“Go to the airport at five in the morning, don’t be late; the plane is always overbooked.” An envelope contained an airplane ticket and the note. Ali stuffed both in his pockets and asked the hotel clerk, “Are taxis available early in the morning?”
Ali was nervous.
“Sure, don’t worry; I will book a taxi for you,” the clerk replied.
It was Ali’s first job after high school. He desperately needed a job. It was a teaching job in rugged mountains in a village of Mirnagar.
Ali tossed and turned the entire night. He was at the airport before five. At the airport, the clerk told him, “There are only 48 seats in the plane, and your reservation does not mean anything. If you get into the plane you will fly; otherwise, try for the next flight, that is whenever it is.”
The airport was crowded. It was a satellite airport for local flights.
“Are all these people taking the 48 seats in the plane?” he asked the person sitting next to him.
“Of course; for what else are they here so early in the morning?” he replied.
Ali was panicky. He looked around, scanning the crowd. His eyes stopped at a beautiful girl sitting across him. She smiled at him, but Ali turned his face away. He was sleepy and nervous. His palms were sweaty. He looked at the girl from the corner of his eye. She was still looking at him. He murmured, “She seems amused by my misery.”
He pulled up his courage and looked at her again. He could not turn his eyes away from her face. She blushed and lowered her eyes. He felt a gentle sensation pass through his body.
The counter clerk made the announcement, “The plane is ready to fly. All passengers should queue outside the terminal.”
The mob ran outside. The airplane was parked at a distance on the runway. The clerk made another announcement, but Ali did not understand. The mob ran toward the plane. Someone came from behind, grabbed his hand and screamed, “Run, run.”
Ali looked, and it was the girl, holding his hand and running toward the plane. She was laughing. They were the youngest people in the crowd; they beat everyone in the race and reached the plane first.
The attendant took their bags and let them in. The girl again held his hand, dragged him inside the plane, and pushed him onto a seat.
She was still laughing. “You will never catch this plane if you don’t run.”
Then she patted him on his back. “Congratulations. You are a good runner.”
Ali sheepishly replied, “You too.”
She laughed. “Thank you, Raja Saheb. You were walking like a king giving an audience to his subjects.”
Ali was shy; He looked at her, full of life, laughter and sparkles in her eyes. She is so beautiful. Ali had a brown complexion, medium stature, and a slender body. He thought that if he sat next to a statue of fasting Buddha, they would look like twins, just few thousand years apart. Goddamn malnutrition.
“What are you thinking, my Raja?”
Ali thought, we just met and she is calling me “my Raja.” Then he sensed that he had known her for eons.
“Nothing, I am just little sleepy. I did not sleep last night.”
“You can sleep after breakfast. They serve good breakfast.”
Ali went to sleep before breakfast was served.
She shook his shoulder. “Raja Saheb, get up: your breakfast is here.”
Ali opened his eyes. Her smiling face was in front of him. She had peeled his boiled eggs and put butter and marmalade on his toasts. She was mixing his chai.
He took the toast. “How did you know I liked marmalade and not the jam?”
“Oh, I just asked your mother.”
She burst into laughter. “I just know it.”
Ali was embarrassed for his foolishness but smiled.
“So you can smile.”
Ali’s wit came back. “Occasionally, I do.”
“That will be good enough for me. Otherwise I will be bored.”
Ali thought, never in my life I will let you be bored.
Ali ate the breakfast. She pulled a pillow from behind his back. Fluffed it and put her hand on his head, pushed it down, and put the pillow behind it. “Now you can go to sleep.”
He smiled and went to sleep right away.
He felt she was putting a blanket on him. He was deep in sleep in no time. When he got up her head was resting on his shoulder. He did not move.
* * *
Her family had come to receive her at the airport. He did not know her name. The employer’s rep, Jamal, was waiting for Ali. He took his suitcase and waited for the bus.
She dragged her family to him. “He is Raja, and he is going to teach in our village school.”
Ali wanted say, “Hey, my name is not Raja,” but she moved on to another story.
She told them how he ran for the plane.
Everyone laughed. She looked at him. She excluded the details about holding his hand.
Her big blue eyes were sparkling like stars, and there was a big smile that never left her face. Her lips were pink, her teeth were white, and her cheeks were pomegranate red. As the bus arrived, she looked at Ali, “Run, run to the bus.”
Ali was on autopilot; he ran toward the bus, and the crowd burst into laughter. He was mortified. He looked at her with anger. Her mother seemed to be uncomfortable.
Her father gently put his hand on his daughter’s back and rubbed her as she was climbing the bus. The bus did not have any glass on the windows. Most people climbed up on the roof of the bus. There were fewer people inside the bus. As they entered the bus, her mother pulled her on the back seat; she was making sure she was away from Ali. Ali looked outside as the bus was driven on narrow mountain roads. It was a range of splendid mountains and deep valleys. He looked down the ravine; it appeared like a serpent running among boulders.
The girl got up from her seat, her mother extended her hand to pull her back but the girl had moved forward. She came and gave biscuits to Ali. “Eat, otherwise you will be hungry for two more hours.”
“It is two more hours?” Ali frantically asked.
The girl and Jamal both laughed. Jamal said, “It is not like the city, and here everything takes time.”
The girl, standing by Ali’s seat, added, “Here time does not exist.”
She was so close to the seat she was touching his shoulder with her body. Ali thought, it is beautiful.
Her mother called from her seat. She touched his shoulder, “Mother is calling me.”
She went to her seat; her mother got up and pushed her to sit by the window. She made a funny face, knowing the intent of her mother, but did not say anything and just laughed and she hugged her and gave her a kiss. Her mother also laughed, felt embarrassed, and pushed her away.
* * *
Jamal came with the breakfast. Yak butter, bread and a kettle of chai was his breakfast. Some other people joined in. They were all teachers.
They came out of the house. Ali looked around. The village was surrounded by enormous mountains covered with snow. The air was cool and crisp. Ali took a deep breath and felt calm and serene. Outside an old abandoned fortress, the village leaders had gathered. There was a mud platform. There was chai and dry fruit. Jamal took him to various houses and everywhere there was food. Then Jamal told him, “This is the last house, and then we will go for lunch.”
Ali was full. He had eaten so much since morning. As they approached the house, Ali saw women were working on the land outside. As they saw them approaching they rushed to welcome them. Older women kissed Ali’s hand. The girl came running; she held Ali’s arm, and took him inside.
“Sit here,” she said. She looked at Ali, “You must be starving?”
Before Ali could answer, she turned to Jamal. “Look at this poor teacher. You are not feeding well. There is no blood or flesh on his body. I will bring some food.”
She disappeared behind a curtain before Ali could say, “My name is not Raja.”
“What is her name?” Ali asked.
“Rani,” Jamal answered.
Ali thought for a moment. Duh, that’s why she’s calling me Raja. Raja and Rani, king and queen.
A strange but pleasant sensation passed through his body. In a few minutes, she brought a huge tray filled with chicken curry, vegetables, rice and bread. Rani's father and brother also came and joined them.
“Where did you get this chicken?” Father asked in amazement.
“I got it from my uncle,” she proudly replied.
Jamal explained, “Ali, it is not like a city. We do not have chickens here. Few people can afford them.”
Ali felt more embarrassed. He looked up and said “Thank you” to Rani.
Afzal, Rani's brother, asked, “So what are your plans?”
“Tomorrow, Ali will begin teaching.”
Rani replied, “You cannot do that.”
Jamal said, with a surprised looked at her, “Why?”
“He has just come here. Let him rest for few days, and then he can work.” Rani said. “I will take him to see the mountains and rivers,” she insisted.
Jamal was firm too. “We need a teacher urgently. Kids are waiting for their new teacher.”
Ali felt good, being the center of attention.
Jamal came up with a compromise. “While he is here, after school, he is all yours.”
“Let’s go.” Jamal stood up. “It is getting late.” Everyone came to door to say goodbye.
Rani pushed Ali out of the door. “Go away.”
* * *
Ali came out of the school. He took a deep breath. He was feeling good. He walked to the playground. A group of people was sitting on a mud platform. When Jamal saw Ali, he shouted from a distance, “Hey, Ali, come here!” People stood up and greeted him. Hakim, the local medicine man, stood up and held his hand and made him sit next to him. Hakim went back to his business of offering remedies and potions to people. Kids were kicking a ball.
A small kid came running. “Khan is coming, Khan is coming.” As if he was warning people. Ali noticed the change in the atmosphere. Everyone looked toward the street. A man riding a horse approached. Everyone stood up to pay respects. He waved his hand. He spoke with couple of people.
Jamal whispered, “Khan is the biggest landowner in the area. Everyone is scared of him.”
Khan stared at Ali, with a big frown. His stare was so penetrating that Ali felt the heat, and he turned away his face. People around him noticed the stare. Hakim held his hand tightly.
Ali was bewildered with Khan’s attitude. Khan must have been in his sixties, with a big mustache, dyed jet-black hair and wearing rather an elaborate turban. He had a big stick with him. An entourage of servants was running behind him.
As Khan rode away, Jamal grabbed Ali’s arm and said, “Let’s go; you must be hungry.”
As they walked away, Ali felt those piercing eyes on his back.
When they sat down for the meal, Ali asked, “Who is this Khan? Why people are so scared of him?”
Jamal said, “His forefathers ruled this area. People are afraid because they were tyrants. His father used to ride with a sword. If a person did not bow to him, he would kill him on the spot. His son rides with a thick staff, and he does not hesitate to use it. If he kills, no one dares challenge him.”
Jamal continued, “Khan has two wives and numerous concubines. Hakim tells us that Khan is always asking him for potions to enhance his manliness.”
Ali shook his head in disbelief. “It is the 20th century. The government is there. Now you have a police station, too, in the village, and this guy still has so much power?”
Jamal became very serious. “What 20th century? This whole country is still in the Stone Age. They still make decisions at gunpoint. Khan is a member of the assembly, so now he gets government contracts, kickbacks, and the police are behind him. He went to England to get an education. His children are in England to get an education. All on the government’s account. When they come back, they control people with a primitive form of political power: brutal violence. They are not leaders. They are parasites. Shame on such education. These people remain as beasts.”
“Yeah, you are right.” Ali concurred with him.
Jamal had a grim look. He warned Ali, “Ali, don’t go close to this guy; avoid him.”
“Why? I don’t know this person. Why should he have any grudge against me?”
“Ali you are young, and you don’t know; you have no idea how brutal these people are, absolutely no idea.”
Ali did not say anything, but he did feel fear. He had cramps in his stomach and felt pain in his calves. He knew, his mind and body were telling him, this is something, he should fear.
* * *
The village was alive and active by the time Ali finished his breakfast and came out. He went to the school. He already had a cloud of fear and uncertainty over his head. As kids were occupied with exercises, Ali sat on his chair and looked outside the window. A cherry tree in blossom was by the window and it had embedded aroma in the air. He thought about Khan. It felt as if there was an earthquake inside him. Everything had shaken up. He took a deep breath.
As school got over and he came out of the classroom, Rani was waiting for him. She swiftly walked to him, took his hand, and pulled him along. “Come; I have made chai and sweets for you.”
Staff and teachers watched, amused, and kids were giggling. She did not mind any of them. She waved to everyone, shouted, “Karim Sir, do you want to come for sweets?”
“No, daughter. You young people enjoy.”
Ali walked a little behind and she did not let go of his hand as they walked through the streets. She had a parcel, something wrapped in a piece of cloth. “Come, we will eat outside. I know a beautiful spot.”
They climbed down the slops, walked over rocks to reach the river.
“Raja, this is my favorite spot.”
As they reached the bottom of the valley, there was a beautiful small waterfall by the river. He looked at her. She was white like a swan, with beautiful blonde hair, blue eyes, and he was skinny and had brown complexion. He thought, our pair is like beauty and the beast—no; he corrected himself: Radha and Krishna. That is better. Her beauty is angelic.
This was a magical movement. Both talked and talked, and sitting together, hours passed without being aware of their surroundings, holding each other’s hands. She let go of his hand only once, to open the parcel. Now he was holding her hand as well. They heard rolling-pebble sounds. Rani stood up quickly, and said, “Someone is watching us.”
She shouted, “Whoever is there, come out or else.”
An eight- or nine-year-old boy came out from behind the shrubs.
Rani moved forward and held his ear and slightly twisted it. “So, you were spying on us. Why were you doing that? You have no shame. You don’t respect privacy of people?” In one breath, she asked all these questions.
The boy tried to free himself, but could not. “Khan gave me five rupees to spy on you.”
She was frantic. “This old goat has no business spying on people.”
She packed the picnic things and pulled Ali’s hand. “Let’s go, Raja”
She was angry but also sad. As they walked back home, she said, “Raja, I got admission in a medical college in Islamabad. We will get married, and we will live in Islamabad away from this snake of the valley.”
“Will you marry me?” he asked with excitement.
“Of course. We will marry soon,” she replied. Her grip on his hand was tighter.
As they reached her house, her father was waiting for her anxiously. “Come inside,” he ordered her. He did not look at Ali, nor did he invite him inside.
* * *
Several days passed, Ali did not see her, and he did not have courage to go to her family’s house. He remembered the cold treatment her father gave him the last time. He realized that he had come to this village recently. He did not know people well. Jamal tried to keep him indoors; he would come and sit with him and always tried to keep an eye on him.
One day Ali pulled his courage and asked, “I haven’t seen Rani for several days. Is she all right?”
Jamal did not look into his eyes. “Well …” he paused. “Khan has asked Rani's father to give his daughter in marriage to him. The poor man is in big trouble. Still, he refused to accept the proposal. He owes some money to this monster, and Khan is using it as pressure to make the poor man accept his conditions.”
“This old man with two wives wants to marry a young girl?” Ali was angry.
Jamal added. “Khan has called panchayat, and he is demanding his money back, and he has also accused Rani and you of indecency and dishonoring the village people. This carries the death penalty.”
Ali was shocked.
Jamal said, “Don’t go out alone.”
That fateful evening when the panchayat was meeting, Jamal came home, running. He was out of breath; Ali felt this is going to be bad news.
He told Ali, “I have heard that Rani has decided to go to the panchayat and defend herself. She says she is not afraid of Khan or his goons.”
He paused to catch his breath. “This has never happened in this village. A woman is going to speak.”
They heard noises outside. Jamal said, “You stay here. No one can touch you if you are inside.”
Ali said, “I am going to the panchayat.”
Jamal said, “You are an outsider. It is easy for them to kill you and throw your body over the cliff: no one will ever find out. In this village, people have kept silence for ages.”
Ali thought, no matter what, I am going to be there. She should not face these vultures alone.
Jamal’s cousin entered the room.
Jamal shouted at him, “Why are you so late? The panchayat must be starting now.”
“No, it hasn’t started yet. All women have gathered as well. They are protesting about this whole thing.”
“Watch Ali; don’t let him go outside. I will be back.” Jamal left.
Both of them sat quietly. Jamal’s cousin broke silence. “Everyone from the village is at the playground.”
Ali realized that there was total silence outside. They sat on the charpoy quietly. Ali’s heart was beating fast. He had cold sweat on his forehead and the palms of his hands. He looked at his hands. He was trembling. He was worried about Rani. He felt guilty for putting her into this situation. He murmured to himself, “But I love her.” His eyes were wet.
There were noises, as if some people were running. Then Ali heard the firing of two shots. His heart stopped. Ali could not figure out what was happening. He tried to console himself. “It must be their tradition to fire shots before a big meeting or something.” But his heart told him something had gone terribly wrong. He ran outside the house. Jamal’s cousin ran behind him.
Jamal ran frantically towards them. “What are you doing outside?” Jamal noticed Ali’s determination and said, “Come with me.”
He took his cousin aside and whispered something to him, and grabbed Ali’s hand and ran towards the old mountain road. All that was left of it were traces of the old road.
“Why we are going this way?” Ali questioned.
“Just run; don’t ask questions.”
Ali began running behind him. They ran for quite a distance, until they were out of breath. Jamal said, “We must cross the river from here.”
Ali asked again, “Why?”
He had a sense that something was terribly wrong. He could not think of anything.
“Did they force Rani to marry this Khan? Or something else has happened?”
Ali followed him. It was dusk. “We must cross the river before it is dark.”
They were wet; the water was cold and fast, but Jamal took the risk to cross it. He found a small cave on the mountain. “Come inside; we will be safe here.”
“Hiding from what?”
As they sat down on rocks inside the cave, Jamal disclosed, “Khan’s goons shot Rani.”
Ali felt his heart has stopped; no sound came out of this mouth. Flash of light passed. He remembered that two shots were fired. Ali fell from the rock he was sitting. Jamal brought water from the river to bring him back to consciousness.
Ali got up; he was trembling all over his body. “She cannot die, she must be alive, she cannot die.”
He continued to repeat, in an unintelligible voice. Every muscle in his body was trembling, and his brain was frozen. He felt that life was gone out of his body. He could not move, he just repeated, “Rani, Rani … Rani.”
Jamal told, “You will be safe here. They won’t cross the river at night. Early in the morning we will go the city, and I will put you in the bus to go to Karachi.”
The night was cold, but Ali was not himself. When Jamal woke up from his sleep, he saw Ali was still sitting in the same position, shaking and tears still rolling down his cheeks. Early in the morning, Jamal’s cousin came with Ali’s belongings and the news.
“When Khan heard that Rani was going to speak, he planned to send his goons to threaten her. But when all the village women showed up in her support, he decided to silence her forever. Khan has raped many women in the village, and no one had guts to speak up. But yesterday it was different.”
Jamal said, “Somebody must stop this Khan. He has gone too far.”
The cousin said, “Khan argued that she was killed because she brought disgrace to the village. Then the women suddenly attacked Khan and his goons with stones and sticks. They demanded that the police arrest them. Now they are in prison.”
Ali wanted to see her for the last time. He came to the village with Jamal and his cousin. He could not walk. Both of them were supporting him and led him to her body. He looked at her face. She had a big smile. He could not take the pain and fell down. When he came back to consciousness, it was late night. Villagers had buried her body. He got up from charpoy and walked toward the graveside. Incense sticks were still burning. Her grave was covered with flowers, and a lamp was still lighted. He put his head over the grave and cried the whole night. His moaning echoed the mountains around. When he saw the first ray of light, he kissed the grave and walked out of the village.