A child’s broken dreams
A smile flickered on her lips as the fluttering butterfly evaded her for the umpteenth time and became a fugitive in the darkening skies.
She cried out to her mother excitedly,
“I nearly caught her!”
To which her mother, Nargis, replied as always,
“How many times have I told you not to tease such innocent souls, Ghulab Jahan? They will curse you and then you will never be able to become a doctor.”
Ghulab Jahan, as pretty as her name implied, chuckled at the thought of a tongue-less creature complaining to God about her.
Ghulab was an anachronism in many ways; she belonged neither to the society she was growing up in nor to her age. A precocious child, she had always sought more than destiny had in store for the women of her kind in a backward village in southern Punjab. Her dream was to rise above the age-old traditions of her people and become a doctor so that no other woman of her village would ever die in child bearing – a fate that even one of her aunts had met some years ago.
It was this resolve that inspired her in to working hard, year after year, such that not once in her seven years of education had she come second in her class. Often, she would find herself in the throes of anxiety, thinking that there was no institution offering education beyond matriculation in her vicinity, at the moment.
“Then, what will I do?” she would worry.
Sometimes she would even find herself unable to eat, only thinking of the horror if she was unable to realise her dreams.
“What if, God forbid, I am unable to complete my education?”
“What if I, like most women from our community, am wed as soon as my secondary education is complete?”
With these thoughts swirling around her head, beads of sweat would appear on her pristine forehead and she would shut her eyes tightly in frustration. But then she would find solace in the thought that she, being the only pampered sister of three brothers, had always had her way.
She planned to convince her father to let her move to her Chacha’s (paternal uncle) house in Lahore where his family had relocated some years ago. She knew that there would be hardships but she was determined to face them. It was these fantasies that Ghulab, a mere eleven-year-old, dreamed of. At an age when her peers thought only of child-play, she had espoused worldly worries.
We all know that illusions have a way of keeping people fixated until there comes a time when there is no turning back. However, the problem with illusions is that they sometimes lead to sudden disenchantment, leaving the dreamer despondent and tired. This is why Nargis and her husband had agreed that they would not let their daughter be privy to the harsh realities of life. If Ghulab’s dreams were big, her parents vowed to keep their hopes even higher.
However, then the unfathomable happened.
Only a fortnight after the butterfly incident, the silence of the night was broken by shouts and gunfire. A man had been seen talking to the sister of one Waqar Joya, and before he could be apprehended, he escaped.
The bullets rattled through the trees but never caught its target. The girl wouldn’t tell who it was, despite incessant beatings and painful bruises.
All indicators pointed to Ghulab’s eldest brother being the perpetrator and his absence from the village only confirmed the suspicions. Tribal customs dictated that Waqar had been dishonoured and hence, justice had to be done. A Jirga was thus, summoned.
Dressed in their stiff, starched clothes with their hookahs, resting close-by, the elders of the village assumed the mantle of justice. Ghulab’s father was asked about the absence of his son. He replied that his son had gone to a nearby city to attend a wedding of a close friend, and had not returned as yet. He was asked for proof of his claim but the only administrable proof – an alibi from within the village – was not possible since the boy had journeyed alone.
After much debate, Adil Sahab, the patriarch from the largest tribe in the village, gave his verdict. Quoting the Holy Book, he stated that an eye for an eye was the accepted norm. And hence, the tainted honour of one could only be redeemed by dishonouring the other. Since the misdeed had disturbed the peace of the village, and since the magnitude of the wrong was so colossal, the entire village must have its justice. And thus, the final blow was delivered: a person from each of the thirteen tribes of the village would have their way with the only sister of the culprit, Ghulab Jahan.
Following this horrific verdict, a cohort was immediately dispatched to Ghulab’s house and despite the punches, pleas and curses of Nargis, her daughter was snatched from her folds and dragged to the nearest sugarcane fields.
Ghulab pleaded, shouted, shrieked and then helplessly cried, but in vain. Like a child tramples a flower, they trampled and squelched her. Soon her voice was hoarse and her agony silenced but there was no end to the hedonism of her captivators.
A tear trickled down her cheek and dampened the dry soil. She saw a butterfly dart above her but there was no smile on her face this time. Soon it all became too much and she started choking under the unendurable burden that had been imposed on her – the burden of expiating another’s sin. She gave one final cry for mercy and then all her dreams vanished with her breath. The eleven-year-old fluttered her wings one last time and flew away.
Humanity lay naked. A crowd of ants abandoned a dead snake nearby and made a beeline for the still body of Ghulab Jahan. Traditions had prevented another iconoclast from becoming too powerful. Like the winter sun, the little revolutionist sank before she had bathed the world in her warmth.
Disclaimer: Although the facts and much of the story line is fiction, the inspiration came from a real life event. Unfortunately, lack of education, patriarchal culture and misinterpreted religious notions means that hundreds of women every year meet a fate similar to Ghulab Jahan.
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