| This is the 532nd story of Our Life Logs® |
I grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Karachi, a metropolitan city in Pakistan in the 1980s. Given that it was the financial center of our country, the ruling political parties always exploited Karachi and used violence to get what they wanted. Nearly every Karachite could say that their cell phone was stolen out of their pockets. Rarely could you find a shopkeeper who didn’t pay extortion to the ruling political party or police. Karachi was a milking cow whose residents paid with their sweat and blood. This had me grow up living in fear. But, with no other option, I tried to live a good life without rocking the boat.
As I grew up and moved onto higher education, I got a degree in Computer Science and a job in a reputed software company. Not long after, I met the love of my life, Shujaa, at a friend’s party. He wore a crisp-looking, white kurta shalwar. I knew cupid was in action from the moment my friend introduced us. I was 25 and Shujaa was 10 years older than me, but in love, age is just a number.
Shuja and I were eager to tie the knot, but my father did not agree to the out-of-caste marriage. Thankfully, Shuja has the charm of a true gentleman and he won my dad over on their first meeting.
In 2013, we married. One year later, we were blessed with a beautiful daughter and our family felt complete. Everything was so perfect. That was, until the reality of where we lived and the political tyranny of our city reared its ugly head, reminding us that nothing could ever be perfect in Karachi.
Shuja owned a poultry farming business. Like all the other business owners in the city, he was expected to pay the extortion thrust upon him without question. If he didn’t, there would be consequences and danger. There always was. But for some reason, Shuja felt bold one day and refused to pay extortion to the local ruling party. I didn’t know any of this until I received a call from his business partner one cold evening in January of 2019. He told me that a police car had picked Shuja up from his farm. Not only had Shuja refused to surrender, but also, he had refused the demands of the Sicilian mafia who had connections in law enforcement.
The mafia had great power in the city and did not like to be told "No.” So, they planted an illegal weapon on him, so he’d get arrested.
I was utterly devastated by the news that my husband, my daughter’s father, was behind bars for a crime he hadn’t committed—all because he tried to stand up for himself. I was so irritated with him and the city, but most of all, I was lost without him. I wanted to do something to help him, but the sluggish judicial system of Pakistan toyed around with the case, pushing it off. I cursed the judge of the trial court who rejected his bail plea. The allegations and evidence were weak, yet I was ignored while my husband was left to wallow in jail, away from his family. I hated the idea of him being alone, so I started coming for the family visits each week. I did my best to be strong for our daughter, so as to help her not feel scared. It was awful, putting on a brave face without knowing what was to come, but I tried my hardest.
Over a year passed with no change in his imprisonment nor for a trial. When a trial was finally scheduled, a virus had reached China, causing sickness and death in its wake. I didn’t think any of that would reach Pakistan. Wishful thinking, I guess.
To put it bluntly, this virus (known as COVID-19) jolted a pandemic that changed everything. When the virus first showed signs in our country, the jail authority imposed a ban on family meetings with inmates. Still, we were allowed to send items to our loved ones at the gate. So off I went, to send in some food for my husband.
As the rickshaw (a three-wheeler ride in Pakistan) halted in front of the mighty, iron gates of Karachi Central Prison, I quickly handed the cash to the driver, picked up the heavy cloth bag, filled with home-cooked food and hopped off the vehicle. There was something unusual about the place that day. I could see a group of people had gathered around the policemen stationed at the entrance. The scorching sun made beads of perspiration run down my face as I paced towards the crowd.
“How many times do I have to tell you that no items or packages are allowed today,” scowled the policeman at the angry crowd, wiping the sweat from his brow.
I stopped in my tracks, disappointed. As if the sweltering heat was not enough to infuriate me, this news enraged me even more.
“Why not?” I demanded.
He looked around and came a bit closer as if all set to reveal a secret.
“There are rumors that a few inmates are infected with the virus and medical teams are inside conducting the tests,” he confided in a whisper.
Giving him a hard stare, there was no other option but to go back home without sending anything to my Shuja.
“More than 850 inmates are infected with COVID-19 in Karachi Central Prison,” announced the modulated voice of the newscaster on TV I watched from home.
Sprawled across my bed, I sat up straight to listen to the details. I quickly dismissed the chances of Shuja contracting the virus since he was alone in his prison cell. But the peace was short-lived. Not long after, I received a call from the lawyer, informing me that Shuja could not be produced in the court any time soon because he had been infected with the coronavirus.
I sat dumbfounded with my cellphone in my hand, trying to digest the news. How could he have contracted the virus? He was alone in his cell in prison. I stifled a cry as the fear gripped me. What kind of facility was my husband in to have tested positive for COVID-19? What about physical distancing, his diet, and medical treatment? The jail was notorious for housing prisoners more than its capacity and the hygienic conditions were absurd there. So even though it was shocking, it made sense how it happened with such awful conditions.
All my thoughts were of Shuja and if he was okay. Not knowing was causing me to spiral. Did he have a fever and cough? Was he longing for some hot, mutton soup to soothe his throat? What about his breathing? My mind was fogged with thoughts of losing him forever. I pictured Shuja, alone in his cell, struggling to take every breath alone. I feared the thought of him in the menacing, gloomy COVID wards of a hospital, with us unable to visit or get close to him. Crying bitterly, I called my mother and poured my heart out between sobs and tears. Her harsh tone had soothing words that felt like the breath of spring.
“Is it cancer or HIV? Don’t people recover from this disease? Pray and don’t lose hope,” she insisted in a challenging tone.
As I let my mother’s words sink in, I heard my daughter come into the room. “Maama, I am hungry,” she said, hopping into my lap. “Why are your eyes looking like balloons Maama, so swollen?”
Her soft, small hands tried to hold my face and she quickly hugged me. I knew she could always sense my pain. As I looked at her innocent, demanding eyes, it felt as if my burning heart had calmed down with the wash of the sea. In my agony and pain, I did not realize that I was making my child suffer. How could a six-year-old bear to see her mother so distraught?
Gaining a renewed strength, I shook off all the negativity enveloping me. I could not let my despair taint my daughter’s childhood. I knew that I had to remain strong. I had been steadfast when he was first arrested, and I would have to stand as solid as a rock and push through this hardship too. Didn’t Noah’s Ark make it through the heaviest storm and flooding? Then I could too.
Strengthening myself with prayers, I knew what I had to do. With a trembling heart, I visited the jail and inquired about Shuja’s health. The usual long, crooked path to the inside of the jail seemed endless. Despite the virus spreading, none of the policemen took the Coronavirus seriously. They referred to it as a “hoax” or the “flu.”
“It’s nothing. The government just wants to make money. Foreign funding, you know,” a guard said to me, taming his unruly mustache with his fingers.
Anyways, they allowed me to talk to Shuja’s ward jailer. He comforted me and told me that he is fine. Unsatisfied with what he had said, I had no other option but to believe him. Next, I sent a heartening letter to Shuja, telling him that he will soon recover and to seek help if he feels any discomfort. Then, I called his lawyer and instructed him to apply for bail in The High Court immediately. I was tired of being tossed around and letting the politics get in the way of my family’s life.
I did all I could for Shuja, but now, I had to focus on helping myself. Under the running shower, the cascading water swept away all the pessimism. I knew what had to come, would come anyways. I needed to maintain a positive attitude, keep fighting, and hope that Shuja would recover. I continued with my daily chores, called my boss, told him that I would come to work tomorrow, played with my daughter, and deep inside, my soul prayed for the wellness of my husband with every breath I took.
I kept a regular check on Shuja and his health. In time, the jail authorities allowed items to be sent again (except for cooked food). I sent multivitamins and fruits for him to keep his immune system strong.
But things still did not straighten out. In a retest after 14 days, he tested positive again.
Be hopeful, I reminded myself.
It was only after 28 days, with a racing heart and fear that he would be hospital-bound, that I got the news that he had tested negative for the test. The relief I felt when I received the news was so overwhelming that I had to catch my breath.
As if that wasn’t good enough news, I answered my ringing phone to be told, “The High Court has granted Shuja his bail,” said the lawyer.
There came an overflowing waterfall of relief. Shuja was coming home! I knew it was only for now, but this was good news. It meant we could start pursuing the matter with more aggression, showing that the case was forged and that Shuja is innocent. Maybe then, he could be acquitted and we would all be back together.
I didn’t know how to describe my feelings. Euphoric? Elated? On cloud nine? Words did not seem to fully encapsulate how I felt. I was just so happy.
That night as I put my daughter to sleep, thinking of the good days to come, I realized how this pandemic had brought negativity, but also engulfed me with optimism and hope. I’ve learned just how valuable a positive perspective and a strong faith can be. Things may not work out as we hope, but why think like that? Why not believe in a better tomorrow? Why not carry hope?
This is the story of Humaira Asif
Maira, 35, is a software engineer who resides in Karachi, Pakistan. Her marriage was a happy one till her husband was accused in a forged illegal weapon license case for refusing to pay extortion to the mafia- law enforcement collaboration and was thus imprisoned. She has stayed strong during the whole crisis and is now awaiting her husband’s release on bail. She believes that an optimist perspective keeps a person strong. She is eagerly waiting to hug her husband and would love to go to Turkey once the pandemic is over. Apart from being a loving wife, she is a mother to a six-year-old daughter whom she loves very much.
This story first touched our hearts on June 29, 2020.
| Writer: Humaira Asif | Editor: Our Life Logs |