As I stood over the edge of existence and mortality I felt as if I was suspended by the thinnest of threads over a dark ditch waiting to either fall down to my death or to hold on to the last shred of hope that was fading away inch by inch. I could see my neighbor’s deformed son down in the street weeping and yelling for help as the other children in the street bullied him. I felt powerless not because I could not help him but because I myself was miserable and was trying to end my life. I had always thought that the roof was a great opportunity to just jump away into the oblivion that surrounded me but I was optimistic back then. Now things have metamorphosed.
I tightly clasped my swollen hands around the rusting wrought-iron railings, shut my eyes tight and was about to jump off when my mother yelled, “Ayesha! Your father has returned. Stop slacking off and get him a glass of water!” I stopped in between, contemplating whether I should continue or stop and before I could make a decision my mother clutched the neck of my oil-stained shirt and thrust me hard into the cemented ground. I hardly let out a scream as pain shot through my body when she grabbed my scarf to pull me up. As she did, I tried to escape but no luck and she slapped me hard on my right cheek. I decided not to speak as it would add fuel to the fire so I just stood there in front of her with my eyes staring intently on the ground and my body shivering in agony.
I had already apprehended what would happen next. I had made it worse for myself and all that she threatened me with was already common to my ears but when she said that she would end my educational journey and marry me to my thirty-year old cousin Osama, I lost it. Now some might find it astounding and others might not, going to school for me was my only escape and not for the purpose of education but for the purpose of meeting the only two people that made my life content, Amina and Shazia. However before we proceed with the story, let’s rewind a bit since it is only the starting and there is a lot more to tell.
I was born in a small, backward town in Karachi where men would go out to work in the shops and boys would go out to play but if you ask what the women did, they would be hidden in their households, far away from the common sight. And the girls would sit beside their window sills looking at the open sky, some waiting for their freedom and others to get married and sent to another household. I was lucky enough to be sent to school to study but as I mentioned, I was not going there with the aim of education but it was rather just to meet Shazia and Amina. Luckily enough they both lived in the same neighborhood as mine, our houses being a few blocks away from each other but the similitude of our lives being pretty accurate. The three of us belonged from quite stringent households with strict rules and regulations and pessimistic views. Briefly, the three of us had a lot in common. Even though the general outlook of our backgrounds was similar but the intensity of its similitude varied. One household was victim to domestic violence, the other was argumentative and one was suicidal. Now no matter how surprising it sounds after the exposition, my household was not suicidal, it was Amina’s.
Even though at times our stories and events from the night varied, the overall sentiment was common and it felt as if we could relate to each other as well as siblings or long lost friends could. For each of us, anywhere out of our immediate homes was a place of freedom, well beyond the shackles of stringency. We would come to school in our burkas and would take them off in a hurry to make it to class. We all had different fears but the most important was regarding our education which indirectly meant coming to school and meeting each other. We would often at times show each other our wounds from the previous nights, either hit by our parents or being overworked by them. For us it didn’t really matter as long as we could see each other and unlike every other average student, the weekend was our most disliked couple of days but then again we weren’t average students at all.
Over the years we had realized that our secret code had proved very successful. Especially in that age of adolescence when our adrenaline would never settle and when the ravines of the future were the least of our worries. We would run down the school hallway giggling and laughing. We would act in a silly way in class and the punishments that were often inflicted upon us by the principal and our teachers were minute in comparison to what we endured in our homes. Nonetheless, it all felt as if the three of us were sprinting away from our own unfortunate lives towards a much anticipated future. A future that we knew would somehow bring felicity as well as discontent.
The astonishing characteristic about the three of us was that regardless of all the insults, beatings and the surrendering, outside of our homes we were willing to go on adventures, to do something out of the ordinary and to exceed limits that bound us. This was because when your entire life is nothing more than a myriad of limits, at times when you are given the opportunity, you like to cross them. We would often bunk our classes and escape from the bathroom window and the hole in the fence, skilfully made by ourselves which was just big enough for each one of us to pass through. All of this just to escape the institution that taught us how to live and behave according to their standards, disregarding how we wanted to live our lives. We would want to escape anyone or anything that would exhibit control over us but little did we know, time was controlling us all along the way and it would soon disclose its little secret.
Life passed as it was destined to, seconds turned into minutes, minutes into hours, hours into days, days into weeks and weeks into years and before we knew it we were sixteen years old and ending high school. By this time according to our families’ tradition one of us was supposed to be married but fortunately none of us did get married. The three of us felt lucky enough, as if God Himself was watching over us. But before we took advantage of this luck, something very unlucky happened. Our unbelievably peaceful lives had taken a tumult when Amina was diagnosed third stage pancreatic cancer. This was not uncommon in her family since diabetes was genetic and this was one of the major causes of her cancer. Regardless of how, who, when and where, we were mostly worried about why. Why did it have to be Amina? Why not her abusive mother or her alcoholic father? Why did it have to be the only person that Shazia and I cared for in the entire world?
Even though we asked ourselves these questions incessantly in the initial stages of Amina’s diagnose and tests, we soon apprehended that this question-answer session with destiny was useless since it didn’t actually give us any ground and who were we kidding anyways, when no one has gotten the answers they needed. Thus we decided to move on from the depressing stage externally so we could at least make the time worthwhile for Amina but internally the two of us were broken and cold. As cold as a wilting flower fluttering in the cold gusts of the December winds and as broken as the rundown and rusty car frames in empty plots. It was surprising how we would not feel this agony when our mothers would pull our hair in agitation or how our fathers would slap us if we dared to look him in the eyes. It actually felt like the pain of slowly losing someone that is an irreplaceable part of your miserable life.
Nonetheless we put up our valiant smiles and tried to cheer her up every time we were allowed to enter her room. Now I realize how stupid we were, thinking she would not be able to see through the pretense but she actually did see through it. However she went with the act, not wanting to be a barrier and as soon as she started going into chemotherapy, Shazia and I started planning a plethora of ways for us to sneak out of our homes to meet each other. This was all due to Amina’s persistent wish of fulfilling some of her dreams on her bucket list which although was a long list but for her a few wishes held greater significance.
For us on the other hand each of her wish was of equal importance but unluckily there were just too many and on the other hand according to the doctor, things weren’t really faring well for her. Even though she would not whine about it and would often make jokes about how her bald head was not a problem since she wore the hijab and we would just laugh it off, we could see her weakening day by day. However, we still kept on persisting even though we knew the conclusion.
Amina only had chemotherapy on the weekends so she actually did attend school with us despite our persistent efforts to make her rest in the hospital. But we soon realized in due time that if we were on a time binge ourselves, we would not want to be stuck in a hospital room with white walls and the bleeping of the heart monitor. Amina was a warrior externally and internally. There seemed to be zero change in her after this whole event, as if she was the person she was before everything unfortunate happened. It felt as if she lived her life to the fullest before and now she was continuing that same act but with greater intensity since by every passing day she had less and less time.
We started ticking off a few things on her bucket list one by one according to her requests. First we rented out this old Panasonic camera because Amina always wanted to be a photographer. Where ever we would go and whatever time of the day it would be Amina would always find some beauty everywhere and would incessantly look for scenes to be photographed. Thus we picked up this rental camera from an old electronics shop in a muddy little street and hid it in Shazia’s bag so her family would not see it. The next day we all bunked our classes and skipped school to go to Amina’s favorite place for some photography.
Her favorite place was not something fancy but instead something even more simple. It was this old, abandoned factory in the outskirts which was often accessible my public transport. We went there often to climb its roof, to see the birds there and the landscape. It was this very place where we shared our hindrances and talked about fate and the general turn of events in life. That day we were there for a greater purpose. From the moment we handed her the camera, her eyes lit up and she would not stop clicking pictures of diverse scenes. We could see the biggest grin on her face all the while we were up on the roof and we could see that she was content but the juxtaposition was that we weren’t. Both of us knew well enough that this would most likely be the last time that we would see her and feel her presence her in this mythical place with us. We had exquisite memories with her on this rustic, decaying roof of this abandoned factory and we were not yet ready to bear an end to them.
For the next two weeks we kept on trying various methods to escape school and go to certain places which Amina wished to see and even though we were not successful each time, we did manage to fulfill a few more dreams. Once we took her to a cinema to see a movie which surprisingly was a dream for all three of us. Then we went shopping and even though we did not have a lot of money even after collecting every rupee each one of us had, we still had a diverting time because for us it was always the company that mattered and not the circumstances. Moreover, life had already taught us how to make the most of every second when you’re given the opportunity to and we had been good learners.
Then upon her request we even got her a pet fish which she named after her long lost sister, Zahirah. Now that I mention her sister, this leads us to the second, more significant part of this story, ‘Amina and her dead sister Zahirah’.
So even though we tried our best to fulfill most of Amina’s wishes, her top priority was to visit the sea. It is astounding to know that Amina while living in Karachi had never set foot on the beach or seen the sea. It was her most significant dream on her bucket list which had always been on her mind for her entire existence and now that she was nearing its end, it was our job to fulfill it. Now before we get to the exciting part the back story of this dream is even more devastating.
Amina had always wanted to go to sea because she thought that it would set her free, that it would liberate her from the shackles of misery and misfortune. Her parents never took her due to their own grieving experiences with the sea. Now the event that connects this two-toned spectrum is Amina’s sister’s suicide. She would not really converse about it but in our knowledge, Amina had an elder sister named Zahirah who was five years older than her. As a child Amina would often play with her or bother her while she would be doing the dishes or sweeping the yard. Nonetheless they both were quite close, neither content without the other.
One day Zahirah altogether disappeared from Amina’s life. She was nowhere to be found in the house or the yard or on the roof. It was early morning and she would never leave for school this early. Amina asked her parents and they were least bothered about it. It worried Amina further since Zahirah had been pretty silent for the past few days and Amina wanted to converse with her about it. She sat down and started waiting for her to return in the afternoon when a phone call came to her father stating that Zahirah had been found dead on the shore. It shocked the entire household. No one moved, looked or breathed for even a second. The next ten minutes passed in even more panic of getting to the car to go to the beach and also calling the police and the hospital and the other family members, all in an effort to bring her back when they already knew she was gone. However they never made it to the beach because the body had already been taken to a hospital.
Time passed nonetheless and they were told that her body had no signs of cutting herself but her lungs were filled with water which proved to them that she had committed suicide by drowning herself in the sea. Why, when and how did she actually get to the sea were all questions which would never be answered. It felt almost wrong how we could selflessly carry on with our own lives without realizing what or how the people around us felt. Whether they were people we knew or we didn’t, it is the human sentiment that matters. But isn’t acceptance what we all want. Don’t we all want to be loved and accepted unconditionally? If this is true then why do we suffer ourselves and also let others suffer and drive them to an edge where they are cornered in reality and for them all that is left is the physical and spiritual escape that the ideology of death presents to them. They choose it and we lose a human life. A living, breathing human life. A life that was once just like us.
It was due to this family history that Amina’s parents never took her to the sea and this kept her curious. She was not like her parents that she would be petrified of that place due to her sister’s actions. In fact she knew that the sea was the only power on Earth that would reconcile her with her long lost sister. The doctors on the other hand had already told us and her family that time was running out and that our farewells should be said but we were not willing to give up on her just yet. She had been looking forward to the pulsing currents and miles and miles of trackless sea for her entire life just to feel the presence of Zahirah and we were determined to show it to her. Thus Shazia and I started to construct our master plan for this much-anticipated adventure.
Fortunately, Amina’s parents were going out of station for the weekend, leaving her under the supervision and care of her grandparents who were also the ones paying for Amina’s cancer treatment. We had decided that we would sneak out of our houses during the night. My elder sister, Rabia who actually knew how to drive since she had secretly learnt from her friend but didn’t really have a driving license decided to aid me in my plan since we needed a driver for our transportation through the night.
Thus the weekend came in sheer exhilaration and the three of us were psyched. Soon after the day’s work, the sun said its farewell and the moon was welcomed to take its place in the sky and display its performance as we would venture out in the night. I awoke from my slumber with adrenaline rushing through my veins. It was around midnight and I first called Shazia from the telephone and then Amina just to keep everyone updated. It was nerve wrecking and also calming to see everything fall into place. However deep inside I was well-aware of the game that fate was playing with us. It was going to treat us right before it treats us wrong however greater misery lay in the fact that I was helpless in this matter.
Half an hour later, Rabia and I quietly escaped through the kitchen’s back door and got into my father’s old, rundown Mehran. We then drove to Shazia’s house and then to Amina’s to pick them up. The plan went perfectly and no one suspected anything, at least till then.
We all had big smiles on our faces and were looking forward to the cold waves and the liquid murmur of the sea, simultaneously also leaving behind some of our worries for the time being. Where I was present at that time felt real to me in that moment. I had that ominous feeling as if this might be the last time I would be seeing Amina alive. It felt like I was suffocating, as if someone was strangling me. That made me think whether Amina felt this way too. How could I feel worse about losing someone when that person themself know that they are going to die. Maybe for Amina, death was like freedom but then again doesn’t it sound great to all of us when we are given the idea of escaping our problems. Well death is just another synonym for that.
It took us quite a long time to reach the beach and it was almost four in the morning by the time we reached our destination. The moment we stepped out of the car and felt the sea breeze, it felt as if something new, something more divine awaited us. Our hair flailed like flags in the cool breeze as we ran to the sea, leaving our footsteps in the sand just the way time leaves its scars on our hearts. Rabia stood beside the car on the road as Amina, Shazia and I merged with the sea.
The endless waves and the cold water were two conflicting forces. The saline water felt painful to our scarred souls like salt on an open wound but its coldness was numbing to the point where we became indifferent to the pain and it felt more like medicine to our injuries. We all started laughing and weeping simultaneously for no apparent reason, either it was the felicity or the agony but it just felt right in that moment. Shazia and I took a few steps back in the sand to give Amina her space since this was her moment. The moment that she had been waiting for, for a long and painful time.
I saw Amina as she stood there on the shoreline that divided the two voids of land and water, on the bank of golden streams from the rising sun as she spilled her secrets out to the boundless sea. Even though she stood conflicting between the two contrasting voids the similarity lay in the fact that she herself was in between the two realms of life and death. Standing there she felt as if she had a bond with her long lost sister, as if she was standing right beside her, glaring at the rising run and the crimson sky. Even though Amina had thought of killing herself before her cancer got its chance, standing there she apprehended that she could die anytime. Thus why rush in the case of death? Why not stay and wait for the next wave of change.
As we stood there, we could see the field of blue and the eternal war of sea and shore but we could only see the surface, what lay inside the unfathomable depth was one of the greatest mysteries of life. But then again finding our own potential is similar to the afore mentioned theory, it is like looking for the pearl in the forbidding dark and cold of the ocean. But then this was what made everything clear to me. Zahirah in Arabic means, ‘luminous’. So in conclusion, Amina was looking for Zahirah. She was the dark ocean looking for the luminous pearl.
How great it is to once in a while feel like a part of nature and not just merely exist in time and space but to surpass time and space and be a part of something bigger, something more divine. However, if our story ended after a reunion like that, then no story in this world would be worth telling.