I always believed that Sultana could have had whatever she wanted in life. Slightly built and infectiously gay, she was confident that there were great things in store for her. The youngest of a large family, nothing but the very best was ever good enough for Sultana.
The most popular girl at University, an oasis of freedom in conservative Peshawar, Sultana was blithely unaware that her behaviour raised some eyebrows. She equally friendly with the boys as with the girls, they were all her friends --- just friends.
Sultana's parents were worried because she refused every marriage proposal. Rejecting the idea of an arranged marriage, she said she wanted to marry for love. Before long, she had a major crush on the new professor. Believing he returned her passion, she was happy. Everything was going her way.
Then came Raheel's proposal. Raheel was a psychiatrist, and Sultana's family were sure she would not refuse. She did.
Her family would not allow her to throw away such a good match, and used every tactic to make her change her mind. Alternately browbeaten and cajoled, a bewildered Sultana finally succumbed. They were only doing it for her own good, she was told.
Hoping to get to know Raheel, she asked a friend to arrange a secret meeting at her house. After the engagement they continued to meet secretly; and she did get to know him better.
"Please Amma I cannot marry Raheel!" Sultana begged her mother.
"You must break off the engagement".
"Have you taken leave of your senses? Can you imagine what a scandal that would cause?"
"Amma why should a broken engagement cause a scandal? You can just tell everyone that we found we were not compatible!"
"Sultana! Stop behaving like a spoilt child. Not compatible! Everyone will think there was something wrong with you! You will never get another proposal!"
"So what Amma! Isn't it better never to marry than to be stuck for the rest of your life with someone you cannot love?"
"Love shmuve, Hunh! That is your University education speaking. We never expected to love our husbands in our day. We simply gained his favour by serving him and being obedient wives, and everything would turned out well."
"But Amma, times have changed! I want companionship and love in my marriage..."
This was too much for her mother who had become quite agitated by now.
"You listen to me, Miss, and listen well. You will have to marry Raheel, it is too late to change your mind now. Unless you want to heap shame and sorrow on our heads, you will have to marry Raheel. I know your father would not be able to survive the scandal of a broken engagement."
The tears glistening in her mother's eyes did more than any argument to make Sultana give in. The wedding drew near and there was no way out. Keeping her doubts and fears to herself, Sultana tried to look forward to it and played her part. Everyone was happy.
I visited her sometime after the wedding. Sultana's touch had made the dreary flat look warm and welcoming. I had known some of her fears and asked if she were happy.
"Oh, don't be such a worry wart! Everything is fine; I couldn't be happier," she said, a bit too brightly. Then she added with a shy smile,
"Raheel doesn't know yet, but I think I am pregnant."
"That's wonderful," I said, not too sure that it was, "But don't you think it's too soon? You've only been married two months!"
"I guess it's better to start a family right away. I'm sure a baby will bring us closer together. You know how much I love children."
If it was alright with her, who was I to argue! Later, while we were reminiscing about our University days, Sultana said,
"Do you know that Abida works at the hospital with Raheel?"
"That man-eater? You better keep your husband away from her!"
Although Abida had always been known for her lack of scruples, Sultana laughed off my warning and went to great pains to set my misgivings at rest. I was glad to see her happier and more relaxed than she had been before the wedding. I was going to be away for three months and now I could enjoy my holiday without worrying about Sultana.
We corresponded regularly and in the beginning Sultana's letters were full of her baby. Then they became short and stilted. The day before I returned, I received a long letter from her. She wrote that Abida had told her husband about the professor, insinuating that it had been a full-fledged affair. Tortured by his doubts, he tormented her.
Their own secret meetings had taken on sinister connotations, she was loose, he said. Believing the story about the affair with Professor Jamil, Raheel had begun to doubt the legitimacy of her baby.
Raheel accused her of infidelity at every turn. She was not allowed to go out of the house alone. The sight of her growing belly drove him mad, and he was insisting she abort it. Sultana said she did not know how much longer she could take this mental torture.
On my return I wanted to call Sultana right away. Then, deciding to sleep off the jet lag first, I went to bed early that night. Ignoring the phone when it first rang, I put a pillow over my head; but it continued to ring. Finally, thinking it might be Sultana, I answered the phone.
It was Bushra, she said Sultana had been murdered that night, strangled with an electric cord. Her funeral was at four o'clock in the evening.
Nobody knew who had done it.
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