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28 July - 03 Aug, 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

There are many things that happen on the beaches of a financial capital at dusk. Many others happen in its dockyards. Labourers and machines hauling the cargo, much the same at some level, seen from the administrators' window; fishermen coming in with the last catch of the day; businessmen partying, partiers dancing, children running along the shoreline. Over the ages these beaches and coves edging the port-cities have been famous for various things. Karachi, for example, was successively renowned for pirates, robbers, maritime invasions, peace, war and corruption. But most of all, it's the effusive life that characterizes it. That no matter how rough things get, however many tyres you burn or sons you murder, coated in the grime and dust of industrialization, the spirit of the place simply refuses to stop living.
There are also many things that happen under the bridges of Karachi. Trade of goods and services deemed illegal by the constitutions of all countries is one of them. But this dark night in July, there was something else that was happening and that made one very burly Pathan trader double back in shock.
It was a little girl under the bridge known as the Native's Jetty, and she was sitting amid huge heaps of VENDOR CHRONICLESraw meat still glistening unpleasantly with blood.
The trader was none other than Ali Nabi Khan. His twin had walked past the scene not even feigning interest.
"Raheel!" Ali exclaimed weakly in shock, offended by his twin's lack of sensibility.
Raheel turned with slight impatience and then glanced briefly at the scene holding his brother so completely transfixed. "Oh please, brother. It's the way we live now. And we're running late."
Ali did not appreciate the spin on the phrase, but he was forced to consider the second point. Yes, they were running late. They had been given an interesting lead on a handler of stolen goods: it was an auction taking place at a container in the dockyard. If they had any brains they were sure as hell not going to miss it.
"Are you coming or are you considering a career in paedophilia?" Raheel gave him a depreciating look and resumed walking.
Ali shuddered: that little girl would give him nightmares for quite a few weeks to come, he knew. Then he ran after fast-paced Raheel.
Fifteen minutes later they were climbing the last barrier to the container in question. The pitch blackness of the night was not helped by the shipping authorities' entire disregard for illumination or even neon markers. In all fairness, nobody was meant to bungle their way around these stored and spare containers at night. But port cities and their people have a different interpretation of carpe diem. They live in the moment by breaking the laws confining it. And so the Nabi Khan twins were not the only ones who had stumbled in that shipping yard that night.
The only thing marking the container was a symbol chalked into the earth beside it. The miniscule air-holes were invisible. There was no other way to get there – you couldn't even guess anything was going on inside one of those steel giants, and you would never find it unless you knew what to look for.
Bracing himself, Ali pushed open the marked panel.
Immediately inside he was greeted quite suddenly with light. There wasn't an awful lot of it, but to eyes attuned to the dark, it was quite blinding.
"Ahem." Raheel cleared his throat from behind him.
About half a dozen men had been milling about at the far end of the container, but presently they just stared at the two wild Pathans who had walked in, one slightly shorter but much slighter than the other.
"Noorullah Bakhsh?" Ali made a beeline for the short, stout fellow with a dark weasel-like face.
Noorullah Bakhsh stayed still as a statue, eyes watching them suspiciously.
"Ali Khan." Ali introduced himself, placing a mocking hand over his heart. "And this is my brother, Raheel. Mukhtar told us about you."
Immediately a greasy smile snapped into sharp relief on Noorullah's face. "Ah, Mukhtar." He took a deep breath of dramatized relief, "And what did he tell you about me?"
Though his body language quite flawlessly imitated relief, the other men were distinctly suspicious and wary, like dogs prowling around with their hackles raised.
"Simply that you were the man who could help us." Ali informed the dark, rotund man with congratulatory air.
"And how can we help you, my good man?" The man smiled in his very own smarmy way at Raheel, the quiet one, who had been dispassionately observing the inside of the container up until now.
"I'm not a–" Raheel began and then protested "Ow!" hopping in pain when Ali stepped over his feet by accident.
"As I was saying," Raheel resumed, glaring at his brother, "I'm not a good man. I'm just like any other. I hate self-confident hypocrisy."
VENDOR CHRONICLESBakhsh was frowning very confusedly, trying to make sense of the lunatic turn the conversation had taken, when Ali successfully cut off his thought processes by one magic word: "Jewels."
Noorullah Bakhsh stared in incomprehension holding up his hands in sheer denial. "You are mistaken. What have we to do with jewels?" The 'we' the brothers noticed implied the singular.
"What are these numbers then that you are preparing to auction off?" Raheel enquired pleasantly, veiling the challenge in seriousness, pointing at the row of placards set on the table around which the men were gathered. They were definitely not off the street – at the very least they appeared to be office clerks.
Bakhsh paled visibly, "You are the police?" then recovering himself with lightening speed, he simpered, "No, no, no – we are very generous with cuts!"
"We are not policemen, you fool." Raheel returned coldly, "We're on a quest. We deal in jewels."
Since the man did not look like he would buy any teary-eyed story about a family heirloom, Ali changed the lie to suit the occasion, "Cutting all the bull aside, we have a client who's very interested in a certain ruby necklace you currently have."
"We've been tracking it for days, and then it ended up in your possession." Raheel took up the narrative, "Now our client would be willing to give you a generous cut if you were to sell him that necklace instead of putting it up at auction."
But Ali's imagination had run haywire by now. "Nobody knows the true value of that necklace."
Mukhtar's face broke into a grin and he started rubbing his hands in glee, "You're out there, mate. We know what that necklace is… and what it should be worth."
"You do?" Ali exclaimed in real surprise: he really had been shooting wildly.
"My father was a jeweller. And his before him, and so on, for generations." Bakhsh told them with a smug smile. "We know what it is."
Ali was floundering for a loophole, but Raheel found it much faster. "Oh yes? And what exactly do you think it is, you ingenious man?" he asked with a mocking grimace.
The first rule of deception was cajoling the enemy, and Ali looked positively outraged at Raheel's blatant disregard for it.
Predictably, Bakhsh bristled defensively on the instant. "It's the ruby from the Maharaja Ranjit Singh's favourite crown jewels."
"Right." Raheel looked unimpressed, going overboard with the mockery. "And what makes you so sure you've identified it correctly?"
"Because my ancestor set it into that necklace! He made a mark in it!" Bakhsh said shrilly, growing redder in the face.
And then of course, at the satisfied look on Nabi Raheel Khan's face he probably realized he had said more than he had meant to in the first place.
But Ali was quicker on the uptake than him. He gave his twin a contented look, and then addressed Bakhsh, "You have passed the test. I think," he gave his brother a significant look, "this guy is fine to work with. He knows his stuff."
"Wait," Bakhsh cut in disbelievingly, "You knew it was the Maharaja's ruby?"
"No." Raheel replied with a careless shrug of the shoulders, "But we knew it dated from a treasure of the British Raj. Our client is a collector."
Bakhsh's ears pricked up at the word. "Foreign?"
Ali looked loth to part with the information but then admitted, nodding, "International."
Bakhsh clapped his hands delightedly. Then he bent forward and asked conspiratorially, "Where from?"
"Cairo, Egypt." Ali answered without pause.
"What does he look like?" Bakhsh tried casually in an attempt to catch them off-guard but they were prepared.
"Tall, fat –"
"Fat and fair –"
"With lots of guns." Ali nodded wisely, screwing his eyes in disapproval.
"And that hawk-like nose." Raheel added dreamily looking away at the numbers again. "Can we have a look at the items?"
"No, you can't. They're not here." Bakhsh said flatly.
"Do you mean to tell me," Raheel paused for emphasis in his disdain, "That you don't even have a hyperlink promoting your merchandise?"
Now that simply was far too much information for two wild, shabby men who looked like they pushed carts somewhere: Bakhsh was finally inclined to believe them. He started grinning like the imp who'd found his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – or rather, stolen the leprechaun's. "We need to see buyer credentials before we show you anything. I'm so sorry." And he genuinely sounded it, though he continued to smile smarmily and to rub his fidgety hands. He was won over, but he still stepped warily. Besides the two men looked too slow to hoodwink anybody anyway.
"Let's discuss this over a round of kahva." Ali suggested with a big smile. "After you're done for the night, of course. And you're reserving the ruby, right?"

"So what's the extent of your business then?" Raheel bent forward looking as impressed as someone who looked so slow could, cupping the glass of magic kahva, delaying having to drink it. Contrary to what his twin thought, Raheel found the tongue-loosening infusion quite vile.
They were sitting at an Irani hotel in the largely Pathan colony of hovels bordering the American consulate on Mai Kolachi.
"I sell to foreign buyers – private collectors and other interested parties –" Bakhsh began.
But Raheel interrupted rudely, "No, I meant the geographical extent."
"Middle East, Far East, Europe, South America, South Africa," Bakhsh grinned his impish grin, "The world over."
"But you don't just sell jewels, do you?" Ali asked, giving him a drunken wink.
"I sold a Faberge egg once." Bakhsh bragged though dreamily, "Imagine, something the last Tsar actually ordered and touched – and perhaps that his children played with."
Raheel frowned at him, "Yeah. I doubt even royal children ever get to play with giant eggs crafted in gold." He said dampeningly.
Bakhsh shrugged, "You and I – we have no idea what the rich do, or how the rich eat or how their children play. We grew up on paani puri and paaparh, flying kites and phhul-jarhyan. They have meat everyday – and things we can never even imagine putting in our mouth – I mean, fish eggs, I tell you! And their children," He held up a hostile finger, "They play with toys worth twelve times an honest man's salary."
"You mean an unsuccessful man's?" Ali snorted, topping up Bakhsh's glass with more honey.
"Forget him. He's drunk on honey." Raheel recommended Bakhsh. "What is the catalogue of your merchandise? Maybe we can contribute – or even facilitate deals for you."
Bakhsh took a deep breath – but in truth he had been itching to tell them all night. It was a very simple revelation: "Treasure."
"Obviously." Ali rolled his eyes, guffawing, "But what kind of treasure?"
He might have been feigning, but the honey had really gone to Bakhsh's head. He spilled the beans like a torn jute sack, "Art – old paintings, Ming vases, Mughal silver, antique odds and ends, archaeological finds."
Raheel sat up straighter. "And all this stuff comes through your international networks – or is it all local?"
"Local." Bakhsh hiccupped, "Spoils from the Raj. At least they left us something when they ran… like rats from a sinking ship." He hiccupped again, laughing, "And now they're paying a hundred times its weight in gold trying to get it all back!"
VENDOR CHRONICLES"You've got to show us something though, if you want to trade with us." Raheel said evenly, having convinced the ex-jeweller that that indeed was the case. "You know some proof of your merchandise… how genuine it is."
"I am deeply offended!" Bakhsh held up his hands in his favourite gesture, "Mortified! That you would doubt my words…" he shook his head, sorrowing.
Raheel was reminded of an extremely dramatic poem from the Lord of the Rings.
"Come on, man. He's okay." Ali tried to convince his prim brother.
Raheel wouldn't give an inch. "Nevertheless, he should show us a little – as a show of good faith."
Ali tried to gauge the eighth generation jeweller's expression.
Noorullah Bakhsh shrugged his most pathetic shrug.
Ali burst out laughing, "Man. You look positively Adam-beyzaar!"
"I'll show you a glimpse." The man moaned, clearly not appreciating his sense of humour.
"That's the spirit!" Ali approved, clapping him strongly on the back.
The delicate man was jolted to the socket of every joint in his plump, fine-boned body. "Aztaghfirullah!" he said austerely, turning his eyes skywards.
Twenty minutes and two buses later, they were clambering up a fallen-in staircase in a rundown building that was at least a hundred years old, in the very heart of Saddar, the city centre. There were dozens of such buildings in the area, ancient beacons of a bygone era, beckoning to a glorious past that could never shine again. Squatters had used its broken floors and pane-less windows as long as they could bear the squalor of it, but eventually even they had deserted it. There was no lighting inside, just piles of long-rotted offal and cement festooned with twisted wires and rusted pipes. Thanks to the water and power suppliers of the city there was also no risk of leakages or electrocutions. Everything is a blessing in a way. You just need to know the right way to look at it.
Presently Ali was appreciating the power of the above insight as he entered the hidden room in the deserted building – camouflaged in the everyday affairs that move the dilapidated heart of the city. How things could have changed if only the lights and water worked. People could have lived here. Things could have gone very differently. Others could have been destroyed by the damp.
Noorullah Bakhsh had turned the key in the lock. The door had slowly creaked open.
Next, retrieving a lighter from his pocket Bakhsh had lit an oil-lantern placed on a niche beside the door. The chamber burst into dim orange illumination.
The next moment was the one in which Ali got his newest insight and the Nabi Khan brothers discovered that Bakhsh hadn't been lying. Or if he had, he knew some pretty talented con artists and forgers.
There was no doubt about it: they were inside a treasure vault.

to be continued...

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