The Colour Of Flowers Is Black
The Colour Of Flowers Is Black11 mins 34.5K 11 mins 34.5K
It was a bright sunny afternoon. We were driving home after picking up our daughters from school. Rani Apa and I were in the front seats while our two teenaged daughters sat in the back, as our tiny little Suzuki car whizzed on the smooth, wide road lying next to the beautiful canal – the jewel of Lahore. Springtime was upon us. The canal, lined with red flame trees and bright green shrubbery, was a breathtaking sight and a feast for the eyes for whoever drove by. Beautiful tall trees laden with orange and red colored flowers danced in the wind and the green belts looked heavenly with lush thick foliage and lovely red rose bushes.
It wasn’t a coincidence that both Rani Apa and my daughters were in the same school. In fact, we had planned it this way so that both of us sisters would spend as much time with each other as possible, as we were more friends to each other than sisters.
The girls were busy chatting with each other on the back seat, clutching their Archie Comic books in their hands and talking incessantly about their day in school, while we preferred listening to old classical music tracks on the car tape player. We shook our heads at every taan and high note of the wonderful kaafi rendered by the musical wonder, late Asad Amanat Ali Khan, who as always was singing it to divine perfection. The verses of Khawaja Ghulam Fareed, the Sufi saint poet, were sinuously weaving their magic around us, cool and refreshing like the breeze after a monsoon shower.
“Umraan langian bhabhan paar haalay na wus way kaalia”. We started singing along with the seasoned crooner. “Phulaan de rang kaalay surkh gulaban de mausam vich”. The mystical poetry had enthralled both of us, and we were feeling almost giddy in the rapture of the words. Our young daughters, sitting in the backseat, raised on western and modern music and values just like all other children of their age, looked at us with eyes full of curiosity and bubbled over giggling. “What does it even mean? And why are you two acting so odd?” they chuckled. I tried to explain the verses to them. “Our great mystic poet Baba Fareed is saying: My whole life has been spent walking on toes. Oh black cloud, behold your rain as yet. In the season of red roses, the color of the flowers is black.”
“That’s really weird poetry. We can’t understand it”, piped up my daughter, looking puzzled. It was obvious that both young girls were not really able to grasp the concepts of our eastern philosophies and the traditions of mystic thought, so they kept on making silly remarks while we continued to enjoy the soulful music which was so close to our hearts, our realities and our existence.
“Do you remember the rose house?” out of the blue Rani Apa asked me, looking at me intently. “Rose house?” I murmured. Of course I remembered. How could I ever forget? Rani Apa’s voice sounded stifled and I too felt a chill go through my spine. How and why did she even think of that at this time? My body froze for a moment, and it felt like I was going to lose control of my vehicle.
Suddenly, I saw the traffic signal turn red and I pushed the brake gently to come to a halt. I turned to glance at my elder sister again who was lost in deep thought. I turned further and looked at the two schoolgirls sitting in the back seat, who were mine and my sisters’ daughters. Both were of the same age and almost similar in their likes, dislikes and disposition. However, they were oblivious of the fact that the world outside their sheltered lives was big, bad and even dangerous, especially for young naïve little girls like them.
The Rose house had been an unspoken, unmentioned taboo subject amongst us for almost 25 years, so why did she even bring it up now? I failed to understand. In a moment a flash from the past jolted through my mind, something that I had presumed to be forgotten in the eons of time. Maybe I had intentionally dumped it in some dark corner of my subconscious mind and let it stay buried under the layers of other forgotten memories. In such a long span of time a lot of childhood memories fade away or vanish in the smoke by themselves. I figured the same would have been true for me.
Rani Apa and I were eighth and tenth grade students at Lady Griffin Girls High School at the time. While Rani Apa was considered a brilliant student in school I was known as the mischievous, easy going and happy go lucky one. Both of us stayed together all the time, content to spend every moment of the day in each other’s company. In the morning we went to school by taking a bus from Krishan Nagar’s last stop to Shahu Garhi, and took the same route coming back. It was a long journey but amidst the pushing and shoving that went on in the bus and our relentless chatting with each other, time flew by quickly and we didn’t care about the long distance we covered every single day.
After reaching Shahu Garhi bus stop we would usually take a short cut through a narrow lane, which made us get to the school quicker. If we didn’t take that short cut we would have to walk through the old British era Burt dancing Institute Street, which was a very long way and a tiring walk for us. Rani Apa was always very eager to pass through the short cut, and the reason for this was her fascination with a unique looking little brick house that sat right in the middle of the lane. Though ordinary looking otherwise, this house stood apart from all the other houses in the street. This was because the house had a riot of colorful roses growing majestically all over its façade and the sides, making it look like a flower castle draped in dazzling color and splendor. Hundreds of clinging rose vines climbed the outer walls romantically, like a lover spreading her arms out in longing and anticipation. The sight of so many beautiful orange, pink, white and red roses was a feast for the eyes, and it cheered us up and filled our mornings with happiness and delight. “I am sure this is what heaven would look like”, Rani Apa would remark mesmerized, and I would nod my head in agreement every time, as we continued to walk to the school as fast as we could.
Rani Apa was an ardent flower lover. Every day, when we reached the lane, she would slow down her pace when we neared the wonderful Rose house, greedily set her eyes at the roses, look around, hastily pinch one or two beautiful fragrant flowers and sneak them into her rusty old metallic geometry box for safekeeping. All day long, she would open the box and take a whiff of the roses every fifteen minutes or so and close her eyes in profound ecstasy as if she was in possession of the world famous Kohinoor diamond.
Often we would run into some other schoolgirls also going to the same school. We would all then walk in a noisy group, like a flock of wild birds. It rarely happened but sometimes the lane would be totally deserted and so at times like these Rani Apa and I would quicken our pace and race each other to get to the end.
One quiet and cold morning, we caught an early bus and reached the lane when no other girl was there except us, but soon enough we spotted Zahra, a schoolmate, walking ahead of us in the lane. We ran and caught up with her and the three of us started walking and discussing the very important upcoming final examination. We were completely lost in our conversation when without warning Zahra let out a piercing scream. Her books and stationary fell on the ground and the white cotton dupatta on her head got caught on a nearby rosebush and slid off. ‘Had she seen a ghost?’ was the first thought to cross my mind.
From out of nowhere a man riding a bicycle had snuck up on Zahra from behind and passing by had suddenly grabbed one of her breasts like a hungry animal pawing to catch a piece of meat. Traumatized by the incident, Zahra shook with terrified sobs. We tried to console and comfort her but to no avail. She was hardly able to walk on her own but we helped her get up and collected her scattered belongings. Rani Apa’s face had turned white and she looked terrified. I was burning with a fury I had not experienced before. I wanted to kill that man, scum of the earth, and feed his disgusting body to hungry vultures, but I could do nothing. I was as helpless as the other two. I hurled curses at the man, but he rode his bike as fast as he could and fled. That day Rani Apa didn’t steal a beautiful rose to store in her rusty old metallic geometry box.
For the next few days the whole school kept buzzing with the gory details of the horrible incident and then gradually the sensationalism died down. Everyone got busy with the preparation of the exams and pretended to put the story behind them.
On the last day there was a very important English exam and Rani Apa was feeling very confident and relaxed as she had always done very well in the subject. She was the teachers’ favorite and they would sometimes even let her check the papers of junior students. As we rushed for school that day we missed our regular bus and had to get on another one that came a little later. As soon as we got off that bus we started running to the school, as the examination hall was closing in a few minutes. The shortcut lane was completely deserted and none of the other schoolgirls could be sighted. They had all probably gone ahead. Holding the writing board tight to her chest Rani Apa turned by habit to quickly admire the flowers of the Rose house. I took a peek at my sister who looked so innocent and happy, her gaze fixed on the fragrant flowers. I was younger than her in age, but often it felt as if I was much older and wiser and she was young and naïve, unaware of the world around her.
“Oh My God”, Rani Apa suddenly whimpered and sensing the terror in her voice I quickly prepared myself of lurking danger. I soon spotted a bicycle coming from the opposite direction in the lane and recognized the face of the same man who had attacked Zahra. Trying to appear casual and confident so that he would not realize how scared we actually were, we kept on walking ahead. We did not want to look at his repulsive face but the monster suddenly rang his bicycle bell and managed to catch our attention. We looked at him and he shocked us yet once again. Our eyes met and what we saw shook us and destroyed our innocence at that very moment. The depraved man had placed his prized possession on the seat of the bicycle, flashing and flaunting it to us. Apa screamed in terror and I picked up a brick from the floor and attempted to throw it at him. He sped by on his bicycle unaffected, whistling a filmy tune casually and happy to give us the proof of his masculinity, pride and power. Moments after he was gone we felt like we had woken up from a nightmare and had been brutally thrown back into the real world that was no different. We felt violated and stripped off of our childhood.
We reached the examination room feeling shell shocked and completely drained. Shaking and trembling, Rani Apa kept bursting into fits of uncontrollable tears. Our teachers got concerned and kept asking us what went wrong and amid sobs I told them what had happened. Rani Apa kept quiet and didn’t utter a single word. She looked lost and scared.
Suddenly the traffic light blinked and turned red. I didn’t realize that I had missed the green light lost in my cheerless thoughts. I turned and peeked at our daughters in the back seat once again. They looked so youthful, vibrant, optimistic and carefree. “Apa what about the Rose house?” I whispered in my sister’s ear. She gestured that I should look on the right side of my car. I turned my head and saw a big broad van standing next to our car at the traffic light also.
There were ten or fifteen young men sitting in it staring outside the van’s greasy windows. Their faces and bodies were covered entirely in thick, dark colored warm chaadars, and the only thing that was exposed was their deep dark eyes and the hungry expression in them. For a moment, the look in their eyes reminded me of a pair of dark hungry, evil eyes I had seen a long time ago. The numerous piercing eyes were set on our innocent baby dolls, like wolves eyeing their prey. The girls sat completely unaware of what was going on around them and in the minds of their mothers, who just moments ago were singing along to the Sufi music, enjoying the lovely view of the canal and having a good time. “Hey! Look at these men. Doesn’t it look like they are coming straight from the mountains after flogging that seventeen-year-old girl? Remember, the one we saw on TV?” said one, looking back at the men. The other one followed her gaze and nodded.
Most of the windows in the van were open and ugly little black mouths of the men’s trusted Kalashnikovs were peeking from within, as if they were proudly proclaiming ‘We are invincible and insurmountable’.
“Shameless naked men,” Rani Apa’s firm and authoritative voice spat out in disgust at the men. She turned around and quickly covered the eyes of our young daughters with both her hands. She wasn’t afraid after all.