Series 7: Dada Baba and me Part 4 ‘A conversation with death’
Salima left, and took my sanity with her. I hate to admit it but for someone as arrogant as I am, my world turned upside down after an ordinary girl left it. Or so it seemed. I had never seen the side of her that I saw that day. I did not blame her though.
A series of unfortunate, unforeseen circumstances had led to that moment. My weakest moment, perhaps. My drug addiction. My love confession. Everything might have hit her like a freight train. I don’t know how she felt because I never got the chance to ask her. The cool breeze that she was had stormed out amid a thunderous outpour of emotions. I did not blame her though. The thing is, she gave me hope, and hope is dangerous. I was a hopeless person and a hopeless person cannot be destroyed. That hope, however, destroyed me completely. Again, I did not blame her. I was both the culprit and the victim of my own actions.
I, for one, never had my conversations planned. Even though I used sparingly, the truth to which I reluctantly but blatantly admitted to was that I was a druggie. A drug-addict who was in love. I am not sure if it was love or mere infatuation, but my feelings were strong and I wasn’t sure how to channel them. I was willing to take her hand and be responsible for her. For her life, her happiness and everything in between. That is what my heart wanted, but I was unsure of what my mind desired. I mean, my naivety still boggles me. How could I have been responsible for someone else’s life when I was incapable of managing my own? Needless to say, Salima’s exit from my life was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I resorted to a life of self-inflicted pain. Only this pain, I enjoyed thoroughly.
For the first few months, I did all kinds of drugs. Apart from becoming a chain smoker, my interests in recreational drug usage forced me to look around for options. I wasn’t necessarily inclined towards taking them because I needed to. But as soon as I was alone, my mind began to wander off into the past and then onto the future. I was horrified at my previous antics and my uncertain future, and felt like I needed to get away from that feeling somehow.
Dada Baba’s words reverberated in my ears,
“If you live in the past, you are depressed. If you live in the future, you are afraid. Only in the present can we find happiness.”
However, living in the present wasn’t as much of a difficult task. Surviving it was. I was unsure of how doing that was possible.
“Protect yourself, beta,” he had said.
I wish I knew how to.
I began using marijuana and hashish. It was more of a trial than a drive that made me use them. The guys I was hanging out with and forcefully sharing my life with introduced me to them. The experience was strange but fulfilling. In the short term, at least. The guys told me they worked best when you felt low. They were right. It was great. I felt clear. I felt happy. I felt strong. I had no regrets in life anymore. For a little while I felt like this was the way forward. All the lies, regrets, sorrows were put to the side and I just felt happy.
But it was all short lived.
After a few months of using, I grew sick of it. I felt sick physically as well. I became slow, my appetite was off the roof and I was either eating or sleeping all the time. I always felt bloated and began coughing profusely like a man possessed. My mouth became dry and I was a mess. But I didn’t care obviously. It was still better than the escalation of regrets that had permanently camped inside my head. It was still better than losing my mind. I needed the distractions. But I needed something else. Something stronger. Something wilder. Something better.
My search for serene wilderness allowed me to stumble into the world of acid (LSD). It was a magical discovery. Normally, people do not get addicted to acid. But then again, nothing about me was normal. I started it to learn more about myself. I had money to burn. I had no responsibilities. I had the ability. And now, I had the opportunity. Everything was set up for me to make that jump. The future, however certain it may seem, is always unknown. So I made the jump. I’m not sure if I am proud of it, but I am glad I made that leap.
Drugs are often seen as a form of escapism. Truth be told, I wanted to shut down everything around me for a while. Acid, however, allowed me to feel the complete opposite. It sharpened my senses and heightened what I was aware of in my own mind. Instead of allowing me to let go of those thoughts, it let me explore the way those thoughts formed in the first place. It took who I was, what I was, what I knew, and everything in between and thrusted it right onto my face.
I could not look away, not because I didn’t want to but because I just couldn’t. There were times of consciously induced, excruciating emotional and physical pain that I had never before experienced. But I kept going. Bit by bit, the dosage increased. Along with it the near-divine experiences increased as well. Applying words to what I experienced would be terribly misleading. There were instances of extreme pain, extreme fear, extreme sorrow, and extreme happiness. Every day felt different. Every day was an extreme. There were times when I stopped using for a few days straight. But I went back to that augmented reality. I just could not look away.
Years passed. Time moved slowly. As it moved, I stopped viewing myself as a being separate from the world around me. Sensations became interesting experiences but they were void of any motivation. I achieved partial nirvana. I had entered a permanent state of absolute peace and satisfaction. I stopped wanting anything at all. I barely got out of bed. Barely ate. I was living off rapidly depleting savings. I stayed in bed, wrote poems that made no sense, drew paintings that had no meanings. Why should I have done anything at all anyway? I was not happy. I was not sad. I simply existed – free of desire, free of feeling my needs, free of the fear of death. Or so it seemed.
I knew what I was looking at when I was using. Death. The times I stopped using for days at large, I felt the fear of death creep under my skin. I had trouble differentiating between what was real and what wasn’t. I experienced the sound of trains whistling and moving on tracks. I heard sounds of running men, their screams, the clicking of guns, the noise of gunshots, the smell of gun powder, and felt like everyone around me was being killed for fun. I thought I was being ruthlessly murdered, bullets being fired onto my chest, the warmth of fresh blood oozing out of open wounds, slowly covering my cold body. For days, I was too afraid to go and visit Dada Baba at the graveyard. I feared I would stumble upon a tombstone that had my name on it.
I wasn’t terribly worried about my condition. What could a man fear when he has stood face to face with death and calmly walked past it? I wanted to continue down this path but also wanted to close the doors and return to the ‘real’ world where the alive lived. I was inclined towards re-joining it. It was as if I had sat down with death, had a silent conversation with it, and realised that the two of us did not get along too well. I felt like I wanted something or someone to push me off a cliff so that I could fall and be born again. And just as surprisingly as she left my life, Salima came back one day and found me asleep in my bed. For the final push? Or to keep me from jumping? Gladly, she did both.
November 7, 1985, was the date. The doors of the house were open, like always. She called out my name and like a jolt of refreshing lightening, I stood up. I could not believe how beautiful she looked in that moment. She had her hair made up just the way I loved it. Small braids around the sides of her head. She wore pearl earrings too. It was a magical moment. An intense fight between my heart and my mind ensued, where my heart forced my mind to believe she was real and not an altered image created by my devious mind.
“What in the world have you done to yourself?” She said.
She seemed worried. I don’t blame her. I was a mess. But at least I knew she was real. My body strained. Every muscle in my body felt like it was being restrained with heavy bands. Without giving me a chance to say anything, she began speaking like a freshly unchained beast breaking free from its master’s prolonged captivity.
“I had been wanting to come and apologise to you. Everything that happened all those years ago, everything that you said, everything you confessed to…”
She inhaled deeply, then continued,
“It was all so overwhelming. It was tough for me to digest. You opened up to me so freely, so eloquently, and just expected me to hop on the train of your confessions and merrily move along with you.”
Her voice broke a little.
“All your life, you’ve been treated like a king. You expected the same when you opened your heart out to me. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I was blindsided. Completely.”
I shifted in my bed. The sheets were still draped around me.
“I figured that the least you deserved was a chance to explain your actions. I had been contemplating if I should come and see you. I wanted to, obviously. But I wasn’t able to. My father kept insisting that I come and check on you, but I couldn’t force myself, even if I wanted to.”
I felt my muscles loosen up a little. She looked at me with inquisitive eyes and there was a prolonged silence in the room. I inhaled deeply and told her everything I had gone through over the past few years. I spoke after ages. How could I not? This is what I had been missing. I spoke. I let out everything that I had in me. And she listened, intently like always. Her cheeks periodically moistened with tears, which she occasionally cleaned with her palms. She was breaking with every confession, with the thought of every ounce of drug that I forcefully injected into my body.
I think she might have felt mortified. Maybe she blamed herself a little for my deteriorated health and wellbeing. I wasn’t sure, so I continued speaking. I spoke of my regrets, sorrows, craving for love, failed attempts at leaving this kind of life, the void in my life that I had hoped she would fill. Everything.
She inhaled deeply, exhaled easily, and then began speaking.
“I think you should make a sweeping resolution to drastically change your lifestyle and begin to do positive things that you may never have thought of doing before. Discover yourself. Set out to discover new things. Trust me, there is no greater bliss than to have a boundlessly changing horizon. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for short-term pleasures. For the first time in your life, live for others. Be kind to people. There’s a special beauty in being of help to people. Be adventurous. Be free.”
Her tone was more positive than her eyes showed.
“But I fear that you will ignore my advice. I remember during our school fieldtrips to historical sites in Lahore, you used to dash home instead of enjoying the serenity around you. I fear you will follow the same inclination in the future and fail to discover the true beauty of the world. My point is, move around. Be nomadic. Be independent. Be adventurous. Despite what you’ve done to yourself, you are still going to live a long time. It would be shameful if you did not take the opportunity to reorganise your life and move into new realms of experiences.”
She wiped her eyes and began talking again.
“You are wrong to believe that happiness only stems from human relationships. It comes from everything around us. You need to find it in yourself to search for the light at the end of every tunnel. You do not need me to bring this light in your life. It is waiting for you to grasp it. You must reach for it. The only person who is stopping you from doing all of this is yourself. Step out. Be free. Learn to find solace in solitude.”
With this, she forced me to stop feeling sorry for myself and for my actions. She stopped me from thinking momentarily. There was something about her. Only she could make me feel this way. She extended her hand and with tears still dancing in her eyes she smiled and said,
“Do you want to shake hands?”
I looked at her, held her hand and broke down. I cried like a helpless infant. I wailed and wept. I don’t know how long this might have gone on, but I just held her hand and cried. I had to make a promise with her to turn my life around. With or without her. But I made it clear to her that I never wanted to not know her. She completed me, but I couldn’t say the same about my importance in her life.
I gave up my life of drugs and self-abuse as nonchalantly as I had begun it. I organised my life and moved on. Or at least began to. I needed to move on and explore the beauty around me. It took about another 10 or 11 months for me to return to where I had been when I started doing LSD. I walked around and tried to really see the world. I developed a knack for photography. So I decided to set off, travel, and preserve my memories.
My beginnings as a photographer began from a journey out on the highway which revolved around quick stops between small towns and big cities. I chatted with the old man sitting next to me and hopped off the bus to continue my wanderer life. Into the wilderness of my country I went, taking pictures, making friends, sharing laughter.
I loved the new life. My life had a purpose, a meaning. I looked forward to going back home from these excursions but only to develop my pictures so I could show them to Salima. I was taking giant strides towards becoming a better member of the society. People loved me. I loved myself. Things had finally begun looking up for me.
Life, however, had other plans for me. Reality, my arch nemesis, continued to ruin my life.
November 7, 1990. A day after I returned from one of my trips to Chipursan in Hunza, I ran a temperature. It was nothing serious and I waited for it to subside. But it didn’t. After a week of feeling this way, I got worried. I called Salima and weakly explained things to her. She said she was on her way but I don’t remember when she came. I just remember feeling a cold, metal stretcher touching my scorching back skin while a groan inadvertently escaped my dry mouth. Amid distant wailing of ambulance sirens, I was taken to the hospital.
After an unknown amount of time on heavy sedation, I was woken but still in a daze. I was alone in the hospital room as a nurse pricked my arm with a needle. A narrow stream of blood trickled down and onto the pearl white sheet under me. She smiled at me nervously, cleaned the wound quickly and left the room. A team of doctors soon came and began asking an array of questions that I had no answers to. They too left irritated. A few days may have passed and I was beginning to get back to my senses, but only a little. Doctors and nurses came in and went out, but no attendants came in. I saw Salima once or twice, but I wasn’t sure if she had been there with me. How could she not have been? She had always been present for me. And maybe she was. I needed her then, but again I felt completely alone. A pretty, young doctor came in and smiled at me. Her lips were smiling, but her gaze was steely.
“How are you feeling now?” she inquired.
I couldn’t respond. I was too weak.
“Unfortunately, sir, we have some bad news for you. Over the course of the last week, we’ve been running all kinds of tests on you. The final reports have just come in, and I’m sorry to tell you, but…”
She adjusted her stethoscope on her shoulder,
“It’s blood cancer. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Fourth stage.”
A tear escaped my eye and subtly settled on my eyelashes as I remembered it was the same cancer that took Dada Baba away from me.
“We’re starting with our first round of chemotherapy immediately, and God willing, you’ll start feeling better in no time!”
The doctor seemed more positive than I had ever been in my entire life. It explained why she had such a steely glare.
And here I am now, two days later, being injected with poison again. This poison, however, is being put into my body not because I want to run away from my life, but because I want to stay in it. As another round of chemotherapy peacefully destroys my immune system, my mouth feels dry. I’d like to think I’m dead already, but when exactly has life been that easy for me?
What I do know is that for the first time in my life, I’m dying. That is not the thing that hurts me though. I am the culprit and victim of my own actions. I brought this upon myself. Hopefully though, the pain and the misery will end soon. I have had enough of this life. I know how my life has been and it’s comforting to know that I am finally looking at it from my deathbed.
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