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21 - 27 July , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

After sundown the city takes on a life of its own. At first you see the deeper blues to the East, and the wisps of clouds down West turn pink like fluorescent cotton-candy. The lights come on all over the city, lighting the maze of crowded streets and narrow roads with pinpricks of yellow and orange. The last cry of the muezzin calls the faithful to prayers, and the fruit-sellers and mithai-walas begin their business in full swing. Little kids run about on the streets, driving their beat-up bicycles and hurriedly greedily gobbling up the last candy of the day. The welders, mechanics and grease-monkeys carry on their daily toil oblivious to the time. Then slowly as the sky realizes the death of the day, the VENDOR CHRONICLESpink clouds fade away and the darkness descends to the West too.
But away from these commercial hearts of the city, life goes on at a very different pace: it looks like a window into an altogether different world. Women reach their homes in the slums after a full day of drudgery to find the cupboards empty, their children crying. Sometimes the lights go out and then not even the fan can calm those overwrought nerves. In the houses of the rich, lavish parties are just starting, where each suit of clothes costs more than the quarterly income of poor families. Further away in the city are secret, hidden places – full of life – but which few have the privilege to know even exist. They are strange places, and could hardly dream of them, and of the life that goes on within them. But once you see them, you cannot quite understand why they seemed so implausible to you at first.
It was just such a place that even the homeless circumvented, hidden in the backward slums of the city, which the two Pathan vendors had followed the nimble little garbage-boy to. He had led them quite the dance, and their resulting mood made them seem all the more ferocious on this baking, breathless night in July.
There was nothing special about the place at first – just another backwater of survival, full of refuse and rubbish and offal. It was dark, another spot of Heaven blessed by the KESC, and the twins had to step carefully through the mountains of trash to avoid all the broken glass and rotten vegetable. Even the jute bags threw out streamers across the path in the garbage like the supernatural fingers in the dark to trip you up. The smell of compost was overpowering. It made Raheel cough, eyes watering.
"If you had been a woman, you'd have fainted by now and I'd have had to carry your sorry carcass across." Ali commented, holding a handkerchief to his nose. "So Thank God!" he prayed fervently.
Raheel rolled his eyes and tugged at his own fulsome black beard. "I'm thinner than you, chobay – so that would at least have been realistic. Whereas if you had passed out, I'd simply have to leave you rotting here like a snoring elephant."
"Elephants. Don't. Snore," Ali said with a dignified wink, running forth again so that they didn't lose sight of the tiny garbage collector they had been shadowing now for close on a day.
And then quite suddenly light and sound erupted. It was the tinny bass of a dozen stereos or cell-phones turned on together, all playing different things. And over it all arose the boisterous laughter and raucous catcalling of boys who had dodged their leash.
"Juma bazaar?" Raheel raised an unimpressed brow.
It wasn't that ridiculous, really, since the shack really looked like one with all the pillars and tent-roof and open side. It was rectangular, long and lit up so brightly that it seemed that Philips Light-bulbs was shortly to discover an entire shipment missing.
The boy, Younas, had disappeared inside.
Ali stood up, stretching himself, stepping out of where they had been crouching to hide from the lights.
"What are you doing?" Raheel asked conversationally.
"I'm going in. So are you," Ali grinned widely.
"We have been following a child all day," Raheel said slowly, as if sure his twin would have difficulty following. "Do you have any idea how that sounds out loud?"
"Hey. Chill. I'll think of something," Ali shrugged.
VENDOR CHRONICLES"Yes. Now would be a good time to start," Raheel agreed sarcastically, "That is probably a den of thieves – and we don't have a plan."
"Do we ever?" Ali grinned, winking, "Just follow my lead."
And so it was that they entered the den, apparently utterly oblivious to the danger of entering such a place, living up to prototype of the slow Pathans they showed themselves to be.
They were noticed at once.
"Singhaal de jorhay, Lala!" a roistering twelve-year old with a blue cap hollered at them from the other side of the shack, walking up to them. "Did you get lost in the trash?"
A dozen boys started laughing.
"No, but we can help you do that," Ali gave him a sinister smile. "Where's your boss?"
"Why?" the cheeky boy asked, "You want to work for him, khochi?"
"You disgrace to the people of our tribe!" Ali roared suddenly, spittle flying.
The boy gave a dramatic boy to delighted applause all around.
Ali swore loudly, growing quite convincingly red in the face, and wrenching the shoe off his foot, made as if to go after the boy.
Raheel, meanwhile, had been observing the shack with a good deal of interest. He had never quite seen such a place. Reed matting and rags made up the walls, and the uneven ground was spread with a muddy rug that had been red once upon a time. Moth-eaten mattresses and hammocks were ranged along its length in two unkempt aisles. Empty fruit crates were scattered around, upturned, serving variously as stools and tables, and a multitude of fluorescent light-bulbs hung from wires strung across the ceiling, each one shining a shameless 200 watts. The hall was crowded with boys, upwards of four dozen, and though their clothes were torn and patched, and their grinning faces smudged with dirt, they all seemed to have fancy cell-phones in their hands.
Presently as Ali gave chase and cheeky Blue-cap ran there was a loud clap. "ENOUGH!"
Immediately roistering subsided, and even the running boy stopped dead in his tracks. Only the lecherous Indian song blaring on the radio had the audacity to defy the direct order.
Had Ali really meant to catch him he could have made a mince-meat pie of him right there, but he too stopped short, nearly tripping, and turned around.
The man who stood on the threshold was absurdly short for the harshness of that command. He wore his hair in a red ponytail matching his oily red beard, and a pair of snazzy dark-glasses seemed to have been moulded onto his very features. He sported a purple parachute jacket, and his fingers were encrusted with rings.
"Assalamu Alaikum," he offered Raheel a glittering hand, the other placed over his heart in mock sincerity.
From behind him a tiny face peeked out, and the twins recognized it: Younas, their redoubtable quarry of the day.
"I am Mukhtar," he introduced himself as a king would.
Ali stepped forward to shake hands. Always the talker, he began, "I am Ali, and this is my brother Raheel. We are traders."
"And you have been following my boy all day," Mukhtar said smoothly.
Raheel gave Ali a now-you've-really-screwed-us look.
Ali, however, ignored him. "We were looking for you," he lied without a pause, "Following one of your boys was the quickest way."
A bright, unnatural smile teased its way onto Mukhtar's lips. "Not to frighten you, gentlemen. But only two types of people look for Mukhtar. One, whom Mukhtar knows. The other kind usually end up lost on the garbage heaps till the earth consumes them."
"What about the kind whom Mukhtar doesn't know yet, but will in the future?" Raheel asked, unmoved.
Ali on the other hand had had to suppress a shudder.
"They are few and far between." Mukhtar admitted with a shrug. "You might as well tell me now, because I will find out. Are you police-men?"
"Police-men!" Ali exploded with wrath. "They who rat out on their brothers to strangers? I spit on their graves!" he demonstrated.
There was an approving good-natured chorus of 'Rot, rot!' all around.
Even Mukhtar, who knew his boys bore the police no grudge and were simply applauding for the fun of it, allowed himself a chuckle. "What do you trade in?"
"Whatever suits the season, brother," Raheel smiled his slow smile. "Yesterday we sold vegetables."
Ali realised it was time to take over the conversation before his twin gave any more away. "Whatever VENDOR CHRONICLEShelps you hide your merchandise, you know." He had detected a slight accent, "Are you from Swat, brother?"
"Mardan," Mukhtar replied, letting down his guard slightly. "Why were you looking for me?"
Ali had already decided his line of approach: "We wanted to talk to you about something you recently acquired." He looked around at the boys, "Perhaps somewhere more private?"
"Whatever you have to say to me you can say in front of my boys," Mukhtar said with a greasy smile.
"It's about a red stone," Ali said airily, "and others like the flag the army paints up north."
Mukhtar's expression had changed immediately: it now bore traces of stealth mingled with wariness, but the smile was still firmly in place. "Ah yes, somewhere a tad more private. Let the boys rest. They've had a long day." He looked down, grinning apologetically at the aforementioned, "It's about things people pray for. Eh, boys?"

It was long since Ali had discovered the marvellous effects of kahva on loosening the human tongue. Since then he had always carried a bottle of pure honey around in his pocket whenever an interrogation was imminent. It gave the whole thing a friendly air, and the witness never even found out he was being played. That was the beauty of what man stole from the bees.
That warm night in July, he used it once again to their advantage. Mukhtar never realised how it happened. One moment they were quite stiff and wary, as animals often are, circling the foe before a fight, and the next they had all relaxed, and were laughing away like long-lost chums. It was the kahva all along. Who knows what Ali slipped into that little honey-bottle of his.
"So you were saying these boys are all from the north?" Raheel asked interestedly.
"Yes. And good families too," Mukhtar gave himself a congratulatory wink, "They think they're here studying. They drop out of school when they see there're easier ways here to make money."
"Don't the families find out?"
Mukhtar shrugged, comfortably leaning across his bolster pillows. "Eventually, yes. But these boys make so much money, they don't mind. They collect recyclable material. I sell it to factories." Mukhtar nodded in a paradoxically fatherly way, "They make good money. Upwards of 500 a day. And I look after them, protect them from the horrors of the city. They're like my sons. They just happen to be very obedient."
"And so the cell-phones?" Ali asked, since he considered himself very tech-savvy.
"Boys will have their toys." Mukhtar grinned. "Safer than other things they can get into around here."
"That's true," Raheel nodded, "but how does this arrangement help you in the long run?"
"I help them make money," Mukhtar gestured as if rubbing money between his fingers, "They save up, go back home, invest – you know, become traders. They grow up," he shrugged his purple-clad shoulders, "Who knows – one day they'll remember chachu Mukhtar and all he did for them!" he laughed what would have been a toothy laugh, except all the teeth were black and rotted.
The twins had left the ruby necklace alone, and now Mukhtar approached the subject himself, unable to contain his curiosity, "Why did you want to see me about a certain object you mentioned?"
"We don't like to beat about the bush. It's a ruby necklace," Ali shrugged like a don from the Mafioso. "We got wind of it, but your boy beat us to it."
"And now you want it back?"
Raheel shrugged. "We could acquire it ourselves. If would be more convenient, of course, if you could just tell us where it is."
"Are you serious, man?" Mukhtar gave him a hard long stare. Then he shook his red head. "I can't do that. I made a pretty sum on it. Younas worked for that sum. You can't deprive him of his future palace in Chitral." He shook his head again, the earrings jingling, "And me? I would lose all credibility."
Ali assumed an expression of outraged shock. "We won't steal it, brother. You dishonour the very word! We're honourable merchants, same caste, same religion, remember?"
Raheel smiled a steely smile, as close to warmth as anyone ever saw him get – which, in all fairness, was nowhere near it. "We'll approach him with our own offer. See what he says."
"You expect me to believe that? You'd be making a loss on that necklace," Mukhtar replied shrewdly, eyes still hidden behind the shades.
"It's got sentimental value, brother." Ali revealed sentimentally placing a hand on his heart. "And who would know more of family honour than a Pathan?"
It might have been the angle of the light but distinctly saw Mukhtar's eyes widen in anticipation.
"It was stolen from my grandmother many years ago," Ali continued.
"Our real business is jewels," Raheel said from under his lazy lids, leaning back, chewing slowly on his infinite store of almonds.
Ali shot him an angry look.
"Relax, brother," Raheel recommended calmly, "I trust him. We must be entirely truthful if we want to make contacts in this city."
Mukhtar nodded his approval. "My man is entirely trustworthy. Never have the coppers got wind of him. He has big business." He demonstrated by embracing the entire universe with his glass of kahva. "I will help you, brothers," he suddenly grinned his slippery grin. "But for a fee, of course. Nothing in life comes for free, you know best as traders."

Before they went off to chase the new lead, our two vendors thought they'd pay Chief Inspector Anwar Kareem a visit. The area of the jewel robbery wasn't in his jurisdiction, but everyone has contacts, including police inspectors. The world is a small place.
"And you are sure you can recover this necklace?" the Inspector glared from under his greying brows.
"Yes, we are," Raheel answered indifferently, "but we might choose not to. And we certainly won't be handing it over to fatten the purses of the rich that are obscenely obese anyway."
"I can hold you for contempt," Anwar Kareem glowered.
"And stop getting the anonymous tips that are making you so famous," Ali nodded understandingly. "Nah, you won't do it, man."
"We really must be going now," Raheel checked his watch. "And if you want a hint on who to question, try the maali. Sania's sweet on him."

to be continued...

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