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Dear Maryam.

I do apologize because this was long overdue, but I hope that does not affect in any way how much I want this to help you. So here goes.

Dear Maryam,

Those shoes you wear today were never made to be walked in. I know how they feel, how they make you squirm and suffocate every inch of your skin. Those shoes are claustrophobic, and they are too heavy to walk in. Heavy, with the burdens of a million hopes, prayers, expectations and emotions which weigh you down with such force, that the will to keep moving breaks you in slow, painful breaths. Every day of your life people will find you inching forward, dragging your shoes, emptying every last reservoir of strength, and then have the audacity to say “I understand.”
Very rarely will you find people who truly grasp the weight of the words or the worlds they pretend to have existed in. But the ones who do, are the ones who will teach you how to live. Which is why today, I ask you to listen to me.

I know just what it feels like, when your Mom has cancer. I can paint the very same, heart-wrenching picture you see everyday; the most beautiful smile you have known withering away into a tired silence and muffled cries of pain. I can tell you how it feels, to watch the one constant love of your life slipping away. But I’m sure you already know all that.

As I write this, eyes glazed with tears of memories from which I have tried a lifetime to run away, I can feel the same emotional fatigue that I came to dread. That helpless feeling of inexplicable tiredness that comes from asking the same questions again and again- “Why me?” “Why her?” “How long?”
The Gods inside you and the ones above won’t give you your answers, which is why your shoes will get heavier by the day. But today Maryam, I ask that you put whatever little faith you have, in the words of a friend who has been in your shoes before. Let me dust your shoes, tie your laces; so that you may not have to bow or bend for any reason whatsoever.

You know how it is, waking up every single day with regret, knowing you must face exactly what does not let you sleep in the first place. But you have to keep going because there is someone who is enduring more than you are, who needs you more than you yourself. Wake up with a smile, even if it’s the last mask you want to put on. Keep it there because to your mother, it will be one of those little things that makes all the difference. When you are broken and trying to put yourself back together, the little pieces will always be the most important.

You see, mothers are conditioned to be the very definition of selfless souls. I remember when my Mom was going through cancer, just how befuddled she left me. Before I could text and ask her if she had taken the two morphine tablets I kept on her bedside table, she would ask me if I was doing well in college and if I’d had anything to eat. Torturous infernos of pain and muscle spasms in her spine kept her awake for endless nights, but what mattered most was if her son ate right.

Your mom is no different. If not for yourself, live your life for her. Laugh, ruffle her thin strands of hair, run your fingers along the black blotches left by the ugly chemotherapies; hug her, kiss her, do anything to take her away from all that she explicitly sees. She does not need to be reminded of the obvious, she does not need to hear that she needs to go on, she knows. Lift her spirits from its knees, and convince it not to grieve. I found it easier to wake up when I lived like that.

For the next few days, months, years, forget everything that is inherently personal. Throw your headphones away, because listening to music and leaving your Mom to decay in silence is a sin that even hell will find hard to pardon. From now on, you do not have your own room, your room is where Mom sits, sleeps, watches TV, vomits, cries, apologizes and everywhere else she wants to be. Every second you spend with her will take her that much closer to recovery, so be there every time she breathes. Bring her a glass of water, a little chocolate, a mug of coffee, even if it is the last thing she needs. It is the effort that counts, get her everything even before she knows she wants it. Tear the world apart to search for her tiniest smile, because even though she is a chaotic mess, when she smiles through it, you will know a feeling that surpasses everything else. Tomorrow when you fall in love and doubt the ability to love him or yourself, you will be reminded that you were one of the few reasons for a beautiful smile that braved adversity by the second.

I also ask you to do one more thing Maryam, although it will be harder than everything I have told you before. You must learn to lie, and you must learn to do so without betraying any emotion, with ruthless precision. For now, assume that your God forgives every lie, so use it dispassionately. Every time you go to the hospital, tell her that you have absolute, staunch belief that she is getting better, even if the doctor doesn’t necessarily share that faith. You must tell her she’s reaching the end of the tunnel even if you’re engulfed in total darkness, because how she fights and how long she fights depends on what you make her see. It may all be an illusion, but magic is an illusion too and look what it makes us believe?

Also remind yourself that your mother looks up to you as much as you look up to her. Resist every temptation to break through the day and let her see that you still are what you have always been; a lively, wonderful girl who lives life in all its entirety. At the end of the day, when you tuck her into bed and kiss her forehead and lull her to sleep, you can lock yourself in the bathroom and uncontrollably weep. Fold your superman cape, iron and get rid of all the creases, because the day superheroes stop is when they cease to be extraordinary, and the urge to live a normal life increases.

At harsh times like this I don’t appreciate distance, borders or that we belong to different countries. I wish I could erase these lines and for one moment, embrace you for the sake of what humanity was meant to be. India and Pakistan have been fighting each other for ages, but the battles that truly matter are the ones we are fighting amidst and within ourselves, the one you are fighting so valiantly for your family. Islamabad and Mumbai are on two different sides of a crazy, crazy world, but tonight you and me are one and the same person.

Here, I come to the end of this letter. I wish I could show you how fervently I pray for your Mother’s swift recovery. I am and will be, very proud of how gracefully you have endured such a soul-staining ordeal. I know there will be times you will want to break down and let go, and in those rare moments I promise to be there, if and when you require me. Talk to me about the myriad of feelings that threaten to corrode your mind, and I will be here, to lend you my ear, my shoulder, my complete, undivided attention. Let us wipe that slate clean, so that you may write about better, purer memories.

Should those shoes get heavier or start to wear away, know that you still have to keep walking. Yes, you might come undone , or fall from time to time; but you need to dust yourself clean and push yourself beyond definitions of ordinary. I cannot promise if things will get better; false hopes hurt more than most things. But I do know if you keep walking, you will find that it doesn’t weigh as heavy as it did before. Maybe you will get accustomed to the difficulty, maybe you will make it a part of yourself, but either way, you will find it easier to go on. Your shoes are tough Maryam, but you are tougher. Wish your Mom the very best for me, tell her that someone on the other side of the border will be rooting for her, every step of the way. I love you loads, stay strong.

Love,
Shamir

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Irony.

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First Kiss.

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Your Man.

Dear Dad,

It has been a year living a life reminiscent of a blur, in the midst of which I became your curse. But today, I think I’ve finally become a man. And like every other person who has seen a situation drastically worsen, I remember just how it all began. You were there with me that day, holding my hand.

You slowly patted my head, I just stared at that ceiling on the hospital bed. I was trying to grasp what the doctor just said about my scans. Warm papers in my grasp; damp with cold drops of sweat, and a barrage of tear drops that made it wet. I stared at the paper with infuriating rage, even though I couldn’t understand a word that was written on the page, it was as bad as it could get. I kept losing breath after breath because I sensed one part fear, and three parts death.

But I also remember, the smell of freshly printed paper on my fingers; amazing how the trail of a vaguely familiar memory lingers even when you’re standing on the doorsteps of hell. My fate rung the bell; the doors swung open, and I fell. That smell though, stayed with me till the very end. After the cancer, this feeling of writing on paper has been my only friend.

Dad I’ve spent one part of life being cut open with a surgeon’s knife, wishing desperately for reasons to stay alive. I’ve spent the other part consigned to a goddamned bed, watching pure, white, flawless sheets turn into red, right in front of my eyes. And you know what kept me going those nights?
That even as I lay bruised, battered, scattered, shattered, tattered, which a lifetime ago would have mattered; I survived on hope. Of the 10,000 minutes I spent in a week, nursing scars which ran so deep, stewing, rotting with drugs that made me look like some metaphysical freak; I got 30 minutes with you, where we could just sit down and speak.
It was all I looked forward to. It was all I looked back upon.

I took that every day for seven months straight I believe, till I was offered faith of some reprieve. For once, the scan could find and reflect the exact state of my mind; blank, blind yet somehow alive. And just when I thought I’d die alone, they said you could come and take me home. I wish I could tell you how that was the best day of my life.

For the first time in a year, my torn red shirt reminded me of things other than tears, and blood; it reminded me of memories which had started to flood the insides of my head. I held your hand tight, suddenly everything seemed so right and chaste, the hell hole of yesterday a thing of the past. We walked, hand in hand in half an embrace, taking a long, winding road which my memory couldn’t place. “How is Atheda?” I asked you, smiling wide. “She’s waiting for you” you replied, as we took the road into the unknown.

Then we arrived, and I stopped in my tracks. My relief faded into a feeling of utter disbelief, as you mouthed the word “Relax.”
“Where’s our house?” I stared at you like a livid child. “This one has more fresh air” you smiled. How could you even smile?

It was like my misfortunes were viral; and with my life’s never-ending downward spiral I had dragged you with me. The house in front of my eyes was broken, a silence synonymous with horrors unspoken made it difficult to breathe. One half of the house was mercilessly chiseled, and the wind howled and whistled, taunting it if it could endure any longer. I couldn’t live here. I couldn’t live where I had escaped from.

I lumbered quiet and slow, towards the front door. I couldn’t hear the strangely comforting childish squeals I’d heard a year before.
I wanted Atheda, I needed Atheda. I needed to hold my little sister and tell her how much I missed her till my heart was sore. This pain, no more.

I kept on walking, climbing each stair, each step echoing the bare, stripped, emptiness there. It was like every step took me one inch closer to despair. Suddenly, the door on my left opened with a creak, I heard a faint, choked whisper speak like it was a sin to raise your voice above the decibels of the fragile and weak.

“Atheda?”
Her face had sunk to the depths of depression; I could see every single impression etched deeply into what was once pure, unblemished beauty. Her expressions felt like the innocence inside her had lost its way, her lips parted slightly but she had nothing to say and I understood. I just hugged her and we both started crying, every sob felt like my insides were dying. Where had we come? What had we become?

I wiped the tears from her face and it broke my heart. Watching her mumble through hysterical sobs ripped the very existence of my soul apart. If this was our new beginning, nowhere was I supposed to start?

I could feel the bug bites on the realms of Atheda’s flawless skin. There was no bed on her floor, just broken wooden beams lay where it had once been. A mattress on the cold, hard floor; no less, no more. “Do you like it?” she asked with a hopeful grin.

No Dad, I didn’t like it one bit. But I couldn’t say that to her because the reason for it, was yours truly, this little shit. Every single day in that house I waited, I saw everything you had to give away and slowly I suffocated. I wanted to get out of my hell for so long, I guess I did, and slipped back to where I truly belong. This hell is different, I appreciate it. But Dad, this hell is the one I created.

And you know, there is no difference between the two Dad. Of the 10,000 minutes a week I’ve had now, I still sit here bruised, battered, broken and sad. I discovered the cancer bills you stashed away in your writing pad, just knowing how much you spent on me makes me mad and it makes me want to run away because I do not understand just why you’d ever want me back.

You’ve sold the car, our house and everything in it for good. I would have lived with that, but not the fact that I’ve traded my health for my sister’s childhood. I am better, but WE are worse. I think it’s better for everyone if I just end this curse.

As I write this to you, I know the gravity of what I am about to burn. But it will be nothing compared to how I’d feel if the cancer returns, so please understand. I need you to do this one last favour for me.

I end my letter here, lest I succumb to nerves. Please give yourself and Atheda the life you truly deserve.
I love you, and thank you for everything you’ve given me Dad. I hope you remember this as the day I truly became a man.

Love,
Your son, your man.


Little Window.

It was a merciless winter’s night, somewhere in late December I think. I can’t say for sure actually; time has drowned my memories ever so quietly. We must have walked down that lonely, desolate lane to Block D at least a hundred nights now. I’m sure he has done that at least twice as much. Nothing has changed; and yet strangely, everything has.

You see, me and him, we’ve walked these streets so many times that we’ve discovered its most minute intricacies. For instance, I know that seven minutes into our walk, I would hear the sound of gravel crunch beneath my size 9 Woodland shoes, breaking the effortless silence of the night, but not the uneasy one between us two.
The pale, dim yellow streetlights would dully light up the grey tar roads, the bright green benches with paint scraping off along its sides, the only witness to this pilgrimage of sorts.

And yet, in the midst of this monotony, things have changed. Sometimes, a gentle breeze would tug at my baggy shorts and the comfortable, loose fabric of my tee shirt during summers. And at times, the winter wind howled incessantly, a waft of ice cold breath from the Gods would bite at knuckles tightly clasped around my leather jacket. So much change, and yet so familiar.

Anyway, 15 minutes into our walk, I could see the familiar outline of Block D swarm in front of my eyes. The same rundown building that no one bothered to maintain. It looked like something you would find straight out of an archaeology magazine; chipped walls lined with dark green moss, missing bricks and faded paint making it seem like a page from a forgotten memory.

‘I like this place’ he looked at me and whispered in a rough, sombre voice. It was the first time ever that he had spoken to me during our walks. We always talked before or after it, but in those hundred days I walked with him, we never spoke when we were face to face.

‘This building is my reflection, it is what I am, you know? Weathered, broken down, forgotten. But I like it, because despite its shortcomings, it makes no attempt to hide. It still stands.’

I could see he was struggling to speak, but I didn’t ask him why. This was a change from our usually accepted pact of silence, I decided it would be wiser to let destiny do the needful.

We slowly trudged to the side of the building. The low balcony of the first floor stood right in front of us. It was low enough for me to jump and touch, in fact I could climb it if the drainpipe next to it wasn’t ancient. We stopped. Same place, for the umpteenth time. I’ve lost count. He put his hand inside his pocket and pulled out the same old bar of chocolate. I liked this part, and I made a conscious effort not to blink. He looked up at the open window next to the balcony; these were the only few seconds of the day when I saw glimpses of life flood back into his eyes. That made me happy; knowing he hadn’t completely forced himself into emotional exile.

He carefully held the bar of chocolate in his right hand, and arched his back. With the expert precision of someone used to doing something every single day, he threw the chocolate perfectly inside the open window. It was dark and empty inside, yet he stood there transfixed; staring at the open window for at least 5 minutes. It was a simple yet powerfully serene picture that I wish I could paint with words; hope looking up at expectations, in static and unsettling silence.

After 5 minutes of holding his breath, he let out a deep, pained sigh. He looked at me, which was his way of telling me that it was time to walk back.

‘Once every 20, maybe 25 days, when she’s strong enough to stay awake, you can hear the gentle rustle of the wrapper being torn open, I swear. She doesn’t go out much because the chemotherapies have left blotches on her skin, and she has little left of those gleaming strands of silky hair she had before. She says that it all makes her look ugly, but I disagree. What could possibly be more beautiful than someone learning to smile through adversity? Once every one and a half months, when the medicines don’t drain her soul, you can see the faint orange light come on in her room. She puts her head at the window, one of the rare times she ever lets anyone see her. When that little study lamp lights up the side of her face and she holds up the chocolate I threw and she smiles at me? It is all I ever needed.’

I just looked at him and nodded as if I understood. I clearly did not, and imagining the courage it took made me wish I would never have the chance to find out.

‘I told you, I like Block D. The place reminds me of what I have become. All I have left is a little window; but that does not stop me from standing in front of it every night in desperate hope. Everything around me is slowly crumbling, but something inside gives me so much to believe in. I like this monotony. It gives me faith. So I keep coming back, even if it means confronting my worst fears.’

‘And what are those fears?’ I asked him.

He looked at me, and gave me a tired, almost resigned smile.

‘Sometimes, I fear my chocolate will hit a closed window. Sometimes, I fear it’ll drop on an empty bed, and the hollow thump I hear will be nothing compared to the reverberations in my heart. I dread these possibilities. But when I started off doing this, she used to look through the window every 3-4 days. That number has slowly gone on increasing. Now I consider myself fortunate if she manages to hoist her limp, drugged body to the windowsill even once a month. I fear I’m living my darkest fears. Maybe it’s her way of preparing me for the worst, I don’t know. Perhaps I do know, but I do not care. I do what I have to, and nothing less.’

As we talked, we reached Block T, where I stay. We embraced, and he thanked me for coming. Although we did this every night I walked with him, it never felt out of place or cliched. I walked up the stairs to my house, and then into my room, slowly taking in what I had just seen and heard. I had a hard time sleeping that night.

The very next morning, I got a phone call. She had passed away in her sleep.

Even though in one hundred nights I never saw anything beyond the little window, I felt empty, I felt hollow. I could only imagine how standing in his shoes would be, let alone walking in them.

That night, I got no text message from him asking me to come for a walk. But I did see a lonely shadow, dragging a soulless existence through the empty street on the way to Block D. I saw all of it through my balcony. Seven minutes later, I could hear the sound of gravel in my head, heavier and deeper than I had ever heard before. Tonight, hope wouldn’t look up to expectations; expectations would look down upon broken hope. Tonight, there would be no warm embrace, no thank you’s. Perhaps there never will be.

It has been almost a year since her death. I have always wanted to walk to Block D one night and pay my respects. But I can’t. I can’t find the strength to look at him staring at that little window again. I can’t. I can’t imagine his chocolate bouncing off a closed window, I just can’t. I still watch him every night, just walking. I realize now why monotony isn’t redundant; it is beautiful, almost overwhelming. But for it to exist, nothing must change. Which is why I think we all fear change. Maybe that little window will slam shut or what lies inside it will fade. But whatever happens, it is important to keep walking.


The Perfect Way.

For years
I searched my soul to find,
Ways
to reveal the undefined.

For years
these feelings pounded,
For an eternity
the pain compounded,

Till silence came along one day,
and the perfect way,
I found it.


Happy Birthday, Mom.

I remember the birthday we spent together three years ago. It must have been a few weeks into your chemo; but the scars of your struggle were now starting to show. For the first time in so many years, you and I didn’t stay up late. For the first time in so many years, there was no childish, excited wait. For the first time in so many years, there was no birthday cake because no matter what you ate at that point in time, your head would spin and nauseate. It felt sad, having to celebrate your liveliness so quietly.

The next morning, I overslept. So when I woke up, the first thing I did was sprint up the steps to your bedroom door. I imagined you would be sleeping so I quietly pushed it open; hoping that I’d be the first face you’d see as you woke up on your special day. But as I stepped into your room, I felt this quiet, impending feeling of gloom. One experienced in the countless hospital trips that conditioned you and I to feel nothing but doom. I saw an empty bed, and a rush of blood to my head said- something’s wrong. I knew you couldn’t even walk straight without me by your side to take your weight. I could feel my hands shake; I could feel the insides of my head ache and throb and about to break. I called out your name, again and again and again and then suddenly, I heard mine in return. A sigh of relief as I immediately turned to where it came from.

As I pushed open the bathroom door, I saw you slouched against the wall, sitting calmly on the floor. Trying to maintain a fine line between livid worrying and escalating dread, I just stood there with a million thoughts inside my head, and you, you just looked at me, and you smiled. Typical of you, you know? Everytime you knew there was tension you couldn’t dilute, you just flashed a smile so adorably cute hoping I would forget. I almost did. But I asked again.

You smiled once more. And then you spoke. In words I wish I remembered, so I could put them in quotes and show the entire world how you saw it with so much hope. You told me how it hurt to be a burden. How on days that hovered between bad and worse you felt like an absolute curse that just refused to go away. You told me how it felt, when you needed me to walk two metres or less, and how it made you feel absolutely helpless, every single day. So on your birthday, you decided to be different.

It hurts my heart to imagine how you swayed across the room to where you fell, but for that one day living in hell made you feel a little more at ease, even if it meant falling to your knees, at least you did it all by yourself. I didn’t know whether to smile or to cry; but these things you said were like invisible forces pulling me from both sides. I heaved you up, and I walked you back to your bed. You were smiling, but your eyes were wet. I tried to give you the warm hug that you’d mastered over the years, one that had so often given my tears a reason to change into something else. If only you knew how much I live that memory, even today.

Three years later, I celebrate your birthday the same way you and I did back then. There is silence, and a quiet birthday wish in this letter; and an empty realization that things could have been so much better. What I miss far outweighs what I have found; but that balance would tilt so drastically if you were around today. Today, I wish I could borrow your shoulders to keep my head; I wish I could kiss your cheeks and tell you everything I never said, instead of writing things you will never read, unless heaven has a speed post service (which it desperately needs.) What I would give, to have you live, not in memories but somewhere real. Every second spent wondering how that would feel suddenly, be worth the time, and the energy.

Anyway, this isn’t about my wishes, its about how hard it is loving you from afar. I only wish I could find the words to define these feelings of mine with a beauty that was half as perfect as you are. I hope you have fun there (for heaven’s sake) and that God employs the best bakery to make your cake. Stay as lively as you’ve always been, remember to lick the icing from the bottom of the cake tin, just how you’ve always liked it.

Down here, Dad will raise a drink and we all will keep you in our prayers and think about the countless reasons you gave us to call happiness our own. We’ll keep missing you, even if we are three parts of a broken mess; and we will love you, alwaysthemore, nevertheless.

I miss you. I love you.

Happy Birthday.

Love,
Shamir.