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Somewhere the temple gong sounded, reminding the sky to wake up. Village women began to come up from the river, water pitchers gurgling at their hips. Dust rose in the distance as cattle were driven to the fields.

“Please, I beg of you, have faith in Allah…in me…in our love. There’s no more time—I will see you on Eid, and Insha’Allah, bring you home with me,” he said urgently, handing her the rope, and striding away back to town, as the dawn began to break over the riverfront.

At home Kemal fixed himself a frugal breakfast of tea and savories. Realizing he still had time before the tannery opened for work, he decided to lay down for a bit. Racking his brains on how to come with the money by Eid, just a day away exhausted him, and he drifted into an uneasy asleep. His body jerked and twitched as one after another people began to snub him in his dreams.

“I’ve already given you a hefty Eid bonus,” his tannery owner said, cracking a leather whip Kemal had never noticed before.

“You will steal from her mouth,” Karim Chacha was saying, waving his ninth infant in Kemal’s face.

“Look at this beggar, how will he care for my daughter,” announced the Maulvi to the gathered suitors in his house, much to their mirth and delight. As the men laughed and slapped their thighs and flung mince mutton in his face, Kemal found himself dashing out the door, brushing against a fat goat that looked at him with accusing eyes and running out into a brightly-lit street where butchers and locksmiths had gathered to hurl abuse and stones at him. “Thief— beggar…” they screamed.

As he fled, he realized he had company—one man ran right ahead of him while another followed close on his heels. He tried hard to shake them off, but couldn’t. He turned a corner and sprinted until he reached the mustard fields yonder. There, exhausted, he collapsed on a heap of feed and mulch. His eyes closed as he lay panting, hoping his pursuers were gone. But when he sat up, he found they were still there, perching on his shoulders.

“Who are you,” Kemal asked, with a vigorous shudder.

“We’re Hafaza, earthly shepherds of humans.”

“Like Farishtey, guardian angels…” he asked.

“More like archive masters—to record your deeds.”

“Are you here to help?”

“Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people unless they change it themselves.”

“Then all is lost, for it is beyond me to change,” Kemal wailed, banging his fists on his knees, and sinking back in the mound of hay.

***

On the bright, chirpy morning of Eid, Kemal, in an immaculate black achkan with a bright red rose pinned to its lapel, a Gandhi cap, carrying a small cane with a silvery head, presented himself at the gates of the Maulvi residence: his pockets quite empty of change, but his breast quite full of the hope that afflicts the young and the inexperienced. He lingered at the gatepost, caressing with some satisfaction the loose rope that hung there, the crook at its end showing a knot freshly undone. He clasped his hands in silent prayer, looked up toward the skies, and raised his step to cross the threshold.

At that very moment, a bearded man—his face eerily familiar, dressed in bulky sack clothes crossed him and blocked his way. He spread open his cloak to reveal a silver salver covered with red muslin. This he pressed into Kemal’s hands and whispered, “Give this to the Maulvi as the mahr.”

“But,” Kemal began to protest as the man began to make away. Kemal grabbed his arm. “You are the man from last night’s dream, aren’t you, the Farishtey.”

“This is your chance, man, why do you hesitate?”

The muslin had partially come off the salver in the scuffle. The salver was covered in a pile of silver coins.

“I cannot accept this—this is haram for me. Give me a chance to change things myself, dear Farishtey, and verily, then Allah will help me—isn’t this what you’d said?” Kemal thrust the gift back in the man’s hands. The ragamuffin gaped, but chose to say nothing. He shrugged and vanished behind a sea of brightly painted earthen pots and bead necklaces that hung from the bustling, gaudily decorated shop fronts.

“Adab, welcome, Kemal Mian.” A woman in a burqa had appeared at the door. She was giggling and there was a spring in her step as she grasped him by the arm and led him inside. She couldn’t be Fatima, he was sure, for she wasn’t quite the light that drew him.

Inside the brightly decorated living hall, a long row of men sat on the carpeted floor with plates piled with delicacies before them, while the Maulvi and his remaining daughters stood at the entrance welcoming the guests. Fatima, his eldest, stood right behind him: Kemal could make her out by her plump, fair hands, and the way her head followed him as he advanced tentatively in the queue. She leaned forward and whispered in her father’s ear when he came to a halt before them.