By Naureen Amjad
In the autumn of 2011, Rishma fell in love, and the city of Lahore battled dengue fever.
Master Fazal’s daughter Rishma was only 18 when love overwhelmed her and dengue assailed Lahore. This was also the year when she had suddenly blossomed and her mother had lost her sleep. More than the bloom on her cheeks, Amma was scared of the light in her eyes. The light which seemed to challenge the darkness to a duel—and it was the duel that Amma worried about.
Perhaps the same light fell on Sabir when Rishma and her friend entered a pharmacy on Jail Road to take refuge from the sudden heavy down pour. They were waiting at the bus stop when the drizzle started to become aggressive. Swathing their college duppattas around themselves, they looked around. The traffic, which wasn’t very disciplined even on normal days, had turned pell-mell under the lashing rain. A baffling orchestra of blaring horns, flashing sirens of an Edhi ambulance caught in the traffic, pom-pom of rickshaw and a wild swishing of the wipers on the trapped cars followed. In this mad orchestra, various sounds vied to be heard as if defying the ‘silent zone’ sign hanging dejectedly from the light pole.
While the two girls sat on the chairs courteously offered by the store owner and looked outside, Sabir looked at Rishma. His gaze was entangled in the dark wet tresses clinging to the nape of her neck. She was aware of his presence. While entering the store, her friend had elbowed her, and both had noticed the young, well-dressed man sitting with the storeowner. Now conscious of his gaze, she looked outside at the quickly forming puddles. Puddles had always attracted her. She liked to look inside the puddles where the world turned upside down. She always felt if she jumped inside it, she would land on the sky, and would keep bouncing back like she was bungee jumping.
The two girls whiled away the time by looking outside and talking in whispers until the rain abated, and the pharmacy owner called a rickshaw for them.
Every day following that rainy afternoon, Sabir waited at the bus stop for Rishma. For four days he summoned a rickshaw for her when it was raining, and on the fifth day he managed to elicit a smile. She saw something in his eyes and her world turned upside down, like in the puddles. The colors of her dreams changed. And as her dreams turned red, gold, and green, dengue mosquitoes held siestas in the waters left by the monsoon in the dilapidated roads due to the poor sewerage system in the provincial metropolis.
Later Sabir would refer to the rainy afternoon at the pharmacy as the onset of his own dengue fever. “It is the female mosquito that is dangerous. Once bitten you are done for,” he liked to say.
He wasn’t the only one whose thoughts were governed by dengue. As monsoon season progressed into autumn and the newspapers started giving daily roundups of the death tolls, dengue dominated the lives and conversation of all Lahoris. The tenor of life for Lahoris changed. Their sight was clouded by the constant fogging by municipal authorities trying to confuse the mosquitoes. They talked about the ways and means of defying dengue, or discussed the havoc it wreaked on their lives. They greeted each other with, “Hope no dengue yet.” They smelled of mosquito repellents. Some even developed quirks, like Rishma’s neighbor, Khala Feeroza, who turned the adage ‘precaution is better than a cure’ into an art form. Khala carried a bottle of mosquito repellent with her everywhere she went. She sprayed repellent in the rickshaw or taxi before sitting stepping in and spewed it around herself whenever she visited someone. Once, while buying vegetables from a donkey cart vendor, she splashed herself with the repellent, and the donkey took offense. It brayed and kicked the cart, spilling all the vegetables. After the incident, the vendor refused to serve her. “Should I succumb to dengue because of a mere donkey?” she said to anyone who would listen.
So the air in Lahore now carried more vapors of various sprays than oxygen, and the government decided to close the schools and colleges for fifteen days. Rishma heard about the closures from her father when he came back from the school where he taught. She hadn’t gone to college that day—she had spent the morning with Sabir at Lawrence Gardens.
“May God have mercy on us. Maulvi sahib says it’s God’s curse on us Muslims,” Master Fazal said as he took off his shoes.
Yasir, Rishma’s ten-year-old brother, who thought any curse was good if it brought so many holidays, clapped.
One day Sabir gave Rishma a cell phone, and their love story entered the next phase. It was a heady period for Rishma. Like all her neighbours, she had started burning ajwain seed on the roof and using its fumes to turn the mosquitoes away. While the smoke swirled around her, she talked to Sabir on her cell phone, oblivious to the world around her.
Amid the repellent smells of Lahore, Rishma started carrying the musky odor of love, blended with the fragrance of whitening creams and counterfeit Charlie, and alarm bells rang for her mother.
“Are you wearing khusboo?” she asked her one day.
“Amma, my friend Fareeda gave it to me. Don’t I smell good?” Rishma hugged her mother.
“Young and unmarried girls don’t wear perfume. Besides, the smell attracts the dengue mosquitoes,” Amma said, pushing her aside.
“Amma, maulvi Noor Din ascribes too much power to dengue mosquitoes,” she laughed.
“Shame on you, Rishma, for talking like that. Now go change your clothes before your father gets a whiff of you. I don’t want to find you wearing it again.”
The night before, Rishma’s father had recounted maulvi Sahib’s theory about dengue mosquitoes, that the entire dengue episode was God’s punishment for Muslims, especially females, who had gone astray.
“Because of dengue, women have started wearing full sleeves, they can’t go out after Maghreb prayers, and they can’t wear perfume and cosmetics for fear of attracting dengue. Dengue is out to bring wayward females to the righteous path,” Master Fazal had said, repeating the entire sermon.
Risma told Sabir about the sermon the next morning, while they were sitting in the Lawrence Gardens under an old eucalyptus tree, and this is how she found out that Sabir was maulvi Noor Din’s son. He laughed and told her that he knew the sermon well. That day Sabir said they needed to start meeting somewhere else because gardens were becoming hubs of dengue mosquitoes. He suggested his friend’s tire shop. They could be alone there because everyone thought dengue mosquitoes slept inside tires.
“You aren’t afraid of the dengue mosquitoes in a tire shop?” asked Rishma.
“I am sure they won’t disturb us there.” Sabir smiled and pressed her hand.
And Sabir had a point about the gardens. All around, banners of various sizes now fluttered. Some suggested and outlined precautions against dengue, while the others described the nature and habits of dengue mosquitoes. One big banner nearby warned that dengue mosquitoes were attracted to moisture, breath, sweat, and body heat.
In the storeroom of the tire shop they were safe. The mosquitoes left them alone. Or maybe they were hiding in the tires, busy with their own intrigues.
By the end of November, when the nights carried the distinct smell of winter, Lahore got back its old sounds. The dengue mosquitoes began to lose their verve, smog smothered Lahore, the flagging business at the tire shop picked up, and Sabir told Rishma that he was going to Dubai.
“Dubai?” she said. She had again missed her morning class and they were standing outside the tyre shop.
“Don’t worry. I will talk to my father about us before going,” he said. He summoned a rickshaw for her by waving his right arm.
She wanted to say something more, but the rickshaw arrived too quickly and stopped nearby, waiting for her to get inside.
Three days later, Master Fazal came back from the mosque with a small box of sweets. He told them maulvi Noor Din’s son was betrothed in a nikah ceremony at the mosque and had left for Dubai last night.
“Because the dengue can’t follow him there?” Yasir asked, taking a laddoo from the box. He had begun to believe that all human actions were governed by precautions against dengue.
Rishma took a sip of water to wet her throat, which had suddenly constricted, and rose to go. ‘‘I am going on the roof top to burn ajwain,” she managed to say.
“There is no need to do that. The dengue season is almost over,” Amma said.
“I’ll do it anyway.”
On the roof top she poured ajwain on the burning coals, and the bitter smoke rose from the ajwain and filled the space around her. Her eyes burned, but not from the smoke.
Naureen Amjad has a background in gender and development studies. She writes fiction to make sense of life as it happens in moments and memories. She lives in Lahore, Pakistan.