Love, Inshallah’s fiction debut!
The False Phoenix
Not a drop of rain had fallen in six weeks. Then one August afternoon, Zeenat watched from her window as day turned to night in under a minute, pregnant charcoal clouds overpowered the sun, and the sky roared as rain started to pour.
Zeenat had a tingling sensation in her fingertips, as a strange half smile teased her lips. She watched the sheets of rain appear and disappear like magical clothes swaying on a clothesline, their visibility a series of staccatos, from her window. There was not a soul in sight so she wasn’t worried about the outside staff catching a glimpse of her uncovered head; there was no need to hide behind a drawn curtain and tilt her head to peek out onto the courtyard, as was custom for the women in the house she had come to call her own.
Before her marriage she had looked upon the event with the optimism characteristic to most young ladies; she had believed her marriage would be a liberating experience, she would have her own house, a husband and at some point obedient children. Perhaps it would all give her license to make her own decisions, the way her mother seemed to do while she was growing up. She didn’t realize the invisible hand of societal pressure would not only follow her into her new house, but a similar burden in the shape of a whole other set of norms would be waiting for her in her father-in-law’s large haveli, where she was welcomed as daughter-in-law and wife of the eldest son.
It had been two years since she had agreed to marry Abid, and though her marriage wasn’t what she had hoped for she had found comfortable crevices, compromises and half-sacrifices, and had conveniently settled into them. She considered herself to be – for the most part – happy.
Zeenat wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed since the downpour had begun. The sky was uniformly lit and so it was almost impossible to say what time of day it was. Zeenat watched on; a common, but yet unfulfilled desire tugged at her heart like mischief often does at ones’ fingertips. Before this obscure emotion bore fruit in the form of a prompting thought, she was rudely interrupted by the muezzins call to prayer. It couldn’t possibly have been dusk, it must be time for zuhar concluded Zeenat.
She recognized the voice as belonging to maulvi Meher Ali Shah, who was almost always the one calling people to prayer, from the mosque a stone’s throw away from her house. He possessed the eldest and most respected religious voices in Multan; a voice that some would say was firm, just as much as it was soft. She had seen him often; he frequented her house to visit her father-in-law who was respected for being a traditional man, from a well-established land owning family. It seemed that Maulvi Sahibs voice had been washed in the rain; it resonated with a distinct sharpness that Zeenat particularly enjoyed against the steady backdrop provided by the rain shower’s pitter-patter. Zeenat joined everything in its stillness and continued standing by the window. She enjoyed the highs and lows of the azaan, and Maulvi sahib’s high-pitched tapering voice and abrupt beginnings equally. Zeenat wasn’t a religious person and not responding to the call to prayer wasn’t a conscious decision but she took pleasure in her silent rebellion nonetheless and fancied God understood her disdain for rituals, when Maulvi Sahib’s sharp voice was overwritten for a couple of seconds by an acute crackling thunder.
She wondered when the rain would stop and how it would affect this year’s wheat harvest. Dusk had artificially arrived before its time; lightning randomly lit up the sky in a bright eerie whiteness that allowed Zeenat to see the damage the storm brought with it. A baby palm tree, aspiring to be an adolescent, at the edge of her backyard, stayed consistently bent and Zeenat swore she would see it snap each time the sky light came on. It was struggling against what seemed to be its shared destiny with the bottlebrush already sprawled across the courtyard.
She said a silent prayer, first for her father-in-law’s harvest, then for the rest of Pakistan’s. When Zeenat reopened her eyes she saw an obscure shape, a little darker than a shadow, distant, suspended in the darkest greys of the rain. She discovered it was moving as it successively grew in size, coming closer at surprising speed. It was only when the shape hit the ground that Zeenat realized it was an eagle, crashing more than landing, in her courtyard. She stood still for a minute, squinting her eyes as she watched the eagle half-spread its wings slowly and wobble in a completely un-eagle like move. Then without spreading its wings to their magnificence, the eagle changed its mind, to have its wings rest by its side. No movement followed, for what in suspense, seemed like an hour but in reality was a few minutes. In the distance the eagle looked like a giant cocoon, appearing and disappearing with the intensity of the pelting rain, much like the enchanted clothesline that had occupied Zeenats earlier thoughts. She decided to venture out into her backyard that had been transformed into unchartered territory, under the previously ominous but currently auspicious storm.
There was no time for prudence. Besides, she knew no one would bother to step into what was possibly the worst thunderstorm she had encountered all her life, in the harsh desert climate of Multan. She didn’t bother wearing her slippers, opened the door to the verandah outside her room, jumped at the icy water that layered the marble-chips floor as a result of the slanting rain, ignored the cold wind lashing at her face, descended four steps and was standing in her backyard, the storm now surrounding her. It was harder to see than she had anticipated, her face an amalgamation of lines, her eyes mere slits. Her memory aided her in making her way toward the crash-landed eagle, all the time shielding her eyes, but not really missing the serenity of her bedroom. She enjoyed the reality of the storm, which was scarier now that she was in it.
Zeenat made her way toward the eagle with unnecessary stealth, it seemed frozen and couldn’t possibly be more soaked than it already was. She could tell it was hurt, and was shocked at its obvious grandeur despite being soaked. She squatted at a safe distance from it, her hair soaked to its ends, her toe nails blue. To anyone watching from afar she looked like a larger version of the rounded shape a few feet from her. Zeenat knew where Shahnawaz, Abids errand boy, kept all the empty twig-baskets used for bringing fruit from her father-in-law’s orchards and so, made her way toward them. What a brilliant idea, she thought to herself as a snicker escaped her lips and she splish-sploshed barefoot toward the garage door that also lead to the front courtyard. The uneven and muddy brick floor of the courtyard was strangely enjoyable in its sharp contrast to the veranda’s smooth soaked floor of marble chips she had first encountered on stepping out of her bedroom.
By now she was not only used to the tempest that surrounded her, but found the whipping rain in her face rather delicious, despite all the squinting involved. She walked into the garage, it was disappointingly dry, picked up the large twig basket, perfectly sized with a diameter of a foot and a half and depth to match. Zeenat carried the basket back to the courtyard and hesitated out of fear, then slowly got close enough to the eagle to drop the inverted twig-basket on top of it. The mission accomplished in one quick movement of her arms. She had secured the safety of the bird till the end of the storm, though she did wonder if preventing it from getting any wetter would be consequential, since it was already soaked to saturation. She walked back to her bedroom, satisfied with what she had done.
Zeenat turned on the radio, only to release static and to turn it off a moment later. She undressed, showered and changed into dry clothes with time to spare before Abid got home. She used this time to wipe the trail of mostly water and some mud she had left behind, when she entered her bedroom, after her first encounter with the eagle. She hung her wet clothes and the cloth she used to wipe the floor in the laundry room adjacent to her bottle-green bathroom and looked around the room; everything was in its place. She looked up at the high ceiling to re-confirm the roshandaan was closed. She then walked over to the window, it had become darker outside, but the thunderstorm persisted with an unfamiliar ferocity. She eyed the inverted twig-basket and tried to imagine how the eagle inside it felt. She hoped it felt safe but knew bewilderment and fear were not only possible but quite probable. She plopped down on Abid’s armchair and switched on the tv, watching it blankly as her mind remained pre-occupied with the eagle, and as she awaited the return of her husband – much like she did every day of her life.
Abid returned from work promptly at eight, much like he did every day of his life. He was soaked to the bone, and after exchanging pleasantries with his wife, headed for the shower and some fresh dry clothes. Zeenat vacated his chair before he was out. They both headed for the dining room at 9 p.m. to join Abid’s parents for dinner. Both Abid’s brothers were studying abroad, and so, it was just the four of them at the dining table, as it had been for over a year now.
Advised by her mother, at the time of her marriage and encouraged by her husband after it, Zeenat had taken to calling Abid’s parents Ama and Aba, words normally reserved for ones own parents. It was a meaningless but calculated sacrifice on Zeenat’s part; one that helped Abid and his family accept Zeenat as their own and, they thought, helped her accept them. Sentimentality however never appealed to Zeenat, and so she had left her’s when she had left her parent’s house. She didn’t quite love Abid’s family, but she could see herself growing to do so eventually.
Dinner was routine; there was daal and chicken curry, accompanied with boiled rice and chappaatis. To Zeenat’s delight, there was kheer for dessert. Throughout the course of their meal, Zeenat agreed with her mother-in-law’s observations about their neighbours, the help – which included the leaders of the platoon – mainly Shahnawaz and Sughra, their children, the storm, and dinner. It was fifteen minutes into the Isha aazaan that Zeenat realized it had gone on longer than the normal four minutes, so she turned to her father-in-law, which she often did at moments of bewilderment and asked him,
“Aba, why is Maulvi Sahib extending the aazan today?”
Abid’s father replied, “They’re constantly praying for the storm to stop. It’s destroying crops right before harvesting time, there will definitely be extensive flooding as well. Half of Multan is at the mosques.”
Zeenat watched from the corner of her eye as her mother-in-law said a silent prayer. Abid and his father followed with a discussion of exactly how much damage each one thought their crops could endure, and the possible effects on cumulative yields. Zeenat wondered about the fate of the eagle that was clearly unable to fly in such oppressive weather.
She ate the last of her kheer with relish; directed the maids to the rhythm of her mother-in-law’s approving nods, as they picked up the dishes laid out on the dining table. She then politely asked if there was anything she could do for Abid’s parents before heading to bed. They replied by thanking her and saying she had already done enough. Zeenat headed to her room, red plastic flip-flops in her feet, bangles chiming in her forearms this time around, as she walked across the verandah toward her bedroom. She paused before entering, looked out at the courtyard, panic striking her heart momentarily as she couldn’t locate her eagle-containing inverted twig basket. Relieved, once she squinted her eyes, and saw it through the ever elusive, never ending, harrowing rain, she walked into her room, not noticing her husband right behind her.
“Is everything ok? You seem preoccupied, and were strangely silent at dinner today,” was Abid’s first question as they walked into their bedroom.
“Oh, I’m fine, just a little unnerved by the rain,” Zeenat replied. She played the damsel in distress fairly often, she knew Abid enjoyed being her protector, and sure enough he responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you, not all the storms in the world could harm you with me around.”
Zeenat felt her heart swell at her husband’s clichéd words and she smiled at him warmly, before joining him in bed.
At dawn, as sleep slowly seeped out of Zeenat’s half-closed eyes and consciousness entered her being, along with the soft skylight characteristic of the brief moments before sunrise, Zeenat awoke to the sure sounds of continued rain outside her window. She was jolted into complete wakefulness by crackling thunder as her eyes widened and she exhaled sharply. Abid snored by her side. Zeenat crept out of bed, grabbed the shawl she had left lying on Abid’s armchair from the night before, wrapped it around herself and stepped onto the cool damp verandah floor.
Only when she exhaled at the sight of her inverted basket did she realize she was holding her breath. It was still there. The sky was still grey; the rain was still pouring, though the wind had stopped. It rained till the afternoon and Zeenat spent her day doing what she did on most days. Breakfast with Ama and Aba, a little intervention in the kitchen, overseeing of the housework, mainly to make her presence felt in the house, helping her mother-in-law find random things she believed to have lost forever e.g. her comb, lipstick, shawl and on the occasions that she chose to watch tv, the remote control. Throughout the day Zeenat stole glances at the inverted basket, her mind remained constantly occupied with what it protected.
Once she caught Shahnawaz, making his way toward the basket in the rain, and she called out to him, telling him not to bother till it had stopped raining. He stopped in his tracks, lowered his eyes as was custom and responded with an agreeable nod, accompanied by a courteous ‘jee bibi’ from his lips. Zeenat gave him strict orders to tell everyone else not to remove the basket till they had her approval. No one had any idea, an eagle lay waiting for its wings to dry under that basket; Zeenat felt satisfied at having a secret that belonged only to her.
The next morning, Zeenat asked Shahnawaz to bring her a dead rat. Shahnawaz’s expression gave away his bewilderment but he didn’t dare question Zeenat for fear of appearing impertinent. Twenty minutes later he returned with a dead rat and presented it to Zeenat in an open shoebox. She smiled and thanked him, after which he left. Once the rain stopped in the afternoon and the sun came out, Zeenat knew it was only a matter of time before she would be able to see the eagle again. The sun had been out for three or four hours before it was dusk and Zeenat heard maulvi Meher Ali Shah’s call for Maghrib prayers.
She descended the four steps from her verandah to her courtyard, wearing rubber gloves, the rat-containing-shoe-box under her arm. She then placed the rat in one corner of the veranda and walked to the basket, which lay a few feet away. She lifted the basket from one end so that there was enough space for her to examine the eagle, without giving the eagle enough room to waddle off and saw a magnificent creature. Its head was white, its beak sun-coloured, and its body rich chocolate with a hint of bronze where its feathers glistened. A frown accompanied its cold stare as its beady red-rimmed eyes fixated on Zeenat in what, to her, felt like a demand for freedom. As pangs of guilt stabbed at her heart Zeenat completely uncovered the bird, hoping it would forgive her once it saw its lunch. It hopped to the side, walked around in a circle, stretched out its wings once and jerked its head from left to right.
Such peculiar behavior puzzled Zeenat and she chalked it up to its compromised physical condition owing to its wound and wet wings. She wanted it to fly and wondered if she should seek help but quickly dismissed the thought; she wasn’t ready to share him with the rest of her world. To her joy, the eagle then walked toward the rat. Just as it was about to pick it up in its beak, Zeenat covered it with the basket. She felt better about herself knowing the eagle, its lunch and with them, her secret was now safe in a corner of the courtyard. The post-rain afternoon heat and humidity ensured everyone in Zeenat’s household was taking a nap, as was customary for most households in Multan.
At that moment Zeenat had an idea. She would only be successful if she executed it at night. So she waited. Abid came home, at the usual time, asked the usual questions, fell asleep in the groove his body left on his side of the bed and snored, after having dinner with the family. Once Abid was asleep, Zeenat gently moved the covers off her body, so as not to disturb Abid’s half of the covers, silently opened the door and walked across the verandah to the kitchen, the midnight air crisp and her heart drumming an audible steady beat. She grabbed a matchbox, then made her way to the garage, which doubled as Abid’s store, and where she had noticed the coiled string normally used for kite flying amongst other seasonal materials. She grabbed a washcloth lying on the built-in shelf and doused it in kerosene, grabbed the reel of string and returned to the courtyard.
Enough light filtered in from the garage for Zeenat to execute her covert operation. She stood still in the dark, moments passed as she feared her next move. She removed the upturned basket and took a few quick steps back. She greeted the eagle with a solemn nod; waited respectfully for it to take flight but was rewarded with yet another wobble and half-spread of the wings. Then the strangest of things happened. The eagle looked directly at Zeenat and nodded its head. Zeenat blinked twice but the eagle was still looking directly at her, perfectly still now. That’s when she knew it would not hurt her.
Zeenat got to work. She measured three meters of the string and separated it from the rest of the reel with her teeth, careful not to cut her tongue as a result of its glass coating. She then rolled up the cloth she had earlier doused in kerosene into a ball the size of a large skull and wrapped one end of the string around the ball, knotting it tightly. The ball of cloth shrunk with each successive wrap of string, until the final knot that sealed its size – now that of a medium sized skull. The whole time, she kept one eye on the eagle, who watched her curiously. She held up the string from its mid-point, her gaze following the ball of cloth that swung back and forth, like a pendulum. Zeenat squatted on the floor with just enough room between her knee and the ground for the eagle to fit into comfortably. With one hand she held the large bird between her right knee and the ground and tied the other end of the string to its foot using her other hand with considerable skill. Zeenat could feel its heartbeat, its vulnerability in her hand. Once free, the eagle wobbled a few steps away from Zeenat, still not flying.
Zeenat set the ball of cloth on fire.
With one courageous move the eagle spread its shockingly large wings and propelled itself into the night sky with all the force it could muster. The fireball followed it into the sky at a two-meter distance.
So did Zeenat’s heart.
As the eagle disappeared into the darkness of the night, all that remained was a fireball in its wake, a relic, chasing the invisible eagle. Zeenat felt herself soar with the fire-chased eagle and continued to watch the inky sky until eventually both the eagle and the fireball disappeared. She then quietly walked up the steps to her verandah, all the while a smile teasing the corner of her lips and an itch for mischief in her fingertips. For now, she had her secret, and she slept with it buried in her soul.
She woke up with a smile and a chuckle at the thought of what she had done the night before. Abid noticed her good mood and pulled her back into bed before she had a chance to head in the direction of the bathroom. In bed, Abid and Zeenat both heard Maulvi Meher Ali Shah, talking to Aba in the verandah in an urgent tone.
“I hear the harvest this year will be completely destroyed,” Maher Ali Shah said.
“I haven’t yet evaluated the damage to my land.”
“I saw a fireball in the sky last night, with my own eyes. I’m telling you the wrath of Allah is upon us. Our women don’t do proper purdah, have started roaming around with men openly. The younger ones don’t even cover their heads. As for boys not all of them come to the mosque, I know Nasir’s son is never present in the jamaat.”
“A fireball? Are you sure Meher Ali Shah?”
“Sain, have you ever known me to lie?”
“What do you want me to do, Meher Ali Shah?”
“Religious people, most of them, listen to what I have to say, but with your backing, we shall have the ears of all society and maybe we can all save our souls from Allah’s wrath and avoid further calamity. I’m not the only one who saw the fireball, so did Fiaz and his brothers. It is a clear sign, if not that Allah is displeased with us, then that the end of the world is upon us. After hearing about the fireball even Nasir’s son has come to pray today. I am going to tell everyone of this warning sign.”
“Meher Ali, if it is a sign that the end of the world is approaching then I cannot help you or anyone else for that matter; as far as changing our ways is concerned I don’t think there is anything wrong with the way we are living our lives.”
‘You will see, Sain, you will see.’” With this Maulvi Meher Ali Shah left.
Zeenat heard Abid’s mother enter the verandah from her bedroom.
“I hope Allah forgives us and listens, I wonder what we have done wrong to deserve His wrath,” said Abid’s mother.
Clearly she had also been eavesdropping.
“Surraiya, Allah doesn’t dole out collective punishments to whole nations for the sins of individuals,” Aba replied. Zeenat silently agreed.
“Maulvi Meher Ali Shah’s wife was saying it’s possible, when we don’t weed out sinners and stay silent in the face of their sins, we are complicit in their actions and deserve to suffer just as much.” Surraiya’s voice acquired an ominous tone.
Zeenat watched Abid’s puzzled expression. She secretly enjoyed her mother-in-law, Maulvi Meher Ali Shah and every one else she knew, mistaking her for God. She felt light, but powerful.