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 (XXII) – magic

What’s magic? Does it fix all things broken, though, Nani Jaan?

When a kid falls down because he is speeding his punctured bicycle, it still hurts. The bruise hurts and may even bleed. It does need to be taken care of, right?

There are times I wonder where the strength to live through came from. The strength to die and then wait at Barzakh. The strength to live without breathing. The strength to feel okay despite it all; the kind of okay that makes me hug Fara close after ignoring her for the longest time, the kind of okay that makes one anxious whenever the future pops up, the kind of okay that makes one pray for the happiness and success of those we thought were magic itself, the kind of okay that prays for forgiveness. Now that’s something, isn’t it? I don’t know for how long I’ll have to go on being okay like this. However long, though, it won’t be the wrong way now, we won’t be flying in the same circle that moves along the same circumference of words and words alone.

You know what’s worse, Nani Jaan? That I don’t even know if there’s anyone willing to fight this battle for me. With me. And I guess I probably don’t even want to know. I’ll go on tending to my patients, finding rainbows after rainbows after a heavy rainfall, learning to make my place in a building that now mocks my disdain for it, not letting the anger kill me. I don’t want to know only because I want to see if magic will happen to ordinary girls like us. And the only way to do that is to try my luck, to wait and watch His plans unfold, whatever they may be. That’s all I can do. That’s all I really have the energy to do.

A letter for her (XXI) – You were right about us.

9 March 2020


why can I still hear the chord echoing through again and again at 1:09 and 1:32? because I always will, because I want to.

This morning, I woke up after watching you smile and laugh in amusement at our efforts at trying to be home in a way different from what you had foretold. That gleam in your eyes, dancing with a secret only you are privy to – that really made me happy, Nani Jaan. And you know that because I think that’s why we met today. Haina?

I’m just so grateful now… I look back and I’m terrified to feel the fears hiding behind that facade of bravery; those shivers running down my soul, my own breath choking me. Very much like how I feel when I’m walking to the female cardiac ward on the third floor to see a patient who has been accomodated there because of lack of space in the surgical general ward; the low-lying, slopy railing making me look away. Always. Do you see the similarity? Walking to a make-do place, hesitantly, unwillingly.

But you were right back then! I know that now, deep down. And even though I’m swimming in a slow current of uncertainty, I’m at peace because I’m waiting for good and wonderful things to happen, the kind of happiness I’ve been longing and praying for. The difference is that this time, I’ll be more patient.

Back when I was just a little girl who loved to read, I bought this book from the annual book-sale at Paramount. I forgot what it was called. But it was about this family who ran a circus and travelled all over the country in colourful caravans. One day, as the show was running, a young girl was spotted watching the show from afar. There was a longing on her face, a sparkle only children her age can afford to have, a desire for simply being happy and clapping her hands. Now years later, I can feel that same longing: standing far away from it, wishing it success, waiting for some Divine intervention to magically make me a part of it. It’s a little funny, I know. But it’s the truth. It probably seems like a cowardly thing to do but you and I both know that for me, it’s probably more courage than I have ever given myself credit for.

I’m just happy to be free from that fear now; that crippling fear of writing with a new ink, of learning a new language. I don’t think I’ll ever complain to Him about anything ever again because it’s the biggest hug from Him to be able to see the wisdom behind our story. Alhamdullillah always.

We’ve missed you. Thank you for not giving up on me ever and for being our guardian angel.

We’ll get better. Like old wine.

2 October 2019

Throw together a few words with a full stop as the only bridge between them, and the reader is still able to understand what they’re being told. For example, “Happiness. Grief. Love. Hatred. Repentance. Fear.” You know that these are feelings. You recognise them.

In this picture, four of the people I’ve willingly – and lovingly – chosen as my family sit together like those words. Each one unique, and yet, still connected. Somehow.

It was a gorgeous Wednesday. The afternoon sun glistened fiercely over warm smiles. A lot of young laughter and some grateful sunny faces sang away to memories as dreams and ambitions peeked out from the window of a cosy apartment by the sea.
The salt in the air. The sea out there.
When the sea and the sun meet, their orange is the colour of what you see when five girls count five years as they grow into their womanhood, together. It’s such a lovely shade because it’s not a mere figment of our imagination; it’s real and it’s tangible. We can feel it in the protective way we guard each other – physically, mentally, emotionally – and the honest loyalty that has our back always. We can feel it in the way we find our way back to each other after foggy evenings, in the peace we find in a mehfil of Gluco and Zeera biscuits and Chocolato dipped in warm cups of tea followed by one samosa after another. We can feel it in the way the air brushes our hair as we drive across the city to a playlist as unpredictable as it’s weather. We can feel it in the promises of not letting time and life and responsibilities get in the way of these five years.

We’ll get better. Like old wine.

 

the Madni phase after the trials of Mecca

1 PM | 5 August 2019

When you’re standing in front of the freezing burst of the air conditioner, shivering a little uncomfortably – but not enough to be noticed – all you can think of is how to turn that damned machine off. A few seconds of good luck that reappear after every minute or so, strikes and the direction of that freezing blast of air moves away from you, leaving you in that very welcome warmth of comfort. It makes you very much comfortable. You may even sigh with relief. And then the cold air comes again.

Unfortunate incidents and bumps in the road are like that; they last for a few days before there’s the warmth of happiness again. Then something else happens to give you another sleepless night before there’s a smile of gratitude. So just like the cold air booming out of the air conditioner, happiness and peace also play hide-and-seek with us.

But what I’d like us to remember is the very comfortable warmth of Love that hugs us. The sunrise after a dark, stormy night of thunderstorms. The laugh mixed with tears. Like a dear friend said, the Madni phase after the trials of Mecca.

 

Tooba.jpeg
Artwork: Tooba Masihuddin

 

Tere ishq nachaiyaan kar key thaiyaa

9:03 AM | 17 July 2019

It’s a strange feeling resting heavy on the heart. Hurried anticipation for the near future. The kind that doesn’t let you sit still and makes you want to get up and pace around the room. A few deep breaths every other second does no good. Your feet also begin to hurt. Where are the words to describe this discomfort?

Everyone and everything around you is fine. Your aunts and uncles are sharing happy good mornings on the family WhatsApp group and there is love and warmth all around you. But do you really feel it?

How can emptiness feel heavy? But it does! I promise you that! It’s a puzzle, the heart. The missing piece is just your soul demanding to go home. And this home is not in the dusty streets of Karachi or in the shimmering ones of New York or in the rainy ones of London. This home is in His remembrance. Just remembering Him, thinking about Him, His mercy. More than the problems that keep you awake at night.
This home is in the smile you gift to another human being, it is in the ease you create for another, it’s in the comfort your words and actions gift to another. It’s in the noise of the waterfall, in the humming of the meyna, in the sea-shells washed along the shore. In the gratitude you offer as you wake up from flashbacks of a ghostly – or ghastly – past life. It is also – and I’m sure of this – in the guidance we seek, every morning.
And in love. And in Love.

“Ais ishq di jhangi wich mor bulenda/
Sanu qibla ton Ka’aba sohna yaar disenda/
Saanu ghayal karke phir khabar na laaiyaan/
Tere ishq nachaiyaan kar key thaiyaa / thaiyaa!”
(“A peacock calls in the grove of passion/
It’s Qibla, It’s Kaaba where lives my love/
You asked not once after you stabbed/
Your love has made me dance like mad.”)
.
– Bulleh Shah

 

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Photo: Aleena Zahid Naqvi

The Glasgow Coma Scale

| 9 June 2019 |

During our end of rotation exam, the spot for neurosurgery had a question on epidural hematoma. The question was a case based CT scan image, asking us to state the GCS of the patient, the radiological findings, and the subsequent management plan.

The Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) is the scoring system used to describe the level of consciousness in a person following a traumatic brain injury. It evaluates the eye, verbal, and motor response of the patient. In simple words: from a total of 15, the lower the score, the worse it is.

As a doctor-to-be, I often find myself wondering how the world would be if there was a consciousness scale for basic human qualities like kindness, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, mercy. Would we have been as concerned if the ‘score’ was low? Would we have made friendships and nurtured relationships on the basis of this score? More importantly, would we have really believed in the credibility of this score to establish how “alive” a person really is, how “conscious” they are, how “healthy” they are? Will the heart and soul ever win over all that the eyes merely see?

This black and white film illustrating an important organ of the human body is more than that if you choose to think about it. If you choose to think about it. Drifting through the mundane motions of life – waking up, eating, going to work, paying the bills, filling up the car’s tank, all of those worldly tasks – the desire to worship through love and kindness drowns in the darkness of fear and confusion and “what will people think”, and we’re left with nothing but an emptiness that tires us. Tires us because our scores are low. And because they are low, sometimes, the sunrise stops becoming the alarm clock for another happy day of happy miracles; and when the foamy waves hit the shore, you only see them too late – going back, not rushing to hug you.

If only medicine had the cure to that. If only.

brain MRI
Source: Google

And in you, lies my strength!

Dearest Tooba,

Before you read ahead, please note that this is just one of those rare moments in history. Okay?

Growing up, I was always very protective of you. It’s the other way around now. You’re not only the taller one, but also – as I grudgingly admit – the sensible one when I happen to take the world a little too seriously.

The courage that you display as you smile through the ups and downs of life is exemplary. To this day, I am in awe of how you laugh through the toughest of times, persevere, and sail through all challenges. If there’s one person who perfectly describes how to burn the midnight oil, it’s you. An academic superstar who is very humble about her achievements, you’ve shown me the new face of dedication, you know that? It seems to the world that I have the philosophy of life figured out. That calls for a ‘LOL’, isn’t it? That’s partly untrue. What is true is how every day, you teach me how to create my own happy place, how to practice wisdom, how to get up every time we fall, how it’s healthy to laugh at ourselves.

Thank you for giving me the comfort of being myself, for your kind and unconditional acceptance of my many eccentricities, for the patience you exhibit when medicine tires me, for being the sunshine of the Masihuddin household. Thank you for letting me steal your clothes (even if you are the one who does that more often…), for keeping me entertained in boring weddings, for all the shared ice cream cones, for letting me win all those games of Uno, for shooing away all those cats.
Thank you for being your annoying, lovely, wise and witty self.

Have a beautiful and peaceful year ahead, little sister!
Here’s to all failed plans and midnight “meetings”!

Love,
Affi.

 

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happy students

A few days ago, one of my creative writing students, Samreen, sent me her latest piece of writing. “Today I went for a morning walk with my Khala and cousins,” she said. “I took a lot of pictures of the garden and the trees so that I could use them as an inspiration to write! Like you take pictures of everything!”
This piece that she wrote made my heart dance with joy. I wasn’t just reading words on a screen, I was seeing – once again – how hope and life were waving at me from the spaces between each of her words, how we’re all stories in each other’s stories, zooming in and out. That made me more than happy!

 

Here’s what she wrote:

I love early morning walks in the garden when everything seems to be bright and breezy, warm and lovely. Everything and everyone looks calm and content.

Mornings hold a special aura that is not found at any other time. The misty green grass, with the golden shadow of the sun shining on them, the shady coconut trees under which you can sit and feel the coolness and serenity descend over you. There are then no conflicts within you or with others around you. You find yourself perched on the squeaky wooden benches and you look at the whole beauty of the garden and say, “SubhanAllah”. Your droopy eyes open wide and you see things from a different angle; you welcome the gift of tranquillity in your life. The cheerful flowers pop up from the ground, ready to bloom and spread their fragrance in this green land, the wind as its accomplice. And when you breathe in, you wonder what heaven will be like…