It was a bright winter morning, sunny yet breezy. She had worn the purple kurta shalwar, his favorite color. Early in the dawn, she had silently sneaked out of the house, dodging her sleeping stepsisters and mother. Her step-father was out already. Holding her shoes in her hand, she had tip toed to the gate. Stooping low, she stripped in the shoes- silently opening the door, stepped out.
The cool breeze blew her dupatta away. She reached for in instantly.
Behind the lake, in the fields, she ran towards the allocated spot- excitement bringing her alive. He stood, leaned to a tree, in his white kurta shalwar, his sleeves rolled up till his elbows.
He smiled. Her eyes immediately followed the dimple and the spark in his eyes. Then a look crossed his face. She knew that look.
He locked his hands behind his back, walked closer, eyes fixed on her, the dimple still visible, although he wasn’t exactly smiling now.
“I am sorry, miss, are you lost somewhere?” She tilted her head, looking at him trying to resist his charm. She always got so nervous; fully aware of her reddening cheeks- never knew what to say.
“If not then, you’re gonna have to excuse me. See, I have to meet a very beautiful lady.” Her face heated up. She was unable to control the smile.
“And I am afraid, the horror of your looks might haunt me to death before that.” The next moment she was running after him, throwing whatever came in her hand.
They had chatted for hours, siting by the lake- throwing pebbles into it.
He was about to say something to her, when there was a loud noise. Darkness took over and the noise turned into screeching. It took her a moment to realize what was going on.
The train compartment was compromised. A militant was standing over the still body of Ashraf Kamal, blood seeping through the hole in his chest, his eyes blankly staring in the air. Two militants lied still next to him. She could tell he fought a good fight.
Sadia amma had got up from her seat. She had muttered some curses as she spat on his face. The next bullet went through her head. Nehal shrieked. He had pointed the gun over Haleema now. Haleema had been frozen till now. In her panic, Nehal began searching the compartment, the train was still moving. She could not get out.
“Please.” She heard Haleema’s shrill voice.
“My child.” She was begging him. A gun, she saw lying beside a dead militant. The one standing wasn’t attentive towards her so far. She didn’t know how to use those things. What’s the worst that could happen?
The militant lowered his gun from Haleema’s head. For a moment, it seemed like he was going to let her live. Then with an evil smirk on his face, he pointed it at Haleema’s belly. Nehal ducked for the gun and the Sikh caught her and threw her over.
“I’ll finish you too, my dear.” She heard him say, her head spinning.
He turned around again and walked over to Haleema. His gun pointed at the belly, he fired three shots.
“Now you.” He clenched a handful of her hair making her look at him. Nehal struggled in his grip. It was useless. She was desperately moving her hand. It came across something, familiar.
“I am gonna enjoy killing you the most.” He smirked.
“Likewise.” She said as she spat over his face. His hungry eyes stared at her, his grip tightening over her hair. With the rising pain, she flung her arm with all her might and stuck the knife in his throat. Blood came pouring out like a hole in a pipe, splashing all over her. She had struggled to get him away from her.
For the rest of the journey, she kept lying on the floor. Every now and then, holding her breath and playing dead. She didn’t know how long had passed, how many times she had drifted into sleep, waking up with nightmares, till the train finally stopped.
“Welcome to Pakistan.” She heard voices. With the shivering legs, she dragged herself towards the light flowing in from the open door of the train. The soil in front of her eyes, one more step and she could touch it, feel it with her feet. She stepped out of her shoes, and put her feet over the heated soil. Tears blinded her eyes and she fell to the ground, her hands grasping over the soil, her tongue reciting the Kalma, over and over again.
She had started her journey in India as a young, naïve 23 years old. The Nehal that had reached Pakistan was a completely different person, strong, determined and mature. It was an overnight transformation.
64 years later, as she sat in the lounge of her home, with her family- she still missed him. They sat around the dining table; her son, Abdullah, who had moved to America as a smart and handsome youth thirty years ago- now old and wrinkly. She had looked at him wondering if Hadi would have looked like this when old. Abdullah had carried his father’s looks in youth. His American wife sat next to him. Next to her was seated Adeel, her grandson- who looked more like his mother.
“Adeel, how is Pakistan?” he had been curiously examining the exotic food.
“It’s good.” He answered casually.
“Would you stay here once you grow up.” she heard him snicker.
“Here? Granna- for God’s sake.”
“It’s not a place to spend your whole life in.”
“Why is that?”
“Because” he said, sounding annoyed. “It’s- Pakistan.” Pain rose in her chest. It wasn’t an illness that caused it. Her eyes drifted to her son, seated silently.
“You don’t plan on coming back here?” she directed the next question at him.
“No, maa. I love this country, but I can’t live here anymore. There is nothing here for me.”
Tears streamed her eyes, as she closed the door of her room. After all these years, she felt defeated for the first time. After all these years, she felt the loss for the first time. Looking out at the sky, she could only hear one voice in her head, the warmth of it still alive as it said.
“My legacy will live.”