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ظلِ الہٰی

ظلِ الہٰی

Nov 3, 2021
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Well, ready or not, here comes Episode 1 of Season 2 of Muwakkils of Mehmoodabad. If you haven't read Season 1 yet, you can read the thread here:…

Ready for a Season 2 preview?
Faizan Qadri had stayed the night at the hut in Hawkes Bay. It wasn’t something he liked to do – the TV reception was poor and cigarettes were hard to come by – but it was 1994, Operation Blue Fox was going on, and the Abyssinia Lines area where he lived wasn’t exactly the...
...safest place to be since his neighbour had died in a staged “encounter” with the cops. Faizan was a constable. His brother-in-law had pulled a few strings and managed to get him assigned on protocol duty guarding a Justice of the Sindh High Court...
....and the Justice’s wife had “assigned” him to guarding their hut on Hawkes Bay. This had worked out just fine for everybody concerned.
Faizan sat on the front porch in his bunyan, shalwar and a thick shawl and puffed on the second last of his Royals Filters. He was acutely conscious that he would have to venture out to get some more packs but was waiting for the sun to rise.
As dawn broke and the sky started to lighten, the waves lapping at the beach ahead began to get some definition in his eyes. It was a sight that Faizan had started getting comfortable with over the past few weeks.
A beach, a sea, a deserted expanse and the freedom of not being seen as a murderer by a charged up neighborhood. What’s not to like? But this morning felt a little different.
The Quetta wind had blown relentlessly all night and even as sunrise approached with the promise of some warmth, Faizan could feel it was going to be a particularly cold day ahead.
Faizan went in to make some tea for himself but changed his mind when he saw that the milk had curdled.
He cursed the Nagori Milk Shop guy under his breath and went back outside on the porch debating with himself whether or not he should light up the last of his cigarettes or wait a while. It was then that he saw it.
There was something on the beach that the tide must have brought in. And it wasn’t the usual debris of rubber chappals and polythene bags and plastic bottles that the sea threw back at a city without a waste management plan.
From where he was looking at it, Faizan thought it was some kind of steel trunk. Something like the one his mother had received her dowry in and in which what was left of her belongings were safely secured in the small house in Abyssinia Lines.
Only this was clearly bigger. And, surprisingly for something that had emerged out of the ocean, it didn’t appear to have been eaten away by rust.
Faizan tightened the drawstring on his shalwar, slipped into a pair of rubber chappals, picked up his locally made clone of a 9mm beretta and walked out to get a closer look. 32 kilometers away, Rajab Affendi was making breakfast.
The three months since the flood had been relatively peaceful at the Ajmeri household if not so much in the city. Since Turab had left there had been no need to brew tea at night and Majid used to stay in bed...
...until the smell of Rajab Affendi’s breakfast parathas and eggs woke him up each morning. He would have his breakfast, read the newspaper and – if there wasn’t a citywide curfew or strike – drive to PCSIR and come back in the evening... meet the throng of acolytes and disciples who would invariably show up asking for blessings and divine intervention to solve the problems they faced. Problems of love and economics, of choice and circumstance, of health and fortune and jealousy and greed.
Like they had before the flood, they came to ask for wives and husbands, children and grandchildren, for success at work, for peace at home, for freedom from disease and afflictions, for justice from persecution and for the devastation of their enemies real and imagined.
Rajab Affendi acted as gatekeeper and Majid muttered words of comfort. People came and unburdened themselves and left satisfied that the Pir’s words had changed their fates.
Sometimes on a quiet weekend afternoon he would sit in the former classroom with the curtains drawn while his soul soared over the city like a kite to see what was going on. And in a city of 20 million there was plenty to see.
He saw the people he treated and the ones he didn’t and he saw the forces natural and supernatural that shaped their lives. He would see a child crying over a spilt gola ganda and he would see the djinn who tripped her laughing in the corner.
He would see an old woman suddenly turn and look for her long dead sister whose voice she just heard and he would note the Hatif sitting in the tree who had mimicked her. He saw the Marids granting wishes and the dwarf like Shiqq running around causing havoc.
And he would see the evil men got to without any help from the hidden ones. The murders and rapes and beatings and tortures and theft and fraud and destruction that no one with a conscience can swallow and yet everyone is capable of.
Sometimes he would be drained of spirit after what he saw. And it was at times like these that Rajab Affendi would enter the room and open the curtains and ease Majid back into the world that he had control over.
Majid could smell the eggs and parathas but there was an uncharacteristic chill in the air and the blanket felt heavier than it usually did. Nonetheless he shrugged it off and headed downstairs.
He had just sat himself at the table with Rajab Affendi who was explaining that he hadn’t yet made tea as the milk had gone bad when they both heard the sound of glass shattering in the former classroom.
Majid and Rajab rushed there but found a room as empty as it would have been expected to be, windows intact and locked and everything exactly where they had left it at night. Or almost as empty. There was a broken teacup on the floor.
Aslam Nagori was something of an oddity among his community. He lived in Bhains Colony where all his relatives did and he woke and ate and slept as they did but unlike everyone he shared a bloodline with, he was not involved in any way whatsoever with the dairy business.
He kept no buffaloes, did not sell or distribute milk or butter or cheese and had no interest in doing so. Aslam was a Cost and Management Accountant and worked at a textile mill in Landhi.
He woke up early every day, had a breakfast of jam and leftover bread from the night before and was on his trusted Yamaha GTO-100 on the way to work before his wife and children woke up.
He would normally stop at the paan shop at the corner of his street to stock up on Morven Gold and Tasty chhaalia for the day.
This day was not like other days. Firstly, it was proper cold. The “Quetta” wind had an unusually vicious bite to it and Aslam could have sworn the temperature was lower than he had ever experienced.
He was going to mention that to the guy at the paan shop but there was a lot of swearing in Marwari going on there anyway.
From what he could gather, several buffaloes in the colony had mysteriously died overnight and to top it off entire truckloads of milk canisters had inexplicably gone bad for no ostensible reason.
Aslam kept his views on the weather to himself – it seemed like a minor inconvenience compared to the other stuff – and rode off on his Yamaha thanking the Almighty for a life that depended on the vagaries of the Sales Tax Act of 1990 and not the curdling of milk.
On that morning in January 1994, Karachi experienced, perhaps for the first time, what happens when everyone is deprived of their tea.
Tempers flared, blood pressures skyrocketed, productivity plummeted, and normally peaceable individuals succumbed to bursts of fury at the most minor of inconveniences.
Not that these things are documented in history but those who remember say that people’s hair did not brush as straight, clothes were wrinkled despite a heavy ironing, school vans came late, teachers were harsher in their disciplining of students,...
...bosses were crabbier at work, traffic police harsher in their petty extortions from those committing infractions, drivers more violent in their road rage, hawkers of fruits and vegetables less inclined to negotiate on prices, barbers less gentle on the client’s scalps...
...and even the matches used to light fires didn’t seem as willing to light up as they ordinarily did. And to top it off, it was cold.
Faizan Qadri plodded over the cold, wet, beach sand to the trunk.
***to be continued***
(If reading this as a single post is easier for you, you can read it here:… )
The thing with dowries is, when you put them all together, they don’t really amount to much. And so is the case with the remnants the dead leave behind. Saltanat Ara Qadri’s trunk, stowed away safely in Faizan’s house in Abyssinia Lines, was barely 3 feet long and a foot wide.
This thing on the beach though… Faizan calculated it as at least 8 feet long and much wider and deeper than his mother’s trunk. And, he realized as he gawked at it on that cold grey morning, this wasn’t made of steel.
It was cast iron and probably weighed more than the Justice’s car. But boxes of weird dimensions don’t usually give you goosebumps on your skin or send shivers down your spine.
They don’t make your palms wet with sweat or cause rumbles in your belly. Not even if they’re engraved with calligraphy from some ancient language.
Faizan took three steps back and then turned and walked fast back to the hut. This wasn’t a box. It was a coffin. A coffin with padlocks.
Naveed Alam lived in FC area but his butcher’s shop was in Mohammadi Market in Nazimabad. Before the troubles began, he had worked five days a week like clockwork, getting the best beef and mutton he could source for his clientele.
But the strikes and curfews of late had meant his shop’s shutter was down almost as much as it was up over the past year or so. Wednesday was officially a meatless day when he wasn’t legally permitted to sell red meat... the government dealt with a decades long livestock shortage but there wasn’t a strike today so Naveed had planned to sell from behind a dropped shutter. He hadn’t planned on it being so cold though.
Naveed knew a thing or two about the cold. Years ago, at the age of 22, he had gone with some friends and family on a legendary adventure to Pakistan’s northern areas. A broken down jeep in a snowed-in Skardu hadn’t stopped him from coming back with a Balti bride in tow...
...but he had lost three toes to frostbite. One of the better trade-offs he’d made in his life. But now, nearly a decade later, as he stepped out of his building in FC Area, Naveed felt like he’d never been this cold in his life.
There was static in the air, a cold dry wind was blowing and his phantom toes were itching like crazy.
Naveed had never felt much pain in the foot since he’d lost his toes. Sure, he couldn’t run any more and personal vanity dictated that he wear socks at all times regardless of the weather but that was about it. This though, was excruciating.
He was having trouble balancing on his Honda CD-70 on the short ride from his home to Mohammadi Market. He took off his shoe as soon as he reached the shop and slipped in under a half raised shutter and nearly fainted when he looked down at his foot.
What had normally been an empty pocket of air in his sock since he left his toes in Skardu was now very occupied. He gingerly peeled off the sock, wincing in pain at every twist of hos foot and looked dumbstruck at the three icicles where his toes used to be.
It normally starts with news of snow in Quetta. The weatherman on the PTV’s Khabarnama will warn of an impending drop in temperature in Karachi as the winds from Siberia head to its coast having dropped all moisture on the way.
The Quetta wind, as it is called, is dry and it is cold and when it is on its way it blocks out Karachi’s sea breeze that brings in some much needed humidity in the winter months. Karachi’s houses and buildings are built to grab as much of the wind as possible.
There are no heaters or boilers or furnaces. It’s a hot city normally so the normally brief winters are felt quite intensely – much to the amusement of their countrymen up north who mock them for their low thresholds of tolerance to cold.
Be that as it may, once the news of snow in Quetta reaches town, the lofts and trunks and cupboards and suitcases where the shawls and jackets and sweaters and blankets are stored for 10 months of the year are emptied and the city prepares for its blood to freeze.
The hawkers come out with their roasted peanuts and boiled eggs and chicken corn soup. Men with their shoulders laden with jackets and waistcoats for sale throng the major bus terminals.
TV ads for Oxford and Cambridge sweaters punctuate the otherwise never-ending biscuit, cooking oil and tea blends promotions. For two weeks Nescafe becomes a hot selling item at most grocery stores as the middle class rediscovers its love for dalgona coffee.
Caterers add gajraila and Kashmiri chai to their menus for the busy wedding season. The louts who hang outside girls’ colleges in the afternoons on their motorbikes now wear black leather jackets to look more appealing.
Couples go to the beach so that they can enjoy the cold in an open area. Private schools ask the boy students to start wearing neckties. The citizens with the privilege of having shelter enjoy the brief cameo the Siberian anticyclone weather system makes on its way to the sea...
...and those without that privilege gather around bonfires made of uncollected garbage and hope to avoid pneumonia and bronchitis and all manner of other winter-borne viruses.
But before this wind blew in, there had been no news of snow in Quetta. The Siberian anticyclone weather system was still very much in Siberia and there was no earthly reason for the temperature to be below 10 degrees before factoring in wind chill...
...and heading lower at this time in the morning with the sun apparently shining down with what was its customary force.
Meteorologist Muzaffar Tunio was stumped. He sat outside his boss’s office waiting for an audience wondering what he could say without looking like an idiot.
In Mehmoodabad, Majid Ajmeri was very worried. Not because of the cold or the fact that Turab was concerned enough about something to make a re-entry. Something had triggered the normally unflappable Rajab Affendi.
For the two hours since they’d found the broken cup in the former classroom, he’d been mumbling something that Majid couldn’t even figure out the language of let alone understand the words. He made some green tea for the old man and brought him a blanket from upstairs.
As he tried to calm him down, Majid felt the sunlight that filtered in from the window dim and a familiar deep voice rumble from the darkest corner in the room. Not a greeting. Not a warning.
Just a translation of what Rajab Affendi had been mumbling in Aramaic. “He’s back.”
Faizan Qadri sat on the porch wrapped in the thickest shawl he had. He could have been warmer in the hut he supposed, but it made him feel a bit better to have his eyes on the thing on the beach.
He had got himself a pack of metro milan agarbattis from the paan shop along with his cigarettes and a couple of them were burning away a meter from where he sat, sending the sanctifying scent of incense his way.
It’s not much to ease the nerves caused by an apparent coffin washing up on your beach but it’s something. He gripped the butt of the beretta knockoff and stared ahead.
Faizan had learned the art of patient observation in the police force. Protocol guard duty is usually a lot about just sitting and waiting and watching. And Faizan had never been the type to crave physical activity anyway.
So even if he was up against an inanimate object, he fancied his chances of winning the game of wait and see. In any case, the next tide would surely take the box back into the sea where it belonged.
He had several packets of smokes, namakparay and litre bottle of Teem to ride this out. Faizan Qadri was prepared. Faizan Qadri was not prepared for the music.
It started with a faint sound of what he thought were wind chimes at first. The nearest neigbour was a good 300 metres away but wind carries sound across the beach so it could be rationalized.
What couldn’t be explained was why the sounds seemed to come from the direction of the box. And then the trumpets began. Not like the shehnai Faizan had heard many times on wedding processions and the like. These were something more ancient.
As he listened closely he realized trumpet wasn’t the right word. This was more like a horn or a conch shell. He knew the word for it but before it could register the voices started calling. Not like a song but like a chant.
And the only word he could understand in the chant was his own name. “Faizan Raza, Faizan Raza” over and over again. Faizan felt the incense sticks lose their potency.
The wind had stopped and the smoke from the agrabattis seemed to blow out towards the box on the beach. And much as he had decided not to, much as he still didn’t want to, Faizan felt himself get up and follow the smoke trails towards the box.
“Faizan Raza” called the voices, in the lusty mezzo soprano of young maidens. “Faizan Raza” called the voices, in the high pitched treble of young children. “Faizan Raza” in the tones of old men and dead men and the unborn and the undead.
And Faizan could do nothing but obey. He headed toward the box, the beretta knockoff still in his hand.
The shopkeeper at the small grocery store down the street from where Faizan bought his cigarettes heard two gunshots before the cold suddenly stopped and the sun seemed to rediscover the heat it was supposed to emanate.
“Karachiites can even kill the cold” he joked to himself. Unnoticed by him, on the small table beside him, the water in the glass turned red.
***to be continued***
If it is easier for you to read this as a single post, you can do so here:…
Muzaffar Tunio walked back to his desk even more confused than he had left it. He had waited in the corridor for 2 hours to express a total cluelessness about why the weather was so cold and during the two hours he had waited, the cold wave seemed to have dissipated entirely.
Even worse, his boss had chewed him out about failing to put together a plausible explanation for the goings on at the Karachi University campus – and he was totally unaware that there had been anything unusual going on at the Karachi University campus...
....and how it could possibly be related to anything that a meteorologist was supposed to be aware of. He sent the peon out to get him a bottle of RC Cola and a couple of samosas and picked up the phone.
Professor Mir Mashooq Ali Talpur sat with his feet pulled up on the chair. This was not his preferred posture but sometimes you don’t want your feet on the ground.
The Professor was proud of his house that he had been allotted on the Karachi University grounds in accordance with his position as the Head of the Department of Social Work. It was a quiet job in the sense that semesters could go by without a student enrolling for a degree...
...and he could stay at his house in the university campus, tending to his flower garden or take a break and head to his family home in Khairpur without anyone knowing and tend to his date palms over there.
Professor Talpur was a man of the soil. His little garden boasted 83 different types of flowers and each and every one of them was beautiful. He would mulch and plant and prune throughout the year, totally comfortable with getting his hands dirty.
Professor Talpur was unfazed by the insects and reptiles and rodents and other pests a man creating a horticultural paradise faces over the course of his life.
But now he sat with his feet on the chair feeling a ripple of fear down as his spine as hundreds of tiny frogs swarmed through his drawing room.
Frogs do not swarm in January. Late spring, fine. After the monsoon, totally understandable. But during the dry months of a coastal Sindh winter? No. Frogs do not swarm in January. And they definitely do not swarm in drawing rooms.
Professor Talpur took a deep breath, jumped from his chair and ran out, grabbing the cordless phone that had been ringing off the hook on the way.
While Muzaffar Tunio was driving to the KU campus to see what his brother in law had gotten so riled up about, Amjad Qureshi was driving to his shop in Sarafa Bazaar, the jewelers’ market, between Bolton Market and Jodia Bazaar.
Amjad Qureshi, or Amjad Bhai as he was known to all and sundry, was president of the Karachi Saraf and Jewelers Association. His family had been in the gold and jewelry business for generations and as the shop attendants in his employ were trained to say,...
...more of Amjad Bhai’s family’s works had graced the necks of Delhi royalty than even the British could steal for their Museum in London.
In the heavily locked and boarded basement accessible only from Amjad Bhai’s office were stored gold bars and ingots and coins and several unfinished commissioned pieces for his clientele.
Amjad Bhai no longer had the eyesight or the dexterity to work on the pieces himself but he was a hard taskmaster and kept a close eye on what was being produced and ensured nothing but pieces depicting the highest quality of craftsmanship possible ever made it out of the store.
There was one more thing that never made it out of the store. In a small velvet box hidden behind old receipts in a drawer was a simple gold ring of unknown provenance that his father had brought with him from Delhi.
Amjad Bhai knew this was a ring that neither his staff nor his ancestors could have ever made. His late father had never pretended otherwise and had only instructed him to never sell it or wear it in public.
The Qureshi family men never wore gold themselves anyway so it stayed safely ensconced in the back of his drawer. And normally Amjad Bhai wouldn’t have even remembered it existed.
But he’d woken up cold and shivering that morning with an inexplicable urge to reorganize his office and clean out his drawers. That would mean hiding the small velvet box somewhere else.
When he walked into his shop, Amjad Bhai knew something was wrong. One of the younger attendants was dealing with a customer clad in a black burqa and wearing a niqab. Not entirely unusual. But the lady was tall. At least 6 feet tall.
And while that may be unusual it’s not normally alarming. And Amjad Bhai could feel he had seen her before. She had been there at his father’s soyem a decade ago. And earlier still when his grandfather had passed. As she turned around to look at him, Amjad Bhai remembered more.
She had been at his wedding and he’d seen her at the maternity home the day his son was born. She had been at his bedside at the hospital when he had cholera in 1964.
He had a flashback of a memory he couldn’t possibly have, his father holding him in his arms as a baby as the barber shaved his head at his aqeeqa and he saw the woman standing behind his grandmother staring at him.
And in an instant longer than an eternity Amjad Bhai’s whole life passed before his eyes; every important memory that he had ever had and the burqa clad woman he had never really noticed present in every scene.
Hovering in the backdrop, lurking in the shadows, walking ahead on a pavement, standing behind in a queue, sitting on a table next to his at a restaurant, passing by in a rickshaw, sitting ahead of him in a train, ... happiness and in grief and in success and in failure she had always been there and not quite there.
But now she was here. Right in front of him. Looking at him. Straight at him. The young shop attendant greeted him. “This is Mrs. Qareen. She wants a ring.”
Faizan Qadri was a young man with what could best be described as a mediocre education. He had done his B.Com. before joining the police force and received the smattering of religious education from the neighborhood madrassa...
...that any child of religious parents might expect. He was not, however, totally uninitiated in the lore of the Jinn. When children in Karachi meet their cousins for sleepovers during summer breaks, they, like children anywhere, tell each other stories.
They read journals and digests and novels and watch movies and TV too. They know, as do most people, that when a possession event occurs there will be period of altered consciousness, gibberish spoken, changes in voice patterns, hallucinations,...
...loss of space and time awareness, possible incontinence, unkempt hair and un-ironed clothes and screams and erratic behaviour, a propensity for self harm and violence and all manner of things that make for a scary story when the lights are off.
Those possessed can sometimes not move and sometimes move with unusual speed and sometimes not sleep and sometimes sleep the sleep of the dead.
They may eat nothing for days or eat like they’ve not eaten for years and the only thing they’re sure to do is unnerve those around them with what feels like a presence and a half. They are, after all, not just themselves any more.
Faizan felt none of this. When he shot off the padlocks on the casket the chanting had stopped. And since then there had been only euphoria.
He had walked back to the hut with something of a swagger, singing his favourite song, Papa Kehte Hein, feeling like the king of the world. He showered, shaved and combed his hair and then came out to sit on the porch in a clean white shirt and a pair of jeans.
As he lit up a cigarette he noticed a solitary frog jump up on his knee. Faizan gently picked up the frog in his hand and for the first time felt himself say something he thought he would not normally have said.
“Go. And multiply.” The frog hopped of his hand and the porch and headed towards the city. Faizan puffed on his cigarette.
Majid Ajmeri turned around to face the shadow in the darkest corner of the room. He knew the legend of the chained king in the casket but so did everyone else. He needed to know a lot more to know how to deal with it.
Turab’s eyes glowed like embers. They stared at each other in silence, man and Marid, plotting the battles ahead.
***to be continued***
If this is easier for you to read as a single post, you can do so here:…
A lot can happen in seven years. Seven years ago, when she had married him, Javed had been a young man full of promise and possibilities.
He’d brought her to their small house in Pak Colony after the wedding and despite the scandalized oohs and aahs of the assembled relatives lifted her up and carried her in the house laughing as she shrieked in a mix of humor and embarrassment.
Mehjabeen looked across the room at the shell of the man that Javed had been. Gone were the days of him bringing her gajras every day on his way back from work and the dinner dates they had at Silver Spoon and Kundan Broast and Burger Time.
There were no more bangles on Eid, no more late night kulfis or renting VHS tapes of cheesy Bollywood romances from Gulzar Video down the street.
The diaries Javed used to write horrendous bawdy poetry to her in with his yellow Piano ballpoints now gathered dust in the loft. Javed hadn’t touched a pen in ages.
She watched him take another puff on his hash laden cigarette and stare with his glassy eyes at the clouds of smoke above his head. A lot can happen in seven years. Plans can be made, futures can be plotted, successes can be enjoyed, failures can be mourned.
A city of dreams can descend into civil war. The Javeds of this world can go from busting dance moves like Salman Khan from Mein Ne Pyaar Kiya to busting their wives’ faces in fits of drugged up fury.
Hope can give way to despair, joy can give way to bitterness, love can bloom like the chambelis on the creeper on the boundary wall of the house in Pak Colony or it can wither away and die.
A lot can happen in seven years. But sometimes children can’t.
Mehjabeen picked up her purse and keys and headed out. Someone had to earn a living and if it wasn’t going to be Javed, it had to be her. Mehjabeen’s business cards read simply: Mrs. Mehjabeen Javed Lady Driving Instructor Ph: 626080
It wasn’t a dream but what it was was a living. Her clientele was mostly based in PECHS and the Society area where there were enough people with enough cars to spare the odd one for the lady of the house. And most new clients were referrals. Like the one today.
Mehjabeen pulled up to the gate of the house in her battered beige Suzuki FX and honked the horn twice. She didn’t like ringing doorbells and waiting like an idiot for people who sometimes took 15 minutes to come out after promising their mothers-in-law...
...they would be home soon, instructing their maids not to add too much salt to the curry, yelling at the kids to do their homework and then modeling their driving sunglasses in a mirror before heading out.
This new client, however, didn’t take more than a few seconds. As if she had been waiting behind the gate for Mehjabeen to honk her horn.
Mehjabeen was not used to punctual people. It was Karachi after all. And this client didn’t behave like a Karachiite either. She got in the car, handed over the 300 rupees and said, “Drive.”. This was an interesting situation for Mehjabeen.
On the one hand, the woman had paid and was an entitled to an hour of her time. On the other she was a driving instructor not some sort of taxi service. But 300 rupees was 300 rupees. Mehjabeen put the car into gear.
Bilqis Naveed was not an idiot. She knew something was bothering her normally chatty husband.
He had been aloof since he’d come back from his butcher’s shop and though it wasn’t remotely as cold as it had been in the morning, he was huddled up in a blanket on his side of the bed.
. Bilqis was not an idiot but she was also not the type to seek drama. Naveed would talk when he was ready. She switched off the light and went to sleep. In his blanket on his side of the bed, Naveed listened to his wife’s breathing.
He waited for it to even out into the unmistakable rhythm of her deep sleep before he quietly got up and headed to the bathroom. There was, of course, an urge to look down at the icicles on his foot that had ceased to hurt once the unnatural cold wave broke...
...but Naveed knew there was something more going on with him. He pulled off his kurta and looked into the mirror. Everything seemed normal. He looked down at the foot.
The icicles were gone but Naveed could have sworn he felt the missing toes and completeness of balance a foot with five toes gives a man. What then was wrong?
His hair was as it had always been, no blemishes or scars on his skin, no popping veins, no aches or pains. Only the nagging feeling at the back of his head that something wasn’t normal.
And then it hit him. His chest wasn’t heaving as it should have with his breaths. The slight wheezy whistle an overweight man with a deviated septum normally has, was conspicuous only by its absence. Because, Naveed realized, he wasn’t breathing.
Panicked, he grabbed at his wrist and as he tried to come to terms with the fact that he didn’t have a pulse, the eyes of his reflection in the mirror turned blue.
The client was weird. She had made Mehjabeen drive to the PECHS Cemetery on Tariq Road and asked her to wait outside. This was no driving lesson. Mehjabeen had never seen a woman go alone into a graveyard before. But who cares? 300 rupees is 300 rupees.
She bought some salt roasted corn kernels from a passing pushcart and sat in her FX and munched away. She wouldn’t have minded standing outside and leaning against her car but there were some frogs hopping around on the road and that was unnerving.
But unnerving as they are, frogs are quickly forgotten when your passenger returns to the car from a cemetery brushing dirt off her now crumpled kurta. “Could it be…” wondered Mehjabeen. Not a rich woman like this. And in a graveyard in the afternoon?
That would be the least safe place to meet a paramour in Karachi. Maybe she’d just tripped over a tree root or old grave or something. Though why that would need her to shift the rearview mirror to herself and fix her lipstick was beyond Mehjabeen.
Years of living with a spouse with a good left jab had taught Mehjabeen not to ask questions she didn’t want answers to. She drove back towards the house she had picked her client from and pulled up at the gate. Silently. No questions asked. She was usually very good at that.
And then, just as the client got out of the car, she made two mistakes. First, she noticed the fangs. And then she made eye contact.
The Suzuki FX, at peak performance, could generate the power of 40 horses from it’s 800 cc engine. This, Mehjabeen remembered Javed telling her in better days, while not a lot, is usually enough for any situation one can encounter in Karachi.
Javed and Mehjabeen had never discussed the possibility of encountering a ghoul. And though Mehjabeen raced away as fast as she could from PECHS to Gurumandir to Lasbela to Rizvia and finally to her home in Pak Colony,...
...every time she looked at the smudged mirror she could have sworn she saw a woman with a slightly crumpled kurta and neatly applied lipstick just behind her. Sometimes on a motorbike. Sometimes in a car. Sometimes in a rickshaw. Sometimes seeking alms at the signal with a bowl.
And though there was no one in her street except a few kids rolling a tyre by hitting it with a stick, as her jittery hands unlocked the gate she saw an ad for cooking oil pasted on her boundary wall.
Cooking oil. A nice spread of kababs and biryani and qorma on the table with a smiling Fazila Qazi standing next to it. Fazila Qazi. In a slightly crumpled kurta and neatly applied lipstick.
Faizan could feel the music. The drumbeats were in rhythm with the waves of euphoria that splashed up on the beach. The ancient horns were heralding what felt like the announcement of his being crowned the king of the world.
He had gotten up off his porch and was half walking, half floating in the direction of town and he was happy. He had no idea why he was heading to town but he wasn’t bothered by that at all. It felt good.
The chants were not scary in the slightest and though he didn’t understand a word, he knew the chanters wanted him to walk towards wherever he was headed. As he passed the paan and cigarette shop that he bought his daily stock from every day he realized for the first time..
...that the signboard read Amjad Bhai Paan Shop. That’s funny, he thought. The parchyoon guy and the tandoor next to the mosque he had just crossed were also named after some Amjad Bhai. And then he noticed the chants.
“Amjad Bhai” said the voices, in the rich timbre of Reshma singing a ballad. “Amjad Bhai” said the voices, in the soulful melody of Abida searching for god. “Amjad Bhai” said the voices, in the high pitched soprano of Lata calling a lover.
“Amjad Bhai” said the voices in the gong like depth of Shamshad longing for a reunion. “Amjad Bhai, Amjad Bhai, Amjad Bhai” said the voices, in the tones of old women and young women and the unborn and the undead.
Faizan knew he had to find this Amjad Bhai, whoever he might be. Amjad Bhai had his ring.
Rajab Affendi looked at his hands. The arthritic swelling had disappeared and his rings were glowing in the dark. He smiled. It was time to meet her again.
***to be continued***
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Jerusalem was young in 945 BCE. Only around 500 years old. And young cities have a buzz around them. The hubbub of commerce, the chaos of markets, the music of romance, the cadence of worship and the rhythm of life.
The trial of Habaqeeq though had added a dimension the likes of which the city had never seen before. Fishermen and blacksmiths, carpenters and shepherds, innkeepers and brothel managers;...
...all thronged the streets and city squares hoping for a glimpse of the judges and jurists and noblemen streaming in and out of the palace on the mount, a snippet of the news, a hint of the gossip. There had never been such a trial before. There would never be one again.
Or so they thought. In the dungeons, the 3,000 year old Habaqeeq heard it all. And Habaqeeq was unmoved. He had lost to the humans before and he would lose to them again but the interludes of his dominance were what Habaqeeq lived for.
The dungeons had never housed anything like him before. Habaqeeq was the Prince of Demons. The Tempter. The Corruptor. If he so desired, he could make the guards open the gates and escort him to safety with just a flick of his silver tongue.
A muttered incantation and the city would erupt in revelry and chaos, an orgy of prayer, a rapture of sin. Habaqeeq knew the magic that could mould the will of man. But Habaqeeq was tired.
The forty days of rule he had enjoyed wearing the King’s ring had felt like four hundred years. The only fun had been in taking the ring away in the first place.
Habaqeeq. He rolled the name on his tongue. He had enjoyed it. He had enjoyed all his names. In Persia he was Aeshma Daeva. To the Jews he was Ashmedai. The Greeks called him Asmodeus. The Slavs knew him as Kitovras. Now he was Habaqeeq. But not for long.
Habaqeeq could not see the future but he could hear the whispers of the winds, the murmurs of the waves and the rumblings from the hells beneath the soil. The King had made his decision and he was to be bound in iron and stone.
And long before he rose again those stones would give him a new name. The rogue stones. Sakhr Al Madhard. Sakhr. The world would fear the name and forget the name and then he would return to remind them of his might.
In the dying light, Sakhr looked at the narrow band of slightly paler skin where the ring had been. He promised himself the ring would be back on it before the paleness merged with the dark.
In the morning the sentence was carried out. A padlocked casket with a chained Habaqeeq inside was carried out of the city by great elephants to be cast in the Caspian Sea weighted down with stones from the mighty Mount Damavand.
The crowds roared in delight and the horns blew from the palace on the mount. Feasts were held, the pious organized prayers of thanks, the sinners drank the forbidden spirits and it was late night before the revelry died down.
And it was in the night when the cicadas chirped and the nightingales sang and the fires cackled in the hearths that the children of Israel heard the voices. “Sakhr Al Madhard” called the voices, in the ululating tones of the desert ifrits.
“Sakhr Al Madhard” called the voices, in the deep sonorous chants of the fire demons of Persia. “Sakhr Al Madhard” called the voices, in the stony growls of the Deos of the Karakoram.
“Sakhr Al Madhard” called the voices, in the high pitched shrieks of fallen angels. “Sakhr, Sakhr, Sakhr” in the tones of old jinn and young jinn and the unborn and the undead.
What is justice but the victory of a narrative? What is punishment other than a glorified revenge? There is no reparation that doesn’t leave another person aggrieved. No sentence without unintended consequences.
No tyrant who has not been a messiah, no criminal who has not himself been wronged, no innocent who is not guilty. Everything else is a farce that has been played out since man walked the earth pretending he knew what was best for it.
But there are those who walked the earth before man did and they remember. Ravaged by time and fate, deformed from mercy to horror, they sneer at man’s justice and plot their revenge.
In the borderlands between Helmand and Kandahar is the desert with no name. Known only as Registan, it is the most arid place on the plateau, spurned even by the clouds of God’s mercy. And as all places with the baggage of lifelessness, the stories are myriad
Stories of the hyena who lures you to the caves you don’t get out of. Of the men who kidnap unaccompanied women to ravish and devour, of women who seduce gullible men only to gnaw on their bones.
And as all stories, these ones too contain within the embellishments of their narrators and the spice of transmission a burning ember at their core of the horrific truth.
The truth that for all the terrors man has unleashed on earth, the wars, the pillaging, the rapes, the slavery and the bloodlust – there are terrors unimaginable that other beings are capable of. Terrors that they are compelled by. Terrors that they are.
The Ghouleh e Bayabaan who lived in Registan hadn’t lived there forever. Or maybe she had. No one knows. The History Department at Kabul University’s first record of her existence comes from a report dating back to 1211 AD.
The Nizammiya in Isfahan has records of sightings of a red lipped woman with soiled clothes after funerals from 1156-1172 AD.
The oldest mention of something resembling her comes from the memoirs of Al Biruni who died in Ghazni in 1048 though he doesn’t refer to her by that name. As well he shouldn’t.
Her name was Khawla. And Afarnah. And Saydanah. To her beloved Habaqeeq she was simply Mandana. The everlasting. She had sworn her vengeance on man the day the casket had been cast into the sea, feasting on his flesh whenever he strayed into her lifeless Registan.
And there she stayed, red lipped and a little dirty, waiting for the call. And the call had come. On the whisper of the breeze. In the slow shuffle of the sand dunes. The scuttle of the scorpions in the sand. From Damavand in the west and the Karakoram in the east.
It was in the glimmer of Venus herself in the clear night sky. “Manadana” called the voices, in the fearful pleas of mothers for their children. “Mandana” called the voices, in the terrified whimpers of men about to die
“Mandana” called the voices in the gurgles of jugulars cut and the crunch of bones mashed. “Mandana, Mandana, Mandana” in the tones of old prey and young prey and the unborn and the undead.
The Ghouleh rode the cold wind that had baffled Muzaffar Tunio to the coast that spat out the casket of the damned.
On the 18th of July 1784, the town of Erzincan in Anatolia collapsed. Earthquakes have a way of ripping apart the fabric of calm that the denizens of this planet try to wrap themselves in it. Recip Effendi was a huge fan of calm.
He craved it, cultivated it, willed it into existence. This is not in itself a very unusual trait among people. But there are people and there are people. Recip Effendi was one of the latter.
Every human is born with a Qareen, a Humzaad, - a parallel existence, mostly malignant, sometimes benign, almost always ignored and unnoticed. Recip Effendi was a Humzaad without a Hum. Born along with a stillbirth, meant to die, destined to live into eternity.
When the earthquake brought down the town of Erzincan it created not only a rupture 150 KM long in the land of Anatolia; it ripped apart the fabric of space and time itself.
An instant before, Recip had been about to knock on the door of Ceyda, a mysterious tall beautiful lady who had recently taken up residence in a well appointed villa near the town hall. Ceyda had taken the town by the storm.
Clearly a woman of wealth, with several slaves and attendants in tow, she had been seen often in the market buying jewelry and trinkets. Necklaces and bracelets and earrings. And rings.
No jewel merchant had a ring that Ceyda wouldn’t see. No jewel merchant had a ring that Ceyda would be satisfied with. And the gossip spread. From her attendants to the bakers to the butchers to the servants to the Effendis and the Beys.
Ceyda had moved from town to town all over Anatolia with a seemingly endless supply of wealth, acquiring enough jewelry to put the Sultan’s harem to shame.
Recip heard the chatter. He knew the gossip. He could tell from one’s inflection how much of what was heard was being repeated and how much was being embellished. But most of all, Recip could see. He noticed things that others did not as he watched from the distance.
He noticed, for instance, that Ceyda seemed unencumbered by a shadow. That the summer warmth didn’t faze her. That her eyes sought out his through the crowds and glistened as if in recognition, as if in challenge
Recip knew what Ceyda was and he was about to knock on her door. And then the earth shook and Erzincan collapsed. Recip Effendi was sucked into a vortex and everything went black. When he woke up, Rajab Affendi was in Ajmer, 400 KM from Delhi.
Amjad Bhai looked at the tall veiled woman who had been shadowing him his entire life. Her eyes glistened as if in recognition, as if in challenge. He was about to say something when the door of the shop opened and a man in a threadbare white shalwar kameez walked in
He wore a skull cap on his head and the fingers on his hands were adorned by rings set with several glass stones. “Slamlaikum”, said Rajab Affendi.
***to be continued***
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Majid Ajmeri was sitting at Café De Khan when it began. He had always enjoyed chicken tikkas washed down with glass of Teem and the home of the modern chicken tikka was his favourite place to have one.
He had just finished his meal and watched the waiter pop the cap of his bottle of Teem before serving it to him. The scientist in him appreciated the spectacle. A bottle of Teem was a chemistry class in itself.
The bottling company had forced carbon dioxide in the sweetened water at pressures of around 1,100 pounds per square inch.
And the “fzzzt” sound when the bottle was opened was the euphoric screams of millions of CO2 molecules as they rushed out of their watery prisons where they’d been held against their will.
It was then that the lights went out. Majid froze, as echoed in the fzzzt from the bottle of Teem he heard the gleeful shrieks of countless demons as they set upon the city.
It started when the lights went out. Haideri Begum, or Bajjo as she was known to all and sundry, was sitting on her takht and peeling potatoes.
The veranda of her house in Rizvia Colony wasn’t particularly airy but the cool weather made it a nice place to sit in the evening waiting for her grandsons to come home from work. And the recent outbreak of frogs had meant the mosquitoes weren’t as bad as they usually were.
Not that any frogs had come into her house. How would they, she had put to her neighbour. This was a Syed household. Bajjo put a lot of stock in her lineage.
She was a firm believer that all the tragedy that she had been spared was a boon granted because of her noble birth and that all the tragedy that she had survived was confirmation of it.
She had been seventeen when she had migrated to her new home in Karachi with her husband in 1949 and though the years had robbed her of her husband and only son, she had a couple of loving grandsons who took care of her every need ...
...and would, she fervently prayed, carry forward the family name and give her great grandchildren to hold in her arms. Bajjo’s prayers were always answered. She was a Syed after all. All prayers are answered. Sometimes the answer is no. Even for Syeds.
At forty five minutes past seven the lights went out. There was an instant hush as there always is when there’s a power cut. The unnoticed hums of water pumps and fridges, the buzz of the fluorescent tube lights, the steady whoosh of ceiling and pedestal fans...
...and the thrumming of the Syed Bhais electricity meters KESC installed on the switch boards of every home all came to a sudden stop. There was the momentary buzz of tinnitus that accompanies a sudden withdrawal of sensory stimulus.
In an instant it was replaced with a heightened consciousness of bugs chirping and wind rustling dust and leaves and polythene bags and the general detritus of humanity in the streets outside.
And then the firing began and the dark sky lit up with orange tracers as was its wont every other evening in the Karachi of the 90s.
Bajjo looked uneasily in the dark towards the gate. The boys should have been home by now. She got off her takht to check if she had unlocked it. She didn’t want the boys to have to stay outside too long in these violent times.
The bullet that entered her neck had enough force to throw her to the ground. Even in the dark she sensed her Syed blood pooling on the mosaic tiles as her visions of laughing great grandchildren in her arms faded away with her life.
Her prayers had been answered. But this time was the answer was no.
Just over a kilometer away, in her little home in Pak Colony, Mehjabeen Javed huddled in a shawl in a corner of the room. It wasn’t just the dark or the cold that was bothering her. It wasn’t even the thunder of the firing that she had never quite gotten used to.
Or the haunting image of the woman with the slightly crumpled kurta and neatly applied lipstick. The candle she had lit and placed on the coffee table was throwing up enough light on the wall for it to host the shadows of whatever Javed was doing in the bedroom.
It wasn’t pleasant viewing. The cold air felt like it was biting through the shawl right to her bones. The flame on the candle, though well out of the way of any draft, was dancing and flickering as if beset on all sides by some invisible enemies.
The Quetta wind outside was rattling the window panes and the staccato bursts of gunfire were sending vibrations through the springs of the sofa Mehjabeen was sitting on.
And yet the only noise she could focus on was the steady scrape of Javed sharpening a knife she didn’t know he had on a leather strop that should have been in the kitchen.
It’s generally a mild and somewhat satisfying noise. More so when you are the one sharpening the knife before you wield it on carrots or potatoes or mangoes or apples or whatever you plan to cook after a long day of earning your living.
But there are times when the otherwise pleasant becomes extremely unnerving. One scrape brought back a memory of a pleasant day at the beach, eating corn on the cob and riding camels with Javed’s best friend’s young daughters, songs and laughter and smiles.
The next scrape rekindled the burn in her cheeks caused by the biting bitterness of his words on the way back on her not giving him a child of his own.
A third scrape reminded her of him playfully poking ballpoints in her topknot as she watched Sitara aur Mehrunnissa on TV and a fourth scrape brought back visions of being dragged across the drawing room floor by her hair in one of his drugged up frenzies.
And then the scrapes stopped. Javed got up and walked out the door into the darkness, the sharpened knife still in his hand.
In the last glimpse she had of him in the candlelight before he headed out, Mehjabeen registered that he was wearing a slightly crumpled kurta and that his lips looked unnaturally red.
A relatively long distance away, Aslam Nagori had just parked his motorbike and locked up the doors. The ride from Quaidabad to Bhains colony is not a particularly long one but any ride is long when the lights are off and the skies are lit by tracer fire.
Aslam had navigated his way through police barricades and smoldering remains of vehicles set on fire by rioters. He had ridden past Edhi ambulances carting off the dead from some skirmish and the blood on the road had splashed up and stained the cuffs of his trousers.
And yet the reason the adrenalin was pumping and his heart was throbbing was that throughout the ride he could have sworn he heard the insane cackling laughter of demented men echoing through the streets of Karachi.
Aslam Nagori double checked the locks on his door and went in to give his children a hug.
Karachi had a violent evening that winter Wednesday. And this was not unusual. Men, everywhere, are capable of spilling some blood at the best of times. And these were not the best of times.
The newspapers the next day carried news of bodies found stuffed in in gunny bags in various neighborhoods. They mentioned reports of skirmishes between “unknown assailants” and the law enforcement agencies...
...and the casualties of people on both sides and of innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. The more daring ones did not shy away from mentioning the killings of people presumed to be in police custody in “encounters”.
There were also reports of unclaimed bodies showing up at Edhi’s morgues which did not state any cause of death. And there were the somehow more disturbing reports of 387 disappearances of young men which no one could account for.
What no newspaper managed to cover in the aftermath of the very visible violence was the tremors felt in the Khasa Hills that lie between Orangi and North Nazimabad.
The hills, especially to a country blessed with the Himalayas and the Hindukush in the north are less than an afterthought. A peak elevation of 500 odd meters doesn’t really invite attention anyway and especially not when the hills are barren and dry and dusty.
A local tour guide or beat reporter may be able to tell you that they are an offshoot of the Sulaiman Kirthar Range which extend across Balochistan and the Iranian plateau and ultimately connect to the mighty Hindukush themselves.
And a geologist might casually mention that the most famous peak of the range lies in Dera Ismail Khan and is known as Takht e Sulaiman or Solomon’s Seat.
What never comes up in a casual conversation is why a random peak far from his capital in Jerusalem bears his name thousands of years later.
Legend has it that this was the farthest reach of his dominion and that when the mighty king Solomon climbed it all he saw beyond it was darkness and despair and so he turned back. The legends don’t tell the whole story.
Most legends of heroes and villains are embellished and romanticized as time passes. Protagonists get taller and better looking. Villains get uglier and eviler.
Context to conflict is shaved away and eventually everything is a contest between good and evil, right and wrong and love and hate.
Parents name their sons Afrasiab and Rustam and Aladdin and Ameer Hamza and as generations fade away the lights of these characters only burn brighter in the common consciousness.
Because these are the stories of men. What men cannot fathom is what they choose to forget. And this is why nobody who tells you of the geological fault line that created the Sulaiman range tells you what lies beneath.
The deepest pits of Hell have no name. Or at least no name that men agree on. The Greeks spoke of a place far below Hades known as Tartaros. The Buddhists know Niraya as the Jains know Naraka.
The Mesopotamians mentioned Irkalla and the Egyptians spoke of Neter Khertet. But when the voices that moved with Sakhr sang that night, they sang to the inmates of Sijjeen. The prison. The pits. The depths.
And when the demons answered his call they spilled out of the Khalsa Hills between Orangi and North Nazimabad like the carbon dioxide from Majid Ajmeri’s bottle of Teem. To the Jann and the Hinn sang the voices, in the tones of shaking earth and volcanic eruptions.
To the Silat and the Kawabees sang the voices, in the sound of waterfalls and waves. To the Taghoots and the Ghilan sang the voices, in the cackle of fire and the whistling of wind.
To the damned and the cursed and the chained and the bound sang the voices, in the tones of earth and the heavens and the unborn and the undead.
And the call was answered as the demons swept across the city, feeding in a frenzy of blood and fire and bullets and blades until suddenly the body that was previously just Faizan Qadri found himself outside a shop in the Sarafa Bazaar between Bolton Market and Jodia Bazar.
“Amjad Qureshi Jewellers” read the signboard. Faizan Qadri saw his reflection in the glass window raise his hand as if to gather the attention of an unseen crowd. And then he felt the wind drop and an emptiness develop as if that unseen crowd had suddenly vanished.
Dust seemed to settle Faizan heard the uneasy squawk of a crow that has been disturbed in the dark. In the distance a stray dog took up a mournful howl as the firing stopped. Faizan sat down on the footpath and waited for the next command from the being within.
***to be continued***
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Quality dental care, worldwide, is hard to get even in the age this story is being read. In the South Asian subcontinent it is still a myth to all but the most privileged. Today. In the late 1700s though, it wasn’t even heard of.
So much so that even the greatest ruler of the greatest city civilization has ever known, Nawab Asaf ud Daula of Lucknow, lost his teeth in his mid forties.
For a rule as illustrious as his, this fact would have been a mere footnote hidden away in countless biographies but for the fact that he loved eating meat. And cooking meat for a toothless monarch requires some skill.
Abul Fazl, one of his court historians, has written about how this particular situation led to the invention of that ever-present darling of the desi tea trolley, the shami kabab.
The shami kabab is spicy and it is delicious and it goes with practically anything but most importantly it is soft.
And that meant that the toothless Nawab could end a busy day of doing whatever great leaders do with a stomach full of meat despite having no teeth to chew it with.
Such is the legacy of this soft kabab that it made currency of a proverb “kabab mein haddi” – bone in a kabab – that is used to refer to someone or something unwanted; a third wheel, so to speak.
A few hours before the lights went out, Amjad Qureshi was feeling very much like the proverbial kabab mein haddi. No words had been spoken since the man in the threadbare white kurta shalwar kameez and many rings on his fingers had said “Slamlaikum”...
...and yet Amjad Bhai could have sworn he had been uninvitedly listening in on a century long dialogue as the man and woman stared at each other, smolder to smolder, gaze to gaze, unblinking, unflinching.
Rajab and Ceyda had a lot to talk about. If you, dear reader, have ever been young, in any age, in any place, you will know how it goes. The eyes meet across the street in a medieval market. She is in her palanquin, sampling jewels and silks and furs, entourage in tow.
You across the street at the blacksmith for a new dagger. The eyes meet and there is so much that is said but not articulated, expressed but not communicated.
Or she is with her family walking into the wedding where you are lined up in reception for the guests. The eyes meet and lifetimes are blinked away, the stars plotting inevitable new futures.
Or she is with her cousins, seated on the stairs, trying to listen in on the conversation in the drawing room and you pass by glancing upwards, trying to get an idea of what the family is like based on their taste in interior décor.
The eyes meet and new art is created, new tapestries woven, new mandalas and mosaics and miniatures appearing out of nowhere to beautify the universe.
Or you are serving coffee at the counter and call the name that looks misspelled and she looks over. The eyes meet and poetry happens, ghazals and rubayis and ballads forming out of nothingness as all words known to man suddenly acquire new deeper meanings.
Rajab and Ceyda had a lot to talk about. But sometimes even centuries pass and there’s still no time to have that discussion. There are beings who have returned and caskets that have been opened and missing rings that need to stay missing if the world is to remain.
By the time Faizan Qadri reached the shop in the Sarafa Bazaar between Bolton Market and Jodia Bazar, Amjad Qureshi, the tall woman in the black burqa and the old man in the white threadbare shalwar kameez and several rings on his fingers were gone.
And so was that other ring in the black velvet box hidden away behind the receipts in Amjad Bhai’s desk drawer.
Faizan looked at the slightly paler band of skin on his finger where some ring must have been. He didn’t know why but he knew it had to come back on before the paleness merged with the dark.
He shook his head as he tried to figure out what the being inside wanted from him but shaking your head doesn’t always shake off the feeling that someone is laughing at you in the distance.
All over the world there are mountains with stories. Some are true, some are not, some straddle the invisible boundary between these two absolutes. The Neelam Valley in Kashmir is home to many mountains with stories.
One of the lesser known ones is of the story of the mountain without a soul. In the ages lost to time, long before Adam’s progeny took the world for their own, the peaks and troughs of Kashmir were the domain of the Rantas.
These tall giantesses used to roam the valley, taking care of all creatures that lived within, forcefully expelling all who dared trespass in their territory.
Impossibly tall, shrouded in shadow and with talons that put the tigers to shame; the Rantas kept out all who tried to invade – the Yetis of the Himalayas, the snow lions from Tibet and even the mighty Deos who lived in the Hindu Kush.
And then came the men. What happened exactly is not known. All we know for sure is that while humans live and breathe and fight and die in what was once their paradise, no trace of that civilization left that men remember, the Rantas is all but forgotten –
except in the cold winter days of Chillai Kalaan when the days are short and the shadows are long and children can hear screams that others cannot and weary travelers in the snow feel the hills around them moving and murmuring and mumbling in the dark.
All the hills. Except for the one without a soul. Those who know their stone will tell you how the mountain without a soul does not seem like it belongs in Neelam Valley.
It’s not because of the face carved in the rock. It’s not because of the green shrubbery that clings to that face. It’s simply because when you walk around it, it feels foreign and laden with a despair that only an absence of soul can create.
The villagers call it Dyad Mouji, or Old Mother. The tour guides call it the cut face mountain. Photographers have sold pictures of it claiming it’s known as Sleeping Beauty. Her name was Shuhul.
Shuhul was the Queen of the Rantas from the Shamshabari Mountains. When the first apocalypse happened and men invaded Kashmir, it was Shuhul who led her forces to defend her piece of paradise.
And for every soldier she lost in that war, she sent a thousand souls screaming into the netherworld. She would have won too, if Damavand and Koh e Qaaf had answered her calls. But they had shut their gates and the men had multitudes.
Defeated, destroyed, decimated, Shuhul had come down to the Neelam Valley and just given up. She sank to her neck in the ground, only her face above land, and as the ages passed the world she fought for took over her.
The shrubbery took root all over her visage, trees grew from her pores, birds and beasts nested and burrowed on her and the winds and the rain and the snow caressed and kissed her as she slept. Until one day a few thousand years ago when the voices called.
“Shuhul”, they murmured, in the whisper of the spring breeze. “Shuhul”, they thundered, in the voice of the summer monsoon. “Shuhul”, they roared, in the language of the crashing avalanche.
“Shuhul, Shuhul, Shuhul” in the tones of the mountains and the glaciers and the unborn and the undead. And Shuhul had felt her soul pulled out of her rocky body as she soared over valleys and mountains to the shores of the Caspian Sea to receive her missive.
Mandana was fuming. When the lights had gone out she had received license, for the first time in centuries, to satiate her thirst. And how the city had bled.
It was never hard to whip men into a frenzy of blood. A whisper here, a murmur there and the swords and the knives and the shooting sticks come out. They had killed in the dozens.
And Mandana had feasted on 387 young, fresh, bags of flesh and blood. Sons and fathers and brothers and husbands, lost forever to a register of “missing persons”. But then, too, too soon Sakhr had raised his hand and stopped them.
Which meant that the woman who had dared to look her in the eye was still breathing air in that little house in Pak Colony. Mandana ran her hands over her lap, trying to smooth the wrinkles in her crumpled kurta, her blood red lips glistening in the rising sunlight.
Shuhul’s task was simple. She had to shadow the Arab ringbearer. And she had. Following him and his sons and his sons’ sons over the generations. From the deserts of Arabia to the plains of Persia to the riversides of Sindh and the city walls of Delhi.
Wherever the forbears of Amjad Qureshi had gone, the soul of Shuhul had followed. No one had been able to sway her from the mission and the Qureshis had never lost the ring.
Shuhul was forever there, always in the shadows, watching. And being watched. By whom or what she could not tell. Her faculties would have been stronger if she could only rest within her stone frame once more.
But the Qureshis never strayed close to Neelam. And the useless weak bodies of humans, though pretty to look at, stank of blood. But they were pretty. As the ages passed, Shuhul’s attention had begun to waver.
She would flit by the Qureshis once a day, then once a week, then once every year or so. Nobody had bothered them. Nobody, she thought, would. The ring lay in a black velvet box in a drawer in the shop in the Sarafa Bazaar between Bolton Market and Jodia Bazar.
She had been there last in 1987. Now she had other things to focus on as well. Some humans, she had found, smelled more like home. The body she now occupied was called Sabahat Kitchloo.
Sabahat spent her days teaching one of the many tongues of man to young humans in a building of stone. And she spent her evenings preening in front of a mirror in her house in Bath Island, Karachi, brushing her hair and thinking of home.
In Sabahat’s memories of the home she hadn’t visited in a decade, Shuhul saw the city called Muzaffarabad. And though it wasn’t anything like the Kashmir she had ruled, Shuhul could feel the scent of the wind blowing from the Shamshabari Mountains...
...down to the valley of Neelam and on to the city of Muzaffarabad in the fragrance of Sabahat’s perfume. In the face she saw in the mirror where Sabahat spent hours, Shuhul could see the lakes and valleys and mountains she reigned.
Shuhul was lost in Sabahat, drawing strength from and giving strength to her homesickness hoping for a chance that the soulbearer would take her close to her paradise, her Kashmir. But as much as she was lost in Sabahat, Sabahat was drowning in Shuhul.
The hate Shuhul had for humans overpowered every sensibility Sabahat had ever had and she would spend hours staring at herself in the mirror having imaginary battles with everyone she had ever known, dreaming of severed limbs and heads tossed down from mountain tops.
No word she heard was not a slight, no glance at her was not a provocation, no thought another person had not a challenge. Sabahat Kitchloo lived in disdain of humanity.
And Shuhul’s dream of return to home remained a dream, even if it was one she spent every second thinking about as the memory of the reason she had been called out of her stony body in the first place began to fade.
And then, that fateful night, the lights went out. Shuhul had flown out of Sabahat, speeding towards the shop in the Sarafa Bazaar between Bolton Market and Jodia Bazar but it was too late.
When she got there, the only thing she saw was a man shaking his head to get the sound of distant laughter out of it.
Naveed Alam was on his motorbike, his eyes blue, his heartbeat absent. He headed towards the PECHS cemetery on Tariq Road.
***to be continued***
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It was snowing in Siberia. It was snowing in Quetta. It was snowing in most parts in between. Senior Meteorologist Muzaffar Tunio, even without any meteorological credentials could have told you it was going to be a cold few days in Karachi.
It had been inevitable, he thought as he leaned back on his towel-cowered leather chair in his office in Natha Khan. Normally being right about the weather at least uncreased the furrows on Muzaffar Tunio’s forehead if it didn’t bring an outright smile to his face.
That hadn’t happened today. He still had to face his boss about the frog outbreak in the city, which, despite the cold weather, showed no signs of dissipating.
The people at the Sindh Wildlife Department hadn’t been any help and no book he could find at Urdu Bazaar nor any pearls of wisdom from his friends and colleagues could shed any light on the causes of the sudden amphibian population boom. Muzaffar Tunio felt hard done by.
His boss really had no locus standi in coming to him, a meteorologist, for answers. He let out a loud sigh, cursed the bureaucracy under his breath and picked up the newspaper. When there is nothing else anyone can do, he reasoned, there is nothing else one should attempt.
The headlines were all about the violence of the night before and Muzaffar Tunio was so engrossed that he completely missed the announcement on the back page of the rescheduling of the Sheedi Melo.
Naveed Alam had never felt as alive as he had since he realized he was dead. For you or me, feeling cold is akin to feeling dead.
We sleep deeper, waking up is hard, the healthiest parts of us feel numb, forgotten wounds throb and thrum as familiar aches force us to think of dreams unachieved and relationships unfulfilled and goals unmet and wills unwritten.
And the colder it gets, the more these feelings attack us, to the point that it is only adrenaline that gets us to our destinations and the warmth of a life still to live. Not so for Naveed Alam.
He rode his bike into the wind with the abandon of a man unbothered by the chill, his fingers not getting any colder, his chest unbothered by biting cold, his ears the same temperature they had been when he set out to ride.
All his senses felt heightened. He could see clearer than he ever had, his newly blue eyes discerning the different shades of pink on the billboard advertising Medora lipsticks – something his wife would have sworn he was incapable of.
He could smell better too, his nose picking up not only the scents of diesel smoke from the few buses on the street, the flowers on the stalls at Teen Hatti and the open sewage flowing into the Gujjar Naala;...
...but also the traces the wind had gathered on the way from Siberia – the smell of wolves and bears and pine cones and borscht and salt and lakes and rivers and deserts and life and death.
For most people, a sensory overload of this sort would have been enough to cause a mental breakdown, but Naveed was barely cognizant of it, because more than anything else, he could hear better.
The thrum of the motorcycle engine did little to drown out the calls of the birds and the buzzing of the insects and the hubbub of a city of nine million souls.
He heard children shouting as they played a game of cricket in the schoolyard, bosses yelling at staff at workplaces, the laughter of women from a balcony, sipping tea; and the bargaining of street hawkers with their clients.
But above it all he heard the voices that weren’t even there, the voices that mapped the direction his motorbike took as he sped from FC Area towards the cemetery on Tariq Road.
“Go to Mandana,” called the voices, in the silence of a heart that didn’t beat. “Go to Mandana,” called the voices, in the hollowness of a chest that didn’t heave. “Go to Mandana,” called the voices, in the emptiness of a pulse that didn’t throb.
“Mandana, Mandana, Mandana” called the voices, in the timbre of death and decay and the unborn and the undead. Naveed Alam slipped the bike up a gear and accelerated towards the cemetery.
In Manghopir, at the shrine of Sheikh Hafiz Haji Hasan Al Maroof Sultan, popularly known as Pir Mangho; Qasim Qambrani was shouting in rather colorful language at the laborers putting up the festive tents for the Sheedi Melo.
The laborers were chuckling at his choice expletives as they worked, at speed, to make the arrangements for the first iteration of the festival that anyone of them could remember being held in winter.
It hadn’t been planned as such, but Qasim Qambrani and the other elders of the community had taken a snap decision to have it soon after two things happened a couple of Fridays before.
The first thing to happen was an unexpected phone call a few days before a certain casket washed up on the beach. Qasim had been having his morning tea at his modest home in Lyari when his son came running to him saying there was a call for him from “Hazrat Sahib”.
Qasim didn’t really believe him but he rushed to take the call. Hazrat Sahib was what he addressed the gaddi nasheen of Pir Mangho’s shrine as and it was beyond him how Hazrat Sahib even knew his name, let alone his phone number.
Nonetheless, he hurried to the small drawing room where the phone was kept. The call wasn’t long.
Hazrat Sahib had something to tell him and Qasim Qambrani wasn’t the type to question his Pir, no matter how much he was surprised that he of all people had been chosen to carry the message.
Hazrat Sahib told him that he had seen his illustrious forbear, Pir Mangho himself, in a dream the night before. Pir Mangho was upset the Sheedis hadn’t been seen in full force at his shrine throughout the year.
Hazrat Sahib said he had mumbled something to his ancestor about an uneasy law and order situation, urban flooding inclement weather but Pir Mangho was not impressed. He wanted the Sheedis at his shrine and he wanted them soon.
“Tell Qasim to see to it,” was the command and that was why Hazrat Sahib had called him. Qasim was shaken. He wasn’t a community elder. He wasn’t even a rising star.
He was a moderately successful mechanic with his own workshop near Lea Market where he was known as an expert on Honda motorbikes.
While this is good enough to make a living, feed one’s family and send one’s kids to school, it is not normally enough to be an influence in any way on the community one belongs to. Qasim did what he always did when presented with a conundrum.
He finished his cup of tea and went to see his aunt. Nafisa Qambrani could have been a great professor or philosopher. At least that is what most people who knew her said about her. Except that she had never gone to school and barely knew the 52 letters of the Sindhi alphabet.
She was fluent in Sindhi though. And Balochi and Urdu. And Arabic and Farsi. She could quote Bhittai and Rumi at will and had famously once confronted the famous Sindhi poet, Shaikh Ayaz, at a wedding where he had misquoted his own poetry to a fan asking him to recite a couplet.
How she had managed to do this while struggling to read a newspaper had never ceased to amaze Qasim. But she was his aunt and she was a font of wisdom far beyond what Qasim himself could ever dream to acquire, and, most importantly, Qasim trusted her.
So he went to her and asked her what to do. Nafisa heard Qasim out patiently. Then she told him to wait. She picked up her phone and dialed a few numbers from memory.
In an hour her two room apartment was filled with elders from the entire Sheedi community representing all four tribes, Kharadar Makan, Hyderabad Makan, Lassi Makan and Belaro Makan.
And they listened to her with the same reverence that Qasim had listened to Hazrat Sahib with. She told them that the Sheedi Melo would have to be held much earlier than they were planning. This was not something that they had expected to hear.
But Nafisa Qambrani was not an ordinary woman and she couldn’t be refused outright. The elders decided to visit Manghopir and meet Hazrat Sahib themselves. Out of deference to both the Pir and Nafisa, they asked Qasim to join them.
While Naveed Alam was heading towards the PECHS Cemetery on Tariq Road, Rajab Affendi was serving tea to Amjad Qureshi and Majid Ajmeri. Amjad Bhai was sitting with an expression that was part shock, part fear and part bewilderment on his face.
The tall burqa clad woman and the man he now knew was called Affendi were apparently not a threat to him. And the young man with the spiritual air was decidedly “normal” as far as he could make out.
What was worrying though was how all the chairs on what seemed to be a classroom in this house in Mehmoodabad, were pointed towards the darkest corner of the room.
And even more worrying was the fact that there seemed to be a presence in that dark corner. Not physical but not quite abstract, both there and not there at the same time.
Amjad Bhai glanced at Majid who was calmly sipping his tea, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was something not quite ordinary about being whisked through the winds from the Sarafa Bazaar to Mehmoodabad by a tall woman and a senior citizen.
He looked around the room as Rajab Affendi closed the door and it became a little darker. The woman in the burqa seemed to settle down in the chair next to him without actually moving
The old man sat down in the chair behind Majid and the silence seemed to grow deeper as it settled over the group.
From the darkest corner in the room, Amjad Bhai heard a sound and then felt a brief but palpable movement of air towards his face as if some great bird had flapped its wings before settling down.
Chills ran down his spine as, for the first time, he realized that the two glowing embers he thought he was imagining were eyes. He stifled a scream as he almost jumped out of the chair but then the burqa clad woman laid her hand on his arm and a great calmness settled over him.. if every danger he had ever faced, every fear he had ever had didn’t matter anymore. When the darkness in the corner spoke, Amjad Bhai settled into his chair and listened. In his pocket, the ring in the black velvet box seemed to grow lighter.
The shrine of Pir Mangho, like most shrines from the 13the century, is built on a small hill. What makes it special are the several Sulphur springs of both cold and hot water in the area, all of which are rumored to have medicinal qualities.
That’s what makes the shrine special, not unique. What makes the shrine unique is the crocodile pond.
The mugger crocodile is not the largest crocodile you’ll ever see but it does have the largest snout. For decades it has been recognized as a threatened species, practically on the verge of extinction.
No visitor to the shrine in Manghopir would get that impression from looking at the pond. There are hundreds of crocodiles in there. And they have been there for centuries.
The locals tell stories of how, centuries ago, Pir Mangho ran a comb through his hair after bathing in the pond and the lice that fell out grew up to be crocodiles.
Others tell stories of how Pir Mangho actually chose the hill near the pond to live in because he felt he had to care for the crocodiles he saw swimming in it.
Archaeologists have found crocodile bones and pottery at the site dating back to the Bronze Age when the crocodiles of Manghopir were worshipped as deities.
In any case there are countless crocodiles always in the pond, and the largest, a hundred-year-old male mugger respectfully referred to as Mor Sahib, is garlanded and honoured every year at the Sheedi Melo by the gaddi nasheen of the shrine himself.
Qasim Qambrani had always felt there must have been a divine purpose for the crocodiles to be there.
He was not particularly fond of reptiles even though the Manghopir muggers had never been known to have taken a bite out of human flesh, so he liked to keep his distance and watch from afar.
There was also something not quite right, in his opinion, about a species of crocodile that ate cooked food and sweetmeats along with the normal crocodilian diet of fish and snakes and other live animals.
His aunt had told him that generations of acolytes at the shrine sharing their food with them had made them docile and almost human in nature, and while Qasim accepted her wisdom, the image of a mugger eating human food was still unsettling for him.
But the crocs had not been on his mind when he accompanied the elders to the shrine. Hazrat Sahib had apparently been expecting them.
Naveed Alam parked his bike and entered the graveyard. Perhaps it was the coldness of the day that had kept the people away. Or maybe it was just that no one likes to visit a cemetery early in the day. Whatever the reason, the place was as empty as it could be.
There were no gravediggers working in some corner, none of the urchins loitering about who sold flowers and incense sticks, not even the obligatory heroin addicts shooting it up their arms under the shade of some tree.
Just the dust and dried up rose petals and plastic wrappers from the agarbatti boxes getting tossed around by the Quetta wind. And, seated on what seemed like a freshly dug grave, a woman in a slightly crumpled kurta and neatly applied lipstick.
Naveed Alam approached quietly and squatted by her feet. He looked at her, and as a smile seemed to flicker on her face, Naveed felt the earth around him rumble and groan as all over the cemetery the graves burst open and spat out their dead.
The second thing that happened a couple of weeks before had happened as Qasim and the elders were about to leave the shrine after meeting Hazrat Sahib. The discussion had not gone the way Qasim had thought it would.
The elders had told Hazrat Sahib that they would speak to their people and encourage them to visit the shrine to pay respect to Pir Mangho, but an early Melo was out of the question. The Melo was, in any case, not really a religious occasion.
It was a festival to celebrate the Sheedi culture and, well, being Sheedi. It took time to organize and arrange everything. Hazrat Sahib was not pleased. As they passed by the pond, they changed their minds.
Mor Sahib was sunning himself on a flat piece of land by the pond. Behind him, it seemed as if an army was emerging from the water.
Qasim and the elders were used to seeing dozens of crocodiles at any given time by the pond but this was more than any of them had ever seen. There were hundreds.
Climbing out of their burrows and the pond, walking out from behind the trees nearby, big ones and small ones, young ones and old ones, they lined up in ranks behind Mor Sahib.
The fact that the regular attendants were all backing away from them was enough of a message to the delegation that this was not a safe situation. Mor Sahib crawled forward directly towards them. Qasim Qambrani could’ve sworn he was looking directly at him.
And then Mor Sahib opened his snout and roared. The army of crocodiles behind him called back in bellows and squawks and hisses. Qasim shuddered as he saw startled birds fly away from trees all around.
Behind him, he heard the elders quickly agree to a date a couple of weeks away and then rush back towards Hazrat Sahib to inform him. Mor Sahib looked at Qasim Qambrani and then turned and crawled back to the pond as his army dispersed behind him.
***to be continued***
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Noori had been born Noorullah Yusufzai in Gulibagh, Charbagh Tehsil in Swat; the fifth child and only son of a maths teacher at Cadet College Swat, Meharullah Yusufzai.
Meharullah was much respected in Gulibagh as one of the few properly indigenous teachers at the respected school and a pillar of the local community.
It had pained him and his wife, Gulsanga, a great deal that their beloved son did not, despite tearful pleadings or corporal punishment, conform to what they thought a son should be like.
Things came to a head when, at the age of fifteen, Noorullah was caught by his father dancing in his bedroom to Yaar Bina Chain Kahan Re in a white kameez altered to look like Amrita Sen’s iconic white dress from the video.
Meharullah disowned his son and kicked him out of his house, but not before Gulsanga had kissed his forehead, bade him goodbye and slipped her entire life savings, a meagre seventeen thousand three hundred rupees, into his hand. Noorullah never saw his parents again.
The teenager managed to Peshawar and then took a train to the most distant station he could get to from there, which had happened to be Cantt Station, Karachi. In Karachi, Noorullah became Noori.
She found a home with a group of other transgenders and life, hard as it was, was not spent alone. The group did what they could to earn, sometimes toiling in a stitching unit, sometimes dancing at weddings,...
...sometimes assisting at beauty salons, sometimes begging at street corners; and they put together what they had to pay the rent and fill their bellies.
Six and a half years since she had gotten off the train at Cantt Station, Noori was visiting the Sarafa Bazaar between Bolton Market and Jodia Bazar to buy a silver necklace for one of her sisters whose birthday it was.
The misfortunes the city had faced over the past few years had left some of the stitching units short-staffed as many regular working women weren’t comfortable leaving their homes and that had meant steady work for those desperate enough for it.
Noori and her sisters, for the first time in their troubled lives, had some small reserves of cash to burn, and a necklace wasn’t too much of an extravagance.
Those who have been forced by circumstance to live lives of thrift are not usually the best customers from a trader’s perspective though. Add to that the transphobia the largely conservative jewelers’ community is plagued by...
...and it is easy for the compassionate to understand why Noori chose her options carefully. That is what had brought her to wait outside the shop with “Amjad Qureshi Jewelers” written on the board above the door.
The old man with the white beard had always been courteous to her since she had come window shopping for the first time a few years ago even if his staff hadn’t. But he was not here today. Noori sighed and looked around. There had to be some shop that would accept her business.
When your life has been spent looking over your shoulder to avoid the next bully or molester, you tend to develop a super spatial awareness. All women know this, even trans ones, perhaps them more than others.
They can tell instinctively when a doorway is too narrow to pass through without brushing against the guy strategically leaning right next to it, when the passenger is standing a bit too close to the women’s section to not be a lech,...
...when the person eating the bun kabab at the pushcart across the road is staring as opposed to looking, when the louder than necessary comment is meant to taunt, and when the man with disheveled hair dancing as if in a trance is a threat.
The man with disheveled hair dancing as if in a trance was not a threat.
He had been sitting staring blankly at the door of the same shop that Noori had been waiting at since before she got there, and now he had become animated as if he had suddenly started receiving signals to some invisible radio antennae attached to his head.
Noori watched him intently, the consciousness of not being the strangest person on the street at that time not lost on her for a second.
He had stood up from his near catatonic pose in a smooth languid movement and while the dance steps had drawn only laughter from the passers-by on the street, Noori could tell that there was a method to the moves, a silent unheard beat that he was swaying to.
Swaying was not the right word. The man was not just dancing. He was dancing to somewhere, unabashed, unbothered, listening to whatever it was that only he could hear.
Noori saw a couple of street urchins fall in step behind him, mimicking his moves and that inspired more laughter from the crowd that began to gather. But soon a hush fell on the crowd. Something wasn’t right. The street urchins were somehow too in sync.
And they weren’t laughing. And then another man joined in, and another, and another, as the silent dancing madmen progressed down the road following the man with disheveled hair to wherever he was headed.
Noori walked over to where he had been sitting. The only thing left behind was a red, white and blue identification card that he seemed to have dropped. “Constable Faizan Raza Qadri” said the words beside his photograph.
Nafisa Qambrani positioned her dupata carefully on her head before she left the house. It was her best outfit, in keeping with the occasion. Not everyday is Melo Day. And not every Melo Day is foretold to be important to one’s own favorite nephew by no less than PirMangho himself
Nafisa Qambrani knew a thing or two about Pirs and prophecies. Born dyslexic and with less mental capacity than her peers, Nafisa’s life had changed when she was sixteen.
She hadn’t been deemed worthy of going to school by her father – not that there were many educational opportunities for girls in her day anyway – she had been the designated housekeeper for her family,...
...assisting in rearing her younger siblings, cooking and cleaning and doing her best to justify her existence to a family full of functional human beings who were more important to the world than her. Until she was sixteen.
On her sixteenth birthday, not that anyone in her family, Nafisa included, knew that it was her birthday, Nafisa had been washing clothes in a tub under a banyan tree when she was possessed by a jinn. Or, to be more accurate, she possessed a jinn.
Because unlike every story of possession you’ve ever heard, the jinn had no control over Nafisa Qambrani. Instead, she controlled him, this 4,000 year old weakling with a mind for nothing other than the magic men wove with their words.
Nafisa couldn’t read but she knew all of Bhittai and Rumi and Khayyam because that was what the captive being inside her read to himself to pass the time.
She knew the scriptures and sacred texts, the stories of Amir Hamza and Asfandyar and Douban, the sagas of Laila and Heer and Marvi and the chants of the Qalandar himself. There was little that men of worth had ever said or written that she didn’t know.
But today the voice of the being inside her mumbled only of the return of the doom. Nafisa Qambrani positioned her dupatta carefully and got into the yellow and silver wagon headed to Manghopir.
Majid Ajmeri was in his red Suzuki Alto and headed in the same direction. He drove slower than he normally would have, the conscious delay of a person not sure if he would ever make the drive back.
The looks in the rear-view mirrors were longer, the focus on landmarks familiar and unfamiliar a little more intense. He had rolled down the windows despite the nip in the air, wanting to take in, perhaps for the last time, the familiar scents and sounds as much as he could.
The drive to Manghopir is not particularly long in the scheme of things, but Majid did what he could to make it as long as possible. He popped a cassette in the Pioneer deck he had had installed, and the familiar voice of Ghulam Farid Sabri filled the car.
He gripped the wheel tighter and stepped a little harder on the accelerator as he found some inner reservoir of grit, looking straight ahead, focused on his destination.
Except for a brief minute when he passed a procession of around a thousand men and boys dancing their way to wherever they were headed in the rapturous silence of people who only converse with the unseen.
Majid felt a shive run down his spine as he pushed the car into fourth gear and drove as fast as he could towards the shrine.
Qasim Qambrani was simultaneously exhausted and energized. The preparations had run all night while he didn’t have a drop of strength left in him, the festive atmosphere of the Melo would’ve kept him going if the music hadn’t.
Rehman Lasi was the most talented dholi Qasim had ever heard play, and the throngs doing the Sheedi dance around him were justifying Qasim’s decision to have him there. Qasim was still a bit confused though.
The Melo was very much a cultural festival with no major acts of religiosity on display. He had no idea why Hazrat Sahib had interpreted the dream the way he had or why his wise aunt had been in full agreement.
It would have been much more logical, he thought, if Hazrat Sahib had asked for a donation to the shrine or a large sacrifice or something of the sort. But the decisions wiser people made were not to be questioned, in Qasim’s opinion
So he sat back on the knoll on the hill and watched the festival go on while he sipped his tea. Apart from the frenzied dancing around Rehman Lasi and his troupe, Qasim could see people thronging the area around the pond.
The gaddi nasheen would perform the garlanding ceremony of the chief crocodile, Mor Sahib, soon and Qasim wanted to be close when it happened. Not too close, but close. He stood up to head down when a cold blast of wind caught him in the face.
From the corner of his eye, Qasim saw a crowd enter the gate of the shrine compound. A crowd dressed in what seemed to be very dirty white robes led by a woman in a slightly crumpled kurta and neatly applied lipstick. And then he heard the screams.
Nafisa Qambrani was as close as she could be to the crocodile pond. She rather enjoyed the spectacle people unable to see beyond the veil of mysteries made of themselves.
Thousands would now ooh and aah in some sort of primal awe as the gaddi nasheen attempted to feed sweetmeats to a 100 year old crocodile and put a garland around its neck. If the big mugger actually crawled out of his pit and deigned to come up for the ceremony.
Nafisa looked around, feeling something was wrong with the picture.
There were always at least a few of the reptiles up on the sand by the pond but, at the moment, it seemed as if every last one of them had climbed back into their pits and burrows or were swimming under the water.
Nafisa stood up and listened as the frenzied beat of Rehman Lasi’s drum got overpowered by the screams of a stampeding crowd fleeing inward into the compound from an army of corpses wrapped in white shrouds bearing the marks of years of soil and fresh human blood.
At the head of the army was a face Nafisa had never seen but recognized with as much authority as she would have her own face.
The woman in the crumpled kurta with blood running down her chin was shouting commands in an ancient language that even Nafisa had never heard from the being she held captive in her own body.
She had long black hair and a glee in her expression that comes only when an ancient rage is finally unbottled. The woman was not there for a hunt. Or a feed. She was there for a massacre.
And yet, Nafisa did not turn or run or even tremble. For the first time in 40 years, Nafisa felt the being inside her take over and heard his words in her voice as he addressed the ghouleh from Registan. “Mandana,” she felt herself shout. “The winds have turned”.
Behind her, with a roar that no screams or drums could have drowned out, the crocodiles emerged.
Majid Ajmeri reached Manghopir hoping to find a way to make a stand before the dancing procession arrived at the gates of the shrine. But the howling of the wind and the echoing screams told him there was already a battle underway.
He ran inside towards the noise, his chappals splashing in pools of blood as he jumped over and dodged around bodies of revelers who had had their throats ripped apart by what looked like human hands.
The air was thick with the scent of death and fear and new graves and old graves. Majid ran to the pond.
Qasim Qambrani would have run away if he had the option. His wife and children had not attended the festival, laid down as they were by a bout of chicken pox.
But his eyes had focused on his aunt facing down the frenzied horde alone and there was no way a decent man can run away in that situation. His eyes captured everything in slow motion even as his legs pumped as fast as they could, carrying him towards the edge of the pond.
He saw his aunt raise her hands in an imperious gesture, and he saw Mor Sahib and his army charge at the woman and her monsters.
He saw the mist of blood rise as the dead and the reptiles clashed and he saw the woman in charge strike at his aunt’s throat before suddenly turning back and looking upwards at the sky.
Nafisa Qambrani, even with her neck bearing the claw marks of the ghouleh, didn’t fall until her nephew was close enough to grab her. And yet when she was in his arms she was looking not at him but towards the heavens.
Qasim Qambrani picked his frail aunt up like a child and looked around for cover that he suddenly realized he didn’t need any more.
All around him the crocodiles were ripping the zombies to shreds and their leader had fled the way she came, carried by a cold wind, her screams still ringing in his ears.
A dark shadow was spreading on the afternoon sky as Qasim rushed towards the door of the shrine itself. A slender but spiritual looking man grabbed at his arm. Qasim flinched and shrugged him off, running faster.
He glanced for a second at his aunt’s injury and realized that in the instant that the man had grabbed at his arm, he had cured her. Majid walked among the injured, healing their wounds and calming their nerves. A bigger battle was yet to come.
Oblivious to the thousand or so people following him in step, Faizan Qadri danced in ecstasy towards the music that lured him. The horns and the drums and the lyres and the flutes played an irresistible magic, drowning him in raptures of joy. And then there were the voices.
“Faizan Raza” called the voices, in the hope of better tomorrows. “Faizan Raza” called the voices, in the forgetting of troubled yesterdays. “Faizan Raza” called the voices, in the promise of a king to return.
“Faizan, Faizan, Faizan,” called the voices, in the tones of free men and those that would enslave them and the unborn and the undead. Faizan danced onwards.
***to be continued***
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Aslam Nagori had taken the day off. There was nothing particularly wrong, but he just felt uneasy, and an uneasy mind is best placated when one is around family. The last couple of weeks had been weird in more ways than he cared to remember.
There had been the extreme cold wave and the curdling of milk vats and the dead buffaloes and the extreme violence that was abnormal even by Karachi standards. And there had been the frogs.
Aslam Nagori could take everything but the frogs had been a bit much. He hadn’t seen live frogs before or after he failed his biology practical in high school and he hadn’t wanted to either.
Frogs aren’t the prettiest of god’s creations and it was not unnatural, he reasoned, to feel slightly disgusted by something that did not seem to serve any purpose to the benefit of his household.
Every night since the outbreak he’d made an extra round of his modest premises armed with a jharoo – a hard broom with bristles made of dried stems from palm leaves – on a mission to smash the annoying invaders that his weary wife and kids had not already expelled.
But this morning when he’d woken up, he’d gone up on to his rooftop to catch a little sun while he had his morning tea; and he’d seen something that had unnerved him.
There is a certain class of Karachiite who is not bound by the geographical separation of the haves and have nots. You will see him at the rich man’s mansion, the poor man’s hovel, the Sind Club and the leper colony.
Every morning, when the earth’s rotation allows the sun to rain light on the city, his calls begin from the trees, from window ledges and telephone wires, from antennae and rafters and billboards and rooftops.
The crow is not anyone’s favorite bird but he is everywhere, all the time, as much a part of any picture ever taken of the city as the blue sky, the polluted air or the unending clamour.
Crows rarely faze a human Karachiite. They almost never fazed Aslam Nagori. But on this day, they were behaving in a manner he had never seen before. Aslam Nagori was old enough to remember the air battles and dogfights of ’65 and ’71.
Tactically, they had nothing on what was going on today. From the bannisters of balconies and the KESC transformers, from the branches of the few trees that dotted his street, from rooftops and the sky itself; crows were diving down and attacking an escaping multitude of frogs.
Some managed to grab them before flying back up to prepare for another dive, some broke their beaks and talons as they hit hard tarmac, others still went totally kamikaze and crashed hard into a bunch of the hopping amphibians.
It was carnage. And as Aslam Nagori looked around, he saw this was not just happening on his street. As far as his eyes could see, the birds were waging war to reclaim the city from the unwelcome invaders.
He finished his tea and went downstairs. This was not his war.
There was somebody else whose war this wouldn’t have been, but for the ghouleh who lead the dead. No war would, really. His infatuation had always been with words, not weapons. Mishogher, they called him. The Bard.
Old as he was, at over 4,000 years since his creation, Mishogher was the youngest of the shayateen. At the time of the First Purge, when the jinns and the hinns and the fairies and the fire demons had been confined to Mount Qaf,...
...long before Adam or his progeny set foot on the blue planet, Mishogher’s tribe had mutinied and split forces from the followers of Iblees but maintained their own position of independence from any directives from the divine.
A troublesome diplomatic position, no doubt, but despite being a warrior force they had seemingly given up war and settled in the twin cities of Jabalq and Jabars at the foot of Mount Qaf.
Jabalq and Jabars have been lost to the mists of time as has the mountain of Qaf itself, only their reflection lighting up the skies at night in the northern hemisphere, now called the Aurora Borealis by scientists;...
...but their legend has not dimmed and their emerald lined streets still haunt the memories of humans in their darkest moments.
Mishogher had been born weak – by the standards of his race - which was fitting thought the elder shayateen, as he was the last of the tribe. The New Age had begun in earnest and so, instead of the fiery sword, they taught him the many tongues of man.
Mishogher learned the words that forged wills, the words that crushed hope, the words that wreaked war and the ones that melted hearts.
For centuries he had wandered the realms of the seen and unseen, listening and learning, the magic of the spoken word enthralling him as much as his illustrious cousin, Iblees himself, is known to captivate the hearts of the weak-willed.
He was there when they chanted the hymns in the Temple of Kesh in Sumeria. He watched them write the Book of the Dead in Egypt. He read along with them as they compiled the Rigveda.
In China, in Greece, in Mesopotamia, wherever the scribes put the acquired wisdoms on parchment, Mishogher was there.
Chanting with the shamans, singing with the monks, crooning lullabies with mothers, yelling battle cries with warriors, wherever words were spoken, Mishogher was there, always invisible, always listening, always learning.
His family in Jabalq and Jabars died out one by one as the centuries passed and one day in 945 BCE, over the winds, he got the news that he was among the last 5 of his tribe still in the realms of the living.
Never one to charge anywhere on a battle horse, Mishogher walked from his camp in Hittite lands to the foot of the great Mount Qaf, listening to the farmers in the fields, the nomads in the wilderness, the merchants in the towns on the way.
He took too much time. Jabalq and Jabars stood in ruins, abandoned by the living, populated only by the dead. There were no words to hear, no murmurs or mumbles, no shouts or roars.
The loyalists of Habaqeeq had sacked the cities in retribution for the sentence and no living being remained in the emerald streets and squares. Only one word echoed in the darker nooks and crannies.
Mandana. In the shadows and smoke. Mandana. In the corners and crevices. Mandana. In the graves and on the pyres. Mandana. Mandana, the everlasting.
The name burned into his memory as millions had before it, but not quite. It was a little more potent, a little more tangible. “Mandana,” he thought, “the one I will meet again”. Mishogher wandered back to newer worlds, as the mists settled on his home forever.
It was thirty seven minutes past four in the afternoon when the alert went out. Not just to the Manghopir Police Station but to all precincts in Gadap. From Memon Goth to Sohrab Goth to Surjani.
The Sindh Rangers dispatched their own forces. The wail of dozens of Edhi ambulances headed to Manghopir woke up tired mothers trying to sneak in a half hour nap while the children played cricket in the streets.
A procession of dancing madmen advanced on the shrine of Pir Mangho. At the gates of the shrine stood two men and a woman. And some crocodiles.
Qasim Qambrani had no idea what was going on. He was shaken beyond description, having just seen his aunt mortally wounded and then healed within minutes, the living killed by the dead, the dead killed by reptiles,...
...and now the spiritual looking man who seemed to be at the center of it all had taken command of whatever this situation was.
He had positioned himself at the gate with an old man in a threadbare kurta shalwar and several rings on his fingers and an unusually tall burqa clad woman. They seemed totally unfazed by the fact that just behind them were dozens of crocodiles lined up in orderly ranks.
Qasim Qambrani had no illusions about his own wisdom. But he was smart enough to know this was not a situation geographical proximity to which was desirable.
He had gathered with the survivors and the wounded as they streamed out of the back gate, on foot, on bikes, in cars and coasters and pickups. Nobody wanted to be there for whatever happened next.
He saw Hazrat Sahib speed away in new Toyota Corolla, the instinct of self-preservation perhaps overpowering any feelings of concern for his flock.
The attendants at the shrine were also escaping, as were Qasim’s fellow organizers of the Sheedi Melo. Parents and children, young and old, everyone was rushing away from the horror of what they had just seen.
Everyone, realized Qasim, except his aunt. Nafisa Qambrani was nowhere to be seen.
Constable Ameen Brohi was in the back of the first police mobile that had rushed towards the procession. He stood with one leg on each bench in the back, head out of the “sun roof” in the canvas canopy, manning the machine gun.
A police mobile in Pakistan was not like police cruisers in other countries, the police prepared, at all times, to receive or unleash the sort of violence soldiers at a warfront would be more attuned to.
Ameen had seen people do unusual things in his life. He was a policeman after all. But he had never seen a crowd as large as this act in as much silence as this one was.
They had gathered around a hundred meters from the gates of the shrine and were assembled in rows circling around one individual who was dancing to an unheard beat.
From what Ameen could see there were at least a thousand men and boys in this whirling human tornado and yet the only noise was from their feet hitting the ground. No words passed their lips, no music guided their steps, no calls of instruction organized their synchronicity.
And yet they circled the man in the middle perfectly, like the water circling as it goes down a drain. It was simultaneously mesmerizing in its beauty and terrifying in its uniqueness.
Ameen Brohi flipped off the safety on his gun.
In the former classroom in the house in Mehmoodabad, Amjad Qureshi shifted uneasily in his chair. The young man whose house it was had left earlier and then been followed by the older one called Affendi and the tall woman in the burqa.
He had been left there with the presence in the darkest corner of the room and it was not something that was good for his blood pressure. These were the kind of experiences, he thought to himself, that were best suited for men in their youth.
The presence in the corner was seemingly there to protect him but that didn’t make it any less unnerving. Amjad reached into his pocket for his flap of Procardia pills. It was an appropriate time to take them, he thought, and might help him relax a bit.
Before his fingers could get there though, a realization sent his blood pressure into a spike. The black velvet box with the ring in it wasn’t there anymore. His eyes met the two glowing embers in the corner. No words needed to be spoken.
The being understood. Amjad Qureshi heard a snarl of frustration and then he felt a huge swoosh of air as the presence flew out of the room to wherever such presences go. Amjad Qureshi was left very alone in the former classroom in the house in Mehmoodabad.
Majid Ajmeri could see that they were waiting for something to happen, but he wasn’t quite sure what. There could be no further reinforcements now that the ghouleh and her dead men had been routed.
Sakhr didn’t have the ring and he certainly didn’t have time – the narrow band of skin on Faizan’s finger that had been a little bit paler would almost certainly be close to tanning itself to the same tone as the rest of the hand – ...
...he had been in dancing in the sun all day after all. And in any case, the ring and the ring bearer were being watched over by Turab back in Mehmoodabad.
Majid could also see the police and rangers assembling on the other side of the dancers. If the possessed got hurt in the fracas, that would weaken Sakhr too. This should have been a comfort, but Majid could sense an imbalance in the cosmos, as if something was not quite right.
He turned around to look at Rajab and Ceyda and every suppressed fear he had ever felt came rushing up from his gut to the back of his throat. Neither the old man nor the burqa clad woman were there anymore.
In the midst of the ecstasy, Faizan felt, for the first time since it had begun, a weariness in his feet, as if he was tiring, as if it was physically possible to not be totally in tune with the voices that called.
He sensed, for the first time since he had shot the lock off the casket on the beach that there were people around him, a whirling mass of insane people hearing the same voices he was.
Voices that were, for the first time, echoing and overlapping, rising and fading in their timbre and tones. Voices that were flustered, voices that were desperate. Voices that got more frenzied as Faizan and the dancers slowed and the dust from their mad whirl started to settle.
“Faizan Raza,” called the voices, in the nervous quaver of a prisoner expecting bad news. “Faizan Raza,” called the voices in the hoarse rasp of denial on hearing judgement against them.
“Faizan Raza,” called the voices, in the desperate shriek of someone thrown into a dungeon. “Faizan, Faizan, Faizan,” called the voices, in the tones of the doomed and the defeated and the unborn and the undead.
Faizan Qadri ignored them and looked at his hand. There was no mark of any ring on his finger. All around him, confused people questioned each other to ask where they were and how they had got there.
Around a hundred kilometers from the city, in the ancient necropolis of Makli, Naveed Alam stood by the foot of a grave in Pir Patho at the southern end.
Lounging on top of the Chaukandi style carved slabs was a woman in a slightly crumpled kurta and neatly applied lipstick. She seemed a lot less flustered than Naveed would have expected her to be, their entire entourage ripped to shreds by the crocodiles at Manghopir.
Naveed was not one to ask questions. He knew only that he was there to have what conversations she desired him to with people she desired to have them with.
He still wanted to know why they had abandoned the dancers they were supposed to be protecting but he had seen how this queen’s temper could flare and, dead though he was, fear was still an emotion he could feel.
He stayed silent and kept his eye out for a tall woman in a burqa accompanied by an old man with many rings on his fingers as he had been instructed.
Several rows of graves away, sitting in the shadow of a dusty dilapidated tomb, Nafisa Qambrani watched them, unnoticed, while Mishogher recited rubayis from Khayyam inside her.
****Season 3 starts on 22.2.22****
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I look forward to entertaining you in season 3 with the saga of Majid and Mandana and Mishogher. And the island of Manora. See you in February.
In the year 1996, Man had been on this planet for at least 300,000 years. He was not the first to come on this planet from the skies and this is not the first planet he came upon. Centuries passed, he learned, he adapted, he evolved.
Every life that was lived had an infinite number of experiences, an incalculable amount of learning, each one of those amounting to the flutter of a butterfly’s wings and collectively forming the hurricane that shapes the human consciousness today.
But experiences are also forgotten, knowledge is also lost, civilizations turn to dust and there are miracles and horrors mankind is blessed to relearn, doomed to re-experience.
Several excerpts from Nearchus’s treatise, Indica, survive to this day, detailing his trip leading Alexander’s navy down the Indus River and into the Arabian Sea. Sadly, most of it has been lost and mankind is poorer as a result.
What we do know for sure is that he moored his fleet on what he called the Island of Morontobara and restocked his ships with fruits, fish and fresh water from a pool there.
According to Nearchus, Morontobara was ruled by a great matriarch and was the last settlement of the people of the Indus and the seas and shores beyond were home to other civilizations. This is what has survived from the Indica.
What has not survived, beyond oral tradition, is the narrative of Thobos, a slave oarsman on the Trireme that Nearchus captained. Thobos does not speak of an island of beauty and peace and calm.
His recounting of the day is of unsettled waters, the waves rocking as if a giant’s baby was flailing in the waters; of the smell of rotten eggs and reptilian waste; of the islanders whom Nearchus described as beautiful being witches; and of the matriarch being “queen of storms”.
None of this is considered exceptionally scary, it is after all a retelling embellished by time, and is par for the course from an age which also has tales of dragons and ghosts and demons that modern intellect rejects as fantasy
Thobos, though, described in uncanny detail a wave and riptide pattern that those skilled in geology would say is consistent with a situation in which an island would be moving.
Is this also fantasy? Perhaps. But the Island of Manora, known to the Greeks as Morontobara, has been described as “disturbed” by sailors and settlers on the shores of Sindh since Nearchus and Thobos landed on it that day centuries ago.
Fishermen have spoken of nets being robbed by gigantic sea creatures, villagers on the mainland have spoken of the island moving closer and further from the shore at different times of the year,...
...and zoologists have mentioned often how there are often unusually large turtle eggs noticed in the island’s vicinity. Most visitors, especially those in the nighttime, recount the unnerving sensation of feeling the island itself breathing and having a heartbeat.
It was in February 1996, however, that these tales escaped the boundaries of children’s bedtime stories and made their way, however briefly, into the collective consciousness of the people of Karachi.
It had been two years since Majid Ajmeri had been left alone in the small house in Mehmoodabad and yet not a day passed that he didn’t wake up in the morning and strain his ears hoping to hear Rajab Affendi clanging pots and pans in the kitchen downstairs.
But sometimes people who leave suddenly without goodbyes don’t ever come back. The kitchen was always silent, the rooms always empty, Majid always alone.
With no Rajab to give them access to the Pir, the disciples had stopped visiting and the doorbell rang rarely, if at all. Majid spent his evenings alone, reading his books and scientific journals, alternating between researching alchemy and chemistry.
On this Saturday afternoon, Majid was feeling uneasy. There was no particular reason to be.
Karachi was calming down, there were no major disturbances on the borders of the seen and the unseen, no strange smells or turns of the weather, no strange people peddling miracles or doom.
All was as it normally was, if not as it should ideally be. And yet there was something gnawing at the back of his throat, something causing itches that could not be scratched, like a mosquito buzzing close enough to be heard but not enough to be swatted away.
Majid tried to shrug it off and settled into his armchair in the former classroom. He closed his eyes and let his astral self float out of his body and rise and fly above the city. The sights and sounds were normal.
Honking cars, cawing crows, the rumble of machinery, of ceiling fans and washing machines and water pumps, children playing in the streets, flying kites from the rooftops, hawkers selling their wares, people at work, people at rest, people at war, people at peace.
Forced by habit, he flew over the lesser attractions, the graveyards and the slums and the jails and the asylums and the homes of the poor and the diseased and the bereaved and the bereft. And still there was nothing that was different from what it could be expected to be.
Tired, flustered, he flew past the shoreline as he circled back home. It was then that he noticed it. The island was moving.
Amjad Qureshi had been napping at his desk when he woke with a start. Somewhere deep within his subconscious he had felt a log forgotten, but still familiar, breath at the back of his neck. He looked around but the room was as empty as it had been when he dozed off.
Or maybe not quite as empty. The air was fuller, heavier, as it is when a room is shared with someone who has been around you forever. There was no one with him but Amjad Qureshi was not alone.
Business had not been bad been since he had staggered out of the house in Mehmoodabad a couple of years ago.
The jewelry shop suddenly had fewer customers, the gold and gems his craftsmen used didn’t seem to glisten as bright and one by one over half his workforce had given their notices and left.
As one of the younger shop attendants had put it, the barkat – God’s blessing – had disappeared since the day the tall burqa clad woman had come in to buy a ring.
Amjad Qureshi was not a superstitious man but, he reasoned, when one has seen what he had seen, a little superstition is not unwarranted.
The air around him had been energized for some reason and the only thing he could think of doing was reach for the empty black velvet box at the back of his drawer.
It was still empty, but warmer somehow, as if it had just been handled by someone. It felt a little heavier too, more than what an empty box should feel at least, like a story with chapters unwritten weighing it down.
Amjad Qureshi shut the drawer and walked down to the shop area. There was a bustle like the days of old, attendants displaying necklaces and bracelets and rings to customers, the dreariness of past two years of poor commerce dissipating like fog in the sun.
From across the road, standing by the bus stop, a man in dirty khaki trousers, a stained white tee shirt and Peshawari chappals stared at the jewelry shop. His hair was disheveled, his beard unkempt and his look blank.
He had been standing there for a long time – from 9 in the morning if you asked the bun kabab wala – like he had every day for the past two years. Nobody knew who he was or why he stood there, silent and alone,...
...but Karachi has a fair few mental patients walking its streets, abandoned and ignored. All the regulars at that particular junction at the Sarafa Bazar between Bolton Market and Jodia Bazar knew about him was that his name was Faizan.
Senior Meteorologist Muzaffar Tunio read the news report of the capsized fishing boats and felt a tinge of alarm. The waters should have been calm around Manora the day before.
There had been no storms or squalls or even an excess of wind that had been recorded or reported over the past several days and there was no reason for there to have been any marine accidents that he could think of.
But the only details in the report were of vicious riptides suddenly smashing three boats into each other, killing all but two of the crewmen on board. That and the fact that the two injured survivors were drenched in something that smelled of rotten eggs and reptilian waste.
Muzaffar Tunio couldn’t make sense of it and nor did he want to. As long as nobody was blaming the weather that he should have kept an eye on, he was golden. He turned his attention to the more important things in life, the sports pages.
In her little flat in FC Area, Bilquis Naveed recited a Fateha for her lost husband, Naveed, who had been missing for two years. Her in-laws didn’t appreciate it, of course, feeling that she had given up on any hope of his return too soon,...
...but Bilquis knew that the man she had married was not alive anymore. No force on the planet could have kept him away from his wife and children if that had been the case.
She had washed the dishes and folded the laundry, the children were asleep and she had tallied the accounts from the butcher shop that Naveed had left behind. There was nothing else to do but she didn’t want to watch the Shahrukh Khan and Kajol movie again.
It was the type of movie Naveed would have loved, travel and romance and getting married to someone without any planning. Bilquis sighed. She got up and headed to bed. Unnoticed, in the mirror behind her, Naveed combed his hair.
***to be continued***
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For centuries philosophers, poets, mystics and those of elevated understanding have tried to answer one question. What is love? And, for the most part, their answers have been unsatisfactory to those in it and not in it alike.
The Greeks understood love as being of three categories: eros, agape and philia; focusing on the distinctive motives and emotions each type incurred. Other modern philosophers changed the vantage point and looked at it from four angles: union, valuing, robust concern and emotion
The poets and mystics of South Asia tried to understand it as a matter of degrees: attraction, infatuation, love, trust, worship, madness and death – the sixth stage being the ideal that young romantics aspired to or at least pretended to be.
Whatever the right answer to the question may be, the truth is probably that the truth is different for every individual. For Rajab Affendi it was about taqaazay.
There is no easy translation for the term – you could use anything from “demand” to “requirement” to “condition” and get away with it and you would be right, and you would be wrong.
The English language is not equipped to describe the ecstasy in his desperation or the pain in his euphoria. It cannot describe what it means to break the oath of fealty to one’s master for the hope of another gaze into those emerald eyes,...
...what it means to dishonor one’s self for the hope of a smile, what it means to trade immortality for a glimpse of the breeze caressing a lock of hair. So, when Ceyda had headed towards Makli, there was nothing else Rajab Affendi could have done but follow her.
For two years he had been closer to her than any shadow could have been, at her heels like a lapdog would be, oblivious to all else as they waited in Barzakh, the borderlands between the ethereal and the corporeal, for Mandana to give her orders.
Almost oblivious. For all the captivation, all the magic, that Ceyda held over him, there had been a persistent tug at his consciousness of someone, something, watching from beyond the veils.
An elder presence, silent and disapproving, always in the shadows, quietly chanting some words of man, chants that echoed on the clouds, chants that carried on the breeze, the only thing that entered or exited Barzakh.
Rajab Affendi couldn’t see beyond the veils of Barzakh. Nobody he had ever met or heard of could other than Majid Ajmeri, and even Majid could only do that when he knew where to look. But whoever this presence was, it was much older than Majid.
Rajab pulled his gaze away from Ceyda to peer at the clouds that encircled Barzakh. For a fleeting instant he sensed he saw a middle-aged woman sitting in the shade of a tomb looking straight at him...
...while something much more ancient, much more primitive, read the Shahnameh inside her. But then Ceyda stirred in her sleep and his attention turned to her, all images of tombs and shadows and elder beings reciting ancient magic disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Far, far away yet very, very close, Nafisa Qambrani crossed and then uncrossed her legs. They were about to return but there was enough time for Mishogher to finish the story. She had always enjoyed this one.
One hundred and twelve Saturdays pass quicker for some than they do for others. For Dr. Mashhood Ghauri, they had passed in the blink of an eye. Dr. Ghauri took great pains to tell everyone he met that he was not a medical doctor.
An aeronautical engineer and astrophysicist by profession, he had three Ph.Ds from Ivy League universities in the United States and had been poised for a high paying job in Lockheed Martin in the early 80s when he got indicted for a vehicular manslaughter charge in Detroit, USA.
Wanting to avoid jail, he had escaped to the country of his parents’ birth and taken up a job at the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) and resigned himself to a life of monotony and underachievement.
Until the winter of 1994, a hundred and twelve Saturdays ago.
On that Saturday, Mashhood Ghauri had been at his desk reading a report in the newspaper on some freak accident at Manghopir concerning crocodiles when he received an urgent summons to his boss’s office.
Mashhood’s boss was, in Mashhood’s opinion, an underqualified dunce who was at his position only by virtue of the fact that his uncle was a cabinet member.
Visits to his office usually offered the same intellectual stimulation as visiting a kindergarten or a barber’s shop or one of those “halqas” Mashhood’s own uncle was fond of organizing ever since he had returned from Saudi Arabia.
But in the Pakistani government hierarchy, bosses are bosses and summons have to be answered. Mashhood knocked the door and entered to find his boss smiling obsequiously at a man in a white cotton shalwar kameez and black waistcoat.
Mashhood’s life had moved very fast since that meeting, faster even than his days at MIT which he had viewed, until then, as the highlight of his life.
He had been seconded to a top-secret task force formed to covertly launch a series of satellites and space probes far more advanced than the official Badr telemetry satellite that the government had placed in the ionosphere with a whole lot of fanfare.
Eighteen months into the assignment, the first three of the Burraq reconnaissance satellites had been launched and were providing a wealth of data to the people to whom such data mattered.
The success of the mission had afforded Mashhood the clout to have unfettered access to the space observatory that opened in 1995 at the Karachi University’s Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics.
And Mashhood had made full use of that access, spending hours upon hours studying the unconquered frontiers that were his passion. This Saturday evening Mashhood had his telescope trained on Object 4732ZC, something he hoped would soon be recognized as Comet Ghauri.
It’s angle of approach had kept it masked for weeks but by Mashhood’s preliminary calculations, the increasingly visible object, though still nothing but a glimmer of light, was soon going to be a Near Earth Object.
He noted down some coordinates on his pad and then turned back his attention to the blackboard where he was mapping the trajectory. A slight shiver ran down his spine. This was going to be close.
One hundred and twelve Saturdays pass slower for some than they do for others. Mehjabeen Javed felt guilty for not being grateful. Javed had never returned since he stepped out into the night with his sharpened knife and crumpled kurta.
There had been no news of him being arrested or killed or hurt or anything. It was as if he had vanished off the face of the Earth. The beatings, the jibes, the mental torture had all gone with him.
And yet… the house felt empty, her soul alone, her peace still a mirage in the Desert of Javed. Mehjabeen had done everything a person does when something like this happens.
She had visited the morgues, the hospitals, and the police stations. She had stood outside the Press Club with his photo, complained about his disappearance to every political party representative she could find and had prayers for his return offered from pulpits all over town.
She had contacted her estranged in-laws, her disapproving family and all of Javed’s old friends in the hope that someone somewhere could do something to return her husband to her. Nothing had worked.
Javed stayed missing, the house stayed empty and Mehjabeen remained incomplete. In desperation she had turned to what she had derided all her life as the oldest con known to man – the pirs and aamils who promised miracles to the ones with no hope left.
And even they had done nothing but take her money and her sacrifices and whatever was left of her faith in Javed’s return. As she drove her Suzuki FX back to her house in Pak Colony, Mehjabeen pondered about how this last aamil had been worse than all the others put together,...
...muttering gibberish about planetary conjunctions, prophecies of doom, an impending arrival and someone called Maymoon. But at least he hadn’t taken any money. So that was a relief. It meant she could pay the electricity bill on time for once.
She parked her car and unlocked the gate when she saw the ghost.
On the charpai in her tiny verandah, dressed in a clean brown shalwar kameez, hair neatly parted, mustache carefully groomed, long lost twinkle back in those mischievous eyes, with a pair of jasmine gajras half wrapped in a piece of newspaper next to him, sat Javed.
In the reading room at Abdul Qadir Bedil Library in Sharfabad, Majid Ajmeri was reading whatever he could find on the Island of Manora. Islands are not supposed to move, so when they do, they spark discussion. And discussion is always documented.
And that which is documented, more often than not, finds its way to the Bedil Library. He read Batislam and Al Qazwini and he read the more “frivolous” ancient fantasies which he had found often contained more facts than they were given credit for.
He read of Bahamut and Rukhs and Simurghs and of dragons and winged lions and mermaids. And he found nothing. Frustrated, he put down the books and looked around. The library was not very busy at the time, not many apart from the regulars haunting its dusty tables.
In one corner though, a young man had fallen asleep in his chair – a usual occurrence at libraries the world over – the gentle draft from the ceiling fan rustling the pages of the Khawateen Digest in front of him. Majid’s sharp eye fell on the page it was open on. Horoscopes.
Suddenly energized, Majid rushed to the exit. He had to get home and consult the cosmic calendar – the jantri as they called it - that Rajab Affendi and he had prepared a couple of years ago. The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn couldn’t possibly have come ahead of schedule.
Or, he wondered, could it?
Visible only as a glimmer of light on Ghauri’s telescope, a beast with red and gold wings hurtled through space, a long trail of red fire in its wake. It had horns on his head, dark brown skin, and a forked beard.
Its huge biceps were encircled by heavy gold bracelets and a red gemstone from the throne of Saturn hung around its neck. King Maymoon was headed towards Earth, his arms filled with fresh calamities to unleash.
***to be continued***
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At the age of nineteen, Mukhtar Bilgrami was a far sight from what his teachers in primary school had hoped he would turn out to be. He had gone from being a promising debater and participant in school plays... an introverted and reticent youth who rarely spoke unless forced to and that too in monosyllabic responses to questions. He was slight of frame, had unruly hair and always looked like he had had a few hours of sleep less than he needed to.
Teenage has robbed many a child of promise, but in Mukhtar’s case it was less expected than it normally is. This had not happened overnight. Until a couple of years ago, Mukhtar was pretty much how he was supposed to have been. And then the dreams began.
Most people forget most dreams within a minute of waking up. At times a person will waken with vivid recollections of the way their mind had rambled while asleep,...
and by the time they’ve hoisted up their body on one elbow to reach for the pencil and notebook they’re journaling the dreams in, the images have dissipated like fog in the wind. With Mukhtar, this was not the case.
Not only did he have the rather unusual knack of remembering everything he dreamed about, Mukhtar was also plagued by dreaming of things that were unusually realistic. Meaning that the boundaries between recollection of a dream and an actual memory were rather vague in his mind.
Mukhtar would dream of having had fun on the beach with friends, internalize it as a memory and then be met with blank stares when reminiscing over it with the same group of friends.
He would dream of his father’s funeral, wake up wracked with grief, and see him washing the car outside his window. He would dream of an argument with his mother, go to apologize, and leave her in tears worrying about what was wrong with her son.
He would dream of love and hate, victory and loss, slights and revenge and discover minutes or hours or days later that none of the things had happened. In time, Mukhtar learned not to discuss events or people or pasts or futures with anyone unless they asked first.
He learned to assume that invitations hadn’t been received, parties hadn’t happened and relationships didn’t exist, that smiles weren’t smiled at him, that tears weren’t shed for him, that he wasn’t part of discussions or gossip or slander,...
...and that the delayed movements of his reflection in the mirror and of his shadow on the walls were probably just another manifestation of the madness he was doomed with.
He sat this day by his open window at his house in PECHS, and took a long drag on his Morven Gold cigarette as he stared at the small “lake” in Jheel Park. A lone migratory crane had dived into the water minutes ago but still hadn’t come back up.
Mukhtar waited till he finished his cigarette, stubbed it out on the window sill and then walked to the washroom to brush his teeth. The crane he had seen, he thought, was probably not real either.
His delayed reflection in the mirror finally lit up the cigarette Mukhtar had just stubbed out.
The important thing was that Javed was back.
And he was back without the bloodshot eyes that ganja brings, without the biting retorts that self-pity fuels, without the bursts of violent fury, without the knives and bloodstained kurtas, the sunken cheeks and sallow skin - but also without any explanation of where he'd been.
It wasn’t that Mehjabeen didn’t want an explanation, but, she asked herself, would one really make things better?
Javed had spent the first evening back helping her in the kitchen, organizing the cupboards and ironing his old work clothes with a manic energy she hadn’t seen before. Tomorrow, he promised, he would go out to see if he could get his old job back or any other form of work.
The horrors of the old days, he said, were behind him. Mehjabeen didn’t know what to say to that – words don’t unscar skin, unbruise flesh or unbreak hearts –... she just nodded along and waited till he went to the washroom to call her mother and tell her that her husband had returned and that everything would be fine, inshallah. Inshallah, not alhamdolillah.
Javed made the tea he had always been good at while she sat in her small living room, listening to him clanging pans in the kitchen like in the days of yore, singing aaj phir tum pe pyaar aaya hai while he worked.
The normalcy seemed so surreal, she asked herself if it was actually happening. She got up, suddenly fidgety, and walked around the little house looking at everything as if to ensure she wasn’t trapped in some dream, but the house was all there and so was her husband of old.
Mehjabeen decided she wouldn’t question fate. The weariness of her day and the shock got to her all at once and, feeling drained, she lay down on her bed. When Javed brought the cup of tea she was already fast asleep.
Javed set the cup on her bedside table and covered it with an inverted saucer. He switched off the lights and gently pulled the rather threadbare blanket over his wife and stood for a minute to watch her sleep with a smile on his face.
Then he turned around and walked through the mirror and disappeared.
Dr. Mashhood Ghauri, with his three PhDs from Ivy League universities, was flummoxed. Not at his calculations – a man with that much self-confidence never doubts his calculations –...
...but at how to explain to the imbecile who was his boss that Object 4732ZC was likely to enter Earth’s atmosphere and crash into the general vicinity of Karachi. He reclined in his leather chair at his office in SUPARCO and came up with what he thought was the best solution.
He would do nothing. The city administration was ill equipped to deal with such a situation anyway and the panic following any such announcement would amount to nothing in the way of action.
Mashhood decided to sign out early and have a long nap before he left for the observatory in the evening. He got into his Suzuki Margalla and drove towards his family home in North Nazimabad Block F.
The years since his return to Pakistan had still not attuned him to Karachi traffic and the non-existence of any semblance of lane discipline. Every drive was a chore and this one was no different.
He swore at the trucks and the minibuses and the motorcyclists and the rickshaw drivers and the men on donkey carts and those ambling along with their pushcarts. Sometimes he would gesticulate as well when the offending party seemed to be more offensive than the norm.
He had almost reached the KDA chowrangi when a rickshaw came dangerously close to his side view mirror on the left. Mashhood flipped his middle finger at the driver and yelled at him.
There are moments in life when everything slows down to the point that every single detail registers and imprints itself on one’s consciousness. The smells, the sounds, the sights, even the throbbing of one’s own heartbeat.
Azfar Ali, the rickshaw driver who had just been sworn at by the driver of the olive green Margalla, swerved his three-wheeler in front of the car in an attempt to cut him off.
Azfar had never taken a provocation lying down and this burger who had had the audacity to swear at him in English would have to receive at least a couple of slaps for his trouble.
Azfar hopped out of his rickshaw and pulled up his sleeves as he headed for the driver’s door and then stopped in his tracks. The driver had gotten out of the car but instead of squaring up for a fight was looking at the sky.
Azfar also looked up, shielding his eyes from the 4:00 pm sun, trying to see what the burger was staring at.
The second he saw the burning object in the sky hurtling down from the sky, Azfar could have sworn he sensed the panic in the crows as the scattered from their perches, the flutter of their wings as they sped away in terror.
He heard, above the cacophony of a busy Karachi street with its blaring horns, loud engines and regular calls and cries of commuters and conductors, the sheer unadulterated fear in their cawing, the horror in their recognition of an approaching calamity.
He heard, in all that noise, the cicadas and crickets go silent, the frightened mewling of the street dog on the footpath which had its tail between its legs, the buzz of the electricity wires suddenly end.
And then, just as the ball of fire disappeared into thin air before it made landfall, Azfar heard the unmistakable sound of mirrors cracking all around him.
In vehicles, in purses women carried, on walls in the buildings around them, in the barber shops, in the furniture stores, in washrooms, on dressing tables, even on the hand embroidered dress of the girl in the second row on the 2K bus. Azfar sensed it all.
Mashhood and Azfar looked at each other, the fight that had to be fought forgotten, and each jumped into their respective vehicles and sped away. The dog barked twice at the sky and then ambled away as the electricity started buzzing in the wires once more.
The lake that gives its name to Jheel Park had lost much of its depth over the decades as people dumped trash and debris and other unwanted detritus of human existence into it.
The park in February 1996 was not a place people sent their children to play as garbage heaps and heroin addicts took over and it acquired a reputation of being haunted.
Birds, however, don’t care much of what haunts the senses of man and as long as a fish or two are available for hunting, a migratory crane will dive into a body of water to grab them,...
...and the laws of physics ensure that unless it is totally silted over, a body of still water can still be enough of a mirror to reflect the sun.
Mukhtar Bilgrami was back at the window with his afternoon cup of chai and the seventh Morven Gold of the day. He saw the ripple in the water and the crane that disappeared in the morning emerge and fly away. Definitely a dream, he thought, as he stubbed out his cigarette.
The mirror on the wall had mysteriously cracked and he wasn’t sure if his reflection was still delayed or back to the way it should be.
Several miles away, in the necropolis of Makli, Nafisa Qambrani uncrossed her legs and stood up as Mishogher ended the Shahnameh inside her. It was a great story, but the clouds had parted and someone would soon re-emerge from beyond the veils. There were scores to be settled.
***to be continued***
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