Shah Bano Lives


Illustration: Amili Setalvad

Nearly 12 years ago, an over 70-year-old women won and then, thanks to the soldiers of Islam lost the battle for a Muslim divorcees right to maintenance. Shah Bano is no more. But her struggle for gender justice lives, through the damning prose of Pakistani writer, ZAHIDA HENA.
Abba Miyan has been coming to her for the last two nights. There he is, talking a stroll in the garden. Turning to her he says, “Shahenshah Bano, I have been remembering you a lot these days’’. As she tries to get up to salute him, the illusion evaporates: No garden, no Abba Miyan “Shahenshah

Bano”! she mutters to herself bitterly. “Why did you give an ill-fated women like me such a name, Abba Miyan?’’

Of sleep there is no sign; her entire life comes rushing back to her.

There she is, all decked up in floral ornaments just like a bride. The fragrance is intoxicating. The entire family has assembled for the occasion. All the girls look wistfully at this first one in the family from their gender who is being initiated into learning. Abba Miyan hands a pen in her trembling hands which she dips into ink made with saffron. The novelty of the situation is evident to everyone present: This girl is going to learn not only to read but also write. Abba Miyan is a supporter of modernity, of women’s education. When the daughter is old enough to read, her cupboard is full of books. But for the strong opposition from his wife, he would have given her an English education, too.

How time files. Here she, is surrounded by her friends. What fun, her reading out to them, in secret, stories of Amir Hamza and Tilism Hosharba, stories which men have written for male consumption only and which women are prohibited from reading.

They respond to these stories with a mixture of amazement and incredulity. Their own lives are circumscribed by the boundaries of the Zanakhana (women’s quarter)…. when at last freed from here, they will populate the graveyards. But Tilism Hosharba’s world is entirely different… here women rule. Its women who ride the horses in battlefields, it is they who vanquish men with swords and arrows, and magic spells. Afterwards, they tie up the vanquished men and carry them away on their horses. These women… they love, they envy, they set up mehfil for their own entertainment… Oh! What queens and women with magical powers are these before whom all have to bow in subservience.

Its time for Shahenshah Bano’s marriage, a time of happiness mingled with doubt and anxiety. She does not knows, that her life is being headed on a course of ruin, not fulfilment. When she leaves her parental home, she leaves behind all the love affection and caring with which she, whose footwear had always been adorned with shining stars, would now herself be treated as dirt. She, whose bath water was always scented with rose will from now on remain drowned in misery day and night.

As marriage turned her life into a veritable hell, she often thought, Abba Miyan? Do names determine fate? Over whom did you think I would rule when you named me Shahenshah? Was I some Noorjahan in whose name coin would be minted? Where did I share the fate of Arjumand Bano to have a Taj Mahal erected in my name? Abba Miyan, I was not even a Gulbadan Bano or a Zaibunnisa Begum to write my memories or poetry, and organise gatherings attended by Persian princes.

‘’I am just an ordinary Muslim women… incapable of thought…. Only as worthy as a man’s footwear … the sole purpose of my being born was to be married off to some man and spend the rest of my life in deference to his every wish and whim…life me an endless wail, death the only means of my freedom …Abba Miyan , I complain not about whom you got me married to, my grouse is that you chose to get me educated, encouraged me to think. Why did you make me a princess only in name?

She was reminded of the Behishti Zewar (Ornament of Paradise) which Amma had with great feeling included in her dowry along with the Holly Quran. A trunk full of books- Tilism Hosharaba, Alif Laila , Indra Sabha, Aaraish Mehfil, Arab ka Chand, Mansoor Mohan included—had also accompanied her to her marital abode

That evening a few weeks after her marriage will forever remain imprinted in her consciousness when her Majaazi Khuda (Worldly god), Mustafa Ali Khan alias Dular Miyan, saw a book in her hand for the first time. The very next moment the book was shred to pieces and flung out of the house. The next thing that Dulare Miyan did was a bonfire of all her book in his courtyard.

The son of Abba Miyan’s  friend, a student of law then turned towards the humid and dingy room where she sat in silence. His menacing voice tore Shahenshah to pieces: ‘’I swear by Allah, Dhul Jalal (The Lord of Majesty), if after today I ever see a printed page or pen in your hands, I’ll make mince meat of your fingers and parcel them to your father.’’

Her heads lowered, Shahenshah Bano merely started at her fingers and hennalaced hands. Evidently, a sword or a dagger is not essential to cut of hands. The mere words of a Majaazi Khuda  are enough to slash off a limb, Slice off fingers. That is why from the day of her marriage till the moment of his death, her father longed for a few words in her own handwriting.

She was well aware where Dulare Miyan went every evening after dressing up in style. She knew whose hands fed her the paans. Which tainted his lips red and the perfumes from whose attire he perfumes from whose attire he carried on his person when he returned home late every night. She knew, too, that Dulare Miyan was a poet of sorts who participated in mushairas  and narrated stories of love and romance. He was, of course, entitled to his pleasures. He had been in love with a cousin but family squabbles came in the way. For his failed love, he sought solace from Laqabai and took revenge on Shahenshah Bano.  

Some months after the marriage, Dulare Miyan retuned home late one evening as usual. This was the first time that while she waited for him, Shahenshah Bano had dozed off involuntarily. The moment she heard the door of her room open, she woke up with a start and turned on the lamp. As Dulare Miyan was taking off his perfume-laden Sherwani, he noticed the sleep in her eyes. He was outraged. Filing his  Sherwani to one side, he pulled out the Baheshti Zewar  from the shelf.

‘’Did your father teach you nothing about religion?’’ Dulare Miyan razor sharp voice flashed like lighting in the her dingy room. ‘’My daughter has read the Holly Quran fully, is familiar with Hadith, has read scores of books, she has read the Behishti Zewar, too’’, said Dulare Miyan imitating her father’s voice while turning the pages of Behishti Zewar.

‘’Please don’t drag Abba Miyan in this’’, she pleaded in a broken voice . ‘’Dare you argue with me? Is he your father or Allah Miyan about whom nothing can be said? You obviously know nothing about religious edicts. Listen, this is what His Holiness Hazrat Ashraf Ali Thanvi says in the Bahishti Zewar: "To the extent possible, think of your husband’s wishes and always do what he desires. If he directs you to stay standing the whole night , it is for your good, both in this life and the life hereafter , that you bear some physical inconvenience to earn Allah’s grace. Never say anything which he does not like. If he says its night when its day you too must say the same.’’ Dulare Miyan dished out nuggets from the Bahishti Zewar  at great speed:’’ This is what the Shariah says and there you are going off to sleep without waiting for my return?

Shahenshah Bano raised her lowered head and looking at her Majaazi Khuda protested in a feeble voice, ‘"Is it a sin to doze off?’’ ‘’Of course not, it is me who is the sinner to have disturbed the sleep of Your Majesty, the Empress of Delhi ,’’ Dulare Miyan’s words stung her like a scorpion. What a cruel and merciless man Dulare Miyan was. There never was a day when she was a day when she was not taunted, pinched or pounced upon by him. She was reminded of the night when Dulare Miyan had pressed his double barrel gun to her chest. Their second son, then two-years-old, was running a very high temperature that day. Dulare Miyan had, as usual, returned home late at night.

Seeing the condition of his son, he growled, ‘’Why did you not send for me? Did you intend to kill him? The distraught Shahenshah Bano who was giving the child a cold sponge turned to her husband and said, ‘’Who could I have sent? Where? To Laqabai’s kotha?’’ On hearing her mention Laqabai’s name, Dulare Miyan exploded like a canon. He pulled out his gun, held it ever you utter that name again, I’ll blast your brains’’.

“The son of Abba Miyan’s  friend, a student of law then turned towards the humid and dingy room where she sat in silence. His menacing voice tore Shahenshah to pieces: ‘’I swear by Allah, Dhul Jalal (The Lord of Majesty), if after today I ever see a printed page or pen in your hands, I’ll make mince meat of your fingers and parcel them to your father.’’

The Behishati Zewar was pulled  out again that night and Dulare Miyan read out its teachings at the top of his voice: ‘’In Luknow, a women’s husband lives with a prostitute. He never comes home. On top of that, his concubine makes demands about the food she would like his wife to cook for them. But the poor wife never complains. She cook whatever her husband demand and send it to him without ever complaining. The entire world is full of praise for this women; and that is not to mention the great reward that await her in paradise.’’

Then, closing the book, Dulare Miyan had growled : "Have I ever stayed away the whole night? When have you ever cooked pulao or whatever for  Lakabai? Have I ever asked and have you ever prepared and sent food across? Listen, come out of your imperial delusion. Do you know , the status of a women is so low that the water leftover after her ablutions has been deemed unfit for bath or ablution by a men. We have been made superior to women , do you understand?’’

That’s when, for the first time, Shahenshah Bano become convinced that no formula has descended from heaven for the salvations, was to inform men how they can consign women to the lowest depth of hell in this world itself. 

From that night, an unknown, yet-to-born, women came to reside inside Shahenshah Bano’s body. When she prayed, the women inside would knock at her heart’s door and raise blasphemous questions: Is there a god for women, too? Does someone recognise us too as their creation?’’ Whenever the women residing inside her raised these questions, she would hurriedly curse the Satan, her head would stay glued to the ground for longer and longer periods in obeisance to Allah, the prayer mat would be soaked with tears. But the voice of that women within would not be silenced. It was as if she had taken permanent residence within her.

Concerned about her Abba Miyan’s standing and honour, she never complained to anyone. She was not permitted to visit her parents. In fact, she was prohibited from going anywhere. It was Hazrat Maulana’s view that women’s going out of home was the cause of many evils and it was therefore not proper for them to do so. In appendix ll, section Vll of Behashti Zewar, he had said that women should neither call anyone to their homes nor attend social ceremonies or rituals such as marriages, circumcision, engagements, rituals on birth or death of a person, etc.

When she got news of Amma's death, she was in Rampur awaiting the return of her Majaazi khuda from another city. She could not step out of home without his permission. By the time Dulare Miyan returned from Meerut, it was too late. Her husband was at home when she received news of her father's death. Shahenshah Bano responded with a deathly silence and said nothing. When Dulare Miyan mentioned the train she could take to Delhi, she looked at her Lord on earth. Forget being able to see his face Abba Miyan had died, his longing till the very end for a letter from his daughter unfulfilled. "What's the point of going now when I couldn't while he was unwell. He is bound to be buried before I can reach there." she said in a cold tone.

"Why? Do you intend to leave the house, shop and other property to your relations or what?" asked Dulare Miyan disapprovingly. "Which shariah tells you to let go of your share in property?" Is this man a human being or a butcher? Even a butcher offers water to the animal before he slaughters it. Forget any sorrow at Abba Miyan's death, this man had opened up the accounts section of the shariah even before Abba Miyan had been buried.

"Yes, how can one let go of one's share due according to the shariah?" she responded with a wry smile. "You are the only one I have ever seen smiling on the death of her own father," Dulare Miyan shot back and retreated to the men's quarter. The rush of memories brings Shahenshah Bano's heart leaping to her mouth. With tear-filled eyes she looks towards the courtyard. The moon has already set. She feels enveloped by a frightening darkness.

What all had she not been through living with Dulare Miyan. She was prohibited from wearing anything but coarse cotton. She loved perfumes from early childhood but was forbidden from using any after marriage. But for the fact that she wore coloured clothes, she looked a widow in every other respect.

Around the time the country was partitioned, her father-in-law passed away. A few months later, the mother-in-law also died. Shahenshah Bano heaved a sigh of relief. Things will now change for the better, she thought. She would be free to do what she liked, at least when Dulare Miyan was not at home. But happiness was not for her. Six months after the mother-in-laws expiry, her husband dropped another bomb – he had decided to take a second wife.

A few days later, the new bride arrived home. He arrival was preceded by major changes. Two new rooms were built on the terrace, the entire house acquired a new coat of paint. Shahenshah Bano learnt from the maidservants that the second wife was also from Delhi and a widow. She also had a four-year old son from the previous marriage. Dulare Miyan, the lawyer, had first set eyes on her in connection with some property dispute and fell in love soon thereafter. Once his parents were out of the way, there was nothing to stop him from marrying a second time.
Once the new bride arrived, Shahenshah Bano lost her empire which had extended from her own room to the kitchen Dulare Miyan entrusted the management of all domestic affairs in the hands of 'Raunaq Dulhan', his second wife. The same Dulare Miyan who only spat fire at Shahenshah Bano, showered Raunaq Dulhan with love, affection and gifts – sweetmeats, flowers, perfumes. kohl.

In the beginning, Raunaq Dulhan kept her distance from Shahenshah Bano but once she realized that the co-wife was a 'Shahenshah' only in name, she relaxed. The victor always treats the vanquished with mercy. Raunaq Dulhan started feeling sorry for Shahenshah Bano. Being a God-fearing women, she always tried to make up for Dulare Miyan's excesses against her. Had she behaved with her more like a rival, Shahenshah Bano would have felt less humiliated.

When her three sons grew up, two of them migrated to Pakistan while the third got a job in Shahjahanpur. He was married and lived with his wife. Back in Gheer Mulla Ghairat, Raunaq Dulhan's children were growing up. They called her Badi Amma and Shahenshah Bano found some distraction in their company. Raunaq Dulhan's son from her first marriage was particularly attached to her.

Shahenshah Bano recalls that afternoon when Dulare Miyan arrived home in a foul mood having lost the case for her wife's property. After Abba Miyan's death, he had filed a case against Shahenshah Bano's two cousins. In his own lifetime, Abba Miyan had given a house to his two nephews but Dulare Miyan sensed a fraud. He kept up his legal battle – session court, high court, now even the supreme court had ruled in favour of his cousin brothers-in-law.

Shahenshah Bano silently listened to all the verbal barrage Dulare Miyan had let loose against her two cousins whom she had not seen in the last 40 years He husband was of the view that leave alone meeting them, the Shariah did not permit her from even seeing their face or be seen by them.
Abba Miyan had left a lot of property behind for Shahenshah Bano but she had no access to any of it. Dulare Miyan swallowed everything – house, shop, money. Let alone her having any right on what her father had left behind for his daughter, Dulare Miyan made sure that even the jewellery she had received as dowry were gifted away to the daughters-in-law when their sons got married.

Bitter memories of her dispossession through the years flashed through her mind. When she couldn’t take Dulare Miyan's continuing bad-mouthing against her cousins any longer, she suddenly screamed back. "Enough, please stop." "Why should I stay quiet? You have been denied what was your right according to the Shariah. The Hindus are now the rulers, they do what they please. Islamic laws are no longer followed, nor is there a rule of law any longer." Dulare Miyan shot back. Following Partition, he had begun to take interest in Muslim politics. He had even succeeded in becoming a small-time politician. His statements on Muslim Personal Law and on the question of Muslim identity were often published in local Urdu papers.

"Abba Miyan had given away this house to his nephews during his lifetime. Whatever was left after his death was swallowed by you. So where is the question of my right having been denied?" a peeved Shahenshah Bano demanded. Her response hit Dulare Miyan like a bullet. "A word more and I will pull off your tongue. I have lost my thousands in the case but your heart is bleeding for those men. It’s my fault that I did not have everything spelt out in black and white while your father was still alive. Even while dying, he proved what a crooked man he was."

Shahenshah Bano felt as if a thousand canons had been fired at her at the same time. Such words of Abba Miyan, a gentleman to the core? It was fear of sullying his fair name she had kept silent, never complained for 40 years. "Are you out of your mind. Mustafa Ali Khan? Do you know what you are saying and to whom?" Shahenshah Bano looked straight into the eyes of her husband. For the first time in her life, the sound of her voice had traveled beyond the confines of her own room to the courtyard.

Such unprecedented defiance took Dulare Miyan completely by surprise. "Yes, yes I am talking about your father" he was beyond himself, his eyes almost popping out of their sockets. Shahenshah Bano, too, saw red, the fire dormant within her for years erupted: "Where is your Shariah now, speaking ill of a man to whom you are so deeply obligated?" As if someone had pumped a few bullets into Dulare Miyan's chest. "Me obligated to your father?" he yelled.

"Yes, you are obligated to my father… all his property and his money, who has swallowed it all? Who blew it up living a debauched life?" Shahenshah Bano was determined to settle scores of the last 40 years there and then. "After his death all his property was yours by right", Dulare Miyan retorted as he sent a stool flying with a kick.

"In that case, you are obligated to me, so beware what you say about my father", Shahenshah Bano heard herself say, She could not believe she could be talking like this.  Dulare Miyan turned while with rage. A woman, as worthy as his footwear, mindless, inferior to men, the water left by whom is prohibited to a man for ablution… A woman trying to tell him he is obligated to her. For a few moments he stood there speechless. Then, with hate-filled eyes he looked at the woman whose Majaazi Khuda he was.

"Shahenshah Bano, you will regret this moment for ever", he said in a venomous voice and stormed out of the room. She remained frozen where she was. She could not believe that it was her own voice that had been raised, that it was she herself who had taunted her Lord. She stayed where she was, her mind a complete blank, bitter memories of four decades flashing through her mind.

Before dusk that very evening, hell broke loose. Shahenshah Bano was sipping a cup of tea in the verandah when she saw her husband take rapid strides towards her room. He emerged a few moments later dragging with him her trunk of clothes.

‘’Pick up your things and get out of this house’’, he thundered. Shahenshah Bano put her cup aside and looked at him in astonishment. She could not understand what he was talking about. ‘’Where could I go?’’

‘’To hell, as far as I am concerned’’.

On hearing her husband’s outburst. Raunaq Dulhan came charging out of the kitchen. That very moment. Shahenshah Bano’s paandan was sent flying to the courtyard, its contents scattering over.  "For Allah's sake, what are you doing", cried Raunaq Dulhan, taking rapid strides towards her husband. ‘’You stay quiet, Raunaq Dulhan, I do not want to hear a word in favour of this accursed women'’ Dulare Miyan screamed back in anger. 

“Oh God! Why are you fouling your own mouth’’, said Raunaq Dulhan pained by the abuses being hurled at Shahenshah Bano. Terrified, the children stood cowering. The maid too came out of the kitchen, Raunaq Dulhan pleaded with her husband, asked for mercy in the name of Allah and the Prophet But Dulare Miyan was categorical that there was no place in his home for the disobedient and troublesome woman.

As she sits thinking of that evening, a cold shiver runs through the ageing Shahenshah Bano’s bones.  She had found no support either from the heavens above or from the good earth below. As she started walking towards the door, she had a dizzy spell and was about to collapse when Shakeel, Raunaq Dulhan’s son from marriage ran to gather her in his arms.

‘’Don’t worry Badi Amma , I will come with you, I will take you to the house of Bada Bhaiyya in Shahjehanpur’’, he said as tears rolled down his cheeks. Shahenshah Bano was oblivious to what was happening to her, what was going to happen. She felt enveloped by an all-pervading darkness.
That evening of her misfortune when Shakeel picked her up and put her in a rickshaw covered by a chador, a tin trunk with clothes, a pillow wrapped in a rug, a tumbler, a water jug and a paandan whose lid had been broken when flung by Dulare Miyan _ these constituted the sum total of her worldly possession. She could not help recalling the dowry which 40 years ago she had brought along with her to fill the house of Mustafa Ali Khan.

From that night, an unknown, yet-to-born, women came to reside inside Shahenshah Bano’s body. When she prayed, the women inside would knock at her heart’s door and raise blasphemous questions: Is there a god for women, too? Does someone recognise us too as their creation?’’ Whenever the women residing inside her raised these questions, she would hurriedly curse the Satan, her head would stay glued to the ground for longer and longer periods in obeisance to Allah, the prayer mat would be soaked with tears.

From an opening in the chador, in the dim-light cast by the electric lamppost, she cast a last glance at the half-open door of that house in Gheer Mulla Ghairat where Raunak Dulhan stood slouched against the door frame, tears welling her eyes. She prayed for her from every pore of her being, Raunaq Dulhan it was who had stealthily slipped two hundred rupees in her hands as she was leaving the house. It was her son Shakeel who had been kicked and abused by his step-father without complaining and never for a moment flinching in his loyalty to Shahenshah Bano.

As she departed from Gheer Mulla Ghairat amidst the sobs of Raunaq Dulhan and the beggar Madan Faqir’s call for alms, she was reminded of the time when she had first left her natal home. Shahenshah Bano had sobbed uncontrollably.

How radically her life was transformed after leaving Dulare Miyan’s house. For the last two years she had stayed at her elder son’s home. The two sons who had migrated to Pakistan never bothered to ask how their mother was. For sometime she commiserated about their lack of concern for her but then sought solace in the thought that before migrating those who abandon their motherland squeeze out and leave behind every trace of filial affinity from their blood : were they to carry these associations with them, emotional burden may  prove to be unbearable. Thankfully, the eldest son in Shahjehanpur took care of her in her old age. His wife too was not bad. But she was tired of Shahenshah Bano’s untiring quest for justice.

Despite the discouragement of her son, she had called her cousin from Delhi whom she had not seen for 40 years. After several months of deliberations, a case for main tenance was filed. The case lasted for one and a half years. Before the court verdict, she received the first and the last letter from Dulare Miyan. ‘’Mrs. Shahenshah Bano’’ was intimated through this letter that she had been given triple talaq and is thus no longer the wife of Musafa Ali Khan. The letter added that her mehr amount of 3,000coins in current currency had already been deposited in the court after which she had no further claims from her former husband.

After receiving the divorce letter at the age of 62, getting her due from Mustafa Ali Khan became the sole purpose of Shahenshah Bano’s life. The case in court proved to be unending. A lower court ruled that Mustafa Ali Khan must pay a monthly sum of Rs. 25 to her as maintenance. Two years….four years…the matter finally reached court ruled that she be paid Rs. 79 and 20 paise monthly as maintenance for the rest of her life.

Mustafa Ali Khan filed an appeal against this ruling of the apex court. His contention was that according to the Shariah, a divorced woman is not entitled to any maintenance beyond the iddat period . The secular Indian law, on the other hand, stipulated that a divorced wife is entitled to maintenance until she remarries.

A shiver runs through Shahenshah Bano.

The several years long legal battle between her and Dulare Miyan had got transformed into a battle between Islam and kufr. Ranged on one side was her frail existence, on the other side stood millions of Mujahids of Islam. Hate, contempt, condemnations….life became hell for her. lll-informed youngster were brainwashed and despatched to raise slogans before her house.

The walls of her son’s house had been plastered with Fatwa posters. Her son and daughter-in-law were fed up of the legal acrimony and condemnations following it. She was attacked by the ulema and grand muftis from inside mosques throughout in Islam… it is a question of the sanctity of faith… an apostate and non-be-living old hag has thrown a challenge to Islam.’’ Something which she was prohibited read papers like Islamic Voice, call of Islam and learn from these newspaper that she had abandoned her faith, sold out to idolaters, become an enemy of Islam She would read all these and shed tears of blood.

Then started the processions against her…Five thousand, one lakh. The rising tide of the ummah was over whelming. Islam was in danger because of a 70-years-old helpless old women.

After moving to her son’s home, her sole preoccupation was reading books, periodicals and newspapers,

Pressures began to be mounted to her. She should relinquish her claim. Apply to the court for withdrawing her case. Lose the battle she had already won. But she stayed firm. Not for herself or for that meager sum which the court had directed to be paid to her as maintenance. Her battle was on behalf of all Muslim women and Muslim girls.

The homes of poor Muslims in India had been turned into bazaars for Arab harems. Year after year they would change cars, and women. With her failing eyes she had read innumerable accounts of exploited, Pune, Bombay, and Delhi who for a few thousand rupees in mehr become brides of week and then, talaqnama in hand and a new born in their arms, entered the flesh market.

How could men, who for a few thousand rupees could every so often acquire new girls to exploit, tolerate the challenge thrown by her? what if tomorrow their own divorced wives started demanding maintenance from them? Marring someone and then divorcing at will was their right and any interference in this male privilege meant an attack on Islam. So, for the protection of religion, Shahenshah Bano was condemned from the pulpit inside mosques and through newspapers.  Writings, speeches fatwas smear campaigns….Brothers in Islam. Islam is in danger!

Ppressure kept mounting on her from Fatwa peddlers, from the Muslim community, from her own son and daughter-in-law, and for the last few hours, of the tumultuous crowd of the soldiers of Islam who after the Friday prayers. Had entered her mohalla. With cries of ‘’Allah-o-Akbar’’ the crowed assembled on the street outside her home and on street nearby. A hail of stones fell at the entrance door and in the courtyard. In the verandah some stones fell close to the platform on which she said her namaaz. And, then, the attempt to break down the entrance door.

Helplessly, her son cast a glance at her and then at his two daughter who were trembling and clinging to each other. ‘’Amma, would you have this house reduced to rubble?  ‘’We are ready to die, ready to face slaughter….We are ready to face slaughter…We are ready to perish for the sake of Islam’’ The walls were shaking with the cacophony of voices. She was sitting on the prayer platform in the verandah. It was time for the asir[evening] prayers. She looked up towards the sky. It was not on her side. She looked down at the ground, that too was not on her side. She looked down at the ground, that too was not with her. She prostates herself before Allah.

‘’We are ready to die, ready to face slaughter’’. Like deadly weapons, words were cutting her to pieces. She was getting crushed by the onslaught of fatwas. Her was getting soaked with tears. The hail of stones intensified. The hail of stones door was deafening.

She was lying prostrate before her Allah when she heard the anguished scream of her granddaughter. ‘’Dadi maan. They will cut us to pieces’’, In her terrified voice there was not only the fear of death but worse. This was not the cry of her grand daughter but of women from time immemorial….Women, the war booty in every period of history…But these were our own people? The episode of Hurra rose from the pages of history and sank in her tear-filled eyes.

She got up from her namaaz with a shiver. ‘’Open the door… Bring to me the people who wish to talk to me’’.

The door opened and in no time the entire courtyard overflowed with believers. What an impressive assembly of highly respected ulema and grand muftis around her! Attired in back coats, perfumed and with hennaed beards, eyes lined with kohl, Rampuri caps on their heads….
She cast a gland on the sheet of paper on which her signature could end that jihad between kufr and Islam which had shaken the entire country to its foundation. By signing on the dotted line in front of this assembly of Muslims, she would relinquish set up by idolaters had given to her.

Ameer-e-shariat, Maulana Sibgat Ullah Naumani, pulled out the Parker pen from his coat pocket and handed it over to her. This was the same man who had made life hell for his own wife. Penniless, she had been begging around for survival for the last nine years. Her own petition for maintenance was also pending in the courts. Ignoring the hand stretched towards her, she turned to her grandson who clung to her shoulder and the trembling of whose finger she could feel in her bones.

‘’Beta get me the kohl from the shelf ‘’.

No one understood what she was up to while the grandson fetched the kohl on her right thumb, her son rushed forward ‘’Amma , why are putting your thumb impression? Why don’t you sign?’’

‘’Signing is the way of idolatrous women, our women should only use thumb impressions’’, she said and put her thumb to paper.

The Ameer-e-shariat took the paper from her hands, the stood up, turned towards the surging crowd, waved the paper which carried Shahenshah Bano’s thumb impression and loudly proclaimed : ‘’Allah –o-Akbar’’ the crowed melted away.

The courtyard of her house which a few hours ago had resembled a battle field is now bereft of human presence but the feel as if the battle-caries of her assaulters are still lounging at her like bats, crashing against the walls.

The Moon has set, it is nearing the break of dawn. ‘’you won Mustafa Ali Khan. My name has been turned into an abuse by your community. My tear-soaked prayers, all my fast during Ramzaan and at other times which gave me swollen knees and ankle bones…. No one bothered about that while declaring me an enemy of Islam and calling me a Kafir,. There were even calls for stoning me to death while you a regular in the red-light area, were treated white as milk. You became a leader, a follower of faith, a distinguished servant of the community.

I, a hapless old women, thought that when others have given me justice, how could my own people be unfair to me. But it was you who was destined to win. Your people who have never been able to defence of their dying language (urdu), what have they not put me- a helpless, hapless old women — through. For me, an old woman behind veils, a whole army of the soldiers of Islam…It is evident now that none is on my side, none.

The cold is biting into her bones. She tries to lift her trembling right hand to examine her thumb. Her thumb impression on that light green paper swims before her eyes. You and your people, Mustafa Ali Khan, will not be able to remove this blot even with your blood.
Like stones, a hail of fatwas are drawing her blood. She is trying desperately to run for cover…gasping, stumbling, gathering her strength again.

‘’Abba Miyan’’, she cries, ‘’Had you been alive, on which side would you have been Abba Miyyan? With the community or with me? She is sobbing uncontrollably. She searches for some warmth in the tattered old quilt she is covered with but to no avail.
She tries raising her head from the pillow for a glimpse of the dying moonlight but her head feels as heavy as lead. Abba Miyan calls her from behind. She tries to get up to great him but there is no strength left in her body. Abba Miyan comes forward and hold her hand. She somehow picks herself up and remember she has to ask him something:’’ In this battle, Abba Miyan, on whose side were you,?

She turns to him, full of hope. Abba Miyan lowers his head. A silence that stretches from heaven to earth sweeps away Shahenshah Bano in its tide. 

(From Zahida Henas collection of short stories, Raah Mein Ajal Hai (Death on the streets), published by Danial Publishers, Karachi. Translated from Urdu by Javed Anand; archived from the May 1997 issue of Communalism Combat where it appeared as the cover story)




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