It was a large room. There were many shelves of books, a metal helmet for a stallion from the times of the Crusades, and there were the vertebrae of a whale from a bay in Antarctica. In one alcove was the earliest known photograph of a snowflake.
The child entered the silence and stillness of the vast interior through the far door. She came past the fishing canoe resting on a long low table under the window.
She was seven years old and her name was Helen.
Two buildings stood next to each other at the centre of the room. Each was taller than the girl, was perhaps four times her height. During that early morning hour, the light still only half awake, she stood looking at them.
They appeared to be mosques, and they were beautiful—with their families of domes, semi-domes, and minarets. She thought of them as two elaborate hats or headdresses, possibly meant for djinns or a pair of giants from a fairytale. She considered taking a few additional steps and peering through one of their windows. The colours and features were so precise and assorted—the muted shine on the walls and the arcs of the domes. She reached out and touched the detail of a painted leaf.
Buildings situated within a room! Normally it was a room that existed within a building, was contained by it. She described a circle around them now.
She went past the cupboard where stood the vase of dried branches brought back from Russia. They were from the apple trees that Count Tolstoy had planted with his own hands. Four of them were still alive in his orchard.
The girl stopped when one of the buildings produced a creak, as though it were experiencing a mild earthquake. It stirred now and rose a few inches, breaking free of gravity, swaying a little. And then it ascended further, beginning to travel at a languid pace towards the ceiling. It was being pulled up by the delicate-seeming yet strong chains that were attached to the tips of its minarets. Eventually it came to a stop—up there, in the high distance
The immense room she was in was a library and a study. A place of fertile solitude. Due to its size it was difficult to heat in the winter months. Not long ago they had had the idea of bringing in two small cabins—each just large enough to house a desk and chair, a stack of immediately necessary books and papers, and a small heater. The thinking was that from December to February a person would go into one of the cabins, close the door behind her, and work in that pocket of warmth. From ordinary cabins, however, they had become detailed models of two historic buildings—the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The girl had caught glimpses of them being constructed during the previous few weeks. Now they were ready, and because it was June they were being winched up, to remain suspended up there until December.
After the Hagia Sophia, she watched the Great Mosque of Córdoba being pulled up by the system of pulleys and chains.
Neither of the two buildings had a floor of its own. They would borrow the room’s floor when they were down here. So when Helen looked up now she could see into the interiors. She imagined moths fluttering like trapped prayers under the miniature domes in the evenings, bumping against the coloured insides. She would always remember this handful of moments from her early years. Childhood—when minutes could feel as prolonged as hours, and the days vanished in the blink of an eye
It was Helen’s father who had carpentered the buildings. And it was he who was causing them to rise through the air, storing them out of the way. She turned and looked at him where he stood at the other end of the room, operating the various cranks and pulleys located near the corner. She liked the fact that he made one last minor adjustment to the chains, making sure both buildings were held at exactly the same height.
He was a tall bright-blooded man, and his name was LilyThe Orchard
This world is the last thing God will ever tell us.
A few hours before he was killed, Massud woke at the call to the predawn prayer. It was issuing from the loudspeakers attached to the minaret just across the lane. He imagined the worshippers approaching the eighteenth-century mosque in silence, some of them carrying lanterns. The sight of empty shoes at the thresholds of mosques had always made him think that the men had been transformed into pure spirit just before entering.
After the call ended, the smell of bread drifted to him from the house behind the mosque, where the cleric lived, the man’s daughter rising at this hour to prepare a meal for him.
Massud turned his head on the pillow and looked at Nargis, asleep beside him. How long he lay there looking at her he would not have been able to say, but the amount of light was increasing softly around them, the earliest rays of the day arriving at the house. There were shadows but they were out of focus. How noisy the sun would be, Nargis had observed once, if sound could travel through space. The ceaseless firestorms. The oceans of flame.
Massud had turned fifty-five years old the previous month, and Nargis was fifty-two. They had met and married when they were in their twenties, and as he would confess to her later, he hadn’t had the courage to cast a direct second glance towards her until a fortnight after the first. With her contemplative calm and beauty, she hadn’t seemed like a real person at all. Much to his embarrassment, he had almost lost consciousness the first time he had taken her into his embrace.
He lay awake now, grateful for her presence beside him in life. The breeze came from the direction of the mosque again, and as he fell back asleep he remembered reading somewhere that the smell of bread instils kindness in human beings.
Numerous bird wings were hanging from nails driven into the far wall of the kitchen, lit up by lines of sunlight. They were in a range of sizes, beginning with a sunbird’s two-inch pair, and ending with a single giant one that had belonged to a trumpeter swan, with dozens of species in between. The most beautiful modern building in Pakistan was said by many to be a mosque designed by Nargis and Massud. They were architects, and they lived surrounded by objects from which they might draw inspiration. Apart from the bird wings, in one corridor there was a chariot from Sindh, and there was a samurai’s suit of armour that looked as though it were made out of dragon scales. The earth was not a perfect sphere. Were the oceans to be emptied, it would resemble a distorted ball, and Massud had carved that shape precisely in sandstone. It stood at the centre of the garden. Scattered on various tables and ledges around the house were small replicas of some of the world’s celebrated buildings. The cross-section of Durham Cathedral. The Forbidden City. The Glass House in New Canaan, USA.
In the kitchen Nargis was preparing tea. She switched on the radio when it was time for the news.
For a few weeks now, someone had been entering the city’s mosques—most often during the night—and revealing the secrets of the citizens over the minarets’ loudspeakers. People’s immoral acts and corruptions, some of the most securely concealed vices were now in full view. No one had been able to catch the culprit, or culprits, and the city of Zamana was experiencing a strange new dread. Perhaps inevitably, it was being said that it was the voice of Allah. There were those who thought that the clerics of the mosques themselves were responsible for the distressing phenomenon, but in a number of instances the loudspeakers had exposed the profound defects and hypocrisies within a mosque itself.
Nargis became still as she listened, the newscaster telling her that a young woman had died at the hands of her brothers during the night, an hour or so after a minaret revealed her trysts with a lover.
She went to the shelf and switched off the radio.
Through the open door she could see Massud in the garden. It was still early, still the fragile hour, though the trees were woven through with sunlight. He was examining the Rangoon creeper that the hailstorms had damaged last month.
Nargis looked at the clock. This morning they would leave the house to supervise the transfer of thousands of books from one of Zamana’s oldest libraries to its new premises, which had been designed and built by them.
The majority of the library’s books had already been taken to the new premises. The volumes in the Islamic section were the ones that would be moved this morning. Since each one of these texts contained the names of Allah or Muhammad somewhere, it had been decided that they should be taken from one building to the other by hand. In a truck or cart the risk was too great of something coming into contact with uncleanliness. Nargis and Massud would be walking to the nearby Grand Trunk Road to be part of a human chain, and the books would travel a mile-long succession of hands.
“We should leave by seven-thirty,” Nargis said when Massud entered the kitchen. He had just watered the sunflowers, and a sequence of his wet footprints marked his passage on the floor. He came and closed his arms at her waist from behind, his chin resting on her shoulder. “I had the strangest of dreams,” he said. “Someone was walking with a lit candle in his hand.”
“That’s not so strange.”
“It was raining. Hard.”
“Well,” Nargis said, considering the words, “the brain is the most complex object in the universe.” Her own sleep was always much deeper than his. She rarely dreamed.
“Helen said she will be here this morning,” Massud told her as he was setting the table for breakfast. “She is writing an essay and wanted to consult some books in the study.”
Nargis did not react outwardly, but her silence made him look towards her.
“I know,” he said.
“We have to tell her, Massud. We have to tell both Lily and her.”
“We really mustn’t delay it any further.”
And with a new note in her voice, Nargis added, “Pakistan produces people of extraordinary bravery. But no country should ever require its citizens to be this brave.”
Helen was the daughter of the couple whom Nargis had employed as housekeepers. Lily and Grace were Christian and were both illiterate. And Helen—who was now nineteen years old—too would have grown up to be an uneducated servant in some Muslim household had Massud and Nargis not provided her with an alternative set of opportunities. They had paid for her education at Zamana’s finest schools and she had been an assiduous and brilliant student until three years ago when her mother’s life had come to a terrible end. There were several witnesses to the crime, but the murderer was a Muslim and this was Pakistan. The police were initially reluctant to even register a case. Eventually, however, the man was sentenced to life imprisonment—but the day before yesterday Nargis and Massud learned that Grace’s killer had been released, as a reward for having memorised the entire Koran. He had served less than a year in prison.
“They are only just beginning to recover from the death,” Nargis said. The loss was detectable in the eyes of both father and daughter.
After they finished breakfast, Massud walked out into the garden again. At its other end was the largest room in the house: their study and library, where the Hagia Sophia and the Great Mosque of Córdoba were suspended from the ceiling. He told himself that he should make sure at least one of the desks in there was tidy for Helen.
Nargis and Massud had demanded that the correct legal procedures be followed. They had engaged the best lawyer, and they felt that the verdict had been a just one. Neither they nor anyone else, however, could have predicted what happened shortly afterwards. A few days after he delivered the verdict, the judge was stabbed to death as he left his house in the morning. And on several occasions over the coming weeks, men on motorcycles slowed down outside the lawyer’s home to spray the exterior with bullets from machine guns, one bullet narrowly missing his young child, until he and his family went into hiding.
Beyond everything else, Nargis and Massud blamed themselves for the fates of the lawyer and the judge.
The air in the garden was noticeably warmer now. It was April and the days were already twelve hours long. Massud went towards the study, passing under the rosewood trees that were being visited by many dozens of pale butterflies. It was a wonder to him that so much activity did not produce any noise.
Helen would let herself into the house with her own key in their absence. The house was a former paper factory, and it was said that it had made the entire area smell like money when it was operational. As young architects Nargis and Massud had visited the neighbourhood one day and decided to convert the abandoned building into a home.
Massud had always regretted not having had children—or, more precisely, a daughter—and that was what Helen had become over the years. She and Lily lived next door but she had more or less grown up in this house. She had a room of her own here. As a child she took running jumps onto Massud’s back, much to her parents’ embarrassment. Here he had seen her draw a cat with five legs by mistake. He still remembered the day she returned from school aged five or so, her eyes wide with indignation as she announced, “The wolf ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother!” Massud had told her the wolf had eaten all the biscuits in the grandmother’s house, but the other children had revealed the truth.
It was 7:20 when they left the house. As always at this time of the year, Massud was wearing a pale linen suit. Instead of a belt his trousers were held up by braces, and his head was protected by a straw hat purchased in London some years ago. Nargis was in a voile shalwar-kameez. Its neck had been embroidered by Grace. Their destination—the human chain stretching along the Grand Trunk Road—was a half-hour walk away.
The neighbourhood was known as Badami Bagh. As the name suggested, it was once an orchard of almond trees. It had stood on the northern outskirts of the city for almost two hundred years. In 1857 some of the leaders of the Mutiny had hidden in the orchard’s thick groves, plotting their attacks; and later, once the Mutiny had been put down, the British had hanged them from the branches of the same trees.
By the 1950s—the British had left by then and Pakistan was an independent nation—the city was growing rapidly towards the orchard, and its owners were beginning to realise that the land on which the almond trees stood would be more lucrative if built upon. The orchard was owned by a single extended family, and they decided to build the smallest possible houses and rent them out mostly to Christians, who worked as servants in the houses of Zamana’s Muslims, or cleaned the city’s roads and sewers, and were docile and obedient.
By the time the twenty-first century began, Badami Bagh was the poorest neighbourhood in Zamana, a ghetto. The city had continued to grow and had approached, half-circled and finally swallowed it, spreading far beyond. Surrounding the enclave of Christian houses with Muslim ones on all sides.
And a single tree was all that remained of the orchard. It stood in the courtyard of Lily and Helen’s house. Now and then, the ghost of a hanged Mutineer would climb down from its branches and wander about Badami Bagh, asking people to untie the noose from around his neck.
Walking towards the Grand Trunk Road, Nargis and Massud took the lane that was the only way in or out of the neighbourhood. There used to be many others but they all opened into Muslim areas, and the Muslims had objected to Christians walking past their homes, and so eventually everything except one lane was walled off. It brought Nargis and Massud to the square that marked the end of Badami Bagh. The shops and stalls that lined all four sides of the square attracted and held Nargis’s attention: her pace slowed and, finally, with a glance at her wristwatch, she moved towards a glass door.
“This is new,” she said. “Let me quickly see what they have.”
Massud remained in the open air. In the April sunlight the new red foliage on the banyan tree seemed to glow like cellophane amid the dusty older leaves. A sign in front of Hotshots Snooker Club was promising “two games for the price of one” in honour of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday next week. Outside the factory that produced ice in four-foot blocks, a woman sat like a gem cutter with a small ice pick, carefully extracting moths that had fallen into the water during the freezing process.
He stepped into the shop after ten minutes, to find Nargis paying for the various foodstuffs she had bought, along with two kilograms of river reeds to be tied into two brooms.
She was the only customer. “Would you be kind enough to deliver all this to the blue house in front of the mosque?” she said to the shopkeeper. “Down there in Badami Bagh.”
The man pointed to the young boy stacking shelves in the far corner and said that he would send him out within the hour.
“I wonder if Helen would hear the doorbell,” Nargis said to Massud. “Lost as she would be in a book.”
Massud was anxious to leave. He had experienced something resembling sorrow the moment he entered and saw the floor of the shop. At their feet, here and there on the tiles, the national flags of the USA, Israel, India, France and Denmark had been painted. For customers to walk on and defile.
He was a quiet withdrawn man, and this was too loud a gesture for him. He could make himself imagine the impulse that lay behind it, of course. There was the cleric’s widowed daughter in the house behind the mosque, her bread waking Massud in the predawn darkness. She had come to live with her father because her husband had been killed by a missile fired from an American drone, a year or so ago, in the faraway deserts of Waziristan.
“Will we ever learn to make our feelings known in a different manner?” he said to Nargis, indicating the floor.
It was barely above a whisper but the shopkeeper heard him.
“Forgive me, but you don’t have to return if you find us uncivilised,” the man said.
Nargis and Massud turned towards him. His face wore an aggrieved smile.
Massud seemed at a loss. “I apologise if I have offended you,” he said quietly.
The shopkeeper was staring at his hands and did not look up.
By the shelves, the boy had stopped working and was peering over his shoulder. Nargis motioned Massud towards the door, sensing his confusion and regret. “Just send the things to the blue house, brother-ji,” she said. “We are grateful. Thank you.”
Once they were outside, she touched Massud’s hand to reassure him.
Massud said, “Yesterday a shopkeeper in Moon Bazaar declined my money unless I wrote Jihad is a Duty or Implement Strict Sharia Law
As they left the square, he took out his mobile phone and sent Helen a text message, squinting at the sun-dimmed screen, telling her to expect the delivery from the shop
Ahead of them the street they were on passed between the backs of two cinemas—Kashmir Palace and Minerva. The colourful billboards roped to the facades of both buildings were announcing five screenings instead of the usual four next Friday to mark Muhammad’s birthday. After that the street widened considerably and delivered them to the Grand Trunk Road.
It was one of the planet’s great sinews. According to a nineteenthcentury Urdu poet, all life of Zamana could be found in the city’s four crowds—the one at the Mughal Fort; the one at the Gate of Hesitation that led to the medieval pleasure district; the crowd at the Friday Mosque; and the crowd at the mausoleum of the saint Charagar. Both Nargis and Massud had often felt that the Grand Trunk Road should be added to that list.
Energy dancing with itself—the flow of rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, horse-drawn carriages, donkey carts, trucks and buses stopped and started up again in sectioned paroxysms, the air full of hot fumes, the roar of vehicles, the sun flashing off the glass and metal. Amid all this Nargis and Massud were looking for a place to cross. Before them was a roundabout at the centre of which stood a massive fibreglass replica of the mountain under which Pakistan’s nuclear bomb was tested in 1998.
Massud could see that the human chain was already forming on the footpath on the other side. A number of the city’s schools had sent their pupils to participate in the task of moving the books, and it was their matching uniforms—as noticeable as groups of animals with identical markings—that had drawn Massud’s attention, telling him precisely where he and Nargis needed to be in the disorder.
After they had crossed, Massud made and received several phone calls, to ensure that everything was proceeding as planned. He and Nargis positioned themselves in the chain, closer to the old library than the new building, and the first book arrived in their hands at just after 8:30. The quickness with which it was followed by others reminded them of objects rushing along on the rapids of a great river
A ninth-century Abbasid Koran was followed by a book of Mughal paintings of which Rembrandt had made copies in seventeenth-century Holland. Next was a thirteenth-century Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica
. There were verse guides for pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, and there were collections of sentences spoken by the Prophet. And there was a sorcerer’s manual from Moorish Spain.
The schoolchildren were thrilled with their morning, and their thin voices were like whistles in the air. As the books continued to travel, the traffic lights changed periodically on the Grand Trunk Road: the vehicles came to a halt next to the footpath and then moved on. At around nine o’clock, Nargis noticed that the driver of the car that had just stopped near her was a Westerner. A large healthily built white man, he was something of a surprising sight, and those passersby who had noticed him were looking at him with open curiosity. Almost all of them, Nargis was certain, had never seen a living white person, though some of the shop fronts and billboards around them carried images of European or North American faces.
A little boy grinned and raised his hands to wave at him. Just then a motorcycle pulled up between the Westerner’s car and Nargis: both young men on the motorcycle were holding pistols, the barrels pointed at the white man’s head. She saw the pillion rider’s gun reach forward and it touched the window glass with a clean sound.
They had been following him. Before Nargis could react, a gun had materialised in the white man’s own hand, and he had begun to fire through the car window, Nargis hearing the sound of each shot separately, distinctly
The window shattered. Hit in the stomach and chest, the pillion man fell onto the road, the wounds bleeding thickly, smearing the tarmac with red. As the other man revved the motorcycle and was fleeing, the white man opened the car door and stepped out and, standing firmly with one foot on the pavement and the other on the road, fired several rounds into his back.
The children were screaming. Any number of books had been dropped onto the ground and were being trampled by the panic-stricken crowd. Nargis caught the smell of urine. In the coming hours it would be determined that the American man had fired approximately one hundred bullets during the incident. A mobile phone inside his car would turn out to contain numerous photographs of Pakistan’s military installations, taken surreptitiously—illegally. The vehicle’s number plates would turn out to be false. And with the passing of days, words like “espionage,” “the CIA,” “the Crusades” and “Jihad” would begin to be spoken, connecting Massud’s death with greater and greater things, to the vast sicknesses of the world.
But for now—as the young Westerner re-entered his car and began to make phone calls, frantically shouting into the device, raising and pointing his gun whenever he perceived some movement nearby to be a threat, or looking out at his surroundings with the expression of someone who had suddenly gone blind—for now Nargis was searching for Massud in the chaos, the full enormity of the occurrence still disguised from her.
Massud had detached himself from the chain when one particular book had arrived in his hands, about ten minutes earlier. It seemed too long ago now. He had stepped away to examine the book, happily, waving to Nargis and the others to close the gap created by him. She could not locate him now. They were still the first few minutes after the disaster: the loudest sound was that of the wounded pillion rider, who was still alive and lay exactly where he had fallen, shouting, “Allah, save me! O Allah, help me!” as though another outcome was possible.
The large, magnificent book Massud had walked away with had been written by his father, published the year Massud was born.
It was 987 pages long, and it was an acknowledgement and celebration of the countless ideas and thoughts that had travelled over the ages from one part of the planet to another. It outlined and examined how disparate events in the history of the world had influenced each other, the hidden or forgotten contributions that one set of humans had made towards the happiness and knowledge of another. Traditions and histories had always mingled, and nothing in the East or the West was ever pure. Dante Alighieri had in all probability read accounts of Prophet Muhammad’s miraculous journey to Paradise and Hell before he wrote The Divine Comedy.
Massud and Nargis’s own copy of the book had gone missing more than a decade ago and they had been unable to find a replacement. The last copy they saw was at the New York Public Library the previous summer. And yet here it was this morning too, coming towards them, borne on the hands of adults and children. They had both exclaimed when they recognised it, because the library had been asked if it had the book on its shelves but the answer had been no.
Massud had opened the pages immediately and discovered that it was their own copy. His name was on the flyleaf. At some point after it was lost, someone had found it and donated it to the library.
She saw him now, in the distance. He held the base of his neck with a red hand. He was standing perfectly still amid the turmoil, the book lying at his feet, one of his knees slightly bent so that he leaned sideways. And his mouth was open. He faltered but was then upright again, as though uncertain which way to fall. He had made a sudden movement to shield a child and had been shot, she would learn later. She reached him just as he was about to sink to the ground and she eased him down, his face ashen, his forehead covered with broken beads of sweat. With his free hand he touched her face as though trying to comfort her. He had strength only for an instant of contact before the arm fell away, but his eyes remained on her as though absorbing her details for the last time. She shouted for help, looking around in desperation again and again, seeing the policemen arrive and surround the young white man’s car, their weapons drawn, seeing the bleeding pillion rider being carried off the road. The dead body of the other lay beside the motorcycle in the middle of the road, a policeman running to direct the traffic away from it.
A goldfish seller had been passing by when the gunshots began. Carrying a pole to which two horizontal bars were attached near the top, like a crucifix with four arms instead of two. From these hung dozens of clear nylon bags, each three-quarters filled with water and containing a single goldfish. It had looked as though each glittering creature was held captive in a living lens. In the ensuing chaos the pole had fallen, its arms splintering as they made contact with the ground. Nargis saw the goldfish leaping nearby, the area around each one made darker by the spilt water, the plastic bags flattened where they fell. A young man came forward to pick up one of the creatures in his cupped hand and look around for the best way to proceed.
Copyright © 2017 by Nadeem Aslam. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.