When a laal andhi rises, understand that an innocent has been murdered.
On the 7th of July, 2005, while threading through heat-drowsed traffic near Bhatta Chowk, I nearly ran over a pedestrian dashing across the road. The man was tall, lanky, bearded. He wore a white prayer cap, dusky shalwar kameez, and a navy blue sweater bulging around his chest. He didn’t flinch when the wheels screeched and the bumper lurched to a halt inches from his torso; just cocked his head, as if listening to something distant, leaped across the manhole by the sidewalk, and disappeared in the crowd.
Panting, I shouted at his back and clutched the steering wheel with knuckles that had turned white. I was in my thirties then and had a nervous disposition, and this brush with a certain fatality left me shaken. Eventually I murmured my thanks to Allah, jerked the gearshift forward, and drove on to my uncle’s jewelry shop near Delhi Gate in the walled Old City. All day I fingered gold chains, pearl necklaces, lapis lazuli earrings, diamond wedding sets, and I couldn’t get the incident out of my head. Something about the man, his profile, the way he ran, head tilted as if with torticollis, one arm still and dangling like an ape’s, kept returning to me. In bed that evening I tossed and turned, thinking about the near miss, wondering why the stranger’s memory wouldn’t leave me alone.
Two days later when a grainy black-and-white photo showed up on Geo, Samaa, Dawn News, and other channels, I knew.
I sat quietly as winter shadows gathered amidst the peepal and sukhchain trees in our backyard. My wife brought sarson-ka-saag and makai roti for dinner, my favorite meal, and I was trembling, she said later. She put the tray down, touched my forehead, and I was burning up, I had a fever, oh God please don’t let it be malaria, it can kill so quickly.
That night I had drenching sweats. I slept and jerked awake, dozed and dreamed; and in my dream, Lahore was enveloped in red dust that shrieked and blew across the city in crimson funnels. The back roads, the unlit intersections where countless had died, glimmered and faded in the mouth of the laal andhi. The evening newscaster stood swathed in shadow, flecks of red plastered to her eyelashes. Two children among twenty dead, she said, her bright, clear eyes staring at my numb, terror-shaped face, even as her camera panned on three bloodstained teeth lying like pearls in the alley’s gutter.
My wife was shaking me awake. She held my flailing arms and hugged me as I whispered over and over again, Nearly killed him twice. Nearly killed him twice. It was a dark and very long night. Not even the fajr azaan from the neighborhood mosque could soothe my fears.
• • • •
The summer of ’85, and Lahore lay like a dying fish, belly up, even as we struggled to grow up inside it. Its scales still bloodied from the riots of the seventies, arteries exposed and twitching in a concrete gut blackened with hegemonic fear, the city oozed a human plasma that coagulated within its core.
It was a blistering, dry hell of a season filled with scorching lu winds that swept up from the plains and left not a drop of unvaporized water in their wake. A summer of sunstrokes and hangings and midnight kidnappings. Of bloody hockeys and roaming thugs and rumors about Russia and Amreeka’s Cold War drifting from the north. The Great White Helper, we were told, had sent our Afghani brothers powerful weapons to fight the good fight. Anti-aircrafts and Kalashnikovs and Stinger missiles would weave the tapestry of resistance. General Zia’s state machinery ran nationalist jingles on TV and radio. The Queen o’ Melody Noor Jehan made appearances, singing tributes to the Pak Army’s heroism in ’65, while a dull-faced woman in a headscarf assured us that our brothers across the border would win, for wasn’t their cause just and righteous?
’85, and it was the summer we were still young and untouched. Four teenage boys who lived in the same neighborhood and went to the same school and were equally short of money to buy shakarkandi, salted peanuts, or roasted corn bhutta. Once or twice we stole sugarcane ganderi and apples from vendors fanning themselves with old newspaper outside the school, but after I heard the Maulvi Sahib deliver a thunderous Friday sermon about theft and its hellfire consequences I refused to participate again. (Wasif just laughed and, slipping his feet into some unfortunate’s new shoes from the mosque rack, left his sandals behind.)
It was the year we discovered magazines with women baring all. Buxom girls with never-ending legs wearing nothing but tall heels, cowboy hats, and fake silver crosses groped themselves and squeezed breasts with pink nipples, brown nipples, black nipples. You could find these totay behind the counters of certain shops in Urdu Bazaar. The proprietor had a secret signal for customers like us, passed on by word of mouth: if you kept staring at him during a regular purchase (the latest Imran series novel by Ibn-e-Safi, for example, or a new book by A. Hameed) he would glance at you and knock thrice against the plywood wall with his knuckles. If you reached over and rang the brass bell sitting on the countertop, he would smile broadly and ask if you needed “something else.” Wasif and Ali Malik were experts at the ritual. Me, I always blushed and mumbled, and they’d push me away rudely and step forward to negotiate.
Saleem, Wasif, Ali Malik, and I. Always the four of us banded together against the uncertainties of a city running on trepidation. In this season of yoking and yearning, of bereavement and besetment, we started doing the thing we did, for with fear and death and sulfur in the air who would stop us? Who would point and say, watch it, children, you must survive your age. Must get through one hell to enter another.
’85 was the year of army generals and feudal lords touring their fiefdoms grandly while the populace died thrashing in gutters from starvation and heat and Hadood Law amputations. Of VIP villas and ruined shanties, bright-tiled facades and haunted houses, “police encounters” and prison suicides, and insurgent bomb attacks.
Most of all, though, it was the summer we went to Bad Bricks during a laal andhi.
• • • •
I might have suggested the game, true, but Wasif took it to its awful conclusion. This I’d swear before any qazi, judge, or jury.
Three kilometers from our muhallah was a graveyard. Five acres of crumbling headstones, weeds, and overgrown grass. We sat in the shade of the banyan grove on the other side of which lay my grandfather, and that was where Wasif came up with the twist.
It was Grandfather who told me many stories. He was an unsmiling tall man, browned by years of rice-picking on the family farm in the country. Sitting with his arms around my very pale-faced grandmother, he spoke to me of terrible legends honed in the villages far from Lahore. Tales told by braziers not yet replaced with heaters; in the heart of pitch-black nights not slashed open by gleaming airplanes.
So it went that these stories made their way to my lips and I spoke—first hesitantly, then emphatically—of the hellish game I had designed.
It was simple. We would congregate at a place where the vagaries of death had swooped—bomb blasts, gangland shootings, suicides, homicides, executions. At each crossing where human limbs, riding blast waves, had risen like shrieks, we stopped and paid our respects. We lamented the departed with elegies and dark fables. Tales of terror, torture and turpitude that we filled with the presence of those passed. We imagined their lives of our own making. We prayed for the victims with mantars of madness.
We read to the dead.
In retrospect it was stupid and dangerous, but really, how could we have known? How could we have understood? At the time, it was enthralling to give meaning to their slaughter; and the game was taken up ecstatically by the boys, especially Wasif.
He suggested the initial reading by Grandfather’s grave (later we moved our mecca around, but inevitably returned to the cemetery every few months). We gathered to read our stories weekly. The whispering breeze, gentle rustling of hallowed dust as it curtained and showered over old graves; the smell of flowers bloomed from such dust; the flexing and twitching hag-fingers of branches beckoning us close; and the two skulls we found half-buried by a grave and carefully dug out, cleaned, and preserved—they consummated the unholy process.
On this particular Thursday evening (night of souls, night of saints), we sat in the graveyard with a furious red sky above us, and a heavy, grit-filled wind beginning to blow. It was Saleem’s turn that day, simple Saleem, gentle Saleem, fourteen-years-old, the youngest of us. It was his turn to read, his pledge to the dead, when Wasif spoke of the laal andhi and changed our world.
I remember exactly what we were all doing. Saleem was shuffling the pages of his notebook. Ali Malik smoked a cheap Capstan, his back against a headstone, and I dug into the moist earth with a twig.
“Well?” Wasif said. “Well, what?” I said, not looking up. The twig scraped and wedged on a pebble. When I yanked, it broke. I threw the sharp end away and glanced at the sky. An angry red, the horizon throbbed with coiled clouds, blood glories unfurling. Dead leaves spun in the air and blew against my lips.
I spat on the ground.
“A laal andhi is starting up, man. Who knows if it will rain after.” Wasif looked around, his lips peeled back, a shred of lunch chicken tucked in the web of his mustache. He was tall, dark, and the first of us to sprout a man-beard. He slapped my back. “Why don’t we get away from this stinking graveyard, these dog-pissed streets, for a change? I’m sick of them.”
“And go where?” said Ali Malik in my stead. “Forget the muhallah or the tobacco-and-paan shop, man. My dad will beat the living shit out of me if he sees me smoke, make no mistake. He’s everywhere, and I’ve just got to have my smokes when we read.”
Wasif looked at Ali as if he were a particularly nasty malaria-laden mosquito. “I have no clue why we put up with your shitty explanations. Grow a pair of balls. Or buy ’em from the eunuchs.” He scratched his head. “Well, lemme think. I’m sure I will . . .”
A smile cracked his face, a sideways grin that spilt his teeth into the sun. I knew that grin. Usually it meant trouble.
I turned and gazed at the sky, listened to the softly murmuring laal andhi.
The crimson storm.
Backwoods folk, country folk scoffed. You never could talk to them about Richter scales and earthquakes and monsoon winds. They held onto their dark worries, dismissing scientific explanations of red dust blowing from the mountains, howling across vast plains, carpeting the cities in its wake.
Country folk believed in other things.
Grandfather had heard these myths and once talked to me about them. He had that look in his eyes, stark-red worry, a carefully cultivated respect for the unknown.
“Raza baita,” he said and licked his lips. “The crimson storm is not like any other storm. It’s a vast, moving veil. Evil things slip out from behind it. Jinns, Dyos, alien and terrible, smear blood all over their naked melting bodies and scream until the earth gags and gives up its tenants. Solemnly they raise their heads and take off their masks of passing. The storm’s wind itself is foul, you understand? It makes things happen. It turns people and time. Son, don’t you ever go out in a laal andhi, you hear me? Stay in the safety of the house, baita. Stay.”
But Grandfather was dead, sunk below the dark waters of oblivion. Worms and rodents swam over and nibbled on his face now.
“Bad Bricks!” Wasif was beaming. “Didn’t I say I had the perfect place this time?”
His words hung in the air for a moment, splintered, and faded away. The wind gusted and the headstone Ali was leaning on toppled and crashed, taking Ali with it.
“Motherfucker,” Ali grunted, and heaved himself up with his elbows. Wasif sniggered.
“You’re talking about the reporter’s house,” Saleem said quietly. He raised his head and looked at Wasif.
“There is a cellar under the stairs,” said Wasif. “I saw it once with Fareed people when we scaled the boundary wall to smoke joints. It’s perfect for your story. Ah, the candles in the skulls, the shadows, the ambience. I can just picture it.”
Saleem was silent. I was silent. He was pale, his full, almost feminine lips colorless as grave-slabs. He had been chewing them again, and the lower one was torn, a shimmer of pink visible in the shades of gray. He is scared, I thought. He is terrified. Why?
Saleem’s face turned blank. “Sure,” he said. “Sure.”
• • • •
’85 was the year of my father’s affair with Auntie Nasreen from four streets down. Each evening, Father would return from the 7-UP factory, his half-sleeve white shirt bobbing like a flag in the alley, and walk right past our house. Spitting and hacking (he had pneumonia as a child and his lungs were scarred), he returned home only when it was time for dinner. Mother would never say a word, but she slammed steel bowls on the dinner mat and broke a china plate, and once at night I heard her crying.
It was the year of the Hadood grounds near Lahore Railway Station. Scores of prisoners were brought there blindfolded, hands tied behind their back, tethered to bamboo posts, and lashed one by one. Public hangings occasionally followed.
It was also the summer Saleem’s father went missing. This happened two months before the laal andhi and the incident at the reporter’s house. His father had been leading a pro-Bhutto rally near Kalma Chowk one evening and chanting slogans against the dictatorship. On his way back, someone shot at his bicycle fifteen times, puncturing the wheels, winging the side mirrors, knocking the bell off. His white skullcap was bloodstained and lying near the axle when they found it. Wasif’s mother and uncle begged lawyers, session judges, and journalists to take the case national. Every police station in the city was scoured and draped with his photographs, but no news was to come of him.
• • • •
The sky was a blood-soaked mantel as we trudged down the streets. A steadily building wind clutched newspapers, daubed them red, and hurled them away. Plastic shopping bags spun, the burning air visible through their flesh, and rolled away like heads. Sprinkles of vermilion dust blew in my face, crawled into my eyes, and scrabbled up my nose as the gale shook a bloody fist at us. The crimson storm was gathering strength.
Then we saw it from afar.
The place many Lahorites had named Bad Bricks stood like a weed amidst the cheerful residences under Sherpao Bridge. The neighborhood was great, suburban to the core: two-story walled villas, gleaming Jeeps and vans, and manicured lawns. Short flagstone driveways coursed parallel to the grass. Happy residents parked their cars underneath hanging terraces. Snug, welcoming red brick houses.
Not Bad Bricks.
The house was dead. Weary, stunted trees leaned against its rain-bleached boundary walls. Paint was gouged off its sides like skin off a maimed beast. Rusted black iron gates that must have gleamed once hung open like mouths frozen in agony, twisting and shuddering in the wind.
We stood and gazed at the cracked driveway winding inside, lapping at the front door. I glanced at Wasif and stepped forward.
In the years before the suppression and insurgence we sometimes played cricket in these streets. Someone would score a six and the ball would rise, spinning in the air, arc above the boundary walls, and bounce across the lawn. The older kids would have to climb them to retrieve it. The house’s reputation made it an ominous task. I was young then, and had escaped that fate.
Today, however, I looked at the lawn. It was a jungle. Weeds grew frantically, high grass wavered in tentacles. Uprooted plants and undergrowth sprawled over cracked gardening pots. Patches of underbrush stirred; with wind or life, who could tell? What puzzled me was the absence of animal droppings. There should have been dried bird-shit and turds from stray cats. No garbage either. No rotting banana skins, orange rinds, or gnawed chicken bones. Just pebbles, broken ceramic, and shattered brick.
“Lovely,” Wasif said. The storm moaned, ripped leaves off the undergrowth, and flung them over us. Dead petals pressed against my skin. Brick and storm dust mingled and whirled away.
And then we stood in front of the entrance, a splintered wooden door choked at its hinges by termites, swinging slowly back and forth.
The last inhabitants of Bad Bricks left in ’79. It had stayed empty since. The first owner was a retired army colonel who gifted the house to his son, a crime reporter, in ’74. I knew these dates because Uncle Dara, a friend of Father’s, was a realtor, and told stories of houses for sale whenever he came over for dinner. The reporter was an eccentric man (shit-crazy, Uncle Dara said), who was digging up skeletons in the land-grabbing mafia’s backyard. He had a plan to write a book. To scoop out the corruption of the army personnel in cahoots with the land-grabbers.
Until one night the mafia came for him.
So it goes that the maid enters the house. It’s cold and feels empty. She’s come to dust the windows and scrub the floors, and his red-white eyeballs are staring at her from the dinner bowl on the table. She shrieks, and her fifteen-year-old grandson stops sweeping the patio and comes running. He sees his grandma wheel, try to run, trip on something and go down, and when she does she’s lying next to the reporter’s body, arm out from under the sofa. The holes that were his eyes are crawling with ants. Grandma has an epileptic attack—she tends to miss her pill sometimes—and starts seizing. The boy screams and runs to her, and now grandma’s turning color. Her head bangs against the dead man’s wham! wham! wham! and the child backpedals, lets out a last shriek, and flees from the house. By the time paramedics and police get there, the old maid is long dead from aspiration, face engorged and blue, arms wrapped around the murdered reporter.
After, the house is empty for a while (the colonel dies of a heart attack months later). Lahore Development Authority claims the property. They try to auction it, but no one wants it. Eventually a newly married couple takes it—low rent and all—and, in the middle of the night, rush out the front door in their underwear, screaming and gibbering. They jump into their Suzuki Alto, race away at eighty kilometers per hour. Collide with a brick truck on the main road, fishtail, and go up in smoke and flames.
Not much left to tell. The house is baptized Bad Bricks. Neighbors whisper it is haunted. Something shuffles inside the place at twilight. Rumors of visitations, of faces at windows, of moonlight congealing like blood on the iron gates, and the LDA gives up. It leaves the house to smolder like a pile of litter.
Now there we were in front of the entrance. Four brave souls in search of the holy dead.
Wasif waited. Above us thunder screamed. Lightning ripped the clouds open, spewing their slippery guts forth. Rain reddened by the storm began to hiss around us. Silver-brown lines of water snaked down the driveway, curling around our shadows. The storm began to whirl and dance.
Ali Malik was the first to step forward. He reached for the door, paused, grasped the rusted handle. Perhaps I was the only one who saw the hesitation, that tremor in his fingers as they gripped the metal tight. He yanked the handle and flung open the door. Oil-hungry hinges creaked. Dust rose, moved forward with gentle arms to embrace us, and dissipated.
Sunlight had died in the heart of the storm and we gazed at absolute darkness. Red shadows hung from twisted vines and branches by the swollen black throat that was the doorway, and without a light Saleem could never ever read his story in there. We didn’t have to enter. We didn’t have to move into the beyond. I was ecstatic, relieved, damn the house, fuck bravado, and I turned to say so.
Wasif had a flashlight in his hands. In the tatters of daylight the bulb glimmered, and woke up as he flicked the switch. A knob of light shot at the rain, expanded into a vortex, and cut through the cavernous gloom.
We stepped inside the house.
• • • •
This one I can’t be certain of, but my heart tells me it’s true: ’85 was the spring Saleem and I found the Rampuri chakoo knife at the foot of the banyan tree.
We were returning from school. Saleem was beaming. His grandfather, a clerk at National Bank, had visited that weekend and given him a crackling five-rupee note. We frequently pooled our allowance and my share of this treasure was secure. Visions of samosas and keema pakoras danced before our eyes. I suggested we take a detour along Kabootar Purah, where most vendors sat.
From WAPDA bus stop, a dirt track led through a grove of peepal, keshu, and villayati shisham, curved around an abandoned construction site, and ended at the market. Swinging an old shoe on a plastic string, we dashed between the trees, giggling. It was early March, Saleem’s father’s disappearance was two months away, and the keshu and shisham had blossomed. Blazing orange and gentle lilac flowers lined the branches like birds. Their sweet perfume, coupled with jasmine growing in clumps and thickets by the main road, overwhelmed the diesel fumes left behind by roaring trucks and school vans.
I would’ve missed it had its face not caught sunlight at an odd angle and burst into reds. It looked like a shower of blood in the corner of my vision, and when I jerked my head, the illusion dissipated. I nudged Saleem and we walked to it warily.
The trees made a bower here, hemming in the grove from the road. The grass, though dense, was short and pushed back by roots. Five feet from an old banyan’s trunk, the knife was driven point first into the ground, a gilt carbon steel blade about sixteen inches long. The handle, shaped like a leg with a boot heel on the bottom, was hand-chased and depicted flowers with a rat curled among them.
“What the. . . .” Saleem crouched and touched the rivets close to the pommel with awe. “This is real, Raza. By God, this is a real slipjoint.”
“Slipjoint. A folding Rampuri chakoo.” He grabbed the handle and wrenched the knife out of the ground. In the afternoon light the face glittered even though it was pitted and covered with a patchy dark membrane from point to guard.
“Now watch.” Saleem pressed his thumb on the blade’s spine, forced it down and backward until it clicked into a groove at the bottom of the handle. “See, how easy that was. Uncle Hamid, who lives in Sargodha, sells chakoos. Hunting knives, switchblades, slipjoints. He showed me one just like this when we were there last year. Said this kind used to be made in Rampur, India. Town was famous for ’em. Real expensive, too.” Grinning, he tossed it from one hand to another. “Wasif is going to leak shit when I show him this.”
He scratched the blade with his nails and rust-colored flakes fell off it.
“I want a look.” I made a grab for the chakoo, but he was quick and leapt away. We chased each other around the tree trunks. A fat white slug dropped off the banyan. Before it could scurry under a root, Saleem stepped on it and squashed it.
“Bastard, give it up,” I yelled, panting and laughing.
“Come and get it, faggot.” He stepped back when I feinted a lunge, tripped on a root and crashed to the ground. I dove at him at once, but before I could tackle him he had cocked his arm back and heaved the knife.
Up it went spinning, arcing over the banyan branches. It caught the light, flared like a lamp, and came down twenty feet away in a tangle of wildflowers and grass.
I grunted and rolled off Saleem. “Asshole. What if you broke it?”
Saleem said nothing. When I looked, his gaze was riveted on something overhead, his eyes large.
“Raza,” he whispered. “What is that?”
We were in the tree’s shadow, and when I tilted my head upward, a shaft of sunlight blinded me. I squinted, rose to my feet, and there above us something hung from the banyan.
Slowly, I walked forward until I stood directly below it. It was a massive, heavy-looking gunnysack dangling from the fattest branch. When the wind picked up, the tethering rope stirred and the sack turned gently. Its bottom was black at the center.
I dropped my gaze and what I saw chilled me. The grass below my feet was crisp and red-black. I touched it. The blood was still sticky. I stood in a puddle of it.
Softly speaking, enunciating each word, Saleem said, “What the fuck is that?” We looked at each other. Somewhere above us, a golden oriole whistled.
Saleem licked his lips. He had almond-shaped eyes, black as oil puddles, and something swam in them.
I think he had already figured it out.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Saleem, let’s get out of here. Fuck the chakoo.” I backed away from the blood. On my left, the knife gleamed amidst dandelions and jasmine, the blade still folded in its gilded handle.
“Wait.” Saleem bent and rummaged through the underbrush, found a rock, lifted it.
“What are you doing?”
He aimed the rock, threw his arm back, and launched it. He had a good throwing arm, and the rock sped like a bullet and hit the sack right in the blackened center.
“Aaaaand score!” yelled Saleem, arms high above his head. His voice was hoarse, filled with more than a touch of hysteria, and the golden oriole along with a dozen sparrows and starlings took wing. The grove echoed with their squaws and trills. “That’s how you do it.”
I stared at him, watched the smile on his face vanish and his eyes widen. His arms dropped and dangled like pendulums. His eyes were deeper and darker with terror.
New sounds cut through the avian scolding. A gurgling from above, followed by intermittent choking.
“Ya Allah,” Saleem said, staggered back, and fell to the ground. “Ya Allah.”
I didn’t want to look up. I could feel my heart beat in every inch of my body. It should’ve filled my ears, my head, but the sound wouldn’t let it. Hissing and whispering that ebbed and rose. I raised my head and the sack was twitching. It swung and shook, as if its contents were having a grand mal seizure. It gurgled. Fresh red bloomed at the bottom and began to spread.
Saleem moaned and dug his heels into the grass as he scrambled. I followed him and we both fled through the trees, out the grove past the deserted construction site with its monstrous yellow digger trapped in a ditch.
We ran home and told our parents. The police were called and a squadron was sent to the grove immediately. The Rampuri chakoo was found and confiscated. (An official looking man with a sweetmeat belly came to Saleem’s house a week later, applied blue ink to his palms and asked him to place both hands on a shining white cardboard carefully. When Saleem refused, frightened of the man’s blank face, his father slapped him and told him to do exactly as the officer said.) I was grounded for a week and Saleem for a month.
They never told us what was in the sack or who had put it there, but for months I had bad dreams. I’d be back in the grove with the sack twisting and gurgling above me. It would be dusk. The birds hung limply in the sky as if staked to the night itself, and the knife driven into the grass would quiver as if the earth were pulsating. The mouth of the sack would open, and a river of black lice-infested hair streamed out and poured across the foliage, rotting everything in its path. The jasmines would wilt, their smell that of spoiled meat, the dandelions crumbled into dust beneath my feet, as I fled through the darkening, whispering grove. But the path would not open, not open before me, and the gurgling would not stop.
It would not stop.
• • • •
Back in Bad Bricks, four teenagers were piled in front of the cellar. The door was open, swaying back and forth above an abyss.
For a moment, all those old fears burrowed out of my heart and sat on its stony ground, watching me with dull black eyes. In the shadows, gunnysacks flapped and twitched with the moaning thing, the bloodied nightmare that wore body bags.
Ah, you’re back, aren’t you? The gunnysack whispered. My sweet child. Know then, that evil children, devilish children who celebrate the dead, never escape. I come for them, I spill for them, and they smell me. Smell my hair. Looking for me, have you? I know. I know. So come smell me, rub your face in my clotted fabric. Come you little brat, come . . .
The hair on my arms stood on end. I shuddered and tore my gaze away from the hole of the doorway. The blackness was a tattered thing, ancient evil grew in its belly, and all at once I was sick of this stupid, twisted game. I wanted to get through Saleem’s reading and get the fuck out of this terrible house where awful memories slept, coiled, in their graves.
We began to descend the wooden stairs.
Wasif’s flashlight threw a wobbling circle of light across the dusty stone wall. A carpet of filth, spider silk, and frayed old rope dangled from the metal rail on my right. Threadbare coal sacks lay draped over its edge. Some were curled up at the bottom when we reached it, bits and chips of coal spilling out their mouth. I smelled the damp in the sacks, an odorous disease eating through the fibers, but I also smelled something else. Dank, termite-pored wood and dead rats.
(. . . come smell me, smell death, smell the grave, and devilishhh children are sacrificed to the Devil . . .)
Wasif and Ali began to clear a corner. Saleem shivered. He wrapped his cashmere shawl tight around himself. I could only see his eyes now, white and glittering, suspended in the air.
I placed the skulls on the floor. Took the wrapped shopper out of my pocket. Unfolded it, brought the matchbox out. Flick! The flame touched the candlewicks one after the other. In their trembling light the skulls began to grin.
Saleem drew a circle on the floor with blue chalk, arranged the skulls on opposite ends so that the light would just fall on his notebook, leaving gashes of darkness around him. We settled cross-legged inside the circle. Wasif turned the flashlight off. The night lunged closer and crouched beside us. Saleem’s face was swallowed by the gloom, but his eyes glowed, particles of yellow dancing in them.
He began to read.
Now, years later, I still remember that magic circle we made, the grimacing skulls staked by the candles, the air in that cellar frozen with dread; but, try as I might, I can’t remember the story Saleem read to us that horrible storm-lashed evening. When I strain my memory, the words rattle in my head; a few sentences, etched in eternal red, that glisten in a fog of forgetfulness:
“‘I have heard the dead pawing at my door.
“‘I have seen Your Crimson Servant snuff out heaven’s stars.
“‘From Pataal’s earth explodes an army of dust crows.’
“As Hashim turned the pages of Al-Kitabul Khabaith, he learnt these lessons and more. The meaning turned him inside out, stripped the skin off his bones, and finally he understood what altar the Red City gazed at, unblinking . . .”
That is all I remember. Granted that half-words and phrases flit about my mind like restless bats. Al-Kitabul Khabaith comes to me again and again. The crawling thin-men flapping in the wind. Natasha’s fingers that wiggle in a storm’s skein. The knife that cuts a thousand worldthroats.
Of the plot, I remember nothing. Only that it petrified me, like it did us all. We were plunged into a coma of listening. The story was about the worldskin melting away; a moaning, juddering melt. About effervescing in death and rising like blood vapors. Truth be told, we were induced into a near-death state ourselves, a rigor mortis that left as quickly as it came once Saleem stopped speaking.
The candles had sagged deep inside the skulls. We started and shuddered, a ripple to melt the death grip. Saleem had lowered the notebook in his hand. The candle flame danced in his eyes.
I flexed and stretched my back. Ali coughed. Wasif threw his head back, shaking off the stiffness. Saleem just sat there, silent. Unmoving. Perhaps he was waiting for applause, a standing ovation to the masterpiece he had written and performed. He knew perfectly well that no one would best that story, its elegant, haunting prose, the powerful narrative; and I opened my mouth to congratulate him.
The candle flame writhed in Saleem’s eyes, a serpent thrashing out its death dance. It was strange, I thought, very strange that the flame would do that. The candles were sunken inside the skulls and they were behind him.
With palsied hands, I pulled away his shawl.
The torn, empty jute sack sank to the floor, an avalanche of black coals tumbling out of its cloth-skin. Two glowing, smoldering embers rose from where Saleem’s eyes had been and began to swim lazily in the air.
Wasif screamed. Ali moaned, a sound that raised the hair on my neck, and the candles in the skulls went out.
I lunged at the flashlight, switched it on, and I was screaming too. From the darkest corner, which the light’s glow never reached, a low humming came. A familiar childhood tune. Maybe One, Two, Three—The Old Sawbone’s Machine. A terrible sound, a haunting lullaby that made my flesh crawl. The humming changed, ebbed into a muffled growl, and finally a gurgling sound that filled my heart with so much terror, I couldn’t do anything but clap my hands over my ears.
Something moved in the corner. The coal sacks stirred.
Wasif broke into a run, leaving everything behind. Ali followed, his eyes bone-white, mouth gaping. I ran too. We clattered up the steps. Thud! Thump! Thud! A nightmare memory fretted and laughed inside my head. A darkening grove with no way out. Wasif and Ali fled to the hole of light at the top. They burst out the doorway, dusty hands flopping at their side, and I leapt after them. Last step, and my foot punched through the rotten wood.
Frantically I yanked at my leg, eyes bulging, fingers clawing at the edge of the doorway. Below me, behind me, the stairs creaked, snorted, and began to scream as something made its way toward me. Wood splinters dug into my flesh and blood began to ooze.
(Raza, my son, the Crimson Storm is a bloodstorm. In its eye, the dead raise their fermented, lolling heads from the well of death. Stay home, child. Stay safe.)
I didn’t want to—how could I?—but I looked back, I had to look, and I saw.
A shadow that crawled up on all fours. A face that flashed in a quick loop of light, features muffled, a black cowl spilling onto its singed forehead. Was it the reporter with his eyes scooped out; or the epileptic maid, eyes sewn together by the undertaker with thread, strands of it hanging over swollen cheeks, lips drawn back in the seizure agony, foam curdling and bubbling at the corner?
. . . And if devilishhh children are caught doing evil, they will hear the dead knock at their door and the hammering will be loud. Natasha’s fingers will wiggle, and the Knife that cuts a Thousand Worldthroats will chop their feet, their stinking fucking feet off . . .
Was that spit glistening on those yellow teeth? Spiders hanging from her hair, his hair, my hair; pouring out from the caverns of our cheeks, dropping down, scuttling away? Were those hands twisting into claws, elbows bent at impossible angles, as if in catatonic seizure, as if in rigor mortis?
Was it a gunnysack that twitched its way toward me, a tangle of lice-squirming hair spilling from its mouth?
I was screaming and screaming, and the steps were laughing and laughing. The cellar echoed and throbbed with it all. I smelled filth, the city’s menstrual blood, unwashed pubic hair, dead meat. Then I was yanking my foot, shrieking, a last powerful jerk, for surely that was all the strength left in me, and my foot slipped out of the shoe and I bounded across the last step.
Something black and frayed wavered in the corner of my eyes.
I fled through the pursuing, hollering, tugging crimson storm. Wasif and Ali were long gone, and as I ran past the lawn, out the gates to the end of the street, I turned my head helplessly to look at Bad Bricks one last time.
On the edge of the boundary wall stood a figure. It was no taller than Saleem. It wore a gunnysack, and its arms were outspread as if embracing the city’s bloody sky. The laal andhi whorled around it, shrieking, lifting the ends of the sack, but it stood motionless even as rain pelted it and turned it black from head to toe.
The figure never moved. It will keep its watch forever.
• • • •
After each storm, Lahore is peaceful for a few days. People visit their doctors and hakims, complaining of grit-itch in their eyes. Fallen trees are cleared away, power pylons pulled upright, gleaming electric cords snapped back into place. Slowly, the city emerges from the hurt. Thugs and insurgents, the military and the militants, subdued briefly by the storm, slip into routine again. Gangland violence, lathi charges, homicides, executions. Railway Station, Data Sahib’s shrine, a girls’ school. It’s a matter of time.
It was a matter of time before Saleem staggered home that night. His eyes were cracked marbles, his hair completely white. He shivered uncontrollably, head cocked to one side as if in torticollis; his fingers snapped and pinched as if trying to grasp the corner of some cloth. And he stank. Musty jute sacks. Dead insects. Rotting meat and wildflowers.
We didn’t tell anyone anything ever, and Saleem could not anymore. He stared into a deep intimate distance where no one could reach him, and spoke in whispers. To whom? I never knew.
Once he muttered, “That black hair, all that twisted black hair. It’s his smell, yes. His smell.”
After that, I didn’t go to see Saleem. Father moved us to a neighborhood in Defence some time later (something to do with Aunty Nasreen from four streets down and my mother’s swearing that she’d cut her own wrists if we didn’t move away), and our paths didn’t cross for fifteen year until that hot summer day in ’05, when he barely escaped getting run down by my car.
Hours later, at the gate of a children’s Montessori, my childhood friend Saleem blew himself up.
I don’t know why he did it. His mother and younger brother were taken in for interrogation by the military. Some feared they would go “missing,” but when reporters from as far as Amreeka and England took notice and clamored, the two were let go. What could they have told anyone anyway? What could they say? That his father didn’t return home one summer many years ago? That, for months, Saleem had been wandering the streets at night, scratching and pissing himself, like a tired, senile dog?
I do remember what his mother said to the TV people who showed up on her door. This one guy, an asshole with a dense mustache and a mole on his upper lip, kept pushing her on camera as to why her son would commit such an atrocity, until she finally screamed, “Leave me alone. Blood seeks blood. My son was killed by your city. He died a long time ago. He was a good boy. He was good. You turned him. Leave me alooonnneee.”
That was all I could take. I stopped watching the news all together.
• • • •
When my wife asked me, I told her everything that happened during that spring and summer of ’85. The gunnysack, the crimson storm. Bad Bricks. She didn’t believe me, not really. She asked what happened to Wasif and Ali Malik. She had never heard me mention them before.
Wasif moved away, I told her, a pale shell drifting in his own cloud of guilt and misery. Ali smoked his smokes and ended up in his dad’s workshop, hammering metal pipes and replacing car parts. Last I heard, he took up heroin, breathing the whispering vapors in old Coke bottles. “Chasing the dragon” is what they call it.
Me, I nodded right along with my beloved city (until I moved to the States in 2009). I went to work at Uncle Asad’s jewelry shop and I returned every night. Sometimes I dreamt and woke up trembling. We go through one hell to get to another. We walk in the midst of the dead and the dying; gold-red explosions, dust clouds, acid flings. Uncle Dara the realtor told me once that the crime reporter, that batshit crazy man, wanted to write a book. Maybe sometimes memories can be written in the restlessness of the grave. Maybe sometimes we come back to read our words aloud, just to hear them echo in a membrane of life.
Maybe sometimes old maids die, unwanted, unloved. Hell, what do I know? Maybe sometimes children grow up in a limbo filled with body bags hanging from trees like slaughtered goats, a nightmare that never flickers, never recedes from us.
So it went that Lahore breathed, quiet in its slumber, and waited for another laal andhi.
I did too.