Promises and Compromises made at Shrines
By Rizwana Khan
‘Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.’
from Their Eyes Were Watching God
On special days in the month of Muharram, Shamma visits the shrine of the 8th century mystic in Lahore, Bibi Ruqayyah bint Ali. Still lying in bed at ten in the morning, a feeling of satisfaction fills her soul as she remembers the منّت, the vow, she made at the shrine of Bibi Pak Daman. You cannot renege on promises made here.
A while back, Shamma had attached a padlock to the wrought iron railings at the shrine of Bibi Pak Daman. She laid garlands of fresh flowers on the 6 graves, burned wick lamps, and promised to feed the beggars that swarmed around the shrine —and she had found love.
Before Shamma married Esa, her mother used to take her to the shrine to make منّت for a number of things — she would promise a whole دیگ of cooked meat and rice for the poor in exchange for the healing of a sick child, a baby for a childless couple, or for help with her own finances. Sometimes she prayed out loud, weeping a little. Other times she sang along with the ملنگ who danced barefoot on the marble floors, their long orange beards and stained green robes fluttering in the breeze. Like other young unmarried girls, Shamma would look around hoping to find a mate for herself in the throngs of people entering the gates of the shrine.
The legend of Bibi Pak Daman
In the courtyard, women sat in a circle, their soft cotton chador covering the short wooden legs of their پیڑیاں, now hidden from view. They retold the legend of the graves in the shrine where six women from the household of the Prophet Muhammad were buried.
The women had traveled alone after the tragic battle at Karbala, and had arrived in Lahore. Their proselytizing had resulted in a large following of newly converted Muslims in the territory of a local Hindu ruler. He wanted them detained. Fearing the actions of the soldiers being sent to arrest them, the ladies prayed for protection. Miraculously, the earth split in two and they all disappeared inside. Only a piece of Bibi Ruqayyah bint Ali’s دوپٹا remained. This piece of her scarf, pure and unsullied, gave the name “Bibi Pak Daman” to the shrine.
Who decides what is right?
The first time Shamma saw Esa was when he came to the shrine of Bibi Pak Daman with his wife. Esa was younger than his wife and had a boyish charm that immediately caught her attention. They had come to pray for a child like many of the other couples in the crowd. Three years into their marriage, they were still waiting for his wife to conceive.
Shamma returned to her prayers but stopped mid-sentence when she felt his hand on hers. At that exact moment, she clicked the padlock shut around the iron bars of the shrine window. He smiled as if to say, ”Nobody needs to know about this.” They gazed into each other’s eyes and fell in love right there in midst of the magical mystic chants.
Not everyone in the country believes in mystics and shrines. Some even equate it to شرک —a return to polytheistic traditions. A custom that needs to be halted at any cost.
They were still looking at each other when suddenly the ground shook. Blue and white tiles fell to the ground and shattered. Flags still attached to their poles fluttered in panic as women’s screams pierced the skies. Shamma rushed outside to the safety of blue skies but they had turned dark gray with smoke.
Esa emerged from the haze of dust and ash, caught Shamma in his arms and said, “This is how it is supposed to be. We were born to be together, forever. You will be my next wife, give me children, and fulfill my منّت. I have promised two دیگ of meat and rice for each child.”
Ambulances passed by, sirens blaring. Trying to avoid the falling debris from the buildings, she stayed close to Esa and his wife.
“What is the point of this violence and destruction?” she asked.
“Religious militants cannot allow differing opinions. Suicide bombers will destroy everything.”
Guilt ridden, but happy, Shamma sat with them on the rubble praying for forgiveness of her sins, known and unknown.
“Am I in the way?” Esa’s wife spoke quietly. She understood that Pak Bibi Daman had chosen another younger wife for her husband. A wife who could give him a child.
“No. It isn’t like that,” Esa said, “In my منّت I promised to care for you regardless of what happens.”
Esa and Shamma picked up a couple of flower garlands that had survived the bomb blast. They laid them on the shrine and dropped a few rupees into the transparent plastic donation box which was still intact.
Shamma’s منّت was fulfilled in a private ceremony. Now she had to organize food for the poor. Promises made at a shrine cannot be neglected.
Rizwana Khan is a writer and an educator. She was born in Pakistan and later moved to California, USA. She studied English Literature from California State University, Northridge. After moving back to Pakistan with her family, she joined an apolitical organization, Concerned Citizens of Pakistan, participated in the Lawyers Movement, and started Education Therapy for children with special needs. Nowadays she shares her ideas with people around the world through the following sites:
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