A hug from God

You’re having a bad day; you woke up late, bumped into the bathroom door and hurt your foot, had to skip breakfast and make do with only a cup of tea (it was very hot, it scalded your tongue!) and you get late for class where the professor’s scolding awaits you or your boss gives you some extra work. And in between all of this, you receive the bad, bad news of a personal loss that leaves you wanting to hide in your bed and cry your heart out. Everyone has these days — it’s just another season of your life. But how – amongst this heavy traffic noise – do you listen to the beautiful song composed by the birds? By asking for a hug from God.

PHOTO CREDITS: https://www.instagram.com/lemonandscotch/

It’s a very, very strange experience, you know? Your eyes are closed, your breath quickens, your body goes stiff, your hands clutch at the blankets for dear life. Now, this is the moment: you don’t really know who you are talking to, but a voice that you don’t hear often speaks from within you and asks — hesitantly first, demanding later — for a hug from God. “I want something nice to happen. Now!” And then your phone beeps. What’s that? You wonder. A text message, of course. It says, “Hey! I’m back from my trip and guess what? I got you a surprise present! Can’t wait to meet you! :D” And you’re smiling!

Or the doorbell rings and you drag yourself to the door. It’s your neighbour. She dropped by to say hello because she hasn’t seen you in a while and was hoping you’re doing okay. You’re assuring her that you are when her one-year-old baby extends his arms towards you and gives you the sweetest hug — his tiny arms closely encircling your neck, like God telling you through this little angel that everything will be all right!
It’s been a year, yes, and I’m addicted to these hugs. It’s like sailing on the rough sea considering all that you have, to be the everything that you have. A little like Noah’s ark, maybe?

Look up! Your hug from God is waiting right there!


The history of pain

Photo credits: https://www.instagram.com/ax2mir/

Taking histories, writing them down, presenting them to your consultant — quite a tedious task as seen by us future doctors. But it’s so much more than that, isn’t it? Your narrative collides with that of the patients’ — like two meteoroids falling together, their paths colliding for a nanosecond in the eternity of time itself.

You’re taking a history of pain – any kind; abdominal, arm, any part of the body. You have a checklist in your mind that will help you reach a diagnosis and swiftly answer the consultant when he asks you to enumerate the differentials.

“Where do you have pain?”
“For how long have you had it?”
“Did the pain start suddenly or gradually?”
“Does it travel to any other region of your body? Yes? Where?”
“Tell me more about this pain. Does it feel like someone’s stabbing you? Or it’s a kind of heaviness in this area? Or it’s throbbing?”
“Does it get worse when you move about? Is it relieved by taking meds?”
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it?”
“Does the pain come with anything else? Any nausea or vomiting?”
And a couple of other questions like these.

As a future doctor learning the basics, every time I see these patients, I wonder if aching hearts ought to be healed this way, too?

“My heart and soul are aching, doc”.
“Umm, I’ve had it for a while now. Ever since my son died”.
“It started suddenly. Like a strong current rising within my chest. Like something stopping me from breathing”.
“Yes, it travels all the way into the depths of my soul and then down to my legs. I feel very weak then. Like I can’t stand on my feet, you know?”
“It’s all of that, doc. It’s throbbing sometimes. And sometimes it feels like a heavyweight is placed on my chest”.
“Yeah, it does get worse. When I walk out of my room and I see his baby clothes lying in the laundry because nobody has the courage to pick them up, or his toys peeking at me from behind undusted furniture”.
“I came to you for the meds, doc! Make this pain go away!”
“1 to 10? I don’t know. Sometimes it’s 3, sometimes it’s 8. And sometimes, it’s 11. I don’t know”.
“Yeah, it comes with loneliness.”

So many pieces all at once,

in the blink of an eye,

in half a breath,

in a fraction of a second –

a little hole here, a bigger one there

because this is magnificent beauty; this wound

where the light enters you.

Koi tou hai jou nizaam-e-hasti chala raha hai

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Photo credits: https://www.instagram.com/shehrozkhan_/

It’s strange isn’t it, how our narratives unfold? It’s a very surprising journey from the expected to the unexpected, from realising — with an existential jolt — that what we need is superior to what we want. It’s very simple, but like all simple things, we realise it after the hour is gone. I thought I needed ‘that’ when in fact, what I needed was ‘this’. The criss-cross of our narratives makes a beautiful patchwork on the map of this universe and takes us to lands that we hadn’t even dreamt of. And this is a realisation that I’m struck with every time I look back and gaze at the paths that I’ve walked, the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve lived, the reflection of Eve that I’ve now become.
It’s a realisation that calmly overwhelms me when I stand up in front of the patients — the responsibility of a future physician beginning to weigh more than the stethoscope hanging around my neck — listening to their story of how the pain doesn’t let them sleep at night, that they’ve had it ever since their eldest child graduated, that they never bothered to get it checked before, that it’s a pain that comes and goes at odd hours. And this is a realisation that will hit me many times during my life. And I’m glad it will. I’m glad it will because the journey ahead really does seem exciting because of the uncertainty. A year ago, I would have said ‘despite’ the uncertainty. But now I’ll say ‘because of’ the uncertainty. Yes. To survive patriarchy, to survive the game of broken hearts, to survive through the harsh seasons, it’s best to become friends with this uncertainty because I know I can’t win the battle of life otherwise.
I don’t want to kill the stars to get to the moon.
So I’ll hug stoicism like an old buddy and whisper to myself the words of Muzaffar Warsi, as sung by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, “Koi tou hai jou nizaam-e-hasti chala raha hai”.
(Someone is there Who is managing the order of life).

Yes, Someone is there.

Sailing in the sea of medicine

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“He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.” – William Osler

Back in the third year of medical school, I had always eyed myself very apprehensively as a future physician. How do you connect the dots leading from signs to symptoms and put your finger on the diagnosis? How do you, then, jump from that diagnosis to the treatment?
Wow, doctors really are magicians, no? No.

They aren’t.

They — or let’s say we — are as much human as you. This process of healing patients is as much of a journey – a landmark on our timeline – as much as it is for them. To know what to ask your patients, how to ask your patients, when to ask your patients — that in itself, requires more patience and tact than we had imagined.

History taking is another add-on to a doctor’s reflexes. But these reflexes could not have developed had it not been for our patients. We — future physicians — apprehensively walk up to patients in the ward and churn out the well-rehearsed words, “Assalam Alaikum! Mera naam Arfa hai aur myn fourth year ki student houn. Aap jis jis takleef ki vaja se yahan aeye hain, kya uske baaray myn chund sawalaat kar sakti houn?” (Hello! My name is Arfa and I’m a fourth-year medical student. May I ask you a few questions regarding your sickness?) They lovingly give you their consent. “Bohat shukriya!” (Thank you!) And you go on with your checklist. And when you’re done, you graciously thank them. Do you know what they say then? “Shukriya, beta! Khush raho! Acha acha parho aur qaabil doctor bano!” (Thank you, child! Study well and become competent doctors!).

And that, dear reader, is when you know why you are there — wearing a white lab coat, a stethoscope hanging around your neck, a notepad and a pen in your hand, a stressed brain trying to process all the information that you have just gathered, a thirst for knowledge in your soul, and the compassion and enthusiasm of youth in your heart.
Yes, that’s when you are reminded of why destiny willed you here.

Miss you, Ibu!

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That’s you in the middle, Ibbu. And that’s me on your right, Sameen is on your left. Asher’s missing in this photo, though. Must be somewhere with Bhaiya.

It’s been so long. We don’t talk about you much. But I miss you, you know that, right? I miss having you as a best friend. I miss creating my own games with you, I miss talking to you about everything and nothing.
We don’t talk about you because it hurts. It hurts real bad. For some reason, my eyes hurt when I try talking about you. Why does that happen?

For so long, I’ve tried not thinking about you. I was your favourite cousin, and I, too, have tried burying you. What I didn’t realise was that you’re more than just a memory. You were an era that taught us a lesson after it was gone; a lesson on the power of unconditional love, loyal friendships, the importance of a family. Days are passing by in the blink of an eye and the worldly tasks that weigh me down keep me from counting my blessings but I try. I try because I remember you. We all remember you. It’s a grief that I haven’t fully embraced. Not yet.

I think about you often, you know? I wonder what it would have been like if you were here. You’d have been my biggest cheerleader of all, I know that! My favourite confidante, the family’s champion.

I wish I had insisted on coming to meet you at the hospital.. during your last days. They say we kids would have been frightened seeing you like that – attached to ‘a big machine’ that helped you breathe. I know what it’s called now, Ibu!It’s called a ventilator. I’m in med school now! Aren’t you proud? You are, right?

I remember standing by your little coffin, trying to understand the tragedy that had befallen us, trying to understand death. My young mind had struggled to fathom what death really meant, other than the simple fact that the elders presented us with: you had stopped breathing and that’s how you died, and then you were lowered into the grave and they called it “Allah Mian k paas jaana” (Going to God).
That’s it.
And that really was it for us all, us kids, your best friends.

See those smiles in the picture, Ibu? I miss those, too. That carefree twinkle in the eye when we weren’t bounded by the responsibility of being a human, of getting There safely. But you got There before us. Perhaps, you’re the lucky one. No, I’m pretty sure you are. It’s nasty down here, like a prison! I’m not joking! Even Nani Jan says that. She’s not the same anymore either. But I’m sure you know that already. Just like you know everything else that I have been wanting to tell you.

Sometimes, I wish I didn’t feel so much. It’s a curse when it brings you to the dry autumn of melancholy and you realize with a sinking heart that you have missed the train – the train that was taking you towards a destination unknown, unheard, unseen, but a destination nevertheless. It shakes you down to your very bones and you hear your joints rattling with the disdain of bittersweet, the kind that leaves you all hopeless and vulnerable, seeking the kind of joy that only the heavens can fetch you. And you, my dear cousin, are already There.

You’re already There!


Empress Market, Karachi

Karachi — my good, ol’ Karachi — has that nostalgic tinge about it. You know the kind that makes you miss the future — not the present — with each passing second? That. You really can’t imagine what the Karachi that your grandchildren will live in will look like, can you? Will it be haunted by uninvited uniforms or by power-hungry industrialists? Will this blissful state of ignorance still be our companion then?

The era of the ’70s and the ’80s that brought you a dozen eggs for a few pennies and when driving from Empress Market to the sandy Clifton beach was only a matter of a few Vital Signs songs, is long gone. And now, living in the days of Karachi Eat Festivals and apartment complexes mushrooming all over the city, you live this moment knowing that this Karachi will never come back. That this you will never come back. You will adapt to the latest fashion, to the latest trends. But the walls of your house overlooking these wise and learned streets will continue to smell of all that makes this Karachi our Karachi — political turbulence and gunshots that stole a mother’s hope and caravans celebrating Pakistan’s win in a cricket match and the sweet whisperings of little girls and boys who walk to the nearest store with their fathers to buy candy every day.

Karachi, you’re an old man sitting by the roadside – your head bent – but watching closely all the passer-bys, listening intently to all our stories. Live long, live well.

That laughter is still ringing in my ears. Can you hear it, too?


Photo credits: Haniya Ather (https://www.instagram.com/lemonandscotch/)

It’s a chilly winter evening and you’re cuddled up in the warm blankets, jumping from one radio channel to the next when suddenly your fingers pause and so does your heartbeat. It’s that song, the one that reminds you of those carefree summer days playing hide-n-seek with cousins, the one that reminds you that you’re in the prime of your youth with all the blessings in the world and yet, you still complain – in impolite language – when your Wi-Fi service slows down. You get what I mean, don’t you?
It was one of those ordinary days. We walked into the male ward of Karawan-e-Hayat, a psychiatric hospital and rehabilitation centre located in Keemari.


He was a 46-year-old male, well-built and tall; self-importance evident in his fine walk. We’ll skip the clinical diagnosis and focus on the fact that despite delusions of grandiosity and hallucinations, a brief conversation with him – bits of which you’ll be reading below – gave us an insight that we – intelligent people pursuing a noble profession – totally and unapologetically lacked.


“Kaisay hain aap?”
(“How have you been feeling, Mr M?”)
“Bohat khush raha houn. Bohat izzat aur shohrat milli Hai Allah Ta’ala ki taraff se.”

(“Been very happy! God has blessed me with a lot of respect and stardom!”)
He looked up towards the roof and said, “Allah woh hai. Waahdahu la shareeka lahu.”
(That is God. He is One and He has no partner with Him!)
“Aapko lagta hai koi aapko nuqsaan pohancha raha hai?”
(“Do you think someone is trying to harm you?”)
“Nahin. Jou Allah par yaqeen rakhta hai, Quran aur namaz parhta hai, unko kon nuqsaan pohunchata hai? Khuda sabka Hai; Allah, Bhugwaan, God!”
(“No. The one who believes in God, follows the Holy Book, offers his prayers, cannot be harmed by anyone! God is everyone’s; Allah, Bhagwan, Jesus’s God!”)
“Do you ever feel very happy? Like you’re on top of the world?”
“kaisi baatyn kar rahi hain aap doctor sahiba? Myn koi King Kong thori houn. King Kong tou sirf Allah ki zaat hai!”
(“What’re you talking about, doc? I’m not King Kong! Only God is the King Kong of this world!”)
We asked him what he thinks has happened to him – “Yeh meray aur meray Rabb k darmiyan hai. Mujhe aur meray Rabb ko pata hai k meray saath kya ho raha hai, kyun ho raha hai!”
(“This is between me and my God. Only my God knows and I know that what is happening and why it’s happening!”)
“Kya aapko lagta hai k mazhab ki taraf rujhan kissi beemari ka hisaa hai?”
(“Do you think so much inclination towards religion is part of your condition?”)
He pointed towards two boys with beards, “Tell me, is an inclination towards religion a disease?” He looked at me in the eye and said, “You’re wearing a headscarf, are you sick?”
It wasn’t minutes that passed with the flow of time in that huge room; I was measuring time by the passage of one striking realisation after another: are we merely bowing down to a God because we’ve been born into non-atheist families without really feeling Him within ourselves, within each one of our red blood cell that completes its life of 120 days to be replaced by a new one, within the heavy thumping resting underneath our ribs? When struck with a misfortune, have I ever exhibited a strong faith in this Mystical Force that has so perfectly set the mechanism of my body – a body that we proud, intelligent humans are still discovering – and that has so perfectly embellished the timeline of my life with all these emotions that so finely define the meaning of my existence? Have I ever shown the same confidence in a God who has been much kinder to me than perhaps to this unfortunate patient struck by what medical jargon calls ‘Schizoaffective Disorder’? Have I? Have you?


Photo credits: https://www.instagram.com/unmaderhyme/

As I try to recall and relive those moments of existentialism – the deep look that the patient was challenging me with – I am at a loss for words; my vocabulary fails me, my brain – the ever ‘logical’ brain – mocks me. How can I ever rationalise the truth that so harshly slapped us all, so hard that perhaps, we failed to even acknowledge the pain? Really, though, how can an interest in the Unseen Being that so perfectly manages the machinery of the known and the unknown universes, the fascinating play of time, the lives of so many humans and animals, be called a ‘disorder’? It’s only when you’re sitting in a room with grey coloured walls and a few plastic chairs, facing a healthy looking man living in a psych hospital, that the absurdity of your own notions maliciously laughs at you and your life philosophy.

That laughter is still ringing in my ears. Can you hear it, too?

looking closely


Photo credits: Haniya Ather (https://www.instagram.com/lemonandscotch/)


Falling leaves, blooming flowers, chilly winds, the setting sun; losses suffered, friendships lost, new hopes, happy hearts – marking the end of the calendar has always been a bitter-sweet nostalgia, hasn’t it?

It seems very grand, all of it, like crossing the finish line and knowing that strangers – those who were, some who are now – and family alike are celebrating this with you. A moment in history. But what about your history? How do you time-mark that?

I stand in front of the mirror and look closely. I notice, for the first time, how important the eyelashes look as they curtain my eyes. The eyelids, too. How wonderfully they shade this natural Telescope from all that will irritate it! I also realise that without that nose and those nostrils, I wouldn’t be able to tell if there’s a fire somewhere around me, threatening to burn down the tangible assets as I sit with my back to it. And these ears! What fine equipment have I been owning in ignorance!

I can see the sun setting outside the window and I am jolted back to a reality that I – like so many of you – have been struggling to come to terms with: these little things, this sentinel that I’ve so turbulently discovered and that takes the soul to uncharted terrains and makes me fall harder in love with my Creator with each passing realisation, each beat of my heart, each sigh that I heave, is perhaps, my most prized possession. The past that I’m living right now ought to be one I can proudly, happily recall – not just today and tomorrow, but also when I’m standing in front of the Great Presence.

So I think I’ll say hello to the dawn of 2018 with a promise to be kinder, gentler, more helpful, more patient, more loving, more empathetic, more grateful, more hardworking than the Arfa who said slept under the sky of 2017; to be the person that I was sent down to be, to perhaps, be the Light that I have received. So as we set out on another new adventure, I wish you all a year of happiness, love, and peace!

‘And which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?’ (55:38; The Quran)

Long before the oceans dry up, the lone traveller struggles to reach the shore




Photo credits: Younis Bazai


Chaque homme porte la forme entiere de l’humaine condition.
Each of us bears the complete stamp of the human condition.
– The first principle of psychiatry as proclaimed by Michel De Montaigne in 1580.


Unbothered by the quick feet shuffling around her, carrying unknown faces down the corridors of what she has learnt to call her ‘home’, this young lady was lost in a world of her own. She paints a sad picture and reminds me of long, lonely hallways with high roofs, warmed by the yellow of the afternoon sun. A sad, sad nostalgia. The silence in the psychiatric hospital is as calming as it is unnerving; like the reminder on our cell phones that we keep snoozing because we just can not bring ourselves to finish the task. Did I like it there? I can’t be sure. It was another world altogether, mirroring how vicious the real world out there – the one I came from, the one where I felt safe – can actually be.

What if these people are far, far saner than we are? What if their insanity is a very welcome escape from the social rules and norms that you and I are bound to since birth? Is this sanity a burden that we earthlings will be carrying to our graves? Maybe somewhere far away, lying deep within the heart of another galaxy in another universe, is a world inhabited by beings where people like us home in institutes like these?

So I went home that day – relishing the warmth of the sun on what was supposed to be a chilly December evening – watching the traffic slip away as busy men and women rushed through life occupied by thoughts of their electricity bills and crippling taxes. And when I walked into my room, I wondered why I hadn’t noticed the slow spin of the fan. I wondered what it’s speed was. And then I opened my notebook and stared at the white pages holding a catharsis that was just a few days old:

Breath by breath the memories shed themselves,
uncovering the heart within; the statue dismembering.
Long before the oceans dry up,
the lone traveller struggles to reach the shore –
away from the embers of the world,
towards the awaited smile.

Truly, ‘So which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?’ (55:38; The Quran)