This was a prompt.
“Time: half past two in the morning. As today marks the 100 year anniversary of The Writers Ban, I, Mirza, now initiate the meeting of the (banned) Writer’s Guild, Lahore Branch.” Mirza Sahib looked around. “Please, sit, everyone. I realise it is hard to meet at this hour, but today is a special occasion!”
In the corner, the Scribe took down the words with droopy eyes. They usually met on Sundays, but the hundered year anniversary just happened to fall on a Friday. After a full day of intense work, we were all tired. But it had to be done.
“As president, I now call this meeting to order. May I remind you that should a Farangi catch wind of this, we shall all be beheaded?”
An enthusiastic round of applause.
“We are the sole body of people who not only write, but read. I passed by the Qila today. The little kid I met there didn’t even know who Aurangzeb was! We are the only people who hold the key to the past. In this regard, Bano Khatoon and Ram Sahib have uncovered and saved much valuable literature.”
“Without them, a lot would have been lost. Therefore, I now declare them Vice Presidents of TWG!”
Another round of applause, less enthusiastic.
We walked to the front of the room.
“Mirza Sahib, this is preposterous!” All eyes turned to Chaudhary Sahib. “A woman and a Hindu as Vice Presidents!”
“Chaudhary Sahib,” I said. “This is 1870. I’m sure we have bigger problems at hand. The heritage of an entire nation is at stake.”
Chaudhary Sahib continued to glare at me as I fixed my chadar.
“In the event of a raid,” said Mirza Sahib, “These two are our only hope. The British shall never arrest a Hindu and Bano Khatoon has— err—“
“A very pro-ban influential grandfather who would never let them touch me,” I continued. “So really, Chaudhary Sahib, would YOU like to keep the Sandooq with all our writings in it?” I couldn’t help keeping the bitterness out of my voice.
“I shall not allow my own people to argue amongst themselves, Bano Khatoon.” Mirza Sahib intervened. “Times are tough. We must cooperate. Now, let us commence. Rana Sahib, would you like to read out the twelfth chapter of your book, “The Collapse?”
Rana Shaib took centre stage. Imagining myself to be in a theatre, I glided to my usual seat and begun my weekly night job: critically analysing the best of the writers’ work, to protect the only literary heritage we had so that when we would hold the rebellion against the Farangis, we would have something. Something to denote our existence in this era. Something that would save us from oblivion.
I wrapped the pages in a silk cloth and tied them. It was time for the regular TWG session, and I was to read my piece, “Behind the Red Chadar”. I hurried out the gate, careful not to wake my Abba. He would’ve killed me if he found out. Our headquarters were situated in the basement of the Masjid at the junction of the Mall Road and the Canal Bank Road. Outside, there wasn’t a single light.
“Hello, princess,” I heard the drunken voice of an English soldier. “What might a pretty lady like you be doin’ out here.”
I wrapped my chadar tighter. The manuscript was concealed underneath.
“The people of God know no time. Shall I smite you with the power vested in me by the Masjid?” It was a long shot, but the soldier was drunk. He staggered backwards and I ran into the Masjid. I saw the flickering flame of a candle on the stairs, but there was no one rushing in or out. No hushed whispers. A shiver ran down my spine.
Slowly, I went down the stairs. My foot slipped on something. I didn’t dare look down. The big oak door was slightly open. I knew what this smell was. I opened the door with the last bit of strength I had.
I couldn’t even scream.
Three perfectly symmetrical rows. Walls painted red. With blood.
The rows were heads. Mirza Sahib and Chaudhary Sahib taking centre stage. Their lifeless eyes staring at me.
But it didn’t end here. On the floor, a folded piece of paper. As I picked it up, I recognised my grandfather’s handwriting.
“This is the fate of those who rebel against the state. Whosever conseals the Sandooq shall be caught and bestowed a worse fate.
— Commissioner of Lahore,
And then the signature.
I realised I was the only writer in the whole of the subcontinent. The heritage of an entire nation rested on my shoulders.
And Ram Sahib.
NOTE: this is historically inaccurate. The British took over in 1857, so it hadn’t been a hundered years in 1870. And there was no writing ban either (of course) however, the British did arrest anyone who wrote against the crown.
Farangi means the British in Urdu.
Aurangzeb was a Mughal Emperor. The decline of the mughals begun after his death.
I’m not sure the Masjid ever existed.
No, women were not granted this much liberty at that time. But since this is fiction — why not?
Abba means father in urdu.