The house, in an area that looked entirely unfamiliar and nowhere close to where Arif had searched for Kamal after he arrived in Lahore with the obviously outdated address, was wedged between two three-storey structures and might have originally been a garage. A number-plate on the door dangled from a loose nail, the numbers on it indistinct, blurred. The street, with no signs to indicate what it was called, was uninhabited and quiet except for the sound of film songs following from where they had just come. Kamal rapped on the door gently with his knuckles. It was raining heavily now.

A woman opened the door to let them in. She must have been in her late thirties. A look of surprise flitted across her face, then vanished.

“Come in, come in, you’re soaked,” she said and with a hasty look at the street, quickly closed the door behind them.

“This is Nadira,” Kamal said, undoing his ponytail and wringing his wet hair. “And this is Sabir’s childhood friend Arif.”

“Salaamalekum,” Arif said, wiping moisture from his face with a soggy handkerchief. A heater buzzed invitingly in the middle of the room.

She smiled congenially. “Oh, so this is Arif. Walekumsalaam.”

Arif looked surprised.

Chuckling, she said, “He talked about you a lot when he came back from Sialkot.”

“Oh, what did he say? That I was a naïve idealist, a fool with silly dreams of becoming a poet?”

“I don’t remember now, it was so long ago. But I remember that he wanted to see you again.”

“See me again?” Arif looked at Kamal in surprise and burst into a laugh.

Kamal raised his eyebrows knowingly. “Of course,’ he said, ‘why do you laugh? You think you were the only one looking?”

Arif shook his head in dismay. As usual one couldn’t win with Kamal.

“Come, sit here,” Kamal pointed to a chair and sat down on one of two charpais that were the only other furniture in the room besides a short, squat table.

Who was Nadira? The mystery woman of dubious character? Kamal’s love? She quickly moved away toward a recessed area that served as a kitchen.

The room was small with one window looking out on the wall of an adjoining building, a house perhaps or another quarter like theirs. The plaster on the walls, which were unadorned, was peeling, a dank smell, combined with food odours pervaded the room. There was a door on one side, probably leading to the bathroom. This wasn’t a house, nor a home, just a place to stay in for a while, and perhaps hide. A few travelling bags were stacked in one corner.

“Food is ready, I hope you didn’t eat Deenu’s samosas,” Nadira said, handing Kamal a small towel. One would think she had been waiting for Kamal to bring Arif with him. Kamal and he exchanged guilty looks. She caught their exchange and shook her head with a mock frown.

She had deep-set thoughtful eyes and sharp features, her hair, long and dark with stray grey streaks in the front, was in a plait. Dressed in a brightly coloured shalwar and kameez, she had thrown a black woollen shawl around her shoulders. A shiny stud sparkled on her nose and small beaded earrings dangled from her ear lobes. Her hands were slender, long fingers ringed. She started humming as she prepared lunch.

The smell of gas followed by the aroma of spices and garlic soon filled the air.

“You married, Arif?” Kamal asked, lighting a cigarette.

“Oh! No, no, sir,” Arif shook his head vehemently.

“He doth protest too much.” Kamal smiled. “Waiting to fall in love?”

It was Arif’s turn to smile. “Yes, waiting.”

When Nadira brought supper on a wooden tray – thick yellow daal sprinkled with sprightly green coriander sprigs and served with piping hot roti – Arif noticed her wrists were full with red and black glass bangles. He would never give her up in “exchange for a few ounces of honour,” Kamal had said.

“Eat,” Kamal signalled Arif to start. Nadira sat next to Kamal on the charpai, close, their bodies touching, completely at ease at this exhibition of intimacy in the presence of a strange man. Once she lifted a hand and lovingly pushed back a lock of wet hair from his forehead and then she and Kamal began talking to each other as though Arif was not in the room. Pointing to a pile of papers next to the charpai, she gave him details about someone from their organisation who had stopped by to drop off pamphlets.

Arif broke off a piece of roti and scooped up some daal. He had not eaten a meal with a friend yet and sitting here, in this small, colourless room with sparse furnishings, he felt he had come home. The morsel in his mouth tasted as manna would have. Memories of his mother’s table, the small dining room in Sialkot, the sun streaming through the window overlooking the walled courtyard, his father’s nod with every morsel that was meant as an acknowledgement of his mother’s cooking, the tastes that swirled in his own mouth as he chewed the food, all came flooding back. He ate ravenously.

“You’re not eating?” Arif asked when he saw Nadira wasn’t serving herself. She had been looking on with an amused look.

“I ate already,” she replied. “Can’t wait until Kamal shows up, never know when he’ll make an appearance.”

“She’s right, I’m always delayed,” Kamal said, swallowing a morsel. “The daal is exceptionally good,” he added with relish.

Arif nodded in appreciation, feeling the familiar flavour of daal swell in his mouth like happiness.

Throwing back her head, she laughed throatily. “Actually I didn’t make it, I got it from the corner food-wallah, the one who makes the best daal in town. Why cook when you can buy, and he’s cheap.”

“She doesn’t know how to cook,” Kamal explained with a grin, “but she does know how to make tea.”

He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. Nadira cleared the plates and brought tea in three mugs and set them on the same tray on which food had been served. The aroma of strong tea thick with boiled milk and steeped in cardamom filled the room.

Arif took a sip. “It’s good, nectar of the gods,” he said approvingly.

“This I made myself,” Nadira said with a chuckle, adjusting a lock of hair that had escaped from her braid.

Nadira and Kamal seemed like an old married couple, their banter endowing the moment with a certain lightness, which made one forget the reasons for their presence in these gloomy living quarters.

“Nadira,” Kamal said, “give him a pamphlet. Tell me what you think, Arif.”

She handed one to Arif and he riffled through it, then stopped to read a few passages.

The recent murder of a brave human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman reminds us of the society we have shaped. It is now an unregulated space where even defending the rights of an accused is a crime…the local state authorities did next to nothing to protect him… 

It seems when it comes to religiously motivated violence, the might of the state disappears. Victims of theBlasphemy Law are no longer fit for due process. They need to be punished directly. A few days after the murder of Rehman, another accused of blasphemy was shot dead by a teenager in a police station near Lahore… 

…those who advocated against its misuse were also silenced through litigation in courts by the right-wing lobbies that no longer constitute the lunatic fringe. In fact, the idea of blasphemy as a threat to the nation’s carefully constructed ‘Islamic’ identity mixes passion, politics and power… A state that quietly smiles at the success of its project is now complicit in mob justice and even brutal killings such as the one that took Rashid Rehman’s life.

“Sir, this will get you into trouble,” Arif said anxiously, looking up at Kamal.

“Trouble?” Kamal laughed. “But I’m already in trouble, Arif.”

Excerpted with permission from The History Teacher of Lahore, Tahira Naqvi, Speaking Tiger Books.