In the village of Budhni Goth, the army had arrived yesterday morning: a truckload of soldiers and a lieutenant bearing a megaphone rumbled into the village on the one dirt road came from the highway into the settlement. The lieutenant stood atop a small embankment overlooking the huts, while his men ambled around him laying down sandbags, and issued a series of instructions that none of the villagers could understand.
“Mmmmph mmmph, mmmmph hmph fmph,” The sounds wafted slowly through the fetid air and into the villagers’ ears, like a swarm of wasps.
“What’s he saying? Eh? What’s he saying?” This was Abdul Latif, the oldest man in the village, who spent his days and nights perched on top of his charpai, smoking the hookah and bothering everyone who passed by. He squatted on his haunches with his toes curled around the strings of the cot, his white eyebrows drawn into two accent marks over his eyes - a zer on the left, a zabar on the right.
“If you’ll let me listen, I can tell you,” said his wife, Mai Jeandi, twenty years his junior but still old by normal standards. A lifetime of looking after Abdul Latif, his sons, their sons, and the countless small girls that appeared in the family every year but were never paid much attention had whitened her hair; the sea air and salt spray had dried out her skin and wrinkled her cheeks; the cooking and washing and hauling water from the tube well in jerry cans on her head had turned her hands into two clubbed crabs at the end of her arms. Her eyes were still clear, though, and her hearing sharp as ever: she could pick out the sounds of twenty different birds and name each one of them, a feat that held the villagers in awe, their eardrums sanded down by the constant thrum of the waves and the droning winds.
She tilted her head and listened to the muted trumpeting, then shook her head. “He’s saying we need to leave our houses and head for higher ground.”
Abdul Latif turned pale. “I knew the toufan would be bad this time.”
Mai Jeandi nodded her agreement. Two full weeks of oddly colored skies, pink at dawn, angry red at sunset. A week of restless waves, the sea churning opaque and brown, instead of its usual crystal blue. And for the last three days, the tides had become monstrously exaggerated, the water sucked all the way out at low tide, leaving the beach naked, shells and jellyfish strewn across its bare sands; high tide bringing the water up and over the boundary walls of large, rough-hewn stones that their grandfathers had built when they had settled this fishing village on the outskirts of Karachi.
The cyclones came to the Sindh coast every year, but some miracle always saved them from inundation. The deadly storm would bear down upon them, and then at the last minute the winds would change and the cyclone would bear east, to slam into the Rann of Katchh, or the coast of Gujrat. Many claimed Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the patron saint of Karachi, had protected the city for a thousand years from tropical disaster, and Abdul Latif was inclined to believe the evidence, but Mai Jeandi wasn’t so sure.
Mai Jeandi had been once to Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine, years ago, when she had still been young and the prospect of a cramped four-hour bus ride did not daunt her or her husband. They had been married only a year, but Mai Jeandi showed no signs of bearing any children. A neighbor suggested a visit to the shrine, to make mannat to the saint and promise that if he interceded for her with Almighty Allah, and guaranteed that she became pregnant within the year, they would both become devotees to the saint, and visit him every year faithfully after that.
“For all that he was a great hunter and war hero, he gets lonely in his cold tomb, and he likes people to come visit him,” said their neighbor, a man who was religious and knew the ways of the saints and pirs of Sindh. He sat on the charpai in front of Abdul Latif’s hut; the two men slurped tea from cracked saucers and watched the young fishermen of the village drag in the nets at the end of the day. The setting sun was slipping quickly beneath the waters, the moon already halfway up in the sky, chasing the sun into the west.
“How can a saint ever get lonely? Isn’t he united with his Beloved now that he’s dead?” said Abdul Latif.
“Yes, but he loved his people so much that he still thinks of them and wishes to do good for them even after his death.”
Mai Jeandi, standing in the doorway, snorted. The two men turned around and stared at her.
“What, wife, you don’t believe in the saints?” Abdul Latif scowled. If he’d known how much trouble this woman was going to be, he would never have married her. Too late now, though, and he was too lazy to beat her, too poor to take on a second wife, and definitely too stingy to give her back her haq mehar even if he did divorce her. She wasn’t bad-looking at all - she had dark hair, her skin less brown than most women of the village, large liquid eyes, and a prominent nose, but she used it too often to signal her displeasure with him: wrinkling it to show she disagreed with him, tilting it upwards to show he had offended her, like a bad smell; snorting through it now like a horse to say that she believed him stupider than the goats his mother tended.
And no children! Oh, they wouldn’t blame him as they would his wife: everyone knew that it was always a woman’s fault when God didn’t bless a union with children. But soon the men would start talking about him, saying that he was not a proper man as he hadn’t impregnated his wife on their wedding night. There would soon be surreptitious questions, a few half-disguised offers to take him to a well-known faith healer. Or maybe one of those hideous “sex experts” in the city, who would poke and prod him and prescribe powders made of tigers’ penises and bulls’ balls for him.
“Of course I do,” replied Mai Jeandi automatically. “But if he cared so much for us fisherfolk, he’d make the fish jump out of the water and land at our feet, rather than make us go out on the boats and drown ourselves to bring back such small catches.” Here she sniffed, and looked downwards, so that for an instant Abdul Latif thought she was looking at his shalwar and referring to what it contained; his cheeks burned and the blood roared in his ears at her insolence.
The next morning Abdul Latif stood over her while she silently donned her burqa, and then they waited at the highway for an hour in the scorching heat for a bus that would take them into Karachi. Mai Jeandi sat with her knees almost up to her chin in the tiny plastic seat without complaint, while Abdul Latif guarded her and glowered at any man who might cast a glance in their direction. The bus bumped and sped along the Mauripur Highway, and then they had to change buses at the Baldia Railway Station, the Jinnah Flyover, and Bilawal Chowrangi, until they could see in the distance the pistachio green walls of the shrine, the dome sitting like a scoop of ice cream on top, half a dozen green flags fluttering enticingly in the strong sea breeze.
The shrine was on a hill that overlooked the Arabian Sea, like a watchtower, or a lighthouse. Abdul Latif and Mai Jeandi got off the bus and wended their way across the road, through the throngs of beggars, vendors selling religious trinkets, palmists and fortune tellers, and devotees. The climb up the stairs to the door of the shrine was a steep one, and Abdul Latif, more used to the rollicking motions of a boat than the upward descent into the sky, huffed and puffed all the way, while Mai Jeandal mouthed Allah...Allah...Allah... with every step.
At last they reached the summit; Mai Jeandi turned around at the doorway and looked out over the city: brown hills, slabs of concrete, cars pushing down grey roads dotted by neem and eucalyptus trees. On the other side of the shrine was the sea, today a calm blue blanket that kept the air warm and moist. She was struck by the contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown. In this place, the shrine where they had come to beg for children, she could feel the meeting in the air of the Seen and the Unseen, surrounding the structure with currents of electricity, stirred up by the wind and the warmth of the sun beating down upon them.
Suddenly she felt afraid. What if the saint granted their wish? Truthfully, it was not her wish; it was her husband’s. She was only a young woman of seventeen, she didn’t know what the future would bring, but she feared many things: the agony of childbirth, the possibility of dying during labor, the struggle to feed many mouths, the pressures and responsibility of motherhood that would age her prematurely as it had her mother and mother’s mother before that. She was perfectly happy remaining childless, even though she knew it would bring scorn and humiliation upon her head. She didn’t even care if her husband wanted to take a second wife. Let her have the burden of bearing children, I’ll be content to play with them and thrust them back to her as soon as they start to cry or spit up or shit. Mai Jeandi had always had a rebellious streak in her heart, one that disputed the demands of womanhood; but now she was terrified the saint could see this and would strike her down for it.
But Abdul Latif pulled her by the hand, past the graves of the lesser pirs, into the depths of the saint’s shrine, and soon she found herself standing with her husband at the foot of a marble frame in which the body of Abdullah Shah Gazi lay entombed. Quranic verses in silver and gold were embroidered into the layers of cloths that covered the grave; rose petals and marigolds were strewn on top, scenting the air with a heavenly fragrance stronger than a dozen bottles of attar. People had stopped pushing and shoving as they had done on the stairs, and were all lost in their private worlds, hands uplifted, eyes closed, some with tears streaming down their faces.
Mai Jeandi’s eyes were cooled by the blue floral tiles laid on the walls, her ears soothed by the murmured prayers of the malangs who sat on the floors and thumbed prayer beads, intoning the names of Allah under their breath. Her fear fell away and she too lifted her hands in prayer.
“Oh sweet saint, beloved of God, friend of Allah,” she said softly, “help me bear a child. If not for my sake, then for my husband’s sake, who I love, even if he is a foolish man. He’s all I’ve got in this world.”
Abdul Latif was whispering his own prayers; she could see him from the side of her eye, head bent and hands pressed to his face. She felt a wave of affection for him: he had fed her cold sweet milk on their wedding night, and blessed her before taking her to their marriage bed. It was more kindness than she had ever received in her previous sixteen years, the eighth out of thirteen children, unable to read or write, but fair of face and healthy in body. Nobody had ever addressed her without attaching an order to her name. She had worked hard in her mother and father’s house, but they would always refer to her as a guest, grudging even her existence since she would leave them and go to her husband’s house one day.
From the steps of the shrine, she could hear a malang singing a song. The words wafted up to her and she listened intently, closing her eyes and pressing her palms to her eyes so that all vision was blocked, leaving her ears more open to the sounds of the malang’s nasal, keening voice.
Women, men are so beautiful
Like pearls, like gems
Those who are not self-absorbed
They are the ones who truly love humanity
Whenever you visit the darbar of any saint
God fulfills all your wishes and showers you with his blessings
Mai Jeandi shivered; she knew at that moment that her womb had already been filled. She could feel the spark deep in her belly. The Seen and the Unseen had come together and started a new life which she would nurture for nine mysterious months; she would go about her daily chores, preparing food for Abdul Latif and cleaning his hut and helping with the catch, while the clot would expand and cleave to her; flesh would knit, bones would form, limbs would unfurl, brain and heart would grow. Ensoulment would come forty days from today; she would eat dates every day for the next forty weeks, to ensure a patient, sweet son.
She reached out for Abdul Latif’s sleeve and tugged at it, and when he turned to face her, asking her what she wanted, she leaned in close to him and whispered in his ear,
“I’m hungry. Give me something sweet, I want mangoes with rice, and honey.”
Nine months later, Mai Jeandi gave birth to the first of ten children. She named her son Abdullah. He grew strong and tall, and went to the sea, like his father, and his father’s father before him. He drowned when he was sixteen, in a toufan that came close to the coast, swallowed the fishermen that had gone out early that morning, and then veered away without hitting Karachi.
Abdul Latif collapsed and took to his bed for days, while Mai Jeandi vowed never to trust the saints again. She later learned that the saint’s body hadn’t even been under all those cloths and roses -- it lay a hundred feet below the tomb, deep inside the shrine’s foundations -- and felt doubly cheated.
Mai Jeandi stood in front of the army lieutenant, all five feet of her drawn straight and tall to face his six-foot frame. He had a name tag on his chest, but she couldn’t read it, and a few colored ribbons sewn on to his front pocket. His khaki uniform was magisterial, automatically lending him an air of authority and command. But Mai Jeandi was never one to be cowed by a few bits of cloth. She was barefoot, her toes splayed out in the dirt, and she squinted up at the soldier and clicked her teeth in disapproval. He shifted in his boots uncomfortably, as he must have done when he was a child being scolded by his mother.
“Please, Mother,” he said, “you must move. We have to get you to safer ground. Why don’t you stop making it so hard for us to help you?”
All around them, soldiers were helping people move out of their houses. They directed the villagers to waiting transport, instructed them on what things to take with them, stopped them from bringing kerosene lamps and choolahs. Mai Jeandal watched as men and women climbed into the backs of the flatbed trucks, pulling a goat or cradling a chicken in their arms. Children laughed and romped, jumping over the soldiers’ feet and pretending to shoot them with outstretched fingers. The soldiers ignored the children and continued to do their job.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Mai Jeandi. She glowered at the lieutenant. “Someone has to stay and watch the village. It might as well be me. Besides, if we all leave, who knows? You might have decided to take over our village and make your jawans live in our homes by the time we get back.”
The lieutenant turned red. He began to bluster. “Mother, we are evacuating fifty thousand people from the coast. We’re professionals, we’re trained to do this and we’ve done it for years and years. God willing, not a single person has to lose his life if he follows the precautions we are giving you. Why do you mistrust us so much?”
Mai Jeandi screwed up her face and chewed on her lip. She almost felt sorry for the young man; in another life, he could have been her son. What if she had sent Abdullah to join the army? He would never have become an officer, but he could have been a jawan; he would have grown a fine mustache and worn a peaked cap. He’d go away for training up to Punjab, he’d travel to the mountains and see K2. He would come home for visits, the sight of his boots and uniform bringing honor to her and Abdul Latif. And he would send home money from his pay packet, bringing envy to the eyes of all the other villagers.
If Abdullah had been the lieutenant standing in front of her right now, she would have left the village in an instant; he would make sure that their homes would be protected, that they would be taken to the best relief camp, that they would get access to a continuous supply of drinking water and gas for their burners. And when they returned, he would have made sure that they were first in line to get their houses rebuilt quickly, if the toufan tore down their homes.
But Mai Jeandi also remembered how the army had come to their village one morning twenty years ago, to inform the villagers that fifteen of their men and boys had been captured by Indian forces when their boats had strayed too far out on the wrong side of the line drawn in the middle of the water by the khakis on both sides of the border. The women had immediately gone into a panic, wailing and keening for their menfolk, while the remaining men shook their fists at the soldiers and swore that it was their fault, both the Indians and Pakistanis, for creating a boundary in the sea, when everyone knew that the sea could never be colonized in the same way as the land. To do so would anger God, and the saints and spirits who looked after all the people who held the sea sacred, who risked their lives every day to bring forth the catch from its depths.
No, trusting the army was not something Mai Jeandi would ever do. And Abdullah had been dead for more than twenty years, so best to forget about that fantasy too.
“I’m not going, and that’s the end of it,” said Mai Jeandi. She stepped back, drew her dupatta over her mouth, and turned to see her husband being carried past her by four burly men of the village in a sheet that served as a makeshift stretcher.
“Where are you going?” The anger began in her belly and rose up to her throat, as if she was being roasted from the inside.
“It’s not safe here,” said one of the men who was carrying Abdul Latif. “We’re taking him with us.”
Abdul Latif, his legs hoisted high above his head, looked like a baby in a cradle. He called out to her, his voice quavering. “Where are my cigarettes? I’ve forgotten my cigarettes. Fetch them for me, will you?”
Mai Jeandi darted forward and smacked her husband’s thin arm with an open, flat palm. “You can’t leave. We have to stay here! Who will keep watch for the ones still at sea?”
Abdul Latif sucked his breath in between his teeth and rubbed his wrist. ‘Woman, what’s wrong with you? Are you trying to finish me off before the toufan even comes?” He turned to the lieutenant in appeal: “My bones are so weak, another blow like that will break my arm! Can’t you arrest her for assaulting a poor, weak man who can’t even walk without help?”
“What’s the point of running away from the toufan when you keep sucking on those cigarettes all day and all night? They’ll kill you before any toufan does, you great ox!” shrieked Mai Jeandi.
The man who had answered her before hastily intervened before they could come to more blows. “There’s nobody still at sea. They all came back last night, they heard the reports on the radio and turned back. Your sons are safe.”
“Where are they, then? Why haven’t they come to see me?” Mai Jeandi was fierce in her righteousness; she whirled around to see the lieutenant stuffing his fist into his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. “What’s so funny?”
He quickly rearranged his features into a look of utter seriousness. “Nothing, Mother. But look, your husband is sensible. Why don’t you listen to him and do as he says?”
“Where are my sons?”
“I think I saw them get on a truck earlier,” volunteered another one of the men at the corner of the makeshift stretcher. Mai Jeandi stared at him, then recognized him: he was her son-in-law, married to her fifth daughter.
“You, Imam Baksh! Where do you think you’re going?”
He had the good grace to look ashamed. “Mother, if we stay here we could die. Don’t you remember the last time? All our houses fell down and my cousin’s wife’s niece was killed when the roof collapsed on her. I don’t want my children to be in danger.”
Mai Jeandi crossed her arms and lifted her chin. “Go then. Take him with you. I will stay here and safeguard the village, since you men can only think of running for your lives. No, no, don’t bother trying to argue with me. I’ve made up my mind.”
Cracked, whispered the men to one another, loud enough so that the lieutenant could hear. If Mai Jeandi heard, she pretended not to. The men huddled together to discuss the problem, but she knew they would comply with her wishes. She was only an old woman; if her life was lost, it would make very little difference to any of them, even Abdul Latif, who thought only about his stiff joints and his crackling lungs these days...
Eventually they left her alone, the army trucks drove away down the road, and silence came back to her village. She stood and watched them leave, until the trucks were like ants trundling down a distant path, and the buzzing of their engines faded away, swallowed by the constant droning of the waves on the beach. Finally, she was able to exhale. Now she could talk to the saint, woman to man, without all those wretched others interfering and distracting her. Now they could negotiate. Her sharp fisherwoman’s mind told her that even a saint would not be able to refuse a bargain.
He tapped her on the shoulder while she sat on the shore, cross-legged, heels tucked up into her lap. She had been watching the water for a day and a night, scanning the horizon for signs of the toufan. It was a surprise to see him standing behind her, dressed in a simple brown robe, a string of agate beads around his neck and a matching aqeeq ring on his right hand. The wind whipped his hair around his face, and it was hard for her to see what he looked like - whether he was a young man of thirty or three thousand years. He emanated a timeless, ageless grace, and she didn’t feel afraid.
“Walk with me,” he said, and she stood up. Suddenly they were on a beach, but not the same beach where she had been waiting for him. Instead of sand, the ground was strewn with thousands of white seashells. Mai Jeandi shivered; she knew that the cyclone in the sea had stirred them up from the ocean floor, killed the creatures within, and vomited up the shells onto the beach.
As they walked along the ghostly shore, the water appeared brackish and brown, churning, ill at ease. They walked silently, until they came upon the huge carcass of a spotted whale, lying on its side, the rough waves hitting it over and over again. One of its fins was submerged in the shallow water; the other flapped uselessly in the current.
Mai Jeandi said, “Where are we?”
The saint said, “My island.”
She knew then this truly was Khawaja Khizr, even if he hadn’t ridden up out of the ocean on the back of a dolphin, as the stories always told. His was a power even greater than Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s, for hadn’t he been Moses’s guide? The Quran said so, although the Hindus always confused him with their own river god, Udero Lal. She had to be under great protection, to be allowed to stand in the Zinda Pir’s presence, a lowly woman like her, but the sight of the dead whale unnerved her. Did it mean she, too, would die? Or was she already dead?
The saint nodded in the direction of her nervous stare. “He was caught in the nets of some fisherman. He tried to escape, but he does not swim well, and so he suffocated. I brought him here. If he had washed up on your shores, your men would have cut him up into pieces and sold him for poultry feed. I could not bear that.”
“We are hungry,” said Mai Jeandi, practicality overcoming her discomfiture. “We have many mouths to feed.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she brought her dupatta to her face and chewed on it, not daring to raise her face to the saint’s eyes.
“Then eat the fish, that is allowed. Does Allah not say, ‘all fish of the sea are made lawful for you to eat’? But no, your people prefer to feed chickens with what God provides you. For what? Greed. Pure and simple.” His eyes, when Mai Jeandi stole a glance at them, had changed from brown to green, and they seemed to burn with an acidic rage that she felt all the way in the pit of her stomach.
He gazed out to the horizon, his grey eyes catching the flashes of quicksilver in the water like the sparks flying out from a blacksmith’s hammer. Mai Jeandi raised her head to look for the cyclone, but the sea was calm and flat. Her toes shifted in the sand and the shells crunched underneath, stinging the soles of her feet. Khawaja Khizr stayed absolutely still. Not even his nostrils flared as he breathed.
She dropped to her knees. “Save us from the toufan, oh Khawaja Khizr. Have mercy on us, I beg you.” The tears streamed down her withered face. “Forgive us for our greed, for our foolishness. We won’t stray again, I promise you.”
“Isn’t that what the Children of Israel always said to Moses? We won’t do it again. We’re sorry. Forgive us.” Khawaja Khizr’s eyes had suddenly turned blue, to match the melancholy in his voice.
Suddenly she was looking at the world as if from a great height, as if she were the moon in orbit around the earth. She wanted to scream with fear, but Khawaja Khizr was standing beside her, gripping the side of her arm hard. “Look down, woman.”
They were hovering above a vast sea, turquoise green and cobalt blue; a sandy beach, where people milled about, insects at this distance swarming around their hive. And then the water began to tear in two, a great unseen fist raking across the ocean and leaving a path of sand in its wake. The people started to run across the parting, in ones and twos, then tens, then hundreds. As soon as the first group dashed into sandbed, another group gathered on the shore, milling about in confusion.The sea unzipped itself steadily from one shore to the other, throwing up white foam and churning mud at its ragged edges. The first group made the crossing safely, but when the second group followed hardly a few minutes after the first, the waters surged forward, burying them as they ran. Mai Jeandi shuddered; their screams echoed in her ears, the crashing waves pierced her eardrums, and she felt as if she were drowning with them.
She closed her eyes tight against the terror, but when she opened them again, she was back with Khawaja Khizr on the shores of Astola. It took her a few minutes to slow down her breathing, to steady herself on her legs. The saint watched her, not unkindly, as she blinked and grew accustomed to being on earth once more.
“You see? If God can do that, can he not turn a cyclone away from your shores? You have only to ask.”
“I am asking,” said Mai Jeandi. She turned up her palms towards the saint. “What more do I have to do?”
The saint’s eyes had turned back to brown, a warm nutty color almost the same as her own. “There is one with whom you must make your peace.”
Mai Jeandi thought hard. She was enemies with nobody! She was a peaceable woman, she’d hurt no one in her time on earth.... Yes, you could say she was ... contentious. After almost sixty years of this difficult life, ten children, losing one, who wouldn’t feel resentful and bitter at least some of the time? But if the saint was saying she had to make amends, she would do it, even if it killed her.
“Well, he is a stupid old man, stubborn as an ox and not the best of husbands, but I’ll apologize to him. I’ll be kinder. I’ll even try to obey. It’ll be hard, but I’ll do it if you ask, Khawaja Khizr.”
“Not him, woman.”
“One of my number.”
“You must. Or you will never be at peace, and the sea will send cyclone after cyclone to haunt you for the rest of your days.”
“Those storms...they come just because I won’t pay obeisance to the one who stole my son? I was right, he is cruel.”
“He didn’t steal your son, woman. That was God’s decision, not his, and not yours. So why do you keep apportioning blame where it doesn’t belong?”
Mai Jeandi faced the saint, fists clenched, jaw thrust forward. She was no longer afraid of him or of what he’d showed her. She had to defend herself against yet another man - because that was what he was, thousands of years old or no - who could never understand what it felt like to be a mother, and to have your firstborn snatched away from you in the cruelest way possible. “He stole my Abdullah. Yes, he did. Don’t try to tell me otherwise!”
“Do you question the will of God?”
“I question it!” she hissed. “Why make me suffer by giving me the gift of life and then taking it away? What did I do to deserve that? I waited for him for so long. I went to Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine and begged him for a son. A son was given to me. But nobody told me that was the bargain! That I would have him for sixteen years and no more! If I had known that, I would never have asked! Never!”
She was shrieking now, spittle flying from her lips, her eyes wild and her hands turned into claws ready to scratch at the face of the man standing in front of her. How dare he act as intercessor between her and Abdullah Shah Ghazi? If Ghazi wanted peace between them, he should have had the nerve to come and ask for it himself.
Khawaja Khizr leaned towards her, his eyes the color of fire. “You do not know what God has in store for all of us, woman. What if I were to tell you that your son would have grown up to become a greedy, grasping man who wanted to sell your land out from under your feet to the army, and keep the money for himself? That he would have betrayed the entire village? Isn’t it better that he died before he could rob you of your homes?”
“NO! I don’t care about the future! Nobody can tell the future! I just want my son back! I only want my son!” She dropped to the ground, sobbing. “I only want my son... I only want my son...” She did not see the saint stepping back, watching her cry. He raised his hand and touched her head, but she didn’t feel his hand, nor hear his words as he whispered the prayers of forgiveness and mercy, healing and calm. She only felt the sands shifting underneath her body, and a strong, warm wind pushing her toward the water. She didn’t care if she drowned. She had gambled, and lost everything. Her life didn’t matter anymore.
When she opened her eyes again, she was lying on her bed in the hut. She woke slowly, as if from a bad dream, testing her limbs to make sure they still worked. Cautiously, she sniffed the air as she always did in the morning. Clean, clear air filled her nostrils; the oppressive, sweltering fish-stink of the pre-cyclone atmosphere was gone. She slowly lifted herself into a sitting position, and that’s when she heard the cry: a mewling, squalling sound that she at first mistook for a kitten’s whimper. It was coming from somewhere near her feet...
Her heart nearly stopped when she saw the baby.
He was perfect. Small, brown, with plump arms and legs, thick, heavy hair, large eyes, full cheeks. She picked him up and pulled him to her chest, and he nuzzled into her breasts happily, even though there hadn’t been milk there for fifty years; he quietened down, comforted simply by the warmth and the pounding of her heart. He fitted into his arms as if he had been born of her own flesh.
Holding him tight, she walked unsteadily out of the hut. She faced the horizon: the sun was rising out of the water and reaching into a gentle blue sky. The tides swelled and receded, lapping at the rocks, not crashing into them as they had yesterday, and all the days in the build-up to the storm. The sand lay in a smooth, even sheet, with only a few shells and strands of seaweed disturbing its orderly grains.
Mai Jeandi set about looking for milk for the child. She searched all the huts in the village until she found a female goat that someone had been unable to take with them. She milked it with steady fingers, then took the warm milk in a tin cup and fed it to the baby, dripping it into his mouth with a tiny spoon. The baby’s eyes flew open at the taste of the milk, but soon he was guzzling it down and demanding more. She laughed at his angry howls when the milk had finished. “All right, all right, baba. I will get more for you. See? Here it is. Drink up so you can become big and strong. You’ll need all your strength to go out on the boats, you know.”
Time passed. She didn’t know how long or how much. But the day stayed calm, as she knew it would. She concentrated only on the baby, on feeding him, finding cloth to wrap around him in a makeshift nappy, rocking him to sleep. It had been many years since she had had to care for an infant like this. He seemed to be around two months old, but she couldn’t be sure. He could have been a newborn; he could have been fifty. She didn’t care.
Eventually the rest of the villagers returned. The trucks brought them back on the third day after they had left. They climbed off, clutching their bundles and bags, looking scared and upset. They had spent three uncomfortable days and nights in the tent city made for them by the army, but food and water had been sporadic, latrines filthy, and some had been robbed in the night by unknown thieves. They walked back to their huts like ghosts, with dazed looks on their faces when they saw that their houses were all still standing, touched neither storm nor man. Up and down the coast, the cyclone had hit, tearing down buildings and killing livestock - although the army had evacuated all the people in time so that no human life was lost - but the cyclone had left their village unharmed.
They crowded around Mai Jeandi and the baby. “What’s this? Where did he come from? How did you find him? Whose is he?”
Mai Jeandi held the child closer, drawing her dupatta protectively over him to shield him from view. He wore the black threads around his wrists and ankles, and she’d smeared kohl in his eyes to ward off the evil eye. Still, she felt almost jealously angry at the villagers for their curiosity.
She’d already rehearsed what she was going to say: that she had found him when she’d walked to the next village for help, that he had been abandoned on the side of the road by careless people who cared more for their own lives than for their child’s. But when she opened her mouth to answer them, the lies fell away, and all she could bring herself to say was, “He’s mine. Khawaja Khizr saw fit to bring him to me, and I’m going to raise him, and God help any of you who try to stop me.”
Nobody tried to stop her. They shook their heads and wondered at the ways of the saints, but they let her be. They went about to their huts and prayed in gratitude to God that they could get on with their lives as if nothing had happened. They prayed for Mai Jeandi and the long life of the baby, who they suspected was at the root of the miracle that had befallen them. The next day, the fishermen went back to the sea and brought in nets swollen with fish, crabs, lobsters. They were almost afraid to speak of their good luck to others, and became secretive and mysterious, even to their own relatives who lived in other villages.
Her husband Abdul Latif accepted the baby, too, calling him bachcha with a light in his eyes that had been extinguished half a century ago. He’d wake early in the morning and snatch the baby from Mai Jeandi’s side, taking him out into the fresh air and dangling his feet into the rock pools above the beach. The baby crowed with delight to have his toes tickled by the cool salt water, and Mai Jeandi could hear his giggles from where she sat in the hut and cooked.
Forty days after the storm that never came, she shaved the baby’s hair, then named him Abdullah, nor even Khawaja, but Abdul Rahman, servant of the Merciful, the God of generosity, of forgiveness, of second chances. She had his name written in the Quran they kept wrapped in a green silk cloth cut from a flag that had once fluttered at the tomb of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. It wasn’t a declaration of peace, but it was a gesture. For Mai Jeandi, it was enough.