” Good afternoon, can I see your boarding pass, please?” a pretty air hostess greeted me as I boarded the plane. She looked at my card and then guided me to my window seat.

Few minutes later the plane was airborne. It has been an hour since. I feel excited, nervous and may be happy too. 19 years is a very long time. For whole of this period I have not been to the land that I once guarded. It was exactly 19 years, 3 months and 4 days. My memory works better when it comes to emotions. It was August 18, 1989 when I sailed off from Karachi for nowhere. Well I did not plan it that way. Our plan was to go to Greece and live there forever. You must be wondering what do I mean by ‘our’. I was not alone at the time we planned, Zarina was with me.

I vividly remember all the details; everything since I met her. I was working in coast guards of Pakistan, defending our waters. After 10 years of service I wanted to settle down in Karachi and live normal life, do something else, get married, have children and spend life with a family that I never had. Finally I was out. I began looking for jobs. It was a hot day in October ’88 when I entered a building in Saddar Karachi. I looked for the company’s name and went to that office. A pale thin girl, with a complexion that could hardy be called wheatish, in light green flowery dress was sitting at the desk, typing something.
” yes?”
” I want to see Mr. Aslam”
” why?”
” I have an interview”
” Your name?”
” Amin”
” ok wait, I will tell him”
as she picked up the phone.
She was not rude but was not pleasant either. That was my first meeting with Zarina.

Luckily I got the job in sales, selling dreams of employment to the unemployed. Yes, it was an employment agency started by a retired army Captain five years ago and now had only two employees, Zarina being the other one.

Later in few months, Zarina and I grew more friendly with each other as we did not have any other option. She found a good friend to talk to and I found in her a very good listener to share my experiences and stories with. She had large black eyes that were filled with sadness. I so much wanted to see hope and dreams in those eyes but she always had same sadness. With time I could see the reasons.

I came to know she was middle one of six children. An elder brother and an elder sister and then two younger brothers and a sister, the youngest child. She lost her mother 6 years ago when she was 14. He father was one of those men who think that their duty is to abuse their wife and terrify their children specially the girl child. After her mother it was Zarina’s duty to take care of house as her elder sister was married and was living miles away in Rawalpindi, a city she had never seen. Her elder brother had gone to work in the Gulf states , never to come back though sometimes he would send some money to father. She had to do job to earn for her younger ones. On first day of every month her father would take away all money from her and would give only that which is good for daily bus fare. She had only me as a friend who she could talk to and share these things. Like any other girl, she had dreams; dreams of getting married to a nice man who would take care of her, who would respect her. I realized she liked me because I respected her and would do something here and there to lighten up her mood. In coming months we both grew fond of each other, more than just friends. She was tired of her life, abused by her father who would shout at her when she gets back from office. At her age it was too heavy a burden. Sometimes I would wonder how such a slim girl of 5′ 1″ , who hardly had good nutrition in her life, could handle all these things.

Finally one day I asked her if she would marry me. Her eyes sparkled, her cheeks blushed and then the same sadness took over.
” You don’t know my father. He would kill me and you both if he finds out. He would kill me the day he comes to know” she sounded like a girl who needed protection but can not shout for help.
” I can talk to him and I can fight if it comes to that”
” No, he has relations with all the criminals and police. You won’t be able  to do anything”
” If you are afraid then lets go to another city and get married there”

” No, he can reach everywhere in Pakistan”
” OK so we can go out of Pakistan, then he won’t be able to reach us.”
” what!?”
“yes, I am, anyway, tired of this job. I will find a job on merchant ship and we will go to some other country and can settle there”
” where?”
suddenly I saw hope in her eyes
” Some where in Europe. Let me talk to companies for job first”
” I hope it works out that way”
” Don’t worry , I will try. Hopefully it will work”

Two weeks later I got an offer on the ship. I told her. I also applied for her passport and then talked to my friends to arrange visa for her.
” Next week we are going to Greece” I told her showing her the passport.
” What?!, How!?”
” yes, and as my ship is heading to Greece, we will go together. I have made arrangements”
“Amin, I never thought it could happen in my life. You have changed my life like a fairy tale” her eyes beaming with tears as she tried to say thanks but could not, but I understood. No one understood her better.
I put my hand on hers, reassuring that everything would be alright.

Our departure date was August 18. Our plan was that she would come out of house at normal time but instead of office she would meet me at the port at noon. By 3 in the afternoon we would be in the sea, leaving Karachi for good.
It was a restless night. I kept thinking about her. I wanted to give her happiness she deserved. She looked like a bird with terror on her face but determination in the eyes.
In the morning I got ready , took everything from my room and headed to the port.

Around noon time I started looking at the gate, she could arrive there any minute. I looked at the watch, it was moving. It struck 1, then 2 and then ….
” Brother, are you Amin?” a child tapped at my back
” Yes, who are you?”
” This is for you” he gave me an envelope. It was Zarina’s handwriting on the top from Zarina”.
” who gave you this?” I asked him
” There was a girl outside, she told me to give it to you after 15 minutes.” he showed me a 10 rupee note that made him do that.
I ran outside but obviously she had gone by then.
I opened the letter

” Dear Amin,

You must be thinking why this letter instead of me. First thing is that I don’t have the courage to face you and second I don’t want to make a scene at the port. I just want you to go to Greece as planned but alone. Yes, Amin, I can not come with you. No , no one has found out about it but I thought about it whole of the night.
I have lived years in these horrible conditions where daily I hoped that one day some angel would appear and take me away from here. I daily went to office with a hope that when I return my father would be a different man, that my brother would save enough money to come back one day and protect us, that someday I would win the lottery and everything would be changed. I wanted to believe that Cindrella wasn’t just a tale. I so much wished to be saved from the jinn in this castle. I did not know it really happens in ordinary people’s life. Then you appeared from no where to save me. You have always made me feel so good, you have always given me the respect and honor that I always prayed for.You are willing to put your life on stake for my sake. I know I am not even average in looks nor can I bring money or jewelery while running away with you but you still want me with you and that is something any girl could wish for. But Amin, I can not have all this. If I run away, three young children will be left behind without mother and father. I am their mother , father and sister to them. I am the only one they look to when they have any problem , when they are in pain, when they need anything and when they want to be protected. I have lived my last seven years with that feeling even when I was much older than them. I may have gotten used to all the abuse but I don’t want them to experience the same. I don’t know it is sacrifice or sense of duty or anything else but I just can not leave them alone in this world. No mother would. Amin, no one knows me better than you do and I hope you would understand even if you won’t agree. I have only one request, please go to Greece as planned. If you will live here I may become weak. I want to be strong Amin , a strong woman that you have made me. I just so wish that I could spend the life with you. You are a rare specie that I have known. Any woman will be happy to have you as a partner and I wished it too but for now I want a friend to fufill his friends wish.

I won’t ask you to forgive me…but I hope someday you will understand me.

Take care

Zarina

I didn’t know what to do and then I realized I am her friend too. It might be better for her. I stepped towards the dock.

Greece could not become my destination. I traveled around the world but always avoided Pakistan. Finally 3 years ago I settled down in Brussels. No woman could come to my life. Not because I had lost trust or I could not love them but because I did not want to. Like fairy tale I still believed she would be waiting for me. Sometimes I would laugh at my thoughts. After 17-18 years even the craziest of lovers forget each other and we were not even that kind of lovers. Our love originated in our basic needs of sharing , caring and respect.

Last April when everything in Pakistan seemed to change, it somehow brought back the memories of Karachi. All these years I always kept Zarina’s address with me though I never tried to contact her. I finally sat down and wrote a simple letter to her about how she is doing and how I miss Pakistan while running here and there alone. I wanted to convey to her that I am still alone but did not want it to be too highlighted. At the end I wrote ‘ your ex colleague’ as I did not want to create problems for her if she were married, which I hoped she was. I was not even sure if the letter would reach her but there is always a hope. In late September, I got a letter from Pakistan.

” Dear Amin,

I can not explain how happy I am to get your letter. For few minutes I could not believe my eyes and ears. I have moved from that address but one of my neighbour brought your letter to me. I want to tell you so many things that I have kept all these years. I could never get any friend like you. I don’t know where to start but Alhamdolillah I am in much much better conditions than when you left. I could never imagined it before you came into my life. I am Headmistress in a private school now. All my siblings are happily married. Javed , my eldest brother has come back and settled in Karachi doing his own business. The second one is now an engineer working in a power plant near Multan. The other younger is a software developer and is living in Dubai. The youngest sister got married 2 years ago and is living at Clifton here in Karachi. We lost our father 5 years ago.
I think I have told everything in few lines. And yes, the school I run is partially owned by me. So thats about me. And why do you say you are alone? you didn’t get married? may be thats why we are friends, we have many things in common.

Do write back…and send your picture. I want to see how do you look now in 40s. You must have aged gracefully I think. I am sending you mine.

Zarina”

I looked at the picture. She had not changed that much. Just addition of glasses and some signs of better health but I could still see the 20 year old Zarina in it.

In the following weeks, I planned my work to take few months off and finally I am here, heading to Karachi.
Now it is 19 years, 3 months and 5 days. It is 6 am on Sunday morning, a weekend. Captain has just announced we are going to land at Quaid e Azam International soon. I can now smell the dust of my land and I can hear the call of love. I have always admired and valued this ordinary woman named Zarina, and I think I always will. I have heard Cab system is very good now a days and I have her new address in my wallet. I have to shut down my laptop now but a famous saying echoes in my mind

” Waqt sey pehlay aur Qismet sey zyada kisi ko kuch nahin milta “
( No one gets anything before the time and more than the fate )

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