Creating Rumi for Butterfly Season was the easiest part of writing a book for me. I modeled her on a very dear, very old friend of mine (let’s call her Saira) whom I’ve known since college. Saira is an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Even though there were a number of good-looking women at my college, Saira overshadows them all. She is small, slim, with slanted black eyes, a dead straight nose and a pointed chin (think Kristen Bell, except prettier). Twenty years later, she’s still stunning.
Rumi isn’t beautiful in the way Saira is. But Rumi has Saira’s heart.
Because of her looks, Saira was often underestimated by her teachers, hounded by men, and married off right after college. It was an arranged marriage, as most marriages are in Pakistan, and Saira had been receiving proposals since she was sixteen. Her parents eventually accepted a proposal from their neighbours—old family friends who had lived next door to Saira’s family for over thirty years—to marry their son to Saira. The families were close, knew everything about each other, and both felt the match was ideal. The son lived in Detroit (I’d like to call him jackass, but let’s stick to Majid), had a great job, was a US citizen and of marriageable age.
Saira’s wedding was lovely—an extravagant, outrageous South Asian affair that spanned over a week of festivities. Majid was good-looking, charming and educated. The future for Saira looked bright and both families couldn’t have been happier.
The marriage, on the other hand, was a nightmare. Away from Pakistan and his family, Majid turned out to be a completely different person. He walked all over his young wife, was insanely jealous of any Tom, Dick or Harry who took a second look at her—and Saira always got plenty of second looks—and berated her openly as his ‘poor country cousin’. He began flirting with other women, partying relentlessly and surrounding himself with any woman who would have him. Saira couldn’t convince Majid that she was not inviting male attention. After yet another epic battle in the middle of the night, Majid dragged her out of the house and dropped her off at a bus station. Shocked and distraught, Saira made her way to a friend’s house, borrowed enough money for a plane ticket and flew back to her parent’s house in Karachi.
Back to sanctuary, but not quite. His parents lived next door to her and they had a different version of events from their son. On top of contending with the shock of Majid’s amazing about-face (they practically grew up together. Saira still can’t understand how he turned into the green-eyed monster that he was in Detroit) and the trauma of being kicked out of his house, Saira had to endure the ire of his parents almost on a daily basis. They made sure to come over at the smallest pretext, to complain loudly in her presence about ‘ungrateful daughters-in-law’. They categorically denied the possibility that their darling off-spring was in the wrong, or that he would have left his wife at a bus stop in the middle of the night. They told anyone who would listen that Saira had left Majid because she was, in fact, a lesbian.
Saira’s parents eventually sold their family home and moved out of the neighbourhood, but the damage was done. Being divorced and possibly gay in Pakistan is a tough position to be in unless you belong to the upper classes where such things are unexceptional.
Saira marshalled all her resources. She waited for the divorce to be finalized, sold her jewellery (her parents had limited resources and had the education and marriages of three other children to consider) and applied for a job in Canada. It took almost two years before she could leave the country. She left everything she knew, and everyone she loved, behind. She arrived alone in a strange country with the money from her jewellery and little else.
She has never come back.
I don’t really know about the strength of will it takes to start a new life like Saira did. Doing it as a couple with your spouse is one thing. Doing it on one’s own is another altogether. I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be the object of ruthless and malicious gossip, or what it took for Saira to maintain her sanity in the face of an ugly divorce and a hostile society. At the lowest point of her life, alone in Detroit, I was thousands of miles away in Karachi and have no clue how she felt, except what she has told me. All I know is that she is an inspiration, a breed of strong women in Pakistan that are rarely heard of, and I am honoured to be her friend.
Note: names and certain situations have been changed for privacy.