Escaping the begums of Peshawar, with their jewellery

The Begums of Peshawar
Book Excerpt 

‘This girl, totally useless, I tell you!’ Maagul Begum turned to her friends and laughed. She got up and lightly cuffed Bano on the back of her head. ‘Make sure you come running the next time I call you.’

‘Yes.’

The begums chatted and laughed. Bano was overcome by humiliation and felt her eyes smart with tears. Yasmeen sat there laughing, unaware that Bano was carrying her husband’s child. A part of Bano wanted to scream at her: Look what your Khan has done to me! Look, you think you are so great, but just as he made you with child, I too am now with child. We are all equal.

Bano’s finger touched the hot teacup. She came back to the sitting room and crouched by the low marble table, serving the begums tea and snacks.

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The next morning, she decided to speak to Arif. It was she who would give him a way to get out.

‘Are you mad, stealing from the Khans?’ he said, shocked, when she put the idea across.

‘Why not? Do you think they will even notice a few of their gold jewellery sets going missing? Do you know how many the Begum has? Sometimes, even she forgets how many there are and I have to remind her. You don’t think it pains me, laying out all those sets for her every day? The price of one could change our lives forever. I can do it. I am not asking you to do it. I am the one who will take the risk. All I want is for you to be with me when we leave. We will leave together.’

‘Why, so that they can say we were lovers and stole from them before running away together?’ Arif retorted. ‘Do you even understand the kind of shame this would bring on my family?’

‘Shame? So the very same things worry you, it seems. Maybe, you are not like the Karachi people at all.’

‘Let me think this through.’

By Sunday night, it had all been decided. Bano would remove the jewellery in bits and pieces so that the Begum didn’t notice anything was amiss, at least initially.

She took the ring on Friday, the bangles on Saturday and the necklace on Sunday. Arif would walk out of the gate and first head for the tonga stand. They had to make sure that it wasn’t too late. The tonga men were always asleep by twelve. So by eleven they should be on a tonga and on their way to the station. Arif knew that the first train left at five in the morning.

Bano picked up the handkerchief with its cache of jewellery and the bag of clothes, balancing them both on her head. She walked towards the gate. Looking around in the dark, she pushed the gate open. The night watchman snored by the wall.

‘Arif,’ she whispered. ‘Arif!’

With no time to waste, she walked to the tonga, all the while looking around desperately for him.

Eventually, she boarded a tonga alone, the horse clip-clopping its way to the station in the silence of early morning. Her heart beat fast. Perhaps, Arif was planning to meet her at the station, she thought.

By five, she was at the station. Here, there was noise, the noise of horns blaring and of trains chugging in and out of the station. People slept on the platform and outside by the wall of the old station, like soldiers waiting for the call to battle. They lay there with their colourful bundles by their sides, arms lying beside a sleeping warrior.

She stepped over them, searching for Arif, first by the entrance, then again at the door of the train. As time drew on, she edged her way to her seat.

When the train pulled away, she realized she was all alone, frozen to her bundles. The engine hooted its way forward and the swaying motion of the carriage rocked her to sleep.

She imagined a caravan of bullocks, of tongas taking her as a new bride to her husband’s village, her head bowed under the weight of gold and silver jewellery, the red dupatta veiling her face, tears of separation from the familiar slowly dripping from her kohl-lined eyes. But the reality was different; she was running away from everything her family had ever taught her. She looked out of the windows and stared into darkness, knowing that this was her rukhsati, her departure from her home. This was her journey into womanhood.

The world she knew revolved around zan, zar and zameen – women, wealth and lands. These meant everything to the Durranis and many like them. But Bano, a woman with no money or status, had been less than nothing while living under their roof.

As the train ground to a halt at Karachi, she felt a wave of loneliness engulf her. There were no teasing, giggling girlfriends coaxing her in the direction of her husband’s home. Instead, she felt the sun-scorched platform under the dusty soles of her feet. Pushed by the older woman behind her, she moved forward. The train let out a loud hoot, screaming the announcement of her arrival like celebratory gunfire on a wedding night.

The sun was going down and people rushed to board tongas in their hurry to get home. Bano squatted by the road, tying her knees together in order to be able to sit for a long time, hoping no one would notice her.

Amma, Maagul Begum and her friends were not here with her. Nor was the salt of the Durranis on which she had depended for survival. Here, she was just Bano.

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