Finding meaning and purpose in adversity


Nyla’s father, Mohammad Ali Matto who passed away on March 29, 2020, seen here receiving a pinstripe suit fabric at the inaugural ceremony of Lal-Ded Hospital in 1980 from Mohammed Abdullah Sheikh, Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. PHOTO/Nyla Ali Khan

Acknowledging your grief is not self-pity, nor is it a cry for help. On the contrary, it has been empowering for me to recognize that I will live with this grief for as long as I live. But I won’t be paralyzed or mired in depression.

My father’s death is not devoid of meaning. And my grief will not diminish over time. The realization that grief should be honored enables me to live authentically. Abba enriched my life and taught me so much about keeping one’s head above water, even in the most grueling situations. I see Abba’s life as a model to be emulated. I don’t pretend that life is perfect, and I don’t pretend to be perennially happy. Knowing that life is short motivates me to live it deliberately and responsibly.

Dr. Mohammad Ali Matto with his daughter Nyla Ali Khan (center) and his wife Suraiya Abdullah Ali PHOTO/Kashmir Life/Kashmir Life/Duck Duck Go

I promise the retreating wraith of my father that I will commemorate and honor him in everything I do. He will not drown in oblivion. And my life will continue to be enriched by his wise counsel and unconditional affection.

We put our best foot forward in times of difficulty and adversity. My father’s unconditional love taught me to see hard times as an opportunity to grow, not as a misfortune. The months of February and March were a whirlwind for me. In addition to a hectic teaching and speaking schedule, I took my citizenship test in February. The entire time a general sense of anxiety goaded me into pushing myself. After my oath ceremony in the last week of February, I had a foreboding feeling. I instinctively knew that I couldn’t afford to wait three weeks to get my passport.

So, I chose to take the fast route and drove to the passport agency in Dallas to get my passport in one day. For some strange reason, I knew I didn’t have the luxury of doing things at leisure. I applied for the rest of my travel documents while driving back to Oklahoma.

Although my father remained encouraging and reiterated in his strong voice that I didn’t have to rush, an inner voice kept reminding me that I couldn’t let him down.

My father would tell my mother that he knew his time was nigh, but every time I spoke to him, he told me not to take any impulsive decisions and promised to wait for me. And he didn’t let me down. He was so proud to see pictures of my oath ceremony and listened to my stories with rapt attention. That is something only an indulgent father can do. I kept my father abreast of every development and every milestone in my life. I would have candid conversations with him, and every conversation healed my soul.

His mind remained strong and alert till the end. My father didn’t suffer fools gladly. When I went to see him in March, he had my work cut out for me. He didn’t want me to brood or sulk, and made sure that I fulfilled every task he wanted me to. He insisted I call on my uncles who had been released not long before I got to Srinagar. Several of my cousins asked me if my father broke down when he bid me farewell. The truth is that he was incredibly calm and composed. He bid me farewell in his voice of steel and his demeanor was immensely dignified. He taught me to be grateful for God’s mercies and was a content man. I never saw my father grieve, because he looked for meaning in every situation, and didn’t forget to count his blessings. That’s the strength I want as well.

There is great strength in acceptance of the inevitable. There is great strength in recognizing that life is never free of pain, and it is empowering to embrace that pain. There is great strength in recognizing that we held up with dignity and resilience when adversity knocked on our doors. There is great strength in finding meaning and purpose in adversity. There is great comfort in knowing that we left no stone unturned to be with our loved ones in their last moments. There is great comfort in knowing that even when confronted with seemingly unsurpassable challenges, we didn’t let our loved ones down. There is great comfort in knowing that some wounds never heal. They simply become an integral part of our being. There is great comfort in knowing that’s it’s fine to miss your loved ones, every step of the way, when they are gone.

  • One of the proudest moments of my father’s life was the expansion of the 100-Bed Maternity and Gynecology Hospital to the 500-Bed Maternity and Gynecology Lal-Ded Hospital in Srinagar.
  • He had poured his heart and soul into that project, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1979. My father and his wonderful colleagues burned midnight oil to enable the expansion, which greatly improved women’s health care at the time.
  • His joy knew no bounds when my maternal grandfather,
  • Mohammed Abdullah Sheikh, Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, gifted him a pinstripe suit fabric at the inaugural ceremony of Lal-Ded Hospital in 1980.
  • Institutions are built by those who are invested in their people and passionate about nation building. They are communal property, and there comes a time when the community needs to refurbish them.

The biggest strength is in knowing that those loved ones gave us wings to fly and roots to come back to. That’s what my father did for me!

(Nyla Ali Khan is a visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma. She earned her PhD in Post-colonial literature from OU. She is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. She has written several books including The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Trans-nationalism (Routledge, 2005), Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Parchment of Kashmir: History, Society, and Polity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation. Dr. Khan lives in Edmond with her husband Dr. Khan a practicing Rheumatologist and their daughter.
She can be reached at

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