I walked past a crowd of students when I heard a man reciting some poetry. Holding the Dar-ul-Sukun magazine in his hands, he narrated some powerful words that grasped my attention immediately. I knew I wanted to know more about him, so I decided to do my usual rounds and come back to him when he is alone.
PHOTOGRAPHY: WAQAS ABDUL LATIF
Mr. Joel Schunker is 62 years old. A dark-skinned man with sharp creases on his forehead, he seems like someone who keeps to himself. I was eager to know how he came here, what was his story? I wondered.
“When I was a little boy my grandfather used to say”, 'God created animals for us. We have to look after them,'’’ says Joel, sitting on the sidewalk as he feeds a flock of crows, “I was a lost boy back in the day, but a lot has changed since then, excpet my love for animals.”
“I did not enjoy school much, I often found myself staring into the skies watching the birds. I always picked the seat near a window so I could look outside and zone out,” says a pensive Joel, stroking his cat Daisy.
“I took the same school van every day,” he says.
One day at home time at school, Joel's van driver stopped him in his tracks and said, “Beta, what happened? You don’t like going to school?”
As the 11-year-old Joel nodded in silence the man persuaded, “I’ll give you one candy in powdered form, take this and everything will look good in school.”
Joel inquisitvely asked, “Will teachers look good too?’’
The man smirked and said, “Yes, everything will look good to you.’’
Assuming that Joel was an easy target, the van driver lured him to consume a “toffee” in powder form and asked him to inhale it.
Not knowing the consequences, Joel took this immediately. Little did know, he had just got himself tangled in a dangerous web. Since Joel met his driver daily, this quickly became a part of his routine. He was now a heroin addict. Joel was warned not to tell anyone about this, or the driver will stop providing this “ feel good candy.”
It did not take long before Joel's teachers suspected something was wrong. He was not in good health and was taken to Mayo Hospital in Lahore while his parents were informed that their son was a drug addict. His parents were simple people and this news came as a shock to them.
Soon after this, because of his father’s business, the family moved to Muscat. But Joel still could not fight his addiction. Things only worsened with time. He soon started falling away from family, his real self and his will to lead a normal life.
He neglected his well-being and wandered aimlessly just to get high. His father warned him several times but nothing made sense to him.
Unfortunately his father died of a heart attack. Joel now cannot help but hold himself responsible since his father died, just after answering a phone call reporting Joel’s addiction.
“What kind of a bad farewell I had given him,” Joel says visibly in great sorrow. Eventually the family moved to Karachi. Joel being the eldest of the siblings was unable to do much for his family due to his addiction. His younger brother supported the whole family.
“My younger brother started working at the age of 13 because I was on drugs. The house was going to hell. My younger brothers and sisters looked after my mother and beared all expenses while I was just high,” he says, and pauses, gathering himself. “Now when I look back I can see the chaos and destruction that I have caused in others’ lives. At that time it didn’t matter to me.’’
Joel fell so deep into drugs that he started living in drug dens and travelled across the country including places such as Sanghar, Peshawar, and Multan in search of drugs when it got banned in Karachi.
“I’ve been all over. Wherever there was drug in abundance I used to go there. I travelled without tickets through illegal means and Bara (drug den) is the main thing because all the drugs are there which I used to chase,’’ says Joel.
In Peshawar, in those days, heroin was sold for Rs10 and it could last for three to four days. There were many kinds of drugs available but Joel stayed true to his poison: heroin. “Once a drug seller said something to me and his words really struck a chord in me," he said. “Beta, No matter what you do, do not ever become like them,” pointing to a group of druggies injecting themselves.
“This injected drug abuse is the most lethal among all because it blocks the veins and leads to sharing one syringe or reusing it which leads to diseases like: Hepatitis and HIV,” Joel remembers, and added that you go through all the ills: you steal, you rob, you beg, you stimulate others and lie, cheat just to purchase that small packet of drugs which is actually destroying you.
“You think you’re fooling others but in the end you’re making a fool out of yourself. It’s a slow killer which is a short term boost but in the long run only causes destruction,” he said.
It temporarily helps you escape from realities and you fail to have courage to accept the things as they are. You get a false sense of self. You paint a nice picture in your mind but make others' lives miserable. A few years later another life-changing event happened. Joel's mother passed away. Joel felt immense guilt about not caring for his mother the way a son should. He admits that his family always supported him and warned him against taking drugs.
“Whenever I was on the street, whether in Peshawar or anywhere else, my family never threw me out of the house. I used to leave the house when I was able to bear the load of the money I owed to people,” he says.
Joel says that if someone offers him to go back and try heroin he will never do that. “Now what’s the point whether I do it or not, the people that I loved the most are no more,” he says. His addiction is his life's biggest regret.
Joel now looks after the senior citizens at Dar-ul-Sukoon. His younger brother visits him sometimes and buys him clothes, pays for his stay and sends a Careem driver every Christmas. He now spends all his time with his cats and crows whom he feeds daily from his own food.
But what has helped him most through all this is his poetry.
There are a total of nine books of poetry written by him and he is looking for a platform to get them published.
He says, “Here I am in front of you talking so much after 55 years of drug abuse. Now I can really feel that there is a God up there looking out for us.”
When I asked him why he did not get married he said, “I wanted to, but there was a stigma attached to me that I was an addict. I was the man people warned each other about.”
He adds, “There was a girl I liked, we were next door neighbours, I used to try and fly the kites at the rooftop’.’’ He breaks into laugher and says, “But she couldn’t stand me.’’
This was how Mr. Joel has lived his life. From a drug addict to a poet. His pen is his power and this is what defines him now. He is optimistic for further challenges that life will put forward in his path. He says, “I want my work to get published. That’s all I want.” Writing about “Who am I” then “Who I’ll be” is a long journey and Mr. Joel is courageous enough to walk through it.
Who am I?
Am I the smile on your face?
Am I the heart that is not in the right place?
Or am I the tear-drop in your eye
May I’m that person who is always asking why,
And you’re always young enough to die?
I’m calling out hello, while everyone’s saying good bye!
With my head on my pillow I silently cry!
No enemies, No friends, there is only ME-MYSLF AND I,
So! I pick myself up of the ground
Get up to give life another try?
- Joel Schunker