Danish felt as though he was in hell. His blood had become molten lava flowing through swollen veins. The lava reached the tips of his toenails but at the same time managed to scorch the sockets behind his eyes. Both arms were a constant blur of motion as they whipped around, seemingly with a life of their own. They clawed at his legs, his chest in fact any bare flesh they could reach. His skin seemed to be covered in a blanket of needles. Danish kept opening and shutting his mouth trying to scream yet he could make no sound. For some reason his tongue seemed to be welded to the roof of his mouth.
Despite the tortuous pain, Danish could hear a guttural moaning. He twitched his head slightly to see where the sound was coming from and then realised the sounds were his. Just then his tongue detached itself from the roof of his mouth. “Allah” he whimpered, “please remove me from this torture”.
Danish heard a door open and felt cool air ripple over his burning skin. “How’s the Voyager this morning?” boomed a deep gravelly voice. He opened his eyes. It had been a long time since anybody had called him ‘The Voyager’. Without warning, a piercing stomach cramp sent him into a violent convulsion. He fell from his bed, his head crashing onto the cold stone floor with a dull thud.
The owner of the deep gravelly voice was clad in a long white coat and wore a stethoscope around his neck. “I need medicine” Danish whispered. Doctor Kabir walked across the stone flagstone floor, his bare feet making no sound. He crouched down next to his patient. In his hand were two small white discs and a chipped white cup holding some tepid water. Danish knew the drill and opened his mouth just enough for the doctor to put the tablets inside. Doctor Kabir held the cup so that Danish could take a sip. Almost immediately he could feel the lava in his veins turning back into blood.
Just then Danish felt a familiar feeling in his gut. It was like a gurgling hot spring coming to life. He knew what was coming and turning his head felt the vomit start its journey from his belly to the outside world. The acid started by burning his chest, then his throat and finally his mouth as it spilled out onto the floor.
Doctor Kabir was a heavily built man and Danish the weight of a young child, so to scoop him from the floor and place him back on the bed was an easy task. The doctor produced another tablet which Danish managed to swallow without reawakening the hot spring inside him. The doctor padded across to the far corner of the room. Underneath the one small window in the room stood an old mop standing in a large rusty old paint pot. The pot was filled with a murky liquid long since drawn from the standpipe in the alley outside. He took the mop and cleaned up Danish’s vomit before leaving the room.
As Danish lay quietly on his bed, the blanket of fiery needles slowly unwrapped itself from his slight frame. The pain slowly left his body and as it did so, his eyes surveyed his prison. The room was small and cramped. The stone floor was bare apart from an old rug. Many years ago the rug had been brightly coloured and sumptuously thick. But now it was thin, old and tired, the once vibrant blue and red threads long since faded. The only furniture apart from the bed was an old wooden chair sitting next to the door. The walls of the room were whitewashed or at least they had been thirty years ago. The once proud white plaster was now stained and brown and as it slowly died, it crumbled and fell to the floor uncovering the humble brown bricks behind. Through the small window Danish could see the torrential rain beating against the panes. It was July and so the height of the monsoon season. But the rain gave no relief from the sweet sticky heat that was a part of life in Karachi.
Permeating through the walls and roof of his room crept the aroma of raw spices fighting against the smell of sewage and rotting fish. Danish wondered why they hadn’t built the centre away from the slum, somewhere where it would be easier for people like him to mend. But Danish knew that wherever he was in Karachi, the smells would be the same. The sticky smell of humans and rats mixed together with tamarind chutney and dipped pakoras.
Danish’s eyes closed and he thought back to the birth of the Voyager and his journey to this small room in the slums of Karachi. It hadn’t always been like this.
His life had begun in a small mountain village called Jhansa. The village had been a perfect playground for a young boy, lush green meadows, thick forests of cedar, oak and pine. Mysterious wreaths of fog wound through the forests in the late summer followed by blankets of pure white snow through the winter.
Danish’s parents had been poor hill farmers yet he remembered that his mother Somia had always put food on the table. He thought back to the burfi his mother used to make and remembered his mother standing by the fire, stirring the old black pot that held the milk and sugar. Once it had become solid, his mother always let the young boy cut it up into little shapes. He had loved the soft and velvety texture which perfectly complimented its sweetness.
Danish had some good friends back then, Boys he had gone to school with, played and fought with. He remembered Yasin. Yasin was the same age as Danish. They had been born and raised together as their families lived in the same village. They went to the same school, had adventures in the forest together and then on leaving school both began tending the family’s small herd of Sahiwal cows. Yasins job was to feed and milk them. Danish had to take the milk to Nathia Gali, a nearby town and sell it at market. Both boys had to collect the cow dung. This was sold for fuel and for feeding the fields.
When Danish reached 22, his parents arranged for him to marry Ahlam who was just 14. She had always been pretty with hazel eyes and beautiful dark hair that fell onto her shoulders. Ahlam was forever laughing and smiling. Thinking back, he couldn’t ever remember seeing her frown or lose that cheeky smile. He had always felt happy when he was with her, so he was pleased when his parents announced that they were to be married.
Although both sets of parents were poor, the wedding was very traditional for it was the weaving together of two families and so was an important event.
As part of the wedding ritual, he remembered seeing Ahlams mother Mumtaz putting dark paste onto Ahlams smooth young skin. She had painted it on with a small brush and then covered the markings with mud. Once the mud had dried, he helped Ahlam pick it off after which Mumtaz put on a mixture of lemon juice and sugar before wrapping the skin in tissue.
The day of the wedding would always stick in his mind. Ahlam looked the most beautiful he had ever seen her look. She wore a traditional purple gharara which was heavily embroidered and on which hung gold jewelry. Although her makeup was light, her skin glowed and her eyes sparkled like the topaz stone they had uncovered together in the forest when they were children. Danish remembered the sherwani his mother had made. His mother had also made him a turban which he had refused to wear. Thinking back, he wished he had worn it now. It would have pleased his mother.
The village Imam performed the wedding after which dinner was served. Danish remembered the dinner as being really special. It was so different from the plain food they would normally eat. The varied dishes included Naan bread and biryani which was a tasty mixture of rice and a spicy meaty sauce. There was roast fowl and roast lamb. Truly a feast and one that both families had saved for many years to make possible.
Shortly after the wedding Ahlam became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys. He recalled that night as being the most traumatic of his entire young life.
The day had started normally enough. Danish had returned from working with the herd. It had been a busy and long day at the market but he had sold all his milk so he was happy. It was a long walk from market back to Jhansa. After a day on his feet at the market, walking back the nearly ten miles home, along a steeply winding rock strewn path was not an easy task. He remembered walking through the doorway of their humble hut and seeing his beloved Ahlam on the bed surrounded by the females of the family. His mother Mumtaz had a bowl of hot water and towels. She had turned and looked at Danish and told him “Tonight will be the happiest night of your life my son. Tonight you will be a father. Go out and leave this to us. We will call you when your child enters the world” He wondered how his mother could have been so wrong. That night was not destined to be a happy one.
Danish thought back and recalled how he had sat down on an old log outside his little home. Even now he could hear the echo’s of Ahlams screams as she struggled to let a new life into the world. After what seemed like hours, Ahlam let out a tremendous scream which was followed shortly after by the sound of a baby crying. Danish rushed into the hut and saw his mother holding something that was squashed, wrinkled and scrunched up. Going over to his mother he recalled the feeling of utter astonishment when he saw she was actually holding two tiny bundles. “You are a father twice over Danish – you have twin boys. It is a proud day for our families”. Just then Ahlam cried out. It was an inhuman sound, one that Danish had never heard before. He tore his gaze from the twin bundles and dropped to his feet next to his wife.
Ahlam was obviously in distress. Her beautiful brown hair was soaked with sweat and the strands stuck to her forehead. . For the first time in a long time, Ahlam wasn’t smiling. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be gasping.
Then came the moment Danish would never ever forget, a moment that would haunt him until the day his life on earth came to an end. It was the moment Ahlam opened her eyes and looked straight at him. She tried to say something but then her jaw moved as though she was trying to eat the air. Her arm twitched and she let out a soft gurgling sound. Her arms went limp and Ahlams eyes although open glazed and became sightless. Giving two boys life and passage into the world had proved too much for Ahlams young body. As he bent over his wife, clutching her hands in his, he could hear screams and sobs. The cries sounded to Danish as though they were coming from the bottom of the valley and not from the woman surrounding his dead wife.
He felt then and still felt now an emptiness that went way beyond loneliness. All of the dreams that he and Ahlam had shared had evaporated in an instant, never to be realised. He felt incomplete, the better half of him having been cruelly torn away.
It was strange but Danish didn’t feel that he had lost Ahlam all at once. He felt as though he lost her in pieces over the first few months. For a while, he could still smell her scent on the pillow they shared and when he closed his eyes it seemed as though she was still there lying next to him. But after a few weeks that went and he felt he had lost a part of her. The day Ahlams mother cleared out her clothes was the day another part of Ahlam left him. Each time something like this happened, Danish felt another part of his wife sliding away from him, leaving him with an emptiness that was impossible to fill.
But Danish had to learn to cope with his grief for he now had two boys. He named them Nafees and Rizwan. As they grew the boys father saw that although twins, they were very different. Nafees was kind and considerate and enjoyed spending time with his father whereas Rizwan was fiercely independent even when young. But Rizwan always wore a smile; a smile very like Ahlams and because of this, Danish always felt a special fondness for Rizwan.
He had some good times with his boys as they grew which although not dissipating the grief he felt, certainly helped him cope with it. The first day at school was a challenge. Despite his pain as he lay on his bed, the memory of his twins first day at school made him smile. He had tried to think what Ahlam would have done to prepare his two little boys for school and then did it himself. Danish sat Nafees and Rizwan down and explained to them where they would be going and for how long. Rizwan simply grinned and told his father that he couldn’t wait to go. Nafees on the other hand, took his father’s hand, looked up at him and said “Abu jaan, I will miss you”. He squeezed Nafees hand tightly and told him that it would only be for a few hours. That was the day his twins started to grow up. It was also the first day that Danish felt truly abandoned and companionless.
As weeks, months and years passed, the boys grew and he managed to snatch many moments of happiness. He remembered the street cricket that Rizwan loved to play. Rizwan would play cricket with his street friends and sometimes he would join in, playing in old dried out riverbeds, deserted parking lots and sometimes in old apartment corridors. There was no rule book as such and they used to play with an old rubber ball that Nafees had found. They used old crates or broom sticks as the wickets. There was never an official umpire for the game but Nafees would often do the job inevitably frustrating his brother by playing too strictly by the rules.
The day came when both boys finished school and were old enough to start work. Danish expected both Nafees and Rizwan to tend the family herd just as he had done at their age. For a few days all went well but one day Rizwan didn’t come back with his brother. Danish asked Nafees where his brother was. Nafees told his father that Rizwan had left to find work in Karachi.
For Danish that was another defining moment in his life. Rizwan was his one of his two last remaining pieces of Ahlam. Danish remembered going to bed feeling an overwhelming sense of isolation. That was the night that the ‘Voyager; was born.
In the early hours of the morning while it was still dark, Danish left the warmth of his bed and the safety of his home and village. Although it was dark the stone paths toward Nathia Gali were familiar to him. Perhaps he could find Rizwan and persuade him to return. Eventually he reached Nathia Gali. It was still dark and shadowy creatures of the night flitted here and there. He sat down on the side of the dusty road and rested his head in his hands. Where was Rizwan?
Thinking back Danish remembered the moment he felt a soft touch on his shoulder. Looking up he could make out a dark figure. It crouched down next to him and whispered something. Danish couldn’t make out the words and so the stranger repeated himself “do you like to travel?” he said. The stranger stretched out his arm and in his open hand gently cradled a small syringe. Even in the darkness of the night, he could see that the metal was rusty and bloodstained. “This will help you travel and forget your troubles” whispered the stranger.”50 rupees and it’s yours”.
Danish knew what was in the syringe. It was heroin. Karachi was known for its poppy fields and therefore filled with men and woman who tried to escape their desperately sad lives by using the easily obtained heroin. Many times he had stepped over the bodies of addicts lying prone on the roadsides. He had sworn never to use the stuff no matter how bad things became. But this night had been different. The disappearance of his son Rizwan keenly amplified his feelings of loss for Ahlam and he felt he would do anything to escape.
So he had paid the 50 rupees and took the syringe. Danish rolled up the sleeve of his shirt and finding a vein he inserted the needle and pressed the plunger down slowly transferring the contents of the syringe into his body.
The first thing he noticed was that he could taste the smell of the drug. It seemed to come from the back of his throat and then into his nose. Within seconds Danish felt a warm tingle travel down his spine to the tips of his fingers and toes. Almost immediately after that, he felt himself taking his first voyage, travelling far away from his feelings for Ahlam and his boys. His body started to fall into a warm cloud where the only feelings were those of happiness so intense, it was simply indescribable. His grief and worries dissipated like an early morning mist when the sun finds its heat. The heroin fuelled voyage lasted just twenty minutes but it was twenty minutes of pure heaven.
To begin with Danish only took a voyage when his feelings grew so intense that he couldn’t cope. But after a while, he found himself using nearly every day. One terrible day, he was sitting on the floor of his hut next to the bed he had once shared with Ahlam. As he slipped the now familiar needle into his arm, Nafees walked through the door. Danish looked up and saw the haunted expression on his son’s face, a look that he would never forget.
The months after that were spent promising Nafees, his family and friends that he would give up. In reality Danish was an addict and wanted to chase that indescribable feeling he had enjoyed when he had taken his first voyage and so forever found ways to obtain the drug and take his voyages. His habit became so well known that the villagers called him the Voyager.
Rizwan had never returned. Nobody had heard from him since the day he disappeared. Although Nafees cared for his father, he felt that if only Rizwan would return, he would stop taking his voyages.
A month ago, Nafees has come in from a day working with the herd and had found Danish lying unconscious on the floor of the hut. His weight was about the same as a small child and the dark skin on his arms was now a mass of scars.
Nafees took his father to one of the six centers run by the Edhi Foundation. The Edhi Foundation was known for offering a free service to heroin addicts. The last month in the centre had been pure torture.
The centre could not afford heroin substitutes like methadone to ease withdrawal symptoms. Instead addicts like Danish went ‘cold turkey’ with only sedative injections and paracetemol for pain relief. He repeatedly begged his son to take him home. Each time Nafees visited, Danish told him that he was cured and could go home. Doctor Kabir however told Nafees the real story and that his father would have to stay at the centre for several more weeks.
Danish’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door in his room opening. He raised his head expecting to see Doctor Kabir. Instead he saw his son Nafees. He enjoyed his son’s visits. His son walked in, pulled up the old wooden chair and sat down next to his father. In a faint voice he greeted his son; “May peace be upon you Nafees”.
“Have you forgotten you have another son?” came the reply. Danish turned his head and looked, really looked at his son. “Can it be? Is it really you Rizwan?”
“It is I Father” replied Rizwan. “Can you forgive me for being away while you were so ill?”
Danish struggled to get himself sitting upright and with a great effort he turned to face his son. Lifting his arms, he placed them around his son’s shoulders and they both started to weep. Rizwan had been gone for five years. It was as though he had returned from the dead.
After a few minutes Danish emotions subsided and he felt able to talk. He asked Rizwan question after question. He had asked him where he had gone all those years ago. His son explained that he hadn’t wanted to spend his life in a small village and wanted to explore the big city so he travelled to Karachi and found work there. He asked Rizwan what he did for work. His son gave no answer and instead just looked at his father. “I am sorry my Father, so sorry, I cannot tell you what I do for work. I am too ashamed”
Danish gently stroked his sons face. “Rizwan, you have returned, that is all that matters. Will you stay with us now; can you leave your job and come back home?”
This was too much for Rizwan. Tears filled his eyes. “I don’t deserve to be called your son”.
“My son, you have returned, that is all that matters” repeated Danish.
Rizwan stood up and gently moved his father over to the far side of the bed before climbing onto the bed and laying down next to him. The two lay there with no need for any more words. Danish closed his eyes and for the first time for as long as he could remember he fell asleep without the need for the doctors potions.
Night had passed and the sun was up sending slivers of light into Danish’s room. He opened his eyes. His mind raced. His son had returned. What joy! He turned his head expecting to see his beloved Rizwan. But looking around Danish could see the room was empty. He thought hard, had it all been a dream? Had his son Rizwan really returned?
He sat himself up and as he did so, his hand touched something on the bed next to him. He looked down and there on his pillow was a solitary red poppy. Danish took it and lifted it up close to his face and as he did so his eyes filled with tears for he now knew what Rizwan had chosen to do for work and why the room was now empty.