I kept slipping from the labourer’s calloused hands, desperately trying to give the woman a few precious seconds of ventilation. I had been fashioned into a brick by the skilled hands of a worker named Mir Aalam who found me among the various heaps of sand not far from Salim and Anarkali's designated spot for midnight rendezvous. At the time, I had been a mute spectator, listening to Salim quote lofty promises of love from ornate books of poetry written in the finest Urdu and illustrated by the most talented calligrapher in Agra.
Now, I was a perfectly rectangular brick, ready to be used as a part of Anarkali’s murder weapon. I knew that her screams for mercy would be met with an eerie silence as she truly was talking to a wall. As I fell back onto the stone floor with a sharp thud for the third time, I knew I could do nothing to save her. And where was Salim at this hour? Surely, Akbar, the messiah of justice, would overlook familial ties and mete out a similar punishment to him? As a labourer fixed me into place, I waited for a similar box to be built around Salim.
But 500 years later, I am still waiting for the Salims of this world to accept responsibility for their actions. Their story has been told across the ages; using music, famous personalities, and creative discretion. Each artist, writer, and director has chronicled the events differently, but only I know the truth. Perhaps that is why nobody other than me ever wonders why equal liability was not imposed on Salim. Or why all Anarkalis' screams only disturbed me and no one else. Are they any different from the screams of scores of women burnt alive on funeral pyres; mercilessly tortured for marrying outside their caste or community; harassed for dowry? Why then, has Salim gone down in history as an upright though slightly rebellious emperor who was tempted by the lascivious concubine?
History repeats itself each time Khap Panchayats commit the same miscarriage of justice as Akbar did all those years ago. Their idea of justice is blackening a woman’s face and parading her naked through the village for a crime she did not commit, while her male “accomplice” walks away scot free or in some cases, is instructed to rape the woman in order to “purify” her. In such cases, people either distance themselves; look on, mute as bricks; or simply provide excuses involving potential communal violence and the like. In doing so, they not only ratify defiling a woman under the garb of purifying her in the most perverse manner but also condone and perpetuate further atrocities.
The reasoning behind honour killings is also an extension of the same warped notions. While it is commonly believed that such killings only take place in rural areas, a number of cases have come up in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. More often than not, women are mercilessly killed and then disposed of for “crimes” such as affairs with men whom their parents do not approve of, alleged adultery, even choice of clothing.
Politicians slander women almost as often as the weather changes. They are notorious for alleging that boys will be boys and therefore will make mistakes; that women should not go out unaccompanied at night, that their skirts and dresses imply a fervent desire to be gang raped and/or have their bodies mutilated or reduced to pornographic images. Some even have the audacity to display a rather skewed understanding of an absurd relationship between pigmentation and marital prospects. As I slowly became a small part of the only physical proof of what has now become an iconic love story, all I could do was wait for things to change.
But each passing summer grew warmer, and the heat wasn’t the only thing oppressing women across the globe. I got wind of regressive laws such as the decriminalization of domestic violence, not recognizing marital rape as a crime, and even making women marry their rapists in some cases. At least some of the Anarkalis of today are able to convert their screams for mercy into firm declarations of independence and assertions of power. Sometimes the likes of gun barrels and rape threats are mere pebbles in the paths of women determined to go on, but it is when they are persecuted for tripping that I begin to remember the circumstances under which Anarkali was brought to her death.
She truly was beautiful. Even as the burly chowkidars manhandled her, made lewd comments about her and finally shoved her into the dingy room. At first, her resolve fooled even me. Her brilliant blue eyes, beneath the graceful arch of her eyebrows were dry, her attractive mouth set in a straight line, and her famous reddish complexion took on a certain rage. Yet she entered the stony silence in perfect elegance, confident that Salim would explain how their relationship was not a mere illicit physical affair or an act of defiance directed at Akbar.
Watching her resolve give way, as the hours passed and the workers laid brick upon brick around her is no different from watching people from every walk of life build barriers around the women in their societies. Statements such as “women should take up simple jobs like teaching” and “women cannot work in MNCs because they allow emotions to rule their judgments” are the building blocks of oppression. I look on as the old brick buildings turn into high rises and burying alive turns into groping in elevators and demanding sexual favors in exchange for professional assistance.
At no stage did Anarkali seem pitiable to me; even as she clenched her fists and lashed out at the confines of her sarcophagus, screaming and sobbing. She even tried to use her ornaments to chip away at a few other bricks. Her constant pleas soon morphed into anger, an anger that I shared but could not express. Towards the end, all she wanted to know was why she had been left to die in this deplorable manner, why Salim had not been brave enough to bid her farewell, and most importantly, why she had been punished for a crime that they both had committed. I was the last brick to be laid into her tomb, I snatched her last breath and it is I who is most disturbed and most impatient for justice.