Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital: A Memoir
“یوں لگتا ہے جیسے اس ہسپتال کو کسی کی دعا لگی ہو۔۔۔”
On my first day at SKM, these were the words uttered by a woman with mahogany skin and a smile so luminous you could see it from miles away.
“Ek nae, myriads of prayers,” I resisted the urge to say so.
‘Where do prayers come from?
Where do they go?’
I would always wonder about that as a child.
It appeared as a moment of illuminated epiphany as this strange woman rested her chin on the reception counter.
“From strangers to strangers,” the answer struck me like a fire alarm as this stranger spread her dupatta and raised it towards the sky. Her sudden indulgence in this passionate secret conversation with God pushed me to pry away my eyes. A satisfied and calm smile slid on her lips just as Noah’s ark would have slid on the chaotic waters.
She looked me right in the eye and murmured,” Doctor Sahiba, mark my words. I have prayed for you from the depths of my Pakhtun heart; it is bound to reach the seventh sky. Everything is going to settle down for you and then you’re going to wonder why it had to happen in the first place.”
Tears pricking my eyes, I wondered what I had even done for her in the first place. My only giving had been this Musafir Khana permission form filled out in my wobbly handwriting and unrestrained empathy as she complained about her lodgings. In return, she had offered a timeless token which would probably escort me out of my self created labyrinth of suffering. I also wondered about how I wore the place on my heart so frequently that it had earned me the prestigious and fallacious title of “Doctor Sahiba”.
“زما د زړه احساس کوي نو منځپانګه”
The following words escaped the lips of an eighty year old Pashto man as he took his leave from the hospital. Not being able to grasp the foreignness of his language, I made a funny face and glanced towards the translator on the Reception with pleading eyes.
He grinned, “The Baba just muttered that his heart feels very content. Also, he probably thinks you’re stupid for not being able to apprehend every word he utters.”
Color rose in my cheeks as I considered learning Pashto just for the sake of conversing better with the patients. The patient’s words also appeared to be reminiscent of the hallelujah composed by a Pashto poet:
ده لویو لویو قدرتونو ربہ
یوتمنا ده اوریدے شے که نہ
O’ dear Lord of great bounties!
Can you spare a moment to hear a wish of mine?
ستا د سکنړی سکنړی ماښام نہ لوګے
دچا د زړه لوګے لیدے شے که نہ
May I smolder myself in the name of Your foggy evening
Can you bear to see one’s heart burning into smokes?
“آج ڈک یا رڈ کا چکر لگایا اتنا جتنا میں گھر سے مسجد جا تا ہوں۔۔۔”
This was the first line my Nana had written in a letter on his 25th day in Shaukat Khanum. I will be mighty honest with you here-the connection that SKM had instantly established with me had a lot to do with my personal reasons too. The lingering pain and hope dwelling within the hospital walls had hit home. As the month of June was neatly folded and put aside by many others, my family and I lost our sense of proportion and footing as the centre of our lives was diagnosed with larynx cancer. Loving someone with every cell in your being and not being able to do anything sufficient for them is the most desperate feeling in the world, and I’m sure every family who has been through trauma has experienced this. It shatters your fabricated shell of self and replaces it with the amount of courage capable of countering tsunamis.
Shaukat Khanum came into our lives like one unblinking inkling of hope. It featured as a solid messiah in the face of our adversity. It held its arms wide open and welcoming for my Nana. And like the miracle that it happens to be, it cured my Nana Alhamdoulillah. Words cannot come close enough to express the infinite amount of gratitude I harbour in my heart for this charismatic place. The cancer took away his voice but Shaukat Khanum has left him with a perpetual light in his heart.
Even my mere presence in the hospital happens to be the most beautiful kind of happenstance. My volunteership form had gotten delayed because of mundane reasons that had led me to be present there at the same time as my Nana. This led to several chance encounters between us which split apart my heart but also gave me a handful of memories.
” کیا خوب ایمن Skm میں انٹرنشپ کر رہی ہیں جس میں میں بھی داخل ہوں!”
Back to the duck yard, SKM has this lake of bluish green glistening waters, sunlight literally toppling off it. Ducks elegantly swim in the lake and twirl around in ballerina like motions. The sight of cancer patients looking into its emerald waters and smiling to themselves is worth every treasure in the world. My Nana recounts that he felt the moisture from the lake on his face and heard the sound of quacking ducks and this made him feel glad about being alive.
“باجی اگلی بار جب آنا تو میرے لیے بھی کتاب لانا۔”
The following words slipped from the mouth of a sheepish seven year old logophile as she pressed her tiny palm against the pages of a novel I had been reading. Her fingers lingered on the outlines of words. It was evident that she couldn’t read but her enthusiasm was exemplary.
Afternoons spent in the playroom were probably my favorite part of volunteering at SKM. Surrounded by kids of all ages who had come to seek for a sanctuary from all over Pakistan was truly an exceptional experience. The adjoining Gift Shop happened to be as wondrous for them as the Chocolate Factory had been for Charlie. Ludo duels became the highlight of my afternoon and “Baji” became my unofficial pseudonym as it continuously echoed through the playroom walls. Day after day, I observed intently as the kids turned a blind eye towards the bitterness of their reality and embraced the innocent distraction residing within coloring books.
“اس کی ایک جڑواں بہن بھی ھے۔ بیماری نے اس کو اتنا کمزور کر دیا ہے کہ یہ اس سے چھوٹا لگتا ہے۔۔۔”
The following words greeted me as I entered six year old Hammad’s room. His mother sat with a dupatta half tucked between her teeth and her head clutched in hands. The moment my eyes fell on Hammad, I think my heart melted a little. He had that sacred kind of beauty which can only be associated with Pakhtuns. The contours of his face, although a sickly pale now, were no less beautiful than that of Greek sculptures.
When I entered the room, his forehead was creased into knots and his hands were folded into fists. He straightened his back and said salaam when he saw me. Regarding the coloring book I had in my hands with utmost solemnity, he began bragging about his superiority in the field with exaggerated hand gestures. I chuckled as we filled the drawing of a triumphant looking Spider Man with colors and he mocked my naive questions with blatant remarks. The six year old outsmarted me in ways no adult ever had. He proudly showcased the gift basket he had received from the hospital and then spelled out his name for me on a paper (the ‘D’ was a bit crooked and looked like a ‘P’ but who cares, right?)
He also scribbled a number right next to his name and when I inquired about it, he said something about knowing it by heart. Glancing towards his mother for better comprehension, all I found was a sad frown etched on her face.
“نمبر بتاتا تو ایسے ہے جیسے اسکا فون نمبر ہو۔”
Upon further inquiry, I discovered that it was in fact his patient MRI number. It appeared as though the number stuck to the corners of his mind like a newly found sense of proportion. He had unknowingly established a connection with his sickness. My heart thudding inside of my chest, I gave him a brief remark on his brilliance. Marking his drawing with an A+, I witnessed a genuine smile gently creep across his face as he requested me to take a picture of his. The final words that caught my ears before I departed from the room were these:
“یہ کیوں جا رہی ہے ماما? اس سے کہو رک جاۓ۔۔۔”
And I swear I am not even exaggerating when I say this, I had to muster an immense amount of energy to actually walk away from the room.
“I adore Georgian language.
I adore Vietnamese language.
I adore Thai language.
These languages are strangers that I love.
You should love someone like an unknown language.
Blindly, instinctively, in all directions.
Love is a strange lottery.
Love is a strange land.”
I think the following lines became my manifesto when I indulged in a heartfelt conversation with Naif, this seven year old boy who had left his heart somewhere in Mansehra. He immediately discovered that Pashto was a stranger to me and giggled at my shortcoming. His own Urdu was broken and our very conversation was very fragmented yet meaningful.
When I first entered the room, his face was twisted in a mosaic of pain. Feeling the desperate urge to provide comfort, I showed him the silvery crescent scar on my right hand.
“Look,” I said. “I had to go through the same sickness as you. It has left me with this scar but the pain is long gone.”
Looking me in the eye with a sarcastic expression posted on his countenance, he muttered:
“تم اپنا یہ چھوٹا سا زخم دکھا رہی ہو, میرے زخم دیکھو تو پتہ چلے۔”
I promise I’m not exaggerating when I say that this precise sentence of his uttered in a tormenting satirical tone had evoked this personal evolution within me. It was one of those sacred, memorable, once in a lifetime kind of events. My heart felt as if it had been dislocated and I felt scarred to my bone marrow.
I’ve always harboured the belief that grief doesn’t come in relative terms. But dear lord, it sure as hell did in that precise moment. All my misery seemed to have been reduced to a grain of sand and there I stood facing the ocean of this beautiful child’s pain. This beautiful child who deserves to live a thousand times more than I ever will.
Before I left, he offered me a sun soaked smile dripping from the corners of his mouth and exclaimed:
“اگر تم لڑکی نہ ہوتی تو ہم تمہیں اپنے ساتھ مانسہرہ کی سیر پر لے جاتے۔۔۔”
Shaukat Khanum never betrays its essence. It sticks to the intensity of the juxtaposition it portrays. I witnessed that in every nook and cranny. I came across the sight of patients fully recovering after their chemo. But then, one rainy day, I also saw a man with soft brown pleading eyes and questions resting on the tip of his tongue:
“یہاں میرے ابو کا داخلہ کیوں نہیں ہو سکتا?”
The answer had a lot to do with the cinereal ash of age and the way some answers arrive in the mailbox when hope has long blinked off.
It is several tiny elements that pool up together to pronounce the true essence of a place. In my memory, it is the special needs man standing on the threshold of the hospital with a crooked smile on his face and a sash around his waist that read”Patient Greeter”. In my memory, it is the woman who whispered a silent ‘JazakAllah’as I bent down to pick up a file of hers that had fallen. In my memory, it is the friends that I made out of strangers within two weeks. In my memory, it is the cheerful crinkle eyed Doctor who had waved at me in the corridors. In my memory, it is a baby’s outstretched hand toward a crane. In my memory, it is my Nana’s silhouette as he leaned against a hospital window and inked a letter. In my memory, it is the sun flickered smile of a child as he spelled out his name for me.
In my memory, it is the eighteen year old who walked out of the hospital gates as an evolved personality. These past two weeks have been no less than life changing and utterly miraculous.