Authors: Bali Rai
He sneered at me. I tried to pull away from him. I wanted him to let me go. Time was ticking.
âPlease!' I begged. âMy mother will be looking for me.'
The sneer turned into an unkind smile. âShe is welcome here,' he said.
I looked away so that he wouldn't see the anger in my eyes. He was disrespecting my mother and I wanted to hit him. But I wasn't stupid. I didn't want to die.
âPlease!' I said again, my voice just a whine.
He let me go and put away the knife.
âRun along,' he told me. âQuickly â before I forget to be kind!'
I sighed with relief and sprinted away. Behind me I could hear him laughing. Several more men, all bandits, watched me pass by. I didn't look at them, praying they would leave me be.
At the end of the alley, I came to a junction. My run-in with The Bull had confused me. I'd lost my bearings. As I tried to work out where I was, one of the dangerous men approached me. He was tall and skinny and his teeth were rotten. He was drunk too and held a half-full bottle of whiskey.
âDrink!' he ordered, grabbing hold of my shoulder.
I shrugged him off and went left.
âCome back!' he shouted after me. âBe a man!'
I started to run as someone stepped from the shadows ahead. I didn't see the punch until it was too late.
* * *
When I came to, I was lying on a mattress in a dimly lit room. I tried to get up but a shooting pain lanced through my head. I winced before vomiting onto the wooden floor. My mind was spinning and I felt groggy. My face throbbed. I lay back and tried to gather my thoughts. I remembered running from The Bull and the drunken man and thenâ¦
I stood slowly and shook my head. Then I went to the door. It was locked and there was no key. The window was shuttered but I tried it anyway. When it didn't budge, I got angry and punched it. I had no idea how long I'd been out, but I knew then that I had missed my chance to save my father. I cursed the bandits and the policemen and the soldiers. I had failed and my father was on his way to Lahore to die.
aybe an hour later, the door opened and a young girl walked in with water. She looked about my age but her eyes were hard and she scowled at me. Her expression almost hid how pretty she was.
âThis is for you,' she said in an unfriendly manner.
âWho are you?' I asked. âWhere am I?'
The girl shook her head. Her eyes were jet black and shone, and her hair fell in greasy curls to her shoulders. She wore a gaudy red outfit, like the women I'd seen on the streets. Her hands were covered in henna tattoos.
âIt doesn't matter,' she told me. âOnce they get you, they don't let you go. Not unless someone pays your ransom.'
I felt suddenly faint. The banditsâ¦
âI've been kidnapped?' I asked.
âClever, aren't you?'
âBut my mother has no money,' I began to shout. âAnd my father isâ¦'
âWhat?' she asked.
âHe's probably dead.'
The girl's expression softened a little. âProbably?' she asked, almost teasingly. âAren't you sure?'
I shook my head and tried not to cry. âThe British took him,' I explained. âThey said he was a rioter. He's on his way to Lahore on the train. They'll hang him for sure.'
The girl nodded. âMy parents were killed. The bandits raided my village and took me away to serve them. My dad tried to fight but The Bull stabbed him. Then theyâ¦' She turned her head away and didn't finish her sentence.
âHelp me,' I said to her. âPlease?'
When she turned back to face me, her expression was hard again.
âWhy should I?' she asked. âWho are you to me?'
âI'm just like you,' I told her. âThese men are evil. Come with me â we can run away.'
The girl was about to reply when I heard a familiar coarse voice swearing from the hallway.
âHave you fallen down a sewer, you little pig?' yelled The Bull.
He stepped through the door and smiled at me. It was another evil grin. âI thought you'd gone,' he said, but I knew he was playing with me. âDid you change your mind?'
My hand went to the swollen bruise underneath my right eye. âYour men stopped me,' I told him, although he already knew that.
He eyed my clothes before stepping closer. Grabbing my hands, he studied them too.
âNot a rich boy, then?' he said, looking annoyed.
âMy parents have nothing,' I said. âYou're wasting your time. They won't pay a ransom.'
Although my father worked, some days we barely had enough to eat. The British had enforced strict laws and the price of everything was going up. No matter how many hours he worked, things never changed. We weren't starving exactly, and we had a
roof over our heads, but things were hard. And now that he was goneâ¦
âDo you know how many lads in my gang were just like you?' The Bull asked.
I shook my head.
âNearly half of them,' he told me. âThey were kidnapped and their parents couldn't pay so I kept them. Well, I kept the smart ones.' He touched his tunic, right where he kept his knife. âThose who complained didn't get so lucky. There's many an undiscovered grave out in the fields.'
He grabbed the girl by her hair. I could see she was in pain, but she didn't cry out or make a fuss.
âAnd this little wench,' he said. âShe is like the other women downstairs. I own
I felt sick but said nothing in reply. I didn't want him to get angry and hurt her. Inside, however, I felt rage burning. He was a monster.
âNow try and rest and I'll be back soon,' he added. âThen you can tell me where you live and I can pay your mother a visit. See if she wants her little boy back.'
âWhat if I don't tell you?' I asked.
He touched his ruined left eye.
âOh,' he said softly, âyou'll talk. My guests always talk.'
He pulled the girl from the room by her hair and shut the door. I heard the key turn in the lock and felt the air leave my chest. How had things gone so wrong?
sat and waited for The Bull to return, but next time the door opened, it was the girl again. Her left eye was bruised and her lip split.
âDid he hit you?' I asked her.
She shrugged. âHe always hits me. It's nothing â not any more. I'm used to it.'
She put a cup of water on the floor. âWhat's your name?' she asked, without looking at me.
âArjan. What's yours?'
She went over to the window and leant against the shutters. âI'm Shanti.'
âWhy do you stay here?' I asked her. âWhy don't you leave?'
She looked down at her grubby clothes. âWhere would I go? At least I have a bed and food here. Out on the streets, I would starve.'
âBut you must have family â uncles, auntsâ¦?'
She shook her head. âI would never go back to them. There is too muchâ¦
. The bandits have ruined my life. Now I'm theirs.'
I stood and went to her. âWhat about the police?'
âYou have a lot to learn,' she said. âThere is a curfew but no policemen or soldiers come here. Why is that, do you think?'
She was right â I didn't know anything about such a life. I didn't want to know.
âHe bribes them all,' she explained. âAnd they come here for the women and theâ¦' Again, she failed to finish, and this time she was crying.
âCome on,' I whispered to her. âWe can escape and you can come with me. My mother is kind and lovely, and my neighbours too. We will take care of you.'
I didn't know if that was true, but I
to get out. And if I did escape, I couldn't leave her behind. She
was a child, like me. Living with bandits was no life for her.
âWhy would strangers care about me?' she asked, full of suspicion. âI am nothing to them.'
I shook my head and put a hand on her shoulder. I remembered something Heera had said, and wondered where she was. I doubted that she'd made it out of the police station, but I couldn't be sure. There was something different about her. Something special.
âWe're not all the same,' I told Shanti. âI mean humans. Not everyone you meet at night is evil.'
She gave me a sad look as I heard The Bull shouting. âMust I take my belt to you again!' he barked from below. âGet back here and do your chores, wench!'
I looked into her eyes.
âIs this what you want?' I said. âTruly, with all your heart, for the rest of your life?'
I gave her a hug. She smelled of fried spices and cinnamon sticks and earth. I could feel bones through her clothes.
She nodded before wiping her eyes. âI must go,' she said. âI'll be back soon, though. My master will
go and check on the women soon. When he does, I'll release you.'
âAnd come with me?' I asked, my spirits rising.
She nodded again.
âBut we must escape,' she added. âIf he catches us, we will die.'
I thought about my father and felt my determination rise again. I couldn't save him, but I would not fail Shanti. I would not leave her to slavery.
* * *
After much time passed, I thought perhaps Shanti had changed her mind. But then the key turned in the lock and she entered. She wore trousers and a pale blue shirt, and had wiped the make-up from her face. Her hair was held in a cap. She had nothing else with her.
I checked my waistband but couldn't feel the weapon I'd brought from home. My matches were still in my pocket though.
âThey found your knife,' she told me. âMy master took it.'
I shrugged. âI don't care about that.'
âWill your mother really be kind to me?' she asked, sounding like a little girl.
I nodded, and my heart grew heavy as I thought about my father and the baby that he would never see.
âMy mother is full of love,' I told her. âShe is the best mother in the world. She won't turn you away. With my father gone, it will be difficult, but she won't let us down. Maybe we can find your family.'
We worked our way down some dangerously rotten stairs and into a dark corridor. Four doors opened into dimly lit rooms, and I could see men passed out on the floor.
âThey keep a potion,' Shanti told me, nodding at the sleeping men. âThey use it to drug women or to kidnap people.'
I raised an eyebrow and Shanti smiled.
âI put the potion in the whiskey,' she explained. âMy master's too.'
Despite my sadness, I grinned at her clever thinking.
âWe'll still have to be careful,' she added. âThe streets here are very dangerous.'
âTonight the whole city is dangerous,' I replied. âCome on!'
I set out again, wondering what was in store. So far I'd faced and avoided angry soldiers, helped set fire to a police station and been taken by bandits and escaped them. I had failed in my quest, and my heart ached for my father, but I wondered how many other twelve-year-olds had experienced such a night. Surely there were no more surprises left.
he journey to the barracks was shorter this time. Barely ten minutes after leaving the bandits' lair, we were watching soldiers at a checkpoint. There were two of them, with bright red turbans and waxed moustaches. They looked bored. Behind them sat an arched entrance and another checkpoint. More soldiers strolled around the perimeter.
Even if I had been on time, there was no way I could have saved my father.
We walked on, careful to remain hidden, and stopping every few moments. The air was chilly
now, and Shanti shivered. At a junction between two main roads, we waited to let a patrol pass. They were leading two handcuffed men, the sort of thugs we'd just left behind.
Once the road was clear, we crossed and I found an alleyway that led behind a clothing shop I knew. A man called Gulbaru Singh owned it. He was a nasty piece of work.
I found the rear entrance, and I tried the door. It was locked but rattled in its frame. I pulled three or four times and the tiny lock broke.
âWhat are you doing?' asked Shanti. âWe aren't thieves.'
I led her inside and found a shawl. Next to it was a box of firecrackers. I pocketed a handful. They might be useful later, if we needed a distraction.
âYou're cold,' I told her. âBesides the man that owns this place is horrible. He beats homeless children and cheats his customers.'
Shanti took the shawl without any more argument and wrapped it around herself. As we left, I was reminded of Heera. I wondered what had happened to her and the teenage boy she'd taken from the police cells.
We crossed another, smaller junction, and walked on to where the road ended at a barrier. Beyond was the track, and to the left, the railway station. The homeless people I'd mentioned in the shop were huddled together along the sides of the tracks. Here and there, one of them stirred and watched us pass. Would this be where my family would end up, I wondered, now that my father was gone?
We passed a few small railway buildings, offices where they kept records and counted the ticket money. After these were bigger warehouses, some of them open and full of more homeless. Finally, we reached the stationmaster's house and, close by, the main entrance to the station. It was always open, even though the trains didn't run all night. We stepped between sleeping families, and on into the ticket hall.
A poster had been tacked to the wall. A meeting would take place on a piece of common land called Jallianwalla Bagh. It was set for April 13
â the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi â just a few days away. The city would be filled with people from surrounding villages, coming to celebrate the holy day at the Golden Temple. Underneath was another poster.
This one said that all gatherings were banned until further notice. It was from the British.