Reflections on a loss


by Ali Hammad

“What is the defining characteristic of shock?” asked Professor Sahib.

Several of my classmates gave good answers.  Professor Sahib nodded at each but seemed to want more.

I raised my hand.

“You,” he said.

I repeated J S Haldane’s time-honoured definition that I had memorized a few days earlier: [It] not only stops the machine, it wrecks the machinery.

Professor Sahib was delighted.  (My head swelled.)  “Yes, yes, my children,” he said.  “Every organ, every cell is affected. Remember that. When you are dealing with shock in a patient, you have to tend to every organ, every cell.”

It has been many years since that lecture, and I have heeded that advice in my career in medicine.


Professor Sahib, there is no way for you to remember me, but you, through lessons learned from you, have become part of me.  This is the effect good teachers have on their pupils.  Pupils don’t just learn from such teachers, they imbibe them.  It’s a beautiful way of giving, where the giver enriches the receiver without losing anything himself or herself.

In your East Surgical Ward at the Mayo Hospital in Lahore, I learned how to tie knots, two-handed and single-handed: surgical knots, the kind that don’t come apart, not the kind one uses to tie ones shoelaces.  As I learned these knots, I reflected on the nature of the intangible, symbolic ones—the knots that tie an apprenticeship, a marriage, a family, a neighbourhood, a community, a nation.  I felt snug in the midst of all these knots—like an individual knot in the middle of an expertly knotted oriental rug.

That was then, Professor Sahib.  Today that rug is riddled, pockmarked with bullet holes made by senseless (but not stray) bullets, like the ones that took the lives of your son and your grandson.  In today’s unfathomably intolerant society, some knots have been blown away and others are unravelling, as if they were shoelace knots, not surgical knots.  And somewhere in this disintegrating rug, at a spot where I once felt safe, I stand bewildered, vulnerable, naked, and ashamed—ashamed to see children taken from a man who has given direction to so many children of this nation, ashamed to see happiness snatched from a man who himself and through legions of his students has brought happiness of healing to so many.

A friend of mine, another student of yours, has sent me a couple of photographs from the funerals of your son and your grandson.  You are a picture of composure, Sir, just as you would have been in the operation theatre, heading into complex, life-saving surgery on someone.  But in the little furrow between your eyebrows, in the slight downturn of the angle of your mouth, in the ruffled collar of your shirt, I can see your pain.  And remember, Sir, you are within me, and thence I can feel your pain, too.

As I write this with tremulous hands, my head reels, my eyes well, my breath is bated, and my heart sinks.  I feel today like a machine that hobbles on, Sir, but the machinery is wrecked.

Published in Letters, The Express Tribune, Pakistan, February 24, 2013

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