You’re free to leave
A boat drifts through the River Indus, as Bani skulks towards her home. The sky has turned crimson. Dusk had emerged like a palliative, sapping away the warmth and drudgery that pervades the village of Shahkot like an epidemic.
Bani stares at the boundless beauty of the sky and then gazes at a fisherman sailing his boat along the Indus River. In a spurt of wild enthusiasm, she places her hand against her bosom and presses it against her breasts. She heaves a sigh and resigns herself to the fact that she will always be trapped in a world that exploits her patience. Bani will always be a prisoner to a life marred by limited expectations.
As she approaches her house, a strange numbness sets in and adds a spell of lethargy to her otherwise brisk pace. Bani is aware that if she rushes home, she will merely be expediting the inevitability of her pain.
But the distant hum of a screeching sound prods her to walk faster.
Zubeida: Bani (angrily)! Where have you been all this time? Have you forgotten that your uncle is sick? He needs his medicines. (Bani runs into the house and enters an unventilated room where her emaciated uncle is lying recumbent on a small charpoy) If only I was literate, I would have instantly given him his medicine without all this hassle of relying on you. But I just can’t tell all these bottles of medicine apart (she points towards a cabinet that bears a strange resemblance to an apothecary’s shop). Oh God! Why are you putting us through this? (Bani administers the medicine to her uncle. He breathes restlessly in pain and then settles into deep slumber) See how miserable he is! Why is God doing this to us? (Bani places a comforting palm on her Aunt’s shoulder/)
Bani: Mammi, you must stay strong. This was God’s wish. He put us through these difficult times because he wanted to test our strength during these troubled times. We can’t blame Him for putting us in a situation that forces us realize that we are only accountable to Him. (Zubeida wipes a tear drop from her eyes with her hands and Bani catches a glimpse of a wound that has yet to be bandaged) Mammi, how did you manage to hurt yourself? (Bani springs to her feet, rushes towards the medicine cabinet and grabs a first-aid kit which she has carefully prepared in case of an emergency)
Zubeida: Oh, this is nothing, beti. I was just boiling some water in the kitchen and got startled when I heard your uncle groan in pain. (Bani applies an ointment on the wound) God bless you, child. You’ve done a lot for us. Otherwise girls at your age are only concerned about falling in love and getting married. (Bani looks up at her aunt, worriedly. She wonders if her aunt has discovered her hidden desires.) But you have taken on the responsibility that your uncle’s own son ignored. Like a son, you have gone into the world and earned a living for your ailing uncle and his wife. And you’ve asked for nothing in return. Sometimes I feel I’ve done you a great disservice. After your parents’ demise, we took on the responsibility of ensuring that you had an easy life. And now, when I look back, I feel we haven’t fulfilled our responsibility at all. (Zubeida begins to cry)
Bani: (embraces her aunt) No Mammi, both you and Mamma have looked after me perfectly well. This is just my way of expressing gratitude for all that you have done to me.
(Bani trembles as words spew out of her mouth. The numbness which had evaded her only moments before sets in again. She realizes that when dreams intersect with the burden of gratitude, life cannot be what one hopes it was.)
(Bani has toiled all day at Gul Mohammad’s cybercafé. But her uncle’s deteriorating health and her own insecurities have added a measure of anxiety to her fatigued state of mind. Bani presses her head against the table and sighs. At that very moment, a customer – a haggard-looking, paan-chewing and stern-faced man – walks into the cybercafé.)
Customer: I will need the computer for an hour.
Bani holds her head up high, rubs her eyes and then nods perfunctorily.
[An hour later]
(Within moments, the room ignited by gleaming tube-lights and enlivened with the rhythmic hum of fingers drumming against keyboards, is embroiled in a spell of darkness.)
Customer: O, fuck (releasing a sibilant sound)! The electricity just has to go now! Oye, Maydum, can you turn on the UPS?
Bani: (with great frustration) Have you lost your mind or something? This isn’t some shop in the city. No one can afford a UPS!
Customer: (with a hint of sarcasm) Sure! And computers are far easier to get hold of!
Bani: (angrily) Shut up! Don’t talk to me in that tone. I am neither your slave nor your kept-woman. I will command respect and receive it, do you hear?
Customer: (loudly) Shut the fuck up, bitch! What sort of lousy store is this anyway? And who in their right mind hired an impulsive woman like yourself? Honestly, if you aren’t getting any, don’t vent your frustrations on me. Chill!
Bani rises to her feet.
Bani: (trying desperately to stifle her rage) Sir, there is no need to get personal. Please wait until the electricity comes back.
Customer: (with utter disgust for Bani) You know nothing about being personal! Hmm (mockingly) ‘no need to get personal’! You know what women like you are worthless and prim. No competence in anything – not even love.
(Bani clenches her fist)
Bani: Sir, I warned you not to get personal!
Customer: Oh my, your warnings have sent shivers down my spine? I’m scared! (softly) Very, very scared!
Bani stares into his eyes. They reflect nothing but disregard for her aspirations, her desires and the life of self-denial that she has willingly accepted. His ability to see right through her startles Bani. She feels the desperate urge to prove him wrong and react to his assault on her personality so that he knows that she is not prim but strong. With a fist that symbolizes the strength of her rage, she strikes him across his face, leaving him to stare at her in shock.
Bani meets with Gul Mohammad after the embarrassing encounter with the customer.
Gul Mohammad: (furiously) Words cannot describe what I feel just now. I am just so angry at you Bani! Why would you do this me? I gave you a job after your Uncle fell ill. I chose to pay you a handsome salary. I even helped you out when your landlord threatened to evict you. Why would you mistreat a customer like this? You aren’t crazy. You know very well that we’re currently facing stiff competition. (tearfully) Then why are you out to ruin my business, Bani? Why?
Bani: I’m extremely sorry, sir. But that man was rude to me. And I have every right to stand up for myself.
Gul Mohammad: (aggravated) All right, fine. He was rude. But why did you have to smack him across the face? Have you lost your mind? The man you so shamelessly assaulted is the son of a respected member of our community. I can’t risk feuds at this stage in time. Why don’t you understand? (his tone becomes less stringent ) Bani, you’re like a daughter to me. I consider it my responsibility to ensure your safety at all points in time. So, I have decided to let you go.
(Bani eyes him with confusion)
Bani: But why sir? Have I committed a sin by defending myself? Or is this merely an excuse to act upon a pre-meditated plan to sack me?
Gul Mohammad: Please Bani, don’t make it more difficult than it already is. Just try to comprehend what I’m saying. Your services here are no longer required.
Bani: But sir, you are aware of my circumstances. I have an uncle and an aunt who have expectations from me. I can’t let them down. Please sir, don’t do this. I assure you that you will never hear any more complaints about me. Please sir. I beseech you.
Gul Mohammad: (furiously) You have said more than enough, Bani. Now leave. And as for your aunt and uncle, they have other ways of furthering their expectations. They have a son if I’m not mistaken.
Bani: (tears stream down her cheek) He’s still very young, sir.
Gul Mohammad: (enraged) Twenty is not young. I was moonlighting by the time I was his age. How immoral of your aunt and uncle to thrive on the income of an orphaned girl when their own son is capable of finding work. I’m afraid that I cannot be an accomplice to this sin anymore. You are free to leave, Bani.
Exit Gul Mohammad.
Bani finds herself in a strange dilemma. As she walks home, she realizes that freedom comes at a fatal cost for those who are not allowed to dream.