Back when I was a kid, I used to haunt my neighbor’s bookstore. That’s probably the best kind of neighbor a kid could ask for, growing up. His house was a treasure trove- comics, novels, magazines, some stuff that wasnt entirely age appropriate, some completely inappropriate.. and a fellow partner in crime, a girl a few years older than me. It wasn’t enough that the both of us spent every moment not in school or doing homework, together. We’d prowl around in her dad’s store/library, reading books carefully without bending their spines, putting them back, and moving on. We were fixtures there. That’s where I met Prophet.
Prophet was a big guy. In my recollections he seems even bigger than his sizeable 6′ 6″- when you’re a kid, everyone does seem a lot bigger. But the scraggly beard and trademark flannels that would be intimidating on someone else, just served to soften him even more. His real name was Sam, but hardly anyone called him that. The name ‘Prophet’, I found out later, was a college tag that had followed him for his whole life because of his invincibility. He had been in not one, but four near fatal accidents. Two on the road, and two at the construction site where he moonlighted. Not that he was particularly clumsy, he wasn’t at all, really. Just had really bad luck. The last accident, which had totalled his car and one that hit him, killed the other guy on the spot. Prophet had crawled out and dragged himself across the wreckage, which is where the EMT found him when they came. He lived, but the last one had taken his back. He would walk with a peculiar shuffling gait for the rest of his life. When he got to know us better and realized that we weren’t a pair of squealing, squeamish teen girls, he showed us the scars around his calves, too. His calves were nothing but scars.
That, and his odd knack for telling people the right thing to do, had earned him the nickname ‘Prophet’. He was a big teddy bear of a guy, all seriousness and wry jokes around the adults, and an infinite amount of patience for two girls who asked him an endless stream of questions about anything and everything, all the while devouring every book in their reach. Technically, we weren’t the same age. I was eleven, and my best friend was fifteen. That didn’t matter as much as it seems it would, we had exactly the same interests anyway. And Prophet was so familiar a face that her dad would often leave him to manage the register and keep an eye on light fingered customers, if he fancied a chat with someone, or took a break and went off fr lunch. The only times we couldn’t badger him would be when my neighbor’s son stopped by, all grown up at seventeen and having man-to-man conversations about girls and what not- Prophet didn’t care, he treated us all the same anyway, but a couple of kiddie tag alongs aren’t good for a newly cool guy’s image, so my friend’s brother would turf us to the back.
Looking back, I can’t pinpoint what moment was so significant in the impact that he had on us. Or maybe there’s so many of them that I can’t think of one that stands out. What I do know for sure is that he was one of the most important formative influences in my young adult life – some of the lessons of which I’ve carried well into my adult life. Whether it’s his penchant for smoking Reds (which I frowned upon back then), the fact that he drank coffee black as Lillith’s heart (which I would gag on back then, but drink multiple times a day now), or that staple uniform of flannels, which I still associate with safer times, happier times. Or the fact that I learned as much about the real world from him, as I did about the world inside my head from the books around us. About honor, about courage, about morals… never in so many words, often as stories or recollections. About loyalty, about love- the value of both, and the pain of both when broken. His wife left him during a particularly rough patch with his disability, and he never really moved on. While me and my friend used the forbidden words for her when alone -the bitch- he didn’t even need to move on. He loved her, and that was enough for him. Just like he dealt with pain- every. single. day. But it was just pain, and he was master of it. We’d know on days when it was really bad, but the man never complained, never made an issue of it. He was fine, it was fine, everything was fine.
Kindness. Patience. A sense of humor that led him to tolerate out nonsense, and on whimsical days, even contribute to it. Like finding me a solid window frame from God knows where for the rickety shed I built on my roof. Other kids had treehouses. I had a room made by own two hands. I probably wouldn’t anyone’s kid come within four feet of such a dilapidated construction today, but back then it was a fortress. It would be baking hot in the sun, but I’d be up on the roof, away from the shouting that would filter through from the house, and I had a fucking window. Not even the boys had fucking windows.
Things changed eventually, though. He didn’t tire of our questions, or of the fact that his adolescent fan club had whittled down to one. My friend finally discovered guys when he hit sixteen, and boys finally separated us in a way five years never had before. While she fought the make up fight, I was still struggling along with my usual, now working through a pile of my grandfather’s books that had been shipped in from Moscow. And while I pestered Prophet with incredulous questions about Marxism and the World Wars – I always asked him. I doubt my father can even spell ‘Marx’ without asking me which exam I’m asking for – while this fabric of the bookstore bunch frayed, things were changing in his life too. His father passed away, when I was thirteen, and suddenly he was faced with the responsibility of having to care for his mum. I think he was thirty eight at the time, or thirty nine. But he was gone for a month, and then when he came back, he came back only to wind everything up from here and move away permanently. I barely spoke to him for five minutes, while dad watched suspiciously from the window as a guy a good head taller than him stood on the doorstep, handed me a box of his old comics, and told me I’d always been a good girl, and a good friend to him. And that if he was a prophet in any way at all, I’d be in his prayers. None of which made much sense to dad, but it was one the first real partings for me. I was old enough to know, and to understand. We probably wouldn’t see each other again.
This was well before facebook and social media. I never even got his last name, any way. I like to think that he did move on eventually, and had kids of his own to be a great father to, instead of just to a lost kid like me, and some others. One of the first things I ever wrote was in the diary that he gave me, and that my father later read, triggering one of the worst periods of my life- but that’s a story for another day. I wonder if he’s even read my work somewhere, anywhere. Would he know that the girl he gave a window to, shared his poisonous coffee with, has grown old enough to smoke her own Reds now, write articulately enough to miss him on the Internet, and have an obsession with Orthopedics? I do hope he knows. I also hope he knows he taught me how even seemingly indestructible people can be secretly vulnerable. How pain is just another beast to tame. And how a little sincere attention given to a growing, shaping mind, can shape an entire person. Now I’m trying to be that person for a friend’s younger sister, who’s recently begun to write poetry- quite seriously for a fifteen year old, and none of that Insta-crap either. And as I write back to her about how her sonnets work, and how punctuation fits in, I know Prophet would’ve been happy at least with some of the ways I turned out.
Fluctuat nec mergitur
I think I made it.
My uncle was a vile man. My dad’s elder brother, he did what I would otherwise deem impossible- surpass my father in being a beast. It’s heart breaking, and disgusting, and staggering all at the same time, how these things come full circle.
My uncle was always the black sheep of my dad’s family, literally. He was darker than his siblings, and a trouble maker in his childhood. But being a trouble maker has entirely different connotations when you have a harsh and unforgiving father, like my grandfather was. He was punished mercilessly, and he rebelled repeatedly, and the hate on both sides hardened, till one day when my grandfather threw his teenaged son, my uncle, out of the house. Then, when he tried to sneak back in late at night, he had him arrested.
My uncle never came ‘back’ again. Stories of his exploits and people he exploited would reach home, occasionally. Sometimes the conned would show up at my house, where my dad would roar and bellow at them and tell them it was their fault they got gypped. Somewhere in the middle my uncle married a girl who came from nowhere anyone knew, and a baby followed soon after. No one knew which came first, the baby or the wedding, but no one cared except to gossip viciously a little more. The woman, who I never got to call my aunt, was happy, loud, jolly- at least, that’s what I can see in old home videos and old wedding reels. A few more kids followed till there were five, but things had started going downhill long before they got to the fifth.
My uncle’s penchant for cruelty, for example. Probably other people have trouble grasping how he could have even done it, but I’ve seen my dad, and I know, these brothers and sisters are capable of things the sane human mind cannot think of inflicting on other human beings. After a few years of ill-gotten business gains and a spurt of prosperity, the scam dwindled and my uncle hit the bottle. And when he hit the bottle, he hit his wife. Repeatedly. Every weekend, then every night. The woman stopped laughing, the children stopped smiling, and by the time I was old enough to talk, she had already subsided into a sullen silence. My uncle, as it turns out, hit her so many times over the head that she went insane. He beat his wife into insanity. She’s still alive, if you can truly call it that. A gibbering, drooling mess who talks to walls and chews her own fingers when active, or simply sits there rocking herself, when passive.
Soon after that her oldest daughter took over the role of house mother. Managed the cooking and cleaning, kept the house together so that the younger ones could go to school.My uncle vanished chasing a more dubious scheme, and in his absence, my father and his siblings funded their house. The younger siblings studied and worked, under their oldest sister’s eye. I met them maybe once or twice a year, whenever we came here, and had that odd dynamic of people who are related by blood but don;t even know each other. We grew up, and I think we were in high school, when my uncle came back. Very soon after that my oldest cousin went down exactly the same route her mother had. She isnt as passive as my aunt, she walks around more, but she’s a blank slate too. Blank eyes, hair that went white before she turned twenty, and a masklike, absent face. Her siblings left the house soon after, shipped to boarding schools by my father.
Things had been looking up for them in the last few years. My uncle had a couple of cripling heart attacks that should’ve killed him, but just slowed him down enough to be human, like the rest of us. They broke his ‘power’, though, and he stopped barrelling through everyone’s lives. One sister is a professor of microbiology, one brother married a woman older than him but became a architect and settled down with her. The third brother works as an accountant, and the youngest sister, my youngest cousin, just finished writing her exams for her Bachelors in Applied Genetics.
She died this morning.
Two girls on their way home, crushed on their bike by a swerving bus. The bus driver ran over them, got out and actually tried to run away. People around them caught him and thrashed him to within an inch of his life, and called the cops and EMS. Both died on the spot, resuscitation didn’t work, and that was that.
We buried her in our family’s plot in the graveyard, close to my grandmother, a few uncles, a few aunts, most of whom I have no recollection of. After they released her body to my father, we ‘women’ took over the process of preparing the body for burial. Muslim women are not touched by men, after death. The body is washed by women who are clean, preferably related to her. She is washed, cleaned, clothed, her hair parted and braided, and the body wrapped gently in five pieces of cloth. Everyone who has come to say goodbye does so, after this, and then she is bid farewell. Every Muslim woman is advised to help bathe at least two other Muslim women in her life, so as to know closely, what death looks like, what it does to us. Muslim men are advised the same. Every person who goes to say goodbye is to contemplate their own death, to face the inevitability of death, and realize the blessing that is life.
And I stood there, helping bathe this girl who I knew but didn’t know, thinking of the last time we’d met, two months ago at a wedding, when she was showing me how long and healthy her hair had gotten. And I washed that hair today, it had grown even longer- but she had grown lifeless. And I was marveling at the odds that her one fully capable sister had gone out of the city, and couldn’t be contacted. The other, poor thing, didn’t even understand when we tried to tell her. My other aunt’s daughter was out of the city, and me, the only ‘sister’ left, was by some miracle, clean enough to help her one last time. And that doesn’t sound like a lot, I know, but here’s the thing- Today was a drinking day. I had no plans of doing anything but drink myself into oblivion, which would’ve automatically made me unclean. But I literally walked to the bar’s door and away, because I didn’t feel like, at the last minute. Instead, I went home early and showered, and was clean enough to pray, when I got the news.
And we washed her, we bathed her, and I glared daggers and wished a long and poisonous death on all the women who stood idly gossiping near her body. Couldn’t they see my sister? The sister I never saw, the sister who never really saw me, but the sister who I watched like a hawk over till it was time to bury her… And I realized by the pain, the pain I felt when I saw her unlined face, so peaceful in death, the pain I felt that she would never know the exhilaration of moving away from the madnesses that we grew up in. She would never feel love, she would never have children, she would never live- she’d never comb her hair out and watch our other cousins look on jealously. Everything that is Life dies. Everyone who is alive, dies. And in death we know the fierce protectiveness, the love, the visceral, undeniable, bone deep relations we choose to deny in life. And that realization wakes us up for what comes after. We never laughed together. We never bled for each other.
But blood was always thicker than water.
For Husnah, our beloved
I wish I had had more time to love you
Do you hear him?
I called his name
Not in fear, rather
Like a friend, as a lover would
Just beyond my sight
In the shadows
But he never came
I wasn’t upset, but
It was confusing
He was there
He knew I was waiting
And he’s aware
Patience is not one of my virtues
But decidedly uncommunicative,
He only left me reason to
It wasn’t yet time
To accept the Reaper’s reprieve
I’d gotten so distracted
By the thought of dying
I’d forgotten all the living
I had to pull through
Enigmas and conflict and
He would come
He was there
He would come, as promised
Just after I’d done everything
I had to do
Is anyone ever really ready for Death?
What about the people who wait for him?
Do they fare better?
You know how there’s this standard sort of scene, in tv shows and movies, where the protagonist- and otherwise happy go lucky sort of girl or boy, sitting day dreaming in class- gets pulled out by the Principle or the police to inform them that there father was killed in an accident. Or found dead. Or, I don’t know, killed himself. Jumped off a bridge or lay on the tracks, something of that sort. That kid.
I always wanted to be that kid.
And my day dreams would often extend into how people would find my reaction bizarre, because I wasn’t going to crumple onto the floor, my world ripped apart by tragedy. Heck no. I’d probably give two warrior whoops and strip naked and do the conga in the school hall. Okay, maybe not strip naked, but I’d definitely do the conga. Nothing’s as celebratory as the boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-POP!
But obviously, that’s unreal. It’s the kind of daydream that’s on par with winning the Lotto or stumbling across a hidden treasure while drunkenly crab walking on the beach. Not at all plausible. So I switched to dreaming about me dying instead. Not by hand, mind you. I was too young to even understand the concept of suicide. It was just a scary thing that condemned you to the deepest pits of Hell instantly. Ohhh no, no, no. Even at eleven I was a smartypants. Something convenient and relatively painless, like a car hitting me or an earthquake or a heart attack while I slept- something that would do the job, end my misery, and Hello! Pearly gates! There was always the possibility that one day dad would just kill us all, but I didn’t want to give him that satisfaction.
All that childish (and adolescent, and early twenties) day dreaming aside, nothing prepared me for my sister suddenly coming out of her reverie while watching tv earlier today, and going, “I always wanted to be that girl. The one whose father dies.” And she proceeded to describe how she thought people would think she’s lost it, because of the trauma, because she’d definitely start laughing. And, well. Pretty much the same things I grew up wishing for.
It’s simultaneously horribly painful to hear your sister talk about her death so nonchalantly, and kind of darkly funny too. I mean, it’s almost the exact same words I used, that I used to think. Death just seems like the easiest way out.
To what end, neither of us know. No one does. But a way out.
It’s just that it took me a while to realize that.. Dying is inevitable. Living is painful and dying is inevitable. We might as well make the most of what we’ve been given. It’s not like I’ve learnt all the lessons… but definitely some. Love. Patience. Short but important (unimaginably important) bursts of feeling complete. Hope. Fulfillment. Pain. More patience. And more Love. I hope she learns more of them than I do. And I kinda hope I’m around to see her after she’s learned them.
Because, you know. I’m not waiting for Death, but he just might decide to drop by.
Love and light to you all
Ending It All.. And Starting Over
I feel like I have reached a crossroads.
Of late, I’ve had a feeling that has been intensifying. Maybe it’s dissatisfaction, maybe it’s a thoughtless worry. Maybe, a little of both. Most of all though, I’ve reached a level of happiness that allows me to sit back and examine my life.
I have very few reasons to be happy. Extremely few. Even among those reasons, people number fewer. And the reasons to not be happy, outnumber the former many, many times over. But it’s testament to the potency of quality over quantity, that I still find myself… Happy.
This attainment does not qualify me for any measure of stasis, though. Au contraire, it pushes me more than ever before. A restlessness, seeking betterment, seeking more. It’s the headiness of a bird who has just learnt to fly, who knows that he is flying, and never wants to walk on the ground again. Much of the same, I want to spread my wings wider, grow, encompass more than ever before… Happiness has brought me change.
The smallest of changes stand illuminated in my mind. Holding a conversation with pretty girls and not remembering feeling inadequate at any point, in the conversation. Not coming away feeling like a troll, or worse, a troglodyte. Not feeling lesser than anyone. It feels like I grew an inch taller, just there.
Being looked up to. Being helped. Realizing the sheer amount of love I have, from people who tell me, and people who don’t. Realizing I have people who want to show me the way, even when I’m being a little obstinate and keeping my eyes closed (’cause I can be a pretty stubborn jack@$$ sometimes, I know). And being led to understanding- how strong, how effing bleeding strong I am. That’s a big one.
Recently, I had a meltdown of unprecedented proportions. There was no air in my lungs, and I wanted none. I have no words for that day, for that moment, except that I knew permanent damage had been inflicted. And yet one day later, I was smiling despite it. Another day, and I knew I was going to live after all.
I’m going to pin this write up here, for myself as much as anyone who needs a reminder of how strong they are.
You got through everything before this. You will get through this. There have been hours and days of misery, but you found a reason to smile eventually. You will smile again. You will laugh again. You will know happiness, despite whatever pitfalls come your way- and they will. Life is nothing but setting up for one stumble after the other. It’s the elation of catching yourself, and realizing that you’re still standing, that makes life worth living. Worth going on. You, are worth going on for. You have gotten through everything before this. And you will, you will get through this.
I feel like I’ve reached a crossroads. I didn’t even notice, I was walking blindly and the road ended. What’s up ahead? I have no clue. I might dye my hair blue. Start playing the banjo. Specialize in gastroenterology. Might go vegan (yeah okay, not that, I love chicken too much). Whatever it is, happiness and depression will still be part of the journey, as much as the earth and the sky are.
I’m still going to keep walking.
Thank you, for walking with me. You know who you are. ❤
Happiness, as a state of mind, or a state we exist in, is in itself a very fair weather friend. You can only find happiness when everything’s going fine. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, tra la la la la la la, everything’s perfect. So, you’re happy.
But what when it’s not all so peachy? What about when every minute of the day drags you down a little more, and your head aches and your feet ache, those days when your very mind hurts from thinking… What defines ‘happy’ then?
It’s quite simple, really. Happiness is… friends. Friends you can fall back on, friends you know will make you smile even in that moment where you’re walking through absolute and utter despair. Friends who worry, friends who care. Who put themselves in the background so that they can be there. Friends who understand, and even when they don’t understand, love and support you, no matter what. No matter what.
Whether we’re talking politics or movies or colors, whether we’re making sense (which is rare) or being completely insane and bizarre (which is more common). Whether they send me smiles from across the table, across the city, or across the globe. Friends who make your world a world just by being in it. Keeping you in that safe bubble of implicit understanding and love, keeping you smiling even those evil days so much so that even a stubbed toe won’t hurt as much, cause there’s people to kiss that iddle widdle boo away, and inundate the guilty table/chair/random hard surface in the choicest swear words. And some days, do the same to people who stub your toes too.
Conversely, friends you’d flip your life inside out for. Friends you’d get up for before any hours of sanity, and friends you stay awake with till it’s closer to morning than night. Doing everything and nothing at all, it’s all equally gratifying, equally satisfying. You come away smiling whether you spent the day howling in laughter or just simply staring out into the distance, in a quiet, amiable silence.
Happiness is …. friends you’re friends with, no matter what.
Friends like the ones I’m lucky enough to have.
Happiness to you too,
The Unwilling Warriors
This is not the life I’d choose
This perpetual fight to live,
But i have naught left to lose
So I have it all to give
Frozen stiff and drained of life
Still alive, and still I stand
Hardened and brittle, deprived
Of a six foot length of land,
Destined to gather the pieces
With no more than moment’s breath,
Hands on knees, struggle for air
Fight life all the way to death.
Bind the breaks and mind the bruises,
Tousled, sore, weary to bone
Reassure and grasp a hand
Know that you are not alone
Ask the way into the turns, and
Cut your way through the meadows
Or else simply hold his finger
And find your one path to follow
This is not the life I’d choose
This perpetual fight to live,
But i have naught left to lose
So I have it all to give
Pain is real, so is death, and
They don’t get up, ones that fall,
By choice or not, battles rage on
Unwilling warriors all.
Venom and adrenaline may
Burn you and they galvanize
But crisscrossed in webs of scars
See the world with stronger eyes.
Keep pushing, yes, keep pushing on,
There are many years to go yet
For the horizon to grow dim,
For these conflicts to abate
Unwilling, unwanting soldiers
Storming through challenges, see
Every step and every ploy is
Shot through with insanity
Every thorn and every cut is
Part of growing, lesson learned
And unwilling warriors, we
Stagger through the life we earn.
This is not the life I’d choose
This perpetual fight to live,
But i have naught left to lose
So I have it all to give..