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Historical Fiction Inspirational Romance

The goddess of the night was asleep, taking in her lap the high mountains, exanimate stones, and scattered pebbles. The distant mountain peaks looked dim. The absolute calmness of the goddess had taken over the prowess of the entire universe. There was such awe hidden in the sapphire dust of darkness that everything seemed frightened. The tides of the Herat were trying to hit the rocks to interrupt the absolute calmness.

The moon, dressed in a silver costume, emerged from the horizon to circumambulate Mother Earth. The goddess started wrapping her black hair. The faint moonlight showered a smile, and the haze appeared in the valleys of the river. The moonlight hit the tides and scattered silver on the surface of the water. The tides became more powerful with each passing minute. Once the moon came up, the slumbering world also became active. It was as if the sleeping time was over and the universe was ready to wake up. The morning twilight was about to appear in a few minutes. The moon moved halfway across the sky and hung in the air.

A large bungalow in the backyard of the school was plunged into the abyss of gloom. There were no signs of life from any room, any window, or any embrasure. An eerie silence had descended over the house, which was adding sadness to the gloom of the environment. Disturbing the tranquillity, the main door of the bungalow opened, and an old woman came out and started walking slowly while she seemed half asleep. Dressed in white with gray hair, she looked like a celestial being. In the shining moonlight, her beautiful face was visible. Intoxicated by the mysticism of the silent night, with closed eyes and a slightly bent neck, she was walking on the winding paths with dignity and grace towards the river, taking small, gentle steps. The universe forgot to move. The only movement seen was that of a lonely, confused shadow that was quivering behind her.

She faced no hurdle on her way except loneliness, desolation, trembling silence, and the chilly morning breeze. While crossing the monticules, the beautiful woman reached the riverbank and sat on a cleansed rock. At this hour of the fading night, in such a dangerous place where the slightest mistake could have plunged a human into the river to be swept away by the icy waves, her unaccompanied presence was not a surprise. For years, on the moonlit nights of the latter half of the lunar months, this has been her lagger. This is where she used to offer midnight prayers. At dawn, when twilight could be seen across the hills, she would still be prostrating. She would return at daybreak when the rays of the rising sun had colored the river blood-red.

Thirty-seven years have passed since, after graduating from the university, she laid the foundation of this famous Mullah Khel High School for Girls. She had named the school after the family's rival tribe. When Russian troops invaded Afghanistan, both tribes put up strong resistance. Most of the martyrs were from that tribe. They abducted many young people as well. When peace was restored, she started this work. People appreciated her pneuma and the long-standing enmity between the two tribes ended. Her hair turned gray in the service of this school. Most of the school staff were widows of the martyrs. Earlier, it was easy to find highly educated women, but times are different now. Even with the lack of educated women in the country, her school had a well-experienced staff, and she would never let her old teachers leave.

When she came to school today, she received an upsetting letter from the extremists. This was not her first time receiving threats, but she was not ready to shut down her school. They were also wary of her influence in the area.

To discuss the matter, she called her deputy, Palwasha, to her house in the evening.

Both women were keenly discussing the recent developments after the withdrawal of American forces and the collapse of Ashraf Ghani's government.

“We can accept that we should teach the Arabic language as a compulsory subject, but the ban on Persian poetry is not acceptable.” She spoke.

“The centuries-old Arab-Persian conflict will now intoxicate our schools. These Arabs from Iraq and the Levant have encouraged extremism in our country; and have brought suicide attacks, desecration of corpses, beheading, and mutilation to our country. Afghans have a tradition of embracing the enemy. The slight decency that remains in our society is the effect of Persian poetry and literature.”

Young Palwasha, the widow of a martyr, was listening intently.

“Madam, the biggest objection is to love poetry and it's also difficult for young widows like us to interpret such verses.”

“What's the problem with it?” the principal asked.

Palwasha thought for a while, “I often try to explain it as divine love, the genuine love, and present you an example, but some love verses only describe the relations of a man and a woman. It's hard for us to explain this relationship to teenage girls.”

She stopped, and while looking down, she divulged, “It's one of the reasons that they have forbidden women's education.”

“Love lessons are taught at this age. It describes the difference between right and wrong.

This relationship is a reality.

It's genuine love, a truth without which one cannot live. Divine love stands on the foundations of this love.”

After a little pause, she continued, “Divinity takes birth in the imagination. Desire is the seed of thought and love.

The idea traces the contours. Humans make figures according to their desires and needs. This non-existent image is ever-attractive. Then man becomes a slave to his thoughts. This artisan invents an idea; his carving makes it an exquisite god in his imagination, and the artisan becomes subservient to his art, and the creator worships his creation.”

Her answer astounded Palwasha. She stared at her with stunned disbelief. When the old woman became silent, she said, “You are right, but some verses only talk about romance—the impure love, the dirty sexual love. That's the problem.”

“Impure and dirty? What are you talking about? What you call unclean and filthy is a reality, and reality is never mucky and filthy. The relationship that you are mentioning generates life. The survival of humankind lies in womanhood, menstruation, gunk, and intercourse.”

Palwasha said, “But you have never been involved in such a relationship. You love only this school. It's a part of your life and your only goal. You also worship one God. It's divine love.”

“School is my love. Belief in one God is my religion. Belief in only one God is also a lesson in not sharing in love. Today, you forced me to unveil a secret that is dearer to me than my life.

Yes! I fell in love with a man, too.”

She was silent for a while, probably wondering where to start. Her face lit up with sad joy. Her eyes were full of grief, tears streaming down her cheeks, but the smile on her face had wiped away the fear of those holy warriors.

The proud head, covered with white hair, was as high as the mountains—the snowy mountains on which clouds always hover.

Then she spoke slowly, “Ghazin Mullah Khel, the son of the chief of my rival tribe, was with me at Kabul University. He, the common dream of womenfolk, was a gem of masculine beauty, well-built, bearing a radiant face with drunken eyes, broad shoulders, a slender neck, and a bulging chest. I don't know when our enmity turned into love.

The situation in the country deteriorated after the Russian invasion in December 1979, and we returned to our village. I never met him for a long time. Our only contact was through some letters we posted to each other, which we did with extreme fear and wariness.

It was the night of the latter half of the lunar month, Laylatul Qadr, the Night of Revelation for us. My family members used to say that you were often seen walking in your slumber. They may be, right? It was late that night. I don't know when the moon, which was dispelling the darkness, rose and perched in the cluster of stars. The whole valley was covered with moonlight. When I opened my eyes, he was standing in front of me.

An electric current ran through my backbone. The blood flowing inside my vessels started jumping. I rushed to Ghazin, hugged him, and began to cry. I have never thought of that. When I regained consciousness, I separated myself from him. He grabbed my arm and walked up the riverbank, far, far away, where its outlet was narrow. The tides were making noise. He was moving forward with no fear. Then we reached a flat rock. The waves of the river were beating their heads with it, splashes of water washing it away. How long did we sit leaning against that rock? I don't know.

He whispered in my ear, “Promise; together we will end enmity in this valley.”

Pointing to the sky, he continued, “You will be the shining star of early morning that will enlighten the entire valley. Together we will eradicate darkness and remove the cloak of oppression and ignorance.”

I swore and clung to him. What he was saying was also my ambition. He kissed my hand. My body was no longer under my control; a mesmerizing wave intoxicated my whole body, and a sweet excitement shook me up. Then the same rock became the bed of luxury for us.”

She stopped talking. There was pin-drop silence in the room. All was astonishing for Palwasha. She shook her head in disbelief. The red streaks on the white cheeks of the aging principal became clearer with her satisfaction and confidence.

“Madam! What are you saying? You succumbed to him; you handed yourself over to a stranger, the son of an enemy.”

“He was not an enemy; he was my sweetheart, my darling, my love. Suppose you had been there just like me,

on this riverbank, 

on a moonlit night, 

in the arms of your darling, 

what would you have done?”

Yes! I did the same.”

Palwasha was stunned and speechless. Her bluntness astounded her.

“Then you got married?” Palwasha asked.

“No.”

“Why? Was he deceiving you?

That's what men do.” Palwasha's tone became bitter.

“I will tell you; let me muster some courage.” 

She sank into her chair and sighed, “We were lying side by side. The sky was glowing, and the early morning had lit the mountains.

Suddenly, we heard a noise from the village. Russian troops had attacked. We saw that my family was coming to search for me. They knew I would have been there.

I was scared.

‘What will happen now? If they see you, things will get worse. Our dream will shatter.’

‘I’ll not let it happen. I am just going; soon I will come to marry you.’

I looked around. There was only one way to escape, and people were coming from there.

He looked towards the river and said, “I will cross it; even if I can't, I'll sacrifice myself for your reputation.”

Saying this, he jumped into the river. I knew, and he also knew, that he could not cross the river.

You are right; he has deceived me into leaving me alone forever with a massive responsibility.

Till now, when the day begins, the clear water of the river turns red with the color of his blood.

In the moonlit nights of the latter half of the lunar month, I go there to see that blood-red river.”

She paused a little, then again started telling the story.

“That night, Russians martyred many of us and kidnapped some youths, and people believe he was among them.

Yes! I fell in love, too. I loved a righteous man—a brave man. His love makes me strong. Encourages me to confront the powerful. I will not close the school for fear of these fanatics.

Answer this letter and tell them that I won't stop teaching the poetry of Sheikh Saadi and Hafiz Shirazi. This school will continue to educate the girls, and will also teach them love lessons.”

وہ کہ گر من بازبینم روئے یار خویش را

تا قیامت شکر گویم کردگار خویش را

If only I could see the face of my beloved again, I would give thanks to my Lord until the Day of Resurrection.

Sheikh Saadi


November 12, 2023 18:29

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