Imran Murdana, son of Mohammed Ameen Murdana, was convicted in 1995 of the murder of Zawar Ali Khan and his son Rab Nawaz Ali Khan, and sentenced to death. He spent nearly eleven years behind barsin the Sahiwal Central Jail, and was eventually released after a reconciliation negotiated between the two families. The reconciliation came after the revenge killing of Imran’s younger brother Ali Raza Khan, who killed by the other family in the Murdana home on 21st April 2010.
I see him walking towards us, the starched, ironed, immaculately clean white shalwar-kameez that he is wearing sitting rigidly on his body like an armor. The warm early winter sunlight cuts hard shadows against the the sharp-edged creases on his sleeves and on the front of his shalwar, and highlights the recently polished chappals that are already gathering dust from his walk from the main house towards the public meeting area where the rest of us are sitting. His kameez – fitted closely to his body, is buttoned to the collar, his sleeves buttoned to his wrists. His hair is carefully made – brushed back to show his wide forehead and accentuates the features of his face – the heavy eye-brows, deep set eyes that gleam from the shadow cast by the sockets, the sharp, pointed nose, and hard, cigarette-blackened lips.
That this is the patriach of the family I guess from the silence that settles over our little gathering as he walks towards us. As the other men sitting with me see him come closer they rise from their seats and step forward and meet him at the landing of the verandah, each quietly greeting him with a handshake and a hug. He goes across the room and greets each of the four visitors who had been sitting here. They are well-wishers, friends, and business partners who seem to be regular at his home.
Mohammed Ameen Murdana greets me last and invites me to sit. He knows why I am here. We had spoken earlier on the phone when I had called to ask his permission to visit him and speak to him about how the family had coped during the years his son, Imran, was on death row. A plate of biscuits sits on the glass-topped table between us, and hot cups of tea are served soon after we all settle back down. Mr. Murdana busies himself looking through some papers that had been lying on the table and the other men return to their earlier conversations. I realize that I am in the midst of what are regular afternoon meetings at that this dera (public meeting area) between members of the Murdana family and their friends, business associates and other well-wishers. A dera and its popularity remains a powerful and important symbol of status in these regions of rural punjab, and it is clear from the lively gathering that Mr. Murdana, despite his severely reduced financial and social position, remains a man of some respect in these parts.
The talk turns towards Imran. Someone has asked his whereabouts. Since his release from prison he has immersed himself in the upkeep of the family lands and is working to become a farmer. He can be found giving water to the crops, one of the men answers. Mr. Murdana smiles when he hears this, and turns to me and says He had wanted to be so much more. Now this is what his life will be. If not for him, then for the future of his younger brother. Mr. Murdana points towards a young man lying on a charpoi in the far corner of the verandah. We had not been introduced, but he looks up when he realizes that he is being spoken about, and I nod a greeting to him. Mr Murdana continues I don’t have the means to raise them both to achieve their dreams. Imran has lost his youth, but he can now help give his brother a future.
The other men silently nod in agreement as they set aside their own conversations and turn to me. It is time for me to ask my questions, and the gathering is ready. I had hoped for a more private audience with Mr. Murdana, but I realize that it will not be possible. And just plain rude to insist on it. During the hour that I have been sitting here waiting for him to arrive, and speaking to these other men, I have come to feel that I am a part of this afternoon’s get together. And the men there a part of the conversation. I suspect that they were told of my arrival, and may have come here specifically of curiosity, and a sense of camaraderie.
I take out my notebook and recorder and ask him to tell me more about life while Imran was in prison, and what it had meant for the family. Mr. Murdana leans back in his chair, and looks away. He seems to hesitate, perhaps only to think, before he begins to speak. His voice is clear, a near monotone in fact, as if he is reciting rather than speaking his answer. I remember its strong, heavy tone well from when I spoke to him on the phone, and its deliberate delivery, each sentence constructed with the care of a man being questioned in court.
We lost everything. And perhaps, because of the trauma of waiting, I lost my wife – Imran’s mother died while he was in prison. His face does not betray any emotions. This entire process, and of course the difficult of watching my son suffer in prison, took a terrible toll on us. He is sitting very still in his chair – one leg draped over the other, his hands in his lap, his back pushed hard against the back of chair giving him the appearance of a man being interrogated. Imran’s mother feel ill, and I too have suffered from continued heart and blood sugar problems since this entire situation began. He speaks slowly, as if waiting for me to jot down each word. Or to make sure I have heard it properly. His mother perhaps suffered terribly – visiting him in jail, carrying food and clothes for him, took a terrible toll on her. The process was always fraught with difficulties, and for the elderly it was always taxing. The long waits in line, the rude police attendants, the heat and crowds, the uncertainty of being allowed to see our son. His voice is controlled – as he refuses to betray any emotions through it. The story is being told with a calculated neutrality, as if it is someone else’s story. It was always an exhausting and trying experience. She died waiting for him to return. The men around us murmur short prayers as he says this. He turns to the boy serving the men and teas and asks him to prepare a fresh pot.
I wanted to know what had happened – how had things change while they fought for Imran’s innocence? Everything changed. The men nod in agreement and look at each other. Here, Mr Rafiqui, these cases are not about justice. They are about honor, and status. His piercing, eyes are locked on me. This is difficult for you outsiders to understand. He says this without condescension. They knew that these were false charges, that Imran was an innocent man, but they also realized that it was a way for them to ruin us, and our position in the community. He lowers his eyes – the grip of his stare releasing me with a force that is almost physical, and reaches into the pocket of his kameez and pulls out a pack of cigarettes – its a local brand, with the box design closely resembling that of a box of Marlboros. This is also very much about power.
He gently lifts the top, pulls out a cigarette and holds it between his fingers, and leaves it there, unlit, cradled between two carefully manicured fingers. I spent months pleading to them, making all sorts of promises, asking for all sorts of compromises. But they did not relent. The unfulfilled act – the unlit cigarette makes me restless and I find myself staring at it, waiting for the necessary second step to be completed. I want someone to light a match and set it aflame, to return a sense of equanimity to the moment, a moment that feels strangely unbalanced because of that unlit cigarette. Our position became fragile very quickly – the months spent chasing after the police, arranging investigations from at least three different agencies, the hundreds of thousands spent on lawyers, legal fees, court visits and what not. They did not relent. The more we fell the more adamant they became.
More tea arrives. I hear a match being lit and my eyes follow it as it is offered to Mr. Murdana who seems a little lost staring out into space. He jumps as he notices the lit match, and instinctively leans towards it, raising the cigarette to his blackened lips and simultaneously giving it that sharp inward pull of his breath that brings it to life. He leans back. Eleven years, Asim. He is looking at me. It is a very long time. A life time. He runs a hand over his head, pushing his hair back, as his eyes search the room. The other men, who must have either heard this story many times before, or know if it from experience, are silent and sitting back looking at me as if to make sure that I am getting it all.
We had to sell a 40-head of cattle dairy farm. It was to be our new project and we were in discussions with an international dairy company to become suppliers. He is sitting with his legs crossed – the ends of his kameez carefully wrapped over his knee. Our lands followed soon afterwards as we had to sell them to continue to fight this case. More tea arrives and Mr. Murdana himself leans forward to pour some in my cup. There is a rush of activity at the table as the other men help themselves to the biscuits and the fresh tea. Someone asks the young boy to fetch Imran from the fields if he is done with his work. We have to keep a close eye on him you see – our opponents still threaten my children, and harass them whenever they can. Smoke surrounds his face, obscuring his features – for a moment he is a disembodied voice. Their ploy worked – we were ruined, and they remain unsatisfied. They presented false witnesses in court – men who swore on the Koran and lied. His features hardened as he clenches his jaw, fighting back a desire to express an anger perhaps? They are influential people, and I can’t help but suspect that they influenced the judge and lawyers. He has not used the ashtray that has been lying on the table in front of him, and instead has steadily allowed the ash to fall to the floor. There were four separate investigations, and the IG Punjab himself said that there was no evidence against Imran. The police itself said that they were satisfied that Imran was not guilty – but the verdict of death penalty was still presented.
He takes a deep breath and the men around him offer me statements in support of his claim – there is a general agreement that what took place in the courts was a travesty. I hear the men make disparaging remarks about the law in the country – a series of typically dismissive statements about the corruption of the judiciary and the lawyers. Four investigations were carried out, and each arrived at the same conclusion – that Imran had nothing to do with the crime he was being accused of. And yet…He trails off. I am curious to see the copies of the documents of the case – the FIR report, the court case materials. The Crime Branch, the local Police, the District Superintendent of Police, Sahiwal and the CIA Inspector had all come and carried out their investigations and I ask to see copies of their findings. He nods, and quietly asks one of the men to see if he can fetch them from the house. I will prepare them for you for when you come back next time. Fastidious, I think again. Every thing has to be in its place, and at the right time. I do not push further, and suggest that I can come back later in the week. As I continue to make small notes I hear the man sitting next to me whisper
They killed him here.
I look up in surprise and ask him to repeat what he said. They killed him here. Imran’s brother. I look at Mr. Murdana. His eyes are already looking at me and collide with my gaze. He calmly offers the rest of the details. It has all been a terrible burden. The murder of my youngest son was the final cut. My child, shot right here, in this house in revenge. It had not been enough that Imran had suffered in prison, that my family had been ruined, but they also had to take the life of my other child. Only then did they agree to withdraw their accusations after eleven years. His face hardens once again. It felt less a reconciliation, and more a final act of arrogant gloating. Looking down at his cigarette. A further humiliation.
Ali Raza Khan. That was his youngest son’s name. The one killed in revenge, and over whose blood Imran’s release was arranged. I look at Mr. Murdana and see a man broken by life. I try to imagine what he must have looked like before all this began – before the murder of Rab Nawaz, before Imran was sentenced to death, before the sleepless years spent worrying about his son’s welfare on death row, before the exhausting, humiliating visits to the prison, before the legal cases, the trips to the courts, the police stations, before the humiliating kneeling in front of those who bought the case against them, before the lands, businesses, and other assets had to be sold to pay for helping his son escape the curse that had been cursed upon him.
I watch him slowly smoking his cigarette, lost in thought, sitting in the remains of his life, with the remains of his family. Before I can put away my things and prepare to take my leave he looks at me and says Its not over. These are battles that will color this family for generations. He gets up, as a hint that my time is up. I rise and extend my hand to grasp his. It is the way of the people here.