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07 - 13 July , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

An inhuman shriek rent the night like a gunshot.
Ali awoke with a jolt, startled out of both his wits and dreamland. He had been dreaming of streams and springs breaking through the rock with their sheer force, and of waterfalls that flowed like pearly satin from shaded mountain summits. But the only water that flowed here in the city of Karachi was that of the gutter, apart from the monsoon in which it mingled with its fallen yet paradoxically pure cousin to produce huge lakes and pools in which the street urchins dived to perfect the art of not drowning.
Presently however, he gawped dazedly at a tall man sleeping against the wall, VENDOR CHRONICLESall bundled up in a ragged blanket, not four feet away. He was fair and powerfully built, with a thick black beard. He was also Ali's mirror image, except somewhat slimmer.
Upon hearing the wail he had opened a bleary grey eye, and was indifferently observing the antics of the pathetic creature before them.
A woman swathed in grey had materialized out of the dark alleys of Saddar, and was wringing her callused hands, taking a step first in one direction and then another, mumbling under her breath. Her head was half-covered, the wiry hair dishevelled underneath, and she didn't seem to care about anyone watching her.
She watched with unveiled resentment as a group of veiled young women hurried past her, but as soon as she saw the little boy bringing up the rear, she choked on an anguished "Hai Raymaan!" The unearthly wail escaped her then yet again. She sank to her knees like a wounded animal, dashing her head against the wall.
"Raheel!" Ali said angrily getting to his feet, as the women flew away from the poor creature like scattered chickens with their young.
His twin looked up at him placidly, "Yes?"
"Go to the Devil!" Ali cursed with emphasis, always the more impulsive one, crossing over to the woman in two long strides and pulling her roughly from the wall. "What are you doing, lady? Have you lost your mind?" he demanded.
"And my life, and my heart, and everything!" the woman in grey screeched in a jagged, harsh accent, making no move to free herself or cover her face.
"She's lost her son." Raheel summarized smoothly, strolling up to them at a leisurely pace.
The woman had suddenly realized that they were men, and half-covered her mouth, expression souring subconsciously with the practiced reflex of a woman who knew herself to be far from good-looking. But at Raheel's words she grasped his shawl, eyes dark with suspicion. "How did you know?"
Raheel looked down coolly at her, unmoved by her plight.
Ali took pity, "He has a gift. He knows things, lady."
The woman relinquished her desperate, angry hold.
"Are you a saint?" she asked with the sudden blind hope of the superstitious.
"I wouldn't just be selling corn if I was a saint." Raheel couldn't help the mockery, gesturing over at the two carts the brothers pushed.
In fact though, the statement was somewhat inaccurate. The twins sold much more than corn, and the wares changed with the weather, and sometimes as often as it suited them.
"How did you know then?" the woman asked distrustfully.
"Psychology and observation." Raheel answered her as unhelpfully as Ali knew he would.
"I am not insane!" the woman drew herself up, eyes flashing, "Did my man put you up to this?"
"No!" Ali was outraged, but Raheel cut across him interestedly, "What is your man's name?"
She was caught off-guard, "Sayyad Shakeel Aftab – why do you –"
"What is your son's name?"
"Hakim." she answered automatically.
"We'll find your son." Ali said kindly, glaring at his walking reflection.
Raheel grinned lazily at him, and then acquiesced with a nod. "You'll have him at home soon. Don't worry."
"Why should I believe you?" the woman in grey asked archly, trying to hide the tears.
"Don't." Raheel shrugged, turning away unfeelingly, "It's all one to us. By the way," he added, "Should we bring your son to Lyari if we find him with Shakeel Aftab?"
The woman bristled fearfully at that, "How do you know that? How much do you know about me? Leave us alone, we are not from any political party!" she almost started bawling.
"Neither are we, so stop that ridiculous howling!" Even Ali was annoyed by this point.
Raheel however, undertook the labour of answering for himself. "Well, I know certain things. For example, you were brought up in Lyari, and you still live there. You have one child only, probably from a previous marriage. You are married to a younger man who tells you repeatedly that you are old and ugly. You work for a living, cleaning and washing for wealthy people probably from Defence or Clifton. Your son VENDOR CHRONICLESdisappeared recently, within the last two days, and you had a violent fight with your husband when you tried to file an FIR with the police. After that your husband left and didn't return. You get heart burn and suffer from high blood pressure, and you have been eating gutka for many years. You also tend to talk to yourself." He paused, considering, "But then there are other things which I have no idea about, such as your name."
The woman was staring at him open-mouthed. "Halima." she answered mechanically.
"– or where you live."
She told him the address.
Ali, though enlightened, was far too used to these fountains of knowledge to be impressed. He had lit the kiln on his own cart and had begun roasting a corn-on-the-cob in the black sea sand.
He tossed it up with his sickle and sprinkling lemon juice on it and handed it to Halima with a flourish and a wink, said loudly. "No charge for you, miss! May God keep you happy – go home and rest, and what a pretty night it is, too!"
The twins then pushed off with their carts and disappeared into that labyrinth of mazes that was the old city district of Saddar. Nobody noticed two great lumbering north countrymen. Nobody thought them worth a second look. They were slow fellows; you could even make fun of them without their realising. And so people talked freely in front of them: they would be too thick to follow anything in any case. They would sell corn one day, taffy another, be travellers at this Irani joint, Afghan merchants at that one, and refugees at another.
The first person to take notice of the two Pathans was an old paan-wala by the curb of the street on which Shakeel Aftab lived. And this was only because Ali sauntered in and struck up a conversation with him. Conversation was his forte, as deduction was his twin's.
"Well, I don't know where Shakeel went." The old man revealed scratching his bald head as they jovially spat the betel-juice together. "I saw him walking past last night. He goes out at night often, though. You could try the New Fresco Restaurant – it's two blocks away. Gulraiz is the owner there, his close friend. If anyone knows he does. I don't know where Shakeel works. He earns well enough, now that I think about it."
The New Fresco Restaurant was a dark, greasy Irani hotel on the ground floor of one of those buildings so typical of the downtown slums. Colonial buildings, oriental lattice-work and Grecian pillars all squeezed into tiny spaces rising vertically three or four storeys above the road, plastered with commercial advertisements and a patchwork of coloured paint. The proprietor was just as dark and greasy, with a great hooklike nose and stringy long hair, chewing the end of a twig.
"Yes, we offer various services." he said uncommunicatively, his shifty eyes taking in the aspects of the clumsy Pathans.
Ali decided to take a gamble. "We would like to work out a deal with you."
Shutters in the wily proprietor's eyes slammed down shut on the instant. "I don't make deals." The alarm bells in his brain had gone off screaming a warning but it was well-nigh impossible to tell from his face.
Ali, ever-reckless, tapped his foot with an entertained grin, "We're not cops, okay, man?" he drank down the kahva they had ordered with the practised air of a connoisseur. "We're interested in both, buying and selling. You will, however, need to tell us something about the merchandise."
"And visual proof of what you say too." Raheel added oblivious to the possibility of offending their only lead who bristled with dislike on the instant.
"Not that we doubt you, of course." Ali reassured him, glossing over his twin's lack of people skills.
The oily man rubbed his hands apologetically and spoke in a voice positively dripping with sugar, "I have no idea what you are talking about, gentlemen. I can offer you parathas and nihari at the moment, though."
"Possibly," Ali gave him a hard stare, then got up and left.
The night wore on and brightened as the moon rose and then started to set, and there was no sign whatsoever of the twins on the street of the New Fresco Restaurant. But they were there, just around the corner, under cover of a detached donkey-cart.
At about 1 AM, the lights of the restaurant were put out, and the shuffling proprietor emerged from the door, locking it behind him.
He had no clue, though he glanced about him more than once, that he was followed. Up the bridge and down the canal he went, hurriedly, and finally emerged on a filthy embankment. There he walked down a rickety bridge and into another tangle of shacks in the grime-encased slums.
Raheel had heard the story of Hansel and Gretel, so he carried a piece of chalk in his turban. Unnoticed by all he made tiny marks on the walls to mark the way.
VENDOR CHRONICLESNever once did the proprietor pause even though the walk was anything but a short one.
Finally he disappeared into a dinghy three-storey building, with a bright orange lamp lighting the threshold as if to mark out intruders.
Twenty minutes later the man re-emerged, accompanied this time by a younger fellow, just as unwashed, with open shirt-buttons and a thick moustache. Shakeel Aftab had a red light about his eyes, and his shirt was torn at the collar as if after a struggle.
They seemed to be arguing about something furiously, in low voices.
Ali turned around to discover Raheel had vanished without warning. Five minutes later he saw his twin beckoning him from a garbage dump in the shadows to the left.
Cursing under his breath, trying to remain undiscovered, Ali stole away in the darkness towards the overflowing dump.
The stench was overpowering, and Raheel was holding his handkerchief to his mouth. He pointed towards a slit in the street represented by a deeper shadow, speaking in a silent language Ali understood to perfection.
Like phantoms they melted into the shadows. Finding footholds, Ali snaked up the hidden wall of the building, till he came to a window. He waited till Raheel signalled safety, and the parting of the other pair of conspirators from below. But the window simply would not give under his impatient fingers. Ali smashed the largest pane, and then tried to duck as Raheel slithered up the wall like a lizard and cuffed him soundly around the head.
After fumbling in the dark for what seemed like an eternity, for they dared not light a match except for a second at landing, they finally reached a lighted corridor. It was painted with green peeling paint and if possible even more miserable than the exterior of the building housing it. The reek of human refuse was overwhelming, and the silence was pregnant with trepidation.
Removing their worn out sandals they softly stole towards the light, watching for the doors. The three on the left were darkened, and one on the right was thrown open, a TV blaring with some lewd Indian music, two men were stretched on a stained mattress before it. One of them was half-asleep, the other chortling stupidly at the vulgar visuals. The last door was padlocked.
Raheel shrugged at Ali's mischievous grin. They walked in without warning, Ali lunging at the one awake, and Raheel gagging the sack drooling on the floor. They were either inebriated or caught completely off-guard so that they fell easy prey. To be fair to the half-witted big chortler he put up a hard fight, but Ali easily whacked the gun from his hand, and knocked him clean out with a hard blow to the jaw.
Since no key was found upon the guards' unpleasant persons, Ali picked up a loose brick and bashed the padlock open.
When the door finally creaked open, there was a silent moment before he turned to Raheel, face set in grim lines. "Congratulations, bro. We've discovered Hell."
It was not a very large room, but it was full of black bars. The bars belonged to the dozens of cages lining it. In the centre of the room hung a single zero-watt bulb revealing the shapes huddled in the coops. They were children. White-faced, terrified, the ground stained with urine.
Raheel Khan ran six blocks with practised ease and burst into the office of Superintendent Anwar Kareem, Lyari sector 16. He had waited in the lobby for ten minutes and then decided he didn't have the patience for it.
The police officer had looked up wrathfully and then not recognizing him drew his weapon, "Hands on your head!"
Raheel grimaced, unimpressed, "Let me show you Hell, Inspector."
"If you detonate or open fire you will be sorry." the Superintendent replied not giving an inch.
"And if you do, around five dozen families will be too." Raheel replied, considering, "Plus of course, you will grow old regretting this night."
Barely an hour later the building with the locked room was raided by police Inspector Anwar Kareem's forces. Not that the Inspector had any jurisdiction in this sector of Lyari. But he had the distinction of being discovered by the Khan brothers, and so in the future had the possibility of ending up with credit for the discovery of more than his fair share of cases.
Fifty seven boys aged between four and twelve were rescued from the secret room in Lyari that night, and Shakeel Aftab and the greasy proprietor were arrested along with five accomplices.
Early next morning, there was a loud rap on the Halima's door. The woman in grey had been crying her heart out, after the police raid and Shakeel's ridiculous arrest. She opened it, barely hoping.
"Hai Allah!"
Hakim quickly stepped forward and clung to her in silence.
In the middle of her tears and hugs the poor woman looked up and recognized the two bhutta-walas from the day before.
"But how did you know all those things about me?"
Ali groaned, as Raheel sighed, "It's very simple. You were self-conscious and resentful towards younger women showing your husband's mentality. Fiercely protective of your son, obviously much closer to him than to a newer relationship. Your hands are callused betraying your profession, and you speak with your teeth half-closed like most gutka addicts. Your accent betrays your origin, and snippets of broken English in your speech show where you work. You are clearly a type A personality, therefore more prone to high blood pressure. You have no bruises signifying no physical abuse, except the fresh cut on your cheek which shows you had a recent fight."
"You are a magician! I could kiss your hands and feet and make you famous and respected here," Halima croaked, "How could I ever thank you?"
"By forgetting us," Raheel answered impartially, turning to leave.
But Ali stood his ground, "After a cup of tea." he amended shamelessly, "Seven spoons of sugar."

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