small, slender woman with dark eyes stood near the edge of the roof looking out over the walled city of Lahore and reimagined her life. She had watched the seasons change over the red sandstone walls and the marble domes of the Badshahi Mosque for ten years. But this day she'd awakened knowing it would be the last morning of her old life.
Behind her, pigeons burbled and cooed softly to each other as they settled onto their roosts inside a room-sized wire cage in the middle of the rooftop courtyard. She let herself into the enclosure and picked up one of the birds, Barra, a proud old male who nestled his beak into the crack between her fingers.
The birds had belonged to Rahim, Shabanu's husband. After he was gone they were hers. In the old days, when the telephone trunk lines were undependable, Rahim had kept the pigeons to send messages back to his farm in Okurabad, about two hundred miles away. His most trusted servant,
Ibne, kept another set of pigeons at the farm to return messages to the haveli in the city. Pigeons fly home with unfailing instinct, but they will not fly in the opposite direction. And so Ibne and Rahim transported the birds back and forth by truck. Later, when the telephone trunk lines were replaced by satellite signals, Rahim and Ibne continued to use the birds. They never tired of talking about them, comparing their speed and the color of their feathers: green for faithfulness, gray for speed, brown for strength.
Shabanu handled them every day when she fed them and changed their water and cleaned their cages. She stroked Barra's round gray head with the knuckle of her forefinger. The pigeon turned a pink eye on Shabanu, and his tiny heart fluttered against the palm of her hand.
Shabanu imagined words that might let her family know she was alive and well, that she would come to them soon. They must be words that would not expose herself and her daughter, Mumtaz, to her murderous brother-in-law Nazir. They must be beautiful words that would speak to her parents' hearts. Even as she contemplated the danger of sending them, she knew what they would be.
She stroked Barra's breast again and pressed her lips to feathers that shone pink and gray and green all at once before releasing him back into the enclosure. She shut the door to the cage behind her and walked past the parapet that overlooked the mosque and the Shahi Qila, the Old Fort adjacent to it.
Every day of her ten years on the roof of the haveli Shabanu had looked out at the fort and thought of Anarkali,
who had been buried alive inside its western wall at the turn of the seventeenth century. The Mogul emperor Akbar had murdered the beautiful dancing girl whose name meant “pomegranate blossom” because his son had fallen in love with her.
When Shabanu had awakened this morning, her first thought was this: “You are living like the dead.” Nothing had changed. She knew Nazir would kill her if he found her, just as he'd threatened to do after he'd killed his brother Rahim, and Shabanu had refused to marry him. But this morning she awoke knowing Nazir no longer had power over her. She tried to connect this thought to a dream, or a conversation she might have overheard from one of the rooftops across the way. But it felt more like a notion that had been swimming below the surface, circling like a primitive fish toward the light, waggling at her insistently, as if warning her not to ignore it.
Every night, from the realm of the buried, Shabanu dreamed of Mumtaz asking a child's questions, about where the stars went during the day, and why the shadow of the sun followed her wherever she went. There had been no one to answer these wonderings as her daughter grew. Now Mumtaz was fifteen, a young woman, and Shabanu imagined her with narrowed eyes that accused her mother of betrayal when she learned Shabanu had hidden herself away all these years. The heat of shame in Shabanu's cheeks was the most familiar sensation she felt when she thought of her daughter.
These ten years Shabanu had felt the absence of Mumtaz
more keenly than she'd ever felt her presence. It was like a piece missing from the center of her heart where a mother's love should be.
The other greatest source of Shabanu's pain was that she'd left her mother and father growing old in the Cholistan Desert believing she was dead. She wanted to go to them, to ease their hearts, to see for herself that they were well. Sometimes it seemed her heart was made more of holes than solid parts, and that was her reason for sending the pigeon to Ibne. She had a physical need to see her daughter and to return to Cholistan.
Her days on the rooftop of the haveli were not so bad. Rahim's sister, Selma, who lived in the great old house below, visited her every day. Often they played cards in the evening, and talked over dinner. Samiya, a widow who was Selma's house servant and companion, joined them when she'd finished her chores in the kitchen.
Shabanu dreamed of a future in which she would return to Cholistan and teach the desert women to read so they could teach their children. She studied and she wrote poems and played her flute on the roof of the haveli, which stood a half story taller than the surrounding houses, so no one ever saw her. The poems were the letters from her heart that she couldn't send because no one could know she was alive. The flute music was her conversation with the world, expressing all of the wonder and hope she felt, despite her limited life.
Shabanu entered the summer pavilion, whose walls of carved marble screens had been her prison and her home.
She crossed the stone-tiled floor to the low wooden desk where she had learned to read, and where she wrote and studied. Samiya had taught Shabanu and Mumtaz to read and write, first in Urdu and then in English. Shabanu sat on the floor cushion behind the desk and picked up the pen from the slot in its surface. She drew a sheet of the lightest parchment from the desk drawer and remembered the lines of a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi. She wrote:
Flying toward thankfulness you become the rare bird with one wing made of fear, and one of hope.
She folded the parchment, and refolded it into a square, then rolled it into a thin cylinder. She stood and returned to the pigeon enclosure. She closed the door and held out her hand. Barra landed lightly on her wrist. Shabanu talked softly to the bird and flicked the latch on the plastic capsule attached to Barra's leg. The lid clicked open. She threaded the parchment into the compartment and snapped the lid back into place. She stroked the pigeon's cheek once more and carried him to the edge of the roof.
Reaching both hands toward the sky, she released Barra. Immediately the bird's wings stroked the air, and he rose up against the red walls of the Shahi Qila. Shabanu's heart lifted as the pigeon, who'd been imprisoned on the haveli's roof for the same ten years, dipped, then soared as he caught the wind, his wings golden-edged in the sharpening light of
morning. The last Shabanu saw of Barra was the iridescent green flash of his neck feathers as he rose against the red wall where Anarkali remained buried to that day.
Barra was an old bird, and had not flown any distance in a very long time. But he had been one of Rahim's best pigeons, and Shabanu believed he would fly for his home at Okurabad, faithful and mindless as an old retainer. Ibne would be there to open his cage. He would recognize Barra, and from the poem he'd know that only Shabanu could have sent him. Ibne and Rahim had shared a love of the Sufi poets, especially Rumi. Every evening one of them would recite a Rumi poem, and the other would reply with another. Shabanu learned them by heart before she could read.
Rahim had fallen in love with Shabanu when she was only a girl. She was on a ladder rescuing her cousins from a tree when he saw her first, and he was captivated by her flashing eyes. He'd never stopped loving her, although her family were poor, nomadic camel herders. Rahim sent Ibne as a go-between, bearing gifts of gems in small lambskin sacks for Shabanu and her family. Ibne rode into the desert on a handsome white stallion, and he spoke to her parents with respect. Shabanu never loved Rahim and never wanted to marry him. But her parents had left her no choice, and he had been a good husband. She was certain Ibne would carry her note and read it to her parents in the Cholistan Desert.
Shabanu gazed at the sky beyond the minaret until long after Barra disappeared. And then she began to plan the rest of her day. Selma was going to visit her brother Mahsood, who had succeeded Rahim as tribal leader, for the afternoon and
evening. Mahsood lived in a rambling old colonial bungalow across the city in Gulberg. Rahim always said his brother's house was haunted by mischievous djinn spirits: strange smells emanated from its interior, and lights appeared from nowhere, hovering menacingly before disappearing again. Rahim had seldom gone there. It was the house where Mumtaz lived, and Shabanu could bear the thought only because Rahim's nephew Omar also lived there, and she trusted him to protect her daughter with his life.
Selma wouldn't return until after a big dinner in honor of her niece Nargis and her family, who were returning to San Francisco after spending the summer in Lahore.
On this first day of her new life, Shabanu planned to slip out of the haveli while Selma was away and Samiya was busy, first in the laundry and then with shopping for groceries. Selma and Samiya were the only two people on earth who knew Shabanu lived on the roof. They had protected Shabanu faithfully these ten years, because they knew how dangerous Nazir could be.
Today Shabanu would hide herself within the billowing folds of a burqa and walk deeper into the old city to the bazaar, just to see what life looked like, this life that had been slipping past without her.
Shabanu waited inside the pavilion when she heard Samiya's quick knock at the door at the top of the stairs from the center courtyard below.
“I think the sky will turn itself inside out this morning,” Samiya said. “I'm going to hurry with the laundry. Perhaps it'll dry before it rains.” She set Shabanu's breakfast tray
down on the table and poured tea. A glass of sweet lime juice, cloudy green and fragrant, and a plate with two onion paratha sat on the tray. “Would you like anything else?” Shabanu shook her head and smiled, and Samiya scurried out of the room, collecting Shabanu's dirty laundry from the basket at the back wall, outside the bathroom, as she went.
Samiya was just a few years older than Shabanu. She had worked as an ayah in the haveli across the lane. When the children were grown, Samiya had moved into Selma's house. She and Shabanu had become fast friends. Shabanu loved Samiya's birdlike quickness, her efficiency of movement and thought, her absolute loyalty, her sense of fun.
Shabanu heard the rhythmic thump of the washing machine down in the courtyard. She went to the trunk in her wardrobe and dug deep down to the bottom until she found the voluminous gray burqa that she hadn't worn since she took up life on the roof of the haveli. It smelled of mold and mothballs. Shabanu shook it out and laid it across her bed.
She imagined Samiya pulling the white sheets through the wringer that sat on the rim of the washing machine's tub, the sleeves of her tunic rolled above her elbows.
Shabanu took a deep breath and slipped the burqa over her head, adjusting it so the embroidered square through which she could barely see was in place over her eyes. Very little air seeped in, and Shabanu tried to steady her breathing to a low, shallow rhythm. In the damp monsoon heat, the musty cloth was almost suffocating, but she thought that freedom had never smelled so sweet.
Shabanu had learned to walk so silently on the rooftop it
was a habit. Even she could not hear her footfalls as she crept down the stairsâonly the occasional swish of the fabric of her burqa was audible in the narrow back staircase. She paused in the shadow of the doorway and listened for sounds from the courtyard. Samiya's sweet, high voice sang out from the laundry, and Shabanu crossed to the gate, fit the key into the lock, and turned it.
As she pulled the heavy gate toward her, its hinges screeched like a hawk flying low over the Cholistan Desert in search of prey, nearly stopping her heart. Instead of waiting to see whether Samiya would come running from the laundry, she slipped through the gate and relocked it, twisting the key until she heard the bolt slide home, then ran down the alley, her heart pounding.
She slowed to a fast walk as she rounded the corner at the busy thoroughfare that led into the bazaar. It was choked with handcarts loaded down with bolts of cloth being pulled by human beasts of burden, motor scooters spewing blue smoke from their exhaust pipes, donkey carts piled high with copper pots, shoppers making their way to the produce alley.
Shabanu wandered among the spice merchants, squeezing past great pyramids of amber powdered cumin and red ground chilies and green mounds of cardamom pods, breathing in the spice scents and listening to the bartering of shoppers and the profane banter of the shopkeepers. She watched ragged boys dart in and out among the stalls of the fruit vendors, stealing hard green amrud and shining red pomegranates.
She was intoxicated by the noise and dust and activity of the bazaar, more aware than she had been in ten years of the breath passing in and out through her nose and mouth, the steady beating of her heart, and the rushing of blood through her veins. It was almost as if she had been barely alive all that time, as if her body had put itself into a semiconscious state of hibernation from which she was just now awakening.