July 26, 2008, Karachi
Adeel Amin was coming back from his footwear shop in the Khadda market, when it happened. He flew from his bicycle and hit the wall of a restaurant on the other side of the road. Before he could get up or realise what was going on, the roof came down on him.
His friends said he was lucky to have survived. His wife was glad he had survived, she had already offered a chadar at the dargah. His children were not orphans and his parents were happy that they didn’t have to suffer the death of a child.
No one, absolutely no one, told him that his life was worse than death now, that his lost legs made him a liability, that there was no hope that he will ever be able to walk again. He was not thankless but there is not much in his life to thank the lord for.
Thirty people had died in that blast, more than two hundred injured. He was in long list of people waiting for compensation that never came. They had to pull out his elder son out of school to tend to the shop, but there was not enough to go around. It did not take Adeel long to realise that suicide, sin as it was, was the only way to reprieve his family from all the trouble.
While Adeel was sinking deeper and deeper into his melancholy, his wife, Zainab, was quiet sure that god had not saved his life as a punishment. In a society where a woman’s resolve is never put to use, she showed amazing strength in a faculty she had never exercised.
November 30, Karachi
Under dire conditions, more often than one would expect, it becomes very difficult to distinguish between desperation and hope. Zainab’s faith gave her hope, while others saw it as desperate attempts of a sinking ship’s captain.
She had given up her family duties. At the young age of fifteen, her daughter had taken up responsibilities that will break the back of any adult. But Zainab had no other option; she could not let her husband wither away. She was afraid that one day she will wake to find that the half man under the sheets had melted away too.
Zainab had heard that there are places in India where prosthetic limbs are making miracles happen. She had to take Adeel there, she did not know how. Pakistan’s healthcare was by no means mediocre, but it was reserved only for the super-rich. A woman like her had more chances dragging her husband across the border than take him into one of the modern hospitals in her city.
She had no education. She had no rich relatives. Adeel had no savings. But to give up was as good as committing suicide. Allah did not permit it. She had to go on.
The Indian Consulate in Karachi was shut down by the Pakistani government after the Babri Masjid demolition. No one had cared to reopen it. She had heard that something ugly had happened in Mumbai a few days back. Karachi was in the global eye for all the wrong reasons. Her well wishers told her that if there was a time to give up on her fights, this was the time.
But she knew she had not even started yet.
December 20, Islamabad
Zainab had caught a train to Islamabad. It was the first time she had ventured out of Karachi. It was the first time she had boarded a train. It was the first time she had been unaccompanied by a man for a whole day away from home.
She had been to the Indian Consulate. She had stood in the queue, too shy to talk to anyone, too timid to demand attention. She had haltingly and reluctantly told the officer about her husband, her children and the pains that no one outside her family deserved to know. He looked stern but was sympathetic. But there was nothing he could do, he had said. The countries were at war, she had no money, no political backing. It takes months for people with resources.
Though he never uttered it, she had heard him say that in her case, it will take forever. And, even then, it may not happen.
June 26 2009, Islamabad
It’s surprising how short a time it takes to lose a lifetime of sanity. Zainab had boarded the train twelve times in less than six months. Since her last trip, she had not cared to return. She did not know if the man she was fighting for was still alive or not. Time had gone at him at remarkable efficiency. To those who cared to see, he may have lived a century already.
Though she did not know it yet, she had quietly and steadily become the talk of the capital and its circles of vanity. In a nation where hope was in such short supply, she was quickly gaining monopoly over a rare commodity. Her story was constantly getting more and more ink in the newspapers, socialite women who came to collect their visas to Europe enquired about her and the poor dropped a few coins in her lap. They didn’t know any other way of helping.
It didn’t take long for the rich and powerful to know of Zainab. There was something transcendental about this mad woman who was standing still while the family, the nation and every organizational structure around her was crumbling.
But her story was begging for a saviour. Though there was the occasion, not many who came forward had the character to be seen as heroes. The papers called them hideous opportunists, but to Zainab, they might as well have been farishte sent by Allah.
Gafaar Khan, a landlord with political aspirations, managed to convince Zainab that his intentions were noble and he didn’t need the money anyway. He promised not just to arrange for the visa, cover all the expenses but also to send one of his men to stay with her all along the treatment. It was his zakat for the year, he said. Zainab had no reason to doubt his intentions; her faith had told her all along that someone will come to help. She had been waiting for it all along. She was confused why one his assistants was trying so hard to convince her that she must not refuse the offer.
July 30, New Delhi, India
Zainab was surprised how easy the world was for the rich. But she was not complaining. Adeel was in India now; it had seemed nothing less than another universe. But they were here now, she kept telling that to Adeel as they came out of the airport.
Adeel had stopped talking during last few months. There was nothing inside him that needed to be broadcasted. When Zainab told him that they were going to India, he thought she had finally lost it and felt sorry for her. But looking at the palatial hospital, he realised how far his wife had gone to save him.
Modern medical science had progressed enough to replace lost limbs without any complication. But double amputees were still seen as a fringe group. Success called for as much resolve from the patient as expertise from the medical staff. Zainab was sure that at the best hospital in India, they were in safe hands. It’s Adeel that she wanted to focus on.
At the biggest artificial limb center in the country, Adeel could see patients had come over from all over the world. There were children from Africa as well as wealthy people from western countries, all in search of a limb and normal life. As normal as a life without limbs could be.
Zainab’s story was already known by the medical staff. Doctors smiled at her in the corridors and nurses often brought her home cooked food. They always told her that things will be better; she assumed they meant Adeel will walk again.
Adeel had never seen such opulence in life. He could not imagine hospitals can be such sweet smelling places, with soft beds, TV, good food and nurses at the push of a button. Often he will wake up feeling good about life, until he remembered. But his depression didn’t last long.
He had to get up early in the morning, finish his breakfast and was taken out for exercises. Doctors said his upper body didn’t have the strength to support the legs and he needed to wait till he had it. In the meantime, he was put through the processes used for above knee amputees.
Back in Pakistan, he had seen wooden and leather artificial limbs that screamed invalid from a mile away. Here he was surprised by the options he was given: composite plastic, carbon fiber and myoelectric etc. He kept talking to Zainab about the material details that the doctors told him.
Sometimes, he will get philosophical. But Zainab didn’t mind, so long as he talked. She also wondered with Adeel how ironical it was – on one hand human life had such little value, and on the other so much effort was being dedicated to restore a lost limb.
December 17, Wagah Border, India – Pakistan
It’s been six months of regimented training. Adeel was back on his feet and it was a lifetime of achievement. For the first time in his life, he had got back less than what he had lost, but he could not be happier.
Zainab knew this day will come. She had dedicated her whole life to this. She felt a vacuum that she needed to fill with a new purpose. Adeel had said no to the flight and wanted to walk across the border to his homeland. It was swiftly and gladly arranged by Gafaar Khan.
On a Friday, late afternoon, he looked back at India. This was not the country of demons, butchers and violent rapists that he had heard about. He promised Zainab that they will come again and walked across the border to the waiting arms of his family, Gafaar and a few photographers.