Authors: Bali Rai
I took a deep breath and set off to find my father.
he darkness made my journey across the rooftops slow. I took each step with care. One mistake and I would fall. My breathing was heavy and I was sweating. Every little noise scared me. The clouds above me were deep purple and midnight blue, and the smell of burning filled my nostrils.
I went east, towards the centre of the city. There were only two places my father could be â the police station or the army barracks. If they were sending him away, I guessed the army would have him. They were closest to the railway station. But I decided to check the police cells anyway. It was on my route, and I could have been wrong.
Eventually, some eight alleys from my own house, I dropped down to the street. It was narrow and paved with cobbles, and stank of human waste. I waited in the shadows, listening for any sign of soldiers or policemen. When I heard nothing, I moved on. I couldn't see a thing and had to feel my way to the main road, using the walls as a guide. The city is home to thousands of rats, and I heard them scurrying about. One slid over my feet as I stepped across an open sewer.
At the main road, I turned right. The street was dark, like the alleyways behind me, but my eyes soon adjusted. I saw nothing and moved on, realising that I had no plan. When I reached the police station, I had had no idea what I would do. Even if they held my father inside, how would I get him out?
My desire to save him had stopped me thinking straight. Now the urgency and determination I'd had at home began to seep away. I had to make a plan, and fast.
The street led to a crossroads, and one of Amritsar's busiest routes. To my left the road went north,
towards Lahore some thirty miles away. To the right were the city and the marketplace. The main road looked deserted but I knew that meant nothing. The British sent out regular patrols and I'd heard many stories of the bandits and evil men who prowled the city late into the night. I had to watch my step.
Instead of the fastest route, I went straight on, hoping to avoid trouble. At the heart of the junction I found a barricade. Tables and chairs had been piled high, as though a bonfire was being built. Underneath was straw and other kindling. The fire hadn't been lit. I wondered why, as I heard an owl screech somewhere above me.
I entered more narrow streets, each overcrowded with alleys and yards, and housing. The air was cooling but still warm enough to make me sweat.
As I moved, I thought about the police station. It was a big building, with several entrances. The cells were near the rear wall, and underground. The policemen had a wicked reputation. They were evil and many took bribes. Every week, the market traders had stories to tell about people beaten and tortured by the officers. I shuddered as I recalled the tales. I couldn't bear the thought of my dad being hurt.
Once at the station, I had to check the cells somehow. But how would I get inside? I decided that I would need a distraction â something to send the officers elsewhere, as I sneaked into the back entrance. But I had no idea what that diversion would be.
I went through possibilities in my head as I approached an orphanage. It was weird seeing the city so empty. I'd only ever known Amritsar to be busy, but then I'd never been out so late before. The sounds I was used to during the day were missing, and the atmosphere was eerie. It felt wrong. Then, as I was deciding which way to go, I heard them.
Panicked and scared, I jumped the wall of the orphanage. The grounds to the back were open and led across some common land into another maze of streets. If I had to, I could run that way. I crouched by the wall first, however, waiting for the patrol to pass by. I could hear their boots as they walked. When I sneaked a look, I saw three of them, with rifles on their shoulders and cigarettes hanging from their mouths. Each wore a red turban and khaki uniform. Each looked bored, too.
âThis is a waste of time,' said one, as they walked past my hiding place. âNo one will be out tonight. They aren't stupid.'
âVigilance,' said a second, in a tone that said he was the leader. âWe must remain on the look-out. The revolutionaries use the darkness to move around.'
âIf I see one,' the first replied, âI'll shoot him on sight. There's no danger.'
The soldiers laughed and one of them started to cough. I felt something near my hand, and my heart began to pound. Fur and feet andâ¦
!' I screamed as a rat bit one of my fingers.
The soldiers stopped. I jumped up and ran, desperate to get away.
âThere!' yelled one of the soldiers. âWe have our first criminal!'
I heard them climb over the wall and start the chase. My heart raced as I ran. I was in desperate trouble.
ran for the common behind the orphanage. The ground was uneven and overgrown with weeds. In the darkness, and in my haste, I had no way of knowing where the potholes and divots were. Two open sewers crossed the common â I hoped I wouldn't fall into one. I could hear the soldiers behind me, swearing and shouting, and I prayed they wouldn't try to shoot me.
As I ran, dogs began to bark somewhere nearby. They were almost as scary as the soldiers. Most were wild and roamed in packs at night, attacking
the unwary. But I didn't have time to think about them. Not yet. The soldiers were falling behind and I needed to find a hiding place quickly.
Buildings surrounded the common. The only way out was through one of the many exit gates. Most of these would be locked but at the far end, the walls had foot- and handholds, where blocks had been removed. I had often seen people use these to scale up to the rooftops. That was my aim â to lose the soldiers and move on. The barking grew closer and then I heard a gunshot.
The air around me seemed to part as the bullet sped past. I heard it twang off the wall, and dived for cover. I fell amongst tall weeds and crawled away. My heart was pounding even harder. I couldn't let them catch me â not so soon. I had to get to my father.
The soldiers closed in and I could hear their words clearly. They were calling me names, and insulting my mother. I wanted to jump up and confront them but that would have been foolish. I was the only hope my father had. I couldn't let pride ruin that.
The shot had scared the dogs off, but that didn't help me at all. A pack of rabid and hungry mutts
would have distracted the soldiers. Now they had only me to concentrate on. I moved away as fast as I could, but there was nowhere to go â only more weeds. The ground smelt damp and earthy and I could feel insects biting at my hands and face.
âHe's here somewhere!' the lead soldier shouted. âGet him!'
I took a deep breath and moved on, wishing that I could fall through a hole somehow and hide. Amazingly, God seemed to answer my prayers. My fingers seemed to push through a mound of earth, finding a hollow. It felt deep and wide and I crawled in. It must have been an abandoned fox den or something similar. I didn't care. I curled up, barely fitting, and waited.
The soldiers were soon around me, whacking through the weeds with their rifles. Any minute they would find me, hiding like an animal, and then my quest would fail. I cursed my pursuers and myself. Why couldn't they just leave? What harm could I do?
âNothing here, sir,' said one of the soldiers. âJust weeds and rubble.'
âHe has to be here,' said their leader. âHe didn't just vanish!'
They searched a while longer before walking away. I waited until I couldn't hear their voices, perhaps another ten or fifteen minutes, before moving on again. The further away I got, the calmer I became. Soon, I was near the rear buildings and ready to climb up to the rooftops.
I sat up and looked around. Sensing no danger, I jumped to my feet and felt the wall in front of me. I found a gap and then another and began to haul myself upwards. I moved slowly, careful to make sure my grip was secure. Slowly but surely, I worked my way to the roof, and once there, I lay down and shut my eyes, trying to slow my breathing. My heart pounded in my chest.
Down below, the soldiers had returned. I couldn't hear what they were saying but I did hear the whistle sound. They were calling for more patrols. Soon the lanes around the common would be swarming with more soldiers. I would be trapped up above them, unable to get away. Unless I moved before they arrived.
I stood and made my way to a stone stairwell. The steps led down into a courtyard. I took them, hoping that the street entrance wouldn't be padlocked. But it
was â just like the one at home. I went back up and tried another courtyard.
After several failed attempts, I was frustrated and angry. I came to the end of the block, and looked down onto a wider street. A patrol stood to my left, some fifty yards away. Another group of soldiers were directly below me, four men, all smoking.
âThe area is secure,' said one of them. âWhoever this rebel is, tonight will be his last night on earth.'
I only had a vague sense of the time. But I knew enough to realise that it was running out. Both for my father and for me.
he wait was agonising. I was desperate to get to the police station but couldn't move. The soldiers didn't leave for half an hour. By that point, I was almost frantic.
I imagined them unlocking the cell doors and cuffing my dad. They would take him to the rear entrance and shove him onto a cart. Then they would wheel their way through the night, heading for the train. My father would call out his innocence, and they wouldn't listen. Once on his way to Lahore, he'd be finished. The British hanged revolutionaries without mercy.
I blinked back tears and saw the patrol below me set off. They went right, and turned down a narrow lane. The street was clear now but I knew that the other patrols were nearby. I searched the roof for signs of a way down. At the edge, I found a rope ladder that had been pulled up and folded. I unravelled it and said a prayer. Then I descended to the street.
Across the road, I saw a gap between two shops. I sprinted across and took cover in the shadows. My injured finger throbbed more insistently but I ignored it. I waited and watched â trying to work out a route in my head. The marketplace was five streets ahead, perhaps a half-mile or so. The soldiers were searching the area around me, so I decided to head for the centre of the city. I had lost too much time to consider another long way around.
I took a deep breath and set off, walking as fast as I could. I took the narrow lanes, and made progress quickly. Soon, I was at the edge of the market â as familiar as my own home. It sat in a square, surrounded by tall buildings that seemed to lean over it, like a canopy. Here, I knew every hiding place, so I relaxed. Even if I saw a patrol, I knew that they would not see me.
I stopped next to a water pump and rested a moment. The silence stood out again. I missed the loud voices, the twittering birds and the clamour of daytime. The only thing that remained was the smell of spices â chilli, cumin, black pepper and cardamom. Each scent hung heavily in the air.
I was now five minutes from the police station. And I needed a proper plan. Somehow, I had to get in and out of the station without being seen. And if my father was being held there, I had to help him escape too. For a moment, I felt foolish but then I thought about my mum and the baby growing in her belly. My determination returned and I left my resting place.
Between the market and the station lay an area of dark passages and lanes so narrow that only one person at a time could pass through. These were where the most immoral of Amritsar's people lived, and the police refused to patrol them after dark. Evil men and lowly women lived lives of crime here, and the stories I'd heard made me anxious. Even though my journey was short, it was going to be dangerous.
As if to highlight my fears, I heard a deep growling. Across the square, a pack of four dogs
had appeared. The pack leader was big and powerful and my scent had alerted him. I had the knife in my waistband but it wouldn't help. The blade was too short. I needed a heavy stick to keep the dogs off me. I searched the surrounding area and saw nothing I could use.
The dogs began to move towards me slowly, their tails down and backs arched.
During the day, they stayed on the edges of the marketplace, fearing beatings or worse from the stallholders. But at night, the square and the city was theirs.
I remained calm and began to walk away. A dog had never bitten me and ordinarily they didn't scare me either. But my hands were sweaty and my legs started to shake a little. I wasn't a small child but I wasn't an adult either. And the wild dogs had been known to attack people in the past.
âThis way!' I heard a female voice whisper.
My breath caught in my throat and my heartbeat galloped. From the shadows, a woman smiled out at me. She wore a simple black shawl of the finest silk and her face seemed kindly.
âQuickly!' she added. âThey will tear you apart!'
I had no choice but to follow her down one of the lanes. I moved quickly as the dogs began to bark wildly behind us. The woman stopped at a wooden door and opened it.
I did as she said. Just as she closed the door, one of the dogs snapped its jaws and butted against it. I sighed in relief and looked around. We were in a passageway, with stairs opposite us, and rooms to either side.
âWhat are you doing walking the streets so late?' the woman asked me. There was no anger in her tone, just concern.
âNothing,' I lied, wary of telling a stranger my business.
The woman led me into a room and lit a candle. Her face was truly beautiful: creamy skin like my mother's and brown eyes so pale that they looked almost golden. When she smiled, I felt like I had been wrapped in soft, white clouds. A mellow perfume followed her everywhere â fresh, thick cream and ripe, juicy mangoes.