When There Is a Will: A COVID-19 Story

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| This is the 522nd story of Our Life Logs |


Have you ever seen a potter while he’s at work? The exposure to the right intensity of heat for the perfect amount of time turns a mere handful of clay into a fine piece of pottery. This is how life works. The heat and pressure refine what we are truly meant to be.

I was born the eldest of three sons in 1996 in Muzaffar Garh, a small settlement close to Multan, Pakistan. Nearly every time my parents spoke, it was to argue. We were a chaotic family, the kind in which fear possessed the majority of my childhood, leaving no space for love or happiness—just anxieties, yelling, and crying.

Despite my difficult upbringing, I managed to perform very well in school. After passing my intermediate with flying colors, I got accepted to a well-reputed, state-funded university in Lahore. I remember when I first moved out of my childhood home to the city in 2016. It felt just as if I had broken out of prison. I was allotted a room at the university hostel and start working a part-time job as a teacher in a local academy to help with my tuition. For the next few years, life was in a groove.

Then 2020 came, and with it, a newly-discovered virus in China. As it started making headlines across the world and it gained a name (COVID-19), my curiosity grew. But we weren’t all that worried in Pakistan. The university did organize a seminar about the virus and hundreds of students participated, but it was more out of curiosity too.

I was a microbiology student, so I had an idea of how viruses spread and how difficult they were to contain, but it didn’t feel like a problem with us. In fact, the name of this new virus was repeated in tandem with China so many times on TV that, in our minds, it was a Chinese problem. So, the warnings and precautions they cried about on TV took a backseat, and life in Pakistan continued uninterrupted. We enjoyed cricket matches in packed stadiums. We celebrated spring with all its zeal and zest. We even welcomed our expatriates from China and other infected countries, thinking we held safe refuge.

But we were all very wrong.

By mid-March, the inevitable happened, and we were very unprepared. Covid-19 cases started popping up in Pakistan. The country began to spring into action. Schools all over the country closed before it was past the point of no return.

My fears materialized when I got the news that my university had closed. Just like that, I was given 24 hours to vacate the university premises. Same-day in the evening I got a phone call telling me that the academy was closed too. When I asked when we’d reopen, I was told, “No one knows yet,” and, “When the situation gets better.” But the worst of it was, “Regrettably, we have to drop your contract.” This voice felt like it was coming from a great distance. I wanted to ask if I could take unpaid leave or perhaps get a contract later, but the words failed to verbalize, and the line was cut. A well of tears stirred up inside me. Four years of my dedicated services and I had been laid off so easily. That too, over the telephone.

Of course, I was devastated. Where was I supposed to go? The small university dorm had been my home for the last four years. It was my place. It was my order after years of living in disorder. While everyone prepared their bags, I sat there in shock, facing the anxieties of an uncertain tomorrow. With nowhere else to go, I was forced to return home. I boarded the last bus with a burden of apprehensions.

An all-out lockdown was imposed the following day, March 21.

I felt so guilty returning home, as if I was only adding more fuel to my family’s problems. With my dad’s aggressive temper, every conversation—even about frivolous things—incited an argument. And every argument conveniently led to violence, both verbal and physical. My mom took all the abuse without a word. Seeing it all over again was hard to bear, but I had since grown and I couldn’t watch anymore without doing something.

One day, when my dad was beating up my mom, I stepped in. This set a fire under his feet, and after a storm of screaming and violence, my dad threw us all out on the streets. Just like that, my mother, my siblings, and I were homeless.

With a closed door in my face and a city under siege in front of me, I was at a dead-end. But this time, I wasn’t alone. I had my old mother and young siblings to take care of. The burden weighed on my shoulders like a cinderblock.

I had lived under thick clouds of fear all my life, but being homeless in the middle of an unprecedented crisis brought out a new kind of fear. I felt exposed like the virus was all around us. A vagrant can usually find a place to sleep in mosques or, if nothing else, on the road, but mosques were closed and being on roads had become illegal. Where were we to go? What were we to eat? I stood at the door, with every bit of my heart feeling utterly abandoned and wondering, what did I do wrong to deserve this?

A glimmer of hope came in the form of my mom’s distant cousin in the city who offered refuge to us. But she only agreed to until the virus had subsided, something she believed would only last for a couple of days. One day passed, then two, three, four…seven days…and the situation only worsened. As the virus infected more and more people, the lockdown kept getting extended.

As the days rolled by, I knew we couldn’t put our weight in someone else’s basket any longer. I woke up every day waiting for a call from Dad, but it turned out that he had a rock for heart, and that rock wasn’t going to melt, ever. My trust in humanity evaporated a little bit every day until all I had left was a void in my soul.

As I battled with all these uncertainties to find a way out, Mom kept her spirits high. All that she had to endure during her life with Dad made her a kind of hard-to-break person. She came to me one night as she saw me struggling to sleep. “Remember, when you feel that things can’t be worse, they can only get better.” This was the spark that I seriously needed, and I began to realize the hope and readiness to swim against the flow, to assume responsibility, and improve our lives. Before the morning, I had decided that we were going. Where? That I didn’t know yet, but we were going.

The sun rose the next day and with it came a miracle. A friend who had heard about my plight called me and generously offered my family his condo in Lahore for as long as we needed with cheap rent. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was exhilarated—so exhilarated that, for a moment, my mind overlooked everything, one of them being the fact that it was 2020 and the country was under a strict lockdown. Beyond that, Lahore was one of the epicenters for the virus in Pakistan.

But despite all this, I knew we had to try. Our options were either to stay where we were and die of hunger or to go to a city that the virus swept into like a tsunami. I chose the latter, the lesser of two evils because, even if I died, at least I would be headed for the shore.

Silence and fear of the unknown ruled over the streets as I stepped out to find transport for Lahore, knowing full well our options were very limited. All sorts of public transport were banned except for smaller intra-city cabs. As my eyes panned the streets, I spotted a cab and flagged it down. When I asked how much to get to Lahore, my heart sank at his answer. I couldn’t afford 20,000 PKR. We didn’t even have half of it! All my hopes receded, and with each of my feet weighing a ton, I dragged myself back to my family. No one asked what had happened. The disappointment was printed on my face.

I knew we had to come up with another solution, and fast. That’s when my younger brother said to me, “Why don’t we all go to Lahore on your motorbike?” First, it sounded ridiculous, but after a few minutes, I realized that it was worth a try. I had heard and read tales about people bridging continents on motorbikes. Why not us? I knew the dangers that would come with it, but I was desperate to get my family to safety. It was our only hope to survive.

The next day, in the wee hours of the morning, I started for Lahore with my younger brother, a journey of 400 miles that would normally take 8 hours on a bus. And what number of hours on a 70cc Honda? I didn’t know, but I was finally seeing some light at the end of a dark tunnel, so I kept going. Two tires spinning, screeching against the tarmac, bumps, engine vibrations, a blank sky above, and a mischievous rocky road ahead. It was bliss.

However, no road can ever be completely smooth, and ours most certainly was not. We were stopped at many checkpoints by police officers. Each time I wondered, Is this it? Is our plan completely foiled already? My heart nearly thumped out of my chest each time I had to put on the brakes to speak with an officer. Some officers were kind, but many others were cruel and we had to bribe them with the little bit of money that we had. Where the pandemic has wronged many rights; it has also righted some wrongs.

Halfway through, we had to take longer routes to avoid confronting the police as we no longer had anything with which to pay them. Every inch felt like a mile. A mixture of fear and thrill hung in the air as we rode our bikes to Lahore. I was headed for danger, but I had greater fears at my back.

After a spine-breaking 12-hour journey, we rolled into Lahore late at night. The capital looked like a ghost town because of the lockdown. This wasn’t the Lahore I had left only a few days ago. A city of 25 million and hardly anyone was on the roads. Fear had taken over the city and death danced among the sirens and wailings of ambulances and police rovers.

I bought my brother a mask (which was over-priced), some noodles, and milk with all the money we had left. After refueling and I started my journey back to bring my mother and my other brother. Thankfully, the police were not a problem. It was nature who tried to stop me this time.

Halfway through the trek, a heavy thunderstorm struck which greatly delayed our progress. After an uncountable number of hours, I made it back. My limbs ached and my head hurt, but as I soared on the road, all I could think about was getting my family to safety. And then, I made the trip there and back two more times until we were all together once more. I was bedridden for two days after all the trips. I couldn’t feel anything but thick pain beyond my ribs. But I knew my pain was worth it. Finally, all of us were reunited in a home where no one would force us out. We were free.

Since we got to Lahore, things have started to look up. I found an instructor position again and now I’m teaching students via video calls from home. The pay isn’t as great, but it’s just enough to keep us going.

The way I see it, the plague has infected everyone in some way. Some are directly infected, fighting to breathe. Others are scraping for a roof over their heads and food on their tables. Others are battling their minds to stay positive and live to see the next day. So, when all this is over, I will not think of how the virus uprooted my life. Instead, I will think of how it saved it.

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This is the story of Kavish Nadeem 

Kavish had an abusive childhood before he got admitted to a university. As the recent Covid-19 outbreak took away his job and forced him to leave, he was met with disastrous circumstances at home that led to his father kicking out him and the rest of the family. The story is about his struggle to find them a place to live in the midst of the lockdown. Presently, he lives in Lahore and teaches students online. He’s going to graduate this year (positively). He dreams of buying a house for his family after he graduates. Kavish’s favorite quarantine food is molasses boiled rice cooked by his mom. He spends his time reading and playing board games with his younger brothers in lockdown. He misses his classroom and University the most. That will be the first place he goes after the quarantine is over.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on April 28, 2020.

| Writer: Athar Rasool | Editor: Our Life Logs |

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