COLUMN: MY HEART AND GHALIB - I

Published January 15, 2023
The columnist is professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia.
The columnist is professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia.

Dard-i-dil likhoon kab tak jaoon un ko dikhlaoon
Ungliyaan figar apni khamah khoon chikan apna

[How long shall I write my heart’s pain, let me go show them
My lacerated fingers, my blood-dripping pen]

Prelude: I have been trying to write my lived experience of a heart attack for over a month now. But words didn’t flow. I felt choked. Finally, last night I opened an old diary and picked up a pen.

It was like opening my heart. There were random entries from 10 years ago. As I read, I felt a release. After a few minutes, words began to trickle, then flow from my pen. I wrote and scratched out sentences. I began to like the messy look of the page.

I did miss the ease of looking up synonyms on a computer, but my words on paper danced. I was gripped with energy. There’s no shame in sharing that I had a heart attack. I couldn’t believe it at first. Now I am learning to listen to my heart.

This morning, I decided to share the state of my heart on social media. I had been tweeting, but my tweet persona is different. For example, I’m a newly minted grandmother, but I didn’t share that on Twitter. You might understand what I mean. Emotions are to be kept in check. I have resorted to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, my dear friend and companion, to help in navigating my experience.

The heart has a special place in classical ghazal poetry. It is a mirror where God’s (Beloved) presence is reflected. The heart is the receptacle of pain. Pain is a cleanser. A wounded heart suffers pain, but pain opens the heart to receive the pain of others. Love is a wound. Think of love’s arrow, that pierces the heart. What is love? It is the source of creation, the reason for existence. Love is both universal and personal; it transcends time and space.

The heart has a special place in classical ghazal poetry. It is a mirror where God’s (Beloved) presence is reflected. It is also a mirror of the self.

The heart is also a mirror of the self. The analogy of the mirror-heart is carried to great lengths in the ghazal. The heart’s depth cannot be fathomed, but the heart can also be narrow or constricted. Why and how is it perceived as narrow? Maybe because the pain of love is greater than the space in the heart? Because the heart is filled with emotions.

In the classical ghazal we also have the jigar, or liver, that is equal to the heart in being the locus of love. The heart and liver are often in sync; they speak to each other, they are equally affected by love. But the liver is perceived as the locus of life, while the heart is the locus of Divine Radiance.

I am navigating the tangled emotions of my heart through Ghalib’s poetry.

On an unseasonably cold November night, I suffered a heart attack. The pain was a dull burn that gripped my chest in what felt like a constriction, an uneasy tightness or pressure, a sort of squeeze. I could describe it as a clutch around my sternum.

Then it spread like thick fog — intense, but not sharp. There was a feeling of heaviness in the centre of my chest. Then it crawled to a spot between my shoulder blades right behind my neck. My jaw began to ache. Every tooth in my right jaw felt loose. Was the pain in my jaw, or in my chest? No, there was a path of dull pain between my jaw and chest.

It worsened if I lay down. I sat through the night massaging my heart, not sure what exactly was wrong. A little voice said: could this be a heart attack? But I crushed the voice. In the morning, I felt better only because the dull, squeezing pain was gone. The clutch had loosened its grip. The knot was undone.

I was lightheaded, drained of energy, but determined to carry on with the day’s work. Looking back, I can discern desperation in my actions. I wanted to brush aside last night as a bad dream.

The first appointment was with my dentist. He found nothing wrong with my teeth. Next were ultrasounds of my gallbladder, pancreas, liver and kidneys. Everything showed up normal. Even the EKG was ‘normal’. Why those tests were ordered showed that my primary care physician was as dismissive of my heart problem as I was.

It took a round of tests to determine that it indeed was a matter of the heart, although mine, it turned out, was structurally strong; it survived the attack with little damage. Tests showed that its “the ejection fraction” was normal, meaning its pumping capacity was good.

The cardiologist listened intently as I recounted the past few months of my life. I delved into my past in sharing my history of unwonted anxiety. I talked about how I had chest pain when walking uphill with my dog, but ignored the signals thinking that shortness of breath was an indicator of my physical stamina.

The cardiologist put me on an impressive list of medicines for lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and anxiety. She didn’t call for an “invasive” angiogram procedure with possibilities of finding blockages that would need relieving with stents and would put me on blood thinners. It seemed like a happy ending to my heart adventure.

But my story didn’t end there.

I had chest pain every time I walked briskly. Lightheaded and unsteady on my feet, I teetered between belief and disbelief of my condition. It was hard to believe that I had “coronary heart disease” or that I’d become, as we referred to such sufferers back home, a “heart patient.”

Once I knew what angina felt like, I experienced it at the slightest slight, or so it seemed. Just talking about the event produced tightening in my chest; a constriction that sparked a response in my jaw. A constriction which made me aware of my heart and sternum. The constriction came and went, like a fist that was tightly shut and then released.

I needed an angiogram.

*To be continued

The columnist is professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She tweets @FarooqiMehr

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 15th, 2023

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