Under the same stars, p.1

Under the Same Stars, page 1


Under the Same Stars

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Under the Same Stars


























  Author’s Note

  To Jeanne Drewsen, my agent, whose faith has been constant; Frances Foster, my editor, whose wisdom is an inspiration; and the many people in Pakistan who gave of their time, energy and hospitality to make it possible for me to travel and learn about their wonderful country

  Names of Characters

  (Italicized syllable is accented)

  Aab-pa (Aahb-puh): a healer and herbal doctor

  Abdul Muhammad Khan (Uhb-dool Muh-hah-muhd Khahn): Pathan murdered by his brother

  Adil (Uh-dihl): Shabanu’s male cousin

  Ahmed (Ah-mehd): Rahim’s only son, betrothed to Zabo

  Ali (Uh-lee): an old servant in Selma’s household

  Allah (Ah-luh): Arabic word meaning “God”

  Amina (Ah-mee-nuh): Rahim’s first wife, mother of Leyla and Ahmed

  Auntie (Ann-tee): Dadi’s sister-in-law

  Bibi Lal (Bee-bee Lahl): Phulan’s mother-in-law

  Bundr (Buhn-duhr): Mumtaz’s stuffed monkey (Urdu for “small”)

  Choti (Choh-tee): Mumtaz’s pet deer (Urdu for “monkey”)

  Dadi (Dah-dee): Shabanu’s father

  Dalil Abassi (Dah-lihl Uh-bah-see): Dadi’s proper name

  Daoud (Dah-ood): Selma’s late husband

  Fatima (Fah-tee-muh): Shabanu’s cousin, Sharma’s daughter

  Guluband (Goo-loo-buhnd): Shabanu’s dancing camel, her childhood favourite

  Hamir (Hah-meer): Shabanu’s cousin, murdered by Nazir

  Ibne (Ihb-nee): Rahim’s faithful manservant

  Khansama (Khahn-sah-muh): Rahim’s cook

  Kharim (Khuh-reem): Murad’s cousin

  Lal Khan (Lahl Khahn): Phulan’s brother-in-law, murdered by Nazir

  Leyla (Leh-luh): Rahim’s eldest daughter, betrothed to Omar

  Mahmood (Muh-mood): cloth merchant

  Mahsood (Mah-sood): Rahim’s younger brother

  Mama (Mah-muh): Shabanu’s mother

  Muhammad (Muh-hah-muhd): Holy Prophet of Islam

  Mumtaz (Muhm-tahz): Shabanu’s daughter

  Murad (Moo-rahd): Shabanu’s brother-in-law, Phulan’s husband

  Nazir Muhammad (Nuh-zeer Muh-hah-muhd): Rahim’s youngest brother

  Omar (Oh-muhr): Rahim’s nephew, betrothed to Leyla

  Phulan (Poo-lahn): Shabanu’s sister

  Rahim (Ruh-heem): Shabanu’s husband, a major landowner

  Raoul (Ruh-ool): Nazir’s farm manager

  Rashid (Ruh-sheed): son of Zabo’s servant

  Saleema (Suh-leem-uh): Rahim’s second wife

  Samiya (Sah-mee-yuh): Shabanu and Mumtaz’s teacher

  Selma (Sehl-muh): sister of Rahim, Mahsood and Nazir

  Shabanu (Shah-bah-noo): daughter of nomadic camel herders, fourth wife of the wealthy landowner Rahim

  Shaheen (Shuh-heen): Selma’s lifelong servant

  Shahzada (Shah-zah-duh): keeper of Derawar Fort

  Sharma (Shahr-muh): Shabanu’s aunt, cousin of both of her parents

  Tahira (Tuh-heer-uh): Rahim’s third wife

  Uma (Oo-muh): Mumtaz’s name for her mother

  Xhush Dil (Hoosh Dihl): camel owned by Shabanu’s family

  Yazmin (Yahz-meen): servant girl in Selma’s household

  Zabo (Zeh-boh): Rahim’s niece, daughter of Nazir, betrothed to Ahmed

  Zenat (Zee-naht): Mumtaz’s ayah


  Shabanu awoke at dawn on a cool spring morning, with the scent of early Punjabi roses rich and splendid on the air, warm as the sun rising through the mist. The charpoy squeaked lightly, string against wood, as she rolled over to gaze at her sleeping child.

  But Mumtaz had slipped out, perhaps before first light. Shabanu closed her eyes again and waited for the sun to creep through the open doorway of their room behind the stable.

  She lay on her back and stretched her arms over her head. Mumtaz was nearly five, and there was little time for her to be free in this life. She would be safe enough within the ochre mud walls of the family compound near the village of Okurabad on the road to Multan.

  Shabanu did not force her daughter to stand to have her hair untangled every morning. She allowed her to wear her favourite old shalwar kameez with the legs halfway to her knees, the tunic faded to a greyish wash. Soon enough Mumtaz would have to stay indoors and wear the chador. For now Shabanu wanted her to have whatever freedom was possible.

  Shabanu remembered how she’d rebelled when her mother had forced her to wear the veil that reached to the ground and tangled around her feet when she ran. It had been the end of her climbing thorn trees and running among the sand dunes.

  Outside, the sun dappled through the neem tree, and Shabanu imagined her daughter hiding behind the old giant, her matted head against its leathery bark, the dirt powdery between her toes.

  The spirit stove popped as old Zenat started a fire for tea in the kitchen beside the room. Already flies darted in and out of the doorway. Shabanu rose from the charpoy and stretched.

  Dust rose around her bare feet as she moved about, folding bedding, then gathering things for the child’s bath – tallowy soap and a rough, sun-dried towel.

  Shabanu went to the doorway. A flash of sunlight caught in the diamond pin in her nose, sending a glint straight to where Mumtaz hid behind the tree. The glass bangles on Shabanu’s arm clinked as she whipped her long black hair into a thick knot at the base of her neck. She turned back inside to reach for her shawl and saw from the corner of her eye a small movement as Mumtaz flitted away, silent as a moth.

  Wrapping her shawl around her, Shabanu followed her daughter towards the old wooden gate that led to the canal, where Mumtaz loved to play in the water. The small dark head bobbed beyond the bushes that framed the inner courtyard of the big house where Shabanu’s husband lived. Shabanu was the youngest, by eight years, of Rahim’s four wives, and Mumtaz was his youngest child. The other wives lived separately, in apartments in the big house.

  Shabanu and Mumtaz had lived with Rahim until early in winter, when Shabanu had persuaded him that life would be easier for her and the child if she could take up residence in the room near the stable while he was in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab one hundred and fifty miles away, for the winter session of the provincial assembly.

  There had been incidents, a few of which she’d told him about – the scorpion in her bed, the rabid bat in her cupboard. Rahim had raged and demanded to know who had done these things. A small, thin boy was offered as the culprit.

  Then Rahim had said there was no need for her to move out of the house. Why would she rather be off, away from the rest of the family? Why would she give up the convenience of running water, electricity, servants? But Shabanu knew that danger lay precisely in her staying, and she had remained firm in her insistence. At the last moment before leaving for Lahore, Rahim had acquiesced.

  The others said the stable was where Shabanu and Mumtaz belonged, and laughed wickedly behind their veils. She didn’t mind. It gave her privacy from the insolent servant women who walked into her room without knocking, and reported everything back to the other wives.

  Shabanu followed the child to the stand of trees past the pump, where Mumtaz stopped. On the broad veranda, beyond the wide silver p
ipe with water dripping in sparkles from its mouth, stood bamboo cages in which desert birds blinked their fiery eyes.

  The birds came from the dunes of Cholistan, where Pakistan meets India, a land of magic and camels where Shabanu had spent her childhood. Mumtaz never tired of her mother’s stories of the desert’s wizards and warriors. She was fascinated by her father’s birds. She loved to come in the first morning light to help the old mali remove the linen covers from the tall domed cages. Shabanu stopped to watch her daughter approach, her hands stretched out towards the feathers that shone brightly from between the thin bars. The mali returned with pans of maize, clucking and mewling to the birds, and asked Mumtaz to lift the cage doors.

  When the birds were fed, Mumtaz turned again towards the grey weathered gate leading to the canal. Shabanu was about to call to her when a tall, dark figure sped from the veranda. In two strides the figure was behind Mumtaz, and a long, pale hand with crimson nails flashed out from under a dark green chador. The hand grabbed the child by the hair and yanked her from her feet.

  “You filthy urchin!” It was Leyla, Mumtaz’s eldest half-sister. “How dare you spy on my father’s house!”

  “He’s my father too,” said the child, her voice piping. Leyla flicked the wrist of her hand that grasped the child’s hair. Mumtaz bit her lips and squeezed her eyes shut against the pain in her scalp. Leyla turned back towards the house, pushing the child before her like a prisoner of war. Mumtaz was small but strong, like her mother, and when she struck out at Leyla with her wiry arms, Leyla tightened her grip on the child’s hair to keep her moving along.

  “Thank you,” said Shabanu, appearing at Leyla’s side as if from thin air. She took Mumtaz by the hand and stepped between them. Leyla’s mouth, the same deep, shiny red as her nails, went slack with surprise for a moment. She shook her fingers loose from Mumtaz’s tangled hair and withdrew her hand gracefully under the folds of her chador.

  “How can you let her run loose like a street rat?” Leyla asked. “She’s wild. She scares the chickens.”

  “That’s enough, Leyla.” Shabanu’s voice was calm.

  Mumtaz’s eyes remained tightly shut against tears as Shabanu knelt before her and held her by the shoulders.

  “I’m here, pigeon,” she said, turning towards Mumtaz again. “That will be all, Leyla,” she said without looking up. Mumtaz slumped into her arms and buried her face against her mother’s neck. Shabanu held her for a moment, then removed her to arm’s length and brushed the hair from her eyes. Her gaze held the child’s.

  “Come, we’ll feed the ducks, and then you can bathe in the canal,” Shabanu said, as if Leyla had ceased to exist.

  It was Shabanu’s refusal to defend herself, as if she had nothing to defend herself against, that drove the other women of Rahim’s household – Leyla; her mother, Amina; the other wives; Leyla’s sisters and half-sisters – to hate her. If only she would say that Mumtaz had as much right as the others to run about the courtyard, and ask what harm the child caused. But Shabanu refused even to acknowledge their resentment.

  Shabanu was the favourite of Rahim – “the Merciful” – their powerful father and husband, the landowner and patriarch of the clan. The other wives hated her pretensions to dignity.

  Each wife had her own private grudge. Leyla’s mother, Amina, the first and most important of Rahim’s wives, was the eldest, the best educated among them all, and the only one who was his social equal. Amina also was the mother of Rahim’s only surviving son, a poor quivering thing called Ahmed.

  Amina had borne two other sons, also sickly and defective in one way or another. Like all of Rahim’s sons, with the exception of Ahmed, both had died in infancy.

  Amina had long since stopped sharing Rahim’s bed. While her position gave her an unquestioned advantage over the other wives, she guarded her jealousy with a keen eye.

  Ten years after Rahim had married Amina his attentions began to wander, and that was when he took a second wife. She was Saleema, who had captured his fancy one hot July when he visited his family at their summer retreat in Dinga Galli in the Himalayan foothills.

  Saleema had come to see Amina, a second cousin, with her elder sister. She was a shy, slender girl with large dark eyes and a serious mouth. Saleema was far from beautiful. She inspired no jealousy in Amina, who had grown weary of her husband’s physical demands. They culminated in pregnancy after pregnancy, each of which ended, to everyone’s great disappointment, with a defective son or a daughter – three girls in all.

  Then there was Ahmed. And by then Amina had had enough. It was such a relief not to have Rahim come to her bed at night when she was tired and wanted only to sleep! She had borne a healthy son. It was much later that Ahmed’s weaknesses became apparent.

  Saleema bore three daughters and two sons, both of whom died within a matter of months. Rahim’s disappointment seemed to diminish Saleema with each birth. Amina watched with satisfaction as Saleema grew thinner and paler, until there seemed to be nothing left of her but her large black eyes and a straight line for a mouth.

  Eight years later, under similar circumstances, came Tahira, who at the age of fifteen became Rahim’s third wife. Tahira still was beautiful. After five years she too had borne three daughters and two feeble sons, both of whom died within a year. In that time she had been the chief co-occupant of Rahim’s bed.

  While Saleema had lapsed into bitter resignation that she had been replaced in her husband’s affections, Tahira still harboured hope that Rahim would tire of Shabanu, return to her bed, and give her a healthy son who would inherit his father’s land. For it was not at all certain that Ahmed would survive. And although Tahira was eight years Shabanu’s senior, still her skin was smooth and her waist was slender, and the need for a viable heir should have been of paramount importance to the ageing leader.

  But from the time six years ago when Rahim first met Shabanu, a girl of twelve with budding breasts, wisdom beyond her years and a dazzling smile, he had had eyes for no other woman. In truth it had been too long since he’d had any appetite for his third wife, whose dainty approach to love made her seem insipid to him.

  When Shabanu produced only one female child, those close to Rahim advised him to divorce her and take another wife who would produce a healthy heir. But Rahim demurred. His total indifference to all women but his fourth wife could only be explained as witchcraft.

  Amina could not conceive of anyone else’s happiness being achieved without expense to her own, and she viewed anyone who made her husband smile and whistle as he walked about the farm – as did Shabanu – with the deepest suspicion and contempt.

  The women of Okurabad couldn’t understand what attracted Rahim so powerfully to Shabanu – the way she went about barefoot, wearing the heavy silver ankle bracelet of the nomads, and no make-up. She, a low-born gypsy, dared to regard them with contempt! They were all daughters of land-owners like Rahim, holy men, tribal leaders whose ancestors had descended directly from the Holy Prophet Muhammad Himself, peace be upon Him!

  Shabanu’s father was a camel herder. She was a daughter of the wind.

  They all knew how to dress and behave in the best houses of Lahore. Shabanu walked about the courtyard singing gypsy songs in her wood-smoke voice in Seraiki, the language of the desert. She’d never even been to Lahore!

  They said among themselves that she practised evil magic.

  They were frightened of Shabanu, of the levelness in her eyes which they mistook for conceit, a certain knowledge that Rahim would side with her against his elder wives.

  For many weeks now the entire household had been preoccupied with preparations for Leyla’s approaching marriage. Although the ceremony was not to be for several months, Leyla was busier than she ever had been before, and for some time had not followed Mumtaz about the garden as once was her custom. Shabanu cursed herself silently for letting down her guard.

  Leyla growled low as a cat and turned swiftly away, her chador swirling out around her lik
e a green flame. When she was gone, Shabanu shook the child gently by the shoulders.

  “You mustn’t go to Papa’s house until I’m awake and can go with you,” she said.

  Mumtaz said nothing, and Shabanu pressed her fiercely against her breast for a moment. Then they walked holding hands to the canal, which ran like an opal ribbon through the morning haze.


  Rahim returned from Lahore during the day, and that evening Shabanu sat at her dressing table and watched in an ivory-framed mirror as Zenat took a heated rod from the fire. The old ayah arranged curls around Shabanu’s face to soften the strong line of her chin.

  Shabanu removed the silver cuff from her ankle and replaced it with a fine gold chain.

  Mumtaz sat quietly watching the ritual of her mother adorning herself for her father. Shabanu lifted strands of pearls and rubies from red velvet cushions and twisted them together, then held them up for Zenat to fasten at the back of her neck.

  “How do I look?” she asked, glancing from the mirror to Mumtaz’s face. Mumtaz stuck a finger into her mouth and ran to her mother.

  “Like Papa’s birds,” she whispered, and clasped her arms about her mother’s waist. She buried her face in the silken folds of Shabanu’s deep red sari, which hung from her knees heavily, weighted by embroidery of golden thread at the hem.

  “Come away, Mumtaz. You’ll mess your mother,” said Zenat, circling the child’s wrist with her claw-like fingers.

  “Oh, let her be,” said Shabanu. “God knows there’s little enough time for her to sit in my lap like a baby.” She hugged Mumtaz, who breathed in deeply, as if she wanted to keep her mother’s rich, dark perfume all to herself.

  Shabanu put the child to bed, telling her a story of the desert wind. The wind, she said, was a poet whom God had sent to live in the desert. His love dwelt among the stars. He could never reach her, and was doomed to spend eternity singing among the dunes.

  When Rahim’s servant rapped on the wooden door, Shabanu blew out the candle, kissed the smooth curve of her daughter’s cheek, and left her in the careful guardianship of Zenat.

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