For everyone else who stood there, she was just another 'Case'. But for me, she meant a lot more.
With only her dark hazel eyes visible from her black burqa, she was hardly any different from any other muslim women, who still preferred to move out of her house in a burqa.
Perhaps, she still wasn't one of the 'liberated' lot.
It was a scorching hot afternoon of May 2001. Lucknow wasn't as sweltering as it has become today. I was still a cub reporter, who was trying to get into a "serious reporter" mould.
Thanks to my wonderful editor, I was given an opportunity to handle a column all by myself, where I wrote about the issues of women and also, got to write about some interesting cases which we tried to settle. Of course we only acted as mediators, but then, this was something, which was perhaps giving me the much needed 'serious' feel I was desiring.
My first meeting with Shabana was at the Mahila Thana. Yes, this was her name. And this name, which she pronounced "Sabana", was her only similarity with Indian Cinema's one of the most fabulous actors. Standing coyly with her parents, Shabana had come to lodge a complaint at the thana.
I had struck a chord with the station officer of the Mahila Thana, who often called me up whenever she felt there was an interesting case around. Shabana, for her, was another such interesting "case".
It was difficult to identify her age. With two children aged 10 and 8, Shabana could well have been in her late thirties. She was wearing simple chappals, which could not give away her economic status either.
On the first look, there was nothing interesting about Shabana that could have coaxed me to talk to her or know more about her. But there was something very intriguing about those hazel eyes, her only visible feature, that made me walk up to her and speak.
The back of her palm was barely visible from her burqa, but her porcelain skin shone even from there, just like the sun rays trying to filter through the window panes of the Imambara.
"Haan... toh kya kahani hai aapki. Kyun aayi hain aap yahan thaane mein..." I started off with my usual question. Expecting her to start crying or atleast start narrating her story in a very cliched manner, I took out my writing pad and pen.
I always thanked my parents for giving me a name that would not bind me in the worldly shackles of caste and religion. And this time too, my name came in handy for me to get closer to Shabana. "Inse baat kar lo, ye toh apni hain. Sab samajh jayengi..." her mother told her.
Okay!... so going by my first name, she had mistaken me to be a Muslim.
However, Shabana still did not open up to me. Her mother told me that Shabana's husband had married another woman and thrown her and her kids out of the house. After 40 minutes, i decided to just take the copy of her complaint and do a piece from it. Although this did not satisfy me, I thought that perhaps, this was one of those bad days when my 'charm' did not work.
A week passed off, and since I got some more interesting stories to go for (I just had to do one piece in a fortnight for the column), I completely forgot about Shabana. But two weeks and a phone call later, I was once again standing face to face with Shabana.
"Arre iske aadmi ne bechari ko is baar bahut mara hai. Ye ghar gayi apne bachchon ke kapde lene...," the SHO had informed me. "How could he! #@$@" I decided to meet Shabana, who once again had come to the Mahila thana. However, this time she was alone.
And for the first time, I saw the real Shabana. Fair, thin, her frail body wrapped in an ill-fitting chikankari suit, long black hair tied in a plait. Her body was void of any jewellery, except a nose pin. Her only makeup were the several bruises on her pale white skin, with the blue marks talking aloud of her husband's torture.
This time, when I started speaking to her, Shabana opened up. Having been married off at the age of 17, Shabana was just 28 but looked much older. Her husband was a relative from her mother's side and was 12 years elder to her. She had a daughter and a son, both studying in one of the most prestigious schools in the city.
What! Shabana was well off! I was shocked. I wanted to know more. Her husband worked as a senior manager with one of the best known companies in India and had a house in one of the most plush addresses of the city.
Till I met Shabana, I always opined that atrocities came on women from the lower economic strata. But Shabana was an eye opener for me. And as I got to know more of her, I was more shocked.
"Yahan nahin. Paas mein kahin chai peene chalte hain, wahan baat karenge..." she told me. I was shocked. For someone who did not speak a word on the first meeting to a confident young woman asking to chat over a cuppa, Shabana was surely leaving me shocked. We decided to go to the nearby Madras Cafe for a coffee instead.
90 minutes, five cups of coffee and two sambhar wadas later... Shabana had completely changed for me. No... she did not want to go back to her husband. She never wanted to. The day he declared that he wanted to marry another woman, she decided to leave him forever.
"Par tum logon mein toh allowed hai na..."... I naively asked her... only realising it that I had given away the fact that I was a non-muslim. For a moment, she looked at me with shock. Then, realising what had happened, she just smiled.
"Hai toh, par uske bhi bahut se kayde hain. Mazhab chahe aapka ho ya mera, aurat ko zaleel nahin karta," she replied to me with a smile. Aha! So she was well read also. I was getting more impressed by Shabana.
We decided to meet again after two days. I shared my number and said that incase she needed any help, she could call me or the SHO. "Shayad zarurat na pade...," she said, as she boarded the tempo from Janpath.
Our next meeting was more fruitful. Shabana told me that she never wanted to go back to her husband. Instead, she wanted to divorce him as he had started loving another woman. "Hum log insaan hain... jaanwaar nahin ki jab mann bhar gaya toh aage badh gaye. Ab badh hi gaye hain toh peeche kyun jaana..." she told me. Was this Shabana! the burqa-clad girl was surely progressive in her thoughts. She also told me that her decision to divorce had angered her husband, which is why he kicked her out. However, her parents insisted that she should go back, a decision she refused to comply with.
Despite being educated, most of us still judge people from what they wear or how they speak. A suit clad girl would be termed as a conservative behenji with mediaval outlook. Similarly, a burqa clad muslim girl is thought to be totally backward, without any knowledge of what her rights were.
Even in a country which seems to be independent, our thoughts and outlook are still archival. Despite calling ourselves secular, we continue to judge people even on their religions and even first names.
I introduced Shabana to some activists who I thought could help her out. Three-months later, I got to know that she had finally managed to get divorced from her husband with a good mehar (alimony) and two fixed deposits for her kids.
I was happy for Shabana and met her last at the NGO's office. This time, her hazel eyes smiled just liked her face. This wasn't just a smile of happiness, but a smile of determination.
As days passed by, I slowly moved away from Shabana and her memories. She became yet another success story for me, who had been "freed" through "our efforts". However, the mark she had left on my understanding and my outlook was something that had been etched forever.
It was 2009. I had gone to Gorakhpur during the general elections. Deciding to meet a few activists friends, I went over for a cuppa to one of their offices.
As I sipped my masala tea, I was introduced to a woman with spatter of grey in her hair, wearing a smart pair of glasses but a simple chikankari kurta.
As our eyes met, we were both astonished with joy. "Shabana!"... I could not express myself. Much to the astonishment of my hosts, I hugged her. She too was happy to meet me.
Six cups of tea and a plate of noodles at a famous restaurant later, I got to know that Shabana had completed her graduation and her post graduation. She was now doing her Ph.d in Rights of women in Islam and was a volunteer with the NGO, helping them educate muslim women of their rights.
She still pronounced her name as "Sabana". She still spoke in hindi, with barely a few words of English thrown in. She still wore chappals and simple clothes. She still wore a burqa when she went to unknown places for the first time.
But irrespective of all this, the Shabana I knew was indeed a liberated woman.
Liberated from her shackles of conventional thoughts and her inhibitions.
And it was not only Shabana who was liberated. I too found some shackles breaking inside me.... only to be better.
till next, take care and enjoy....