Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’
One of the strangest parts of growing up was always getting the strangest look when I gave my name when introducing myself. I guess back then there were many confused British people who couldn’t put a Pakistani together with an English name.
Born in London in 1984, I grew up in a Christian home; both of my parents were from Pakistan. They had immigrated to England and lived in a quiet part of north London. I had three elder siblings: my half-brother and sister, who both lived with their mum not too far from us, and my sister, who grew up in the same house as me. Being the youngest child in the family I was rather spoilt; I was Daddy’s boy, so I got what I wanted most of the time. There was also a slightly unusual side to me where I wouldn’t talk to any girls apart from my mum and my sister Jessica. It’s funny to think that my mum made a complaint to my schoolteacher telling her I had a problem speaking to girls; my teacher explained to her that she was a very lucky mum and that I’d grow out of that phase! It did, however, take the best part of ten years to get past that awkward stage of my life.
My parents raised me with good morals and did their best to set an example of how to lead a good life. They both worked hard to keep our household financially stable and, as I look back, I am thankful that I haven’t any bad memories of growing up as a child.
From the very beginning of my life I always had a mischievous side to me. One day we were out shopping as a family. I was around four years old at the time. I’m not sure why, but I thought it would be a good idea to hide behind a curtain in one of the department stores. Once my parents realised I was missing, they alerted the staff and were extremely worried. After searching everywhere, they couldn’t find me and by now my mum was left sobbing and my dad terribly distressed. They were on the verge of calling the police when eventually Mum came and stood near to the curtain where I was hiding. I gently reached out, tapped Mum on her back and gave her the surprise of her life. I thought it was funny at the time, but I ended up getting a good telling off, which I rightly deserved.
As a child, there were always many people around me and I was never short of friends. Although my immediate family was relatively small, I grew up in the midst of a large community. It was part of our culture as a family that anyone who was a grown-up automatically became an aunty or uncle. My family was very social – we constantly had people visit our home for dinner and we too would often travel to see our relatives and family friends.
During the school holidays my sister would take care of me while my parents were at work. After finishing my household chores, I would call my mum at work and ask her if I could go outside to play. That was always the best part of my day. I would meet my friends at the back of our flat and we would hang out for hours playing and riding our bikes. Right behind where we lived there was a golf course and sometimes we jumped over the fence and strolled around collecting golf balls. One day, I think I must have collected over twenty balls; I’m not even entirely sure why, but at the time it seemed like a fun thing to do. I never intended to, but I hope I never ruined anyone’s game.
As far as faith was concerned, I was christened as a child and on most Sundays we would attend the church near where we lived. I can recall many times when at home we would pray together as a family and Mum would read us stories from the Bible and teach us scriptures.
In my early teenage years, I was confirmed in the Church of England; this is a ritual that takes place once you are old enough to publicly affirm your faith and can begin taking Holy Communion. Though I had gone through a series of Christian teachings, it wasn’t something that my heart was given over to. I was just doing it because that’s what everyone was meant to do and all the boxes of what religion was meant to look like were being ticked. There was never a moment in which I had any meaningful experience that left a lasting impact on my life. Going to church wasn’t the favourite part of my week and I can’t say that it ever did anything for me, but in spite of that I still continued to attend based on the faith of my family, as I wasn’t really given a choice.
During my late teenage years, I finished my exams at secondary school and I was no longer that strange child who never spoke to girls. By the time I was at college, I became involved in a serious relationship and my life began to take a very different path. I was spending much more time away from home with my friends and once I passed my driving test I was looking for every opportunity to get out of the house.
Though I loved my family, my relationship with them wasn’t very open and honest. I would keep myself closed and never confide or share any details about my life on the outside. If I did share anything it was probably a lie anyway, mainly because I thought they would be upset and angry, especially if they knew I was dating someone. Though we were living in England, there were still cultural roots from our Asian background which shaped the way we lived. I found the easiest route was to keep things to myself; even if my parents might have approved, I was convinced they would never understand. It wasn’t necessarily bad at home; I was just living out of two very different identities. At home I was trying to act as if everything was normal, whereas on the outside I was completely different. The more time I spent with my friends, the more distant I became with my family. There was never any real transparency on my part, which affected those who loved me the most.
I was hardly going to church any more. The times I did go I found the services to be extremely tiresome; in fact it became a ritual for me to only attend at Christmas and Easter. There was no real motivation, and as far as I was concerned it was a boring place to be and I had better things to do. I’d always give my parents an excuse why I couldn’t go and although they weren’t very happy about it, they would never force me.
After finishing my course at college, my plan was to go to university to complete a degree in business. I had a dream that one day I would become a successful businessman and desired to become wealthy enough to own several properties and earn a substantial income. As well as my career goals, I was excited about living away from home on campus. I had just about managed to hit the pass mark at college and decided to enrol for a business computing course at Kingston University. It was my first time away from home and it was here that I experienced more freedom than I had before.
From the moment I arrived on campus I was already on the search for the best freshers’ parties around. The independence excited me; money wasn’t an issue as most students like me were eligible to receive a student loan. On most nights I was going out clubbing and drinking, and soon after that I began smoking cigarettes. One party led to another and I couldn’t get enough. If I wasn’t drinking to get drunk, I couldn’t see the point of it. I was no longer in my previous relationship and so that made going out even more interesting. After most nights out I would wake up with a terrible hangover and would have no energy to even get out of bed, let alone attend my lectures.
After the first few weeks had gone by, I settled into this new lifestyle quite comfortably. By now I had found myself new friends, friends who, like me, enjoyed a good night out. I went from smoking cigarettes to smoking cannabis. At first, I was just trying it out because everyone around me was doing it, but little did I know that I’d soon get hooked on it. I was constantly getting high with my friends and it got to the point where I began to smoke it almost every day, even when I was alone. At the time I would never have thought it was anything serious; in my head I’d justify it as being nowhere near as harmful as cocaine or heroin, but the truth is, I became addicted to it and I was literally getting high at every opportunity. I would carry eye whitener and a good can of deodorant wherever I went so that no one would get suspicious, but I think most people who were around me could see through it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t the right way of living – it wasn’t what my parents had taught me – yet for some reason I believed there wasn’t anything wrong in what I was doing. I had become blinded to the reality of what was actually happening.
Most weekends I would go back to my parents’ home. I was working part-time at a local retail store and it also gave me the chance to see my family, but even on those weekends I wasn’t at home much. I had become so accustomed to going out that I would make time to meet with my friends who lived nearby and as soon as I had the chance, I was out of the house again.
By the end of my first year at university I had only attended a handful of lectures. I was nowhere near a position of passing, so I decided to go back the next year to restart on another course. I had it all planned out in my head, that I would get my act together and make sure that I would pass this time around; failing wasn’t going to be an option. But the year started and my short-lived dream was over before it had even begun. Right from the beginning it was a repeat of my first year – only worse. Again, I failed to attend my lectures and I continued to live a life that was giving me the pleasures I desired. There were moments that I’d wonder what on earth I was doing and how was I going to tell my family where the last two years of my life had gone, but the thoughts would quickly evaporate as I continued to keep myself busy.
From getting drunk to getting high, wanting to have status and popularity, sleeping around with girls and spending money that wasn’t mine, from being involved in fights and being arrested for disruptive behaviour – what did it matter? The satisfaction of my rebellion outweighed the disappointments. As I came to the end of the second year, I knew this time I wouldn’t be coming back.
I moved back home, and it was time to face my family. I could sense they knew I wasn’t on the right path; however, they never used it against me. Soon after I had returned, they sat me down and I remember my mum asking me, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’
I expected them to be angry, but they weren’t; it was an unusually calm situation. I was honest for once; I told them that I wanted to leave university and quit studying. I wanted to continue working part-time and in the meantime look for something more permanent. I could tell they were hurting on the inside – all those years they had invested in my life, to see me ruining it – but somehow they held it together. I couldn’t imagine what they were feeling, seeing me the way I was, but in the midst of disappointment I could almost sense that they still had hope in me.
Looking back over all those years I can only describe it as a roller coaster of a journey. I had spent my entire life studying, to eventually come out as a failure with no relevant qualifications. Most of my friends who I knew during my time at university had continued to study and earn their degrees. Here I was, left in the mess that I had created for myself. Despite having grown up in a home that wasn’t broken and having parents who taught me good morals, ultimately I was the one who was responsible for my own destiny through the choices and decisions I had made.
After leaving university I felt as if my mind wasn’t in its right place; my emotions had become numb (smoking all that cannabis was partly to blame for that). Somewhere on the inside I knew I needed to sort myself out, but it was something that could always wait until another day. Other than satisfying my personal desires, there was no true meaningful purpose to my life.
As selfish as it may sound, I became content living for what I found pleased me the most. Whether it was good or bad it did not matter, and I wasn’t at all concerned that others would get hurt by the way I chose to live.
Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment …
My lifestyle hadn’t changed much since leaving university; the only difference was that it was now all happening much closer to home. While living away, I had got myself into a lot of debt and although I was working part-time, I was more concerned about having enough money so I could continue to feed my own desires, rather than clear the money that I owed.
On most weekends I was out partying with my friends, getting high and chasing girls. Sometimes I would get back home so late that it was actually the early hours of the morning. I would often hear Mum quietly praying in her bedroom, while I was tiptoeing back into my own room. She would always tell me that she couldn’t sleep until she knew I was safely home, and would stay up praying for me. This had become the normal way of living for me. I seemed not to care about those who were around me, those who were the nearest and those who loved me.
While working part-time I was also searching for potential career opportunities. Fortunately for me, my brother-in-law had his own recruitment firm. He was well connected and managed to get me an interview at an insurance company in the City. Little did I know that I would be offered the job, and working in this sector would become my career for the next eleven years.
I now had a full-time job, which paid much more than I was used to. The only issue was, the more money I had, the more I would love to spend. As well as wasting money on my addictive lifestyle, I developed a new interest in performance cars and had purchased one for myself. I would spend into the thousands customising and upgrading parts. There were many nights I was racing around town with a group of friends who all had fast cars. We would drive at ridiculously high speeds for hours during the night. I’m surprised I never got into any major accidents and am alive to tell my story today. On numerous occasions I was pulled over by the police for speeding, but I was fortunate not to have got into any serious trouble other than having penalty points placed on my licence.
One day I was travelling with a friend to a garage near Oxford where I was having some work done on my car. On the journey back home, I started to smell petrol, so we pulled up into a car park at a fast-food drive-through near west London. I popped open the bonnet of my car and noticed the fuel injectors were leaking. This could have potentially set my car on fire, but thankfully it never got to that point.
While I was figuring out what to do, I heard a car accelerating at high speed. As I turned to look, I saw two cars racing each other – both coming in my direction. The first car flew past me, but the second car spun out of control. It eventually smashed into a tree, catapulted fifteen feet into the air, and then came crashing back down to the ground.
My friend who was with me told me to go over and see if everyone was OK. As I made my way towards the crash, it all seemed to happen in slow motion; the closer I got, the more I realised how bad the situation was. I had never seen anything like it before. There were two people inside, barely conscious, and there was blood everywhere. I kneeled down to see if the driver was OK. He acknowledged me, but couldn’t say anything. I then looked over to the passenger; he seemed a lot worse than the driver, but he was still awake and still breathing. The car was caved in at the front and it looked as if their legs had been crushed. Within minutes the scene was flooded with ambulance crew and police, who sealed off the perimeter. I was told by the police I needed to stay to give a witness statement. I couldn’t help but lean over to see what was happening and hoped it was all going to be OK. As I watched, I could see the passenger choke and cough up blood. A paramedic rushed over with an oxygen mask, but I could just sense in that moment he had taken his last breath. I went home that night thinking about what had happened over and over again.
Months later I was interviewed by the police to give my statement and I was told the very thing I felt the night I was there – the passenger had died at the scene. He was just twenty-one; a student from India who had come to study in the UK. The situation couldn’t have been any more tragic.
Things continued as usual for me, but there were definitely times it made me think how short life was. Yet it never really sank in, or changed the way I valued life.
It was towards the end of 2007 that my dad began to develop a cough. Being a former boxer who had competed in the Olympics, Dad was physically fit and strong; even though he was in his early seventies he was more active than anyone else I knew. He went to the doctor, but the cough persisted and he was sent for further tests. At the time it never felt like it was serious or life-threatening, but by the beginning of 2008 the situation became much worse, and to help with his breathing my dad constantly carried a supply of oxygen wherever he went. It was not long afterwards that we received the unexpected news that no person ever wishes to hear – Dad was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a life-debilitating disease. He was told he had only six months to live.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; I could not grasp the thought of my dad not being with us any more. As a family it was heartbreaking for all of us. My dad was someone that always went out of his way to make sure I was happy; he was someone who could walk into a room and light up the atmosphere with his smile. He never had anything negative to say, was always humble, kind and softly spoken; I never knew anyone like him. Even during the darker days of my life when my mum would be upset with me, he would always give her hope that one day I would get better.
Over the course of the next few months my dad’s health began to deteriorate. I would like to say I was there to take care of him, but the truth is that I was far from being the son I needed to be. My mum and sister were the ones who were really there for him; even my elder brother and sister, who were both married, gave more support than I did. The only way I knew how to deal with things was to continue to live life as normal. Within myself I’d always think the situation was just going to get better. I felt the more I kept myself busy, the less I would have to think about it. I was still getting high most days and I continued to go out with my friends whenever I had the chance. On the outside I was trying to keep it together, but there were many moments that the reality of what was happening crept up on me and I would burst out crying as I thought about losing my dad. Friends and family would give their support, but I would feel so empty and alone on the inside.
As the days went on my dad became weaker. The nights were the most difficult. The machine that supplied oxygen was extremely noisy, and someone had to constantly be near Dad throughout the night in case the tubes going up into his nostrils came loose – this could have been fatal for him. My mum and sister would usually take it in turns, although there were a handful of times I helped too.
To help me sleep, I would usually have a smoke in the garden before getting into bed. One night, while looking up at the stars, I started talking aloud to God. I wasn’t someone who had ‘faith’, but I always felt there was a God that existed. For some reason, talking to Him felt like the right thing to do. I wouldn’t say much: simple things like ‘I trust you, I’m not angry and I believe you will always do what is right’. It never made sense to me why I did this, but I felt Someone was listening and it gave me peace on the inside.
More than six months had passed and my dad was still with us. Even though his health had deteriorated and worsened, he would still manage to put on a brave face. Sometimes ministers we knew from different denominations and friends from church would visit our home to pray for Dad. Most of the time I stayed in my room, but I remember hearing the prayers as my family stood in faith for his healing. Even in the moments when the pain became unbearable and Dad would gasp for breath, I remember him saying ‘sweet Jesus, have mercy upon me’. Though he wasn’t very mobile and needed to be pushed around in a wheelchair, he never gave up attending church on Sundays. He always wanted to help take up the offering and spend time worshipping God with his church family. If there was anything that I learned, it was that even in the most trying time of Dad’s life, he wanted to stay committed and faithful to God.
Nine months had now passed since my dad was first diagnosed and he was eventually taken into a hospice. On 17th October 2008, my dad moved on from this life to another. No words could express the loss and sorrow in my heart. Though my relationship with him had faded in the latter years, I loved him deeply. It was the biggest loss I had faced in my entire life.
Experiencing these traumatic tragedies was a lot to get my head around; so much had happened in such a short space of time and it was difficult to take it all in. I was emotionally stretched and there were countless thoughts of trying to understand what had taken place, but with no real explanation. This was the toughest season of my life, but no one could predict what was to come next.
It was not long afterwards that I was about to experience some of my most life-changing moments.