Authors: N. H. Senzai
From the Frying Pan
into the Fire
SCREAMED A VOICE
inside her head as the boys lunged for her. Sharp branches scraped her face as she bolted farther up the hill through the bushes, clutching her backpack. Realizing that they'd catch her if she ran back toward the train station, she surprised them by plunging headlong into the hedge. As she pushed through the dense bushes, she felt the ground slope down again. She glimpsed bright-colored lights and heard the din of activity. Heart pounding, she burst through the bushes onto the edge of the city. A bazaar loomed aheadâshops strung with bright neon signsâbustling with shop
pers, peddlers, beggars, and families out for a stroll.
Disoriented, she stood a moment, uncertain which way to go. She couldn't go back into the bushes toward the station and her sisterâthe boys were in there somewhere. She'd have to find an alternative route.
But which way? Left? Right?
The rustle of leaves behind her forced her to make a quick decision. She dashed toward a line of sari shops and then ducked between a jumble of elbows, seeking cover. Glancing back, she spotted the boys emerging from the bushes: Babu, who seemed to be the leader, Ladu in yellow, and the skinny, weasel-Âfaced Pinto. Babu paused on the curb, cupping a cell phone to his ear, apparently having an animated discussion with someone on the other end, while pointing to the boys to split up.
Not wasting a second, Maya slid past a girl haggling over a pair of red sandals and ducked into a side alley packed with traditional leather and silk shoe-Âvendors. Zigzagging past shopkeepers and customers, she reached an intersection. She stood wild-eyed and sweating, wondering where to go next.
An auto rickshaw sputtered to a stop across the street, unloading a group of young women. As Maya debated what to do, a shrill whistle sounded at the other end of the alley. She glanced back, breath catching in her throat; it was the one in yellow, Ladu, alerting the others.
He's seen me!
she thought. Instinctively, she slipped behind a stack of beaded slippers, trying not to panic, weighing her options.
I can't outrun them. I have to find another way.
She glanced over at the girls paying the rickshaw driver, and without thinking twice, dashed across the street. “Go,” she ordered the driver, jumping inside.
“Eh,” said the old man, owl-eyed behind thick, Coke-bottle glasses.
Maya peered back toward the alley and her blood turned to ice. The boys had made it halfway through, shoving aside an elderly man, overturning his stall.
“Just drive,” she said in Urdu, huddling in the backseat. “Please!”
With a shrug, the driver revved the engine and bucked forward, the rickshaw emitting a smelly plume of diesel from its tailpipe. Maya twisted around on the slippery vinyl seat and peered through the flaps covering the back window. The boys had skidded to a stop at the curb. They were staring at her, fists clenched, as the rickshaw careened around the corner and disappeared from their view.
Maya slumped forward, gripping her backpack.
okayÂ .Â .Â . it's okayÂ .Â .Â . breatheÂ .Â .Â . I've lost them,
she told herself.
Hunched over his steering bar and muttering to himself, the driver followed a taxi down a wide, open road while behind them rattled a bullock cart, laden with laundry. Her relief soon evaporated as traffic snarled, slowing to a halt. The area ahead had been cordoned off: hundreds of laborers lugged bags of concrete and metal pilings toward a hotel undergoing renovation.
“Where do you want to go?” the driver asked, glancing over his shoulder.
“Train station,” she blurted. “Please take me to the train station.”
“Which one?” he asked, scratching a wart on his chin.
“Agra Cantt Station.”
The driver harrumphed. “You should have told me before,” he said. “We're going the wrong way.”
“Sorry,” Maya said. “Please, just get me there as fast as you can.”
“There is a lot of construction,” he grumbled. “I'll have to go around it.”
“That's okay,” she said.
As she sat in the safety of the rickshaw, the reality
of what had happened hit her like a ton of bricks. She slumped, clutching her backpack, tears blurring her vision.
How did that happen? We should have been more careful,
she thought. This wasn't San Francisco, where she and her sister knew their way around. This was India, where things were much more unpredictableÂ .Â .Â . and, frankly, dangerous. But as the shock eased, an unÂexpected feeling of pride buzzed through her veins. She'd outwitted the boys! Wait till she told Zara.Â .Â .Â . Remembering her sister, she realized that she must be out of her mind with worry.
“Do you have a phone?” she asked the driver, desperate to tell her she was on her way back to the train station.
“No,” he grunted.
Disappointed, Maya looked down at her watch. There was still time to catch their train.Â .Â .Â . And this time she and Zara would hide in the waiting room, as the conductor had advised. They had a promise to keep.
She leaned forward in her seat, mentally urging the rickshaw to move, but they sat idling at the bottleneck. The poor bull still stood behind them, his long-lashed eyes resigned, swishing his tail, ignoring the honking horns. Maya turned to scour the road behind them,
spotting a cycle rickshaw barreling up the asphalt. She squintedÂ .Â .Â . and caught a flash of yellow. It was Ladu, legs pumping on the pedals; Babu sat in the back with Pinto, who was grimacing into his phone.
Before she could yell at the driver to go, he found a gap between two trucks and shot forward. Maya's last glimpse of the boys was of them jumping out of the cycle rickshaw behind the bullock cart as Maya's driver maneuvered past the construction site and entered a residential neighborhood, tightly packed with narrow, tin-roofed houses.
As he slowed to let a group of kids get their soccer ball, Maya turned in her seat and peered out the window.
HurryÂ .Â .Â . hurryÂ .Â .Â . hurry,
she urged silently, but from around the corner the bull came running, the boys clinging to the back of the cart, its driver and laundry gone.
“Hurry!” shouted Maya, turning to the driver.
“Okay, okay,” he muttered, stepping on the gas, increasing the gap between them and the snorting bull. A few blocks ahead loomed a sign, the image of a car with an
marked across the top. The driver slowed and pulled into a large parking lot.
“What are you doing?” asked Maya.
“No autos beyond this point,” said the driver. “It is
a government rule to control the bad air.Â .Â .Â . Pollution. So I need to turn around here.”
“Okay,” panted Maya. “Just hurry.”
The rickshaw chugged past a line of parked cars and was about to make a U-turn, when a van pulled out in front. As the driver slammed on the brakes, Maya peered back and her blood ran cold; the bull stood panting at the entrance to the parking lot, cart empty. Frantically, she looked between the cars. There was no sign of them. Then she glimpsed a face reflected in a side mirror of a small hatchback. One of the boys was hiding a few cars down. She wondered where the others were but didn't wait to find out. She bolted from the rickshaw, running at full speed.
“Girl!” shouted the driver. “You need to pay for the ride.Â .Â .Â .”
Pushing aside a feeling of guilt for cheating him, she bent low, weaving through parked cars, desperately trying to shake the boys from her trail. She passed a shuttered tailor's shop and ducked into a narrow lane lined with shuttered shops with signs for pottery, wood furniture, and metalware. Backpack thumping against her spine, Maya turned left onto a wider street, empty of carsâno rickshaw or taxi she could flag to get to the train station.
At the faint whisper of thunder, she looked up; clouds were collecting in the distance, closing over the fat moon perched on the horizon. Within its silvery circumference rose a familiar sight: a tall, thin minaret.
Someone can help me there.
She remembered their mosque back home in Berkeley.
Jackson's gentle face, framed by a Âgrizzled salt-and-pepper beard, flashed in her mind. The religious leader of their mosque, he was a kindhearted soul who provided counseling in addition to leading prayers and serving as their Sunday school principal. Breathing a sigh of relief, she ran toward the welcoming beacon.
Out of breath, she reached the faded brick structure, a mishmash of columns, arches, and domes, straddling half the city block. Beyond the rusty gates, she found the courtyard empty. Her heart sank. Evening prayers had ended and the place was deserted. Just about to depart, she heard the murmur of voices coming from inside. She ran up the cracked steps, pausing just inside the doorway, where the murmurs grew into shouts. Startled, she hid behind a set of lattice screens that ran the length of the cavernous hall. Assembled at the center of the threadbare carpet sat a group of men.
A bearded young man stood, body rigid. “You
don't understand!” he cried in Urdu, waving a pamphlet. “This new report says that we Muslims are the poorest, most illiterate community in India.”
Beside him, a bespectacled, gray-haired man nodded. “Sadly, what Hashim says is not untrue. Over the past fifty years, our community's prospects have fallenâeven behind the poor untouchables.”
“It's impossible to join the army or get a decent job. I was told in an interview to go to Pakistan, a Âcountry for Muslims,” said another young man. “Can you believe it? My grandfather fought for India's independence beside Gandhi!”
what I'm saying,” Hashim said. “We're at the bottom of the heapâleft behind as the rest of India prospers and modernizes!”
“Modernity?” barked a plump, white-bearded man in a crisp white cap. “Modernity has brought nothing but immorality, greed, and ungodliness to our beloved India!”
Maybe this isn't the right moment to interrupt,
Maya thought as the bespectacled man spoke again.
Farooq, let us not confuse modernity with progress. Progress is achieved through education.”
“Indeed,” warbled an elderly man. “Even before Partition, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of Aligarh
University, emphasized the study of science and matheÂmatics.”
“Our prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, urged his followers to seek knowledge, even if it led them to China,” shouted a squeaky-voiced boy.
Maya glanced down at her watch, growing more and more anxious. She had an hour to get to the train stationâotherwise she'd miss the train. She stumbled forward. “Please,” she croaked in Urdu, “I need help.”
A wizened old man near the
gasped. “Who dares interrupt our meeting?”
Maya froze, surprised by his angry tone.
“What is she doing out alone this late?” grumbled a voice. “She shouldn't be hereâtell her to go home.”
As two men beside the
rose, Maya stumbled back. In Pakistan, women didn't usually visit mosques either, not like they did back home in San Francisco, but she hadn't expected such an unwelcoming response.
“You shouldn't be interrupting an important meeting,” sputtered the
“She's only a little girl,” interjected Hashim. “Askâ”
Before he could finish his sentence, Maya Âstumbled back into the courtyard. If Zara had been there,
she would have yelled at them to help, but she just couldn't.
I'll find a rickshaw myself.Â .Â .Â .
Back through the gates, she merged with the dark shadows casting their veil over the deserted street. She skirted a growling dog nosing through a pile of garbage and ran, feeling the wetness of raindrops spattering against her cheeks. Hearing footsteps ring out behind her, she picked up speed, sprinting parallel to a towering wall built from wide blocks of red stone.
Seconds later, she caught the echoes of furious barking as an ominous rumble echoed above. She ran harder, hugging the wall around a corner, where she stumbled upon two uniformed guards carrying heavy machine guns. Startled, she instinctively ducked behind a lamppost. She ignored the rain, eyed the burly guards patrolling past a sign for East Gate, and wondered what to do. Maybe they could help. As she debated whether to approach them, a bright set of headlights turned onto the street and careened toward them.
A sleek silver bus pulled up beside the arched gateway, and through the rain-streaked windows, Maya could make out the ghostly faces inside. The bus door swung open, and a suited Indian man got out and stood at the curb.
“This is not good,” he complained loudly, shielding his head with his arms. “We won't be able to see anything with the clouds covering the moon!”
“Yes, sir,” said one of the guards as they hurried over. “This is not a good night for sightseeing.”
Maya bit her lip, peering past the bus, hoping to see a rickshaw. But there were no rickshaws or taxis, just a line of garbage cans. About to look away, she saw a hint of movement. Then a flash of yellow.
Oh, noÂ .Â .Â .
She swung around, staring back at the path she'd come from. Standing at the corner, about forty feet away, stood Pinto, breathing hard. Beside him was Babu, slipping his cell phone into his pocket, lips twisted in a victorious smile. They'd been tracking her all alongÂ .Â .Â . and now they had her cornered.
CRUNCHED LOW TO KEEP
the guards from catching sight of them, the boys slithered along the wall, inching closer to Maya's hiding spot. Frantic, she looked for an escape. Just as she was about to run, lightning flashed, bringing a deluge of rain that obscured her sight.
“This will not work tonight,” she heard the suited man shout. “We're going to have to cancel our visit.”
The bus, I need to get on that bus,
thought Maya, darting from her hiding spot.
They can drop me off at the train station.Â .Â .Â . I need to get back to Zara.
She could see a blurry image of the guards leaning
toward the man, who had disappeared from view.
“Wait,” Maya called out, but her voice was drowned out by the rumble of the bus's engine. The man had boarded, and the bus was pulling away. From behind her, she could see the hazy figures of the boys running toward her. She approached the towering gate, built into the thick red wall. It was slightly ajar. Filled with indecision, she slowed. Ladu was out there, on the other side of the road.Â .Â .Â .
Without a second thought, she dove toward the gap in the gate.
“You there, boys!” Maya heard a guard bark behind her. “Get away from the gate. No unauthorized entry!”
Maya didn't pause, but sprinted up the stone path. She veered right across an expansive lawn, squinting through the rainy haze, looking for a place to hide.
. Across from the immense central courtyard stood a towering two-story building, its roof topped with rounded cupolas at each corner, matching balconies on each level. She scurried through the curved arch, past ghostly white marble designs inlaid in the dark stone.
“Lock the gates. No one is to come through!” came a muffled shout behind her, accompanied by the creaking of metal hinges as the guards sealed shut the gate she'd just passed through.
A set of heavy doors, sheathed with bronze plates, rose ahead of her.
Maybe someone can help me.Â .Â .Â .
Damp and shivering, she pushed on the smooth wood with all of her might. The doors swung inward and Maya ran through, stopping beneath a brass lamp that was suspended from the vaulted roof and cast faint light in a fat circle. Except for the patter of rain, silence greeted her in the sparse octagonal room. Multiple alcoves and doorways stretched out on both sides, and on the right stood a set of glass doors with a sign that read:
ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF INDIA
. Through the glass, she spotted an old-fashioned phone sitting on the table.
I can call Zara,
she thought, eagerly running over. The doors were locked. Hope deflated as she stood shivering in the empty building. The thought of braving the rain and trying to get the guards to open the gates was beyond daunting. She needed time to rest, to think. She knew they'd missed the trainâthere was no way to get back in time. She wished she could call Zara, let her know she was safe and she was coming back.
I just need the rain to die down,
she thought, feeling completely drained.
After an hour or so, I'll find a way back.
As she turned, her gaze fell on a wall, sparkling as the light illuminated a dazzling painting of a garden, awash in emerald green, gold, and orange. It was as if she was back with her grandfather, about to prune dark-blue devil's trumpet. She padded forward, and as she got closer she realized that this was not a painting at all. The entire scene was made of semiprecious stones, cut and fit together with brilliant precision, similar to a mosaic. A sheet of glass had been placed on top to protect it from the elements. A set of stairs rose beside it. Hoping to find a hidden spot, she climbed the steep stone steps and reached a narrow passageway on the second level. A small room stood on the left, filled with broken furniture, boxes, and stacks of yellowing papers. On the right was another chamber, larger and with a balcony, its view obscured by a veil of water. The passageway continued deeper into the building, but she had no wish to explore further.
The room on the left was as secure a spot as any to wait out the rain. Legs wobbling, she entered, spotting a switch beside the door. With a snap, the small, square space lit from the flickering bulb hanging from the ceiling. Wet and shivering, she sank onto the dusty floor, panic threatening to overwhelm her exhausted mind. But she couldn't fall apart; she needed to make
sense of what had just happened. With shaking hands, she pulled out her journal and a dark grey pencil and took a ragged breath.
Sunday, September 18, continued
I did something dumbÂ .Â .Â . something really, really dumb. I let Zara talk me into going off on our ownÂ .Â .Â . to find the chest while my grandmother lies sick back at the hospital. Zara said it would be a walk in the parkÂ .Â .Â . and I fell for it, like I always do. I'm such an idiot! So here I am, stuck God knows where in the middle of Agra because we took the wrong train. What do I do now?
Maya paused to rub her snotty nose with her sleeve. The thought of her sister pacing the platform, freaked out with worry, filled her with furyâbut for a brief minute also filled her with satisfaction that Zara was miserable too.
Maya stared down at the words she'd written. They swam around on the page, not making much sense. Trembling, she closed her eyes and lay down on a
stretch of old newspapers, clutching the journal. She needed a few minutes to rest and collect her thoughts. She wished desperately that she was back home in San Francisco, under her duvet she'd tie-dyed red and blue. She wished that they'd never had to make that journey to PakistanÂ .Â .Â . that
was not dead.
â¢Â Â â¢Â Â â¢
It was the sound of chattering that pierced Maya's foggy brain. She woke befuddled, and spotted two furry creatures near her feet, glaring at her suspiciously. With a squeak Maya shot up, startling the small, long-tailed monkeys. They shrieked and scampered through the door. Realizing she'd fallen asleep in the musty, cramped room, she remembered in a rush the events of the past twenty-four hours.
After a minute of self-pity, she kicked aside the crumpled papers and got up, squinting down at her watch: 6:07. It had been seven hours! She needed to get back to the train stationâfor all she knew, Zara had called in the Indian army to search for her. And her momÂ .Â .Â . she must be at the hospital in Delhi by now. She grabbed her backpack and headed to the door. As she was about to step into the passageway, she froze.
Across the hall, framed by the window, stretched the
sky, morphing from indigo to turquoise, streaked with pink and peach as a golden orb rose from the banks of the river. If that wasn't stunning enough, the building that stood glowing in its midst took Maya's breath away. On a raised platform sat tons of gleaming marble the color of snowâa white that meant perfection. It was the Taj Mahal. Her gaze flew up the magical floating palace, up the delicately carved facade to the dome on top. Four towering minarets stood on the corners like protective sentries. She and Zara had seen this building the day before from the train. She darted toward the balcony, floor wet from the rain, and stood openmouthed.
A second later, realization dawned that she could figure out exactly where she was. She fished out her guidebook and opened it to a map of Agra. It pinpointed where she stood, along the banks of the Yamuna River on the east side of the city. The train station was to the west, along Station Road. As she looked for the best route back, she skimmed the paragraphs, stumbling upon the name of the Taj Mahal's builder: Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. This was no palace, she realized. This was a
Overcome with grief after the death of his beloved wife, Mumtaz, the emperor went
into mourning. He emerged a year later, his hair white. To commemorate his eternal love, he commissioned the Taj Mahal. Twenty thousand skilled artisans, stone carvers, calligraphers, and gemstone masters worked for twenty years, creating this masterpiece. But beneath its breathtaking beauty lies a secret chamber containing the bodies of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz.
Lost in thought, Maya stared out over the manicured gardens, home to a family of monkeys, grooming one another beside the central pool. A monkey darted into a flower bed, which she saw was filled with rosesâa Mughal favoriteâranging from ivory to yellow to bloodred, a splash of glorious pink Ânestled at the center.
Knuckles white as she gripped the guidebook, she remembered
talking to her as he pruned:
Mystics regard the rose as the symbol of divine glory, while poets profess that it represents the face of the beloved.
Her grandparents would have loved seeing this, she realized, heart twisting. But the Taj's beauty was tinged with sadness, for death had taken Mumtaz the way it had taken
Maya squeezed her eyes shut.
had promised to bring
to India and to find the chest, which contained the ring she wanted him to have, even in death. Maya felt the weight of responsibility heavy on her shoulders: She had promised to help fulfill that wish. She needed to get back to the train station, so she and Zara could continue to Faizabad. They
A couple came strolling into view and she shrank back. The monument opened at dawn, allowing visitors to view it in the clear morning light. Looking back at the guidebook, she discovered that she'd spent the night in the Darwaza-i rauza, the great gate that led to the Taj Mahal. Pulling on her backpack, she snuck back downstairs and exited through a door leading to an open courtyard. She stood at the steps down to the courtyard, eyeing the three gates that stood to the left, to the right, and straight ahead. She'd come through the East Gate the night before.
Best avoid that one,
Joining the crowd, she walked toward the busiest gate. She paused near the soldiers' station, but didn't see any of the boys from the night before. She hurried on, knowing she couldn't catch a taxi until she reached the perimeter. She might also find a phone to call her sister, who was probably out of her mind with worry.
As she passed a group of hawkers selling miniature replicas of the Taj Mahal, she caught a familiar flash of yellow, and froze.
But it was a bright flag flying from a sweet seller's stall. Spooked, she ran toward the street, but before she could step out, someone jumped from behind a parked donkey cart and grabbed her arm. It was Pinto. Before she could scream, he clamped his hand over her mouth and dragged her toward an approaching bicycle rickshaw. The wiry, bald driver slowed, his skinny brown legs easing up on the pedals. Hard fingers reached down from the rickshaw and hauled her inside as Pinto melted back into the crowd.