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01 - 07 Sept, 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

Raheela, also known as Raheel, and her twin brother had been born to Nabi Anwar Khan in a village near Kalam. The multi-tiered wooden houses, painted bright as peacocks, stood on the lush green slopes like jewels in a green lap that soared to infinity. With their upturned corners they had looked more like pagodas than anything sub-continental. From right beside the banks of the rushing river, the houses continued on to dizzying heights, dotting the forested mountains like an army of twinkling fairy-inhabited mushrooms. It was only at dusk, when the villagers were forced to light open fires against the bitter chill, VENDOR CHRONICLESand the smoke curled up in plumes against the clear twilight that they had felt the place was truly awake. And even then, all sound – all hint of human habitation – was quenched by the unremitting roar of the Swat River. It had been their lullaby and their terror as children. It still came to the twins in their sleep, haunting their nightmares and lurking tantalisingly out of reach in their happiest dreams. It was the sound of home, and of childhood, happy or unhappy; it still filled them with an unshakeable sense of belonging. Alas that they could never go back.
Wars had come and gone, rebellions had arisen there, fugitives had become bolder, fanatics had gained a stronghold and then lost it; and still the River continued to rush on in its mighty way, unchanged. The people had been scarred, they were sure, just like the rocks there, but time and rain and snow would season them as it did everything else in those high, wild mountains.
And as everything else in those mountains, the people born there were built to last. Not forever, perhaps, for such is not the fate of man, but they could endure more than others.
Raheela presently lay on a string-bed in a corner of their rented rooms in Korangi. She disliked being called by her name. The square gaze took in the view from the window fitfully and then returned to an agitated scrutiny of the room itself. The puma's claws had ripped enough of her abdomen open to require an emergency surgery to save the half severed flesh. It had warranted two weeks in one of the six surgical wards of the Civil Hospital Karachi. It was probably one of the filthiest hospitals on the planet, as Raheela had observed dispassionately to her brother, but it was all they could afford. And really, the surgical ward wasn't all that bad. At least there were no roaches dancing the Swan Lake across the walls and waltzing across the floor. But the smell of the food was utterly nauseating, and after ten days of endurance, Raheela had affected a getaway with the help of her infuriated brother and left against medical advice and proudly joined the bulging ranks of Civil Hospital's countless LAMA's. But there was little enough Ali could ever do to stop her as he well knew.
He was out at the moment, purchasing sets of bangles for Chaand Raat. There was a lucrative market for that sort of thing. He liked going out, besides, and staying at home made him irritable. His much more peaceable twin had been abed for five days and was by now heartily sick of resting. She didn't want to read in her restlessness and that was the only outlet available.
"God forsaken hole." she muttered impatiently. And that was probably the nicest thing she could say about the place.
It really was. The person most of the city knew as Raheel really was a most indifferent being. The ground VENDOR CHRONICLESup here on the second floor was baking hot in the summer, and the roof burned under the sun's glare so that even if a hippo had landed on it he would have hopped about like a monkey on weed. Rooms with windows were the height of luxury, despite the fact that the barred affairs themselves were only four square feet across. Nobody paid electricity bills because nobody had a legal line: they all hacked into the main cables crossing the neighbourhood, hundreds and hundreds of hooks hanging gleefully onto the poor cable. But that didn't mean there were no power cuts: no, sometimes the fans could not be worked for 3 days at a stretch, and people were left to wonder how they had managed to survive those stifling tinderboxes. At such times water pumps, already a hotly contested issue, could not be worked, and they were all forced to live without light, air or water. Down in the streets, there was no concept of waste-baskets. Garbage, wrappers, rags and empty bottles lay strewn across the alleys, ready to go whichever way the winds chose to blow it. Gutter lines often overflowed, leaving the alleys in an ankle-deep layer of black sludge. Stray cats littered the corners further, and ran hissing when the dogs barked. An occasional radio blared lewd music, or some unknown door banged, or some nameless woman shouted to her child, or the chance vendor called out. That was all the human traffic during the day. The most affluent in the locality rode motorcycles that looked fittingly malnourished. Children, hair slicked with oil, in newly laundered clothes played in the dirt. But then children seldom had much judgement.
Raheel remembered why they had had to flee south as children. At ten everything had seemed like an adventure. They hadn't fully realised why they were being rushed on so fast by their uncle.
And then came the only sound that ever disturbed the silence of that sleepy, dirty place: a banging door followed by something subtler.
Raheel sat up, eyes alit with interest.
Yes, there was no doubt about it: someone was sobbing softly.
It happened every day, exactly at one thirty in the afternoon: a door slammed shut somewhere, and someone nearby started weeping.
Raheel glared at the bandages and then got up gingerly. Her steps had become so awkward she would surely give herself away if she tried to follow that sobbing by stealth. An experiment two days ago had made it plain to her that the weeping individual was terrified of discovery. But now, with nothing else to do, she had become fixated on that sobbing.
She tested her footing, but such a sickening cramp passed over the stitches that she sat down suddenly with an oath. But the oath had a second reason: she had heard footsteps on the staircase. One set was hearty and impatient, and the other fretful but agreeable. So different, but in the world of words so similar.
The door was thrown open and Ali Nabi Khan walked in carrying a huge sack, throwing over his shoulder, "You're such a princess, Noorullah. You should go for a perm."
Behind him, grumbling, carrying a smaller sack, came the short dark ex-jeweller. "It's not my fault your stairwell is so convoluted and inhospitable –"
Ali crowed with laughter, "Inhospitable? Do you plan to camp out on it? Or do you expect the bannisters to serve you tea?"
"It is dark and cramped." Noorullah stated with wounded dignity.
But Ali had already turned to his twin with a wide grin, "Yo, bro, what's up? Got you a present – catch!"
Raheel did. It was a little pink plastic duck that quacked annoyingly when wound up. "You're a douchebag, Ali." she commented impartially: she had a pathological fear of birds.
Noorullah had finally caught up. He could never get used to seeing his friend Raheel without a beard. Without a turban. A woman. And his face showed it.
It was hard to explain to someone why Raheela could not exist. So they hadn't tried for many years. And now Raheel – like back when they were kids – was a far more natural existence to both twins.
And Ali knew the hawk-like look Raheel wore presently. It signified discovery.
"What is it?" he asked instantly.
"Someone's crying."
Ali and Noorullah exchanged a long look, and then Ali glanced uncertainly where he guessed the bandages roughly were, and spoke as if to a mad person. "People do tend to cry at times. It's one of the things they do."
Raheel stared at him disbelievingly. Then she said, "This person cries every day at exactly one thirty in the afternoon."
Ali was dumbfounded. "Dude. You need a hobby."
"Shut up, Ali." Raheel betrayed not a hint of annoyance, "A door bangs and then this happens."
"You do need a hobby." Noorullah interjected apologetically, rubbing his podgy little hands.
But Ali had started thinking, "You think she cries for somebody?"
"Or in terror, after the person leaves," Raheel shrugged. "Hey, we don't know whether it's a she. It could be a man being blackmailed, or an abused child."
"I could rent a DVD player for you." Noorullah offered in all kindness.
Ali snorted. "Fat lot of good that would do. Unless you rented an electricity cable too." Then he considered and added, "One that actually worked."
"We have to find the person and see why they're crying." Raheel observed, ignoring the mindless talking.
VENDOR CHRONICLES"Why?" Noorullah asked, perplexed, opening his black eyes wide.
"Because they're crying!" Ali looked at him shocked. Knowing how lame it sounded he clarified, "They're in distress!"
"So what?" Noorullah Bakhsh frowned trying very hard to understand them. They did say twins spoke in strange ways.
"We could help the person, Noorullah." Raheel said with more patience than Ali had seen for a week. "It's Ramadan, time to increase your blessings."
That explanation, amazingly enough, went home. Cultural training had its uses.
They fell silent and started wrapping the bangles in cellophane. However, it was in vain.
It wasn't till several hours later, deep into the afternoon, that it started again.
Ali stood up, listening intently. He followed the sound, listening at doors and keyholes along the corridor. That got them nowhere, but then Noorullah began his search of the floor. And sure enough, there was a hole drilled into a corner for some wire long ago doubtless. When he put his ear to that, choking in horror at the thought of some bug crawling up his ear canal, sure enough, the sound intensified.
"I can't go, but you guys should." Raheel said unemotionally, but the disappointment was tangible.
Ali and Noorullah descended the first flight of steps and went to the door directly below the one Raheel was sitting in.
Noorullah knocked. Whoever was inside fell deathly silent.
"Stupid." Ali rolled his eyes at Noorullah's approach. "We're not going to hurt you," he called out softly, "We just want to check if you're okay. We heard you crying."
There was no reply.
"And that wasn't stupid at all." Noorullah commented sarcastically.
"Listen, kid," Ali said, breaking into impatience, "We haven't got all day. I do have work to do, you know. My brother wanted me to check up on you, and he's going to badger me to death. So if you don't open the door right now, I'm coming in. And if you throw something at me I swear I am going to reciprocate."
Whoever was inside was either too scared to respond or too smart to.
Ali shrugged the door open. It gave without resistance, and then immediately a piece of china smashed directly beside his head on the doorjamb.
"What the-!" Ali ducked it on an oath. "You are dead meat!" he started to stride forward ready to rend the assaulter limbless, and then stopped dead in his tracks.
Noorullah had stepped up beside him and now his jaw too dropped open.
A little girl with a tear-streaked face was crouched under a table, a broom clutched in her hand. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her short oiled hair dishevelled. She was painfully thin, the bones sticking out of every imaginable place, further exaggerating those large terrified eyes.
Her shirt was absolutely wet. Behind her in the gloom was a basket of dirty clothes.
"Are you washing clothes?" Ali demanded in disbelief.
The girl just stared at the Pathan giant of a man who had barged into her house swearing.
"When was the last time you ate?" Noorullah asked, shrewd eyes widened in shock at the state of the child.
The girl just blinked stupidly.
"Do you understand what we're saying?" Raheel asked softly from the door.
Ali turned with another oath: unable to resist the curiosity, Raheel had limped down the steps after them.
Maybe it was his detachedness, or perhaps it was the smooth features, that made the child suddenly gain confidence. "Yes." She nodded.
"Who was the man who left a while ago?" Raheel asked.
It was a long shot, but it paid.
The child trembled, but replied, "My father."
Ali had recovered himself, "What's your name?" he asked, bending to offer her his hand, "I'm Ali."
The girl mumbled something, hanging her head.
"What's that?" Ali asked gently, and then choked stifling his laughter as she said, "Girl."
"Is that what he calls you?" Raheel asked, frowning at her brother.
The girl nodded again.
"Did you have sehri?" Raheel queried.
The child shook her head.
"Come, we'll get you something to eat." She held out her hand.
But the child shrank in fear.
"We won't hurt you, beta," Ali told her gently. "We'll bring you food here if you like?"
"No!" the girl said emphatically, "If he finds you here, he will get angry."
"And then he will hit you?" Raheel suggested, tactlessly.
It was Ali's turn to shoot a glare at his twin. The child hadn't replied, so he asked her, "Does he make you do all the work?"
A large tear welled up and dropped down the emaciated cheek. Then another followed, slowly.
"Does he hurt you?" Ali gently took her hands and turned them to the light coming from the corridor outside.
They were callused and covered in cuts and burns.
His lips tightened. "You must have a name, child."
She looked at him as if he was an alien. Then she said uncertainly, "My mother said Fairy."
"Faryal?" Noorullah finally found his voice.
She shot him a look of pure terror and shrank against Ali.
"He just guessed, from your nickname." Ali smiled, "When will he come back?"
"At night."

Noorullah Bakhsh had many uses. He possessed knowledge on several stolen items. He also possessed knowledge on which ones the authorities were looking out for. At Ali's persuasion, on the following afternoon, he had planted a particularly magnificent piece of archaeological pottery in Faryal's kitchen. It was known to have been taken from the National Museum. After Superintendent Anwar Kareem of Lyari sector 16 received an anonymous tip, the squalid flat had been raided, and Humail Akhtar was arrested for robbery and armed theft when he got home three hours later, dead drunk.
It was Chaand raat now, and the fireworks flowed thickly above the rooftops of the Korangi slums. The world was alight with stolen electricity and fairylights – but that did not make them any less brilliant. Children ran haywire along the streets, sporting glittering firecrackers, and vendors of all sorts – shoes, bangles, sweetmeats, chaat and paani puri – thronged the market-place. Ali and Raheel Nabi Khan sold bangles at theirs, while Noorullah watched on with avuncular benevolence. Raheel remained sitting throughout, thanks to a puma he had once met, and talked sometimes to a wide-eyed little girl who sat on the edge of their cart, licking a kulfi, oblivious to the fact that it was dripping onto her shirt relentlessly melting, and watching the world prepare for Eid in a cheap, sweet, glittering splendour that she could not in her wildest caged dreams have imagined.

to be continued...

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