Authors: Bali Rai
Amritsar, Punjab, Northern India
y home city, Amritsar, is smouldering. There was a riot overnight â a curfew has been imposed â and now the streets are beginning to come to life again.
Smoke rises from charred buildings, some still burning. I can taste the ashes in my mouth; feel the kerosene fumes stinging my eyes. In a moment, I will leave this place, perhaps forever.
My mother, heavily pregnant, loads the last of our things onto the cart that our neighbour Mr Khan has given us. He's given us a bullock too, a tall, grey beast with long, curling horns and milky eyes. It will pull us to our new home. Mr Khan looks sad, and his wife is crying. She hugs me tightly and tells me she is sorry. But our troubles aren't her fault. She is not to blame.
In the distance, I watch another woman walk away. She wears a black shawl and there is purpose in her stride. I wish I could run to her but there is no time. Another storm is coming to take the city â another tragedy caused by humans. We have to be away before it strikes.
think I should explain.
A day earlier, just after five in the evening, British soldiers took my father. He runs a food stall and is a fine and noble man. His name is Mit Singh, and he is my hero. The soldiers didn't care about that. They didn't stop to ask, or to investigate. They simply came, four of them with their rifles, and took my dad away.
We were packing up for the day. My father sells savouries and spiced tea, and each night I hand out leftovers to the poor, who crowd the narrow lanes
around the marketplace. My city, Amritsar, is a hectic, noisy, smelly, colourful place. And nowhere is busier than the market. The stalls sell everything from cotton and silk, to birdcages, spices, earthenware pots and fruit. It is the only school I've ever known, and it is my favourite place in the world. Or it was â until they took my dad.
When I returned to the stall, I could see something was wrong. Soldiers surrounded my father.
âI did not riot!' my dad shouted at them. âYou are mistaken!'
The lead soldier, a tall Indian with dark, pockmarked skin and a curling black moustache, told my dad to keep quiet.
âBut you have the wrong man!' my father protested.
The soldier raised his rifle and used the butt to hit my father on the head. My dad fell backwards, crying out in pain, and I felt my stomach churn.
âLeave him alone!' I yelled but no one heard me.
The other stallholders had crowded round. Most were friends but none helped my dad. They were too scared. Earlier in the day, rumours had begun of a riot. The rumours were true. People had died and buildings had been burned to the ground. The
soldiers were searching for rioters and no one wanted to get in their way. The British ruled India with an iron fist. Anyone who stood against them paid a heavy price.
âHelp him!' I shouted. âPlease!'
The lead soldier shook his head.
âWe have witnesses,' he said. âYou are a rioter!'
I pushed through the crowd, trying to reach my dad, but two strong, rough hands grabbed me around the shoulders and I was pulled back. It was Atar Khan, one of our neighbours.
âNo, Arjan,' he warned. âDo not make them even angrier, son.'
Hot, salty tears poured down my cheeks. My head felt light. I didn't care what the soldiers did to me. I wanted to help my dad. I struggled in my neighbour's grip.
âYou are twelve,' Mr Khan whispered in my ear. âYou are not a man. Stop.'
The crowd grew bigger, and people were shouting. âStop the British! Kill the British!' they screamed.
The soldiers began to panic, their eyes frantic and their foreheads sweaty. I felt my heart surge. Perhaps the crowd would free my dad. But then a whistle
sounded and three white men arrived, with batons drawn. Behind them came several policemen.
âDisperse immediately!' came the order.
The mob took fright. People began to walk away. I tried to catch sight of my father but it was impossible. Then, as the crowd thinned, I saw the soldiers lift and handcuff him. They led him across the market square and towards the central police station. He turned his face to mine and I saw tears in his eyes. I tried to follow but Mr Khan's grip was too powerful.
âNo, son!' he warned again. âCome, I will take you home. We must inform your mother.'
I shook my head, as more tears came.
âWhat can she do?' I asked my neighbour. âWe have to help him now!'
Mr Khan paid no attention. Instead, he led me through a maze of narrow and dark back streets; to the small house I shared with my family. His face was set, his expression full of sorrow. He did not speak until we reached my house.
âThere's nothing we can do tonight,' he said. âYou need to look after your mother. My cousin cooks for the chief of police. I'll go and speak to him later.'
My mother's face fell as she opened the door.
âMr Khan?' she asked. âWhat's the matter? Where is my husband?'
âThere's been a mistake,' Mr Khan told her. âThe British have arrested Arjan's father. They claim he is a rioter.'
My mum, eight months pregnant, cried out and began to faint. Mr Khan grabbed her and held her steady. âArjan, bring water â quickly!'
As I ran to find the water urn, Mrs Khan appeared. âWhat's all the noise about?'
The Khans lived in the same yard as us, across the narrow court. They were kind and friendly, their own children now adults. As Mr Khan explained the problem to his wife, I held the cup to my mother's lips. Her pale brown eyes were wide with fright.
âWe have to help him,' she whispered to me. âIf we don't, the British will kill him.'
The thought made me shudder with fear. I could not imagine a world without my father. I did not want a world without him. Who would teach me how to be a man? Who would look after my mother and my new brother or sister? What would we eat?
Mrs Khan came and sat by my side.
âGo and secure the gates to the yard,' she told me. âI will look after her.'
I handed the cup over and stood. My legs felt like jelly. Out in the yard, Mr Khan explained what he would do. From the streets, I heard the faint sound of soldiers shouting through loudhailers.
have called a curfew,' Mr Khan told me. âNo one may leave their houses tonight. The penalty for disobeying will be arrest and jail. Perhaps even death.'
' is the word for British in our language, Punjabi. They have ruled my country since long before my birth and they will never leave. At least that's what I hear the adults say. I have never understood why they rule us. Surely Indians should rule India? It makes no sense â like a fox taking charge over chickens. It is unnatural. But it is the way things are.
âTomorrow, at sunrise, I will go to my cousin,' Mr Khan continued. âHe will help us.'
He took me in his arms and gave me a hug.
âDon't worry, son,' he said. âWe will make things right in the morning. For tonight, you need to stay here and take care of your mother.'
I nodded slowly but I couldn't help thinking about my dad. I had never seen him cry before and it felt wrong. His face, as the soldiers took him, would never leave my memory.
âWe are just across the way,' my neighbour added. âAsk if you need anything at all.'
As Mrs Khan continued to watch my mother, I sat on my mattress and cried.
ater, the other neighbours began to return. Six families lived around our rectangular paved courtyard, two on each side and two at the rear. A water pump sat in the middle, and a toilet and wash area near the entrance gate. It was crowded and noisy but it was my home. Now, without my dad, it felt like an entirely different place.
My mum and Mrs Khan were talking and brewing tea, so I went outdoors. Darkness had begun to fall, and in the distance I heard gunshots and shouting. I wondered what was happening.
I saw Lala Ram, another neighbour, whispering to Mr Khan. I sneaked past them and into the latrine, before hiding behind the door. Despite the smell, I stayed put, trying to hear their conversation. There was a crack in the door and I watched them through it. They were talking about my father.
âThere are rumours, brother,' Lala Ram said to Mr Khan.
Lala had very dark skin and black eyes. He was middle-aged and very skinny, and always rode his bike everywhere. He was a farm hand, working in the fields that surrounded the city. His face was grimy with dust and heat.
âWhat rumours?' Mr Khan asked him.
Lala Ram shook his head, and leant closer.
âMit Singh and the others will be taken away from the city,' he explained.
My heart sank and I felt cold. What did he mean?
âI saw the postmaster,' Lala continued. âThe British have arrested twenty men since the rioting began. The banks have been looted and people killed. Revolutionaries are attacking the police. The city is in turmoil, brother.'
Mr Khan looked shocked.
âBut Mit Singh is innocent!' he declared. âWe were at the market all day, together!'
Lala Ram shrugged and when he spoke I saw his teeth in the glow of a kerosene lamp, yellow and rotten from the tobacco he chewed regularly.
don't care,' he said. âThey are moving the prisoners on the night train to Lahore. In the morning the prisoners will be taken to court. If found guilty, brother, they will hang for sure!'
My stomach somersaulted and a shiver worked its way across my chest. I felt sick.
âNo, no!' said Mr Khan. âThis is an outrage. What will the poor woman do without her husband? Her son is just a child. They will be left destitute!'
Lala Ram shrugged once more.
âThey and many others, brother,' he said. âIt is the will of God â what can we do?'
Something dawned on me. A simple, frightening truth. No one would save my father. He would be taken away before sunrise. He would have no escape.
âI want to go out now,' Mr Khan said. âBut how can I risk my own life to save that of Mit Singh?'
Lala Ram nodded.
âThere is nothing we can do,' he said. âFate will play its own game.'
As the two men walked away, I shook my head. How could this be happening to us? How could I let it happen?
* * *
An hour later, the yard was almost silent. I sat up in bed, and heard my mother breathing gently in her sleep. Over by the simple hearth, I saw a knife, matches and some cold tea. I dressed quickly, drank the tea and took the blade and matches. Tip-toeing across the room, I kissed my mother on her cheek. Her long, chestnut hair fell across her face. She stirred slightly but didn't wake. I stared at her for a long time.
âBy morning,' I eventually whispered, âyou will still have a husband and a son. I swear to you, Mother.'
And then, despite the cold and the fear, I climbed a set of wooden ladders, on to Mr Khan's dwelling. The gates to our yard were padlocked shut. The only way out was across the rooftops. Somewhere nearby
a fox whined and rats shrieked. An amber glow lit the sky to the east, the remnants of the fires started by the rioters.