A Death Foretold
On the day they were going to kill him, Mohammed Abdul Rasheed got up at five in the morning to attend the morning prayer at the local mosque. Dressed in white, his crocheted taqiyah neatly covering his head and his prayer book tucked under his arm, he went through the house with long strides, as the shadows of dawn danced upon the earthen walls. He walked toward the winding pathway leading to the courtyard of the mosque, smiling at the little boys on their bicycles, on their way to the madrassa. He passed the khejri tree under which the village panchayat was gathering to discuss matters pertaining to the community at large. The young girls beside the pond by the village post-office looked away coyly as he approached them, hiding their faces with the rims of their sarees. The youngest and the most beautiful of them all, lovingly called Beba by the village folk, was the only one who looked up to catch his eye. She walked with him toward the shady grove at the water’s edge, where he asked her not to entertain anyone this evening, for he would stop by at her kothi before dusk.
The air was still, and the cocks were crowing, just as they had in his dream the night before. It was a calm and quiet morning, just like most mornings in the quaint little village of Samain, in spite of the revelry which had continued till the sun decided to rise on the paddy fields. Marriages were a big affair in this small town in Fatehabad, especially if one or both of the betrothed belonged to the moneyed class. So when Ramesh Tyagi, the son of a money lender from Rohtak, decided to woo and finally wed Pavitra, daughter of a craftsman in our village, the proposal was met with much jubilation. Pavitra was a distant relative of mine, and I remember her as a young girl, reticent and homely. On those few occasions when, tired of the grime and squalor of the city, I would come down to Samain to spend a few leisurely weeks in the rural countryside, I’d live a couple of days with her. She kept to herself mostly, scrubbing pots or cooking for the family. When her father went blind, her brothers Shiv and Prithvi took upon themselves the task of earning for the family’s meager wants by raising chicken in the backyard. As for Pavitra, she confined herself to the chores under the watchful eye of her mother.
I was staying at her place when Ramesh came to town with a job at hand, and decided to inform the entire village that the pretty damsel washing clothes at the ghat had caught his fancy. The very next day, her family received sweets and bouquets of freshly pruned flowers, a fair barter for her love. Initially, the khap panchayat had annulled the marriage, holding that it violated the age-old custom defining the areas of incest, and prohibiting marriages within the same gothra. However, when they heard that Ramesh had plans of setting up a bank in the district, they blessed the couple and pronounced it a match made in heaven. So Pavitra, the new bride with vermilion on her forehead, was told by her mother that love, too, can be learned, and was led away like cattle.
On the day they were going to kill him, I was packing my bags and getting ready to leave for the city. The rickshaw-puller waited impatiently outside, surrounded by the village dogs, barking excitedly and pacing the yard. Away from my knowledge, Pavitra lay locked in the next room, bruised and beaten, her salty tears streaming down to her trembling lips. She had been returned that very night, similar to the cattle which the butcher deems unfit to slaughter and sell. On being asked to reveal the identity of her clandestine lover, she had looked in the shadows, only to find Mohammed´s name among the many, and she nailed it to the wall with her well-aimed dart. And away from my knowledge, beside the little shop where Kavita sold milk and local brew, Pavitra’s brothers were waiting to kill him. Everyone knew that they were going to kill him. And everyone thought he knew it as well. But Mohammed Abdul Rasheed walked down the winding pathway from the mosque, at peace after the maulvi´s blessings, blissfully unaware of his impending fate. It was as though fatality makes one invisible.
As my rickshaw pulled toward the village square, the contraption creaking under the weight of my baggage, I heard a commotion in the distance. I saw the dust rising up as numerous feet shuffled in that direction. I climbed down, and stopped a passerby to question her about the chaos.
“The Hindu men have killed the Muslim boy,” deplored the old woman, clutching her beads to her breast.
In a community where Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony, this piece of news disturbed me deeply. I turned toward Bittu, a boy working at the chai dukaan, and grabbing him by the shoulders I asked him the same question, a bit more frantically this time.
“What’s done is done,” he replied insightfully, shaking his head.
“It had to happen,” explained the village chowkidar beside me. “The panchayat believes it. So do the people. If a virgin will not bleed, then the perpetrator must.”
Gauri Behn, coming from the opposite direction, wailed aloud. “They’ve killed Mohammed Rasheed. They killed him for honor, when there is no honor in killing. We all killed him. Both you and I, and each one of us.”
Before she could complete her sentence, I found myself running toward the crowd. As I approached Mohammed, the man who we had killed off to keep alive our honor, he was in the throes of death, gasping, choking and sputtering like a fish out of water. He clutched his side, where the blood had imbrued his cotton jubbah, and was slowly forming a pool in the dusty ground.
“Allah will forgive them for their sins, for Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful.”
With these last words, he stopped struggling, lay still and closed his eyes. I remained kneeling beside him, till his chest stopped heaving, and his head dropped to one side. The village folk, who had gathered like buzzing flies, soon dispersed; some grieving, some lamenting, some doubting, some believing. The sun was slipping behind a cloud, and its waning rays bedimmed the village square. Yet Mohammed Abdul Rasheed´s face glowed under the darkening sky, its expression serene and almost childlike. I looked at my hands, carmine stained, like those of the priest at the sacrificial altar. Allah, most merciful one, only you know whether this man has sinned or not. But as for our sins, would you ever forgive them?