Stoning of the Songbirds
14 April, 2008
By Anwaar Hussain
The story below has been inspired by the news of a recent stoning of a man and a woman in Northern Pakistan. It is a work of fiction.
The first stone whizzed way above her head missing her exposed torso by a wide margin. She was half buried into a hole dug the previous day. Wrapped in a white shroud with her hands tied to her sides, only her face was uncovered. She was able to see the throng of devout people who would stone her till death. She was hysterical with fear and it showed on her beautiful face.
The next one found its mark. She was struck on her chin. It was a medium sized, sharp stone thrown by the lead mullah, the man who had passed the verdict on them. Pain shot through her body forcing a whimper of agony from her dry lips. With that, she started crying uncontrollably. Crimson drops of blood started to drip on to the white cotton shroud on her chest. “God is great!” shouted the mullah and waved on his followers with a renewed fervor. The crowd reached for the stones lying in heaps in front of them. Collected a day earlier, it was made sure that these would be of just the right size; neither too small as to be ineffective, nor too large as to finish the person with just a few hits. The barrage would start soon.
With the third direct hit, something strange happened to her. All the fears left her now that the end was so near. Her past life began to flash past her mind’s eye in snap shots of various times. She turned her head to the right and saw the man that she had promised to love till her last breath looking straight at her. Similarly ensconced in a hole in the ground, he was still unscathed. The holes were dug beneath the old mulberry tree, the favorite haunt of the songbirds. It was under this tree that they too had sung their songs of their eternal love in their secret trysts. His eyes said it all; ‘together we would make this last journey, my love, together’.
As if she needed telling.
Her mind raced back to that day when they first saw each other more than a year back.
That day the wild flowers ran riot on the valley floor. The dale was abuzz with the melodies of a million songbirds. Nightingales, starlings, and martins were crooning their last tunes before retiring for the day. Tall pines swayed tenderly in a cool breeze on the gently descending slopes of the surrounding mountains. The sparkling waters of the river below were flowing on with a naughty chatter. Spring was in full bloom. Not just in the pine scented valley, but in Gulalee’s young heart too. Humming softly to herself, that day she too was a songbird.
She was busy washing her family’s laundry on the river bank with her friends when the sound of a not too distant gunshot startled them all. Before they could busy themselves again in their chores, they heard someone’s footsteps approaching them along the river bank. They quickly reached for their chadors to hide themselves from the stranger. From years of practice, they could see from behind their veils without being caught in the act. With her eyes seemingly on her washing, she stole a quick glance at the stranger.
Her world came to a stand still.
He was a young man slightly older than her. He was standing tall and square shouldered against the setting sun with his golden tresses aglow beneath his cap. A jauntily placed daffodil peaked from one of his ears. His gun was slung carelessly across his one shoulder. A string of freshly shot partridges hung from the other. With uncertainly in his azure blue eyes, she saw him approaching towards them in a hesitant manner. Before she could breathe again, he came to stop a respectful distance away and asked for the address of someone in her village.
Her heart missed a beat. That someone happened to be her uncle living next door to her own house.
She gathered her laundry and with eyes on the ground beaconed to the man to follow her to the village. With him trailing her by a courteous distance, that was the sweetest journey she had ever undertaken from the river bank to her home. Akbar Khan’s eyes too never left her lithe form as she walked nimbly in front of him.
That was also the beginning of a journey that would end under this mulberry tree.
She was betrothed to a man twenty years older than her since she was seven years old. It was done to settle an old family feud in which many lives were lost on both sides. Some cattle too were promised in the settlement. Those were dispatched without delay to the enemy’s family. She was considered an adult now. It was only a matter of time before she became the second wife of an old man.
But young hearts can hardly be deterred by such mundane hindrances. They decided to elope to a distant city where one of Akbar Khan’s cousins was willing to give them shelter till they got married. It seemed so natural really. They did just that.
Her father went to the tribe’s elders and sued Akbar Khan’s family for kidnapping Gulalee. A search was launched for them in all the surrounding villages. They were nowhere to be found.
Months passed and the matter seemed to have been forgotten. It was but not in the hearts of two men; her father’s and that of the man’s to whom she was once promised. For their honor, they remained on their scent.
A word came in that they were living in the city as a married couple.
Gulalee missed her family; especially her brother. Being the only brother of many sisters, she loved him to bits. Her heart craved to see them just once and maybe ask for their understanding and forgiveness. Akbar Khan, thinking that the matter had died down, gave in to her passionate pleas. They boarded a train to a stop nearest to their village. And landed straight into a fierce posse of armed men waiting for them there.
The verdict was passed the very next day.
A stone hit Akbar Khan squarely on his left temple. He only winced but Gulalee cried out in his pain. Blood was oozing straight into his eyes that he was trying to keep open to continue seeing her till his last breath.
In her home up above on the valley slope, in a dark unlit room, her mother and sisters cried quietly together with muffled moans through clenched teeth. Sobs raked their bodies as they tried to smother the howls of pain releasing from the depths of their souls. Each held a piece of Gulalee’s clothing to stifle their cries in. Her mother held Gulalee’s shawl and a sister, her favorite shirt. It was a grave sin to be wailing when God’s will was being carried out. For God is great.
Below the mulberry tree, the drama had picked up a frenzied pace. The bombardment had begun in real earnest. A salvo of stones hit Akbar Khan all at once and reduced his face into a mass of shredded flesh. With his face now in tatters, his eyes were closed shut with blood. He was unable to see his beloved’s face any more.
Gulalee too was getting hit but her eyes were still wide open. Her lower lip though had split open exposing a line of pearly teeth dabbed with blood. She had stopped crying. An eerie calm had engulfed her. The mullah urged the people to get closer as the two still seemed alive. “God is great!” they shouted and surged forward carrying their stones with them.
All at once, a volley of accurately aimed stones flung from a closer distance split open Akbar Khan’s skull. His brains fell out on his shoulders. With that, his head slumped forward and his soul finally left his mangled body for its journey to the unknown. “God is great!” the mob intoned in unison, some of them foaming at their mouths with righteous rage.
They turned their full attention to Gulalee.
Gulalee knew Akbar Khan had gone. Now there was no use staying back. She turned her head towards the mob with the last ounces of strength still left in her. It was just in time to see her favorite brother in front of the mad throng of the devout people carrying out the will of God. His handsome face was contorted into a vicious look. He had drawn his right arm fully back with a stone in his hand. Their eyes met for the briefest moment before he hurled the stone with full force.
Gulalee died that instant.
A single tear drop mingled with the blood on her face dropped on the ground below her slumped head.
No one noticed of course.
“God is great!” the crowd chanted.
Since that fateful day, songbirds sing on that mulberry tree no more, but on many a moonlit night, passersby have reported hearing the haunting melody of a sweet duet sung from under the tree’s ancient branches.