Note to reader:
This is a story I have been thinking about writing for 26 years.
In 1989, I’d just started studying in Lucknow, and lived in a student’s hostel on the bank of the river Gomti, across a red stone bridge dating from British times. The surroundings of the hostel were, at that time, a slum, though the place has undergone a social upgrade in recent years.
One day in either December 1989 or January 1990 – the precise date eludes me at this distance in time – a body was left under the bridge, by the side of the river. It was almost certainly a gangland killing; the corpse was of a male, stripped of clothing except for underpants, and with the head smashed completely by a heavy stone to prevent recognition. I remember seeing the corpse and the crowd gathered around it as I went to class that foggy winter morning long ago; I have no idea if they ever found the killers, or if they even tried to. Apart from the unknown man’s relatives, who might still perhaps be waiting for some word of him, the whole thing was speedily forgotten.
But I didn’t forget, and over the last two and a half decades I’ve often wondered how I could write a story around it. It took a long time for the ideas to come, and then it was a kind of fever which consumed me until I got it all written down.
So this, at long last, is that story.
...While you sleep there’s a whole world coming alive
Abel and his brother
Fighting one another
In and out of every dive.
~ Tony Christie, Avenues and Alleyways.
Kavita had gone out to fetch milk for the baby when she saw the crowd.
The baby was two months old, and normally Kavita’s mother would have been breast feeding her. But something had gone wrong, and the older woman’s breasts had run dry this time. Not surprising, she said, after six children, not when she was forty. But it meant that someone had to fetch milk, and Kavita had to do it.
Kavita had to fetch pretty much everything now, since she had finished taking the school exams and, her family said, therefore had “nothing to do.”
Not that Kavita minded going for the milk. She got it from Sitaram Yadav, whose little buffalo stable was on the other side of the slum, where it was more open, with trees, and the breeze over the river blew and everything was cooler. She could make the trip there and back last an hour, and it was the best part of the morning.
At this hour, the smoke from morning cooking fires still hung over the slum, collecting in the narrow alleys between the red-brick houses. The handcarts and rickshaws were still parked in the alleys, because their owners hadn’t yet left for the working day in the markets and the wide streets of the main city. It meant that Kavita had to squeeze past them, but that couldn’t be helped. At least the handcarts and rickshaws didn’t jostle her when she passed, or take the opportunity to grab a feel.
That sort of thing happened later in the day, when the alleys were filled with people. Kavita tried not to go out then.
Today she had two aluminium cans with her, not one. Her neighbour, Tusli’s Mother, had seen her going out and called her over. “Get me milk too,” she’d said, handing out a can and a crumpled fifty rupee note. “I need it for tonight.”
Kavita had not asked what Tusli’s Mother had wanted with milk tonight, or why Tulsi herself couldn’t go get it. Tusli’s Mother probably had a name, but Kavita had no idea what it was. She’d never dared ask. Tulsi’s Mother had a face like a lump of dough in which someone had crudely fashioned features, and a voice that could scrape skin off flesh. Even Tusli herself stayed out of her mother’s way as far as possible.
“I’ll do that, Auntie,” she’d said, taking the can and the money. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried,” Tulsi’s Mother had replied, her face twisted in a hideous grimace that passed for a smile. “If you forget to get my milk I’ll take yours instead. And I know exactly how much it costs, so if you don’t give me the change I’ll charge you interest.”
Kavita hadn’t even been sure she’d been joking. She’d merely ducked her head and hurried as quickly as she could out of sight.
The problem was, of course, that Kavita had two big things going against her. First, she was educated, more than was proper. Not only did she know how to read and write, she’d actually done quite well in her studies, well enough that the teachers had insisted that she stay at least till the school-leaving examinations. Those exams were over last month, and Kavita was fairly certain that she’d do well. Not that it would matter, because her parents would never countenance the idea of her studying further. They already thought it had been a huge mistake to let her learn this much.
“She’s getting ideas above her station,” she’d heard her mother say to her father, when he’d been home last time from his construction job in the west of the state, just after the baby had been born. “Next thing you know, she’ll want to go to college and live in the big city, wear fancy clothes, and never look at us again. Whatever will people say?”
Kavita hadn’t been able to see her father’s face, but his voice had sounded uncomfortable. “Well, this is the modern world and all. I don’t want my children to stay in the slum. They should do the best for themselves if they...”
He hadn’t been able to go on any further. “Easy for you to say,” Kavita’s mother had snapped. “You’re not the one who has to keep a girl like her under control. Too strong willed for her own or anyone else’s good, and don’t imagine she doesn’t know how pretty she is. She’ll use her looks to get ahead, mark my words. It’d be much better if she was married off like Savita.” Savita was Kavita’s older sister, the one who had survived infancy.
“We can’t force her to do what she doesn’t want.” Just for once Kavita’s father had had a mutinous tone in his voice. “I won’t have her unhappy for the rest of her life just because you don’t like her thinking for herself.”
“Like being happy is in anyone’s fate in this world,” Kavita’s mother had snapped right back. “Time she was married off, and then I could stop worrying. A girl with her looks, she’ll end up raped or worse sooner or later, and then she’s ruined for life and our reputation as well.”
And that, of course, was the other thing Kavita had going against her – that she was pretty. Being pretty wasn’t a good thing in the slum. It drew unwelcome attention, and not only from men.
“Hey, little daughter,” the madam of the brothel by the old railway bridge across the river had said to her once. “Why don’t you come to work for me? You could earn more than enough to have good clothes, instead of those rags you’re wearing.” And when Kavita had passed by without a word, she’d called after her, “Think you’re too good for us, are you? One of these days I’ll send my boys to take care of you, and then we’ll see what you’re good for.”
Remembering, Kavita felt her cheeks burn again. She kicked a pebble out of her way, turning into the very narrow alley which was a short-cut to Sitaram Yadav’s buffalo stable. The alley was very narrow, really just a little gap between two buildings, and littered with trash. At night the local toughs used it as a meeting place, but at this hour of morning it should be empty and silent.
It was empty, but not silent. Even before she entered it she heard a babble of voices, like a crowd in the middle distance. She frowned, hesitating for a bit. There was as far as she was aware no fair coming, and no election with politicians ranting and demanding votes. What on earth would a crowd be doing at this time of the morning, anyway, unless it was a mob getting ready to start a communal riot? There had been riots in the past, when one part of the slum had fallen on another in an orgy of violence. But the noise of the crowd was simply excited, not furious. And she had to get the milk. The baby needed it.
She saw the crowd at once when she emerged from the alley. It lined both sides of the red stone bridge over the river, spilling over the banks on both sides and leaking down the embankment in a splash of colours. Everyone was craning their necks and talking at the tops of their voices, so that nobody could hear each other and the whole crowd made a noise like the buzzing of a hive of disturbed bees.
“What’s going on?” she asked a girl whom she recognised, whom she’d seen around. “Is something wrong?”
The girl glanced at her for a moment. “It’s the body, isn’t it,” she said. “Wonder who left him there.”
The girl’s lips curled contemptuously, but she jerked a finger down towards the river. “Down there,” she said. “What do you think everyone’s staring at?” When Kavita looked around, she was gone.
By dint of squeezing round the edges of the crowd, Kavita finally reached a point on the bridge where she could see down on the river bank. There, just under the parapet of the bridge, the multicoloured splash of the crowd parted, around something pale and spread-eagled. Kavita, fascinated despite herself, craned her neck for a closer look.
The body lay on its back, just above the edge of the water. It was naked except for a pair of underpants. One leg was bent at the knee, the foot almost touching the other leg’s calf. One arm was outflung, the other bent at the elbow, the fingers clenched in a fist. The skin of the chest was pale, like yellow wax, except where it was interrupted by two large jagged black holes. Kavita found herself looking at all this with minute attention, because her eyes simply did not want to travel up above the corpse’s neck.
There was no head. Above the shoulders was a fan-shaped splatter of black and maroon on the gravel of the river bank, and a large rock lying a couple of paces away. It was crusted with something blackish and tarry.
“They must have dropped that stone from here on the bridge,” a fat man in a stained kurta, with a towel wrapped round his neck, said to someone else. He raised his thick, stubby-fingered hands to demonstrate, bringing them down sharply. “They picked it up from down there on the riverside, brought it up here, and dropped it. Like so.” His elbow bumped Kavita’s upper arm, but he seemed not to notice. She tried to edge away from him, but was hemmed in by the bridge parapet on her other side. “Clever, wasn’t it?” the fat man asked the world, as though the cleverness was his own. He smacked his lips as though in admiration. “In the dark, it must have been one hell of a bit of good aim.”
“Please,” Kavita said, “Let me pass.”
The fat man either didn’t hear her or pretended not to. His elbow was jammed against her now, poking hard at the side of her breast. “They must have killed him and put him there, before dropping the rock. From this height it would have smashed anything.”
Whoever he was talking to mumbled something in answer. “Not at all,” the fat man said, turning slightly. “If he hadn’t been dead already, he wouldn’t have stayed in one place for them to aim and drop the rock. It’s a big one, too, and...”
Kavita didn’t wait to listen further. The man’s turning away had given her the chance to wriggle back and out through the crowd. The fat man was still gesturing and talking when she managed to get back off the bridge.
“Seen it?” It was the girl whom she’d talked to earlier. She wore a wicked little grin. “You don’t look too good, like you want to throw up.”
Kavita didn’t reply. There was a salty taste in her mouth, and she knew that the other girl would like nothing better than to see her vomiting. So she fought it down with an effort.
“I’ve got to get the milk,” she muttered to herself. “They’ll be waiting.” Sitaram Yadav’s stable wasn’t far away, and she only hoped that he was there, and not lost somewhere in the crowd around the body.
He was at the stable when she arrived, perched on a stool, writing something in a child’s exercise book with a tattered cover. Beside him stood several large aluminium cans filled with the thick, creamy buffalo milk. He looked at her without the slightest pleasure.
“I thought I saw you go to ogle the dead one,” he said. “Had enough of it, have you?”
Kavita flushed. “I want two cans today, Sitaram Uncle,” she said.
“You’ll be the first one then,” Sitaram said bitterly. “All of them acting as though they’ve never seen a dead one before, and me waiting here with the milk they say they want.” He gestured at the muddy patch of ground behind him. “What am I there for, then? And what are they?”
As he measured out the milk into her cans, Kavita looked at the water buffaloes tethered to stakes on the muddy yard. Some were standing over heaps of hay, others lying on their chests, chewing their cud, their huge grey bulks somnolent as always. She liked the vast, placid beasts, harmless despite their immense spread of horn, so unlike the nervous, aggressive cows which roamed the alleys of the slum and were liable to charge one without warning. “I’m sure they’ll come as soon as they’ve seen what they want to see,” she said.
“No idea how long that’ll be,” Sitaram said, taking her money and counting out change. “And then they’ll say the milk is cold, so I must have been mixing water in it. Have the police come yet?”
“I didn’t see any,” Kavita said, picking up the milk cans. “I suppose someone called them.”
“They’ll take their time,” Sitaram said. “If it was the main town, with all the posh houses, they’d be there in five minutes. Here, we’ll be lucky if they turn up by noon.” He turned back to his exercise book. “We’re the last on the list of priorities, you know.”
“Some say it’s lucky the police don’t take more interest in the slum, Sitaram Uncle,” Kavita said. The cans were heavy in her hands. “They say when the police come, all peace and happiness go away.”
Sitaram snorted as loudly as one of his buffaloes. “I’ll bet the dead one there would agree with you,” he said.
Kavita was cooking the evening meal when Anil entered the kitchen.
This was not something he did unless he had to. The kitchen was an addition made of wood from packing cases nailed together and plastered with newspapers to seal the gaps. Though cooler than the brick of the rest of the house, it still collected smoke and, being windowless, the bare bulb hanging from a wire fixed to the ceiling made it even hotter.
Kavita had just put the pressure cooker on the charcoal bucket oven, and while the vegetables cooked she was going to mix flour and water for the chapattis. It would have been much easier if they’d had gas, but, as her mother said, where was their autorickshaw, their own shop, their money tree, that they could think of getting a gas connection? At least, she said, they had charcoal, and Kavita should consider herself lucky that she didn’t have to cook on firewood like she, Kavita’s mother, had had to do when she was a new bride, and younger than Kavita, too, and it was really disgusting how girls didn’t want to get married these days.
Kavita had grown used to these tirades, and, shutting her ears, had gone to the kitchen as usual. It wasn’t all her mother’s fault; the new baby was fractious and wouldn’t sleep, cried all the time and wasn’t putting on weight. Her mother was irritated and worried, was trying to coax the child to sleep in the inner room.
It was then that Anil came in. Kavita first saw his shadow, cast by the bulb on the newspapers on the wall, and knew by the stooped right shoulder and the high frizz of hair who it was. She was surprised, not only because Anil hardly ever came into the kitchen – it was women’s work, he said – but because he hadn’t been home in a couple of days. But for the moment she kept silent, waiting for him to speak.
Nobody else in the family knew what Anil did when he disappeared like this, as he did every few days. He refused to talk about it. Kavita herself was convinced he had something to do with the underworld in the slum, and had once or twice tried to tell their mother to talk to him. But she’d refused, just as she’d refused to criticise him when he’d stayed back instead of going away with their father to look for work like their other brother, Suresh, had done.
“It’s nothing to do with you,” she’d said brusquely. “Mind your own business and let him do his.” Kavita had always wondered if she’d have said the same thing if Anil hadn’t brought home a couple of yellow five hundred rupee notes each time he returned. “Girls these days. When I was your age I’d never dare question the men of the family, and...”
But recently Anil had taken to keeping away more and more, and the supply of notes had begun to dry up. Maybe that was why he was back, she thought, because he had no money left.
Finally, he cleared his throat. “Is there anything to eat?”
She turned then, frowning. “You only came home because you’re hungry, right? You really don’t care what Mother and I are doing, how we’re managing, do you?”
“Don’t start.” He flopped down on the floor, resting his back against the wall, his long thin legs bent at the knee. They stuck up like the wigwams she’d seen pictures of in her school books, and she giggled. “What’s funny?” he asked.
“Forget it,” she said. “Anyway, if you’re looking for something to eat, you’ll have to wait. I’ve just begun cooking. Why don’t you watch television or something?”
Anil ignored the invitation to turn on the black and white portable set in the larger of the two other rooms. “You know there was a body found under the bridge today, right?”
“The whole slum knows,” Kavita said, rolling out the dough, and fighting down an automatic mental image of the headless corpse. “What about it?”
“Just this.” Anil looked around as though someone was listening in. “It was Arjun.”
Kavita stared. “Arjun? Who on earth is Arjun?”
Anil blinked. “You know, Arjun. The autorickshaw man. You’ve met me with him.”
Kavita thought for a moment. She vaguely recollected seeing Anil once or twice with a tallish, fair man with a beard. Only once on these occasions had she gone to talk to her brother, and the man had hung back, watching, not saying anything, just watching. It had made her uncomfortable and she’d cut the conversation short. “He was the one killed? How do you know? The body didn’t have a head.”
“Of course it was Arjun. He’s missing, and the body is just his size and complexion. The whole slum knows.”
“Well, all right then,” Kavita said, and paused to let the pressure cooker whistle. “He’s dead, and so what? Was he a special friend of yours?”
“That’s not the problem.” Anil looked round again. Kavita could now make out that he was acutely uneasy, his face glittering with sweat in the light of the forty-watt bulb. His knees twitched back and forth rhythmically. “The problem is I was with him yesterday afternoon and the early evening.”
Kavita rolled another chapatti before she replied. “And? What about it?”
“What about it?” Anil’s voice rose angrily for a moment before he brought it down under control, darting another look over his shoulder. “They’ll blame me for killing him, don’t you see?”
Kavita subdued the urge to hit him with the rolling pin. “Who will blame you, exactly?”
Anil licked his lips nervously. “The police,” he said. “The gangs. Everyone.”
“Arjun was involved with the gangs, of course,” Anil said.
It was after everyone had eaten. The baby had settled down at last, and Kavita’s mother had gone out, for a breath of fresh air, she said. She was probably visiting one neighbour or another. Not Tulsi’s Mother, though. She didn’t get along with Tulsi’s Mother. Now that she was gone, Anil had begun to talk more freely, though his behaviour was still odd. He’d even helped wash up the dishes.
“Of course?” Kavita asked. They were sitting in front of the television, which was turned on with the sound off. Some chunky Bollywood actress of long ago was gyrating before a king, jewels dripping from her neck, wrists and ankles. “Why do you say of course?”
“He had an autorickshaw, didn’t he? One he owned, too, not rented. What choice did he have?”
Kavita blinked. “I don’t get you.”
Anil sighed. “Since he had his own autorickshaw,” he said slowly, as though explaining to a child, “he had to join one gang or another, and let them use the rickshaw for whatever they wanted. You really don’t understand this?”
“He could have refused,” Kavita began, and at once corrected herself. “Oh, no, he couldn’t have, of course.”
“That’s right,” Anil said with grim satisfaction. “If he’d said no, then they’d have made an example of him. They can’t risk anybody defying them, can they?”
“So which gang did he join?” Kavita asked.
“What do you want to know that for?” Anil frowned and shook his head. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this. It’s a waste of time. Anyway,” he said, giving in suddenly, “he joined the Vikasnagar gang.” Vikasnagar was the western part of the slum, this side of the river. “It was them or the Sangam lot, and his street is in Vikasnagar gang territory.”
“And which gang are you in?” Kavita couldn’t help asking.
Anil gave her a long glare. “Don’t ever ask questions like that,” he said eventually. “In any case, I’m not in any gang. If I were, I wouldn’t be in this mess. The gangs protect their people.”
“But you hung around Arjun, didn’t you? Even though, as you say, he was in a gang and you knew he was in a gang.” Kavita rubbed her neck and shoulders. “And they didn’t protect him very well, did they?”
There was a brief silence. “I just helped him sometimes,” Anil said. “It’s not something I want to talk about.”
“So what do you want, actually?” Kavita shot back. “You come in here after days away, you say they’re going o blame you for killing him, and then you won’t say what you were doing with him. So what, exactly do you want?”
Anil looked up at her. “Money,” he said. “I need some money. Enough to be able to get away from here.”
“Get away where?” Kavita asked. “Where do you plan to go?”
“I don’t know. Out of this city. Out of this state. Somewhere they won’t find me.”
“What are you planning to do once you get there? Where will you live? What will you do for a living?”
Anil shrugged. “I’ll worry about that later. Let me get away first.”
“And you won’t come back again.”
“No, I can’t, can I?” Anil licked his lips. “Anyway, that’s what I need. Money.”
“You aren’t getting any from me. I don’t have ten rupees. And don’t go asking Mother for it, because she won’t have it either, what with the baby’s expenses.”
“In that case I’ll just sneak on a train or try and hitch a ride on a lorry,” Anil said. “I can’t stay here.”
“And even supposing you aren’t arrested for travelling ticketless, you’ll end up somewhere destitute and starving.” Kavita bit her thumbnail. “Besides, have you thought about what happens to us?”
Anil blinked. “What?”
“I thought it was clear enough,” Kavita sighed. “Once you go away, what happens when the police come looking for you? What happens when they turn up here, break down the door, and start demanding we hand you over? And what happens when your friends from the gangs...”
“They’re not my friends!”
“When your whatever from the gangs,” Kavita amended. “What happens if they turn up looking for you? I’ll bet they’ll make the police look like a better option.”
“They won’t come here,” Anil said. “They don’t know where I live, or my real name.”
“And they can’t find out if they try?” Kavita let the question hang in the air. “Well?”
Anil’s shoulders slumped. “Go and turn me in, then. Get it over with.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Kavita regarded him with none too friendly eyes. “There’s only one thing to do.”
“You didn’t kill him, did you?” Kavita asked.
Anil stared at her. “I didn’t kill him,” he said eventually.
“Then,” Kavita said, “all we have to do is prove it, that’s all.”
Kavita left home much earlier than usual next morning, before her mother had woken. She’d told Anil to do some of the chores, including gathering water from the communal tube well behind the house, and had made sure he’d got out of bed, though muttering bitterly that he wasn’t used to waking in the middle of the night.
“You can’t stay in bed till noon,” Kavita had snapped, “while I try my best to save your skin for you.”
Now she hurried along the alleys, head down, the milk can bouncing against her leg as she went. She hardly noticed the things she normally enjoyed at this time of the morning, the pink-orange eastern sky, the cool wisp of a breeze, the emptiness and silence from the din. She was planning out what she would say.
Her destination was a wooden shack on the river embankment, a hundred metres this side of the red stone bridge under which the corpse had been discovered. Today there was no crowd, but she hoped she was still in time to catch the owner before he left. This shack did all its business at night.
She’d seen the shack before, of course, but never really noted its existence. Now, as she headed down the dirt track that led off the side of the bridge towards it, she saw that it was more solid-looking than it appeared from a distance, with a heavy wooden door. The one window was a narrow slot lined with thick iron bars. A piece of white cardboard, probably the cover from a child’s exercise book like the one Sitaram Yadav used, had been tacked up on the wall next to the window. COUNTRY LIQUOR SOLD HERE, it said in fading handwritten letters ten centimetres high.
There was someone still inside. She caught the glimmer of a lantern through the window, and tapped next to the cardboard. “Anybody home?”
A broad, acne-scarred face appeared in the window and looked her up and down without interest. It was a woman, Kavita was surprised to see. “What do you want?”
“Could I speak to the owner?” Anil had told her this was one Govardhan. “I have some business with him.”
“You can talk to me. I’m his wife. What’s this business of yours?”
Kavita hastily amended the story she had prepared. “Some friends and I are planning a party,” she said. “It’s for some...” she tried to simper bashfully. “Some...important people from outside. You know what it’s like.”
“Is that so?” The woman looked Kavita up and down, her eyes resting briefly on her face and the bulge of her breasts. “When is this party?”
“Tonight.” Kavita tried to look like the kind of girl who arranged parties where alcohol and women were laid on. “We need to buy liquor, of course.”
“Of course,” the woman agreed, and Kavita felt a shaft of panic at the possibility that she’d miscalculated. “Parties always need liquor, especially after the first bit.”
“How much is it, per packet?”
The woman told her. Kavita made a show of shock. “That much? Can’t you reduce the cost a bit?”
The moonshine seller clicked her teeth together in annoyance. “Take it or leave it, girl. You don’t know how much we have to pay the cops by way of graft every week to be allowed to carry on our business.”
“But it’s a bulk order. I want to buy a lot.”
“Is that so?” The woman frowned. “How many packets do you need?”
“Uh...” Kavita resisted the impulse to lick her lips. “There will be about twenty of them, and we were thinking of buying enough to make sure we don’t run short. Fifty packets? Sixty?”
The woman shook her heavy head. “Can’t do it. Not at such short notice.” She held up a polythene packet, filled with a heavy, oily-looking liquid. “I only have six packets left.”
“You can get more, can’t you?” Kavita looked around. “Don’t you make it somewhere here?”
“These?” the woman snorted. “You sure you know anything about buying liquor? Of course we don’t make it here, they’d never stand for it.” Kavita wasn’t sure who they were supposed to be, the police or the gangs. “The factory is in Uttam Khand.”
Uttam Khand was a slum on the other side of the city. “Why don’t you order it from there, then?”
“I could, of course,” the woman said. “We need fresh supplies anyway. But our damned delivery driver got himself killed off, and we haven’t yet found a replacement.”
“Right there under the bridge,” Govardhan’s wife said. “Someone did for him, all right. Smashed his head up and all. And it’ll be a day or two before they can arrange a reliable substitute driver, at least.” This time there was no doubt which they she was talking about.
Kavita did her best to look disappointed. “Is there another place I can buy the liquor from?”
The woman shrugged. “You can try Deepak’s Dhaba, where the lorries stop for snacks and tea. You know it? But I’ll bet Deepak won’t have any either. The truckers guzzle booze like water, and he gets his supply from the same source as I do.”
“Well, thanks anyway.” Kavita had a thought. “There’s just the one supplier, is there?”
“Just the one making safe liquor. Unless you want to spend two hundred rupees a bottle for the foreign stuff in the posh shops, the only safe liquor in town is from us. You could always find other stuff, I suppose, but only if you don’t mind risking your, um, important people going blind or dying on you.”
“What about...” Kavita pointed in the direction of the other side of the river. “What about there?”
Mrs Govardhan’s face froze. “I don’t have any dealings with that lot,” she said curtly. “I don’t deal with them, nobody here deals with them, and if I were you I wouldn’t have anything to do with them either.”
“But they must have their own suppliers?” Kavita persisted.
The woman rubbed at the corners of her eyes, scraping away dried tears. Her nails were, incongruously, painted with flaking dark pink polish. “Who knows? Who cares? It’s safer not to know or care.”
“Oh well,” Kavita said, “too bad then. My guests will just have to satisfy themselves with...other things.”
“Next time, give me some advance notice,” the bootlegger replied. She picked up her packet of oily liquid again, and turned to put it away. Safe or not, Kavita thought, there was no way she was going to even smell that stuff, let alone put any in her mouth.
On the way back from Sitaram’s buffalo stable, a red motorcycle came to a halt beside Kavita.
“Would you like a lift?” the rider asked.
Kavita looked at him. She’d seen him several times over the last month, a tallish, gangling young man with a thin moustache, his hair arranged in a quiff. He was always dressed fairly well by the standards of the slum, as though he had money and to spare. Today he was in pale blue jeans and a green and black T shirt, a thick-strapped watch glinting golden on his left wrist. “No, thanks,” she said. “I’m fine.”
“Come on.” He had a nice enough smile. “It’ll save you a walk, I’ll bet. Where do you live?”
“Not far.” Kavita gestured vaguely. “Really, I’m fine. You mustn’t bother.”
“You don’t need to be afraid of me. I’m not going to do anything except drop you home.” The young man tilted his head to one side, studying her. “I’ve seen you around, haven’t I?”
“Maybe,” Kavita said. She could smell him, over the odours of the slum and the exhaust smoke of his bike, the aroma of aftershave. “I couldn’t say.”
“I’m sure I have. I couldn’t be mistaken, not with someone as pretty as you.” He pressed the large red switch on the right handlebar of his motorcycle, the engine falling silent. “What’s your name?”
“Just Kavita.” She glanced up and down the alley, but nobody seemed to be around.
“Not giving away anything, are you?” The young man laughed without malice. “Well, I’m not keeping secrets about myself. I’m Krishan Kumar. You know the electric goods store on the south side of the market?”
“I know it,” Kavita said, after a moment’s thought. “Electric Emporium?” It was a fairly large shop, with plate glass windows and expensive-looking merchandise. “Beside the lassi seller’s stall?”
“That’s the one. Well, that’s mine. See, you don’t have anything to fear from me. Will you let me give you that lift now?”
“Well, no, but it’s kind of you to offer.” Kavita fought down the urge to start walking away. Her mother would have been up long since, and no telling what kind of hash Anil would have made of the chores she’d entrusted him with. “I’m fine,” she said for the third time.
“Well, OK.” Krishan Kumar kicked his bike engine to life. “Next time I see you, though, I’ll give you a lift, and don’t you dare say no.” He winked at her. “I probably have a girl, you know.”
“I’m sure you do,” Kavita smiled. “In fact I’m sure you have a whole lot of them.”
“Impudent!” He laughed again. “All right, Miss Sassy, I’ll see you around.” With a wave of his hand, he rode away.
Kavita waited until he had passed the corner before she began walking. She’d felt his eyes on her in the rear view mirror all the way.
Really, she told herself sternly, this strange fluttering in her chest would never do. It wouldn’t do at all.
She’d put him, his fancy clothes and his gold watch, his bike and his conversation, this whole strange little episode right out of her mind, that’s what she would do.
“I want to talk to you,” Kavita said.
It was just after lunch. She hadn’t been able to speak to Anil all morning, with their mother hovering around, and in an even grumpier mood than usual. But she’d gone out now with the baby, muttering something about meeting the local astrologer to cast its horoscope and check for evil spirits, so they were finally alone.
“What?” Anil frowned ungraciously. “I’m here, so talk. What’s stopping you?”
“Don’t you take that tone with me. If you weren’t my brother I’d not lift a finger to help you out of this mess.” Kavita took a deep breath, and reminded herself that Anil must be frightened and worried sick. “Now, first thing. You said your friend Arjun brought in country liquor for the gang. Was that all he did, or did he also do something else on the side? Drugs, for instance?”
“Drugs?” Anil shook his head. “I don’t know anything about him bringing drugs. He never said. The gang has special people to do that. He did bring kattas a couple of times, but it was only when the gang told him to.”
“Kattas?” A katta was a homemade pistol, turned out in some basement workshop with a lathe and some scrap metal. The criminals loved them because they were untraceable, cheap, and disposable. “Where did he get them from?”
Anil shrugged. “Some agent came from out of town with the weapons. Arjun was told to pick him up at some hotel or other. He got into the autorickshaw with a bag, took a short trip, and got out leaving the bag behind. Arjun came back and handed the bag over. He only opened them to check if they contained what they were supposed to.” He scratched his jaw. “That’s the way this sort of thing goes, and he only did it the two times.”
“All right.” Kavita tried to arrange her thoughts. “What about his enemies?”
“He had enemies, didn’t he? He was a gangster, for goodness sake. Gangsters have enemies.”
Anil snorted. “A small timer like him? He didn’t even have a criminal record. He’d never been arrested, not once. The bosses have enemies, not the hired help.”
“And he wasn’t a...what do you call it? An informer? A squealer? Suppose he was one and the gang found out, they could have killed him, right?”
Anil stared at her. “He was an autorickshaw driver and a courier of bootleg booze, for god’s sake. Do you imagine the police don’t know about the hooch business? They get rich off the kickbacks.”
Kavita remembered what Mrs Govardhan had said. “So there was nothing he could inform on?”
“Nothing of the slightest value. You can depend on that.”
“Well, did he say anything to you? Did he have anything on his mind?”
Anil looked at her for a few seconds, and then shook his head. “Can’t think of a thing at the moment. I’m sorry.”
“Right then. What about his family? Any parents, wife or anything?”
“No. He wasn’t married. As far as I know he hadn’t any siblings, and his parents died a long time ago.”
“What about women, then? I assume he wasn’t a monk.”
“You know what I’m talking about.” Kavita tried to catch Anil’s gaze with hers, but his eyes kept moving away. It was really absurd, this show of shyness over sex, as though they hadn’t lain in bed often enough over the years listening to their parents screw on the other side of the curtain in the inner room, biting their fingers not to giggle until they grew older and it was no longer funny. “Who was he sleeping with?”
There was a long pause, and she was about to ask again when he muttered a name.
“What was that?” she asked.
He repeated it, a little louder. “Rukmini.”
“Rukmini? Who’s she?”
“Her full name’s Rukmini Thapa.”
“Yeah. She’s a hooker; she works in the usual place.” That would be the brothel by the railway bridge, where the madam had taunted Kavita. “Arjun had a thing for her. He’d visit her three, four times a week.”
“And whom did you have a thing for?” Kavita asked. “Whom did you visit three or four times a week?”
His gaze flickered. “Don’t be absurd.”
“I’m not being bloody absurd. I just hope you knew enough to wear a condom, that’s all.”
He nodded once, just enough that she could see it. “Yeah. I did. Most of the time, anyway.”
Kavita sighed. “All right. And then, what else? Who were his friends?”
Anil blinked. “Friends?”
“He did have other friends beside you, didn’t he? People he hung out with?”
“Well...” Anil shook his head. “I don’t know. I never really met him with anyone else he called a friend. Does it matter?”
“Does it matter?” Kavita echoed. “Of course it bloody matters. If he had any other friends, one of them might have some information. One of them might even have killed him. Idiot.”
“Well, I can’t help that,” Anil snapped. “He didn’t have any others as far as I know.”
“Just like you didn’t have any others, right? Otherwise you’d have gone running to them, instead of coming to me for help. Right?”
Anil didn’t say anything. His silence was eloquent.
“You two were made for each other.” Kavita shook her head. “Right. Now tell me about the last evening together.”
“You want me to help or don’t you?” It was like drawing teeth. “If I’m to try and prove your innocence, I have to start somewhere. So far I’ve found nothing.”
“Well.” Anil looked uncomfortable. “I stayed the night before at his house, actually.” Kavita said nothing, so he went on after a short pause. “He’d been out all day, with the autorickshaw. I don’t think he had any deliveries to make, so it was just normal driving for hire.”
“And what did you do all day?”
“You know. This and that.”
Kavita looked at him. “Petty theft? Selling drugs? Acting as a bookie’s agent?”
“Nothing to do with you.” Anil looked mutinous. “Nothing to do with him either. Sometimes I did jobs he told me to, like go around getting orders from the liquor vendors, but not this time. Anyway, I haven’t been making money for a while. You know that.”
“All I know is that you haven’t been giving Mother any money recently. Was Arjun making money?”
“He wasn’t starving, if that’s what you mean. He had his own autorickshaw and wasn’t in debt. He lived in his parents’ old house so he didn’t have to pay rent. And, no, before you ask, I didn’t steal any money from him – or borrow any.”
“All right. Let’s say I believe you about that.” Let’s say, she wanted to add, that I pretend to believe that you wouldn’t have stolen from him if you thought you could get away with it. Let’s say that I pretend it wasn’t just cowardice keeping you honest this time. “So what did you do that evening?”
“Well, he came back home about six, and said we could go out for the evening, because he wanted a little time off. He was planning to leave again around nine, he said, to catch the late night movie crowd. But for a couple of hours he wanted to relax.”
“So you went out...where? To the brothel?”
“No. Just out. We went to the market, ate fried snacks, wandered about a bit.”
“Did you meet anyone you knew?”
Anil shrugged. “There were plenty of people one knows by sight or to say hello to. You can’t go out in the evening without meeting them.”
“Maybe. Nobody I recognised, but then I don’t know them all.”
He was probably lying, but pressing him would more likely than not make him shut up. Kavita had a thought. “When you went to the market, did you go by his autorickshaw?”
“No, of course not. Why would he want to waste fuel? Besides, he doesn’t live far from the market. Didn’t, I mean. The autorickshaw was parked outside his house.”
“What was he wearing?”
“I don’t remember. Not his autorickshaw driver’s khaki uniform; he took that off after coming back. Something in green, and brown trousers, I think.”
“So how long did you stay in the market?” Kavita asked.
“Till around half past eight? I don’t know the exact time. The market was beginning to close. We had lassis, and then we left.”
Anil shook his head. “He couldn’t afford to get drunk. He was driving, as I said, and the passengers don’t like to take autorickshaws driven by drivers smelling of alcohol, not to speak of police checks. They do that in the city. And I didn’t want to get drunk either.”
“And then you went to his house?”
“No.” Anil’s eyes shifted away. “We went different ways. I was going to come home here, but...” He coughed. “There’s this woman, whom I...”
So that was why he hadn’t wanted to get drunk. “Will she vouch for you?” Kavita asked, when it was obvious that he would not finish the sentence. “Can she give you an alibi?”
“Are you crazy? She has a livelihood to think of.”
Kavita got up wearily and put on her sandals. “I’m going shopping. Mother gave me money to buy vegetables and flour. While I’m gone, you sweep the house and wash the dishes, and don’t give me any talk about how that’s women’s work. If I can go out trying to save you, you can do that, at least.”
She left without waiting to hear his reply.
There was a vegetable vendor at the street corner, but the man’s prices were high, because he bought at the wholesalers near the main city railway station and resold; and at this time of day what remained of his produce was wilting already, so she went to the market. It was a large, dusty square with lines of stalls, the spaces between which were crowded with people.
Electric Emporium was on the other side of the market, and she didn’t really have to go that far to make her purchases, but she found her feet taking her in that direction anyway. The red motorcycle was parked outside the shop, squeezed between the wall and a stretch of pavement which had been broken up for repair. Slabs of concrete and lengths of iron rebar were heaped on the ground, though there wasn’t any evidence that anyone was at work. That was the way it would go in the slum; a month from now the pavement would probably be in the same state, but someone would be getting paid anyway.
Telling herself she wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, she glanced into the shop. A pair of brawny assistants sat behind the counter. One blinked at her lazily while another flipped through a newspaper. There was a star-shaped crack in one plate glass window, which had been taped over with Sellotape; she wondered if it had been broken by a stray chip of stone from the pavement works. How much would a window like that cost to replace? She couldn’t even imagine. Even for a shop posh enough to afford the closed-circuit television camera that hung in one corner, pointing down like a disembodied eye, it must be a bundle.
She couldn’t decide whether to be happy or not that she hadn’t seen Krishan Kumar. The newspaper, though, that was something she should have thought about. There was a vendor beside the lassi stall, and she bought a copy of the local paper, paying from it out of her mother’s change. The newsprint was rough and the print smudged, and at first she couldn’t find any reference to the body. The lead story was something about the prime minister coming to visit the city two weeks from now. Well, he wouldn’t be coming to the slum, that was for sure. He wouldn’t want to contaminate his nose with slum air.
She’d heard that down in Bombay the tour companies even arranged for tourists to visit the slums, to goggle at the wretched of the earth and feel good about themselves. Let them try that here, she’d thought when she heard about it; she’d get hold of a katta and show them what she thought about it. But that was when she was younger. Now, she just shrugged. Nobody was interested in the slum, nobody would be interested in the slum, and it was probably safest that things stayed that way.
She finally found the news item at the bottom of the fourth page. A headless corpse had been found under a bridge near Vikasnagar, the report said. It was unidentified, but probably belonged to some local criminal. The police suspected a gangland killing. And that was all.
It was hot, and she decided to have a lassi. The stall owner was a thickset man with a red tilak on his forehead and a number of chains round his neck. He poured the curdled sweet milk in the glass without looking at her.
“I’m looking for someone,” she said on an impulse.
He finally raised his eyes from his work. “Who?”
“He’s tall, thin, dark, with bushy hair like so.” She described Anil. “Have you seen him?”
The stall owner’s brow wrinkled. “What do you want with him?”
“He’s my brother,” Kavita said, hoping for the faint but discernible family resemblance to be evidence of the truth she spoke. “He’s left home after a quarrel, and my parents are worried.”
“Yes...I’ve seen him around sometimes. I think the last time was a couple of days ago, though.”
“Really? That must have been the day he left home.” Kavita hoped she wasn’t laying it on too thick. “When did you see him?”
“It was late in the evening. I remember because I was just closing, and he and some other guy came and had me open up again because they wanted lassis. I was irritated, but it wasn’t worth the trouble they might cause if I refused.” He handed her the glass. “I don’t mean to say anything against your brother, but in this place we try to get along the best we can.”
“I understand fully.” The lassi wasn’t cold enough and more sour than sweet, but it was better than nothing. “Well, thanks for your help. I suppose he’ll come back soon enough.”
She walked away into the market, thinking hard. The information she’d found out so far made a kind of half-pattern, maddeningly as though she should be able to get something out of it, but not quite. She wished she could talk to more people, the police for instance. They must know more than what they were saying.
“Miss,” someone was saying in an irritated voice. “Hey, madam. Excuse me.”
Blushing, she stepped aside to let the heavily laden porter pass. Her eyes went again to the shop. A customer was inside now. One assistant was standing on a stool, fetching something down from a shelf; the other was unrolling wire from a spool. Krishan Kumar was at the counter, talking to the customer. For a brief moment, his eyes held hers, over the man’s shoulders.
Then she turned away and blundered homewards, hoping the heat in her face was just the warmth of the sun.
Dusk had just thickened into night, and the bats had begun fluttering after the clouds of insects under the street lamps, when Kavita reached the brothel.
She waited a long time, in the cool shadow of a tree, nerving herself up to go forward. The brothel was a long, two story building next to the street, with a veranda out front; the hookers were sitting on the veranda and the steps, some on low stools, others on the concrete. A few of them fanned themselves lackadaisically with wicker fans. One, her face a mask of makeup, flipped through a magazine, her lips moving as she read.
There was no point in waiting, though. If she hesitated much longer, the clients would start arriving after the end of their working day, and she’d never be able to do anything. Besides, she couldn’t afford to be seen by one of them and recognised. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward.
The made-up prostitute with the magazine was closest. She looked up. “Yeah?”
“I’m looking for Rukmini.”
“Rukmini?” The girl closed the magazine and frowned up at her. “What do you want with Rukmini?”
“She’s here, isn’t she? I need to talk to her, just for a few minutes.”
“Talk to her, is it?” The voice came from behind her. Kavita already knew it was the madam before she turned. The woman looked her up and down without apparent recognition. “You want to talk to her or have some fun with her?”
“If you’re looking for fun,” the made-up prostitute said, “I’ll give you a much better time than her. I do women very well.”
“Shut up, Sharada.” The madam frowned at the hooker, who hastily picked up her magazine again. “If you want Rukmini, it’ll cost you. She’s a working woman like the rest of us. Her time isn’t free.”
“How much?” Kavita wondered if she could afford it. She had, of course, lied to Anil about not having ten rupees. Before leaving the house in the morning, she’d taken the eight hundred and fifty rupees she owned out from under the mattress and stuck it inside her bra, because she was certain that he’d search her things the first chance he’d get. It was still there, next to her breast, a small, uncomfortable oblong wrapped in polythene and beaded with her sweat. “I’ll only need fifteen minutes.”
The madam stared at her, her eyes busily calculating. “Two hundred,” she said finally. “I don’t care what you do with her, that’s up to you, but the cost is two hundred, and you get half an hour for that. Not a moment over half an hour, remember, or it’s two hundred extra.”
“All right.” Kavita took out the packet and counted out four creased fifty-rupee notes. The madam’s eyes followed every movement, glittering like black stones. “Rukmini!” she shouted, taking the money. “Someone for you!”
A woman dressed in a yellow blouse and white skirt came forward from the far end of the veranda. She was small, but curvaceous, and very fair, with a little rosebud mouth and slanted eyes. Kavita realised that she’d probably be extremely attractive with less makeup. “Yes?”
“Here.” The madam pointed at Kavita. “Half an hour.”
The girl looked at Kavita with faint surprise, and nodded. “Come.”
Kavita followed her up the stairs. A couple of kids were sitting there, playing with pieces of paper. They glanced up at her and went back to their game. Hooker’s kids, who might or might not ever get out of here.
Rukmini led her into a room and began unbuttoning her blouse. “There’s no need for that,” Kavita said. “I just want to talk to you. I have a couple of questions, that’s all.”
The girl stared at her. “What about? What do you want to ask?” Her Hindi was really very good, with only a slight accent, the s occasionally coming as sh. “I haven’t done anything.”
“It’s nothing about you,” Kavita told her. “You have a regular client called Arjun. Isn’t that right?”
The Nepali girl’s slanted eyes went expressionless. “What about him?”
“I’m told he was besotted with you, and was planning to take you away and marry you.”
Rukmini laughed without humour. “All of us have heard that from one trick or another. Nobody ever means it, and none of us believes it. Besides, Arjun got over me a while back.”
“Of course. He still comes here sometimes, but it’s been a couple of weeks since I last saw him. You can tell the signs that they’re cooling off. And last time he was here, I asked him, as a joke, when he was going to marry me.”
“And what did he say?”
Rukmini’s rosebud mouth twitched in a bitter little smile. “He said he was very sorry, but he’d found a girl who was decent, a girl who wasn’t a hooker, and that was the one he was after now.”
“Let me get this straight. He said he already had the girl?”
“No. He said he’d get her, he was fixing it up, and when he got her he wouldn’t need a whore to screw. I suppose he’s got her now, that’s why he doesn’t come around any longer.”
“Perhaps. Did he say anything else? Was he worried about his job or anything? Money, for example?”
“He never talked about all that to me. You could make out that he was connected to the mob, but then half the people who come here are. He was planning to get out, he said.”
“Yeah. When he had money, he’d marry me and take me away.” She grinned wryly. “Then he said he’d get money and take his new woman away, to make a life elsewhere.”
“That’s all? He didn’t say who she was?”
“No. Do you think I’ve got so little self respect that I’d ask?”
On leaving the brothel, Kavita decided to go and have a look at Arjun’s house. She’d pried the address from Anil with the usual difficulty, but the place wasn’t hard to find. It was just behind the market, past a half-built line of shops, at the end of a blind alley paved with rough flagstones. It was one of a line of slum houses, all built wall to wall, raw red brick and whitewash. The alley was, of course, unlit, but there was enough light from the other houses for her to see the yellow-and-black shape of the autorickshaw parked at the far end.
She always felt strange and vulnerable, out in the slum at night. It wasn’t like in the daytime, which, truth to tell, was bad enough. But the slum at night was another world, a jungle, where predators could be anywhere, and she was prey.
It wouldn’t be long, she told herself. Just get this thing solved, and she wouldn’t come out again.
Hesitantly, not certain why she was even here, she went up to the autorickshaw, and looked inside. There was nothing she could see that looked in any way out of the ordinary. She put her hand on, and then under the driver’s seat, feeling stupid. But apart from what felt like a rolled up bundle of rags, there was nothing there. And the house was silent, and dark.
“Who are you?” a voice called.
She turned. A woman in a nightgown leaned over the balcony of the house opposite. “I was just looking,” she said.
“If you want to buy the house, you’ve got to talk to the owner.”
“Buy the house? Is it for sale?”
“He said he was looking to sell and get out. Though I wonder who’d want to buy a place here.” The woman’s voice was filled with bitterness. “When I think about how...” she left the sentence unfinished.
“So where is the owner?” Kavita asked.
“Who knows? I haven’t seen him since the other night when he came back so late, and made such a noise parking. It really shouldn’t be allowed. Some people have absolutely no consideration.”
“I’d like to talk to him,” Kavita said with perfect truth.
“Come back tomorrow, then, and see if he’s there.” The woman on the balcony turned away and went back inside, her disappointment hanging like a stain in the air.
Kavita had walked out of the alley when someone stepped out of the shadows of the half built line of shops. “Hey. You.”
Her heart seemed to freeze in her chest. “What?”
The man sauntered up to her, taking his time. “Looking for a good time, hey, darling?”
She tried to back away, and too late realised that there was one more behind her. Her arms were grabbed from behind. “We can show you a good time,” the second man said in her ear.
“A real good time,” the first man said. He reached out and flicked her breast through her salwar top, finding the nipple and twisting it. “That’s only if you don’t make a noise, of course. If you make a noise, though...” He held something up in one hand. Light glittered on thin metal. “See this?”
Kavita said nothing. The man holding her arms shook her. “Well?”
“I see it,” she said.
“Good, so you know what to expect.” The one holding her began pushing her towards the shadows of the half-built shops. “Ready, darling?”
“No, and she’ll never be, you swine.” The voice was familiar, and she almost sobbed with relief. Krishan Kumar strode towards them from the direction of the market. “Let go of her now.”
“You stay out of this, whoever the hell you are,” the one with the knife said, turning. “Or I’ll cut you.”
“Will you?” Krishan Kumar’s hand rose, and there was something angular and black in it. “Will you really?”
“The bastard’s got a gun,” the second man said, dropping Kavita’s arms. “The bastard actually has a gun.”
The first man stepped back too. “Screw you,” he said. “We’ll be back, don’t you worry. And then you’ll see what’s what.” They both vanished into the shadows like frogs diving into scummy water.
“Are you all right?” Krishan Kumar said anxiously. He peered at her. “Why, it’s Miss Sassy! What are you doing out here?”
“What are you?” she asked back, rubbing her arms.
“Me? I live here. Well, further along this way. I was going back for supper while my assistants minded the shop, and then...” He began to shrug, and then saw the pistol was still in his hand.
“Is that a real gun?” Kavita asked.
“Yeah, of course it is. A fully genuine one, with a licence and all.” He held it out for her to see. “My father bought it, from the government ordnance factory. I keep it because it might come in handy sometime. It never has before, though, not until now.”
She took the gun, hefted it experimentally, and handed it back. It was heavy and the smell of oil was on it and on her skin. “Well, I am extremely grateful to you. Thank you very much.”
“You really shouldn’t be here in the dark alone. As you saw, it isn’t safe.” Krishan Kumar tucked the pistol under his T shirt, where he must have had a holster of some kind. “I’ll walk you back to the market.”
“You don’t need to. I’ll be fine.”
“Really? After what just happened? There’s being sassy, and there’s being stupid.” He took her gently by the elbow. “Are you hurt?”
“Not really. My arms might be a little bruised, and my heart’s going like a train, but otherwise I’m all right.”
“Maybe we should call the police?”
“Call the police?” She could imagine what would happen. The questions of what she was doing here at this time, who she was, who her relatives were. “No police.”
“Well, all right, if you’re sure.”
“You didn’t ride your bike home?”
“Not this time. When I go home for lunch and supper I leave it at the shop. It’s a big detour otherwise. I really just bring it in case I have to go somewhere during the day.”
“What time do you close down?” she asked, just to be sociable.
“Maybe around nine. Later, sometimes. It depends on whether we have customers. I could go home and eat afterwards, but I like an early supper. And we’re usually the last in the market to shut down.”
“It must be spooky at that time.”
“It isn’t cheerful, certainly. And it isn’t safe for pretty girls, even if they’re sassy.” His hand fell from her arm as they came to the market. The lights of Electric Emporium and the other shops blazed so bright that they hurt her eyes. “Do you want to come in and sit down for a while?”
“No. Thanks, but I really must be getting home.”
“All right, then,” he said. “Here’s my card. If you ever need a rescue, just call.”
She took the proffered oblong of plastic. “Thanks,” she repeated. It sounded inadequate.
“Stop thanking me. Just let me give you a lift or two.” Smiling, he waved and walked back to his shop. She watched him go in and talk to one of the assistants. The other one was showing a customer some torches, long and with enormous heads. The customer seemed faintly alarmed by the size.
Krishan Kumar really had a most attractive smile, she thought. The memory of it lasted until she got home. But once she got back, she went to the little bathroom and scrubbed and scrubbed her skin to get rid of the memory of the touch of the one who had grabbed her from behind.
She was still feeling violated when she went to bed, and though Anil seemed disposed to talk, she did not even look at him at all.
Kavita had a strange dream.
In the dream she was standing in the middle of the marketplace, and everyone was gathered around her. At first she thought they were telling her something, but then she realised that she was selling something, that they were all gathered round her to buy whatever it was that she was selling. But though she looked and looked, there didn’t seem to be any merchandise with her.
“I don’t have anything to sell,” she said.
“Yes, you do,” a voice that wasn’t really a voice said. It came from a headless corpse wearing only underpants, who reached over the heads of everyone else, clutching a fistful of money. “I’m buying.”
“No, I am.” It was Krishan Kumar, and he had an enormous cannon in one hand, pointed up at the sky. It was black and somehow she knew it would smell of gun oil. “It’s licensed, Miss Sassy,” he said, smiling, and pressed the trigger. Red thousand rupee notes went flying up from the barrel and came spiralling down.
“Who’s buying? Who?” And it was Anil asking that, and beside him stood the Nepali prostitute, who was laughing and pointing at the headless corpse. And then everyone began laughing and pointing, and shouting “Who’s buying?”
“I’m not selling anything,” Dream-Kavita shouted, but they weren’t even looking at her any longer, though they were gathered closer around her than ever. They were pressed so close to her that she couldn’t even breathe, and she knew they would suffocate her if she didn’t get away.
“Miss Sassy,” Krishan Kumar said, only it wasn’t Krishan Kumar, it was him and Anil, and the headless corpse, and everyone else she’d met in the last couple of days. It was the fat man who’d elbowed her breast, it was the man with the knife, it was the lassi vendor, the moonshine woman; it was even the porter with his load. “Miss Sassy,” they all said, “sell to me, to me, to me.”
Kavita woke with a start. It was dark and hot, and she could hear Anil’s steady breathing from where he lay on the mattress on the floor. She lay on her back, staring into the darkness, and a monstrous suspicion rose in her mind. It was terrible, it was absurd, it was too ridiculous even to think about. She had to get rid of it at once.
She fought it down, crushed it ruthlessly, put rocks on it like the rock that had been thrown on the head of the corpse below the bridge, piled boulders on it until it was quite buried, and then, only then, could she finally fall asleep.
This time round, she did not dream.
“Did they ever find anything out about the dead body?” Kavita asked Sitaram Yadav.
The dairy owner peered up from his milk can. “What about it?” he asked. “Why are you asking about that rubbish?”
“Well, I just thought.” Kavita shrugged. “You hear things from people, Sitaram Uncle. If something happens, you’ll probably be a better source of actual news than all the rumours.”
Sitaram shook his head. “I haven’t heard anything I’d call information. Just rubbish, as I said. Someone said someone else told him they heard screaming from under the bridge that night, but I’ll bet it was just overdone imagination and country liquor. Someone else said another someone saw people putting the body down there and throwing the rock down from the bridge, but I’m certain that was even more country liquor. After all, there are no lights on the bridge, so how could they have seen anything?” He frowned severely at Kavita. “What does it matter to you anyway? Why are you bothering with this rubbish?”
“Nothing, really,” Kavita said hastily. “Here’s your money, Uncle.”
Walking home she was deep in thought. So deep was she in thought that the motorcycle’s engine must have been in her ear for some time before she noticed it.
“Morning, Miss Sassy.” Krishan Kumar raised a hand in greeting. “I came out to make sure you were fine. Got home all right last night?”
“Yes, thanks.” She gave him the best smile she could manage. “How are you?”
“How am I, she asks. I’m fine. Did you imagine I wouldn’t be?”
“Well...those two said they’d be back.”
“Let them come.” For an instant Krishan Kumar’s eyes went expressionless. “If they really want to see what trouble is, let them come.”
“They don’t know whom they’re messing with?” Kavita teased.
“That’s right. People who mess with me get messed with right back.”
“Well...all right then.” Kavita smiled again and raised a hand. “I’ll go now.”
“No lift today either? Tomorrow, then, for sure.”
“We’ll see,” Kavita said. “We’ll see.”
“Did your friend Arjun ever talk about going away?” Kavita asked.
Anil glanced up from the breakfast dishes, which he was, at her insistence, helping her clean. “Going away?”
“I talked to the woman you mentioned, Rukmini. She says Arjun was making plans to leave. He had his eye on some woman, she said, and when he had her, he’d take her and get out. Didn’t you know about this?”
“First I’ve heard of it,” Anil said. “Maybe the whore is just making it up.”
“Maybe,” Kavita agreed. “Maybe you’re right. But I talked to...”
She closed her mouth abruptly as a familiar shadow fell across the floor and their mother came into the kitchen. For a while, she stood glaring down at them, arms akimbo, unable to decide whom to get angry at. Finally she picked, thankfully, on Anil.
“When are you going to go out and get some money?” she demanded.
“Soon,” he muttered, looking down at the dishes, wiping furiously. “I’ll go soon, don’t worry.”
He really was a ninny. She couldn’t recall a time, even from when they were children, that he’d been any better. He was always vain and cowardly, and would do anything for a little personal benefit. Watching him now, determinedly scrubbing dishes while Mother shouted, she felt like kicking him and walking out. If Mother hadn’t been there, he’d have done the work as slowly and sloppily as possible, if that is he did it at all.
It wasn’t that he’d been spoiled, or anything like that. Their other brother, Suresh, had turned out fine, was a hard worker and honest as the day was long. It seemed to be something in him, something like a worm that lay coiled under his skin, and she wished she could reach in and pull it out by the roots.
“How’s the baby?” she asked, when their mother paused for breath.
“What do you care? Have you got to take care of her?” Kavita’s mother rounded on her, a fresh target for her wrath. “I’ve got to sit up with her and keep her calm as best I can, while you’re out of the house half the time, doing god knows what. No decent girl should act like that. If I did the same when I was younger, my mother would have had whipped the hide off my back. If this is what comes of educating daughters these days, it’s better for them to remain illiterate.”
Kavita let her rant. She was thinking of something else. The horrendous suspicion of the night had burst out of the rock prison now, leaping and gibbering; and now it wasn’t just a suspicion. Now it wouldn’t be denied. Letting the tide of abuse flow over her, she examined the idea carefully, like a curiosity she might have discovered on the street, looking for flaws, something that might prove she was imagining it all. But there was nothing. The more she thought about it, the more clearly it held up to the facts. But how could she prove it, and even supposing she could, what would she do after that?
She grew aware that her mother had finally run dry of words. With a final disgusted sniff, the older woman turned away and stomped into the inner room. The baby, who had been sleeping, promptly began squalling again.
Kavita sighed. “I’ve got a few things to do,” she said. “You carry on with the chores.”
Anil looked up at her viciously. “How long are you going to treat me as your personal servant?”
She looked down at him expressionlessly. “As long as it takes to clear your name. Or would you rather get yourself out of this mess you got yourself into?” Without waiting for his answer, she walked away.
If she hurried, she would be able to get to the lassi vendor just as he set up his stall, before the market opened up. She’d have to buy another glass of his awful lassi, probably, but she could live with that. There was something she wanted to check.
She only hoped he’d be forthcoming.
When Kavita returned, her mother had gone out. Anil was at the tube well, disconsolately cranking water into the blue plastic bucket from the kitchen. She walked past him without acknowledging his existence and into the house.
The tape recorder was old, and was only still working because it had been used so little. She opened the bottle of cheap perfume she’d been given on her last birthday and never used, poured some on a cotton wool ball, and wiped the recording head clean. Then she put in the batteries she’d bought at a grocer’s shop on the way back from the market. Last of all she slipped in a tape. It was an old T series tape of Hindi film songs, but it could be easily recorded over. She put the recorder in the bag she used to use for her school books, and slung it over her shoulder.
Afterwards, she went into the inner room to look at the new baby. It was hard to believe that this morsel of sleeping humanity was actually her sister. There was a black cord tied around the baby’s wrist, with a tiny copper cylinder attached to it. That would probably contain some charm or other the astrologer had given the baby, to keep her safe.
“Best of luck, little sister,” Kavita murmured, resisting the impulse to touch the baby in case she woke. “You’ll need it. How you’ll need it.”
When she came back to the outer room, Anil was there, staring moodily at the television screen with the sound off. She poked him on the shoulder.
“Get ready,” she said. “I need you to come with me.”
“Where?” His eyes were filled with panic. “If someone sees me...”
“Nothing will happen if someone sees you. Today we’re going to end this, and I’ll need your help. I’ll be back in five minutes from Tusli’s Mother’s house; I’ve got a phone call to make.” Tulsi’s Mother wouldn’t be pleased at having to let Kavita use her phone, and tell Kavita to buy a mobile of her own. But Tulsi’s Mother knew well enough that Kavita couldn’t afford a mobile, and Kavita knew she knew; and in any case she’d plead an emergency, which this pretty much was. Besides which, she’d pay for the call. “As soon as Mother comes back, we’re leaving.”
Anil got up reluctantly. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” he said.
“Oh, I do,” Kavita said, but inside her a voice was whispering, Do you now, really, do you.
In the late morning sun, Sitaram Yadav’s dairy farm was hot and dusty, as though the little patch of earth trapped the sun’s rays, condensing them into a block of airless heat that scorched the skin. The vast bulks of the buffaloes were still as sculptures, the only movement the rhythmic cud-chewing of their jaws and the occasional flick of an ear or tail.
A jeep with a trailer was parked at the edge of the yard, and Sitaram Yadav and one of his sons were pulling hay out of the latter with rakes. The dairy owner stopped, surprised, when he saw Kavita.
“Don’t tell me you want more milk now,” he said.
“No, Sitaram Uncle.” Motioning Anil to wait, Kavita drew Sitaram off to one side. “That’s my brother,” she said. “Someone’s coming to meet us, someone with whom we have urgent business, but we can’t do it at home. So I thought we could hold it here, outside.”
Sitaram Yadav’s shrewd eyes looked from Anil to her and back. “This person you’re meeting,” he said. “Is there likely to be trouble?”
“I don’t know,” Kavita confessed. “I really don’t know. But with you and your son nearby, as witnesses, I don’t think there will be. That’s about all I can say.”
Sitaram Yadav nodded. “Well, I’ll make sure we’re where we can be seen,” he said.
Kavita had only just got back to Anil when there was the noise of an engine and the red motorcycle drew up. Krishan Kumar switched off the machine and looked at her. “All right, Miss Sassy,” he said. “I came here, just as you asked me to on the phone.” He glanced at Anil. “Who’s he?”
“My brother.” Kavita didn’t bother to make any further introductions. “I’m glad you could make the time.”
“You said it was extremely important, that it couldn’t wait.” Krishan Kumar got off the motorcycle and put it on its stand. “Well? What’s up?”
“I thought,” Kavita said coolly, “that I’d let you have one chance to get yourself off the hook before I went to the police.”
“The police?” Krishan Kumar’s eyebrows rose. “What on earth would you go to the police for?”
“To tell them you killed the autorickshaw driver whose body was found under the bridge over there. Arjun. That’s what I’ll tell them.”
“What are you going on about? I never killed anyone.”
“Of course you did.” Kavita looked him up and down, slowly. “And I’ll tell you exactly how you did it, and why. After that I’ll go to the police and tell them too.”
“He killed Arjun?” Anil said incredulously. “Him?”
“Shut up,” Kavita snapped. “All you do is keep your trap shut and listen.” She turned back to Krishan Kumar. “You listen too, because this is important. It’s as important as your freedom for the next twenty years.
“Right from the start, I knew this wasn’t a gangland killing, no matter what it looked like, and no matter what the police said. Arjun was part of the underworld, yes; anyone with any knowledge of the lowlife of the slum would be able to tell that. But he was only a very small part, strictly the smallest of fry. He wasn’t even a low level thug, the kind who helps frighten shopkeepers into paying protection money. He was only a moonshine courier, and I realised almost at once that his death only meant a temporary inconvenience to the Vikasnagar gang and its supply chain, no more. Killing him wouldn’t make sense to the gang. It wouldn’t make any sense even to the Sangam gang. Risking a gang war over a courier who would be replaced in a day or two is idiocy, and even I know the gangs are not idiotic.
“At first, in fact, I wasn’t even certain he’d been killed, no matter what anyone said. It was the head, you see. Why was his head smashed? Was it to conceal the identity of someone else’s corpse, to pass it off as Arjun’s? But I couldn’t find any mention of anyone else going missing, and there was no indication that Arjun needed to escape. In fact, though I found evidence enough that he was planning to go away, he was going to do it in a systematic fashion, by selling his house to raise money. Someone who does that doesn’t run off, leaving another man’s corpse in place of his own.
“Nor, as I discovered, does he leave his autorickshaw unattended at his doorstep. He doesn’t abandon his main source of livelihood, the only thing that made him useful to the gang, too, when he was actually planning to raise money. No. The body was Arjun’s, all right.
“So why was it that his head was smashed?
“My second idea was even less useful than my first. I thought that maybe someone had impersonated Arjun for some reason, committed some crime, and then knocked him off, covering their tracks by leaving him with his head crushed. But there wasn’t the slightest news of any other crime, and in fact from all I could find, Arjun had been perfectly visible at his normal activities. So that was out too, and besides it was really too ridiculous.
“But someone had still murdered him and gone to some trouble to smash his head to pieces. Why?
“There was only one answer that remained. The head was destroyed because there was something in that head that might leave a clue to the killer. Can you tell me what that clue might be?”
Krishan Kumar didn’t reply, so Kavita continued.
“I’m not a highly educated girl, but I’ve been to school, and I’ve read more than others have, I’m sure. I know enough to be aware that guns can be traced by marks on the bullets that they fire. This doesn’t matter for the gangs, because they use cheap, crude kattas that they can simply throw away. But you don’t have a katta, do you? You have an officially produced, licensed pistol, made by the government ordnance factory, bullets from which can be traced right back to you.
“So let me tell you what happened. Arjun wanted money badly. He wanted to leave the slum, and he was looking to make it whatever way he could. He was trying to sell his house, but it was badly sited, in a dead end alley frequented by criminals, a place which makes even my parents’ house look almost inviting. Even if he could find a customer, he wouldn’t make as much out of it as he wanted. So he looked for something else.
“What he thought of was a spot of extortion. Specifically, he came to you, to your big, posh store right in the market, so rich looking; he came to you, and asked for a payout. One time only, he said, one payment, and he would leave you alone. Or it would be such a pity if something happened to that nice big shop of yours.
“Only, he made a major mistake. He imagined you were just another shopkeeper, that you would scare easily, and pay up. He didn’t know that you’re the kind who never forgives. Remember what you said to me this morning? If someone messes with you, you mess them right back.
“The evening Arjun died, he was at the market, near your shop. He was drinking lassi with a friend of his, and you saw him there. You waited until the friend left, and then you had one of your assistants call him to your shop. The market was closing up by then, but I have a witness who saw your assistant, the one named Munna, come and talk to Arjun.” The lassi seller had parted with the information readily enough, once Kavita had told him that the other customer from that evening might know the whereabouts of her brother.
“Arjun wasn’t suspicious. Why should he be? He thought you’d pay up, probably after some face saving show of negotiations. You sat him down and pretended to negotiate, while your assistants closed the shutters down, and the market emptied. And then you pulled your gun on him.
“I don’t think you intended to kill him. No. I think you intended to frighten and humiliate him, which was why you made him take his clothes off, all but his underpants. But then he did something totally unexpected. He tried to fight.
“I can’t tell exactly what drove him to resist. Maybe it was something you said, something that went a bit too far. Maybe it was simply the fact that he wanted the money desperately, and he saw his chance for a life elsewhere, outside the slum, disappearing. Whatever the reason, he tried to fight, and he fought hard enough to crack one of your nice big plate glass windows. What did he throw at it, in an attempt to break out, I wonder?
“That did it. He’d done the unforgiveable. He’d damaged your property. Your two brawny assistants were on hand, of course; they’d armed themselves with two lengths of iron rebar from the pavement works outside. They’d intended to frighten him with the rods, but when he started fighting they – and maybe this was on your orders, or maybe they acted in the heat of the moment – stabbed him with the ends instead. I saw the body, and the jagged holes in his chest.
“But he still wouldn’t die, would he? He was a tough man, and people don’t really die as easily as in the films. And he was still fighting. So you panicked, and shot him with your pistol. Right in the head.
“I must commend you on the presence of mind you showed afterwards. You may have panicked then, but you acted with quite commendable ice-cold composure afterwards. There was a bullet somewhere inside his brain; you couldn’t fish it out without chopping his head open. The only option was to get rid of the head.
“Now chopping off a head isn’t easy. For one thing it needs a big knife or an axe. For another, it spreads blood all over everything, and there was enough blood already. Also, if you cut the head off, you have the problem of getting rid of it. The police might look for it, and they might find it, no matter where you threw it, and then they might find the bullet. Even if the flesh rotted, the bullet might still be rattling around in the skull, and you couldn’t risk that. The bullet would match the calibre of your gun, and I’ll bet there aren’t many like that in this slum, are there?
“Very well. You wouldn’t remove the head. You’d just shatter it so thoroughly that nobody would even suspect that there had been a bullet in it. A good idea, I must say. A very good idea.
“You’d already traced Arjun after he’d made his extortion attempt, of course; it wasn’t difficult, since he lived near the market. You knew where he lived, and you found his autorickshaw parked outside his house. The keys were almost certainly with him, in his pocket, along with his house keys.
“So you, or one of your assistants, brought the autorickshaw to the market, and the three of you put his body in it. You then drove out to the bridge over there; a nice quiet spot, about the only safe place in the slum where you could dump a corpse, come to think of it. Someone might see you, but they’d think they were watching one of the gangs dump a victim; and they’d probably be so drunk that anything they said would be discounted anyway.
“And, yes, you were seen. People did say they saw you dumping the body. At first I thought they were imagining things, because how could they have seen anything in the darkness under the bridge, especially since there aren’t any street lights in the area? But then I remembered something.
“The first morning, just after the body had been found, I overheard someone saying whoever had smashed the head with the rock had to have dropped it from the bridge, and must have had a hell of an aim, to be able to hit it in the dark. But of course it wasn’t dark, was it? While you were aiming the rock, your assistants were illuminating the body with those huge torches you have in your shop. Or maybe you illuminated the body while they dropped the rock. It hardly makes a difference.
“After that, when the head was crushed, eliminating all telltale bullet holes, you took the autorickshaw back to Arjun’s house. You’d bundled up his clothes and pushed them under the driver’s seat. Maybe you’d intended to get rid of them later, but you forgot. That’s all right – nobody can think of everything, and you were under stress. They’re still there, though, under the seat, like a bunch of rags; the police will find them there, when I tell them where to look.
“I even found a witness who knew you’d come back with the autorickshaw; you came back very late, waking this person, and making a tremendous racket as you tried to park this vehicle you didn’t know well how to drive, in the narrow space of that alley. My witness was not at all pleased to be woken up by the noise, I can tell you.
“And what did you do with the keys? Why, the day after you dumped the body, after things had quietened down a bit, early in the morning you went on your motorcycle to the river. You rode on to the bridge, took the keys out of your pocket, and threw them into the water. And on the way back you met me.
“That’s the way it happened, wasn’t it?”
Krishan Kumar’s eyes were pools of black expressionlessness. “And how do you intend to prove any of this?”
“Well, for one thing, I’ve got everything I’ve just said on tape.” Kavita touched the bag. “There are enough clues for the police to be getting on with, if they’re at all interested in solving the murder. For another, if they dig into the river bank where the corpse was found, if they turn over all the rocks and pebbles, they’ll find that bullet. It might be battered about a bit, but there should be enough of it left to be identified. For another, your shop has closed circuit TV. If the police check the recording, they’ll either see you with Arjun – or, if you’ve deleted the recording, they’ll find a gap at that point. Do you want to take the risk?”
“What if the police aren’t interested?”
“Then I might give what I know to the gang. They don’t give a damn about Arjun, but they won’t be at all happy about a mere shopkeeper getting uppity enough to kill one of their own. Well?”
Krishan Kumar nodded heavily. “All right,” he said. “Suppose this rigmarole you’ve just spouted has any bit of truth in it at all, what do you want to keep it to yourself?”
“Two things.” Kavita took a deep breath. “First, this is my brother, as I said. The suspicion going around is that he killed Arjun. I can’t let that continue. You have contacts; put the word around that Arjun’s killer has left town, and that the reason for the killing was some old personal enmity. Make sure the word goes around by paying people to make it go around. Am I clear?”
“Eminently.” Kavita noticed that he wasn’t calling her Miss Sassy any longer. “And what’s the second?”
“What do you think? You’re rich, but we aren’t. I need money.”
Krishan Kumar looked around, and saw Sitaram Yadav and his son watching. “How much?”
“How much did Arjun ask you for?”
“Assuming he asked me for anything, which he didn’t, I’d say ninety thousand.”
“I’m nowhere near as greedy as that. Thirty thousand. Right away, in cash.”
Anil had been looking back and forth between them like a spectator at a tennis match. He opened his mouth to say something.
“Shut up!” Kavita told him, without breaking her gaze from Krishan Kumar. “Well?”
“It’ll take me time to get that much.”
“No, it won’t. You call your assistants, get one of them to get the money and come here. Do it now.”
Krishan Kumar stared fixedly at her. His mouth twisted. “I should never have fallen for you,” he said.
“You shouldn’t have,” Kavita agreed readily. “That was your mistake.”
Krishan Kumar fished out his mobile phone and made the call.
Kavita and Anil stood on the street outside Sitaram Yadav’s dairy farm and watched Krishan Kumar and his assistant Munna ride away on the red motorcycle. Kavita clutched a long envelope which, she’d counted, contained thirty red thousand rupee notes. As long as the motorcycle was still in sight they didn’t speak.
“He’ll look for revenge,” Anil said.
“Maybe,” Kavita said. “I don’t think so, though. As things stand he’s just lost thirty thousand. He stands to lose much more if I tell what I know, and he’s very aware of that.”
“Did he really fall for you?” Anil asked.
Kavita didn’t answer. She put the envelope inside her bag and drew the straps tight.
“What are we going to do with that money?” Anil asked eventually.
Kavita looked at him. “What do you mean, we?”
“But...” Anil blinked several times. “He gave that, that money to –”
“To me,” Kavita said. “And you’re not getting any of it. So don’t talk about it again.”
“Why?” Anil sounded like a little child. “Tell me, why?”
Kavita drew a deep breath. “You made two mistakes, Anil.” She couldn’t make herself call him Brother, and realised she never would again. “The first mistake was getting involved with a crook like Arjun at all. But I suppose, with your nature, it was inevitable.
“The second mistake was when you came to me, and recruited me to help get you out of trouble. You thought I would find enough of the truth to rescue you, but not all the truth. And that, Anil, was where you screwed up. Because, of course, I found out the whole truth.”
“The whole truth?”
“Yeah. Now tell me, Anil, exactly how much were you planning to sell me to Arjun for? How much was I worth to you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But Anil’s lips had gone white.
“Of course you know. You know perfectly well. You were Arjun’s only friend, he was your only friend; he talked about a ‘decent’ girl he had an eye on, one he would get soon, and then he’d get out of the slum and away. He even told the Nepali woman that this decent girl wasn’t a hooker, and when he’d got hold of her he wouldn’t want to fuck a whore ever again. Who the hell else could it be?
“I didn’t want to believe it at first. When the idea came to me, I pushed it down. I tried to forget it. But there’s absolutely nothing else that makes the slightest sense. So how much was I worth...no, don’t tell me. I’d feel cleaner if I didn’t know.
“So this is what I’m going to do with the money. I’ll go home now, and leave half of it – fifteen thousand – with Mother, telling her to spend it taking care of the new baby. I’m not sure that she’ll follow my request, but at least I am absolutely, totally certain that she won’t give any of it to you.
“Then I’ll take the rest, fifteen thousand, and I’ll take my clothes and things, my books and my certificates, and I’ll leave this city. I’ll be leaving on the evening train, and I won’t tell any of you where I’m going, though it’s going to be a city where I can find a place to stay. Next month my exam results will be out, and I know I’ll have done well – well enough to get into a college that’s not too bad. By the time my money’s run out I’ll find an evening job as a shop assistant or something. I’ll study during the day, work in the evening, and though it’ll be a hard life, it’ll be better than anything that I could have here. I can have a chance to grow, while you’re still shoplifting and hustling for pocket change. How does that sound to you?”
Anil said nothing. He seemed to be struggling to speak.
“Is everything all right?” Sitaram Yadav called.
Kavita waved at him reassuringly, and flashed a bright smile. “It’s fine, Sitaram Uncle.” She turned back to Anil. “You look at that man there, Sitaram. He works hard for his living, but it’s honest work, and I’ll bet he sleeps well at night, which is more than you’ll ever do.” She adjusted her bag on her shoulder. “Well, I’m going now. Don’t you dare come back home until I’ve left.”
She’d started off homewards when Anil finally found his voice. “But me,” he called. “What about me?”
Kavita glanced at him one last time. “What about you?” she asked.
Then she walked away, and did not look back.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016