Every afternoon the lady steals from the butcher and takes us to the river.
If you walk northeast along the banks of the Ravi past the many tents lining its sandy edge, you will eventually hit the Ravi Bridge and the car park that is just off it. Under the bridge, hundreds of squatter families live in tin sheds or battered canvas, their nude children running around, mingling with packs of stray dogs (one of which is always limping). Overhead, brown cheel kites whirl, their shrill whistles and angled wings filling the sky.
This is where the thief brings us in a pink plastic bag. The bag – a veritable prison camp packed with my siblings and me – accentuates our natural rubor.
The thief-lady hands us to a golden-haired girl in a filthy shalwar kameez and says: “No less than 40 rupees per throw.”
The girl nods. As she turns and heads to the centre of the bridge she swings the bag; it gives me a headache. She continues her infernal swinging while she waits with three other children who are already whistling and hooting at vehicles speeding by.
Soon enough a motorbike skids to a stop near us. The biker, a fortyish man who is not wearing a helmet, speaks to the woman whose arms are around him, and my girl races forward, dupatta bouncing on her head.
“Sadqa cheel gosht, sahib?” she cries. “Just 50 rupees to cast the evil eye away. The cheel will eat to their fill and pray for your and your family. No greater deed than feeding hungry birds, sahib.”
The woman on the bike eyes the girl. “My Allah, 50 is too much. Can we do 30?”
“Older sister, we don’t haggle over sacrificial meat.” The girl looks wounded. “Forty is the lowest I can go.”
Money and product exchange hands. Above us the tawaaf-like circling and whistling of the cheels intensify; they have glimpsed the prize: Me. I am in the fistful of meat the woman carries to the railing.
“In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Mercy-giving.” She draws her hand back and flings us into the river.
I am tumbling in the air. Falling. The river glints below me – the sorry polluted stream that is left of it anyways.
Once the Ravi was a powerful angry deluge of a river that surged up the moats of Lahore, touched the Walled City at Khizri Gate, brought merchants and soldiers of the Great Mughals to the city in royal ferries. The riverbanks were lined with reeds that teemed with crabs and minnows; children splashed in the shallows and swam in sparkling clean water. Every day fisher folk caught and sold nets full of fish with ample left over for dinner.
Then came unprecedented growth in Lahore’s population, bringing with it unregulated industry with millions of tonnes of toxic effluents and raw human sewage that virtually wiped out Ravi’s aquatic life. Gone are the mahseer, jamuna catfish, mola carplets, and razorbelly minnow. The river has been so thoroughly poisoned that children of squatters and surrounding fishing community remnants frequently get skin infections from dipping in the water. Conservationists have been struggling to find evidence of river life even several kilometres downstream from Lahore city. Most waterfowl have emigrated for cleaner waters.
The only birds that remain and thrive here – that Lahoris give their prayers and dreams to along with offerings of animal offal – are the cheel kites.
God-like, these predators soar through Lahore’s skies: above the river; the canal system that runs through the city’s heart like an artery; the bridges that connect the poshest of areas with the most destitute. They swoop down to catch cheel gosht thrown by superstitious city-folk, their powerful brown bodies occasionally colliding with car windows and windshields. The cheel has disrupted the city’s ecosystem drastically, reducing the once more than 200 species of avifauna in Lahore to about 90 or so.
Who knew a thick ligamentous chunk of meat the butcher slices off his animals and throws in the street could do such damage?
A screech and a whistle rise in the air.
I spin and arc towards Ravi’s surface. In the distance, camels sit chewing crud on the dry riverbed, tiny birds perched on their humps. What kind? A tired-looking ferryman rows across the thinned water, and the emptiness of his boat – no Sunday picnickers in these foul shallows – saddens me. A dozen pink plastic bags eddy in the river.
The whistling turns into a drawn out whinnying.
Suddenly, a shadow with a forked tail fills my vision. Yellow legs tipped with strong black talons lunge and seize me; and I am taken away, as always, to the abode of the cheel-god.