Djinns, the invisible beings made of smokeless fire, are Allah’s creations. Human beings cannot create or beget them, but whether it was a djinn or not, a rumour took birth that day that a djinn had been born at the residence of Noor ul Haq, barrister- at-law.

Farhat Haq, the wife of barrister Noor ul Haq, almost died in labour that day. It had nothing to do with the delivery, wretched as it was, but had everything to do with that horrible midwife, Kaneez, and her piercing screams: “Djinn, djinn! Oh Allah, he’s a djinn! Take him away from me. Take him away from me; he will get inside me!”

What a thing to say after such excruciating labour and the relief of finally giving birth successfully after eleven miscarriages! True, propriety had never been Kaneez’s strong suit, but a stupid outburst like that at such a critical hour was something that not even Farhat had expected from that ignorant one-eyed churail.

The well-established superstition is that churails are the most terrible creatures on this side of the Ganga. Born with inverted feet and an ingrained nail in their skulls, these one-eyed Medusas are believed to thrive on children’s livers. Women who die in childbirth are sometimes reincarnated as churails who come back to seek revenge on other pregnant women. Everyone in Pakistan knows this even though the Qur’an doesn’t mention churails.

Everyone in Pakistan also knows about djinns, the invisible beings made of smokeless fire; they exist because they are mentioned in the Qur’an. They are Allah’s creation. Women can’t carry them in their wombs for nine months, nor can they give birth to them. So how could Kaneez utter such nonsense with her loudspeaker-like mouth and broadcast that rubbish to the entire neighbourhood? How do you control a rumour once it leaves her blathering mouth? You can’t! It grows wings and flies into every ear.

The malicious gossip that a hideous djinn had been born at Kashana-e-Haq, the sprawling residence of Noor ul Haq, on that fateful day in October 1951 acquired such currency that many people avoided going there for a long time. The day had begun as a scorcher, and no sooner had the sun come out from behind the eastern hills of Karachi than the city turned into a veritable tandoor, broiling everything in sight: buckling up roads, flaring tempers and wilting flowers.

It was not even noon, and yet it felt like dozakh, or the sixth circle of Dante’s hell. The chowkidar sat on a concrete bench under a neem tree just outside the front gate of the barrister’s house, dozing off, his head falling forward on to his chest, jerking up now and again. The discarded front page of the Morning Gazette got picked up by the hot wind and caught against his leg, the picture of the first prime minister of Pakistan, with his fist raised, and his title, Leader of the Nation, prominently displayed on it.

Suddenly, an ear-splitting horn from a black Hudson Commodore startled the chowkidar. He jumped up and instinctively saluted the car, as the Gazette’s front page peeled away from his leg, carried off by the warm breeze. From inside the vehicle, Noor ul Haq’s driver, Sikander, craned his neck out and shouted at the chowkidar, “Oye! Son of Genghis Khan, you are supposed to guard the house, not sleep.”

“Oye, Quaid-e-Azam, let a man sleep! How am I going to guard this Taj Mahal if I don’t sleep well?” the chowkidar roared.

The servants shared a spirited relationship, always joking and pulling each other’s leg. The guard’s name was Changez Gul, but Sikander teasingly called him Genghis Khan’s son. Changez returned the favour by calling Sikander Quaid-e-Azam, the Great Leader, the title given to the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

It was not because Sikander was the founder’s biggest fan or admired his politics; it was because he bore an uncanny resemblance to him. Tall, gaunt, with a triangular face and a slight gap between his front teeth that was noticeable only when he smiled broadly, Sikander could have passed for the founder’s twin brother. However, that is where the similarities ended and the differences magnified. But to Changez, it was the similarities that mattered the most.

He opened the wrought-iron gate and let Sikander drive the car into the front porch. The driver had just returned home after bringing fresh naans for the luncheon that Noor had organized for his circle of intellectual friends. After closing the gate, Changez returned to his seat and twirled his thick black moustache. Then, leaning his head back against the brass nameplate set into the gatepost behind him, he closed his eyes again.

The name, Kashana-e-Haq, meaning the House of Haq, or, in English, the Abode of Truth, had been carefully chosen by barrister Noor ul Haq. It was the only house on the street with a name instead of a number. No one knew if the name was a statement of sorts or if the barrister wanted to establish his aristocratic credentials in his adopted country. His house was in the Bihar Housing Society, a comparatively new and planned neighbourhood of Karachi.

Uprooted from their homeland with the partition of India in 1947, the refugees brought pieces of their ancestral hearts to Karachi and built pockets of memory markers, giving them names like Delhi Muslim Society, Hyderabad Colony, Bangalore Town, Rajputana Colony and Agra Taj Colony.

The streets of Bihar Housing Society, usually swarming with people, were deserted that morning. Most Sunday mornings were greeted by the discordant clamour of kids playing cricket in the park nearby, or the cacophony of snarled traffic and the competing calls of hustling pedlars. But that day, the heat muzzled the urban symphony; it swept away all memory of the floods of July and drove everyone away, except for a lone subzi-wallah, a vegetable hawker, who pushed his rickety cart to establish his monopoly in the neighbourhood.

Inside the Kashana, the ceiling fans recirculated hot air at full speed while the heavy silk curtains, drawn in every room, struggled to keep the house cool and dark. The mouth-watering aroma of tandoori meat, wafting out from the kitchen, was the only reminder that not everything had gone to hell. In the background, the radio blasted a hit song from a recently released Indian movie.

When the song ended, three loud beeps signalled the start of the midday news broadcast: “This is Radio Pakistan: The news, read by Mukhbir Alam. We have just received information from our weather bureau that the temperature today has already reached a 110 degrees Fahrenheit and is expected to go up to 120 degrees later in the day. There is no relief in sight. The government has promised that it will leave no stone unturned to provide assistance to the heat-ravaged needy. In other news, the prime minister will be making an important speech today about...”

Barrister Noor had just finished a long, relaxing shower, but he felt like returning to the bathroom again when he heard about the temperature on the radio. He had come out into his bedroom wearing a white bathrobe, monogrammed distinctively with his initials, NUH, embroidered in navy blue, his greying chest hair visible above the robe’s lapels. The room was too dark, so he turned on the bedroom light, only to be rebuked by his wife.

“Oh ho! Why did you turn on the light?” Farhat asked, still lying in bed in her nightclothes, her massive belly, her puffy face and the dark circles under her eyes all attesting to the full term of her difficult pregnancy. Letting out a loud sigh of irritation, she slowly turned over, carefully holding her lower abdomen as she did so.

Noor switched the light off and asked sheepishly, “How are you feeling?”

There was no reply, so he asked her a different question, “Do you want your lunch in bed?”

She snubbed him again, the silence in the bedroom shattered by the piercing call of the subzi-wallah outside: “Very, very cheap! So many treats: potatoes, spinach, cauliflower, beets!”

“Don’t you want to eat anything?” Noor persisted.

“I’ll eat when I am hungry. I don’t need your constant nagging.”

“I am just concerned about you, my jaanum, my life. You should be eating for two.”

“Leave me alone and go to your dear friends.”

“They are not here yet. Can I get you anything before I go?” Farhat did not feel like answering such stupid questions, especially when she was so miserable. They seemed more like apologies-in-advance for the day-long neglect her husband planned to inflict on her. The mocking of the wall clock became louder as she watched Noor put on his silk kurta-pyjama.

He stooped a little to see his face in the mirrored dresser and began applying Brylcreem to his thinning salt-and-pepper hair. Then, methodically and with purpose, he combed his hair. Picking up the white bottle of Old Spice cologne, he slapped a few drops on his clean-shaven face and looked at himself in the mirror again.

As he leaned towards the mirror, he noticed the bluish bump on the left side of his head – a mortifying reminder of the fall he had had at the Sindh Club two nights ago. It still hurt a little when he touched it. The memory, although a bit blurry, shamed him. He had drunk way too much that night, but then it was hard to resist a single malt Scotch whisky, especially when it was Balvenie and paid for by a client. Rumour had it that the founder of Pakistan used to drink the same expensive Scotch daily. The thought brought a proud smile to his face; he was in good company.

Of Smokeless Fire

Excerpted with permission from Of Smokeless Fire, AA Jafri, Penguin Viking.