Authors: Bali Rai
âNow, now,' she said. âMit Singh did not teach his son to lie.'
I must have gasped because the woman explained, âI know who you are, Arjan.'
âBut I've never seen you before,' I replied.
She smiled again. âYou are a young man. Why would you notice me? But I've seen you around the market, handing out food to the hungry and playing with your friends. It's a wonderful place, isn't it?'
I nodded and felt guilty about misleading her.
âI'm looking for my father,' I said. âHe was taken by the soldiers.'
âI heard about it,' she told me. âBut you are just a boy. Brave, perhaps, but foolish too. How can
I shrugged then shook my head. âI don't know. But I must try. Without him, my mother and I are lost.'
The woman considered my words a while.
âSo you wish to risk your own life to save your father's?'
I shrugged again. âI cannot let my father die.'
âThe people here call me Heera,' she said. âPerhaps I can help you.'
âHow?' I asked, getting excited.
âPatience,' she replied. âNow let's see to that injury, shall we?'
I looked down at my wounded and swollen finger. How had she known about it? I hadn't even mentioned the rat bite.
âI notice things about people,' she said, as though she could read my thoughts.
When my confusion showed, she laughed gently.
âNot everything out at night is evil,' she said. âNow, where did I put that ointment?'
he ointment stopped the pain almost immediately, and I asked her what it was made of.
âHerbs and corn oil,' she said. âIt's a secret blend.'
âThank you,' I said. âI don't want to be rude but I have to keep going. My neighbour thinks the
will take my father to Lahore. I have to find him before that happens.'
âAnd I will try to help,' she said again.
âI don't understand who you are,' I told her. âAre you a rebel â is
why you were out so late?'
She shook her head. âNo, I was helping a friend. Someone in trouble, just like you.'
She nodded. âNot the same problem. But a problem nonetheless.'
She asked if I had a plan to save my father and I shook my head.
âI didn't think that far ahead,' I admitted. âI just knew I had to do something.'
Heera thought a moment before replying.
âThe night train to Lahore passes through Amritsar in just over an hour,' she told me. âIt comes from Delhi and is heavily guarded because of the revolutionaries. If we are going to save Mit Singh we must do it now. Once he's on that train, your father is lost.'
âThen we have to get moving,' I said eagerly.
Heera stood at the door and closed her eyes. She reminded me of the holy men I'd seen meditating at festivals.
âThey are gone,' she said once her eyes were open.
âThe dogs,' she replied. âCome!'
As we went back into the night, I wondered who she was, this strange woman. I hadn't planned on
having a companion. I hadn't planned at all. But being with her made my confidence rise.
* * *
The police station was a tall building that took up the whole block. Its walls were white but had weathered over time and there were sandbags piled around the doors, each guarded by sentries. We stood in the shadows next to a bakery, watching them.
âTwo at each entrance,' my new companion told me. âWe'll have to avoid them and go to the rear.'
âThe cells are back there,' I replied. âI've seen the criminals being taken in.'
I followed Heera from shop to shop, careful to match her exact footsteps. When it was time to cross the wide thoroughfare, Heera found a rock and gave it to me.
âYou see the tin sign above the surgery in the distance?' she asked.
I peered into the night but could only just make it out.
âSort of,' I told her. âBut not clearly.'
âCan you hit it with that rock?' she asked.
âI'm not sure but I can try.'
She gave me another of her warm smiles. âOnly those who try can ever succeed. Have a go.'
I played throwing games with my friends all the time. From rotten onions to rubber balls, I was a good shot. But this was something else. All I could make out was a rectangle, sitting in darkness. I felt the weight of the rock in my hand and considered the distance. Then I stepped back, took aim and threw. The rock arced through the air, and for a moment I thought it was too high. Only, at the last minute, it seemed to lose height and clanged against the metal sign. In the quiet, the noise was almost shocking.
âWhat was that?' a guard shouted, raising his rifle.
Heera ignored them and handed me another rock.
âNow this one,' she whispered. âSame place.'
The second rock flew out of my hand and this time the noise was louder still. Every guard rushed across, leaving us to make our way down the side of the station unseen.
âWe must hurry,' I said to Heera. âIf he isn't here, we'll have to run to the barracks.'
At the rear, a single sentry guarded the door. He looked sleepy and Heera told me to hold my ground.
âI'm going to remove him,' she said.
âLeave that to me,' she replied. âBut whatever you do, don't move until I call you. Understood?'
I nodded. Heera turned and walked towards the guard. He didn't see her until she was right next to him. He was startled and began to raise his gun. Heera leant in and whispered something to him. His hands fell to his side and he looked down at his feet. Then, just as she'd promised, he walked away, heading for an alleyway opposite. Heera turned and gestured for me to join her. I moved quickly, wondering if she was some kind of witch. How had she made the policeman walk away? What had she said to him?
âNothing for your young ears,' she replied when I asked.
âBut if the chief finds out, he'll be in trouble,' I said.
âNot half as much trouble as he'll be in at home,' she said with a wink.
âOur friend has been visiting the wife of another officer.'
âEurrgh!' I said. âSorry I asked.'
The two rear gates were each ten feet high and eight feet wide. They were made of thick dark wood and looked heavy. Heera turned the handle on one and it moved about two feet. Just enough space for us to squeeze into the yard behind them. The floor was compacted dirt covered in straw, and the place smelled of farmyard animals and their dung. Twenty feet ahead was the back of the main building. To the left was a pen for horses, and to the right a locked iron door and stairs down to the cells.
âHow will we open the door?' I asked her.
âThere is a key,' she told me. âThey hide it in the wall.'
She led me over and felt the wall. Very quickly, a single block moved and she pulled it free. Behind were two iron keys on a large ring.
âHow could you know that?' I said, amazed but excited too. If my dad was being held here, we would be able to get him out.
âThe guard told me.'
âOh,' I said. âThat was a silly question, then.'
Heera shook her head. âThere are no silly questions. Now let's see if Mit Singh is here, shall we?'
She opened the iron door and we descended the steps. My excitement grew stronger and I wanted to run. Could my dad really be so close to freedom?
ost of the prisoners were asleep, and the guard had passed out at his post. An empty bottle of whiskey sat on the floor next to him.
Where is my dad?' I whispered, as we walked between cells.
I was desperate to see my dad's face amongst the others, but he wasn't there. Heera checked the last cell before shaking her head.
âLet's go,' I said, all my excitement gone. I felt as though someone had ripped my stomach out. Tears began to form in my eyes.
âI have someone to see,' she said quietly. âPatience.'
I wanted to shout and scream that my dad was running out of time. Something in her face calmed me down. She walked back to the first cell we'd passed. The air was thick with nasty smells and I could hear damp trickling down the walls. Mice sat by the walls, watching us for signs of threat. Huge cobwebs hung from every corner, throwing scary shadows in the lamplight. It was like a dungeon from my nightmares.
I watched as Heera whispered to a sleeping prisoner. Six men shared the tiny cell, asleep on filthy straw mattresses. I thought she might wake all of them but only one opened his eyes.
âSsh!' Heera warned. âCome quickly!'
The teenager, maybe seventeen at most, stood and rearranged his clothes. He picked up his turban and edged to the door.
âI do not understand,' he whispered. âWho are you?'
Heera shook her head. âNot now. I will explain later. We need to leave immediately.'
She used the stolen keys and within seconds the young man was free. He joined us as we ascended the
steps. At the top, we waited. I heard loud voices from the back gates, and one of the horses was startled. It whinnied and whined, and stamped its feet.
âThey're everywhere,' said Heera, looking to the teenager.
My confusion, already deep, became bottomless. Why were we rescuing a stranger? It made no sense at all, unless Heera had lied to me, and she was a rebel. I didn't care if she was â I just wanted my dad.
âThe train!' I whispered. âWe've got to go.'
Heera shook her head. âIf they catch us, we will be finished. You go on ahead, Arjan. We will follow.'
She turned to the teenager. âAre you fit?' she asked him.
âVery well â we'll create a distraction and Arjan can sneak away.'
âBut what if you get caught?' I said. âThe police will â'
âLet me worry about that,' she told me. âI'll meet you at the barracks in fifteen minutes.'
She walked over to the three horses and unlatched the gate to their pen. The spooked horses grew silent
as she ushered them out. Behind them, she found a straw bale.
âTake this and place it over there,' she ordered the rescued boy, pointing to the main building.
âWhat should I do?' I asked.
âBe ready to run,' she replied. âWait by the gates!'
She took another bale and placed it next to the first. Then she took the kerosene lamp that was lighting the yard and set fire to the bales.
âRaise the alarm,' she told the other boy. âNow!'
He did as he was told, as the flames started to catch. âCome quickly! Fire!' he yelled.
Heera unlocked the gates and I helped her pull them back. I waited for the policemen to run through the gap and arrest us but they didn't get the chance. Heera slapped each horse on its hindquarters and they pushed their way through the gap. Smoke began to fill the courtyard.
âGo!' she told me. âNow!'
I hesitated for just a moment, and then did as she said. In the confusion, the policemen ignored me. They were too concerned about the blaze. One sounded his whistle. Another shouted for help. âBring water!' he screamed.
I didn't look back to see where Heera and the teenager were. I didn't have the time. Instead, I sped off down yet another dark alley, heading for the barracks and the railway station. My mouth felt dry from the smoke and my eyes stung but I didn't care. All I could think of was my dad.
hadn't even considered what I'd do if my dad wasn't at the police station. I'd convinced myself he'd be there. And now that I knew better, it felt like starting again.
I worked my way north, through the biggest maze of streets in the city. This time, I saw quite a few people too. The deeper I went, the more I saw. They were drunkards and beggars and criminals. I passed small groups of men drinking liquor and playing cards. Down one alley each doorway was open and gaudily dressed women stood calling out from tiny
rooms. It felt like another city â a secret place that I wasn't supposed to know about. I wondered where the police were. Did the curfew not matter in these places?
As I turned a corner and stepped across a sewer, I bumped into a man. He was short and wide, with huge arms and a shaved head, shaped like a cannonball and covered in a giant scorpion tattoo. A thin cigarette hung from his mouth and he squinted at me.
âYou lost, boy?' he growled.
I shook my head and tried to stop my legs from shaking. A knife scar bisected the man's ruined left eye, running down his cheek like a fat, pink worm. He scared me.
âHas someone cut out your tongue?' he added. âSpeak before I slap your face off!'
âI'm just g-going home,' I stammered.
The man began to laugh.
âHome?' he said. âYou're either an idiot or a liar. Which is it?'
A meaty hand shot out and grabbed hold of my shirt. I tried to pull away but he was too strong. He dragged me closer, so that I could smell the liquor on his breath.
âWhich is it, boy?' he asked again.
I gulped down air.
âI'm lost!' I protested. âI don't know where I am.'
The man seemed to accept my reply.
âThey call me The Bull,' he said. âAnd these alleys belong to me. Whatever you see here is mine â man, woman, animal or childâ¦'
The name sent shivers coursing down my spine. Everyone had heard of this man. He was the most notorious bandit in the whole region. I wanted to run away but I couldn't move.
With his free hand, he pulled a blade from his tunic and held it to my right cheek. âYou look scared, boy. Is something wrong?'