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04 - 10 Aug, 2012
ENGLISH MAGAZINE

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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

It was a good two weeks into the holy month of Ramadan. The particular lunar date differed the globe over, the various clerics' ego taking precedence over any need for sentimental unity. Jeddah was a day ahead, and Bombay a day behind, but in Karachi it was the present: iftaar time on Wednesday, the lunar 12th.
That meant it was rush hour in the market place. And rush-hour here was unlike rush-hour anywhere else. It did not imply an overflow of cars or buses or anything that moved on wheels. It simply meant an overabundance of people; at first glance seemingly crammed into narrow streets; screaming, squealing, jostling, tripping over fallen packages and flat tires and inconveniently but VENDOR CHRONICLESconsistently placed garbage. It was rather like a concentration-camp built around squashed squares and tiny curbs and grimy shop fronts: as if all of Auschwitz had been let loose on some misbegotten alley in some overcrowded neighbourhood of Karachi and then the exits sealed off. Except of course for the spirit, the sheer fervour with which the people wrestled and jostled and struggled against that tide of bodies; their vehemence as they called each other names during their paradoxical fasting, and their aggression as they fought their way out to the front of the strange, chaotic phenomenon that was accepted as a queue in this city alone on earth. And the cell-phones that were ringing off the hook in all hands and pockets that possessed them. The reason was very simple: people at home were waiting for their iftaar, and people were hungry. What hunger does to the tolerance level of an already frustrated populace needs no explanation.
At the very heart of the struggle were the vendors – the root of evil – whom everyone was trying to get to in their hurry. With the end result that no one could get to them, of course. In contrast to the hassled and harassed expressions on most of the faces of these spawn of Satan, two were quite relaxed. Ali and Raheel Nabi Khan, thrown into bright relief by the glare of the mithai shop behind them, were at their utmost ease selling piping hot pakoras and jalebis, oblivious to all appearances of having recently discovered any hoard of treasure whatsoever.
Raheel fried the goodies, alternating between tossing spoonfuls of savoury batter and casually piping beautiful rosettes and rings of sweet batter into the two crackling pans. He even looked about owlishly, appearing to look without actually seeing the haranguing custom.
His twin, Ali, was jovially dealing with customers, exchanging pleasantries, pulling a leg here or there. The sleepy-eyed Pathan looked so harmless that even the most harassed ended up spilling all their beans and the spiciest of the day's gossip right into his seemingly innocuous ear. And people preferred him to any of the other three dozen pakora-walas anyway: he was never sharp or disagreeable. With nearly two weeks into the holy month of fasting and the resulting iftaar windfall, Ali had befriended most of the market anyway.
"Oye, amma! What fine bangles you have on today – zakhmi colour, by God! You will have the whole VENDOR CHRONICLESmarket turning Majnoo!" he laughed at the sharp-tongued lady now ordering two dozen pakoras.
A man from the sweetshop cried out rudely, "You'll die of gluttony if you eat that much – leave some for other people!"
"Oye, Rehmatullah – you're cackling like an old lady – maybe you should stay off the carbs anyway today, man." Ali threw over his shoulder good-naturedly.
"Aray, khala," he began in wild-eyed astonishment at the next woman to holler at him, "How are you? You haven't been around for a few days – what news of the madrassa?" he bantered, seeming entirely sincere.
"Annoying, as usual." she sniffed. Husna bibi was an absolute amazon and she hated her neighbouring mosque and adjoining madrassa with all her heart. You couldn't blame the woman: you couldn't possibly love neighbours who woke you up in the middle of the night with their microphones, and who jolted the life out of you with their loudspeakers at odd and unexpected hours of the day. "They've got strange goings-on as usual, too. Vans and trucks in the middle of the night, what with their resident jinns and bhoots and whatnot! And I cannot even say anything to them anyway – because I'm not even human!" she ended acerbically.
Raheel had an acute sense of hearing and having heard her over all that tumult looked up from his bowls of batter mildly interested: "Vans and trucks in the middle of the night?"
"Of course! It's been happening for months. Didn't your brother tell you?" She looked at Ali accusingly who winced holding his tongue between his teeth as he served the other customers, listening to his twin's conversation all the while. He knew his twin spoke little, but whatever he said was certainly worth hearing.
"What do they bring in the vans?" Raheel asked with his characteristic want of tact.
The woman huffed up angrily in her ruffled pride – loathe to admit she had been spying on the neighbours, but Ali was quick on the uptake and said jovially, "Aray¸ Raheel – is that one of the saffron jalebis?" without waiting for a reply, he broke off a piece from the golden web fresh from the pan and held it to the woman's lips, "Come on, khala, you've got to try this – it's Raheel's newest invention –" Before she could protest he had popped it into her mouth.
She was too old for her reputation to be damaged by such cheeky behaviour, but she was vain enough to be flattered at the young man's liberties. It won her over. "Cheeky boy!" was all she simpered, slapping his hand away. The jalebi really was a winner.
Grabbing her own parcel she came over to Raheel's side to start talking. "I don't know what they bring – but they always drive the vans right to the door. They carry whatever it is. It takes two men, and they come to the vans more than once."
"Does anyone else know?" Ali asked her in some surprise.
"No." she said bitterly, "They think I'm just being a royal pain if I ever mention it. I even went to the police, I did."
"What did they do?" Ali wanted to know.
"Do? Whenever do they do anything but fill their pockets?" the woman demanded shrilly. "The police did nothing. They laughed. It's all of a piece!"
"Have some more jalebi. On the house." Ali held it out to her, speaking soothingly, as if to calm down an over-excited child.
"Hmph," she snapped, but she accepted the peace offering, and smoothened her ruffled feathers, "They said I was imagining things, and that the madrassa is haunted, so that if anything ever happened there anyway I'd have to pay them way more than their salaries to risk their lives poking about such a place. Call themselves heroes," she snorted.
"Why does it bother you, though?" Raheel asked, again displaying why he could not get along with humans.
"It didn't at first," the woman admitted, then clenched her fists fast around the sticky parcel. "But it was the night before last. I heard a howl… as inhuman as one can be – it was no dog." She shuddered, "Something scampered out of the door of that madrassa and into the courtyard. It looked human, and a child, but it ambled and ran in such a strange way – like a lame animal – then it howled again, and spoke in a deep voice. I've never heard such a voice. It penetrated even the windows and doors."
Raheel was looking at her calmly. "And there are jinns there you say?"
"Yes!" the woman nodded vehemently, "You should see the grotesque figures and forms at Isha prayers there. Specially this month – and all the noises they make. No better than cats or dogs. Much worse, in fact."
"And it happens every night?" Raheel asked, already planning.
The woman was too involved in chewing to answer, but nodded her head fervently.
"We'll go check it out for you, khala, don't worry." Ali told her chivalrously, "Just keep coming back for the jalebi!"

It was just after Maghreb prayers that the twins were sitting in a mosque far from the one that the lady had borne such a grudge against.
"Guns, you think?" Ali's eyes gleamed, "And grenades?"
Raheel shrugged casually, "Or hand-bombs. Or even the materials to make them."
"They could hardly be bringing shipments of rosaries and prayer mats in that late." Ali said aloud watching his twin out of the corner of his eye.
"Madrassas have become… enterprising places, certainly." Raheel commented sardonically, drawing out a handful of almonds from his pocket.
They weren't that similar if you knew what to look for. The features, to be sure, were as mirror images. But Raheel was much slighter and his facial hair much too thick in comparison. And though he was much quieter, his brother was the one with the lazy eyelids.
Ali rushed into the foray because he couldn't help it: Raheel only did when it was prudent. They had come south when still children, and grown into the very fabric of the city just like any other patch of algae encroaching on a leaking wall, or some copper pipe its humid winds encrusted with rust and claimed for their very own. Ali still dreamt of those soaring peaks, where you could see snow kissing the sky and get sunburned both together. He missed the water: the gurgling streams, and the raging icy Swat river. He missed the ice floes and the glaciers, he missed the sweet clear mountain springs, and the goats with their silky coats, and the intense silence and isolation. But most of all he missed the roar of the river that had been a lullaby to them, a right and a guardian since birth, unappreciated and unnoticed till they had finally lost it.
He knew Raheel missed it too: when they had come to the city, for months he had lain awake at night, VENDOR CHRONICLEStired but sleepless, dreaming with his eyes open wide. Raheel was not of a confiding nature, but anything of moment that was said went to Ali first. Also Ali had no idea how the cogs clicked in Raheel's brain; it never failed to impress him, deep down, the deductions and calculations and appraisals. But he had long gotten over the amazement. Raheel had a knack for antagonising people – even back home he had done it since they were little. He just picked things up from people's behaviour and daily patterns and confronted them. Time had taught him self-control, Ali thought, but not tact.
They both wanted to go back eventually, but these were troubled times, and what they had called home once was now a troubled place.
The black-market treasure hoard shown them by the ex-jeweller Noorullah Bakhsh had not left them indifferent. Not in the least. But it had inspired a kind of fascination and an envious respect in the twins. So they kept quiet about it. Ali knew Raheel had always been interested in history and art and fantasy. The collection of second-hand books they had amassed at their quarters was a source of constant irritation to Ali. They had attended school back home, and Raheel could read and write both Urdu and English fluently. Ali had had better stuff to do at school, so he could read haltingly, but wouldn't – not unless wild horses forced him to it. Not that wild horses would ever attempt such a pointless venture. And so it did not surprise him how impressed his twin was with the treasure. He knew Raheel's philosophy on that point, "No man is great enough to own the world's treasure. It belongs to everyone in the grand scheme of things – it's only natural that it should change hands once in a while."

They crouched on the roof, beside the parapet of the angry woman's house in Landhi. She of course had no inkling of the fact, nor even how they had scaled her wall from the side sheltered from the madrassa, like agile monkeys. Or at least, Raheel had. Ali had looked more the part of an ungainly hippo trying to negotiate its way up a tree.
Be as that may, they now had a clear view of the inner courtyard below. Belonging as it did to a mosque as well as its madrassa, it was illumined brightly with artificial lighting, stolen of course – as all electricity cables in the impoverished area were – as the hook-like black kunda hanging on the electric line showed. It was only technically theft, and not even a malignant one: illuminating the houses of prayer, it served the cause of heaven and was thus not even wrong.
The smell of the burning incense was so strong they could smell it even from here. To Ali's half-hearted relief, it masked the terrible stench from the endless rubbish heaps along the street. He voiced it aloud.
Raheel had lifted his nose into the air like a hound and sniffed revolted, "Are you insane as well as anosmic?" he wrinkled his nose, "The garbage and the incense are mingling together. It smells like Shehnaz's kitchen," he added as an afterthought referring to their landlady, "That's why I always tell her I'm fasting if she offers food."
Prayer mats were ranged along the length and width of the courtyard, except for a path left for motor vehicles from the gate to the door of the inner establishment.
A few men were praying by themselves on isolated mats, some with the foreheads touching the ground in reveries, and others rocking to some inward rhythm clicking their rosaries. They all wore turbans and carried cotton shawls.
And then they heard the sounds. The clatter of strange, hurried feet; hair-raising howls; yelps that bit the skin right off Ali's neck; and a hair-raising shriek piercing the night. And yet the worshippers below, intent on their prayers, went on as if they hadn't heard anything.
Ali edged closer to Raheel. "We've seen enough. Nothing is happening. Let's go back. Sehri is in 3 hours. Come on, man, I don't want to fast on an empty stomach."
Raheel looked at him deeply amused. "You're spooked."
His brother glared at him and then resumed watching.
Patience is a virtue, after all, and then it paid. Ten minutes later, a van crept up to the madrassa noiselessly. Like clockwork, the gates were open to let it through and then shut just as soundlessly.
Men emerged from the madrassa, swathed in shawls and turbans, and unloaded the vehicle. They looked so pious that Ali was left wondering, for just a moment. "Maybe it is rosaries."
His twin did not respond.
It was then that the howl came again, followed by the deep, deep voice speaking ugly insults, and a small figure ran out into the courtyard, limping and strangely contorted. It looked more animal than human, but it wore clothes.
Ali had gone white with fright.
Suddenly the creature stopped its senseless running and paused, stock-still. Then, like a wolf, it let out a hair-raising yowl.
Raheel threw his head back and started laughing.

to be continued...

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