Unlike the other stories from Pakistan on this blog, this story is entirely fictional, inspired by the heart rending photographs of the flood, but have no relation to any real person or the people in the photographs.
She was almost up to the landing. A little breathless from running up the stairs. She looks down; the water is lapping at the bottom two steps of the spiral staircase. When she was downstairs, it had followed her everywhere licking her heels, scaring the shit out of her.
She was alone in her big house. He had left for work this morning when everything had been normal. She had taken a nap after a late night of watching a movie; she was sitting at the elegantly set breakfast table starting a late breakfast. She starts her cereal and feels a chill. It is the middle of summer she thinks and then she stops, there is no clattering of plates or pots from the kitchen, it seems eerily quiet.
A glance at the entrance door shows her a wetness of muddy water, seeping in under the door. She yells for the servant. There is no response. Angry at their disobedience she storms into the kitchen. A half cooked omelet sits beside the stove, they must have left. Anger fills her with the desire of retaliation. These damned army servants! I am going to have them court-martialed!
She returns to the dining room, eyes her bowl of half eaten cereal and pauses. She hears the gentle lap of water against the edge of her precious Oriental rug at the entrance. She turns to see the golden water snaking under it like a wild animal seeking its prey.
She has to stop this rainwater. It is destroying her rug. She brings some towels and bends down to seal the leak.
As she puts the towel under the door, the force of the water throws it back at her. Shocked, a frisson of fear enters her heart for the first time. Water under the door, the disappearing servants, no call from her absent husband, the unremitting monsoon rains, the stories of floods in the north………. It cannot be, she tells herself; it could not have reached here so fast. We are hundreds of miles away!
She runs up the steps, two at a time. The water seems to be following her, stealthily creeping behind her. She opens the balcony door on the landing and looks out………
Stretching in front of her as far as the eye can see is water. The palm trees seem like measurement posts for the water level. Even as she stands watching and taking in the enormity of the scene, her brain notes that in the few minutes she has stood there the water has risen two notches on the tree trunk. Time, she is going to run out of time, before it catches up with her.
Her phone, she looks for her cell phone, she left it on the dining table when she was looking for the servants. She looks down the railing of the staircase at the dining table which is rapidly submerging along with the disappearing phone, plates, mug and cereal bowl leaving a large uniform panorama of spreading golden water. Appalled she stares as her ground floor is starting to looks like the outside.
Feverishly she searches her brain… What should I do?
In a split second almost as an answer she hears her deceased mothers voice:
………And as we were leaving, my father said,” do not take anything except your wedding jewelry. You may have to barter your life and honor with it”
Her mother was talking about their flight from Amritsar in 1947 with the Partition of India and Pakistan. They had fled their home in Amritsar when the Hindu and Sikh mobs were screaming at the doors of their Mohallah (gated subdivision) threatening to burn them down.
She goes to her closet, opens the safe and puts on all her gold bangles and karas, pulls out her gold chains and puts them on, tucking them inside her shirt, she buttons her sleeves to cover her bangles and turns to look at the mirror. In the silence she hears a sloshing sound not too far away.
She runs to the landing, and looks down, the water is half way up the stairs, grinning at her like a rapist who advances with the full knowledge that his prey has no escape route.
Her heart thumping she goes into the safe and retrieves cash saved in plastic bags, She stuffs it into her bra, pinning her open heart shaped neckline closed to hold the bra filled with money and rushes out to the balcony.
Silence greets her. Deadly silence broken only by the sound of rushing water. She leans out and yells………….”Koi hai jo madad karay”…”Is there anyone out there who can help me?” Her voice sounds like a small tinkle absorbed into the sound of rushing water.
She looks back towards the spiral staircase and counts. Five more steps left before the water will flood the landing.
Panicking she searches her brain for surahs, ayahs anything to invoke help through the Quran as she had seen her Dadi do in times of difficulty, but none come to mind. In her twenty-three years, though she had learned to read the Quran her brain remained virgin to the contents within it.
She never was much of a religious person. She closes her eyes and tries to visualize her Dadi who has been her emulet of security always. She feels Dadi laying her hand on her head and blessing her after her wedding with an ayah from the Quran. What was it? She tries to recall the words of the ayah as she sees her Dadi’s serene face in her minds eye. She sees her Dadi smile and her lips move as in a slow motion movie and almost feels her words “ Allah say madad maango”: “Ask Allah to help you”
She puts her face in her hands and standing at the balcony she begs Allah to save her. Sobbing in her entreaties, asking him to forgive her for all the ingratitude, for arguing in favor of atheism as a lark, and for not saying her prayers, she goes on and on feeling the tears streaming down her face. Her reverie of misery is interrupted by a shout. A human voice, in this vast desert of rushing water?
“Do you need help?”
She opens her eyes to identify the source of this masculine voice. It is coming from a flat bottom boat rapidly coming her way.
“Yes” she yells leaning over the balcony and waving frantically.
“The current is strong, be ready too jump when we get close too you” He says.” We cannot stop the boat”. The deep timbre of his voice mixed with the sounds of the water gives it an ethereal ring.
She steps out onto the balcony and eyes the water level. The water is three feet below the balcony, She is a good swimmer but the fast moving current is different from swimming in the army pool, it could sweep her away. Fear rushes up her veins like fire followed by an ice-cold chill giving her goose flesh.
She looks at the boat and notices the other occupants of the boat, three women. One wrapped in a chador covering half her face, and two in shuttlecock Burqas, her inner disdain for such women rises, but she stomps on it.
She gingerly climbs over the railing, almost hanging from it, facing the railing gripping the bars, her feet hanging two feet from the water.
She hears his firm voice, “ jump in to the boat, we will steady it”
She jumps, but terror grips her as she goes down into the water, realizing with a shock that she has missed the sanctuary of the boat. Muddy water fills her eyes and nostrils, snarling her long, dark, unbound hair around her face.
Panic and the sure arm of death pulling her down into the depths of the racing water, she calls on Him, The Protector, for help, her mind focused on survival.
As she comes up for a breath, She feels the strong-callused fingers of a woman grasp her arms, which hold her upper body above the water, her back to the boat side.
She is held firmly by the boat side by these strong hands of the Burqa-clad woman, as the boat moves on at a fast pace at the mercy of the raging current. The man in the front of the boat negotiates tree stumps and debris, steering away from a crash into one or the other resulting in sure death, by abandonment or otherwise.
They approach a tree with some sprawling branches spreading over the surface of the water. The man yells something, which sounds like an order. The Burqa clad woman says something in response and the boat front scrapes a tree branch, momentarily slowing it down. She feels the grip of the hands tighten under her armpits and with one heave the strong hands of the Burqa clad woman land her into the boat, like a large fish. The boat rocks precariously for a moment and then settles down, the branches cradling it momentarily.
Wet to the skin, dripping with mud, her dark thick long hair all over her face, streams of golden mud coating it like a mud mask, she inhales air instead of water and tears flow from her eyes. She is alive!
She is truly crying now with deep sobs. The woman nearest to her pats her head reassuringly and squeezes the water out of her hair and knots it into a bun. She who had despised these women for their Burqas now wished she had one to cover her nakedness. Her fine lawn shirt, thin cotton shalwar and her French chiffon dupatta are like thin rags with no thickness to cover her body or protect her from the elements.
The boat is moving fast riding on the current………further and further away from her home, her husband and any semblance of life as she knew it.
She wants to look back, but cannot bring herself to. She does not recognize any of the buildings, though this city has been her home since she came here three years ago as a new bride.
Shivering she tries to remember what to recite for comfort but cannot remember a thing.
As if reading her mind the Burqa clad woman says “Ayat al Kursi parho” “Read Ayat el Kursi” in a rough voice heavily accented in Pastu. The other two women are silent.
Ayat al Kursi she thinks, which one is that? …………That is the one on the fridge that her mother gave her as a magnet and said she should memorize it but she never had time or the need to.
She closes her eyes, blocking out the panorama of drifting in an ocean of golden water, avoiding submerged trees and houses and going where……….far away from home, where no one knows you.
She brings the magnet on the fridge into focus but cannot recall the words for the life of her. She had never read them, before and they would not come to her now.
She begins to sob quietly, silently, wondering if Allah has forsaken her…..
To be continued………..