BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

Leila By Prayaag Akbar

We can’t seem to get enough of dystopian fiction at the moment, but with Prayaag Akbar’s Leila, the impact comes not so much from “imagine a future like this” but a chilling “this is near enough happening right now”. Akbar’s fictional India has actual physical walls separating caste and class, ensuring those living in “Purity One” don’t have to come into contact with those in the slums, and violent vigilante mobs keeping order. Narrator Shalini has spent 16 years searching for her daughter, who disappeared from her third-birthday party during one such mob lynching. Shalini hasn’t seen her husband – other than in hallucinatory visions – or mother since that day either. If you’re not sold on fantasy fiction, don’t dismiss this beautifully written debut novel – at its heart, it’s a desperately moving, heartfelt exploration of a mother’s pain and grief. ER

Added on

LEILA

Prayaag Akbar

£10, Faber & Faber

BUY NOW

We can’t seem to get enough of dystopian fiction at the moment, but with Prayaag Akbar’s Leila, the impact comes not so much from “imagine a future like this” but a chilling “this is near enough happening right now”. Akbar’s fictional India has actual physical walls separating caste and class, ensuring those living in “Purity One” don’t have to come into contact with those in the slums, and violent vigilante mobs keeping order. Narrator Shalini has spent 16 years searching for her daughter, who disappeared from her third-birthday party during one such mob lynching. Shalini hasn’t seen her husband – other than in hallucinatory visions – or mother since that day either. If you’re not sold on fantasy fiction, don’t dismiss this beautifully written debut novel – at its heart, it’s a desperately moving, heartfelt exploration of a mother’s pain and grief. ER

Chapter:

One

THE WALL

My husband thinks we cannot find her. His voice is raw from screaming. ‘When will you understand, Shalini? It’s been sixteen years.’

‘You think I don’t know?’

Riz looks at me, bobbles his head but doesn’t say anything. In the sinking light his old-man stubble glitters like salt grain. It is he who doesn’t understand. I’m almost there.

As we walk from the broad pavement to a small rectangle of grass he pulls out two candles from the satchel. Purity One stretches out across us to the edges of the dusk, either end into the swirling ash. Gritty grey brick. Sixty feet high. Wrapping around the political quarter, sealing off the broad, tree-lined avenues, the colonial bungalows, the Ministries, the old Turkic gardens.

Standing where we are now the wall is shimmering. Broad iridescent streaks, shifting in the way green and brilliant purple dance on the throat of a pigeon. (Pigeons infest this place.) Purity One is believed to have an inscrutable power. People come here to pray and plead. Take my own situation. I should be standing alone, yet here Riz is, by my side, etched sharp against the dusk as anything around us.

Not far from where we are there is a small room abutting the wall. On the roof a white flag flutters, black pyramid, white tip. Hundreds of people shoulder past each other to get to this room. In the great heave all we see is a trapezoid of blue light where the double door extends above the devotees. There is a low cage in the room that everyone surges towards, diving to the ground with half-bleats and cries. Behind the thin wire bars is the holy centre of the wall: middle of the lowest line of bricks, painted ochre-like red. They worship this brick. They call it the first brick of Purity One.

Riz knelt to dig a hole in the earth. His back is badly hunched. Once there was a curving furrow of pebble-like muscles under each shoulder blade from hours every day on the squash court, but now, bent over the ground, he looked as a tortoise does when it retreats into its shell.

I got down beside him, creaky myself. ‘These are different candles,’ I said, rolling one about my palm. Thicker, a spiral design wrapping neatly around the white wax.

‘I found them near work. More expensive, but what the hell. It’s her birthday.’ He gave a tired smile. ‘Smell them. I think she’d like this smell.’

We come to the wall every year on Leila’s birthday.

A karate teacher waddled a file of white-kitted children to an emptier stretch. Within touching distance of the wall they stopped and bowed. A woman in a sequined burqa was talking quietly with her daughters. One of the girls was in a purple headscarf with a scalloped hem, while the younger, perhaps not of age, was dressed in a T-shirt and tiered skirt. They inserted prayers written on scraps of paper into gaps between the bricks.

We brought out a plastic shovel from Riz’s bag. Along the yellow scoop the plastic had frayed and turned pasty white. The shovel was part of a set we’d bought Leila before a beach holiday. It had a sticker on the bucket, of a bear sliding down a rainbow, that she’d pick at. We bring the shovel every year but it’s too blunt, too flimsy for the dry, tight soil of this patch of cratered green, the real work is done with our fingers. Soon we had holes two inches deep. We stood our candles in the earth. Packed the cavities with soil. Twenty minutes we sat and around us a scatter of bent and blacked sticks grew as the wind time and again guttered the candles.

Everywhere else the stench overwhelms. It hits you in the stomach. No one seems able to do anything. Sometimes you see Slummers wading through the garbage, looking for things to sell.

A huge cheer went up. Two young men were visible above the thicket of heads, attempting the wall. They wore only white nylon basketball shorts with oilskin pouches tied at their chests, moving with upward pounces at unnerving speed, backs, calves, arms twitching and tensing, bodies bending double and right around like jackknives. One of the men was very dark-skinned. The other had a tuft of hair in the middle of his back. With the tips of fingers and bare toes they’d get a hold in the minute crannies and ledges between the uneven bricks, swinging higher all the time. The mob hummed with reverence.

‘How strong, to leverage their bodies this way,’ I said.

‘It doesn’t seem possible,’ Riz replied. ‘This sheer face. How are they doing it?’

‘Why not. Like those guys who pull giant chariots by themselves with metal hooks buried into their backs.’

‘Or the Shias. Whipping themselves to mush.’

The dark man tensed into a crouch and sprung to a jutting brick above. He couldn’t grab on. As he fell through the air he hammered the wall with his fingertips, striking like a snake at its surface. On the fourth attempt the fingers stuck. His shoulder wrenched and his body twisted but he clung on with a soft, stifled cry. We exhaled as one. He swung like a pendulum from one hand, grinning down at us unflustered, until he found a niche for his other. Extending his legs, he swung them up over his head so now he was upside down, biceps bursting, lank hair falling in perfect glistening straights like granite rain. He took a foothold and pulled himself upright. Relief in the cheering now.

When I dream about Leila she is always in the distance, outside the light, but I know she has a warm, open face. I still see her eyes, light like my mother’s, irises warm gold-brown pools in which the sun set ablaze radial chips of malachite, green and faintly black. She is impatient to meet the world, my little girl grown. She is taller than me. This makes me so happy. Sometimes she’s in school uniform, walking toe-heel, toe-heel, back arched, the proud shoulders and strong nose of all the women in our family.

Today she turned nineteen. Desires, insecurities, angers that I know nothing of, though I must’ve played my part in. I would know so little about her now. Maybe her laugh. When she was an infant I’d bring my face right to her nose and make a funny sound – ‘khwaaishhh’ – and she’d squirm with delight, cackling with a deep, cadent lilt. Her laughter now will carry a kernel of that. So I come here on her birthday. To ask her for forgiveness. We didn’t respect these walls, so they took her from me. Sixteen years. Does she wonder sometimes where I am? If I abandoned her? I’ve read the books. She won’t remember. She was taken on her birthday, only three years old, so she doesn’t, can’t, remember. When I think about this, it’s like I’m burning on the inside. She wouldn’t know me if we crossed on the road.

To her I am an emptiness, an ache she cannot understand but yearns to fill. No. I have left more, a glimmer at least. e blurred outline of a face. A tracery of scent. The weight of fingertips on her cheek. The warmth of her first cradle, my arms. I found a journal on early cognition in the library. One article said our first memories go back to two and a few months. We don’t remember how things flow into each other, how they are linked, but our minds can place, in the vast fog, discrete islands. Maybe she remembers accompanying me to the mall one winter morning, white-frame sunglasses on her head. A Santa greeting the customers walking in. Leila so thrilled by this her shoulders began to vibrate. She squeezed my hand, still trembling, tugging gently until we stepped out of the security-check line.

I could see only his unfitness. Thin-limbed, dark-skinned, sweating in the hard noon sun. Over the double doors forlorn clumps of cotton glued to the lintel. Peach foundation trickling down his forehead like muddy rain down a window. But Leila was transported. She ran to him, mindless of the stale, cheap duvetyne, its acrid whiff. She was laughing and he pinched her cheek between his hairy knuckles. I didn’t say a word.

‘You want a present from Santa?’ I finally asked. There were gift-wrapped boxes piled against the front window, clearly empty.

Leila looked confused by this. Maybe she didn’t know what Santa did. The suit, the beard, an image in some book come to life, this was what thrilled her. The burden of age is expectation. It leaves a judging eye. She turned to me and smiled in a lopsided way, as if suddenly aware of her excitement, and when I saw her expression, that gentle glint, I felt her elation as if it were growing within me. Of course this place was enough. There was charm to be found here, there was nothing tacky. My baby’s full-beam happiness at its centre, and I as innocent as her, as untroubled.

All this. Why do I fool myself? Leila will remember something quite different, if she remembers anything at all.

***

We gathered our things. The wicks had almost touched the ground. Riz’s flame shivered for a few seconds in the wind and then gave up as well. I’ve come here every birthday since we lost her. There will be thirty-two candle stubs buried about this little lawn. When I find Leila I will dig up each one.

The dark man was struggling. This wasn’t a race, the route up too tricky, still the air was fevered, an elemental rivalry. The men represented different lower orders. You don’t see the high communities at street level very often, only on festivals. Around us garbage lay strewn, claiming the pavement, paper, matter, polythene fusing wetly into grime. In the shadows the trash had mounded and the long mouths of wandering livestock burrowed deep. The air so thick that with every breath I could feel a sediment, something black and gritty settling in my chest.

A wet yell. The other man had made it past the last of the handprints, only twenty feet from the top. At his knees gleamed the last red splotch. Fingers carefully splayed, the square palm defined. He made two more movements, rising a few feet. Holding on with his toes and one hand, this man tugged at the thread around his chest until the mouth of the oilskin pouch had loosened enough to dip his right hand inside. He pulled his hand out, holding a bright red palm aloft to wild cheers. He thrust his hand against the wall with a sense of theatre, pressing down from every angle like a rolling press. The highest anyone had gone. As the crowd continued to cheer he began the climb down.

The dark man was ten feet below, stuck. He cast about desperately for a gap in the brick face. Red handprints fanned out around him. This was as high as most got. The mob had shifted in mood. Some people began to hoot, which turned into a chant. Finally he lunged. From his slumped shoulders it seemed he knew he wouldn’t make it. He grabbed with his left hand but clutched at nothing, seeming to bounce back off the wall, not falling along the face but arcing out, ever further from the bricks as he dropped. The crowd braced for impact. He fell directly into the mass of people. In unison everyone took a single step back, like ripples in a pond, and there was a sickening crack, a seamless farrackfatfat like the sudden spit of a log fire. It wasn’t clear if the crowd had broken his fall, as it was supposed to. We turned quickly and walked away.

***

Riz died the same night they took our daughter. Yet here he is, by my side, as I walk from the wall to the huge field where our old school, Yellowstone, used to be. It’s like this every year. On Leila’s birthday he comes back, sharper here than anywhere else. He has grown old with me, my loving husband. This stoop and granulated stubble, the slowed walk, the dull coin of scalp showing at the crown. He was twenty-eight when he died. Why does he look older? Maybe I find him as I need. Maybe it is something else.

Tonight is auspicious, a rare alignment of moon and planet, star and node. There will be a display at the eld too. We walked together through a parking lot and gully with overlays of political graffiti on either side before turning onto a main road. No one else walked here. It’s the rancid smell, and the rats, big as cats, scuttling out from the garbage and scampering hairily over your feet. Most people take the long route. All the way down this road there is a dense, growing pile of trash that has shaped over the years into an incline covering half the street. Festering peels, thick trickles of fluid, unidentifiable patches of white and yellow, bulging plastic packets breached at the gut, oozing. Soaked, blackened rag-like emanations, long as dupattas, shed out from blocked sewers by scavenger-caste men who dive in little chaddhis into manholes. The smell was so bad we trotted, almost jogging, as we followed the curve of the road. Just then a huge grinding and crashing. A massive gate built in the upper half of the wall slowly retracted, joining the network of flyroads way over our heads. The wet amber eyes of passing cars blinked out in procession into the darkness.

Riz had his neck craned back. Still his jaw hung slightly slack. ‘These flyroads are everywhere now,’ he said. ‘Throughout the city.’ He pointed to a node in the distance. Three flyroads came together in long concrete sweeps, lifted to their magnificent height by grey pillars, broad and round, anchored deep in the concrete ground. ‘They link into one another,’ he said.

‘How else will they get around? Can you imagine Dipanita or Nakul, any of our friends, if they had to see all this?

‘“It’s so filthy down here!

“I thought all this was over.

“Must they bathe on the footpath like that? It’s like they have no shame left.”’

Riz’s smile glimmered in the darkness.

I’ve never been on a flyroad. I’ve heard it’s different to drive around up there. Easier to breathe. The air doesn’t pick at your eyes, as it does down here, all day secretly seeping through your lids, by evening the rim around each eye inflamed. We turned a corner. For this last stretch no wall loomed over us and there was a glow in the sky like bouncing blue re. Music; incantations set to pounding beats. The road ends at what used to be a large cricket field. You can still see half a burnt-down scoreboard with the Yellowstone crest and motto. Riz and I met in this school. This was where we wanted Leila to go.

Thousands of people stood on the old cricket field. People danced, prayed, sang and chanted, drums pounding, around small fires, a mad tumult that had something of the swell and fetch of an ocean. Motorbikes ripped up and down each zone with young men whirling the flags of their community. Yet one circle near the centre was almost empty. White velvet on the walls, white carpeting. Big cars coming off the flyroads arrived into this empty patch and as soon as each docked the driver leapt out. A family would emerge from the back seat and slowly, to show respect, walk the length of the zone to the stage. Once they had made their offering and touched the man-god’s feet they walked back, climbed into their cars, were driven away.

The man-god, a gristly beard over a flowing gown, waistcoat of gold embroidery, stood centre stage, on either side ladies with thaalis in their hands. They had tied their saris low on the waist. As he canted into the microphone the women pulsed their shoulders. The music changed and they began to dance, bending at the waist from side to side, towards him, away from him.

‘Is this it – the culture they wanted?’ Riz suddenly asked. He is angry. He doesn’t take heart from the search, as I do.

Moths and gadflies flutter into our faces as they race to the stage lights, dazed, convinced they’d finally found the moon. Wolf whistles cut through the electronic dholaks and rhinal singing coming from the elaborate arrangement of outdoor speakers. The top layer of speakers slicked blue from the stage lights. The audience dances on, thrusting elbows and crotches, clinging off one another and leaping about.

On stage, two dancers carried out massive wicker baskets. They placed them at the front of the stage and retreated to a safe distance. The audience started to throw metal objects at the baskets – copper bracelets, silver rings, earrings, necklaces, amulets, buckles. The outer sectors were competing. When the baskets brimmed with dull metal the man-god walked to the front and extended his arms. Everyone seemed to stop, a hush fell over the watchers, like a tablecloth that snaps in the air and slowly descends. Four men in black T-shirts emerged to carry the baskets centre stage. The man-god began to swing his arms in alternating circles, finding the rhythm, faster as the tempo rose. Thick arms whirred into a blur as the beat climbed. The air gathered up, suddenly thicker. Then the lights went off, only the purple glow from a cylindrical blacklight found the man-god’s gold waistcoat, and at this the audience combusted, a hysteric peal that rolled around the crowd like the skirt of a dervish. The man-god stopped. Perfectly still, he let out a long, high yell. The lights came back on. Both baskets were filled now with gold.

The applause was deafening. As the four men carried the baskets off-stage, Riz shouted into my ear, ‘All I can remember is how beautiful this place used to be. Coming here every lunch. I still see you in that school dress. That silly belt.’

Maybe we have the same conversation every year. ‘Have I told you,’ I asked, ‘what I think of when we come here? The day I came for Leila’s admission. We were lined up in front of that gate. It would’ve been there, where that man in the white shirt is standing – there with his legs crossed. It was so hot that morning the school windows shone like silver foil.’

‘Wasn’t this the long summer?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

I was nervous that day. I distracted myself by counting how many women waiting in line with me seemed to glint in the open sun. Their phones and fingers, earrings and oversize sunglasses. It was only mid-morning but a serious heat powered down. Dust devils roamed the parking lot. The birds were long gone, the trees naked of leaves. Everyone in line fidgeted as sweat sprang from awkward places. We weren’t used to being outside. ‘One by one, mothers and fathers trooped back,’ I whispered to Riz. ‘How scared I was when I reached the front. Running down the lists stapled to the bulletin board behind the gate. Then I saw her name. Two years, ten months. Your name alongside.’

‘I remember that call,’ Riz said. ‘You were crying.’ As he stared at the Ministry buildings in the distance he hooked the collar of his shirt with his finger and gripped it between clamped teeth, sucking in soft pulls. Suddenly I was exhausted, without the will to tug the cloth from his mouth, as I used to. ‘We were going to give her everything,’ he said.

Yes, we were. But Leila didn’t have a chance to go to this school. She didn’t get to wear the pleated blue skirt with the awful belt, tie a ribbon in her curls, show off the Caran d’Ache colour pencils her mother had saved for her since before she was born. Leila didn’t get to study here but still we return once a year to this. It helps to imagine another thread, a tapestry of might-haves.

***

I was tired of slapping at mosquitoes. I turned to say something and Riz was no longer with me. He comes and goes as he wants now. Finding Leila is our quest, the last thing we will do together. That’s why I always buy and bury two candles on her birthday, one from each of us. Riz will find peace when we find her.

‘Nine o’ clock. The badminton will be over,’ I said out loud. I jammed the plastic shovel a little safer into my satchel and began the walk to the bus stop.

Two

TOWERS

I am forty-three years old. A widow, living in a crumbling residential complex called the Towers. The complex was constructed near the southeastern border: head through the old city gates that look like a mouth missing its teeth, pass the landfill, the last stretch of the East Slum, the paneer-packing plant, the puffy silver-white tents of the tulip farms. When I first got here sixteen years ago the Towers stood in an empty basin of turmeric-yellow earth, the only relief in the vastness a row of factory sheds and the red and white stacks of a power plant in the distance.

I was twenty-eight when they brought me here, though I remember only fragments. Maybe it was the pills, Dr Iyer’s pills, that left me in a muddle. Some people have reported palpitations, night sweats, a sudden inability to breathe, but the pills have helped me. I take one every night even now.

My first nights here were warm and airless, so hemmed in that each breath felt difficult, as if a large man was pressing my face to his chest. Through a crack in the curtains a column of blank blue night. Blue light lining everything in the room. Like an invalid I examined every corner of my new home, one-room-kitchen-attached-bath. The ceramic and metal door handle. Peels of paint where seepage had furred one wall. The flimsy brushed aluminium of the stove. The cabinet for the gas cylinder was slightly warped and the door, which did not properly close, made a woody report against the frame every few minutes, making my heart jump. Riz and I were married five years. We were together, in all, eleven years, save one break of almost a year. How love changes. We were so alive, so needing of each other at first. Over time the sex became perfunctory. Our attention shifted to our daughter. When Riz and I fought, I could imagine Leila and me casting off together, better off without him. But I knew even in my anger that there were comforts I drew upon every night. The rhythm of his breathing. The peculiar smells his body issued. The way he reached for me, racked by a dream. Suddenly, for the first time in many years, I was again by myself. My bed felt too big, solitary, a seclusion, as if I’d committed a terrible infraction and my in-laws had sent me back to my parents’ home, to spend my nights alone, unloved. at was how little I understood then; how young I was when I first got here.

Most nights I could not sleep. After hours of fidgeting I would climb from the swelter between the sheets, find the small jam jar I keep in my purse, pop the thick rubber seal and swallow down a blue and white capsule with a glass of water. Only then would I return to bed to wait under the fan.

But they work. This little pill will turn the mind from the vigils of the day, the memories we guard, the images we polish and protect and return to. Leila’s wide, crooked smile. Riz holding me from behind in bed, safe as a swaddle. The scything ache between my shoulders wanes, memories billow and contract, now everywhere there’s a slow, warm tingle. I’m staring at something soft, something smooth, a sheet of white satin that ripples in a wind, and drawing towards it, I see there’s no distance between my self and these folds of satin memory, we are one, the same.

The pill gives three hours. Three hours to coast on a smooth straight road glowing in the sun, to recover strength, find sleep. By three-thirty a familiar dream. Asleep in bed, my own, my lost bed, I can smell faintly the potted lavender that helps Riz’s apnoea, when there’s a small shift of weight underneath me. I sense from the way the mattress has rolled that Leila has climbed in. Something must have scared her. I open out my arms so she can slide between us. Her chicken-bone arm will now fall to my breast, her shoulder press into my ribs. I reach for her. Then I reach again. I cast my leg about but there is only empty coolness. Remembrance is an alarm, a siren that plies round my head. Gone, she is gone. There is no more sleep. I plead with the ceiling for rest as the room brims with light. rough the rift in the curtains the sky is brightly blue, a smear of empty cloud. All the while Leila floats above me, the broad bridge of her tiny nose, brown-green eyes a touch too far apart, a pert, trusting smile. She is pinning my shoulders. Stifling my breathing. I have to jump, fly from this cursed bed.

***

Leila had a way of copying me.

The first time I found her doing it I felt this surge of hot love. A sense of ownership, but more than that. I belong to her as much as she does to me. Tears began to come down my face. When she turned and spotted me, she looked so worried that I ran to her laughing and we held each other. I can feel even now her arms on my neck.

Winter, because the air was thick, grey light, purifiers pumping in every room. A few months before she was taken. Leila had gone into my bedroom and peeled off one of the bindis I kept stuck on my dressing table mirror. It looked enormous between the down of her eyebrows. She’d taken a dupatta and a pair of low heels from my cupboard. The dupatta went over one shoulder of her sleeveless sweater like the pallu of a sari. Her fleshy feet with toes like white tulips reached only halfway up my heels, but she was walking with confidence, an unsteady, willing traipse up and down the living room. She’d seated her dolls on the couch and when she reached that end of the room she scolded them with a wagging finger.

Even as that wave of warm pleasure filled me I worried: Did I shout at her like that? When?

***

I was introduced to the pills at Purity Camp. When I first got there I felt in pieces, a solitary step from the brink, ensnared by the wide, open fields with the lonely gabled sheds. But I wasn’t crazy, I was clear about that. I did not rave or run about naked. I did not raise my voice in anger. The pills helped. There were other ways to cope. Many picked up odd little habits, anxious for routine. A bee that fights its way out of a beer first performs muddled rotations of the mug, looping wider and wider in the afternoon air. That’s what all of us were like at Camp. Doing desperate little things so we could remember what was normal.

One of the inmates kept her distance from the rest of us. She wouldn’t say a word during meals or before bed. The girls called her Lady Police, a name that immediately stuck. This woman had a cascade of fine white hair, though a young face, nose and jaw still sharp, skin unlined, under the thin kurta-pyjama the smooth, fitful thrust of an athletic body. Lady Police did not walk; she’d stride about the place. Every morning and evening, at about the same time, she would strike out from the dormitories, past the playing fields, towards the scant groves that stood on the eastern edge of Camp. There was, always, something forward, something purposeful in her gait. She hardly spoke to another person but it seemed without question that she was going somewhere, as if important work was at hand when in reality there was nothing to do. Every day it annoyed me more. One evening I decided to follow her.

Dusk had bruised the sky cobalt and purple. A wind shook the branches of the jujubes and lifted skims of yellow dust into my eyes. At first it was easy to follow her because many women walked about the cooling evening, but soon there were only two of us, and I had to hold back, until the distance went to fifty or sixty yards. By the time I entered the grove she was nowhere to be seen.

I walked in wide ovals, searching against the ash-grey silhouettes of bush and tree for the bob of her white head, until there she was, sitting in the mud alone, cross-legged, upright, her back to me. I had to stop short and retreat in an arc, crouching behind the mottled trunk of a young peelu.

She awaited company. In front of her was a plate, a knife, a fork. Four place settings had been arranged. The flatware had been filched from the dining room. I should’ve been angry, because we faced shortages of everything, but out here that did not matter. Lady Police sat calmly in the soil. She would nod, smile, turn her head to the plates around her, mutter for a few seconds, take the tumbler to her lips like a child playing at a tea party.

I can’t tell you how long I stood there. I had started following her with a sense I was doing something wrong. Now the guilt was overwhelming. I knew that I had grabbed at something special – repeated the plunder that had brought us here. I turned and ran, scrambling through the dead leaves. Most evenings I watched Lady Police leaving for the grove. I even talked to her a couple of times, but I never let on.

***

Riz’s corpse was likely burned and dumped in a gutter in the sandlands on the eastern edge of the city. Hundreds of men were left there, those who spoke against the summer’s madness. Riz fought so that Leila wouldn’t be taken. Me? I will die a coward, submissive to the last. Out of confusion. Because I’m scared. Alone. Because this is the way now. I have many excuses. When they brought me here they gave me a job at the Revenue Ministry. Slummers did the wet swabbing and collected refuse. We were to perform peon duties, take papers around, dust the desks, keep the appliances working. Tea for the senior officers. Open the triple-decker tiffin boxes, serve lunch, wash the plates and glasses and receptacles. Unslept, I carried a dozen cups of milky sweet tea on a thin aluminium tray, shuffling between offices, sectioning out sugar or buying milk or scrubbing the film of orange oil from aachaar containers. The hours were long, the commute terrible. Exhaustion accompanied me where I went.

Three

Most nights I would toss in my bed for hours. This one-room apartment was another chamber for my brain, a larger casing from which each thought bounced its way back. So I walked. I’d slip out of my building and follow the mud track the shuttle buses used to take us to work, walking until a pink smudge growing in the distance split the night into land and sky. When the sun came up I would all at once feel the tiredness, the ache in my calves and feet, and turn around. These night walks helped me understand my new home better. By day all I saw was stubbled flatland, but night sharpened my awareness of the smallest inclines and descents, and under each step I could sense an ancient, subtle topography. It was on one of these night walks, just as it was turning to winter my first year, that I saw the young boy.

A sharp, moonless December night. Everything around me very still. The ant colonies like craggy cliffs, in the distance silver trees with spectral tentacles. I had only a thin jacket so I held my arms tight across my chest, hands warming at my pits, walking quickly. This mud track is elevated, two feet higher than the farmland on either side. Once this was wheat country, but the farms were abandoned during the water crisis. By the time we were sent here nothing grew but grey-brown scrub. A pack of mongrels leapt out from behind a stack of bricks on the side of the road. They stopped barking when they recognised me. The leader, with handsome haunches and a white tip to his tail, came to lick my hand. I was glad of their company. You saw snakes twisting across these roads sometimes, their scales left a faint sodium slather on the tar. One at a time the dogs turned back to their territory, the last whimpering softly as she went. at was when I heard the steady, at report down the road. Thup. Thup. Thup. We each hold somewhere within us the expectation we will be safe. A sense of security is our abiding illusion.

No longer, not me. Each person must construct their own inviolability, fashion it from the things they find. My daughter had been taken precisely because I could not protect her. I put my hand in my pocket and felt the warm wooden handle of the switch knife I carried in my jeans. I had practised, in front of a mirror, twisting it into an attacker’s inner thigh, the blade would go in smoother there. I rubbed my forefinger against the metal flick switch and felt a surge of confidence. Even two men I could handle with this in my hand. The flat rolling emptiness helps. A car can be heard kilometres away. When I catch the chesty whine of a Wagon’s engine I stop walking, and as soon as the beams from the headlight begin to bounce down the path ahead of me I step off the track, slide down a couple of feet to the soft, loose earth.

Now there were no headlights, only this thup-thup-thup carrying out from the well of blackness behind me. It seemed to be moving fast. From somewhere the long blare of a train. It stopped, then started again. I got on my ass and turned to lie on the dry mud bank on my stomach. Planted years ago to break the invading wind that hurtled through the crop and partnered with the sun to set off ruinous fires, the poplars had each been shorn by the long summer. They grew along the side of the road like giant besoms jammed into the mud. The earth was cold against my blouse. My knees and toes sank into the bank. A biting wind came in from the east, low, sweeping through the dry grass like a thousand slithering snakes. Thup-thup-thup. Then, unmistakable, sobbing, a young voice, muttering reassurances around each smoky breath. The boy was not more than twelve years old. He wore under a sweater a kurta that the starlight streaked silver and blue. His hair was turbaned, the knot low on his forehead. I waited as he jogged past. Before he was lost to the darkness again, I shouted, ‘Wait, child.’ Sneakers scuffed against gravel. Silent now, he studied the darkness behind him.

‘I can see you,’ I said. The wind grazed my cheeks like shards of glass.

‘Who’s there?’ he shouted, a puff of steam rising from his mouth. ‘Show yourself. Where are you?’

‘Don’t run.’ I clambered up to the road. ‘Don’t worry.’

He backed away as I walked towards him. Already tall, a slight squint to his eyes, on his cheeks and jaw, down halfway his neck, long curls of hair. He took a proper look at me. ‘What are you doing out here?’ he asked.

‘I’m asking you that. You live around here?’

‘I had to run.’ He wiped his face with his wrists, and, placing two fingers on a nostril, blew his nose sharply into the dirt. A kara bounced down his arm. ‘Mummy-Papa made me. Those men came to our house tonight.’

‘We need to get o this road, child. They’ll be coming any moment. What’s your name?’

‘Roop.’

‘Look here, Roop, will you come with me?’

He nodded. Taking him by the hand, we walked to the hiding spot, where we rested with our backs on the mud bank. Grey clouds raced one another against the dark sky. The rhythm-rattle of cicadas. The boy slowly regained breath and composure, his hands between my palms.

‘Who came for you, Roop?’

‘The Repeaters. They came to our house.’

‘Why?’

‘My neighbour . . . he’s fighting with Papa.’

‘What about?’

‘They always fight. Every day.’

‘But who called the Repeaters?’

‘My neighbour,’ the boy said quietly. He wiped his face with the shoulder of his shirt. ‘He knew my mother is from another sector. He said my parents lied.’

A fat, brown lizard trundled by, bloated from the bounty in these dead fields. It stopped by us, looked around and flicked its tongue. The lizard’s beady gaze reminded me of someone I could not place, a face from Camp, or the night the Repeaters came, a reptile fat on sadness. The boy was crying again, his yowls high in the air. A matter of time before they heard. I squeezed his shoulder and drew him closer to the lizard. The wailing stopped as the boy’s face scrunched in confusion. We were now so close the creature must have felt our breath on its back, but it didn’t move, it seemed not to see us at all. The boy stared at the scales, like tiny dragon wings, along its flanks. Out of my reach lurked the memory of that angular face, jaw, nose, the insatiate darting eyes. Quick as lightning I landed my palm on the lizard’s back. It squirmed and fought, tickling my flesh. I held it by the stomach, squeezed it of its life, raised it to the boy’s face.

‘See, nothing to be afraid of.’ My voice was so calm. ‘Survive. That is the important thing. When they are fat and slow we will get revenge.’ I could feel him trembling. I tossed the lizard into the fields and we watched the limp body arc into the night. ‘What will you do? Do you have a place to go?’

‘Can’t I go with you?’

I rubbed dirt into my hands to dry the lizard’s secretions.

‘No.’

‘But why?’ he asked, drawing the second word out, a longing in his tone that made him sound, for the first time, truly a child.

‘Where I live, children aren’t allowed. Especially not children like you. We have Wardens. They’d take you away.’

‘No children? Where are they?’ Roop asked.

‘We should get moving,’ I said. ‘Not together. Stay on this road. Move quickly, quietly. In about thirty minutes you’ll come to a crossing by a huge dumping ground. Be careful you don’t fall. The road becomes very tough to walk on. Take a left at the crossing. When you reach the power plant, look for the sheds for the labourers. They’ll take care of you tonight. Don’t tell anyone what you told me. Don’t mention your parents at all. If they ask, say your family had gone to a rally and you got lost there. Okay?’

‘I can’t go alone, Auntie. I’m scared.’

Again that note of ache, of yearning. I wanted to wrap him in my arms, keep him safe forever. Instead I said, ‘You have to go now, Roop. Your parents will come looking for you. They must be able to find you.’

He turned to me with a curious, pinched expression. The scraggle of hair on his chin no longer danced with fear. He swung a leg up and was onto the road in an instant. A furrow appeared on his forehead. He seemed about to say something but then decided against it, and I had the unsettling feeling, from the way he looked down, that to him I was no different from that lizard. A chasm in my gut as he jogged away. It felt like I’d just retched. This hairy, dirty boy, so many years older than my little girl. I hadn’t spoken to a child in months. One moment the boy was leaning on me, breathing heavy, his whimpers throaty and wet. Then he was gone.

I sat sunk in that loose gravel it’s hard to say how long. The wind burned against my chest. I huddled into myself. Then I heard the Wagon, a giant SUV, enamel-white, flags rippling in the slipstream. The driver leaned on the horn though he steered the only thing on the road. My perch under the road felt secure, warm. I lay face-front against the mud bank again, watching the headlights swing from side to side, occasionally sink or rise, growing steadily until each blue beam was like the iris in my eye. All the while yelps and rabid howls from the men hanging out the windows, poking out the sunroof, drinking deeply from a plastic bottle filled with booze, intoxicated by their sudden primacy.

I wonder sometimes how the boy is. If they caught him that night and took him wherever it is they take our children. Why didn’t I sit with him a while longer? Only a few minutes more and the Repeaters would’ve gone right past.

Him too I did not protect.

***

Leila had her typhoid booster. She was brave about the injection, but I knew the inevitable tomorrow – small kicks under the bedsheets, breath like coal dust in her chest, fluttering eyelids, the heat in her arms. I took her from the pediatrician to a playpen on the ground floor of a new mall. Between the inflatable slides and a large bungee swing, a train with red, yellow and blue carriages, making beeps, whistles, soft chug-chugs. A slender man in striped overalls and hat watched the sides of the train from the back while another drove. Children waved when they went by their parents. Giddy expressions as they were carried away, on some faces furrows, momentary panic, the anxiety of separation written sharper.

Leila wanted on the train at once. We walked up together when it halted but the conductor rose from his seat in the rear carriage and waved his flag angrily until I stepped back. Leila wrenched her arm free of my grip and hopped onto the carriage, claiming a spot on a bench by the window. Her sudden movement surprised me. I must’ve stood in that spot for a few seconds, clutching at the air. When I turned around a woman holding a little boy by the hand was smiling at me. I looked away, embarrassed, but later smiled at her. I wanted to say, I’m proud, just look at my daughter.

Tiny hands clenching the apron of the window for balance as she stared at the silvery shop-fronts, unperturbed by a pair of boys squabbling behind her. The driver took the train around an island of potted plants, and then I could see her properly once again, a bit confused, shivering with excitement. When she spotted me a light seemed to fill her face, a huge smile erupted, and then she was pointing at me, clapping, bouncing in her spot. The way she looked at me. I was filled with a golden warmth. Replete. She and me together, the track, the circle.

Now the memory of Leila’s face is like a skewer. Jiggling pigtails, bright shopper’s lights, the green eyes twinkle. A sudden deep smile because we had come together once more. Her need for me, mine for her. The memory burns, takes me forward through these days like a goad in an elephant’s neck. Our eyes will meet. When I see her she will smile like that again.

***

Warden Khanna and I sat with the others watching a middle-aged pair take on two younger women. Wafts of spoiling milk from a ground-floor apartment. The four darted about the court: grunts, racquet whips, sneaker screeches.

‘Do you know, Shalini, they were the ones who built this court,’ Khanna said.

‘Who did?’

He pointed to the older couple. ‘Ms Poonawalla, Ms Dwivedi. Do you know them?’

‘Yes, of course. Nice ladies.’

A serve sailed into the air. Orange sky streaking to purple. The taller of the young women bounced in the backcourt, coiled to smash, but at the last underarmed a return. Dwivedi was ready, leaping up as her racquet whistled from high over her head, pushing the younger women to the edge of the court, where they began a frantic grunting defence, bent low, a soft tock springing from the racquets each time a desperate arm retrieved the shuttle inches from the concrete. Whip-smash-ungh-tock, whip-smash-ungh-tock, the saves bringing gasps from us watching. One of the young women deftly dropped her hands, and this time the shuttle looped to the forecourt, where Poonawalla had watched the exchange with her racquet poised, thrumming, eager to intrude. She took three side steps and went so hard at the shuttle that it caught the tape and bounced back to her feet. She screamed out a curse. Some of the women giggled.

‘Usually they are nice,’ Mr Khanna laughed, shaking his head. ‘Padmini takes her badminton very seriously. She used to play before she was brought here.’ He had an air of sheepish self-importance. ‘They came to me for permission to put the court up.’ Khanna leaned back, flexing the legs of his chair until the red plastic joins whitened under his weight. I wondered if they would suddenly snap. ‘I only got them the net.’

‘I remember two women making the chalk markings. They were so serious. Measurements in a little notebook. Their tape rule. My god, so much time has passed. Look at them now.’

Khanna patted his belly and smiled. ‘They look quite fit to me.’

‘Of course, of course,’ I said. Another sharp smash and the cork of the shuttle cracked loudly on the stone. The younger women slapped hands. In the surrounding towers tiny squares of light popped into life.

The years have passed slowly. Outside it is difficult but here good women try to rebuild their lives. This badminton court is one thing we have. They string up lights on the poles that hold up the net. By dusk the rest of us come down, someone organises tea. At first I never went down in the evening. It seemed so strange, grown women playing the games of children, of men, but I’ve come to appreciate it now.

‘What’s this I’m hearing, Shalini, that you aren’t happy at work?’

‘Who told you that, Wardenjee? That’s not true.’

‘Then why did you apply for a transfer?’

‘Oh that.’ It’s still a surprise that Warden Khanna knows so much about my life. How does he keep track of every woman in the building? ‘I thought it was time for a change.’

‘Change?’ Khanna turned to look at me. Lines ran like a rainbow across his forehead, so deep they looked cut with a knife. ‘You know the Council doesn’t like that. We have to stay where we are. In the work we’ve been given.’

‘I’ve tried two or three times before.’

‘Yes, I know. They told me that this time you’ll go before a tribunal.’

‘I’m not afraid.’

‘You’re not?’ He sat half-twisted, like a lemon, staring into me. Does he know I’ve worked towards this transfer for sixteen years? He pushed himself to his feet. ‘That’s up to you, of course. But be careful. These tribunal people have many powers. Okay, Shalini. Come over one of these days.’ He put two fingers of his right hand on his heart. ‘Purity for all,’ he said.

I put two fingers on my left breast, eyes on the badminton. ‘Purity for all.’

Four

MA AND PAPA

A single clear memory of what it was like before, though I must be four years old. My parents are taking me to lunch at a new grill at the Sheraton. I’m excited, dressed up, nervous. We travel to the top floor in a mirrored elevator. Even this is something new, and I remember the reflection it presents: the bunched folds of Ma’s sari, my favourite headband, baby blue with rows of white polka dots. The elevator opens into an oak-panelled vestibule where two hostesses are waiting to lead us through a curtained door to a restaurant floor warm with sunlight. I let out a little gasp. A picture window along one wall offers a flowing view of the city below. I run to see. The treetops are different lustrous greens, gently swaying and leaning into one another. Even Ma is surprised by how many trees there are. I press my nose to the chilled glass. A toy city, overgrown with broccoli. Through the leaves you see houses, white or yellow, small rooms on their roofs. It is the sight of the trees that stays with me. A trembling canopy over the city, properly broken only in a few places: a crop of office buildings, the stadium, the domes of the medieval monuments, each cupola shining smooth as a beach pebble.

Some forty years after Purity One was erected there are no trees. The stunning canopy is gone. Now there are hundreds of walls, no one sure how many. Each wall is fifty-nine feet high and two feet thick, in agreement with Council law. They loop through and around the city, bigger than anything except the tallest buildings. My father detested these walls. Now that I use the Outroads every day, I live with what they expel. I must see their shit and slime, the cascading brown water and showering refuse. Smells so thick you can taste them. When children fire bottle rockets over the walls of their sector, trying to hit the Slum roofs, smouldering dregs of fireworks come floating down on me as I’m walking. If a load dumped from a trashtower comes gush-tumble-bouncing down a sector wall, the warm, gritty splash carries to the other side of even the widest road, leaving a rain of brown drops on my shoulders, my hair. Papa was right. These walls diminish us. Make us something less than human. Go out of the city, to the low hills in the west perhaps. Look at this place at night. The silent grey walls and between them the flyroads thrumming with headlights. We are in an enormous maze.

A hundred years ago the city’s first wealth settled on Lakshmi Hill. Rice merchants, factory owners, or, like my great-grandfather, builders for the British, raising the new city. My father grew up on the Hill, in a ground- floor apartment with a long hall that his cousins and he used to race tricycles down. Bedrooms one side, kitchen and living room the other. He married a pale, pretty nineteen-year-old from the Wadhwa clan in the front garden, with champagne and a jazz band. My mother gave birth to me in that apartment. We only lived there until I was seven, but till the day I married my home was always the Hill. There were so many things to love. Going barefoot up and down the cold marble steps leading up from the portico. The high ceiling of my room. French windows that opened on to our own lawn. The cook’s cubbyhole behind the kitchen, where I would sometimes hide, where it smelt like incense and, faintly, mattress mildew. The fuzzy bear ballerinas I’d stuck in their different poses on the doors of my cupboard, staring back at me even after we’d emptied the room.

One summer, while we were still in that apartment, Papa, Ma and I went on a walk. A dark evening, with a cool, crackling wind such as there is before rain. Papa swung angrily at a cloud of mosquitoes that hummed over his head. He nodded to the other walkers. He had biscuits for the mongrels. Once upon a time, he announced, the cigarette vendors and dervaans would salute as we walked by. He pointed out the trees, the sharp, sour smell of the toddy palms, the cloying aroma of the figs, bittersweet tamarinds, the acidic coconut smell of the banyans. My father taught me to recognise the trees that grew there by their smell.

I wanted to race my mother down the road, but she swatted my hand away. ‘That woman has been digging through our trash again,’ she told my father.

‘What’s wrong with her?’ As Papa spoke his neck flushed into two patches of pink. ‘Does she go through it herself? She’s that crazy?’

‘I’ve caught her doing it. Now she brings a servant.’

‘You know how rich she must be?’ my father said, shaking his head. ‘Looking for bones! I’ve never heard anything so crazy. What does she do when she sees you?’

‘She’s bloody brazen. Doesn’t care. She kept rooting through it, saying, “Nothing personal, dear. Try and understand.” I knew I had to keep cool. So I told her – very politely! – “My husband’s family has been in this building sixty years. We’re an old family. A good family.” She was totally unmoved. Kept saying – in this calm voice – “Of course, of course, I know you’re not just anybody. But the rules have changed. We have our own habits. There’s no need for there to be such a fuss. We simply want to live with people who follow our own rules, from our own community.” “So we have to go, is that it? So you go through my trash?” I asked. To which she replied, in that infuriating deadpan, “Madam, you know the rules. Rules were changed with the building society’s permission.” “So you’re getting rid of us because we’re not the same caste?” You should’ve seen how horrified that bitch was,’ Ma said. ‘Her eyes went really big. “Caste? No-no-no-no-no. How can you say this? There is no such thing any more. is is only our community. We want to keep our homes pure. Our surroundings.” I wanted to hit her.’

We walked past an idling truck. From its uncovered stern a lean, sinewy man polished like teak by the humidity arranged gooseberries in the pannier perched on his wife’s head. She carried each load to a row of fruit stalls on one side of the road.

‘Why didn’t you?’ my father said with a laugh. ‘Might have made it worthwhile.’

‘Will it rain? Should we turn around?’

‘No. It’s not going to rain,’ Papa said.

It was the same story all over the city. What we put into the body is so personal, intrinsic to family, belief. No politician dared argue against walls built around food. Purity came to have different meanings. Some people wanted no meat at all, some would eat only fish. In other areas Muslims were evicting anyone who drank alcohol or ate pork. Once a community had control, its society revived laws written by colony builders a hundred years ago, ensuring land could not be sold to those who did not belong.

***

In the living room of that garden apartment we had a gramophone with a brass horn. Next to it a waist-high Ganesha. Against one wall was a rolltop desk I could never open without a struggle, and on top of this a rotary telephone sat. When I was about four or five I had a game. I’d put the barbell-receiver to my ear and rotate the dial, in turn from each number, starting at the satisfying spiral of clicks at nine and finishing at the abbreviated twirl at one, in between each rotation pressing down on the nipple-like disconnect button again and again to listen for the ding from the other end.

One afternoon I was pacing about the living room anxious to play this game. Ma was on the phone. She was facing the wall, as you had to while using this instrument, leaning forward with an elbow on a fat phone book. Perhaps she was already upset. My only interest was getting to the phone. Was I buzzing around her, worrying at her, urgent in my need to resume this game? Or was I further back, striding up and down the long living room, tummy turbid with longing, when she slammed her palm on the phone book? It made such a thump I jumped back. ‘Will you fucking stop!’ she shouted. Her voice bounced back from the corners of the room. I was terrified. But I can’t even remember now if she was yelling at me or into the phone, at Papa or someone else.

***

With the money for the flat my father bought a white stucco house in a neighbourhood that was bisected by a sewer. We left there within a year. The next one I hardly remember. Localities were self-enclosing. Papa seemed to age each time we moved. Increasingly, he looked beaten. He died eleven years after we left his childhood home, never taking his evening walk again. I was angry, but now I’m glad. He went before the eternal order took root, found the fissures and crannies, pried us apart like volcanic rock.

One evening we three were watching the news. He was on his armchair, Mummy on a bench, while I lay on my stomach on the thick rug between them, flicking through a textbook. I must have been in my teen years by then; I remember being aware that this was a novel way of delivering the news, no longer the solitary monotone, resplendent moustache or starched stiff in sari, instead four or five people crowded around a table, this new breed of newsman at the centre, conductor of the cacophony. One of the studio guests, a thin, bearded man, was shouting into the screen. ‘Real estate listings have become like matrimonials! Brahmin-only, Yadav-only, Parsi-only. Is this the way they want us to live? As if we must be separated, like fighting children?’

Papa put his drink down and leaned towards the screen. There was a change in the air in the room, a sharpening. My mother looked up from her crossword.

On screen, a frail, paunchy man rapped on the table. I had noticed him at once because he looked like my Indian music teacher, wearing a white kurta and dhoti, and rectangular half-frame glasses he’d derisively polish whenever anyone else had the camera’s attention.

The anchor was now deferential, his plummy affect withering. ‘Mr Joshi, you have the floor.’

Joshi cleared his throat and went immediately into a tirade. ‘Who are you to criticise?’ He looked directly into the camera, speaking to the viewers, gently establishing the other’s inconsequence. ‘These intellectuals think they know everything. But I know, I know, they are thinking only about Western values. They show no care for our own values, how we have always lived. Don’t go by these foreign ideas of what is right, what is wrong. This is our way of living. There is nothing wrong. It is the flowering of an ancient consciousness.’

The bearded man made some sort of interjection, making my father nod and grunt, but to me his words seemed pallid, forceless, of such little weight that they escape me altogether. He was given a handful of seconds and then the newsman, recovering his vaguely colonial accent, called upon Joshi once again.

‘What has the government done all these years?’ Joshi shouted. ‘Nothing at all. What-all people coming from everywhere. Where are they coming from? What they are eating? Sleeping on the streets, in parks, underneath our new bridges, doing their morning business right in the gutter, gutters where there is no water. Good people are getting angry. The anger is palpable, I tell you, palpable! is is our chance. We can free ourselves, at last, from these ghastly visions.’

‘Why do we have to watch this every night?’ my father suddenly shouted, convulsing for an instant, knees jerking up, palms going to his temples as if the discussion was painful to his ears. The remote was with him, the question rhetorical. Still both Mummy and me were quiet, scared of adding to his anger. We watched as he landed finally on a showing of film songs from the fifties and sixties, coiffed heroes, black and white, the angular beauty of the actresses further pronounced by the ageing film stock, and this seemed to slowly soothe him; wisps of remembered rhythms, the memories they brought forth, first infatuations, first tremors.

Five

Under pressure from my mother, Papa relented and bought a two-storey home in the Arora Pavilion. I remember my disappointment, the first time we drove into the neighbourhood, because we didn’t have a Purity Wall. I’d never seen one up close. All the girls and boys in my class had been taken by their parents to see Purity One. This made me even keener to go. But my father was adamant.

One afternoon, as Papa was driving me home from piano class, we had to take a detour because some of the roads had been cordoned off for a Council convoy. Papa slumped low in his seat. I was reading a book and ignored him at first, thinking he was trying to be funny – he had slipped so low that his shoulder bumped against the gearshift as he stared upwards, beyond the windshield. Then I saw it myself. Gunmetal grey and shining in the sunshine, darkening much of the road with its giant shadow, like something from a movie, an alien ship settled. I had to slide down so I could see the top of the wall. Papa couldn’t focus on the traffic. Each time he looked at it he made these soft clicks with his mouth, saliva emerging in mercury spurts. He swerved across three lanes of cars, parked in the last, and jumped from the front seat, grunting at me to follow.

I caught up with him when he was very close to the wall. He slowly moved closer, neck craned, placed his fingertips on it and gently pushed. I ran to the wall. Smooth stone, wonderfully cool, like the granite floor of a temple’s sanctum. I put one cheek to its surface and enjoyed the descending shiver. Papa looked sunk in thought. He said, ‘You go one hundred steps that way. I’ll go this way. No more, okay? Come straight back. Run. Let’s see how far this wall goes.’

As Papa walked away he trailed his fingers on the wall. I headed the other way, walking past a group of European tourists who were taking photographs. I realised the wall was following an indiscernible curve. After a while I stopped, struck, all at once, by just how enormous this was: either side of me the serpentine wall stretched off into the horizon. Later, as I walked back to my father in the lee of this enormous thing, I felt an overpowering urge. I stopped again. When there was no one in sight I measured out a little more than an arm’s distance from the wall. My eyes closed and arms spread wide, I began to twirl in a tight circle, gathering speed, pounding my foot against the asphalt, once with each spin like a kathak dancer, enjoying the sudden breeze against my face, chest, arms, freedom from balance and position and sense, eyes screwed tight even when the giddiness became too much and I had to hurl myself back-first against the wall and it was hard to tell now where the wall ended and ground began, as if the level world had yielded and everything swayed like a ship rocked by wild waves. I was submerged, backed up against it, for delicious seconds slumped in that high. Slowly a sense of calm returned. When I came to, the beads of sweat on my upper lip and temples and forehead were gone, a nip coasted the air.

Papa was walking in a frantic oval exactly where we’d left one another. ‘I found a gate!’ he said. ‘Why did you take so long? I want to check it out.’ A muscle had begun to twitch just above his right eye. He took my hand. The gate was black, solid metal, twice my father’s height, cordoned off by a red and white boom. Half a dozen men strewn on plastic chairs, heavy wooden sticks by their sides. White vests showed under cheap cotton shirts opened to the heat. They spoke in lilting drawls, making casual injuries to each other’s mothers and sisters.

As we watched, the three rows of metal spikes on our side of the gate withdrew into the road. The rope-man heaved and the barrier sprang up as the gate opened and a long car came through. Beyond the gate neat, narrow roads, pavements of pale pink kota. Next to the road a pathway for pedestrians. A line of one-storey houses with handkerchief gardens and a sudden current of heathery fresh-cut grass from a park where children my age swung and slid and chased each other. A small temple. A wall of gleaming brass bells with strips of holy cloth tied to the clappers. Papa made for the pedestrian entrance. He gripped my hand so tight the bones at the flanks of my palm wrenched. Our forgotten car, which he’d parked by half-jumping onto the pavement, was at the tip now of a snarl of cars and bikes.

Two men leapt to their feet at our approach. Only one walked towards us, a long wooden stick in his right hand. The street lights had just come on, their laments unnerving behind the big glass cases, like the glowing, trembling antennae of a rank of cocooned insects. ‘What do you want?’ he asked, unsmiling.

Papa returned his grimace. ‘We thought we’d take a look inside.’

A smirk. ‘This is the Patel sector. Only Kadva Patels inside.’ He looked at us closely. ‘For non-residents . . . you have permission? You will need permission.’ He walked to a shed built like a phone box, with gaps between the wooden slats, and looked through the cardboard container they used as a drawer. He came back with a form in his hand. ‘Fill this out and mail to the office. They will see.’

‘You mean I can’t go in just now? My daughter and I can’t just walk in?’

‘Get permission,’ he shrugged.

Papa made a familiar movement, shoulders rising sinuously until his back was straight and he was standing his full height. ‘Who are you to tell me where I can go?’ my father asked. ‘I go where I want! is is my city.’

This time no mistaking the smugness. ‘Go where you want, Uncle. But not here.’ A wet, mocking chirp of commiseration. ‘Don’t worry. Get permission from the elders. Then who am I to stop you?’

‘I don’t need permission. From you or your bloody elders.’

The other guard whispered something into his mate’s ear and they both laughed, blocking the path shoulder to shoulder. ‘We protect our people from what-all goes on outside,’ the second guard said. ‘Filth in air. In character.’ Two fingers of his right hand went across his chest. ‘Purity for all.’

Papa was so disturbed he couldn’t stand still. ‘Purity for all? Have you gone crazy, all of you? Who told you this was allowed?’ he screamed. ‘That you could do this to my city?’ At the raised voice, the other guards jumped up from their seats, plastic legs grating against the concrete, and ran with short, quick strides to us. They formed a semi-circle around Papa. I realised with some surprise that my father was not a large man. His wrists were slender, sleeves flapping around his biceps. The crop of white hair added to his frailty.

‘Stay over there, Shalini. Stay over there.’ He turned back to the men. ‘You think I take orders from people like you? You’re going to tell me where to go?’ The men were angering. One, who looked like their leader, smacked his stick on the ground. Each time it came down with a splintering sound.

‘Who are we? What maharaja are you?’ this man growled. He placed a thick finger on my father’s chest. ‘What’s your name? Which sector are you from? Why are you coming here?’ Rapid questions each culminating with a prod in the sternum. My father went bright red. He twisted the leader’s collar into his fist and put his other hand on the man’s shoulder and propelled him backwards, so quick the others didn’t move. The Repeater kept balance, ailing, for a few steps. When he went to the ground he took Papa with him. He rolled my father around and pinned his shoulders to the pavement. He slapped him hard across the cheek. A slim scarlet line appeared just below the eye. I screamed and ran towards them but someone, the first guard, scooped me o the ground. He held me by the shoulders as I tore at the air. The other guards had surrounded my father now. They pummelled, kicked, some used hockey sticks. In my panic I couldn’t hold a thought.

‘Calm down, calm down,’ the guard was whispering. I opened my eyes. The beating had stopped. The Repeaters stood around my father. His face and neck were spattered with blood. The top buttons of his shirt had popped and salt-pepper chest hair showed. The guard put me down and knelt so we could look eye to eye. ‘We could do much more. But he is an old man. Confused. Get him out of here.’

‘Yes. I will,’ I sobbed.

‘If the elders saw what happened they would make us punish him properly. If they had seen, it wouldn’t be in our control.’

On the drive home, the cut under Papa’s eye puffed like a paperweight until he couldn’t see. His arms, back and chest had blue and coffee-brown streaks. When he lit a cigarette in the car, hands still shaking, a narrow black welt showed on his forearm. After this day we stopped talking so much. The ease we’d shared all our lives seemed to evaporate. It wasn’t all his fault. Maybe I avoided him too. Those guards handled him as if he was nothing more than a nuisance. I could no longer look at him in the way I once had, impervious, invulnerable. He probably saw that. Saw me. An ungrateful, unthinking daughter.

Tagged in:
BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Prayaag Akbar
Dystopia
India

Tap below to add
the-pool.com to your homescreen

Close
Love The Pool? Support us and sign up to get your favourite stories straight to your inbox