By Bibi Jan
Yousuf Khan was a handsome young man from a village near Mardan. The people of Turlandi (in Swabi district) claim their village to have been his home. His father Mahmud Shah had died and left a young Yousaf Khan with the responsibility of supporting his mother and his sister Boolanda. He would hunt and bring home fresh meat for them every other day.
Yousaf Khan would go hunting in the Kharamar hills. Now nearly barren, the hills are said to have been thickly covered in trees and thorny thickets, with lots of wild olive trees, and among this forest roamed dear, partridges, rabbits and hares. He would take his father’s hunting dogs, head to the hills and bring back what he had hunted. These dogs were very loyal and being his fathers, Yousaf Khan took great care of them. He made them beautiful collars, that were hung with silver bells. The jingle of those bells would alert everyone to the coming and goings of the handsome man on his travels.
On his way to his hunting grounds, Yousaf Khan would pass through a village, and it was in this village that he one day he saw a very beautiful girl called Sher Bano. How they first met I do not recall but have heard that Sher Bano would eagerly wait for the jingle of the dogs’ collars heralding his arrival to her village. They never spoke to each other, but quietly stole glances.
Sher Bano sighed all day long and stopped eating, she would hear nothing but the jingle of those bells. Seeing her waste away like this her friend took her on the pretense of visiting a saint’s grave through Yousaf Khan’s village. They made it a point to stop at Yousaf Khan’s house on the pretext of drinking water. Sher Bano’s friend asked whose house they were in and Boolanda proudly told him it was Yousaf Khan the hunter’s house. Laughingly the friend said, “tell your brother that there is a girl in the next village who pines for him with such longing that the flame of love so bright and strong that it consumes her and now she looks ill. Her parents are worried that she is possessed with peryan.”
When her brother came that night, Boolanda told him what had happened. Yousaf Khan gave her a beating and told her never to repeat such idle gossip in front of him again.
Next day Sher Bano’s friend stopped by to see what Yousaf Khan had to say, but Boolanda only cried and told her to leave. Confused by this, Sher Bano decided to confront him that day on his way back from hunting.
Meanwhile, Yousaf Khan’s cousins had gone hunting with him that day. A lone hunter by nature he did not want to take them, but agreed against his better judgment. Since his father’s death they had put aside their hostilities and had reached out to him. While his father had been alive, there had been daily skirmishes between Yousaf Khan and his cousins over petty things, but now it seemed they had all put those days behind them.
The hunt did not go as well as anticipated, even the dogs were jumpy and after a long day just as they were about to give up, Yousaf Khan shot a wild ram. The ram did not stop but kept running until it finally fell into a steep ravine. The cousins stood looking down and finally they convinced Yousaf Khan that he being the strongest and most agile should be lowered into the ravine to retrieve the ram. Tying rope around him they started lowering him, and as soon as he was a third of the way down they let go of the rope and fled.
Sher Bano waiting by her wall was surprised to see the lone dogs run barking without their master. Yousaf Khan’s mother seeing the dogs return without her son knew something awful must have befallen him. She ran out bare head and bare foot, wailing and crying she ran towards the hills, followed closely by Boolanda, both following the dogs that were barking like crazy. People stopped what they were doing to see why the two were running like mad women through the streets. Sher Bano on recognizing them took to the street after them.
The dogs stopped at the edge of the steep ravine. There they saw a very wounded Yousaf Khan, stuck in a tree, that had saved his life by breaking his fall. Together the women and the villagers pulled him back to safety and while they fashioned a crude stretcher for him, Sher Bano cradled her beloveds head in her lap. This did not go unnoticed and when they returned to her village, Sher Bano found her father standing full of wrath, ready to kill her. Yousaf Khan’s mother quickly took Sher Bano’s hand and said that she was now Yousaf Khan’s honor and pride and as soon as possible she would come with the elders of their village and take her away honorably.
A wedding was arranged, and so many people came to wish them their best that the festivities spread out through many days. Sadly though, Yousaf Khan was so consumed by thoughts of revenge that he did not enjoy any of it, nor would he look at or touch his beautiful wife.
He even heard the wind and birds taunting him and the leaves shaking at him as if he was not a man. Not being able to stand it anymore Yousaf Khan left for Delhi. He had heard that his cousins were hiding there. Leaving behind his beautiful bride and his mother and sister, he set off telling them not to expect him back till he had avenged himself or died trying.
There was no news of Yousaf Khan at the village for many years and his cousins seeing the opportunity pronounced him dead. They shared out amongst themselves all that had been his. the marriage not being consummated left Sher Bano in a precarious position, her father came and took her back to his house. Sher Bano refused to accept this and insisted that Yousaf Khan was alive because she would have known if it was otherwise.
Sher Bano grieved for all that could have been and for the man who she loved so deeply and had left her in such a predicament. She would cry all night and wait all day for any news of her beloved. At first her elders kindly tried to tell her to stop her grieving, and that they would arrange a suitable match for her. She was young and untouched and many a man would find her worthy of a wife. Not able to persuade her with their soft words they resorted to cruel taunts, telling her that because of her emotions and sentiments they had been forced to marry her to a worthless, irresponsible man who had deserted her. Now she should listen to them and marry someone else who could provide her a roof and protection.
Seeing that none of these words had any effect on her, Sher Bano’s father came and put his pagri at her feet and said, “I am an honorable man, and all my life I have managed to stay slander free, but I am old and do not know how long I have. Who will protect you once I am gone? Do not let my honor become the laughing stock of the village.”
Sher Bano quickly lifted her father pagrai and dusting it off put it on his head saying, ‘Only God knows what has happened to my husband but may I never because of slander to your pride and honor sire. But in my heart, I believe him to be alive even though there has been no word of him. Grant me a year to cry my grief and at the end of this year you may choose for me any man that you see fit and I will do as you wish”
Her father was heartened by these words and smiling said, ‘You have made me happy my child. I can not bear the thought of your hair turning grey waiting for a worthless man who whether dead or for shame has not dared shown his face again. Don’t talk to me of him coming back and you waiting but choose one of these handsome men in our village and go on with your life, but if you think it is a year you need then take a year but get over him.’
Meanwhile Yousaf Khan had traveled far from the lands of the Pukhtuns, he came across a village that was in the grip of terror due to some dacoits that had moved into the neighboring forest. Having to spend the night there he asked what was going on. They told him that many of their young men had died at the hands of the wicked men and the rest afraid to take them on had moved away. Seeing that there was no one to protect them Yousaf Khan bravely offered to help them. Hidden away the villagers watched sceptically as Yousaf Khan took on the dacoits. He made fast work of them and as he wiped his sword clean the villagers rushed out to carry him back a hero to the village. News of his bravery and valor spread quickly and soon reached Akbar the Mughal who happened to be journeying by.
Akbar ordered Yousaf to be presented to him immediately. When Yousaf came to his court the Mughal threw him a sword and sent one of his best swordsmen against him. Yousaf easily overpowered him and looked up at the emperor to see what he wanted. Akbar was clapping and bid him to come closer, and he put a garland of precious jewels around his neck and gifted him with costly clothes, as well as making him in charge of a big regiment. Posted far and near, Yousaf carried out Akbar’s orders.
Yousaf Khan with his valor and handsomeness became a court favorite and was soon ordered to stay close to the emperor at all times. This gave the emperor a chance to observe him up close and personal firsthand. He found Yousaf to be brave as rumored, but also that he did not partake in the revelry of the court. Yousaf Khan seemed to be a loner who sighed often and was lost in thought with a sad look on his face. He asked his courtiers, but none could answer him, so Akbar summoned Yousaf Khan and asked what was it that troubled him so?
Yousaf Khan told the king of how he was once a reputed hunter, how he went out to hunt, and how a beautiful girl had fallen in love with him. How his cousin’s treachery had prevented him from returning her love and had left her untouched. He had a concurrent dream of his mother and sister crying beside a broken swing. He lay awake wondering what had become of Sher Bano, had she remarried or was she still waiting for him? He had no news of how his mother and sister fared, or news of his village in over five years and neither had he found his cousins. He showed Akbar a cap that Sher Bano had embroidered for him.
Akbar told him that it was high time he returned home, not only for his peace of mind but for the women he had left so helpless. Yousaf Khan was allowed to take as many of his men as he wanted. They made great haste towards the land of the Pukhtuns and on entering it they dressed into rags and made their way unnoticed to Yousaf Khan’s village. It is said that they spent a night at Dobian, where Yousaf Khan bade his men to stay as he made his way alone to his village.
That evening Yousaf Khan offered prayers at his village mosque, but none there seemed to recognize him. He discreetly walked past his house and was dismayed to find that there was a barn there instead. He stopped a man on the street and asked what had become of the people that lived there. The man looked at him suspiciously and asked, ‘Did you know them?’
Yousaf Khan said that many years ago he had stopped at their door, and they had been kind enough to offer him a place to sleep and a warm meal.
The man shaking his head sadly said, ‘the young man here fled to Hindustan, and no one knows what became of him. His cousins took over all his property and forced his mother and sister into labor in their house. His wife was taken back by her parents and today she is getting married to someone. Do you hear those drums? They are beating for her wedding.’
Yousaf Khan hastily went to Sher Bano’s village where people had turned out in force to witness it. There he met his sister Boolanda who did not recognize him either, he stopped her and asked her who had claimed Sher Bano in marriage. She sadly told him of how her brother had left and her cousins in his absence had taken over and now were forcing Sher Bano to marry one of them, but Sher Bano was refusing to get into the dolay and making a spectacle of them all by refusing to so much as brush her hair or wash her face. She told him that she had to hurry now, or her cousins would not only beat her but also her blind mother.
Yousaf Khan stopped her said “sister so you not recognize me? ” Boolanda wept with joy on recognizing him and after promising him not to tell another sole she went off with a lightness in her step and hope i her heart. Yousaf pulled out his worn cap and handing it to a child told him to take it to Sher Bano.
The child handed the dirty cap to Sher Bano, who on seeing it leapt up, and asked to be immediately cleaned up and made ready. Everyone was relieved to see the change in her and joyfully they washed and combed out her hick black hair. Sher Bano kept on giggling and joking with her friends and family as they gathered around her. Someone made up her eyes with kohl and someone marked a beauty spot between her brows for her. She was dressed in red and adorned with jewelry.
Boolanda came in to watch and both embraced and happily laughed with no one none the wiser. She then went out to tell her brother of the miraculous transformation and of Sher Bano’s fear for him being discovered.
Yousaf had sent a message to his troops who had silently slid into the village and taken up posts. Such was Yousaf Khan’s rage that he ordered no man to be spared. The wives and daughters of the men ran into the field bare had and bare feet begging and beseeching him to spare them, but it was not till Sher Bano intervened on behalf of the villagers and convinced him not to make widows out of women that day for she knew firsthand how intolerable the life of a widow could be. She told him that his beef was only with his cousins not with the other men who had been bystanders.
Yousaf Khan then gave in to Sher Bano’s request but only after he made the men agree that a jirga would convene immediately. The jirga conceded that Yousaf Khan has been wronged and that he should not be punished for the deaths of his cousin and his lands and property be returned to him immediately.
One day Yousaf Khan went out to hunt but returned empty handed. Sher Bano getting up to remove the pot she had been heating for the meat, Yousaf thinking that she was taunting him rushed out in anger to hunt again. Sher Bano ran after him to tell him that he was mistaken and that she did not mean it as a taunt but to save the pot that would have burnt had she not removed it.
Yousaf Khan never returned; he was found dead in the same ravine that he had been left for dead in. Some say he slipped in the dark others say that his cousins got a chance to get even. Whatever the cause of his death, Sher Bano, the woman who had faihfully waited those years, died within days heart broken and bereft.
(Bibi Jaan, Yousaf Khan aw Sher Bano, Sahar, The Voice of Pashtuns, January 2011, p.19-2)