In the beginning, the great river was believed to flow out of a lion’s mouth, its size reflected in its ancient name – Sindhu, an ocean. The river was older than the Himalayas; the Greeks had called it Sinthus, the Romans Sindus, the Chinese Sintow, but it was Pliny who had given it the name Indus. One night under the vast silence of a perfect half-moon and six stars, a mosque appeared on a wooded island in the river, and Leila was woken by the call to prayer issuing from its minaret just before sunrise. It was the day she was to be blessed with a son.
As she knew there was no mosque within hearing distance, her initial impression was that the air itself was singing. Leila manoeuvred herself out of bed and went towards the door, making sure not to disturb her mother-in-law who had taken to sleeping in the same room as her in these last days before the birth. The servant girl appointed outside the door had fallen asleep, and as Leila moved past, a bad dream caused the girl to release a cry of fear.
Leila was fourteen years old, thin-framed with grey, glass-like eyes and a nervous flame always burning just beneath her pale skin. She pursued the song of faith drifting in the fifty-roomed mansion that had been in her husband’s family for several generations. The river with its boats and blind freshwater dolphins and drowned lovers was half a mile away, and there was nothing but rocky desert and thick date orchards between the riverbank and the mansion.
Long after the voice withdrew, she continued her search for its origins, now and then placing an ear against a wall. Earlier in the night she’d heard momentary fragments of other songs from the men’s side of the mansion, where her husband was celebrating the imminent arrival of his first son in the company of musicians and prostitutes. No doubt they were all asleep by now.
The windows in the women’s section of the house were inaccessible, nudged up against the ceiling, so the light poured in but not enough air. Leila was looking up at one of them when she heard someone come in behind her.
‘You shouldn’t be down here,’ Razia, her mother-in-law, said, unable to conceal her alarm. ‘If you needed something you should have asked one of the servants.’ Her attenuated face was wheatcoloured and pitted with smallpox scars. She had long white hair and every other year a doctor would inject liquid gold into her bones and joints to counter the ravages of time. ‘You should be resting,’ she said. It was the tone she had employed a year earlier when Leila came to the mansion as a bride, a tone suitable for the child that Leila had been back then. Someone who longed for her dolls and frequently misplaced her veil. But as soon as she became pregnant there was no end to Razia’s devotion and love. Along with the abundant care came the vigilance, an ever-present awareness that the girl was not mature enough to know the importance of the asset taking form inside her body.
Razia summoned the servants and they led Leila back up to her room.
‘I don’t mean to be harsh with you,’ Razia said mildly, accompanying them up the staircase. ‘If only you knew about the behaviour of my own mother-in-law and husband towards me. When I failed to conceive within the first few months of marriage, I was marked for days from the beating I received. But Allah heard my cries and granted me my son Timur.’
‘I went downstairs because I heard a voice, a call to prayer,’ Leila said as she settled on the bed and the servant girls began making her comfortable with pillows and cushions. ‘Somewhere not too far.’
‘You did,’ Razia answered. ‘I heard it too. I have just been talking to Timur, and he says that a mosque has appeared on the island in the river.’
The air in the room changed.
‘Who was the muezzin?’
‘No one knows. People woke at his call and followed the sound to the bank. There was the mosque, with a green dome visible through the trees and the mist of the river. But they say that when they rowed across to the building they found it empty.’
With great tenderness Razia neatened a stray lock of hair on Leila’s forehead and kissed her on the temple. ‘These are very auspicious hours. This miracle augurs great things for the boy about to be born.’
Leila had been told about the day Timur, her husband, was born. How Razia had been given one hundred and one gold necklaces, five hundred and one finger rings, and one thousand and one pairs of earrings. It was declared that if you could see the smoke of the cooking fires, no matter how far away you were, you should consider yourself invited to the feast – the festivities lasted an entire month. And similar things would no doubt occur after the birth today, though Leila knew she would not be allowed to wear any of the ornaments presented to her. Ten years ago, Razia had taken the oath that the women of the family would strictly abstain from jewellery until the daughters of Kashmir and Palestine were free of their Indian and Israeli oppressors.
Razia motioned to the shelf where an oversized book bound in green moss-like velvet lay, and two servant girls carried it to her. Since they were Christian, the girls could not touch the sacred volume and so carried it slung on a shawl between them. They placed it on a table and stepped back. It was the family Book of Omens. An image was painted on each of its right-hand pages, with the explanatory text occurring on the opposite page. During the previous weeks, Razia had asked Leila to open the book at random several times. And on each occasion the day that was just dawning was revealed to be the day of her grandson’s entrance into the world.
Now once again she brought the book to Leila and it opened on a portrait of Muhammad. He had been painted in a robe of dark blue brocade, with a white turban and crimson boots that curled at the tips, his face unseen behind a veil. He was raising his hand to split the moon in half, the text on the opposite page reading:
O augury user! Know that the star of your ascendant has come out of malevolence, and your enemies have been disgraced and made contemptible by the grace of the Purest of Men. All your difficulties cease forever from today.
To others the augury might have appeared cryptic; but according to Razia’s personal logic, there could no longer be any uncertainty about the day of the birth. A retinue of servant girls was installed in Leila’s room. The midwife arrived, and brought with her fresh news of the river-island mosque, how the faithful were crowding the one available boat, a few throwing themselves into the waves to swim towards the work of angels, each swimmer wishing to be the one who would say the second call to prayer from the minaret.
As the morning progressed, excitement heightened in the mansion. A desiccated Flower of Mary, brought back from the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, had been placed in a bowl of water: a tight knot of wooden tendrils, grasping itself to itself, it opened slowly in the water and was believed to absorb the pain of the mother into itself during birth.
By the time of the noon prayers, however, when they heard again the call from the minaret, Leila still hadn’t given birth. And Timur’s child had not been born by the time of the afternoon prayers either. Leila, with a dreamlike expression, contemplated every nuance of the muezzin’s call both times, but it wasn’t the same voice as at dawn.
With the sun moving towards the west, the mother-in-law became acutely anxious, an anxiety that proved baseless because Leila’s pains began, at last, just as the evening prayers approached – the hour every Thursday when the dead visited the living.
Timur was being kept informed via a mobile phone that a servant girl operated for Razia. Initially he stayed in the men’s section of the mansion, but as time passed he came closer and closer to Leila’s room, until eventually he was just on the other side of the door. He was a man of exact speech who seldom smiled even when alone, and he had carried Leila away from her village a year ago to be his bride, her eyes seeming to cast a brief spell on him. Like his father and grandfather before him, and the fathers and grandfathers before them, he would have needed time to think if asked how many people he had killed or caused to die.
That evening he was exhausted because he had slept very little during the previous seventy-two hours. In addition to the revelries for the upcoming birth, during the last three nights he had been supervising a group of workers as they secretly built the mosque on the island owned by his rival landowner. Lushly fertile, it was prime terrain and Timur had always been envious of it, always looking for a way to claim it as his own. The mosque was the ideal method to begin depriving the enemy of it. The masons and labourers had to work with minimum light, overcoming fear of snakes, djinns and scorpions. Only once did they think they were about to be discovered – when a truck broke down close to the riverbank and its driver and passengers got out to repair it, their voices reaching the island, the truck’s headlights visible. But they were members of a jihadi organization returning from Faisalabad, the city full of textile factories from whose markets chemicals used in explosives could be bought in bulk without raising suspicion. That was the sole incident. And the plan seemed to be working. Timur had sent word to surrounding villages about the miracle of angels, and the arriving crowds were threatening to tear his rival and his men to pieces if they pulled down the sacred structure, or hindered anyone’s access to it.
Timur heard a cry from Leila’s room a few minutes before the call to the fifth and final prayer of the day sounded. He was at the door and the midwife emerging from the room in great panic ran into him. She stumbled to her knees and then, repeatedly begging his and his family’s forgiveness, receded towards the staircase, her bloody hands leaving smears on the floor. The servant girls were the next to come out, and they too fled. Finally, with a look of utter devastation on her face, his mother appeared. Timur went into the room where he saw Leila dead on the bed sheets, the crying newborn by her side. He knew she was dead, but then she made a movement and raised her eyelids to look at him. He approached and grabbed her by the hair and, lifting his free hand as high as he could, he struck her face.
The minutes-old baby on the bed was a girl.
This excerpt was published in Guardian.