"Stri-Haathi! Stri-Haathi! Stri-Haathi!" The mounted crier whirled his bells over his head. "Join up and be an elite warrior! Bed, board and a handsome fighter's fee! Travel the land! Fight under the spear of the mighty Durhata!!"
Gan slapped his handlebars in agitated impatience, craning his neck to see past the vast, armoured, recruiting elephant ambling through the narrow bazaar. A high pitched scolding erupted from a shop front displaying saree's in all colours, as the milliner girls left their stations to hang out the window and gawk in the doorway. "Something for you, Savita?", sneered a wiry, pinch-faced seamstress and poked her nearest comrade in the elbow with her shears. "That would make your mother proud." The girl flashed anger and defiance, snatching the shears out of pinch-faces' hands. "I may just. And you can gather dust and fat once you've been wed to your father's favourite suitor, churning out cubs, while I ..." Finally seeing a gap large enough Gan shot forward and out of the narrow street into the bazaar's main square.
Colour and noise assaulted him from all directions as vendors waved their wares around and proclaimed them the best in the land at the top of their voices. He stood a moment to get his bearings; he'd never ventured into this district before. No one in their right mind did.
But everyone had been spoon-fed the basic layout of the thieves' district; the gateway to the wild lands of which Hastinapur was the last bastion of civilization. The stories became a part of children's lives as soon as they learnt to listen. Looking at the reality for the first time in his life, it all seemed accurate enough to Gan. He raked the buildings surrounding the square with his eyes until he spotted a sign brightly announcing: Fakir Basrut Kaife. Below the awning of the café was a broad patio filled with hookahs and lounging patrons. It was said that if you stood on the upper floor balcony you would see that the patio was laid out in a mosaic of a scrawny old sadhu with a steam pack on his back, flying across the starry sky, twin jets streaming downwards. But he wasn't after a sightseeing tour and now he finally spotted the alleyway he wanted.
It was so narrow that it seemed a thin black line dividing two buildings. On the walls of the adjacent buildings the line was flanked on either side by a scarlet banner, bearing a scimitar-wielding ape.
Gan hesitated. Suddenly he wasn't so sure he would be able to charm and brag as he'd imagined and walk away with a hefty purse. Suddenly, he simply felt like an amateur thief, about to do something even more stupid than stealing the statue.
His chak was a burden, too: his only option was to lash it to a ring meant for tethering horses and hope against hope it would still be there later. He gulped slightly considering what state he himself might possibly be in later, but...
"He who dares...” As the stupid Angrezi say.", he muttered to himself and set off across the square towards the banners. In the next instant he was lying face first in cow dung with several bullocks on top of him.
Or so it seemed, until he recovered from the shock and started wrestling to gain his feet.
Then a malicious and terrifically unwelcome voice hissed in his ear: "What's this? Steal something, you little bastard? I'm turning you in to the Polis."
Unbelievably, incomprehensibly, the rhino bully had caught up with him.
Enraged by draining hope, he twisted violently and head-butted the grinning mass of lard square between the eyes. Blood spurted from Anjal's nose, he shrieked and clasped his face, a moment which Gan used to scrabble madly out from underneath him.
Several merchants applauded appreciatively and Gan cursed as he got to his feet. He'd meant to steal in and out of the bazaar as inconspicuously as possible and now Paji's thick son was making a spectacle of them both.
"Get!", he hissed, "You're ruining everything!" He winced at how petulant his own voice sounded.
This wasn't going at all as he'd imagined. He needed to disappear, and fast.
Anjal shook his head, bellowed and charged, careening Gan all the way back into the alley he'd come from. There was no one to be seen now; all the permanent stalls nearest the outskirts of the bazaar had closed.
This was done on purpose to form a ward of silence around the heart of the district; a silence in which a body might suddenly wonder whether it was really wise to proceed any further. It was strikingly effective.
Gan hit the ground with a sickening whump and all the air left his body as Anjal landed on top of him, pinning one arm to the ground with his knee.
Greasy hands pawed his chest and with horror he felt the rope loosen and the weight of the statue lifting.
He willed himself to move and reached up with his other hand to poke Anjal in the eye.
Anjal, however, snatched his wrist and bent it back until Gan cried out with pain.
"Blubber boy's a bit faster than you thought, you little shit." The venom in the older boy's voice brought Gan to his senses with a jolt.
He looked him in the eye as if for the first time. Durga-ma, he hates me.
"You always act like you're better than me. You're nothing. I will own my father's business soon and what have you got?", then, bitterly, "Even Baap thought you were brilliant."
Gan looked incredulous, all the while wriggling to free his arm. "Funny way of showing it."
"Well, you're not so bloody clever now, are you? I'll show you clever."
With that, Anjal grabbed Gan by the face with both hands and started pounding his head into the ground. The statue lay forgotten for the moment by Anjal. But not by Gan. He needed it, it was his only way out of his life.
He struggled furiously, but the blinding thumps made him retch and gag as the pain increased.
His one free hand flailed pointlessly through the air, trying to get a grip on his nemesis.
White lights prickled and danced beneath his eyelids until they coalesced into one blazing tunnel which hurt his eyes and then hurtled away from him with sickening speed.
"I can't believe it," he thought vaguely, "I'm going to die." He forced his eyes open to get away from the whirling sensation, but something was still wrong.
There was a resounding 'crack' from somewhere, but all he saw was a dark blur, which suddenly went rigid, loomed enormously close, then engulfed him in total, stifling blackness.
A sloshing sound made him aware of his body and he instantly wished he wasn't.
A cool hand in the back of his neck caused him to hover yet closer to the pain, and a shocking splash of ice cold water in his face brought him spluttering back to full wakefulness. The hand on his neck disappeared. He shook his head free of the water out of habit and the next moment he was violently sick on the paving.
He squinted around and saw that he was in the inner courtyard of a house, propped up against the well.
The handle still faintly clicking, in ever decreasing revolutions, as the gears that drove the pump system slowed to a halt after recent use.
Next to him lay the unmistakable pile of flesh that was Anjal, still as death. His head lolled to one side and sported a peacock egg-sized lump near the base of his skull.
There was movement near rim of the well and he painfully raised his head, finally becoming alert enough to fear the hand which dealt such a blow.
What he was not expecting to see was a shapely leg in ochre, tighter-than-was-proper brocade harem pants. "Ugly." Gan struggled frantically to a sitting position to stare at the woman lounging on the rim of the well, one leg resting on the edge, the other swinging insolently close to Anjal's pasty face, the curly toe of her electric blue slipper ever more in danger of poking up the fat boys' nostril.
"Is he..." He hesitated, not sure if he wanted to know.
"Dead?" She studied him for a moment, then shook her head, "But he can be if you need him to be."
Her left hand stroked the pommel of the strangest lathi Gan had ever seen, nothing like the standard issue clubs the Polis used.
First it was about five inches longer than usual, second, it appeared to be made out of ivory rather than reinforced rubber. At the rounded top it was finished in a dull metal cap, wrought to look like an upside down lotus flower. It hung from a wide leather belt, the belt buckle was embossed with an anchor entwined in seaweed, held aloft by a mermaid. A free sailor.
He glanced at Anjal and shuddered, understanding fully for the first time that she had gone easy on him and that he should not underestimate her slight build.
Then his stomach froze as his brain, which had been screaming at him for some time, finally managed to make him notice her right hand, which cradled Parvati.
The statue was free of its sacking, the diamonds occasionally twinkling in the rays of the late afternoon sun. "That is an extraordinary piece you were fighting over." She twirled it slowly round and round, clearly taking great pleasure in its beauty. "But I do recall you had it first. Indulge me..." She squinted shrewdly at him, "I don't much care where it came from, but... Where were you taking it?"
Gan's fists clenched and unclenched in frustration. He had a splitting headache, he was homeless, and now this woman had his only hope of survival and wealth.
She clearly guessed what he was going through and her face crinkled in amusement. "Try me."
He looked up at her, teeth grinding. He took a deep breath, intending a leap forward to snatch Parvati out of her hands, but instead, when he let out his breath he found himself saying: "I am selling it to Kala Bandar." That brought her up sharp. Rather defeatedly he tried: "He is expecting me with it."
She laughed heartily at that and shook her head at him. "That is very clearly not the case, young thief."
He slumped and ran his tongue over his lips. She said instantly: "I am remiss. A moment."
She reached inside her choli and pulled out a small bell. She'd barely rung it when a plump lady in a pink, diaphanous saree entered the courtyard. Red lips pursed slightly at the unsightly still life by the well, but she looked inquiringly at the sailor.
"Please, ammu, would you give this boy something for his headache? And maybe some chai?" Gan blinked. Mother? She reached in her choli once more, winked and tossed the lady a gold coin.
At that, the silk-clad hips twitched in a well-practised dance move as the lady caught the coin and swayed back into the house. Soon she could be heard ascending a flight of stairs. Gan's eyes travelled upwards and saw several younger girls on a large balcony, watching the scene below. They were in varying stages of making toilette, one oiling anothers' hair, another applying perfume to the nape of her neck, one applying mehendi to a fifth; but all eyes were quietly riveted to the courtyard.
The plump lady appeared briefly and good naturedly shood them all inside, they obliged with respectful murmurs of "Han, ammu-ji." Oh. That kind of mother.
The coin dropped and he coughed to cover up his embarrassment about being so slow on the uptake and then coughed again, for an entirely different reason, when he twigged as to exactly why the sailor was that familiar with the house mother. He was so out of his depth.
Two bowls of chai and a herbal pastille later, he felt more like himself.
While he drank, the sailor had skilfully teased the days' events out of him.
Then she seemed to make an inward decision; she examined Anjal and nodding to herself had gone out the courtyard gate.
Parvati still stood on the rim of the well. Gan was just mustering his strength to take the statue and make a dash for it when she returned, with two burly Sikhs in tow. They weren't traditional, judging by the myriad tattoos swirling across their bare torsos.
Gan looked at them warily, but his jaw dropped when she handed them three gold coins each and shook their hands, after which they stooped, picked up the fat boy and bore him away.
"What's going on?" he exclaimed, clumsily jumping to his feet with Parvati in his arms.
"By the sound of it, your friend has led altogether a too... sheltered existence. I think he should expand his horizons a little. Meanwhile, you should have time aplenty to try and make your fortune without the fear of repercussions from that quarter." She looked into the distance and smiled, but the expression sent chills to Gan's heart: It was a deeply cruel smile that utterly lacked empathy.
She had a dark edge to her soul and being confronted by it, Gan cringed.
"I'd hate to share his fate, whatever it is", he whispered.
The sailor came out of her frosty reverie and cocked her head at him. "You wouldn't. You aren't like him." Gan shook his head, he was still sore and tired of trying to understand everything.
He did not care about Anjal enough and if he was gone, so much the better.
He wanted to get away, sell his treasure and hide in a hole for the next month or so. But he wasn't out of the woods just yet.
He shook his head at the sailor. "Why are you helping me? I am not giving you the statue. Unless you kill me and take it."
The sailor looked him up and down, appraising him. She was silent for so long, looking at him so intently that Gan began to sweat.
His eyes roved over the deadly lathi: he was ready to run.
Then she grinned. It was the polar opposite of the icy harshness she'd displayed earlier; she looked like a girl bent on a merry jape. "You get to keep your statue. Better still; I'll escort you to Bandar. I shall help you get the best price possible. We'll need the rupees for our next great adventure."
Gan stared at her, still poised to bolt. His chin was moist; he hoped he wasn't dribbling. "What do you mean? 'Our' great adventure?"
She ruffled his hair, a gesture he would come to hate.
"For this adventure, I need a partner. Business and women aren't compatible for me, it gets complicated.
I tend to kill men. Perhaps with a boy, I may have more luck. It appears that Parvati has carried you to me. It also seems you'll be seeing a lot more of your blubbery friend. Let's hope he makes chai to your satisfaction."
TO BE CONTINUED...
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