My grandmother is dying. We take turns waiting at her bedside in the ICU. I ferry relatives back and forth for their shifts to the house and back to the hospital. It struck me that not only was there a limbo on the national front—two major groups are holding sit-in protests to bring the government down—but there was limbo on the family front. I am not used to limbo. It is a state I cannot abide. This propensity comes from a working lifetime spent in newsrooms. Things must keep happening until I put my pages down. And even then, when I walk out of the newsroom, slightly buzzing, the phone-calls can keep coming. Karachi kept revolving. It is a city that does not stop.
Dying of the sudden distant kind is more familiar to me, from behind my desk. Dying was turned into text for me; the crime reporter would bring in news of a drive-by shooting at Jauhar Morr. Perhaps the wire services would feed in photos of the body in the morgue or the crime scene. I engaged with Death as a story to tell. And yet when it comes close to me, into my house, I do not know how to tell the story. It is not sudden and it is not to a stranger.
In my defense, and before you jump to the conclusion that I am a callous journalist, let me tell you how I would tell the stories of the dead. I cannot say I cared for each victim; that is not possible in a city like Karachi with a homicide rate of 3,000 per summer. But I did care for the people who died and kept dying violent deaths. In my newsroom, whether it was Daily Times or The Express Tribune, I worked each day with reporters and subeditors to do justice to the deaths.
We studied patterns of violence, reported deaths and killings and even those that were not reported. Why were they being killed and who was killing them, were our perennial questions. We mapped the deaths, we photographed them, and I used every single inch of space on our three metropolitan section pages to try and tell it like it was. It was a challenge each day to try and beat reader fatigue by making people care about strangers who were dying, mostly the poor. Our formula was to use detail, as much as possible, to bring the story alive. We tried our best to edit those stories with fresh language to keep the stories from just becoming routine. I don’t know if we ever succeeded, because only our readers can tell us that, but our intention was to somehow make sure that we approached the topic with respect and anger.
I studied Slavoj Zizek and Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag and Steven Pinker in an attempt to find answers to dealing with death as a journalist. But I cannot say I ever really could conclusively say that I knew what I was doing. Once, when we were preparing for the year-enders in 2012, I went mad trying to come up with a way to pay tribute to all of those who had been killed, especially by the Taliban. Finally, I gathered all the names I could from the year of victims and made our art team’s designer Amna Iqbal make them fall into the centerfold. It was as if the names were falling through the cracks. “Read them if you can” said the headline (see the photo above). We cannot forget, I kept saying to myself. We cannot describe the horror of their deaths, but we must never forget. Never again, should be our motto too. Le'olam lo shuv. We should never again let extremists do what they have done.
And now, as my grandmother lies dying, I have few words. Hers is not a violent death unless one counts the invasion of tubes. But the body looks violent. The blood thinners made her bruise easily so she is covered in patches where the red pooled against the papery skin.
This waiting, knowing she will not emerge, is a violent waiting because it is so still. We associate violence with force, the hit, the shot. There are, however, violences that are not accompanied by movement. In fact, they are the opposite. I am learning that violence is this vacuum too. It is a violence that prevents movement, resists our efforts to change the situation—would we hasten the end to mitigate pain? The violence is the stasis. It prevents us from making any decision out of fear. It is a force that has applied itself. I keep thinking of Faulkner’s title, “As I lay Dying”. Remember those terrifying lines in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner that describe a hellish stillness? He kills the albatross. The breeze drops and they are stuck on that ship unmoving under a “hot and copper sky” with a “bloody sun”, as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
In this slow death, we have not communicated with her. Before she had a cardiac arrest that led to this state on a ventilator, she had started to scream. It was the most terrifying screaming that lasted through the night and into the day until she was massaged and sedated. Was she afraid? Did she know? When we asked her if she was in pain, she said no. But she kept screaming.
One of my aunts was speaking of what some Muslims say is ‘Qabr ka azaab’ or the punishment of the grave. According to one religious scholar, she said that angels come to us as we lie dying. There are different angels depending on how good or bad you have been in life. If you have been good, two of them come and sit and wait, radiating light. The angel who comes to extract the soul arrives. It takes it out and hands it to the two waiting angels. Then, in the grave, you are asked three questions: Who is your maker? What is your deen or belief system? Who is Muhammad (PBUH)? The evil people get two frightening angels that come to extract your soul which shrinks into the body, unwilling to leave. You are shown glimpses of heaven and hell.
One thing I do know is that this imminent death is teaching me certain lessons. One is a fear of God. I get lazy. The picture of what happens to you in the grave has scared the living daylights out of me. As I cast around for answers, I know one thing is for certain. I do not understand death and probably never will. But this I know. It is changing me even as I do not know it. And as with most moments of confusion, I turned to Roethke’s impossibly mysterious yet apt lines:
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
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