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Meet Anita from Fatima Bhutto’s ‘The Runaways’

Anita Rose lives in a concrete block in one of Karachi’s biggest slums, languishing in poverty with her mother and older brother. Determined to escape her stifling circumstances, she struggles to educate herself, scribbling down English words-gleaned from watching TV or taught by her elderly neighbour-in her most prized possession: a glossy red notebook. All the while she is aware that a larger destiny awaits her.
Here is an excerpt from Fatima Bhutto’s new book, The Runaways, that will introduce us to Anita Rose.

The moon hangs low in the night.
Anita Rose Joseph closes her eyes. She opens them.
The stars are drowned by Karachi’s endless curls of dirt and smog, the glow of the terminal, and the floodlights mounted to blind the road leading towards Jinnah International Airport.
Anita Rose keeps her gaze down, away from the towering billboards advertising Gulf Airlines and skin- lightening creams. ‘Max Fairness for Max Confidence,’ a purple- and-black advertisement promises over the smiling face of a
famously fair cricketer. She walks alongside the queued- up Pajeros and Toyotas, impatiently and pointlessly honking, climbing the long slope to the departure terminal.
Under the cover of darkness, before the floodlights bleed into dawn, a mynah bird, with its yellow banditbeak and orange eyes cut through its coarse black plumage, sings.
Anita lifts her eyes for a moment, looking for the lonely bird. But in the early hours of the morning she can see nothing in the dark, empty sky, not even the dacoit dressed up as a mynah bird. The moon carries only the heaviness of the city, suspended in the charcoal sky.
Anita pulls her dupatta tighter around her face. She closes her eyes, irritated by the blinding floodlights, and opens them, breathing slowly, reminding herself of what she must do.
She holds her passport and red notebook tight against her chest and exhales deeply. Aside from a small bag with a necessary change of clothing and some make- up, she has no other luggage.
Ahead, a Pajero inches forward; it brakes at the checkpoint manned by armed commandos. A Ranger with a submachine gun strapped to his chest walks towards the Pajero, but no one gets out of the car. The front window rolls down, letting out a blast of English pop music as a driver relays the name of a VIP. Anita moves slowly, not wanting to draw attention to herself. She stops just before she reaches the jeep and waits for it to pass.
Even with the loud music, the rumble of the running engine and the sound of the commandos circling the car, lifting the bonnet, opening the back, searching it for explosives, Anita Rose can still hear the mynah bird.
On Netty Jetty, overlooking the mangroves that crawl thin just before the Arabian Sea, kites swarm the sky like a thick cover of clouds, waiting for lovers to throw chunks of meat to them – or if the lovers cannot afford the bloody parcels sold on the bridge, then small doughy balls of bread. In the chaos of Karachi’s congested traffic, surrounded by barefoot boys promising in their high- pitched voices that your dreams will come true if you feed the hungry, Anita always felt protected by the soar of kites. And though she is almost certain that the mynah she hears so late at night is all alone, she is also almost certain that it has come to walk her safely through the airport, with its yellow feet and bandit- beak, and out of this city forever.
The Pajero’s engine is still running and the fumes from its exhaust choke the air around Anita. Coughing into her
palm, she doesn’t hear the VIP’s name, but she can see the silhouette of a young woman, voluminous hair held back by sunglasses, perched on the crown of her head. The VIP presses a button and her window begins to open. No one lowers the music; it plays at full volume, percussion and thumping bass. As the VIP moves, a piece of jewellery reflects everywhere, a thousand rays of iridescent light.
The Ranger with the Heckler & Koch cranes his neck to see through the narrow slit. As salam alaikum, he salutes the VIP briskly.
Anita looks behind her, there’s no one there. No one has followed her here.
As the Pajero raises its windows, muffling the music, and begins its climb towards the terminal, and before airport security can see her, Anita traces the shadow of a cross along the hollow of her clavicle. No one has noticed she has gone. No one except the birds.
Anita Rose lifts the thumb that drew the sign of the holy cross to her lips and closes her eyes for a kiss.

This city will take your heart, Osama had told her. You don’t know what Karachi does to people like us. Take your heart, do you hear?
Anita had not understood the rage in his voice then. She had not understood that he was angry for her, long before anyone had hurt her. Anita didn’t like it when she didn’t understand Osama. No matter her age, those moments made her feel just as puny and small as she had been the first time she knocked on his gunmetal door, all those years ago.
It was late at night and Anita had snuck out of her mother’s suffocating home to be with him, with Osama comrade sahib. Her only ally. Her one true friend. The evening was perfumed by champa flowers that bloomed amongst the garbage in Machar Colony and that summer, just before the monsoons, the scent of the white flowers was so strong Anita could no longer smell the sea.
‘How do I protect myself?’ she had asked him. Osama ran his hand through his dishevelled silver hair. He lifted his spirit and drank the medicinal liquid slowly, before placing the glass smudged with his fingerprints on his knee and leaning forward, so close that Anita could count the fine grooves of his iris, the lines that cut and coloured the warm brown of his eyes.
‘You take their heart,’ he whispered, even though no one could hear them on the roof – not the trees that wilted in the summer heat, not the constellation of yellowand-white flowers that bloomed in the rain. ‘Anita Rose,’ Osama caught himself on her name, ‘promise me: you take theirs first.’

The Runaways is an explosive new novel that asks difficult questions about modern identity in a world on fire.

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