“Caged birds can never be free. When in a cage, they flutter and hurt their wings against those simmering rods located at an equal space, but not enough to enable the restless and jittery bird from escaping the suffocating bounds of the cage. So, after awhile, the bird succumbs like many others with a dream of flying or flapping its wings against the gust of wind, felt at a height where freedom is realizable and barriers are non-existent.”
These words kept reverberating in Dina’s mind, who was contemplating intensely about her life that had transformed in an unimaginable way, as colors of happiness had faded away and rustic traces of despondency had spread like an uncontrollable disease. Dina was a bad liar and lately lines of anxiety and depression were apparent on her face had started drawing attention of one and many. As she was lost in deep contemplation, her inattentive eyes kept staring blankly at the silhouettes of receding figures that kept disappearing around the corner of the street located parallel to her house; innumerable people – cyclists, office goers rushing towards the bus stop, schoolchildren in their similar-looking dresses etc – passed though that street, but Dina was looking far beyond those constantly disappearing figures. Sometimes her view was disrupted by the curtains, stacked at the ends of the window, which flew with the wind. And, with that sudden gust of wind, few strands of her hair too flew and rested on her eyes, which she kept unconsciously removing with her slender fingers.
She was awakened from her trancelike state by the sound of that door of her room, which slammed due to wind that had suddenly become wild and uncontrollable. She rushed in her naked feet towards the backyard, where dried-up clothes were strewn on the floor, raised cemented wall and iron grills. She scuttled like a pigeon towards those clothes and quickly bundled them together, before rain drops had drenched them, and rushed inside. But she halted for awhile at the threshold to watch the sky that was getting darkened by the sprinting black clouds and rain drops falling on her tiled roof that filled the surrounding with music and a typical fragrance experienced especially after rains. She soon realized that she still loved rains like a child and its music and fragrance still instilled hope and dreams in her. A smile had already spread across her face and her kohl-lined eyes looked at the sky as if to offer silent prayers.
Meanwhile, pint-sized Lata, who came twice in a day for cleaning and washing, rushed with quick steps to Dina’s side. She was a loquacious woman with frail body, who covered her hair with a multi-colored scarf. As usual, Lata threw a volley of questions on Dina while getting over with her daily chores. Lata was one of the most popular figures amid the neighbors, who in pun addressed her as the ‘BBC radio’ of the area, as she effortlessly brought the inside stories of the houses in the area; hence, she was often offered some or other sops in return for sharing the gossips. But what was noticeable was the fact that she shared a special bondage or camaraderie with Dina, which was incomprehensible by the neighbors. Due to this camaraderie, she never spilled the beans against Dina, and always tried to shield and protect her from others. Lata started working at Dina’s place when none were ready to offer her space, as she was denounced by her drunkard and abusive husband; moreover, she was unable to forget that dreadful night when she was brutally thrown out of her house, with stringent warning to never ever return.
“Go and clean up the house …As such, there are no utensils today. Take these clothes and arrange them properly. Can you make a cup of ginger tea for me? I have severe headaches…as if some deplorable memories … are breathing once again,” Dina instructed Lata in an uninterrupted and absentminded manner. Dina was lost in a host of memories that came rushing in with a bout of headaches and clobbered her till now peaceful mind. She kept swinging back and forth in that swinging chair and Lata meanwhile sat on the floor and rested her back against her chair and queried, “Memsahib, what happened? What’s bothering you so much? Please share it with me, especially if that can unburden your mind.”
“Yes, that’s true. My head has been pounding with an unbearable noise. It seems someone has ruthlessly battered my mind and its peace, and I am frantically looking for a vacuum-like space to dissolve this pain. Remember that first-aid box lying in the cupboard; just go and fetch that for me, as I desperately need medicine. And, the ginger tea should be very strong, so put a lot of tea powder. Pass me that pillow, I want to sleep for awhile, so don’t disturb me for some time,” Dina instructed Lata with eyes that seemed to be entreating than ordering. Lata kept wondering what was bothering Dina, but found it better to not disturb her. Meanwhile, Dina had closed her eyes and her thoughts had started ambling aimlessly in the unperceived domain of dreams. With large drops of rain falling like cats and dogs outside, a gentle whiff of wind blew through her hair and had spread that soothing and refreshing coolness in the room. Lata immediately wrapped herself in her bright-red-colored shawl and started boiling a bowl of water for chai. The gurgling sound of the boiling water was like lullaby for Dina, who immediately slept like a child. After a short siesta when Dina woke up, she looked happier and attentive, particularly with that enigmatic smile spread across her face.
But Dina wasn’t able to control the sudden deluge of memories that was slowly flooding her thoughts, and she was unable to control her emotions visible through droplets of tears trickling down her porcelain-like skin. As far as her memories stretched, Dina remembered herself as a vibrant and chirpy woman, who wanted to sprint against the endless time and unpredictable destiny. People around her knew her as a woman with a stellar personality and innumerable fascinating attributes; hence, women envied her beauty and many detested her for her upfront attitude. In her college days, she was popular for her charming and irresistible beauty and razor-sharp intelligence that questioned each and every unquestionable and sacrosanct rituals. It’s in the verdant and intellectually vibrant campus of her university that she met Shafaq, a good-looking and charming Muslim man with broad jaws and shoulders. Undoubtedly, women considered him irresistible and waltzed around him like a bumble bee hovering around a freshly bloomed rose flower. Whenever she came across him in the campus, she had found him surrounded with a score of women drooling over his charm and money. A smile started dancing on her lips, when Dina remembered those yore days when they crossed each other’s paths and looked at each other with that discreet desire for friendship and love through the corners of their eyes. Although she was as tough as a mountain and as inflexible as death, yet her heart yearned to change the rules for awhile, as she felt naturally attracted towards Shafaq like a moth to a flame. “Was Shafaq also going through the same feelings?” Dina often pondered during those days when his mere glance and touch would make her jittery and go weak on her knees.
In between that unannounced and unnoticed simmering love, Dina and Shafaq rubbed shoulders on several occasions and somehow looked destined for each other. Shafaq was neither a misogynist nor a patriarch and admired self-reliant and independent women. When tall and slim Dina walked with her head held high in the public spaces, people naturally turned their heads towards her. She was a vociferous but reluctant communist, as communism amid all philosophies had offered her limited but recognizable space to voice her concerns over everything that she found detestable on the parameters of respect and humanness. She was undeniably as tough as the rocks, but was equally as vulnerable as a poet in love. And, that’s the reason why men yearned for her and loved more than hated for her occasional bluntness that left an irremediable wound in memories of her admirers to be cherished and detested. Dina ardently believed in calling a spade a spade, and didn’t mind verbal clashes to justify her actions. Dina remembered and wondered, “I was an absolute pig! I remember I was such a loner with no friends to die for and men to date with. I clearly remember, whenever I entered the classroom, those pint-sized, rumor-spreading women cloaked in pseudo-intellectual dresses whispered in each other’s ears, which were followed by that absolutely irritating and obnoxious snorting and giggling. I earnestly hated them and didn’t mind throwing few bad words at them. Oh gosh! What was I looking for at that time, I am still clueless; but I am absolutely sure about one thing that I was like a wanderer frantically searching for peace and affection.”
Like a soul lost forever in a cemetery, Dina liked wandering through the cobbled roads laid in-between those buried memories and feelings during those silent hours in the middle of the night. As night grew deadlier and became more silent, she would peer through her window and watch those meditating trees with boughs bereft of glimmering leaves. Sometimes Shafaq with a cigarette dangling between his almost darkened lips would just walk through the road located parallel to Dina’s hostel and silently observe her. With her head resting against the bricked walls of that small balcony, where a broken bucket, scraps, newspapers and rickety chairs were stacked together, she would stare the moon and stars for uncountable hours. While many considered her a lunatic, who needed an immediate cure and few painful whips at her back to bend her inflexible ego, few considered her a poet in search of her prose. But Dina neither considered herself a lunatic nor a poet, but a woman who will become hamstrung in the absence of adventures that like a pinch of salt enhances the taste of the food. But she wasn’t sure about the kind of adventure she was looking forward to. As such, the word ‘compromise’ didn’t exist in her dictionary. She considered the word ‘compromise’ as a despicable term, especially for women, and had tried hard to delete it forever from her life. Falling in love with Shafaq wasn’t a compromise for Dina, as she considered this as her feat and a life-changing event that will enhance her understanding of a new culture, and she was considering this as an adventurous ride. The age-old maxim “ignorance is bliss” was proving right for Dina, as she was slowly and steadily falling into an unimaginable deep morass pulling her towards hell.
But those were also tumultuous and turbulent times, when the city was witnessing rising number of crimes against women. The abhorrent and gruesome murder of a teenager in a moving bus had shaken each and every resident, particularly women, who suddenly felt the pangs of insecurity and death. Dina was deeply impacted and shaken by the incident that was glorified as an eyeball-grabbing incident by the local media. For long, she kept fuming with anger and suffered from pain, as she was unable to hide her fears and insecurities arising due to the unforgettable incident. After this incident, Dina had almost abandoned her social life and had become a recluse. Whenever she met her friends she poetically said, “Oh yes, I know I am not free, because those rule makers want me to always whine in an indecipherable manner like those dumb-looking sheep. If I raise my pitch, I know my caretakers, merely in books, are likely to behead me with that glimmering knife, kept in one of the corners.” Shafaq regularly enquired about her through her classmates, who were somewhat not alarmed by her regular absence in the class, as Dina was pretty well known for mood swings and actions/decisions taken at the spur-of-the-moment. Dina was not a vulnerable person and she knew that the road called life was tough and immensely difficult. When she finally recovered out of the aftershocks of the incident, she was much mature and prepared for all challenges. Shafaq was eagerly waiting for Dina at the door of her centre building and ran towards her, when she in disinteresting manner passed across him. Dina was taken aback when Shafaq’s ever-smiling face popped in front of her lost eyes. This was the moment that they both were eagerly awaiting, and now when it had come they were clueless how to proceed. She unquestioningly followed Shafaq towards the nearest café and they ordered for two cups of coffee before opening their hearts in front of each other. Suddenly Dina no more felt the pangs of unhappiness and disappointment that had spread like a curse on her thoughts and feelings. With Shafaq at her side, life looked good and beautiful, which she wanted to earnestly enjoy till she turned blue. It was the most cherished moment for both of them, and they were clueless how to break the ice with each other.
Henceforth, days started slipping like sand as it remained unnoticed by Dina and Shafaq, who were enjoying each and every moment of this new phase. Sometimes they would catch up for a cup of coffee or dance till the dawn broke in that oriental discotheque. Shafaq loved watching Dina while dancing, as she danced gracefully like a swan and never stopped. With loud music blaring in the background, Dina waltzed and rocked her head in happiness. As she continued dancing, her shirt with an image of Bob Marley embossed on front got heavily drenched in sweat and her shoulder-length hair glistened under the effect of the dancing headlights on the ceiling. And, Shafaq wanted to just embrace her and love her till those golden rays of the sun were visible from those body-sized window panes. And, when their feet started trembling after dancing so much, they would squat on the dance floor and then hold each other’s hand and walk towards the verdant lawn across the hotel. They would sit near the fountain and listen to the mellifluous music that flowed throughout them, especially chirpings of the birds and rustling of the leaves. Both of them never wanted this most wonderful moment to ever end, and they were under the total effect of this new irresistible feeling called ‘love’.
Despite protests and criticisms, when they married things around them turned out totally different. Dina, who like an adventurer was anticipating a totally different terrain to venture upon, particularly after marriage, was unconsciously forced into a system where rituals were as real as the remnants of the past with protruding rocks and stones. Was Dina prepared for handling such a situation ridden with such incomprehensible conflicts and issues? Well, even the innocuous mindscape of Dina wasn’t aware of this fact that she would witness such huge challenges, where she had to make all kinds of compromises and seek a balance between the real and the desired life. The bird that was not used to boundaries and was reluctant to eat from that golden-colored bowl was suddenly incarcerated in a cage.
After marriage when Dina entered the plain-looking house, she wasn’t sure she would love to spend her entire life in this house bereft of any color that had covered her entire life for so many years. Through the corners of her eyes, she looked across the place and quivered from within for awhile and a big question arose in her mind, “Will I continue to love Shafaq as I had loved him till now? Maybe I should learn the art of loving him eternally.” The art of loving is the most difficult art to learn and unlearn by a person and Dina knew this inside her heart that she won’t be able to compel her inflexible mind in bending as steeply as possible for making the other person happy. Very soon she was contemplating and contemplating really hard to comprehend her life that has thrown numerous challenges for her and she questioned her soul during those meditative soliloquies, “How difficult it is to become a part of a reality that has many painful and irremediable wounds, deep gashes that fail to salvage the person from visible and invisible marks of pain?” Religious differences are irreconcilable, especially when the older trees of the forest refuse to let the fresh saplings from enjoying the nutrients, which eventually leads to its death. Dina now had to regularly encounter the stringent diktats of her mother-in-law, who was unyielding and stuck with her warped ideas in the past that looked so distant and faraway. Dina’s commitment towards Shafaq started teetering and she was realizing her incapacity to sustain a marriage that was slowly moving transforming into a vexatious compromise and two lovers who had loved intensely were now talking animatedly. “Will this marriage fall with the sudden storm or cringe under the unbearable weight of compromises being made in the façade of commitment?” such questions started surging in Dina’s anxious mind and she knew like the back of her hand that the ‘end’ was standing very near and was unavoidable. The decision was tough, but she had to take one soon as chains of compulsory behavior were disturbing the adventurer inside her. Meanwhile, Shafaq was totally unaware about the disturbing ripples that were forming in Dina’s sea like mind by the rules and rituals that were thrown in her hitherto free-flowing mind.
Sometimes Shafaq would turn up with a bouquet of flowers and packets of her favorite Swiss chocolates to bring that same smile that she use to carry on her face before marriage, but he knew that such cosmetic measures won’t bring back that same Dina as her smile had disappeared long time back and a repelling frown and grimace had replaced it. Like a lost treasure hunter, he was searching her smile, which seemed to have been robbed by unidentified thieves who had disappeared in the thick expanse of mazelike forests. As these feelings were becoming unbearable and irresolvable, Dina and Shafaq were naturally getting pulled apart. The entire concept of marriage looked ridiculous, as like a butcher’s knife it had slaughtered their beautiful love and now except for blood and disappointment nothing existed out of that love. Feathers that once enabled them to fly high in the sky with dreams and no fears, were now drenched in the blood of sadness and wrath. And, hearts that used to beat in unison for each other was now lying lifeless on the plank of life. Lips that yearned for each other’s kisses were now mouthing those tough and ominous words that were widening the gap between them.
Dina was awakened by Lata, who was standing with a cup of hot tea and a plate of biscuits, from the sea of memories. Lata asked, “Do you regret leaving Saheb?” Dina passed a wistful smile and said, “I miss him but at least I am alive. During those days I was dying almost every day. I would have turned into a mad woman, if this would have continued. But I yearn for his image and look for his reflection in the mirror, water, food and in my dreams. Lately, Shafaq’s image has become so incomprehensible that I fear I will soon forget the fragrance of that love. A new image is coming up in my mind and I don’t know who that person is.” Lata smiled back with twinkling in her eyes.