13th May, 1999
Several of you had been receiving updates from me twice a day about Eqbal for the last one week. The very last one was full of hope although his condition was critical. The heart balloon machine seemed to be doing its job so well. I told you that we could all sleep easy until the next update. But you now well know there will be no more updates. It was exactly 5:25am on the 11th of May when he asked me to raise him up. Moments later the ECG went flat. He died in my arms.
It is not easy to write about someone who I have been so close to, and who I loved so dearly. I am desperately battling my tears as I do so, but tell you I must. I must tell you because some of you loved him dearly too and would want to know. And there are so many of us, spread wide and far on the globe. But I must tell a few others too, even though they knew and admired him from some distance away. I'm not sure Eqbal would approve of my writing. He was a very private person in some ways. But I feel the compulsion because you and I will have that final rendezvous too. And I want to tell you just how the greatest human being I have known went. Perhaps there is something to be learnt here.
The world outside continued to occupy him even inside the hospital. When we took him to PIMS he was in an awful state, vomiting violently and feeling sharp pains in his heart. During a quiet phase I said "when you get well I'd like you to look at an article I've just written against the May 28 nuclear celebrations". No, he replied, give it to me now. He carefully adjusted the intravenous drip to take hold of his pen, asked me to raise his hospital bed to a semi-sitting position, and then went through the article adding his editorial comments here and there. That's what he's done all his life, I thought to myself, helping others, concerning himself with their problems.
Yes, it was painful, bloody painful as he lay in the ICU at Shifa after the 3 hour long cancer surgery. As painful as you can imagine, and beyond that too. The morphine would knock him out for a while, but you could see the pain would still be there. Lessened a little, but ever present. But he remained the quintessential Eqbal to the very end. His mind remained incisive, critical, analytical. He wanted to know about every medicine -- the dosage, the effects and after-effects. His wit survived the pain. "Mrs Diamond" (she's Julie's mother and now over 90 years old), he remarked to Hajra, "is for all practical purposes indestructible". After one of his quips I remarked that his sense of humour was intact. "It's a useful thing to have sometimes", he said, "so I like to carry it along with me".
His love for his friends helped mitigate the pain. When his dearest friend Edward Said called from New York just before the surgery, his eyes sparkled and he insisted on taking the call. When I conveyed the many phone and email messages sent by his other friends, I could see how much each of them meant to him. He was angry with me when I said that I had encouraged Dohra and Radha to come from New York. It was an unnecessary bother for them, he said, why did you do such a foolish thing? "You must think about how they feel", I replied. Half an hour later he relented. Yes, you are right, he said.
He knew he was dying but made no useless supplications, asked for nothing, expected nothing. His intellectual integrity and dignity remained intact till the very end. Let others apply soothing balm for themselves in whatever form, indulge in whatever religious claptrap they believe in. He would have none of that for himself, but if others felt better he didn't discourage them.
The doctors were awed by him and the nurses fell in love. Eqbal must have been the weirdest patient at the ICU they have experienced in their lives. Strapped in a maze of tubes and wires, in a state of clear agony, he still insisted on knowing everything, scolded one monumentally incompetent nurse, praised the two good ones, but charmed even the one he had scolded. I saw tears trickling from one nurse's eyes when they finally wheeled him out.
Eqbal Ahmad is gone. Gone forever. That priceless jewel is no more. The loss is beyond words, grief knows no bounds. How I, and so many of us, will come to grips with this new reality I simply do not know. Pervez