We’re pleased to present an excerpt from The River, The Town, a new novel by Farah Ali available now from Dzanc Books. The novel’s scope encompasses over thirty years and focuses on, in the words of the publisher, “the breakup of a Pakistani family in the face of climate disaster, and their indefatigable search for stability, love, and belonging.”
We get a new Urdu teacher. She is fresh from the City, therefore excited and optimistic. She asks us to analyze a poem about forbearance. She asks us to write an essay on the virtue of abstaining from too much food and water. We read a story about a learned man from centuries ago who spent two days on this bit of land that is our Town and declared it was a blessed land, a place for special people. She brings her TV and VCR to school in her car all the way from her home and for the next five days we watch short videos on the topics of true happiness in the face of trials. Then, one afternoon, the fans in the classroom stop moving; the power has gone out. We find it harder and harder to move our pens over paper and our eyeballs over text. We become hot and thirsty. We become tired of studying the same subject. One by one we fall asleep, or maybe only I do.
My mother has started making loud sounds at home. She sighs and moans as she dusts; when she is in the kitchen, she mutters. She walks slowly and holds her hips though she is not an old woman. My father keeps his eyes down or in front of him, never straight at her, not even when she is addressing him. The color of his face does not change, the slow movements of his jaws as he chews remain the same. I stay out later and later but no matter what time I come home my mother is there, waiting for me with the light turned off. She yells out words as I rush to my room. Liar, thief, shit thief, bastard liar. I stop going home after school. I go to Chacha Ameer’s shop where, once every few days, I manage to convince him to give me an old packet of chips.
I meet my friends at Darya Park one day, after Juman is done at the clothes shop. There was a poster with a photograph of this park in the pharmacy that was set on fire. In the picture, the trees were a bright green, the sky a wonderful blue, the grass laid out like a carpet. The park we go to contains the same three things—grass, trees, sky—but they are all shades of yellow. It is how my friends and I have always known it. Only the water in the stream has changed a little in front of us. It has gone down by a few inches, revealing mud clinging to rocks. We take off our shoes, roll up the legs of our pants, and go down the short slope. The mixture of soil and water comes up to a little above our ankles. We curl and uncurl our toes and drag our feet through the ooze. Kawsar begins to walk toward a small puddle in the drying stream. He pulls his T-shirt over his head and flings it onto the bank on our right. When he reaches the puddle, he gets down on his hands and knees and lies down in the water, face to one side.
“Have you gone crazy?” Juman laughs.
“Get up, you look stupid,” I say.
Kawsar raises himself on one elbow, scoops water with one hand into his mouth.
“You’ll get sick.”
“Try it. It’s not that bad.” Kawsar’s grin shows through the mud on his face.
Juman tenses up. Then he tears off his shirt and, with a wild laugh, jumps into the puddle. “Come on, Baadal!” he shouts.
It has been three weeks since my mother has allowed me to take a bath. Slowly, I kneel next to my friends. The coolness of the water spreads over and into my clothes, across my stomach and chest and down my legs. I touch the water with my tongue; the mud is gritty, like I remember it.
I get home a little after midnight. My mother is not there. I enter my room, switch on the light, and see my schoolbooks on the floor, torn in half along their spines. I lock my door. From my bag, I pull out other books, the ones she missed, and, one by one, render them into halves of themselves. It is easy; they are all old, used several times over, the paper giving way easily. I turn out the light and lay on my bed, digging my fingernails into my arms until I fall asleep.
My father has got a job. This is how he tells us he found it: “I went to a shoe seller, I sat on the floor, and I cried. The shoe seller said, you can help me with my accounts. And I said, thank you.”
He brings us two pairs of shoes from the shop, one for my mother and one for me. They are imperfect; one pair has faulty soles and the other has misaligned shoelace holes. That’s why he was able to get them for a lot less than their original price. I give Kawsar my old shoes and he puts them on without any questions, throwing away his own broken ones whose soles had begun to flap when he walked. He is very careful with his new shoes; whenever we are in the shade, he takes them off and walks barefoot.
Our school principal told us today that we have received funding from the City for a special Town project: everyone from class 10 and above has to participate in the creation of a mural. We are to paint the wall across from the school, on the other side of the main road. The principal read from a paper in his hand. “You are to make pictures of butterflies, rainbows, trees, ponds, fish in ponds. Happy things.”
The main road is wide but crossing it is easy because there are not many cars at this time of the morning. We carry buckets of paint and a large brush each. Our teacher makes groups of us and tells us what to do. “You paint pink flowers, the size of your palms. You make a tree; make sure the trunk is brown and the leaves are green.” He hands each group a piece of paper with a picture on it. The teacher moves down the line to where Juman, Kawsar, and I are waiting. “You have to paint a stream that will flow along the last third of the wall, all the way from one end to the other.” In addition to a sheet of paper, he gives us two trays. “For when you need to mix.” He moves on and I hear him say, from group to group, “Fish. Spray of water. Green grass.”
We look at the paper in my hands. It has a single photograph of a wide stream, with flecks of white mixed up with grey. It looks like a living body of water, nothing like the sluggish one in Darya Park. Juman whistles and says, “This isn’t an intestine.”
“Do we have enough for all that?” Kawsar asks. We examine the cans of paint given to us; dark blue, black, white. They seem very measured and precise and well thought-out. Hesitantly, we dip our brushes into the colors and move the bristles over the wall. After a few minutes Juman empties a little blue and a little white on one of the trays. We spend all morning painting the stream. When the teacher tells us that we are done we rise stiffly, surprised by how sweaty our faces and how cramped our fingers are.
We paint for three days in a row. We go to school, we leave our bags in our classrooms, we cross the road and make our stream, our controlled sunshine, our imaginary beasts and healthy cows, our insects and plants. On the fourth day we start to settle down by the wall when the teacher on duty starts to shout. “Kasrat! Kasrat!” I look up to see a boy standing in the middle of the road. What is he waiting for? I wonder dully, my mind busy on getting the correct combination of colors to get a nice grey for a section of the stream. Kasrat doesn’t look back at us. The teacher starts to walk toward him at the same time that a van appears around a corner and comes down the road. The teacher is now running; the van swerves into another lane but Kasrat is fast; he gets his legs struck. We are sent home early.
Two days later we resume painting the mural. News flows up and down the line: Kasrat has fractures in both legs; what he really wanted to do was die; he was tired of being hot and hungry. His parents are trying to arrange a transfer to a City hospital. They really should have been careful when naming him Kasrat, which means abundance.
By the end of the month we finish the mural. It is colorful and busy. We admire each other’s skills and shyly admit that our own work isn’t too bad. The school principal takes photographs of the wall and of us with a camera lent to him by the same group that has funded this whole project.
“They will put it in the City’s newspaper,” he tells us.
Kawsar tells me he had a vision a few days ago. In his vision he saw a white shirt with crisscrossing black stripes on the front and back. He says the shirt is at the used clothes shop and he is going to go get it, he’s got enough money for it. I look at Kawsar’s triangular face and his eyes which appear overlarge in it. We go to the shop together. It is the same one where Juman is working. I don’t see him there but there are too many other things inside to think about that. The shop is a room with three tables in the middle and a few shelves along the walls. On one table there is a jumble of T-shirts, pants, and shalwar qameez. This is the men’s section. Next to it is ladies’ clothing; more colorful, longer. The shelves have more items, boxes with labels written on them in black marker: child 2–4, or child/boy 6–8, etc. Some say shoes. One box reads ties/shoelaces. Kawsar is already busy holding T-shirts up in the fluorescent light. They are white with blue stripes.
“Is that the one you saw?” I ask.
“No, the stripes are wrong.”
I leave him to his hunt and hold up a jacket. When I see a shirt similar to the one Kawsar thinks he had a vision of, I pick it up for him to see. I am trying on a pair of blue shoes when I hear him shout, “I found it!” He is holding a black shirt with the pattern he described.
“That is some luck,” I say. From the corner of my eye I see the store clerk raise his head from behind his table.
Kawsar holds the creased shirt carefully. “I knew I would find it.”
“I’m happy for you, friend.”
He smiles brightly and goes to pay.
Kawsar wears that shirt every day, even on the hottest days. I try to stay at home for dinner so I can save some part of it to take to him. Weeks go by and he doesn’t mention another vision, so I think his mind has stopped going away because there is a little more food in his body. But one day he says to me and Juman that behind the tire shop is a rusting tin box, and in the box is a puppy, and we follow him in his graying white shirt with the black stripes to where the tires make a rubber labyrinth, and when he rushes ahead then falls into a crouch, we run to him and find him holding a puppy.
In July everything in the Town settles into an uneasy stillness. Brown houses sit heavily upon the earth. People walk slower, conserving energy. When we walk, our shirts quickly become dark with our sweat. We stay silent; if we open our mouths they become filled with wool-like thirst. Then, in two days, two children die of dysentery, and these were children of people who live in the bigger houses with painted bricks, so news of their deaths goes around the Town very quickly. Other things we hear: the father from one set of the parents screams at the doctor for killing his child. Then he walks into the school and bellows at the child’s teacher. The teacher does not fight back, does not wipe away the father’s spittle that has landed on his face. When the father is done, the teacher quietly hands him the child’s half-full water bottle. At home the father empties all of it into his mouth and hugs it as he curls up in bed. He falls sick, refuses treatment, and dies.
The principal shuts down the school, walks to the river in the park, and settles down on a bedsheet with prayer beads in one hand. His wife waits until nightfall for him to come back home, and when he doesn’t, she goes down to talk to him. He tells her he is going to stay by the river for a while, maybe a week or a month. His wife said she doesn’t understand, and why is he not wearing his nicer clothes? Why is he in a shirt with a torn collar and pants with holes in the knees? He explains to her gently that there has been so much death in the Town because people are not being honest with themselves about their sins. His wife loses the color in her face, looks at her husband, wide-eyed, and croaks, “You have gone crazy.” She goes away, angry and crying. Our principal stays on his bedsheet.
People start visiting him. Some think he looks more translucent and pure; others, like his wife, think he ought to be forcefully carried home. Those who believe in him become a larger group than those who don’t. I join them one day.
“This is a bad time again,” he says to us, raising his voice a little. It is thin, like his hair, which now touches his earlobes.
Some in the crowd moan and shake their heads in agreement.
“This is because among us all we have accumulated a lot of wrong. A great deal of wrong. Until that is properly atoned for, we are not going to have water from above or below.”
“That is the truth!” someone yells.
“We must give up lying.”
“We must stop lying,” the people echo.
“We need to do some purification,” the principal says. “And that can only be done if we spend some time by the river, reflecting, away from our usual habits of wanting, always wanting.”