She was a Hindu Brahmin girl who had married, in fact eloped with her one time class mate, Parwej Qureshi, a Muslim boy. Nothing was considered a bigger stigma for a Brahmin family than the fact that its young daughter had married a Muslim boy. Had they been caught within the village borders, her father, Ram Kripal Mishra, an army sergeant would have had no second thought in shooting them down to salvage his family honour.
Ram Kripal Mishra commanded great respect amongst his people by virtue of his large landed property and rank of Subedar in the army. He liked to be addressed as Panditji though it was a strange coincidence that like Parwej’s father, Ram Kripal Mishra too was a carpenter by trade in the Corps of Engineers of the Indian army. Notwithstanding Ram Kripal’s carpentry trade in the army, Parwej Qureshi, a teacher in a school was not acceptable to the Mishra family as its son-in-law basically.
It was about twenty five years ago that Sumita and Parwej were in the same school and in the same class in a small town of Kalka in the foothills of Shivalik ranges. Parwej’s father had a small carpentry shop under a tin shed on the road side while Ram Kripal Mishra was posted in the Movement Control Unit of the Army at Kalka Railway Station.
Parwej was a handsome and intelligent lad. Sumita had developed a liking for him, though she was too cagey to express her feelings to Parwej or any of her friends.
Those days in a small town school in India, there were separate rows for girls in the class rooms and if playgrounds existed, boys played around and girls clustered at one end watching them. Sumita watched only one person, her eyes followed Parwej, whatever he did and wherever he went. Her feelings for Parwej, her desire to be near him was getting intense by the day though she was conscious of the deep community divide.
Ram Kripal Mishra had completed more than three years at Kalka. He was due for posting to a different station. The change was expected any time. In fact, his tenure had been extended on his request to let him stay at Kalka until his daughter had taken her secondary examination. Sumita knew it and the very thought upset her. The fact that it would take her away from Parwej pained her. Her heart cried but she had none to share her pain for she was too scared to give words to her feelings.
“My father has been posted to Udhampur,” one evening she mustered courage and told Parwej while returning from the school.
Parwej looked at her; he was baffled but said nothing.
“We will be shifting to our village near Karnal after the examinations are over.”
The developments were too sudden to unsettle even the cagey young man.
“You never mentioned it earlier.”
“I wanted to… but I was not sure whether you would be interested.”
That was true. Parwej had never tried to come close to her even though he had not failed to notice her looking at him attentively and doing small odd favours to him.
The impact of impending separation on the adolescent minds was reverberating.
“Sumita, I know you have been very nice and caring and believe me I always wanted to talk to you … somehow I could never pick up courage. You see, your folks would have never approved of it,” he said, his voice faltering.
“I don’t know if we will meet in future…. I will always remember you,” Sumita whispered.
Parwej was dumbfounded; he didn’t know what to say. They looked at each other silently.
“Parwej, will you reply if I write to you?” She was desperate but bold, wanting to be in touch with him.
“Yes I will, I promise….”
Sumita was overwhelmed. “Thank you Parwej. Please give me your address.”
Parwej paused for a while and said, “Sumita you know there is an insuperable religious barrier between us. Even though I could guess your feelings towards me, I deliberately behaved indifferently. At times, it was difficult and I cursed myself for it. But I wanted to avoid putting you to discomfiture of any kind.”
“Parwej, I am happy you feel that way. Perhaps, sometimes words are not required if the feelings are sincere. Thank you, thank you very much,” she said.
Parwej saw the tears rolling down her cheeks. They stood there frozen looking at each other. Parwej then took her hand in to his and pressed it softly.
The sun behind them was going below the skyline as they took the separate lanes for their homes.
For the rest of the week they tried to steal few minutes off and on exchanging some inane words expressing their feelings but apprehensive of spelling them. They both knew that the Mishra family would never approve of their marriage. In fact, both of them were aware that even a mention of it might cost them their lives.
On the first day of the final examination, Parwej came to Sumita and gave her a fountain pen. “It is a small gift from me. I wish this pen brings you good luck in the exams,” Parwej told her.
“Thank you. I know you will do very well. God bless you,” she said and then added after a little pause, “I will preserve this pen to the end of my life.”
Parwej saw her holding the gift between her palms and kissing it passionately.
Five years. They could not meet but they kept their promises. Sumita wrote to him as when she could manage stealthily and she had asked Parwej to write to her at the address of her trusted friend. Their friendship during this period blossomed steadily even though they were physically separated.
Sumita’s parents didn’t want her to continue her studies further.
“Matriculation is enough for you. You should now develop sewing, embroidery and culinary skills, which is what your in-laws would expect from you,” her father had told her. Her mother and the rest of the Mishra family had endorsed the view.
Parwej during this period had completed his graduation and soon thereafter got a job of a teacher in a private school. Sumita’s father who by this time had retired from service was looking for a suitable match for Sumita from his caste.
Sumita wrote to Parwej of her father’s plan. “Let’s meet early before it is too late,” she urged him.
“You know, your parents will never agree to our alliance. We have to take our own decision. Now it is for you to decide. I promise to be loyal to you all my life,” Parwej wrote to her adding that he will come to her village on hearing from her.
Sumita knew their move was dangerous but she wanted to see Parwej. The desire was intense relegating all diffidence to the side line.
“Come by the last bus on coming Sunday and when you get down, you would see an ochre building on the right. It is the village school. I will be waiting for you in the backyard.”
They met with the ferocity of hungry, starved lovers. The fire that was dormant all those years burst uncontrollably making them oblivious to all fear and apprehension. Their souls, minds and bodies had fused like molten lead losing the sense of any other existence beyond theirs.
When they returned to the physical world, they were unable to converse. They were breathing heavily and words would not come out. There were hundreds of big and small matters that Parwej wanted to tell Sumita and she wanted to tell Parwej. They had forgotten everything.
“I must leave now but tell me where will you stay tonight?” Sumita asked Parwej, setting her dress in order.
“I will walk back to the railway station and sleep on the platform.”
“Railway station is ten kilometers from here,” she said, worried.
“That is not the problem or the issue. What is important is that you have to make up your mind. If you are willing, we can leave the village right now and get married.”
“Please give me some time to think over,” Sumita said holding his hand and kissing it.
“Sumita, I can do nothing more than waiting. You know my mother had died young and my father has no time for me, he is busy with his new family. Please remember, I will be always by your sie whenever you want..”
As they were coming out of the school gate, to their utter horror, the watchman of the school appeared from nowhere. He knew Sumita quite well and was surprised to see her in the company of a young man at that odd hour. He gave them a searching look.
“He is a distant relative of ours. I brought him here to show the school,” Sumita said walking past the glaring eyes of the watchman who smiled maliciously at the uncalled for information.
“Parwej, we are in serious trouble. In couple of hours, the whole village will know of my inexplicable presence at this isolated place at this hour and that too with a stranger.”
Parwej didn’t know what to say.
“Parwej, please run away as fast as you can, take lift from any vehicle going to the railway station and catch the first train to your place,” Sumita pleaded with Parwej who refused to leave her alone.
“Parwej, there is but one justice in this part of the world. That you, from a different community have been seen in the company of a Brahmin girl is reason enough to kill you and kill me. It will be a humiliating, insulting brutal death. Please run away … I will face whatever the fate has ordained for me.”
“It is our fate and we will face it together. I am not leaving you alone,” Parwej said holding her hand firmly.
The lovers finally decided to run away from the imminent danger vowing to face the world together. They had a streak of luck. A Petrol tanker gave them a lift up to railway station. They took the first train leaving the station and reached Rampur next evening, the place of Parwej’s work.
The school watchman lost no time in spreading the news of young couple found in the school courtyard. Soon the Mishra household was on fire. The women howled in side the four walls as men ran in every direction to catch the culprits.
Next morning, everyone of the village knew of the humiliating episode. In the afternoon there was a village panchayat and justice was remitted instantaneously. The errant couple was condemned to death by hanging publicly. The Mishra family was admonished and fined for not keeping a watch over their daughter. The penalty collected from them was given to a search party to trace the couple.
It was the most humiliating day in the life of Pandit Ram Kripal Mishra. He wished his daughter and her lover were caught and brought before him; he would have hacked them to pieces and burnt them.
Away from the Mishra household in a small dingy lane in Rampur, Parwej married Sumita in the presence of a Maulavi and a few of his friends.
Sumita missed her folks. She wrote a few letters to her father seeking his pardon. There was but no reply. Two years later they had a son. They named him Arif. Arif’s birth brought her happiness in half a measure for her parents were not there to share her happiness.
Sumita’s string of woes was not over for it was for sometime that Parwej had felt pain in his abdomen. He often missed his work. One evening when the pain was unbearable, Sumita took him to a hospital. The doctors after few tests told her that Parwej was having cancer and advised her to take him to a bigger town.
Sumita had no money. She wrote once again to her father and her brothers. “Parwej is dying for want of treatment. I need you at this moment. Please help me, come to my rescue.”
The reply from her father was brisk.
“For me, you died the day you brought shame to the family. We have already performed your shradh ceremony (performed for the deceased relations) and we all went to Hardwar for a bath in holy Ganga to absolve ourselves of the sins committed by you.. You don’t exist for us any more and sooner the better if the man you are living with also dies.”
It was a long painful wait and she waited helplessly, watching Parwej grimace with pain and vomit blood, life oozing out of him and then one day Parwej died leaving her alone with a small child of three years.
Sumita decided to leave Rampur and move to Delhi for she wanted to get lost in the anonymity of the big city. There was only one thought in her mind.
“I will do anything and everything to bring up this child, give him good education and make him a worthy citizen like his father.”
Her first day in Delhi was horrible. For the whole day she went from house to house asking for a job.
In big cities people are suspicious and apprehensive. Carrying her child from one place to another, she was tired and her legs were aching. She was exasperated, didn’t know where to pass the night for she knew she may be picked up by the police or the vagabonds and she dreaded both the prospects.
She purchased a loaf of bread and entered a nullah on the side of a road, which lead to a depressed ground and then to a cemetery. She saw a hand pump and sat there and then took out the loaf of bread, which she shared with her son. She drank water from the hand pump and poured some in her son’s mouth.
It was dark and she could listen to the whizzing of the mosquitoes and echoing toad calls. She put her child on the ground next to her and rested against a tombstone. The fear of ghosts, which haunted her all her life had suddenly disappeared from her mind.
Next morning she collected her meager belongings and holding her son in her arms she went around the colonies seeking a job. For three days she went from door to door pleading for a job.
No one would trust her.
There was no money left with her. She had not been able to feed her son for two days. She then decided to beg. Her heart cried when she got two stale chapattis and left over vegetable.
“What would my father do if he were to see me begging and eating the leftover, filthy food,” the thought suddenly crossed her mind and then putting a morsel in her son’s mouth she smiled wryly.
That night she could not sleep. She remembered Parwej and she remembered her father and her mother who once loved her dearly. The night passed as she watched her son blissfully sleeping close to her chest.
Next morning she walked towards the slums along the nullah looking for some idle space. The sun was hot and she felt very weak. She could not walk any more and sat down near a garbage dump. The stink was unbearable but her legs were failing. Looking at her pale, listless son, at times she thought he was dead and then she would feel his pulse and place her hands over his nostrils. Fatigue and hunger finally took the toll, her eyes were hazy, her head reeled and she lost consciousness.
“You have fever and your child is also in very bad condition. Take some water,” she heard an old man and noticed that she was inside a small thatched hut.
The old man looked at Sumita and stretching a helping hand he said, “I will stay with the neighbours. You can stay here until you find some alternative shelter.”
Sumita was startled by the offer from an unknown person. She was amazed further to see everyone in that slum keen to help her. No one asked her past, her religion or her caste. It was selfless, spontaneous help for a fellow being. The old man on learning that she was an educated woman arranged a job for her in a private clinic. The neighbours helped her raise a hut.
It began with cleaning of floors and other menial jobs. Sumita was not disheartened; she took it in a proper stride. Over the years, she was given better jobs and finally made an office attendant. She had put Arif in a school. As he grew, young Arif watched his mother toiling for his bright future.
“You must work hard to uphold the name of your father,” Sumita often told Arif who even as a young child was determined to do so. He did very well in the school, qualified for a scholarship followed by a career in medicine.
It was nearly twenty years ago that Sumita had come to that slum colony. Arif was now a doctor and had taken up a job in the same clinic where his mother was now the Office Supervisor.
Sumita often remembered her past and she remembered her parents and her days with Parwej. For all these years she had been isolated from her folks physically though mentally she could not help.
One evening some one brought an old man to the clinic. He had fallen from a bus while getting off. He was seriously wounded and bleeding profusely.
The nurse on duty came running to Sumita and told her that there was an accident case and that the patient was sinking and that she should inform the police since it was a medico-legal case.
“Take him to OT. I will call Dr. Arif,” Sumita told the nurse as she picked up the phone to call the doctor.
That night and the following day, the patient was in the ICU after an operation. Sumita did not leave him even for a second despite the nurses telling her to take some rest. Dr. Arif noticed it and guessed that the patient was someone his mother knew and was perhaps close to her.
The patient was old, very weak and anaemic. Dr. Arif felt that he needs blood transfusion immediately. He was amused to learn that the blood group of the old man’s and that of his own was the same. Since no donor was available and the matching blood was not available in the clinic, he offered to donate his blood for the patient.
When the patient came to his senses he asked for water.
Sumita picked a glass of water and brought it to his lips. After a couple of sips, the patient opened his eyes. It was Pandit Ram Kripal Mishra looking at his daughter, Sumita.
Ram Kripal Singh was in a very weak condition. Sumita had told about him to her son. Dr. Arif and Sumita were taking care of him personally. Slowly he gained health and was now in a position to walk around.
“Sumita, my child, I know I have been harsh to you. You see, I could not have defied the panchayat.”
He paused for a little and then added, “Later, I didn’t help you when you asked for it since I could not reconcile to the fact that you, a Brahmin girl had married a Muslim. You see, there are social norms and traditions, which we must uphold lest there was a social anarchy ……. hope you understand.”
“Father, lets not talk of bygone days. Perhaps God willed it that way. I am happy that I was of some service to you.”
Ram Kripal Mishra wanted Sumita to accompany him to his village. “People have forgotten the episode and your mother is no more. Besides, here you are living a lonely life.”
Sumita declined the offer politely.
Ram Kripal Mishra was unhappy at his daughter’s decision. He was now keen to return to his village. He told Sumita, “But for you and that young doctor, I would have not survived. He is a highly skilled doctor. Besides, his blood is running in my veins. I will remain obliged to him forever.”
Sumita remained quiet.
Ram Kripal continued, he was quite enthused, “The doctor is very handsome ………. looks like a scion of a royal family…….. Do you know anything about his family?” He was inquisitive.
Sumita looked at the emaciated old man and then said in a low voice, “He is Dr. Arif Qureshi, the son of my ostracized Muslim husband.”