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Justice on a deathbed: Excerpt from Love's Fury

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February 26, 2009

Yesterday, we carried an interview with novelist Qaisra Shahraz of Pakistani origin, whose new book Typhoon (also published as Love's Fury) has just hit bookshelves.

Today, we bring you an excerpt from Chapter 1:

Tuesday, May 2002

The village of Chiragpur was in mourning. Its revered head man, Baba Siraj Din, was dying. Straight after the call to prayer, from the mosque, the local qazi or judge made an emotional appeal to the villagers, to offer a special prayer for the departure of the old man's soul.

Inside his large whitewashed home Baba Siraj Din lay on his bed.

'Talaq! I divorce you!'

Those terrible words came echoing back down the years.

The crimson lips curved into a smile, as she peeped up at him from behind the dark sunglasses -- her long hair draping to her hips. A confident foot strapped in elegant black sandals stepped out. The second one faltered, his stern mask of disapproval whipping away her smile.

'Assalam alaikum, Babaji!' She greeted him politely.

She was a stranger in 'his' village and one who didn't attempt to cover her head in his presence. Siraj Din dismissed her salutation and pointedly ignoring her walked on. The woman remained standing next to her car, bewildered by his rudeness. He turned his henna-dyed head and rested his green gaze on her bare arm and the thick curtain of hair spread over her right shoulder. Tapping his ivory walking stick firmly on the ground, Siraj Din ruthlessly trod on.

'Aba Jan!' His daughter-in-law's honey-sweet voice beckoned, willing him back to her world.

The dying man's head jerked up and nestled on a fresh cool spot on the pillow. He ignored Shahzada's intrusive voice, returning instead to the reel of memories rolling away behind his age-worn eyelids.

With the tightly-wound chador around her shoulders and bowed head, she glanced up from beneath the edge of the shawl. Her eyes were those of a wounded deer. Beseeching and resigned.

'I divorce you!' The words dropped on the hushed silence.

The awed leaves on the tree in the courtyard stopped rattling. The warm afternoon breeze stilled. The villagers held their breath.

'I divorce you! I divorce you! I divorce you!'

Three deadly talaqs pelted down onto her bent body, forcing her head to fall on her chest.

'Aba Jan!' The unwelcome voice of Shahzada careered in again, scattering the memories to joint the chaos at the back of his mind. Her cold hand was massaging his forehead now, bringing him back to the present.

Baba Siraj Din opened his eyes wide. Their icy green glare charged up to meet the warm brown glow of Shahzada's; unafraid, and beaming down their steadfast love at him. Then, miraculously his eyes softened. It was Shahzada, his beloved daughter-in-law. His tongue slipped out of his mouth, moistening his dry lips.

'Shahzada, my daughter!' he croaked, craning up his neck and trying to speak once again. 'I am dying!' His hand feebly reached out to her arm. 'Listen to me. Call her! Her!'

Shahzada looked astounded. 'Zarri Bano?'

The old man's head shook on the pillow. 'No, her! Her! You must find her for me! Don't let me die without seeing her, please!' His head rested back again, his eyes closing tightly.

She was looking up at him again from beneath her shawl, her wounded eyes and sad words boring into him: 'I forgive you! I forgive you all!'

The old man's head jerked up on the pillow again, the gaunt face now supplicating, his hands held high in prayer: 'Allah pak, forgive me. Grant me enough life to beg for her forgiveness,' Siraj Din loudly begged of his Almighty Lord, alarming his eldest granddaughter Zarri Bano who was standing at her mother's side.

'Mother, who does Grandfather want to see?'

Shahzada stared at her baby grandson Adam in her daughter's arms. She didn't answer Zarri Bano's question. She knew. She had promised him: it was his dying wish. Without a word she turned on her heel and went to summon the village matchmaker, Kulsoom Bibi, to the house. It was an errand that only she, with her enormous networking skill, could perform.

'Zarri Bano?' The old man smiled up at his beautiful eldest granddaughter, dressed in her habitual black veil, the burqa. Their Holy Woman.

Zarri Bano placed her hand on her grandfather's shoulder. With a great effort, Siraj Din raised his two frail hands and held them up in mafi to the young woman begging her forgiveness.

'Zarri Bano,' he panted, raising his head. 'Forgive me for making you a Holy Woman six years ago. I was a cruel thing to do.'

'Please, Grandfather, don't say that. There is nothing to forgive -- I am very happy with my life. It's all in the past now. Look at my son, your great-grandson.'

His hand brushed baby Adam's head. Contentedly he closed his eyes. But a moment later, his head moved agitatedly form side to side. His past would not let him rest.

'Zarri Bano, find her for me! You must find her for me!' the dry lips desperately repeated.

'Who, Grandfather? Who?'

'The doomed, badkismet woman!' came the low whimper. 'I have to see her!'

Zarri Bano stood up. 'I don't understand, Grandfather. Who are you talking about?'

But there was no answer. Her grandfather had sunk into total delirium.

-- --

Kulsoom Bibi, the fifty-six-year-old village matchmaker, had been summoned to the haveli, Baba Siraj Din's ornate home, on a special errand by Chaudharani Shahzada. Always very honoured to be invited there, her face and body nevertheless wore the strain of this particular errand. It was a heavy burden to carry. After saying her 'salaam' and paying her respects to the dying man, Kulsoom headed off to the kitchen quarters to see the cook, her best friend, Naimat Bibi.

Naimat Bibi was busy making stacks of chapattis. Guests were expected from different towns and cities within the next few hours, descending on Chiragpur to pay their last respects. It was reckoned by most that the old man, would die before the night was over. Thus a five-inch pile of chapattis lay stacked on a round aluminium tray. It was better to prepare ahead. Who was going to bother helping her in the middle of the night? And hungry guests had to be fed, no matter what the hour.

Crouched in front of her stove, on a footstool, Naimat Bibi was just about to lay the chapatti on the flat round pan to cook it, when her friend, Kulsoom Bibi, breezed in.

Naimat Bibi quickly slapped the chapatti down on the hot pan, burning her little finger in the process. Pulling another stool out with one foot for her friend to sit on, she peered up at the other woman's face, ignoring her throbbing finger. 'What is it, Kulsoomji?'

It wasn't the deadpan expression on Kulsoom's dark, narrow face, but the look in her eyes that immediately signaled alarm to Naimat Bibi. She knew how to interpret that look after thirty years of friendship.

'What's wrong?' she squeaked with trepidation.

Kulsoom merely stared back at her friend. It was a long while before she answered.

'The old man wants to see her.'

As her friend carried on starring back at her, failing to understand her meaning, Kulsoom Bibi, heart thumped away; she felt duty bound to explain.

'He is dying and he wants to see...' She whispered, leaning over and looking straight into her friend's fearful eyes, 'Her! Naimat Bibi! Her! Don't you remember? The kackeri! Twenty years ago!'

Her friend's heavy lidded eyes twitched wide open. She ignored the burning chapatti on the hot pan and her feet shoved aside the basin of dough that lay next to her stool. 'Have you still got your silk parcel, Kulsoomji?' she asked.

Her throat dry, Kulsoom Bibi swallowed and her shawled head dipped in assent. 'Have you got yours?' she croaked.

'Yes,' Naimat Bibi turned to the burning chappati, as the smoke nearly choked them both, and plucked it off the pan. The tips of her fingers scorched, she threw the charred remains onto the concrete floor. 'We are cursed, my friend,' she added, meeting the fear in Kusloom Bibi's eyes. 'We must return her pride.'

The stack of chapattis and the remainder of the dough were forgotten as she thought of the small silk parcel, tucked deep into one corner of her steel trunk; it was probably moth-eaten by now, but she had to find it. Resolutely she stood up to go. Guests, dinner and chapattis could wait.

'Yes, we must return our parcels to her!' Kulsoom said heavily. 'I shall go and find mine!' She stood up to follow her friend.

Excerpted from Love's Fury (Rs 299) by Qaisra Shahraz, with the permission of publishers Penguin Books India.

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