I saw a man at a street vendor’s today He was engaged in the enterprise of buying fruit His expression was a breath short of displeased He wanted a bargain; he planned to depart with his loot. The air conditioned grocery store was his next stop Where he paid three times as much for some shrivelled carrots. I watched these transactions in the street and the store The poor man got swindled; the rich just made more I watched capitalism play out its gory game But I just watched, my mouth was scotch-taped.
I saw a runner deliver food today To someone in a swanky neighbourhood The man came out, took his food, turned around The rider waited a while, staying where he stood But the man had disappeared into the embrace Of his upmarket condo, his ultra elegant space Discretionary income was for parties and clothes Doling out tips was for mass market folks I watched these Economics of One play out But I just watched, my hands were bound.
I have seen these and many more Unbalanced, unequal, sad acts of trade The shiny big ones always splashed with largesse The small, modest ones always selfishly made. The serendipity of kindness and grace The simplicity of a helping hand Are like ships that we have lost at sea Broken pieces now and then washing up on the sand. I watch these exploits crush and agonise But I just watch, I am paralysed.
Despite its inherent catastrophic nature, the end had come quickly, almost mechanically. Its very swiftness had robbed it of the tragedy and chaos that usually accompany annihilation events. Some say it had started with the largely unnotable skirmish on the Russo-Ukrainian border. President Putin had fallen gravely ill at about the same time. His infirmity somehow catalysed the inscrutable little exchange of fire into an all out war as Russian troops marched belligenterlty into Kyiv. At about the same time, there was a devastating tsunami that whipped up in the Indian Ocean, a formidable ghost of its 2004 predecessor. The deluge ravaged twenty countries across Asia and East Africa in its deadly wake. In the space of a week, half the world had gone into emergency mode. The other half watched in a stupor of pandemic fatigue even as the new horrors unravelled. Two days after the tsunami, the Ukrainian troops fell to the wayside. No blood was shed, no words were spoken, no flags were raised or lowered. The invaders and the invaded sat together watching the world fall to pieces around them.
That is when she had come; the Mind-bender as she came to be called: Arfaana, a 35 year old woman who had until recently also been a mother of two. She had walked into Lafayette Square in Washington DC and screamed. She had screamed until she couldn’t scream anymore. And then she had wailed, her rhythmical moans echoing like the tolling of a doomsday bell. People had stopped in their tracks frozen. At first. And then something extraordinary had happened. There are many versions of the event but they all agree that somehow in that moment of tremendous anguish and pain, humanity had connected. At some combined cosmic and primitive level, the energy across the square had come together and found a harmony of purpose.
There was an almost communal climax of wretchedness and despair as one and all, the people had screamed and bellowed and wailed until there was not one unbruised throat left in the square. Arfaana had walked into the Capitol building then, her eyes wet and blazing at the same time; propelled onwards by a force of over five thousand strong. There she had spoken to silent, awestruck law makers and executors of the Republic. They had listened when she had called for the laying down of all arms; of creating a colourblind society; of sharing the world’s resources with all; of de-weaponizing the world. They had heard her speak of a new community, built on the vestiges of humanity that still remained in their current world. They say, Arfaana, the first Wise One, had summarily robbed them of their will that day. She had bent their minds to her way. Everything had changed after that. In a bizarre balancing act following The Fall that was marked with such colossal swells of angst and pain, the societal shift had happened quickly, almost mechanically.
T + 10 years
December 24th, 2032
Arfaana sat in the Discourse Room in Serenity Dome 1, in Washington. These safe havens had mushroomed after The Fall and now mainly housed within their impregnable, tranquil cores, the women of the planet. She had just had news that the two thousandth dome had been erected, this one in Lahore Pakistan. She had called her contemporary in South Asia to congratulate her on the milestone. The fissure in the Subcontinental patriarchal structures had been one of the hardest to make. But when the women had risen, the change again had been swift and mechanical. Hotels and guest houses had been converted to makeshift shelters for women across the subcontinental land mass. Ultimately, heritage buildings had been commandeered and lovingly converted into the very first Serenity Domes. There the female collective had regrouped and reformed their communities, one troublesome, caustic law at a time. It had taken the better part of the last decade to purge the South Asian society of its ingrained psyche of male privilege. From the roti seller* at the tandoor* to the testosterone driven CEO in his boardroom, they had all had to relearn the new ethos. There had been countless incarcerations as age old gender roles battled in the new environment. Many of the men had been “shifted” to shanty towns just outside city limits. These meandering, heaving masses of corrugated iron roofs, scrap material and sheets of plastic had burgeoned and blustered for years with the full might of the patriarchy.
In the sixth year of The Fall, the slum population had evened out and by the eighth year, it was finally in decline. Mindsets had been changed; the new norms had been learnt one bitter lesson at a time. There were still the odd ragtag bands of ex-society men who had refused to assimilate and who still blew off steam by plastering city squares with old world propaganda. The Wise Ones took a largely tolerant view of these muscle flexing shenanigans, letting the idiots tell their now obsolete “tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”(1). The adage adapted from old world literature had become their mainstream maternal approach. Indeed, the Wise Ones made every effort towards non-violence. They knew that their primary focus needed to be the new generation of men and women across the globe. They would be brought up with new codes of morality, community and awareness. They would be the ultimately balanced beings – both genders at ease with their masculine and their feminine sides.
By the fifth year, another epic milestone was achieved – planet-wide nuclear disarmament. By the eighth year of The Fall, global military spending had been reduced to less than 0.3% of world GDP. The planet was recovering in big and small ways as fossil fuels were steadily replaced with alternative forms of energy. By the end of a decade of the event, as resources were redistributed, lifestyles across the globe had become more or less consistent – typified by the western middle class before The Fall.
It had been a momentous journey of the mind, the heart and the will, thought Arfaana as she emerged from her musing. The women had finally triumphed! This last thought crossed her mind with almost academic stridency, repeated as it had been at so many pivotal moments in the last ten years. She paused, just for a moment. The slightest of pauses for a twinkling of a moment. And yet, in that tiny instance something had taken fledgling root. An awareness of imbalance; a new kind of an imbalance. Earth was transforming into the proverbial Venus. Hidden in that romantic confluence were dark shadows, whispering their own doomsday songs. Songs of a new, belligerent, unsound matriarchy.
Arfaana blinked, willing away the disturbing thoughts that were now crowding at the very edges of her mind. She knew these unsummoned visitors would bide their time, until they had gathered in their vastness aided by that formidable Truth teller, her Intuition. Arfaana rallied. They, the women had changed the world, one rotting, crumbling societal edifice at a time. They were saving the very humanity of human beings. They were building back compassion, harmony, cooperation and culture into their societies. They were building back better(2) … the hackneyed phrase from old world politics came stomping in, marching alongside her bolstering, purposeful train of thought. The hypocrisy, the bigotry and the irony that accompanied the catchphrase also came sashaying in, looking into her soul with their smug little faces. Venus Rising indeed! they seemed to say.
Arfaana picked up her com-set to call her Planning Manager. She wanted to make a change in the Earth and Science curriculum – the historical, mythical, science fictional allusions to Venus as anything but the second planet from the AM Star were to be omitted. There was still too much counter-matriarchal ammunition out there for the nay-sayers and the satire writers; their reformed world structure was still too new for such erratic emotionalism. The “Sun”, now called the AM Star had ceased to be called by its old name because of its masculine phonetics and the psycho-circularity of the word: Sun = Son = Sun. Venus too would be relegated to its astrophysical purity without the dubious romanticism given to it by old world patriarchy. One of the Wise Ones had said something about Earth too … even “earth” had begun to sound mannish.
They would have to revisit academic curricula around the world, review the very semantics of language itself, to purge it of its inherent masculinity.
Arfaana took a sip of her steaming mug of tea. She sat up and gazed into the distance, her determination strong and unwavering. Even if their new collective ethos was somewhat imperfect; even if their matriarchal restructuring sometimes seemed like barely cloaked knee jerk reactions to their gender-biased past, it was now the women’s turn.
* Roti-seller: Seller of Indian/ Pakistani flat bread.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking. The tandoor is something of a transitional form between a makeshift earth oven and the horizontal-plane masonry oven.
(1): Quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
(2): The Build Back Better Plan was a legislative framework proposed by the 46th U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration
The AM star was just peeping out over the horizon. Soon it would envelope all and sundry in its orange-blue glow. I woke up as the motorised blinds whooshed back into their dark recesses near the ceiling and a shimmering oval of light perched on the left side of my forehead like a glittery fascinator*. I kept my eyes closed, enjoying the blissful moments of just waking up, my senses treading the softness between complete wakefulness and dawn time dreams. I breathed in deeply, feeling the gentle warmth on the skin of my forehead. It caressed my scalp and then flowed down towards my extremities. I should have risen then; but I lingered in the afterglow, wiggling my toes to heighten the delicate sensations now leaving my body in undulating waves. Five minutes later when the AM rush had fully subsided, I opened my eyes. I smiled – widely. It was going to be a glorious day.
I live in a Bachelor Colony; we are the near-perfect males and also the genomic seed-sowers of Avartha – Earth as some of the old guard sometimes still refer to our planet. Earth, the old masculine term that has like a lot of other nomenclature on Avartha, been relegated to history books, a heated City Hall session and story-telling. We of the Bach-Col* help to keep the population flourishing together with the Double X-elences* of the Procreation Dome. The Bach-Col is a whimsical enclosure full of beautiful things, both natural and unnatural. We are constantly surrounded by serenity and comfort. And D~alliance – the testosterone-quelling drug that all residents of the Bach-Col receive when they came of age. It was what made Avartha great, the Wise Ones said. The Wise Ones knew exactly when each boy came of age, varied as the onslaught of puberty was across geographies and junior Bach-Cols. Nature despite being tamed for the most part, still made unpredictable leaps in transforming a boy to a man. Still, the mean coming of age in West Avartha was 12 years, 7 months. I had come of age on my 13th birthday.
I am meeting Ramiz. He lives in the Service colony. Early on, as an infant, in fact, barely a few weeks old he had tested positive for early onset dementia. The OmniEssence – that triumph of biotechnology, had passed her resounding verdict as she did with every male born on Avartha. And so Ramiz had been castrated as all non Bachelor Colony infant boys were. Ever since, he had been nurtured as Maintenance staff, a worker ant for the upkeep of the Procreation dome and the Bachelor Colonies. Little girls that were imperfect in big or small ways, however, became doctors, professors, writers, engineers, spiritualists and stateswomen. They dominated the world of learning, finance, politics and religion. The women in fact, all of them, now superintended the planet in one way or another. They were the Wise Ones.
I am meeting Ramiz today. We had met six months ago on my birthday when he was assigned to lead my party preparations. Bach-Col boys had grand birthday celebrations and even grander seeding day festivities. I had had eighteen of the former and two of the latter. Someone had dared me to dance with the ruggedly handsome Service boy, and I had. We had kissed that night. It had been beautiful then and in retrospect, also academically interesting. Service boys never kissed like that; they were not supposed to want to kiss. It was a revelation for both of us and had over time, morphed into what I would call Love. Ramiz called it “camaraderie”. I had laughed and he had blushed. We both knew he was trying to make it all seem kosher, mundane even, in the pervasive, criss crossing lines of the moral and physical rules that defined our world. We had met up every week since then; our love and camaraderie growing like star jasmine, brisk, strong and all-encompassing.
I am meeting Ramiz at the Ahyoka* lake just outside the city today. That has been our rendezvous point for the past four months after nearly being caught together in my quarters. Bach-Cols and Servicers* are not supposed to fraternise and they are certainly not supposed to be lovers. I had been surprised at how easy it had been to circumvent Avarthan laws outside city limits, and was often ruminative about why there were not more like us: Cross sectional couples; couples outside the Procreation Dome and the exacting laws that governed it. I always ceased my pondering beyond this point – the godesses did not need to eavesdrop on another mortal thought and warp it into yet another ruse to trip up Avarthakind*. So after short, mostly inadvertent forays into puzzlement and awe on the subject, I would retract, unhandling my thoughts and stashing them away into the secret little spaces of my mind.
I was supposed to meet Ramiz today. In the little sheltered recess two hundred paces westwards from the lake. He had not shown up. I had waited for over an hour and then headed to the Service Col. I had never been there before but I knew his quarter number. Room 42 was empty; like no one had lived there in a long time. I knocked on two of the adjoining quarters. Both Servicers seemed not to know Ramiz. How was it possible? How had he just vanished? How could he just cease to exist?
There was something else; something niggling at the edges of my mind. Everytime I tried to think of what could have happened to Ramiz, I lost my train of thought, the images scattering like hundreds of dandelion papas across the vastness of Avartha on a wayward breeze. I was puzzled and a little alarmed. But mostly puzzled. I was mildly anxious too because I didn’t feel the emotional whiplash of newly inflicted wounds or of broken dreams. In fact, I had felt more sadness when I had lost my favourite pair of boots to the hitch-hiking* fungus.
Back in my apartment, I put on the record player and lay down. The mind numbing melody of the “Infinite Improbability Drive”* thrummed through the room and my mind. I closed my eyes and fled into the familiar heart and mind space that music always took me to. I slowed down my breathing as I had been taught to do since I was four years old. I decelerated the rate of my inhalations to five a minute. My anxiety and my confusion subsided. Slowly, gradually I sank deeper into the restoring, enveloping clouds of my subconscious until I heard the comforting voice of the Wise speak:
“You are home. You are safe. You have learned. Thou shalt not covet anyone outside the Procreation Dome. Thou shalt remain pure of seed and spirit for Mother Avartha, the giver of life and the forger of destines. You are home. You are safe ….”
* Fascinator: A type of formal headwear, its function being purely ornamental.
* Bach-Col: Bachelor Colony
* Double X-elences: The women of Avartha who from time to time, gave birth in line with keeping the Avarthan population in healthy, burgeoning mode. Female DNA is made up of two X chromosomes and hence the term.
* Ahyoka: A female Cherokee name meaning “She brought happiness” * Servicers: Males who had at birth, been diagnosed with some congenital flaw and were relegated to the positions of workmen and service staff across Avartha.
* Avarthakind: the people of Avartha.
* Hitch-hiking Fungus: Fungus that grows close to the ground transferring onto treading leather, canvas and rubber. Picked up by footwear, it moves from one place to another very much like a hitch-hiker and hence the term.
* Infinite Improbability Drive: part of the soundtrack from the 2005 movie “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, based on Douglas Adams’ book of the same title.
It’s Strange How some people call all the shots For you and me; on what’s right and what’s not On how we should all live our lives On what we should want to grow and to thrive. And we follow them like so many mice The Pied Piper surely leaves us no choice
It’s Strange How some nations are on top of their game And others continually parry insults and blame Some swirl around in their blood, sweat and tears While others race on winds of good cheer And yet we stand by like so many sheep The First World Dream will not let us be
It’s Strange How the spirit of our humanity Has gone into permanent servitude For the battle of egos of the few Losing our grip on what’s right and true And we circle around like so many moths Burning our wings in the flames of their wrath
It’s Strange How hard it has become of late To step out of the comfort of the bell curve Created to kill off the being that’s you Teaching you how you must hate and love And we fight on like so many soldiers sore Thinking one more battle will win us the war
It’s Strange Even as I write these lines A question skips on the edge of my mind No, there are two for misery loves company Who’ll tell me the answers that I seek to find - When did the glow inside you cease to exist? When did Instinct and Courage let go of my wrists?
It was Torturesome Thursday today. The day appointed for the once a week dinner at his father’s house; the house Saqib grew up in and one that he now felt an intense dislike for. But it was an obligatory chore set in stone by his domineering father. Only hospitalisation and out of town visits ever broke this constancy ritual. The old patriarch looked at him with the cold tenacity that had always made him writhe outwardly for all to see, and that he had now been able to turn inwards for his soul to witness only. He looked away as he always did, focusing on something else, willing his racing heart to slow down, to mimic the calmness that he had schooled his exterior to feign. To fake it till his jittery ventricles made it.
His mother sat like a sack of ripe potatoes as she always did, unfeeling, uncaring, uninterested. Growing up, he had blamed her for her stuporous attitude towards the well being of her children. Now, he understood that it was her way of protecting her sanity; the only weapon she had in her meagre armoury of defence against the titanic, intimidating, bullying persona of her husband. He watched her as she smiled at him wanly, crinkling up the corners of her otherwise dead eyes. She would have been a happy woman with someone else. With anyone else he thought.
He looked at Shuja who was sitting beside him and felt the familiar surge of quiet joy. He smiled despite the ritual Thursday evening cross currents. The warmth nestling in that corner of the dining room did not escape the allseeing eyes of Sikander Zaka as he focused his attention on the duo to his right.
“Have you started your Math tuition with Master Edwards?”, he asked his grandson who was digging with gusto into his chicken biryani.
Shuja looked up from his plate directly at his grandfather, “Dadaji, I told you I don’t want to do Math or Ad Math. I want to do graphic art and design. I want to work in textiles’.
He looked towards his father for a moment and added, ‘I want to explore interior design too. I want to beautify homes’.
Sikander Zaka Khan looked for a measured moment at his grandson and then turned the full force of his august stare on his 45 year old son. He expected him to intervene and put a stop to the nonsense his grandson was spewing. He expected him to shake his errant prodigy and drum some sense into his juvenile head. But Saqib did nothing of the sort. He sat there mutely. In his own tortured universe he was willing his son to understand, to know that there was no choice in the matter of his education or the career mapped out for him. At the very least, he was willing with all his might, for his son to not take on his grandfather. It never ended well.
When Saqib did not speak up, Sikander Zaka passed the irrefutable verdict himself.
“You will call the tutor and have him start coming in from next week. He needs to be on top of his game if he’s going to get into Imperial College London. The Zaka men have been going there for four generations. There will be no exception for the fifth. Get his head out of the clouds and start drilling some sense into him about his roots”.
‘Ji Abba’ was all Saqib managed to say. He felt his son’s eyes boring holes into his head. He couldn’t meet that gaze; that accusatory, disappointed, angry gaze directed at him by his beloved Shuja. He wished he had the courage to stand up to his father … to stand up for his son. But he didn’t. And now his own son was old enough to discern his cloying, wretched cowardice too. The boy for whom he had been a champion, a hero, was now seeing him without his cloak … without his clothes! He suddenly had the mad urge to laugh, to guffaw, to throw his hands into the air and shout. My cloak! My clothes! Without my clothes! But he didn’t. Instead he concentrated on the leg piece on his plate, meticulously dismembering it until all there remained was an odd looking creature in front of him. It wasn’t chicken anymore. It was his father’s accusing finger; his index digit that was pointing fixedly at him. He wanted to shatter it, annihilate it. And he did, as he grabbed it and broke it into two.
The sudden adrenaline rush of the defiance, limited as it was to duelling a drumstick, gave him the courage also to finally look towards his son again. Shuja who had so short a while ago been surrounded by a halo of wholesome, beautiful energy was now enveloped by the same dark and leaden patriarchal cloak that draped Roman godlike around the shoulders of his grandfather, and that bound his father like a strait jacket. Few Zaka men had been able to break through this mould of formidable authoritarianism, in both its capacities of executioner and the executed. And so it was that the maned lions of each generation took on the roles of family dictators while the rest contented themselves with the dubious luxury of privileged servitude. Until the great Sikander Zaka Khan was alive, Saqib was quite completely in the latter category and Shuja was being groomed to follow suit. There was only ever one maned lion in a Zaka pride.
Shuja had a younger sibling, a sister – little Serena. She was seven years old: still too young to sense the disturbing undercurrents of family politics, but old enough to know that she was a beautiful girl. Those ethereal looks were a resounding gift from her mother almost as if in compensation for everything else that was maternal and missing in their equation. The wet nurse who had been by Hina Zaka’s side during both births, had stayed on when Serena was born. To all intents and purposes, she was Serena’s caregiver and her emotional anchor. But this story is about the men in the Zaka family so that’s all there is to say in these lines, of the granddaughter of the house.
It has to be said here however, that the missing maternal link in Shuja and Serena’s case had nothing to do with Saqib as the family patriarch. It was more a tragedy of errors committed as it was by the elders of both families in their age old endeavours of growing their empires. To leave an ever burgeoning legacy of wealth and privilege for the boys who would be born and who would inherit the family crowns. Hina, at the time of her marriage had already been in a five year love affair. Saqib had a mild suspicion that it had since grown and settled into something that he couldn’t quite approach or touch. To all intents and purposes, there was no couplehood in their equation. There was however a sense of quiet harmony that was scrupulously maintained for the fickle eyes of the public and for the unsparing scrutiny of Sikander Zaka.
Saqib had graciously accepted the truth of things and had tried to be both parents to his children. It has to also be said that he had succeeded better with Shuja than he had with Serena.
The Monday following the Torturesome Thursday at his father’s house, Saqib called Master Edwards. He knew he should have made that phone call the very next day of his father’s austere instructions, but he had dragged his feet. Partly because he had been angry enough to dissent, the quiet mutiny lasting a whole three days, and also because he had seen the hurt in his boy’s eyes. He had seen something cracking and something else putting down gnarled tenacious roots. Was it resignation … rebellion… or… despair? He had not dwelled on the nervous, fearful quickening of his own heart as he swallowed the bile that had instantly risen to his throat.
Master Edwards was completely booked up but he would make the time – for Mr. Sikander’s sake. Everyone who was anyone made time for Sikander Zaka’s sake. The laws of the jungle were the same whether it was the creatures of the forest doing Sher Khan’s* bidding or the city’s rank and file acquiescing to Sikander Khan’s demands.
But the best laid plans – especially if they are executed with disheartenment and dread, do not always beget desired results. Sometimes the universe itself tires of the hypocrisy of men and calls them out with its own jarring, cosmic rattle. And so it came to pass that Master Edwards did come by on the following Tuesday at exactly 9 O’ clock in the evening. He was shown into the study to await the Zaka scion.
Shuja had come back from school that day and had closeted himself in his room. Annual exams were around the corner: those great dividers between those who would rise into the precious ranks of engineers and doctors and those who would not. The ruthless separators of the wheat from the chaff.
There was now an eerie quiet in the room. In the speckled light from the LED lit orb of the world, shadows danced across Shuja’s prone body. Skipping across his face and down his arms to his hands from which dripped gleaming streams of life. Silver and black shimmers that congealed into a dark void on the floor.
There was a scream and a bustle. Shuja’s ashen body was bundled up into the car and raced through the blood-staunching, life-saving portals of the nearest hospital.
A few hours later, the worst was over and Shuja had managed to choose a side. With the optimistic zeal of the young, he had decided to live. Saqib sat by his son’s side, a mixture of emotions ricocheting in the space where his heart used to be. It wasn’t there anymore he was sure. Not literally of course but in the profoundest ways that make one human, that make one a parent. He had during the last three hours even toyed with the idea of losing his beloved child and had felt a bizarre relief at the thought. Relief for Shuja’s ultimate release and for himself as a cowardly, paralysed father who could not support and safeguard his son. He had also felt guilt, searing shame, grief and resignation. But when his son had finally stirred, he had also felt a warm flood of love and a fierce sense of protection. And those emotions had stayed with him long after everything else had evaporated into the ether.
He would give Master Edwards a trite farewell. His services wouldn’t be required anymore. He would himself enroll his son into the Arts stream. They would look for the best colleges that offered the courses Shuja wanted to specialise in. He would help him set up his studio and his graphic design business. He would be his son’s biggest champion. He would take on the world for his precious first born. He would shout it out at Bungalow 77/1, in the old man’s study where the loudest decibels had always ever been just a whisper. He would tell his father that it was enough! That he wasn’t going to sacrifice his son’s happiness in his perverted path of warped legacies and conventions… he would appeal to his father’s better judgment … he would plead for his kindness …
He would beg him to release Shuja from the Zaka shackles.
Saqib looked at his sleeping son for a long time and then looked out of the window at the moon that was looking back at him like a sentinel cyclops. His revolutionary thoughts gradually stumbled, wavered and then fell limply like a wet flag. He knew he couldn’t do anything. The burden of the patriarchy was too formidable for him to challenge or negotiate with. Saqib hunched, once again occupying the modest space that he always had, and looked quietly at his son.
When Shuja was home, when he was well again, when he was happy and once again ensconced in his favourite velvet dream, he would, ever so gently, try to make him see sense.
Saqib Zaka looked at the sheet of paper in his hands. He stared at the short pithy statements that descended down its length, as they looked back at him accusingly, tauntingly. There was some colour on the paper too – an angry red gash against three of the statements. Four-letter gashes in fact, that had blurred before his anxious scrutiny; FAIL they proclaimed loud enough for the whole universe to hear. Saqib shook his head slightly, willing away the buzzing swarm of desperate thoughts that were crowding out all sanity, dignity and even his ability to read. He looked at the transcript again and finally set the truth free: he had failed his pre-engineering exam, for the second time.
Thirty years hence, that memory had stuck to him like rust; constantly eating away at his calmness and purpose. He had tried, in his intrepid moments, to shake the constancy of the memory off, to replace it with the triumphs that had also since found their circuitous way to him. But the recollection and all its accompanying sinking, shrinking, benumbing sensations had prevailed like insidious tenants in the space of his mind.
Saqib sighed and looked around him. The imposing room that had been his father’s office and was now, by default, his, shimmered in the late afternoon light coming in through the window. Despite his best effort not to, his eyes came to rest on the canvas that hung on the wall directly opposite his desk. It was a complex piece of Gestural Abstract art which had hung in the stately room for at least the last twenty years. In its monochromatic palette of random splashes, he always saw a figure, broken down and disjointed reaching for the ground with such desperation that it was almost like he was willing the earth to swallow him whole; annihilate his whole existence. The hugeness of the canvas added to the enormity of hopelessness that spilt from it; flowing into the room like a constant, unending stream of emotional sludge. He hated the piece. And yet, it hung there smug and superior, intimidating and authoritative, alive and kicking. It was one of his father’s favourite pieces of art.
A knock at the door halted his mangled introspection. The rest of the day passed in a flurry of activity that slowly abated around 6 O’ clock. Saqib then picked up his Smythson Panama briefcase and headed for his car. His father would be in tomorrow. Over the last year, more and more, the reigns of the company had been shifted officiously, almost belligerently from father to son. Even so, Sikander Zaka Khan swept into the office once a week, taking everything by storm. It took a day for the dust to settle, while his own reputation as the able scion of the family business was depleted slowly but surely, like the helium escaping from a balloon that had the smallest of perforations in it. With each passing week, even the most stoic of Sikander Zaka and Son employees had seen the boss’s offspring for the chip of the old block that he was definitely not. Ever so gradually, almost imperceptibly, there had been a change in the organisational culture as boardroom debates became more lively, just short of being heated, and the ambient murmur of the executive floor rose a few, not unnoticeable decibels. Saqib had watched all this silently, knowing it was just another counter intuitive ploy by which his father was toughening him up for the role of CEO of one of the largest textile spinning units in Karachi.
While a myriad ungracious, unforgiving thoughts passed through his mind about his unemancipated state, Saqib was also keenly aware of how his Harrods Roquefort bread was buttered: he knew he lacked the rigour and the character for a regular corporate job. He couldn’t see himself slogging 9 to 5 with only thirty days of paid leave. If he was absolutely candid with himself, he knew also, that he didn’t have the requisite skill set either, armed even though he was with his Bachelors degree from the Imperial College London. The couple of Finance courses that he hadn’t quite cleared in the first go, were another echoing reminder of his failure. He knew that to live in the lap of luxury that he was used to, he would have to sacrifice his life choices to a considerable extent and his sense of self, quite entirely. If it had been up to him, he would have become an interior designer … moonlighting as a chef. He loved the aesthetics of furniture and food. He had singlehandedly furnished and decorated his beautiful home. The fact that his wife was quite happy to let him take the lead on all home improvement projects had helped considerably in helping to keep his heart where his home was. His glamorous home on Khayaban-e-Shamsheer was the envy of many a well heeled housewife with whom he readily and fondly shared his vast stores of knowledge, from the best upholsterer in town to the florist who had the freshest imported blooms. His home was indeed, a loving tribute to all his most precious and unrequited dreams.
“Hello Abu”, came the cracked voice from the lounge as Saqib opened the front door to his house. Despite the burden of his innermost thoughts that had today descended upon him like a flood, he smiled. Shuja was growing up and his body was being put to the age old test of the transition from boy to man. His voice had started to break a couple of months ago, a fact that had quickly become a point of many light hearted moments between father and son. He was sprawled on his favourite lounger, his PS4 controller in his hands. Father and son had picked the soft blue fabric for the sofa together and the reupholdstered seat had become Shuja’s favourite chair in the house. His Velvet Dream he had once called it. Saqib had smiled at the aptness of the name for the chair and also for his own secret little stash of them. Shuja was a good child. He was also very creative and talented. And brave. Saqib acknowledged this last characteristic with some trepidation. There was so much potential danger embodied in that attribute that he couldn’t quite bring himself to look upon it as a quality, a gift. With his unusually honed skill as an artist and his love of cooking, he was quite the apple of his father’s eye. And in the sanctity of his home, Saqib allowed his heart to swell with pleasure. He looked at his fourteen year old son, his eldest, with a mixture of pride and joy.
Over the course of the last year, it had become a weekly tradition for Zubaida and Sikander to meet for lunch at a little restaurant near the Malik Art Studio. There were a handful of safe, soul-restoring places around the city that Zubaida frequented as much for their therapeutic vibes as for their practical purposes. One of them was Yousuf’s Cafe. Right from the start, it had evoked remembrances of another time, another life. Over time, her memories associated with the place had distilled to a few heart-warming images: her brother Yousuf’s 10 year old face smiling at her; Zubaida reading him stories of Jinns* and courageous raja’s*; his eyes lighting up when she got him the occasional treat of Sohan Halwa*. He had morphed into more than the ugly culmination of her life in Hasilpur. In the strangest happenstance, she had found her brother again in the little cafe with his name.
It was Wednesday and Zubaida sat at Yousuf’s Cafe with her first steaming cup of tea. She was waiting for Sikander who always arrived at least 30 minutes later than the appointed hour. It was a foible that had grated on her hyper-organised approach to life but which she had with time, and a softening of her heart, managed to compartmentalise as a minor personality flaw. She had realized that if she reasoned things out in her head, covering the entire gamut of its strengths and its weaknesses, she was able to approach it with much greater tranquility and acceptance. And so it had been with Sikander’s tardiness. She always planned little things to tick off her To Do list while she waited for him to appear. Today she pulled out her phone and looked at the word that had become one of her revitalising life mantras and with time, also an integral part of her calligraphic renderings: Al-Hakam– one of the 99 names of Allah in Arabic meaning “The Impartial Judge”.
This was going to be her second collection in three years that was dedicated to this divine quality. Most of the previous collection had been acquired by a single private collector who had also been inimitably discreet about his identity. She had always wondered who it was that had felt the same resonance with the concept of supreme justice.
Sikander walked in at exactly 2.10pm, forty minutes late, smiling and completely oblivious of the time transgression. In her rationalising enterprise on this particular flaw, she had also concluded, among other things, that this was an idiosyncrasy that was almost communal in Lahore. It was completely normal to arrive two hours late for social functions and at least half an hour late for work-related obligations. She smiled at him and put away her phone, having decided on the colour scheme for her Al-Hakam exhibition. They had their usual lunch of Pulao* and Aloo tamatar*, a specialty at Yousaf’s. The conversation was easy and varied, nurtured by time, familiarity and their fondness for each other. Their Wednesday gastronomic adventures usually ended in uncharacteristically speedy farewells as both headed to their respective homes for their food-induced siestas.
Later that evening, Zubaida sat at a pristine canvas repeating the word “Al-Hakam” in a low, melodious murmur. She was as immersed in the powerful essence of the word as she was in the image it now evoked in her mind. Zubaida had decided on sepia tones for this series, with abstract backgrounds in the 3 main colours of turquoise, gold and maroon. She would in her subtle style, vary the sepia shades and the undulations of her Khat* across each painting. She got to work on her first canvas.
She finally looked up from her work at past 9pm. She had been absorbed in sketch work for the last three hours. She heated up some daal and a mixed vegetable curry that she’d cooked the previous day. She had already had two chapatis* delivered from the tandoor* downstairs. After dinner, she took out her diary to write down her tasks and reminders for the next day. This urban life hack had with time, also become one of her practical meditations that she performed with unremitting regularity. The smallest task was recorded meticulously so that every evening she had a page full of practical, sovereign affirmations for the next day. The planning of her day, the writing it all down reminded her, more than anything else, that she was in control of her life, of her movements … of her body.
Tomorrow she was planning on visiting the Singer electronics store and buying her first ever washing machine. Sikander had convinced her of its paramount importance in everyday life. Sunday had usually been laundry day for her, an unconscious vestige of her life in the village when the whole family’s clothes would be washed in a big tin tub and the courtyard would be overspread by colourful lines of billowing shalwars, kameezes and dupattas. She now had a plastic bucket at home which had been sufficient for her week’s washing.
Zubaida grinned at Sikander. Some things still delighted her like they would a child. She was pleased and proud of her newest purchase, and awed, as she was off and on at the bounties of her life as a mistress of her own kismet. Her face was transformed at those moments when her guard fell and her dark brown eyes shone, reflecting her inner light. It was one of those precious moments that Sikander was witnessing and he smiled, feeling a now familiar, gentle wrench of his heart. Washing machine buying day was as good as any to propose to her.
After dinner and in the privacy of his bedroom, Sikander mulled again on the events of the afternoon. He had known Zubaida long enough to expect the unexpected. And that was exactly what had happened. He had come right out simply and directly, and asked her to marry him. He’d made a statement, almost a demand of her to marry him he thought cringing a little in retrospect. He had not hoped for her to say yes; he’d expected her to say yes. The swagger of patriarchy ran deep he thought ruefully and smiled despite himself.
She had looked at him calmly, almost tenderly and then just said no. Sikander had built up this moment so much in his mind that he had not taken a rejection into account at all. But when he was faced with it, the honesty of their relationship transformed it from an irreparable lancing of the ego to just another truth between them, another matter of fact. There was a silence that followed, not awkward, not brimming with heightened emotion; just a calming quiet where the last few pieces of their particular puzzle floated into place. Theirs was not going to be a traditional union, but she was still his chosen one.
Zubaida brought her brand new washing machine, together with a myriad of strange emotions back home with her. She had predicted that something of this sort may happen – they both liked each other. She had also imagined more than a few times, of how she would go about handling a proposal from her one soul mate: a rejection couched in profuse apologies, long winded explanations, shouldering the blame for not being normal enough to embrace healthy conventions, and the ultimate risk of losing his friendship. None of that had transpired. It was a simple, undramatic moment of truth where their special relationship did all the talking that was necessary. No words were exchanged yet a whole new understanding was reached. Their relationship was not going to be boxed under already existing labels. It had sprouted its own unique wings and it would fly with its own momentum in its own way.
She had never felt surer or more confident of her soul kinship with Sikander as she did post the afternoon’s events. She knew that he understood her reasons for not taking the traditional route. Still, they were her reasons not his. He had respected and accepted them nevertheless.
Their equation had survived the greatest disavowal of convention; and embedded in there was the most sublime justice. She smiled gently with a little word on her lips: “Al-Hakam”.
* Jinn: Supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.
* Raja: Prince in Urdu/ Hindi.
* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.
* Pulao: A one pot rice dish made by cooking fragrant basmati rice with aromatic spices, herbs & sometimes stock.
* Aloo tamatar: Potatoes with spicy tomato gravy.
* Khat: Letter or alphabet in Urdu.
* Chapati: Also known as roti, is unleavened flatbread originating from the Indian subcontinent.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.
Zubaida looked at herself in the mirror as she always did before heading out of her one room apartment; straight into the eyes of her reflection. She passed on her daily affirmation to herself: that she was her own be all and end all. No matter how wonderful life sometimes got, no matter how much of the drug of complacency it tried to suffuse her with, she would remain alert. This recall was a vital part of the start of every day for Zubaida; and the subliminal messaging to herself as she looked directly into the windows of her own soul, was to her the most effective way of keeping herself vigilant and grounded. She had been on her own for the last thirteen years and she had survived, indeed thrived in the general ebb and flow of life.
Zubaida lived in Shadman in Lahore and was a professional calligrapher. She specialised in oils on canvas. Her shaded, monochromatic depictions of Quranic verses had not only earned her a name in the city’s Islamic Modern Art community but had with time, become a reliable and consistent source of income. Ten years ago, she had gradually begun to supplement her Urdu tuition earnings with sales of one or two canvases every month. Over the last five years, her art sales had become her primary source of income.
Zubaida stepped out of her apartment locking it behind her. She walked towards the stairwell and per habit, looked again at the door ensuring the padlock was securely in place. She always made absolutely sure that her home was safe.
She got into a taxi and headed for Malik Art Studio in Model Town. The gallery and the curator of its masterpieces such as they were, had both been kind to Zubaida. She had in turn, responded with her own sense of loyalty, declining offers to exhibit at some of the other local studios that speciliazed in Islamic art. Her latest calligraphy series was going on display soon. She had learnt with time and experience, that masterminding the entire exhibition process from start to finish tended to lead to fewer last minute fires to put out. Today, she was going to see how her ten pieces of work would be displayed in the upcoming Eid exhibition.
She spent two hours in the voluble company of Malik sahib, deciding on the frames and the placement of each canvas.
‘Sikander was here yesterday. He has already promised to buy two of your pieces’, Iqbal Malik said, his eyes glinting with the combined thrill of giving Zubaida news of Sikander and the prospect of a tidy profit.
Sikander Ilyas was the scion of the Ilyas Ceramics and Tile Manufacturing, a keen appreciator of art and in Zubadia’s case, of the artist too. He had met the serious young woman two years ago during one of her exhibitions and was almost immediately taken in by her no nonsense demeanour that was also simultaneously rooted in a quaint naïveté. The combination had quite swept Sikander off his feet. He hadn’t said anything of the rumblings of his heart to Zubaida. Not so much because romance seemed like a superfluous sentiment around the sedate woman, but because he himself had been grappling with his feelings. He was expected to marry someone from his class; someone eligible and beautiful; a society damsel.
Zubaida was the antithesis of all that. She had grown up in rural Punjab and at the tender age of seventeen had undergone a brutal sentencing by the local community for a social transgression committed by her uncle: the girl had survived a Jirga*-ordained revenge rape. In the eyes of the world, she was a stigmatized woman; tainted and unmarriagable. In his eyes, while she was tainted, he had been trying to work around the unmarriagble aspect of it. He had decided that time was the best moderator of troublesome peeves and had decided to go with the flow.
Two years on, he was more in love than ever before and the walls of culture and tradition that had kept him privileged and safe, had been slowly eroded by floods of patriarchal contrariness and social defiance. Sometimes, he wondered at the change that he’d undergone as a person and especially as a man in his community. His heightened sensitivity to the pervasive chauvinism that flourished so brazenly in his Islamic republic had given him his fair share of sleepless nights. The not so infrequent introspective moments that also now crept upon him, left him appalled and ashamed. Time had in fact been a ruthless arbiter, opening his eyes to a world that he and the rest of the male fraternity of his homeland had helped to build, brick by twisted brick.
In a world that was seeming increasingly at odds with reality, Zubaida appeared more and more like the only lucid woman around. And so, Sikander was now quite decidedly ready to ask Zubaida to marry him.
Even so, while his internal ideology had changed, he was still a consummate part of the social and patriarchal structures that had always defined him; that he called his roots. No matter how he envisioned it, it was going to be a challenge seeing this undertaking of the heart through …
But damned be the world! Well … he’d handle his parents and they’d handle the rest of the world.
Zubaida had at first been wary of Sikander’s interest in her. In the thirteen years since her life had been turned upside down and which she had since built back one vital milestone at a time, one thing had become resonantly clear: she would maintain her independence no matter what; and a husband did not feature in any conventional, orthodox way in that ultimate life stratagem. Despite her overtly disinterested bearing however, there had been a motley assortment of hopefuls who had vied for her attention. She had held on as practically to her Unavailable status as she had been factual about her past.
All her suitors were made aware of her particular “standing” in society immediately upon their disclosure of their besotted hearts. Some had retreated mumbling sympathetic apologies, less out of shame for the toxicity of the patriarchy that had perpetrated the tragedy and more for how her irrevocably stigmatised situation would affect their own social standing. Others had shown surprising strength of character, whether fleeting or more deep-rooted, whether spurred on by pure adrenalin or by something less chemical and more ideological, and repeated their desire to partner with her in the sacred (and hopefully abiding!) contract of the Nikah*. She had seen off the disillusioned devotees with a gracious farewell and the tenacious lot, with a polite refusal. It had never been hard to do. Her heart had remained utterly unaffected and composed; until Sikander had come along. With time, the man had got under her skin. He had changed in ways she could understand and respect; in ways that gave her hope and warmed her.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
* Revenge Rape: Or Honour Revenge is a sentencing usually inflicted on an innocent woman by a council of elders in rural communities, as retribution for a crime committed by usually a male member of her family.
* Nikah: In the Islamic tradition, the marriage contract is signed during the Nikah ceremony and it is during this event that the bride and groom say, “I do.”
This is a tribute of determination, hope and new beginnings not only for the Pakistani women, but for all the heroic women around the world who are speaking out and standing up for themselves against all manner of cruel and brutal patriarchy. It is also a testimonial and a resounding voice of support for those brave sisters of ours who are living from day to day, facing their detractors with courage and resilience in the hope of a better tomorrow.
I have grown in its shadow; I have felt its hot breath As it slithers around me; dogging my every step. I hear it jeer in the brightness of day On streets and in parks and in quiet cafes. I see it brazenly growl at my sisters too As it strides along its pernicious route. It thunders and lashes and speaks in strange tongues My head is reeling; there’s no air in my lungs! From quiet dark murmurs it’s upsurged to discord The brutal Patriarchy - our master and lord!
I’ve decided I won’t heed its vanquishing rail I’ve resolved I will fight it tooth and nail. And so I have become one of the “pariah” few Who is resoundingly calling for something new. I make my case; then await the backlash For sticks and stones; a bruise and a gash. There are more like myself who are throwing back the knives, We’re banding together to take back our lives. One more voice, one more person, one more protest We’re the Women of _____ ; and we’re up to this test.
From the farthest reaches of our blessed land We will raise our voices, our spirits, our hands; Let’s tell them, That’s it! That’s enough! No more! We won’t be your chattels, your “Islamic honour”. We won’t hide away so you can roam free With your hormones and lust; your uncontrollable needs. We won’t be degraded, threatened and shamed While you play out your age old tribal games. We, your wives, your sisters and your daughters Will be shepherded no more like lambs to the slaughter.
We are the tender, formidable half of our world We are the guides, the teachers and the nurturers We birth generations to carry precious legacies Of peace and love; progress and humanity. For too long have those reins been usurped by the men We are taking them back on every continent. We will be your equals in every way Step down from those pedestals; come out of your caves. Hold our hands as your partners as together we walk We have risen; we are strong; we are the Dome of the Rock*.
* Dome of the Rock: A holy site in Jerusalem which hosts the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
It had been decided. Zubaida would be given to the fallen girl’s family as retribution for the crime. An eye for an eye. Rab Nawaz had no family of his own so his brother, his next of kin, would deliver on the blood loyalty. For Haq Nawaz, there was no land to give away, no jewellery; only a part of his honour – in this case, his daughter. He had been forced to perform a cold blooded calculation and had chosen Zubaida, his second daughter. The daughter with no prospects right now would pay the penance for the “family crime”. A burqa-clad Zubaida was brought before the tribunal and told the verdict. She could not protest nor could she lay claim to any innocence. In the eyes of the community, she was now as complicit in the crime as Rab Nawaz was. After sworn statements issued by both parties in the presence of the elders, confirming the fairness and completenss of the arbitration and decree, the assembly disbursed. A woman from the complainant’s family took Zubaida away.
The tribunal had been merciful; they had not insisted on a witness-led consummation of the sentence and nor had they demanded that Zubaida show her face at the council gathering.
Zubaida was locked up in a little room at the far end of the house she was brought to. She sat on the floor with her arms around her knees, rocking back and forth in the primitive rhythm of self consolation and comfort. Her thoughts were mercifully foggy, indistinct as she sat with her eyes closed. In the haze of her delirium and her innocence, she was waiting for the ultimate end; for someone to kill her in cold blood. For that was what the jirga had said justice looked like: an eye for an eye. She keened hoarsely, unaware of her low, anguished moans. She sat there through the night rocking and waiting, gripped in a relentless pall of dread. At dawn she finally slumped to the floor in an exhausted sleep.
She was woken up by the woman who had been at the tribunal. She had come in with some water and a dry roti. Zubaida looked at the roti* her mouth quivering, as a whole new flood of emotions overpowered her weary, drained body. For her just the sight of the meagre sustenance was a gesture of mercy, kindness and humanity; the smallest sign of hope where there had up to now, been only the wasteland of pain and imminent death. The icy grip around her heart loosened as she felt the tears roll down her face. Her heart burst. She looked at the woman, her body now racked with sobs that she couldn’t control; She cried in relief; she cried in despair; she cried in the great grief that was now hers to endure. She cried for everything that she had left behind. She cried until there were no more tears left to shed; until all her memories had left her; until she could close her eyes again and sleep.
Muhammad Adil, the runaway girl’s brother had come back from the city two days after the meeting of the tribunal. The family had been waiting for their first born to deliver on the justice ordained by the jirga*; to inflict a purging, a punishment that would duteously avenge their sullied honour. The girl would be stripped of her virtue and her modesty. Muhammad Adil would perform the “honour revenge”. After that she would be sent back to her family. They had no use nor any place for tainted women in their home. Let her own family grapple with the consequences of a fallen daughter.
For Muhammad Adil’s family, their own daughter was now dead. She had died the day she had broken through the protective, respectable safeguards of their home, and eloped. And so, Zubaida was raped by Muhammad Adil and two other men in the family over three days, in line with the mourning period for the dead. They were a God-fearing family and would do only what was necessary to reclaim their honour as was ordained by their sacred, long standing beliefs: One fallen daughter avenged by violating the innocent body and spirit of another. An eye for an eye. The entire act of retribution was intertwined with faith and justice as they took turns punishing their “perpetrator”. For that was what Zubaida now was; in their eyes and in the eyes of all their ancestral, patriarchal and time-honoured laws and traditions. After justice was exacted, she was put on a bus for her hometown in Hasilpur.
Zubaida sat in the bus, a serene, calm woman. She had been dragged to hell and she had found her way back to the land of the living. Through her nightmare, she had found a supernormal source of strength and a determination that had saved her and sustained her, and that now shone like an aura around her. She had survived; she would endure.
It was a bittersweet homecoming of the middle child of their family. Haq Nawaz was glad that she was alive but couldn’t in all the wisdom bequeathed to him by his forefathers, find solace in Zubaida being back home. That never happened in these tragedies; the girl necessarily sacrificed herself – one way or another. And here she was, alive and even happy. No, it was not happiness … it was more, an unnerving, chilling resolve in her face. He was afraid of his own daughter and the few times that they did speak, he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Zubaida’s mother, with her fount of affection borne of always protecting, giving and sacrificing for her children, was less ambivalent. She held her daughter close to her for many moments. Zubaida had come back and that was God’s will. But she was also acutely aware of the will of the men around her. And their single mindedness many times superseded the tenets of faith. They would not let her daughter live in peace. They would not let the family be in peace.
Zubaida sat outside on the manji* with her parents and her sister. She was looking into their faces reaching within herself for some emotion, some joy or relief. She found none. Her parents now seemed old, wretched and diminished by life and the choices they had made. She felt nothing at being reunited with them or her sister.
Yousuf came home a few hours later. Instinctively and unabashedly he hugged his sister. She held him gently and then smiled at her beloved brother. It was the only time she had felt a vestigial wave of warmth wash over her since she’d arrived.
Yousuf gazed at his beloved sister with affection and even a little awe. She looked thoughtfully back at the face that she’d loved so dearly for the past ten years. This boy, her little brother, was the scion of their homestead. He was destined to perpetuate the family name and with it, all the norms, the cruelty and the tragedy that came with being a man in their community. He could so easily be another Rab Nawaz or Mohammad Adil …
A mass of contradictory emotions rose in her chest and then settled into nothingness. She looked away from those eyes full of inquiry and concern, unable to respond in the language of the soul. There was nothing left there anymore either.
Despite old world traditions and the sinewy tribal pillars of revenge and retribution, the world had grown smaller even for the feudal communities, who sometimes successfully as in Zubaida’s case, and other times falteringly and failingly, lived according to the exacting traditions of their forefathers. And so, in Zubaida’s case too, the story could not be secretly and utterly relegated to the annuls of tribal lore, as it meandered its way to the press and then to social media. There was a flurry of outrage and offers of assistance that ricocheted in the ether, not very much of which spilled out into the real world. Help in fact, came from an unexpected quarter: the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation (MMWWO). Mukhtaran Mai*, that shadowy figure who was only ever talked of in hushed tones, had now inadvertently become Zubaida’s larger than life superhero.
Six months after her ordeal, Zubaida was whisked away one last time from her parents’ home. This time however, she chose to leave. She’d been offered shelter at the MMWWO and in the wake of her matriculation exam, the opportunity to pursue a vocation of her choice in Lahore. The universe was finally responding in ways that she could understand and take advantage of.
She looked at the enrolment form that she had been filling, her pen poised over the signature line, and finally signed it “Zubaida Bibi”. Like her new mentor, she too was discarding burdensome last names. In a world which had done away with all the familial bonds of love, protection and nurturing that last names were meant to embody, it now seemed a superfluous and deceptive affectation.
She was glad to be in the real world. Buffeted as it was with trials and tribulations, it would also give her the chance to be the mistress of her own fate. She had lost her innocence but also with it, her deluded visions of a world that was never going to be kind to her. It would be real however, and she would get her own stab at levelling out the odds that were thrown at her.
And for now, that was sufficient.
* Roti: a round flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, usually made from stoneground whole wheat flour.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.
* Mukhtaran Mai: a Pakistani human rights activist. In June 2002, Māī was the victim of a gang-rape sanctioned by a tribal council of the local Mastoi Baloch clan, as a form of 'honour revenge'.
Zubaida looked into the little mirror that hung on a nail on the otherwise bare wall of the room. She took a bit of kohl on her little finger and applied it on her lower eyelids. She thought for a moment of putting a bit of rouge on her lips but decided against it. Her mother would have her take it off anyway. It was 6 O’ clock in the morning of a special day today. She and twenty five other girls from her school who had only last week sat for the last paper of their matriculation exam, were going on a trip. It was the traditional annual outing for the graduating class to a local historical or cultural site. Zubaida’s class was going to Uch Sharif, a holy city that had been a regional metropolitan centre in the 12th and 17th centuries. It was renowned even in the present day for its centuries old historic shrines dedicated to Muslim mystics. Zubaida had been to Uch Sharif once before when she was five years old. The family – Zubaida, her parents and her seven year old sister, Arifa – had gone there to plead for the divine intervention of the Sufi saints for the blessing of a male child in the family. That was twelve years ago; she remembered little of the experience except that her mother had cried a lot and her father had not said a word until they got back home the next day. Uch Shrif was a four hour bus drive away from their home in Hasilpur*.
Ten year old Yousaf was waiting for his older sister when she emerged from their two room hut. It was a little more than a hut now after a concrete roof had been laid and a door fixed at the entrance. Their house had been a fond and arduous labor of love for the last fifteen years now, belied less and less by the outer facade and more and more by the state inside: The mud floor had caved in at various places creating hazardous little potholes across the 20 foot space; the two jute charpais* needed to be restrung; the rest of the furniture sparse and meagre as it was, was also holding together only with Arifa and their mother’s constant deft machinations.
Yousaf slept outside in the courtyard with his father on the cotton manji* that also served as the seating arrangement for the family during meals and when visitors came over. At night, the two rooms of the house exclusively became the women’s quarters as was the norm when space was limited and children were growing up. Despite the distance between the sisters and the brother that was assiduously nurtured as they grew into adolescence, Yousaf had maintained a close and affectionate bond with Zubaida. He was still young enough to consider his sisters as more than just temporary family appendages that would be permanently severed in a few years. She was his unlikely but larger than life role model. Zubaida would read him stories about jinns*, flying castles and brave princes. He would listen enraptured and agog as she read out each tale with the expressive artistry of a professional story teller.
Yousuf himself couldn’t read no matter how hard he tried. The alphabets jumbled up in front of him sending him into a panic. He’d got beatings in class for his inability to tackle his Alif, bai, pai*. When he was eight, his father had pulled him out of school. As long as he could write his name, there really was no more need of an education. He would have his hands full dealing with life as a man of the house in a few years. Better to start educating him on that front than on the leadership qualities of Baba-e-Qaum* or the rousing poetry of Allama Iqbal*. Arifa too had not fared too well academically and was also taken out of school when she was twelve. She was now nineteen and engaged to be married to Zahoor Sipra. She was a good looking girl and the proposals had come in thickly over the last few years. Haq Nawaz was shrewd when it came to long term unions; whether it was letting out a part of his two acre land to share croppers or deciding on lucrative matches for his daughters. He had waited until Ghulam Sipra had sent a proposal for Arifa for his second son. Ghulam Sipra was a wealthy man with fifteen acres of land and cattle. The union would change their fortunes considerably. In time, he would buy a clerical position for Yousuf at one of the smaller Union council government offices in the district.
Arifa’s wedding was set for March of next year, just three months away. The little family nest egg was going to be wholly used for the occasion and its multitudinous expenses. A suitable match would be found for Zubaida too, sourced through the auspicious new prosperity and connections of by then, her well-married sister. Indeed, Arifa’s betrothal was a calculated all-out move from whence the blessed, bountiful turn in their fortunes would follow.
Zubaida emerged from the inner sanctums of their home and spied Yousuf awake and waiting for her to come out. She smiled at him and through force of habit, went to fix his hair and straighten out his bedraggled night shirt that was four sizes too big for him – a hand-me-down from their father. He looked at her with shining eyes speaking volumes in that one completely happy expression. Theirs was a language of the soul, spoken through the eyes and gentle smiles. That is how they shared their most profound thoughts such as they were in their little world – through expressions of wondrous excitement, great joy or boundless sorrow, transcending the constraints and inhibitions of words. She felt her little brother’s excitement for her; his innocent awe at the prospect of her big adventure. She grinned at him as she put on her green cotton dupatta and placed a bottle of water and some food for the journey into her school bag. She had 50 rupees with her that she’d collected over the last two occasions of Eid. She would bring back something for him from Uch Sharif; a little momento and some sohan halwa* which he loved.
Yousuf walked with her to the meeting point where the bus was supposed to pick up the girls from their neighbourhood and watched her embark on her exciting voyage to that magical place he had heard so much about. Uch Sharif was where the saints had called to him to be born as the son of Haq Nawaz … and he also believed, as the brother of Zubaida. Although he never said that last part out loud. Something in the way his sisters were connected to him and the family, the protected, guarded, almost secret way in which they existed, prevented him from saying things that related them to the saints. Those saints were powerful, free and revered by everyone, even the richest man in Hasilpur.
That evening a tired but happy Zubaida came home to tragedy and chaos. Rab Nawaz, her father’s brother, had run off with a girl from Rasulabad. It was not a matter that would be solved with any due diligence by the light-handed law enforcement. In such cases the local tribal council of the community rallied to serve justice in the age old ways of their forefathers. The laws of the state were soft and morally deficient, and had allowed too many brutes to escape unscathed. A Jirga* of the elders was convening in the morning to review the case and decide on the outcome.
A sullen, raw moon rose upon Haq Nawaz’s home that night, staring coldly into the little courtyard and through the curtains, into the rooms. It was not going to be a night of serenity or sleep.
* Hasilpur: A city of 500,000 people situated between the Sutlej River and the Indian border, about a 100 km east of the district of Bahawalpur.
* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.
* Jinn: supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.
* Alif, bai, pai: the ABCs of the Urdu language.
* Baba-e-Qaum: the title “Father of the Nation” given to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan.
* Allama Iqbal: South Asian Muslim writer, philosopher, and politician, whose poetry and vision of a cultural and political ideal for the Muslims of British-ruled India animated the impulse for the creation of Pakistan.
* Eid: Muslim religious festivals celebrated twice a year.
* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.