They whispered: Parveen is in love with the shakarkandi vendor.
Figures, said the shocked neighborhood women.
Fitting that the girl with polio, this seventeen-year-old with the face of an angel and the leg of a hobbled horse, who stood at her window every night staring into the ghostly depth of Narrow Alley would steal glances at the bright-eyed boy with muscles sharp and confident in his back and a perpetual smile on his face. When Hashim went peddling his basket of steamed sweet potato up the alley, yodeling at the top of his voice, “Shakarkandi wala. Shakarkandi wala,” many a middle-aged lady sighed dreamily and leaned out of her window to watch him go. Come taste my wares, his lilting young man’s voice teased. Come take a bite of my sweet potatoes.
And they wanted to go. Wanted to take their drawstring velvet purses, abandon the baby carriage in the hall with its shit-stained linen, abolish all principles of a vaguely understood domesticity, and run screaming after the sing-song boy, “Wait. Oh, please wait. One packet of your shakarkandi please. Stay a moment, won’t you? No, you’re charging too much. Leave my alley now, you lying scumbag. But throw me over your shoulders and take me with you.”
Such sins that our daydreams are made of. The women watched the sweat of Hashim’s labor trickle down the brown lobes of his exquisite ears, watched his bare chest shine with summer heat; and in the evening, they’d gather in the cool sprawling Lions Garden near Mosque Wazir and make fun of the boy. Who would ever go with him? they would ask each other, wide-eyed, and laugh nervously. Who’d go with this young, beautiful, lanky fool who never stopped grinning.
Seemly then that Parveen was the answer. The pale girl whose high, gloomy room looked down upon the alley from a dusty window. Every evening she leaned out, red and yellow bangles slipping down her willowy arms until they shone in the dark like jewels. They clinked above the din of the street khanak! khanak! a soul song borrowed from centuries of Punjabi lore, and the girl’s eyes would be restless and lusterless until they riveted on the boy pedaling toward her house.
Hashim’s route was fixed. Each morning he biked up the alley, navigating the narrowest points on foot. Come dusk he walked his bicycle down, smiling, yelling to laborers and shopkeepers returning home to try his shakarkandi. He had a sweet, heartbreaking voice, and when he was not yodeling he sang Sufi love verses that pealed in the night like bells: “Everywhere I turn I see Ranjha; so long I’ve chanted Ranjha Ranjha I’ve become him myself. Call me Ranjha, sisters, don’t call me Heer no more.”
Carefully he’d decorate his wicker basket with shakerkandi. Blossoms of sweet potato wedges sat skewered on toothpicks ringed with slices of lemon, a presentation to tempt the most jaded taste buds, and the people of Narrow Alley responded. They’d gather around, wait for him to sprinkle chaat masala over their purchase, and munch the shakerkandi all the way home.
It was on one such night when the boy clattered down the alley, good-naturedly tinkling his bell at pedestrians, that he chanced to glance up into the mounting black. A stick figure stared down at him, circlets of light at its wrists. Their eyes met, the bangles chimed, a new dark surged.
And the sweet-potato vendor of Narrow Alley never looked away again.
• • • •
After cancer flooded my mother’s brain, Ammi brimmed with stories. The tale of the Girl at the Window and the Shakarkandi Vendor of Narrow Alley was one of them.
These stories poured from Ammi’s lips with a sick urgency, pieces of her past stitching together until a rich tapestry of her life shone brilliant before my eyes. Stories before Dad and suburbia and America and migration. Of a youth spent in Old Lahore near Mosque Wazir Khan in an alley believed to be the narrowest habitable street in Pakistan, where people came and went like thieves slipping through the night.
Why? I guess she wanted them remembered. Wanted the wholesomeneness of their truth, their Old World strangeness to carry on, no matter how unlikely they seemed.
At first Dad worried. He wasn’t sure how much was too much for a fifteen-year-old born and bred in good old U.S. of A., but he trusted Ammi and he loved her. Loved her haunted black eyes, her nervous laughter, her cafe au lait hands which she painted with henna every Eid.
Ammi was crazy about henna. She knew a woman who knew a desi woman who was a graduate of Rollins College and the finest henna artist in Florida. This lady prepared her own dye by drying, milling, and sifting henna leaves, then mixed the dry powder with lemon juice, rainwater, and red wine. To this paste she added eucalyptus and lavender oils to produce rich scented green-brown henna that she packaged in plastic cones. Ammi’s adulation of this artist began with an accidental meeting, but soon she was visiting her every few months and they became friends. Ammi loved the smell of her handiwork. She said it reminded her of Lahore’s flower gardens and lush lawns in the summer.
When Ammi died, the henna artist came and calligraphed Iqbal’s legendary poem “Love Teaches Me the Etiquette of Knowing Myself” on Ammi’s neck and cheeks and shriveled arms and hands. The orange and golden hues filled the funeral parlor with my mother’s scent. Even after they took her away, the perfume lingered.
It made Dad weepy and volatile for months.
• • • •
Ammi grew up in Teddy Galli in Old Lahore. You ask Lahorites about Teddy Galli and they will laugh. They’ll say the architect of this part of the inner city hated fat people and designed this two-hundred-feet long alley so it tapers. As you walk down, it narrows until at its tightest it becomes a foot wide and the houses on either side touch foreheads like longing lovers; then Narrow Alley dilates, leads down a gentle slope to a network of crisscrossing streets, and finally opens to the hustle and bustle outside Mochi Gate.
“Where did homeowners park their cars?” I said.
Ammi smiled. She was sitting in the wicker armchair on the lanai, bathed in pink-gold afternoon light. This was her last summer, in two months she would be dead, and she meant to soak all the heat she could before the underground took her.
“This was the sixties,” she said. A green anole lizard clung to the patio screen a few feet away. The dewlap at its throat pumped, and Ammi watched the blood-red sac bulge against its pebbled skin. “Nobody in Narrow Alley owned cars. Once these houses were owned by rich merchants and innkeepers, but the Independence War of 1857 against the British left these Muslims and their descendants destitute.”
Although many had bicycles, she added, and these were wheeled through the alley and heaved up and inside the houses.
“Could you get stuck?” I said. “Anyone ever get stuck in the alley?” I laughed at the absurdity of the image.
But she was nodding, serious. “A dirt road two streets down — a farmer lived there. One of his Sahiwali cows escaped from the yard and was chased into the alley by a bunch of children waving sticks. They prodded the panicked animal on until it reached the narrowest part, and there it wedged. For hours it struggled, lowing and terrified, unable to retreat or move forward. It took the owner and his brothers two hours and twenty feet of rope to drag it out. Flayed in many places by chipped tiles and brickwork, the bleeding creature bellowed until it seemed there was nothing in the alley that night but pain.”
“God, that’s awful.”
“Yes,” she said, then added helpfully, “The children were beaten well.”
Originally modeled on Mughal architecture with facades made of faience tiles in ochre and turquoise, the red brick houses of Narrow Alley are at least two-hundred-years old, she said. Small, double story, two fifty-square-foot buildings packed next to each other like cinderblocks. Where the elements destroyed tile work successive owners replaced the gaping with lime and mortar, rendering these historical homes ugly and listless.
“Why doesn’t the government do anything?” I said. “Don’t they care about their culture?”
“Can they ask nonprofits or UNESCO for help?”
“You can only beg so much,” Ammi said and her voice was strange. The lanai was balmy and claustrophobic and the lizard on the screen swayed back and forth, its beady eyes looking for a way out. Ammi’s eyelids flickered, her irises dull against her yellowed sclera.
“Did I ever tell you about the sweet-potato vendor of Narrow Alley?” she said.
I cocked my head at this sudden change in subject. “No.”
“Really?” She didn’t seem surprised. “Not about your Khala Parveen either?”
Ammi’s sister died a long time ago was all I knew. She had never talked about Khala in detail. Dad too had made a habit of avoiding mention of her family and life in Pakistan.
For a moment she said nothing. Her lips were colorless. “Zakir, can you please get me my nausea pill?”
I jumped up and ran for the mustard-colored Zofran. Water spilled from the trembling cup in her hand as she slapped two pills into her mouth and downed them. I watched her nervously. She dropped her head against the chair’s back, shut her eyes, and began drumming jagged fingernails on the wooden arms.
After she recovered, she told me the story. I listened and nodded, thinking it was happening already. Her doctor had told us cancer metastases were in peculiar parts of her brain; they could make her cook up surreal histories. Confabulation, Mr. Assad, he told Dad. The damn disease would make a liar of my mother.
Was Ammi confabulating? Was she subtracting pain from her childhood and adding uncanny narcotic details best explained by longing and fear? (In her these two emotions always churned together, I knew that already.) For a while I believed that and now I hate myself for it. I’ve come to believe she told me the truth; that there was in fact an emaciated girl with a polio-struck leg who lived in Narrow Alley and her shakerkandi vendor lover who biked up and down her street.
I believe that girl was Ammi’s sister, my Khala Parveen.
During one of her frequent breaks to catch her breath, Ammi looked at the sun receding behind the horizon, its crepuscule sharp and poignant. Her eyes were gorgeous. Dusky and gentle, shaped like autumn leaves, they stared at the approaching night. I have never known anyone with eyes prettier than my mother. Not even the fucking cancer could touch them.
“How’d your parents feel about that?” I said. “I mean how’d you guys deal with the affair?” Despite songs of legendary lovers — Heer Ranja, Laila Majnun, Soni Mahiwal — always on the lips of beggars and flutists in every corner, this was Pakistan in the sixties, and free love, I knew, was forbidden.
“They hated it,” Ammi said, and smiled. “But they liked it more.”
• • • •
When Parveen began vanishing at dusk, Ammi was the first to discover.
Ostracized by neighborhood children because of her sister’s disability, she was young and enthralled by this secret, and kept it as a weapon she might wield. Cripple, cripple! yelled the boys at both of them when Parveen and Ammi walked to school (one reason Parveen had dropped out of school the year before), and Ammi thought, Mutant by association, that’s what I am.
She thought this while she watched pale Parveen standing at that window, and she wanted to die.
Ammi imagined she was the only one who knew about the scandal. Mother’s turning to Father one evening as they settled on the charpoy by the entrance to crack walnuts and peel mangoes dismayed her. A night warm and dangerously still with mosquitoes nipping between their toes, flies buzzing in their ears, and Mother lowered her head toward Father’s and whispered, Let the girl do what she wants. Don’t you say a word. Let her find for herself what we cannot.
They never broached the subject with Parveen. Later, Ammi would try to imagine their parental calculations, to try to understand why they wouldn’t object to the affair. She ended up with a list of reasons, three of them most pertinent:
Father who inherited the house from a deceased uncle and scraped by with compounding at a rundown dispensary.
Mother who hauled dirty laundry to the local wash pen for others and had forearms thick enough to hold snapping dogs by the neck.
Parveen with her crippled leg that she swung like a weapon to seesaw across her bedroom.
Ammi smiled when she described her sister’s locomotion, but her eyes were sad. “I spied on them once or twice. Parveen and her pauper beau. I was fifteen and angry and envious. How could he love her? How could he love my older sister with her humiliating disability and her weird, quiet manner? I couldn’t understand it.”
So she stole out and tailed Parveen.
The lovers’ ritual of rendezvous involved the girl’s sneaking out of the house, crutches tucked in armpits, then swinging herself down the alley. Across the intersection, down the dirt path with its sad-eyed cattle, past the pond near Lions Garden they met under a peepal tree. From its branches, legend said, a Muslim girl hung herself after her clansmen sliced her Sikh lover’s throat from ear to ear. Here, the shy vendor boy touched Parveen’s diseased leg with his fingers. The girl shivered, and Hashim popped chunks of lemon-squeezed shakerkandi into her mouth.
Why do you love me? she whispered to him, eyes clear and frightened. I’m nothing. I mean nothing to anyone.
Be mine, he asked her, fingering her bangles. I’m an orphan who never knew his family. A pretender to health and happiness whose heart is rotten by hurt. Who loves you because your silence is heavier than the crash of a thousand heavenfalls. Who cannot take his eyes off you for it would be a blasphemy to your beauty. There’s nothing else worth loving, nor will there ever be — so be mine, won’t you, jaan? Be the moon that whitens my way.
Here under the haunted tree they made busy negotiating vows of love. Their foreheads joined by ardor’s gravity, they murmured blood songs and flesh duets; and Ammi watched from the shadows, enchanted and miserable.
• • • •
They tell me Ammi died of cancer. I say they’re wrong.
It was fear and mourning that aged my mother and killed her. Not her flight from Lahore or the five-year-long unhappy marriage arranged by her parents during which her first husband, a heroin addict with a temper, beat the crap out of her. Wasn’t her brief love affair with another sly, violent man, her migration to another country, nor the tumor that swelled her left ovary and dribbled into the abdomen until it seeded her gut lining with numerous neoplastic pearls of death.
No, my mother didn’t die of disease but grief. She perished from longing, and wonder.
How could anyone die of wonder? you might ask.
To answer that, I’d have to tell you about the rainstorm. I’d have to describe to you the ferocity of the wettest monsoon that ever hit Pakistan. A shrieking, pouring, deluging beast that submerged Lahore in a liquid rage, flooded its impoverished alleys, and drowned its Mughal gardens.
But before that, let me tell you how the pale girl, my Khala Parveen, died that summer of ’68.
• • • •
It was her leg, the traitorous limb that having once disabled the girl shook with malignant laughter and betrayed her again.
This time fatally.
A rare bone cancer bloomed from Parveen’s femur and surged upward. It sucked the fat from her body and melted the muscle off her limbs so that within weeks she was misshapen and bed-bound. The tumor tunneled through her lymph nodes and created a fistula that suppurated pus and blood all the time. She couldn’t limp, she couldn’t stand; she couldn’t even take a shit without bubbles of blood erupting from the opening in her groin. Her eyes sank deeper into her skull, her bangles came loose and fell clattering to the alley. Near the end she couldn’t even speak because the cancer had pincered the speech centers in her brain.
Through all this Hashim sat by her bedside. His eyes were wide and more feverish than the dying girl’s. He had abandoned his shakerkandi basket, deserted his shack with its flailing wooden beams and tin roof, and when Parveen’s parents couldn’t afford to continue her chemotherapy he sold the bicycle along with his belongings and wagered all the money on her battle with death.
“Night time was the worst,” Ammi said. “That was when she ached the most. One evening Father went to her room, and Hashim was holding Parveen, stroking her hand. His knuckles gleamed with her sweat. She smelled of rot and incontinence, but his lips didn’t leave her skin, not once. Father watched them from the doorway and left without a word. Later, we heard him smash his vials in the workroom and curse loudly, and Mother was afraid to enter.”
Ammi studied the lovers together. Parveen’s voice was a grunt now, her words comprehensible only to the vendor boy. Sometimes she had fits and her bitten tongue crept from the corner of her mouth and bled on the piss-stained bed sheets. Occasionally, she became delirious and screamed at Hashim to get his filthy, raping hands off her. This was difficult for the boy who, it seemed, had collected all the love he ever had and in one stroke squandered it on a dying, delirious girl.
How could he love Parveen still? Ammi whispered to herself. How could he bear to be with her, touch her, smell her, change her sheets, clean the inside of her yeasty mouth with a drenched cotton swab, murmur Sufi poetry to her, worship her?
The shakarkandi vendor of Narrow Alley did all these things, propelled by something dark and secret in the twining of their shadows. Parveen had stopped eating and he spooned rice khichri into her mouth and waited for it to stop dribbling before trying again. By then it was late August and the monsoon season was upon them, intermittent bursts of rain slanting into the bedroom. Hashim collected rainwater in small diya lamps, chanted Quranic prayers to bless it, and coaxed Parveen into sucking at it with a bamboo straw.
Finally when the dreaded day came, no one was surprised but him. Parveen’s chest had been hitching all morning, the death rattle was loud and insistent in her lungs, and by midday she had stopped moving. Her eyes were open, fixed on her emaciated lover who slid off the charpoy, unkempt toes pointing at the alley window, and sat unstaring at the halo of sunlight outside.
“It began to rain and wouldn’t stop and Hashim wouldn’t let us bury her,” Ammi said. “He said she would drown, he cried that she was afraid of water snakes. Mother said the same things all elders say about rainfall and heaven’s grief, but fact was it made her room humid and we were all worried about putrefaction — except for Hashim.”
He inserted cotton wicks dipped in incense into her nostrils and washed her body with consecrated rainwater. He wouldn’t let Ammi or her parents help. He dressed his love in a spotless shroud, bought a new pair of bangles and slipped them on her lolling wrists. “You are all I ever see,” he whispered to her as he daubed drops of henna on her palms, chanting the verse from Bulleh Shah again and again. “Everywhere I turn I see you.” He sat at the head of the charpoy, rubbing kalonji oil into her eyebrows and hair until her scalp shone, and watched the rain stream through the window.
It would be the longest monsoon season in the history of Lahore. The month it rained forever. Old timers murmured uneasy prayers, the weatherboard announced flooding was possible near the Ravi River and the canal system on Upper Mall. The open sewerage ravine near Mochi Gate slowly began to fill up with wet leaves, bird nests, shopping bags, old shoes, and Hashim sat by the dead girl, waiting, waiting.
The hakim came to determine the stage of decay and was turned away.
The mullah came to sanctify the body, to urge a quick burial, and was yelled out.
Mother and Ammi tried to convince him to put her in the shed behind the house and Hashim threw himself on her, screaming, “Please. She’s afraid of the dark.”
Mother turned to Father and whispered furiously. He shook his head. She wasn’t thinking, he said. He wasn’t just humoring the boy; the alley was so narrow that a bier couldn’t be carried through it. To take Parveen’s body to the graveyard they’d need four able-bodied men to lift the charpoy, take it to the roof, and carry it across the rooftops of twenty houses before they could descend and make the rest of the journey through the alley. In this weather the task would be cumbersome and dangerous, if not impossible.
One hundred excuses to delay the inevitable, and the rain poured. The water table rose, the city sank. The sewerage nullah filled with dead fish, garbage, and tree branches. The pond near Lions Gate overran its banks and the alleys ran with foul water knee-deep.
“Let me take her home with me,” Hashim begged them. “I will take her home over my shoulders. My shack is big enough for two. It doesn’t mind the dead.”
But that of course was foolish, that was grief, and Father, who in his youth was a believer in ancestral honor and once would have killed the vendor boy for such a display, said nothing.
• • • •
By the end of the week the room smelled awful.
From the relentless barrage rainwater stood ankle-high on the stone floor and was beginning to change color. The odor from Parveen wasn’t any better. Ammi refused to go in there, wouldn’t even bring Hashim food. Mother turned to Father and said through clenched teeth, “He’s insane. The boy’s mad.” Father stood quiet, not meeting Mother’s eyes, and still wouldn’t say anything to the boy.
Not that Hashim cared. His ribs were serrated shadows under his vest. His collarbones were starvation girdles, the skin over them taut and pale. He looked like a ghost standing vigil over a haunting, and when instead of slackening the storm howled and exploded over Narrow Alley, Hashim covered Parveen’s face with the shroud and shut the window.
“Get my daughter out of there,” Mother cried, rainwater squirming down her face. “Kick that mad boy out. This is crazy, how can you allow this, how can any father allow this?”
Father gave her a look. “One who knows his daughter is gone.” And he turned and went into the workroom to collect his valuables.
For he knew, as they all did, that it was a matter of days. Soon the alley and the house would be deluged. If the downpour didn’t cease, Old Lahore would swim in floodwater, the roads inundate, drowning cattle and bikes. The world inside Mochi Gate would be submerged. They had all heard stories about flash floods in Sind and Baluchistan and in the north. Why not here?
So they carefully packed what they could and began to move out. The dead girl lay in the shadow of her lover, and they removed the copper pots and pans one by one, bundled up the linen, tossed the sheets, and dragged the charpoys sideways up the alley to the raised warehouse of a merchant half a kilometer away. (This man made quite a bit of money from renting space to his neighbors during that time). Others followed suit and Narrow Alley began to empty of life even as it filled with fetid water rising higher and higher between the houses.
I hate them both, Ammi thought. Why won’t he leave? She stood at the threshold of Parveen’s room. The boy had dozed off and was sniffling in sleep, his fingers clasping Parveen’s leg. His vest was torn in the front and his navel showed, a pale knot that sent Ammi’s heart racing. Steeling herself, she splashed through the knee-high water and shook him awake.
“Leave,” she told him.
He stared at her, grime and sleep grain in the corner of his eyes. “What?”
“Go. I need to bury my sister,” Ammi said. “Get out of here. She deserves better than this.”
He gripped the edges of Parveen’s charpoy and sat up. “She deserves better than all of us.”
They looked at each other. He scratched the white lines streaking down his filthy cheeks. Outside the window a siren, loud and shrill, went off.
“More floods,” Ammi murmured.
“Perhaps,” he said hopefully and fell back, fingers twitching on Parveen’s body. “I’ll stay with her. You go.”
“Damned if I will,” Ammi said, anger surging through her like a bolt. “Damned if I’ll leave her here to rot with you. You’re rotten, you know that. You think you’re so saintly, the lover loyal until the end. You’re nothing but filth. Nothing but a beggar.”
Hashim’s irises were a brown so dark they were black, and they watched Ammi.
“Parveen’s pauper beau. Nothing but a seducer. A serpent.” Ammi’s vision blurred. She wiped her eyes. “You killed her. With your false promises. She wasn’t beautiful, she was ugly.” And now she was crying, tears hot and blinding like this sweltering monsoon rain that had gouged out the beauty of their lives and filled the hole with dead things. Her legs wobbled, Ammi swayed, and Hashim got up and came to her and took her in his arms.
“Yes,” he whispered, his breath warm on her hair and comforting. “It’s my fault. Not yours. You go now. I’ll take care of her.”
Ammi looked up at him. He had lines and shadows that shouldn’t be on a face this young. His hands were big and strong around her shoulders, and the devil overtook her: Ammi reached up and kissed his parched lips, pressing into his mouth.
Hashim flinched, eyes widening. He gripped the sides of her head with both hands and reeled back. They stared at each other across the room, Ammi stunned and filled with wonder at her own daring, Hashim’s mouth agape and still moist from the kiss. Something shifted in his eyes, a look Ammi hadn’t seen before, and triumph charged through her, albeit briefly.
For at that moment an explosion shook the house and sent them both stumbling.
• • • •
The sirens were shrieking again. More sizzling bursts of wetness came from the sky followed by the crash of metal on metal, and the world was white noise.
Ammi clapped a hand over each ear and leapt up. Her gaze was riveted on Hashim who sat swaying on his knees. The vendor boy’s forehead was bleeding from a gash.
“Bano,” Father yelled from downstairs. “Get down here. We need to leave now.”
“Acha, Baba,” Ammi called back and turned to Hashim. “Are you all right?”
He leaned on the wall and staggered to a stand. “Yes.”
“What was that? The explosion?”
“A canal head probably,” he said. “Or a bridge.”
She wanted to go to him, but the corner of his lips had tightened. He trudged to the charpoy where Parveen lay and after a moment’s hesitation Ammi followed.
“Come with me,” she said. “Nothing we can do for her.”
He wouldn’t look at her. “No.”
She gripped his arm — it was so thin and lifeless — and tugged at him. To her surprise he didn’t resist. His body was limp, his eyes were red. He pulled the shroud over Parveen’s face, whispering, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” and allowed himself to be led away, each step making Ammi more ecstatic. Every muscle in her body hummed and she dared not contemplate the meaning of this. It was enough that he was following her.
She looked back once before they exited the room and saw that the cloth had slipped off her sister again. Parveen’s arm dangled off the bedstead, fingers stirring the standing water. Her eyelids were puffed and open, and dully she watched them leave.
Downstairs by the entrance Father glanced sidelong at Hashim. He said nothing, but Mother exploded, “Now you walk away, you bastard? Now, you’re leaving her.”
“Hush,” said Father, but Mother was already shoving the shakerkandi vendor away, crying.
“Now you let my poor baby drown?” she shouted.
Hashim’s face had lost all color. Ammi held his hand and cried out, “She’s dead. What more can he do?”
“He could’ve let us bury her,” Mother shrieked. “My daughter. Oh, my daughter.” She made to go upstairs, but Father caught her arm.
“No,” he said. “No time now. We need to get our valuables to the warehouse and then I’ll return for her.” Not once did he look at Hashim when he said that.
Another explosion came, this one closer, and a fresh torrent of water came raging down the alley and broke against their door. Overhead the sky was a nasty gray, an ugly uniformness that drained Ammi’s strength and made her legs unsteady. The bloated carcass of a mule shot by her, and suddenly Ammi wanted out of the house. She wanted to flee.
Without looking at her parents, she grabbed Hashim’s hand and started wading up the alley. He came, limp and shivering from so many days of starving. He was filthier than the slosh eddying around them. They splashed and plowed through waist-high water along with several other families abandoning home. Lots of colorful fish struggling upstream, Ammi thought. What would these women of Narrow Alley say about her later, hanging on to the vendor boy’s arm? The thought pleased her.
Her parents caught up, hurrying to get quilts and blankets wrapped in plastic to the merchant’s warehouse. Mother cast hateful glances at Hashim who, oblivious, watched the windows lining the alley on both sides. Then she and Father overtook them.
Ammi slipped and floundered on, her thoughts circling back to Parveen. Was the water level in her bedroom creeping up? She had already seen flickers in the pallid pool — water snakes? — and imagined one slithering up the charpoy, wrapping itself around her sister’s ankle. Her bruised greenish skin dimpling as the creature’s forked tongue investigated this new territory. Ammi shuddered and tightened her grip on Hashim.
The vendor boy was shaking. His chest hitched.
“What’s wrong?” Ammi said.
“I shouldn’t have left her.” His face was wet with tears or rain. Malnutrition sores glistened in the corner of his lips. “She’s afraid of the dark.”
“She’s dead. Dark is all she has now.”
He stared at her and jerked his arm away. “What’s wrong with you? Who talks about her sister like that?”
She wanted to look defiant, but heat was rushing to her face. Desperately she said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I loved my sister,” and she was startled to discover it was true. In her own mad way she had a strange fondness for Parveen, twisted by her sister’s infirmity. She couldn’t remember the last time she hadn’t felt contempt for her, but mixed with that was admiration and awe at the crippled girl’s ability to transcend herself. Wasn’t that part of why she had envied her sister Hashim’s adoration?
The vendor boy was gazing at the high alley windows, a strange expression on his face. “Someone’s following us,” he said.
“At first I thought it was my imagination, but no . . . someone’s watching us. They duck away when I look.”
Ammi looked up. Half a dozen windows eyed her on both sides. Some were glazed, others open and empty. “No one’s there.”
“Perhaps.” But his face was doubtful.
Up ahead a door banged open. More men and women, shalwars pulled up to their thighs, scattered out. The floodwater was up to Ammi’s breasts now. Strange that it was rising this quickly; it was raining but more drizzle than deluge and the slope should’ve kept the level steady. The water was rank. Dead squirrels and rats swept past her followed by shopping bags spinning and juddering, bloated like human heads.
Her gaze went up the alley to its narrowest part where the legendary cow had gotten wedged and flayed. The houses on either side prostrated here so their balconies touched and you could easily jump from one to the other; and at first she thought that was what the figure in the window was trying to accomplish, diving from one house to its opposite, a blur against the pale sky. A narrow human bridge with a bare, trailing leg.
Ammi blinked and it was gone, whatever it was. The strip of sky was unblemished even if it seemed thinner. The gap between the houses was so minute you could reach out and hold hands with your neighbor. Must be the waning daylight, for surely the buildings hadn’t nudged closer.
“We better hurry,” Ammi said uneasily and her words were drowned by the sudden screech of water geysering from a fire hydrant behind her. The force of eruption tore her from Hashim’s grip and flung her into the ensuing riptide. She landed face first, the liquid gushing into her lungs, knocking out her breath. Terrified, she peered into the water, saw something dark and elongated rush past her, tensed her abdomen, and kicked down hard. As she broke surface, she saw Hashim standing ten feet away, looking dazed but unhurt.
Hashim, she tried to yell, but water jetted out of her mouth, burning her throat and chest. Her vision blurred. She coughed and doubled over to let the spasm pass. When she looked up again, the boy was gone.
Ammi lurched. Her legs were trembling, her belly throbbed, and fear coiled at the base of her spine. Her hair was clumped and hung in her eyes. Rain drove at her in cold sheets, small pellets thudding against her flesh, and she thought incoherently of a hundred sharp mouths nibbling at her.
She whirled around and saw Hashim hunched in the water fifteen feet downstream. His vertebrae were knobby and sharp through his vest like large nails. His arms flailed, as he fought whatever was trying to drag him away. A group of men and women stood near, holding their children on their shoulders. They didn’t move to lend him a hand.
“Help,” Ammi yelled. “Please someone help him.”
“Is he crazy?” someone called back.
“There’s nothing there. He’s just pounding at the water.”
Confused and filled with dread, Ammi thrashed toward him. Her foot came down on something sharp and she moaned. She tried to walk on it, but the pain crescendoed and she screamed and clutched her leg. Trying to breathe through the throbbing, she hobbled to the nearest door and leaned. A trickle of red swirled around her waist and dissipated. A sharp stone or a knife someone dropped? She lifted the foot as high as she could, tottering on the other leg, and felt the underside. Something was buried in her flesh. She pulled it out and peered at it.
It was a broken shard of yellow glass. A jagged piece once part of a bangle.
Parveen’s? Not possible. Their house was at least two hundred feet down from here.
She raised her head and her gaze went to the window of the house across the alley. Someone stood in the gloom, slender and pale, hair blackened with water. A girl? Her eyes were milky and shone like cataracts and they were fixed on Ammi.
Something plopped in the water and Ammi jerked. She had dropped the bangle shard. It sank quickly. She looked up again and saw the window was empty.
“Parveen!” Hashim was screaming ten feet away. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, my darling. I won’t leave you again.”
Ammi braced herself against the doorframe and plunged into the floodwater. She began to paddle toward Hashim. A lanky man with a laborer’s turban had waded closer and was trying to hold his seizing arms. Hashim bucked and flung the man away, then lifted his head. His eyes bulged as they looked at Ammi.
“Wherever I turn I see her drowning,” he shrieked, “I’m coming, my darling. I’m coming,” and he dove.
Ammi went after him, but her foot was aching and each kick sent pain razoring through her. She came up for air and saw shadows, like black spirals, in all the windows of the alley. The girl-shaped darknesses leaned out. Tumor-swollen arms glistened in the dusky light, greenish faces turned to the spot where the struggling vendor boy had been.
Ammi wanted to scream, but when her mouth opened she swallowed floodwater. Her throat was locked. She flopped to a stand and discovered the water lapping at her chin now. She twitched her head up, and the windows gaped at her. No one stood or leaned or beckoned. The vendor boy was gone, he had been underwater for at least two minutes, and the men around him were shaking their heads. Some were already on the move.
Sobbing, Ammi turned and began to swim upstream.
The light was fading fast. The windows were vacant, but all around her came sounds of things tumbling and falling and splashing in the water, like dozens of human bodies. Whirlpools in front and behind her, which sucked on themselves and faded away. Soft, slimy things brushed her legs, each touch a fresh panic urging her on faster and faster until, gasping and crying, she reached the narrowest part of the alley, brought her arms together, and shot through.
• • • •
In 1967 my mother and her parents, along with several neighbors, were flooded out of home in Teddy Galli.
Clutching screaming kids above their heads, these men and women gasped and lurched sideways through the narrow alley, wading single file in places, front and back against chipped bricks whose edges bit their flesh like piranhas. Careful lest their kids loll into water bubbling past their nostrils, holding their breath against the fetor of sewerage from burst pipes and overflown gutters — this was how the residents of Narrow Alley escaped the worst flooding in Old Lahore’s history.
Not everyone was that lucky. Through calamity or governmental negligence many people died that year. The official count of the missing and the dead stops at a couple lakhs; but for the longest time my mother mourned the death of two people more than she mourned the demise of thousands. One was Khala Parveen.
The other was a shakerkandi vendor named Hashim.
• • • •
“They never found their bodies,” Ammi said.
I massaged her legs. The tips of my fingers left dimples in her flesh. “Doesn’t the Ravi flow close to the city? Maybe they floated into the river and sank.”
Avoiding the snakelike varices on her skin, I kneaded her flesh. “You really think you saw a ghost that day?”
Ammi said nothing.
“But you were dazed by the blow. Half-drowned. It must have been claustrophobic and very very dark.”
“I don’t know what I saw,” she said. The lanai was swollen with shadows. Ammi’s cheeks glistened with sweat, she was rolling a Xanax between her fingers. Nighttime made her nervous, I knew. “I loved my sister,” she added, “but I also feared her. Sometimes I think that’s where my cruelty came from when she was alive. My fear of what she had become.”
“What had she become?”
“A monster.” Her lips trembled. Quickly she said, “That’s a lie. She wasn’t the monster, we were. She wasn’t bitter and angry. I was. When I think of what I did in that room, how I kissed him right in front of her. It was cruel and unfair and wrong. What matter if she was dead? I didn’t love him. I just wanted what they had.” She couldn’t look at me. “All my life that’s all I’ve wanted.”
I looked at my mother’s still form in the gloom. There is an Urdu word which has no English equivalent: Ishq. Means the state of a lover’s heart during separation, contemplation, or annihilation unto the lover. The point where the lover becomes the beloved. Sometimes it also means nostalgia for a love forever gone and the love which remains after death.
It is not cancer that kills her, I thought as I watched my mother’s skeletal mouth form a silent prayer.
Ammi walked that night after she was finished with the story. She took small and gentle steps, but she didn’t look drained anymore. It was as if disclosing the past had vitalized her. The last flutter of the falling leaf. Dad doesn’t believe in garden lamps so the lawn patch behind our house was soft with moonlight. Humid was the night, and I had a stuffy nose from summer cold or allergies. I couldn’t breathe comfortably. I watched her pace under the magnolias, southern oaks, junipers, and queen palms, and a misplaced sense of ishq settled over me. I’ve never been to Pakistan, I’ve never been in love; so what was this pain, this longing to see that alley, that narrowest of streets, where decades ago two people drowned in love or misery?
I was restless and grieving for people I’d never met.
An urge to run to the trees came over me; to throw myself at my mother’s feet and cry, Don’t leave me. I know you’re dying. You and Dad don’t talk about it, you think if you don’t talk about it, it will happen painlessly, but it won’t. I am hurting every day. I’m hurting, Ammi, and I don’t know how long the pain will last. Mama, please don’t leave me.
I watched her meander until she became a shadow amidst shadows. Then I turned and walked back into the house. I left her to gaze at the trees, to look for whatever evergreens she might find hidden from last fall.
I went to sleep, letting my mother walk the night forever.