By Hamida Bano
Clouds were rushing towards the west and veiling the red face of the declining sun. In a few moments the sky was covered with snow white clouds. Then the helpless sun could no longer see the elegance of the brilliant earth.
Gulrukh, an eleven years old girl, was playing ‘meergati’ (a game played with a ball and 4 pebbles) at the foot of a hill all alone. She had accumulated small stones at her side for making a tiny doll house. At the time she had completed half of the house when she stared at the cloudy sky. Before leaving home that morning, Gulrukh’s mother had warned her to come back soon if the weather turned bad. She was also told to bring a bundle of hay home for the cow. Gulrukh got up reluctantly and went out of the meadow following the instructions of her dear mother. She made a big bundle of hay and binding it on her back; she went home with her three sheep, which were still grazing.
When Gulrukh entered home, her mother was milking the cow.
The girl tied up the sheep and, washing her hands, went to her bed. Zartaja, Gulrukh’s mother, gave a glass of fresh milk to her weary child. She put some coal into a home-made stove to keep the room warm. Such were her routine chores,which never made her feel tired.
In a few moments, it started raining. Until then, Gulrukh was in a deep slumber. Zartaja was sitting in a chair of straw weaving a trouser’s tape beside her daughter’s bed. Ruffling Gulrukh’s hair, she at once started thinking about her bitter past.
When Gulrukh was but a newly born baby her father died of cancer. Zartaja was left with the possession of a cow and three sheep. She used to earn her living by selling the milk. Still she lacked hope for the future of her only child. Though illiterate, she was well aware of the injustices suffered by women in her society. Her sole aim in life was to shield her daughter against the expected misfortune.
Whenever I went to my uncle’s house, I often saw Gulrukh from the top of the hill. My uncle was a doctor and in those days he had been transferred from Peshawar to the village. Gulrukh had no companion to play with and that was why she used to come to my uncle’s house to play with his two little children. Her activeness would often amaze me.
Once, while I had visited my uncle’s house during our summer vacations, I had a chance to see Gulrukh again. No one was at home except me when she came there and asked me, “Where are Semi and Ali?” “They’ve gone with uncle and aunty” I said at once. “Do you know when they’ll be back?” she asked very innocently. “No, I’m not sure about the exact hour. Gulrukh, can’t I become your friend?” I said without a pause. She smiled with her usual sweet smile and said,” But you are too old to be my friend”. “So what? I know how to play all your games”, I said abruptly. “Can you make a tiny doll house for me?” She asked.
“Why not” I replied with a smile. “Then you are my friend”, she said. She wanted to have hand shake with me but when she had a look at her right hand it was dirty. After a moment she went home, reminding me of my promise.
The next day, I waited for her for long but she didn’t come. It was noon. The sun was blazing. All of a sudden I saw Gulrukh with a weary look on her pretty face and asked her, “Whats wrong with you? Why do you look so tired?” “My mother had severe stomach pain and I went to bring her some medicine from the ‘hakim seb’ (the herbalist) but she is better now.”.” Why didn’t you call for my uncle?” I asked Gulrukh. “Mother says that the villagers cannot recover with English medicines.”
I didn’t question her any further. She then told me that she would have to go home earlier. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had time to complete her doll house.
That night I couldn’t sleep soundly. All night through I was thinking about the responsibilities of that little soul. Her thought was disturbing me hour after hour.
Next morning my uncle decided to go to Mardan, the city where our grandparents lived. We spent two weeks over there and during that time Gulrukh’s thoughts never for a moment left my mind. I was thinking on the perspective of her being left alone by her diseased mother. Once she had told me that they had no near relative for her father had migrated alone with a caravan from Afghanistan since he was a child and got married in Pakistan, when and how, that is another story to tell. However, her mother had a cousin who very often came to their house to help them somehow. Though an immature boy myself, I had a feeling heart and wished to do something for the mother and daughter, to drag them out of their misery.
When we returned to the village, I decided to meet the girl straight away. It was late afternoon and Gulrukh couldn’t be seen anywhere that was why I, at once, turned to their hut, with the idea to ask for her mother’s health as well. When I entered the hut I found the girl sitting all alone. As she saw me, her eyes filled with tears. She related to me in great detail how she lost her mother due to her age old stomach ulcer. I tried to console her but the loss was too great to be forgotten soon. She further told me that her mother’s cousin had promised to take care of her. Her last sentence soothed me to a great extent.
After that visit I didn’t get a chance to go to the village again because my uncle transferred himself to DHQ hospital, Mardan. But Gulrukh had certainly become an important part of my youthful memory which I never stopped recalling in solitude.
Six years later, when I was doing my master from university of Peshawar, I got a chance to go to that village for the completion of my research thesis on rural life. I was keenly interested in meeting Gulrukh on that occasion. In my excitement I had forgotten the fact that she would be a grown up girl now and would never allow me to enter her house and see her the way i used to do. Somehow I mustered up courage and knocked at her door. There was no reply from inside. I knocked again and this time more loudly. A woman with a veiled face came to the door. I related to her how I had come to see a girl whom I knew six years back as an orphan kid. Hearing this she at once recognized in me her old well wisher . According to pakhtoon customs she could not let me in for she was living all alone, a fact which opened on me soon after, still I insisted on asking her a few questions at the door. I was informed that she was working at the house of some rich businessman living nearby. When I inquired about her mother’s cousin I heard her sobbing. She disappeared from the chink of the door for awhile and then appeared with an envelop in her hand. She handed it to me for reading. I, at once, opened and started reading it thus.
“Dear Gulrukh, I hope you will be fine with the grace of Almighty Allah. I didn’t know that I’ll have to leave you so soon. I still love you a lot but some unknown force has tightly chained me to the city I am living at present. I think, if you know the situation in which I am living, you will also feel pity for me.
My love, before getting married to you, i had left a family behind, a secret which i had even kept from your mother. My lust for sexual satisfaction had made me blind to your age. What am I but a savage with no manners? I’ll always blame myself for the injustices I have done to you. Please forgive me. As for as coming back to you is concerned, I don’t think it is possible now. My first wife and children will never let me leave them on Allah’s mercy once again for I have to take care of my paralyzed wife. I hope you will take care of yourself as your mother has done it a few years back.
When I was finishing the last sentence I was burning with rage. That uncouth middle-aged man hadn’t had the right to play with the life of a helpless orphan girl. I gave the letter back to Gulrukh telling her that I would go to the Law Court to fight for her rights. I knew the letter could provide enough evidence against her husband. But, she sealed my lips by saying,’ don’t ever mention the topic again. I am more than happy in my present misery. I am glad because he didn’t divorce me and kept my HONOUR. Don’t you know what people will say if I’m divorced? They will never let me live on this earth without blaming me”. Her voice was trembling with the last words. I had no other alternative except to leave her alone.