ibiji, it is all kismat. What we were fated to have, we got; and what is in their destiny, they will get.’ Master Gyanchand was talking to me but the sewing machine did not stop. He would keep up the talking but the machine’s whirring was steady, and the cloth raced out from under the needle at top speed. Master Gyanchand may be sad, and full of woes, and talk nineteen to the dozen, but the tempo of his hands never slackened. The machine hummed all the time, neither faltering nor slowing down. 2 Master Gyanchand worked at a tailor’s shop in Patel Nagar. On Sunday, when the shop was closed, he would come over to our house to stitch clothes for a day’s remuneration. He would settle down at the same spot in our house, and begin tuning the machine. The way a musician tunes his instrument! He would bend his knee slightly and drink his tea, or lassi, sitting right there. And then, he would stretch out his leg and adjust it to the machine. Neither wasting a minute, nor resting a minute. Whenever I sat with him, he would tell me about his village, his father and grandfather’s tailoring skills, of his own family and children. Forty rupees for a day, and five frocks for forty rupees! Had I got them stitched at a shop, I would have had to pay fifteen rupees for each frock.

The darkness outside was dense and impenetrable. Only the howling of dogs ripped across the dark shroud of the night.

I was unable to sleep.

Ever since my brother Kewal was murdered, sleep had eluded both of us—me and my mother, who was numb with grief. But we both pretended that we were sleeping, so that the other should keep her eyes closed. Sleep sometimes quietly slips into closed eyes, they say.

They think my brother was killed by extremists and terrorists. I have no idea. He had never hurt anybody. Why should anyone kill him?

Actually it was difficult to say who murdered him. Extremists, terrorists, or anybody else. How long does it take to kill a human being anyway?

It takes months for a human form to take shape in the mother’s womb. It then takes years to bring him up. The longest any living being takes to grow up is the human child. And then, just one metal bullet piercing the body, and everything is over in a fraction of a second. Like a full-blown balloon pierced with the tip of a pin.

After all a human being is a fragile thing walking on two legs, breathing, with his heart beating rhythmically inside the rib cage. Just pierce him with one bullet, and the blood spurts out. What is left is a dead body. Just a handful of dust!

Everybody waits impatiently to take the body to the crematorium. ‘It is just mitti, a handful of dust. Send it to its destination. Why delay?’—that’s what everybody says.

It happened just four weeks ago. But I feel as if centuries have gone by.

When the sparrows start singing heralding the morning, I don’t feel like getting up. How can they go on singing like that? I wonder. Don’t they know?

Both mother and myself like to continue with the pretence of sleeping. Getting up forces you into a meaningless routine. We don’t feel like cooking, but I force myself to cook so that my mother pushes a morsel or two down her throat. She too does the same, to make me eat.

Each one of us pretends to eat so that the other eats too.

I keep wondering who the killers were. It is quite possible that Sarla’s brothers killed him. They had threatened to. Not once but many times.

Sarla? Didn’t I tell you my brother was in love with her? She was his classmate in college in the city where he was studying. Sarla’s parents and brothers were convinced that Kewal had no right to be friendly with their Brahmin daughter.

Yes, they are Brahmins and Kewal was from a low-caste Kamboh family.

I could never understand how Kambohs were low-caste, simply because their traditional occupation used to be dyeing clothes. How can the people who make ordinary, drab-looking clothes come alive with rainbow colours, be low-caste?

For that matter, how can people who create beauty by weaving cloth, by dyeing it, by stitching it, by transforming hard foul-smelling dead hides into beautiful footwear and bags, by moulding ordinary clay into beautiful pots and pans, be low-caste?

Our forefathers were dyers. But my grandfather had departed from the traditional occupation; he studied hard to become a school teacher.

And my father was an employee in the postal department. He was very keen to give both Kewal and me a good education. He always told us, “Nobody is born high or low. All these divisions of caste and religion are man-made. They might have been useful at a certain point of time, but they have lost their relevance today. It is only one’s deeds and achievements and human values which make one high or low.”

When I told this to my friends, they smiled condescendingly. And my classmates, who were outside our intimate circle, didn’t hesitate to say openly, “All the low-caste people say that. They just try to fool themselves. But they can’t fool the others.”

Anyway these things never bothered me. Life was so full and satisfying because of the books, warm relationships, and all the newly-discovered secrets of life that I never wasted my thoughts or time on such irrelevant things.

My father was the best father in the world; my mother was affectionate and warm; my brother and I were on the same wavelength; and I was lucky that I was studying in high school. That was enough for me.

But ever since Kewal has been murdered, strange thoughts keep buzzing in my head. They keep coming to my mind inadvertently. And they don’t occur to me in any clear sequence. They are even vague and out of focus. They just keep buzzing inside my skull which seems hollow after so much crying. I can’t cry any more.

Our father told us once that one of our forefathers used to dye Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s turbans. The Maharaja was so pleased with their vibrant colours that he gave our ancestor a large jageer, a few acres of land.

The Maharajs said, “You are a great artist. Because of your art, I wear your turban so elegantly!”

Because of the gifted lands, the following generations drifted into farming. But the family kept multiplying and the land kept getting divided. My uncles still farmed their land, while my grandfather gave his fields to a sharecropper. That sharecropper’s family cultivated our lands and gave us our fair share of wheat, rice, lentils and vegetables, which was a great help of course because my father’s salary was not enough to see us through school and then college.

I was in the final year of school when our father passed away. Kewal was still in first year of B.A. He wanted to give up his studies and take up a job but my mother said, “No, you must fulfil your father’s dream.” So he continued.

Since I had nothing to do after school, I just waited for Kewal every evening. When he came home, he taught me whatever he had learnt during the day.

We were very close to each other.

And now he is no more. Gone! My life is a yawning abyss, and so is my mother’s.

Why do people have to go on living even after they lose the will and desire to do so?

That night I had a strange premonition that a horrible danger was hovering over my head! Was lurking in the dark corners of the house!

These days I often get this feeling. A strange, nameless fear grips me. Two bloodthirsty eyes of a carnivorous animal glare at me through the darkness around.

What sort of danger can it be? Danger was a living, pulsating presence while Kewal was alive.

Those were the dark days in not only our village, but in the whole of Punjab. Some extremist groups had started creating unrest. They said, “We need a separate homeland!”

I can never understand these conflicts for homelands! Home is where the heart is! And everybody’s heart is in the home one lives in! In whichever land! It is only politicians who instigate people to fight. In the end, the politicians get their chairs, and ordinary people die in the streets!

Every morning, both my mother and I struggled with the lumps in our throats when he left for college in the city nearby. It was only when he came home safe in the evening that the lumps dissolved.

But now that Kewal is gone, what sort of danger can threaten us? It has lost all its horror and relevance for us. There is no greater danger than death, and death has already visited this house.

Hearing the howling of dogs in the distance, I felt as if they were lamenting for us.

I got up and walked on my toes through the three rooms of the house. I got down on my knees, and peered under the cots. Only the shadows of the cots were discernible in the faint light of the one diya flickering in front of Kewal’s portrait.

These shadows had a sinister presence, and I felt they were threatening to pounce on me. I felt terrified, though the refrain: “What danger? There can’t be any more dangers. They have already killed Kewal. What else can happen?” kept humming in my head.

I came to the back of the house and stepped into the courtyard. In a corner, from the water-tap, a drop of water kept falling at regular intervals on the cemented patch where we clean the utensils and wash our clothes. In the eerie silence of night, even a tiny drop of water can sound deafening.

Darkness can produce its own sinister horrors. The brass pitcher lying in a corner looked like a man sitting on his haunches, with his head between his knees. Someone could be hiding in the bucket even, or under the haystack, or behind the pile of firewood.

At the far end of the courtyard, near the back door which opens on to the back street, there is a small room in which we keep all the useless stuff, and also the wheat and potatoes and onions that our sharecroppers give us after every harvest. There are a number of old boxes too in which quilts and durries and khes are stuffed, and also lots of old clothes which nobody ever uses.

I hated these old, colourless wooden and tin boxes because they smelt of bygone ages and dead ancestors. But at this unearthly hour, during which people slept and grappled with their nightmares, and dogs kept a vigil and wailed, a few grief-torn people, like my mother and I, wandered like lost souls in the twilight zone between life and death, between sleep and wakefulness. People like us are neither alive nor dead, because both life and death are decisive, and all decisiveness had deserted us.

We were not even waiting, the way all sad people wait: for a better tomorrow, for the wheel of fate to turn, for a ray of bright sunshine to enter our lives! For us, everything was over.

Without thinking, I pushed open the door of this back room and peered into it. It was dark. I switched on the light. A zero-power bulb came to life. I was a bit surprised because I was almost sure that the bulb would have fused long ago. Nobody ever came to this room at night, except when some unexpected guests dropped in and we needed extra bedding. It was ages since anyone came to stay with us, especially after my father’s death.

Moving listlessly in the room I was thinking of all these guestless years, when all of a sudden….I got a rude shock which was like touching a naked electric wire.

I saw his eyes. They looked like the eyes of a wounded deer whose neck is caught in the powerful jaws of a tiger. Both death and fear of death seemed to be frozen in those eyes.

After the first rude shock, I realised that his eyes reflected pure innocence and intense fear.

I tried to relate those eyes to his face, which looked tense with terror. Even his short curly beard was trembling with fear.

He was terrified of me! And I was afraid of him.

Both of us stood still.

I felt my legs shaking under me. Who was he? How did he enter our house? What was he doing here? What did he want from us? Did he want to kill us? The way the others had killed Kewal!

And then I realised that he was clutching his leg with both hands. Blood was oozing out of a small, red, raw wound.

He whimpered,

“Water…!”

He was wounded and was begging for water. These were the only two things that my mind registered clearly. Nothing else mattered.

I went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of water. My hand was probably shaking when he almost snatched the glass from me.

Was I still afraid of him? I don’t know.

Perhaps I was, even though I knew that he was at my mercy.

He gulped the water down in one go. I could hear the sound of gurgling in his throat. He emptied the glass and stretched his hand towards me.

I again went to the kitchen, refilled it, and took it back to him. This time he drank slowly, and kept the half-emptied glass beside him.

He looked at me. Now he was a little relaxed. The naked terror in his eyes had receded, giving way to a dark emptiness.

A few purple dots of anger seemed to be floating in those two black pools of silence. But the anger was evidently not for me. He was angry at his own helplessness, at the open wound from which blood was still flowing.

“Don’t be afraid, sister. Rest assured I’ll go away silently as soon as I can.”

He spoke, and the mountain of ice between us began to thaw. The lump of terror in my throat also softened. The throbbing fear in my ribs subsided.

I again went to the kitchen and filled a glass of milk from the earthen pot that my mother always kept on the slowly dying embers and hot ashes of dung cakes, throughout the night. He sipped it slowly, looked at me softly, and said, “Do you have a piece of cloth to tie this wound with?”

I opened an old wooden box, took out Ma’s old dupatta and handed it over to him. He wrapped it around the wound and tried to tie the edges into a knot.

His hands were shaking. I sat beside him, caught hold of the edges and tied them into a double knot.

“It’s a bullet wound,” he said softly.

“Bullet?” I shuddered.

“Yes, bullet. Those police dogs…”

“Police?” I was in the grip of fear once again.

“No, don’t misunderstand me, please. I am not a thief. Nor a smuggler. I…”

“An extremist?” I tried to keep my voice from shaking, but the effort was beyond me.

“Extremist? Is it some kind of extraordinary species of mankind, bibi?” he smiled.

Suddenly his face contorted, his teeth clenched, and his jaws jammed. I could see anguish in his eyes. He clutched his leg, just above the wound, and doubled up over it.

I was feeling helpless.

“Go and sleep, bibi. Let the pain subside a little, and I’ll leave.”

“You won’t go anywhere.” I suddenly felt responsible for him. I almost ordered him, “You are not going to leave in this condition.”

I got up, locked the room from outside, came back to my cot and lay down.

I was acutely aware of all the sounds coming from the street. The night rumbled on, moving slowly like a frightened black cat on its padded paws.

After a long, long time the day dawned. Almost terrified by the daylight that would soon crawl in, I got up and rushed to the backyard. I filled a small lota with water and unlocked his room. I heard him moaning softly, without making a noise, as if a shaft of solid air was slicing through the stillness in the room.

I said softly, “Day is about to break. How will you manage to go out for your…? Well, here’s some water. Try to get up and I’ll take you outside. Near the outer wall. I’ll stand guard. Nobody passes this way at this hour.”

He bent double with pain as he got up. I held his arm, undid the bolt of the back door, and pointed to a place in the shadow of the wall outside. I kept the water jar near him, and with my back towards him, I spread out my veil like a protective tent.

I was like a hen, protecting her helpless, fledgling chick, because black kites and eagles were hovering in the sky above, searching for their prey with bloodthirsty eyes.

I felt like a mother protecting her wounded son. A flood of tenderness heaved gently in my breast.

I heard the splash of water after which he got up by holding on to the wall with one hand. I helped him get in, bolted the door, took him back to the room and made him sit behind the boxes.

I took out a quilt, folded it and kept it under his wounded leg. I gave him two pillows and a khes to cover himself with.

In the morning two policemen came to our house. It was not unusual. Ever since Kewal had been murdered, police kept coming to our place on routine investigative rounds. But that day, seeing those two in police uniform, I panicked.

They said, “Last night there was a minor encounter between a police patrol and a group of extremists on the outskirts of this village. You must have heard the firing.”

Yes, we had. But these days the sound of firing is a routine thing. It is a part of the familiar sounds emitted by the night: cicadas, frogs, dogs, and bullets.

They said, “We suspect it was the same gang which murdered Kewal. In the crossfire nobody was killed. They escaped under cover of darkness. But we are sure that at least one of them was injured. We could clearly see the trail of blood leading into the village. He must be hiding somewhere. You shouldn’t worry. We will nab him soon and unearth the mystery of Kewal’s murder too. We won’t let the bastard escape.”

“In fact, the trail of blood enters this very street and then…,” said the other. “But you shouldn’t worry. Just keep the house properly bolted from inside. We’re going to search each and every house.”

The words hit my ears like a thunderbolt. Like a whirlwind they engulfed me, and I stood frozen near the door. I could hear the mad rush of my blood racing through my veins.

It was midday. The sun was like an angry eye looking down on earth. With my mother moving from one room to the other, I couldn’t go to the room at the back. Ever since Kewal’s death my mother keeps roaming around aimlessly, as if she has lost something, she can’t remember what, but has to find it nevertheless. With slow, aimless steps, she keeps walking from room to room, to the door to check the bolt, comes back, falls on her cot.

After eating, my mother sat down on her cot and opened the Gita in her lap. I knew the words would keep floating around, getting lost in the air, and she would keep seeing Kewal on the open page before her.

I had made four extra rotis for the boy in the backroom. I put some cooked brinjals and potatoes on the rotis, covered them with my chunni, and took them to him.

He looked younger in the daylight. Just a little, frightened boy! He was lying there, with his head on the pillows, his eyes closed. His innocent face looked helpless, contorted with pain. His beard was a mere splash of light brown hair, short and curly. I was sure that under the curly hair, there would be a dimple in the middle of his chin.

I touched his elbow softly. He opened his eyes. Black pain floated in them. His eyelids were a little swollen and red. Perhaps, he had been crying in the darkness last night. He was hardly eighteen. Thinking of him crying didn’t surprise me.

I extended the rotis towards him. He said, “I’m not hungry.” He held his wounded leg with both his hands. He tried to stretch it and get up, but collapsed with pain.

“You have to eat even if you’re not hungry,” I almost ordered him, the way you do with small children.

He held the rotis and started eating like an obedient child. I looked at the glass, it was empty. I went to the kitchen and brought him water.

He was eating silently. I saw that the cloth with which I had wrapped his wound last night, was soaked with black blood. On either side of the ‘bandage’, I could see his leg, swollen and red.

“It must be hurting like hell,” I said softly.

My tenderness touched him. His eyes were moist when he looked at me and said, “Yes, the bullet is still inside.”

I shuddered. An ugly bullet, made of solid metal, concealed in the soft flesh of the leg, poisoning his blood! Visualising this horror, I experienced a strange painful sensation searing within me.

He needed medical treatment. But what sort of times were we living in, when getting medical help meant exposure to death!

For him, all the doctors and surgeons had become irrelevant, because their instruments had rusted with the curse of these times.

I came out of the room and looked around.

In the backyard the afternoon sun slumbered. I walked across and entered the room where my mother was still looking blankly at the open pages of the Gita. I took out a soiled 50-rupee note from the small basket in which my mother kept needles and threads, covered my head with my chunni, and came out into the street.

I looked around, from one end of the street to the other. On the left, outside the grocery shop, three policemen sat on a long bench, engrossed in gossip.

I started walking the other way, came out of the street, and walked to the chemist’s shop. This chemist used to be quite friendly with my father, the way people living in small villages usually are with each other.

I said, “Chachaji, I need a packet of cotton wool and a bottle of Dettol, and some gauze too.” Though my voice was hoarse, I tried my best to sound natural.

The chemist, whom all of us called ‘doctor’, asked with concern, “Is everything all right? I hope bharjaiji hasn’t hurt herself.”

Everybody was particularly concerned about us after Kewal’s death.

I said, “No, nothing much. She just didn’t see the grinding stone and knocked her foot against it.”

“Should I come home and bandage her foot?” he asked.

“No, it’s nothing, really. I can do it myself. Don’t worry, Uncle,” my voice shook as I said this.

He looked at me from behind his eyeglasses, and quietly handed over the bottle of Dettol, a packet of cotton wool, and rolls of bandages.

How will I carry all this?—I wondered, thinking of those three policemen sitting outside the grocer’s shop in my street.

“Do you have a carry bag, Uncle?” I asked hesitantly.

He took out a plastic bag and stuffed everything into it.

I carried the bag to the grocer’s shop nearby, bought a packet of salt and put it neatly over the other things, and walked back home.

The three policemen were still there, gossiping as usual.

My mother had dozed off. I went to the room in the back courtyard, and unlocked it. He was moaning, bundled up with pain. I removed the dupatta from his wound. It was an ugly, blackish gash, swollen, with clots of blood encircling it.

I soaked the cotton wool in Dettol, and as I started cleaning it, I was painfully reminded of a similar wound that I had seen on Kewal’s back which didn’t need any cleaning because he was already dead.

A black whirlwind was moving in mad circles inside my head. I was trying to push it back with all the force of my will power. In my ears I could hear the buzz and beating of my own blood, but I was trying not to listen to its mad fury.

He was biting his lips, trying not to scream. When I kept a large pad of cotton wool soaked in the antiseptic lotion on his wound and wrapped a bandage around it, I could see a thousand black furrows of pain on his face. He was holding his leg in a firm grip with both hands. And his eyes were moist with tears of anguish that he was trying to hold back.

I felt like pulling his head onto my shoulder, patting it, and saying softly to him, “Cry, my child, cry. Cry out your pain. Don’t push your tears back because they freeze inside, and become big rocks weighing your soul down.”

But I didn’t. I couldn’t say anything.

I went to the kitchen and brought him a glass of hot milk. I locked the room from outside and washed my hands with soap to remove the pungent odour of Dettol, but it lingered on in the pores of my skin.

I went to the kitchen and prepared tea. Took one glass to my mother, sat on my cot with the other one, and started sipping.

I was oblivious of my surroundings. Only that black swollen wound kept floating before my eyes to be replaced sometimes by those three policemen gossiping out there in the street.

I don’t know when I lay down and went to sleep.

Even in sleep, a part of me was wide awake, trying to catch any sound which might signal danger. I was keenly aware of the threat lurking around, ready to pounce on the person there in the back room, whose name I didn’t know.

In my fitful sleep I saw vast deserts, frightened rabbits running for their lives and ferocious dogs chasing them, snarling, howling, panting, with their bare white teeth flashing, and their red tongues hanging from their black jaws.

It was the howling of dogs which made me get up with a start. I was soaked in cold sweat, frightened. Evening shadows were lurking ominously in the corners of the room. Mother was not on her cot, and outside in the dark the sound of barking in the distance was audible.

I got up and came to the backyard. Mother had lighted the fire in the kitchen and was looking at the leaping flames with her chin resting on her knees. There was a pan on the chullah in which daal was being cooked.

She sat there, unaware of me, unaware of the pan on the fire, lost in thought! Deep down, at the bottom of the dark well of her pain.

And then she looked at me, trying to focus her thoughts, and said slowly, “Do you have a headache? You slept for so long. It isn’t good to sleep in the evening when day and night meet.”

Could anything worse happen to us than what already had? I wondered.

I silently looked towards the locked room at the back and said to my mother, “You should rest now. I’ll make the rotis.”

Ma pressed her knees with her hands, sighed, got up, and went out.

After serving my mother, I kept four rotis in a thali, put some daal in a bowl, poured piping hot butter on the daal, and took it to his room.

He was probably sleeping, his mouth slightly open, like a child. I touched his arm, it was hot. I put the thali down and touched his forehead. It was burning hot, and moist.

He didn’t open his eyes. Every breath of his was a soft moan. I looked at his leg. The swelling had increased. Black blood had oozed out of the bandages.

Feeling dejected and helpless I came out and locked the door again.

I couldn’t eat.

At midnight I again went to him. Opened the door and switched on the light. He was sitting, doubled up, bent over his leg. His helpless moans were heartrending. I touched his head. He didn’t look at me.

The food was lying in the thali, untouched. A white layer of butter covered the daal.

I lifted his head and forced him to take some water. I don’t know if he was aware of my presence or not, but he did gulp down a little water, and again bent over his leg.

Behind the old wooden and tin boxes which contained age-old abracadabra, he looked like a bundle of soiled clothes. And outside, all those people were looking for him.

Next day he was delirious with fever. Almost unconscious. He only took a few sips of water whenever I managed to go to him, lifted his head and touched his lips to the glass.

It was evening, and his fever was blazing. I soaked a towel with cold water and kept it on his head. A strange smell emanated from his wound. I changed his bandage.

With the cold, wet towel on his forehead, he opened his eyes. I gave him some hot milk. He sipped it slowly, and then said, almost in a whisper, “I don’t want to die here. If I do, how would you take my body out? Bhain, I have already been such a great bother. I don’t want to put you to any more trouble.”

I felt like crying. I placed my hand on his head, the way mothers bless their young ones when they go to school for the first time. And came out.

I looked around. Where could I sit and pour out all the pain flooding my soul?

Just then, there was a loud knock on the outer door, the door which opens onto the main street. I was startled. My mother asked irritably, “Who can it be at this unearthly hour? They should know there are two lonely women here.”

I went and opened the door. Outside stood the same two policemen who had come the previous morning. They said politely, “Bibi, we know we needn’t search your house, but every time our dogs sniff the drops of blood, they stop here. Can we take a look inside?”

I was terrified. Real, naked terror was churning inside my belly. I said, “Ma has just dozed off after eating her food. You know she hardly sleeps. If you can… if…. after an hour or so…. perhaps?”

“Don’t worry. Let Maaji sleep. We’ll come back after an hour. There is no hurry. But we hope you won’t mind our coming in at night.”

“No, it doesn’t matter. You are like my brothers. You have been looking after us after Kewal’s death,” I said softly.

They left.

“Who was it?” asked Ma.

“Some policemen. Wanted to search this house. They are looking for someone, and they think he is hidden in one of the houses in this street.”

“Have you bolted the door properly?” asked Ma anxiously. I assured her that I had, and she lay back on her cot.

On tiptoe I quietly walked to the back room.

Perhaps he had also heard the knock at the outer door. How could he, in the condition he was in? I can’t understand it even today.

He was aware. His face was alert and his eyes full of terror.

“Who was it?” he asked.

“Policemen. Wanted to search the house. They’ll come back after an hour.” I wanted to offload my entire burden. He had to know. The moment had finally arrived when he should know.

He immediately made up his mind. How can one arrive at such decisions in a fraction of a second? A decision that would probably land him straight into the jaws of death!

“I must leave,” he said, and staggered up.

I didn’t ask him to stay. I couldn’t. Both of us knew that we had reached a dead-end. All roads were blocked. Escape now was next to impossible.

The danger lurking outside for the last two days was about to cross the threshold and enter and pounce!

With his face contorted with pain he tried to take a step forward. With clenched teeth biting into his lips, he took another staggering step. And then another. And stepped out of the room.

I opened the back door. Stepping out into the street, he halted for a moment, a very brief moment, and looked at me. So many different emotions were mingled in the dark pools of his eyes—affection, gratitude, and also the shadow of death. There was so much more for which I can’t find any words. Human language hasn’t yet found words for all those other emotions floating in the dark pools of those eyes.

I only know that his eyes, and all those silent emotions in them, will haunt me all my life. I will never be rid of them. They will come and nestle close to me in all the silent moments of my life.

He went out. I bolted the door from inside and stood rooted there, trying to hear the muted sound of his departing footsteps, trying to smell the danger in the air.

Suddenly the dogs barked. Many of them. They were barking in a mad fury. And then, the sound of bullets pierced the stillness of the night outside, and blew my soul to shreds.

I am telling you the truth. Believe me. I didn’t hear his cry. Only heard the sound of bullets, loud enough to rip the earth open. But no human cry.

I could also hear echoes of heavy shoes running up and down the street.

Ma was probably in that azure zone of half-slumber when the body sleeps but all the senses remain awake and alert. Perhaps, she was seeing Kewal in her dream, floating in the twilight zone of no-man’s land that lies between sleep and wakefulness.

She heard the sound of bullets and got up.

Abruptly, in a frenzy she rushed towards the front door, opened it with a thud, and ran barefoot into the dark street outside, crying in a heart-rending wail, “Don’t kill. Don’t kill him. Don’t kill my Kewal. Don’t kill my little one. Don’t fire at my innocent little baby, don’t fire at him! He is my only son, my Kewal !”

With her arms raised, her dupatta trailing behind her, her hair dishevelled, she ran barefoot on the naked bricks of the street, begging, imploring the darkness, “Don’t kill him! Don’t kill my little one!”

Translated by Khushwant Singh