The Beggar I met

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Next time you come across a young lady with disfigured face seeking alms, stop for a moment to listen to her woes. Zubair Sofi had a chance encounter with Rubeena, the mother of three, who was set afire by her in-laws in serene Lolab

On June 1, 2017, a lady knocked at the door of my maternal  house in Chanapora area of Srinagar. Once inside, I could see she was covering half of her face with a scarf. As she stood there inside the courtyard, she removed her scarf to reveal horrific burn injuries that ran all the way from her lips to the chest. Curious, I began asking her the reason of her miserable condition.

“I have narrated my story many times, I didn’t get anything except words of sympathy from strangers,” she sighed.

But when assured her that I will try to highlight her plight, she agreed. Hiding her brutally burned face, she began, “My name is Rubeena Bano. I am 30 years old.”

A resident of small Maidanpora village in Lolab valley of Kupwara, some 120 kilometers north of Srinagar, she visits the city regularly to collect alms for survival. “This face once used to be a beautiful one,” she says with a hint of tears in her eyes.

Rubeena is survived by an octogenarian father Mohammad Abdullah Mir, who stays home as he cannot walk because of his age. Rubeena’s story starts when her father decided to get her married to his sister’s son. “He thought I will be in safe hands,” she said. “They will treat you as their own daughter, he told me.”

At the age of 22, Rubeena got married to her cousin Altaf Ahmad Khan, 33, and started a new life.

However the newness of married life was very short as Rubeena’s mother-in-law Zareefa, 45, began taunting her for not bringing enough dowry. “It began after just seven days of marriage,” said Rubeena.

This shocked Rubeena as she never expected her aunt to behave in such a manner. “But I tolerated everything for sake of my marriage. Besides going back to my father’s house would have raised fingers in the society.”

As time passed Rubeena’s husband started spending more time outside the house. It surprised Rubeena. “I made efforts to know the reason but failed,” she said.

Rubeena told one of her cousins to keep a watch on her husband and see where he spends his time. “When I asked him directly he made every sort of excuse,” Rubeena recalls.

A few months later Rubeena’s cousin came with a shocking revelation. “He told me that my husband is spending time with another woman,” recalls Rubeena. “It was hard to believe but since it was true, I couldn’t deny the fact.”

Instead of fighting with her husband, Rubeena told him plainly not to do what he was doing. “But it was all in vain as he continued to go out with that woman,” she said.

When finally Rubeena confronted her husband, he accepted and promised that he will not do it again. “I didn’t make a big deal about it and believed him,” said Rubeena. “But I was wrong. He didn’t change at all.”

By the time she realized that her husband is not going to mend his ways, Rubeena was already in her third month of pregnancy. “I could only plead with him for sake of our baby,” said Rubeena. “But it was useless.”

Once Rubeena gave birth to a baby girl, she hoped it will melt her husband’s heart and he will stop seeing that woman.

“But it hardly changed him,” said Rubeena. “He continued meeting her without letting me know about it.”

To save himself from his wife’s questioning eyes he started playing smart. “I was not at peace with myself.”

In the meantime Rubeena’s mother-in-law upped her attack against her and left no stone unturned to cause her pain.

“I was not even giving money to meet my personal expenses. How was I supposed to take care of my baby,” asks Rubeena.

On top of that Rubeena was supposed to take care of her husband’s large family including four sisters and five brother-in-laws. “I never compliant about any pain, I buried every suffering in my heart. My main focus was to create a happy family. I used to cook while keeping my daughter in my arm,” said Rubeena.

As years passed Rubeena gave birth to one more daughter and son. “Now I had three kids to take care of,” said Rubeena.

Back at home Rubeena’s aged mother Raja was taking care of her husband and son Qayoom Ahmad Mir, 28, who was left bed ridden after suffering a leg injury. “I knew they were already struggling to live a decent life, so I didn’t bother them with my troubles,” said Rubeena.

But her silence soon proved costly.

On April 14, 2015, Rubeena was busy in the kitchen, when her elder daughter asked her for some money to buy candies.

“I don’t have any. Your father does not give me anything; he spends it on something else,” Rubeena told her daughter plainly.

Rubeena didn’t notice that her mother-in-law was listening in the next room. “She called one of my brother-in-laws and asked him to bring petrol from the car,” recalls Rubeena. “She told him, lets me teach her a lesson today.”

Before Rubeena could have understood, her brother-in-law came in with a bottle of petrol in his hand. “His mother and sister too joined him,” recalls Rubeena.

As Rubeena senses trouble she locked her children inside a room and started pleading with her mother-in-law and others. “I begged them not to set me on fire. I will do whatever they want. I even told them that I will go home and never come back,” Rubeena recalls.

But nobody listened to her pleas as her brother-in-law poured petrol on her and set her on fire. “I screamed my heart out but nobody listened. Nobody came to my rescue,” recalled Rubeena, with tears in her eyes.

When flames started burning her skin, Rubeena ran out of the house towards her neighbours. “They rescued me but it was already late,” said Rubeena.

It was her neighbors who arranged a taxi and rushed her to Srinagar’s SMHS hospital. “My arms, chest, abdomen were badly burnt,” said Rubeena. “I spent almost a month in the hospital.”

While in the hospital Rubeena was kept under police protection, who could record her statement only after one month.

To save themselves, Rubeena’s in-laws offered to take her outside Kashmir for specialised treatment if she tells doctors that it was an accident. “They tried to intimidate me even when I was covered in bandages,” said Rubeena.  “Only my eyes were visible.”

With no hope of fighting for justice Rubeena fell into her in-laws trap. “They offered me two kanals of land if I keep quite. I believed them without thinking what they are doing with me,” said Rubeena. “I went with them without thinking they mean good this time. But I was wrong.”

Still wrapped in layers of bandage Rubeena’ was presented before a judge. “I told judge that it was an accident because of leakage in domestic gas cylinder,” recalls Rubeena.

To Rubeena’s surprise the very next day her husband asked for a divorce. “My father was afraid as they could have done anything, so he agreed for a divorce,” said Rubeena.

With no money to support her Rubeena lost custody of her children too. “I had nowhere to go except my father’s place,” said Rubeena.

As Rubeena’s family couldn’t finance her treatment she started visiting army’s medical camp in Drougmulla. “But after five visits they told me not to come again as my condition was bad,” said Rubeena.

Then Rubeena tried her luck at different locations in Srinagar seeking jobs as domestic help, but nobody would hire her because of her dreadful looks. “My once beautiful face was turned into a monstrous one,” said Rubeena.

Left with no option Rubeena’s goes door-to-door seeking alms for her medication and survival. “Doctors say I need Rs 6 lakh for plastic surgery,” claims Rubeena. “My life is living hell now. I lost my face, my children, my life. What else is left there to mourn?”

Before she left Rubeena turned around and said, “Wanei ch troumut sooari khudays peaith. (I have now left it to Allah).”

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