I know you’d be surprised to read this letter because you wouldn’t have ever expected it. It’s slightly bizarre for me to write it as well but I thought I would do this since it’s your birthday and the day itself obliges me to think about you, wish you, curse you and thank you (Damn, I can’t think of a single curse that I’d give you. Yes, am serious). I guess God gave his best shot at creating ‘awesome siblings’ when he made you and me. I would not annoy you too much with this letter because I know you wouldn’t enjoy getting emotional about things, especially on your special day; however, you know me. You know how I own one of the sloppiest hearts and how difficult it is for me to ask it to shut up and let my mind do the work. So, what I’ll do is, I’ll remind you of ten of the hundreds of most memorable instances we’ve shared and I know these would make you laugh, get embarrassed, smile, bang your head on the wall and call me up and say- ‘Shit, why did you write that?’ So, here we go! (Cross your fingers)
- This is about the time we were kids and I hated tagging you along with me when I went out to play with my friends. So, I would lock you in the house while you slept in the afternoons and leave for all the fun. I was EVIL.
- You were the most brilliant brother because you would help me study. Haha I know that’s funny but whenever I studied (till I was probably 15 and you were 11), I made you sit right next to me and listen to all the stories of my History, Geography, Science and Literature text books. You took interest in all the crap and then one day, you grew up and you stopped listening.
- I still remember how I gifted you a ‘Slam Book’ for your 8th birthday because I knew you would never use it and eventually it would be mine.
- We both loved watching WWE and we would even have wrestling matches on the bed where as a rule I threw you on the floor and won. This continued only till I was 11 and I could bully you because after that we stopped the matches as I had started losing 😉
- Then, there was this time when a spider bit me and you were oh! So excited because you thought I would turn into Spiderman (oops Woman) over night.
- I think I need to thank you for one big thing you taught me in life- ‘Watching Cartoons.’ Yes, I probably am still so hooked to ‘cartoons’ because of you. FYI, you gave us a tough time with Dragon-Ball Z and Pokemon. Also, you made the entire family fall in love with spinach because of The Popeye Show!
- I have always had ruthless encounters with my periods and you would look at me screaming in pain feeling vulnerable about it all. For a long time you couldn’t even understand why this happened to me so frequently. Then one day, (when you were a grown up but I thought you were still small) I asked you- ‘Do you know why does my stomach hurt so much?’ That’s when you got embarrassed and told me- ‘Nikki Di, I have just passed high school with Science.’ I was so disappointed because I always wanted to tell you ‘ The Tale of Periods’ 😛
- For one phase in life, when I was literally penniless, I even ‘worked’ for you. I used to write your assignments and projects while you relaxed just because you would pay me for this job. I stopped doing that when I wrote thirty long pages for your history assignment and received a meagre 50 bucks for that (equivalent to a dollar, in fact lesser).
- When I was in the final year of university and you completed school, I motivated you to take a drop and prepare for the IIT (The most renowned and best engineering entrance exam in India). So, I basically convinced you to continue living at home for another year and study because I hated the very idea of living there without you. I just wanted you to stay (and that tells the world that I had a huge hand in your ultimate victory).
- Now, here comes the very last and final thing of this list. I accidentally read the messages you exchanged with a girl (who had just broken up with her boyfriend and was all broken- or she pretended to be that) and you consoled her like a gentleman. (I couldn’t stop myself from reading those, that is). Fuck! I was shocked to see you could write such wonderful things. So whether you were hitting on her or being her friend or whatever, that day I just knew- ‘Ah! He is my brother, after all.’ 😉
Now, I finally wish you a very Happy Birthday and thank you for being the best brother ever. You have been a best friend, a parent, a sibling, a foe, a driver, a cook, an admirer, a child, a mechanic, a teacher, a ‘listener’ and everything a person could be and you have been incredible at all these roles. I am blessed to have you in my life 🙂
Happy Birthday Bro, you rock!
P.S: I know I am the best’est’ sister you could possibly have too.
P.P.S: Message me what present you need for your birthday. You won’t be disappointed 😉
You know I love The Simpsons 😉
Zafar saw something in me that I certainly didn’t. He was my big brother, three and a half years my senior, charged with the energy of a Labrador puppy and possessed a frustratingly superior intellect. He was an economist with the Treasury, where he was beloved.
He also had brain cancer, which we learned around two months before he died.
I was 22 years old at the time, and he 26. I was a college dropout, with no real prospects, not a lot of confidence and intermittently crippling Fibromyalgia. In short, my future looked somewhat bleak long before Zafar’s death.
My mother had herself almost died from cancer a few years before Zafar did and I became a part-time student to take care of her. By some miracle she survived, but then not long after that my chronic Fibromyalgia began to set in. That’s when my path to getting a university degree really began to derail. I dropped out of classes three semesters in a row.
READ: Grief Bacon — Mourning My Mom, and My Figure
Even as he faced death, Zafar would only let me face life.He all but mandated I apply to Columbia University, which offered a program specifically for students with unorthodox circumstances. I resisted, insisting I wasn’t smart enough for an Ivy League school. He insisted, resisting my “ridiculous” protestations — and proceeded to ban me from visiting him in the hospital until he was satisfied with the progress I was making on my application.
Everyday, he would give me a to do list. “You’re not allowed to come to the hospital today unless you have a first draft of your personal essay done,” he threatened.I immediately went home and dashed something off to return as quickly as I could. “Let me read it,” he said as soon as I arrived, only to tell me it was shit. “Go back and do it again.”
This went on for a few weeks until he was satisfied with it, at which point he oversaw my submitting the application, down to paying the fee.October 15, 2008, the day my Columbia application was due, was the last time I saw him before he became brain damaged.
A little over a month later, he was declared brain dead. We were waiting for an OR to open up so the surgeons could harvest his organs, which he’d opted to donate. The hospital was artificially keeping him alive until then. When the nurses finally arrived to wheel away his bed in the early hours of the morning, they took with them the only world I knew.
Zafar truly exemplified what it means to live life to the fullest. We were bopping around in the sea on vacation once and looked on in awe as a boat whizzed past, a parasailer attached to the back, cutting through the sky. Next I knew, I was getting strapped into a parachute harness. He’d also somehow managed to rope our risk-averse parents into the adventure. Fundamentally, he saw life as a set of opportunities just waiting to be seized. And it was always done with a sense of humor.
A few weeks after he died, I was invited to interview with Columbia. The day after the interview, they called to say they’d unanimously admitted me. I wanted to pick up my phone and call Zafar. Classes began four weeks later and I never dropped out again, even when my Fibromyalgia was so bad I could only manage one class a week.
I felt like Columbia was Zafar’s parting gift to me, to get my life back on track and I was so stubbornly motivated by his death, I vowed to actualize the life he’d envisioned for me: one of success.
READ: The Long Arc of My Mentor’s Impact
Little Natasha and Zafar
Before his thrilling transformation to civil servant, Zafar had worked at a newspaper in Pakistan for a year. After I graduated, I followed his footsteps to work there, too. When he lived there a decade earlier, it was stable, for the most part free of radical Islam. And in the intervening time the country had descended into volatility and extremism.
As he would encourage me to do, I made the most of life’s difficulties there. I went on a lesbian Tinder date with a woman whose father had been kidnapped by the Taliban for ransom. I later turned the experience into an acclaimed one-woman comedy that I took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Zafar’s “you only live once” approach propelled me to stage the play. And all of my unusual work experience eventually led to the dream job at Mic that I always wanted.
Admittedly, I have no counterfactual experience to a world in which Zafar lived. And part of my transformation is invariably due to my growing up: I write this as a 30 year old. But I know that all the major — and many minor — decisions I’ve made since he died have been motivated by the desire to make him proud. And I am, without doubt, a better person for it.
Natasha Noman is a News Staff Writer at Mic, with a focus on global affairs. She has also reported on regional affairs for the Friday Times (Pakistan) and is a playwright and performer with an acclaimed show, Noman’s Land, which premiered at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.