Imran Iftikhar was born and raised in Rawalpindi. He recently completed his Bachelors degree in World Religions from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, USA. He loves to travel to new places, and his dream is to, someday, visit all the countries of the world. His hobbies include reading, writing and photography.
She ran through the dense thicket of kikar trees, a duffel bag bouncing on her hip. Every now and then she looked back, and although she was almost out of breath, she dared not slow down. The light of the full moon guided her step towards the old well at Purani Taal. The duffel bag weighed down heavily on her shoulder, but she kept a steady pace. Her spirits rose as she caught a glimpse of the wheat fields at the edge of the wood. She was almost there. A light breeze blew through the trees, making the moonlight dance on the dirt path. The distant sound of a barking dog perforated the silent night. Beyond the fields, she could see lights dotting the hills of the Salt Range. She slowed down as she came out into the open. Instead of taking the little dirt path along the edge of the field, she entered the field itself. The wheat stalks almost went up to her chest, and she found it rather difficult to make her way through them, but she kept on walking.
She must have walked a mile through the wheat field when she heard a sound, which made her heart leap with joy. Whistling. Murad was waiting for her at Purani Taal. She reached the edge of the field, and came upon a raised well, which rested under the shade of a large Taal tree. Leaning against the tree, was a young man in his early twenties, his kurta’s sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He was softly whistling a Bollywood tune. He stood up straight as he saw Salma hurrying towards him, and walked to her, pulling her in an embrace when she was close enough. They both sat down on the ledge around the well, waiting for Salma to catch her breath. Murad kept looking all around them.
“I’m so glad you made it,” Murad said, after she had recovered, “I was afraid someone might have seen you.”
“We don’t have much time. We need to leave now. The train won’t wait for us.”
Murad got up, walked to the motorbike – which stood on a narrow road along the well – and beckoned Salma to climb on behind him. Soon, they were riding down a little, winding road. Salma rode sidesaddle, gripping Murad around the waist, a scared but determined expression on her face. Her duffel bag was safely tucked between her and Murad. It contained five pairs of shalwar qameez, a pair of shoes, and a framed photograph of her mother; these were all the valuables she possessed. As they rode on through the night, Salma leaned her head, sideways, on Murad’s shoulders, and watched the wheat and sesame fields speed past them.
She looked at her tiny hands, decorated with henna, and smiled to herself. The red dress she was wearing was bedecked with gold colored thread and rhinestones. She stood up to walk over to the mirror to look at herself, but lost her balance halfway and fell. She was not used to wearing high heels. She sat up and burst into tears. Her mother came rushing in from the other room, scooped her up and balanced her on her hip. She cooed at her, trying to stop her from crying.
“Salma, big girls don’t cry.”
“But it hurts!”
“I know, baby. But if you stop crying, I’ll give you a barfi. You’re spoiling all your makeup.”
“I want a laddoo,” Salma whimpered, rubbing her eyes.
“And you’ll get one, sweetheart. Just stop crying. It’s your wedding day. You’re supposed to be happy.”
She wiped Salma’s cheeks carefully with a cloth, and fixed her clip-on earrings, which had come off when Salma fell. Just then, the door opened, and Jamal Shah, Salma’s father walked in with the cleric. Hafeez had already signed the Nikahnama in the other room and it was Salma’s turn. She took the pen from her father, and untidily scrawled her name in Urdu in the space he was pointing at.
Afterwards, Salma’s mother put her to bed.
Salma flicked the blue marble expertly at the much-coveted green one. She jumped up with joy as the marble hit its target with a loud click. The game was over. Salma put her marbles, including the green one she had just won, into her little cloth bag. Eight years had passed since her marriage ceremony.
Hina, the previous owner of the green marble grumbled, “Consider this your house warming present, Salma. You can give it to ‘Uncle Hafeez’.” The other girls started giggling.
“Stop calling him that,” Salma yelled. “He’s my husband.”
“But he’s 25 years older than you.”
“Exactly, he’s older than your father.”
Fuming, Salma flung her bag of marbles over her shoulder and stomped off, the sound of her friends’ laughter dying down as she walked away. Her anger subsided as she walked down the dirt path that led to her house, jumping over puddles and potholes, and the incident completely escaped her mind when she saw a taanga outside her gate.
Her shoulders drooped, and the bag fell from her shoulder. With a deep sigh, she dragged herself inside. In the small courtyard, sitting around a tea table, were her parents, her mother-in-law, and her husband, Hafeez. For a second, Salma stood there, not knowing what to do or say.
“Salma, beti, say Salam to our guests,” her mother said, walking up to her.
“Salam alaikum,” said Salma, still standing there, her bag hanging at her side.
Her mother took the bag from her and hissed, “You should’ve been here twenty minutes ago. Come to the kitchen with me.”
In the kitchen, on a tray, were five teacups and saucers, and a pot of tea was simmering on the stove.
Salma walked over to the stove, carefully removed the pot, and poured tea into the five cups, spilling a little as she got to the last one.
Her mother snapped at her, “Watch what you’re doing!” She spilt tea with a tea cloth. “You’re fifteen now. It’s high time you learnt how to pour a cup of tea. You’re going to live in your husband’s house now. What will he think? “Sorry, Amma,” Salma was looking at her feet.
Her mother was slightly taken aback at this quick apology from her hotheaded daughter. She looked at her and smiled.
“You will be a wonderful wife,” she said, putting her arm around Salma’s shoulder. “I know it.”
“Do I have to go today?”
“You know you do. You’ve known that for quite some time now. Hafeez has come as a blessing in our lives. You know what our situation was before he started supporting your father. Besides, he is very excited. He has arranged a trip to Lahore for you two. Isn’t that exciting? You’ll get to see the big city.”
Salma shrugged her mother’s arm away, and walked out of the kitchen with the tray in her hands.
Soon, the teacups were empty, the biscuits were gone, and it was time for the rukhsati of the bride. As Salma climbed on to the taanga next to Hafeez, she remembered the conversation her mother had had with her about this day. “You will be starting a new life, my dear,” her mother had said, “You will have many responsibilities. Remember, you will remain happiest if your husband and in-laws are happy.”
“So my only job is to keep that fat Hafeez and his mother happy?” Salma had grumbled.
That is the meaning of marriage, especially for us women. We live to please our husbands.”
She looked sideways at her husband as the taanga jostled along the dirt road to the next village. He was looking out into the distance, absent-mindedly touching his bristly moustache that had specks of white all over it. She noticed the wrinkles under his eyes and the grey hair sticking out from under his turban. Yet, she smiled as her mother’s words reverberated in her mind.
That night she sat on the edge of the wooden bed as she saw Hafeez bolt their bedroom door from the inside. Her heart started pounding as he turned and walked towards the bed. She looked down at her hands clasped together in her lap. Hafeez sat down next to her. He put his finger under her chin, and gently turned her face so that she was staring at his. He was smiling as he lifted her veil from her hand, and threw it across the room. He took off his shirt, and told her to lie down. She did, and shut her eyes as she felt her husband climb into bed beside her.
“Salma, did you iron my shirt yet?” Hafeez yelled one morning, two years after he had first brought Salma home.
“I hung it behind the bathroom door,” Salma answered from the kitchen, where she was preparing breakfast. “Tell Amma the breakfast is almost ready.”
“I won’t have breakfast today. I have to be at the office early. Pack mine up to go,” said Hafeez as he ambled to the kitchen, dressed for work.
“It’ll be ready in a few minutes. Why don’t you just have breakfast here?”
“Just do what you’re told, Salma,” replied Hafeez, fixing his tie in the mirror on the wall. “I don’t have time for this.”
She touched the skin under her right eye. The bruise still hurt. She didn’t argue with her husband any further. After sending her husband off with a tiffin box, she spent the rest of the morning finishing the house chores. As she stepped out of her house that afternoon to water the dandelions she kept at the stoop, she felt a shadow cross over her.
“Excuse me, miss, but is this the house of Muhammad Hafeez?”
Salma looked up from the flowers and saw a young man in his early twenties. He was tall, clean shaven, and had shortly cropped black hair. He was neatly dressed, and she could make out his strong biceps through his, rather tight, shirt. She pulled her dupatta over her head and replied, “It is. Who wants to know?”
“My name is Murad. The factory owner sent me to find him. He hasn’t come to work in four days. Is he sick?”
Salma frowned at this, and replied, “The factory owner’s lying. My husband is at work even now.”
“I beg your pardon, miss, but I work at the factory too, and I haven’t seen your husband either.”
“You have to go now. I’ll tell my husband you came.”
She turned around and walked back into the house, slamming the gate behind her. She walked to the little closet at the other end of the courtyard to put away the watering can, and was shocked to find that she was out of breath. She sat down on a stool to calm her nerves before she went to her mother-in-law to tell her what she had heard from Murad.
The old lady coughed and said, “What were you doing talking to a stranger? Wait till I tell Hafeez. You’ll get another black eye.”
“But why would the factory owner send someone if it wasn’t true? Don’t you wonder where Hafeez has been going this past week?”
“Hafeez brings home the bread for all of us. How dare you believe a stranger over your husband?”
Salma sighed and went to her bedroom. She sat in a chair beside the window, and took up some mending she had to do. She decided she would talk to her husband before his mother could get to him. She fervently sewed away, trying to forget the matter, but she couldn’t get the young man’s face out of her mind. Frustrated, she put down the sewing and went to splash some water on her face. Hafeez came home at around 2 p.m. to eat lunch. She heard the sound of his bicycle bell, and raced down to tell him what had happened. He listened to her as they walked in. When she had finished, he said with a wave of his hand, “Murad is an idiot. Just because I didn’t meet him today, he thought I didn’t come to work. He had some nerve to come to my house.”
Salma hesitated, but replied, “But he said that the factory owner sent him. He said that you hadn’t been going to work in 5 days” She looked down at her hands, which were twisting the hem of her dupatta. “Where have you been?”
Hafeez stopped in his tracks. Salma knew she had crossed the line. She tried to back away, but Hafeez turned towards her, and slapped her on the face. “You ever talk to me like that again, I will kill you. You hear me?”
Salma’s eyes welled up with tears as she massaged the spot where her husband had hit her. She dared not move for fear of more violence, and waited for Hafeez to go inside. She leaned against the wall and burst into tears, her face in her hands.
“Salma!” Her mother-in-law yelled from inside. “Get in here and set the table for lunch.”
Salma quickly wiped her eyes with her dupatta, and ran to the kitchen to make the bread. She set the lunch table quietly, and then went up to her room, saying that she wasn’t feeling well. She sat on the edge of the bed, picked up her mother’s picture, hugged it, and started sobbing again. She went to the bathroom and splashed water on her face before going downstairs to clear the table and wash the dishes.
The next day, just when Salma was about to cook dinner, there was a knock on the main gate. Thinking it was the woman who sold them vegetables, Salma got out her little purse and walked to the gate. There, on the doorstep, stood Murad, his hands folded behind him.
“I’m sorry for troubling you again, miss. But this time, the factory owner has sent me to say that your husband’s services are no longer required.”
“Well then go tell him yourself. He’s not at home. Don’t come to my house again.”
“But I don’t know where to find him. Should I come back later?” “Do whatever you want. Just go away now,” Salma slammed the door and bolted it from inside.
A few days went by, and there was no sign of Murad. Life resumed its normality except that Salma started noticing some changes in her husband. He had become more agitated of late, and more than a few nights a month, he came home with the smell of liquor on his breath. He had arguments with her on a daily basis, and many times, these arguments turned violent. After one such outburst, Hafeez left for work. Salma was finishing up her morning chores when there was a knock at the main gate. She walked over to the gate, and opened it. Murad was standing there. “I hope you are doing well, miss,” he said jovially.
Salma opened the gate a little wider and there was a hint of a smile on her face, “My husband isn’t here. You’ll have to come back later.”
“Actually, I wanted to talk to you, miss”
Puzzled, she asked him, “About what?” “I knew where your husband goes every day.”
Salma’s grip on the handle of the gate tightened, “Where?” “Well… it’s a little difficult to say.”
“Just say it. Where does he go?”
“There is this woman in next village who entertains male guests. I followed your husband to her house yesterday.”
Salma stood there, dumbfounded. She stared out into the street at nothing in particular. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I think you deserve to know the truth, miss,” replied Murad. “You don’t deserve to remain in the dark.”
She sank down onto the stoop. “What should I do now? I can’t tell anyone, no one would believe me.”
Murad sat down on the stoop next to her. She was staring out into the distance. They sat there for a while when she suddenly realized what was happening. She jumped up, wiped her eyes and said, “I have to go finish some work. Please go away, Murad Sahib. Don’t come here again.”
“Are you sure you’re alright, miss?”
“I’m fine. Goodbye.”
Murad nodded at her, and made to walk away, when he halted, turned around, and said, “Could I trouble you for a glass of water before I go? I’ve been walking for a while and the heat is unbearable.”
Salma was staring at her feet, one hand on the door handle. She looked down the street, as if checking to see if anyone was there. She opened the door and said, “Come on in. But you can’t stay for long.”
“You have a nice house,” Murad commented as he stepped over the threshold. “Pretty big for two people.”
“My husband’s mother lives here as well,” said Salma, showing him to a chaarpai in the courtyard. “She teaches sewing at the local girl’s school in the morning.”
She handed a glass of water to Murad, who took his time, taking small sips. Salma sat down beside him on the chaarpai, waiting for him to finish his water.
“Does your mother-in-law teach every day?”
“Every day, except for Friday and Saturday.”
Murad drained the last of his water, and got up to leave. She walked him to the entrance. As they reached the door, they both reached for the handle at the same time. Their hands touched. Salma looked up at Murad, and immediately dropped her gaze, turning red.
“It was nice talking to you, Salma. Thank you for the water.” Murad turned around, and started walking down the street, whistling a Bollywood tune.
Two days later, Salma heard another knock at her door. She placed her dupatta over her head, and opened the lock. There stood Murad, with a bunch of flowers in his hand.
“Salam alaikum, Salma. I saw these flowers in my garden, and I thought they would cheer you up.”
A smile broke on Salma’s face as she accepted the flowers. She opened the door, and beckoned him to come inside. He followed her to the kitchen as she filled a glass of water to put the flowers in.
“Please sit in the courtyard. I’ll make us some tea.”
She quickly arranged a tray with teacups and a plate of sweets, which she took out into the courtyard. She sat down next to Murad, and between sips of tea, she talked more than she had ever done in the past few years. She learnt about Murad’s life, his parents, his work, how unsatisfied he was in working the late-shift at the factory, and how he wanted to go to the city. She told him about how young she was when her parents married her off. She told him how much she missed her parents, how much she had begged her husband to let her visit her sick mother, but to no avail. All the things she had kept bottled up inside her were spewing out. She paused for a while to catch her breath, and noticed the concerned expression on Murad’s face as he sipped his tea. Murad reached out and put his hand on top of hers. She didn’t pull hers away.
Salma started looking forward to Murad’s visits more and more. She loved to hear him talk to her as if she was his equal, to hear him share his dreams and desires with her. How she wished that the mornings would never end so she could listen to Murad talk forever.
One of the things that Murad talked about very often was how he wanted to leave the village and move to the city.
“I’m just waiting for the right opportunity. My cousin is looking for a job for me in Rawalpindi. And once he finds one, I’ll be off.”
“Well I hope that it’s not too soon,” said Salma, now blushing a little bit, “I’ve started enjoying our talks.”
Murad smiled at her as he took another sip of tea. “So have I. But I wish we didn’t have to meet for such short intervals of time.”
Salma started looking down as she always did when she was disappointed. She looked at her right hand, which still sported a fresh cut from when she had tried to shield herself from her husband’s recent beating. Suddenly, she raised her head, and looked at Murad as if she was asking for something.
“Take me to Rawalpindi with you. I can’t live with that man anymore.”
The smile left Murad’s face. “You can’t be serious, Salma.”
“I love you, Murad,.” She blurted out. “I can’t bear to be away from you. When you leave, I think about you every minute of every hour.”
Murad put down his teacup. He was gazing intently into Salma’s eyes.
“I love you too. I didn’t know how to say it to you” He raised a hand and placed it on her cheek, caressing it, softly. “But you’ll have to think about this. It will change your entire life.”
“I’m ready. I’d rather die than not live with you.”
Murad took Salma’s hand in his and kissed it. Then he got up, brushed his clothes, and started walking to the gate.
“I’ll start making arrangements, then. I’ll let you know when everything is ready.”
The next few days were the best and worst of Salma’s marriage. Hafeez was drunk every night, and fought with her almost daily. His sister came to live with them, so Salma was forced to do even more work than she was doing before. But all the while, she had a flame of hope inside her. Every day, she kept an ear out for a knock, and her eyes open for a message.
At last, two weeks later, Murad arrived at her doorstep in the morning.
“I can’t stay for long, Salma. I’ve arranged everything. Meet me tonight at 2 a.m. at the old well at Puraani Taal.”
Dawn was coming up as they reached the train station. The porters had started to stir from their sleep, and life was emerging on the single platform at the station. Murad parked his bike behind a bush near the station, and walked with Salma to the platform as the train approached.
They got into Economy, and found seats at the back. Murad had a thermos of tea; he offered some to Salma. She drank contentedly, knowing her troubles were all over. She was exhausted, and after she finished her tea, she put her head on Murad’s shoulder and fell asleep.
Two stops went by. Murad made sure that Salma was fast asleep. He pushed her head aside so that it leaned on the window instead. He got up, and walked to the door of the train as it pulled up at the third stop. He scanned the small crowd on the platform until he spotted the man he was looking for. The man, wearing a pink shalwar qameez, walked over to the train and got on. He shook hands with Murad, fished out a fat envelope from his pocket and thrust it in Murad’s hand. “She’s sitting in 29A,” Murad said, and jumped off the train just as it began to pull away.