Let the candle burn itself out before I go to sleep
“The water reaches my knees, my waist. Tell me o fish, how deep is the sea?
“The water reaches my chest, my neck. Comes up to the face and eyes. Only bubbles are seen. And then the sea levels up,” said Shahzeb, who is Zeb to his friends.
“Khara Samandar,” he started again but stopped after the first line and asked: “Do you play this game?”
“I did,” I said. “Not anymore.”
“You can, you are not dead yet,” he said. “But how do you know you are not dead? Kitna pani (how much water)? Kitna pani?”
Rufi’s eight-year old daughter, Zinnia, visited Pakistan last summer. When she returned after the long summer break, her teacher asked her to write a piece about Pakistan.
She did and decided to show it to Rufi before turning it in. It was Sunday and Rufi was still in the bed, so he asked Zinnia to read her piece to him.
“Pakistan is a big place, large homes with many rooms and each room is full of people, uncles, aunts and cousins, hundreds of cousins,” she wrote.
“Cricket, killings and robberies are very popular there. Everybody loves to talk about them.”
Zeb gets sick every winter. With the first snowfall, he starts saying: “Let’s go to the hills. It’s nicer there.”
Nostalgia comes first.
“What a nice walk it was, from my village to our school, tall trees on both sides of the canal.”
Then he regrets. “I wish I had given that letter to the girl I met on the hills. Why, oh why, I did not.”
Paranoia; “don’t trust the red light. Be careful while crossing the road, they will crush you like a dog.”
Then he shows a passive acceptance of the inevitable: “Water up to your chest, neck, face, and eyes. Just a few bubbles and the sea levels up.”
Rufi jumped out of his bed when he heard his daughter’s essay and called his wife. “Samina, Samina.” When Samina came, he showed her the piece.
“Is this what you guys taught her in Pakistan?” he asked.
Samina too was horrified, “no, we did not.”
“How did she learn these things then?” asked Rufi.
As she saw her parents arguing, Zinnia started sobbing and said: “Please don’t hurt me, please.”
When Rufi and I visited Zeb at the hospital, we found him humming a ghazal: “A lonely tear is enough for me to stay up all night, let someone come and extinguish this star before I go to sleep.”
Tears rolled down his cheeks as he sang; “Bus aik ansoo bohot hai Mohsin kay jagnay ko — Yeh ik sitara koi bujhai tu neend aye.”
We visit him once a week every time he is brought to the hospital; look after him when he is released and then return to our routines until he is sick again. This has been going on for years.
Zinnia’s parents were stunned when she asked them not to hurt her. “Why would we hurt you? You are our daughter,” said Samina.
“Yes, but my cousins told me that when people in Pakistan get upset with you, they kill you,” she said.
“Who plucks out his eyes to please the wind, let the candle burn itself out before I go to sleep,” crooned Zeb. “Hawa ki khawhish pa kon ankheen ujarta hai, diye ki lao khud thartharai tu neend aye,” he repeated.
Zeb was so engrossed in the music that he did not notice us until Rufi coughed to let him know we were there. He looked up, wiped his tears and smiled.
Rufi and Samina hugged their daughter to comfort her. “We love you more than anything else in the world. How can we hurt you?” said Samina.
Social inhibitions did not allow us to hug Zeb. And Zeb saved us from the embarrassment of not knowing the right words for comforting an adult.
“Do you know the poet who wrote this ghazal (Mohsin Naqvi) was shot dead because he stood up to the terrorists?” he asked.
Rufi told me his daughter’s story while we were driving to the hospital to see Zeb.
“I know you fictionalise realities to write your stories,” he said to me. “But I want you to write this one as it happened.”
I told him I only hid names of people and places to protect those who shared their stories with me and offered to use his real name if they wanted.
“No,” he said. “You are right. Change my name too, but just a little.”
“I know that the poet was shot dead,” I told Zeb. “But the killing is not why you are so sad. It happened years ago.”
“You guys have divided time into yesterday, today and tomorrow,” he said. “I have not. I can cry over things that happened years ago. And over what may happen tomorrow.”
“And what may happen tomorrow?” I asked.
“You may stop visiting me and that will make me sad,” he said.
Rufi told me that after reading his daughter’s story, he called his relatives in Pakistan who blamed Pakistani television channels for teaching “bad things” to the kids.
“Yes, the media shares the responsibility but such things happen all the time and they have to report them,” I said.
“Maybe, but I have disconnected all Pakistani channels. I do not want my child to learn such horrible stories,” said Rufi.
“You can disconnect, but people in Pakistan do not have this luxury. They are so connected to whatever is happening around them that they cannot escape the consequences,” I said.
“But Rufi cannot disconnect either,” said Zeb when we shared the story with him. “You know what we fear the most? Loneliness. Nobody likes to be lonely. That’s why we are wired to each other.”
Rufi, who met Zeb in Rawalpindi years before both came to America, once told me that no single event was responsible for his emotional breakdowns.
It happened slowly, over the years. He came here, worked hard, raised money for his sister’s marriage, for his brother’s education, his father’s treatment but was absent every time something big happened in the family.
He could not attend his sister’s marriage, could not go when his brother had an accident and broke his legs, and was in America when his mother died.
“I remember how he cried all night,” said Rufi.
“Did he attend her funeral?” I asked.
“No,” said Rufi. “He did not have the papers. He visited Pakistan 18 years after he came to America.”
Everything had changed in his absence. His sister was at school when he left home. Now she had two children. His mother had died. His brother, a little boy then, was now a man, with no legs.
And his father, who was a strong, middle-aged man when Zeb boarded the plane for America, had a stroke and was paralysed.
“This shocked him the most as he had always admired his father,” said Rufi.
Now his father could not walk. He depended on others to wash and feed him and to change his clothes. There was no one at home to do so.
His sister was married and his brother, despite his disability, worked as a clerk at a private office.
They had hired help but his father needed more than that.
So Zeb stayed at home for a year, helping his father, feeding him, washing him, changing him. He also bought a mechanised wheelchair for his brother. Things improved a little but the family needed money and Zeb had to return to America.
“Did he ever marry?” I asked.
“No, he did not; says he does not want anyone to share what he earns for his father and his brother,” said Rufi.
“But financially, he seems comfortable now,” I said.
“He is and we do tell him that he should think about himself too. He understands but when he has these fits, he blames himself for what happened to his father and his brother,” said Rufi.
“And he misses his mother a lot. Whenever he has these fits, he cries out loud, saying, ‘Ma, o Ma, why did you leave me?”
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