She met me at Delhi airport.
Aghast, disheveled and wrinkled…. this was what she had become now, once an all-time favourite of teachers and a heartthrob at Kashmir university. She was not the one I often dreamt of befriending during my university days.
Laila was born with many qualities: beauty, wealth and intelligence. I have never found all these qualities in one woman.
She had married a politician who was her father's choice, rather a gift to whole clan because her father knew this match would bring fame and fortune to the family. In our society, only powerful people survive, the rest live as paupers. The latter was not acceptable to her father. He wanted an extraordinary man for his only daughter. A politician for a husband proved to be a jackpot for the family. From brothers to relatives to distant cousins, everybody got huge cache of political fortune.
Laila became richer, more charming and more intelligent. She got involved in politics and the people her husband used to represent. Her husband thought she had become more mature and scheming, as needed for politics.
In only a few years she found herself in a dangerous web of deceit, betrayal and corruption. Her mother in law had advised her the first day she stepped into the house that "you have to learn the art of chess game, since you have become part of this family, you need to play chess with every relative, friend or acquaintance. It will keep you relevant because your politician husband stays out most of the time, that is why he has become more powerful".
But as we all know, every overladen fruit tree bends down, something happened and her husband disappeared for a long time from political landscape. She dealt with this reality very maturely.
With the passage of time, she saw number of visitors declining and relatives had altogether disappeared. Mother in law had joined her other son in Middle East and Laila did not make anything of the situation when one evening her husband appeared on the door with a young lady giving strict directions to look after her comforts.
Time just stopped……
Everyone comes for help when you are powerful but nobody gives a damn when you have fallen from the grace. That is what happened to this family and nobody even looked at them, not to talk of meeting the left-out family member or listen to her concerns.
"I wanted to talk about this dilemma with my husband but couldn't dare because he would talk about any damn thing except politics or, if I had persisted, I would have ended up in the grave", she whispered in my ear.
For a long time, she kept looking at me, rather staring at me, as if she was recollecting the memories of student days when she would often belittle me. We sat together in the lounge and started to recollect our memories over coffee.
"How is life treating you?", I asked without returning her stares.
"My marriage was my father's choice and I accepted it whole-heartedly. Even then, I put all my efforts into it to make it successful. Once, he absconded with a girl his half age, I did not mind and I thought he will realize and come back. Second time, he came with another woman, I felt disowned but I still continued my broken relations. Sometimes, I would find him brooding and cursing God all the time about my beauty. Then, all of a sudden, our house turned into a "women's world" … I turned into a zombie…. I was left alone to cry with no kids, no job and no prospects. There was no help from any quarter. Yes, I lived on his fortunes. I had to reconcile with my life". she said without punctuation.
"Where are you living now?", I asked her after a lot of effort.
"Hyderabad, I have a small flat there and I work in one of the Muslim orphanages. I look after orphans, that gives me reason to live and little comfort too". She didn't look straight into my eyes….
I was lost in university campus which I thought had given all of us confidence, future and hope for better understanding, better living and dignity of life but who knew all were not so lucky. One among us who was born with silver spoon had lost everything, even her beauty……
"How about you?" are you still writing those imaginary stories of love, affection and relations…. Are you still living in that fantasy world?" she said with sarcasm…
I had a difficulty in summing up six decades of my life in few sentences. I just smiled but I knew she had touched my inner chord of life…….. She didn't wait any longer and started quizzing.
"Oh, you are as miserable as ever. You have not changed…same timid and feeble".
With a lot of courage, I said, I was not beautiful and I always kept that in mind…
"Who are you living with and where are you going?". She again asked.
" I am living with my family which includes husband, kids, in- laws and sometimes my old parents. And, I am going Hyderabad for Me-too event which has been organised by victims of sexual harassment.", I said without any pause….
She thought I was just making another story and said, "Lucky you, big family, kids and old people, but doesn't this family give you creeps. Who are in-laws, those who skin off your flesh, or the husband who lives in his own secret world or the kids who take only pity on you, typical Kashmiri women, keeping everything buried in the chest"? She became hysterical…She was embarrassing me in presence of passengers…
I didn't bother to calm her down. She had become so outrageous and furious. Soon, her phone rang and she turned her face towards corridor. The expressions on her face were changing like leaves change colour in Autumn.
I had to rush for security check up but she came behind me and hugged me. "Have you ever believed in this, what comes around goes around. It has happened. Me-too has come to my rescue. My husband has been booked for sexual harassment by the same women he used to introduce me to as his friend". Her face had become red like a chinar leaf, as if she had won some war after a long fight.
I couldn't comprehend whether she was more beautiful then or now. I didn't either understand whether Me -too was giving justice to those women whose chastity had been robbed or those wives who were feeling happy to get their bedrooms back…
The writer is an ex editor of BBC and author of "Lost in Terror".