SOFIA IHSAN | REGULARS
I’m walking alone. Head down, I watch my feet scuffing across the wet ground, creating ripples in the water that’s been collecting on the concrete... circles and swirls that shift and morph the street lights into an abyss of color. I can feel the water seeping through my coat, my clothes heavy with the rain, but I really don’t care. There is more to life than caring whether or not you have wet clothes. There certainly was more to life. I am not sure if there is anymore.
I want to scream into nothingness. I want to scream so loud that the earth beneath me throbs in the same pain that runs through every crevice of my head. I try. I try to conjure up a voice but it is blocked by a burning sensation in my throat and dry, cracked lips. My body shudders beneath the chilly air that starts to blow on my wet clothes. I find myself hurrying back on a familiar path, sneak in through the back door and gulp down a glass of water. My throat still burns and I wonder if it was ever because of an unquenched thirst. I rid myself of the wet clothes.
They don’t bother me but uninvited questions and unwelcome sympathy does. I open my laptop that I have not touched in days and the BBC page from fifteen days ago is still open on my browser. The Headline reads: “Pakistan mosque attacks in Lahore kill scores.”
My grandpa and dad were there at the mosque. My dad survived and grandpa didn’t and the news calls him a number... one of the eighty-six worshippers who were killed. He is not a number. None of those people can be reduced to a number. They were living beings with families and friends and passions and dreams. They were children and parents and grandparents.
A tear escapes my eyes and I know many more are coming... probably a hundredth of those that I have cried in fifteen days.
I heard my mum telling my aunt how proud she was of my dad attending the Friday prayer the a week after the attack in the same mosque. I tried to find the same feeling inside me that day, the feeling of pride like those families have when they send their sons and fathers to wars. I instead felt fear. How do you deliberately let your loved ones walk into a battleground, unarmed, only with prayers and well-wishes?
Someone wakes up. I hear footsteps and I eye my door, ensuring it's shut. I do not want to have a warm conversation with anybody. They don’t feel what I feel. The shawl that I had draped around my head was used to cover my grandpa’s dead body at the morgue. They cannot tell me what to feel.
It’s the next day and I wake up with the sounds of chatting and laughter. I go to the source of it only to find my family, both immediate and extended watching TV and making casual conversation. My uncle spots me and greets me good morning. My mum asks me what I would like to have for breakfast. My younger cousins run around playing some form of chase.
How? I ask myself. How is this so normal? I turn around to go back to my room. My mum follows me and stops me with a gentle hand on my shoulder. I look at her and I know what she wants. I walk to the living room and join the world of ‘normalcy’ all the while looking at mum’s hair hinting of greys that were not there fifteen days ago.
“They entered the main prayer hall and I saw Abu (Dad) slowly standing up from his chair. I wanted to get to him but people around me rushed me out. That was the last I saw of him.” My dad reiterates the story of the day of the attack for the umpteenth time to another guest that I don’t recognise.
“I am so sorry for your loss. Your father was an amazing man. Do you know he is the reason I quit smoking,” the guest tells my dad.
“Yes yes, I smoked like three packs a day, forgot to eat but never forgot to smoke,” the man continues saying.
“Your father, may God bless his soul, he always used to come around to my street on his evening walks. He brought lollies and chocolates for my kids. Then he started bringing them for me too and he said to me that I’ll bring lollies for you everyday if you quit smoking.” He smiles while talking, the kind that reaches his eyes and I wonder about the last time any of us smiled that way.
“What a man, what a man. I thought to myself, this man who barely knows me, only sees me in the street smoking and makes small talk with me, cares enough for me to stop me from smoking through all these cute gestures... that was it for me, I started reducing from that day and I am two and a half years smoke free today.”
There is your living being. Not a number. A walking, talking, positive difference-making human being.
My mother tells me to invoke sabr which translates to patience and perseverance in English. She tells me Allah likes those who practice sabr. I chuckle. It comes involuntarily. She strokes my face with her hands and then runs her fingers through my hair while I rest my head on her lap.
“Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods, lives, and the fruits of your toil. But give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. Those who say, when afflicted with calamity, ‘To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return.’ They are those on whom descend blessings from their Lord, and mercy. They are the ones who receive guidance.” She recites verses from the Quran and translates them for me. I try to find perseverance in my heart. I only find anger.
I used to go on evening walks with my grandpa on weekends as well. He would ask me to notice the ants on the sides of the streets. We would stare at the ants for minutes, watching them take tiny bits of food to their little holes. He was fascinated by how systematically the ants worked.
He always told me that it is integral to have organisation in one’s life. It is as important as food and water. If we are not organised, we will never win in life. “Look at these little creatures, if they can understand the importance of time management and organisation, then us humans can too,” he once said to me.
He also used to ask me to read his favourite poetry to him. It was not because he couldn’t read. No, he was an intelligent, well-read man. He said he liked me reading to him. Now that I come to think of it, it was just his way of teaching me, nurturing me, ensuring that I explored and gained all the knowledge he could provide me. The words of his favourite poem find their way to my mouth involuntarily:
“Tu hai jo palta hai.” You are the sole nurturer.
“Har dam sambhalta hai.” You are my care-taker.
“Gham se nikalta hai.” You are the one who takes me out of grief.
“Dardon ko talta hai.” And the one who casts away all my pains.
Fresh tears find their way out, my eyes burn and I groan in an ache that I cannot distinguish is mental or physical. I hear the sound of my heart beating in my ears, my stomach churns… stumbling, falling, I run to the washroom.
The pain continues...
I go to my school one last time to sign out. I have to move in with my grandparents from my mum’s side. Mum and dad have to work something out. It’s not safe for us here anymore.
Miss Ayesha offers to take photos of me and my friends on the digital camera dad forced me to take to school. “Go, capture some memories Sofia.”
The very thing I am struggling not to keep. Memories.
We pose and I smile as Kainat pulls up bunny ears behind Fatima. It's the first one since that day. Grandpa used to say “Sofia” when he was asked to say “cheese” for a photo. He used to say “when I say Sofia’s name, the photograph comes out better, always. I smile a little wider.” I smile and laugh and we click loads of photos. I laugh and talk and we eat samosas from the school canteen and empty our water bottles, yet our mouths burn with the green spicy chutney that we refuse to stop eating. My eyes water and for the first time in days, it’s not tears.
I am done packing in order to leave for my grandparents’ place. They live 81.9 kilometers away from us in a small town called Pattoki. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have spent half of my life in Pattoki. All holidays, festivals, times of happiness and mourning. This time it’s different. I am not going to spend a vacation. I am going there perhaps to... survive. There are millions of Ahmadis in Pakistan who live in danger of their lives. My grandpa was one of those who lost theirs for their faith. No, he was not a religious fanatic or a militant openly inviting trouble. He was just saying his Friday prayer in his mosque.
“While the Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim and follow all Islamic rituals, they were declared non-Muslim in Pakistan in 1973, and in 1984 they were legally barred from proselytising or identifying themselves as Muslims. Members of the community have often been mobbed, or gunned down in targeted attacks,” says the BBC's Muhammad Ilyas Khan in a BBC news report on May 28th, 2010.
I take a last look at my house. The unpainted bricks and undone floors make for the prettiest site for me on Earth for it’s the moments, the joys, the sorrows, the countless days and nights that make this place home and I am leaving it behind to probably never see it again.
I sigh, it is not followed by tears or an urge to scream. I sit in our grey Suzuki Khyber and we drive off.
My cousin keeps a journal of poems, writing excerpts and quotes that she finds on the internet. She opens up a page and asks me to read it:
“As far as I see, grief will never truly end. It may become softer with time, more gentle, and some days will feel sharp. But grief will last as long as love does... forever. Some days the heavy fog may return, and the next day, it may recede, once again. It’s all an ebb and flow, a constant dance of joy and sorrow.”
— Lexi Behrndt
I go out on the street. It’s dark and it's raining. There are barely any street lights here. I tread my way in the little light that emanates from the windows of houses. Water seeps through my clothes. I open my mouth and take my tongue out, trying to catch a rain droplet on it. I feel satiated. I hear my cousins calling out to me: “Never enjoy the Monsoon alone.” All of them run to me and join me under a rainy sky. I don’t want to run away from them.
I do not want to bear the burden alone anymore. I let myself get carried away in their giggles.
If I am alive and I am here, there must be more to life.