. I’m not scared for myself but I am about bringing something home. That anxiety and fear is going to be the worst one to be faced by any doctor for a long, long time.

At the risk of sounding inhumane, I’m also amused at us, us humans. Just another proof of ‘kun faya kun‘: a small virus has the whole world dancing on its toes.

Everyone’s talking about how this is the time to reflect, to reconnect with our inner selves, to spend more time with our loved ones. To get out of that bubble of living the high life. Why am I so…”meh” about it? I really don’t know, Nani Jaan. I’m not insensitive to this, you know that. But this is something else entirely. I’ve been thinking about this, too (amongst other things)!
It’s like the past few months have been overwhelming, to say the least. Why is it always like that with me? Why does God always rush me from one thing to another? Or is it because I feel too much about everything and it’s just best that I am driven from one stop to the next at the speed of the blink of an eye? Right now, I’m feeling what I hadn’t allowed myself to feel; that lighthouse I sung about; too many emotions all at once. But at the end of the day, it’s very simple: I miss Saudade. And it’s hard – harder than anything I’ve ever done – to stay away. But I need to for the sake of Saudade itself. And because of the uncertainties. And these little glimpses, these are enough to go on, I guess. Because no matter what, nobody gets it. Allah Taala can do anything He wants, right? It’s all His will. So why, even though it’s been so long, is my heart pausing at the same notes of the same song? Why? Why does it feel like all of this is part of a grand plan that is meant to be the answer to all our prayers? Why is my life really moving at the speed of five centimetres per second? Why does this COVID-19 sound like it, too, is meant to pump the engine of our car? Why do I feel like laughing at the world, at their failure to see the big picture? These are too many questions and reading them may annoy you but that’s all I’ve got! This is what it all really looks like right now: battered and teary and wanting to go home; “*laa illaha illa anta subhaanaka inni kuntum minaz zualimeen“.

I was looking for something more to hold on to, something to convince me that I was real, I was alive. And amongst the treasures that I found, I also found you speaking to us – recordings of you speaking to us. Your voice full of strength and unquestionable, unconditional faith in Him was the hug your Arfu needed. To remind me of how patience pays off, to remind me that miracles do happen. That you and I, Nani Jaan, were a miracle, too. That your love, your companionship was the greatest miracle I had. That if you can happen, anything can happen. Anything. And so I go on being okay.

I go on being okay.

* “There is none worthy of Worship besides You, You are far exalted and above all weaknesses, Surely, I am from among the wrongdoers”. (Surah Al-Anbiya; Verse 87, 88)