Series 7: Dada Baba and me Part 3 ‘The downward spiral’

Published: February 12, 2017
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I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much as I cried seeing the attendees put roses on his grave, one by one. PHOTO: FLICKER/Explorer Tresspasser

Dada Baba’s funeral was carried out with immense honour and respect. I still do not remember clearly who did all the arrangements, where the money came from, who did what and why. All I was aware of was the fact that, for the first time in my life, I was alone.

The only person whose life and presence I took for granted, the person of immense grit and strength, my father, my best friend, my mentor, and practically speaking ‘my entire life’ had left me alone. In between a large gathering of black suits, white shalwar kameez, flowing tears, distant whispers, heavy hearts, and sympathetic pats on shoulders, I was left alone.

Putting Dada Baba into his final resting place was a terribly daunting experience. How I even got the courage and strength to put him six feet under ground, covered in tons of mud and dirt, with my own two hands is still beyond me. Only a day ago I was clutching his hand with the same hands I was burying him with. It was terrible. I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much as I cried seeing the attendees put roses on his grave, one by one. The guilt, the terror, the reality were all silently setting in.

As I came back home that day from the graveyard his last words reverberated in my ears,

“Protect yourself, beta.”

Even in his weakest moment, the man was resilient. He was defiant. He taught me more lessons in the few days of his battle with cancer than many take lifetimes to teach. Hundreds of grieving people were present at my house that day, all of whom were Dada Baba’s office colleagues, lawyers, people who he interacted with daily, routinely. Everyone knew Dada Baba. Dada Baba knew everyone. I knew no one. I was alone. For the first time in my life, the fear of solitude, of being alone, shook every bone in my body. I felt stranded. Dejected, even. I was in the spotlight, and everything around me was pitch black.

I saw Salima and her father greeting and meeting those people. I felt distant with them even. It was a strange feeling of terror and sorrow and I knew nothing about how I will live. I knew nothing about the finances. About the practicalities. About life in general. Soon, every guest had left. One by one. And then there was silence again.

I remember how I slowly walked down to his room that day. Everything was still the same. His large wooden workstation and his leather chair silently stood in one corner. His clothes and his shoes in the other corner. The room still smelt like him too. Everything was still the same. Everything was there. Everything except Dada Baba. I quietly sat on his bed. Salima and Dr Siraj soon joined me. The eerie silence in the house was deafening. After a few more minutes of silence, Dr Siraj patted my back, and told me to be strong. His voice reached my ears, but my mind failed to decipher his fairly obvious message. I stayed quiet.

“I talked to a few of your grandfather’s lawyer friends,” he said.

“You’re his only heir so you should go see them soon to sign some papers. You know, property, wealth, everything needs to be taken care of immediately.”

Again, I stayed quiet.

“Salima will stay with you for the night, so if you need anything, she will be here for you.”

I looked at Salima and she glanced at me with moist eyes.

“I will come pick you up tomorrow morning and take you to the lawyers before I start my clinic,” he said as he stood up to wear his coat.

“Take care of yourself, beta. And Salima, please take care of everything.”

He patted my shoulder, kissed Salima’s head, and left. Everything was quiet again.

Salima and I sat in silence for a little while before she inquired if I wanted something to eat or drink. I told her that I was more than capable of getting things for myself. She sighed, smiled, and left to get me a bowl of soup nonetheless. Then she began telling me about her memories with Dada Baba.

“You know, when Dada Baba came to pick you up from school, he met me at the gate every day to see how I am and ask about Baba and his work. He used to tell me how much he admires me for being such a brilliant friend to you. I know I am pretty awesome!”

Salima chuckled, albeit a little painfully. I smiled only a little. I knew she was trying to make me smile.

“Do you also know he talked to me about what he thinks of you as a son?”

I looked at her intently, waiting for her to tell me about Dada Baba’s disappointment in me.

“He was always keen to point out that despite what the teachers told him, despite your obvious recklessness, he knew what a great son you were. He always knew what you were doing, what you were thinking, what you liked, who you liked…” She paused slightly and then began to tell me about her pleasurable encounters with him.

“He was a great, great man. All he ever talked to me about was you. How he wanted to see you grow, succeed, win, live.”

Tears began to make her cheeks glisten, and suddenly I did not feel distant to her anymore.

She continued speaking. She spoke about her fondest memories with him. Then she told me about the time we became friends. She recalled the time she took me out of the line after the morning assembly at school because my shirt wasn’t properly tucked in.

“I hated your devil may care attitude! You were so cocky, it made my blood boil! Your naughty smile too was torturous. You had a habit of getting punished in the morning and spending time outside the classroom. You seemed to have a ball whenever you got punished.”

She rolled her eyes as she recalled those times with me. Thinking about those times I smiled. I felt a little lighter too.

“Remember when I realised you purposely left your shirt un-tucked just so I would take you out of line to punish you?”

She gave me the same stern look she gave me that day. I burst out laughing at her innocence. She laughed a little too. I remembered how after a few weeks of the same morning practices, she took me to one side and asked me if I had any problems that I don’t tell anyone about. The careless person that I was, I laughed and made fun of her gullibility.

Despite my uncourteous behaviour, her expressions remained the same. They signalled serious concerns, and I was left to eat my own words. Apart from Dada Baba, it immediately felt like she was the first person to have figured something was wrong with me that I don’t tell people about. The sincerity and honesty in her words that day made me realise that she wasn’t half as gullible as I had first thought she was.

“If you want to, you can talk to me about things you don’t tell anyone about,” she said. I obliged. A lovely friendship ensued that day.

I clearly remember the next day, and every other day after that, my shirt was properly tucked in. I was still reckless and a pain to deal with, but every time we saw each other, we used to smile and nod together. There were days when she saw me and brought over her lunch so we could sit and talk in recess together. Sandwiches, noodles, sometimes even brownies, she brought everything. She shared everything.

According to her, she made everything herself. We used to sit and eat together and she would ask me about Dada Baba, my future, my life in general. Before I met her, I had no idea people usually thought about all those things. She asked questions and I answered. I talked and she listened. For the first time in my life, I felt like talking was necessary. It made me feel lighter. I talked about everything. Dada Baba, my favourite food, how I hated studying. Sometimes when I was low, she listened to me and finished the conversation with a typical Salima remark.

“Do you want to shake hands?” she asked before giggling crazily.

“I’m not hugging you, just by the way.”

We used to laugh at that as we shook hands firmly. She, even at such a young age, had mastered the art of listening and making people feel better. After Dada Baba, she became the most important person in my life.

Once, during my Matric days, she seemed low. Her Intermediate exams were around the corner and she avoided me for a few days. It felt incomplete to not have talked to her about everything. It was at this point that I realised that I needed to exchange roles with her. I told her the same thing she told me.

“If you want to, you can talk to me about things you don’t tell anyone about,” I said with a naughty smile only I was capable of.

She looked at me strangely. She sighed and obliged.

She told me that her mother had long been fighting some form of cancer. She had undergone treatment for years, and every time cancer came back stronger, uglier, and with far more killer intent than the previous time. That time, however, the doctors had lost all hope and had mercilessly asked her family to pray and wait. I remember I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. After knowing her for so long, how had I not known this to be the case? How was I so selfish? That girl, without any hope of reward or reason, had listened to me every day. Why did I not repay her in the same way? I was dumbfounded, gob-smacked, and utterly disappointed in myself.

She spoke at length about how she is the only child and must take care of the house. Her father, being a doctor, was away for his clinic. Her mother had to be taken care of. I then understood why she made her lunch herself. She was resilient, but for the first time in our friendship, had begun showing some dents in her steely resolve. A few days later, her mother passed away.

“Cancer won, logic and sense has lost,” she said when I met her as she strongly stopped her eyes from moistening. Her smooth, steely resolve was again there for everyone to see.

I began falling in love with her then. She wasn’t the prettiest girl you’d meet, but she was definitely, the most beautiful one. She was a beautiful human being from the inside and out. Not everyone loves a broken vase. Some say that’s because it is broken. But only a few are beautiful enough to appreciate the cracks. She was the person who appreciated the cracked vase – me – and tried her best to make sure that it did not fall apart. By listening, and teaching me to love to talk, she made sure that the cracks began to glue back together.

I knew why Dr Siraj had left her to take care of me when Dada Baba passed away. She had been in my position, so she knew how to take care of people who faced the same rough side of life. The next day, I went to the court with Dr Siraj. I signed some papers, and they handed me papers and documents of things I had no idea about. They told me how I can take money out of banks, where the money was, what I owned, and everything in between. For the first time, I had more money in my hands than I had needed. I was free. I had nothing to do.

Every now and again, Salima came and stocked my fridge with food. She asked me about things, about my future plans, about life in general. Again, I talked. Again, she listened. I told her about my regrets. How I was a terrible child to Dada Baba. How I never did what he wanted me to do. How I am a failure. A failed student. A failed friend. A failed son. She used to disagree completely, shrugging it all off as rubbish.

Again, she finished our conversation with the same fervour.

“Do you want to shake hands?” she asked before leaving.

“I’m not hugging you, just by the way.”

We still laughed at this and firmly shook hands. She was my pillar of strength now, and I loved her more than she was aware of. I felt good when she came. I felt alone otherwise.

Every morning, I used to leave home early and walk around the area. I had nothing to do. If I stayed in the house, my body became strained. I missed Dada Baba and I felt like I was going into a regretful, abysmal, depressive state. So, I stayed out. I made ‘friends’ in football grounds. In parks. They introduced me to a world I had no idea about – drugs. They told me they worked best when you feel low. I began to use them. Sparingly, though. I felt like a different person altogether. It was great. I felt clear. I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt strong. I felt like the old me was back. I had no regrets in life anymore.

I hid this from Salima, obviously. But she soon figured out I was becoming rowdy again. Once she came home, intent on finding what I was up to. She inquired and grilled, but I did not budge. She left angrily. No firm handshakes that day. It felt incomplete. It felt strange. Why was I hiding this from her? I had no idea. I did not want to lose her, so I told her about it the next time we met.

Saying that she was shocked would be an understatement.

She was devastated.

The usually calm and composed Salima was crying profusely. I don’t know if it was because of my drug habits or because I hid it from her. Maybe both? I wasn’t sure. In the same conversation, I professed my love to her and that I would love for her to be my partner forever. Again, saying that she was shocked would be an understatement. A whirlwind of emotions engulfed her that day. I was unsure if she was happy, sad, or weird-ed out. But she did not look like my Salima in that moment. I suddenly felt distant from her.

After a few minutes, she was quiet. I was quiet. There was a deafening silence in the house. She silently stood up, cleaned her eyes, and with a straight, authoritative face said, “No!” I looked at her intently and extremely confused. She then said the second most devastating thing I had ever heard.

“Look at yourself! You’re a mess. Just because you have more money in your hands than you desire does not give you the right to do whatever the hell you wish to do! And then you ask me to spend my life with you? A rich, spoilt drug addict? Is that what you want?” She was raging now.

Her face was red with anger and disgust, her eyes moist with distress and pain.

“You can do whatever the hell you want to do with yourself. I was feeling lucky in trying to help you turn your life around. But you do not want to help yourself anymore, and I do not have the courage and strength to help you anymore! From now on, you are on your own! Don’t bother calling me again!”

She stormed out of the house. There was silence again.

The calm after the storm? Maybe.

Once again in my life, I had let the people I loved down. I was a failure. First Dada Baba, and now Salima – they had both left me. I did not get a chance to explain myself. I don’t think I even deserved a chance to explain myself.

As I tried to make sense of my surroundings, I realised that the cracked vase was falling apart again. I had no idea what to do. I had no way of making sense of things. I broke down. I cried profusely. The pain of knowing that I disappointed her, and that I will forever be without my best friend, the person I leaned on, would no longer be present for me, came only second to the pain of Dada Baba’s burial. And I had only myself to blame.

Unless I was divinely intervened, I realised that the only way from thereon would be down. And I was right…

[To be continued…]

Ahsan Mirza

Ahsan Mirza

The author is an electrical engineer by day, and a wordsmith thereafter.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.