THE DROUGHT in Kutch had lasted for three successive years. Even when clouds were sighted they passed by, ignoring the stricken country. The monsoons had, so to speak, forgotten to land. The Rann lay like a paralysed monster, its back covered with scab and scar-tissue and dried blister-skin. The earth had cracked and it looked as if chunks of it had been baked in a kiln and then embedded in the soil-crust. The cattle became thin and emaciated. The oxen died. The camel alone survived comfortably, feeding on the bawal, camelthorn. Then one day the clouds rolled in like wineskins and the lightning crackled and the wineskins burst. Though two years have passed since the drought ended, everyone remembers that it first rained on the day when Fatimah entered the village. This is how she came. * * * * *
What would he not do for her, the daughter of the spice-seller; she who smelt of cloves and cinnamon, whose laughter had the timbre of ankle-bells, whose eyebrows were like black wisps of the night and whose hair was the night itself? For her he would cross the salt desert!
He had stayed the day at Kala Doongar, a black hill capped with basalt, the highest in Kutch. He had set his camel, Allahrakha, free to crop on the bawal trees. At dusk he paid homage to the footprints of the Panchmai Pir on the hilltop. He left some food there and started beating on his thali, according to the custom here. In a few minutes jackals materialised and gobbled up the food. This was auspicious. If they had not turned up he would have cancelled the journey. A lamp was lighted in the Pir's honour every night on the hilltop and the flame could be seen on all the way from Khavda. Over a hundred years earlier the Panchmai Pir had trudged these salt wastes serving the people accompanied, as legend had it, by a jackal. Reclusive by habit he used to retire to thorn jungles, where apart from his vulpine companions none else dared to disturb his nocturnal trysts. The custom of feeding the jackals had lingered since then.
Najab bowed before the flame and set out. He left behind the camelthorn shrubs and the area once famous for its savannahs of stunted grass, but now sere and brown as the desert. He had left behind all human habitation, Kuran being the last village. For the next three days he would not be seeing any bhungas, those one-room mud-houses, circular at the base, but tapering into conical thatch-roofs at the top. Now only the sand-scapes stretched out before him, mile upon mile. Water splashed in the chagals. With the name of the Pir on his lips Najab Hussain set forth.
Najab's diffidence was notorious among his friends. He was known to have blushed at the mere mention of a girl. A strangely introverted lad with dreamy eyes, no one had ever associated him with any act of bravado. His father, Aftab, would say, "All that my ancestors and I have acquired during a hundred years, this lad will squander away, not because he is a spendthrift but because he will be too shy to charge money for what he sells!" He had crossed the Rann on four occasions earlier, though he had turned twenty only a month ago. But each time he had either accompanied his father or that wily old smuggler, Zaman, the veteran of a hundred illegal trips to Sind. Each time they had taken tendu leaf worth about five hundred, and sold it across the border for twelve hundred. But between the pay-off to officials and to the intermediaries who arranged the sale of the biri leaf, to the man who took the camel out to graze and to the...