Yeah, mincemeat, and he had about 10 kgs of it. He couldn’t very well eat it all and he didn’t know what to do with it. And he didn’t know how he came by it either. He could give it to Farid, but then he would be suspicious and was very likely to feed it to his pigs. Or, he could give it to Karim Chacha, his landlord, who had a large family to feed (Allah be Praised!). But for days his four wives would squabble over how to cook it and the whole stairway in their narrow ramshackle of a building would smell. He could give it to the beggars that lined the noisy street to the mosque but they would grumble they had nowhere to cook it.
Yet, there the meat lay, succulent, red and fatty—undecided, waiting, redolent; twiddling its thumbs as if, waiting for Kemal to take a call. The early morning flies had begun to discover the juicy dish lying in the huge copper cauldron in his tiny rooftop kitchen, and were fast gathering in a musical hum outside, looking for cracks in the netted window so that they could move in for the feast. Kemal had covered the pot with a newspaper and placed a small pebble atop it—so the meat was safe for now. But the sun was rising, the Maulvi was clearing his throat, and if he didn’t decide fast, in the pitiless heat of the summer the meat would soon turn bad as he didn’t even own a fridge. Kemal sat at the end of his jute charpoy outside his small rooftop room and gripped his aching head in his hands, and wondered what to do.
As full of ideas as the blank, gaping sky of clouds, or the stuffy day of a merciful breeze, Kemal decided to wash and deal with the problem at Haji’s Tea Point over a kick ass breakfast of sooji halwa and poori-sabzi. A practical man, who kept careful, rather secretive accounts concerning customers like Kemal who ate mostly on credit, Haji was sure to know what to do.
“Could you accept 10 Kgs of good mince mutton in lieu of my credit,” Kemal whispered, out of earshot of a nearby patron who seemed to be leaning in, as Haji poured him piping hot masala chai in a clay teacup. Kemal brought the teacup to his nose to inhale the rich bouquet of cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon mixed with earth, before sipping loudly from it.
“This is a vegetarian establishment, chump,” Haji replied, swatting him with a flourish of his sweat towel. “And where did you come by so much mincemeat,” he observed, moving on.
“A friend left it…” Kemal’s voice trailed, as Haji had already reached behind the sweetmeat counter, where he sat gravely on his seat and became engrossed in swatting flies. That was that—he wasn’t going to get any help from that scourge of the humble housefly.
“Subhan Allah,” Kemal said after finishing the sumptuous meal; caressing his belly, he burped loudly in appreciation of the repast the good Lord had favored him with. Gesturing expansively to Haji to note down his bill, he strolled out into the hot day.
The street was quickly coming to life: pushcart men shouted out for junk bottles, rags; old buggies and carts worked up a mean storm of dust, and the clear sky was beginning to cloud up with soot rising from the tanneries and dyeing shops. He sauntered along till he came to the small corner store. The store lady, a widow, who had disappeared behind a maze of sacks and barrels, returned presently with a bag of flour and a broom for another customer who was already waiting.
He salaamed and said pleasantly when she turned to him: “Fix me a paan, Ammi Jaan.”
She grinned at him, revealing a row of cracked, betel-stained teeth. After spreading slaked lime, areca nuts, and tobacco on the soaked betel leaf, she deftly folded it and handed him the paan.
“Umm,” Kemal mumbled with satisfaction, admiring in a rusty mirror hanging on the sidewall his kohled eyes and under his sharp mustache lips red with the overflowing betel juice. “Your store seems wanting in custom this morning,” he observed.
“In custom, or in a particular customer,” she quipped.
“Barak Allah Fik! May the blessings be upon you! To whom you allude, I know not, but you do jest me this fine morning.”
“I do not trifle with my business, Kemal Mian—do I tot this up in your account, as usual?” She scowled as he casually reached for a packet of Gold Flake and matches, and lighting a cigarette, replaced the merchandise in his kurta pocket.” Or am I going to see some hard cash here—rare as the moon of Eid?”
“You well know my situation, Ammi Jaan—” he answered, lacing up his talk with the sweetness of gulqand, the preserve of rose-petals that Ammi tucked liberally into her paans. “Eid is just four days away, and that is the blessed day I’m going to seek Fatima’s hand in marriage from that miser of a Maulvi.”
“You can’t pay me four annas for this paan, but you can pay him a fortune in dowry,” she rued, tying her hair in a bun and rolling up her sleeves, readying as if, for a scrap.
“I’ve been saving—whatever a humble clerk working in a leather factory can make. I promise you, Ammi, I will repay you from my first salary after Eid.” He paused for a moment. “How would you like 10 kgs of the finest mincemeat instead?”
“Imbecile! What would a poor widow—all alone—do with so much meat! Where did you come by it, by the way?”
“I wish I knew,” he mumbled. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember how the fresh meat—all chopped and clean and fragrant—came to be in his possession.
“There she comes—” Ammi teased, leaning over her counter, nodding toward three burqa-clad women walking their way, skipping over sleeping mongrels and fidgety cockerels. “—The houris of paradise.”
“Welcome, Salam Alaikum,” Ammi said, as the women salaamed her and moved on, except for one, who lingered at the far end of the shop, away from Kemal. “What can I get you, Fatima Bi?”
“Some salt…rice, Ammi,” Fatima said, tracing the aluminum beading on the wooden counter with a plump white finger. Kemal never failed in recognizing Fatima, though always covered in a black veil from head to toe, from the tinkling silver anklets he’d bought her from the fair and the voice like mellow fluty notes of a brook in the fields.
“How much—or should I guess myself,” Ammi asked, grinning.
Fatima glanced, pleadingly perhaps, at Kemal and then nodded, stepping away out of sight of Ammi. Kemal, speechless at this chance encounter, was pinching his pencil mustache and crimping his eyebrows in line. As soon as Ammi disappeared into the dark bowels of the store, he strutted over to Fatima, who receded into a corner set away from the street.
The air suddenly seemed intoxicated with the perfume of green, watered fields and the squalor of the street became suffused with the golden shower that fell from the sky. Fatima giggled; swaying slightly, and the street came alive with the cheeping of birds and the crackling of sunbeams.
“So, how are we this morning…”? Kemal began, edging as close to her as he dared in broad daylight. “How did you know you were going to find me here?”
Fatima shook her head, and bit the edge of her niqab. “I know you feed at Haji’s on Sundays—and mother wanted—”
“I know, rice and salt—you look so…beautiful…ethereal,” he said, grabbing her hand and stroking it. “You are smooth…like the soft underbelly of—” Before he could wax eloquent she snatched away her hand as a Bhishti, a water carrier man, carrying a dripping goatskin bag passed by.
“Be wary—what if someone should see me,” she said coyly.
“Only I may see you—though you might hide behind miles of shrouds, my aafreen. I long for Eid when I visit Abba Jaan and plight our troth. Is everything in place?”
“It is—except, be prepared for a long queue. And…and—”
“I know—your infernal tribe of first cousins and rich overlords—don’t have teeth but will have more wife. Don’t worry, I too have saved a fat dowry for you—haven’t spent a penny on myself for months. And I’m confident the old man means well for his daughter—he surely will give her hand to me—how many graduates do you know of in this wretched place,” he asked, tugging his collar. “Or suitable boys with prospects—might I presume to be the most eligible bachelor in this neighborhood?”
His prospects presently consisted of being surrounded with colorful vats and sprigs of mint leaves that he held under his nose to ward off the pungent smells of soaking and drying leather. His small office lay under a steeply pitched roof and two small smokestacks belching forth huge tufts of smoke, spreading soot over the neighborhood, and befouling the clothing, newly washed and strung on lines on rooftops. While in open fields nearby, newly tanned half hides brown and wet, draped on racks for drying exuded the characteristic tannery odors. But then all that was about to change once Fatima became his, and they would move out to Bombay, or Delhi, where bright young men like himself could eke out respectable pelf.
“And you said and—and what,” he added, after a pause, realizing she was telling him something.
“And…there is a problem…”
“He…he’s upset…he may not entertain suitors for his daughter that day.”
“Something inauspicious happened—his goat got stolen last night.”
“Wha—I told you, don’t tie it outside your house! Who tempts misfortune to visit his door like that? Proud he was—you’d said—wasn’t he, of such a fatted beauty—this was bound to happen!” Kemal kicked a pebble on the street and stomped around in despair. An orphan, a frugal man, all he ever wished in life was to wed Fatima, his lodestar, the one thing that made his crushing loneliness and isolation bearable. “But everyone knows everybody here—who would dare—someone must be out of their mind—!”
Suddenly, Kemal froze. Memories of the previous night came flooding back and smack, all became clear: there was no time to be lost. “Don’t let him call it off,” he urged Fatima, gripping her shoulders. “I’ll see you then,” he said and rushed off down the bristling street.
As soon as he’d turned the corner, Kemal picked up pace. He ran as hard as he could in his leather slippers, panting through the twisted by lanes, past tin-shacks selling recycled hubcaps and sweets shops peddling sesame-encrusted Ladoos the size of golf balls. He dashed through swarms of skull capped men on their way to prayer followed by fat wives in black burqas that rippled in the warm, musky breeze, till he ended up at his friend, Fakir’s house.
It was at the top of a building on a street peddling an insane variety of locks, up a steep, stony staircase that opened onto a freshly watered plant-filled courtyard. Fakir welcomed him into the narrow, linear house. His first cousin, the roguish Dawood was also visiting, smoking as he coolly leaned against the wall with his arms crossed before him.
The living room was furnished with a large bed with silk bolsters, a sofa, and two steel cupboards with calligraphy posters and pictures of Mecca. Fakir offered Kemal the sofa while he perched cross-legged at the end of the bed. Bright sunbeams filtered through the blue shutters of a window, forming striped shadows on the frayed carpet. The building overlooked the Hindu temple with its carved domes stretching arrogantly toward the sky, and the temple lane, which marked the unofficial boundary of the congested Muslim living quarters and the spacious, breezy mansions of the Hindus, and the green paddy fields beyond.
A constant uproar of many children crying all at once came from within the house: Fakir’s third wife, a girl of fifteen, was still suckling his sixth child. His eldest wife, a rambling lady of generous proportions, her face veil thrown back casually over her gray head, brought them paan and tea and left.
As soon as she was gone, Kemal asked,” Brother, what happened last night?”
“Why, don’t you remember,” Dawood replied, twirling his mustaches and flicking ash on the carpet.
“A little—I think I’d passed out from the rum.”
Fakir cupped his mouth in horror. “Don’t ever mention the word in this house. Astagfurallah—may Allah forgive us!”
“Did it have something to do with the Maulvi’s goat?” Kemal left the sofa and sat beside Fakir.
“Why at all should folk tie goats at their threshold for all good men to suffer temptation and risk dire sin,” Dawood asked.
“It is the duty of a good Muslim to remove the source of sin that makes mankind betray the righteous path of Allah,” observed Fakir.
“Yeah, do away with the sigil of Iblis that spells disaster for man by dampening his spirits,” added Dawood.
“Luring him to committing what is vile,” said Fakir.
“It seemed a seal of Satan with its cloven hoofs, flared ears and a goatee beard,” corroborated Dawood, warming to the subject.
“And the Prophet (PBUH) chides us – how many hungry mouths it could feed for days.”
“So what happened then,” a bewildered Kemal asked, looking from one cousin to another—both caught up in a spirited sermon on making away with fatted goats of Imams.
“After the three of us finished drinking in your house, we came down to the street to have paan. And as we were walking back, we came upon this goat—this symbol of—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get the symbol of—what happens next,” asked Kemal, burrows of worry forming on his forehead now.
“So we untethered the ram and led him to your house…”
“And where was I all the while,” demanded Kemal.
“You were holding up the lamppost, silly, by hugging it,” Dawood sneered.
“Then we butchered the ram for his meat, minced it, and divided it equally and fairly among us; and each to his home went, leaving a share for Kemal in his kitchen as he was already fast asleep on his cot,” explained Fakir, glancing at his cousin.
“We washed the floor,” said Dawood, “and took away the offal and the hide so that when the rain came in the morning not even the hair would be left to tell the tale.”
“Why, you could have taken the goat elsewhere?” wailed Kemal.
“Your house was the nearest—and empty.”
“I never asked you for the meat.”
“Had you been awake, or in senses, you would have; so as fair friends, whom you should show some gratitude, we left you your share.”
“But you don’t understand—now you’ve made me an accomplice! You do not realize how important this goat is—or was, to my future plans!”
“What future—what plans,” Dawood sneered.
“I intend to betroth Fatima, the Maulvi’s eldest.”
“Fat chance. Do you know how many eligible suitors she has?”
“Maybe, but she has eyes only for me.”
“Is that so, preying in your own backyard, eh?” Fakir thumped Kemal’s back and leered at his cousin. “Quite the playboy, eh—we didn’t know you had it in you—you quiet operator!”
“Have you the dowry,” pressed Dawood.
“I do—enough that he cannot say no—I’ve been saving up for over three years, ever since I set my eyes upon her.”
“Yes, we can see you’ve been saving,” Fakir said, feeling the cheap cotton fabric on Kemal’s kurta.
“You don’t get it,” Kemal protested, rising from the bed, shaking off Fakir’s embrace, as it got sickeningly tighter. “The old man is going to call off the Eid feast because his goat is sto—made away by the faithful. It was during the feast he was going to give away Fatima’s hand in marriage to the suitors present.”
“You can wait till the next Eid.”
“No!” Kemal pointed a shaking finger at the cousins. “I want you both to come away with me this instant and tell the Maulvi—I had nothing to do with all this.”
The cousins roared in laughter. “Do not go into denial after burping the biryani, friend—and what are you worried about—no one will ever know.”
“Haji would know…and so would Ammi Jaan—the grocery store widow.”
“How,” the cousins cried.
“Because, as of this morning I told them I had 10 kgs of mincemeat to give away.”
“You fool, what would you do that for?”
“Because I was so hung-over from last night, I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember from where the meat came. I blurted out in my innocence.”
The cousins glanced at each other in rising panic. Dawood grabbed Kemal’s arm and pulled him out into the sunlight-swept courtyard. Fakir closed the door behind them.
“We have nothing to do with the disaster you bring upon yourself, understand?” growled Fakir, his jaw sat. Dawood began to twist Kemal’s arm slowly. “Yes, it is your own doing,” he snarled.
“Your fate—we’re not a part of it.”
“We did good by you—feeding you liquor and meat every weekend at your home.”
“That’s because you two can’t drink in your own homes,” cried Kemal.
“Exactly, we’re respectable family men, not bastards like you.”
With a jerk, Kemal freed himself of Dawood’s arm lock; “You used me,” he said, the pain bringing tears to his eyes.
“You let us.” Fakir began to push Kemal toward the staircase.
“We never met.”
“We don’t know who you are—we don’t even know if you’re fit for our company—for all you know, you aren’t even a Muslim.”
“Yeah, who knows—let’s find out,” Dawood leered, and lunged for Kemal’s pajamas; finding the cord, he tried to yank it off.
“Get lost, if you don’t want to go down the street naked,” Fakir said, restraining his cousin, who’d grabbed a hoe from the lavender bed. “Or before you too get butchered by my cousin here.”
“I trusted you, I welcomed you in my home,” Kemal cried, backing away.
“We never met.”
“We don’t know who you are.”
“We don’t know what you speak of,” They shouted after him as he scampered down the stairs.
“What goat.” He could hear the yells and laughter as he tore down the street. “Go own up to your doing. Confess!”
People paused on the street hearing the cries coming from the rooftop, and hastily separated to make way for Kemal as he scuttled down the street with his arm across his face.
He didn’t pause till he reached the comfort of his terrace: so wild was his terror. All was lost: his love, his chances, and his easy manner. The lengthening shadows of spires that fell on the roof skewered his flesh like the beaks of crows strung out on electric wires: crows that clawed and fluffed their rage up; crows charred black in the whiteness of the sun; crows with rakish eyes that cawed reproachfully out to him for his crimes; crows sent down by Allah scratching up the ground to show Cain how to hide his brother’s naked corpse.
Kemal couldn’t bear the rebuke anymore. He spread the evening Urdu newspaper on the roof and poured all the mincemeat over it. Then he laid back on his cot and let the crows sweep down and feast. As he dozed off into an uneasy slumber, the wheel of the sun, clasped in amber clouds, sloped and turned. The sun shook off the bright dust from its parting sheen and made way for the usurping moon. As darkness fell, the crows, not sated with mere cawing, swept into his dream.
“Why, are you not satisfied, that you pursue me thus,” Kemal asked. “What bad omen is this?”
“Strange that man should blame us for his dark deeds—that we forewarn the outcome of his evil designs.”
“Yet, I am innocent—yet, I’m blamed. Is there no justice?”
The hooded crow made a sound that seemed like laughter in derision. “Crows have a strong sense of justice, Kemal—the rules of natural law bestowed by Allah Himself. We have courts: for when a crow steals a young one’s food, do we not scratch his feathers out so that he’s as helpless as the little one; when one steals another’s nest, do we not tear the nest down and make the thief build another; when one steals the affections of another’s female, do we not flock upon the guilty and slash him with our beaks? And do we not then bury him? Crows have yielded unto the laws of Allah and reached the shores of safety—and so would you!” With that, the large raven shrieked; flapping his wings he soared into the night in a wake of soot and singed feathers.
In the morning, his mind quite made up, Kemal bribed Paro, Fatima’s maid to arrange for their rendezvous at the riverfront before dawn.
The next day, when Kemal reached the stone steps leading down to the river, he found Fatima already waiting under the large banyan tree, with an empty milk pitcher at her feet. The river flowed gently, a cool breeze blew in from the paddy fields, and the lazy smell of dewy grass hung in the thin mist. A crimson flower twirled in her fingers, tender and fresh as butter churned in earthen jars. She raised her veil briefly to smile, sending little butterfly wings fluttering against his face where the smile had touched him.
“Don’t raise your veil,” he said, “for the moon will be jealous. Do not show your hands, lest the wind makes them rough.”
She giggled, while little birds wheeled above like parasols, and the mango trees dripped flowers on the village road. “What is it that you bring now,” she asked, seeing that he led a fat goat by a rope.
“Here,” he said, “take it home and tie him to the gate before your house awakes.” He pressed the rope in her hands.
“But—what will Abba Jaan think,” she said, shrinking away. “Why are you doing this?”
“So that he doesn’t cancel the feast, Fatima, I cannot wait for another Eid to read the Nikah with you. Karim Chacha has arranged a handsome opening for me in a leather export house in Bombay. We’ll move out of here,” he pleaded, “to where there are no separate wells for Muslims. It’s a chance we must grab hold of.”
“What will Abba say?”
“You tell him the goat had strayed and found its way back on its own. He lacks the light in his eyes—he won’t tell the difference if you convince him.”
“Where did you come by the goat?”
“I bought it.” Grasping her hands, he confessed everything, including the strange dream he’d had of the crows.
“You bought it! It must have cost—what about the mahr, Kemal, the bridal money—do you still have it?”
Kemal shook his head and sank on the grass.
“So you spend our mahr on a goat, Kemal, why? Is your honor more important than our love? You care more for Abba Jaan’s feelings than mine? He will never give me away without dowry: you know that. I could sell my jewelry—he could find out later—but that won’t be enough…” she wailed, “ Taawwudh – may Allah have mercy!”
“Have faith, dear Fatima. Allah ta’ala will show us the way—I…I will think of something,” he said, not having the foggiest notion how.
Somewhere the temple gong sounded, reminding the sky to wake up. Village women began to come up from the river, water pitchers gurgling at their hips. Dust rose in the distance as cattle were driven to the fields.
“Please, I beg of you, have faith in Allah…in me…in our love. There’s no more time—I will see you on Eid, and Insha’Allah, bring you home with me,” he said urgently, handing her the rope, and striding away back to town, as the dawn began to break over the riverfront.
At home Kemal fixed himself a frugal breakfast of tea and savories. Realizing he still had time before the tannery opened for work, he decided to lay down a bit. Racking his brains on how to come with the money by Eid, just a day away, exhausted him and he drifted into an uneasy asleep. His body jerked and twitched as one after another people began to snub him in his dreams.
“I’ve already given you a hefty Eid bonus,” his tannery owner said, cracking a leather whip Kemal had never noticed before.
“You will steal from her mouth,” Karim Chacha was saying, waving his ninth infant in Kemal’s face.
“Look at this beggar, how will he care for my daughter,” announced the Maulvi to the gathered suitors in his house, much to their mirth and delight. As the men laughed and slapped their thighs and flung mince mutton in his face, Kemal found himself dashing out the door, brushing against a fat goat that looked at him with accusing eyes. He ran out into a brightly lit street where butchers and locksmiths had gathered to hurl abuses and stones at him. “Thief—beggar…” they screamed.
As he fled, he realized he had company—one man ran right ahead of him while another followed close on his heels. He tried hard to shake them off, but couldn’t. He turned a corner and sprinted till he reached the mustard fields yonder. There, exhausted, he collapsed on a heap of feed and mulch. His eyes closed as he lay panting, hoping his pursuers were gone. But when he sat up, he found they were still there, perching on his shoulders.
“Who are you,” Kemal asked, with a vigorous shudder.
“We’re Hafaza, earthly shepherds of humans.”
“Like Farishtey, guardian angels…” he asked.
“More like archive masters—to record your deeds.”
“Are you here to help?”
“Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people unless they change it themselves.”
“Then all is lost, for it is beyond me to change,” Kemal wailed, banging his fists on his knees, and sinking back in the mound of hay.
On the bright, chirpy morning of Eid, Kemal, in an immaculate black achkan with a bright red rose pinned to its lapel, a Gandhi cap, and with a small cane with a silvery head, presented himself at the gates of the Maulvi residence: his pockets quite empty of change but his breast quite full of the hope that afflicts the young and the inexperienced. He lingered at the gatepost, caressing with some satisfaction the loose rope that hung there, the crook at its end showing a knot freshly undone. He clasped his hands in silent prayer, looked up toward the skies, and raised his step to cross the threshold.
At that very moment, a bearded man—his face eerily familiar, dressed in bulky sack clothes crossed him and blocked his way. He spread open his cloak to reveal a silver salver covered with red muslin. This he pressed into Kemal’s hands and whispered, “Give this to the Maulvi as the mahr.”
“But,” Kemal began to protest as the man began to make away. Kemal grabbed his arm. “You are the man from last night’s dream, aren’t you, the Farishtey?”
“This is your chance, man, why do you hesitate?”
The muslin had partially come off the salver in the scuffle. The salver was covered in a pile of silver coins.
“I cannot accept this—this is haram for me. Give me a chance to change things myself, dear Farishtey, and verily, then Allah will help me—isn’t this what you’d said?” Kemal thrust the gift back in the man’s hands. The ragamuffin gaped but chose to say nothing. He shrugged, and hiding his salver in his thick overcoat, vanished behind a sea of brightly painted earthen pots and bead necklaces that hung from the bustling, gaudily decorated shop fronts.
“Adab, welcome, Kemal Mian.” A woman in burqa had appeared on the door and was beckoning him in. She was giggling and there was a spring in her step as she grasped him by the arm and led him inside. She couldn’t be Fatima, he was sure, for she wasn’t quite the light that drew him.
Inside the brightly decorated living hall, a long row of men sat on the carpeted floor with plates piled with delicacies before them, while the Maulvi and his remaining daughters stood at the entrance welcoming the guests. Fatima, his eldest, stood right behind him: Kemal could make her out by her plump, fair hands, and the way her head followed him as he advanced tentatively in the queue. She leaned forward and whispered in her father’s ear when he came to a halt before them.
A dark hush fell upon the hall, as the Maulvi nodded to his daughter and asked for his spectacles. He perched them on his nose and peered sternly at Kemal, nodding disapprovingly, it seemed, all the time. After examining him from top to toe, the Maulvi’s eyes came to rest upon Kemal’s hands—quite empty, save for the humility in which they were folded.
Fatima nudged the Maulvi with her elbow, and the old man cleared his throat. “So you come empty handed at my door and ask for the apple of my eye. Is that fair price for one so beautiful, so accomplished?”
“I know all about you—your speech and your prospects. Why, I even know about the goat—there are no secrets between daughter and father here. I know what people say behind my back—that I’m a greedy old man who will sell off his daughter for the highest price.”
“I was not involved, I—” Sweat began to pour the side of Kemal’s temple as the old man’s voice rose.
“Well, son, let me tell you, she’s not for sale—no man may put a price on my daughter. Do you think I will give her away to be a third wife in some harem…or risk a blind, wasted, twisted, mutated blind freak—like myself—as my grandchild by marrying her in blood relations?”
Kemal was shivering in his boots now; he gulped but no words would come forth in his defense.
“So I’m glad you come—empty-handed, but with your decency intact. What you offer—as hope and a future for my beloved daughter here—I warmly and humbly accept.”
A tear stole into the old rascal’s eye and his lips quivered as he embraced his daughter’s betrothed.
The steam train swayed and jerked on its way to Bombay, plowing through the green and brown Indian landscape, covering its passengers with hot dust and soot. The wooden benches made their backs sore, while noisy fans above blew air that scalded faces and dried sweat running down their backs. Fatima, wearing her bridal suit under her burqa, sat on the window seat, looking dreamily out at the blur of mango orchids and golden sugarcanes. Kemal, with his head nesting on her shoulder, dozed and swayed with the lurching coach.
“Are you awake?” she said when he suddenly sat up erect at a particularly bad jolt.
“Yes, I am now.” Kemal yawned and reached out for her hand.
“Don’t you have any shame?” she slapped his hand away. “In front of all these people.”
“But you are my begum now.”
“Do as you please with your begum within the four walls of your house, Kemal Mian.”
“Hmm…” Kemal stretched and nestled against his woman.
“Was the story about the silver salver true, Kemal?”
“I believe so,” he replied. “Some man gave it when I was standing on your threshold, with nothing but hope in my heart and my empty pockets.”
“Did you know him?”
“No—but he vaguely resembled someone who came in my dream the night before, asking me to keep the faith—and I had nothing but faith that morning.”
“Must have been a Farishtey, then,” she smiled and closed her eyes.
‘I thought it was some agent sent by your father to corrupt me,’ Kemal mused, and smiled.
“It indeed is Allah’s will,” she muttered, “Amin,” raising her hands in prayer.