St. Mary’s General Hospital was a large, rustic-red brick building that had been standing for nearly over a century. It was the largest hospital in Harare, boasting the best doctors and the best equipment. So when their next patient arrived, they were more than well-prepared.
The emergency medics burst through the doors shouting for the on-call doctors.
“Woman, early forties, Indian, possible heart attack!” one of parroted.
They rushed her to a nearby room, prepping her for the procedure. They scurried around her, nurses frantically placing various instruments into the waiting doctors’ hands. The woman in question stared up at them breathless, her mind reeling from the events that had transpired, her face a panicked look of incomprehension.
“Anesthetic stat!” one doctor shouted. A nurse rushed to the woman, and with a practiced ease slid the needle into a patch in her arm waiting for the woman to lose consciousness. Slowly, her vision began to fade to black, the medicine wrapping its arms in a soothing vice-like grip around her, dragging her down to the depths of her mind. However, before she could succumb to it, she had one final thought. She said it out loud, her speech slurring as the drugs took effect.
“I was having…. Such… love…ly day.”
Zimbabwe is a country that attracted the eye of many wanderers from all over the world. It was not certain what exactly drew their attention, and the reasons varied in speculation. Perhaps it was the well-renowned Victoria Falls, a lovely gushing tumble of roaring water, flanked by steep gorges on either side, with a distinct spray that earned it the fitting local nickname The Smoke That Thunders.
Or perhaps it was the allure of the stunning sunsets of Kariba, an orange-pink spectacle that left the viewer in state of transcendence, in awe of the site that beheld them. .. Maybe it was the attraction of Mana Pools and all its wild glory- miles upon miles of open land unto which the animals roam free, untamed and undisturbed. The eponymous pools, four of them to be exact (mana meaning four in Shona), shone beautifully like shimmering crystals under the Zimbabwean sun. The jacaranda trees in full bloom during the springtime, possibly, flowering once a year and most commonly found in Harare. The month of October was always special, with several drops of purple dotting the otherwise green seas of trees. It was lovely to watch one little flower to fall from a tree, swaying gently with the movement of the wind, until it settled on the ground like a ripple in a puddle of violet.
But none of these things were the reason for Mrs. Kassim’s passage to Zimbabwe from India. She had come for an entirely different reason. She came for a reason the world knows well. A tradition that humanity has practiced since the dawn of civilization. Marriage. At age twenty, she left India with her now husband Mr.Kassim, leaving behind the world as she had known it. She would sometimes reminisce about that time, recalling how scared she felt to leave India and all the comforts of home it had. It was only natural of course. To venture into the unknown is a terrifying thing, especially when facing it alone. Yet she had managed just fine, and soon grew accustomed to life in Zimbabwe. Except she had felt a nagging little thought that would creep its way out of the innermost thoughts in her mind, filling it up with a curious sense of regret. Mrs. Kassim, like any other young naïve individual, had a dream. She had, ever since she was a little girl, wished to become a doctor. Yet this was India, still traditional about a woman’s role in the world, and so had left her no choice but to marry. But now twenty odd years later, she had two wonderful children Zahir and Zulekha and was happy with life in general.
From the time Zulekha was very young, it became apparent to her mother that she was a gifted individual-a curious little girl with a yearning thirst for knowledge that, despite her best efforts, could never be quenched. She adored reading as well, and took an indescribable pleasure in the feeling of truly immersing herself in a book. Perhaps it was this love of reading that had led to the trench of knowledge tucked away in Zulekha’s mind. She had outperformed all her classmates in every exam every single year since she was a little girl, so when the time came for her to write her IGCSEs Mrs. Kassim was fully confident that her daughter would pass with outstanding results. Indeed, she did. She had written eleven subjects and received A*s in every single one of them. Mrs. Kassim was evidently ecstatic and would brag to anyone who listened, taking care to mention that it was her helping hand that guided her daughter toward such marks. As the years had passed by, Mrs. Kassim had formulated an idea in her mind, one she herself would have called ingenious. Zulekha would become a doctor.
Zulekha Kassim had always been a good girl. She listened to her parents, never broke the rules, studied hard and above all was an enough religious Muslim to an extent that pleased her parents. Her brother, although no less brighter than she, had never been interested in the pursuit of academic greatness and had thus lived a rather laid-back lifestyle in terms of school. However relaxed his attitude was, he had managed to pass excellently in his final examinations, and was now getting a degree in engineering- a very suitable field in his parents’ eyes. Amusing, he would entertain people with his sharp-witted humour. He too was a good boy the same way Zulekha was a good girl, except he was a bit more rebellious when the situation called for it. Zulekha, as we already know, always listened to her parents (her mother in particular), so when the time came for her to choose what career she wished to pursue the answer, was obvious. Become a doctor. It had been ingrained into her mind ever since her mother realized her daughter’s prowess at academics. Naturally when her results had come, she was pleased to note that she had the required grades to choose the subjects she needed to become a doctor-mathematics, chemistry, biology and physics. And choose them she did, making her parents happy in the process. She too was happy, overjoyed even. Except there was little niggling thought at the back of her mind that kept popping up whenever someone would ask her what she would like to become. Doctor, she would reply in an instant. Liar. And each time her heart would do a funny little jump every time she said so. Curious.
The doctors began to perform the standard procedure that is given to people in the midst of a heart attack. The first step is to give the person in question oxygen therapy, which involved placing a nasal cannula that consists of two plastic tubes into the person’s nostrils allowing oxygen to be supplied to them through the cannula. Then aspirin is administered to thin the blood and prevent further clotting of the blood. Nitroglycerin to reduce the heart’s workload and subsequently improve blood flow through the coronary arteries is then given, and finally some other treatment if the patient is experiencing some chest pain.
Had Mrs. Kassim been conscious during it all, she would have been bursting at the seams with excitement. Her very first time in an operating theatre! She had always dreamt about what it would be like to witness a surgical procedure. It was a shame she was peacefully asleep on the operating table, oblivious to what was happening around her.
Her family painted a different picture from Mrs. Kassim’s calm, waiting anxiously to receive any news about her condition. Mr. Kassim was pacing the waiting room nervously, unable to sit still, moving to and fro from the opposing ends of the small section where the family sat. Zahir was watching him in some sort of transfixed haze, his face slack from shock and mouth hanging open unbecomingly. Usually he would have cracked a joke to ease some of the stress, yet for the first time he was speechless. Under normal circumstances, Zulekha would have been mocking him mercilessly for it, yet today had remained subdued. Gema (grandmother) rocked back and forth on her seat, holding a rope of beads in her hand mumbling duas (prayers) under her breath. Zulekha sat motionless in her own chair, her eyes boring holes into the septic-smelling, pristine hospital floor. Mr. Kassim and Zahir would occasionally cast her furtive glances and then would look down if they caught her eye, too afraid to say something. They would also share a look with each other briefly, asking one another the same silent question. What happened?
The silence stretched between them until Zulekha could take the neither the silence nor the not so subtle stares anymore.
She sprang up from her seat and shouted,” What?!”
The rest of her family visibly shrank back from her. Zulekha hardly ever lost her temper, and she made for a rather fearsome spectacle. She glowered at them expectantly, waiting impatiently for an answer. Mr. Kassim made a placating gesture with his hands, Gema glared at her for her insolence and Zahir simply tried to make himself as small as he possibly could. She blew out an angry breath and began to rant.
“Oh don’t look at me like that! You’ve all been staring at me ever since we got here, and quite frankly it’s annoying. You all keep looking at me as if I’ve done something criminal and I haven’t so just stop!”
Mr. Kassim began to speak, “Zule-“
“No!”She interrupted hotly. “You’re all treating like some sort of rabid animal! I have not done anything wrong, and I would really appreciate it if you would all stop staring at me as if I have!” And with that, she spun on her heel dramatically and left the waiting room to find the canteen. She was tired, both physically and emotionally, and needed some time to herself to gather up her thoughts. There was usually one thing that had managed without fail to calm her down. Tea. And after tonight, she needed copious amounts of urgently.
Mr. Kassim tried, not very enthusiastically, to stop Zulekha from barging out the door but thought better of it. With a resigned sigh, he sat in the now vacant seat previously occupied by Zulekha, and instead of pacing began to jiggle his left leg up and down. His mother went back to sending murmured prayers and Zahir pulled out his phone and typed away furiously.
The doors from the theatre abruptly sprang open and a stern-looking doctor in a white coat strode over to the expectant family.
“Are you the Kassims?” he asked brusquely.
“Yes,” Mr. Kassim replied.
“Mrs. Kassim is in stable condition now. She suffered a minor heart attack, nothing too serious. You should be able to see her shortly.”
The family breathed a collective sigh of relief and profusely thanked the doctor. He nodded his head to them politely and walked off to attend to other patients in his care. Mr. Kassim looked to the doors in which Zulekha had left, and willed her to return quickly.
A year had passed since that fateful day of results and Zulekha had happily progressed into Upper Six at school. She was content with her subjects and had taken to them with an easy grace that she normally did everything else, and of course working extra hard as the topics became harder as well. Yet despite this atmosphere of content, Zulekha could not help but feel a strange. She found herself, on numerous occasions, with a queasy feeling in her stomach. As if she had ate something that did not sit well with her. The niggling thought she had felt on results day had been making regular appearances, and lately had become unbearable. Every time she tried to push it to the bottom of her mind it would resurface with a determined vengeance.
The thought in question was peculiar. Not so peculiar to other people, but peculiar to her. It had prospered from a small seed in her mind into a thriving, healthy plant, its intrusive leaves spreading doubt into her mind. For days on end she would find herself staring into space, contemplating just what exactly she was doing with her life. The thought had made her question if she was doing what she loved, strange considering since age eight she had always known. Become a doctor. Yet was that really what her heart desired?
She blinked out of her stupor, her thoughts screeching to a halt. She looked down at her biology textbook, the same page she had been looking at for half an hour stared back at her. It was too humid to study. Her legs felt heavy, like lead had settled in them, the way legs do when you have sat for too long. She stood up and stretched. Despite the scorching heat she decided to go on a walk, seeking an escape from her thoughts.
Zulekha sat at the back of the canteen, a window seat, and stared into the dregs of her teacup as if they held the answer to all the world’s problems. She had mulled over what had happened a few hours prior, visioning how horrible it had all gone.
She had set off on her walk with a promise to her mother not to return too late. She had been walking for quite some time now and sweat was pouring off of her. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, she thought. She sighed with evident relief as she came across a bench under a shady acacia tree. She walked up to it and all but collapsed into it, feeling cooler already under the blissful shade. She sat for a moment staring at the narrow road, satisfied with watching the scattered leaves get carried by the wind. But then it came back. The thought. She furrowed her brows, trying once again to push it down to the corner of her mind. Adamant, it fought back, growing stronger each time she retaliated. Finally she gave up and allowed herself to be lost in it. She pondered over her choices. Was she doing the right thing, by choosing the path that had been a constant in her life? Was it really what she wanted to do? She did not know. The only thing she was certain of was her uncertainty. A pod from the tree fell without warning, jostling her from the thought. It had split in two, and the halves faced different directions. One pointed north, towards home, whilst the other pointed, it seemed to her, to a world waiting to be discovered. She looked down at her watch and vaguely murmured that it was time to go home. She turned northbound and slowly began walking away from the cracked pod. So why then, did it feel like she was walking away from her dreams?
Zulekha sighed. She wanted another cup of tea but the tea here was awful, and left a bitter taste in her mouth no matter how much sugar she put in it. She turned her face to stare out the window, and remembered the exact moment everything had turned to chaos.
It was dinner time, and the Kassims had gathered at the table as they normally did. Everything was normal- the rice was as always white and fluffy, the rotis were a perfect brown and the curry was an inviting spicy red aroma, all waiting to be devoured. They prayed, and dug in. Mrs. Kassim was chattering animatedly, relaying the week’s gossip to Mr. Kassim about so-and-so who had done this-and-that. After she had finished with that, she turned to Zulekha.
“Zulu, Aunty Rukhsana’s son is studying medicine at Lynn University. She was saying that it has a very good medical course. How about you go and research about it online?”
Zulekha looked up from her plate and gave her mother a wan smile. “OK, ma. I will.” Her mother beamed at her and began to berate Zahir for his new haircut. Zulekha watched the exchange and suddenly felt something inside her shift.
“Really Zahir darling, it’s so-“
“Mum.” Zulekha cut her off. Surprised at her daughter’s sudden outburst, Mrs. Kassim ceased talking. “Mum, I was thinking. I don’t want to become a doctor anymore. I want-“
“WHAT?!” Mrs. Kassim jumped up from her seat and shouted, her arms flailing.” You think I came all the way from India, got married to this lump (Mr. Kassim frowned, offended), gave birth to you and this joker with his stupid spiky hair (Zahir self-consciously patted his head); for this? For you to throw away your life like that? I don’t want to be a doctor, she says! What do you want to then, huh? Tell me.”
At this Mrs. Kassim sat down unexpectedly, sinking into her seat with a look of horror. She felt a panic rise within her, slowly spreading throughout her body. Her chest heaved. She clutched at her heart and felt a sharp pain in her left arm. She felt as if her heart had stopped beating. It had not. Zulekha, well-versed in diseases and the like, immediately recognized the symptoms. Mrs. Kassim was having a heart attack.
“Call an ambulance!” she yelled. It was not long until they heard the wailing siren of the ambulance.
Zulekha got tired of looking out the window, and resolved to go back to the waiting room. She wondered if her mother was alright. She got up her chair scraping the floor and walked to the waiting room.
The time had come for the family to visit Mrs. Kassim and Mr. Kassim was relieved to see Zulekha had returned just in time. They were escorted to her room by a friendly nurse and once ushered inside took note of her appearance. She looked feeble and pale, and something about the hospital made her look awfully small. But she was propped up on some pillows and her eyes were thankfully open. They brightened when she saw her family and she graced them with a small smile as they entered which dropped as she took in Zulekha.
“So,” she began, her voice wavering slightly. She cleared her throat and said more clearly, “I hope you have decided to come to your senses.” She looked expectantly at her daughter, her face now flushed with hopeful anticipation. The rest of the Kassims whirled round to stare at her, waiting for her answer. The tension became palpable, and Zulekha felt her stomach drop. She clenched her fists in an effort to steel her nerves, took a deep breath and slowly let it out.
“Yes, I have.”
Mrs. Kassim’s whole body relaxed, the rigidity draining out of her. Mr. Kassim sighed with relief, Zahir gave her a small smile and Gema rolled her eyes heavenward, muttering about girls and their indecisiveness.
“I’ve decided to chase my own dreams. I’m still going to become a writer.”
The heart rate on the monitor sped up erratically.