In the ancient romantic tale, Anarkali was a courtesan dancer in the Mughal court of Salim Jahangir who dared to fall in love with him. As the story goes, she was buried or burnt alive for her crime. Here, she is a poor street sweeper in Lahore, nicknamed Anarkali by a white professor researching bombing incidents on the city’s churches. Anarkali is the ordinary woman who is invisible, who goes unnoticed and unremarked by history. She is the one who dares to live her life in her own way, and pays a heavy price for it. Even today, centuries later, for a woman to love someone outside her class and caste is fraught with danger.
The Sixth and Final One, Anarkali
Through the open window, the smell of strong spices from the dhabas intermingles with the stench rising from open sewers and fills my small room. It was raining earlier, and the mist has cleared, but now the drains are overflowing with muck. In the flat next door, a qawwali is being played too loud on the radio. I lie on my bed, without a cover, listening.
I go down, knowing it is late for a single woman to be outside on her own, walking the narrow alleys.
In my pocket I have the envelope with Jameel’s last letter. I hear his calm voice in my head, reciting the words of Faiz’s poetry.
Surud-e -shabana- Nim shab, chand, khud faramoshi
Midnight, the moon and self-forgetfulness
He and I had wandered down these lanes together, many times. Ancient, dilapidated buildings on either side. Each had been allotted an area of dug-out earth, more than three hundred years ago. Now the buildings are in ruins; windows boarded up, sign boards of defunct shops hanging lopsidedly and balconies curtained by tangled-up skeins of dead wires.
Shapes move without making any sound in doorways. Shadowy forms are coming closer. A man in uniform is looking down at me. It’s Khan, he’s waving his baton, and speaking in a loud voice.
What is he trying to tell me? If only I understood his gestures, then there might be just one thing I’d be able to rescue from all of this.
I feel a sharp blow at the back of my head. His figure fades. I can’t see him, no matter how hard I try. A grey haze descends over Lahore.
Silence wraps all.
The First One: Jameel
This is what Lahore calls its fifth season: every November the city is oppressed by smog, which shrouds it in a haze. The people complain of a choking sensation in their throats, stinging eyes and an acrid burning smell.
That evening the fog was especially thick. Jameel and I had arranged to meet Rob for the last time. I imagined Rob already sitting at a table in the corner of the roof terrace of Koko’s, sipping his cardamom tea and contemplating the Badshahi Mosque through the mist. I stood in the doorway of the old apartment building, my suitcases packed and ready for Jameel to take to his place. We’d decided we should get it done before meeting Rob. The azaan echoed through the walls of the city.
Jameel was late. I checked my mobile but there was no message, which was unusual for him. He was always fastidious that way. In the distance, I could make out the silhouettes of black birds circling the mosque minarets as though participating in a joyous sacred ritual. Further down the alley from where I was standing, kiosks had lit their colored lanterns. The trousers of my pink salwar kameez flapped in the gentle breeze as I waited. I pulled my dupatta closer around my shoulders. The evening would be tense, but I had every reason to be optimistic. To my relief, a rickshaw drew up outside and honked. But it was Rob who alighted.
“Where’s Jameel?” he asked.
“I’ve been waiting for him here,” I replied. “I thought he might be with you.”
I stepped aside to let him pass, then followed him to the flat. He went straight to the bedroom. I left my cases by the front door and joined him. He removed his shoes and lay down on the bed. I sat by his feet and took off my dupatta.
“Where can he be?” I said.
Rob leaned his head back against the pillow and closed his eyes.
One Year Earlier
The Anarkali book market was busy, as it always was on Sundays at noon. Shopkeepers in brown kurtas covering large paunches stood in the shop entrances or lounged on charpoys, drinking tea, smoking bheedis and discussing politics. Women and children huddled in groups round the books, choosing which to buy. It was like any other Sunday. I had noticed him searching through the volumes laid out on the pavement, taking his time with each one. There was nothing special about him; foreigners often came to the market. He was of medium height, and his brown hair was flecked with grey. His clothes were casual — jeans, a red sweater, a striped scarf around his neck. I wondered where he was from. He gathered up a pile of books from the plastic sheet and began haggling with the seller. I was squatting on the pavement with my brush. I saw him cast a look in my direction, as though he sensed I was watching him. I covered my head with my scarf and carried on clearing the sidewalk of leaves.
Each time I looked up he was observing me. I pretended to be busy but kept glancing at him until he finished buying the books. Then I picked up my brush and pan and went to sit under the old banyan at the end of the street. I saw him approaching.
“May I please buy you a cup of tea?” he asked, in surprisingly clear Urdu. “My name’s Rob, and I’d like to talk to you.” He raised his arm. “We could go over there to the Tea House.”
“I’m not that sort of woman.”
“I was going to have some tea myself, that’s all. I didn’t mean to trouble you.”
I’m used to refusing invitations from all sorts of men. But this was the first time I’d ever spoken to a foreigner — a white person — and I was curious.
“Why do you want to talk to me?”
He was walking away. “Nothing important,” he called over his shoulder. “Forget it.”
“Wait,” I said. “Give me a minute.” I hid my brush behind the tree, and followed him.
“Oi chura, where do you think you’re going?”
I turned to see Nazir, my supervisor, shouting at me.
“It’s two o’clock,” I replied, pointing towards the clock tower opposite. “I’m off duty.”
“Don’t think I didn’t see you were late this morning.”
“Did you notice I was early yesterday?”
A couple of shopkeepers came out to see what the shouting was about.
“You need to keep her in check,” one of them told Nazir.
I followed Rob to the Pak Tea House. As we entered, the waiter stopped me. “What do you want?” he said.
“She’s with me,” Rob said. He led me to a table at the back and we sat down opposite each other.
I had never been inside the Tea House before. On the walls there was only a row of black and white portraits. From the street it always looked so enticing, I’d expected it to be much fancier.
“Those are Lahore’s most famous writers,” Rob said. “They used to come here to discuss their ideas. He pointed first to one photo, then another. “Look, that’s Manto. And that’s the poet Faiz.”
I looked down at my hands in my lap.
“People like me don’t learn to read,” I said. “We have no money for books.”
He didn’t reply. The place was crowded, and the chatter from the other tables made the silence less awkward.
“What would you like to eat?” he said.
“I don’t know. Whatever you decide.”
He asked the waiter to bring a plate of biriyani and two cups of tea.
The young men at the next table were smiling at me.
“Good catch,” one of them said. “The gora looks like he has money.”
“Pay no attention to them,” Rob said.
The food came, and he placed the plate in front of me.
“Please, help yourself,” he said.
I wouldn’t normally let a stranger buy me food, but I was there of my own free will and I was hungry. I picked up the spoon.
“So what did you want to talk about?” I asked.
“Right,” he said. “I’ll get straight to the point. I’m a visiting professor at the university here in Lahore.”
“Where are you from?”
“London. But I’ve been in Lahore about a year now. I’m doing research into the Punjabi Christians, and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”
“What kind of questions? How do you know I’m a Christian?”
“I could be wrong, but most sweepers and cleaners in Lahore are.”
I put down my spoon and stood up. “I must leave now.”
“Why? You haven’t even told me your name.”
“I’ve heard about you foreign journalists,” I said. “You’ll do an interview and take my photo, and the next minute I’ll be in the newspapers, accused of blasphemy or saying something against the government.”
“No,” he said. “I’m not a journalist. Please stay, and at least have some tea.”
I sat down.
“Let’s eat,” he said. “The food’s getting cold.”
We ate and drank in silence. When we’d finished, he said, “Allow me to explain. Do you remember the bombings of the All Saints Church in Peshawar in 2013, and the Roman Catholic Church in 2015?”
“How could we ever forget?”
“You see, my research is around those incidents. I’m investigating what actually happened there and what led to the attacks.”
“I’m twenty years old,” I said. “I was an innocent girl then. And now, I work. I come to the market every morning, sweep the streets and go home. That’s my life. I only know what I hear on the news, like everyone else. How could I know anything about a bombing?”
“Of course,” he said. “Not directly. My research involves talking to Christians from all backgrounds. I want to understand.”
“What makes you think I can help?”
“Well, it was your community that was targeted.”
He told me he would pay me for what he called “the interview.” It was more than a month’s wages.
“It’s too risky,” I said. “I shouldn’t have agreed to come here with you.”
“I’ll pay you double,” he said. “You won’t be in any danger, I promise. I don’t need to know your real name.”
I sat looking around, my thoughts interrupted by laughter from the well-dressed women at the next table.
“My family needs the money,” I said. “So I’ll do it. I just pray I can trust you.”
“You can,” he said. “Thank you. Shall we meet here again, next Sunday at two? And how about I call you Anarkali?”
“If you like,” I said. “But only the one meeting.”
We fell into a pattern. After I’d finished my shift I’d make my way to a group of trees to the side of the Tea House, where he’d be waiting for me. We’d sit at the same table, and he would order tea and food. Then he’d take out his notebook. Initially his questions were broad: where was I born, where did I live, how often did I go to church? Then they became more probing: which church did I attend, who was the pastor, how big was the congregation? Was I, or my family, involved in any church activities? Did we receive any assistance from the church?
“I don’t think I should tell you,” I said.
“I simply want to understand,” he said. “I’m a Christian myself, a Catholic.”
After our fourth meeting, I took him to my church and introduced him to Father Stephen. I explained Rob was a visiting professor from the UK doing research at the local university.
“Leave the past alone,” Father Stephen said, wiping the sweat from the back of his neck with his handkerchief. “What happened was God’s will.”
Rob persisted. Why did Father Stephen think those particular churches were targeted? Did he suspect insider help?
“You’re a firangi,” Father Stephen said. “Foreigners can’t understand.” He shook his handkerchief at me. “And you stay away from that business, too.”
Afterwards, I told Rob, “I’ve helped you all I can. I should be free to go.”
“You’ve been a huge help,” he said, handing me an envelope. “Inside you’ll find what I owe you and something extra.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’d better go then.”
“Could we meet next Sunday?” he said. “No questions, just for tea.”
“Because I like talking to you.”
We continued to meet every week at the Pak Tea House. Then one Sunday, after a walk in Lawrence Gardens, Rob said he needed to pick up some books from his flat before he went to work. He led me to an alley just behind Badshahi Masjid, and as we reached the entrance to his building, it began to rain.
“I’ll wait for you here,” I said.
“You’ll get soaked,” he said. “Come on in.”
“No, I’m fine, really.”
“Don’t be silly, Anarkali. I won’t eat you.”
Rob’s flat was large, with separate rooms for sleeping, cooking, watching television and reading. He showed me around and pointed out all the different “treasures” he’d discovered in the old city; antique furniture, and books.
“Have you read all of these?” I asked, looking along the shelves which lined two walls of the living room.
“Almost.” He took my hand and looked down at my dirty, broken finger nails. I pulled away.
“You don’t have to sweep the streets anymore, Anarkali.”
“You’ve given me enough already,” I said, “and helped my family.”
“Stay here with me. I could teach you to read.”
Rob opened his eyes and turned his head towards me.
“Anarkali,” he said softly. “What will happen when you go away?” He reached out his arm and pulled the pins from my hair so that it fell around my shoulders. Please, lie down with me one last time.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“I was so sure you’d never leave me. I tried to give you everything.” He switched on the lamp, casting a dull glow over the room and on to his face, making it appear younger and more open. In that moment, I felt I could believe anything he said, just like a year ago.
“Where’s Jameel?” I said. “We have to find him?”
“Your hair smells of roses,” Rob said. “Please stay with me.”
“It’s not right,” I said, as I got up and went into the living room
I’d known Jameel for three months. Rob brought him to the flat one evening, and after introducing us, went out to a meeting.
“I’ll leave you in Anarkali’s safe hands,” he said, gesturing to Jameel to sit down in the armchair. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll see you later.”
“Anarkali,’ Jameel said. “That’s an interesting name.” He was tall and athletic looking.
“I’ll make some tea,” I said, and went into the kitchen.
When I returned, Jameel was leaning back, seeming at ease. I sat down on the sofa and poured the tea.
“I think you know,” he said, scratching his dark stubble. “I’m working with Rob on his research.”
“Yes, he told me.”
“But what I like to do most is study poetry.”
“I don’t know much about it,” I said. “Rob pointed out a photo in the Pak Tea House, of Faiz I think.”
“He’s the finest.”
“Rob’s taught me to read in Urdu a little,” I said. “But I’m not up to poetry yet, and he’s always busy.”
“You don’t have to read it,” Jameel said. “You just have to hear it, and it will stay in your mind. Listen.
Surud-e -shabana- Nim shab, chand, khud faramoshi
Midnight, the moon and self-forgetfulness
The past and present are faded; afar,
A supplication shapes the stillness,
Dimmed is the sad assembly of stars.
Silence wraps all …’
“Do you really think I could learn to recite it?” I said.
“Of course,” he said.
“Can you teach me?”
When Rob came back, Jameel got up straight away.
“I’d better be going, Prof,” he said. “Thank you for putting up with me, Anarkali.”
“What did you talk about?” Rob asked, after Jameel had left.
“Poetry mostly,” I said.
“Ah, yes. Jameel’s a dreamer. I’m glad you had a good evening.”
“How was your meeting,” I asked.
“Long. I think I’ll go straight to bed.”
The hours passed, and there was still no word from Jameel. Rob came into the living room, where I was sitting on the sofa.
“Did you speak to Jameel at all today?” I asked.
“No. The last time was a few days ago, when he told me your plans. He said you’d be moving out today and we should have dinner together.”
“He wants to marry me,” I said.
“His family will never accept you, Anarkali, they’re very strict Muslims.”
“Jameel doesn’t care about that.”
“His father owns a textile business, he’s the only son. They’ve probably arranged for a suitable girl for him.”
“Jameel says we will be happy.”
“Of course you will.”
I checked my phone. “Why hasn’t he sent a message?”
“I told you. I haven’t been in touch with him today.”
“He’d never be this late without letting us know.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll come.”
I went to the window and drew back the curtain. Through the thick mist, the yellow street lights appeared blurry. In the alley, figures disappeared through narrow doorways.
“I wish I were Jameel,” Rob said quietly.
I turned from the window. “Why?”
“He has youth.” He picked up his notebook and pen from the coffee table and sat down. “And now he has you.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Thank god,” I said. I hurried to open it, brushing against a vase of wilting gladioli, scattering dried orange petals on to the floor.
I was faced by a tall, thick set man with a grey beard.
“Asaalam alaiykum,” he greeted me. “I’m from the Central Police Station.”
“What does he want?” Rob called out.
“Who lives here?” the policeman asked, looking past me.
Rob came and stood beside me.
“What’s going on?” he said. “Why are you here?”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you both to accompany me to the station.”
“I’m not going,” I said. “I’m waiting for Jameel.”
“You’re both required.”
“What for?” Rob said.
“I’m only following orders. I was sent by Inspector Khan to fetch whoever lives at this flat.” He showed us the chit.
“But what if Jameel comes?” I said.
“There’s no use arguing,” Rob said, putting on his shoes.
“We have to go,” the policeman said. “Now.”
Rob could have given him a few thousand rupees to report that he had been to the address and found no one there. It would have given us time. But Rob, as he always insisted, would never do anything like that.
The policeman pointed to my suitcases. “Does she live here?”
“She used to,” Rob said.
When I’d first told my family I was moving in with Rob, they tried to change my mind, and my older sister Ruksana insisted on meeting him. I introduced her to him at the Tea House.
“You see, I knew you’d like him,” I said afterwards.
“I don’t trust him,” she said. “How can you be sure he’ll divorce his wife?”
“He’s promised he will.”
“But does that mean anything? How do you know he’s not taking advantage of you? This research could just be an excuse. He’s running away from something.”
“He loves me,” I said.
“Love? What’s he prepared to sacrifice to be with you?”
Whenever I asked Rob if he’d heard from his wife, it was the same answer.
“These things take time.”
I always knew when she telephoned because he would go into the bedroom and shut the door. Then when he came out he’d give me a hug.
“You know I love you, Anarkali.”
At the station, we were taken straight to the Inspector’s office. He was overweight, and looked morose.
“I’m Inspector Khan,” he said, stubbing his cigarette out in the full ashtray. He beckoned to the two chairs in front of him. “Please, sit.”
“I’m expecting one of my students at my flat,” Rob said. “So if you don’t mind, could we make this quick?”
“I would like to question both of you, separately,” Khan said.
“We’re together,” Rob said. “And we have a right to know why you’ve brought us here.”
“How long have you two been married?” Khan asked.
I looked down and twisted the ends of my scarf between my fingers.
“I am married,” Rob said. “But not to her. My wife’s in the UK.”
“I see.” Khan pointed his pen at me. “Then who is she to you?”
“She’s engaged to one of my students,” Rob said. “Jameel, the one we were waiting for at the flat.”
“That’s your flat? And she’s living there? Why?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“We asked your neighbors and they told us she’s been with you for almost a year.”
“So you’ve been spying on us?” Rob said.
Khan sat back and chewed the end of his pen. “Tell me Professor Saheb, how much do you pay her?”
“You’ve no right to ask me that.”
“You can stop acting,” Khan said to me. “I recognize your type.”
“What are you implying?” Rob said. “She’s helping me with my research.”
“What kind of research?”
“What do you think, Inspector? Academic, obviously.”
“So she’s living with you,” Khan said, “and she’s engaged to your student?” He tapped his pen on the desk. “Rather puzzling, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Inspector Khan,” Rob said. “You can see how distressing this is for her. Jameel’s been missing for several hours.”
“Professor, I should tell you, our police force is well-qualified to handle missing persons. It is our specialty.”
“My cousin Zahid’s never been found,” I said. People went missing all the time, it was nothing new. Zahid was picked up and taken to the police station for questioning. When my uncle went there, he was informed Zahid had been released. I told myself it would be different for Jameel. He was not a Christian.
“Professor,” Khan continued. “Why did you both go for the same girl? There’s no shortage of temptation in Lahore.”
“I told you, Inspector, I’m married — separated, actually. But we’re going round in circles.” Rob pushed back his chair and got up. “We’ve got nothing more to say.”
“Kindly sit down,’ Khan said. “This is serious and no one’s going anywhere until I’ve finished.” He took a pack of cigarettes from the drawer and lit one. “Now, Professor, I’m told you’re very well connected, so maybe you can tell me what’s happened to your student?”
“If you’re suggesting …”
“Please answer the question.” Khan pushed his ashtray aside.
“They were meant to join me at Koko’s for tea,” Rob said. “When they didn’t show up, I went home and found her waiting on her own. Neither of us has heard from Jameel.”
Khan turned to me. “Are you sure you don’t know where he is?”
Jameel often came to the flat in the evenings to drop off papers or show his work to Rob. Sometimes he’d come before Rob was back, and he and I would talk. Then Rob would persuade him to stay for supper. The three of us would listen to music during the meal, then they’d discuss their research.
One evening, Rob and Jameel argued.
“I want to meet Father Stephen,” Jameel said. “I want talk to him myself.”
“That’s not a good idea,” Rob said. “He already feels I’ve asked him too much.”
“Just once,” Jameel said.
“No Jameel, I won’t allow it.”
“I won’t push him.”
“I said no. Your personal involvement would be unwise.”
The following day, Jameel phoned me from the library in the Lawrence Gardens, where he was studying.
“I finish in an hour. Would you like to meet for a walk?”
After that, we began seeing each other often. We would sit in the shade of the old banyan behind the library, where no one could see us. Jameel would read poems he’d written for me, or something by Faiz.
“It’s a betrayal,” I said.
Jameel pulled me on to the grass, lay down and rested his head on my lap.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” he said. “You’ll just have to explain to Rob, you hadn’t planned on falling in love with me.”
“He’s helping my family.”
“With me you can have marriage and a future,” Jameel said. “Rob can’t offer you that.” He stroked my cheek.
“He can,” I said. “He’s promised. He just needs time to sort his divorce out.”
“He’s been saying that for months. He’s a Catholic, remember.”
“It’s hard,” I said.
“Love’s never easy. Faiz could tell you that. Listen.”
I rested my head against the banyan’s trunk, trying to forget all but Jameel’s voice, and the verse.
The policeman who had escorted us to the station came in with three cups of tea and a packet of biscuits. Khan tore off the wrapper, pushed a cup in front of me and offered me the packet. “Help yourself.” I shook my head.
“You haven’t told us why we’re here,” Rob said.
Khan crammed his mouth with biscuits. His phone rang and he ignored it.
“I want to know where Jameel is,” Rob said.
“What makes you think I know, Professor?” Khan replied.
“Something’s happened to him, hasn’t it?” I said.
Khan looked straight at me. “Tell me where he is.”
“She knows nothing,” Rob said.
“Why aren’t they telling us what happened?” I said to Rob.
Khan looked at me.”What’s her name, Professor?”
“Anarkali,” Rob said. “That’s all I know.”
“And what was Anarkali doing before she started helping you with your so-called research?”
“What are you accusing me of, Inspector?” Rob said. “Whatever it is, it won’t work.”
“Jameel was seen near Bhatti Gate at twelve thirty today,” Khan said. “If you know anything, you’d better come clean.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rob said. “Why don’t you tell us what’s happened?”
Khan leaned forward in his chair. “Very well,” he said. “But it’s not what you want to hear. He was found in an alley near your block. He’d been stabbed. I’m afraid the ambulance arrived too late.”
I stared at the chipped cup in front of me. “Jameel,” I said.
“Do you know who did it?” Khan asked Rob.
Rob put his head in his hands. “I tried to stop him getting mixed up in the whole church business. I told him, stick to your research.”
“If I may speak frankly,” Khan said. “We’ve had our eye on him for a while now, and he had it coming. Those church bombing incidents, Professor, you should have left them alone. Your academic investigations are actually state security matters. And now you see the consequences of your meddling. You firangi never seem to understand.”
“Enough,” Rob said, raising his hand. “May god protect us from the guilty.”
“The guilty, Professor?”
“Jameel was, in his own way,” Rob said. “It’s you who don’t understand. Everything was mixed up in his head, he thought he had uncovered a conspiracy in the church.”
“No one’s innocent,” Khan said. “That will be enough for now, but we may need to talk to you again. You are free to go, but first, can I ask you to accompany me to the hospital to identify the body?”
“I must see him,” I said. The only thing going through my mind was Jameel’s voice reciting Faiz. If Jameel was really dead, was it my fault? I had warned him to stay away. Could I have done more?
“No, Inspector,” Rob said. “There’s no point in upsetting ourselves any further. I assume you’ll be informing Jameel’s family.”
A month earlier, Jameel and I had met in the Lawrence Gardens. We sat on a bench and Jameel told me he’d been to see Father Stephen.
“But Rob warned you not to,” I said. “You mustn’t keep going back and asking questions. You can’t trust Father Stephen — or anybody.”
“How can I keep quiet about what I know?”
I rested my head on his shoulder. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“Why would Father Stephen lie to me?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But please don’t see him again. Leave Rob to ask the questions.”
“But the victims’ families, they deserve answers.”
“My father always says there are many truths, Jameel.”
“But what if it happened again, and you were in church that day?”
“There’s nothing you can do.”
In the west, the sky had turned a deep orange with streaks of black. Kites circled above us. We walked around the gardens, and stopped beneath the canopy of my favorite tree. We looked up through the leaves at the sun filtering down. Then we bought roasted peanuts and returned to our bench to watch the moon rising from behind the clouds.
Jameel held me close and whispered,
“Surud-e -shabana- Nim shab, chand, khud faramoshi,
Midnight, the moon and self-forgetfulness.”
A few days later, Father Stephen had phoned me.
“You fool, what have you got yourself into?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“Do you realize the trouble I took to secure that patch of pavement in the market for your family? I had to beg my friend at the government office for it. But you showed no gratitude. You gave it up for a gora. You didn’t care, you thought you were above sweeping leaves. You were told to keep him away. But did you listen?”
“Please, Father,” I said. “He’s a Catholic.”
“First him, then his student, pestering me with questions. Do you think life’s a game?”
“I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“One minute you’re living with a gora, the next you’re messing with a Musla, bringing shame to the church. There’s a special name for besharam women like you.”
“He’s going to marry me.”
“That remains to be seen,” Father Stephen said.
“I haven’t committed any crime,” I said. “And neither has Jameel.’
“You’ve no idea what you’ve done.”
Neither Rob nor I spoke when we got back from the Police Station.
The next morning I rose early after a sleepless night, and was sitting on the sofa when he came into the living room, looking weary. He put his notepad and pencil down on the coffee table, then went to the door and picked up my suitcases.
“You can unpack these later, Anarkali.” He took them into the bedroom.
When he came back, I poured some cardamom tea into a cup and passed it to him. Then I cleared away the wilted and fading gladioli petals from the coffee table.
The Second, my cousin Zahid
My uncle was woken up by a banging on the door to his flat. He hadn’t really been asleep, but just lying on his bed wondering about Zahid. He’d checked every police station and hospital. Had the boy eloped? Had he fallen under Father Stephen’s influence? The boy was a fool and always getting into trouble.
My uncle went to see who it was. It was his neighbor, Pawan Singh.
“Sat Sri Akal,” Pawan said, “you need to come with me.”
My uncle knew it had to be about Zahid. “Is he dead?”
“I’m not saying anything, just come with me.”
My uncle got dressed and followed Pawan to his house, where his wife answered the door.
Pawan’s father, Kharak Singh, was also there, sitting by the window, wearing a white kurta pajama and a blue turban. He was the high priest at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Karatarpur.
“Where’s my son?” my uncle said, looking around. “Is Zahid here?”
Kharak stroked his beard. “Give him the letter,” he said.
Pawan passed my uncle the envelope which was lying on the side table.
I’m going after those bastards who bombed our churches. Father Stephen was right. This is Christ’s work, if we don’t stop them, who will?
The police found me, and locked me up. I was there, when you came, I could hear you begging. I managed to escape, but I can’t tell you where I am. Those fuckers want us to die, but they won’t get me.
Pawan’s wife called from the kitchen. “I told Pawan not to let him stay at the gurudwara. But he wouldn’t listen. It’s not a place for mischief makers.”
“Be quiet,” Pawan said. “Helping a person in trouble is worship. Maybe that’s something you’ll never understand.”
“Worship which brings suffering in my own house?” she said. “What’s there to understand?”
“Where is he?” my uncle said.
“There’s nothing anyone can do,” Kharak said, standing up. “Nothing.”
“Exactly,” Pawan’s wife said coming to join them. “Nothing, that’s what we should have done.” She looked at my uncle, her husband, and her father-in-law. “You’re all responsible.” She pointed her chopping knife at my uncle. “You especially.”
“Is he alive?” my uncle said.
“Who else can we blame?” she said. “Can we leave Lahore? And where will we go? And what for? All because of a useless Christian boy.”
“Bus karo, enough,” Kharak said. “Humanity is one.”
“But she’s right,” Pawan said. “It’s terrible.”
His father pulled his beard and sat down. “A tragedy.”
“Why won’t you tell me what’s happened?” my uncle said. “You’re talking as if he’s dead.”
“He got what he deserved,” Pawan’s wife said.
“He was my best friend,” Pawan said. “But he was confused.”
“He’s my son,” my uncle said. “His heart’s in the right place.’
“Maybe,” Kharak said, “but only what’s up here, counts.” He tapped the side of his forehead with his finger.
“Tell that to your son,” Pawan’s wife said. “Maybe next time he’ll use his brain.”
“If a man can’t assess the consequences of his actions,” Kharak said, “he may as well be shot, because otherwise he’ll end up causing more harm.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” my uncle said. “Who are you to decide?”
“It’s up to you,” Kharak said. “But what’s happened is very bad.”
“Bad is an understatement,” Pawan said.
“You’re forgetting,” Pawan’s wife said, “because of him we could’ve all been arrested.”
“But where is he?” my uncle said.
“We cremated him yesterday,” Kharak said. His voice was flat. “Zahid escaped from jail, the police were after him and he came to Pawan for help. They ended up at the gurdwara in Kartarpur. We hid Zahid in the kitchen of the langar hall, but the police managed to track him down and insisted on doing a search. Zahid heard them and fled through the window. We saw him running along the electric fence, down the Kartarpur Corridor, towards India. The security guards switched on the floodlights, and shouted over the loudspeaker for him to stop and surrender, but Zahid kept going, like a mad man, as if India was his salvation.”
“Of course they shot him,” Pawan’s wife said. “They couldn’t know he wasn’t a terrorist, but a raving lunatic.”
“The Indian army,” Pawan was weeping. “Zahid reached the border gates, shouting he was Christ, he was innocent. But the Indian guards pointed their rifles at him and kept firing. I saw him falling, he fell backwards.”
My uncle said, “Jesus.”
“The police told us to keep quiet,” Kharak said, “to stop it exploding into a political fiasco with India. They said they’d record him as a missing person.”
Pawan covered his head with his arms. “His face was a bloody mess, you couldn’t even recognize him.”
“He gave Pawan the letter the day he died,” Kharak said.
My uncle said, “Zahid didn’t want to die.”
The Third: Father Stephen
Father Stephen must have driven the truck gently along the road. He had found a black cloth mask lying on the seat and put it on. With the dark glasses he was sure no one would recognize him. He negotiated one corner, then another. No one would think of checking the church truck for a dead body. He’d done many things he wasn’t proud of, but this must be the worst. He’d warned Jameel, but the boy was stupid, and hadn’t listened. He kept asking interfering questions, taking notes, looking for evidence, about the church bombings. It had made those higherups nervous. Over the long bridge, he turned right and then along a bumpy road for half-an-hour. Then stopped at the farm house with a high metal gate.
When he’d parked the truck, the boys must have come out to meet him.
“Do you know Bhatti Gate?” Father Stephen must have asked.
A boy was there with four pigeons in a cage. He drew nearer.
“No one’s free,” Father Stephen said, looking at the birds.
The boy told Father Stephen the names he’d given the birds. “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.”
“What’s your name?” Father Stephen said.
“Let’s set the birds free,” the boy said. “They belong in the sky.” The boy held up the cage.
“Maybe the sky isn’t safe. Maybe, when you’re out there roaming the blue, you miss the safety of the cage.”
“So you’re on the bird’s side?”
“I suppose so.”
“Then you’re meaner than I thought. You should help the bird be a bird.” The boy waited for Father Stephen to release the catch on the cage, but he didn’t.
Father Stephen asked two of other boys to dump Jameel’s body in an alley. “But check his pockets first.”
The boys dragged the body from the back of the truck and searched it. In one pocket they found a pistol, in another, a wallet and a dirty envelope. Inside was a chit of paper. Beloved Anarkali,
Surud-e -shabana- Nim shab,
Chand, khud faramoshi
Midnight, the moon and self-forgetfulness…
Father Stephen read the note and gave it to the boy. “Look, because of a besharam woman, a man is dead.”
“What should I do with it?” The boy stared at the crumpled page in his hands.
“Let it be a reminder,” Father Stephen said. “There’s always a price to pay.”
“Father.” The boy looked at Father Stephen with a serious face. “They told me about the bad things you do.”
The sound of crows, smell of diesel leaking from the truck and the stink from Jameel’s body.
Father Stephen said, “He died for nothing.” He was remembering the stillness behind the church after the scuffle. He’d tipped them off, they’d been waiting for Jameel.
It was getting dark.
Father Stephen asked the boys to load the truck. They hoisted Jameel’s body into it. One of the boys started the truck and reversed. They would return in an hour without the body. A vendor selling pink candy floss would find it in the alley and alert the police.
They found Father Stephen dead the next morning. He was lying on his bedroom floor. Jameel’s pistol had been fired two rounds.
The boy released the pigeons from the cage. Some days later, he managed to find me and give me Jameel’s letter.
The Fourth, my sister Ruksana
The two of them were inside a chai kiosk.
“When he warned Jameel,” Rob leaned back in his chair. “I wondered.”
He stopped, as tears welled up in Ruksana’s eyes. “Please,” she said, “tell him to leave me alone.” She wore a yellow salwar khameez with a white dupatta. Her hair was tied in a low pony tail. “You know, you can’t just speak to people, and ask them anything. That’s not how things work in Lahore.” She wiped her eyes.
“Father Stephen doesn’t scare me.”
“I hope you didn’t tell my sister?”
“Don’t worry,” Rob said. “Anarkali doesn’t know we’ve met.”
“Excuse me,” the chaiwallah, standing behind the counter, said. “There are rules. You can’t sit here without ordering anything.”
Rob asked for two tandoori chais.
Ruksana started getting up. “I shouldn’t have come. If Father Stephen knew I was talking to you…”
“I’ll take care of it, Ruksana,” Rob said. “I’ve promised Anarkali I’ll help you all. Now, tell me exactly.”
She sat down. “One of the choir boys told me. He said he wasn’t the first. There’s a secret farmhouse where Father Stephen hides the boys…”
“For Christ’s sake.”
Her face was covered in tears. “When Father Stephen found out I knew, he threatened to tear my body into pieces if I ever spoke about it.”
A man with thick arms appeared through the door. He was wearing a black kurta and black face mask.
“Get out of my way,” he said to Rob. “Let’s go, kutiyaa.” He grabbed Ruksana by the arm. “You were warned to keep your trap shut.”
“Hey, what’s the problem?” the chaiwallah said.
“Let her go.” Rob pushed the man’s chest. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
The man released Ruksana. “Sid,” he said. “Just call me Sid.”
“I don’t care who you are,” the chaiwallah looked from Sid to Rob. “We don’t allow fights in here. This is a respectable establishment.”
“I’ll show you who’s boss, chutiya.” Sid grabbed the chaiwallah, and lifted him from the ground. At a half run, he went for the door and heaved him through.
Rob went after Sid, took his shoulder and gave him a wallop. “Keep away from her,” Rob said.
Sid bent over groaning. “Madharchod. I won’t leave you now.”
The chaiwallah returned. His face was bruised and cut from the pavement where he’d landed. “Who is she?” he said to Rob. “I’m calling the police.”
Ruksana was crying.
Sid pulled a gun from his pocket and waved it in the air. “Shut the fuck up, bhenchod.”
“Put down the gun,” Rob said, his voice firm.
Sid pointed it at him. “Father said don’t kill the gora, but I’ve got nothing to lose.”
The chaiwallah was on his knees, blubbering. “Please, I’ve done nothing.”
“Fucking chutiya.” Sid pointed the gun at him and fired.
Ruksana took the chance and gave the plastic table a hard push. It overturned, spilling tea everywhere. She dashed through the door into the street.
Sid gave a shout.
The first shot missed her shoulder. She turned to look back, her face lit up with anger, and a car coming at full speed knocked her over.
She tumbled down with a loud cry, and fell heavily on her side. Rob ran to her.
She died instantly.
Sid ran. Down the first alley, onto the next street, a right turn, a left, onto another street, and another alley. He was young and fit so he made it away.
The Fifth, Rob
This is how it must’ve been.
Rob couldn’t sleep. He’d tried to read, but couldn’t make sense of anything. He sat on the sofa, where I’d always sat with Jameel.
Images floated around in his head, and he couldn’t piece them together. He thought if he had some whisky, or took some medication, it would help him think clearly.
He poured himself a glass of Jack Daniels.
Persia’s poet, Hakim Nizami, was renowned for his romantic tale of Layla and Majnun. Majnun was mad for Layla. But fate had destined to keep them apart, so Majnun roamed the forests, a tormented lover.
When Layla’s marriage was arranged to someone else, Majnun sent her a note:
“Even though you’re with another, remember there’s a man whose body, even if torn to pieces, would call only one name, and that’s yours, Layla.”
She’d replied with a letter.
“Now I have to endure spending my life with one man, when my soul belongs to another.”
Rob must have thought, that’s how it is for me. Anarkali never loved me. Her soul always belonged to Jameel.
I’m alone, like Majnun, wandering around lost, in the wilderness of Lahore.
I found Rob slouched on the sofa, his head drooped.
“Rob,” I said, and shook his shoulder. “Wake up.”
Saliva dribbled from the side of his mouth. There was whisky leaking from a bottle near his feet, a glass about to slip from his limp fingers.
On the coffee table was an empty box of Valium diazepam and a notepad with one line written in pencil.
“There’s a man who will call only one name, Anarkali.”