Harshid Latheef was two years my senior in this world. He had a large frame with the flesh barely covering it. When we both stood near, he was like the north- fair skinned and standing quite tall for the age of a 16 year old, and I like the south- dark skinned and short for my age. True to our contrast in appearance, our friendship was sparked off by a small fight and grew much stronger over the next weeks and months. When we became friends we had no borders, no caste, no religion, no colour, no creed separating us from our commitment.
Harshid’s father was an AC mechanic in this small city of Doha. His family was a big one with seven children. Harshid was the third with three younger sisters and the youngest being a boy. His two elder brothers were in their hometown of Lahore with their families. Harshid was never too bright in studies. He understood machines more than books. Moreover his father’s workshop was not reaping enough profits to afford them all the luxuries of life. So in the ninth grade he gladly left his books and went to help his father in his workshop. That was the last time he came out to ride his bicycle with me. Thereafter Harshid in a grease and dirt stained dress became a common sight. Especially the belly of his kurta was the most vulnerable to dirt attack. I persuaded him to wear an apron to save his kurta from grease. But, in a manner that still puzzles me, he managed to keep his apron spotless while his kurta accumulated grease!
All these years I’ve never seen a more optimistic man than Harshid. For all the hardship this life had to offer he had an answer- a smile! A smile quite small yet big enough to conceal his abundant inner energy. Whenever he got a free hour he was seen with a piece of paper and a pencil, writing poems in Urdu, which was recited, to me without fail. Confusing were his poems that I never understood them fully but I liked hearing him recite them. I used to be a permanent guest on all their celebrations especially Eid. That was one day they all dressed in angel white kurta-pyjamas. I liked their costume very much and I think Harshid knew it. When Xmas came that year he brought me a gift – a pair of white kurta-pyjama, stitched by his mother! He wanted to surprise me so they assumed my sizes. It was slightly big for me but after so many years now, it fits me quite well!
A week after the following New-year, his mother fell from the stairs banging her head against the concrete railing. Two days later she succumbed to an internal blood clot in her brain. Mother’s death was a real torture for Harshid but he pulled through quite amazingly.
My secondary education was nearing completion. In April that year I wrote my final exams. I had always wanted to return to India and continue with my higher secondary and graduation. Harshid was sad when I decided to leave and got my air tickets booked. As a parting gift I wanted to give him something valuable. Unfortunately enough my thoughts got stuck on an 18K Pierre Cardin pen my father treasured. I had to decide between stealing it and changing my decision. So I stole the pen and gave him, asking him to write poems more often!
A month after I reached India, I received his first letter. Written in chaste Urdu mixed Hindi, it was an interesting one. Lucky for me Harshid could read and write Hindi. I learned Arabic in school but reading Urdu with the knowledge of Arabic was a more tedious process. A year later my parents got me a visiting visa as my original Residence Permit got automatically cancelled due to my long absence from Doha and I visited Doha during my preparatory leave. Harshid and his family were really surprised to see me when I visited them. Harshid had become a hard worker and a very good mechanic. But soon enough I found something missing in him. I just couldn’t identify the missing link. The same thought kept bothering me for days before I found out; it was his optimistic smile. I asked him about it and he told me. He has been attacked by the second disaster in his life; his youngest sister Rehana, of whom he was particularly fond of, was suffering from cancer of the bone marrow. The news was equally shocking to me, as she was my favourite too. She was called Rikku and was the brightest of all; so nimble-footed that I liked calling her ‘Thithli’ (Hindi for butterfly).
The only known treatments were Chemotherapy and Bone Marrow Transplantation, which cost them a fortune as they continued treatment. One day Rikku came to see me with her youngest brother. I was quite surprised!
“I just felt like seeing you.” She said when asked why she came out in this hot weather. But I knew there was more than that in her mind.
“I wanted to know if the treatment could be stopped.” She said after some time.
“And why do you want to stop your treatment?” I was astonished.
“Bhayya,” she replied, “we can’t afford it and moreover it is very painful.”
I raised my hand and touched her cheeks gently, “But you will get normal and that’s what we all want.”
She smiled and I knew immediately I had seen that smile before. It was her brother’s. Over the years she had learnt the true virtue of smiling at fate like her brother.
“It’s not we who decide our life, Almighty Allah decides it. If the Almighty has decided, it will happen. It is he who has created me, he will take me back when he thinks it’s time.” After she spoke I realized I had no truth or even a lie to match that.
Her words and that smile lingered in my mind and kept hammering me throughout that day. First time I was seeing a match for Harshid’s optimism. I would say she outshone him. I never realized the power of smiling in pain; that day she taught me. I saw her last on the day of my return to India after my two month leave. Almost sixteen months later, a month before I was to go to Bangalore for my graduation course, I received Harshid’s letter, posted from Lahore, informing me of her death. The cover also contained a small card.
“…Rikku left us last week on the 9th of September. Her last days were very painful.
…We have left Doha for good. My father and I are trying to set up a workshop here in our village. Rikku had saved this card for your birthday. She asked me to send it for her when she knew she wouldn’t live long enough….”
I knew my hands were trembling when I opened the card. Inside it was written in Urdu and her own handwriting…
“To my sweet Bhayya…
…From your Thithli”
That night I had several terrible nightmares. Rikku kept appearing before me and thoughts of that innocent girl and her painful death flashed ghostly scenes in my sleep.
Harshid never missed his monthly quota of letters, neither did I. Slowly he returned to normal life, but one of his letters was more than usual.
“…We had the third death in our family. My eldest brother died some days ago. But this was not the Almighty’s will; it was man’s will that he should die. I never told you about my eldest brother. The fact is that I too never knew enough to tell you about him. He had joined Mujahiddeen fighters, and we all last saw him five years ago. Now I know that he was the member of a group trying to tear some country apart. All these years I didn’t think much of the fights between our countries. After seeing my brother’s bullet ridden body, I realized that a country’s borders are not drawn in paint or marked by roads and rivers, but drawn in blood. I can’t think of hundreds of people who kill and get killed every day. If only they realize, life is Allah’s best gift, taking it or losing it on man’s own will is the greatest form of insulting God.”
Though the letters continued without fail every month, I noticed a slow change in Harshid’s handwriting. All his letters were in Urdu mixed Hindi. He never had complete mastery over English (neither did I), so I used to reply in Hindi which made the art of letter writing a bit difficult for me.
Then slowly his handwriting turned indecipherable. Though slow, I did notice this change quite early and was curious to know. He started writing about life after death, his loss of interest in life itself and other things, which I termed crazy. I realized fate has finally overtaken him and I knew it was through Rikku’s death. As best as I could, I tried to force him to think otherwise and live on. But I failed…
Last year, in October, I received, though late, the usual letter bearing the stamps of Pakistan. But outside, the handwriting was different and the sender was Hardhid’s sister Saira. Almost instantly I knew something was wrong and am sad to say I got a remote feeling about it.
“Monu bhayya (at home Harshid was called Monu) died in an accident last month. He was hit by a car while he was crossing the road. I know you were waiting for his letter, but this is the news I have for you. He valued your friendship a lot. Kindly remember him and all of us in your prayers.”
– Saira Latheef
A year has passed since Harshid died. Last month when I came to Doha, I went to the place where they lived. Some other family occupied the house. But I could feel their presence; I could see his mother, Rikku and Harshid himself. Bygones be bygones, not a trace of them is in Doha, but something valuable stayed back- the value and effect of that costly smile that Harshid and Rikku taught me, the need to keep smiling even when fate comes charging at us like a wild bull.
That is one lesson I will never forget in my life.