It was years ago, on the first day of their college, that Fathima met Vani for the first time. They were together at the hostel and soon became friends. Vani, an excellent singer, often shined at youth festivals and encouraged Fathima to take part in such evens. Fathima, however, considered Vani as one among her other friends. She didn't feel a soulful connection with Vani even though the two were good friends.
One day, after their college days had ended, Fathima received a post card which had the picture of a girl, walking alone in the rain. It was sent by Vani and she had even written a small note in it. "Even though our friendship had its own share of ups and downs, I will never forget you. I will value this friendship forever in my life," Vani wrote on the card. Fathima realized that those weren't empty words, years later, when her life had turned upside down.
When death came close
Fathima, a native of Kanjirapally, has fond memories of her childhood. Her father Salim, who was a doctor, encouraged his kids to read books and express themselves by writing. She grew up in her mother's ancestral home until she turned six, and was showered with great love as she was the first grandchild in the family. Fathima, who shared a special bond with her father says that he was her everything. She won the first prize in poetry writing competition in the state school youth festival when she was in standard nine. She recalls with pride that her photo had appeared on the newspaper then. Though she loved to express herself through words, Fathima says she lost the motivation to write at some point in her life.
After marrying her cousin Jamal, Fathima moved to the Gulf where her husband was working as an engineer. The family settled in Riyadh and led a peaceful life. It was during this time that Fathima lost her beloved father. Her father's death pushed her into depression. Seeing her struggle to cope with reality, Jamal suggested that the family undertake a hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Meccah. Fathima, Jamal and their two kids decided to go for the hajj pilgrimage to pray for her father's soul.
"It was from Riyadh that we went to Meccah to perform the hajj. It was a sacred journey, praying to almighty to give us the strength to forgive those who hurt us. Two major accidents had taken place in Meccah, during the year we went for the pilgrimage. One was an accident involving a crane which took the lives of many and the other one was a deadly stampede. It was in the stampede that we got caught,” recalls Fathima.
Fathima and her daughter Afreen stayed together while her son Haroon was with Jamal in a separate tent. However, the family used to get together when they were out of their lodgings.
Train services are arranged to transport the pilgrims to different holy places in Meccah. Fathima says that the train compartments were so crowded that she often felt suffocated and exhausted travelling in it. Meanwhile Vani had continuously been in contact with her, through phone, ever since Fathima began her pilgrimage. She explained the sights at each place to Vani. On the third day of the pilgrimage, there is a ritual called 'stoning of the devil.' There are heaps of pebbles near the place where the ritual takes place and the pilgrims have to take stones from it and throw at a pillar. The ritual symbolizes the denouncement of evil and purification of minds and souls. The pilgrims move slowly in lines, chanting prayers, and verses from the Quran.
Everyone would slightly push the person standing in the front to make space for them to stand comfortably. "Suddenly a wave of people pushed us hard and everyone fell down. I could hear people screaming out loud. I didn't leave my daughter Afreen's hand even then. I rolled over and lied on top of her so that people won't stamp on my daughter. I could hear Vani's distressed voice from the phone that was knocked out of my hands. People who were running for their lives stepped on me. I felt severe pain and helplessness as if I were facing death. I didn't imagine, at that moment, that I could be saved. Those moments were really terrifying. I couldn't find Jamal and my son anywhere around. I somehow managed to get up and helped my daughter up. We ran through several paths, holding onto our dear lives, and managed to reach our tent," said Fathima.
The next day, Fathima complained of severe body pain and it increased as days passed. She couldn't even spread her fingers. The family somehow completed the pilgrimage and returned home. She was rushed to the hospital as soon as they reached home. To the utter shock of the family, the doctor said that the joints and bones in her hands and legs were all either broken or ruptured. She had severe injuries to her spine and neck bones. Seeing the extent and severity of her injuries the doctors were doubtful whether Fathima would walk ever again. They suggested a major surgery. However, the doctors didn't give the family any assurances. Fathima even tried ayurvedic treatment and massages in the hope that she could get rid of the writhing pain. But no treatment could make her feel better or even make her stand on her feet again. It was during this time of great pain that Fathima came to know that lots of people had lost their lives in the stampede at Meccah that day.
"I was confined to bed. Vani would call every day. It was she who saved me from plunging into depression and loneliness. My domestic help would come only after Jamal went to the office and kids to the school. Her name was Mona. She took care of me like a little child. She brushed my teeth and walked me to the bathroom. Food was blended in a blender and fed to me in a spoon. When my condition began to improve, Jamal often took me to the mosque where he goes to offer prayers. Pillows were arranged in a special way to make me comfortable on the car seat. It was during those journeys that I regained my olfactory senses. I opened up my mind and began to enjoy the beautiful wind and soulful songs. However, there still was a looming sense of loneliness inside me," explained Fathima.
It was her dear friend Vani who motivated her to begin writing again. Even if she complained of pain, Vani would insist her to pick up pen and jot something down. After twenty four years, Fathima decided to write again. "I felt severe pain when I wrote each word. I cried out in pain whenever Vani called. When is said that I couldn't write, she would say 'there are lots of people without hands and limbs, in this world, who work and earn their livelihood.' Vani would call every morning. She would send yoga postures and songs to go through online. She insisted that I should do all these without fail. Slowly I could move my fingers and beautiful poetry began to be born out of those fingers," noted Fathima.
One day Vani called Fathima and said that her father has turned 70, and week-long celebrations have been arranged in his honour. One of the events was a poetry reading session and eminent poets like Balachandran Chullikad, Rafeeq Ahamed, and Alangod Leelakrishnan were invited for the program. Fathima was stunned when Vani said that her name, too, had had been added to the list. She tried to turn it down by saying that she was nothing in front of those well known poets. However, Vani was not ready to let her go. Finally Fathima had to give in to her beloved friend's persistence. She flew down to Kerala and presented a beautiful poem in front of a group of eminent personalities.
A medicine called friendship
It took four years for Fathima to return to normal life. During those times, it was Vani's presence, through online communication, which helped her bounce back. Fathima says, "Vani stood with me, motivating and encouraging whenever I felt low. She trained me to listen to relaxing music when I thought I would break down. Sometimes I would cry helplessly asking her why she wouldn't understand my pain. She would then reply, 'If I try to listen to your complains about pain then you wouldn't stop it. That is why I ignored them most of the times.'"
Vani is a teaching faculty at the Oxford University campus in Malaysia. Besides being a working woman and a mother of two, Vani finds time to study new things which interests her. Fathima says that her friend took some time out of her busy schedule to spend with her. "I value the time that she gave me, more than any other precious thing in this world. She was not just a friend; we have become two inseparable souls. There were times when I thought that I would die. She could even pull me out of such depressing thoughts. Vani said, "Death is just relocation. Just think of it as the soul leaving a body. What is there to be scared about it so much?" Her words gave me strength. Even now, when I have a hearty laugh, I would close my eyes and say in mind 'Thank you my dear friend,'" concludes Fathima with a smile.