It was dark by the time Anand got off work, and he was very angry. Haru was supposed to let him go by 4 P.M., but he often found an excuse to keep Anand longer. Today he had claimed that Anand had not wiped the tables properly and made him do them all over again.
Anand had scrubbed the pocked wood of the tables furiously, biting his lip to make himself stay silent. Arguing, he knew, would only earn him a slap. Now he was going to be late for the market! Today was payday, and he had promised his mother that he would stop at the vegetable bazaar. For days now they'd had nothing to eat except potatoes and white radish boiled with rice, and he was tired of it. He had hoped to get a bunch of fresh, crisp spinach, or some sheem beans to fry up with chilies. But by now most of the pavement vendors would be gone. If only I had the power to run my hands over the tables and make them new and shiny! he thought. But no, if I knew how to work that kind of changing magic, I'd start with Haru's black heart.
Bone tired though he was, Anand ran all the way to the vegetable market. Just as he had feared, the bazaar was deserted, the ground littered with wilted cabbage leaves and banana peels. Only the big stall with the neon lights, the one that charged extra for everything and had a big red sign that said NO BARGAINING, was still open. Anand walked up to it warily, knowing that most of the items there were beyond his budget. But maybe there would be something not so fresh. Then his eyes were caught by the pile of mangoes. Mangoes in winter! Where had the storekeeper found them? They were plump and soft and just the right ripeness, their skins a glowing orange streaked with red. How long had it been since Anand had eaten a mango? He swallowed, imagining the sweet juice that would fill his mouth when he took a big bite, and asked how much they were.
"Two rupees each," said the storekeeper in a bored voice. Obviously, he didn't think the ragged boy standing in front of him could afford the price.
Anand opened his mouth to protest. Why, the storekeeper was charging twice as much as what the pavement vendors would have charged! But he said nothing. The man would only shrug insolently and tell him to go elsewhere. He hesitated, then took out the meager bundle of rupee notes he had tucked into his waistband and peeled off two of them. He carefully picked the biggest, fattest mango, hefting it in his palm. Wouldn't Meera be amazed when he showed up with this beauty!
By now it was late and windier than ever, and Anand had to keep his head lowered to avoid the dust and debris flying through the air. Thankfully, he didn't feel cold. Why, he thought in surprise, he hadn't felt cold all day, not since he gave the old man his tea! He hoped the old man had found a place to shelter himself for the night. It looked like it was going to be a rough one.
The streets were strangely empty as Anand made his way home. Was it because it was dinnertime, or was it this unpleasant wind? The small businesses that lined the street?the printing presses and machine shops?had turned off their lights, padlocked their gates, and sent their employees home. With a brief pang of envy, Anand imagined them safe in their warm, lighted houses, listening to songs on the radio or sitting around a table, eating a hot meal, maybe a chicken curry with rice. After dinner the children would crowd around their father, begging for a story. The mother would bring bowls of sweet milk pudding from the kitchen. That was how it had been with his family, too, before . . .
Anand shook his head to clear the memories. What use was it to long for what was no longer there? He'd better concentrate on getting home quickly. He'd have to start the cooking because Mother wouldn't be home until much later, and Meera couldn't be trusted to light the kerosene stove on her own. She couldn't do much of anything since the bad-luck accident, that's how he thought of it, had happened to her. He hoped she had remembered to wash the plates and fill the big earthen pitcher with water from
the tenement's tube well. Sometimes when he came home, she would still be sitting on her bedding with a vacant look on her face, and he knew she hadn't moved from there since morning. But he never had the heart to scold her.
He passed the cigarette shop, surprised to see that it, too, was closed. Before today, no matter how late he had been in coming back from work, it had always been open, its shiny radio blaring hits from the latest Hindi movies. There was always a crowd of young men around it, joking and jostling around, smoking beedis or chewing on betel leaves and spitting out the red juice wherever they pleased. But today, with its shutters pulled down and locked, the shop looked abandoned and eerie, and Anand walked past it as quickly as he could.
Right around then he became aware that someone was following him. He wasn't sure how he knew it. There were no sounds?not that he would have heard footsteps in all this wind. Nor was there anyone behind him when he forced himself to whirl around and look. The street was empty and dark?a streetlight had burned out?and Anand realized that he was at the same crossing where Meera had been when the accident that had turned her strange and silent had occurred. He pushed the thought away from him with a shiver and quickened his steps. There's no one behind me, no one, he said to himself over and over, and, under that, Mustn't fall, mustn't fall. Because then, whatever was behind him would catch up.
There's no one behind me. Mustn't fall.
He was running now. There was a fog all around him, obscuring the shapes of the shacks and turning the alleys into unfamiliar, yawning tunnels. His foot caught on something, and he went sprawling. The mango fell from his hand and rolled into the darkness. Oh no! Not the mango he'd spent two whole hard-earned rupees on! He scrabbled desperately for it, but felt nothing but asphalt and dirt. He wanted to search more, but something told him it wasn't safe to delay any longer. Where had the fog come from, anyway? How could it be windy and foggy at the same time? Was this his street? Where was his house, then? He looked around wildly, not recognizing anything. Help me! He called inside his head, not knowing to whom he called. Help! He was ashamed to be acting this way, like a child. The fog in front of him thinned for a moment. Ah! There was his shack with its warped tin door! He had never been so happy to see it. He knocked frantically on the door, calling to Meera to open up, hurry, hurry. He heard her unsteady steps, then the bolt sliding across. He threw himself inside, slammed the door behind him, and bolted it again. He leaned his back against the door, his heart pounding. Meera stared at him, a startled look on her face.
He forced himself to smile because he didn't want to scare her. "Don't worry, Meera," he said, though his throat was so dry he could barely speak. "Everything's all right."
Then he heard the knocking. Tap, tap, tong. Someone was hitting the door with . . . a stick? a piece of metal? He could feel the vibration against his shoulder blades. He jumped away from the door and looked around for a weapon, something with which to defend himself and his sister. In the flickering light of the small oil lamp, he could see nothing except an old bonti, its blade dulled from years of cutting vegetables. Somehow he didn't think it would stop whoever was outside.
Then he heard the voice, deep and rusty, as if it had been at the bottom of a river for a long time.
"Anand," it said. "Let me in."