It was the time when women were free. A horrendous rule to mandatorily cover yourself from head to toe was nowhere to be found. Men and women could breathe the same air, and look at the same landscape with equal clarity. There were no boundaries, but only freedom, as there was pure love. In this village lived an adolescent girl named Parveena. Parveena loved to read. Anytime she could find an escape from the school and minor household works, she would grab her favourite book, lie down beneath a tree, and would read for hours and hours. From her small village, she had travelled time through her books. Everyone amongst her friends knew her passion towards reading.
All was going well, until one day some radical men started preaching the innocent people. Initially the congress of men and women of the village rejected their conservative ideas. The thought of men and women being unequal in the eyes of nature was ridiculous to the most educated, as well as to the illiterate farmer tilling his field with bulls. The radicals knew they needed to change the approach of preaching in order to cast their influence on the villagers. The bond and genuine love amongst men, women needed to be broken. So they started campaigning only for men. The men were asked to join the meetings in the name of regular discussions and to know the village better. In these meetings, the men of the village were fed, praised, complemented about their urge to work hard, and with subtlety filled with the pride that the women are having it much easier. It was because of the men’s work, labor and command that the village was prospering. And anything that is more influential, must be given an upper hand in terms of power and priorities too. The villagers were deeply impressed on being talked highly by some foreigners even if they were radical. Praise, be it from friend or foe, has always kicked the happy hormones in humans. These meetings were now held periodically, and the men of the village were brainwashed gradually in each of these events. They had no realization of the time they transformed from being men with love, humility and respect for every being to men with pride and sense of superiority above women especially.
The women had started realizing this change in their husbands, brothers, sons and friends too. The continuous women bashing and arrogance in the language of men was not hidden from any soul. There were regular quarrels, clash of thoughts in every household now. The women would congregate too in their backyard while the men were busy being radicalized in the “meetings”. While many had bits of quarrels that happened in their household to share amongst their friends, some had wounds too. They knew things are changing. An evil eye had finally set its gaze on their village.
Parveena would find these meetings and their conclusions of either of the sexes very depressing and banal. So she immersed herself even further in her novels and stories. It was in the dilapidated library that she felt like being at home, felt connected, and was at peace. Crime and thriller was her favorite genre with Sherlock being her favorite character. There were times she would look for every missing pen, pencil, spoon from the eye of a detective, and would laugh at herself. Little did she know that it was these stories that would eventually save her from a ghastly man.
It was after a year or two’s radicalization, that the men of the village had lost their sense of wisdom almost completely. While they had never been under attack by anyone but occasionally by the wrath of nature, they were now always on guard to protect their village. They believed that someone is coming to grab their village, take power over them, and snatch their women. Women were now commodities like land, tree or a cot, in the men’s eyes, that could be snatched, thrashed, beaten and bullied by anyone, especially the foreigners. The radical preachers sold them guns in return of the villager’s land and property. The villagers did not realize that with everything sold and no grain to eat at home, what were they infact protecting? But like a wildfire burns everything on its way, the brainwashing was all set in action. It would now stop only after there was only ash left and nothing more to burn.
Parveena too felt the gush of hot air of anger and resentment on her face. Her father, Mura, prevented her from going out. He would tell her it is not safe outside. More so because they belonged to a much lower caste than the radical preachers too. Apart from the fact that it was improper for women to read, some people were mentioning that it was also forbidden for women even to share the shadow of any men outside the house. Parveena would roll over her eyes on hearing such ridiculous arguments. But nothing could hold her free spirit. So she would run out to breathe and read her books, when her father was nowhere to be seen.
It was on one such careful yet careless outing did a big turban clad foreign man set her eyes upon Parveena. He and his fellows had been preaching the villagers of women being worthless and inferior, but could not help but feel a tingling sensation inside his body on the sight of this young spirited woman. It feels good to watch a tiger in the zoo, but the rush of adrenaline is felt only when you see one out in the jungle, free and yet not tamed. This man’s name was Mehboob. He was determined to have this young tigress in his den.
For days, Mehboob had his watch over Parveena. It was not difficult to realize the love of Parveena towards books, something which Mehboob could not and never understand. He tracked Parveena and figured who her father was. It had been two weeks of stalking and Mehboob could control himself no longer. He devised a plan and found out that Parveena’s father had little to no money in his house. Mehboob did not know how to read, but he knew with money you can do things that these mystic drawings on books can’t. Money was real for him, while words were mere poorly drawn figures. So he sent his commanders to Parveena’s house and called for her father. The poor man was shocked, terrified, and happy all in one moment. He out of all amongst his neighbors was being called individually to one of the leader’s house. This was unimaginable and full of possibilities.
On reaching Mehboob’s house, Mura opened his shoes immediately so that the dust on his shoes would not tarnish the expensive carpet of Mehboob’s palace like house. With wide eyes, Mura looked around this house. There were antelope’s horns hung as showpiece on the walls. The table and chair were of the finest wood he had ever seen. The house had two floors too! All in the name of preaching. Mura’s faith in the words of preachers became even more stronger. Mehboob meanwhile loved the admiration sparkling from this poor villager’s eyes. He let Mura absorb all that he could. Once Mehboob’s pride was satisfied, he asked Mura to sit on the chair next to him. Mura obediently agreed.
Mehboob knew what he had to deliver. So he started with telling him stories of how daughters were being stolen in nearby villages by powerful men. He told Mura of how disturbed his soul was on hearing these news every day. Although Mura had no knowledge of these instances, he quickly believed each word of Mehboob as he was a more learned man in the eyes of Mura. Mehboob accepted the affirmation and continued with how important it is to marry one’s daughter to a man of values as well as power. Mura could not agree more and immediately felt a cloud of sadness over his self. He remembered Parveena. It would be unbearable for him to watch his daughter being snatched by force. Mehboob knew the iron was hot and it would only take a blow to bend it as per his wish. So he asked Mura of when does he think of getting his daughter married and to whom. With unblinking eyes, Mura stared at the ground below. He felt ashamed as he had not given a thought to this very important issue so far. He had thought seventeen was too young, but in that moment he realized how wrong he had been. To Mura’s rescue, Mehboob offered him a supporting pat on the back and said, “you look unhappy my friend. It seems you have no idea to my questions. But what good is a friend for if he can’t help the other in time of need. So I offer my protection as abode to your daughter”. Mura could not understand what Mehboob meant. Thus Mehboob this time clearly said, “I would like to marry your daughter and keep her under my protection forever”. Mura felt the ground beneath his feet shaking, and the air around him to be inundated with fragrance of the most exquisite flowers. Mehboob knew he had won, yet displayed emotions of only oblivious kindness on his face. The two men then set a date for the holy marriage that got scheduled to five days from this day.
As the elated Mura reached his home, he saw Parveena reading yet another book. He snatched the book from her hand and excitedly held both her hands and circled. Parveena knew nothing but loved his father’s long lost energy after two years. After much of dancing and laughter, Mura eventually told Parveena everything that happened at Mehboob’s residence. The world came crumbling down with sadness, anger and curiosity for Parveena. She could not believe her father was getting her married to a man who was double her age, one who had guards around him wearing black goggles even in shade, and whose men and fellows had brought only misery in their beautiful land. Parveena howled. For the first time in her life she howled at her father. She could not believe her father failed to see the shrewdness of Mehboob which his young daughter could see crystal clear.
That entire evening followed by the next day too, Parveena and her father had had multiple arguments. She demanded, then requested, and eventually begged her father to take his words back. But all her cries fell on deaf ears. Mura was determined. Marrying his daughter to the most influential man would bring not only protection to Parveena, but also repute and power to Mura too amongst his peers. Young woman do not understand the complexities of world he murmured to himself.
Parveena knew the end is near. She shuddered at the thought of sharing a room with Mehboob, let alone complete life. She had never dreamt her world would crumble to this level. The fully clad wife of Mehboob’s younger brother’s wife, marketing along with her husband, gave Parveena shivers. She could not bare to have the same fate. She had to take charge of her circumstances before it got too late. So far in her life, books and stories had been an escape to all her troubles. And she knew only these books can save her.
She rushed to her bookshelf and from the worn and torn shelf, took out the series she loved most, Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. There were many books by the author but Parveena carefully picked Sherlock Holmes and The Sword of Osman, as this was the book that would rescue her. The book discussed how a chief armorer is found dead following abdominal pain, dizziness and sweating. On reaching the scene of the crime, Sherlock is able to immediately deduce that the man has died after being given Monkshood – a purple plant also known as the “Queen of all poisons”.
Parveena had seen those flowers growing in patches along the stretch of mountain slopes on a school field visit. The mountain was not far, but she had to travel to the nearby city for it. Parveena was determined to get herself the purple plant and went to Mura. She knew that this would be her life long secret, and thus asked Mura for money to buy some clothes for her wedding. Mura with a gleeful smile felt victorious and satisfied. Her daughter was also eager to get married now and wanted to present herself in her best form. He gave Parveena the money which was much more than he would normally spend.
With the money in hand, Parveena set for the mountain. She took the bus, and some rickshaw and eventually reached her destination. She knew that even the touch of Monkshood could be fatal to herself, so she drew out her gloves and set on foot uphill along the mountain slopes. It had been only an hour of her walk, that Parveena noticed a stretch of purple flowers. Never had she imagined that a bed of poisonous flowers would be a source of a free life to her. Parveena carefully picked three stems of Monkshood, and hid them in her purse. On her way back she borrowed a bright colorful skirt from her friend and set for home.
On reaching her home, Parveena showed the skirt to her father and told him it was the most expensive one amongst all in the shop, she had purchased from. Mura though felt stupid that the girl spent the entire money on one skirt, but compromised thinking of the bright future the skirt is going to bring to the family.
Finally the day came when Parveena and Mehboob were going to get married. Carefully Parveena tucked the dreaded flowers in her purse. It was a wedding attended by all. The villagers could not believe the fate of Parveena. Mehboob came, dressed in an all black suit. He had got his beard trimmed and had tried his best to look the most handsome man in the world. But his big fat belly, crooked yellow stained teeth, and the onion garlic smell from his breath, told a different tale. In an hour or two, Parveena became the wife of Mehboob.
The bride and the groom, along with the entire crowd of people left Mura’s residence and reached Mehboob’s beautiful palace. It was decorated with lights all over. Parveena sighed at this sight. She knew behind these bright lights lay the darkest corners, where women were perceived inferior to men, where books could never find a place, where the rope of traditions and conservative thoughts held people captive. This could never be her home.
After dinner and bidding adieu to the guests, the lecherous Mehboob went to his room where he would fulfill all his desires. Little did he know that Parveena too was waiting in wanting of Mehboob, to fulfill her desire of getting rid of him that very night. She had carefully placed the Monkshood flowers on her table. As Mehboob came and embraced Parveena, she cleverly gave in. Mehboob took out a necklace of pearl and offered it as his sign of love. She had seen this necklace being worn by one of her friend, whose father had mortgaged the necklace to buy a sack of grain instead. Parveena expressed her fake excitement and gratitude towards Mehboob and said “How precious is this necklace! If only I could get you something extraordinary myself. But alas, I could only find these lovely aromatic flowers I picked only for you. If you may allow, may I offer these to you?” Mehboob could take even thorns from the hand of Parveena then, let alone they be flowers. He nodded with a smile. Without removing her gloves Parveena handed the flowers to Mehboob, who with his bare hands held them to smell the aroma of these exquisite wild flowers. Immediately after the instant, Mehboob started feeling dizzy and complained of abdominal pain. He asked Parveena to call for help. But Parveena sat cross legged and smiling. She let the poison hit Mehboob brutally. And to ease her boredom she picked out a shabby book that bare the title of Sherlock Holmes and The Sword of Osman.