Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery

The Lonely Path

I gazed from the roof terrace at the sprawling green village fields, full of okra, aubergines and chillies. The stream meandered through like a serpent, flanked intermittently with long, golden reeds. The kikar and peepal trees soaked the unrelenting heat of the afternoon sun. My stomach churned.

‘So this is where you are!’

I turned toward the angry voice. My father’s face smouldered with a fiery, red wrath.

My mum followed up the stairs slowly, and stood behind him. Her asthmatic wheeze penetrated the silence of the confrontation. She’d been crying. No doubt blamed for my ‘misdemeanours.’ Listen, take it, and cry was all she did. She didn’t know anything else. Torn between her maternal love for her only daughter, and her duty to obey her husband, she outwardly submitted to him, but her inner pain was clear; the quiet, almost invisible victim. My mother.

‘Listen, Leyla. You’re going to stop being so bathameez, and you will marry him! This is a matter of honour. Our izzat is at stake. We didn’t bring you up so you would defy us. What’s wrong with Zaheer? Are you something special? Better than him? Come off your high horse, and give up your fanciful ideas of love and freedom. You will go ahead with this.’

I had arrived in Pakistan with my parents three days ago, on the pretext of a holiday, only to be told I was to marry my cousin within the week.

‘Please Abbu. You say you love me; then how can you make me marry someone I don’t love? Why is your love so conditional?’


His roar made my mother jump.

‘Not another word. People are depending on me. I won’t let them down, and neither will you, because if you do, I will be a laughing stock. I won’t have that!’

He marched haughtily back down the stairs. My mother followed slowly.

The minute I’d protested, my mobile phone and passport had been seized from me. By leaving my brothers in England, my isolation was complete. I had no means of communication. I seemed doomed to this marriage.  If I refused, I’d be left here, indefinitely. A brick wall smacked me in the face every which way I turned.

I was dragged to town for the wedding dress fitting, accompanied by my mother, my ten-year old cousin Shamaila, and my mother-in-law and sister-in-law to be. It was a relief to enter the air-conditioned, marble-floored modern shopping mall, out of the sticky heat; I could breathe at last. We passed the internet café, and headed upstairs to the bridal store.

‘Mum, can I have some rupees for ice cream?’ I asked as we reached the shop.

My mum looked sceptical.

‘I will take Shamaila with me.’

Shamaila’s face lit up, so mum passed the money, and told me to hurry back.

When we reached downstairs, I gave half the money to Shamaila. She looked puzzled.

‘You go get the ice cream; I need to go to the washroom.’

I ran into the internet cafe.

I typed at lightning speed:

British High Commission Islamabad….

Leyla Ali. British citizen. Being forced into marriage in 2 days. Rashid Ali Residence, Village Jabbar Gali, Gujar Khan. Please help. They’ve taken my phone…”

I quickly hit: “Send”.

Suddenly, in marched the whole entourage of screeching women. Turned out the café worker knew my intended in-laws, smelt a rat and went off to snitch.

I was pushed and jostled out ungraciously, shouted at, taken back to the village, and locked away.

Early next morning I heard quite a commotion. I could see faintly through the fabric placed over the small window. Someone was trying to come in through the door at the other end of the courtyard. Someone was speaking in English!

‘Yes, but I’d like to check all the same…’

‘Help! In here – behind the green cloth on the window!’ I howled.

A few tense moments passed; the door opened, and in came a tall English man, and a Pakistani woman.

My father and mother, and various relatives all followed.

‘Are you Leyla Ali?’

I nodded, my body trembling profusely.

‘I’m Roger Ellis, from the British High Commission, and this is my assistant. We’re here to help, if that’s what you want.’

I looked at my father’s face, dark with indignation, his nostrils flaring. My mother stood behind him, fear casting a gloomy shadow all around her.

I nodded again.

My father spoke coldly, but steadily, ensuring I heard every single word. ‘If you leave now, you’re dead to us. You’ll never see your family again. Think carefully before you take this huge step. It can never be undone.’

Why did it have to be like this?

If I chose my family, I chose a marriage I didn’t want with a man I didn’t love.

If I chose not to marry him, I had to leave, and be a stranger to my family forever.

That was a choice? Some choice!

‘I love you both, but I can’t sacrifice my whole life to a marriage I don’t want, just so you can please your biradari, over and above me, your child. Am I so insignificant? Do I matter so little? Abbu you can’t really love me if you’re prepared to do that. I won’t stay.’

I turned to Mr Ellis.

‘I am ready.’

On the drive to Islamabad, I was told what would happen next; where I would stay, where I would be housed when I got to the UK, what support I would get – but it didn’t help me feel any better. I was petrified of how I would survive alone. The last twenty-one years with my family was all I had known.

A spasm of painful sombreness jolted through my body.

I didn’t ask to be born. I didn’t ask to be treated so unjustly, yet I had to live with the consequences. I had taken the lonely path; and it was loneliness I feared most.