Everyone called him Bhai but he was nobody’s brother. One day, he had simply appeared on the beach at Candil — nearly dead of hunger, almost too thin and weak to bear his own weight, and completely naked. He swayed a little, and then collapsed, on the sidewalk. Even in that neighbourhood of thieves, rapists, and killers, he got help without asking for it. He could not be taken to the hospital, of course. Everyone agreed on that. There would be too many questions. They took him to Kamala’s house, because it was nearest and biggest. And then, as usual, some of Kamala’s girls went to fetch the doctor.
“Other than being hungry, really, there’s nothing wrong with him,” the doctor said. “Make sure he gets plenty of rest, plenty of fluids, and a little conversation whenever he is awake.”
“Conversation is a medicine?” asked one of the many women, in the room, laughing at the doctor.
He looked at her seriously. “Well, yes and no. He looks to be eight years old. In fact, he could be a tall six-year-old. He’s nearly dead. Clearly, he was running away from something or someone. He hasn’t spoken to anyone in days – not even to ask for food. He must be terrified. He won’t recover unless someone reassures him. That means you simply talk to him and make him feel safe. Don’t ask him any questions. Don’t force him to remember anything. Don’t give him puzzles or complicated instructions or anything else that forces him to think. After all that, he may still remain terrified. And he may die. But then again, he may not. A little good conversation may be the only thing, in the end, that will keep him alive.”
“Are you serious?” asked the same woman again, her face showing as much concern as puzzlement.
“I have a good sense of humour, Kamala,” he said, looking very serious now, “but I don’t joke about people’s lives.”
And Kamala, the thief, stripper, prostitute and con-artist, blushed with shame at that remark. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said in a whisper, her eyes cast down, so he would not see the tears. He sensed her emotions, all the same.
“Look, it isn’t your fault, if the boy dies,” he said, gently. “You haven’t hurt him. You’re helping him. But I know how it is, here. There’s only so much you can do. Here’s a few pills. If he is too much trouble, you can give him one of these. They will make him fall asleep almost immediately.”
Kamala could no longer control her emotions. She grabbed the doctor by the collar. “Too much trouble? A terrified, dying little boy? Tell me what you think I cannot do! Tell me!” She had started shouting. But she was also sobbing.
Kamala was just a little over twenty and physically very strong for her age. The doctor was nearly twice her age and not nearly as strong but he knew she would not hurt him. “Look, ideally, he needs a room with dark curtains and no outside noise. He may be too confused to go to the bathroom on his own. You may have to clean him. You should bathe him and dress him every day. You should give him a few toys to play with and to sleep with. He should have some relaxing music to listen to while he is awake and someone to hold him and sing him to sleep, at bedtime. But who has the time to do all of these things, here?”
“Never you mind about that! What else should he have?” Kamala asked, fiercely.
“Well, when he is healthy enough to eat solid food, someone should cook him some fresh, healthy food, and see that he eats well,” said the doctor, tiredly, knowing that he was asking for the moon.
“Anything else?” asked Kamala.
“It will be a miracle…” the doctor was going to say, “if he even gets his medicines” but Kamala did not allow him to finish.
“Anything else?” she asked emphatically. The doctor simply shook his head and left.
The doctor knew as well as anyone else about Kamala’s past. At twenty, Kamala had already graduated from being the most sought-after prostitute in a hundred-mile radius to running her own brothel. Most of Kamala’s girls were older than Kamala but they dared not defy her. Kamala paid well, got decent clients who did not beat them or abuse them in other ways, and she made sure her girls always had a ride home when they were done. Kamala made a good deal of money – far more than enough to move out of the poor and crime-ridden neighbourhood in which she lived. But it was her home, where she had been born and brought up. Her friends and her enemies all lived here. It was here, too, that she had lost her first (and, so far, only) child, less than a year ago, to tetanus. The boy had been less than two years old, at the time. He had died quickly and suddenly, in less than twenty-four hours. She had her baby at home, with the help of a midwife. And so, she had not gotten her baby the DTP vaccination that would have been standard, at any hospital, out of sheer carelessness, rather than lack of money. And so, when the child hurt himself, playing, nobody realized, until it was far too late, that the injury carried a fatal infection. And, just like that, he was dead. And so, the doctor realized, this little boy was a surrogate. She would do anything to keep him alive.
And she did.
“Listen,” she said, that night, when she saw her girls. “I need help. I’m taking care of a sick little boy. He’s very sick. He could die. He doesn’t have an infection. He’s basically dying of hunger and fear. He’s in my house. I need three volunteers – six hours each. I’ll be with him in the morning, but I need someone there the rest of the day.” Kamala spent nights at the brothel to make sure everything ran smoothly. “You will get paid the same as if you were working.”
There was silence. Nobody volunteered. Then one girl spoke up. “Nobody here wants money for something like that. But everyone is afraid of what will happen to her if the boy dies.”
“There will be no consequences. You can continue working here as long as you like. Nothing will change,” Kamala said. Still, nobody volunteered. “OK. How’s this? Until the boy is well, everyone here will take turns taking care of him, depending on your schedule. Does anyone object?” There were no objections. And so, for the next three months, the forty most beautiful prostitutes in the city took care of a sick little boy, gradually nursing him back to health.
For several weeks, he teetered on the verge of death. His body grew stronger but fear and depression still held him in their clutches. He hardly spoke. What he said made little sense to anyone. Either he did not remember his name or he did not want to tell anyone what it was. All of the girls were much older than he was but most were too young to be his mother. And so, when they spoke of him, they called him simply “Bhai”, meaning brother.
And then, one day, as suddenly and as inexplicably as he had collapsed on the sidewalk, he came to his senses. “Where am I? Where is everyone?” he asked. He seemed curious but not afraid. It was after dark. He had been sleeping all day and had just woken up. The girl who was there at the time soothed him and reassured him but did not answer his questions. She sent someone to get Kamala, immediately.
Kamala was overjoyed. But she could not leave the brothel at night. It was absolutely impossible. The brothel was a very large and beautiful house, with several bedrooms. None of the prostitutes lived there but they all reported there every evening. Some of them did, in fact, sleep at the house, if they were too exhausted or too high to travel back to their homes on their own but it was always a temporary refuge, at best. Kamala said, “Prepare a room for the boy and bring him here.”
“You want to bring him here?” asked one of the girls, doubtfully. The location and the function of the house was no secret but neither was it openly advertised. Other than Kamala and the girls nobody really knew that the house was the headquarters of the most successful prostitution ring in the city. The police had guessed, of course, that something illegal went on there but it was a highly-sophisticated operation. Despite setting several traps and even searching the place several times, the police had been unable to find any actual evidence of a crime. Kamala was young but she was no fool.
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “Bring him here immediately.”
It was dark outside, already. And Kamala had put a very dark tint on the car’s windows. The boy could see nothing of the route to the house. The chauffeur took the car all the way to the front door. From there, the girl who was with him whisked him away to his room. And there, he spoke to Kamala for the first time. Immediately, he felt at ease. The love in her heart was real and he could see it in her eyes.
“How are you, Bhai?” she asked him with a smile.
“You are not my sister,” he said, sadly, but without anger or distrust.
“You and I are now brother and sister, Bhai,” she said gently, looking him straight in the eye.
“Really?” he asked. And then, suddenly, without any warning at all, large, gasping sobs racked his body as he ran to her and held her, for several minutes.
When the storm subsided, she said, “Bhai, there is much I need to know. But the doctor has said not to ask you many questions.”
“Didi,” he said, very seriously, “you can ask me anything!”
“Very well, then,” Kamala said, laughing, “tell me what this says,” and she gave him a book for children.
“Of course!” he said. “The Cat in the Hat is one of my favourite books!”
“OK, then, read it to me,” Kamala said, enjoying herself thoroughly. Nobody had ever read her a book.
And so he sat on her lap and read her the whole book, very slowly, explaining the story and the pictures to her as he went along. It took him an hour to read the book that Kamala could have read for herself in five minutes or less. But she listened to him, not just with patience, but with wonder. Kamala was a survivor. She did what she had to do and she did it well. But it had never occurred to her that someone would actually take the time to explain anything to her. So, she listened carefully, without interruption, as if she had not already read the story at least a thousand times.
But, finally, when the story ended, she said, “Bhai, I have to go back to work now.”
“Can’t I go with you? I won’t bother you at all.”
The request was so sincere and so clearly made with all his heart that Kamala could hardly bear to refuse. But, of course, she wanted to give him a normal life.
“I know. But my office doesn’t allow little children.”
“But you said I’m your brother! Besides, I am not a little child.”
The response was so unexpectedly cheeky and loving at the same time that it made Kamala laugh. “Well, tell you what. See that whole stack of books there? Read all of them and tell me the stories when I come back. And look! There are so many toys for you to play with.” Kamala had hoped that she would not be trapped in the brothel the day the little boy finally came to his senses but she had prepared for the eventuality, all the same.
But his face fell. “I don’t want to read, any more. And I don’t want the toys. I want to play with you.” The girls who were in the room, watching quietly, began to giggle. Kamala ruled the brothel with an iron hand. But this little boy was getting the best of her. They waited, with interest, to see what she would do. Kamala looked around for help. But, for once, nobody stepped forward.
“You know, you’re really a very annoying little brother,” she said, trying to put an edge to her voice. But there was no conviction in it.
“Let me show you how to make an airplane with Lego bricks,” he said, with a smile, in response. He went up to her, held her hand, gently but firmly in his own, and led her toward the toys. She followed, helplessly.
“OK. Wait a minute,” she said. “Tell Mita to come get me if there is an emergency,” she said to one of the girls. “Also, tell Rani to go to the doctor and tell him to see Bhai tomorrow morning, at my house.”
“I’m hungry,” said the little boy. “Can I have some pizza?”
“You’ve done nothing but eat and sleep all day, today! How can you be hungry already?” she demanded. “Besides, the doctor didn’t say if you could have pizza.” Then it suddenly occurred to her that she could get out of the room on the pretext of getting him pizza and send someone else to get it, instead. “OK fine,” she said, “I’ll go get it.”
“No,” he said very clearly. “You stay here, with me.”
“OK. But if I stay you don’t get pizza,” she said, trying to retain some small shred of power over him.
“Fine. You can get it on the way home,” he said. Ten minutes later, one of the girls brought in a hot pizza. There was a stack of pizzas in the freezer and she just micro-waved one of them. “What are you doing, Madhu? He’ll never listen to me, now!” complained Kamala.
“Well, that’s your problem, now, isn’t it?” said Madhu as she flounced away. Kamala looked at her in disgust. Madhu was always the one most afraid to disobey even the least of Kamala’s orders – explicit or implicit.
The night ended without any emergencies. And the next morning, the doctor visited Kamala’s house to examine the little boy. But he wasn’t satisfied with simply a cursory examination, at the house. He took the little boy to his clinic and examined him thoroughly for two hours. Finally, he took the boy back to Kamala. “What you have achieved is beyond a miracle, Kamala! Bhai is as healthy as any little boy in the world, perhaps healthier. We will know more once I get the results of all the blood-tests, urine tests, and stool-tests, but I expect everything to be normal.”
“Can I talk to him and ask him questions about his past, now?” said Kamala, who very much wanted to know all about the little boy.
“Well,” said the doctor. “Physically, he is perfectly healthy. He is also cheerful. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with his brain. So, yes, technically, you can ask him anything and he should be able to answer. But, remember, he is still a little boy. And something did frighten him, terribly. If one of your questions brings up a memory that makes him remember something terrifying, he may relapse into a state of depression and he may never come out of it.”
“So, basically, I can never bring up his past,” said Kamala, slowly. “So be it. But I can at least help him secure a good future. I will start sending him to school.”
“Yes. Do that. It is good for him to meet with boys and girls his own age.”
Of course, Kamala still did not know Bhai’s real name and, since the little boy himself never volunteered it, she told him that, in school, people would call him Akshar Patel. Kamala’s own last name was Patel and she had named her own son Akshay. So, people who knew Kamala easily understood her choice of name for the little boy. As it turned out, Akshar was an intelligent little boy and was able to pass all of the tests he took, with flying colours. And so she was able to place him in an excellent school.
The Dune School was a very large and expensive private school, with classes from pre-school through twelfth grade. He started school in third grade. The school based its decision on his test-scores, since nobody was quite sure exactly how old he was. Had he been a normal third-grader, he would have been eight years old. But he was far from normal, even though the first year passed normally enough. He was quiet, at first. But he adapted quickly. Soon, he was one of the most popular boys in the school. He was happy, carefree, fearless and honest. However, the school’s principal, Hank Herbert, realized very quickly that Akshar was also incredibly intelligent. By the time he finished fourth grade, it was clear that he needed a far more advanced curriculum. That was arranged – with some difficulty, but it was done. And the school continued to offer him an increasingly challenging curriculum over the next four years. Finally, one day, Mr. Herbert invited Kamala to a private meeting. With much trepidation, she went.
“Is Bhai in trouble?” was her first thought, followed by, “Do they want to throw him out because of my profession?” Not for a second did it occur to her that Mr. Herbert might want to give her good news.
“Please sit down, Mrs. Patel,” he said, in his usual warm and friendly manner. He knew exactly what Kamala did, for a living, but pretended to believe that she was a widow.
“Is Akshar in some sort of trouble?” Kamala asked anxiously.
“No, indeed!” responded Mr. Herbert with a huge smile. “If anything, I am the one in trouble! The fact is, Akshar is brilliant! He has learned everything we can teach him here. Normally, a student would need at least four more years of study to complete high school.”
“Does the school need a donation, to compensate for the four additional years he would have been here? I don’t mind spending more money if you would continue teaching him,” Kamala asked, relieved. If it was only money, she could easily deal with it.
“No, Mrs. Patel, it is nothing like that. You have been most generous with the school. At least half of the students in this school are only able to study here because of the scholarships you have funded, over the years. You may, indeed, spend more money on Akshar, but it won’t be at this school. He is done here. He needs to go to college.”
“But he is so young!” exclaimed Kamala, taken by surprise. She knew Mr. Herbert was right about the scholarships. She had, indeed, paid for several students – almost all of them were either from the neighbourhood in which she lived or were the children of the prostitutes who worked for her. She wanted them all to have a chance at a normal life. But, also, she did not want Akshar to feel alone or isolated in the school. So, to her, it was money well-spent. “I never realized he would finish school so quickly,” she said.
“Yes, of course. And, because of his youth, not every college will accept him, despite his intelligence. But I can give you letters of introduction to the presidents of some excellent colleges who would probably be willing to make an exception.”
“Mr. Herbert, you are wonderful!” she exclaimed.
Barely a year after he had started college, Kamala attended a special graduation ceremony for Akshar’s Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. And she shared his joy when he said, “Didi, I am a college graduate, now!”
Two years later, the story repeated itself but this time he had earned his Master’s degree in Microbiology. And two years after that, when Akshar earned his Doctoral degree in Chemistry, Kamala was not surprised at all. She had begun to take it for granted that he would complete his studies in record time. But what pleased her most was that he always celebrated his achievements with her, first. Always, he would give her a hug and a kiss and ask her, “Didi, aren’t you proud of me?” And always, of course, she cried, in response. But he was used to that.
And every time he earned a degree, he would also say, “Didi, shouldn’t you get out of this business, now?” Akshar asked her, again and again.
And every time, her response was nearly the same. “How would we live if I did not bring in any money?” He knew that was not the real reason she did not give up the business. But until he could provide her an alternative, there was nothing he could say to her.
By the time Akshar completed his formal education, his Didi was a little over thirty years old. The brothel was still doing well. She had always charged more than the average brothel, for her girls. But over the previous ten years she had become a kind of a living contradiction – a famous underground figure. People spoke of her in whispers and only the very wealthy now approached her — as much for her discretion as for the quality of girls she sent. She included, among her clients, movie stars of both sexes, kings, prime-ministers, and presidents, and even many well-known religious figures.
At heart, though, Kamala was a simple girl. She had no idea what to do with all of the money she had. She still lived in the shack where she had been born and brought up, though she spent increasingly more time in the house that she used as her headquarters. She could not afford to wear very expensive clothes or jewelry for fear of attracting too much police attention. She owned several very expensive cars but she used them mainly to guarantee the privacy of her girls and clients. She used whichever car was available to her at a given moment. She had no car of her own. She spent mostly on her Bhai.
She sent him to the best schools, colleges, and universities, bought him good clothes, encouraged him to travel all over the world, and even funded his expensive hobbies, such as collecting old books and antique furniture and learning to construct and play ancient musical instruments. When he built a huge aquarium in his house, with hundreds of exotic fish from all over the world and showed it off to her, as usual, she was happy – not because she understood the level of time, expense, and expertise it took to construct something like that but because she knew he had done it for her. He loved to present her with beautiful things.
And so, once again, he asked her the usual question. But this time, he had an answer to her usual response. “I can get a job now, Didi, a good one.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve always known that a time would come when you would say this to me. I had hoped it would be a few years later than today. But it was inevitable, all the same. Better sooner than later, I guess.”
“So, you will quit?” he asked hopefully.
“It isn’t quite that simple, Bhai,” she said ruefully. “It isn’t just about money. I know things about people – rich and famous people, even powerful people.”
“So, my dear, innocent Bhai, they won’t just let me quit. They will give me as much money as I want, so long as I keep working. But, if ever I try to quit, they will have me killed.”
“Are you serious?”
“Deadly serious, my dear Bhai, deadly serious.”
“So, all of this study and hard work that I did, is all useless?”
“Not at all. You are not part of this world, my world. That is why I wanted you to study – so that you would have a chance at a normal life.”
“And leave you in the gutter to die?”
“Don’t be so dramatic. I have tons of money. And I can live a life of luxury.”
“Right. That’s why you are still living in that old shack, instead of living with me. And that’s why I always see you wearing beautiful clothes and jewelry, right?” he said with bitterness and anger.
“Don’t say such things. I live in the place where I was born, with my old friends. And as for beautiful clothes and jewelry, I do have them and I do wear them – just not all the time.”
“You know what I mean, Didi,” he said, nearly in tears.
“Yes, I do. But think about it for a second. What would I do? I don’t have an education, like you. I could not get any kind of a job. I am doing the only job I know how to do. And I do it well.”
He was silent, for a moment. “You don’t need a job, Didi. You have enough money to live the rest of your life without earning a single penny more. But you would not need money, anyway. I can make more than enough, now, for both of us to live well.”
“But I am just a little over thirty, Bhai. I am not eighty. What would I do with myself? How would I pass the time? Do you really think I can just shop and watch TV all day?”
He was more hesitant now. “Well, you could start a business.”
“I already have a business, Bhai – a good one!”
He was silent. There was no way to say what he wanted to say.
“Yes, I know what you mean. You want me to do a normal business, like selling clothes or running a restaurant or something like that.”
“Yes!” he said, passionately.
“I could. But my life will never be normal, Bhai. Can’t you see that?”
“I will take care of you, Didi,” he said fiercely. “Not all of my learning is purely academic. I know how to use my fists and my legs and even guns and knives. I could protect you. I could hire bodyguards. I could even raise a small army if your safety depended on it.”
“Yes, my dear Bhai. I know you could. And you probably would. And then you would be part of my world – a world of prostitutes and murderers and thieves. And that is exactly what I don’t want for you!”
“So then what am I supposed to do with all this?” he asked, pointing to the degrees framed on the wall and to the aquarium and other beautiful things in his house. “I would have been dead if you had not picked me up and nursed me back to health. I’ve bought all of this with your money. I did it all for you. I made my house as beautiful as possible so that, one day, you would want to move in here with me.”
“I know,” she said quietly. “I would move in with you if you lived in a shack. I don’t need beautiful things to be happy. I just need someone who loves me unconditionally, as you do. And now I know I will always have that, no matter where you are or where I am. And so I am happy,” she said simply.
“But then what am I supposed to do with all this? None of it means anything without you.”
“Yes, it does. It means you can get yourself a good job and a wife and a family, and live away from the world of crime and violence in which I am already immersed.”
“You have money. You aren’t helpless, like the girls who work for you.”
“The girls who work for me have money also. Some of them may even have more than I do – even the youngest ones. But we can never truly retire. Don’t you think people have tried, Bhai? They end up doing something else equally criminal or they end up dead – or both. There are many ways into this world but no way out.”
“Then why did you get into it?” he asked, in frustration, knowing exactly what she would say.
“Perhaps, if I had known then that I would never be able to get out, I may not have gotten into this type of life. But even then I don’t know. My options were limited. I did whatever was necessary to survive – and that’s what I am doing, even now.”
“So, you have all this talent and compassion and money – and all you can do is to barely survive? That makes no sense! There must be a way out. I will carve one out, if necessary. But you aren’t going to be stuck in this life forever. That much, I promise.”
“I hope you can keep your promise, Bhai. It seems impossible to me. But I will love you just the same, no matter what.”
And even though there was no more either could say on the subject at the time, they both knew the conversation was not really over.
A few months later, he asked her, “About how old are most of the men that your girls go to?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I don’t need details, like names, ages, and so on. Just roughly, about how many of them are, say, over forty and how many are under that age?”
“Almost all of them are over forty,” she said.
“So, there must be times when they are not able to actually have sex, right? What happens then?”
“Nothing. The girls still stay as long as they are supposed to stay and they get paid what they are supposed to get paid.”
“And do those men ever call again, for your girls?”
“My clientele is pretty stable. What are you getting at?”
“Yes, you’re a good business-woman. I doubt that you lose many clients. But let me ask you this: Would you make more money if I could pretty much guarantee that every man would be able to perform every time he got one of your girls?”
“Anyone who could guarantee something like that would either get killed or corner the world prostitution market,” she said, with a laugh.
“Well, maybe not the world, but definitely the local market, right?” She waited. She knew that asking him questions would not work. He would simply keep teasing her. So, she got up, as though she were bored and about to leave. “That tactic won’t work this time,” he said to her with a smile. “I know you want to hear this.”
“Then tell me,” she said, twisting his ear.
“Ow! No need to get violent with your little brother. OK. Here it is. You know I studied Chemistry. I’ve made a drug. It’s harmless but it has an incredible side-effect. What it does is to make a person high – not like cocaine or heroin but a pleasant buzz, like a person has after a couple of drinks. And the happy feeling doesn’t last long – about a half-hour at the most. But, during that half-hour, any man who takes the drug also gets an erection. The erection also does not last very long – maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. It starts a little after the buzz and ends a little before the happy feeling goes away.”
“Why don’t you sell your discovery to some big company?”
“Well, there is one little problem. One in every million men who takes this drug repeatedly, for a long time – say, once every week for ten years – will become insanely violent for a twenty-four hour period. After that, if he takes the drug again, he will have a heart-attack and die instantly.”
“And how do you know this? Have you tested it on a million men?”
“No. That’s the whole point. I don’t have the time or the money to do that. But I wrote a computer-program, with hundreds of variables, and ran a kind of a virtual drug-test. And this is what it tells me. But, as long as we distribute the drug to a relatively small number of people, we don’t need to worry. You are probably never going to sell the drug to a million different customers.”
“Still, you could be wrong. Instead of one in a million, it could be one in a thousand or even one in ten.”
“Yes, I could be wrong. But it is impossible that I could be that wrong! I’ve been very conservative with my numbers. In reality, the danger of someone dying could be less than one in a million, but not more. And remember, too, that death would only happen if a person took the pill at least once a week every week for ten years, continuously. How many clients do you have that call for a girl every single week for ten years continuously?”
“None. Everyone takes a break, once in a while.”
“How much does this pill cost?”
A huge grin spread across his face, like a little boy who has just gotten away with something naughty. “Nothing. Absolutely zero. In fact, really, less than nothing. I’m going to get paid for making the pill – before it is sold and after.”
“How are you getting paid for it before you sell it?”
“Well, you know how it is. People pollute lakes and rivers and even oceans, all over the world. Someone has to clean up the mess. I’ve built a machine that takes many poisons out of the water. Private corporations as well as governments pay for such machines. Once the stuff is taken out, it has to be transported and stored somewhere. They pay for that as well. Many of the poisons I take out of the water are only poisons when they are in water. Otherwise, they can be used in perfectly legal ways. For example, mercury is poisonous to drink but it is used in thermometers.”
“Are you putting mercury in these pills?”
“No, of course not! But I make a profit from selling the mercury for perfectly legal purposes. And I use that money to buy the chemicals that I need, to manufacture my pills. And I don’t need to go anywhere special. Any pharmacy sells all the chemicals I need. They are mixed into different medicines – medicines like aspirin, and anti-histamines, for example, that anyone can buy.”
“And what if you get caught?”
“What if I do? The drug I am making does not hurt anyone. It is not like cocaine or heroin or even marijuana.”
“And what if someone dies?”
“All traces of the drug disappear from the system in twelve hours or less.”
“You’ve thought of everything.”
“You think you’re very clever, don’t you?”
“I don’t think so. I know so,” he said, impishly.
“That’s all very well when you’re just dealing with your poor, helpless Didi,” she said, grumpily.
“Since when have you ever been poor or helpless?” he asked, laughing. “Everyone’s terrified of you!”
“Yes, everyone – except you!” She looked at him.
“Don’t look at me like that! I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Yes, but you’re going to, aren’t you? It doesn’t matter what I say. No matter how much you justify it, you know you are doing something illegal.”
“Well, yes, it is stretching the law – but just a little.”
“That’s like being a little bit dead!” she flashed.
“No, it isn’t. Really, it isn’t. It’s more like a twelve-year-old having a shot of whisky. It’s illegal but it isn’t anything major.”
“You don’t understand anything. You’re so intelligent and yet you’re so stupid! These are not ordinary people. They didn’t get rich by winning the lottery or by inheriting money. They are smart, ambitious people, who worked hard to get where they are. They may not be educated but they always know who’s responsible when something goes wrong. And they don’t wait for the police or the courts to take action. If they suspect you of killing one of their friends, even by mistake, they will kill you first and ask questions later – if ever they do ask questions. Understand what you are getting into. You asked me once why I got into this life. Now, I am asking you that same question.”
“You know why. I am doing it for you.”
“I had hoped that when I outlined this crazy plan that you would say that you would rather quit your life than let me get into a similar life.”
She was silent. “You really want me to quit, don’t you?”
He did not even bother to reply to that question.
“Well, then, kill me.”
“Are you crazy? You saved my life!”
“Killing me is the only way you can save mine.”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“But, with your drugs and chemicals, can you make it look like I’m dead?” He was stunned. But he began to understand what she meant.
“Yes, I could.”
“People would have to be able to see my dead body, to touch me, to be sure I was really dead. Can you do that?”
“Yes. That’s easy enough. But what happens then?”
“Then we build another shack just like the one in which I’ve lived all of my life and we can be happy ever after,” she said with a smile. “I want to wear all of those beautiful jewels and fancy clothes and really live it up, at least for a while. I’m bored of this life, now. Most of my friends are either dead or have moved away. I don’t need to make more money. But I do want to see you grow up and get married and have kids and all of that. Maybe I can still do all of those things myself,” she said, wistfully.
They put a plan into motion. It was to move very slowly. First, Bhai announced that he was going abroad, to start his own business. So, it made sense for him to sell his house. Soon after the house was sold and Bhai moved in with Mr. Herbert, Kamala gave him Mr. Herbert a limousine – one that looked exactly like many others that she used, but it was, of course, new, and not used. Then, a few months later, they announced that Kamala was sick and that she was to be taken abroad for medical treatment. They left the neighbourhood several times, returning at intervals, initially, of a few weeks, and then a month or two at a time. During these periods, they stayed at a secret location in some caves that were just a few miles from Candil. Bhai had hoped that, slowly, people would just forget about them and they would be able to simply disappear. It was a futile hope.
Every time they “returned”, people came to visit them. Among the “visitors” were medical doctors who quietly examined her. Some openly asked for medical records and/or the names of the doctors who treated her and the hospitals or clinics at which she received treatment. Such requests, under the guise of privacy, Bhai courteously but firmly declined to honour. Kamala, in a gradual but orderly manner, passed over the reins of the brothel, appointing various of her girls to various roles. Any attempt at selling the brothel would immediately raise suspicions but, given her “sickness”, it was reasonable that she would keep the brothel running smoothly through delegation of tasks. Almost two years passed, in this way.
Kamala seemed to be getting progressively worse. Mr. Herbert, who suspected something but knew nothing, was no alarmed at the state of Kamala’s health. So, Bhai told him to take a week’s vacation and relax. “By the time you return, Mr. Herbert, Kamala will be fine.” That was the closest Bhai came to giving Mr. Herbert a hint as to what was to happen. Of course, Mr. Herbert did not realize that, at the time. And so, he left. Kamala drove him, personally, to the large, private airport, that she and other wealthy people often used. The airport housed several private jets, in its hangars but also accepted a few commercial flights every day.
“I’m going to leave this car for you in my hangar, Mr. Herbert,” she said, driving him to the hangar and parking the car there, so he knew exactly which one it was. “When you return, you can simply come back here and pick up the car and drive home. That way, you won’t need to get a taxi. And you won’t need to wait for me to come and get you either.”
“Mrs. Patel, my dear, I’m an old man, but I’m not stupid. I know I will never see you again. God bless you wherever you go.” Then, he walked to the plane waiting for him and she walked away.
Then, three days after Mr. Herbert left, very abruptly, but very publicly, Kamala “died”. It was late morning and she was alone at the grocery store, without any of her girls or helpers, at the cashier’s, paying her bill when, suddenly, she collapsed. The manager immediately called an ambulance and sent her to the nearest hospital where the doctors pronounced her dead on arrival. Bhai was at her side, immediately. An autopsy was out of the question, he said. She would not her body to be desecrated in that way. The doctors and the police raised some objections. Soon, however, several important people called to support Bhai’s decision. Nobody knew whether someone had killed her or whether she had died a natural death. Almost everyone suspected everyone else of killing her. And yet, nobody wanted an inquiry into her death. It would raise too many questions and too many important people’s careers and reputations would be put on the line. An autopsy, then, was out of the question.
But, despite the default description of Kamala as “a woman of low character” she was, in fact, highly respected and much loved. So, Bhai announced that, over the next twenty-four hours, anyone who wished to do so could offer their respects to Kamala. He was startled at the huge number of people who paid her their last respects. The twenty-four hours stretched into thirty-six. People arrived in a continuous stream, throughout the day and the night. Bhai began to fear that the drugs would wear off and that Kamala would wake up in the middle of her own funeral. But he dared not turn away a single person. Finally, when a half-hour passed after the departure of the last person, he shut the doors of the crematorium. Kamala, fortunately, continued to sleep. She would asleep nearly another twelve hours.
Bhai had considered every detail carefully. In the months it took to execute the plan, Bhai had done many things to ensure the success of the plan. Among other things, he had taken flying lessons and he had purchased a small but luxurious jet. He had taken the plane for a short flight, just before Mr. Herbert and Kamala reached the hangar, so that Mr. Herbert would not be able to see or identify the plane. A few minutes after Mr. Herbert’s flight left, Bhai parked the jet in the hangar where Kamala had put Mr. Herbert’s car, and made sure it was re-fueled. Then he drove the car to Mr. Herbert’s house. Everyone knew he was living with Mr. Herbert so they would not be surprised to see him or Mr. Herbert’s car in Mr. Herbert’s house. He had created and brought a wax replica of Kamala, that he had put in a large, specially-constructed suitcase in his room. As soon as he got back to the house from the crematorium, for his last night of rest at the house, he put the replica in the back of the car. The next morning, refreshed and confident, he drove to the crematorium for the last time.
The back seat was long enough for her to lie down comfortably. He now put the Kamala in the back seat of the car and put the wax replica on display. He then locked the car, leaving open just one of the windows, and then only a tiny bit, for air to go in. And then he went back to the crematorium.
While people had been looking at the real Kamala, a few astute observers had commented that her skin looked a little waxy. It was, in fact, Bhai’s intention to make Kamala’s skin look a little waxy so that people would not see much difference between the real Kamala and the wax replica that would soon be in the place of her real body. But there was a slight problem. The drugs he had given her worked perfectly but had the minor side-effect of drying out the skin, temporarily. And so, he had gone a little overboard in applying oil to her skin. “Well, no harm done,” he thought to himself, though he had been a little worried at the time he heard the comment about Kamala’s skin.
The next morning, everyone came to see Kamala being cremated. Bhai kept the lights low and only Kamala’s face visible, now. Also, he kept people at a sufficient distance that they could not make out details very clearly. Bhai knew that the wax replica of Kamala would begin to melt almost immediately. And so, he had chosen an electric crematorium. The body was put on a belt and it slowly passed through a small steel trapdoor before it went into the fire. Once the trapdoor closed, nothing was visible. So, the whole world saw Kamala die and be cremated. Now, it was time to make the real Kamala disappear. And so, he went back to the limousine.
He drove the limousine to his private hangar, as Kamala continued to sleep. As soon as the car was in the hangar, he shut the hangar door and carried Kamala into the airplane. Once inside, he laid her on a bed. Then, he shut the door to the airplane and, with his computer, opened the hangar door remotely. She was now safe – for the moment. It still remained for Bhai to get her safely to her new residence and establish her in her new identity.
“Where am I?” asked Kamala, sleepily, several hours later.
Bhai laughed at her, gently. You’ve slept through a little more than two days. Now, you’re home safe. You wanted another shack just like the one you had. Well, I made a few minor modifications, and here you are, in your new home. Do you like it?” he asked, anxiously.
It was her turn to laugh. “I knew you would not build me another shack. You make beautiful things. And this is beautiful. I love it!”
It was, in the truest sense, a palatial home. In fact, Bhai had bought one of the many palaces in a small country where the royal family was now struggling for money. He had made the purchase through many intermediaries so that nobody could trace the purchase back to him or to Kamala. He had deliberately allowed certain information to leak, however. Although he never said so openly, to anyone, he allowed people to believe that the new owners were not just a brother and a sister but a Prince and a Princess. He had been deliberately hazy about the details. He had implied that they were running away from political persecution and so wanted their privacy. Kamala was amazed when he told her that. “Seriously? I’m a princess, living in a palace?” She couldn’t help grinning.
“I liked that little touch myself,” he said, happy that she approved.
“You’re just amazing, Bhai!”
“Yes, I know,” he said, cheekily.
For five years, they were “happy ever after” as Kamala had wished. She even got married and had a child, as she had always wanted. Her husband was a true nobleman. She was certain that he knew she was no princess but he never confronted her with the knowledge. He loved her and she loved him and that was all that mattered. She had her husband and her son and her Bhai. Life was perfect!
And then, suddenly, one day, her Bhai told her he was leaving. “Leaving? Where? Why? Aren’t you happy here?”
“Do you remember, many years ago, you asked me if I really believed that you could simply shop and watch TV? Well, I’m asking you more or less the same question now.”
“But you don’t just shop and watch TV. You do useful things. You’ve built a school. You’ve built a clinic.”
“Yes, I have. And now what?”
“Well, you could….” She stopped. He was right. There was nothing else for him to do. “You could get married!”
“That was your dream, not mine,” he reminded her gently. “I do want to get married and have children and all of that,” he said, “but not now. Right now, I want to explore the world.”
“You aren’t coming back, are you?” she said, in tears.
“My darling Didi! How can you say that? I may not ever be able to contact you directly but you will always get news of me. And one day – whether it is next year or twenty years from now — I will come back. And you will kiss my wife on both cheeks and hug my children. This I promise you.”
When he had walked several paces away from her, she said, under her breath, “Don’t let it be twenty years, Bhai.” She thought he had not heard her. But he had. And he kept walking.
Soon, he was in another country, far away from his birthplace and also far from his Didi. He put aside his identity as a Prince and took up his own identity again, such as it was. Once again, he was Akshar Patel. With all that had happened to him in his life, though, he was not able to work for someone else. He would never look for a job, he decided. He had talent and he had money. Surely, he could do something on his own.
Something in him drew him to the ocean. And so, once again, he was in a large city, next to the ocean. Here, too, he saw poverty but not the grinding, hopeless poverty he had seen in his own country. People were poor but they had enough to eat, every day. The city had nearly the same types of crime as any other large city but the police often looked the other way when they saw someone stealing food to feed his family or sleeping in empty homes when the family could no longer afford to pay rent. He liked the people and the culture. And so, he bought a house near the beach. The location was unique, in a way.
The house was located on the curve of the road. As you approached it, all you saw was a line of beautiful homes. But, if you passed the curve and went to the end of the road, which was a cul-de-sac, and if you looked carefully, you would see a string of shacks beyond the palm trees, making up a kind of improvised shanty-town. But his was the last house on the road so there was no point in driving all the way to the end of the road.
“Hello,” he said, to an old man, as he walked into the shanty-town.
“And who might you be?” asked the old man, curious, but friendly.
“I’ve just moved into the house at the end of the road,” said Bhai.
“I didn’t ask you where you lived,” huffed the old man. “Everyone knows you’re the rich guy who bought the fancy house.”
“Is that how you think of me?” said Bhai, with a smile. “Well, let’s have a drink and change all that, shall we?”
“I’ll surely have a friendly drink with you,” said the crusty old man, “but whether I’ll change my opinion of you is a different thing.”
“Let’s just have a drink, then, old man,” said Bhai, amused yet respectful.
“My name is Gabriel,” said the old man, “but I’m no angel.”
“My name is Akshar, but my friends call me Bhai, meaning brother,” responded Bhai.
“And what do your enemies call you?” asked the old man, with a twinkle.
“I hope I have left behind my enemies,” said Bhai, with a shudder. And he went silent, his eyes looking at something in the past that only he could see.
“It was only a joke,” said Gabriel, apologetically. “I didn’t mean to trouble you. I’m just a foolish old man and I talk too much, sometimes.”
“You’re a good old man, Gabriel. There are just some things I would rather not remember, though I can never really forget.”
“Ah. Like that is it? Let us speak of better things, then. What is it you do?”
“Do? Well, nothing for now. That is why I spoke to you. What is there that needs doing, here?”
“We’re poor folk, as you can see, Bhai. We need what all poor folks need.”
“And what would that be?”
“Food, for one thing.”
“Food, is it, when each of you brings in literally boatloads of fish every day, and sell them at the fish-market in town?”
Gabriel laughed a raspy laugh. “Nobody’s fool, then, are you? What is it, then, that you think we need?”
“I don’t know but I do know you don’t need food. So stop playing the fool and tell me what it is you really need.”
“A doctor, then. Well, for the big things, like surgery or cancer treatment, there’s a bunch of government hospitals, down the road, and they’re free for the likes of us. But for the little daily things like coughs and colds and fevers and the like, there’s nobody to care for us.”
“How do you manage, then?”
“Like all poor people, sir – we manage without.”
“I’m no doctor. But I can get you medicines enough, if that will do.”
“It would help, indeed. There was a doctor who used to visit and help, at no charge. But he ran out of medicine and never came back.”
“If you’ll find the doctor, Gabriel, I’ll find the medicine.”
And so began a partnership between Bhai and the people of the shanty-town. He brought them medicine and they brought him gifts of fish and whatever else they could afford. Sometimes, the children from the shanty-town would go to his house to play with him and sometimes he would go to their bar and get drunk with them. It pleased him to be able to help the people of the shanty-town. But, still, there was something missing.
Over the next few years, he built a small shop. It was a kind of a convenience store, selling milk, medicines, magazines, and all of the other little things that an average family would need. It allowed him to order all of the medicines he would ever need for the people of the shanty-town. And it more or less paid for itself because it was the only store for miles around. But it was a kind of an unofficial store. He had built it on his home-ground, quite literally. His home stood on just about twenty acres of land. Putting aside a little space for a small shop was easy, especially as he did not even have to build it. He simply ordered a pre-fabricated structure and his friends at the shanty-town helped him put it together. So, technically, the shop was on residential property and therefore, officially, it did not exist. And yet, he was glad that it did exist.
His first customer was a young woman. She had shiny, thick black hair, that fell in an amazingly straight line, directly to her waist. And, she had a soft, gentle voice. But she was also a little crazy, he thought.
“I’m looking for a horse,” she said.
“A house?” he asked, thinking he had misunderstood her.
“No, a horse. Not a real horse. A painting will do. Even a sculpture might work. I’m just pretty sure it needs to be a horse.”
“You realize this is a kind of a convenience-store, right? We don’t sell horses or even paintings of horses.”
“I’m not stupid, you know,” she said. Then, seeing that he did not respond, she said. “As you said, this is a kind of a convenience-store. It is not a real convenience-store. I just figured that someone who built a store like this on his own personal estate would probably have a picture of a horse.”
“That is the craziest logic I have heard in my life! But the thing that’s really terrible is that it makes a certain kind of very weird sense.”
“I may be weird but I’m not stupid.”
“Do you just randomly barge into people’s homes asking them if they have paintings of horses?”
“Technically, I am at your shop, not at your home,” she pointed out. “You said so yourself. Having a shop inside of your home is much more odd than having a painting of a horse in your home.”
“As it happens, I do, actually, have an original painting of a horse, in my home. It’s oil on canvas. But the painter is not spectacularly famous or super-talented or anything like that. It’s just – normal.”
“I’m looking for something like that. Everyone’s seen all of the famous paintings and copies and adaptations of all the famous paintings, too. So, to see one that’s just normal would be a treat.”
“I never said I was going to show it to you.”
“Are you really going to turn down the opportunity to get a pretty, helpless, crazy girl, into your bedroom?”
“Actually – yes. And, anyway, it isn’t in my bedroom.”
“I never said it was.”
“You’re crazy, you know.”
“As my mom tells it, that’s pretty much the first thing the doctor said, as soon as I was born. And people aren’t very original. So they’ve kept repeating that statement most of my life. So, I’m good with that. Now, where’s the painting I need to buy?”
“I never said I was going to sell it.”
“I never said you did. I just asked you where it was. And don’t bother repeating that I’m crazy. Let’s just take that as a given.”
“You’re dangerous! Anyway, here goes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though. It isn’t anything special.”
He took her to the library and showed her the painting. It was horizontal and rectangular – about four feet by two feet, in the frame. The frame itself was flat, dark wood, stained but not painted, and probably three inches wide. The horse occupied most of the canvas, although there seemed to be a suggestion of sunlight, in the background. The horse seemed to be at a gallop. It had no rider and seemed to be charging straight out of the canvas. But its head was not tilted. It was perfectly level and the expression in the eyes was a strange one – excited and happy and almost, one would say, loving. It was all black but for a white diamond on its forehead. There was no signature on the canvas.
“Good effort. When did you paint this?”
“I never said I painted it.”
“You just hang paintings done by random people in your library, then? Besides, nobody says a painting is just normal, unless they painted it themselves. When people buy stuff, they always try to make it look good. So, it is always expensive or rare or brilliant or something like that – never normal. Also, who would buy an unsigned painting?”
“Fine. I painted it when I was a teenager. I used to see this guy training this horse. And every time I watched my horse run, I thought he was running to me. I loved it! So I painted it. No big deal.”
“‘My horse?’ You owned it?”
“No, I just thought of it as my horse. I loved looking at it charge straight at me and then just slow down and stop. He had a trainer, of course, who had trained him to do exactly that. But I always believed he did it for me.”
“I’ll pay you five hundred Euros for it.”
“I never said I would sell it. Besides, five hundred Euros is just plain insulting. It could be a masterpiece, you know.”
“No, it couldn’t. It isn’t that great. It’s good. I like it. But it’s no masterpiece. For one thing, a person who paints a masterpiece uses more than one brush.”
“You weren’t there. How do you know how many brushes I used?”
She sighed. “Look, five hundred is my top offer. But I want that painting. I need it, actually.”
“So make a better offer.”
“I can’t. That’s all I can afford. But I need something original, like this, not all of the boring stuff that I can get for a hundred and fifty bucks. Put it in my car, please. Thanks.”
“I never said I would sell it.”
“Look. Don’t you understand? I can’t offer you any more.”
“So, you’re basically saying it isn’t worth five hundred and it isn’t a masterpiece. Why should I sell it to you when you are insulting me?”
“I’m just telling you the truth. It isn’t a masterpiece. Try to sell this to any gallery. They’ll just laugh at you. They won’t see what I see.”
“What do you see?”
“Originality. There’s emotion here, and a unique perspective. You aren’t looking at the horse. You’re seeing the horse looking at you. That’s very unusual. But your technique is horrible. Who uses just one brush, first of all? And look at your proportions. If that were a real horse, its backside would be ten times as long as its head.”
“I used just one brush because that’s all I had. I had a friend. I used to go to his house, all the time. He was into painting. One day, he gave me a brush and an easel and a set of paints. He pointed to a canvas and told me to paint whatever I wanted on it. And so I did. I painted the only thing I knew, the only thing I cared about. And the proportions, well, I was painting from memory and I was thinking about the horse coming at me, from a distance. When I was painting, the head seemed too large in proportion to the rest of the body so I tried to fix it.”
“Well, five hundred is all I can afford. Are you going to sell it to me or not? I’m not just an interior designer. I’m a really good one. I do things in a way that other’s can’t. And your horse is one way of doing things differently. So, you see, you need to sell it to me.”
“I can’t sell it to you at any price. You said nobody would buy a painting without a signature. I don’t have even a single brush or any paint or an easel. How am I going to sign it?”
“Fine. Here’s the five hundred,” she said, pulling out five bills, out of a huge stack of hundreds. “Put it in my car. Your name’s Akshar. I’ll just have someone paint your name on the canvas. No big deal.”
He took the five hundred and looked at the stack of hundreds. “You said you could only afford five hundred!” he said.
“I lied,” she said. “So sue me. A deal is a deal.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything yet,” he grumbled.
“Yes, you have.”
“I can’t lift and carry that thing on my own, anyway. Give me your address. I’ll have someone deliver it to you.” So she wrote down her address on the back of a receipt she found lying on the floor.
“Give me your phone,” she demanded, and punched in her number. “Call me if you need help with anything,” she said, and left.
And after that, he kept calling her and she kept going to see him. Every time he called, though, he never said when he wanted to see her. He always asked, “When can you come over?” And no matter what time she said, even if it was days later, he never complained. He liked that she made other people’s homes beautiful but he did not like the way she kept her own home. He thought it was a mess. And, though she never said anything, she understood how he felt. So, she always went to see him. Soon, they were more than just friends. And yet, neither of them, it seemed, wanted to get married. They were comfortable with each other but neither of them was even willing to move in with the other person. And yet, it was clear that the relationship was not only strong but a very close and loving relationship. And it continued that way for a few years. Life was good and everything was going well, he thought.
But he faced an unexpected problem. For the first few months, after he opened his shop, he simply sent a truck to the city to pick up his supplies and bring them to him, from the port. Soon, though, it occurred to him that there was an easier way. The people in the shanty-town were fishermen. Having them pick up his deliveries by boat instead of truck was not a big favour to ask. It took less time to bring in the stuff via boat, too, because the distance was much less than the distance by road. And so the fishermen used their boats to bring in his stuff, using the truck only the last kilometre or so, from the beach to his house. Generally, they brought in his supplies during the day but occasionally he had to wait until early evening when the boats returned from their fishing trips. And it was the night-deliveries that caused the problems.
He was not aware that anyone used the beach, other than the fishermen and, perhaps, some tourists. Sometimes, however, smugglers used the beach, late at night. Generally, the smugglers landed their boats far enough from the fishermen that nobody would ever notice or bother, if they did notice anything strange or unusual. But one day, completely by accident, the boat bringing in Bhai’s supplies and the smugglers’ boat saw each other. The smugglers allowed the fishermen to pass without incident.
The next day, however, Bhai received a visit. She was a young woman, well-dressed, soft-spoken, and, from her speech and mannerisms, well-educated. Only a person like herself would have noticed that the brands she wore were not simply fashionable and expensive but exclusive. There were certain designers who made homes, cars, clothes, watches, shoes, and the like, only when a client commissioned them to make something very specific. These were designers about whom you heard only if you knew one of them or someone who had commissioned one of them. They had no shops or websites or even business cards. Bhai, of course, noticed her attire immediately. And she saw that he did.
“Hi. I’m Kaajal.” And then, an instant later, she said, “You’re an observant man, and one with good taste.”
Bhai smiled, wryly. “Yes, we’ve just met and we’re practically kindred souls. Now, why are you here? You can pay for your purchases or not. You can keep them, either way.”
“You have the wrong impression, Bhai. We aren’t here to threaten you.” Bhai knew better than to ask what she meant by “we” and she knew that he knew that, so she continued. “Actually, we want your help. We smuggle things.”
“I’m no smuggler. I don’t want to break the law. And, anyway, I don’t need the money.”
“Yes, that’s why I’m not offering you any money. And I’m not asking you to help us smuggle anything. That isn’t to say that we cannot give you any amount of money that you may need.”
“Need it for what? You’re being very mysterious. Whatever it is, be honest with me. If I can help you, I will. I have no problem with twisting the law a little, here and there but I won’t smuggle heroin or guns or sex-slaves or anything like that.”
She laughed, a brief, tinkling laugh. “It is nothing so dramatic, Bhai. All we do is to smuggle in gold and diamonds and things like that. Granted, we get the stuff from some very unpleasant people but it is purely a business transaction. The things themselves are legal. It’s the sheer volume that makes them illegal. If we started to dump the precious stones and precious metals we smuggle in, on the open market, the prices for these things would collapse.”
“So you are like modern-day Robin Hoods, taking from the rich and giving to the poor.”
“We aren’t that naïve, Bhai. We buy these things from people who are, essentially, criminals, though they have never been charged with a crime in their lives. We pay them cash – nice, crisp, new currency bills from the bank – money that is not tainted in any way. And so, we make a tidy profit on each transaction. The problem is, we all want to retire, at some point.”
“Ah, yes. But how can I help?”
“As I told you, Bhai, we are not naïve. We know who you are. We know how you made Kamala disappear.”
Bhai was now very cautious. “I don’t know how you know about Kamala – not that I have made any secret about having a sister called Kamala. She passed away many years ago.”
“Did she? Don’t under-estimate us, Bhai. We know on which island she lives and the name of her husband and son.” She saw him go pale. “Don’t worry. As I said, we are not here to threaten you. Even if you turn down our offer, we won’t reveal anything about Kamala to anyone. And we aren’t going to hurt her or her family.”
“What do you want from me?” said Bhai, visibly shaken.
“Listen, when you made Kamala disappear, the people whom she could have affected were almost certain that she wasn’t dead. But they did not want to look for her. As long as she was gone and kept her secrets, they did not want to create any fuss themselves. So, they chose not to look. But we are different. We do not just work with celebrities and politicians. And prostitution, for us, is not even a side-business. It is too messy and it draws too much attention. We operate at a level so far above Kamala’s that you cannot even begin to imagine.”
“But if you are so rich and powerful why do you need me?”
“All rich and powerful people need someone like you when they want to disappear. There are many people who do that job and do it well. What makes you unusual is that you don’t need the money. If we hurt Kamala in any way, you would absolutely refuse to work for us or for anyone else. That isn’t what we want. We need your expertise. It is extremely valuable to us. We realize that there are no guarantees but your work with Kamala is impressive. We were able to find her only because we have extraordinary resources.”
“But you found her in one day! The incident with the fishing boat happened only yesterday.”
“No. We did not find her in one day. It took us three years to find her. And even then, tracing back the connection to you was not easy.”
“But why were you even looking for her? In the scheme of things, she is nothing. She is not a major criminal and neither is she someone famous or powerful. What interest could you have in her?”
“We neither had nor have any interest in her. We started to take an interest in you, soon after you bought your house here. The amount of money you spent, for no return, the way you forged relationships with people in the shanty-town, and, most of all, your complete absence of a past for five years, intrigued us. Finding Kamala was not easy – not even for us. And even so, it took us a while to be sure that she truly was Kamala and related to you – not biologically, to be sure, but that she was connected to you in any way.”
Bhai said nothing, for several minutes. She let him be. Finally, he said, “Well, what I did for Kamala was, as you say, extraordinary. And she is only one person. If several rich and powerful people start to disappear, all at once, people will ask questions.”
“Yes, we understand that. And so, we want you to make us disappear slowly. You can have any amount of money – a million, ten million, hundred million, a billion, ten billion – you name it. And that is for each one of us.”
“Ten billion Euros, per person?” Bhai had money but even he was shocked at the numbers.
“Let me ask you, Bhai: If you had eleven billion Euros and you had to pay ten billion Euros to save your life, would you do it?”
“Right. Obviously. Each of us has much more than eleven billion Euros.”
“Two things. First, I would have to disappear, myself. And I would need protection. I’m not just talking about bodyguards and armour-plated cars. I mean real protection. I need to be sure that none of the people I help will reveal who I am.”
“There’s always some risk in life, my friend. I cannot guarantee that. But it would make no sense for anyone you help to leak your identity because then you would reveal not only theirs but everyone else’s. So, everyone will protect you. It isn’t something that should really worry you at all.”
He nodded. “That makes sense.” He paused. “I need a favour. It’s time, really. Perhaps it sounds silly and romantic but it’s important. I’ve met a girl. I want to get married. We can start all of this after I get married. She will need to know what she is getting into before I marry her. It’s a risk. But it’s my life.”
“Not just your life. But I know what you mean. And I know the girl. And I think we can trust her. But remember this – we will not hurt you or Kamala. And that’s all I can guarantee.”
“So, if she refuses to marry me?”
“Just don’t tell her too much. We aren’t ruthless people. But we do protect ourselves.”
He took his time to think about the deal he had just made. Two days later, he called his girlfriend. “Sanjana, we need to talk.”
The seriousness of his tone frightened her. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No. This is, well, different. But we do need to talk. Can you come over – right now?”
He never asked her to drop everything and see him. It was one of the things she loved about him. That he would ask her now, puzzled her. He was serious but he did not want to end the relationship. But he gave no hint that he wanted to propose marriage to her either. And yet it was important.
He spoke again. “Listen, if you can’t see me right now, that’s OK. Some other time.” The tone was casual, even light. But she could feel the tension.
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” Sanjana had many clients, most of them very demanding. And they all paid very well. So she couldn’t very well afford to ignore any of them. Still, she had no staff and no set office hours. “So, I’ll fall behind by a day or two. And maybe one of them will fire me. It isn’t the end of the world,” Sanjana thought to herself as she drove to Bhai’s house.
He smiled broadly when he saw her. It reassured Sanjana more than anything else in the world. All was well. “Sanjana, I’m so glad you could come!” The relief on his face was obvious. He hugged her and kissed her, as always, but with a little more intensity than she had ever seen in him.
They talked of unimportant things for a little while. Then he said, “It’s lunchtime. What do you want to eat?”
“Never mind lunch. I can tell you’re tense. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“Well, it’s like this,” he started. And then, over the next three hours, they discussed, in great depth, what he planned to do.
She surprised him, in the end. “Of course, I had no idea you would do this, specifically. But I knew that you would do something, eventually. Just having drinks and spending money – even to help others – that just isn’t you.”
“You’re right, Sanjana. And I know that this is a terribly unromantic way to do it, but – Will you marry me?”
Her heart was thumping and she couldn’t breathe. So he did mean to propose to her, after all, when he called her. But he had to know, first, how she felt, not just about him, but about what he planned to do. She knew that if she said “No” the house would be empty the next morning and he would be gone and would never return. But then again she knew from what he told her that living with him would be dangerous – extremely dangerous. And, even though he never demanded it, she knew she would have to quit her career.
“Yes,” she said, clearly and as firmly as she could. There was a little quaver in her voice. But that was emotion, not uncertainty. And she knew that he knew that, just as she knew he would never ask her if she were sure.
They had a big wedding. But they did not have it at a hotel. The residents of the shanty-town cleared the beach. There was live music and dancing and plenty of food. Even the weather cooperated. It was a bright, sunny day, with a slight breeze but never a strong wind.
Exactly nine months later, Sanjana gave birth – to twins, a boy and a girl. They named the boy Anjan, for his black hair and the girl, of course, they named Padma which, like Kamala, meant lotus. But even with events moving very quickly and in a very unexpected way, Bhai had not forgotten his promise to his Didi – that she would meet his wife and children. However, they made the trip in great secrecy. Since Kaajal and her friends already knew about Kamala, anyway, Bhai used their help to travel. It was also a kind of a test. Bhai did not tell them where to go, exactly – just to take him to Kamala. Bhai, Sanjana, and their children, arrived at Kamala’s home just a week before Bhai’s and Sanjana’s first wedding anniversary.
Kamala squealed when she saw them. “Bhai! You’re back! You said you would be back, and you are! You’re amazing!” She completely ignored Sanjana, who was a little taken aback at the meeting between Bhai and Kamala. She knew they were close but she also knew that they were not really brother and sister. So, she was just a little jealous.
Bhai noticed it immediately. “Remember the promise, Didi. You have to hug both of my kids and kiss Sanjana on both cheeks.”
Kamala realized that Bhai was gently scolding her and blushed. But then, she immediately hugged Sanjana and kissed her on both cheeks. “I’m so happy to see you, Sanjana. You have no idea. I just wish I had known….” She did not finish the sentence because she knew why Bhai had not informed her of their arrival. And that made her sad. But Kamala could not long be sad. Soon, she was hugging both of the babies and playing with them.
“Padma! A lotus, like me! How cute! And Anjan, dark and mysterious, like Bhai. Did you choose the names, Sanjana?”
“Well, I chose Anjan’s name and Akshar chose Padma’s name,” she said, with a smile. “I knew he would want to name any girl after you.”
“You call him Akshar?” asked Kamala. “Everyone calls him Bhai.”
“I don’t think I want to call my husband Bhai, if that’s OK with you, Didi,” said Sanjana, giggling.
“So, I’m just Didi and he gets to be Akshar!” said Kamala, pouting. “That isn’t fair!” She was really angry.
“I wouldn’t have been Bhai or Akshar or anything else without you, Didi,” he said gently and with all of the love in his heart.
“That isn’t what I meant,” she snapped. And then she wept. She held him and she wept like a child. “You went away for years! And even though you promised, I thought you would never come back. And now you’re here and going back tomorrow, right?”
“So, that’s what is bothering her,” he thought. Aloud, he said, “No, Didi, we aren’t returning tomorrow. We’ll stay here until you throw us out,” he said with a grin.
“Seriously? How long are you staying?”
He looked at her. He had meant to stay a few days, perhaps a week. But he knew now that was impossible. He would have to stay longer. He had returned, partly to keep his promise but partly also because he missed her. And the most important reason was that he did not know if he would ever be able to see her again. He could not reveal his plans to her. So, he did not give her a clear answer. “I really haven’t given it any thought, Didi,” he said.
But she was amazingly perspective. “You probably meant to stay a week, at the most. And now that you see me all excited and crying, you think you should stay longer. That’s fine. You may not have given it any thought, but I have, for years and years. You’re going to stay for at least two months. So, that’s settled,” she said happily.
Two months! He and Sanjana looked at each other discreetly.
“You can look at each other all you like. I gave you a chance to state your limit and you did not take it,” said Kamala, a little bossily, but with love.
They ended up staying three months, not two. Kamala already had a child of her own but she had been able to have only one. And her child was a boy. She enjoyed playing with both, Anjan and Padma, but especially with Padma, as she was able to dress her up and treat her like a little princess – something she could not do with her son.
Finally, Bhai decided it was too dangerous, for Kamala’s own safety, to stay any longer. “Didi, we must leave now,” he told her one morning.
“Yes, I know,” she said quietly. “And I know why. And I know you aren’t going to make any promises, this time. But stay safe. And do try to come back. I don’t know what you are going to do but I know it is probably something illegal. You’re a big boy, now, so I won’t give you much advice. But, if you need me, I’m here, no matter what. OK?”
“Are you happy, Didi? All of your dreams have come true. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so proud of you! You’ve achieved so much!”
“Yes, all of my dreams have come true, Bhai. And I’m happy – happier than I ever imagined I would be. And it’s all because of you. None of this would have happened without you.” There was one more thing she wanted to say but left it unspoken.
Bhai said it for her. “And so you have one more dream – that we will all live together as one big, happy family, one day. It’s a big dream, Didi. And I hope and wish it comes true, also.” After a little silence, he said, simply, “I miss you.” He did not know himself how much those words meant but his Didi did.
They said their goodbyes at night. Everyone knew there would be no formal leave-taking. When Kamala woke up in the morning, Bhai and his family had vanished.
Bhai could see no visible or obvious changes when he drove up to his house. And yet, he could feel a difference in the atmosphere. There was a certain tension in the air. It was too silent, even though it was still just four in the morning. He had barely opened the door to get out, when someone put a hand over his wrist with a grip of iron. It did not scare him. He recognized the grip immediately. It was Gabriel. How Gabriel had simply materialized at his door, he did not know. But he realized that it must be something very important.
“Bhai,” said Gabriel urgently, not whispering but keeping his voice low, all the same. “There is someone in your house. More than one person. Do you know them? If you don’t it’s OK. I’m not the only one here. And we all have guns – more than one each.”
“When did these people arrive? And how many of them are there?” asked Bhai. Sanjana remained in the car, with the kids, while he talked, sensing that something was wrong.
“They’ve been there about a week,” but they haven’t destroyed anything or threatened anyone. So, we left them alone, thinking they might be your guests.”
“Well, they could be guests, in fact,” said Bhai, “but they are unannounced guests. How many are in the house? How many men do you have?”
“We don’t know how many are in the house. We’ve never seen more than one but that doesn’t mean anything. There are just a dozen of us here, right now, but we could signal for a hundred more, and they would be here in minutes.”
“If these people are unfriendly, minutes will be too long. So it’s going to be just us, for now.”
Gabriel handed him a gun. Bhai handed it back. “I want my hands free. If a dozen armed men can’t help me, a gun in my hand isn’t going to help.”
Silently, and cautiously, Gabriel and Bhai they walked up to the front door. The others stood back, ready to rush in but remaining invisible until then. Bhai listened. There was no sound. Of course, that didn’t mean anything. Trained soldiers would know to remain quiet. Slowly, he opened the door. They walked very carefully into the living room. A beautiful young woman sat on the sofa, looking straight at him.
“Kaajal! What are you doing here? I could have killed you!” Bhai did not signal Gabriel to lower his gun, and it remained aimed menacingly at Kaajal’s chest. He could hardly miss.
“Calm down. Keep the gun aimed at me if you like, but calm down.”
“What’s happening?” he asked, puzzled.
“We have a deal, remember? We did not bother you. But certain unexpected events have happened and we need your help.” Bhai continued to look at her with suspicion but in a protective way. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m safe. And so are you.” Something about the way she spoke reassured him and calmed him. “Walk through the house, if you like. But, first come with me.”
Gabriel, Bhai, and Kaajal, all walked together, to one of the bedrooms in the basement. There, they saw a man, about sixty years old, dressed in pajamas yet looking elegant. He also looked frightened and tired. “Bhai, this is Mr. Brown. That’s his real name, in case you’re wondering. As you can see, he’s had quite a scare. He’s been recovering at your home a week, as you know, and he’s still not completely over it. Luckily for us, you had medical supplies in your little shop and so we were able to take care of him fairly well.”
“Why did you need medical supplies?”
“You tell him, Mr. Brown.”
Mr. Brown looked at Gabriel. “I cannot do everything on my own, Mr. Brown. Nobody else knows the details of what I do but I do need to trust a few people to do certain basic things.”
Mr. Brown nodded immediately. “Yes, of course. Well, then, to put it briefly, my car was blown up, my wife and children were nearly kidnapped, and I had to fight my way through half a dozen men with guns and knives.”
“Don’t under-estimate Mr. Brown. Ten armed men may have been a challenge but not six,” said Kaajal, quietly.
“Not ten men like you, of course,” said Mr. Brown, with a hint of humour in his eyes. Mr. Brown was six foot two, with a lean build and a wide but wiry frame that hid his muscles well. But Bhai towered over him, being six inches taller. And though Bhai’s body was more compact than Mr. Brown’s, there was no doubt about his strength. Bhai’s muscles did not bulge, but they rippled when he moved. The effect was hypnotic. Looking at Bhai move was like watching a snake just before it struck.
“We aren’t here to exchange compliments,” said Bhai brusquely. “What happened. Where is your family? And how did you get here?”
“My family,” said Mr. Brown, “is relatively safe – for now. But that won’t last forever. We have to make some arrangements for them. As for myself, I got here because I had planned to get here. We have always known that something like this could happen and each of us has his or her own contingency plan. Both of my children are in their late teens, so they can take care of themselves. Each of them went to a separate location. My wife went to a third location. None of them know where the others are. Even I don’t know where they are. And nobody knows where I am for the very good reason that I did not know where I was going until Kaajal brought me here. And even now, I don’t know where, exactly, I am.”
“So Kaajal was part of your contingency plan. What if she had been somewhere else?”
“We make our contingency plans very carefully,” said Mr. Brown, quietly, “and there is always a Plan B.”
“Well, in any case, here we are,” said Kaajal.
“Yes, indeed. I thought I had years to make preparations,” he said looking accusingly at Kaajal.
“Life happens,” said Kaajal simply. “Will you help us?”
“Yes, of course,” said Bhai sharply. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap,” he said immediately.
“What do you need?” asked Kaajal, ignoring the apology.
“You’re prepared, already?” said Kaajal, shocked.
“Well, yes and no. I wasn’t prepared for this, exactly. But, as you recall, I have done this before. And, as you said, I had a Plan B – several Plan B’s actually. I have over fifty fake passports and houses in several countries.” He then turned to Mr. Brown, and said, “I assume you have some way of contacting your wife and children. Whatever it is, I don’t want to know. Just tell them to pick up their passports. There will be enough money in the envelope containing each passport to buy first-class airplane tickets and pay for hotels, food, and so on, until they get to their destination.”
“First class?” asked Mr. Brown. “Won’t that draw too much attention to them? And why not charter or buy a plane? Why travel by a commercial airline?”
“First class is smaller and easier to control, from a security stand-point,” responded Bhai. “And, since everyone travels by a commercial airline, that will draw much less attention that chartering or buying a plane at the last minute. Also, keep in mind that the passports are fake. Each of your family members will need to make some changes to their appearance to match the photos that are already there. Customs and immigration won’t ask too many questions – just for this one trip. This is the first time anyone will have used these passports. And though they are fake, they aren’t forged. In a sense, you could say that the passports are real but the people carrying them are fake. So, they won’t ring any bells right away. But once you are safe in your new location, you must burn them.”
“You have stolen passports? Those will ring a bell right away.”
“No, they aren’t stolen. Let’s just say that the true owners of these passports are my friends.” The truth was, before he left Candil, he knew several wealthy criminals who had wanted to flee the country. They had applied for passports quietly – or so they believed – and had been betrayed. Unfortunately for them, their enemies had found them and made sure that they departed the world before they could depart the country. All Bhai had done was to steal their passports after their deaths. These people had never traveled in their lives and had no criminal records. “This is a one-time deal. I cannot do it this way, ever again. But I said I would help and so I am helping.”
“How will we know that we have reached our destination?”
“Each of you will end up in the same hotel. But you will be in different rooms, on different floors, under different names. You are to remain in your rooms until you get the signal to go to a certain place at a certain time. It will be a very public place, but quiet and fairly empty, like a library or a museum. You will see each other immediately. Once you meet each other, you – and only you – will call a taxi at a number that I will give you. As soon as you make the call you will throw away the phone.”
“And where will the taxi take us?”
“You will go to a home that is not as magnificent as you are used to. You need to blend in, not stand out. It will be the kind of home that an average person can afford. I don’t have the time to create fake jobs or businesses for you. But what I will do is to make sure that each of you will have enough money, in local currency, to last you about six months if you spend it carefully. After that, you are on your own.”
“Fair enough. And you?”
“What about me?”
“What’s your fee for all this?”
He looked at Kaajal. “I see. She didn’t tell you. I really don’t need the money. But, if you want to make it easier for me, next time, repay my expenses – the air-tickets, the cash, the cost of the house, that sort of thing.”
“That’s it? For saving my life and the lives of my family? You have no idea who I am, do you?” He looked suspicious. He looked at Kaajal. She shook her head a fraction of an inch. He still looked incredulous.
“Well, when we first talked, Kaajal said each of you could pay me ten billion Euros to disappear. If it makes you feel better, I’ll take that.”
Mr. Brown roared with laughter. “From nothing to ten billion? Quite a jump that! Well, well, you can have it and no hard feelings!”
“But only if you want to pay,” said Bhai. “Really, I don’t need it.”
“That’s what you think, now. But think about it, Bhai, you may need to disappear yourself, one day. And then it will be good to have all that money.”
“Perhaps,” said Bhai, gloomily, thinking of his Didi, whom he would probably never see again, despite all the money he had, already.
And so it was done. It took a few days but Mr. Brown and his family vanished as if they had never been born. But that wasn’t the end of it. Though Mr. Brown’s enemies never traced him to Bhai’s house, they did find Kaajal.
Seven burly men against one small woman – they never thought they could lose. Even if she did have a gun, they reasoned, she couldn’t possibly shoot all seven of them before at least one or two of them got to her. And the idea was to corner her so she couldn’t go for her gun. So they went after her unarmed. That was a mistake they would soon regret.
The plan would have worked too, had Kaajal not been able to move like a cat. She lived in a single-level home. They managed to break in, without tripping the alarm. And they made their way to her bedroom. As soon as they turned the handle on her bedroom door, she came awake and she picked up her car keys that always lay by her bedside and smashed the window as she jumped through it. The window was just large enough for her to go through but the men were too wide to fit. By the time they ran out the front door, she was already in the car and starting the engine. And, unknown to the men, she always kept a gun and several clips of ammunition in the car. But though she had a gun, she did not know what types of weapons they had and so she chose to run. But, even though she was virtually flying down the road seconds before they did, she could not shake them.
In her panic, Kaajal automatically raced to Bhai’s house. At the last moment, though, she realized that endangering Bhai would not help her. And so, she drove all the way to the end of the road and on to the beach, toward the shanty-town. She never got there. She was in a sports-car and her pursuers were in an SUV. There were seven of them. She had nowhere to run. And they did not give her time enough to grab her gun. But she put up a fight.
It was not very late at night, just an hour after sunset, and very close to the shanty-town. So, Gabriel, who always wandered on the beach, heard her cries. Quickly, he called Bhai on the phone. And then, he got into the SUV and took off in it to get his friends. When he got back, there were over a dozen of them – some in the car and some on the roof. And then there was Bhai, looming over all of them.
The fishermen were tough, but they were not trained fighters. Fourteen or fifteen of them against seven men trained in hand-to-hand combat would not have won, in the end, without Bhai. His height, speed, weight, and training, made all the difference. And the seven attackers were well aware that Bhai should be the main target. And so Bhai took a great deal of punishment. Despite his fearsome attack he was, after all just one man. Seeing how the fight was going, Kaajal went back to her car and took out her gun. She fired four shots in quick succession. The blasts terrified the fishermen and even her attackers. Her attackers were thugs but not killers. Their job had been simply to put her in a car and deliver her to a certain location. They were not ready to die. And so, everyone ran, in different directions. Kaajal was tough but she could not lift a man like Bhai off the ground on her own. She saw that Bhai was safe. And so, she got into her car to bring him help as soon as she could. But she would not return in time.
An eight-year-old girl, called Avani, was wandering around on the beach. Her parents didn’t care. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was a drug-addict. Somehow, they survived, bringing in just enough fish to sell so that they made enough money to buy the food they needed, every day, but that was all. And sometimes, they spent the money meant for the food, on alcohol or on drugs. Often enough, therefore, Avani did not get any food at all or not enough to satisfy her hunger. As a result, she stayed out of the house as long as she could. And so, when Avani heard all of the commotion, she decided to go see what was happening. The fight was long over and everyone had already gone, by the time she got there. And it was dark. She was looking ahead of her, hoping to see the fight. It never occurred to her to look down. So, she tripped over what she thought, at first, was a large log. But she fell right on top of it and it didn’t hurt, like wood. And so, curious, she looked more closely. It wasn’t a log of wood. It was a man. And he seemed dead. She had seen plenty of dead bodies, in her young life, so it did not scare her just to see a dead body. What scared her was that it spoke.
“Help me,” said Bhai.
“You aren’t dead?” she asked, just to be sure.
“No, but I need help.”
“You’re too big for me to pick up. Can you stand up on your own?” she asked.
“I thinks so,” he said, slowly, hurting in every part of his body. But he stood up. And she put her arm around his waist and, somehow, propped him up. She was drenched in sweat by the time they walked the kilometre to his home. But, finally, they got there. As soon as they walked through the gate, Kaajal’s men appeared.
They had raced to the beach as soon as Kaajal told them what happened. But they were all far from the beach when they got the call. By the time they got there, Avani and Bhai had almost reached his house. Some of Kaajal’s men were checking the house to make sure he wasn’t there when they saw Bhai walk in the gate, leaning on Avani. Immediately, they went to help.
“She’s my guest,” Bhai mumbled. “She helped me. Take care of her.” And then he collapsed. Some of the men carried him in and laid him on his bed. The rest, unsure what to do with Avani, told her to sleep in one of the other bedrooms. Though they were kind to her, they made it clear to her that leaving the house was not an option – at least not until Bhai woke up and explained who she was and why he had been with her.
Sanjana, of course, was somewhat gentler. She made inquiries in the shanty-town and quickly found out who Avani was. She got Avani’s clothes, from her parents and laid them on a chair, along with a bath-towel so that Avani could wear fresh clothes when she woke up, next morning.
Being a young girl and very exhausted by the evening’s adventures, however, Avani slept late. It gave Sanjana time to go to the store and buy her some really decent clothes. She had no idea what would happen to the little girl, once she left but new clothes certainly couldn’t hurt! Avani, however, was not to leave, really, for years to come.
The next day, when Avani finally woke up, it was nearly 11:00 a.m. She had never slept in a bed as big and soft as the one she had, the previous night. And nobody disturbed her. Besides, the house had air-conditioning! It was like heaven. The shower had hot and cold water and there was even a bathtub. The little girl soaked herself in the bathtub for an hour, waiting for someone to yell at her and tell her to get dressed. But nobody did. And then, when she dried herself, she saw the prettiest little dress she had ever seen – the kind that the rich girls wore. Her old clothes were gone. So, she had no choice but to put on the new ones. That made her a little nervous. She hoped she wasn’t stealing some other little girl’s clothes. But they were pretty. And, besides, she really had nothing else to wear. So she put them on and went downstairs.
“Avani! I am so glad to see you are awake. You look really pretty!” said Sanjana. “Are you hungry?”
Until Sanjana mentioned hunger, Avani had not really given it any thought. But, suddenly, she realized she was very hungry. But then, in her home, she was often hungry and nobody offered her any food. She ate whatever food she could find in the house. Usually, it was enough. But here was a pretty lady offering her food. Avani decided to take advantage of it.
“Yes,” said Avani, still shy, despite her decision to take advantage of Sanjana.
“What do you want to eat?”
“You mean I get to choose?”
“Yes, of course,” said Sanjana smiling.
“Anything? Even if it’s expensive? Like chocolate milk? And waffles with honey? And ….”
Sanjana knew the little girl would go on and on if she let her. So she said, quickly, “Yes. Anything!”
And so she ate. Sanjana, even though she saw it with her own eyes, could not believe that one little girl could eat so much! She ate the waffles, drank the chocolate milk, asked for eggs and toast, and then she had a big glass of orange juice, and an apple, and a fairly large bunch of grapes.
“Ooh! I’m so full my tummy hurts!” Avani said, finally, at the point where Sanjana thought she would explode if she ate any more. Quickly, and without any sense of dignity, Avani ran to the restroom. When Avani came back she was pleased and had a happy smile on her face. “You’re the best!” she told Sanjana, and hugged her.
“Thanks, Avani. Do you need anything else?”
“Can I keep the clothes I am wearing?”
“Yes, of course. I got them for you. And there’s lots more, too.”
“Like these?” Avani asked, shocked but pleased.
“Yes. Now, there’s one little favour I need from you.” As soon as Sanjana said those words, an expression of sheer terror appeared on Avani’s face. “Don’t worry,” said Sanjana, not realizing that when someone asked Avani for a favour, it generally meant that she had to leave the house and risk getting beaten up, on the streets. “Nobody’s going to hurt you or yell at you. Remember the man from last night? The one with whom you walked over here?”
“The giant?” asked Avani.
“Yes, the giant,” said Sanjana, laughing, because even she thought of her husband as a giant. “But he’s a good giant. He just wants to talk to you and to ask you some questions.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No, you aren’t. He just wants to talk to you. Would you feel better if I went with you?”
“I’m not a baby!” she flashed, immediately. “I can take care of myself!” And then she softened, a little, as she realized how good Sanjana had been to her, all day. “Besides,” she said, “he’s so big,” sizing up Sanjana, who stood about a foot shorter than her husband, “you couldn’t help much, anyway. Nobody could.”
Sanjana giggled. “Don’t worry. He won’t hurt you.”
And so Avani went into Bhai’s study, to talk to him, on her own terms. In her heart, she was terrified, but she knew too, in her heart, that she had to face him alone.
“Hi, Avani,” said Bhai, with a friendly smile. There was so much gentleness and affection in the smile that much of Avani’s terror dissipated right away. Still, she was careful to stay out of arm’s reach and to remain standing (so she could run) while he remained seated.
“Sit down,” he said, “and make yourself comfortable.” She shook her head, too afraid to say anything. Bhai sensed her fear. “Fine,” he said, “you can stand. But I’m very tired. Do you mind if I keep sitting in my chair?” She looked straight at him but said nothing. Yet, the relief on her face was obvious. “First, I want to thank you for saving my life. Without you, I doubt that I would have survived. So, what can I do for you?”
More than anything else in the world, Avani wanted to get out of the horrible environment in which she lived. Every day she woke up, she wished she were elsewhere. Every night when she went back home, she wished she could be in a nicer place. Although nobody had seriously hurt her, she hated the place and was terrified of it. So, she said the first thing that came into her mind, “Get us out of here and into a nice house!”
“That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. You’re an intelligent girl. OK. It is done. But what do you think will happen if you move into a nice house?”
“My mom and dad won’t be high all the time, and we’ll have plenty to eat and I’ll have good clothes, like the rich girls have, and I’ll be able to go to school and everything will be perfect!” said Avani happily.
Bhai looked at her seriously. There was so much hope in her, so much potential. True, her expectations were unrealistic. But she was still a child. And, perhaps, he could let her remain a child and enjoy her childhood, from this moment. “I don’t know if everything will be perfect, Avani, but you will be in a nice house, before the day ends, and you will certainly go to school and have plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear.”
And from that moment, Bhai adopted Avani just as his Didi had adopted him.