It seems apt, my sickness here. It is in this city that I suffered multiple bouts of typhoid, measles, malaria, fever, bee stings. It is in this city that Dr. Moazzam of Jubilee said to me time and again, 'moon kholain, aaah....' Then he would look away abruptly, and shake his head. My dreading would start. Ten minutes later, the compounder of death would walk towards me with an injection, much like an executioner, and poke me. If this compounder is still alive, I would like to ask him to say sorry --even if he was following orders--even if he meant for me to get better--just for having that slightly amused, but usually disinterested, look on his face when he walked towards me, us, injection lined up in front of his face. My brother and I - we thought his face had started to look like a sui. Just as husbands and wives, owners and pets start to resemble each other, he had started to look like his instrument.
Every new season brings with it a new viral. And I here I am sweating though this one, and delirious. I've been through five days of lying on the floor, couch, bed, yoga mat, face down, face up, sitting up against the wall, waiting, sweating, waiting for this fever to go. My skin is damp. Air-conditioning feels like the breath of a reptile. My lower back aches and I try to go into bridge position to ease the ache - but I have no strength in my upper arms. My shoulder blades squeeze inwards like rubber. I dream of interactive acupuncture. When I am at 98 and normal, there is a heavy silence in my head, a silence of fatigue and illness.
The dreams come and go, and in these dreams, I am in college. I am at home, except my home will be demolished soon. My sister says she gets nostalgic about rooms and she wants to go have one last supper there. Except the walls are covered with curses, lines and lines of Urdu galiyaan, and we must run lest these escape and we find ourselves enmeshed. Who else but the steps in our family could have done it. How they hate us. Next to our home was Lalas. His house is gone and so are the juggis. I remember meeting an old woman there, and a child who asked me how old I was. A group of youngsters wearing padded bras were doing a Bollywood routine. They are all gone now. And now there is a single businessman on his cellphone, and his son who plays a lonesome game of hopscotch on the red tiles; distractedly, he spits his paan. I must find the evicted. I manically ask around. Some say I must build bit by bit, name by name, and start at Cantt Station. How many tragedies has oral history missed. And I begin the futile work of dreams, and it saps all my strength. I am cold. I have skipped several meals. How do you find someone you meet in a timeless dream who has been evicted? How do you relocate to them? Its the fever working itself to a frenzy- making the impossible seem doable.
I am pulled out of delirium by phone calls. My cell phone is next to me and in sickness, I seem to be answering all my calls and pretending to sound professional. A. who wants a recommendation catches on. She says, "Maam, take care of yourself." I am touched by this, perhaps, perfunctory courtesy, kind of like the gay Cambodian nurse in Santa Clara who asked me before he drew blood: "Feeling emotional today?" I was pregnant with M, and had been weeping profusely in the waiting room about someone's death, and he seemed like a messenger of sorts. Sa. calls to remind me of moot court. They are preparing for India and I know the only advice I will have for them is -- beat them on law, not on passion. He has a knack for understanding half sentences and partially expressed thoughts. Then R. I say to her, I am sick, I don't know how I will do this. Then I walk to my laptop and find the file in my email, and miraculously I go over it, and she doesn't even push me. This is what I like about students. Temporary, intimate connections built around intellectual purpose, and in this delirium the one thing that holds me up.
At college, I am walking in my campus. It seems so haunted now, except that I see my Bangladeshi friend, M, and she's wearing a headscarf. Her black curls flow out, and I ask her how she could still be in college. She says she's doing her post doc in Anthropology, and I walk through campus with her. It feels surreal and so familiar the landscape, it pains me to the core to have lost it all to memory. How young must we have been when we first got here. I dream sometimes, I still have one semester left, and I am filled with zeal.
This is the delirium of sickness. I dream about my reality -- about picking and dropping kids. Infinite loops of school ballet swimming friends birthdays play dates care love baths. I need a drink of water. In fact I have finished drinking a whole jug of ORS that magically appeared in my fridge by orders of S who is in the boondocks of country. I know it helps me to know it is he who remote controls my path to wellness, from two hundred miles away, and not my mother. My mother is just a child. When I was eight, I told my mother there was a man outside the gate on a motorcycle, and his private parts were outside his pant zip and he muttered something. She was so upset, she went red, and gave me instructions. After that, this recurring dream, in fevers, of a tiger chasing me, and me running, running from Sadiq Store, short cut through Lucky House, locking the gate shut just in the nick of time. Saved from hungry fangs, and breathless. That and the ticking, growing bomb.
I wake up in a sweat and make a mental note. "Must have life outside of kids." I tell S. "Our lives revolve around the kids." I must visit the Saraiki Belt now. If your aunt is dying in Karachi, you can not help her from Boston no matter how many laps you swim. I felt most at peace after I spent the whole night at the hospital, fell asleep on a folding chair by her bedside, and woke up with my head in the lap of a Baluch woman who was running her fingers through my hair maternally. I pulled away, embarrassed. (I have yelled slogans on Frat Row, and she thinks I am a child.) The woman on the bed across who shrieked in pain all day was grinning madly. My aunt sat in her wheelchair, picking at her hair. She was tiny and a mess. The priest did his rounds, and she sat up like a little girl in a confessional. God bless you my child, he said. Padre. She talked to him like someone who has faith in miracles. Later, we transferred her to Liaqaut. I was bouncing along in the back of an Edhi ambulance holding her dry feet trying to fill the treacherous air with optimism while her pale face peered at me through the coffin like sheets so clean. We are at this signal, I inform her; although, she never asked.
Its best to get away from the city now and meet thousand year old villagers and really try to understand why the issue is more complicated than a simple man caused ecological disaster, than simply 'feudalism.' To drink at the fountain of their wisdom.
Now I am counting the hours left for S to come back from his travels in Sindh. He is in Jacobabad, Sukkur, Dadu. I lose track. He tells me on the phone something about data. The children are dancing around me. They want me to play 'Zoo Zoo' and I tell them I will play when I am better. A begins to cry. R tells me Go to your room and lie down. I know its better that way. To be alone with your sickness. To twist and turn.
I even host someone in the midst, a documentary film-maker. I tell my guest, I am trying to understand RBOD. Twenty years ago, it seems, the government mismanaged the discharge of agricultural effluents from Upper Sindh and Baluchistan and diverted these to the Manchar Jheel. Over the course of twenty years it destroyed the indigenous community around the lake, Asia's largest. The water got poisoned with the discarded pesticide and salinity. The villagers have nothing to drink. The fish got depleted. They have little to catch and sell. The local women lost their cottage industry as the raw material, the bamboos they used to weave chatais, grew in the lake. The 650 different species of birds that migrated from Central Asia and Siberia come no more. The villagers buy water now, Rs. 20 a tank. They do not have gas. They buy wood to cook their food, and it seems like they have no income.
S and I are sitting in a community meeting. "Take a sip of our water," they offer me a steel cup. I pass it to S who takes a sip unflinchingly. I will not be shamed. I take a sip next hoping my cowardice would pass for deference. "It tastes okay," I say. "No it does not, says a village elder. It is salty. Our minds have been destroyed. We are all a little bit mad now. We do not even remember anything." I scan the crowd for signs of madness, and we laugh. Amidst the laughter the elder's son who looks a bit like Vivek Oberoi, surma in his eyes, says: "Eat fish here. Have a drink of water at Sehwan." More laughter. S doesn't laugh. He tells me he has met many communities and this is one of the most destitute because there isn't much to plant either without the water. NGOs come with timely gifts and tall promises, but the solution needs to be more holistic. WAPDA has installed a filtration plant, and some find reprieve.
Where will the effluents go? If not Manchar, they will clog the fields. If they clog the fields for miles around, the lands will not be cultivatable. If the lands becomes useless, the wadera will survive, but the haris will not. I am reading a report and it seems like Phase 2 was never implemented, I intervene. "Ideally", says the film-maker, "at ten times the cost these should have been redirected through the mountains."
Aah those Sindh mountains we saw driving through the desert - where the University of Sindh appears like an oasis, and the Indus River, a diminishing gift. Dreams should always land up in desert mountains, and drained to the sea. So majestic and serene; their heat could suffocate. We see the historic city of Bhubak. We wet our feet in Sindhu. We stop at the tomb of Shabaz Qalander at Sehwan. I like that Sufis blended religions to appeal to their followers' tastes, but this is just a racket now. Hundreds lie in the stench of the shrine waiting for biryanis to be handed out. After seeing a community gaunt from water starvation, this display of generosity (and gluttony) is vile. It does not feel spiritual. We quickly give fifty rupee notes to faqirs who pray for us and handle us as like veteran hustlers. There is no god to be found here. No need to pray so hard. There are people living without water and on cracked earth, while the duffers will have their golf courses. We all are a little bit mad. Years ago, as children, we visited Haleji Lake. Those were the good days for that lake too, and I remember meeting a family. We gave them saunf and talked to them for hours; they seemed very poor. The father said his daughter was pulled by a crocodile while she washed clothes by the edge. His face still haunts me. That croc is an endangered species too.