(Harmain Sultan, )

Saeed lived with his wife, Kulsoom in a tattered,worn out house in the slums of Karachi. They didn’t have much contact with the neighbourhood and preferred to live in isolation. Inquisitive aunties of the neighbourhood often peeked through the windows and stormed Kulsoom with questions regarding her relationship with her husband. Kulsoom wasn’t social at all so the gossip thirst of the ladies remained unquenched.
One night, ChaandRaat, little boys and girls were playing and lighting fire crackers when a tiny, thin and pale girl, peeked through the termite eaten wooden door that hung with one hinge to the broken wall of Saeed’s house. The child gazed at the lighted crackers and the energetic faces of other children with fascination but didn’t move. Her large, beautiful eyes were lost somewhere; she looked at each and everything yet nothing.
A year had passed and no one had seen the child.
Saeed’s house stood in a condition even worse than before. The only sounds that penetrated the walls of the rundown house were of quarrels between Kulsoom and Saeed. At times a limo was sighted outside the house.
It was November 20th, 1o’clock in a cold and windy afternoon. There had been a drizzle because the roads were wet.
A car stopped in front of the house and four FIA employees; three men and a woman stepped out.
Captain Irshad: Alright gentlemen, and of course our lady officer, we’re here. Asad you’ll stay on guard.
Asad: Sir, yes Sir!
Captain Irshad: Ali, Fatima and I will go in through the back door. Is that clear?
Ali: Yes Sir!
Fatima: Yes Sir!
Captain Irshad: We need to check if the reports are correct or not.
Ali: Aye Sir.
Captain Irshad: Be prepared for anything, these men are no joke. They’ve been involved in surreptitious smuggling of drugs for years. Man, they blended in so perfectly. I must say I am impressed; a poor couple living in isolation and working night and day to make both ends meet.
Asad: Definitely Sir.
[Asad shared a quick glance with his two other colleagues and smiled.]
Ali: We’re always ready Sir.
[Ali and Asad looked at each other, Ali winked and Asad had to suppress a giggle]
Ali: But I’m not sure if Fatima is ready.
Fatima: Trust me and I’ll trust you.
Captain Irshad: That’s enough you two. Come on now off we go.
Asad stood outside while the others went in. Five minutes had passed when Fatima, blue in the face, staggered out and puked. Asad, after settling her in the car, went cautiously inside.
The main door led into a dark low ceiling room and uuuggghhh; a stench so pungent that it was unbearable. In one corner of the room was what appeared like a stone age bathroom, laden with human excrement.
The walls were yellow and the paint peeled from the walls and ceiling, revealing grey patches here and there. Ragged curtains dangled from rusted metal rods. Cardboard and old comforters were stuffed roughly into the broken and grimy windows. Cigarette smell prevailed and the atmosphere in theroom was damp.The counters of what appeared to be a kitchen were sticky and the rest of the furniture included a stained couch and a broken chair. A dead body lay there cold as ice and rotting. All over the body were legions of scuttling roaches, ants, vermin and any other insect one could think of.
Captain Irshad and Ali stood near the dreadful scene grave and dumb founded.
Captain Irshad replied to the curious faces of Ali and Irshad: We can’t stop here; we swore to protect the country and be faithful servants of our Lord. Muster your courage my sons for we must go on.
Asad: Yes Sir.
Ali: Yes Sir.
At the left side of the room was a small door and through the half closed door they could hear a woman sobbing. Captain Irshad nodded and the three of them moved towards the voice and stepped through the battered old door into a cramped room much like a store room.
A woman was slumped over on a dirty cushion and was crying her heart out. She appeared to be in her thirties and was very pale. With her was a child, a little girl nine or ten years old, she had light brown hair that hung below her shoulders. Her face and hands were dirty and she was wearing a torn dress. The child had tears in her eyes and was trying to soothe the woman who, after seeing the affection in the kid’s eyes, was taken to be the mother of the girl.
Captain Irshad: You’ll have to go with us Ma’am.
The woman looked up and was shocked and delighted at the same moment. She looked at all three of them and started crying more fiercely.
Ali: It’s okay we won’t harm you. You should be happy you’re in safe hands now.
Woman: Oh no...(Sobbed) Oh no noNO!
The woman hugged her daughter and continued crying.
Woman: I’m not safe. We’re not safe. Oh my baby… oh.
Captain Irshad: Lady you have to come with us. We’re here to rescue you.
Woman: You can’t rescue us. In fact no one can. We’re doomed…I can’t go… he’ll slaughter both of us.
Asad: You need to trust us.
Woman: He said he’ll come for me and little Mahnoor here…he said he’ll slaughter my child right in front of my eyes.
Ali: Who’ll slaughter you?
Fatima had composed herself during this time; she picked her gun and got out of the car. She did a quick examination of the area. There wasn’t the slightest sign of suspicion. Everything was quiet and peaceful. Fatima put a mask on her mouth and slowly went inside. She could hear voices from the far corner of the larger room.
Captain Irshad: Ma’am, we’re here to rescue you and your daughter. You need to come with us and cooperate with us, only then would we be able to save both of you.
Fatima’s footsteps were heard. Fatima stepped in through the door. The woman jumped out of her skin and started screaming.
Woman: Please don’t kill me. I’ll do whatever he says, I’ll do it but (sobbed)…but don’t kill my baby. Please I beg you.
Asad: It’s alright it’s alright. She’s with us you don’t have to be afraid of her.
Fatima: What’s going on? Who’s she?
Ali: No idea. She’s been crying for God knows how much time.
Asad: And hasn’t uttered a useful thing.
Fatima bent and caressed the child’s matted hair
Fatima: what’s your name dear?
Child: Mahnoor. She’s my mommy.
Fatima: That’s a very nice name. Do you go to school?
Mahnoor: What’s a school?
Fatima: It’s a place where children go and study. You want to go to school Mahnoor? You want to have friends? Do you want to study and play?
Mahnoor: Yes.
Fatima: Ok I’ll take you to your school but before that you must tell your mommy to come with us.
Mahnoor: Mommy come with us. I want to go to school.
Woman: You don’t know my love, you don’t know him. He’ll find us and kill us.
Fatima: No one can harm you as long as you’re with us. You need to trust us. You need to tell us what happened. Otherwise we won’t be able to help you.
Woman: Ha! Help…well listen to my tragic story and see if you can help me! I was 17 years old when I ran off with Saeed because my parents didn’t allow me to marry him.
Fatima: Where’s Saeed?
The woman replied with a little disgust in her voice.
Woman: Dead.
Asad: Who killed him?
Woman: Kabir killed him because he didn’t obey him.
[The woman wiped her tears, sat straight and continued.]
Woman: After my parents had refused him, Saeed came one night through the window into my room. I was ecstatic, I was happy… really really happy. I was happy because finally someone was with me, someone supported me, and someone was on my side. I was happy because my parents belonged to the lower middle class and Saeed, oh Saeed, was rich. He was so handsome; he drove a V8 and brought expensive gifts. All my friends told me that I was very lucky to have such a guy in my life.
Ali: Why did your parents refuse Saeed?
Woman: My parents said that they had doubts about his source of income. My parents were always like this, the disagreeing type.
Ali: And what about you? Did you ever doubt him?
Woman: Me? Never. I wanted to be rich. I had always longed for the things that he brought me. Those diamond rings, those bracelets, those boots, dresses, bags and oh Lord! What on earth didn’t he bring me. I never doubted him. I was ready to disobey my parents and marry him; for I had seen in movies that the girl lives happily ever after with her boyfriend.
Fatima: When did you marry him?
Woman: That night when he came, I packed my stuff, climbed out through the window into a tree and finally jumped lightly into the back yard. We ran towards his polished vehicle, got in and drove off. We laughed and laughed and made plans for the morrow. I was going to be his wife the next day. But…
[The woman put both hands on her face and started crying again.]
Fatima: What’s the matter?
Woman: He took me to a grand house and in the morning, told me to stay until he comes. I didn’t understand but he said that he had some urgent business. So he left me in the room and went outside. The servant who brought me food eyed me suspiciously and said, “Why did you come here?” I said, “I ran away with Saeed because my parents wouldn’t let me marry him”. He replied, “Oh you’re so unfortunate, you should never have left.” I asked him what was wrong with him and he said, “Have you ever seen the inside of a honeycomb? All the tiny apartments are similar and there are lots of apartments.” I wanted to ask him what exactly did he mean but he went downstairs into the kitchen.
Asad: When did he come back? Saeed I mean.
Woman: Well I waited for him like any good woman would do and I waited long. Days turned to weeks and weeks to a month.
Asad: Why didn’t you go back to your parents?
Woman: There was no return. One part of my mind provided me with an image of myself stuck in a hive. The doors of the house were always locked and guarded by strong, burly ruffians. I wasn’t even allowed to go in the lawn. At one point I did think that Saeed was a fraud but…oh what else could happen…Saeed returned as usual laden with gifts. I forgot everything and that evening we got married.
Fatima: Didn’t you ask him where he had been?
Woman: No. I was relieved that he had returned.
Ali: But how could you marry someone like this?
Woman: I told you he was rich. I wanted love and money and he provided both. We lived happily for a year and a half until I got pregnant. This is when I sensed a slight change in his attitude. He pretended to love but I could feel that passion was no longer there. At times I caught him looking at me like a bear looks at his prey.
Fatima: Did you ever try to reconcile with your parents?
Woman: Whenever I talked of my parents…of reconciliation, Saeed got angry. Every time, he turned red in the face and threw whatever he had in his hands. I was scared of him but when I got pregnant I wanted to tell my parents, spend some time with them and so one night I slipped out.
Asad: But how?
Woman: Oh that was easy compared to what I faced each day. Besides Saeed wasn’t home as usual and the guards were asleep. The servant who brought me food on the first night, his name was Ghulam. He helped me out and took me to my parents’ house. I could feel the warmth of my house…my Dad’s house. Ghulam chacha said, “Off you go my child. I’ll wait for you. Don’t take long Saeed could be home anytime.” I kissed his hand and said, “I won’t.”
The kitchen window was open so I had no difficulty in getting in. It was eleven O’ clock and I remembered that my parents used to sleep early. I went upstairs to their room and saw that Mom and Dad were awake. My Dad looked old and feeble. He was walking in the room but on seeing me he stopped. My mother hurried towards me and hugged me. I wanted to hug my Dad as well but he went downstairs into the living room. I followed him with my mother and we sat. I could see signs of great anguish on his face. He didn’t speak so I began, “How are you?” Father didn’t utter a word. Instead my mother relpied, “We’re alright dear, we’re fine. Tell me how are you?” I said, “I’m fine too.”
Mother: Oh honey I was worried sick. Why didn’t you come back?
Me: I wanted to…but I couldn’t.
Mother: But why? You know I can’t live without my sweetheart. Anyway I’m never going to let you out of my sight again.
Father spoke for the first time.
Father: Where have you been living?
Me: With Saeed. I married him.
Mother: Where is he? Didn’t he come with you?
Me: uh… No he’s gone on a business trip.
Father: Haahh…business trip. I know what business trip he’s at. He’s a loser.
Mother: It’s ok he can come another time.
Father: No he cannot come any other time!
Me: Mom, Dad I wanted to tell you something.
Mother: What is it dear?
Father: One or another of Saeed’s adventures!
Me: I’m going to be a mother.
My mother didn’t speak.
Me: I told you I married Saeed and we’re going to have a baby.
Father: No you did not marry him. In fact you haven’t been with him. He left you because you didn’t steal cash from your parents and he wanted money. I don’t know where have you been or whose child you’re carrying!
Me: But father listen…
My father stood up and said, “I have earned nothing but respect all my life and I cannot bear to be disrespected. Get out of my house. Right now!”
My mother cried, I cried but my dad stood furious. I stumbled out, Ghulam chacha didn’t ask anything. We reached the grand and beautiful prison, I ran to my room, locked the door and cried as if I was crying for the last time. Saeed returned after four days. He looked tired. After having dinner he told me to pack my stuff. I had to go with him for some business. He didn’t answer any of my questions and urged me to hurry up. We left that night and came here.
The woman cried even harder. Her daughter hugged her tight.
Fatima: Why didn’t you protest?
Woman: Protest? PROTEST?
Fatima: Yeah, why didn’t you?
Woman: I was terrified; he was in a really bad mood. He would’ve strangled me if I had uttered a sound. I was left with no other option but to do whatever I was ordered to. My parents didn’t believe me, my husband didn’t love me…oh God why me? Why only me?
Asad: What happened then?
Woman: This place was like hell. I was alone and sick. I wasn’t allowed to talk to any of the neighbours.
Ali: What about Saeed? What did he do?
Woman: Oh I had to pretend that my husband was a labourer. At first, women of the neighbourhood did ask lots of questions but then they too stopped talking to me. At times Saeed’s friends came and brought bags filled with drugs. I had to serve them wine, cocaine e.t.c. My husband made fun of me in front of his friends. He made fun of my unborn Mahnoor. He mocked my love for my baby and as for him, he said that true love didn’t exist and people pretended to love for their own benefits.
Fatima: And still you stayed…
Asad: You should have left. You should’ve…
Woman: Yes I stayed. Where could I go…I had no home…no family and no one to care for me. I had a baby… my beautiful Mahnoor, her eyes are just like her grandmother’s.
Ali: Did Saeed change after Mahnoor was born?
Woman: Oh yes, he changed. Yes he did change.
Ali: Did he love his daughter?
The woman snorted.
Woman: Love! Oh yes…Yes he loved her.
Fatima: What do you mean?
Woman: I used to keep Mahnoor away from the bunch of drunkards but one day I was in the kitchen preparing wine and drugs when Mahnoor crawled out of the cupboard and went to Saeed. Saeed’s boss Kabirwas there. Saeed shouted at me and told me to take the scum in the kitchen.
[She sobbed.]
Woman: Oh he called my dear one ‘scum’.
She buried her face in her hands and cried.
Woman: I sensed fear in my husband’s voice. I was frightened and didn’t let Mahnoor out of my sight again. Kabir left and Saeed looked anxious.
Saeed: Why did you let Mahnoor out?
Woman: I did not. She was sleeping. The noise would have roused her. Your friends are too loud.
Saeed: Do not let her out when Kabir is here. You don’t know him.
Woman: Why don’t you take both of us away from here?
Saeed: Shut up and do what you’re told.
The woman continued.
Woman: Kabir came often after that and one day I heard him talking to Saeed, and the others, about camel racing; the one in which a child is tied to a camel. I’ve heard that many children die each year in this race.
Kabir: There’s this Camel race in Dubai. I’m sending fifty children this year.
Saeed: You’re sending children?
Kabir: Yes I always do.
Saeed: Where do you get these children?
Kabir: Well, you see there’re lots of children, some illegitimate and others poor. Now don’t you think that I’m merciless. I never force anyone to do anything. Parents exchange their children for money. They can’t provide their children food whereas I can. If the children survive the races they have lots of opportunities of success.
Kabir: Yasir, are all the children ready?
Yasir: Yes, they’re all ready.
Kabir: That’s great.Be careful of the guards.
Kabir eyed Saeed who was looking at his feet.
Kabir: I wonder if anybody else wants to get rich.
[Saeed shifted in his chair.]
Yasir: Who wouldn’t want to be rich? Who wouldn’t want to go back to their beautiful bungalows?If only I had a baby…
[Saeed got up.]
Saeed: It’s getting late. You should go.
Yasir: Come on man, it’s only eleven.
Saeed: I’m tired, I have to sleep.
Woman: They went and Saeed came in the kitchen. And for the first time in so many years he hugged his daughter.
The woman continued: Years passed andI hadn’t seen Kabir much. A week ago Kabir came and had a quarrel with Saeed. I asked him but he didn’t tell me anything. Mahnoor had overheard their conversation.
Woman: What did you hear?
Mahnoor: Uncle Kabir was offering Daddy ‘mounds of wealth’ in return for selling me. Mommy, will Daddy sell me?
Woman: No honey I won’t let anyone take you away from me.
Mahnoor: What will you do Mommy? Daddy will beat you if you disagree.
Woman: Oh darling, Mommy’s not weak now. I’ll do everything to protect my daughter.
Woman: Saeed told me to pack up once again. I did and all three of us slipped into the dark. After a while we came to an inn and decided to spend the night there. In the morning we had breakfast and left for my parents’ home. But…
[She sobbed.]
Woman: But we were ambushed. Kabir’s men had been following us. Two men; one was in his fourties and the other in his late fiftees. Both were busy kicking and punching Saeed. I couldn’t bear the sight and in my confusion took out a knife from my bag. I ran towards the old fellow and pierced the knife with full force into his neck. The man dropped dead.
Captain Irshad: And Saeed?
Woman: The younger one had pulled out a gun and was pointing it towards me. Saeed jumped at him and both had a fight.
Mahnoor buried her face in her mother’s chest.
Mahnoor: I heard a BANG! I was so scared. I thought Daddy was dead. I screamed.
Woman: Saeed was hit with a bullet. His shouder was bleeding. I picked up a stones and threw it in the enemy’s direction. The rock hit his head and he fell. Saeed snatched his gunand shot him in his chest.He was dead. We could hear voices in the distance.
Saeed: Let’s go.
Woman: But where?
Saeed: I don’t know. Let’s go back to our house.
Woman: We went back only to find Kabir already waiting for us. He killed my husband and told me to give him Mahnoor, otherwise he would kill me too. I refused. I could not let that beast take my innocent daughter. I shouted and screamed at the top of my voice. I pushed him and he hit me. Someone came at our door and shouted, “What’s the matter?” another one said, “Why are you beating your wife? Stop this violence or we’ll call the police.” Fortunately, a Police vehicle was passing by and Kabir heard the siren. That sound was enough to have scared him off. He backed off and someone started banging at the door. Kabir scurried through the backdoor. The banging continued for some time and then stopped as usual. That’s all.
Captain Irshad: Alright there, it’s okay. You’re safe now. No one will harm you.
Woman: Please don’t let Kabir anywhere near my daughter.
Asad: Don’t worry we’ll protect both of you.
Ali: Come with us to a much better life.
The woman and her daughter got up and went with them. The woman stopped near the rotting body of her husband, stifled a sob and went on.
Fatima: Let’s clean you up Mahnoor and take you to your school.
An NGO was contacted which took care of the mother and the daughter. Kulsoom was offered a job in a primary school and Mahnoor had to go to a school for special children for six months. After rehabilitation she could continue normal studies. One thing that Mahnoor learned is
‘Life is not a fantasy, life is difficult and harsh. At times it gets really dark and one feels helpless but one must wait for the silver lining.’


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