/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Shantaram

GregoryDavid Roberts


Shantaram

Gregory David Roberts

INDEX:

Book Jacket Information

Praise for Shantaram

PART PART PART PART PART ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Disclaimer

Shantaram

Gregory David Roberts

Book Jacket Information:

_Shantaram is a novel based on the life of the author, Gregory

David Roberts. In 1978 Roberts committed a series of armed robberies while addicted to heroin, and was sentenced to nineteen years' imprisonment. In July 1980 he escaped over the front wall of Victoria's maximum-security prison, in broad daylight, thereby becoming one of Australia's most wanted men for what turned out to be the next ten years.

His journey took him to New Zealand, Asia, Africa and Europe, but his home for most of those years was Bombay-where he established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers, and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner, and street soldier for one of the most charismatic branches of the Bombay mafia.

_Shantaram deals with all this, and more. It is an epic, mesmerizing tale of crowded slums and five-star hotels, romantic love and prison torture, mafia gang wars and Bollywood films, and spiritual gurus and brutal battlefields. It weaves a seamless web of unforgettable characters, amazing adventures, and superb evocations of Indian life.

This remarkable book can be read as a vast, extended thriller, as well as a superbly written meditation on the nature of good and evil. It is a compelling tale of a hunted man who had lost everything-his home, his family, and his soul-and came to find his humanity while living at the wildest edge of experience.

Nothing like this has been written before, and nobody but Greg

Roberts could have written it now.

***

Gregory David Roberts was born in Melbourne, and has lived in

India, New Zealand, Germany, and Switzerland. He speaks four languages and has traveled widely in Asia, Africa and Europe. He is now a full-time writer and lives in Melbourne.

***

Praise for Shantaram

"Shantaram is a big and big-hearted book... It's got everything you could ever want in a novel-memorable characters, tortured romances, wild comic capers in exotic locales; stories of heroism and cowardice, love and betrayal, sin and redemption...

"This vast tapestry of tales is sewn together with the skill of a master storyteller... Roberts has one hell of an imaginative gift...

"What, in the end, strikes you most about this swashbuckling and ultimately life-affirming romp of a novel is that it is also the kind the aesthetic triumph we once called-without blushing-a masterpiece."

- Cameron Woodhead, The Age

"It is a tale, by turns gripping, hilarious, moving and instructive. It evokes the raucous tangle of modern India superbly."

- Frank Campbell, The Australian

"Shantaram is not so much a mirror as a mirror ball, spinning with relentless drive, dazzling but ungras-pable. And, again, audacious. Gloriously audacious."

- Nicola Robinson, The Sydney Morning Herald

***

For my mother

***

May all those you love find the truth in you and be true to your love.

____________________

Shantaram

Part One

Chapter One

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it's all you've got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

In my case, it's a long story, and a crowded one. I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum-security prison. When I escaped from that prison, over the front wall, between two gun-towers, I became my country's most wanted man. Luck ran with me and flew with me across the world to India, where I joined the Bombay mafia. I worked as a gunrunner, a smuggler, and a counterfeiter. I was chained on three continents, beaten, stabbed, and starved. I went to war. I ran into the enemy guns. And I survived, while other men around me died. They were better men than I am, most of them: better men whose lives were crunched up in mistakes, and thrown away by the wrong second of someone else's hate, or love, or indifference.

And I buried them, too many of those men, and grieved their stories and their lives into my own.

But my story doesn't begin with them, or with the mafia: it goes back to that first day in Bombay. Fate put me in the game there.

Luck dealt the cards that led me to Karla Saaranen. And I started to play it out, that hand, from the first moment I looked into her green eyes. So it begins, this story, like everything else- with a woman, and a city, and a little bit of luck.

The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air. I could smell it before I saw or heard anything of India, even as I walked along the umbilical corridor that connected the plane to the airport. I was excited and delighted by it, in that first Bombay minute, escaped from prison and new to the wide world, but I didn't and couldn't recognize it. I know now that it's the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it's the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It's the smell of gods, demons, empires, and civilizations in resurrection and decay. It's the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the Island City, and the blood-metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers. Karla once called it the worst good smell in the world, and she was right, of course, in that way she had of being right about things. But whenever I return to Bombay, now, it's my first sense of the city-that smell, above all things-that welcomes me and tells me I've come home.

The next thing I noticed was the heat. I stood in airport queues, not five minutes from the conditioned air of the plane, and my clothes clung to sudden sweat. My heart thumped under the command of the new climate. Each breath was an angry little victory. I came to know that it never stops, the jungle sweat, because the heat that makes it, night and day, is a wet heat. The choking humidity makes amphibians of us all, in Bombay, breathing water in air; you learn to live with it, and you learn to like it, or you leave.

Then there were the people. Assamese, Jats, and Punjabis; people from Rajasthan, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu; from Pushkar, Cochin, and Konarak; warrior caste, Brahmin, and untouchable; Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Parsee, Jain, Animist; fair skin and dark, green eyes and golden brown and black; every different face and form of that extravagant variety, that incomparable beauty, India.

All the Bombay millions, and then one more. The two best friends of the smuggler are the mule and the camel. Mules carry contraband across a border control for a smuggler. Camels are unsuspecting tourists who help the smuggler to get across the border. To camouflage themselves, when using false passports and identification papers, smugglers insinuate themselves into the company of fellow travelers- camels, who'll carry them safely and unobtrusively through airport or border controls without realizing it.

I didn't know all that then. I learned the smuggling arts much later, years later. On that first trip to India I was just working on instinct, and the only commodity I was smuggling was my self, my fragile and hunted freedom. I was using a false New Zealand passport, with my photograph substituted in it for the original. I'd done the work myself, and it wasn't a perfect job.

I was sure it would pass a routine examination, but I knew that if suspicions were aroused, and someone checked with the New Zealand High Commission, it would be exposed as a forgery fairly quickly. On the journey to India from Auckland, I'd roamed the plane in search of the right group of New Zealanders. I found a small party of students who were making their second trip to the sub-continent. Urging them to share their experience and travellers' tips with me, I fostered a slender acquaintance with them that brought us to the airport controls together. The various Indian officials assumed that I was traveling with that relaxed and guileless group, and gave me no more than a cursory check.

I pushed through alone to the slap and sting of sunlight outside the airport, intoxicated with the exhilaration of escape: another wall scaled, another border crossed, another day and night to run and hide. I'd escaped from prison almost two years before, but the fact of the fugitive life is that you have to keep on escaping, every day and every night. And while not completely free, never completely free, there was hope and fearful excitement in the new: a new passport, a new country, and new lines of excited dread on my young face, under the trey eyes. I stood there on the trample street, beneath the baked blue bowl of Bombay sky, and my heart was as clean and hungry for promises as a monsoon morning in the gardens of Malabar.

"Sir! Sir!" a voice called from behind me.

A hand grabbed at my arm. I stopped. I tensed every fighting muscle, and bit down on the fear. Don't run. Don't panic. I turned.

A small man stood before me, dressed in a grimy brown uniform, and carrying my guitar. More than small, he was a tiny man, a dwarf, with a large head, and the startled innocence of Down syndrome in his features. He thrust the guitar at me.

"Your music, sir. You are losing your music, isn't it?"

It was my guitar. I realized at once that I must've forgotten it near the baggage carousel. I couldn't guess how the little man had known that it belonged to me. When I smiled my relief and surprise, the man grinned back at me with that perfect sincerity we fear and call simple-minded. He passed the guitar to me, and I noticed that his hands were webbed like the feet of a wading bird. I pulled a few notes from my pocket and offered them to him, but he backed away awkwardly on his thick legs.

"Not money. We are here to help it, sir. Welcome in India," he said, and trotted away into the forest of bodies on the path.

I bought a ticket to the city with the Veterans' Bus Service, manned by ex-servicemen from the Indian army. I watched as my backpack and travel bag were lifted to the top of a bus, and dumped onto a pile of luggage with precise and nonchalant violence, and decided to keep the guitar in my hands. I took a place on the bench seat at the back of the bus, and was joined there by two long-haired travellers. The bus filled quickly with a mix of Indians and foreigners, most of them young, and traveling as inexpensively as possible.

When the bus was close to full, the driver turned in his seat, scowled at us menacingly, spat a jet of vivid red betel juice through the open doorway, and announced our imminent departure.

"Thik hain, challo!"

The engine roared, gears meshed with a growl and thunk, and we sped off at alarming speed through crowds of porters and pedestrians who limped, sprang, or side-stepped out of the way with only millimeters to spare. Our conductor, riding on the bottom step of the bus, cursed them with artful animosity.

The journey from the airport to the city began on a wide, modern motorway, lined with shrubs and trees. It was much like the neat, pragmatic landscape that surrounded the international airport in my home city, Melbourne. The familiarity lulled me into a complacency that was so profoundly shattered, at the first narrowing of the road, that the contrast and its effect seemed calculated. For the first sight of the slums, as the many lanes of the motorway became one, and the trees disappeared, clutched at my heart with talons of shame. Like brown and black dunes, the acres of slums rolled away from the roadside, and met the horizon with dirty heat-haze mirages.

The miserable shelters were patched together from rags, scraps of plastic and paper, reed mats, and bamboo sticks. They slumped together, attached one to another, and with narrow lanes winding between them. Nothing in the enormous sprawl of it rose much above the height of a man.

It seemed impossible that a modern airport, full of prosperous and purposeful travellers, was only kilometers away from those crushed and cindered dreams. My first impression was that some catastrophe had taken place, and that the slums were refugee camps for the shambling survivors. I learned, months later, that they were survivors, of course, those slum-dwellers: the catastrophes that had driven them to the slums from their villages were poverty, famine, and bloodshed. And five thousand new survivors arrived in the city every week, week after week, year after year.

As the kilometers wound past, as the hundreds of people in those slums became thousands, and tens of thousands, my spirit writhed.

I felt defiled by my own health and the money in my pockets. If you feel it at all, it's a lacerating guilt, that first confrontation with the wretched of the earth. I'd robbed banks, and dealt drugs, and I'd been beaten by prison warders until my bones broke. I'd been stabbed, and I'd stabbed men in return. I'd escaped from a hard prison full of hard men, the hard way-over the front wall. Still, that first encounter with the ragged misery of the slum, heartbreak all the way to the horizon, cut into my eyes. For a time, I ran onto the knives.

Then the smoulders of shame and guilt flamed into anger, became fist-tightening rage at the unfairness of it: What kind of a government, I thought, what kind of a system allows suffering like _this?

But the slums went on, kilometre after kilometre, relieved only by the awful contrast of the thriving businesses and crumbling, moss-covered apartment buildings of the comparatively affluent.

The slums went on, and their sheer ubiquity wore down my foreigner's pieties. A kind of wonder possessed me. I began to look beyond the immensity of the slum societies, and to see the people who lived within them. A woman stooped to brush forward the black satin psalm of her hair. Another bathed her children with water from a copper dish. A man led three goats with red ribbons tied to the collars at their throats. Another man shaved himself at a cracked mirror. Children played everywhere. Men carried water in buckets. Men made repairs to one of the huts. And everywhere that I looked, people smiled and laughed.

The bus stopped in a stutter of traffic, and a man emerged from one of the huts near my window. He was a foreigner, as pale- skinned as any of the new arrivals on the bus, and dressed only in a wrap-around sheet of hibiscus-patterned cotton. He stretched, yawned, and scratched unselfconsciously at his naked belly. There was a definitive, bovine placidity in his face and posture. I found myself envying that contentment, and the smiles of greeting he drew from a group of people who walked past him to the road.

The bus jerked into motion once more, and I lost sight of the man. But that image of him changed everything in my attitude to the slums. Seeing him there, a man as alien to the place as I was, let me picture myself in that world. What had seemed unimaginably strange and remote from my experience suddenly became possible, and comprehensible, and, finally, fascinating.

I looked at the people, then, and I saw how busy they were-how much industry and energy described their lives. Occasional sudden glimpses inside the huts revealed the astonishing cleanliness of that poverty: the spotless floors, and glistening metal pots in neat, tapering towers. And then, last, what should've been first, I saw how beautiful they were: the women wrapped in crimson, blue, and gold; the women walking barefoot through the tangled shabbiness of the slum with patient, ethereal grace; the white- toothed, almond-eyed handsomeness of the men; and the affectionate camaraderie of the fine-limbed children, older ones playing with younger ones, many of them supporting baby brothers and sisters on their slender hips. And half an hour after the bus ride began, I smiled for the first time.

"It ain't pretty," the young man beside me said, looking at the scene beyond the window. He was Canadian, the maple leaf patch on his jacket declared: tall and heavy-set, with pale eyes, and shoulder-length brown hair. His companion looked like a shorter, more compact version of himself; they even wore identical stonewashed jeans, sandals, and soft, calico jackets.

"Come again?"

"This your first time?" he asked in reply. I nodded. "I thought so. Don't worry. From here on, it gets a little better. Not so many slums and all. But it ain't good anywheres in Bombay. This here is the crummiest city in India, y'can take my word."

"You got that right," the shorter man agreed.

"But from here on in, you got a couple nice temples and some big British buildings that are okay-stone lions and brass street lights and like that. But this ain't India. The real India is up near the Himalayas, at Manali, or at the holy city of Varanasi, or down the coast, at Kerala. You gotta get outta the city to find the real India."

"Where are you guys headed?"

"We're going to stay at an ashram," his friend announced. "It's run by the Rajneeshis, at Poona. It's the best ashram in the country."

Two pairs of clear, pale-blue eyes stared at me with the vague, almost accusatory censure of those who've convinced themselves that they've found the one true path.

"You checkin' in?"

"Sorry?"

"You checkin' into a room, or you passin' on through Bombay today?"

"I don't know," I replied, turning to look through the window once more. It was true: I didn't know whether I wanted to stay in Bombay for a while or continue on to... somewhere else. I didn't know, and it didn't matter to me. Just at that moment, I was what Karla once called the most dangerous and fascinating animal in the world: a brave, hard man, without a plan. "I haven't really got any plans. But I think I'll stay in Bombay for a while."

"Well, we're stayin' overnight, and catchin' the train tomorrow.

If you want, we can share a room. It's a lot cheaper with three."

I met the stare in his guileless, blue eyes. Maybe it would be better to share a room at first, I thought. Their genuine documents and their easy smiles would smother my false passport.

Maybe it would be safer.

"And it's a lot safer," he added.

"Yeah, right," his friend agreed.

"Safer?" I asked, assuming a nonchalance I didn't feel.

The bus was moving more slowly, along narrow channels of three- and four-storey buildings. Traffic churned through the streets with wondrous and mysterious efficiency-a ballistic dance of buses, trucks, bicycles, cars, ox-carts, scooters, and people.

The open windows of our battered bus gave us the aromas of spices, perfumes, diesel smoke, and the manure of oxen, in a steamy but not unpleasant mix, and voices rose up everywhere above ripples of unfamiliar music. Every corner carried gigantic posters, advertising Indian films. The supernatural colours of the posters streamed behind the tanned face of the tall Canadian.

"Oh, sure, it's a lot safer. This is Gotham City, man. The street kids here have more ways to take your money than hell's casino."

"It's a city thing, man," the short one explained. "All cities are the same. It's not just here. It's the same in New York, or Rio, or Paris. They're all dirty and they're all crazy. A city thing, you know what I'm sayin'? You get to the rest of India, and you'll love it. This is a great country, but the cities are truly fucked, I gotta say."

"And the goddamn hotels are in on it," the tall one added. "You can get ripped off just sittin' in your hotel room and smokin' a little weed. They do deals with the cops to bust you and take all your money. Safest thing is to stick together and travel in groups, take my word."

"And get outta the cities as fast as you can," the short one said. "Holy shit! D'you see that?"

The bus had turned into the curve of a wide boulevard that was edged by huge stones, tumble-rolled into the turquoise sea. A small colony of black, ragged slum huts was strewn upon those rocks like the wreckage of some dark and primitive ship. The huts were burning.

"God-_damn! Check that out! That guy's cookin', man!" the tall Canadian shouted, pointing to a man who ran towards the sea with his clothes and hair on fire. The man slipped, and smashed heavily between the large stones. A woman and a child reached him and smothered the flames with their hands and their own clothes.

Other people were trying to contain the fires in their huts, or simply stood, and watched, as their flimsy homes blazed. "D'you see that? That guy's gone, I tell ya."

"Damn right!" the short one gasped.

The bus driver slowed with other traffic to look at the fire, but then revved the engine and drove on. None of the cars on the busy road stopped. I turned to look through the rear window of the bus until the charred humps of the huts became minute specks, and the brown smoke of the fires was just a whisper of ruin.

At the end of the long, seaside boulevard, we made a left turn into a wide street of modern buildings. There were grand hotels, with liveried doormen standing beneath coloured awnings. Near them were exclusive restaurants, garlanded with courtyard gardens. Sunlight flashed on the polished glass and brass facades of airline offices and other businesses. Street stalls sheltered from the morning sunlight beneath broad umbrellas. The Indian men walking there were dressed in hard shoes and western business suits, and the women wore expensive silk. They looked purposeful and sober, their expressions grave as they bustled to and from the large office buildings.

The contrast between the familiar and the exceptional was everywhere around me. A bullock cart was drawn up beside a modern sports car at a traffic signal. A man squatted to relieve himself behind the discreet shelter of a satellite dish. An electric forklift truck was being used to unload goods from an ancient wooden cart with wooden wheels. The impression was of a plodding, indefatigable, and distant past that had crashed intact, through barriers of time, into its own future. I liked it.

"We're almost there," my companion declared. "City centre's just a few blocks. It's not really what you'd call the downtown area.

It's just the tourist beat where most of the cheap hotels are.

The last stop. It's called Colaba."

The two young men took their passports and travellers' cheques from their pockets and pushed them down the fronts of their trousers. The shorter man even removed his watch, and it, too, joined the currency, passport, and other valuables in the marsupial pouch of his underpants. He caught my eye, and smiled.

"Hey," he grinned. "Can't be too careful!"

I stood and bumped my way to the front. When the bus stopped I was the first to take the steps, but a crowd of people on the footpath prevented me from moving down to the street. They were touts-street operatives for the various hoteliers, drug dealers, and other businessmen of the city-and they shouted at us in broken English with offers of cheap hotel rooms and bargains to be had. First among them in the doorway was a small man with a large, almost perfectly round head. He was dressed in a denim shirt and blue cotton trousers. He shouted for silence from his companions, and then turned to me with the widest and most radiant smile I'd ever seen.

"Good mornings, great sirs!" he greeted us. "Welcome in Bombay!

You are wanting it cheap and excellent hotels, isn't it?" He stared straight into my eyes, that enormous smile not wavering. There was something in the disk of his smile-a kind of mischievous exuberance, more honest and more excited than mere happiness-that pierced me to the heart. It was the work of a second, the eye contact between us. It was just long enough for me to decide to trust him-the little man with the big smile. I didn't know it then, but it was one of the best decisions of my life.

A number of the passengers, filing off the bus, began beating and swatting at the swarm of touts. The two young Canadians made their way through the crowd unmolested, smiling broadly and equally at the bustling touts and the agitated tourists. Watching them dodge and weave through the crowd, I noticed for the first time how fit and healthy and handsome they were. I decided there and then to accept their offer to share the cost of a room. In their company, the crime of my escape from prison, the crime of my existence in the world, was invisible and inconceivable.

The little guide grabbed my sleeve to lead me away from the fractious group, and toward the back of the bus. The conductor climbed to the roof with simian agility, and flung my backpack and travel bag into my arms. Other bags began tumbling to the pavement in an ominous cadenza of creaks and crashes. As the passengers ran to stop the hard rain of their valuables, the guide led me away again, to a quiet spot a few metres from the bus.

"My name is Prabaker," he stated, in his musically accented English. "What is your good name?"

"My good name is Lindsay," I lied, using the name from my false passport.

"I am Bombay guide. Very excellent first number Bombay guide, I am. All Bombay I know it very well. You want to see everything. I know exactly where is it you will find the most of everything. I can show you even more than everything."

The two young travellers joined us, pursued by a persistent band of ragged touts and guides. Prabaker shouted at his unruly colleagues, and they retreated a few paces, staring hungrily at our collection of bags and packs.

"What I want to see right now," I said, "is a clean, cheap hotel room."

"Certainly, sir!" Prabaker beamed. "I can take you to a cheap hotel, and a very cheap hotel, and a too much cheap hotel, and even such a cheap hotel that nobody in a right minds is ever staying there also."

"Okay, lead on, Prabaker. Let's take a look."

"Hey, wait a minute," the taller of the two young men interjected. "Are you gonna pay this guy? I mean, I know the way to the hotels. No offence to you, buddy-I'm sure you're a good guide and all-but we don't need you."

I looked at Prabaker. His large, dark brown eyes were studying my face with open amusement. I've never known a man who had less hostility in him than Prabaker Kharre: he was incapable of raising his voice or his hand in anger, and I sensed something of that even then, in the first minutes with him.

"Do I need you, Prabaker?" I asked him, my expression mock- serious.

"Oh, yes!" he cried in reply. "You are so very needing me, I am almost crying with your situation! Only God knows what terrible things are happening to you without my good self to guide your body in Bombay!"

"I'll pay him," I told my companions. They shrugged, and lifted their packs. "Okay. Let's go, Prabaker."

I began to lift my pack, but Prabaker grabbed at it swiftly.

"I am carrying it your luggages," he insisted politely.

"No, that's okay. I'm fine."

The huge smile faded to a pleading frown.

"Please, sir. It is my job. It is my duty. I am strong in my backs. No problem. You will see."

All my instincts revolted at the idea.

"No, really..."

"Please, Mr. Lindsay, this is my honour. See the people."

Prabaker gestured with his upturned palm to those touts and guides who'd managed to secure customers from among the tourists.

Each one of them seized a bag, suitcase, or backpack and trudged off, leading his party into the flak-traffic with brisk determination.

"Yeah, well, all right..." I muttered, deferring to his judgment. It was just the first of countless capitulations that would, in time, come to define our relationship. The smile stretched his round face once more, and he grappled with the backpack, working the straps onto his shoulders with my help. The pack was heavy, forcing him to thrust his neck out, lean over, and launch himself forward into a trundling gait. My longer steps brought me up level with him, and I looked into his straining face. I felt like the white bwana, reducing him to my beast of burden, and I hated it.

But he laughed, that small Indian man. He chattered about Bombay and the sights to be seen, pointing out landmarks as we walked.

He spoke with deferential amiability to the two Canadians. He smiled, and called out greetings to acquaintances as he passed them. And he was strong, much stronger than he looked: he never paused or faltered in his step throughout the fifteen-minute journey to the hotel.

Four steep flights in a dark and mossy well of stairs, at the rear of a large, sea-front building, brought us to the foyer of the India Guest House. Every floor on the way up had carried a different shield-Apsara Hotel, Star of Asia Guest House, Seashore Hotel-indicating that the one building was actually four separate hotels, each one of them occupying a single floor, and having its own staff, services, and style.

The two young travellers, Prabaker, and I tumbled into the small foyer with our bags and packs. A tall, muscular Indian, wearing a dazzlingly white shirt and a black tie, sat behind a steel desk beside the hallway that led to the guest rooms.

"Welcome," he said, a small, wary smile dimpling his cheeks.

"Welcome, young gentlemen."

"What a dump," my tall companion muttered, looking around him at the flaking paint and laminated wooden partitions.

"This is Mr. Anand," Prabaker interjected quickly. "Best manager of the best hotel in Colaba."

"Shut up, Prabaker!" Mr. Anand growled.

Prabaker smiled the wider.

"See, what a great manager is this Mr. Anand?" he whispered, grinning at me. He then turned his smile to the great manager. "I am bringing three excellent tourists for you, Mr. Anand. Very best customers for the very best hotel, isn't it?"

"I told you to shut up!" Anand snapped.

"How much?" the short Canadian asked.

"Please?" Anand muttered, still glowering at Prabaker.

"Three people, one room, one night, how much?"

"One hundred twenty rupees."

"What!" the shorter one exploded. "Are you kidding me?" "That's too much," his friend added. "C'mon, we're outta here."

"No problem," Anand snapped. "You can go to somewhere else."

They began to gather their bags, but Prabaker stopped them with an anguished cry.

"No! No! This is the very most beautiful of hotels. Please, just see it the room! Please, Mr. Lindsay, just see it the lovely room! Just see it the lovely room!"

There was a momentary pause. The two young men hesitated in the doorway. Anand studied his hotel register, suddenly fascinated by the hand-written entries. Prabaker clutched at my sleeve. I felt some sympathy for the street guide, and I admired Anand's style.

He wasn't going to plead with us, or persuade us to take the room. If we wanted it, we took it on his terms. When he looked up from the register, he met my eyes with a frank and honest stare, one confident man to another. I began to like him.

"I'd like to see it, the lovely room," I said.

"Yes!" Prabaker laughed.

"Okay, here we go!" the Canadians sighed, smiling.

"End of the passage," Anand smiled in return, reaching behind him to take the room key from a rack of hooks. He tossed the key and its heavy brass nameplate across the desk to me. "Last room on the right, my friend."

It was a large room, with three single beds covered by sheets, one window to the seaward side, and a row of windows that looked down upon a busy street. Each of the walls was painted in a different shade of headache-green. The ceiling was laced with cracks. Papery scrolls of paint dangled from the corners. The cement floor sloped downwards, with mysterious lumps and irregular undulations, toward the street windows. Three small plywood side-tables and a battered wooden dressing table with a cracked mirror were the only other pieces of furniture. Previous occupants had left evidence of their tenure: a candle melted into the neck of a Bailey's Irish Cream bottle; a calendar print of a Neapolitan street scene taped to one wall; and two forlorn, shrivelled balloons hanging from the ceiling fan. It was the kind of room that moved people to write their names and other messages on the walls, just as men do in prison cells.

"I'll take it," I decided. "Yes!" Prabaker cried, scurrying away at once toward the foyer.

My companions from the bus looked at one another and laughed.

"I can't be bothered arguin' with this dude. He's crazy."

"I hear ya," the shorter one chuckled. He bent low and sniffed at the sheets before sitting down gingerly on one of the beds.

Prabaker returned with Anand, who carried the heavy hotel register. We entered our details into the book, one at a time, while Anand checked our passports. I paid for a week in advance.

Anand gave the others their passports, but lingered with mine, tapping it against his cheek thoughtfully.

"New Zealand?" he murmured.

"So?" I frowned, wondering if he'd seen or sensed something. I was Australia's most wanted man, escaped from a jail term of twenty years for armed robberies, and a hot new name on th Interpol fugitive list. What does he want? What does he know?

"Hmmm. Okay, New Zealand, New Zealand, you must be wanting something for smoke, some lot of beer, some bottles whisky, change money, business girls, good parties. You want to buy something, you tell me, na?"

He snapped the passport back into my hand and left the room, glaring malevolently at Prabaker. The guide cringed away from him in the doorway, cowering and smiling happily at the same time.

"A great man. A great manager," Prabaker gushed, when Anand was gone.

"You get a lot of New Zealanders here, Prabaker?"

"Not so many, Mr. Lindsay. Oh, but very fine fellows they are.

Laughing, smoking, drinking, having sexes with women, all in the night, and then more laughing, smoking, and drinking."

"U-huh. I don't suppose you'd happen to know where I could get some hashish, Prabaker?"

"Noooo problem! I can get it one tola, one kilo, ten kilos, even I know where it is a full warehouse..."

"I don't need a warehouse full of hash. I just want enough for a smoke."

"Just it happens I have it one tola, ten grams, the best Afghan charras, in my pocket. You want to buy?"

"How much?"

"Two hundred rupees," he suggested, hopefully. I guessed that it was less than half that price. But two hundred rupees-about twelve dollars American, in those years-was one- tenth of the price in Australia. I tossed a packet of tobacco and cigarette papers to him. "Okay. Roll up a joint and we'll try it out. If I like it, I'll buy it."

My two roommates were stretched out on their parallel beds. They looked at one another and exchanged similar expressions, raising their foreheads in sedimentary wrinkles and pursing their lips as Prabaker pulled the piece of hashish from his pocket. They stared with fascination and dread while the little guide knelt to make the joint on the dusty surface of the dressing table.

"Are you sure this is a good idea, man?"

"Yeah, they could be settin' us up for a drug bust or somethin'!"

"I think I feel okay about Prabaker. I don't think we'll get busted," I replied, unrolling my travel blanket and spreading it out on the bed beneath the long windows. There was a ledge on the window sill, and I began to place my keepsakes, trinkets, and lucky charms there-a black stone given to me by a child in New Zealand, a petrified snail shell one friend had found, and a bracelet of hawk's claws made by another. I was on the run. I had no home and no country. My bags were filled with things that friends had given me: a huge first-aid kit that they'd pooled their money to buy for me, drawings, poems, shells, feathers.

Even the clothes I wore and the boots on my feet were gifts that friends had given me. Every object was significant; in my hunted exile, the windowsill had become my home, and the talismans were my nation.

"By all means, guys, if you don't feel safe, take a walk or wait outside for a while. I'll come and get you, after I have a smoke.

It's just that I promised some friends of mine that if I ever got to India, the first thing I'd do is smoke some hash, and think of them. I mean to keep that promise. Besides, the manager seemed pretty cool about it to me. Is there any problem with smoking a joint here, Prabaker?"

"Smoking, drinking, dancing, music, sexy business, no problem here," Prabaker assured us, grinning happily and looking up momentarily from his task. "Everything is allow no problem here.

Except the fighting. Fighting is not good manners at India Guest House."

"You see? No problem."

"And dying," Prabaker added, with a thoughtful wag of his round head. "Mr. Anand is not liking it, if the people are dying here."

"Say what? What is he talking about dying?"

"Is he fuckin' serious? Who the fuck is dyin' here? _Jesus!"

"No problem dying, baba," Prabaker soothed, offering the distraught Canadians his neatly rolled joint. The taller man took it, and puffed it alight. "Not many people are dying here in India Guest House, and mostly only junkies, you know, with the skinny faces. For you no problem, with your so beautiful big fat bodies."

His smile was disarmingly charming as he brought the joint to me.

When I returned it to him, he puffed at it with obvious pleasure, and passed it to the Canadians once more.

"Is good charras, yes?"

"It's real good," the taller man said. His smile was warm and generous-the big, open-hearted smile that the long years since then have taught me to associate with Canada and Canadians.

"I'll take it," I said. Prabaker passed it to me, and I broke the ten-gram lump into two pieces, throwing one half to one of my roommates. "Here. Something for the train ride to Poona tomorrow."

"Thanks, man," he answered, showing the piece to his friend.

"Say, you're all right. Crazy, but all right."

I pulled a bottle of whisky from my pack and cracked the seal. It was another ritual, another promise to a friend in New Zealand, a girl who'd asked me to have a drink and think of her if I managed to smuggle myself safely into India with my false passport. The little rituals-the smoke and the drink of whisky-were important to me. I was sure that I'd lost those friends, just as I'd lost my family, and every friend I'd ever known, when I'd escaped from prison. I was sure, somehow, that I would never see them again. I was alone in the world, with no hope of return, and my whole life was held in memories, talismans, and pledges of love.

I was about to take a sip from the bottle, but an impulse made me offer it to Prabaker first.

"Thank you too much, Mr. Lindsay," he gushed, his eyes wide with delight. He tipped his head backward and poured a measure of whisky into his mouth, without touching the bottle to his lips.

"Is very best, first number, Johnnie Walker. Oh, yes."

"Have some more, if you like."

"Just a teeny pieces, thank you so." He drank again, glugging the liquor down in throat-bulging gulps. He paused, licking his lips, then tipped the bottle back a third time. "Sorry, aaah, very sorry. Is so good this whisky, it is making a bad manners on me."

"Listen, if you like it that much, you can keep the bottle. I've got another one. I bought them duty free on the plane."

"Oh, thank you..." he answered, but his smile crumpled into a stricken expression.

"What's the matter? Don't you want it?"

"Yes, yes, Mr. Lindsay, very yes. But if I knew this was my whisky and not yours, I would not have been so generous with my good self in the drinking it up."

The young Canadians laughed.

"I tell you what, Prabaker. I'll give you the full bottle, to keep, and we'll all share the open one. How's that? And here's the two hundred rupees for the smoke."

The smile shone anew, and he swapped the open bottle for the full one, cradling it in his folded arms tenderly.

"But Mr. Lindsay, you are making a mistake. I say that this very best charras is one hundred rupees, not two."

"U-huh."

"Oh, yes. One hundred rupees only," he declared, passing one of the notes back to me dismissively.

"Okay. Listen, I'm hungry, Prabaker. I didn't eat on the plane.

Do you think you could show me to a good, clean restaurant?"

"Very certainly, Mr. Lindsay sir! I know such excellent restaurants, with such a wonder of foods, you will be making yourself sick to your stomach with happiness."

"You talked me into it," I said, standing and gathering up my passport and money. "You guys coming?"

"What, out there? You gotta be kidding."

"Yeah, maybe later. Like, much later. But we'll watch your stuff here, and wait for you to come back."

"Okay, suit yourselves. I'll be back in a couple of hours."

Prabaker bowed and fawned, and politely took his leave. I joined him, but just as I was about to close the door, the tall young man spoke.

"Listen... take it easy on the street, huh? I mean, you don't know what it's like here. You can't trust no-one. This ain't the village. The Indians in the city are... well, just be careful, is all. Okay?" At the reception desk, Anand put my passport, travel cheques, and the bulk of my cash in his safe, giving me a detailed receipt, and I stepped down to the street with the words of the young Canadian's warning wheeling and turning in my mind like gulls above a spawning tide.

Prabaker had taken us to the hotel along a wide, tree-lined, and relatively empty avenue that followed a curve of the bay from the tall, stone arch of the Gateway of India Monument. The street at the front of the building was crammed with people and vehicles, however, and the sound of voices, car horns, and commerce was like a storm of rain on wood and metal roofs.

Hundreds of people walked there, or stood in talking groups.

Shops, restaurants, and hotels filled the street side by side along its entire length. Every shop or restaurant featured a smaller sub-shop attached to the front of it. Two or three attendants, seated on folding stools, manned each of those small encroachments on the footpath. There were Africans, Arabs, Europeans, and Indians. Languages and music changed with every step, and every restaurant spilled a different scent into the boiling air.

Men with bullock wagons and handcarts wound their way through heavy traffic to deliver watermelons and sacks of rice, soft drinks and racks of clothes, cigarettes and blocks of ice. Money was everywhere: it was a centre for the black-market trade in currencies, Prabaker told me, and thick blocks of bank notes were being counted and changing hands openly. There were beggars and jugglers and acrobats, snake charmers and musicians and astrologers, palmists and pimps and pushers. And the street was filthy. Trash tumbled from the windows above without warning, and garbage was heaped in piles on the pavement or the roadway, where fat, fearless rats slithered to feast.

Most prominent on the street, to my eyes, were the many crippled and diseased beggars. Every kind of illness, disability, and hardship paraded there, stood at the doorways of restaurants and shops, or approached people on the street with professionally plaintive cries. Like the first sight of the slums from the windows of the bus, that glimpse of the suffering street brought a hot shame to my healthy face. But as Prabaker led me on through the roistering crowd, he drew my attention to other images of those beggars that softened the awful caricature presented by the performance of their piteousness. One group of beggars sat in a doorway, playing cards, some blind men and their friends enjoyed a meal of fish and rice, and laughing children took turns to ride with a legless man on his little trolley.

Prabaker was stealing sideways glances at my face as we walked.

"How are you liking our Bombay?"

"I love it," I answered, and it was true. To my eyes, the city was beautiful. It was wild and exciting. Buildings that were British Raj-romantic stood side to side with modern, mirrored business towers. The haphazard slouch of neglected tenements crumbled into lavish displays of market vegetables and silks. I heard music from every shop and passing taxi. The colours were vibrant. The fragrances were dizzyingly delicious. And there were more smiles in the eyes on those crowded streets than in any other place I'd ever known.

Above all else, Bombay was free-exhilaratingly free. I saw that liberated, unconstrained spirit wherever I looked, and I found myself responding to it with the whole of my heart. Even the flare of shame I'd felt when I first saw the slums and the street beggars dissolved in the understanding that they were free, those men and women. No-one drove the beggars from the streets. No-one banished the slum-dwellers. Painful as their lives were, they were free to live them in the same gardens and avenues as the rich and powerful. They were free. The city was free. I loved it.

Yet I was a little unnerved by the density of purposes, the carnival of needs and greeds, the sheer intensity of the pleading and the scheming on the street. I spoke none of the languages I heard. I knew nothing of the cultures there, clothed in robes and saris and turbans. It was as if I'd found myself in a performance of some extravagant, complex drama, and I didn't have a script.

But I smiled, and smiling was easy, no matter how strange and disorienting the street seemed to be. I was a fugitive. I was a wanted man, a hunted man, with a price on my head. And I was still one step ahead of them. I was free. Every day, when you're on the run, is the whole of your life. Every free minute is a short story with a happy ending.

And I was glad of Prabaker's company. I noticed that he was well known on the street, that he was greeted frequently and with considerable warmth by a wide range of people.

"You must be hungry, Mr. Lindsay," Prabaker observed. "You are a happy fellow, don't mind I'm saying it, and happy always has it the good appetites." "Well, I'm hungry enough, all right. Where is this place we're going to, anyway? If I'd known it would take this long to get to the restaurant, I would've brought a cut lunch with me."

"Just a little bit not much too very far," he replied cheerfully.

"Okay..."

"Oh, yes! I will take you to the best restaurant, and with the finest Maharashtra foods. You will enjoy, no problem. All the Bombay guides like me eat their foods there. This place is so good, they only have to pay the police half of usual baksheesh money. So good they are."

"Okay..."

"Oh, yes! But first, let me get it Indian cigarette for you, and for me also. Here, we stop now."

He led me to a street stall that was no more than a folding card table, with a dozen brands of cigarettes arranged in a cardboard box. On the table there was a large brass tray, carrying several small silver dishes. The dishes contained shredded coconut, spices, and an assortment of unidentifiable pastes. A bucket beside the card table was filled with spear-shaped leaves, floating in water. The cigarette seller was drying the leaves, smearing them with various pastes, filling them with ground dates, coconut, betel, and spices, and rolling them into small packages. The many customers crowded around his stall purchased the leaves as fast as his dexterous hands could fill them.

Prabaker pressed close to the man, waiting for a chance to make his order. Craning my neck to watch him through the thicket of customers, I moved closer toward the edge of the footpath. As I took a step down onto the road, I heard an urgent shout.

"_Look _out!"

Two hands grasped my arm at the elbow and jerked me back, just as a huge, fast-moving, double-decker bus swept past. The bus would've killed me if those hands hadn't halted me in my stride, and I swung round to face my saviour. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She was slender, with black, shoulder-length hair, and pale skin. Although she wasn't tall, her square shoulders and straight-backed posture, with both feet planted firmly apart, gave her a quietly determined physical presence.

She was wearing silk pants, bound tightly at the ankles, black low-heeled shoes, a loose cotton shirt, and a large, long silk shawl. She wore the shawl backwards, with the double-mane of the liquid fabric twirling and fluttering at her back. All her clothes were in different shades of green.

The clue to everything a man should love and fear in her was there, right from the start, in the ironic smile that primed and swelled the archery of her full lips. There was pride in that smile, and confidence in the set of her fine nose. Without understanding why, I knew beyond question that a lot of people would mistake her pride for arrogance, and confuse her confidence with impassivity. I didn't make that mistake. My eyes were lost, swimming, floating free in the shimmering lagoon of her steady, even stare. Her eyes were large and spectacularly green. It was the green that trees are, in vivid dreams. It was the green that the sea would be, if the sea were perfect.

Her hand was still resting in the curve of my arm, near the elbow. The touch was exactly what the touch of a lover's hand should be: familiar, yet exciting as a whispered promise. I felt an almost irresistible urge to take her hand and place it flat against my chest, near my heart. Maybe I should've done it. I know now that she would've laughed, if I'd done it, and she would've liked me for it. But strangers that we were then, we stood for five long seconds and held the stare, while all the parallel worlds, all the parallel lives that might've been, and never would be, whirled around us. Then she spoke.

"That was close. You're lucky."

"Yes," I smiled. "I am."

Her hand slowly left my arm. It was an easy, relaxed gesture, but I felt the detachment from her as sharply as if I'd been roughly woken from a deep and happy dream. I leaned toward her, looking behind her to the left and then to the right.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I'm looking for your wings. You are my guardian angel, aren't you?"

"I'm afraid not," she replied, her cheeks dimpling with a wry smile. "There's too much of the devil in me for that."

"Just how much devil," I grinned, "are we talking about here?"

Some people were standing in a group, on the far side of the stall. One of them-a handsome, athletic man in his mid-twenties - stepped to the road and called to her. "Karla! Come on, _yaar!"

She turned and waved to him, then held out her hand to shake mine with a grip that was firm, but emotionally indeterminable. Her smile was just as ambiguous. She mightVe liked me, or she might've just been happy to say goodbye.

"You still haven't answered my question," I said, as her hand slipped from mine.

"How much devil have I got in me?" she answered me, the half- smile teasing her lips. "That's a very personal question. Come to think of it, that might just be the most personal question anyone ever asked me. But, hey, if you come to Leopold's, some time, you could find out."

Her friends had moved to our side of the little stand, and she left me to join them. They were all Indians, all young, and dressed in the clean, fashionably western clothes of the middle class. They laughed often and leaned against one another familiarly, but no-one touched Karla. She seemed to project an aura that was attractive and inviolable at the same time. I moved closer, pretending to be intrigued by the cigarette seller's work with his leaves and pastes. I listened as she spoke to them, but I couldn't understand the language. Her voice, in that language and in that conversation, was surprisingly deep and sonorous; the hairs on my arms tingled in response to the sound of it. And I suppose that, too, should've been a warning. The voice, Afghan matchmakers say, is more than half of love. But I didn't know that then, and my heart rushed in, where even matchmakers might've feared to tread.

"See, Mr. Lindsay, I bought it just two cigarettes for us,"

Prabaker said, rejoining me and offering one of the cigarettes with a flourish. "This is India, country of the poor fellows. No need for buying whole packet of cigarettes here. Just one cigarette, you can buy only. And no need for buying it any matches."

He leaned forward and took up a length of smouldering hemp rope that was hanging from a hook on the telegraph pole, next to the cigarette stall. Prabaker blew the ash from the end of it, exposing a little orange ember of fire, which he used to puff his cigarette alight.

"What is he making? What are they chewing in those leaves?"

"Is called paan. A most very excellent taste and chewing it is.

Everyone in Bombay is chewing and spitting, chewing and more spitting, no problem, day and night also. Very good for health it is, plenty of chewing and full spitting. You want to try it? I will get it for you some."

I nodded and let him make the order, not so much for the new experience of the paan as for the excuse it offered to stand there longer, and look at Karla. She was so relaxed and at home, so much a part of the street and its inscrutable lore. What I found bewildering, all around me, seemed to be mundane for her. I was reminded of the foreigner in the slum-the man I'd seen from the window of the bus. Like him, she seemed calm and content in Bombay. She seemed to belong. I envied her the warmth and acceptance she drew from those around her.

But more than that, my eyes were drawn to her perfect loveliness.

I looked at her, a stranger, and every other breath strained to force its way from my chest. A clamp like a tightening fist seized my heart. A voice in my blood said yes, yes, yes... The ancient Sanskrit legends speak of a destined love, a karmic connection between souls that are fated to meet and collide and enrapture one another. The legends say that the loved one is instantly recognised because she's loved in every gesture, every expression of thought, every movement, every sound, and every mood that prays in her eyes. The legends say that we know her by her wings-the wings that only we can see-and because wanting her kills every other desire of love.

The same legends also carry warnings that such fated love may, sometimes, be the possession and the obsession of one, and only one, of the two souls twinned by destiny. But wisdom, in one sense, is the opposite of love. Love survives in us precisely because it isn't wise.

"Ah, you look that girl," Prabaker observed, returning with the paan and following the direction of my gaze. "You think she is beautiful, na? Her name is Karla."

"You know her?"

"Oh, yes! Karla is everybody knows," he replied, in a stage whisper so loud that I feared she might hear. "You want to meet her?"

"Meet her?"

"If you want it, I will speak to her. You want her to be your friend?"

"What?"

"Oh, yes! Karla is my friend, and she will be your friend also, I think so. Maybe you will make a lot of money for your very good self, in business with Karla. Maybe you will become such good and closely friends that you will have it a lot of sexes together, and make a full enjoyment of your bodies. I am sure you will have a friendly pleasure."

He was actually rubbing his hands together. The red juices of the paan stained the teeth and lips of his smile. I had to grasp at his arm to stop him from approaching her, there, in the group of her friends.

"No! Stop! For Christ's sake, keep your voice down, Prabaker. If I want to speak to her, I'll do it myself."

"Oh, I am understand," he said, looking abashed. "It is what foreigners are calling foreplay, isn't it?"

"No! Foreplay is... never mind what foreplay is!"

"Oh, good! I never mind about the foreplays, Mr. Lindsay. I am an Indian fellow, and we Indian fellows, we don't worry about the foreplayings. We go straight to the bumping and jumping. Oh yes!"

He was holding an imaginary woman in his hands and thrusting his narrow hips at her, smiling that red-juiced smile all the while.

"Will you stop that!" I snapped, looking up to see if Karla and her friends were watching him.

"Okay, Mr. Lindsay," he sighed, slowing his rhythmic thrusts until they stopped altogether. "But, I can still make a good offer of your friendship to the Miss Karla, if you like?"

"No! I mean-no, thank you. I don't want to proposition her. I ... Oh God, what's the use. Just tell me... the man who's talking now-what language is he speaking?"

"He is speaking Hindi language, Mr. Lindsay. You wait one minute, I will tell you what is it he is saying."

He moved to the far side of the stall and joined her group quite unselfconsciously, leaning in to listen. No-one paid any attention to him. He nodded, laughed with the others, and returned after a few minutes.

"He is telling it one very funny story, about an inspector of Bombay Police, a very great powerful fellow in this area. That inspector did lock up a very clever fellow in his jail, but the clever fellow, he did convince the inspector to let him out again, because he told the inspector he had some gold and jewels.

Not only that, but when he was free, the clever fellow sold the inspector some of the gold and some jewels. But they were not really gold and not really jewels. They were the imitations, and very cheaply not the really things. And the worst mischief, the clever fellow lived in the inspector's house for one week before he sold the not-really jewels. And there is a big rumour that the clever fellow had sexy business with that inspector's wife. Now the inspector is crazy, and so much angry, that everybody is running when they see him."

"How do you know her? Does she live here?" "Know who, Mr. Lindsay-that inspector's wife?"

"No, of course not! I mean the girl-Karla."

"You know," he mused, frowning hard for the first time, "there are a lots of girls in this Bombay. We are only five minutes from your hotel. In this five minutes, we have seen it hundreds of girls. In five minutes more, there is more hundreds of girls.

Every five minutes, more hundreds of girls. And after a little of walking, we will see hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds-"

"Oh, hundreds of girls, great!" I interrupted sarcastically, my voice much louder than I'd intended it to be. I glanced around.

Several people were staring at me with undisguised contempt. I continued, in a hushed tone. "I don't want to know about hundreds of girls, Prabaker. I'm just... curious... about... about that girl, okay?"

"Okay, Mr. Lindsay, I will be telling you everything. Karla-she is a famous businessman in Bombay. Very long she is here. I think five years maybe. She has one small house, not far. Everybody knows the Karla."

"Where is she from?"

"I think, German, or something like that."

"But she sounded American."

"Yes, is sounding, but she is from German, or like to the German.

And now, anyway, is almost very Indian. You want to eat your foods now?"

"Yeah, just a minute."

The group of young friends called out their goodbyes to others near the paan stand, and walked off into the mill and swirl of the crowd. Karla joined them, walking away with her head held high in that curiously straight-backed, almost defiant posture. I watched her until she was swallowed by the people-tide of the crowds, but she never looked back.

"Do you know a place called Leopold's?" I asked Prabaker as he joined me, and we started to walk once more.

"Oh, yes! Wonderful and lovely place it is, Leopold's Beer Bar.

Full of the most wonderful, lovely peoples, the very, very fine and lovely people. All kind of foreigners you can find there, all making good business. Sexy business, and drugs business, and money business, and black-market business, and naughty pictures, and smuggler business, and passport business, and-"

"Okay, Prabaker, I get it."

"You want to go there?" "No. Maybe later." I stopped walking, and Prabaker stopped beside me. "Listen, what do your friends call you? I mean, what's your name for short, instead of Prabaker?"

"Oh, yes, short name I am having also. My short name is Prabu."

"Prabu... I like it."

"It's meaning the Son of Light, or like to that. Is good name, yes?"

"Is good name, yes."

"And your good name, Mr. Lindsay, it is really not so good, if you don't mind I'm telling your face. I don't like it this long and kind of a squeaky name, for Indian people speaking."

"Oh, you don't?"

"Sorry to say it, no. I don't. Not at all. Not a bit. Not even a teensy or a weensy-"

"Well," I smiled, "I'm afraid there's not a lot I can do about it."

"I'm thinking that a short name-Lin-is much better," he suggested. "If you're not having objections, I will call you Lin."

It was as good a name as any, and no more or less false than the dozen others I'd assumed since the escape. In fact, in recent months I'd found myself reacting with a quirky fatalism to the new names I was forced to adopt, in one place or another, and to the new names that others gave me. Lin. It was a diminutive I never could've invented for myself. But it sounded right, which is to say that I heard the voodoo echo of something ordained, fated: a name that instantly belonged to me, as surely as the lost, secret name with which I was born, and under which I'd been sentenced to twenty years in prison.

I peered down into Prabaker's round face and his large, dark, mischievous eyes, and I nodded, smiled, and accepted the name. I couldn't know, then, that the little Bombay street guide had given me a name thousands of people, from Colaba to Kandahar, from Kinshasa to Berlin, would come to know me by. Fate needs accomplices, and the stones in destiny's walls are mortared with small and heedless complicities such as those. I look back, now, and I know that the naming moment, which seemed so insignificant then, which seemed to demand no more than an arbitrary and superstitious yes or no, was in fact a pivotal moment in my life.

The role I played under that name, and the character I became-

Linbaba-was more real, and true to my nature, than anyone or anything that I ever was before it. "Yes, okay, Lin will do."

"Very good! I am too happy that you like it, this name. And like my name is meaning Son of Light in Hindi language, your name, Lin, has it also a very fine and so lucky meaning."

"Yeah? What does Lin mean in Hindi?"

"It's meaning _Penis!" he explained, with a delight that he expected me to share.

"Oh, great. That's just... great."

"Yes very great, very lucky. It is not exactly meaning this, but it is sounding like ling, or lingam, and that is meaning penis."

"Come off it, man," I protested, beginning to walk once more.

"How can I go around calling myself Mr. Penis? Are you kidding me? I can see it now-Oh, hello, pleased to meet you, my name is Penis. No way. Forget it. I think we'll stick to Lindsay."

"No! No! Lin, really I'm telling you, this is a fine name, a very power name, a very lucky, a too lucky name! The people will love this name, when they hear it. Come, I will show you. I want to leave it this bottle of whisky you gave to me, leave it with my friend, Mr. Sanjay. Here, just here in this shop. Just you see how he likes it your name."

A few more paces along the busy street brought us to a small shop with a hand-painted sign over the open door:

RADIO SICK

Electric Repair Enterprises Electrical Sales and Repairs, Sanjay Deshpande Proprietor Sanjay Deshpande was a heavy-set man in his fifties with a halo of grey-white hair, and white, bushy eyebrows. He sat behind a solid wooden counter, surrounded by bomb-blast radios, eviscerated cassette players, and boxes of parts. Prabaker greeted him, chattering in rapid Hindi, and passed the bottle of whisky over the counter. Mr. Deshpande slapped a meaty hand on it, without looking at it, and slid it out of sight on his side of the counter. He took a sheaf of rupee notes from his shirt pocket, peeled off a number, and passed them across with his palm turned downward. Prabaker took the money and slipped it into his pocket with a movement as swift and fluid as the tentacle-grab of a squid. He finished talking, at last, and beckoned me forward.

"This is my very good friend," he informed Mr. Deshpande, patting me on the arm. "He is from New Zealand."

Mr. Deshpande grunted.

"He is just today coming in Bombay. India Guest House, he is staying."

Mr. Deshpande grunted again. He studied me with a vaguely hostile curiosity.

"His name is Lin. Mr. Linbaba," Prabaker said.

"What's his name?" Mr. Deshpande asked.

"Lin," Prabaker grinned. "His name is Linbaba."

Mr. Deshpande raised his impressive eyebrows in a surprised smile.

"Linbaba?"

"Oh, yes!" Prabaker enthused. "Lin. Lin. Very fine fellow, he is also."

Mr. Deshpande extended his hand, and I shook it. We greeted one another, and then Prabaker began to tug at my sleeve, pulling me towards the doorway.

"Linbaba!" Mr. Deshpande called out, as we were about to step into the street. "Welcome in Bombay. You have any Walkman or camera or any ghetto-blasting machine for selling, you come to me, Sanjay Deshpande, at Radio Sick. I am giving best prices."

I nodded, and we left the shop. Prabaker dragged me a few paces further along the street, and then stopped.

"You see, Mr. Lin? You see how he likes it your name?"

"I guess so," I muttered, bewildered as much by his enthusiasm as by the brief exchange with Mr. Deshpande. When I got to know him well enough, when I began to cherish his friendship, I discovered that Prabaker believed with the whole of his heart that his smile made a difference, in people's hearts and in the world. He was right, of course, but it took me a long time to understand that truth, and to accept it.

"What's the baba part, at the end of the name? Lin, I can understand. But what's the Linbaba bit all about?"

"Baba is just a respecting name," Prabaker grinned. "If we put baba up on the back of your name, or on the name of anybody special, it is like meaning the respect we give it to a teacher, or a holy persons, or a very old, old, old-"

"I get it, I get it, but it doesn't make me any more comfortable with it, Prabu, I gotta tell ya. This whole penis thing... I don't know."

"But you did see, Mr. Sanjay Deshpande! You did see how he liked it your name! Look, see how the people love this name. You see now, you look, I will tell it to everybody! Linbaba! Linbaba!

Linbaba!"

He was speaking in a shout, addressing strangers as they passed us on the street.

"All right, Prabu, all right. I take your word for it. Calm down." It was my turn to tug at his sleeve, and move him along the street. "I thought you wanted to _drink the whisky?"

"Ah, yes," he sighed, "was wanting it, and was already drinking it in my mind also. But now, Linbaba, with this money from selling your good present to Mr. Sanjay, I can buy two bottles of very bad and nicely cheap Indian whisky, to enjoy, and plenty of money left for one nice new shirt, red colour, one tola of good charras, tickets for enjoying air condition Hindi picture, and two days of foods. But wait, Linbaba, you are not eating it your paan. You must put it now in the side of your mouth and chew it, before it is getting stale and not good for taste."

"Okay, how do I do it? Like this?"

I put the leaf-wrapped parcel, almost the size of a matchbox, into the side of my mouth between the cheek and the teeth, as I'd seen the others do. Within seconds, a suffusion of aromatic sweetnesses possessed my mouth. The taste was sharp and luscious - honeyed and subtly piquant at the same time. The leaf wrapping began to dissolve, and the solid, crunchy nibbles of shaved betel nut, date, and coconut swirled in the sweet juices.

"You must spit it out some paan now," Prabaker said, staring at my grinding jaws with earnest concentration. "You make like this, see? Spit him out like this."

He spat out a squirt of red juice that landed on the road, a metre away, and formed a palm-sized blotch. It was a precise, expert procedure. Not a speck of the juice remained on his lips.

With his enthusiastic encouragement, I tried to imitate him, but the mouthful of crimson liquid bubbled out of my mouth, left a trail of slobber on my chin and the front of my shirt, and landed with an audible splat on my right boot.

"No problem this shirt," Prabaker frowned, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, and smearing the blood-red fluid deeper into my shirtfront with vigorously ineffective rubbing. "No problem your boots also. I will wipe him just like this, see? I must ask it now, do you like the swimming?" "Swimming?" I asked, swallowing the little paan mixture that was still in my mouth.

"Oh, yes. Swimming. I will take you to Chowpatty beach, so nice beach it is, and there you can practise chewing and spitting and chewing and more spitting the paan, but without so many of all your clothes only, for a good saving on your laundry."

"Listen, about that-going around the city-you work as a guide, right?"

"Oh, yes. Very best Bombay guide, and guiding all India also."

"How much do you charge per day?"

He glanced at me, his cheeks appled in the impish grin I was learning to recognise as the clever under-side of his broad and gentle smile.

"I charge hundred rupees all day," he said.

"Okay..."

"And tourists buy it the lunch."

"Sure."

"And taxi also, tourists pay."

"Of course."

"And Bombay bus tickets, all they pay."

"Yeah."

"And chai, if we drink it on a hot afternoon, for refreshing our good selves."

"U-huh-"

"And sexy girls, if we go there, on a cool night, if we are feeling a big needy swelling in our-"

"Yeah, okay, okay. Listen, I'll pay you for the whole week. I want you to show me Bombay, teach me a bit about the city. If it works out okay, there'll be a bonus for you at the end of the week. How does that sound?"

The smile sparked his eyes, but his voice was surprisingly sombre as he replied.

"This is your good decision, Linbaba. Your very good decision."

"Well," I laughed, "we'll see. And I want you to teach me some Hindi words, okay?"

"Oh, yes! I can teach everything! Ha means yes, and nahin means no, and pani means water, and khanna means foods, and-"

"Okay, okay, we don't have to learn it all at once. Is this the restaurant? Good, I'm starved." I was about to enter the dark and unprepossessing restaurant when he stopped me, his expression suddenly grave. He frowned, and swallowed hard, as if he was unsure how to begin.

"Before we are eating this good foods," he said, at last, "before we... before we make any business also, something there is, I must tell it to you."

"O-kay... "

His manner was so dejected that I felt a twinge of apprehension.

"Well, now I am telling... that tola charras, the one I was selling to you in hotel..."

"Yes?"

"Well... that was the business price. The really price-the friendship price-is only fifty rupees for one tola Afghani charras." He lifted his arms, and then let them slap down at his thighs. "I charged it fifty rupees too much."

"I see," I answered quietly. The matter was so trivial, from my point of view, that I was tempted to laugh out loud. It was obviously important to him, however, and I suspected that he wasn't often moved to make such admissions. In fact, as he told me much later, Prabaker had just then decided to like me, and for him that meant he was bound to a scrupulous and literal honesty in everything he said or did. It was at once his most endearing and most irritating quality, that he always told me the whole of the truth.

"So... what do you want to do about it?"

"My suggestion," he said seriously, "we smoke it that business price charras very fast, until finish that one, then I will buy new one for us. After from now, it will be everything friendship prices, for you and for me also. This is a no problem policy, isn't it?"

I laughed, and he laughed with me. I threw my arm around his shoulder and led him into the steamy, ambrosial activity of the busy restaurant.

"Lin, I think I am your very good friend," Prabaker decided, grinning happily. "We are the lucky fellows, isn't it?"

"Maybe it is," I replied. "Maybe it is."

Hours later, I lay back in a comfortable darkness, under the sound-strobe of a ceaselessly revolving ceiling fan. I was tired, but I couldn't sleep. Beneath my windows the street that had writhed and toiled in daylight was silent, subdued by a night- sultriness, moist with stars. Astounding and puzzling images from the city tumbled and turned in my mind like leaves on a wave of wind, and my blood so thrilled with hope and possibility that I couldn't suppress a smile, lying there in the dark. No-one, in the world I'd left behind me, knew where I was. No-one, in the new world of Bombay, knew who I was. In that moment, in those shadows, I was almost safe.

I thought of Prabaker, and his promise to return early in the morning to begin my tours of the city. Will he come? I wondered.

Or will I see him somewhere later in the day, walking with another newly arrived tourist? I decided, with the faint, impersonal callousness of the lonely, that if he were as good as his word, and turned up in the morning, I would begin to like him.

I thought of the woman, Karla, again and again, surprised that her composed, unsmiling face intruded so often. If you go to Leopold's, some time, maybe you'll find out. That was the last thing she'd said to me. I didn't know if it was an invitation, a challenge, or a warning. Whatever it was, I meant to take her up on it. I meant to go there, and look for her. But not yet. Not until I'd learned a little more about the city she seemed to know so well. I'll give it a week, I thought. A week in the city...

And beyond those reflections, as always, in fixed orbits around the cold sphere of my solitude, were thoughts of my family and my friends. Endless. Unreachable. Every night was twisted around the unquenchable longing of what my freedom had cost me, and all that was lost. Every night was pierced by the spike of shame for what my freedom continued to cost them, the loved ones I was sure I would never see again.

"We could'a beat him down, you know," the tall Canadian said from his dark corner on the far side of the room, his sudden voice in the whirring silence sounding like stones thrown on a metal roof.

"We could'a beat that manager down on the price of this room.

It's costin' us six bucks for the day. We could'a beat him down to four. It's not a lotta money, but it's the way they do things here. You gotta beat these guys down, and barter for everything.

We're leavin' tomorrow for Delhi, but you're stayin' here. We talked about it before, when you were out, and we're kinda worried about you. You gotta beat 'em down, man. If you don't learn that, if you don't start thinkin' like that, they're gonna fuck you over, these people. The Indians in the cities are real mercenary, man. It's a great country, don't get me wrong. That's why we come back here. But they're different than us. They're... hell, they just expect it, that's all. You gotta beat 'em down."

He was right about the price of the room, of course. We could've saved a dollar or two per day. And haggling is the economical thing to do. Most of the time, it's the shrewd and amiable way to conduct your business in India.

But he was wrong, too. The manager, Anand, and I became good friends, in the years that followed. The fact that I trusted him on sight and didn't haggle, on that first day, that I didn't try to make a buck out of him, that I worked on an instinct that respected him and was prepared to like him, endeared me to him.

He told me so, more than once. He knew, as we did, that six of our dollars wasn't an extravagant price for three foreign men to pay. The owners of the hotel received four dollars per day per room. That was their base line. The dollar or two above that minimum was all Anand and his staff of three room boys shared as their daily wage. The little victories haggled from him by foreign tourists cost Anand his daily bread, and cost them the chance to know him as a friend.

The simple and astonishing truth about India and Indian people is that when you go there, and deal with them, your heart always guides you more wisely than your head. There's nowhere else in the world where that's quite so true.

I didn't know that then, as I closed my eyes in the dark and breathing silence on that first night in Bombay. I was running on instinct, and pushing my luck. I didn't know that I'd already given my heart to the woman, and the city. And knowing none of it, I fell, before the smile faded from my lips, into a dreamless, gentle sleep.

____________________

CHAPTER TWO

She walked into Leopold's at the usual time, and when she stopped at a table near me to talk with friends, I tried once more to find the words for the foliant blaze of her green eyes. I thought of leaves and opals and the warm shallows of island seas. But the living emerald in Karla's eyes, made luminous by the sunflowers of gold light that surrounded the pupils, was softer, far softer.

I did eventually find that colour, the green in nature that was a perfect match for the green in her lovely eyes, but it wasn't until long months after that night in Leopold's. And strangely, inexplicably, I didn't tell her about it. I wish now with all my heart that I did. The past reflects eternally between two mirrors - the bright mirror of words and deeds, and the dark one, full of things we didn't do or say. I wish now that from the beginning, even then in the first weeks that I knew her, even on that night, the words had come to tell her... to tell her that I liked her.

And I did-I liked everything about her. I liked the Helvetian music of her Swiss-American English, and the way she pushed her hair back slowly with a thumb and forefinger when she was irritated by something. I liked the hard-edged cleverness of her conversation, and the easy, gentle way she touched the people she liked when she walked past them or sat beside them. I liked the way she held my eyes until the precise moment when it stopped being comfortable, and then smiled, softening the assail, but never looked away.

She looked the world in the eye and stared it down, and I liked that about her because I didn't love the world then. The world wanted to kill me or catch me. The world wanted to put me back in the same cage I'd escaped from, where the good guys, the guys in prison-guard uniforms who got paid to do the right thing, had chained me to a wall and kicked me until they broke my bones. And maybe the world was right to want that. Maybe it was no worse than I deserved. But repression, they say, breeds resistance in some men, and I was resisting the world with every minute of my life.

The world and I are not on speaking terms, Karla said to me once in those early months. The world keeps trying to win me back, she said, but it doesn't work. I guess I'm just not the forgiving type. And I saw that in her, too, right from the start. I knew from the first minute how much like me she was. I knew the determination in her that was almost brutal, and the courage that was almost cruel, and the lonely, angry longing to be loved. I knew all that, but I didn't say a word. I didn't tell her how much I liked her. I was numb, in those first years after the escape: shell-shocked by the disasters that warred in my life. My heart moved through deep and silent water. No-one, and nothing, could really hurt me. No-one, and nothing, could make me very happy. I was tough, which is probably the saddest thing you can say about a man.

"You're becoming a regular here," she teased, ruffling my hair with one hand as she sat down at my table.

I loved it when she did that: it meant that she'd read me accurately, that she was sure I wouldn't take offence. I was thirty then-ugly, taller than average, with wide shoulders, a deep chest, and thick arms. People didn't often ruffle my hair.

"Yeah. I guess I am."

"So, you went around on tour with Prabaker again? How was it today?"

"He took me to the island, Elephanta, to see the caves."

"A beautiful place," she remarked quietly, looking at me, but dreaming of something else. "If you get the chance, you should visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves, in the north of the state. I spent the night there, once, at Ajanta, in one of the caves. My boss took me there."

"Your boss?"

"Yes, my boss."

"Is he European, your boss, or Indian?"

"Neither one, actually."

"Tell me about him."

"Why?" she asked with a direct, frowning stare.

I was simply making conversation, trying to keep her near me, talking to me, and the sudden wariness that bristled in the single word of her question surprised me. "It's no big deal," I replied, smiling. "I'm just curious about how people get work here, how they make a living, that's all."

"Well, I met him five years ago, on a long-distance flight," she said, looking down at her hands and seeming to relax once more.

"We both got on the plane at Zurich. I was on my way to Singapore, but by the time we got to Bombay he'd convinced me to get off the plane and work for him. The trip to the caves was... something special. He arranged it, somehow, with the authorities, and I went up there with him, and spent the night in a big cave, full of stone sculptures of the Buddha, and a thousand chattering bats. I was safe. He had a bodyguard posted outside. But it was incredible. A fantastic experience. And it really helped me to ... to put things in focus. Sometimes you break your heart in the right way, if you know what I mean."

I wasn't sure what she meant; but when she paused, expecting a reply, I nodded as if I did understand.

"You learn something or you _feel something completely new, when you break your heart that way," she said. "Something that only you can know or feel in that way. And I knew, after that night, I would never have that feeling anywhere but India. I knew-I can't explain it, I just knew somehow-that I was home, and warm, and safe. And, well, I'm still here..."

"What kind of business is he in?"

"What?"

"Your boss-what does he do?"

"Imports," she said. "And exports."

She lapsed into silence, turning her head to scan the other tables.

"Do you miss your home?"

"My home?"

"Yeah, I mean your other home. Don't you ever get homesick for Switzerland?"

"In a way, yes I do. I come from Basel-have you ever been there?"

"No, I've never been to Europe."

"Well, you must go, and when you go there you must visit Basel.

It's really a very European city, you know? It's divided by the river Rhine into Great Basel and Small Basel, and the two halves of the city have really different styles and attitudes, so it's like living in two cities at the same time. That used to suit me once. And it's right on the meeting place of three countries, so you can just walk across the border into Germany and France. You can have breakfast in France, you know, with coffee and baguettes, and lunch in Switzerland, and dinner in Germany, without leaving the city by more than a few kilometres. I miss Basel, more than I miss Switzerland."

She stopped, catching her breath, and looked up at me through soft, unpainted lashes.

"Sorry, I'm giving you a geography lesson here."

"No, no, please go on. It's interesting."

"You know," she said slowly, "I like you, Lin."

She stared that green fire into me. I felt myself reddening slightly, not from embarrassment, but from shame, that she'd said so easily the very words, I like you, that I wouldn't let myself say to her.

"You do?" I asked, trying to make the question sound more casual than it was. I watched her lips close in a thin smile.

"Yes. You're a good listener. That's dangerous, because it's so hard to resist. Being listened to-really listened to-is the second-best thing in the world."

"What's the first best thing?"

"Everybody knows that. The best thing in the world is power."

"Oh, is it?" I asked, laughing. "What about sex?"

"No. Apart from the biology, sex is all about power. That's why it's such a rush."

I laughed again.

"And what about love? A lot of people say that love is the best thing in the world, not power."

"They're wrong," she said with terse finality. "Love is the opposite of power. That's why we fear it so much."

"Karla, dear one, the things you say!" Didier Levy said, joining us and taking a seat beside Karla. "I must make the conclusion that you have wicked intentions for our Lin."

"You didn't hear a word we said," she chided.

"I don't have to _hear you. I can see by the look on his face.

You've been talking your riddles to him, and turning his head around. You forget, Karla, that I know you too well. Here, Lin, we'll cure you at once!"

He shouted to one of the red-jacketed waiters, calling the man by the number "4" emblazoned on the breast pocket on his uniform.

"Hey! Char number! Do battlee beer! What will you have, Karla?

Coffee? Oh, char number! Ek coffee aur. Jaldi karo!"

Didier Levy was only thirty-five years old, but those years were stitched to him in lumpy wads of flesh and deep lines that gave him the plump and careworn look of a much older man. In defiance of the humid climate, he always wore baggy canvas trousers, a denim shirt, and a rumpled, grey woollen sports coat. His thick, curly black hair never seemed to be shorter or longer than the line of his collar, just as the stubble on his tired face never seemed to be less than three days from its last shave. He spoke a lavishly accented English, using the language to provoke and criticise friend and stranger alike with an indolent malignity.

There were people who resented his rudeness and rebukes, but they tolerated them because he was frequently useful and occasionally indispensable. He knew where everything-from a pistol, to a precious gem, to a kilo of the finest Thai-white heroin-might be bought or sold in the city. And, as he sometimes boasted, there was very little he wouldn't do for the right amount of money, provided there was no significant risk to his comfort and personal safety.

"We were talking of the different ideas people have about the best thing in the world," Karla said, "But I don't have to ask what you think."

"You would say that _I think money is the best thing in the world," he suggested lazily, "and we'd both be right. Every sane and rational person one day realises that money is almost everything. The great principles and the noble virtues are all very well, in the long run of history, but from one day to the next, it's money that keeps us going-and the lack of it that drives us under the great wheel. And what about you, Lin? What did you say?"

"He didn't say anything yet, and now that you're here, he won't get a chance."

"Now be fair, Karla. Tell us, Lin. I would like to know."

"Well, if you press me, I'd have to say freedom."

"The freedom to do what?" he asked, putting a little laugh in the last word.

"I don't know. Maybe just the freedom to say no. If you've got that much freedom, you really don't need any more."

The beer and coffee arrived. The waiter slammed the drinks onto the table with reckless discourtesy. The service in the shops, hotels, and restaurants of Bombay, in those days, moved from a politeness that was charming or fawning to a rudeness that was either abrupt or hostile. The churlishness of Leopold's waiters was legendary. It's my favourite place in the whole world, Karla once said, to be treated like _dirt.

"A toast!" Didier declared, raising his glass to touch mine. "To the freedom... to drink! _Salut!"

He drank half the long glass, let out a loud, wide-mouthed sigh of pleasure, and then drank the rest. He was pouring himself a second glass when two others, a man and a woman, joined our group, sitting between Karla and me. The dark, brooding, undernourished young man was Modena, a dour and taciturn Spaniard who did black-market business with French, Italian, and African tourists. His companion, a slim and pretty German prostitute named Ulla, had for some time allowed him to call himself her lover.

"Ah, Modena, you are just in time to buy the next round," Didier shouted, reaching past Karla to slap him on the shoulder. "I will have a whisky and soda, if you please."

The shorter man flinched under the blow and scowled unhappily, but he called the waiter to his side, and ordered drinks. Ulla was speaking with Karla in a mixture of German and English that, by accident or intent, obscured the most interesting parts of her conversation.

"How could I know it, _na? How was it possible for me to know that he was a Spinner? Total verruckt, I tell you. At the start, he looked totally straight to me. Or, maybe, do you think that was a sign? Maybe he was a little bit too straight looking. _Na _ja, ten minutes in the room and er wollte auf der Klamotten kommen. On my best dress! I had to fight with him to save my clothes, der Sprintficker! Spritzen wollte er, all over my clothes! Gibt's ja nicht. And later, when I went to the bathroom for a little sniff of cokes, I came back to see dass er seinen Schwanz ganz tief in einer meiner Schuhe hat! Can you believe it!

In my shoe! _Nicht _zu _fassen."

"Let's face it," Karla said gently, "The crazy ones always know how to find you, Ulla."

"Ja, leider. What can I say? Crazy people love me."

"Don't listen to her, Ulla my love," Didier consoled her.

"Craziness is the basis of many a fine relationship. In fact, craziness is the basis of every fine relationship!"

"Didier," Ulla sighed, mouthing his name with a smile of exquisite sweetness, "have I told you to get fucked yet?"

"No!" he laughed, "But I forgive you for the lapse. Between us, my darling, such things are always implied, and understood."

The whisky arrived, in four small flasks, and the waiter prised the tops off two soda bottles with a brass bottle opener that hung from a chain at his belt. He let the tops bounce on the table and fall to the floor, then swished a grimy rag over the wet surface of the table, forcing us to duck and weave as the moisture spilled in all directions.

Two men approached our table from different parts of the restaurant, one to speak to Didier and the other with Modena.

Ulla used the moment to lean close to me. Under the table she pressed something into my hand-it felt like a small roll of bank notes-and her eyes pleaded with me not to draw attention to it.

As she talked to me, I slipped the notes into my pocket without looking at them.

"So have you decided how long you're going to stay?" she asked.

"I don't really know. I'm in no hurry."

"Don't you have someone waiting for you somewhere, or someone you should go to?" she asked, smiling with adroit but passionless coquetry. Seduction was a habit with her. She turned that same smile on her customers, her friends, the waiters, even on Didier, whom she openly disliked-on everyone, in fact, including her lover, Modena. In the months and years that followed, I heard a lot of people criticise Ulla, some of them cruelly, for her flirtations. I didn't agree with them. It seemed to me, as I got to know her well, that she flirted with the world because flirting was the only real kindness she ever knew or shared: it was her way of being nice, and of making sure that people-men- were nice to her. She believed that there wasn't enough niceness in the world, and she said so, in exactly those words, more than once. It wasn't deep feeling, and it wasn't deep thinking, but it was right, as far as it went, and there was no real harm in it.

And what the hell, she was a beautiful girl, and it was a very good smile.

"No," I lied. "There's no-one waiting, and no-one I should go to."

"And don't you have any, wie soll ich das sagen, any program? Any plan?"

"Not really. I'm working on a book."

During the time since the escape, I'd learned that telling people a small part of the truth-that I was a writer-provided me with a useful and flexible cover story. It was vague enough to explain extended stays or sudden departures, and the word research was comprehensive enough to account for inquiries about certain subjects, such as transport and travel and the availability of false documents, that I was sometimes forced to make. Moreover, the cover story guaranteed me a measure of privacy: the simple threat to tell people, at length, of my work in progress usually discouraged all but the most persistently curious.

And I was a writer. In Australia I'd written since my early twenties. I'd just begun to establish myself through my first published work when my marriage collapsed, I lost the custody of my daughter, and I lost my life in drugs, crime, imprisonment, and escape. But even as a fugitive, writing was still a daily custom and part of my instinctual routine. Even there, in Leopold's, my pockets were full of notes, scribbled onto napkins, receipts, and scraps of paper. I never stopped writing. It was what I did, no matter where I was or how my circumstances changed. One of the reasons I remember those early Bombay months so well is that, whenever I was alone, I wrote about those new friends and the conversations we shared. And writing was one of the things that saved me: the discipline and abstraction of putting my life into words, every day, helped me to cope with shame and its first cousin, despair.

"Well, Scheisse, I don't see what's to write about in Bombay.

It's no good place, ja. My friend Lisa says this is the place they were thinking about, when they invented the word pits. And I think it is a good place for calling a pits. Better you should go somewhere else to write about, like Rajasthan maybe. I did hear that it's not a pits there, in Rajasthan."

"She's right, Lin," Karla added. "This is not India. There are people here from every part of India, but Bombay isn't India.

Bombay is an Own-world, a world in itself. The real India is out there."

"Out there?"

"Out there, where the light stops."

"I'm sure you're right," I answered, smiling in appreciation of the phrase. "But I like it here, so far. I like big cities, and this is the third-biggest city in the world."

"You're beginning to sound like your tour guide," Karla joked. "I think, maybe, Prabaker has been teaching you too well."

"I guess he has. He's been filling my head with facts and figures every day for two weeks-quite amazing really, for a guy who left school when he was seven, and taught himself to read and write here on the streets."

"What facts and figures?" Ulla asked.

"Well, for instance, the official population of Bombay is eleven million, but Prabu says the guys who run the illegal numbers racket have a better idea of the real population, and they put it at anything from thirteen to fifteen million. And there are two hundred dialects and languages spoken in the city every day. Two hundred, for God's sake! It's like being in the centre of the world."

As if in response to that talk of languages, Ulla spoke to Karla quickly and intently in German. At a sign from Modena she stood, and gathered her purse and cigarettes. The quiet Spaniard left the table without a word, and walked toward the open archway that led to the street.

"I have a job," Ulla announced, pouting winsomely. "See you tomorrow, Karla. About eleven o'clock, ja? Maybe we'll have dinner together tomorrow night, Lin, if you're here? I would like that. Bye! _Tschus!"

She walked out after Modena, followed by leers and admiring stares from many of the men in the bar. Didier chose that moment to visit several acquaintances at another table. Karla and I were alone.

"She won't, you know."

"Won't what?"

"She won't have dinner with you tomorrow night. It's just her way."

"I know," I grinned.

"You like her, don't you?"

"Yeah, I do. What-does that strike you as funny?"

"In a way, yes. She likes you, too."

She paused, and I thought she was about to explain her remark, but when she spoke again it was to change the subject.

"She gave you some money. American dollars. She told me about it, in German, so Modena wouldn't understand. You're supposed to give it to me, and she'll collect it from my place at eleven tomorrow."

"Okay. Do you want it now?"

"No, don't give it to me here. I have to go now. I have an appointment. I'll be back in about an hour. Can you wait till then? Or come back, and meet me then? You can walk me home, if you like."

"Sure, I'll be here."

She stood to leave, and I stood also, drawing back her chair. She gave me a little smile, with one eyebrow raised in irony or mockery or both.

"I wasn't joking before. You really should leave Bombay."

I watched her walk out to the street, and step into the back of a private taxi that had obviously been waiting for her. As the cream-coloured car eased into the slow stream of night traffic, a man's hand emerged from the passenger window, thick fingers clutching a string of green prayer beads, and warning away pedestrians with a wave.

Alone again, I sat down, set my chair against the wall, and let the activity of Leopold's and its clamorous patrons close over me. Leopold's was the largest bar and restaurant in Colaba, and one of the largest in the city. The rectangular ground-floor room occupied a frontage equal to any four other restaurants, and was served by two metal doors that rolled up into wooden arches to give an expansive view of the Causeway, Colaba's busiest and most colourful street. There was a smaller, more discreet, air- conditioned bar on the first floor, supported by sturdy columns that divided the ground floor into roughly equal sections, and around which many of the tables were grouped. Mirrors on those pillars, and on much of the free wall space, provided the patrons with one of the bar's major attractions: the chance to inspect, admire, and ogle others in a circumspect if not entirely anonymous fashion. For many, the duplication of their own images in two or more mirrors at the same time was not least among the pleasures of the pastime. Leopold's was a place for people to see, to be seen, and to see themselves in the act of being seen.

There were some thirty tables, all of them topped with pearl- smoked Indian marble. Each table had four or more cedar chairs-

sixty-minute _chairs, Karla used to call them, because they were just uncomfortable enough to discourage customers from staying for more than an hour. A swarm of broad fans buzzed in the high ceiling, stirring the white-glass pendulum lights to a slow, majestic sway. Mahogany trim lined the painted walls, surrounded the windows and doors, and framed the many mirrors.

Rich fruits used in desserts and juices-paw paw, papaya, custard apples, mosambi, grapes, watermelon, banana, santra, and, in the season, four varieties of mango-were displayed across the whole surface of one wall in gorgeous abundance. A vast, solid-teak manager's counter presided, like the bridge of a sailing ship, over the busy deck of the restaurant. Behind that, along a narrow corridor, one corner of the frantic kitchen was occasionally visible beyond the scurry of waiters and the sweating clouds of steam.

A faded but still sumptuous elegance struck and held the eyes of all who walked through those wide arches into Leopold's little world of light, colour, and richly panelled wood. Its chief splendour was truly admired by none but its humblest workers, however, for it was only when the bar was closed, and the cleaners removed all the furniture each morning, that the beauty of the floor was exposed.

Its intricate tile-work replicated the pattern used in a north Indian palace, with hexagons in black, cream, and brown radiating from a central sunburst. And thus a paving designed for princes, all but invisible to the tourists with their eyes on their own reflections in the dazzling mirrors, revealed its luxurious perfections only in secret to the naked feet of cleaners, the city's poorest and meekest working men.

For one cool, precious hour each morning after it opened, and the floors had been cleaned, Leopold's was an oasis of quiet in the struggling city. From then, until it closed at midnight, it was constantly crowded with visitors from a hundred countries, and the many locals, both foreign and Indian, who came there from every part of the city to conduct their business. The business ranged from traffic in drugs, currencies, passports, gold, and sex, to the intangible but no less lucrative trade in influence- the unofficial system of bribes and favours by which many appointments, promotions, and contracts were facilitated in India.

Leopold's was an unofficial free zone, scrupulously ignored by the otherwise efficient officers of the Colaba police station, directly across the busy street. Yet a peculiar dialectic applied to the relationships between upstairs and down, inside and outside the restaurant, and governed all of the business transacted there. Indian prostitutes, garlanded with ropes of jasmine flowers and plumply wrapped in bejewelled saris, were prohibited downstairs, and only accompanied customers to the upstairs bar. European prostitutes were only permitted to sit downstairs, attracting the interest of men who sat at other tables, or simply paused on the street outside. Deals for drugs and other contraband were openly transacted at the tables, but the goods could only be exchanged outside the bar. It was common enough to see buyer and seller reach agreement on price, walk outside to hand over money and goods, then walk back inside to resume their places at a table. Even the bureaucrats and influence peddlers were bound by those unwritten rules: agreements reached in the dark booths of the upstairs bar could only be sealed, with handshakes and cash, on the pavement outside, so that no man could say he'd paid or received bribes within the walls of Leopold's.

While the fine lines that divided and connected the legal and illegal were nowhere more elegantly drawn, they weren't unique to the diverse society of Leopold's. The traders in the street stalls outside sold counterfeits of Lacoste, Cardin, and Cartier with a certain impudent panache, the taxi drivers parked along the street accepted tips to tilt their mirrors away from the unlawful or forbidden acts that took place on the seats behind them, and a number of the cops who attended to their duties with diligence, at the station across the road, had paid hefty bribes for the privilege of that lucrative posting in the city centre.

Sitting at Leopold's, night after night, and listening to the conversations at the tables around me, I heard many foreigners and not a few Indians complain about the corruption that adhered to every aspect of public and commercial life in Bombay. My few weeks in the city had already shown me that those complaints were often fair, and often true. But there's no nation uncorrupted.

There's no system that's immune to the misuse of money.

Privileged and powerful elites grease the wheels of their progress with kickbacks and campaign contributions in the noblest assemblies. And the rich, all over the world, live longer and healthier lives than the poor. There is a difference between the dishonest bribe and the honest bribe, Didier Levy once said to me. The dishonest bribe is the same in every country, but the honest bribe is India's alone. I smiled when he said that, because I knew what he meant. India was open. India was honest.

And I liked that from the first day. My instinct wasn't to criticise. My instinct, in the city I was learning to love, was to observe, and become involved, and enjoy. I couldn't know then that, in the months and years to come, my freedom and even my life would depend on the Indian willingness to tilt the mirror.

"What, alone?" Didier gasped, returning to the table. "C'est trop! Don't you know, my dear friend, it is faintly disgusting to be alone here? And, I must tell you that being disgusting is a privilege I reserve, exclusively, for myself. Come, we will drink."

He flopped into a chair beside me, calling his waiter to order more drinks. I'd spoken to him at Leopold's almost every night for weeks, but we'd never been alone. It surprised me that he'd decided to join me before Ulla, Karla, or another of his friends returned. In a small way, it was a kind of acceptance, and I felt grateful for it.

He drummed his fingers on the table until the whisky arrived, drank half his glass in a greedy gulp and then relaxed at last, turning to me with a narrow-eyed smile.

"You are heavy in thoughts."

"I was thinking about Leopold's-looking around, and taking it all in."

"A terrible place," he sighed, shaking his head of thick curls.

"I hate myself for enjoying it so much here."

Two men, wearing loose trousers gathered tightly at the ankles and dark green vests over their long-sleeved, thigh-length shirts, approached us, and drew Didier's keen attention. They nodded to him, provoking a broad smile and a wave, and then joined a group of friends at a table not far from our own.

"Dangerous men," Didier muttered, the smile still creasing his face as he stared at their backs. "Afghans. Rafiq, the small one, he used to run the black market in books."

"Books?"

"Passports. He was the boss. A very big fellow, previously. Now he runs brown sugar through Pakistan. He makes a lot more money from the brown sugar, but he is very bitter about this losing of the book business. Men were killed in that struggle-most of them his men."

It wasn't possible that they could've heard the remark, but just then the two Afghans turned in their seats and stared at us with dark, serious expressions, as if responding to his words. One of their companions at the table leaned close, and spoke to them. He pointed at Didier, then at me, and they shifted their gaze to look directly into my eyes.

"Killed..." Didier repeated softly, smiling even more broadly until the two men turned their backs to us once more. "I would refuse to do business with them, if only they did not do such good business."

He was speaking out of the corner of his mouth, like a prisoner under the eyes of the warders. It struck me as funny. In Australian prisons, that whispering technique is known as _side-

_valving. The expression spoke itself clearly in my mind and, together with Didier's mannerism, the words put me back in a prison cell. I could smell the cheap disinfectant, hear the metal hiss of the keys, and feel the sweating stone under my fingertips. Flashbacks are common to ex-prisoners, cops, soldiers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, and others who see and experience trauma. Sometimes the flashback is so sudden, and so inappropriate to the surrounding circumstance, that the only sane reaction is foolish, uncontrollable laughter.

"You think I'm joking?" Didier puffed indignantly. "No, no, not at all."

"This is the truth, I assure you. There was a small war over this business. See, here, even now as we speak, the victors arrive.

That is Bairam, and his men. He is Iranian. He is an enforcer, and one of those who works for Abdul Ghani, who, in his turn, works for one of the great crime lords of the city, Abdel Khader Khan. They won this little war, and now it is they who control the business in passport books."

He gestured with a slight nod of his head to point out a group of young men, dressed in stylish western jeans and jackets, who'd just entered through one of the arches. They walked to the manager's desk and greeted the owners of Leopold's warmly before taking a table on the far side of the room. The leader of their group was a tall, heavy-set man in his early thirties. He lifted his plump, jovial face above the heads of his friends and swept the room from right to left, acknowledging deferential nods and friendly smiles from a number of acquaintances at other tables.

As his eyes found us, Didier waved a greeting.

"Blood," he said softly, through his bright smile. "For a time yet, these passports will be stamped in blood. For me it is nothing. In matters of food I am French, in matters of love I am Italian, and in matters of business I am Swiss. Very Swiss.

Strictly neutral. But there will be more blood on these books, of that I am sure."

He turned to me and blinked once, twice, as if severing the thread of daydream with his thick lashes.

"I must be drunk," he said with pleasurable surprise. "Let's have another drink."

"You go ahead. I'll sit on this one. How much do these passports cost?"

"Anything from one hundred to one thousand-dollars, of course.

Do you want to buy one?"

"No..."

"Ah. This is a Bombay gold dealer's no. It is a no that means maybe, and the more passionate the no, the more definite the maybe. When you want one, come to me. I will arrange it for you- for a small commission, of course."

"You make a lot of... commissions here?"

"Mmm, it goes. I cannot complain," he grinned, his blue eyes gleaming through lenses of pink, alcoholic wetness. "I make ends meet, as they say, and when they meet I get a payment from both of the ends. Just now, tonight, I made the arrangements for a sale-two kilos of Manali hashish. You see those Italian tourists, over there, by the fruits, the fellow with the long, blonde hair, and the girl in red? They wanted to buy. Someone-you see him, out there on the street, the one with a dirty shirt and no shoes, waiting for his commission-he put them to me, and then I in my turn put them to Ajay. He makes hashish business, and he is an excellent criminal.

See now, he sits with them, and all are smiling. The deal is done. My work for this night is finished. I am a free man!"

He thumped the table for another drink, but when the small bottle arrived he grasped it for a while with both hands, staring at it with a brooding, pensive expression.

"How long will you stay in Bombay?" he asked, without looking at me.

"I don't know. It's funny, everyone seems to ask me that in the last few days."

"You have already stayed longer than the usual. Most people cannot depart the city too quickly."

"There's a guide, Prabaker's his name, do you know him?"

"Prabaker Kharre? The big smile?"

"That's him. He's been showing me around for weeks now. I've seen all the temples and museums and art galleries, and a lot of the bazaars. From tomorrow morning he's promised to show me something of the other side of the city-the really city, he called it. He made it sound interesting. I'll stick around for that, and make my mind up then where I want to go next. I'm in no hurry."

"It's a very sad thing, to be in no hurry, and I would not be so free in admitting it, if I were you," he said, still staring at the bottle. When he wasn't smiling his face looked flabby, slack, and pallid grey. He was unwell, but it was the kind of unwell you have to work at. "We have a saying in Marseilles: a man in no hurry gets nowhere fast. I have been in no hurry for eight years."

Suddenly his mood changed. He poured a splash from the bottle, looked at me with a smile, and raised his glass.

"So, let's drink! To Bombay, a fine place to be in no hurry! And to civilised policemen, who will accept a bribe, in the interests of the order, if not of the law. To _baksheesh!"

"I'll drink to that," I said, clattering my glass against his in the toast. "So, tell me, Didier, what keeps you here in Bombay?"

"I am French," he replied, admiring the dew on his half-raised glass, "I am gay, I am Jewish, and I am a criminal, more or less in that order. Bombay is the only city I have ever found that allows me to be all four of those things, at the same time."

We laughed, and drank, and he turned his gaze on the wide room, his hungry eyes finally coming to rest on a group of Indian men who sat near one of the entrances. He studied them for a while, sipping slowly at his drink.

"Well, if you decide to stay, you have picked a good time for it.

This is a time of changes. Great changes. You see those men, eating foods with such strong appetite? They are Sainiks, workers for the Shiv Sena. Hatchet men, I think, is the charming English political phrase. Your guide, has he told you of the Sena?"

"No, I don't think so."

"A conscious lapse, I would say. The Shiv Sena Party is the face of the future in Bombay. Perhaps their mode and their politique is the future everywhere."

"What kind of politics?"

"Oh, regional, language-based, ethnic, us-against-them," he replied, sneering cynically as he ticked each characteristic off on the fingers of his left hand. They were very white, soft hands. His long fingernails were black with dirt under the edges.

"The politics of fear. I hate politics, and politicians even more. They make a religion of being greedy. It's unforgivable. A man's relationship to his greed is a deeply personal thing, don't you think? The Shiv Sena controls the police, because they are a Maharashtrian party, and most of the lower ranks of the police are Maharashtrians. They control a lot of the slums, too, and many of the unions, and some of the press. They have everything, in fact, except the money. Oh, they have the support of the sugar barons, and some of the merchants, but the real money-the industrial money and the black money-that is in the hands of the Parsees and the Hindus from other cities in India and, most hated of all, the Muslims. And here is the struggle, the guerre economique, the truth behind their talk of race and language and region. They are changing the city, a little less and a little more every day. Even the name has been changed, from Bombay to Mumbai. They haven't managed to change the maps, yet, but they will do it. And they will do almost anything, join with almost anyone, in their quest. There are opportunities. Fortunes. Just in the last few months some Sainiks-oh, not the public ones, not the highly placed ones- made a deal with Rafiq and his Afghans and the police. In exchange for certain cash and concessions, the police closed down all but a few of the opium dens in the city. Dozens of the finest smoking parlours, places that have served the community for generations, were closed in a single week. Closed forever!

Normally, I do not interest myself in the pigsty of politics, or in the slaughterhouse of big business, for that matter. The only force more ruthless and cynical than the business of big politics is the politics of big business. But this is big politics and big business together, in the destruction of the opium smoking, and I am incensed! I ask you, what is Bombay without its chandu-its opium-and its opium dens? What is the world coming to? It's a disgrace!"

I watched the men he'd described, as they concentrated with energetic single-mindedness on their meal. The table was heaped with platters of rice, chicken, and vegetable dishes. None of the five men spoke, nor did they so much as look at one another as they ate, bending low to their plates and scooping the food into their mouths rapidly.

"That's a pretty good line," I commented, grinning widely. "The one about the business of big politics, and the politics of big business. I like it."

"Ah, my dear friend, I cannot claim it as my own. It was Karla who said it to me the first time, and I have used it ever since.

I am guilty of many crimes-of most crimes, to say the truth-but I have never claimed a cleverness that was not my own."

"Admirable," I laughed.

"Well," he puffed, "a man has to draw the line somewhere.

Civilisation, after all, is defined by what we forbid, more than what we permit."

He paused, drumming the fingers of his right hand on the cold marble table top. After a few moments, he glanced around at me.

"That is one of mine," he said, apparently peeved that I hadn't drawn attention to the phrase. When I didn't react, he spoke again. "About the civilisation... it was one of mine."

"And damn clever," I responded quickly.

"Nothing at all," he said modestly, then he caught my eye, and we both laughed out loud.

"What was in it for Rafiq, if you don't mind my asking. That stuff about closing all the opium dens. Why did he go along with it?" "Go along with it?" Didier frowned, "Why, it was his idea. There is more money to be made from garad-brown sugar heroin-than there is from opium. And now everyone, all the poor who were chandu smokers, they have become garad smokers. Rafiq controls the garad, the brown sugar. Not all of it, of course. No one man controls all the thousands of kilos of brown sugar that come from Afghanistan, through Pakistan, into India. But a lot of it is his, a lot of the Bombay brown heroin. This is big money, my friend, big money."

"Why did the politicians go along with it?"

"Ah, it is not only brown sugar and hashish that comes from Afghanistan into India," he confided, lowering his voice and speaking from the corner of his mouth once more. "There are guns, heavy weapons, explosives. The Sikhs are using these weapons now, in Punjab, and the Muslim separatists in Kashmir. There are weapons, you see. And there is power, the power to speak for many of the poor Muslims who are the enemies of the Shiv Sena. If you control one trade, the drugs, you can influence the other, the guns. And the Sena Party is desperate to control the flow of guns into their state, their Maharashtra. Money and power. Look there, at the table next to Rafiq and his men. You see the three Africans, two men and a woman?"

"Yes. I noticed her before. She's very beautiful."

Her young face, with its prominent cheekbones, softly flared nose, and very full lips, looked as if it had been carved in volcanic stone by the rush of a river. Her hair was braided into a multitude of long, fine, beaded plaits. She laughed, sharing a joke with her friends, and her teeth gleamed large and perfectly white.

"Beautiful? I think not. Among the Africans, the men are beautiful, in my opinion, whereas the women are merely very attractive. For Europeans, the opposite is true. Karla is beautiful, and I never knew a European man who is beautiful in that way. But that is another matter. I mean only to say that they are customers of Rafiq, Nigerians, and that their business between Bombay and Lagos is one of the concessions-a spin-off is the term, I think-of this deal with the Sainiks. The Sena has a man at Bombay Customs. So much money is moving from hand to hand. Rafiq's little scheme is a tangle of countries, Afghanistan and India, Pakistan and Nigeria, and of powers-police and customs and politicians. All of it is a part of the struggle for control here in our cursed and beloved Bombay. And all of it, all this intrigue, grows from the closing down of my dear old opium dens. A tragedy."

"This Rafiq," I muttered, perhaps sounding more flippant than I'd intended, "is quite a guy."

"He is Afghan, and his country is at war, my friend. That gives him an edge, as the Americans say. And he works for the Walidlalla mafia council-one of the most powerful. His closest associate is Chuha, one of the most dangerous men in Bombay. But the real power here, in this part of the city, is the great don, lord Abdel Khader Khan. He is a poet, a philosopher, and a lord of crime. They call him Khaderbhai. Khader-_Elder-_Brother. There are others, with more money and more guns than Khaderbhai-he is a man of rigid principles, you see, and there are many lucrative things that he will not do. But those same principles give him-I am not sure how to say it in English-the immoral high ground, perhaps, and there is no-one, in this part of Bombay, who has more real power than he does. Many people believe that he is a saint, with supernatural capabilities. I know him, and I can tell you that Khaderbhai is the most fascinating man I ever met. If you will allow me the small immodesty, this makes him a truly remarkable individual, for I have met a great many interesting men in my life."

He left the words to swirl for a moment in the eye contact between us.

"Come, you are not drinking! I hate it when people take so long to drink a single glass. It is like putting on a condom to masturbate."

"No really," I laughed. "I, er, I'm waiting for Karla to come back. She's due any minute now."

"Ah, Karla..." He said her name with a long, purring roll. "And just what are your intentions with our inscrutable Karla?"

"Come again?"

"Perhaps it is more useful to wonder what intentions she has for _you, no?"

He poured the last of the one-litre bottle into his glass and topped it up with the last of the soda. He'd been drinking steadily for more than an hour. His eyes were as veined and bloodshot as the back of a boxer's fist, but the gaze that stared from them was unwavering, and his hands were precise in their movements.

"I saw her on the street, just hours after I landed in Bombay," I found myself saying. "There was something about her that... I think she's one of the reasons why I've stayed here this long.

Her and Prabaker. I like them-I liked them both on sight. I'm a people person, if you know what I mean. If the people in it were interesting, I'd prefer a tin shed to the Taj Mahal-not that I've seen the Taj Mahal yet."

"It leaks," Didier sniffed, dismissing the architectural wonder with two words. "But did you say interesting! Karla is interesting?"

He laughed out loud again. It was a peculiarly high-pitched laugh, harsh and almost hysterical. He slapped me hard on the back, spilling a little of his drink.

"Ha! You know, Lin, I approve of you, even if a commendation from me is a very fragile endorsement."

He drained his glass, thumped it on the table, and wiped his closely trimmed moustache with the back of his hand. When he saw my puzzled expression, he leaned close until our faces were only a few centimetres apart.

"Let me explain something to you. Look around here. How many people do you count?"

"Well, maybe, sixty, eighty."

"Eighty people. Greeks, Germans, Italians, French, Americans.

Tourists from everywhere. Eating, drinking, talking, laughing.

And from Bombay-Indians and Iranians and Afghans and Arabs and Africans. But how many of these people have real power, real destiny, real dynamique for their place, and their time, and the lives of thousands of people? I will tell you-four. Four people in this room with power, and the rest are like the rest of the people everywhere: powerless, sleepers in the dream, anonyme.

When Karla comes back, there will be five people in this room with power. That is Karla, the one you call interesting. I see by your expression, my young friend, you do not understand what I am saying. Let me put it this way: Karla is reasonably good at being a friend, but she is stupendously good at being an enemy. When you judge the power that is in a person, you must judge their capacities as both friend and as enemy. And there is no-one in this city that makes a worse or more dangerous enemy than Karla."

He stared into my eyes, looking for something, moving from one eye to the other and back again.

"You know the kind of power I'm talking about, don't you? Real power. The power to make men shine like the stars, or crush them to dust. The power of secrets. Terrible, terrible secrets. The power to live without remorse or regret. Is there something in your life, Lin, that you regret? Is there anything you have done, that you regret it?"

"Yes, I guess I-"

"Of course you do! And so do I, regret... things I have done... and not done. But not Karla. And that is why she is like the others, the few others in this room, who have real power. She has a heart like theirs, and you and I do not. Ah, forgive me, I am almost drunk, and I see that my Italians are leaving. Ajay will not wait for much longer. I must go, now, and collect my little commission, before I can allow myself to be completely drunk."

He sat back in his chair, and then pushed himself to his feet by leaning heavily on the table with both of his soft, white hands.

Without another word or look he left, and I watched him walk toward the kitchen, threading his way through the tables with the rolling, spongy step of the practised drinker. His sports coat was creased and wrinkled at the back, where he'd been leaning against the chair, and the seat of his trousers hung in baggy folds. Before I knew him well enough, before I realised how much it meant that he'd lived by crime and passion for eight years in Bombay without making a single enemy and without borrowing a single dollar, I tended to dismiss Didier as little more than an amusing but hopeless drunkard. It was an easy mistake to make, and one that he himself encouraged.

The first rule of black business everywhere is: never let anyone know what you're thinking. Didier's corollary to the rule was: always know what the other thinks of you. The shabby clothes, the matted, curly hair, pressed flat in places where it had rested on the pillow the night before, even his fondness for alcohol, exaggerated into what seemed to be a debilitating addiction-they were all expressions of an image he cultivated, and were as carefully nuanced as a professional actor's. He made people think that he was harmless and helpless, because that was the precise opposite of the truth.

I had little time to think about Didier and the puzzling remarks he'd made, however, because Karla soon returned, and we left the restaurant almost at once. We took the long way to her small house, walking beside the sea wall that runs from the Gateway of India to the Radio Club Hotel. The long, wide street was empty.

On our right, behind a row of plane trees, were hotels and apartment buildings. A few lights, here and there, showed windowgraphs of the lives being lived in those rooms: a sculpture displayed on one wall, a shelf of books on another, a poster of some Indian deity, framed in wood, surrounded by flowers and smoky streamers of incense and, just visible in the corner of a street-level window, two slender hands pressed together in prayer.

On our left was a vast segment of the world's largest harbour, the dark water starred by the moorage lights of a hundred ships at anchor. Beyond them, the horizon quivered with fires flung from the towers of offshore refineries. There was no moon. It was nearly midnight, but the air was still as warm as it had been in the early afternoon. High tide on the Arabian Sea brought occasional sprays over the waist-high stone wall: mists that swirled, on the Simoom, all the way from the coast of Africa.

We walked slowly. I looked up often at the sky, so heavy with stars that the black net of night was bulging, overflowing with its glittering haul. Imprisonment meant years without a sunrise, a sunset, or a night sky, locked in a cell for sixteen hours each day, from early afternoon to late morning. Imprisonment meant that they took away the sun and the moon and the stars. Prison wasn't hell, but there was no heaven in it, either. In its own way, that was just as bad.

"You can take this good-listener business a little too far, you know."

"What? Oh, sorry. I was thinking." I apologised, and shook myself into the moment. "Hey, before I forget, here's that money Ulla gave me."

She accepted the roll of notes from me and shoved it into her handbag without looking at it.

"It's strange, you know. Ulla went with Modena to break away from someone else who was controlling her like a slave. Now she's Modena's slave, in a way. But she loves him, and that makes her ashamed that she has to lie to him, to keep a little money for herself."

"Some people need the master-slave thing."

"Not just some people," she responded, with sudden and disconcerting bitterness. "When you were talking to Didier about freedom, when he asked you the freedom to do what?-you said, the freedom to say no. It's funny, but I was thinking it's more important to have the freedom to say yes."

"Speaking of Didier," I said lightly, trying to change the subject and lift her spirits, "I had a long talk with him tonight, while I was waiting for you." "I think Didier would've done most of the talking," she guessed.

"Well, yes, he did, but it was interesting. I enjoyed it. It's the first time we've ever talked like that."

"What did he tell you?"

"Tell me?" The phrase struck me as peculiar; it carried the hint that there were things he shouldn't tell. "He was giving me some background on some of the people at Leopold's. The Afghans, and the Iranians, and the Shiv Sainiks-or whatever they're called- and the local mafia dons."

She gave a wry little smile.

"I wouldn't take too much notice of what Didier says. He can be very superficial, especially when he's being serious. He's the kind of guy who gets right down to the skin of things, if you know what I mean. I told him once he's so shallow that the best he can manage is a single entendre. The funny thing is, he liked it. I'll say this for Didier, you can't insult him."

"I thought you two were friends," I remarked, deciding not to repeat what Didier had said about her.

"Friends... well, sometimes, I'm not really sure what friendship is. We've known each other for years. We used to live together once-did he tell you?"

"No, he didn't."

"Yeah. For a year, when I first came to Bombay. We shared a crazy, fractured little apartment in the Fort area. The building was crumbling around us. Every morning we used to wake with plaster on our faces from the pregnant ceiling, and there were always new chunks of stone and wood and other stuff in the hallway. The whole building collapsed in the monsoon a couple of years ago, and a few people were killed. I walk that way sometimes, and look up at the hole in the sky where my bedroom used to be. I suppose you could say that we're close, Didier and I. But friends? Friendship is something that gets harder to understand, every damn year of my life. Friendship is like a kind of algebra test that nobody passes. In my worst moods, I think the best you can say is that a friend is anyone you don't despise."

Her tone was serious, but I allowed myself a gentle laugh.

"That's a bit strong, I think."

She looked at me, frowning hard, but then she, too, laughed.

"Maybe it is. I'm tired. I haven't had enough sleep for the last few nights. I don't mean to be hard on Didier. It's just that he can be very annoying sometimes, you know? Did he say anything about me?"

"He... he said that he thinks you're beautiful."

"He said that?"

"Yes. He was talking about beauty in white people and black people, and he said Karla is beautiful."

She raised her eyebrows, in mild and pleased surprise.

"Well, I'll take that as a significant compliment, even if he is an outrageous liar."

"I like Didier."

"Why?" she asked quickly.

"Oh, I don't know. It's his professionalism, I think. I like people who are expert at what they do. And there's a sadness in him that... kind of makes sense to me. He reminds me of a few guys I know. Friends."

"At least he makes no secret of his decadence," she declared, and I was suddenly reminded of something Didier had told me about Karla, and the power of secrets. "Perhaps that's what we really have in common, Didier and I-we both hate hypocrites. Hypocrisy is just another kind of cruelty. And Didier's not cruel. He's wild, but he's not cruel. He's been quiet, in the last while, but there were times when his passionate affairs were the scandal of the city, or at least of the foreigners who live here. A jealous lover, a young Moroccan boy, chased him down the Causeway with a sword one night. They were both stark naked-quite a shocking event in Bombay, and in the case of Didier, something of a spectacle, I can report. He ran into the Colaba police station, and they rescued him. They are very conservative about such things in India, but Didier has one rule-he never has any sex- involvement with Indians-and I think they respect that. A lot of foreigners come here just for the sex with very young Indian boys. Didier despises them, and he restricts himself to affairs with foreigners. I wouldn't be surprised if that's why he told you so much of other people's business tonight. He was trying to seduce you, perhaps, by impressing you with his knowledge of dark business and dark people. Oh, hello! Katzeli! Hey, where did _you come from?"

We'd come upon a cat that was squatting on the sea wall to eat from a parcel someone had discarded there. The thin, grey animal hunkered down and scowled, growling and whining at the same time, but it allowed Karla to stroke its back as it lowered its head to the food once more. It was a wizened and scabrous specimen with one ear chewed to the shape of a rosebud, and bare patches on its sides and back where unhealed sores were exposed. I found it amazing that such a feral, emaciated creature should permit itself to be petted by a stranger, and that Karla would want to do such a thing. Even more astounding, it seemed to me then, was that the cat had such a keen appetite for vegetables and rice, cooked in a sauce of whole, very hot chillies.

"Oh, look at him," she cooed. "Isn't he beautiful?"

"Well..."

"Don't you admire his courage, his determination to survive?"

"I'm afraid I don't like cats very much. I don't mind dogs, but cats..."

"But you must love cats! In a perfect world, all the people would be like cats are, at two o'clock in the afternoon."

I laughed.

"Did anyone ever tell you you've got a very peculiar way of putting things?"

"What do you mean?" she asked, turning to me quickly.

Even in the streetlight I could see that her face was flushed, almost angry. I didn't know then that the English language was a gentle obsession with her: that she studied and wrote and worked hard to compose those clever fragments of her conversation.

"Just that you have a unique way of expressing yourself. Don't get me wrong, I like it. I like it very much. It's like... well ... take yesterday, for instance, when we were all talking about truth. Capital T Truth. Absolute truth. Ultimate truth. And _is _there any truth, is anything true? Everybody had something to say about it-Didier, Ulla, Maurizio, even Modena. Then you said, The truth is a bully we all pretend to like. I was knocked out by it. Did you read that in a book, or hear it in a play, or a movie?"

"No. I made it up myself."

"Well, that's what I mean. I don't think I could repeat anything that the others said, and be sure of getting it exactly right.

But that line of yours-I'll never forget it."

"Do you agree with it?"

"What-that the truth is a bully we all pretend to like?"

"Yes."

"No, I don't, not at all. But I love the idea, and the way you put it."

Her half-smile held my stare. We were silent for a few moments, and just as she began to look away I spoke again to hold her attention. "Why do you like Biarritz?"

"What?"

"The other day, the day before yesterday, you said that Biarritz is one of your favourite places. I've never been there, so I don't know, one way or the other. But I'd like to know why you like it so much."

She smiled, wrinkling her nose in a quizzical expression that might've been scornful or pleased.

"You remember that? Then, I guess I better tell you. Biarritz... how to explain it... I think it's the ocean. The Atlantic. I love Biarritz in the wintertime, when the tourists are gone, and the sea is so frightening that it turns people to stone. You see them standing on the deserted beaches, and staring at the sea- statues, scattered along the beach between the cliffs, frozen stiff by the terror they feel when they look at the ocean. It's not like other oceans-not like the warm Pacific or the Indian.

The Atlantic there, in winter, is really unforgiving, and ruthlessly cruel. You can feel it calling to you. You know it wants to drag you out and pull you under. It's so beautiful, I just burst into tears the first time I really looked at it. And I wanted to go to it. I wanted to let myself go out and under the big, angry waves. It's the scariest thing. But the people in Biarritz, they're the most tolerant and easy-going people in Europe, I think. Nothing freaks them out. Nothing is too over- the-top. It's kind of weird-in most holiday places, the people are angry and the sea is calm. In Biarritz, it's the other way around."

"Do you think you'll go back there one day-to stay, I mean?"

"No," she said quickly. "If I ever leave here, for good, it'll mean going back to the States. I grew up there, after my parents died. And I'd like to go back, some day. I think I love it there, most of all. There's something so confident and open-hearted and ... and brave about America, and the American people. I don't feel American-at least, I don't think I do-but I'm comfortable with them, if you know what I mean, more than I am with any other people, anywhere."

"Tell me about the others," I asked, wanting to keep her talking.

"The others?" she asked, frowning suddenly.

"The crew at Leopold's. Didier and the others. Tell me about Letitia, to start with. How do you know her?"

She relaxed, and let her eyes roam the shadows on the far side of the street. Still thinking, still considering, she lifted her gaze to the night sky. The blue-white light from a street lamp melted to liquid on her lips and in the spheres of her large eyes.

"Lettie lived in Goa for a while," she began, affection playing in her voice. "She came to India for the usual mix-parties and spiritual highs. She found the parties, and she enjoyed them, I think. Lettie loves a party. But she never had much luck with the spiritual side of things. She went back to London-twice in the same year-but then she came back to India for one last try at the soul thing. She's on a soul mission. She talks tough, but she's a very spiritual girl. I think she's the most spiritual of all of us, really."

"How does she live? I don't mean to pry-it's what I was saying before, I just want to learn how people make a living here. How foreigners get by, I mean."

"She's an expert with gems-gemstones and jewels. She works on a commission basis for some of the foreign buyers. It was Didier who got her the job. He has contacts everywhere in Bombay."

"Didier?" I smiled, genuinely surprised. "I thought that they hated each other-well, not hate exactly. I thought they couldn't stand each other."

"Oh, they annoy one another, sure. But there's a real friendship there. If anything bad happened to one of them, the other would be devastated."

"How about Maurizio?" I asked, trying to keep my tone even. The tall Italian was too handsome, too confident, and I envied him for what I saw as his deeper knowledge of Karla, and his friendship with her. "What's his story?"

"His story? I don't know what his story is," she replied, frowning again. "His parents died, leaving him a lot of money. He spent it, and I think he developed something of a talent for spending money."

"Other people's money?" I asked. I might've seemed too eager for that to be true, because she answered me with a question.

"Do you know the story of the scorpion and the frog? You know, the frog agrees to carry the scorpion across the river, because the scorpion promises not to sting him?"

"Yeah. And then the scorpion stings the frog, half way across the river. The drowning frog asks him why he did it, when they'll both drown, and the scorpion says that he's a scorpion, and it's his nature to sting."

"Yes," she sighed, nodding slowly until the frown left her brow.

"That's Maurizio. And if you know that, he's not a problem, because you just don't offer to carry him across the river. Do you know what I mean?"

I'd been in prison. I knew exactly what she meant. I nodded, and asked her about Ulla and Modena.

"I like Ulla," she answered quickly, turning that half-smile on me again. "She's crazy and unreliable, but I have a feeling for her. She was a rich girl, in Germany, and she played with heroin until she got a habit. Her family cut her off, so she came to India-she was with a bad guy, a German guy, a junkie like her, who put her to work in a very tough place. A horrible place. She loved the guy. She did it for him. She would've done anything for him. Some women are like that. Some loves are like that. Most loves are like that, from what I can see. Your heart starts to feel like an overcrowded lifeboat. You throw your pride out to keep it afloat, and your self-respect and your independence.

After a while you start throwing people out-your friends, everyone you used to know. And it's still not enough. The lifeboat is still sinking, and you know it's going to take you down with it. I've seen that happen to a lot of girls here. I think that's why I'm sick of love."

I couldn't tell if she was talking about herself, or pointing the words at me. Either way, they were sharp, and I didn't want to hear them.

"And how about Kavita? Where does she fit in?"

"Kavita's great! She's a freelancer-you know that-a freelance writer. She wants to be a journalist, and I think she'll get there. I hope she gets there. She's bright and honest and gutsy.

She's beautiful, too. Don't you think she's a gorgeous girl?"

"Sure," I agreed, recalling the honey-coloured eyes, the full and shapely lips, and the long, expressive fingers. "She's a pretty girl. But they're all good-looking people, I think. Even Didier, in his crumpled-up way, has got a touch of the Lord Byron about him. Lettie's a lovely girl. Her eyes are always laughing- they're a real _ice-blue, her eyes, aren't they? Ulla looks like a doll, with those big eyes and big lips on such a round face.

But it's a pretty doll's face. Maurizio's handsome, like a magazine model, and Modena's handsome in a different way, like a bullfighter or something. And you're... you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen with my own eyes."

There, I'd said it. And even in the shock of speaking the thought out loud, I wondered if she'd understood, if she'd pierced my words about their beauty, and hers, to find the misery that inspired them: the misery that an ugly man feels in every conscious minute of love.

She laughed-a good, deep, wide-mouthed laugh-and seized my arm impulsively, pulling me along the footpath. Just then, as if drawn from the shadows by her laughter, there was a clattering rattle of noise as a beggar, riding on a small wooden platform with metal ball-bearing wheels, rolled off the footpath on the opposite side of the street. He pushed himself forward with his hands until he reached the centre of the deserted road, wheeling to a stop with a dramatic pirouette. His piteously thin mantis- legs were folded and tucked beneath him on the platform, which was a piece of wood no bigger than a folded newspaper. He wore a boy's school uniform of khaki shorts and a powder-blue shirt.

Although he was a man in his twenties, the clothes were too big for him.

Karla called out, greeting him by name, and we stopped opposite him. They spoke for some time in Hindi. I stared across the ten metres that separated us, fascinated by the man's hands. They were huge hands, as wide across the back, from knuckle to knuckle, as his face. In the streetlight I could see that they were thickly padded on the fingers and palms like the paws of a bear.

"Good night!" he called out in English, after a minute. He lifted one hand, first to his forehead and then to his heart, in a delicate gesture of consummate gallantry. With another swift, show-off's pirouette, he propelled himself forward along the road, gaining speed as he rolled down the gentle slope to the Gateway Monument.

We watched him out of sight, and then Karla pulled at my arm, leading me along the path once more. I allowed myself to be led.

I allowed myself to be drawn by the soft pleading of the waves, and the roulade of her voice; by the black sky, and the darker night of her hair; by the sea-tree-stone smell of the sleeping street, and the perfume sublime on her warm skin. I allowed myself to be drawn into her life, and the life of the city. I walked her home. I said good night. And I was singing quietly to myself as I went back along the silent brood of streets to my hotel.

____________________

CHAPTER THREE

"What you're saying is that we're finally going to get down to the real deal."

"Real will be full, baba," Prabaker assured me, "and deal will be plenty also. Now you will see it the really city. Usually, I am never taking the tourists to these places. They are not liking it, and I am not liking their not liking. Or maybe sometimes they are liking it too much, in these places, and I am liking that even less, isn't it? You must have it a good heads, to like these things, and you must be having a good hearts, to not like them too much. Like you, Linbaba. You are my good friend. I knew it very well, on that first day, when we were drinking the whisky, in your room. Now my Bombay, with your good heads and your good hearts, you will see it all."

We were riding in a taxi along Mahatma Gandhi Road past Flora Fountain and towards Victoria Station. It was an hour before noon, and the swash of traffic that coursed through that stone canyon was swollen by large numbers of runners pushing tiffin carts. The runners collected lunches from homes and apartments, and placed them in tin cylinders called jalpaans, or tiffins.

They pushed huge trays of the tiffins on long wooden carts, six men and more to a cart. Through the heavy metal-traffic of buses, trucks, scooters, and cars, they made deliveries at offices and businesses all over the city. None but the men and women who operated the service knew exactly how it was done: how barely literate men evolved the bafflingly complex system of symbols, colours, and key numbers to mark and identify the cylinders; how, day after day, hundreds of thousands of those identical containers swept through the city on their wooden axles, oiled with sweat, and reached the right man or woman, among millions, every time; and how all that was achieved at a cost measured in cents rather than dollars. Magic, the trick that connects the ordinary to the impossible, was the invisible river that ran through every street and beating heart in Bombay in those years, and nothing, from the postal service to the pleading of beggars, worked without a measure of it.

"What number that bus, Linbaba? Quickly, tell it."

"Just a second." I hesitated, peering out of the half-open window of the taxi and trying to read the curlicue numbers on the front of a red, double-decker bus that had stopped opposite us momentarily. "It's, ah, it's a one-zero-four, isn't it?"

"Very very fine! You have learn your Hindi numbers so nicely. Now no problem for you, reading numbers for bus, and train, and menu card, and drugs purchase, and other good things. Now tell me, what is alu palak?"

"Alu palak is potato and spinach."

"Good. And nice eating also, you have not mention. I love to eat it, alu palak. What is _phul _gobhi and bhindi?"

"That's... oh yeah, cauliflower and... and okra."

"Correct. And also good eating, again you are not mention. What is baingan masala?"

"That's, ah, spiced eggplant."

"Again right! What is it, you're not enjoying eating baingan?"

"Yes, yes, all right! Baingan is good eating, too!"

"I don't like it baingan so much," he sneered, wrinkling up his short nose. "Tell me, what am I calling chehra, munh, and dill?"

"Okay... don't tell me... face, mouth, and heart. Is that right?"

"Very right, no problem. I have been watching it, how nicely you eat up your foods with the hand, like a good Indian style. And how you learn to ask for the things-how much this, how much that, give me two cups of tea, I want more hashish-speaking only Hindi to the people. I have seen this all. You are my best student, Linbaba. And I am your best teacher also, isn't it?"

"It is, Prabu," I laughed. "Hey! Watch out!"

My shout alerted the taxi driver, who swerved just in time to avoid an ox-cart that was attempting to make a turn in front of us. The taxi driver-a burly, dark-skinned man with a bristling moustache-seemed to be outraged at my impertinence in saving our lives. When we first took the taxi he'd adjusted his mirror until he saw nothing in it but my face. After the near miss he glared at me, snarling a growl of insults in Hindi. He drove the cab like a getaway car, slewing left and right to overtake slower vehicles. There was an angry, bullying pugnacity in his attitude to everyone else on the road. He rushed to within centimetres of every slower car in his path, sounding his horn, then all but nudging it out of the way. If the slower car moved a little to the left, in order to let him pass, our driver drew beside it, pacing it for a time and shouting insults. When he spied another slow vehicle ahead, he sped forward to repeat the procedure. From time to time he opened his door and leaned out over the road to spit paan juice, taking his eyes off the traffic ahead for long seconds as we hurtled along in the rattling cab.

"This guy's a nut-case!" I muttered to Prabaker.

"Driving is not so good," Prabaker replied, bracing himself with both arms against the back of the driver's seat. "But I have to say, the spitting and insulting is a first-class job."

"For Christ's sake, tell him to stop!" I shouted as the cab accelerated into a squall of traffic, lurching in the swerve left and right. "He's going to kill us!"

"Band karo!" Prabaker shouted. Stop!

He added a pithy curse, for good measure, but the driver only became more enraged. With the car hurtling along at top speed, he turned his head to snarl at us. His mouth was wide open, and his teeth were bared. His eyes were huge, their blackness streaked with rage.

"Arrey!" Prabaker shrieked, pointing past the driver.

It was too late. The man turned quickly. His arms stiffened at the wheel, and he hit the brakes hard. There was a skating, sliding second... two seconds... three seconds. I heard a guttural gasp of air from deep in his throat. It was a sucking sound, like the lifting of a flat stone from the moist clay on the edge of a riverbed. Then there was the whump and crash as we slammed into a car that had stopped in front of us to make a turn. We were thrown forward into the back of his seat, and heard two thumping explosions as two other cars rammed into us.

Shattered glass and chrome fragments rattled on the road like thin metallic applause in the sudden silence that followed the impacts. My head had hit the door in the tumble spill of the accident. I felt blood flowing from a cut above my eye, but I was otherwise unhurt. As I wriggled myself up from the floor, and onto the back seat once more, I felt Prabaker's hands on me. "Nothing broken you are, Lin? You are okay?"

"I'm okay, I'm okay."

"You are sure? Everything not broken?"

"Jesus, Prabu, I don't care how good this guy's spitting is," I said, laughing nervously, and ragged with relief, "he doesn't get a tip. Are you all right?"

"We must get out, Lin!" he answered, his voice rising to a hysterical whine. "Out! Out of here! Now!"

The door on his side was jammed shut, and he began to push at it with his shoulder. He couldn't budge it. He reached across me to try the door on my side, but saw at once that another car was jammed against it, pinning it shut. Our eyes met, and there was such fear in him, such terror in the white-rimmed bulge of his eyes, that I felt the coldness of it deep in my chest. He turned at once, and threw himself again at the door on his side.

My mind was muddy water, and one idea splashed up from it, clear and exclusive: FIRE. Is that what he's afraid of! Once I'd asked myself the question I couldn't stop thinking it. I looked at the terror that pulled at Prabaker's gasping mouth, and I was sure the taxi was going to catch fire. I knew we were trapped there.

The rear windows, in all the Bombay taxis I'd seen, didn't open beyond a few centimetres. The doors were jammed, and the windows wouldn't open, and the taxi was going to explode in fire, and we were trapped. Burned live... Is that why he's so scared?

I looked to the driver. He was slumped, awkwardly, between the steering wheel and the door. His body was still, but I heard him moaning. Beneath the thin shirt, the abacus ridge of his spine rose and fell with each slow and shallow breath.

Faces appeared at the windows of the cab, and I heard excited voices. Prabaker looked out at them, turning this way and that, his face cramped in an expression of terrible anguish. Suddenly, he clambered over the seat into the front of the car and wrestled the passenger door open. Turning swiftly and grabbing at my arms with surprising strength, he tried to drag me by main force over the seat that divided us.

"This way, Lin! Get out, now! Hurry! Hurry!"

I climbed up and over the seat. Prabaker got out of the car, pushing his way into a crowd of onlookers. I reached out to the driver, trying to prise him from the obstructing rim of the steering wheel, but Prabaker's hands were on me again, brutally rough. The fingernails of one hand tore into the skin of my back, and the other wrenched at the collar of my shirt.

"Don't touch him, Lin!" he almost screamed. "Don't touch him!

Leave him and get out. Get out now!"

He dragged me from the car and through the hedge of bodies pressing in on the accident. On a footpath nearby, we sat beneath a fringe of hawthorn leaves that overhung a fence of wrought-iron spears, and inspected one another for injuries. The cut on my forehead, above my right eye, wasn't as serious as I'd thought.

The bleeding had already stopped, and it began to weep a clear, plasmic fluid. I was sore in a few places, but it was no cause for concern. Prabaker cradled his arm-the same arm that had pulled me from the car with such irresistible power-and it was obvious that he was in pain. A large swelling had already formed near the elbow. I knew it would leave a nasty bruise, but nothing seemed to be broken.

"Looks like you were wrong, Prabu," I chided, smiling as I lit a cigarette for him.

"Wrong, baba?"

"Getting us out of the car in such a panic and all. You really had me going. I thought the damn thing was going to catch fire, but it looks okay."

"Oh," he replied softly, staring straight ahead. "You think I was frightening for fire? Not fire in the car, Lin, but fire in the people. Look, now. See the public, how they are."

We stood, stretching the ache from shoulders and whip-lashed necks, and looked toward the wreckage some ten metres away. About thirty people had gathered around the four crashed vehicles. A few of them were helping drivers and passengers from the damaged cars. The rest huddled together in groups, gesturing wildly and shouting. More people streamed toward the site from every direction. Drivers of other cars that had been blocked from travelling further, left their vehicles and joined the crowd. The thirty people became fifty, eighty, then a hundred as we watched.

One man was the centre of attention. It was his car that had been trying to turn right, his car we'd smashed into with the brakes on full lock. He stood beside the taxi, bellowing with rage. He was a round-shouldered man, in his middle forties, wearing a grey, cotton safari suit that had been tailored to accommodate the extravagant boast of his large paunch. His thinning hair was awry. The breast pocket of his suit had been torn, there was a rip in his trousers, and he'd lost one sandal. That dishevelment combined with his theatrical gestures and persistent shouting to present a spectacle that seemed to be more enthralling, for the crowd of onlookers, than the wreckage of the cars. His hand had been cut from the palm to the wrist. As the staring crowd grew more silent, subdued by the drama, he smeared blood from the wound on his face and beat the redness into the grey of his suit, shouting all the while.

Just then, some men carried a woman into the little clear space around the man, and placed her on a piece of cloth that was stretched out on the ground for her. They shouted instructions to the crowd, and in moments a wooden cart appeared, pushed by bare- chested men wearing only singlets and short lungis. The woman was lifted onto the cart, her red sari gathered up in folds and wrapped about her legs. She may have been the man's wife-I couldn't be sure-but his rage suddenly grew hysterical. He seized her roughly by the shoulders and shook her. He pulled at her hair. He appealed to the crowd with enormous, histrionic gestures, flinging his arms wide and then striking his own blood- streaked face. They were the gestures of pantomime, the exaggerated simulations of silent films, and I couldn't help thinking they were absurd and funny. But the injuries people had sustained were real, as were the rumbling threats that surged through the ever-increasing crowd.

As the semi-conscious woman was trundled away on the humble cart, the man hurled himself at the door of the taxi, wrenching it open. The crowd reacted as one. They dragged the dazed and injured taxi driver from his cab in an instant and flung him on the bonnet of the car. He raised his arms in feeble pleading, but a dozen, twenty, fifty hands punched and tore at him. Blows drummed on his face, chest, stomach, and groin. Fingernails scratched and ripped, tearing his mouth open on one side almost to the ear, and shredding his shirt to rags.

It happened in seconds. I told myself, as I watched the beating, that it was all too fast, that I was dazed, and there was no time to react. What we call cowardice is often just another name for being taken by surprise, and courage is seldom any better than simply being well prepared. And I might've done more, I might've done something, anything, if it had happened in Australia. It's not your country, I told myself, as I watched the beating. It's not your culture...

But there was another thought, dark and secret then, and all too clear to me now: the man was an idiot, an insulting and belligerent idiot, whose reckless stupidity had risked Prabaker's life and mine. A splinter of spite had pierced my heart when the crowd turned on him, and at least some small particle of their revenge-a blow or a shout or a shove-was my own. Helpless, craven, ashamed, I did nothing.

"We've got to do something..." I said lamely.

"Enough people are doing, baba," Prabaker replied.

"No, I mean, we've got to... can't we help him, somehow?"

"For this fellow is no helping," he sighed. "Now you see it, Lin.

Accidents is very bad business in Bombay. Better you get out of that car, or taxi, or what is it you are in, very, very quickly.

The public are not having patience for such business. See now, it is too late for that fellow."

The beating was swift, but savage. Blood streamed from many cuts on the man's face and naked torso. At a signal, perceived, somehow, through the howl and shriek of the crowd, the man was lifted up and carried off at head height. His legs were pressed together and stretched out, held rigid by a dozen hands. His arms were splayed out at right angles to his body and held fast. His head lolled and fell back, the soft, wet flap of skin hanging from cheek to jaw. His eyes were open, conscious, staring backward and upside down: black eyes, scudded with fear and imbecile hope. Traffic on the far side of the road parted to let the people pass, and the man slowly disappeared, crucified on the hands and shoulders of the crowd.

"Come on, Lin. Let's go. You are okay?"

"I'm all right," I mumbled, forcing myself to shuffle into step beside him. My self-assurance had melted through muscle and bone to settle in my knees. Each step was leaden and willed. It wasn't the violence that had shaken me. I'd seen worse, and with far less provocation, in prison. It was, instead, the too-sudden collapse of my stilted complacencies. The weeks of the city I'd thought I was beginning to know-the Bombay of temples, bazaars, restaurants, and new friends-had cindered in the fires of that public rage.

"What... what are they going to do with him?"

"They will take him to police, I think so. Behind Crawford Market is one police station, for this area. Maybe he will have the luck - maybe alive, he will reach there. Maybe not. He has a very quickly Karma, this fellow."

"You've seen this before?"

"Oh, many times, Linbaba. Sometimes, I drive it my cousin Shantu's taxi. I have seen so many angry publics. That is why I was getting so afraid for you, and for my good self also."

"Why does it happen like that? Why did they get so crazy about it?"

"That is nobody knows, Lin," Prabaker shrugged, quickening his pace a little.

"Wait a minute," I paused, slowing him with a hand to his shoulder. "Where are we going?"

"Still going for the tour, isn't it?"

"I thought... maybe... you want to call it off, for today."

"Calling off why? We have it a real and full deal to see, Linbaba. So, let's go, na?"

"But what about your arm? Don't you want to get it seen to?"

"No problem this arms, Lin. For last of the touring, we will have some whisky drinks in a terrible place I know. That will be a good medicine. So come on, let's go now, baba."

"Well, okay, if you say so. But we were going the other way, weren't we?"

"Still going the other way, baba," Prabaker replied with some urgency. "But first going this way only! Over there is a telephone, at the station. I must call my cousin, working now at Sunshine restaurant, as the dishes-washing boy. He is wanting a taxi-driving job, for his brother, Suresh, and I must give it the number and boss-name of the driver, now gone with the people.

That fellow's boss will be needing a new driver now, and we must hurry for such a good chance, isn't it?"

Prabaker made that call. Seconds later, he continued his tour of the dark side of the city without a heartbeat of hesitation, in another taxi, as if nothing had happened. Nor did he ever raise the matter with me again. When I occasionally spoke of it, he responded with a shrug, or some bland comment about our good luck in avoiding serious injury. For him, the incident was like a brawl in a nightclub, or a clash of rival supporters at a football match-commonplace and unremarkable, unless you happen to be in the centre of it.

But for me that sudden, savage, bewildering riot, the sight of that taxi- driver floating away on a rippling wave of hands, shoulders, and heads was a turning point. A new understanding emerged from it. I suddenly realised that if I wanted to stay there, in Bombay, the city I'd already fallen in love with, I had to change. I had to get involved. The city wouldn't let me be a watcher, aloof and apart. If I wanted to stay, I had to expect that she would drag me into the river of her rapture, and her rage. Sooner or later, I knew, I would have to step off the pavement and into the bloody crowd, and put my body on the line.

And with the seed of that resolve, born in that convulsion and portent, Prabaker's dark circuit of the city began. When we resumed our tour, he took me to a slave market not far from Dongri, an inner suburb famous for its mosques, bazaars, and restaurants specialising in Mughlai dishes. The main road became streets and the streets became lanes and, when those proved too narrow for the taxi to negotiate, we left the vehicle and walked together in the sinuous busyness of the crowds. The further we travelled into the Catiline lanes, the more we lost of the day, the year, the very age in which we lived. As automobiles and then scooters disappeared, the air became clearer, sharper, with the scents of spices and perfumes undulled by the diesel and petrol fumes prevalent elsewhere. Traffic noise faded, ceased, and was replaced by street sound-a class of children reciting verses from the Koran in a little courtyard; the whirr and scrape of stone on stone, as women ground spices in doorways; and the whining optimism of cries from knife sharpeners, mattress- fluffers, stove repairers, and other hawkers. They were people sounds, everywhere, played with voice and hand.

At one turn in the puzzle alleyways we passed a long metal rack where bicycles were parked. From then on, even those simple machines vanished. Goods were transported by bearers with enormous bundles on their heads. One burden usually carried by all, the thudding pressure of the Bombay sun, was lifted from us: the lanes were dark, cool, shadowless. Although only three and at most four storeys tall, the buildings leaned in upon the winding pathways, and the sky was reduced to a thin brush stroke of pale blue.

The buildings themselves were ancient and dilapidated. Stone facades, which had once been splendid and impressive, were crumbling, grimed, and patched with haphazard necessity. Here and there, small balconies jutted out to meet one another overhead, so close that neighbours could reach across and pass things with an out-stretched hand. Glimpses inside the houses showed unpainted walls and sagging staircases.

Many ground-floor windows were held open to reveal makeshift shops for the sale of sweets, cigarettes, groceries, vegetables, and utensils. It was clear that the plumbing was rudimentary, where it was connected at all. We passed several places where women gathered with metal or clay pots to collect water from a single, outside tap. And skeined over all the buildings like metal cobwebs were complicated traceries of electrical conduits and wires, as if even that symbol and source of the modern age and its power was no more than a fragile, temporary net that might be swept away by a rough gesture.

Just as the contracted lanes seemed, with every twist and turn, to belong to another age, so too did the appearance of the people change as we moved deeper into the maze. I saw less and less of the western-style cotton shirts and trousers, so common everywhere else in the city, until finally those fashions disappeared from all but the youngest children. Instead, the men wore traditional garments of colourful diversity. There were long silk shirts that descended to the knee and were fastened with pearl buttons, from neck to waist; kaftan robes in plain colours or stripes; hooded cloaks that resembled the garb of monks; and an endless variety of skull caps, in white or beaded colours, and turbans in yellow, red, and electric blue. The women were more conspicuously bejewelled, despite the indigence of the quarter, and what those jewels lacked in money's worth was found in the extravagance of their design. No less prominent were caste mark tattoos on some foreheads, cheeks, hands, and wrists. And every bare feminine foot was graced by anklets of silver bells and coiled brass toe-rings.

It was as if all of those hundreds of people were costumed for home, for themselves, not for the public promenades. It was as if they were safe, there, to clothe themselves in tradition and display. And the streets were clean. The buildings were cracked and smeared, the constricted passageways were crowded with goats, chickens, dogs, and people, and each thin face showed the shade and hollows of penury, but the streets and the people were stainlessly, scrupulously clean.

We turned then into more ancient alleyways, so narrow that two persons passed one another only with difficulty. People stepped into doorways, waiting for us to walk past before they moved on.

The passages had been covered with false ceilings and stretched awnings, and in the darkness it wasn't possible to see more than a few metres in front or behind. I kept my eyes on Prabaker, fearful that I wouldn't find my way out alone. The little guide turned often, drawing my attention to a loose stone in the path ahead, or a step, or some obstruction overhead. Concentrating on those perils, I lost my orientation. My mental map of the city turned, blurred, faded, and I couldn't guess at the direction of the sea, or the major landmarks-Flora Fountain, VT. station, Crawford Market-we'd passed on our way to the quarter. I felt myself to be so deep in the flow and reflux of those narrow lanes, so smothered by the intimacy of open doors and perfumed bodies, that it seemed I was walking inside the buildings, inside the very homes, rather than between them.

We came upon a stall where a man in a sweat-stained cotton vest stirred battered foods frying in a dish of bubbling oil. The blue flames of his kerosene stove, eerie and claustral, provided the only light. Emotion haunted his face. It was anguish, some kind of anguish, and the dull, stoic anger that hangs in the eyes of repetitive, ill-paid work. Prabaker moved past him and into the darkness beyond. As I approached the man he turned to face me, and his eyes met mine. For a moment, the full-force of his blue- lit anger was directed at me.

Long years after that day, the Afghan guerrillas I came to know as friends, on a mountain near the siege of Kandahar, talked for hours about Indian films and their favourite Bollywood movie stars. Indian actors are the greatest in the world, one of them said once, because Indian people know how to shout with their eyes. That back-street fried-foods cook stared at me, with shouting eyes, and stopped me as surely as if he'd pushed a hand into my chest. I couldn't move. In my own eyes, there were words - I'm sorry, I'm sorry that you have to do this work, I'm sorry that your world, your life, is so hot and dark and unremembered, I'm sorry that I'm intruding...

Still staring at me, he grasped the handles of his dish. For one, two, thudding heartbeats, I was gripped by the ridiculous, terrifying thought that he was going to throw the boiling oil in my face. Fear jerked at my feet and I moved, easing my way past him with my hands flat against the damp surface of the stone wall. Two steps beyond him, my foot struck a crack in the path and I stumbled, and fell, dragging another man down with me. He was an elderly man, thin and frail. I could feel the wicker- basket of his bones through his coarse tunic. We fell heavily, landing near the open entrance to a house, and the old man struck his head. I scrambled to my feet, slipping and sliding on a pile of shifting stones. I tried to help the man to stand, but there was an elderly woman who squatted on her haunches there, in the open doorway, and she slapped at my hands, warning me away. I apologised in English, struggling to find the words for I'm sorry in Hindi-What are they? Prabaker taught me the words... Mujhako afsos hain... that's it-I said it three, four times. In that dark, quiet corridor between the buildings, the words echoed like a drunkard's prayer in an empty church.

The old man moaned quietly, slouching in the doorway. The woman wiped his face with a corner of her headscarf, and held the cloth out for me to see the bright stain of blood. She said nothing, but her wrinkled face was creased with a frown of contempt. With that simple gesture, holding out the bloodstained cloth, she seemed to be saying Look, you stupid oaf, you great clumsy barbarian, look what you've done here...

I felt choked by the heat, smothered by the darkness and the strangeness of the place. The walls seemed to press upon my hands, as if only my arms prevented them from closing in on me altogether. I backed away from the elderly couple, stumbling at first, and then plunging headlong into the shadow-land of the tunnel street. A hand reached out to grab at my shoulder. It was a gentle touch, but I almost shouted out loud.

"This way, baba," Prabaker said, laughing quietly. "Where are you taking yourself? This way only. Along this passage now, and you must be keeping your two feets to the outside because too much dirty it is, in the middle of the passages, okay?"

He was standing in the entrance to a narrow gap formed between the blank walls of two buildings. Feeble light gleamed in the teeth and eyes of his smile, but beyond him was only blackness.

He turned his back to me, spread his feet out until they touched the walls, braced himself with his hands, and then shuffled off, sliding his feet along the walls in small, dragging steps. He expected me to follow. I hesitated, but when the awkward star of his shuffling form melted in the darkness and vanished, I too put my feet out against the walls and shambled after him.

I could hear Prabaker ahead of me, but it was so dark that I couldn't see him. One foot strayed from the edge of the wall, and my boot squelched into a muddy slime that rested in the centre of the path. A foul smell rose up from that viscous ooze, and I kept my feet hard against the walls, sliding them along in short steps. Something squat and heavy slithered past me, rasping its thick body against my boot.

Seconds later, another and then a third creature waddled past me in the darkness, rolling heavy flesh over the toes of my boots.

"Prabu!" I bellowed, not knowing how far ahead of me he was.

"There are things in here with us!"

"Things, baba?"

"On the ground! Something's crawling on my feet! Something heavy!"

"Only rats are crawling here, Lin. There are no things."

"Rats? Are you kidding? These things are as big as bull terriers.

Jesus, this is some tour, my friend!"

"No problem big rats, Lin," Prabaker answered quietly from the darkness in front of me. "Big rats are friendly fellows, not making mischief for the people. If you don't attack them. Only one thing is making them bite and scratch and such things."

"What's that, for God's sake?"

"Shouting, baba," he replied softly. "They don't like the loud voices."

"Oh, great! Now you tell me," I croaked. "Is it much further?

This is starting to give me the creeps and-"

He'd stopped, and I bumped into him, pressing him against the panelled surface of a wooden door.

"We are here," he whispered, reaching out to knock with a complex series of taps and pauses. There was a scrape and clunk as a heavy bolt slid free, and then the door swung open, dazzling us with sudden bright light. Prabaker grasped my sleeve and dragged me with him. "Quickly, Lin. No big rats allowed inside!"

We stepped inside a small chamber, hemmed in by blank walls and lit from high above by a raw silk rectangle of sky. I could hear voices from deeper within the cul-de-sac. A huge man slammed the gate shut. He put his back to it and faced us with a scowl, teeth bared. Prabaker began to talk at once, placating him with soft words and fawning gestures. The man shook his head repeatedly, interjecting regularly to say _no, no, no.

He towered over me. I was standing so close to him that I could feel the breath from his wide nostrils, the sound of it like wind whistling through caves on a rocky shore. His hair was very short, exposing ears as large and nubbled as a boxer's practice mitts. His square face seemed to be animated by more strong muscle tissue than the average man has in his back. His chest, as wide as I was from shoulder to shoulder, rose and fell with each breath, and rested upon an immense belly.

The fine dagger-line of his moustache accentuated his scowl, and he looked at me with such undiluted loathing that a little prayer unfurled itself in my mind. Please God, don't make me fight this man.

He raised the palms of his hands to stop Prabaker's wheedling cajolery. They were huge hands, gnarled and calloused enough to scrape the barnacles off the side of a dry-docked oil tanker.

"He says we are not allowed inside," Prabaker explained.

"Well," I replied, reaching past the man and attempting with unforced enthusiasm to open the door, "you can't say we didn't try."

"No, no, Lin!" Prabaker stopped me. "We must argue with him about this matter."

The big man folded his arms, stretching the seams of his khaki shirt with little ripples of sound.

"I don't think that's such a good idea," I mumbled, under a tight smile.

"Certainly it is!" Prabaker insisted. "Tourists are not allowed here, or to any of the other people-markets, but I have told him that you are not one of these tourist fellows. I have told him that you have learned the Marathi language. He does not believe me. That is our problem only. He doesn't believe any foreigner will speak Marathi. You must for that reason speak it a little Marathi for him. You will see. He will allow us inside."

"I only know about twenty words of Marathi, Prabu."

"No problem twenty words, baba. Just make a begin. You will see.

Tell him your name."

"My name?"

"Yes, like I taught it to you. Not in Hindi, but in Marathi.

Okay, just begin..."

"Ah, ah, maza nao Lin ahey," I muttered, uncertainly. My name is Lin.

"Baapree!" the big man gasped, his eyes wide with genuine surprise. Good Lord!

Encouraged, I tried a few more of the phrases Prabaker had taught me during the last few weeks.

"Maza Desh New Zealand ahey. Ata me Colabala rahella ahey." My country is New Zealand. I am living in Colaba now.

"_Kai _garam _mad'chud!" he roared, smiling for the first time.

The phrase literally means, What a hot motherfucker! It's so frequently and inventively applied in conversation, however, that it can be loosely translated as Son of a gun!

The giant grasped my shoulder, squeezing it with amiable severity.

I ran through the range of my Marathi phrases, beginning with the first words I'd asked Prabaker to teach me-I love your country very much-and concluding with a request I was often forced to make in restaurants, but which must've seemed spectacularly inappropriate in the little alcove: Please turn off the fan, while I am eating my soup...

"Enough now, baba," Prabaker gurgled through his wide grin. When I fell silent, the big man spoke swiftly and exuberantly.

Prabaker translated for him, nodding and gesturing expressively with his hands. "He says he is Bombay policeman, and his name is Vinod."

"He's a cop?"

"Oh yes, Lin. A police-cop, he is."

"Do the cops run this place?"

"Oh, no. This is part-time work only. He says he is so very, very happy to meet you...

"He says you are the first gora he ever met who can speak Marathi ...

"He says some foreigners speak Hindi, but nobody foreigner can speak Marathi...

"He says Marathi is his language. His native place is Pune...

"He says they speak it a very pure Marathi in Pune, and you must go there to hear it...

"He says he is too happy! You are like a son to him...

"He says you must come to his house, and eat foods and meet his family...

"He says that will be one hundred rupees."

"What was that?"

"Baksheesh, Lin. To go inside. One hundred rupees, it is. Pay him now."

"Oh, sure." I fumbled a few notes from my pocket, peeled off one hundred rupees, and handed it over. There's a special sleight of hand that's peculiar to policemen: the conjuring trick that palms and conceals banknotes with a skill that experienced shell-game swindlers envy. The big man collected the money with a two-handed handshake, smeared a palm across his chest as if brushing away crumbs after eating a sandwich, and then scratched at his nose with practised innocence. The money had vanished. He pointed along the narrow corridor. We were free to enter. Two sharp turns and a dozen paces beyond the gate and its shaft of bright light, we came upon a kind of courtyard. Several men sat on rough wooden benches, or stood in talking groups of two or three. Some were Arabs, dressed in loose, cotton robes and kaffiyehs. An Indian boy moved among them, serving black tea in long glasses. Some of the men looked at Prabaker and me with frowning curiosity. When Prabaker smiled widely and waved a greeting they turned away, concentrating their attention once more on their conversation. Occasionally, one or another of them looked up to inspect a group of children who sat together on a long wooden bench beneath a ragged canvas awning.

It was darker there, after the bright light of the entrance chamber. A patchwork of canvas scraps provided an uneven cover that screened out most of the sky. Blank brown and magenta walls rose up all around us. The few windows I could see, through tears in the canvas coverings, were boarded over. Not a real courtyard, the roughly square space seemed unplanned, a kind of mistake, an almost forgotten architectural accident formed by building and rebuilding on the ruins of other structures within the congested block. The ground was paved with haphazard collections of tiles that had once been the floors of kitchens and bathrooms. Two naked bulbs, strange fruit on the withered vines of bare wires, provided the poor light.

We moved to a quiet corner, accepted tea when it was offered, and sipped it in silence for a while. Then, speaking quietly and slowly, Prabaker told me about the place he called the people- market. The children sitting beneath the tattered canopy were slaves. They'd come from the cyclone in West Bengal, the drought in Orissa, the cholera epidemic in Haryana, the secessionist fighting in Punjab. Sourced in calamity, recruited and purchased by scouts, the children had journeyed to Bombay by train, often alone, through all the many hundreds of kilometres.

The men gathered in the courtyard were purchasers or agents.

Although they seemed to express no great interest, talking amongst themselves and for the most part ignoring the children on the wooden bench, Prabaker assured me that a restrained haggling was taking place, and that bargains were being struck, even as we watched.

The children were thin, vulnerable, and small. Two of them sat with their four hands bunched together in a beehive-ball. One child embraced another within the huddle of a protective arm. All of them stared out at the well-fed, well-clothed purchasers and agents, following every change of expression or emphatic gesture of their bejewelled hands. And the eyes of those children were like the black gleam at the bottom of a sweetwater well.

What does it take to harden a man's heart? How could I see that place, look at those children, and not put a stop to it? Why didn't I contact the authorities? Why didn't I get a gun, and put a stop to it myself? The answer to that, like the answers to all the big questions, came in many parts. I was a wanted man, a hunted criminal, living on the run. Contacting police or government authorities wasn't an option for me. I was a stranger in that strange land: it wasn't my country, and it wasn't my culture. I had to know more. I had to know the language that was spoken, at the very least, before I could presume to interfere.

And I'd learned, the hard way, that sometimes, even with the purest intentions, we make things worse when we do our best to make things better. If I came back with a gun and stopped the slave market there, in that crooked concrete maze, it would start up again somewhere else. Stranger that I was, I knew that much.

And maybe the new slave market, in a different place, would be worse. I was helpless to stop it, and I knew it.

What I didn't know then, and what troubled me for a long time after that Day of the Slaves, was how I could be there, and look at the children, and not be crushed by it. I realised, much later, that a part of the answer lay in the Australian prison, and the men I'd met there. Some of those men, too many of them, were serving their fourth or fifth prison sentences. Many of them had begun their imprisonment in reform schools-Boys' Homes, they were called, and Youth Training Centres-when they were no older than those Indian slave children. Some of them had been beaten, starved, and locked in solitary confinement. Some of them, too many of them, had been sexually abused. Ask any man with a long- enough experience of prisons, and he'll tell you that all it takes to harden a man's heart is a system of justice.

And strange and shameful as it is to admit it, I was glad that something, someone, some experience had flinted my heart. That hard stone within my chest was all that protected me from those first sounds and images of Prabaker's dark tour of the city.

Hands clapped in brittle echoes, and a little girl stood up from the bench to sing and dance. It was a love song from a popular Hindi movie. I heard it many times, hundreds of times, during the following years, and it always reminded me of that child, ten years old, and her surprisingly strong, high, thin voice. She swayed her hips, pushing up her non-existent breasts in a child's imitation of a temptress burlesque, and new interest quirked the heads of the purchasers and agents.

Prabaker played the Virgil. His soft voice was ceaseless, explaining all that we saw, and all that he knew. He told me that the children would've died, if they hadn't found their way to the people-market. Professional recruiters, known as talent scouts, roamed from one catastrophe to another, from drought to earthquake to flood. Starving parents, who'd already watched one or more of their children sicken, and die, blessed the scouts, kneeling to touch their feet. They begged them to buy a son or a daughter, so that at least that one child would live.

The boys on sale there were destined to work as camel jockeys in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf States. Some would be maimed in the camel races that provided afternoon entertainment for the rich sheiks, Prabaker said. Some would die. The survivors, grown too tall to ride in the races, were often abandoned to fend for themselves. The girls would work in households throughout the Middle East. Some of them would be used for sex.

But they were alive, Prabaker said, those boys and girls. They were the lucky ones. For every child who passed through the people-market there were a hundred others, or more, who'd starved in unutterable agonies, and were dead.

The starving, the dead, the slaves. And through it all, the purr and rustle of Prabaker's voice. There's a truth that's deeper than experience. It's beyond what we see, or even what we feel.

It's an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We're helpless, usually, in the face of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love, is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay. It doesn't always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world. And the only way to know that truth is to share it, from heart to heart, just as Prabaker told it to me, just as I'm telling it to you now.

CHAPTER FOUR

"Do you know the Borsalino hat test?"

"The what?"

"The Borsalino hat test. It is the test that reveals whether a hat is a genuine Borsalino, or an inferior imitator. You know about the Borsalino, non?"

"No, I can't say I do."

"Aaaaah," Didier smiled. The smile was composed of one part surprise, one part mischief, and one part contempt. Somehow, those elements combined in an effect that was disarmingly charming. He leaned slightly forward and inclined his head to one side, his black curly hair shaking as if to emphasise the points in his explanation. "The Borsalino is a garment of the first and finest quality. It is believed by many, and myself included, to be the most outstanding gentleman's head covering ever made."

His hands shaped an imaginary hat on his head.

"It is wide-brimmed, in black or white, and made from the furs of the lapin."

"So, it's just a hat," I added, in what I thought to be an agreeable tone. "We're talking about a rabbit-fur hat."

Didier was outraged.

"Just a hat? Oh, no, my friend! The Borsalino is more than just a hat. The Borsalino is a work of art! It is brushed ten thousand times, by hand, before it is sold. It was the style expression of first choice by discerning French and Italian gangsters in Milan and Marseilles for many decades. The very name of Borsalino became a synonyme for gangsters. The wild young men of the underworld of Milano and Marseilles were called Borsalinos. Those were the days when gangsters had some style. They understood that if you were to live as an outlaw and steal and shoot people for a living, you had a responsibility to dress with some elegance.

Isn't it so?" "It's the least they could do," I agreed, smiling.

"But of course! Now, sadly, there is all attitude and no style.

It is the mark of the age in which we live that the style becomes the attitude, instead of the attitude becoming the style."

He paused, permitting me a moment to acknowledge the turn of phrase.

"And so," he continued, "the test of a real Borsalino hat is to roll it into a cylinder, roll it up into a very tight tube, and pass it through a wedding ring. If it emerges from this test without permanent creases, and if it springs back to its original shape, and if it is not damaged in the experience, it is a genuine Borsalino."

"And you're saying..."

"Just so!" Didier shouted, slamming a fist down on the table.

We were sitting in Leopold's, near the square arch of the Causeway doors, at eight o'clock. Some foreigners at the next table turned their heads at the noisy outburst, but the staff and the regulars ignored the Frenchman. Didier had been eating and drinking and expostulating at Leopold's for nine years. They all knew there was a line you could cross with him, a limit to his tolerance, and he was a dangerous man if you crossed it. They also knew that the line wasn't drawn in the soft sand of his own life or beliefs or feelings. Didier's line was drawn through the hearts of the people he loved. If you hurt them, in any way, you roused him to a cold and deadly rage. But nothing anyone said or did to him, short of actual bodily harm, ever really offended or angered him.

"Comme %ca! That is my point! Your little friend, Prabaker, has put you through the hat test. He rolled you into a tube, and dragged you through the wedding ring, to see if you are a real Borsalino or not. That was his purpose in taking you on the tour of the bad sights and sounds of the city. It was a Borsalino test."

I sipped my coffee in silence, knowing that he was right-

Prabaker's dark tour had been a kind of test-but not willing to give Didier the trophy of conceding the point.

The evening crowd of tourists from Germany, Switzerland, France, England, Norway, America, Japan, and a dozen other countries thinned out, giving way to the night crowd of Indians and expatriates who called Bombay home. The locals reclaimed places like Leopold's, the Mocambo, Cafe Mondegar, and the Light of Asia every night, when the tourists sought the safety of their hotels.

"If it was a test," I did at last concede, "he must've given me a pass. He invited me to go with him to visit his family, in his village in the north of the state."

Didier raised his eyebrows in theatrical surprise.

"For how long?"

"I don't know. A couple of months, I think. Maybe more."

"Ah, then it is so," he concluded. "Your little friend is beginning to love you."

"I think that's putting it a bit strong," I objected, frowning.

"No, no, you do not understand. You must be careful, here, with the real affection of those you meet. This is not like any other place. This is India. Everyone who comes here falls in love-most of us fall in love many times over. And the Indians, they love most of all. Your little friend may be beginning to love you.

There is nothing strange in this. I say it from a long experience of this country, and especially of this city. It happens often, and easily, for the Indians. That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace. They are not perfect, of course. They know how to fight and lie and cheat each other, and all the things that all of us do. But more than any other people in the world, the Indians know how to love one another."

He paused to light a cigarette, and then waved it like a little flagpole until the waiter noticed him and nodded to his request for another glass of vodka.

"India is about six times the size of France," he went on, as the glass of alcohol and a bowl of curried snacks arrived at our table. "But it has almost twenty times the population. Twenty times! Believe me, if there were a billion Frenchmen living in such a crowded space, there would be rivers of blood. Rivers of blood! And, as everyone knows, we French are the most civilised people in Europe. Indeed, in the whole world. No, no, without love, India would be impossible."

Letitia joined us at our table, sitting to my left.

"What are you on about now, Didier, you bastard?" she asked compan-ionably, her South London accent giving the first syllable of the last word an explosive ring.

"He was just telling me that the French are the most civilised people in the world." "As all the world knows," he added.

"When you produce a Shakespeare, out of your villes and vineyards, mate, I might just agree with you," Lettie murmured through a smile that seemed to be warm and condescending in equal parts.

"My dear, please do not think that I disrespect your Shakespeare," Didier countered, laughing happily. "I love the English language, because so much of it is French."

"Touche," I grinned, "as we say in English."

Ulla and Modena arrived at that moment, and sat down. Ulla was dressed for work in a small, tight, black, halter-neck dress, fishnet stockings, and stiletto-heel shoes. She wore eye-dazzling fake diamonds at her throat and ears. The contrast between her clothing and Lettie's was stark. Lettie wore a fine, bone- coloured brocade jacket over loose, dark-brown satin culottes, and boots. Yet the faces of the two women produced the strongest and most unexpected contrast. Lettie's gaze was seductive, direct, self-assured, and sparkling with ironies and secrets, while Ulla's wide blue eyes, for all the make-up and clothing of her professional sexuality, showed nothing but innocence-honest, vacuous innocence.

"You are forbidden to speak to me, Didier," Ulla said at once, pouting inconsolably. "I have had a very disagreeable time with Federico-three hours-and it is all your fault."

"Bah!" Didier spat out. "Federico!"

"Oh," Lettie joined in, making three long sounds out of one.

"Something's happened to the beautiful young Federico, has it?

Come on, Ulla me darlin', let's have all the gossip."

"_Na _ja, Federico has got a religion, and he is driving me crazy about it, and it is all Didier's fault."

"Yes!" Didier added, clearly disgusted. "Federico has found religion. It is a tragedy. He no longer drinks or smokes or takes drugs. And of course he will not have sex with anyone-not even with himself! It is an appalling waste of talent. The man was a genius of the corruptions, my finest student, my masterwork. It is maddening. He is now a good man, in the very worst sense of the word."

"Well, you win a few, you lose a few," Lettie sighed with mock sympathy. "You mustn't let it get you down, Didier. There'll be other fish for you to fry and gobble up."

"Your sympathy should be for me," Ulla chided. "Federico came from Didier in such a bad mood yesterday, he was at my door today in tears. Scheisse! Wirklich! For three hours he cried and he raved at me about being born again. In the end I felt so sorry for him.

It was only with a great suffering that I let Modena throw him and his bible books onto the street. It's all your fault, Didier, and I will take the longest time to forgive you for it."

"Fanatics," Didier mused, ignoring the rebuke, "always seem to have the same scrubbed and staring look about them. They have the look of people who do not masturbate, but who think about it almost all the time."

"I really do love you, you know, Didier," Lettie stuttered, through her bubbling laughter. "Even if you are a despicable toad of a man."

"No, you love him because he is a despicable toe of a man," Ulla declared.

"That's toad, love, not toe," Lettie corrected patiently, still laughing. "He's a toad of a man, not a toe of a man. A despicable toe wouldn't make any sense at all, now would it? We wouldn't love him or hate him just for being a toe of a man, would we, darlin'-even if we knew what it meant?"

"I'm not so good with the English jokes, you know that, Lettie,"

Ulla persisted. "But I think he _is a big, ugly, hairy toe of a man."

"I assure you," Didier protested, "that my toes-and my feet, for that matter-are exceptionally beautiful."

Karla, Maurizio, and an Indian man in his early thirties walked in from the busy night street. Maurizio and Modena joined a second table to ours, and then the eight of us ordered drinks and food.

"Lin, Lettie, this is my friend, Vikram Patel," Karla announced, when there was a moment of relative quiet. "He came back a couple of weeks ago, after a long holiday in Denmark, and I think you're the only two who haven't met him."

Lettie and I introduced ourselves to the newcomer, but my real attention was on Maurizio and Karla. He sat beside her, opposite me, and rested his hand on the back of her chair. He leaned in close to her, and their heads almost touched when they spoke.

There's a dark feeling-less than hatred, but more than loathing - that ugly men feel for handsome men. It's unreasonable and unjustified, of course, but it's always there, hiding in the long shadow thrown by envy. It creeps out, into the light of your eyes, when you're falling in love with a beautiful woman. I looked at Maurizio, and a little of that dark feeling began in my heart. His straight, white teeth, smooth complexion, and thick, dark hair turned me against him more swiftly and surely than flaws in his character mightVe done.

And Karla was beautiful: her hair, in a French roll, was shining like water running over black river stones, and her green eyes were radiant with purpose and pleasure. She wore a long-sleeved Indian salwar top that reached to below her knees, where it met loose trousers in the same olive silk fabric.

"I had a great time, yaar," the newcomer, Vikram, was saying when my thoughts returned to the moment. "Denmark is very hip, very cool. The people are very sophisticated. They're so fucking controlled, I couldn't believe it. I went to a sauna, in Copenhagen. It was a fucking huge place, yaar, with a mixed set- up-with men and women, together, walking around stark naked.

Absolutely, totally naked. And nobody reacted at all. Not even a flickering eye, yaar. Indian guys couldn't handle that. They'd be boiling, I tell you."

"Were you boiling, Vikram dear?" Lettie asked, sweetly.

"Are you fucking kidding? I was the only guy in the place wearing a towel, and the only guy with a hard-on."

"I don't understand," Ulla said, when we stopped laughing. It was a flat statement-neither a complaint, nor a plea for further explanation.

"Hey, I went there every day for three weeks, yaar," Vikram continued. "I thought that if I just spent enough time there, I'd get used to it, like all the super-cool Danes."

"Get used to what?" Ulla asked.

Vikram frowned at her, bewildered, and then turned to Lettie.

"It was no good. It was useless. After three weeks, I still had to wear the towel. No matter how often I went there, when I saw those bouncy bits going up and down, and side-to-side, I stiffened up. What can I say? I'm too Indian for a place like that."

"It is the same for Indian women," Maurizio observed. "Even when they are making love, it is not possible to be naked."

"Well, that's not always true," Vikram went on, "And anyway, it's the guys who are the problem here. Indian women are ready to change. Young Indian chicks from middle-class families are wild about change, yaar. They're educated, and they're ready for short hair, short dresses, and short love affairs. They're ready for it, but the guys are holding them back. The average Indian guy has a sexual maturity of about fourteen."

"Tell me about it," Lettie muttered.

Kavita Singh had approached our table moments before, and stood behind Vikram while he made his observations about Indian women.

With short, styled hair, and wearing jeans and a white sweatshirt bearing the emblem of New York University, she was the living woman, the physical representation of what Vikram had been saying. She was the real thing.

"You're such a chudd, Vikkie," she said, taking a place opposite him and on my right side. "You say all this, but you're just as bad as all the rest. Look at how you treat your own sister, yaar, if she dares to wear jeans and a tight sweater."

"Hey, I bought her that tight sweater, in London, last year!"

Vikram protested.

"But you still gave her buckets of grief when she wore it to the jazz yatra, na?"

"Well, how was I to know that she would want to wear it outside the apartment?" he countered lamely, provoking laughter and derision from the whole group. None laughed harder than Vikram himself.

Vikram Patel was of average height and build, but average stopped just there, with those characteristics. His thick, curly, black hair framed a handsome, intelligent face. The bright and animated light brown eyes stared out confidently above a long, hawk-like nose and a sharp, immaculately trimmed Zapata moustache. His clothes were black-cowboy boots, jeans, shirt, and leather vest - and he wore a flat, black Spanish flamenco hat on his back, hanging from a leather thong at his throat. His bolo tie, dollar- coin belt, and hatband were all in silver. He looked like a hero in a spaghetti western movie, and that was, in fact, the inspiration for his style. Vikram had an obsession with Sergio Leone's films, Once Upon A Time In The West, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Later, when I knew him better, when I watched him win the heart of the woman he loved, and when we stood together to face and fight enemies who wanted to kill me, I learned that he was a hero, and that he would've held his own with any of the gunslingers he adored.

Sitting opposite him on that first meeting, I was struck by the ease with which he assumed his black cowboy dream, and the stylish assurance that carried it off. Vikram is the kind of man who wears his sleeve on his heart, Karla once said. It was an affectionate joke, and one that we all understood, but there was a brittle filament of scorn in it, as well. I didn't laugh with the others when she said it.

People like Vikram, people who can wear an obsession with panache, always win me over because their honesty speaks directly to my heart.

"No, it's true!" he persisted. "In Copenhagen there was this club. It's what they call a telephone club. There's all these tables, yaar, and every table has a number that's lit up in red lights. If you see someone interesting, someone really hot, sitting at table twelve, you just dial up number twelve, and speak to them. Fucking deadly system, man. Half the time you don't know who's calling you, or they don't know who you are.

Sometimes you talk for an hour, trying to guess who's talking to you, because everybody is talking at the same time. And then you tell each other what table you're at. I had a real nice party there, I can tell you. But if they tried to do it here, it wouldn't last five minutes, because the guys couldn't handle it.

So many Indian guys are chutias, yaar. They'd be swearing, and saying all sorts of indecent shit, the childish motherfuckers.

That's all I'm saying. In Copenhagen, the people were a lot cooler, and we've still got a damn long way to go, here, before India catches up to them on the cool scale."

"I think that things are getting better," Ulla volunteered. "I get the feeling the future of India is a good future. I am sure things will be good, you know, like better than now, and there will be a lot of better living, for a lot of the people."

We all turned to stare at her. The table was silent. We were stunned to hear such sentiments expressed by a young woman who made her living as the sexual plaything of those Indians who were rich enough to exploit her. She was used and abused, and I, for one, would've expected her to be more cynical. Optimism is the first cousin of love, and it's exactly like love in three ways: it's pushy, it has no real sense of humour, and it turns up where you least expect it.

"Really, my dear foolish Ulla, nothing changes at all," Didier said, curling his lip in disgust. "If you want to curdle the milk of your human kindness, or turn your compassion into contempt, get a job as a waitress or a cleaner. The two fastest ways to develop a healthy loathing for the human race and its destiny is to serve it food, or clean up after it, on the minimum wage. I have done both jobs, in those terrible days when I was forced to work for a living. It was horrible. I shudder now in thinking about it. That's where I learned that nothing ever really changes. And to speak the truth, I am glad of it. In a better world, or a worse one, I would make no money at all."

"Bullshit," Lettie declared. "Things can get better, and things can get a lot worse. Ask the people in the slum. They're experts in how much worse things can get. Isn't that right, Karla?"

We all turned our attention to Karla. She toyed with her cup for an instant, turning it slowly in the saucer with her long index finger.

"I think that we all, each one of us, we all have to _earn our future," she said slowly. "I think the future is like anything else that's important. It has to be earned. If we don't earn it, we don't have a future at all. And if we don't earn it, if we don't deserve it, we have to live in the present, more or less forever. Or worse, we have to live in the past. I think that's probably what love is-a way of earning the future."

"Well, I agree with Didier," Maurizio stated, finishing his meal with a glass of iced water. "I like things just as they are, and I am content if they do not change."

"How about you?" Karla asked, turning to face me.

"What about me?" I smiled.

"If you could be happy, really happy, for just a while, but you knew from the start that it would end in sadness, and bring pain afterwards, would you choose to have that happiness or would you avoid it?"

The attention and the question unsettled me, and I felt momentarily uncomfortable in the expectant silence that awaited my reply. I had the feeling that she'd asked the question before, and that it was a kind of test. Maybe she'd already asked the others at the table. Maybe they'd given their answers, and were waiting to hear mine. I wasn't sure what she wanted me to say, but the fact was that my life had already answered the question.

I'd made my choice when I escaped from prison.

"I'd choose the happiness," I replied, and was rewarded with a half-smile of recognition or amusement-perhaps it was both-from Karla.

"I wouldn't do it," Ulla said, frowning. "I hate sadness. I can't bear it. I would rather have nothing at all than even a little sadness. I think that's why I love to sleep so much, na? It's impossible to be really sad when you're asleep. You can be happy and afraid and angry in your dreams, but you have to be wide awake to be sad, don't you think?"

"I'm with you, Ulla," Vikram agreed. "There's too much fucking sadness in the world, yaar. That's why everybody is getting so stoned all the time. I know that's why I'm getting so stoned all the time."

"Mmmmm-no, I agree with you, Lin," Kavita put in, although I couldn't be sure how much was agreement with me, and how much merely the reflex of opposing Vikram. "If you have a chance at real happiness, whatever the cost, you have to take it."

Didier grew restless, irritated with the turn the conversation had taken.

"You are being much too serious, all of you."

"I'm not!" Vikram objected, stung by the suggestion.

Didier fixed him with one raised eyebrow.

"I mean that you are making things to be more difficult than they are, or need to be. The facts of life are very simple. In the beginning we feared everything-animals, the weather, the trees, the night sky-everything except each other. Now we fear each other, and almost nothing else. No-one knows why anyone does anything. No-one tells the truth. No-one is happy. No-one is safe. In the face of all that is so wrong with the world, the very worst thing you can do is survive. And yet you must survive.

It is this dilemma that makes us believe and cling to the lie that we have a soul, and that there is a God who cares about its fate. And now you have it."

He sat back in his chair, and twirled the points of his D'Artagnan moustache with both hands.

"I'm not sure what he just said," Vikram muttered, after a pause, "but somehow I agree with him, and feel insulted, at the same time."

Maurizio rose from his seat to leave. He placed a hand on Karla's shoulder, and turned to the rest of us with a brilliant smile of affability and charm. I had to admire that smile, even as I was working myself up to hate him for it.

"Don't be confused, Vikram," he said pleasantly. "Didier only has one subject-himself."

"And his curse," Karla added quickly, "is that it is a fascinating subject."

"Merci, Karla, darling," Didier murmured, presenting her with a little bow.

"Allom, Modena, let's go. We may see you all later, at the President, si? Ciao."

He kissed Karla on the cheek, put on his Ray-Ban sunglasses, and stalked out into the crowded night with Modena at his side. The Spaniard hadn't spoken once all evening, or even smiled. As their shapes were lost in the shifting, shuffling figures on the street, however, I saw that he spoke to Maurizio passionately, waving his clenched fist. I watched them until they were gone, and was startled and a little ashamed to hear Lettie speak aloud the smallest, meanest corner of my thoughts.

"He's not as cool as he looks," she snarled.

"No man is as cool as he looks," Karla said, smiling and reaching out to cover Lettie's hand with her own.

"You don't like Maurizio any more?" Ulla asked.

"I hate him. No, I don't hate him. But I despise him. It makes me sick to look at him."

"My dear Letitia-" Didier began, but Karla cut him off.

"Not now, Didier. Give it a rest."

"I don't know how I could've been so stupid," Lettie growled, clenching her teeth.

"_Na _ja..." Ulla said slowly. "I don't want to say __I told you _so, but..."

"Oh, why not?" Kavita asked. "I love to say I told you so. I tell Vikram I told you so at least once a week. I'd rather say I told you so than eat chocolate."

"I like the guy," Vikram put in. "Did you all know he's a fantastic horseman? He can ride like Clint Eastwood, yaar. I saw him at Chowpatty last week, riding on the beach with this gorgeous, blonde, Swedish chick. He rode just like Clint, in High Plains Drifter, I'm telling you. Fucking deadly."

"Oh, well, he rides a horse," Lettie said. "How could I have been so wrong about him? I take it all back then."

"He's got a cool hi-fi in his apartment, too," Vikram added, apparently oblivious to Lettie's mood. "And some damn fine original Italian movie scores."

"That's it! I'm off!" Lettie declared, standing and grabbing her handbag and the book she'd brought with her. Her red hair, falling in gentle curls that framed her face, trembled with her irritation. Her pale skin stretched so flawlessly over the soft curves of her heart-shaped face that for a moment, in the bright white light, she was a furious, marble Madonna, and I recalled what Karla had said of her: I think Lettie's the most spiritual of all of _us...

Vikram jumped to his feet with her. "I'll walk you to your hotel. I'm going your way."

"Is that right?" Lettie asked, rounding on him so swiftly that he flinched. "Which way would that be then?"

"I... I... I'm going, kind of, everywhere, yaar. I'm taking a very long walk, like. So... so... wherever you're going, I'll be going your way."

"Oh, all right, if you must," she murmured, her teeth clenched and her eyes flashing blue sparks. "Karla me love, see you at the Taj, tomorrow, for coffee. I promise not to be late this time."

"I'll be there," Karla agreed.

"Well, bye all!" Lettie said, waving.

"Yeah, me too!" Vikram added, rushing after her.

"You know, the thing I like most about Letitia," Didier mused, "is that no little bit of her is French. Our culture, the French culture, is so pervasive and influential that almost everyone, in the whole world, is at least a little bit French. This is especially so for women. Almost every woman in the world is French, in some way. But Letitia, she is the most un-French woman I have ever known."

"You're full of it, Didier," Kavita remarked. "Tonight more than most nights. What is it-did you fall in love, or out of love?"

He sighed, and stared at his hands, folded one on top the other.

"A little of both, I think. I am feeling very blue. Federico-you know him-has found religion. It is a terrible business, and it has wounded me, I confess. In truth, his saintliness has broken my heart. But enough of that. Imtiaz Dharker has a new exhibition at the Jehangir. Her work is always sensuous, and a little bit wild, and it brings me to myself again. Kavita, would you like to see it with me?"

"Sure," Kavita smiled. "I'd be happy to."

"I'll walk to the Regal Junction with you," Ulla sighed. "I have to meet Modena."

They rose and said goodbye, and walked through the Causeway arch, but then Didier returned and stood beside me at the table.

Resting a hand on my shoulder as if to steady himself, he smiled down at me with an expression of surprisingly tender affection.

"Go with him, Lin," he said. "Go with Prabaker, to the village.

Every city in the world has a village in its heart. You will never understand the city, unless you first understand the village. Go there. When you return, I will see what India has made of you. Bonne chance!" He hurried off, leaving me alone with Karla. When Didier and the others were at the table, the restaurant had been noisy.

Suddenly, all was quiet, or it seemed to be, and I had the impression that every word I spoke would be echoed, from table to table, in the large room.

"Are you leaving us?" Karla asked, mercifully speaking first.

"Well, Prabaker invited me to go with him on a trip to his parents' village. His native-place, he calls it."

"And you're going?"

"Yes, yes, I think I will. It's something of an honour to be asked, I take it. He told me he goes back to his village, to visit his parents, once every six months or so. He's done that for the last nine years, since he's been working the tourist beat in Bombay. But I'm the first foreigner he ever invited to go there with him."

She winked at me, the start of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

"You may not be the first one he asked. You may be the first one of his tourists crazy enough to actually say yes, but it amounts to the same thing."

"Do you think I'm crazy to accept the invitation?"

"Not at all! Or at least, crazy in the right way, like the rest of us. Where is the village?"

"I don't know, exactly. It's in the north of the state. He told me it takes a train and two bus rides to get there."

"Didier's right. You have to go. If you want to stay here, in Bombay, as you say then you should spend some time in the village. The village is the key."

A passing waiter took our last order, and moments later brought a banana lassi for Karla and a chai for me.

"How long did it take you to feel comfortable here, Karla? I mean, you always seem so relaxed and at home. It's like you've always been here."

"Oh, I don't know. It's the right place for me, if you understand what I mean, and I knew that on the first day, in the first hour that I came here. So, in a sense, I was comfortable from the beginning."

"It's funny you say that. I felt a bit like that myself. Within an hour of landing at the airport, I had this incredibly strong feeling that this was the right place for me."

"And I suppose that the real breakthrough came with the language.

When I started to dream in Hindi, I knew that I was at home here.

Everything has fallen into place since then."

"Is that it now? Are you going to stay here forever?"

"There's no such thing as forever," she answered in her slow, deliberate way. "I don't know why we use the word."

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah. Yeah. Well, I'll stay until I get what I want. And then, maybe, I'll go somewhere else."

"What do you want, Karla?"

She frowned in concentration, and shifted her gaze to stare directly into my eyes. It was an expression I came to know well, and it seemed to say, If you have to ask the question, you have no right to the answer.

"I want everything," she replied with a faint, wry smile. "You know, I said that once, to a friend of mine, and he told me that the real trick in life is to want nothing, and to succeed in getting it."

Later, after we'd negotiated the crowds on the Causeway and the Strand, and walked the leafy arches of the empty streets behind the night-silent Colaba Market, we stopped at a bench beneath a towering elm near her apartment.

"It's really a paradigm shift," I said, trying to explain a point I'd been making as we'd walked. "A completely different way of looking at things, and thinking about things."

"You're right. That's exactly what it is."

"Prabaker took me to a kind of hospice, an old apartment building, near the St George Hospital. It was full of sick and dying people who'd been given a piece of floor-space to lie down and die on. And the owner of the place, who has this reputation as a kind of saint, was walking around, tagging the people, with signs that told how many useful organs they had. It was a huge organ-bank, full of living people who pay for the privilege of a quiet, clean place to die, off the street, by providing organs whenever this guy needs them. And the people were pathetically grateful to the guy for it. They revered him. They looked at him as if they loved him."

"He put you through it in the last two weeks, your friend, Prabaker, didn't he?"

"Well, there was much worse than that. But the real problem is that you can't do anything. You see kids who... well, they're in a lot of trouble, and you see people in the slums-he took me to the slum, where he lives, and the stink of the open latrine, and the hopeless mess of the place, and the people staring at you from the doorways of their hovels and... and you can't change anything. You can't do anything about it. You have to accept that things could be worse, and they'll never be much better, and you're completely helpless in the face of it."

"It's good to know what's wrong with the world," Karla said, after a while. "But it's just as important to know that sometimes, no matter how wrong it is, you can't change it. A lot of the bad stuff in the world wasn't really that bad until someone tried to change it."

"I'm not sure I want to believe that. I know you're right. I know we make things worse, sometimes, the more we try to make them better. But I want to believe that if we do it right, everything and everyone can change for the better."

"You know, I actually ran into Prabaker today. He told me to ask you about the water, whatever that means."

"Oh, yeah," I laughed. "Just yesterday, I went down from my hotel to meet Prabaker on the street. But on the stairwell, there were these Indian guys, one after the other, carrying big pots of water on their heads, and climbing the stairs. I had to stand against the wall to let them pass. When I made it to the bottom, I saw this big wooden barrel with iron-rimmed wheels attached to it. It was a kind of water wagon. Another guy was using a bucket, and he was dipping it into the barrel and filling the big carry- pots with water.

"I watched this for ages, and the men made a lot of trips, up and down the stairs. When Prabaker came along, I asked him what they were doing. He told me that that was the water for my shower.

That the shower came from a tank on the roof, and that these men filled the tank with their pots."

"Of course."

"Yeah, you know that, and I know that now, but yesterday was the first I heard of it. In this heat, I've been in the habit of taking three showers a day. I never realised that men had to climb six flights of stairs, to fill a damn tank, so that I could take those showers. I felt horrible about it, you know? I told Prabaker I'd never take another shower in that hotel again. Not ever."

"What did he say?"

"He said, No, no you don't understand. He called it a _people-

_job. It's only because of tourists like me, he explained, that those men have a job. And he told me that each man is supporting a family of his own from his wages. You should have three showers, four showers, even five showers every day, he told me."

She nodded in agreement.

"Then he told me to watch the men while they got themselves ready to run through the city again, pushing their water wagon. And I think I knew what he meant, what he wanted me to see. They were strong, those guys. They were strong and proud and healthy. They weren't begging or stealing. They were working hard to earn their way, and they were proud of it. When they ran off into the traffic, with their strong muscles, and getting a few sly looks from some of the young Indian girls, I saw that their heads were up and their eyes straight ahead."

"And you still take a shower in the hotel?"

"Three a day," I laughed. "Tell me, why was Lettie so upset with Maurizio?"

She looked at me, staring hard into my eyes for the second time that evening.

"Lettie has a pretty good contact at the Foreigner Registration Branch. He's a senior police official who has an obsession with sapphire gems, and Lettie supplies them to him at the wholesale rate, or a little below. Sometimes, in exchange for this... favour... she can arrange to have a visa renewed, almost indefinitely. Maurizio wanted to extend his visa for another year. He allowed Lettie to think he was in love with her-well, you can say he seduced her-and when he got what he wanted, he dumped her."

"Lettie's your friend..."

"I warned her. Maurizio is not a man to love. You can do everything else with him, but not love him. She didn't listen to me."

"You still like Maurizio? Even after he did that to your friend?"

"Maurizio did exactly what I knew he would do. In his own mind, he made a trade of his affection for the visa, and it was a fair trade. He would never try anything like that with me."

"Is he afraid of you?" I asked, smiling.

"Yes. I think he is, a little bit. That's one of the reasons I like him. I could never respect a man who didn't have the good sense to be at least a little bit afraid of me." She stood up, and I rose with her. Under the street lamp her green eyes were jewels of desire, wet with light. Her lips widened in a half-smile that was mine-a moment that was mine alone-and the beggar, my heart, began to hope and plead.

"Tomorrow," she said, "when you go to Prabaker's village, try to relax completely, and go with the experience. Just... let yourself go. Sometimes, in India, you have to surrender before you win."

"You've always got some wise advice, haven't you?" I said, laughing gently.

"That's not wise, Lin. I think wisdom is very over-rated. Wisdom is just cleverness, with all the guts kicked out of it. I'd rather be clever than wise, any day. Most of the wise people I know give me a headache, but I never met a clever man or woman I didn't like. If I was giving wise advice-which I'm not-I'd say don't get drunk, don't spend all your money, and don't fall in love with a pretty village girl. That would be wise. That's the difference between clever and wise. I prefer to be clever, and that's why I told you to surrender, when you get to the village, no matter what you find when you get there. Okay. I'm going. Come and see me when you get back. I look forward to it. I really do."

She kissed my cheek, and turned away. I couldn't obey the impulse to hold her in my arms and kiss her lips. I watched her walk, her dark silhouette a part of the night itself. Then she moved into the warm, yellow light near the door of her apartment, and it was as if my watching eyes had made her shadow come to life, as if my heart alone had painted her from darkness with the light and colours of love. She turned once to see that I was watching her, before she softly closed and locked the door.

That last hour with her was a Borsalino test, I was sure, and all the walking way back to the hotel I asked myself if I'd passed it, or if I'd failed. I still think about it, all these years later. I still don't know.

____________________

CHAPTER FIVE

The long, flat interstate platforms at Victoria Terminus train station stretched out to vanishing points beneath a metal heaven of rolling vaulted ceilings. The cherubs of that architectural sky were pigeons, so far overhead in their flutter from roost to roost that they were only faintly discernible; distant, celestial beings of flight, and white light. The great station-those who used it every day knew it as VT.-was justly famous for the splendour of its intricately detailed facades, towers, and exterior ornaments. But its most sublime beauty, it seemed to me, was found in its cathedral interiors. There, the limitations of function met the ambitions of art, as the timetable and the timeless commanded equal respect.

For a long hour I sat on and amid our pile of luggage at the street end of the northbound interstate platform. It was six o'clock in the evening, and the station was filled with people, luggage, bundles of goods, and an agricultural assortment of live and recently deceased animals.

Prabaker ran into the crowds milling between two stationary trains. It was the fifth time I'd watched him leave. And then, a few minutes later, for the fifth time, I watched him run back.

"For God's sake, sit down, Prabu."

"Can't be sitting, Lin."

"Well, let's get on the train, then."

"Can't be getting on also, Lin. It is not now the time for the getting on the train."

"So... when will it be the time for the getting on the train?"

"I think... a little bit almost quite very soon, and not long.

Listen! Listen!"

There was an announcement. It might've been in English. It was the kind of sound an angry drunk makes, amplified through the unique distortions of many ancient, cone-shaped speakers. As he listened to it, Prabaker's face moved from apprehension to anguish.

"Now! Now, Lin! Quickly! We must hurry! You must hurry!"

"Hang on, hang on. You've had me sitting here like a brass Buddha, for an hour. Now, all of a sudden, there's a big rush, and I have to hurry?"

"Yes, baba. No time for making Buddha-beg of pardons to the Holy One. You must make a big rush. He's coming! You must be ready.

He's coming!"

"Who's coming?"

Prabaker turned to look along the platform. The announcement, whatever it was, had galvanised the crowds of people, and they rushed at two stationary trains, hurling themselves and their bundles into the doors and windows. From the broiling tangle of bodies, one man emerged and walked towards us. He was a huge man, one of the biggest men I'd ever seen. He was two metres tall, well muscled, and had a long, thick beard that settled on his burly chest. He wore the Bombay train porter's uniform of cap, shirt, and shorts, in rough red-and-khaki linen.

"Him!" Prabaker said, staring at the giant with admiration and dread. "You go with this man now, Lin."

Having long experience with foreigners, the porter took control of the situation. He reached out with both hands. I thought that he wanted to shake hands, so I extended my own in return. He brushed it aside with a look that left me in no doubt as to how repulsive he'd found the gesture. Then, putting his hands under my armpits, he lifted me up and dropped me out of the way to one side of the luggage.

It's a disconcerting, albeit exhilarating, experience, when you weigh 90 kilos yourself, to be lifted up so effortlessly by another man. I determined, there and then, to co-operate with the porter in so far as it was decently possible.

While the big man lifted my heavy back-pack onto his head and gathered up the rest of the bags, Prabaker put me at his back, and seized a handful of the man's red linen shirt.

"Here, Lin, take it a hold on this shirts," he instructed me.

"Hold it, and never let it go, this shirts. Tell me your deep and special promise. You will never let it go this shirts."

His expression was so unusually grave and earnest that I nodded in agreement, and took hold of the porter's shirt.

"No, say it also, Lin! Say the words-I will never let it go this shirts. Quickly!"

"Oh, for God's sake. All right-I will never let it go this shirts. Are you satisfied?"

"Goodbye, Lin," Prabaker shouted, running off into the mill and tumble of the crowd.

"What? What! Where are you going? Prabu! Prabu!"

"Okay! We go now!" the porter rumbled and roared in a voice that he'd found in a bear's cave, and cured in the barrel of a rusted cannon.

He walked off into the crowd, dragging me behind him and kicking outwards by raising his thick knees high with every step. Men scattered before him. When they didn't scatter, they were knocked aside.

Bellowing threats, insults, and curses, he thumped a path through the choking throng. Men fell and were pushed aside with every lift and thrust of his powerful legs. In the centre of the crowd, the din was so loud that I could feel it drumming on my skin.

People shouted and screamed as if they were the victims of a terrible disaster. Garbled, indecipherable announcements blared from the loudspeakers over our heads. Sirens, bells, and whistles wailed constantly.

We reached a carriage that was, like all the others, filled to its capacity with a solid wall of bodies in the doorway. It was a seemingly impenetrable human barrier of legs and backs and heads.

Astonished, and not a little ashamed, I clung to the porter as he hammered his way into the carriage with his indefatigable and irresistible knees.

His relentless forward progress stopped, at one point, in the centre of the carriage. I assumed that the density of the crowd had halted even that juggernaut of a man. I clung to the shirt, determined not to lose my grip on him when he started to move again. In all the furious noise of the cloying press of bodies, I became aware of one word, repeated in an insistent and tormented mantra: Sarr... Sarr... Sarr... Sarr... Sarr...

I realised, at last, that the voice was my own porter's. The word he was repeating with such distress was unrecognisable to me because I wasn't used to being addressed by it: Sir.

"Sir! Sir! Sir! Sir!" he shouted.

I let go of his shirt and looked around to find Prabaker stretched to his full length along an entire bench seat. He'd fought his way ahead of us into the carriage to reserve a seat, and he was guarding it with his body. His feet were wrapped around the aisle armrest. His hands clasped the armrest at the window end. Half a dozen men had crammed themselves into that part of the carriage, and each tried with unstinting vigour and violence to remove him from the seat. They pulled his hair, punched his body, kicked him, and slapped at his face. He was helpless under the onslaught; but, when his eyes met mine, a triumphant smile shone through his grimaces of pain.

Incensed, I shoved the men out of the way, grabbing them by shirt collars, and hurling them aside with the strength that swarms into the arms of righteous anger. Prabaker swung his feet to the floor, and I sat down beside him. A brawl started at once for the remaining space on the seat. The porter dumped the luggage at our feet. His face and hair and shirt were wet with sweat. He gave Prabaker a nod, communicating his respect. It was fully equal, his glaring eyes left no doubt, to the derision he felt for me.

Then he shoved his way through the crowd, roaring insults all the way to the door.

"How much did you pay that guy?"

"Forty rupees, Lin."

Forty rupees. The man had battled his way into the carriage, with all of our luggage, for two American dollars.

"Forty rupees!"

"Yes, Lin," Prabaker sighed. "It is very expensive. But such good knees are very expensive. He has famous knees, that fellow. A lot of guides were making competition for his two knees. But I convinced him to help us, because I told him you were-I'm not sure how to say it in English-I told him you were not completely right on your head."

"Mentally retarded. You told him I was mentally retarded?"

"No, no," he frowned, considering the options. "I think that stupid is more of the correctly word."

"Let me get this straight-you told him I was stupid, and that's why he agreed to help us."

"Yes," he grinned. "But not just a little of stupid. I told him you were very, very, very, very, very-"

"All right. I get it."

"So the price was twenty rupees for each knees. And now we have it this good seat."

"Are you all right?" I asked, angry that he'd allowed himself to be hurt for my sake. "Yes, baba. A few bruises I will have on all my bodies, but nothing is broken."

"Well, what the hell did you think you were doing? I gave you money for the tickets. We couldVe sat down in first or second class, like civilised people. What are we doing back here?"

He looked at me, reproach and disappointment brimming in his large, soft-brown eyes. He pulled a small bundle of notes from his pockets, and handed it to me.

"This is the change from the tickets money. Anybody can buy first-class tickets, Lin. If you want to buy tickets in first class, you can be doing that all on yourself only. You don't need it a Bombay guide, to buy tickets in comfortable, empty carriages. But you need a very excellent Bombay guide, like me, like Prabaker Kishan Kharre, to get into this carriage at VT.

Station, and get a good seats, isn't it? This is my job."

"Of course it is," I softened, still angry with him because I still felt guilty. "But please, for the rest of this trip, don't get yourself beaten up, just so that I can have a goddamn seat, okay?"

He reflected for a moment with a frown of concentration, and then brightened again, his familiar smile refulgent in the dimly lit carriage.

"If it is absolutely must be a beating," he said, firmly and amiably negotiating the terms of his employment, "I will shout even more loudly, and you can rescue my bruises in the nicks of time. Are we a deal?"

"We are," I sighed, and the train suddenly lurched forward and began to grind its way out of the terminus.

In the instant that the train started on its journey, the gouging, biting, and brawling ceased completely and were replaced by a studied and genteel courtesy that persisted throughout the entire journey.

A man opposite me shifted his feet, accidentally brushing his foot against mine. It was a gentle touch, barely noticeable, but the man immediately reached out to touch my knee and then his own chest with the fingertips of his right hand, in the Indian gesture of apology for an unintended offence. In the carriage and the corridor beyond, the other passengers were similarly respectful, sharing, and solicitous with one another.

At first, on that first journey out of the city into India, I found such sudden politeness infuriating after the violent scramble to board the train. It seemed hypocritical for them to show such deferential concern over a nudge with a foot when, minutes before, they'd all but pushed one another out of the windows.

Now, long years and many journeys after that first ride on a crowded rural train, I know that the scrambled fighting and courteous deference were both expressions of the one philosophy: the doctrine of necessity. The amount of force and violence necessary to board the train, for example, was no less and no more than the amount of politeness and consideration necessary to ensure that the cramped journey was as pleasant as possible afterwards. What is necessary! That was the unspoken but implied and unavoidable question everywhere in India. When I understood that, a great many of the characteristically perplexing aspects of public life became comprehensible: from the acceptance of sprawling slums by city authorities, to the freedom that cows had to roam at random in the midst of traffic; from the toleration of beggars on the streets, to the concatenate complexity of the bureaucracies; and from the gorgeous, unashamed escapism of Bollywood movies, to the accommodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tibet, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, and Bangladesh, in a country that was already too crowded with sorrows and needs of its own.

The real hypocrisy, I came to realise, was in the eyes and minds and criticisms of those who came from lands of plenty, where no- one had to fight for a seat on a train. Even on that first train ride, I knew in my heart that Didier had been right when he'd compared India and its billion souls to France. I had an intuition, echoing his thought, that if there were a billion Frenchmen or Australians or Americans living in such a small space, the fighting to board the train would be much more, and the courtesy afterwards much less.

And in truth, the politeness and consideration shown by the peasant farmers, travelling salesmen, itinerant workers, and returning sons and fathers and husbands did make for an agreeable journey, despite the cramped conditions and relentlessly increasing heat. Every available centimetre of seating space was occupied, even to the sturdy metal luggage racks over our heads.

The men in the corridor took turns to sit or squat on a section of floor that had been set aside and cleaned for the purpose.

Every man felt the press of at least two other bodies against his own. Yet there wasn't a single display of grouchiness or bad temper.

However, when I surrendered my seat, for four hours of the journey, to an elderly man with a shock of white hair and spectacles as thick as the lenses on an army scout's binoculars, Prabaker was provoked to an indignant exasperation.

"So hard I fought with nice peoples for your seat, Lin. Now you give it up, like a spit of paan juices, and stand up in the passage, and on your legs, also."

"Come on, Prabu. He's an old guy. I can't let him stand while I sit."

"That is easy-only you don't look at that old fellow, Lin. If he is standing, don't look at him standing. That is his business only, that standing, and nothing for your seat."

"It's the way I am," I insisted, laughing self-consciously in the conversation he was directing across the whole carriage of interested fellow passengers.

"Such scratches and bruises I have it on my bodies, Lin," he whined, talking to me, but appealing to the curious gallery. He lifted his shirt and singlet to display what was indeed a rough scratch and gathering bruise. "For this old fellow to put the left-side buttocks on the seat, I have these many scratches and bruises. For his right-side buttocks, I have more bruises, on my other side also. For him to put his two-sides buttocks on the seat, I am all bruising and scratching on my bodies. This is a very shame, Lin. That is all I'm telling you. It is a very shame."

He'd drifted between English and Hindi until all of us knew the substance of his complaint. Every one of my fellow passengers looked at me with frowns or head-shakes of disapproval. The fiercest glance of reproof, of course, came from the elderly man for whom I'd surrendered my seat. He glared at me malevolently during the entire four hours. When at last he rose to leave, and I resumed my seat, he muttered such a vile curse that the other passengers sputtered into guffaws of laughter, and a couple of them commiserated with me by patting my shoulder and back.

Through the sleepy night, and into the rose-petal dawn, the train rattled on. I watched and listened, literally rubbing shoulders with the people of the interior towns and villages. And I learned more, during those fourteen constricted and largely silent hours in the crowded economy-class section, communicating without language, than I could've learned in a month of travelling first class.

No discovery pleased me more, on that first excursion from the city, than the full translation of the famous Indian head-wiggle. The weeks I'd spent in Bombay with Prabaker had taught me that the shaking or wiggling of the head from side to side-that most characteristic of Indian expressive gestures-was the equivalent of a forward nod of the head, meaning Yes. I'd also discerned the subtler senses of I agree with you, and Yes, I would like that.

What I learned, on the train, was that a universal message attached to the gesture, when it was used as a greeting, which made it uniquely useful.

Most of those who entered the open carriage greeted the other seated or standing men with a little wiggle of the head. The gesture always drew a reciprocal wag of the head from at least one, and sometimes several of the passengers. I watched it happen at station after station, knowing that the newcomers couldn't be indicating Yes, or I agree with you with the head-wiggle because nothing had been said, and there was no exchange other than the gesture itself. Gradually, I realised that the wiggle of the head was a signal to others that carried an amiable and disarming message: I'm a peaceful man. I don't mean any harm.

Moved by admiration and no small envy for the marvellous gesture, I resolved to try it myself. The train stopped at a small rural station. A stranger joined our group in the carriage. When our eyes met for the first time, I gave the little wiggle of my head, and a smile. The result was astounding. The man beamed a smile at me so huge that it was half the brilliance of Prabaker's own, and set to such energetic head waggling in return that I was, at first, a little alarmed. By journey's end, however, I'd had enough practice to perform the movement as casually as others in the carriage did, and to convey the gentle message of the gesture. It was the first truly Indian expression my body learned, and it was the beginning of a transformation that has ruled my life, in all the long years since that journey of crowded hearts.

We left the railway at Jalgaon, a regional centre that boasted wide streets of commerce and bustle. It was nine o'clock, and the morning rush was in rumble, roll, rattle, and swing. Raw materials-iron, glass, wood, textiles, and plastic-were being unloaded from the train as we left the station. A range of products, from pottery to clothing to hand-woven tatami mats, was arriving at the station for dispatch to the cities.

The aroma of fresh, highly spiced food stirred my appetite, but Prabaker urged me on to the bus terminal. In fact, the terminal was simply a vast open patch of rough ground that served as a staging area for dozens of long-distance coaches. We drifted from bus to bus for half an hour, carrying our bulky luggage. I couldn't read the Hindi and Marathi texts on the front and side of each bus.

Prabaker could read the signs, but still he felt it necessary to ask every driver about his destination.

"Doesn't it tell you where every bus is going, on the front of the bus?" I demanded, irritated by the delay.

"Yes, Lin. See, this one says Aurangabad, and that one says Ajanta, and that one says Chalisgao, and that one says-"

"Yeah, yeah. So... why do we have to ask every driver where he's going?"

"Oh!" he exclaimed, genuinely surprised by the question. "Because not every sign is a truly sign."

"What do you mean, not a truly sign?"

He stopped, putting down his share of the luggage, and offered me a smile of indulgent patience.

"Well, Lin, you see, some of those driving fellows are going to places that is nobody wants to go to. Little places, they are, with a few people only. So, they put a sign for a more popular place."

"You're telling me that they put a sign up saying they're going to a big town, where lots of people want to go, but they're really going somewhere else, where nobody wants to go?"

"That's right, Lin," he beamed.

"Why?"

"You see, because those people who come to them, to go to the popular place, well, maybe the driver can convince them to go to the not-popular place. It's for business, Lin. It's a business thing."

"That's crazy," I said, exasperated.

"You must have it a bit of sympathies for these fellows, Lin. If they put the truly sign on their bus, no-one will talk to them, in the whole day, and they will be very lonely."

"Oh, well, now I understand," I muttered, sarcastically. "We wouldn't want them to feel lonely."

"I know, Lin," Prabaker smiled. "You have a very good hearts in your bodies."

When at last we did board a bus, it seemed that ours was one of the popular destinations. The driver and his assistant interrogated the passengers, to determine precisely where each man or woman intended to set down, before allowing them to enter the bus.

Those travelling the furthest were then directed to fill the rear seats. The rapidly accumulating piles of luggage, children, and livestock filled the aisle to shoulder height, and eventually three passengers crowded into every seat designed for two.

Because I had an aisle seat, I was required to take my turn at passing various items, from bundles to babies, backwards over the loaded aisle. The young farmer who passed the first item to me hesitated for a moment, staring into my grey eyes. When I wiggled my head from side to side, and smiled, he grinned in return and handed the bundle to me. By the time the bus rolled out of the busy terminal, I was accepting smiles and head-wiggles from every man in sight, and waggling and wiggling at them in return.

The sign behind the driver's head, in large red letters in Marathi and English, said that the bus was strictly licensed to seat forty-eight passengers. No-one seemed concerned that we were seventy passengers, and two or three tons of cargo. The old Bedford bus swayed on its exhausted springs like a tugboat in a storm tide. Creaks and groans and squeaks issued from the top, sides, and floor of the bus, and the brakes squealed alarmingly with every application. Nevertheless, when the bus left the city limits, the driver managed to crank it up to eighty or ninety kilometres per hour. Given the narrow road, the precipitous fall on the low side, the frequent columns of people and animals that lined the high side, the titanic mass of our swaying ark of a bus, and the vertiginous hostility with which the driver negotiated every curve, the speed was sufficient to relieve me of the need to sleep or relax on the ride.

During the following three hours of that perilous acceleration, we rose to the peak of a ridge of mountains marking the edge of a vast plateau, known as the Deccan, and descended once more to fertile plains within the rim of the plateau. With prayers of gratitude, and a new appreciation for the fragile gift of life, we left that first bus at a small, dusty, deserted stop that was marked only by a tattered flag flapping from the branch of a slender tree. Within an hour a second bus stopped.

"Gora kaun hain?" the driver asked, when we climbed aboard the step. Who's the white guy?

"Maza mitra ahey," Prabaker answered with contrived nonchalance, trying in vain to disguise his pride. He's my friend.

The exchange was in Marathi, the language of Maharashtra State, which has Bombay as its capital. I didn't understand much of it then, but the same questions and answers were repeated so often during those village months that I learned most of the phrases, with some variations, by heart.

"What's he doing here?"

"He's visiting my family."

"Where's he from?"

"New Zealand," Prabaker replied.

"New Zealand?"

"Yes. New Zealand. In Europe."

"Plenty of money in New Zealand?"

"Yes, yes. Plenty. They're all rich, white people there."

"Does he speak Marathi?"

"No."

"Hindi?"

"No. Only English."

"Only English?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"They don't speak Hindi in his country."

"They don't speak Hindi there?"

"No."

"No Marathi? No Hindi?"

"No. Only English."

"Holy Father! The poor fool."

"Yes."

"How old is he?"

"Thirty."

"He looks older."

"They all do. All the Europeans look older and angrier than they really are. It's a white thing."

"Is he married?"

"No."

"Not married? Thirty, and not married? What's wrong with him?"

"He's European. A lot of them get married only when they're old."

"That's crazy."

"Yes."

"What job does he do?"

"He's a teacher."

"A teacher is good."

"Yes."

"Does he have a mother and a father?"

"Yes."

"Where are they?"

"In his native place. New Zealand."

"Why isn't he with them?"

"He's travelling. He's looking at the whole world."

"Why?"

"Europeans do that. They work for a while, and then they travel around, lonely, for a while, with no family, until they get old, and then they get married, and become very serious."

"That's crazy."

"Yes."

"He must be lonely, without his mummy and his daddy, and with no wife and children."

"Yes. But the Europeans don't mind. They get a lot of practice being lonely."

"He has a big strong body."

"Yes."

"A very strong body."

"Yes."

"Make sure you feed him properly, and give him plenty of milk."

"Yes."

"Buffalo milk."

"Yes, yes."

"And make sure he doesn't learn any bad words. Don't teach him any swearing. There are plenty of arseholes and bastards around who will teach him the wrong sisterfucking words. Keep him away from motherfuckers like that."

"I will."

"And don't let anyone take advantage of him. He doesn't look too bright. Keep an eye on him." "He's brighter than he looks, but yes, I will look after him."

It troubled none of the other passengers on the bus that the conversation of several minutes had taken place before we could board the bus and move off. The driver and Prabaker had made sure to speak at a volume adequate to the task of including everyone in the bus. Indeed, once we were under way, the driver sought to include even those outside the bus in the novelty of the experience. Whenever he spied men and women strolling on the road, he sounded the horn to draw their attention, gesticulated with his thumb to indicate the foreigner in the rear of the bus, and slowed to a crawl, so that each pedestrian could examine me with satisfactory thoroughness.

With such democratic rationing of the astounding new attraction, the journey of one hour took closer to two, and we arrived at the dusty road to Sunder village in the late afternoon. The bus groaned and heaved away, leaving us in a silence so profound that the breeze against my ears was like a child's sleepy whisper.

We'd passed countless fields of maize and banana groves in the last hour of the bus ride, and then on foot we trudged along the dirt road between endless rows of millet plants. Almost fully grown, the plants were well over head-height, and in a few minutes of the walk we were deep within a thick-walled labyrinth.

The wide sky shrank to a small arc of blue, and the way ahead or behind us dissolved into curves of green and gold, like curtains drawn across the living stage of the world.

I'd been preoccupied for some time, nagged by something that it seemed I should've known or realised. The thought, half submerged, troubled me for the best part of an hour before it swam into the field of vision of my mind's eye. No telegraph poles. No power poles. For most of that hour I'd seen no sign of electric power--not even distant power lines.

"Is there electricity in your village?"

"Oh, no," Prabaker grinned.

"No electricity?"

"No. None."

There was silence, for a time, as I slowly turned off all the appliances I'd come to regard as essential. No electric light. No electric kettle. No television. No hi-fi. No radio. No music. I didn't even have a Walkman with me. How would I live without music? "What am I going to do without music?" I asked, aware of how pathetic I sounded, but unable to suppress the whine of disappointment in my voice.

"There will be music full, baba," he answered cheerfully. "I will sing. Everybody will sing. We will sing and sing and sing."

"Oh. Well. Now I feel all right."

"And you will sing, too, Lin."

"Don't count on it, Prabu."

"In the village, everybody sings," he said with sudden seriousness.

"U-huh."

"Yes. Everybody."

"Let's cross that bridge and chorus when we come to it. How much further is it to the village?"

"Oh, just a little bit almost not too very far. And you know, now we have water in our village also."

"What do you mean, now you have water?"

"What I mean is, there is one tap in the village now."

"One tap. For the whole village."

"Yes. And the water is coming out of it for one whole hour, at two o'clock in every afternoon."

"One whole hour per day..."

"Oh, yes. Well, on most days. Some days it is only coming for half an hour. Some days it is not coming out at all. Then we go back and scrape the green stuff off the top of the water in the well, and we are no problem for water. Ah! Look! Here is my father!"

Ahead of us, on the rambling and weedy path, was an ox-cart. The ox, a huge curve-horned beast, the colour of cafe latte, was shackled to a tall, basket-shaped cart mounted on two wooden, steel-rimmed wheels. The wheels were narrow but high, reaching to my shoulder. Smoking a beedie cigarette and sitting on the ox-bow yoke, his legs dangling free, was Prabaker's father.

Kishan Mango Kharre was a tiny man, shorter even than Prabaker, with very close-cropped grey hair, a short, grey moustache, and a prominent paunch on his otherwise slender frame. He wore the white cap, cotton kurtah shirt, and dhoti of the farmer caste.

The dhoti is technically described as a loincloth, but the term robs the garment of its serene and graceful elegance. It can be gathered up to become work shorts for labour in the fields, or loosened to become pantaloon-style trousers with the ankles free. The dhoti itself is always moving, and it follows the human contour in every act from running to sitting still. It captures every breeze at noon, and keeps out the dawn chill. It's modest and practical, yet flattering and attractive at the same time. Gandhi gave the dhoti prominence on his trips to Europe, in the struggle for Indian independence from England. With all due respect to the Mahatma, however, it's not until you live and work with India's farmers that you fully appreciate the gentle and ennobling beauty of that simple wrap of fabric.

Prabaker dropped his bags and ran forward. His father sprang from his seat on the yoke, and they embraced shyly. The older man's smile was the only smile I've ever seen that rivalled Prabaker's own. It was a vast smile, using the whole of the face, as if he'd been frozen in the middle of a belly laugh. When Prabaker turned to face me, beside his father, subjecting me to a double dose of the gigantic smile-the original, and its slightly grander genetic copy-the effect was so overwhelming that I found myself grinning helplessly in return.

"Lin, this is my father, Kishan Mango Kharre. And father, this is Mr. Lin. I am happy, too much happy, that you are meeting each other's good selves."

We shook hands, and stared into one another's eyes. Prabaker and his father had the same almost perfectly round face and the same upturned, button nose. However, where Prabaker's face was completely open, guileless, and unlined, his father's face was deeply wrinkled; and when he wasn't smiling, there was a weary shadow that closed over his eyes. It was as if he'd sealed shut some doors in himself, and stood guard over them, with his eyes alone. There was pride in his face, but he was sad, and tired, and worried. It took me a long time to realise that all farmers, everywhere, are just as tired, worried, proud, and sad: that the soil you turn and the seed you sow are all you really have, when you live and work the Earth. And sometimes, much too often, there's nothing more than that-the silent, secret, heartbreaking joy God puts into things that bloom and grow-to help you face the fear of hunger and the dread of evil.

"My father is a very success man," Prabaker beamed, proudly, his arm around the older man's shoulders. I spoke very little Marathi, and Kishan spoke no English, so Prabaker repeated everything in both languages. Hearing the phrase in his own language, Kishan lifted his shirt with a graceful, artless flourish, and patted at his hairy pot-belly.

His eyes glittered as he spoke to me, waggling his head all the while in what seemed to be an unnervingly seductive leer.

"What did he say?"

"He wants you to pat his tummies," Prabaker explained, grinning.

Kishan grinned as widely.

"I don't think so."

"Oh, yes, Lin. He wants you to pat his tummies."

"No."

"He really wants you to give it a pat," he persisted.

"Tell him I'm flattered, and I think it's a fine tummies. But tell him I think I'll pass, Prabu."

"Just give it a little pat, Lin."

"No," I said, more firmly.

Kishan's grin widened, and he raised his eyebrows several times, in encouragement. He still held the shirt up to his chest, exposing the round, hairy paunch.

"Go on, Lin. A few pats only. It won't bite you, my father's tummies."

Sometimes you have to surrender, Karla said, before you win. And she was right. Surrender is at the heart of the Indian experience. I gave in. Glancing around me, on the deserted track, I reached out and patted the warm and fuzzy belly.

Just then, of course, the tall green stalks of millet beside us on the path separated to reveal four dark brown faces. They were young men. They stared at us, their eyes wide with the kind of amazement that's afraid, appalled, and delighted at the same time.

Slowly, and with as much dignity as I could muster, I withdrew my hand from Kishan's stomach. He looked at me, and then at the others, with one eyebrow raised and the corners of his mouth drawn down into the smug smile of a police prosecutor, resting his case.

"I don't want to intrude on your dad's moment here, Prabu, but don't you think we should be getting along?"

"Challo!" Kishan announced, making a guess at the meaning of my words. _Let's _go!

As we loaded our gear and climbed into the back of the cart, Kishan took his seat on the yoke attached to the ox-bow, raised a long bamboo stick that had a nail driven into the end of it, and moved us off with a tremendous blow to the animal's haunches.

Responding to the violent blow, the ox gave a lurch forward, and then set off with ponderous, thudding slowness. Our steady but very sluggish progress caused me to wonder at the choice of that beast, above others, to perform the task. It seemed to me that the Indian ox, known as the bailie, was surely the slowest harness animal in the world. If I'd climbed down from the cart, and walked at a moderate pace, I would've doubled its speed. In fact, the people who'd stared at us through the millet plants were rushing ahead through the dense crops at the sides of the path to announce our arrival.

Every twenty to fifty metres or so, new faces appeared between the parted stalks of maize, corn, and millet. The expression on those faces was always the same-frank, stupefying, goggle-eyed amazement. If Prabaker and his father had captured a wild bear, and trained it to speak, the people couldn't have reacted with more gape-mouthed astonishment.

"The people are too happy," Prabaker laughed. "You are the first person from foreign to visit my village in twenty-one years. The last foreign fellow coming here was from Belgian. That was twenty-one years ago. All the people who are less than twenty-one years old have never seen a foreigner with their own eyes. That last fellow, that one from Belgian, he was a good man. But you are a very, very good man, Lin. The people will love you too much. You will be so happy here, you will be outside yourself.

You will see."

The people who stared at me from the groves and bushes at the side of the road seemed more anguished and threatened than happy.

In the hope of dispelling that trepidation, I began to practise my Indian head-wiggle. The reaction was immediate. The people smiled, laughed, wiggled their heads in return, and ran ahead, shouting to their neighbours about the entertaining spectacle that was plodding along the track towards them.

To ensure the unflagging progress of the ox, Kishan beat the animal fiercely and often. The stick rose and fell with a resounding smack at regular intervals of minutes. The rhythm of those heavy blows was punctuated by sharp jabs at the animal's flanks with the nail attached to the end of the stick. Each thrust penetrated the thick hide, and raised a little tuft of cream brown fur.

The ox didn't react to those assaults, other than to continue its lumbering, drag-footed advance along the path. Nevertheless, I suffered for the beast. Each blow and jab accumulated within my sympathy until it was more than I could bear.

"Prabu, do me a favour, please ask your father to stop hitting the animal."

"Stop... stop hitting!"

"Yeah. Ask him to stop hitting the ox, please."

"No, it is not possible, Lin," he replied, laughing.

The stick slammed into the broad back of the ox, and was followed by two quick jabs of the nail.

"I mean it, Prabu. Please ask him to stop."

"But, Lin..."

I flinched, as the stick came down again, and my expression pleaded with him to intervene.

Reluctantly, Prabaker passed on my request to his father. Kishan listened intently, and then laughed helplessly in a fit of giggles. After a time, he perceived his son's distress, however, and the laughter subsided, and finally died, in a flurry of questions. Prabaker did his best to answer them, but at last he turned his increasingly forlorn expression to me once more.

"My father, Lin, he wants to know why you want him to stop using the stick."

"I don't want him to hurt the ox."

This time Prabaker laughed, and when he was able to translate my words for his father, they both laughed. They talked for a while, still laughing, and then Prabaker addressed me again.

"My father is asking, is it true that in your country people are eating cows?"

"Well, yes, it's true. But..."

"How many of the cows do you eat there?"

"We... well... we export them from my country. We don't eat them all ourselves."

"How many?"

"Oh, hundreds of thousands of them. Maybe millions, if you count the sheep. But we use humane methods, and we don't believe in unnecessarily hurting them."

"My father is saying, he thinks it is very hard to _eat one of these big animals, without hurting it." He then sought to explain my nature to his father by recounting for him the story of how I'd given up my seat, on the train journey, to allow an elderly man to sit, how I shared my fruit and other food with my fellow passengers, and how I often gave to beggars on the streets of Bombay.

Kishan pulled the cart to a sudden stop, and jumped down from the wooden yoke. He fired a stream of commands at Prabaker, who finally turned to me to translate.

"My father wants to know if we have it any presents with us, from Bombay, for him and the family. I told him we did. Now he wants us to give it those presents to him here, and in this place, before we go any more along the road."

"He wants us to go through our bags, here, on this track?"

"Yes. He is afraid that when we get to Sunder village, you will have a good hearts, and give it away all those presents to other people, and he will not get his presents. He wants it all his presents now."

So we did. Under the indigo banner of early-evening sky, on the scratch of track between fields of undulant maize and millet, we spread out the colours of India, the yellows and reds and peacock blues of shirts and lungi wraps and saris. Then we repacked them, with fragrant soaps and sewing needles, incense and safety pins, perfume and shampoo and massage oils, so that one full bag contained only those things we'd brought for Prabaker's family.

With that bag safely tucked behind him on the rails of the ox- cart harness, Kishan Mango Kharre launched us on the last leg of our journey by striking the dumbly patient ox more often, and with a good deal more vigour, than he'd done before I tried to intercede on its behalf.

And then, at last, it was the voices of women and children, raised in laughter and cries of excitement, that welcomed us. The sounds reached us moments before we turned the last sharp curve and entered the village of Sunder along a single, wide street of swept, pressed, golden river sand. On either side were the houses, distributed so that no house faced into another across the street. The houses were round, made of pale brown mud, with round windows and curved doors. The roofs were made with little domes of thatched grasses.

Word had spread that the foreigner was arriving. The two hundred souls of Sunder village had been joined by hundreds more from neigh- bouring villages. Kishan drove us into the throng, stopping outside his own home. He was grinning so widely that everyone who looked at him was moved to laugh in return.

We climbed down from the cart, and stood with our luggage at our feet in the centre of six hundred stares and whispers. A breath- filled silence settled on the crowd, packed so tightly that each one pressed upon his neighbour. They were so close to me that I could feel the breath upon my face. Six hundred pairs of eyes fixed me with the intensity of their fascination. No-one spoke.

Prabaker was at my side, and although he smiled and enjoyed the celebrity that the moment gave him, he too was awed by the press of attention and the surrounding wall of wonderment and expectation.

"I suppose you're wondering why I've called you all here," I said, in just the serious tone of voice that would've been funny if there'd been a single person in the crowd who understood the joke. No-one did, of course, and the silence thickened, as even the faint murmurs died away.

What do you say to a huge crowd of strangers who are waiting for you to say something, and who don't speak your language?

My backpack was at my feet. In the top flap pocket there was a souvenir that a friend had given me. It was a jester's cap, in black and white, complete with bells on the ends of its three cloth horns. The friend, an actor in New Zealand, had made the jester's cap as part of a costume. At the airport, with minutes to go before my flight to India, he'd given me the cap as a good luck charm, a remembrance of him, and I'd stuffed it into the top of my backpack.

There's a kind of luck that's not much more than being in the right place at the right time, a kind of inspiration that's not much more than doing the right thing in the right way, and both only really happen to you when you empty your heart of ambition, purpose, and plan; when you give yourself, completely, to the golden, fate-filled moment.

I took the jester's cap out of the pack and put it on, pulling it tight under my chin, and straightening the cloth horns with my fingers. Everyone at the front of the crowd drew back with a little inrushing gasp of alarm. Then I smiled, and wiggled my head, ringing the bells.

"Hello, folks!" I said. "It's show time!"

The effect was electrifying. Everyone laughed. The entire group of women, children, and men erupted as one, laughing and joking and cry- ing out. One person reached out to touch me on the shoulder. The children at the front reached for my hands. Then everyone within grasping distance patted, stroked, and grabbed me. I caught Prabaker's eye. The look of joy and pride I found there was a kind of prayer.

He permitted the gentle assault for some minutes, and then asserted his authority over the new attraction by clearing the crowd away. He succeeded, at last, in opening the way to his father's house and, as we entered the dark circle of Kishan's home, the chattering, laughing crowd began to disperse.

"You must have a bath, Lin. After such a long travel you must be smelling unhappy. Come this way. My sisters have already heated the water on the fire. The pots are ready for your bath. Come."

We passed through a low arch, and he led me to an area beside the house that was enclosed on three sides by hanging tatami mats.

Flat river stones formed a shower base, and three large clay pots of warm water were arranged near them. A channel had been dug and smoothed out, allowing water to run off behind the house.

Prabaker told me that a small brass jug was to be used to tip water over my body, and gave me the soap dish.

I'd been unlacing my boots while he spoke, and I cast them aside, threw off my shirt, and pulled off my jeans.

"Lin!" Prabaker screamed in panic, leaping, in a single bound, across the two metres that separated us. He tried to cover my body with his hands, but then looked around in anguish to see that the towel was on my backpack, a further two metres away. He jumped for the towel, snatched it up, and jumped back, giving a little shout of panic-Yaaah!-each time. He wrapped the towel around me, and looked around in terror.

"Have you gone crazy, Lin? What are you doing?"

"I'm trying to... take a shower..."

"But like that? Like that?"

"What's the matter with you, Prabu? You told me to take a shower.

You brought me here to have a shower. So, I'm trying to take a shower, but you're jumping around like a rabbit. What's your problem?"

"You were naked, Lin! Naked, without any clothes also!"

"That's how I take a shower," I said, exasperated by his mysterious terror. He was darting about, peering through the tatami matting at various places. "That's how everyone takes a shower, isn't it?" "No! No! No, Lin!" he corrected, returning to face me. A desperate expression contorted his normally happy features.

"You don't take your clothes off?"

"No, Lin! This is India. Nobody can take his clothes off, not even to wash his bodies. This is India. Nobody is ever naked in India. And especially, nobody is naked without clothes."

"So... how do you take a shower?"

"We wear it the underpants, for having a bath in India."

"Well, that's fine," I said, dropping the towel to reveal my black jockey shorts. "I'm wearing underpants."

"Yaaah!" Prabaker screamed, diving for the towel and covering me again.

"Those teeny pieces, Lin? Those are not the underpants. Those are the under-underpants only. You must have it the over-underpants."

"The... over-underpants?"

"Yes. Certainly. Like these, my ones, that I am wearing."

He unbuttoned his own trousers enough to show me that he wore a pair of green shorts under his clothes.

"In India, the men are wearing this over-underpants, under their clothes, at all times, and in all the situations. Even if they are wearing under-underpants, still they are wearing over- underpants, over their unders. You see?"

"No."

"Well, just you wait here. I will get you some over-underpants for your bath. But don't remove your towel. Please! Promise! If the people see you without the towel, in such teeny pieces, they will be like a wild people. Wait here!"

He darted off, and after a few minutes returned with two pairs of red football shorts.

"Here, Lin," he puffed. "You are such a big fellow, I hope we can get a good fits. These are from Fat Satish. He is so fat, I think they might fit you. I told him a story, and then he gave it this two pairs for you. I told him that on the journey you had loose motions, and you made such a mess in your over-underpants that we had to throw them away."

"You told him," I asked, "that I shit my pants?"

"Oh, yes, Lin. I certainly couldn't tell him that you have no over-underpants!" "Well, of course not."

"I mean, what would he be thinking about you?"

"Thank you, Prabu," I muttered, through clenched teeth. If my tone had been any drier I wouldn't have needed a towel.

"That is my pleasure, Lin. I am your very good friend. So please, promise me that you will not be naked in India. Especially not without your clothes."

"I promise."

"I am so glad you make this promise, Lin. You are my very good friend, too, isn't it? Now I will take a bath also, like we are two brothers, and I will show you the Indian style."

So, we both took a shower, in the bathing area of his father's house. Watching him, and following his lead, I wet my body in a first rinse with two jugs of water from one of the large pots, and worked the soap beneath my shorts without ever taking them off. After the final rinse, and a quick dry off with the towel, he taught me how to tie a lungi around the wet shorts. The lungi was a sarong-like rectangle of cotton, worn from waist to ankle.

He gathered two long ends or corners of the lungi at the front, and then passed them around my waist, and rolled them under the top edge, in the small of my back. Within the encircling lungi, I removed and discarded my wet shorts and slipped on a dry pair of shorts underneath. With that technique, Prabaker assured me, I could take a shower in the open, and not offend his neighbours.

After the shower, and a delicious meal of dhal, rice, and homemade flatbreads, Prabaker and I watched as his parents and his two sisters opened their presents. We drank tea then, and for two hours we answered questions about me, and my home and family.

I tried to answer truthfully-without the crucial truth that in my hunted exile, I didn't think I would ever see my home or family again. At last, Prabaker announced that he was too tired to translate any more, and that I should be permitted to rest.

A bed made from the wood of coconut trees and with a stretched mattress, formed from a web of coconut-fibre rope, was set up for me in the open, outside Kishan's house. It was Kishan's own bed.

Prabaker told me that it might take two days to have a new one made to his father's satisfaction. Until then Kishan would sleep beside his son on the floor of the house, while I used his bed. I tried to resist, but my protests drowned in the sea of their gentle, relentless insistence. So I lay down on the poor farmer's bed, and my first night in that first Indian village ended, as it had begun, with surrender.

Prabaker told me that his family and his neighbours were concerned that I would be lonely, that I must be lonely, in a strange place, without my own family. They decided to sit with me on that first night, mounting a vigil in the dark until they were sure that I was peacefully deep in sleep. After all, the little guide remarked, people in my country, in my village, would do the same for him, if he went there and missed his family, wouldn't they?

They sat on the ground around my low bed, Prabaker and his parents and his neighbours, keeping me company in the warm, dark, cinnamon-scented night, and forming a ring of protection around me. I thought that it would be impossible to sleep within a circle of spectators, but in minutes I began to float and drift on the murmuring tide of their voices; soft and rhythmic waves that swirled beneath a fathomless night of bright, whispering stars.

At one point, Prabaker's father reached out from his place at my left side to rest his hand on my shoulder. It was a simple gesture of kindness and comfort, but its effect on me was profound. A moment before, I'd been drifting toward sleep.

Suddenly I was hard awake. I plunged into memories and thoughts of my daughter, my parents, my brother; of the crimes I'd committed, and the loves I'd betrayed and lost forever.

It may seem strange, and it may in fact be impossible for anyone else to understand, but until that very moment I'd had no real comprehension of the wrong I'd done, and the life I'd lost. While I'd committed the armed robberies, I was on drugs, addicted to heroin. An opiate fog had settled over everything that I thought and did and even remembered about that time. Afterwards, during the trial and the three years in prison, I was sober and clear- headed, and I should've known then what the crimes and punishments meant, for myself and my family and the people I'd robbed at the point of a gun. But I didn't know or feel anything of it then. I was too busy being punished, and feeling punished, to put my heart around it. Even with the escape from prison, and the flight, running and hiding as a wanted man, a hunted man with a price on my head-even then, there was no final, clear, encompassing grasp of the acts and the consequences that made up the new, bitter story of my life. It was only there, in the village in India, on that first night, adrift on the raft of murmuring voices, and my eyes filled with stars; only then, when another man's father reached out to comfort me, and placed a poor farmer's rough and calloused hand on my shoulder; only there and then did I see and feel the torment of what I'd done, and what I'd become-the pain and the fear and the waste; the stupid, unforgivable waste of it all. My heart broke on its shame and sorrow. I suddenly knew how much crying there was in me, and how little love. I knew, at last, how lonely I was.

But I couldn't respond. My culture had taught me all the wrong things well. So I lay completely still, and gave no reaction at all. But the soul has no culture. The soul has no nations. The soul has no colour or accent or way of life. The soul is forever.

The soul is one. And when the heart has its moment of truth and sorrow, the soul can't be stilled.

I clenched my teeth against the stars. I closed my eyes. I surrendered to sleep. One of the reasons why we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again.

Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.

____________________

CHAPTER SIX

Prabaker's father introduced me to Sunder village, but it was his mother who made me feel at home there. Her life enfolded mine within its triumph and sorrow, just as easily as her red shawl sometimes enswathed a crying child that passed the doorway of her house. Her story, told to me by many voices, month after month, became all the stories, even my own. And her love-her willingness to know the truth of my heart and to love me-changed the course of my life.

When I first met her, Rukhmabai Kharre was forty years old, and at the peak of her personal power and public prestige. She was a full head and shoulder taller than her husband, and that difference in height, combined with her ample, curvaceous figure, gave the false impression that she was something of an Amazon, whenever the couple stood together. Her black hair, gleaming with coconut oil, had never been cut, and the majestic rope of it reached to her knees. Her skin was tan brown. Her eyes were the colour of amber, set in rose gold. The whites of her eyes were pink, always, giving the impression that she'd just cried or was just about to cry. A wide gap between her front teeth gave an impish mischief to her smile, while the superb hook of her beaked nose endowed her serious expressions with an imposing authority.

Her forehead was high and wide-it was Prabaker's forehead, exactly-and the high curves of her cheekbones were the mountains from which her amber eyes studied the world. She had a ready wit, and a deep sympathy for the distress of others. She stood aloof from disputes between her neighbours until she was asked to give her opinion, and then hers was usually the last word. She was a woman to admire and to desire, but the message in her eye and her bearing was unmistakable: offend or disesteem her at your peril.

The force of her personality maintained a status in the village that was derived from Kishan's ownership of land and her stewardship of their small personal fortune. Her marriage to Kishan had been arranged.

As a shy sixteen-year-old, she'd peeped from behind a curtain to inspect her betrothed, seeing him then for the first and only time before the marriage. When I learned to speak her language well enough, she told me with disarming candour how disappointed she'd been when she'd scrutinised Kishan for the first time. He was short. His skin, tanned by farmer's toil until it matched the dark brown earth itself, was darker than hers, and that had worried her. His hands were rough and his speech was coarse. His clothes were clean but drab. And he was illiterate. Her father was head of a village council, a panchayat, and Rukhmabai could read and write, in Hindi and Marathi. As she looked at Kishan that first time, her heart beating its secrets so furiously that she feared he would hear it, she felt sure she couldn't love him, and that she was marrying beneath her status.

At the very moment of that distressing realisation, Kishan turned his head to stare directly at the hiding place, where she crouched behind the curtain. She was certain that he couldn't see her, yet he stared as if he was looking into her eyes. Then he smiled. It was the biggest smile she'd ever seen. It was radiant, and suffused with an irrepressible good humour. She looked into that prodigious smile, and a strange feeling took hold of her.

She smiled back at him, despite herself, and felt a rush of well- being, an indefinable but overwhelmingly sanguine cheerfulness.

Things will turn out right, the voice of her heart said to her.

Everything will be all right. She knew, just as I'd known when I saw Prabaker for the first time, that no man who smiled with so much of his heart would knowingly hurt or harm another.

When he looked away again, it was as if the room had darkened, and she understood that she'd begun to love him for the reassuring incandescence of his smile alone. She offered no protest when her father announced the marriage arrangement, and within two months of that first glimpse of Kishan's magic smile she was wed, and pregnant with her first son, Prabaker.

Kishan's father settled two fertile fields on his eldest son at the time of the marriage, and Rukhmabai's father added a third to the young couple's endowment. From the earliest days of their union, the young bride assumed control of their small wealth.

Using her reading and writing skills, she kept meticulous records of their profits and losses in simple school exercise books, which she tied into bundles and stored in a zinc trunk.

Judicious investments in the enterprises of her neighbours and a careful husbanding of their resources ensured that their losses were few. With the birth of their third child, when she was twenty-five years old, Rukhmabai had driven their modest fortune to become the largest in the village. They owned five fields.

They planted cash crops. They kept three milking buffalo and three oxen, as well as two milking goats and a dozen laying hens.

There was money in the bank sufficient to provide substantial dowries for her two daughters. The girls would marry well, she resolved, and give higher status to her grandchildren.

When he was nine years old, Prabaker was sent to Bombay, where he was apprenticed to an uncle who drove a taxi, and lived in a large inner-city slum. Rukhmabai began to expand her morning prayers, with the hopes and plans she made for the future of her family. Then she suffered a miscarriage. In less than a year, she miscarried twice more. Doctors concluded that her uterus had been scarred after the birth of her third child. They recommended, and carried out, a total hysterectomy. She was twenty-six years old.

Rukhmabai's heart wandered through the empty rooms of her life: the rooms reserved for the three babies lost in miscarriages, and all the other lives that might've been. For two years she was inconsolable. Even Kishan's wonderful smile, summoned through his own tears, failed to rouse her. Forlorn and broken-hearted, she languished in misery and the minimal routine of caring for her daughters. The laughter went out of her, and sadness settled on the neglected fields.

Rukhmabai's soul was dying, and she might've fallen into that sorrow forever, but a cataclysmic event that threatened the whole village roused her from her grieving. A band of dacoits, or armed bandits, settled in the area and began to demand tributes. A man in a neighbouring village was hacked with a machete. A woman in the same village was raped by the dacoits. Then they shot and killed a resister in Kishan's village.

Rukhmabai had known the dead man very well. He'd been one of Kishan's cousins, and had married a girl from Rukhmabai's own village. Every man, woman, and child in Sunder attended the funeral. At its end, Rukhmabai addressed the assembled villagers.

Her hair was awry, and her amber eyes blazed with rage and determination. She harangued those who wanted to appease the dacoits, exhorting them to resist and fight and kill, if necessary, in defence of their lives and their land. Astonished as much by her sudden animation, after two years of grief's torpor, as by her martial speech, the villagers were inspirited. There and then, they devised a plan of action and resistance.

Word reached the dacoits that the people of Sunder village were determined to fight. Threats, skirmishes, and exploratory raids finally led the boiling conflict to the point where a battle was inevitable. The dacoits delivered a menacing warning that on a given day the villagers must surrender a considerable tribute, or suffer terrible consequences.

The people armed themselves with sickles, axes, staves, and knives. The women and children were evacuated to a neighbouring village. Fear and regret swept through the ranks of the men who remained. Several men argued that their struggle was foolhardy, and that tribute was less painful than death. The brothers of the murdered man stalked among them, giving encouragement and consolation while they castigated the backsliders for their cowardice.

The alarm went up that men were approaching on the city road. The villagers concealed themselves behind hastily erected barricades between their mud houses. Exhilarated and afraid, they were at the point of striking when they realised that the men were allies. Hearing of the war with the dacoits a week before, Prabaker had gathered a group of six friends and cousins from the city slum, where he lived, and he'd set out to join his family.

He was just fifteen at the time, and the eldest of his friends was only eighteen, but they were street fighters from one of Bombay's toughest quarters. One of them, Raju, a tall boy with the handsome face and bouffant hairstyle of a Bombay movie star, had a gun. He showed the pistol to the villagers, and gave heart to them all.

The dacoits, arrogant and over-confident, swaggered into the village half an hour before sunset. The first blood-curdling threat was still on their leader's lips when Raju stepped from his concealment and walked toward the bandits, firing once for every third step. Axes, sickles, knives, staves, and rocks poured from the barricade walls, hurled to deadly effect by the desperate farmers. Raju never broke his stride, and with his last bullet he struck the leader of the dacoits in the chest at close range. The man was dead, the villagers said, before he hit the ground.

The rest of the wounded dacoits scattered, and were never seen again. The body of the fallen leader was carried to Jamner District police post. All the villagers told the same story: they'd resisted the dacoits, and in the confusion of battle the bandits had shot one of their own men. Raju's name was never mentioned.

After feasting for two days, the young men returned with Prabaker to the city. Wild, brave Raju died in a bar room fight a year later. Two of the other boys died in similarly violent circumstances. Another was serving a long sentence in prison for a crime of passion, involving the love of an actress and the enmity of a rival.

The villagers told me about the great battle many times as I learned to speak the Marathi language. They took me to the historic sites where the concealments and confrontations had occurred. They walked me through re-enactments of the event, the younger men often competing for the honour of playing Raju's part. No less important, in the telling of the tale, were the stories of the young men who'd fought beside them. The fate of each one-learned from Prabaker on his visits to the village-was recalled and told to me as part of the great saga. And through all of the stories and discussions, there was a special affection and pride for Rukhmabai Kharre. They loved and admired her for the galvanising role she'd played with her funeral speech-the first and last time she'd ever assumed a public position in the village. They acknowledged her courage, and they respected her strength of will. Above all, they celebrated her return to them, through the struggle with the dacoits, from grief and despair to the strong, shrewd, laughing woman she'd always been. In that poor and simple village, no-one doubted or forgot that its treasures were its people.

And it was all there, in her lovely face. The lines, high on her cheeks, were the dams she used to keep the tears in her eyes.

Unspoken, unanswerable questions parted her full, red lips, whenever she was alone, or absorbed in her work. Determination stiffened the defiant thrust of her cleft chin. And her forehead was always slightly creased in the centre, between the brows, as if she was grasping, in those soft folds of skin, the monstrous and pitiable understanding that no happiness exists without its woe, no wealth without its cost, and no life without its full measure, sooner or later, of sorrowing and death.

My relationship with Rukhmabai was established on the first morning. I'd slept well on the rope bed outside Kishan's house- so well, in fact, that I was still snoring loudly when Rukhmabai drove her milking buffalo into the space, just after dawn. One of the creatures, drawn to the buzzing sound, decided to investigate. A wet, suffocating sensation woke me with a start of alarm. I opened my eyes to see the huge, pink tongue of a gigantic black water buffalo descending once again to smother my face. Shouting in fear and surprise, I fell off the bed and backed away on my hands and heels.

Rukhmabai led the laughter at my expense, but it was good laughter-honest, and kind, and with no knives in it. When she reached down to help me up, I took her hand and laughed with her.

"Gaee!" she said, pointing to the buffalo, and establishing the ground rule that if we were to be communicating with words, I would be the one learning a foreign language. Water buffalo!

She took a glass, and squatted by the udder of the immense, black, bow-horned beast to squeeze milk. I watched the milk squirt directly into the glass. She filled the glass with expert strokes, and then brought it to me, wiping the lip with the corner of her red cotton shawl.

I'm a city boy. I was born and raised in a fairly large city of three million people. One of the reasons I could remain for years on the run was that I love big cities, and feel completely confident and comfortable in them. The full range of a city boy's suspicion and dread of the country rose up in me when I held that glass of freshly squeezed milk. It was warm to the touch. It smelled of the cow. There seemed to be things floating in the glass. I hesitated. I had the sense that Louis Pasteur was standing just behind me, looking over my shoulder at the glass. I could hear him. Er, I would boil that milk first, Monsieur, if I were you...

I swallowed prejudice, fear, and the milk all at once, gulping it down as quickly as possible. The taste was not as bad as I'd expected it to be-creamy and rich, and with a hint of dried grasses within the bovine aftertaste. Rukhmabai snatched the glass from my hand and squatted down to fill it again, but my urgent, pleading protest convinced her that I was well satisfied with a single glass.

When we'd made our toilet, washed our faces, and cleaned our teeth, Rukhmabai stood over Prabaker and me while we ate a solid breakfast of roti and chai. The roti, or unleavened flatbreads, were made fresh for each breakfast, and cooked in a lightly oiled wok on an open fire. The hot, pancake-like bread was filled with a dab of ghee, or purified butter, and a large spoonful of sugar.

It was then rolled into a tube, so thick that the hand only just curled around it, and eaten with a mug of hot, sweet, milky tea.

Rukhmabai watched every bite and chew, prodding us with a finger or slapping us on the head or shoulder if either of us showed the slightest inclination to pause for breath during the breakfast.

Trapped, our jaws grinding away at the admittedly delicious food, we both cast surreptitious glances at the young women cooking at the wok, hoping that each roti, after the third or fourth we'd eaten, would be our last.

And so, for all the many weeks, every day in the village began with a glass of buffalo milk, then with a wash and, at last, with a long chai-roti breakfast. On most mornings, I joined the men in the fields tending to the crops of maize, corn, wheat, pulses, and cotton. The working day was divided into two brackets of about three hours, with a lunch break and siesta between.

Children and young women brought the lunches to us in a multitude of stainless steel dishes. The meal usually consisted of the ubiquitous roti, spicy lentil dhal, mango chutney, and raw onions, served with lime juice. After eating the meal as a group, the men moved off to find quiet, shady spots to doze in for an hour or so. When work resumed, the fed and rested workers applied themselves with great energy and enthusiasm until the senior man in the group called a halt. Assembling on one of the main pathways, the farmers then walked back past fields they'd sown and tended themselves, often laughing and joking all the way to the village.

There was little work for the men to do in the village itself.

Cooking, cleaning, washing, and even routine house-maintenance were all done by the women-mostly younger women, supervised in their tasks by older women. On average, the village women worked a four-hour day. They spent much of their free time playing with the young children. The village men worked six hours per day for an average four-day week. Special efforts were required for plantings and harvests, but in general the Maharashtrian villagers worked fewer hours than working men and women in cities.

It wasn't paradise. Some of the men exhausted themselves, after their work in the collective fields, trying to wring profits from a cash crop of cotton on a private patch of rocky ground. Rains came early or late. Fields flooded, or succumbed to the predations of insects and crop diseases. Women, with no outlet for their special creativities, endured the long, quiet ruin of their talents. Others watched the slow waste of bright children who could've been more and done more in some other, busier place, but never would know more than the village, the fields, and the river. Sometimes, rarely, a man or woman was so wretchedly miserable that the night for all of us, listening in the village dark, was ragged with sobbing.

But, just as Prabaker had said, the people did sing almost every day. If an abundance of good food, laughter, singing, and an amiable disposition can be taken as indicators of well-being and happiness, then the villagers eclipsed their western counterparts in those qualities of life. In my six months there, I never heard a cruel voice or saw a hand raised in anger. Moreover, the men and women in Prabaker's village were robustly healthy. The grandparents were plump, but not fat, the parents were bright- eyed and fit, and the children were straight-limbed, clever, and vivacious.

And there was a sense of certainty, in the village, that no city I've ever known provides: the certainty that emerges when the soil, and the generations who work it, become interchangeable; when the identities of the human beings and the nature of the place are one and the same. Cities are centres of constant and irreversible change. The definitive sound of a city is the rattlesnake chatter of a jackhammer-the warning sound you hear as the business reptile strikes. But change in the village is perennial. What changes in nature is restored with one wheel of the seasons. What comes from the earth always returns. What flourishes, dies away to bloom again.

And when I'd been in the village some three months, Rukhmabai and the people of Sunder gave me a fragment of that certainty: a part of them and their lives that changed my life forever. On the day the monsoon began, I was swimming in the river with a dozen other young men and about twenty children. The dark clouds, which had painted their sombre moods on the sky for weeks, gathered from horizon to horizon, and seemed to press upon the tops of the tallest trees. The air, after eight dry months, was so lavishly perfumed with rain that we were almost drunk with excitement.

"Paous alla! S'alla ghurree!" the children cried repeatedly, grasping my hands. They pointed to the clouds and dragged me toward the village. The rain is coming! Let's go home! The first drops of rain fell as we ran. In seconds, the drops were a heavy fall. In minutes, the fall was a cascade. Within an hour, the monsoon was a ceaseless torrent, so thick that it was difficult to breathe in the open without cupping my hands to my mouth to make a little cave of air.

At first, the villagers danced in the rain and played pranks on one another. Some took soap, and washed in the heaven-sent shower. Some went to the local temple, where they knelt in the rain to pray. Others busied themselves with repairs to the roofs of their houses and the drainage trenches dug around every mud- brick wall.

Eventually, everyone stopped to simply stare at the drifting, flapping, curling sheets of rain. Every doorway of every house was crowded with faces, and each flash of lightning showed the frozen tableaux of wonder.

That downpour of several hours was followed by a lull just as long. The sun shone intermittently, and rainwater steamed from the warming earth. The first ten days of the season proceeded in the same way, with violent storms and tranquil lulls, as if the monsoon was probing the village for its weaknesses before mounting a final assault.

Then, when the great rain came, it was a lake of water in the air, and it rained almost without pause for seven days and nights. On the seventh day, I was at the river's edge, washing my few clothes as the drenching torrents fell. At one point I reached for my soap, and realised that the rock I'd placed it on was submerged. The water, which had merely caressed my bare feet, rose from my ankles to my knees in seconds. As I looked upstream at the tumbling crash of the river, the water reached to my thighs, and was still rising.

Awed and uneasy, I waded from the water with my wet clothes, and began the walk to the village. On the way I stopped twice to watch the progress of the river. The steep banks were quickly swamped, and then the wide sloping plain began to subside beneath the all-immersing flood. The advance was so rapid that the inevasible creep of the swollen, land-consuming river moved toward the village at a slow walking pace. Alarmed, I ran to warn the villagers.

"The river! The river is coming!" I shouted, in broken Marathi.

Sensing my distress but not really understanding me, the villagers gathered around and then called Prabaker, plying him with questions.

"What is your matter, Lin? The people are very upset for you."

"The river! It's coming up fast. It'll wipe the village out!" Prabaker smiled.

"Oh, no, Lin. That will not be happening."

"I'm telling you! I've seen it. I'm not joking, Prabu. The fucking river's in flood!"

Prabaker translated my words for the others. Everyone laughed.

"Are you all crazy?" I shouted, in exasperation. "It's not funny!"

They laughed all the harder and crowded around me, reaching out to calm my fear by patting and stroking me, their laughing voices full of soothing words and sighs. Then, with Prabaker leading the way, the crowd of villagers goaded, dragged, and pushed me toward the river.

The river, only a few hundred metres away, was a deluge: a vast muddy concrescence that tore through the valley in heaving waves and boiling eddies. The rain redoubled its intensity as we stood there, our clothes as drenched as the yielding soil. And still the tumid river grew, consuming new land with every thumping heartbeat.

"You see those sticks, Lin," Prabaker said, in his most irritating attempt at a soothing tone. "Those sticks are the flood-game sticks. Do you remember, when the people put them in the ground? Satish and Pandey, Narayan and Bharat... do you remember?"

I did remember. Days before, there'd been a lottery of some kind.

One hundred and twelve numbers-one for every man in the village - were written on small pieces of paper, and mixed together in an empty clay water-pot, called a matka. The men lined up to draw their numbers, and then a second set of the same numbers was mixed in the pot. A little girl was given the honour of drawing the six winning numbers from the pot. The whole village watched the ceremony, and applauded the winners happily.

The six men whose numbers had been drawn had won the chance to hammer a wooden stake, a little over a metre long, into the earth. As well, the three oldest men in the village were accorded the right to a wooden stake without the numbered lottery. They duly chose places for their stakes, and younger men obliged by hammering the wooden pegs into the ground. When all nine stakes were positioned, little flags with the names of the men were tied to each one, and the people drifted back to their homes.

I'd watched the affair from a shady spot beneath the branched dome of a tree. At the time, I was working on my own small reference dictionary of the Marathi language, based on phonetic spellings of the words I heard every day in the village. I gave the ceremony little attention, and I never bothered to ask its purpose.

As we stood in the numbing, drumming rain and watched the prowling advance of the river, Prabaker explained that the wooden stakes were part of a flood-game that was played every year. The oldest men in the village, and six lottery winners, were given the chance to predict the point to which the river would rise.

Each wooden stick, with its flag of yellow silk, represented a best guess.

"You see, this one little flag?" Prabaker asked, pointing to the stake that was furthest from where we stood. "This one is almost gone. The river will reach to him, and cover him, tomorrow or tonight."

He translated what he'd told me for the crowd, and they pushed Satish, a heavy-set cowherd, to the front of the group. The almost submerged stick was his, and he accepted, with shy laughter and downcast eyes, the good-natured jeers of his friends and the sneers of the older men.

"And this one here," Prabaker went on, pointing to the stake nearest to our position. "This one is the river will never be touching. The river never comes more far than this place. Old Deepakbhai has picked for himself this place, for the putting of his stick. He thinks this year will be a very heavy monsoon."

The villagers had lost interest, and were already drifting or jogging back to the village. Prabaker and I stood alone.

"But... how do you know that the river won't rise past this point?"

"We are here a long time, Lin. Sunder village has been in this place for two thousands of years. The next village, Natinkerra, has been there for much longer, about three thousands of years.

In some other places-not near to here-the people do have a bad experiences, with the floods, in monsoon time. But not here. Not in Sunder. Our river has never come to this far. This year, also, I don't think it will come to this far, even so old Deepakbhai says it will. Everybody knows where the river will stop, Lin."

He raised his eyes to squint at the unburdening clouds.

"But usually, we are waiting until the rain it stops, before we come out of the house to look at the flood-game sticks. If you don't mind, Lin, I'm swimming in my clothes, and I will have to squeeze the water out of my bones before I go in my house."

I stared straight ahead. He glanced up at the black tumble of cloud once more, and asked a question.

"In your country, Lin, don't you know where the river stops?"

I didn't answer him. Eventually, he reached up to pat me on the back a few times, and then walked off. Alone, I stared at the rain-soaked world for a while, and at last I lifted my face to the drowning sky.

I was thinking about another kind of river, one that runs through every one of us, no matter where we come from, all over the world. It's the river of the heart, and the heart's desire. It's the pure, essential truth of what each one of us is, and can achieve. All my life I'd been a fighter. I was always ready, too ready, to fight for what I loved, and against what I deplored. In the end, I became the expression of that fight, and my real nature was concealed behind a mask of menace and hostility. The message of my face and my body's movement was, like that of a lot of other hard men, Don't fuck with me. In the end, I became so good at expressing the sentiment that the whole of my life became the message.

It didn't work in the village. No-one could read my body language. They knew no other foreigners, and had no point of reference. If I was grim or even stern, they laughed, and patted my back encouragingly. They took me as a peaceful man, no matter what expression I wore. I was a joker, someone who worked hard, played the fool for the children, sang with them, danced with them, and laughed with an open heart.

And I think I did laugh like that then. I was given a chance to reinvent myself, to follow that river within, and become the man I'd always wanted to be. On the very day that I learned about the wooden stakes of the flood-game, not three hours before I stood alone in the rain, Prabaker's mother had told me that she'd called a meeting of the women in the village: she'd decided to give me a new name, a Maharashtrian name, like her own. Because I was in Prabaker's house, it was decided that I should take the family name of Kharre. Because Kishan was Prabaker's father, and my adoptive father, tradition decreed that I should take his first name for my middle name. And because they judged my nature to be blessed with peaceful happiness, Rukhmabai concluded, the women had agreed with her choice for my first name. It was Shantaram, which means man of peace, or man of God's peace.

They nailed their stakes into the earth of my life, those farmers. They knew the place in me where the river stopped, and they marked it with a new name. Shantaram Kishan Kharre. I don't know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow.

Whatever the case, whether they discovered that peace or created it, the truth is that the man I am was born in those moments, as I stood near the flood sticks with my face lifted to the chrismal rain. Shantaram. The better man that, slowly, and much too late, I began to be.

____________________

CHAPTER SEVEN

"She is a beautiful prostitutes," Prabaker pleaded. "So fat she is, and in the most serious and the important places. A big handfuls you can grab, anywhere you like. You will be so exciting, you will make yourself sick!"

"It's a tempting offer, Prabu," I responded, trying not to laugh, "but I'm really not interested. We only left the village yesterday, and I guess my mind is still there. I'm just... not in the mood."

"Mood is no problem, baba. Only first you get bumping and jumping, then your bad moods will so quickly change, futt-a -

_futt!"

"Maybe you're right, but I think I'll pass, all the same."

"But she is so experience!" he whined. "Those fellows told me she has made sexy business too many times, and with too many hundred of customers, in this hotel only. I saw her. I looked on the inside of her eyes, and I know that she is a very big expert in the sexy business."

"I don't want a prostitute, Prabu. No matter how expert she is."

"But if you only see her. You will be crazy for her."

"Sorry, Prabu."

"But I told them... that you will come and look at her. Only look. There is no harming for a look, Linbaba."

"No."

"But... but I can't get back my cash deposits if you don't come and do some looking at her."

"You paid a cash deposit?"

"Yes, Lin."

"You paid a deposit, for me to have sex with a woman in this hotel?"

"Yes, Lin," he sighed, raising his arms, and letting them fall to his sides in a helpless gesture. "Six months in the village, you were. Six months with no sexy business. I was thinking you must be feeling a big amount of your needs. Now, no cash deposits returned for me, if you don't take one very small peeking at her."

"Okay," I sighed, copying his helpless gesture. "Let's go take a look, just to get you off the hook."

I pulled the door of our hotel room shut, and locked it. We set off along the wide corridor together. The Apsara Hotel in Aurangabad, north of Bombay, was more than a hundred years old, and built to serve a different, more splendid age. Its high, wide rooms were graced with open balconies facing the busy street, and they featured fine detail in their cornices and ceiling rosettes.

The furniture was shoddy and thrown together in haphazard combinations, however, and the carpet in the corridors had worn through to shaggy holes in many places. The paint was peeling, the walls were bruised with dirt, and the rooms were cheap. Just the place, Prabaker had assured me, for us to spend a happy night on our way back to Bombay.

We stopped outside a door on the far side of our floor of the building. Prabaker was trembling with excitement. His eyes were alarmingly wide.

I knocked. Almost at once, the door opened. A woman, aged something over fifty, stood in the doorway. She was wearing a red and yellow sari, and she glared at us malevolently. Behind her in the room were several men. They were dressed in dhotis and white caps like the farmers in Prabaker's village, and they sat on the floor to eat a hearty meal of dhal, rice, and roti.

The woman stepped into the corridor, and pulled the door shut behind her. She fixed her gaze on Prabaker. He was a full head and shoulder shorter than she was, and he returned her baleful stare with the fixity of a school bully's minor henchman.

"You see, Lin?" he muttered, never taking his eyes off her. "You see what I told you?"

What I saw was a plain, wide face with a bulbous nose, and lips so thin and curled with contempt that her mouth resembled a clam that someone had poked with a stick. The make-up on her face and neck was geisha thick, and gave her scowling expression a villainous intensity.

Prabaker spoke to the woman in Marathi.

"Show him!"

She responded by lifting aside the covering shawl of her sari to reveal a pudgy roll of stomach. She pinched a good pound or two of the flesh between her stubby fingers, and squeezed it, looking at me with one eyebrow raised to invite praise.

Prabaker let out a soft moan, and his eyes widened. The woman then scowled dramatically left and right along the corridor before raising her blouse a few centimetres to reveal a long, thin, pendulous breast. She seized the breast and flapped it at me a few times, winking her eyebrow with a bafflingly inscrutable expression. My best guess, stabbing wildly in the dark, was that it might've been a menacing, derisive sneer.

Prabaker's eyes widened even more, and he began to breathe noisily through his open mouth.

The woman covered her breast, and then whipped her long plait of black hair over her shoulder with a jerk of her head. She took the plait in both hands and began to squeeze downward toward the tapering end with her fingers, as if it was a half-empty tube of toothpaste. A thick dribble of coconut oil gathered before her fingers, and dripped from the end of the plait onto the threadbare carpet.

"You know, Lin," Prabaker mumbled, gaping hungrily and almost fearfully at the drips of oil. His right foot actually began to stamp, softly, on the carpet. "If you don't want to have a sexy business with this woman... if... if you really don't want... well... I could use that cash deposits my own good self..."

"I'll see you back at the room, Prabu," I replied, smiling politely at the woman. I offered her a little bow, and took her scornful snarl with me back to our room.

I thought to use the time to update my Marathi dictionary. There were already some six hundred words from everyday usage in the list. I'd made the notes on scraps of paper, as people in the village had given me words and phrases, before transferring them to a sturdy journal for future reference. The last and latest of those notes were spread out on a little writing table, and I'd just begun to enter them in my journal when the door sprung open and Prabaker swaggered into the room. He walked past me without speaking, and fell onto his back on his bed. About nine minutes had passed since I'd left him at the prostitute's door.

"Oh, Lin!" he moaned happily, grinning up at the ceiling. "I knew it. I knew she was a full-of-experience woman."

I stared at him in bewilderment.

"Ah, yes!" he gushed, sitting up and letting his short legs swing from the bed. "She gave me a big money's worth. And I gave it to her a very, very good sex also. And now! Let's go out! We will be having some foods, and some drinks, and a party!"

"If you're sure you've got the strength," I muttered.

"Oh, no need for strength in this place, baba. This place I'm taking you is such a fine place that very often you can even sit down while you are drinking."

As good as his word, Prabaker directed us to a hovel, about an hour's walk past the last bus stop on the outskirts of the town.

With a round of drinks for the house, we insinuated ourselves into the crush of dusty, determined drinkers who occupied the bar's one narrow stone bench. The place was what Australians call a sly grog shop: an unlicensed bar, where men buy over-proof alcohol at under-the-counter prices.

The men we joined in the bar were workers, farmers, and a routine assortment of lawbreakers. They all wore sullen, persecuted expressions. They said little, or nothing at all. Fierce grimaces disfigured them as they drank the foul-tasting, homemade alcohol, and they followed each glass with a miscellany of grunts, groans, and gagging sounds. When we joined them, Prabaker and I consumed the drinks at a gulp, pinching our noses with one hand and hurling the noxious, chemurgic liquid down our open throats. By means of a fierce determination, we summoned the will to keep the poison in our bellies. And when sufficiently recovered we launched ourselves, with no little reluctance, into the next venomous round.

It was a grim and pleasureless business. The strain showed on every face. Some found the going too hard and slunk away, defeated. Some faltered, but were pressed on by the anguished encouragements of fellow sufferers. Prabaker lingered long over his fifth glass of the volatile fluid. I thought he was about to admit defeat, but at last he gasped and spluttered his way through to empty the glass. Then one man threw his glass aside, stood up, and moved to the centre of the shabby little room. He began to sing in a roaring, off-key voice, and because every man of us cheered our passionate and peremptory approval, we all knew that we were drunk.

One by one, we sang a song in turn. A weeping rendition of the Indian national anthem was followed by religious devotionals.

Hindi love songs jingled beside heart-breaking gazals. The two burly waiters recognised the new stage of inebriation, and abandoned their drinks trays and glasses for a while. They took up their positions, sitting on stools on either side of the entrance door. They smiled broadly, nodded, wagged their heads, and cradled long, thick, wooden clubs in the tender embrace of their meaty arms. We all clapped and cheered, with every song. When it was my turn, I sang-I don't know why-the old Kinks' song, "You Really Got Me":

Girl, you really got me goin'

You got me so I can't sleep at night...

I was drunk enough to coach Prabaker, and he was drunk enough to learn the chorus.

Oh, yes, by God, you are a girl!

And you really, really got me, isn't it going?

We were still singing on the dark, deserted stretch of road, leading back to town. We were still singing when the white Ambassador car cruised past us slowly, and turned. And we were still singing when the car cruised past us again, and then turned one more time to block our path on the shoulder of the road. Four men got out of the car, and one stayed behind the wheel. The tallest of the men grabbed at my shirt and barked a command at me in Marathi.

"What is this?" I slurred back at him, in Marathi.

Another man stepped in from the side and hit me with a short right hand that snapped my head back sharply. Two more quick punches crunched into my mouth and nose. I stumbled back, and felt one leg go out from under me. Falling, I saw Prabaker hurl himself at the four men with his arms wide, trying to hold them back from me. I roused myself, and rallied enough to make a charge. My left hook and overhand right elbow, the best hard punches in any street fight, were lucky, and both made tough contact. Beside me, Prabaker went down once, leapt to his feet, and collected a wild haymaker that sent him dazed and sprawling.

I tried to stand near him and protect him with my legs, but I tripped and fell clumsily. Kicks and punches rained, and I covered up, hearing a quiet voice in my head that said, I know this... I know _this...

The men held me down while one of them went through my pockets with practised thoroughness. Drunk and damaged, I was only dimly aware of the dark shapes looming over me. Then I heard another voice, Prabaker's voice, and I understood some of the words in his pleading, and his defiant abuse of them. He castigated the men for shaming their own country and their own people by beating and robbing a foreigner, a visitor to their country who'd done them no harm. It was a wild speech that called them cowards and invoked Mahatma Gandhi, Buddha, the god Krishna, Mother Theresa, and the Bollywood film star Amitabh Bachchan in the same sentence. It had an effect. The leader of the group came to squat near me. I tried through my drunken haze to stand and fight again, but the others pushed me down and held me on the ground. I know this... I know this...

The man leaned over to look into my eyes. His face was hard, impassive, and very much like my own. He opened my torn shirt and shoved something inside. It was my passport and my watch.

They stood, gave Prabaker a last scowl of incomprehensible hatred, and then climbed into the car. Doors slammed as the car sped away, scattering us with dust and small stones.

Prabaker's wretchedness, when he was sure that I wasn't badly hurt, and he found time to wail and whine, was inconsolable. He blamed himself, loudly and often, for leading us to the remote bar and for allowing us to drink too much. He said with perfect honesty that he would happily take my bruises on his body, if it were possible. His pride in himself, as Bombay's best street guide, was a tattered banner. And his passionate, unqualified love for his country, Bharat Mataji, Mother India, suffered blows more grievous than any the body might endure.

"There's only one good thing for doing, Lin," he concluded, as I washed my face at a hand-basin in the huge white-tiled bathroom of our hotel. "When we get back to Bombay, you must be sending a telegram to your family and your friends for more monies, and you must go to your New Zealand embassy for making a complain of emergencies."

I dried my face, and leaned on the basin to look into the mirror.

The injuries weren't bad. A black eye was forming. My nose was swollen, but not broken. Both lips were cut and thickened, and there were some sweeping grazes on my cheeks and jaw, where kicks had scraped away the skin. It could've been a lot worse, and I knew it. I'd grown up in a tough neighbourhood, where working- class gangs preyed on one another and were merciless to loners, like me, who refused to join any of them. And then there was the prison. No beatings I'd ever suffered were as savage as those inflicted by the uniformed men who were paid to keep the peace, the prison guards. That was what the voice, my own voice, had recalled... I know this... That was the memory: being held down by three or four officers in the punishment unit while two or three others worked me over with fists, batons, and boots. It's always worse getting a beating from them, of course, because they're supposed to be the good guys. You understand and accept it when the bad guys work you over. But when the good guys use handcuffs to chain you to a wall, and then take turns to stomp and kick you, it's the whole system, it's the whole world, that's breaking your bones. And then there was the screaming. The other men, the other prisoners, screaming. Every night.

I looked into my own eyes in the mirror, and thought about Prabaker's suggestion. It was impossible to contact the New Zealand embassy-or any embassy. I couldn't contact family or friends because the police would be watching them, and waiting for a connection to be made. There was no-one. No help. No money.

The thieves had taken every cent I had in the world. The irony of it wasn't lost on me: the escaped armed robber, robbed of everything he owned. What was it Karla had said, before I'd left for the village? Don't drink any alcohol on the trip...

"There's no money in New Zealand, Prabu," I told him as we walked back to our hotel room. "There's no family who can help, no friends, and no help at the embassy."

"No money?"

"None."

"And you can't get any more? Not from any place?"

"No," I answered, packing my few belongings into my backpack.

"This is a very serious trouble, Lin, if you don't mind I'm telling your bruise and scratchy face."

"I know. Do you think we can sell my watch to the hotel manager?"

"Yes, Lin, I think so sure. It is a very nice watches. But I don't think so he will give us a big fair price. In such matters, the Indian businessman is putting his religion in his back pocket only, and he is driving very hard bargains on you."

"Never mind," I replied, clipping shut the catches on my backpack. "So long as it's enough to pay the bill, and catch that night train you were talking about, back to Bombay. Come on, pack your things, and let's go."

"It is a very, very, very serious trouble," he said as we closed the door to the room for the last time, and walked down the corridor. "No money is no funny in India, Lin, I'm telling you."

The frown that compressed his lips and consumed his features remained with us all the way back to Bombay. The sale of my watch covered the hotel bill in Aurangabad, with enough left for two or three days at the India Guest House in Bombay. With my gear stowed in my favourite room, I walked Prabaker back to the small entrance foyer of the hotel, trying in vain to revive the little miracle of his wondrous smile.

"You will leave all those unhappy things in my caring," he said, earnest and solemn. "You will see, Lin. I will make a happy result on you."

I watched him walk down the stairs, and then heard the manager, Anand, address me in friendly Marathi.

I turned with a smile, and we began to talk in Marathi. Six months in the village had given me the simple, everyday conversational phrases, questions, and sentences. It was a modest achievement, but Anand was obviously very pleased and surprised.

After a few minutes of conversation, he called all the co- managers and room boys to hear me speak in their language. They all reacted with similarly delighted astonishment. They'd known foreigners who spoke a little Hindi, or even spoke it well, but none of them had ever met a foreigner who could converse with them in their own beloved Marathi language.

They asked me about the village of Sunder-they'd never heard of it-and we talked about the daily life that they all knew well from their own villages, and tended to idyllise in recollection.

When the conversation ended, I returned to my room, and had barely shut the door when a tentative knock sounded at it.

"Excuse me, please. I am sorry to disturb." The voice belonged to a tall, thin foreigner-German, or Swiss, perhaps-with a wispy beard attached to the point of his long face, and fair hair pulled back into a thick plait. "I heard you speaking to the manager, and the room boys, before, and... well, it is sure that you have been here in India very long... and... _na _ja, we just arrived today, my girlfriend and me, and we want to buy some hashish. Do you... do you maybe know where we can get for ourselves some hashish, without somebody cheating us, and without trouble from the police?"

I did know, of course. Before the night was out, I also helped them to change money on the black market without being cheated.

The bearded German and his girlfriend were happy with the deal and they paid me a commission. The black marketeers, who were Prabaker's friends and contacts on the street, were happy that I'd brought new customers to them, and they paid me commissions as well. I knew there would be other foreigners, on every street in Colaba, who wanted to score. That casual conversation in Marathi with Anand and the room boys of the hotel, overheard by the German couple, had given me a way to survive in the city.

A more pressing problem, however, was my tourist visa. When Anand had signed me in to the hotel, he'd warned me that my visa had expired. Every hotel in Bombay had to supply a register of foreign guests, with a valid visa entry for each foreign name and passport number. The register was known as the C-Form, and the police were vigilant in its supervision. Overstaying on a visa was a serious offence in India. Prison terms of up to two years were sometimes imposed, and the police levied heavy fines on hotel operators who permitted C-Form irregularities.

Anand had explained all that to me, gravely, before he fudged the figures in his register and signed me in. He liked me. He was Maharashtrian, and I was the first foreigner he'd ever met who spoke the Marathi language with him. He was happy to break the rules for me, once, but he warned me to visit the Foreigner Registration Branch, at police headquarters, immediately, to see about an extension on my visa.

I sat in my room, and weighed the options. There weren't many. I had very little money. True, I'd inadvertently discovered a way to earn money as a middleman, a go-between, helping wary foreigners to deal with black marketeers. However, I wasn't sure if it would provide me with enough money to live in hotels and eat in restaurants. It certainly wouldn't pay for a plane ticket out of India. Moreover, I was already an overstayer on my visa, and technically guilty of a criminal offence. Anand assured me that the cops would see the lapsed visa as a mere oversight, and extend it without enquiry, but I couldn't risk my freedom on that chance. I couldn't visit the Foreigner Registration Branch. So, I couldn't alter my visa status, and I couldn't stay at a hotel in Bombay without a valid visa. I was caught between the rock of regulations and the hard place of the fugitive life.

I lay back on the bed, in the dark, listening to the sounds of the street that rose to my open window: the paanwalla, calling customers to the delights of his aromatic morsels; the watermelon man, piercing the warm, humid night with his plangent cry; a street acrobat, shouting through his sweaty exertions for a crowd of tourists; and music, always music. Did ever a people love music, I wondered, more than the Indians?

Thoughts of the village, thoughts I'd avoided and resisted until that music began, danced into my mind. On the day that Prabaker and I had left the village, the people had invited me to live with them. They'd offered me a house and a job. In the last three months of my stay I'd been helping the teacher at the local school with special lessons in spoken English. I gave him clear pronunciations of English words, helping him to correct the heavily accented versions of the language that he'd been teaching to the children. The teacher and the village council had urged me to stay. There was a place for me-a place and a purpose.

But it wasn't possible for me to return to Sunder village. Not then. A man can make his way in the city with his heart and his soul crushed within a clenched fist; but to live in a village, he has to unfurl his heart and his soul in his eyes. I carried crime and punishment with me in every hour of my life. The same fate that helped me to escape from prison had clamped its claws on my future. Sooner or later, if they looked hard enough and long enough, the people would see those claws in my eyes. Sooner or later, there would be a reckoning. I'd passed myself off as a free man, a peaceful man, and for a little while I'd known real happiness in the village, but my soul wasn't clean. What would I do to prevent my recapture? What wouldn't I do? Would I kill to save myself from prison?

I knew the answers to those questions, and I knew that my presence in Sunder defiled the village. I knew that every smile I took from them was swindled. Life on the run puts a lie in the echo of every laugh, and at least a little larceny in every act of love.

There was a knock at the door. I called out that it was open.

Anand stepped into my room and announced with distaste that Prabaker had come to see me, with two of his friends. I clapped Anand on the back, smiling at his concern for me, and we walked to the hotel foyer.

"Oh, Lin!" Prabaker beamed, when our eyes met. "I have the very good news for you! This is my friend, Johnny Cigar. He is a very important friend in the zhopadpatti, the slum where we live. And this is Raju. He helps Mr. Qasim Ali Hussein, who is the head man in the slum."

I shook hands with the two men. Johnny Cigar was almost exactly my height and build, which made him taller and heavier than the Indian aver- age. I judged him to be about thirty years old. His long face was candid and alert. The sand-coloured eyes fixed me with a steady, confident gaze. His thin moustache was trimmed to a precise line over an expressive mouth and determined jaw. The other man, Raju, was only a little taller than Prabaker, and of an even slighter build. His gentle face was stamped with a sadness that invited sympathy. It was the kind of sadness that's a companion, all too often, to scrupulous and uncompromising honesty. Thick brows hooded his intelligent, dark eyes. They stared at me, those knowing, mindful eyes, from a tired, sagging face that seemed much older than the thirty-five years I guessed him to be. I liked both men on sight.

We talked for a while, the new men asking me questions about Prabaker's village and my impressions of life there. They asked me about the city, as well, wanting to know my favourite places in Bombay, and the things that I liked to do most. When the conversation seemed likely to continue, I invited them to join me at one of the nearby restaurants for chai.

"No, no, Lin," Prabaker declined, waggling his head. "We must be leaving now. Only I wanted you to meet the Johnny and the Raju, and them to be meeting your good self, also. I think that Johnny Cigar has some things to tell you now, isn't it?"

He looked at Johnny, his eyes and his mouth wide open, and his hands raised in expectation. Johnny glowered at him, but the frown quickly softened into a broad smile, and he turned his attention to me.

"We made a decision for you," Johnny Cigar declared. "You will live with us. You are Prabaker's good friend. There is a place for you."

"Yes, Lin!" Prabaker added quickly. "One family is leaving tomorrow. And then, the day after tomorrow, that house will be yours."

"But... but..." I stammered, flattered by the generous gesture, and yet horrified at the thought of life in the slum. I remembered my one visit to Prabaker's slum only too well. The smell of the open latrines, the heart-breaking poverty, the cramp and mill of people, thousands upon thousands of people-it was a kind of hell, in my memory, a new metaphor that stood for the worst, or almost the worst, that could happen.

"No problem, Lin," Prabaker laughed. "You will be too happy with us, you will see. And you know, you're looking like a different fellow now, it is true, but after a few months with us you will look exactly the same as everyone else there. People will think you are already living in the slum for years and years and years. You will see."

"It is a place for you," Raju said, reaching out slowly to touch my arm. "A safe place, until you can save your money. _Our hotel is free."

The others laughed at that, and I joined them, inspired by their optimism and enthusiasm. The slum was filthy and crowded beyond imagining, but it was free, and there were no C-Forms for the residents. It would give me time to think, I knew, and time to plan.

"I... well... thanks, Prabu. Thanks, Johnny. Thanks, Raju. I accept your offer. I'm very grateful. Thank you."

"No problem," Johnny Cigar replied, shaking my hand, and meeting my eye with a determined, penetrating stare.

I didn't know then that Johnny and Raju had been sent by the head man of the slum, Qasim Ali Hussein, to look me over. In my ignorance and self-centeredness, I'd recoiled at the thought of the terrible conditions of the slum, and accepted their offer reluctantly. I didn't know that the huts were in much demand, and that there was a long list of families waiting for a place. I couldn't know, then, that offering a place to me meant that a family in need had missed out on a home. As the last step in making that decision, Qasim Ali Hussein had sent Raju and Johnny to my hotel. Raju's task was to determine whether I could live with them. Johnny's task was to make sure that they could live with me. All I knew, on the first night of our meeting, was that Johnny's handshake was honest enough to build a friendship on, and Raju's sad smile had more acceptance and trust in it than I deserved.

"Okay, Lin," Prabaker grinned. "Day after tomorrow, we come to pick up your many things, and your good self also, in the late of afternoon."

"Thanks, Prabu. Okay. But wait! Day after tomorrow-won't that ... won't that mess up our appointment?"

"Appointment? What for an appointment, Linbaba?"

"The... the... Standing Babas," I replied lamely.

The Standing Babas, a legendary cloister of mad, inspired monks, ran a hashish den in suburban Byculla. Prabaker had taken me there as part of his dark tour of the city, months before. On the way back to Bombay from the village, I'd made him promise to take me there again, with Karla. I knew she'd never been to the den, and I knew she was fascinated by the stories she'd heard of it.

Raising the matter then, in the face of their hospitable offer, was ungrateful, but I didn't want to miss the chance to impress her with the visit.

"Oh yes, Lin, no problem. We can still make a visit to those Standing Babas, with the Miss Karla, and after that we will collect up all your things. I will see you here, day after tomorrow at three o'clock afternoon. I am so happy you are going to be a slum-living fellow with us, Lin! So happy!"

He walked out of the foyer and descended the stairwell. I watched him join the lights and traffic stirring on the noisy street, three floors below. Worries waned and receded. I had a way to make a little money. I had a safe place to stay. And then, as if that safety allowed them to, my thoughts wound and spiralled along the streets and alleys to Karla. I found myself thinking of her apartment, of her ground-floor windows, those tall French doors that looked out on the cobbled lane, not five minutes away from my hotel. But the doors I pictured in my mind stayed shut.

And as I tried, and failed, to form an image of her face, her eyes, I suddenly realised that if I became a slum-dweller, if I lived in those squalid, squirming acres, I might lose her; I probably would lose her. I knew that if I fell that far, as I saw it then, my shame would keep me from her as completely and mercilessly as a prison wall.

In my room, I lay down to sleep. The move to the slum would give me time: it was a hard solution to the visa problem, but a practical one. I felt relieved and optimistic about it, and I was very tired. I should've slept well. But my dreams that night were violent and troubled. Didier once told me, in a rambling, midnight dissertation, that a dream is the place where a wish and a fear meet. When the wish and the fear are exactly the same, he said, we call the dream a nightmare.

____________________

CHAPTER EIGHT

The Standing Babas were men who'd taken a vow never to sit down, or lie down, ever again, for the rest of their lives. They stood, day and night, forever. They ate their meals standing up, and made their toilet standing up. They prayed and worked and sang standing up. They even slept while they were standing, suspended in harnesses that kept the weight of their bodies on their legs, but prevented them from falling when they were unconscious.

For the first five to ten years of that constant standing, their legs began to swell. Blood moved sluggishly in exhausted veins, and muscles thickened. Their legs became huge, bloated out of recognisable shape, and covered with purple varicose boils. Their toes squeezed out from thick, fleshy feet, like the toes of elephants. During the following years, their legs gradually became thinner, and thinner. Eventually, only bones remained, with a paint-thin veneer of skin and the termite trails of withered veins.

The pain was unending and terrible. Spikes and spears of agony stabbed up through their feet with every downward pressure.

Tormented, tortured, the Standing Babas were never still. They shifted constantly from foot to foot in a gentle, swaying dance that was as mesmerising, for everyone who saw it, as the sound- weaving hands of a flute player for his cobras.

Some of the Babas had made the vow when they were sixteen or seventeen years old. They were compelled by something like the vocation that calls others, in other cultures, to become priests, rabbis, or imams. A larger number of much older men had renounced the world as a preparation for death and the next level of incarnation. Not a few of the Standing Babas were businessmen who'd given themselves to ruthless pursuits of pleasure, power, and profit during their working lives. There were holy men who'd journeyed through many other devotions, mastering their punishing sacrifices before undertaking the ultimate vow of the Standing Baba. And there were criminals-thieves, murderers, major mafia figures, and even former warlords-who sought expiation, or propitiation, in the endless agonies of the vow.

The den was really a corridor between two brick buildings at the rear of their temple. Hidden from view forever, within the temple compound, were the secret gardens, cloisters, and dormitories that only those who made and kept the vow ever saw. An iron roof covered the den. The floor was paved with flat stones. The Standing Babas entered through a door at the rear of the corridor. Everyone else entered and left through an iron gate at the street end.

The customers, men from every part of the country and every level of society, stood along the walls of the corridor. They stood, of course: no-one ever sat in the presence of the Standing Babas.

There was a tap fixed over an open drain near the entrance gate, where men drank water or leaned over to spit. The Babas moved from man to man and group to group, preparing hashish in funnel- shaped clay chillums for the customers, and smoking with them.

The faces of the Babas were radiant with their excruciation.

Sooner or later, in the torment of endlessly ascending pain, every man of them assumed a luminous, transcendent beatitude.

Light, made from the agonies they suffered, streamed from their eyes, and I've never known a human source more brilliant than their tortured smiles.

The Babas were also comprehensively, celestially, and magnificently stoned. They smoked nothing but Kashmiri-the best hashish in the world-grown and produced at the foothills of the Himalayas in Kashmir. And they smoked it all day, and all night, all their lives.

I stood with Karla and Prabaker at the back wall of the narrow den. Behind us was the sealed door through which the Standing Babas had entered. In front of us were two lines of men standing along the walls all the way to the iron gate at the street end of the passage. Some of the men were dressed in suits. Some wore designer jeans. Workmen, wearing faded lungis, stood beside men in traditional dress from various regions of India. They were young and old, rich and poor. Their eyes were often drawn to Karla and me, pale-skinned foreigners, standing with our backs against the wall. It was clear that some of them were shocked to see a woman in the den. Despite their open curiosity, no-one approached us or acknowledged us directly, and for the most part they gave their attention to the Standing Babas and the hashish.

Conversations, buzzing softly, blended with music and devotional chanting, coming from somewhere inside the compound.

"So, what do you think?"

"It's incredible!" she replied, her eyes gleaming in the soft light of the shaded lamps. She was exhilarated, and perhaps a little unnerved. Smoking the charras had relaxed the muscles of her face and shoulders, but there were tigers moving quickly in the eyes of her soft smile. "It's amazing. It's horrible and holy at the same time. I can't make up my mind which is the holy part, and which is the horrible part. Horrible-that's not the right word, but it's something like that."

"I know what you mean," I agreed, thrilled that I'd succeeded in impressing her. She'd been in the city for five years, and she'd heard about the Babas many times, but that visit with me was her first. My tone implied that I knew the place well, but I couldn't fairly claim credit for the experience. Without Prabaker, who'd knocked on the gate for us and gained access with his golden smile, we wouldn't have been permitted to enter.

One of the Standing Babas approached us slowly with an acolyte who held a silver tray containing chillums, charras, and the paraphernalia of smoking. Other monks rocked and swayed along the length of the corridor, smoking and chanting prayers. The Baba standing before us was tall and lean, but his legs were so thickly swollen that dreadful ropes of distended veins throbbed on their surfaces. His face was thin. The bones of his skull, near the temples, were sharply defined. His cheekbones, majestic, presided over deep valleys that ran to a hard and hungry jaw. His eyes were huge, within the caverns ridged by his brows, and there was such madness and longing and love in them that he was at once fearsome and immensely pitiable.

He prepared the chillum, rocking from side to side and smiling absently. He never looked at us, but still it seemed to be the smile of a very close friend: indulgent, knowing, forgiving. He was standing and swaying so close to me that I could see each wiry strand in the forest of his brows. I heard the little gasps of his breathing. The rapid outward rushes of air sounded like wavelets on a steep shore. He finished preparing the chillum, and looked up at me. For a moment I was lost in the vision that swarmed and screeched in his eyes. For a tiny moment in the infinitude of his suffering I almost felt it, what the human will can drive the human body to endure and achieve. I almost understood it, that smile of his, driven insane by the will that forced it to shine. I was sure that he was communicating it to me - that he wanted me to know. And I tried to tell him, with my eyes alone, that I could almost sense it, almost feel it. Then he held the chillum to his mouth, in the funnel of his hand, puffed it alight, and offered it to me. That terrible intimacy with his unending pain shrivelled, the vision shimmered, and the moment drifted away with the fading white shadows of the smoke. He turned, and tottered slowly back toward the street gate, muttering prayers in a soft drone.

A scream pierced the air. Everyone turned to the street-entrance gate. A man dressed in the red turban, vest, and silk trousers of a northern tribesman stood there, near the iron gate, shrieking at the very top of a strong voice. Before we could discern his message or react in any way, the man drew a long, thick-bladed sword from his belted sash and raised it over his head. Still screaming, he began to stalk along the corridor. He was staring directly at me as he walked, with a stomping, marching tread. I couldn't understand the words he was screeching, but I knew what he had in mind. He wanted to attack me. He wanted to kill me.

The men standing at the sides flattened their backs against the walls instinctively. The Standing Babas rocked themselves out of the madman's path. The door behind us was locked shut. There was no escape. We were unarmed. The man walked on towards us, waving the sword in circles over his head with both hands. There was nowhere to go, and nothing to do, but to fight him. I took one step back with the right foot, and raised my fists. It was a karate stance. Seven years of martial arts' training pulsed and flickered in my arms and legs. I felt good about it. Like every other tough, angry man I knew, I avoided fighting until it came to me, and then I enjoyed it.

At the last possible moment, a man stepped out from the wall at the side, tripped the goose-stepping tribesman, and sent him crashing to the stone floor. The sword fell from his hand and clattered to a stop at Karla's feet. I snatched it up, and watched as the man who'd tripped our assailant held him in a firm but merciful submission hold. He gripped the fallen man's arm in a hammerlock, behind his back. At the same time he twisted the collar of the man's shirt to choke off a little air.

The anger or madness that had possessed the swordsman subsided, and he surrendered passively. Men who knew him stepped forward and escorted him out to the alley, beyond the iron gate. Seconds later, one of the men returned and approached me. Looking into my eyes, he held out his hands, palms upward, for the sword. I hesitated, but then handed it over. The man gave us a polite and apologetic bow, and left the den.

In the bubble and chatter that followed his departure, I checked on Karla. Her eyes were wide and she pursed her lips in a wondering smile, but she wasn't distressed. Reassured, I went to thank the man who'd stepped in to help us. He was tall, taller than I am by a few centimetres, and had a strong, athletic build.

His thick, black hair was unusually long for Bombay in those years, and he wore it in a high ponytail. His silk shirt and loose trousers were black, and he wore black leather sandals.

"Abdullah," he replied, when I'd told him my name, "Abdullah Taheri."

"I owe you one, Abdullah," I said, giving him a smile that was as cautious as it was grateful. He'd moved with such lethal grace that he made the trick of disarming the swordsman seem effortless. But it wasn't as easy as it looked. I knew how much skill and courage it had taken, and how big a role instinct had played in his timing. The man was a natural; a born fighter.

"That was damn close."

"No problem," he smiled. "He was drunk, I think, that fellow, or not right in his head."

"Whatever his problem was, I still owe you one," I insisted.

"No, really," he laughed.

It was an easy laugh, revealing white teeth. The sound of it came from deep within his chest: a laugh from the heart. His eyes were the colour of sand, in the palm of your hand, a few minutes before the sun sinks below the sea.

"All the same, I want to thank you."

"Okay," he conceded, clapping a hand to my shoulder.

I returned to Karla and Prabaker. When we turned to leave the den, Abdullah was already gone. The alley outside was deserted, and within a few minutes we caught a taxi back to Colaba. Karla was silent during the ride, and I too said nothing, miserable that my attempt to impress her had ended in such confusion and near disaster. Only Prabaker felt free to speak.

"What a lucky escapes!" he said, from the front seat, grinning at us in turn as we sat together but apart in the back of the taxi. "I thought a sure thing that fellow would chop us up in teeny pieces. Some of the people should not be smoking the charras, isn't it? Some of the people get very angry when they relax their brains."

At Leopold's I got out of the taxi and stood with Karla while Prabaker waited. A late-afternoon crowd surged around the island of our silent stare.

"You're not coming in?"

"No," I answered, wishing that the moment was more like the strong, confident scene I'd imagined through most of that day.

"I'm going to collect my stuff from the India Guest House, and move to the slum. In fact, I won't be coming to Leopold's for a while, or anywhere else for that matter. I'm going to... you know... get on my feet... or... I don't know... find my feet ... or... I'm going to... what was I saying?"

"Something about your feet."

"Yeah," I laughed. "Well, you gotta start somewhere."

"This is kind of goodbye, isn't it?"

"Not really," I muttered. "Well, yes. Yes, it is."

"And you only just got back from the village."

"Yeah," I laughed again. "From the village, to the slum. It's quite a jump."

"Just make sure you land on your-"

"-feet. Okay. I got it."

"Listen, if it's a question of money, I could-"

"No," I said quickly. "No. I want to do this. It's not just money. I..."

For three seconds I balanced on the edge of telling her about my visa problems. Her friend, Lettie, knew someone at the Foreigner Registration Branch. She'd helped Maurizio, I knew, and there was a chance that she could help me. But then I drew back from the edge, and covered the truth with a smile. Telling Karla about the visa would lead to other questions that I couldn't answer. I was in love with her, but I wasn't sure that I could trust her. It's a fact of life on the run that you often love more people than you trust. For people in the safe world, of course, exactly the opposite is true.

"I... think this will be quite an adventure. I'm... actually looking forward to it."

"Okay," she said, nodding her head slowly in acceptance. "Okay.

But you know where I live. Come by and see me, when you get the chance."

"Sure," I answered, and we both smiled, and we both knew that I wouldn't visit her. "Sure. And you know where I am, with Prabaker. You do the same."

She reached out to take my hand in hers, and then leaned over to kiss me on the cheek. She turned to leave, but I held her hand.

"Don't you have any advice for me?" I asked, trying to find another laugh.

"No," she said impassively. "I'd only give you advice if I didn't care what happens to you."

It was something. It wasn't much, but it was something to hold on to and shape my love around, and keep me wishing. She walked away. I watched her step into the brittle brightness and banter of Leopold's, and I knew that a door to her world had closed, for a time. For as long as I lived in the slum, I would be exiled from that little kingdom of light. Living in the slum would consume me, and conceal me, as effectively as if the mad swordsman had struck me with his blade.

I slammed the door of the taxi and looked at Prabaker, whose wide and beaming smile across the seat in front of me became the world.

"Thik hain. Challo!" I said. Okay. Let's go!

We pulled up, forty minutes later, outside the slum in Cuffe Parade, beside the World Trade Centre. The contrast between the adjacent and roughly equal plots of land was stark. To the right, looking from the road, the World Trade Centre was a huge, modern, air-conditioned building. It was filled to three levels with shops, and displays of jewels, silks, carpets, and intricate craftworks. To the left was the slum, a sprawling ten acres of wretched poverty with seven thousand tiny huts, housing twenty- five thousand of the city's poorest people. To the right there were neon lights and floodlit fountains. To the left there was no electricity, no running water, no toilets, and no certainty that the whole shamble and bustle of it wouldn't be swept away, from one day to the next, by the same authorities that reluctantly tolerated it.

I turned my eyes from the glamorous limousines, drawn up outside the Trade Centre, and began the long walk into the slum. There was an open latrine near the entrance, concealed by tall weeds, and screens made from reed mats. The smell was appalling and almost overpowering. It was like a physical element permeating the air, and it seemed that I could feel it settle on my skin in a thickening, slimy ooze. Gagging and swallowing back the impulse to vomit, I glanced at Prabaker.

His smile had dimmed, and for the first time I saw something like cynicism in it.

"See, Lin," he said with that uncharacteristically hard little smile drawing down the corners of his mouth, "See how the people live."

Once past the latrines and within the first lane of huts, however, there were fitful gusts of wind from a wide arc of seacoast that formed the furthermost edge of the slum. The air was hot and steamy, but the breeze dispersed the noisome stink from the latrine. Smells of spices, cooking, and incense predominated. Seen up close, the huts were pitiful structures made from scraps of plastic and cardboard, thin bamboo poles, and flat reed mats for walls. They were erected over bare earth.

Patches of concrete and stonework showed in some places where the old floors and foundations of the original buildings, cleared from the site years before, remained intact.

As I walked along the narrow rag-and-plastic lanes of the slum, word spread that the foreigner was on his way. A large crowd of children gathered and pooled around Prabaker and me, close to us but never touching. Their eyes were wide with surprise and excitement. They burst into fierce gusts of nervous laughter, shouted to one another, and leapt into jerky, spontaneous dances as we approached.

People came out of their huts to stand in every doorway. Dozens, and eventually hundreds, of people crowded into the side-lanes and the occasional gaps between the houses. They were all staring at me with such gravity, such a fixity of frowning intensity, that I felt sure they must bear me enormous ill-will. I was wrong, of course. I couldn't know then, on my first day, that the people were simply staring at my fear. They were trying to understand what demons haunted my mind, causing me to dread so terribly the place they knew to be a sanctuary from fates far worse than slum life.

And the fact was that for all my fear of its swarm and squalor, I did know a fate far worse than slum life. It was a fate so bad that I'd climbed a prison wall and given up everything that I knew, everything I was, everything I loved, to escape it.

"This is now your house, Lin," Prabaker proudly announced over the giggling and chatter of the children when we reached the hut.

"Go inside. See all for yourself." The hut was identical to the others around it. The roof was a sheet of black plastic. The frame was made from thin bamboo poles bound together with coconut-fibre twine. The walls were made from hand-woven reed matting. The floor was bare earth, pressed flat and smooth by the feet of the hut's previous tenants. The door was a thin piece of plywood dangling on rope hinges. The plastic ceiling was so low that I had to stoop, and the whole room was about four paces long by two paces wide. It was almost exactly the same size as a prison cell.

I put my guitar in one corner, and then dragged the first-aid kit from the pack, setting it up in another corner. I had a couple of wire coat-hangers, and I was hanging my few clothes in the upper corners of the hut when Prabaker called me from outside.

I stepped out to find Johnny Cigar, Raju, Prabaker, and several other men standing together in the lane. I greeted those I knew, and was introduced to the others.

"This is Anand, your neighbour on the one side-on left side,"

Prabaker said, bringing me to shake hands with a tall, handsome, young Sikh who wore his long hair in a tight yellow scarf.

"Hello," I said, smiling in response to the warmth of his strong handshake. "I know another Anand-the manager of the India Guest House."

"Is he a good man?" Anand asked through a puzzled frown.

"He's a nice guy. I like him."

"Good," Anand replied, giving me a boyish smile that undermined the serious tone in his deep voice. "Then we are half the way to being friends, na?"

"Anand, he shares his house with another of bachelors, with name Rafiq," Prabaker continued.

Rafiq was about thirty years old. A straggly beard dangled from his pointed chin. His very prominent front teeth gaped from an impoverished grin. His eyes narrowed unfortunately in the expression, and gave him a sly, almost malevolent appearance.

"On the other side is our very good neighbour, Jeetendra. His wife has the name Radha."

Jeetendra was short and plump. He smiled happily and shook my hand, rubbing vigorously at his prominent paunch all the while.

His wife, Radha, acknowledged my smile and nod of greeting by drawing her red cotton shawl over her head and holding it across her face with her teeth. "Do you know," Anand said in a gentle, conversational tone that caught me by surprise, "it is a _fire, I believe."

He was standing on his stretched toes, and shading his eyes from the afternoon sun with his hand as he looked away across the black dunes of the huts. Everyone followed his gaze. There was a humid, ominous silence. Then, several hundred metres away, a gorgeous plume of orange flames erupted skyward. An explosion followed, sounding like a shotgun blast into a metal shed. Every man ran at top pace in the direction of the yellow spears of flame that rose in the distance.

I stood still, fascinated, bewildered, staring at the flames and spirals of smoke. As I watched, the jets of fire expanded to become a sheet and then a wall of searing flames. The red, yellow, and orange wall began to advance with the breeze from the sea, engulfing new huts every few seconds. It was heading directly toward me, at a slow walking pace, incinerating everything that stood in its path.

Explosions thundered in the blaze-one, two, another. I realised, at last, that they were kerosene stoves. Every one of the seven thousand huts had a stove. Those that were pumped up and under pressure were exploding when the flames reached them. The last monsoon rain had fallen weeks before. The slum was a huge pile of tinder-dry kindling, and a strengthening sea breeze fanned the flames through a whole acre of fuel and human lives.

Stunned, afraid, but not in panic, I watched the inexorable advance of the inferno, and decided that the cause was lost. I rushed into the hut, seized my pack and belongings, and scrambled for the door. At the threshold I dropped the pack, and stooped to retrieve the clothes and other items that had spilled to the ground. In the act, I looked up to see some twenty or more women and children, standing in a group and watching me. For an instant of perfect, wordless communication, I knew exactly what they were thinking. We stared across the open ground, and I heard their speaking minds.

Look at the big, strong foreigner, saving himself, and running away from the fire, while our men run towards it...

Ashamed, I stuffed my belongings into the pack, and placed it at the feet of the woman, Radha, who'd been introduced as my neighbour. Then I turned and ran toward the fire.

Slums are planless, organic dispersements. There's purpose in the nar- row, twisting lanes, but no order. Within three or four turns, I was lost. I ran in a line of men who were moving toward the smoke and flames. Beside us, running, staggering, and bumping along the lane in the opposite direction, was a constant file of other people moving away from the fire. They were helping the elderly and herding the children. Some carried possessions-clothes, cooking pots, stoves, and cardboard boxes of documents. Many of them were injured, showing cuts, bloody wounds, and serious burns. The smell of burning plastic, fuel, clothes, hair, and flesh was acrid and unnerving.

I turned a blind corner, and another, and another, until I was near enough to hear the roaring flames above the shouts and screams. Then a dazzlingly brilliant fireball burst through the gap between two huts. It was screaming. It was a woman, engulfed in flames. She ran straight at me, and we collided.

My first impulse was to spring away as I felt my hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes burn off in the contact with her. She stumbled, and fell over backwards, still screaming and thrashing. I ripped the shirt from my back. Using it to protect my hands and face, I threw myself on her, smothering the flames with my skin and clothes. Others rushed forward and tended to her. I ran on toward the fire again. She was still alive when I left her, but a voice in my mind was declaring her dead. She's dead... she's gone ... she won't make _it...

The maw of the fire, when I did reach it, was terrifying. The flames roared to two or three times the height of the tallest hut, and ranged across a semi-circular front, arched away from us, that was fifty or more huts wide. Wilful gusts of wind drove the arc forward in probing feints, flaring up suddenly on one side, and then blazing toward us from a different direction.

Behind it was the inferno, a cauldron of burning huts, explosions, and poisonous smoke.

A man stood in the centre of the large arc of open space before the wall of flames, directing those who were fighting the fire as if he was a general ordering troops into battle. He was tall and lean, with silver-grey hair, and a short, pointed, silver-grey beard. He was dressed in a white shirt, white trousers, and sandals. There was a green scarf tied at his neck, and he held a short, brass-tipped wooden stick in his hand. His name was Qasim Ali Hussein, and that was my first glimpse of the head man in the slum. Qasim Ali's double tactic was to send beaters against the fire to slow it down while other teams demolished the huts that stood in the fire's path, and dragged away their contents to deprive the fire of fuel. That involved a staggered retreat, ceding land to the flames all the while, and then launching counter-attacks wherever the fire seemed to weaken. Slowly turning his head and sweeping his gaze back and forth across the front of the fire, Qasim pointed with the brass-tipped stick, and shouted commands.

The head man turned his gaze in my direction. A sliver of surprise gleamed in the polished bronze of his eyes. His scrutiny took in the blackened shirt in my hand. Without a word, he lifted his stick to point toward the flames. It was a relief and an honour to obey him. I trotted forward and joined a team of beaters. I was very glad to find Johnny Cigar in the same team.

"Okay?" he shouted. It was both encouragement and enquiry.

"Okay!" I shouted back. "We need more water!"

"There is no more water!" he called back, gasping as the smoke eddied around us. "The tank is empty. Trucks will fill it up tomorrow. The water that people are using here is their ration."

I discovered later that every household, my own included, was rationed to two or three buckets of water per day for all cooking, drinking, and washing needs. The slum-dwellers were trying to put the fire out with their drinking water. Every bucket thrown, and there were many, forced one more household to spend a thirsty night, waiting for the morning delivery of water in city council trucks.

"I hate these fucking fires!" Johnny cursed, slamming downward with a wet sack to emphasise his words. "Come on, you fuck! You want to _kill me? Come on! We will beat you! We will beat you!"

A sudden quirk of the fire sent a burst of orange flame toward us. The man beside me fell backward, screaming and clutching at his burned face. Qasim Ali directed a rescue team to help him away. I seized his discarded sack and fell into line beside Johnny, slamming at the flames with one hand and shielding my face with the other.

We glanced over our shoulders, often, to receive directions from Qasim Ali Hussein. We couldn't hope to put the fire out with our wet rags. Our role was to gain time for the demolition teams scrambling to remove endangered huts. It was heartbreaking work.

They were saving the slum by destroying their own houses. And to gain time for those wrecking teams, Qasim sent us left and right in desperate chess moves, starving the fire, and slowly winning ground.

When one squalling downdraft of wind swept black and brown smoke into our clearing, we lost sight of Qasim Ali Hussein completely.

I wasn't the only man who thought to pull back in retreat. Then, through the smoke and dust, we saw his green scarf, held aloft and fluttering in the breeze. He stood his ground, and I glimpsed his calm face, summing up the status of the struggle and calculating his next move. The green scarf rippled above his head like a banner. The wind changed again, and we hurled ourselves to the task once more, inspired with new courage. The heart of the man with the green scarf was in me, and in all of us.

In the end, when we'd made our last sweep through the scorched lanes and charred lumps of houses, looking for survivors and counting the dead, we stood together in a mournful assembly to hear the tally. It was known that twelve persons were dead, six of them elderly men and women, and four of them children. More than one hundred were injured, with burns and cuts. Many of them were serious wounds. About six hundred houses were lost-one- tenth of the slum.

Johnny Cigar was translating the figures for me. I was listening to him with my head close to his, but watching Qasim Ali's face as he read from his hastily prepared list of the dead and injured. When I turned to look at Johnny, I found that he was crying. Prabaker pushed through the crowd to join us, just as Johnny told me that Raju was one of those who'd died in the fire.

Raju, with the sad, honest, friendly face; the man who'd invited me to live in the slum. Dead.

"Damn lucky!" Prabaker summed up cheerfully, when Qasim Ali had called the tally. His round face was so blackened with soot that his eyes and teeth seemed almost supernaturally bright. "Last year, in the last big fire, a full one-third of the zhopadpatti was burning up. One house from every three houses! More than two thousand houses gone! Kalaass! More than forty people dying also.

Forty. It's too many, Lin, let me tell you. This year is a very lucky fire. And our houses are safe also! Bhagwan have blessings on our brother, Raju."

Shouts from the edge of the sombre crowd drew our attention, and we turned to see one of the search teams pushing their way through to Qasim Ali. A woman from the team was carrying a baby they'd rescued from the smouldering rubble. Prabaker translated the excited shout and chatter for me. Three adjoining huts had collapsed in the blaze, falling on a family. In one of those inexplicable quirks of the fire's action, the parents of the child had suffocated and died, but the child, a baby girl, had survived.

Her face and body were untouched, but her legs were severely burned. Something had fallen across them at mid-thigh, and they were black, split, and cracked. She was screaming in pain and terror.

"Tell them to come with us!" I shouted to Prabaker. "Lead me back to my hut, and tell them to follow us. I've got medicine and bandages!"

Prabaker had seen the large and impressive first-aid kit many times. He knew it included bandages, salves, and creams, disinfectant solutions, swabs, probes, and an array of surgical instruments. Grasping my meaning at once, he shouted a message to Qasim Ali and the others. I heard the words medicine and doctor repeated several times. Then he grasped my sleeve and dragged me with him, jogging back to the hut.

With the kit open on the ground in front of my hut, I applied local anaesthetic cream to the baby's legs in a thick smear. It began to work almost at once. The baby settled down to a quiet whimper, and cuddled within her rescuer's arms.

"Doctor... doctor... doctor..." people said, all around me.

Qasim Ali called for lamps to be brought as the sun set on the Arabian Sea, and the long Bombay evening finally succumbed to warm, star-filled night. By the yellow flickering lamplight we tended to the wounded slum-dwellers, using my first-aid kit as the basis of our little open-air clinic. Johnny Cigar and Prabaker worked with me as translators and nurses. The most common injuries were burns, cuts, and deep gashes, but a great many people were also affected by smoke inhalation.

Qasim Ali Hussein watched us for a short while, and then left to supervise the erection of emergency shelters, the rationing of remaining water supplies, the preparation of food, and the dozen other tasks that would fill the night to morning and beyond. A cup of tea appeared beside me. My neighbour Radha had made it and brought it to me. It was the first thing I ate or drank in the slum, and it was the best chai I ever tasted in my life. An hour later, she forced her husband and two other young men to drag me from the injured people to eat a meal of roti bread, rice, and bhajee. The curried vegetables were deliciously spiced, and I cleaned the plate with the last bite of roti. And again, hours later, after midnight, it was Radha's husband, Jeetendra, who pulled at my arm and drew me into my hut, where a hand-crocheted blanket had been spread out on the bare earth.

Unresisting, I collapsed on the blanket for my first night of sleep in the slum.

Seven hours later-hours that passed as if they were minutes-I woke to see Prabaker's face hovering in the air. I blinked, and squinted, and realised that he was squatting on his haunches, with his elbows on his knees, and his face cupped in his hands.

Johnny Cigar was squatting beside him, on his left, and Jeetendra was on his right.

"Good morning, Linbaba!" he said, cheerfully, when my eyes settled on his. "Your snorings is a fabulous thing. So loud! Like having a bullock in this hut, Johnny said so."

Johnny nodded his agreement, and Jeetendra wagged his head from side to side.

"Old Sarabai is having a first-class cure for snorings," Prabaker informed me. "She can take one very sharp pieces of bamboo, about same as long as my finger, and push it up inside of your nose.

After that, no more snoring. Bas! Kalaass!"

I sat up on the blanket, and stretched the stiffness from my back and shoulders. My face and eyes were still gritty from the fire, and I could feel that the smoke had stiffened in my hair. Lances of morning light stabbed through holes in the walls of the hut.

"What are you doing, Prabu?" I asked irritably. "How long have you been watching me sleeping?"

"No so very long, Lin. Only for the half hours or so."

"It's not polite, you know," I grumbled. "It's not nice to watch people when they're sleeping."

"I'm sorry, Lin," he said quietly. "In this India we can see everybody sleeping, at some times. And we say that the face, when it is in sleeping, is the friend of the world."

"Your face is so kind when you are sleeping, Lin," Johnny Cigar added. "I was very surprised."

"I can't begin to tell you what this means to me, guys. Can I expect to find you in the hut, every morning, when I wake up?"

"Well, if you really, really want, Lin," Prabaker offered, jumping to his feet. "But this morning we only came to tell you that your patients are ready." "My... patients?"

"Yes. Come and see."

They stood, and opened the door of the hut. Sunlight splintered into my burning eyes. I blinked, and stepped through, following the men into the brilliant, bayside morning to see a line of people squatting on the ground outside my hut. There were thirty or more of them forming a queue along the length of the lane to the first turn.

"Doctor... doctor..." people murmured and whispered when I emerged from the hut.

"Come on!" Prabaker urged, tugging at my arm.

"Come on where?"

"First to toilet," he replied, happily. "You must make a motions, isn't it? I will show you how we make a motions, into the sea, on the long cement jetty. That is where the young men and boys make their motions, every morning, into the oceans-motions into the oceans, isn't it? You just be squatting down, with your buttocks pointing on the oceans. Then you wash your good self with a shower, and you have it a happy breakfast. Then you can easily fix up all your patients. No problem."

We walked along the length of the queue. They were young and old, men and women. Their faces were cut, bruised, and swollen. Their hands were blackened, blistered, and bloody. There were arms in slings, and legs in splints. And at the first turn, I saw to my horror that the queue extended into the next lane, and was longer, much longer.

"We've got to... do something..." I mumbled. "They're all... waiting."

"No problem, waiting, Lin," Prabaker replied, airily. "The people are waiting more than one hour already. If you are not with us, they would still be waiting, but waiting for nothing only.

Waiting for nothing, that is what kills the heart of a man, isn't it? Now the people are waiting for something. Waiting for you, they are. And you are a really something, Lin-Shantaram, if you don't mind I'm saying it to your smoky face and sticking-up hairs. But first, you must make it motions, and then washing, and then breakfast. And we have to get going--some young fellows are waiting down there on the jetty, and wanting to see you make your motions."

"They what?"

"Oh yes! They are a fascinating for you. You are like a movie hero for them. They are dying to see how you will make your motions. And then, after all these things, you will return, and fix the patients, like a really hero, isn't it so?"

And in that way was my role in the slum created. If fate doesn't make you laugh, Karla said, in one of my first conversations with her, then you just don't get the joke. As a teenager I'd trained in first-aid treatment. The formal course of study had covered cuts, burns, sprains, breaks, and a wide range of diagnostic and emergency procedures. Later, I'd earned my nickname, Doc, by using my training in CPR to pull junkies out of overdoses, and save their lives. There were hundreds of people who only knew me as Doc. Many months before that morning in the slum, my friends in New Zealand had given me the first-aid kit as a going-away present. I was sure those threads-the training, the nickname, the first-aid kit, the work as unofficial doctor in the slum- were all connected in some way that was more than accident or coincidence.

And it had to be me. Another man, with my first-aid training or better trained, wouldn't have been forced by crime and a prison- break to live in the slum. Another criminal, ready to live there with the poor, wouldn't have had my training. I couldn't make sense of the connection on that first morning. I didn't get the joke, and fate didn't make me laugh. But I knew there was something-some meaning, some purpose, leading me to that place, and that job, at exactly that time. And the force of it was strong enough to bind me to the work, when every intuition tried to warn me away.

So, I worked into the day. One by one, the people gave me their names and their smiles and, one by one, I did my best to treat their wounds. At some point during the morning, someone put a new kerosene stove in my hut. Someone else provided a metal box for rat-proof storage of food. A stool found its way into my hut, and a water pot-the ubiquitous matka-and a set of saucepans, and a few pieces of cutlery.

As evening throbbed in a scarlet arch of sky, we sat in a group, near my hut, to eat and talk. Sadness lingered in the busy lanes, and memories of those who'd died receded and returned like waves moving on the great ocean of the heart. Yet carried on that sadness, a part of sorrowing itself, was the determination of those who'd endured. The scorched earth had been cleared and cleaned, and many of the huts were already rebuilt. Hopes rose with every humble home that was restored.

I looked at Prabaker, laughing and joking as he ate, and I thought of our visit with Karla to the Standing Babas. One moment from that evening, one heartbeat's length of time as the crazed man had charged at us with a sword, was stretched in my memory. At the precise instant when I took that step backwards and raised my hands in a boxing stance to fight, Prabaker took a step to the side, and stood in front of Karla. He wasn't in love with her, and he wasn't a fighter. Yet his first instinct was to step sideways and protect Karla by shielding her with his body, while my first thought was to step back and fight.

If the mad swordsman hadn't been tripped, if he'd reached us, I would've been the one to fight him. And, probably, I would've saved us: I'd fought men with fists, knives, and clubs before, and I'd won. But even then, even if it had gone that far, Prabaker would've been the real hero, for the bravery of that little, instinctive, sideways step.

I'd grown to like Prabaker. I'd learned to admire his unshakeable optimism. I'd come to depend on the comforting warmth his great smile provided. And I'd enjoyed his company, day and night, through the months in the city and the village. But in that minute, on my second night in the slum, as I watched him laughing with Jeetendra, Johnny Cigar, and his other friends, I began to love him.

The food was good, and there was enough for all. Music played on a radio somewhere. It was the fine, almost unbearably sweet soprano and happy, boasting tenor of a duet from an Indian movie.

The people talked, nourishing one another with their smiles and conversation. And some time during the course of that love-song, somewhere in the landscape of the slum-dwellers' reassurances, somehow through the fact of our survival, their world enfolded my life within its dreams, as gently and completely as a swollen tide doses over a stone that stands upon its shore.

____________________

PART TWO

CHAPTER NINE

I escaped from prison in broad daylight, as they say, at one o'clock in the afternoon, over the front wall and between two gun-towers. The plan was intricate and meticulously executed, up to a point, but the escape really succeeded because it was daring and desperate. The bottom line for us, once we started, was that the plan had to succeed. If it failed, the guards in the punishment unit were quite capable of kicking us to death.

There were two of us. My friend was a wild, big-hearted twenty- five year old serving a life sentence for murder. We tried to convince other men to escape with us. We asked eight of the toughest men we knew, all of them serving ten straight years or more for crimes of violence. One by one, they found an excuse not to join in the attempt. I didn't blame them. My friend and I were young first-offenders with no criminal history. We were serving big years, but we had no reputation in the prison system. And the escape we'd planned was the kind that people call heroic if it succeeds, and insane if it fails. In the end, we were alone.

We took advantage of extensive renovations that were being carried out on the internal security-force building-a two-storey office and interrogation block near the main entrance gate at the front wall. We were working as maintenance gardeners. The guards who pulled shifts in the area saw us every day. When we went to work there, on the day of the escape, they watched us for a while, as usual, and then looked away. The security-force building was empty. The renovation workers were at lunch. In the few long seconds of the little eclipse created by the guards' boredom and their familiarity with us, we were invisible, and we made our move.

Cutting our way through the chain-link fence that closed off the renovation site, we broke open a door to the deserted building and made our way upstairs. The interior was hollowed out by the renovation. Unplastered walls showed the skeleton structure of uprights and load-bearing beams. The bare, wooden steps on the stairway were white with dust, and littered with fragments of brick and plaster. There was a manhole in the ceiling on the top floor.

Standing on my friend's strong shoulders, I punched out the wooden trapdoor in the manhole and climbed through. I had an extension cord with me, wrapped around my body under my coveralls. I uncoiled it and pulled it free, fixed one end to a roof beam, and passed the other down to my friend. He used it to climb up into the roof-space with me.

The roof stretched out in zigzag waves. We scrambled toward the narrowing pinch of space where the roof met the front wall of the prison. I chose a spot on one of the troughs to cut our way through, hoping that the peaks on either side would conceal the hole from the gun-towers. It was dark everywhere in the roof- space, but in that narrow wedge near the wall it was blacker than a guard's baton.

With a cigarette lighter for a lantern, we worked to cut our way through the double-thickness of hardwood that separated us from the tin on the outside of the roof. A long screwdriver, a chisel, and a pair of tin snips were our only tools. After fifteen minutes of hacking, scraping, and stabbing at the wood, we'd cleared a little space about the size of a man's eye. Waving the flame of the hot cigarette lighter back and forth, we could see the glint of the metal roof beyond the small hole. But the wood was too hard and too thick. With the tools we had, it would take us hours to make a man-sized hole.

We didn't have hours. We had thirty minutes, we guessed, or maybe a little more, before the guards did a routine check of the area.

In that time we had to get through the wood, cut a hole in the tin, climb out on the roof, use our power extension cord as a rope, and climb down to freedom. The clock was ticking on us. We were trapped in the roof of the security building. And any minute, we knew, the guards might notice the cut fence, see the broken door, and find the smashed manhole. Any minute they could come up through the manhole into that black, sweating cave, and find us.

"We've gotta go back," my friend whispered. "We'll never get through the wood. We've gotta go back, and pretend it never happened."

"We can't go back," I said flatly, although the thought had screamed through my mind as well. "They'll find all the broken stuff, the fence we cut, and they'll know it was us. We're the only ones allowed in the area. If we go back, we're in the Slot for a year."

The Slot was prison slang for the punishment unit. In those years, that unit, in that prison, was one of the most inhumane in the country. It was a place of random, brutal beatings. A failed attempt to escape through the roof of the security-force building - their building, the head office for the punishment unit guards - would ensure that the beatings were less random and more brutal.

"Well what the fuck are we gonna do?" my friend demanded, shouting with everything but his voice. Sweat dripped from his face, and his hands were so wet with fear that he couldn't hold the cigarette lighter.

"I think there's two possibilities," I declared.

"What are they?"

"First, we could use that ladder-the one that's chained to the wall downstairs. We could go down again, break the chain off the ladder, tie the extension cord to the top of it, slam it up against the wall, climb up, and throw down the cord on the other side. Then we can slide down to the street."

"That's it?"

"That's the first plan."

"But... they'll see us," my friend protested.

"Yeah."

"And they'll start shooting at us."

"Yeah."

"They'll shoot us."

"You said that."

"Well, fuck me," he hissed. "I think it bears repeating. It's a fuckin' salient point, don't you think?"

"I figure that one of us will get through, maybe, and one of us will get shot. It's fifty-fifty."

We considered the odds in silence for a while.

"I hate that plan," my friend shuddered.

"So do I."

"What's the second plan?"

"Did you notice that buzz saw, on the ground floor, as we came up here?"

"Yeah..." "If we bring it up here, we could use the buzz saw to cut through the wood. Then we can use the tin snips to cut through the tin.

After that, it's back to the original plan."

"But they'll hear the thing," my friend whispered fiercely. "I can hear them talking on the fuckin' telephone. We're that close.

If we drag the saw up here, and fire it up, it'll sound like a fuckin' helicopter."

"I know. But I think they'll just figure it's the workers, doing more work."

"But the workers aren't here."

"No, but the shift at the gate is changing. There's new guards coming on duty. It's a big chance to take, but I think if we do it they'll just hear the noise, as usual, and think it's the workers. They've been listening to drills and hammers and buzz saws for weeks. And there's no way they could imagine that it's us doing it. They'd never figure that crims would be crazy enough to use a power saw, right next to the main gate. I think it's our best shot."

"I hate to be Mister-fuckin'-Negative here," he objected, "but there's no electricity in this building. They shut it off for the renovating. The only power point is outside. The extension cord is long enough to reach down there, I think, but the power is outside the building."

"I know, I know. One of us will have to go down, creep out the door we busted open, and plug the extension cord into the outside power outlet. It's the only way."

"Who goes down there?"

"I'll do it," I said. I tried to sound confident and strong, but there are some lies that the body just won't believe, and the words came out as a squeak.

I scrambled over to the manhole. My legs were stiff with dread and tension-cramp. I slid down the extension cord and crept down the stairway to the ground floor, playing the cord out all the way. It reached to the door, with plenty to spare. The buzz saw was resting near the door. I tied the extension cord around the handle of the saw, and ran back up the stairs. My friend pulled the saw up into the manhole and then passed the cord back to me.

Once more I crept down to the door. With my body pressed flat against a wall, I breathed hard, and tried to find the courage to open the door. At last, with a heart-wrenching rush of adrenaline, I pushed the door aside and stepped out into the open to plug the cord into the socket. The guards, armed with pistols, were talking among themselves, not twenty metres from the door. If one of them had been facing my way, it wouldVe been over. I glanced up to see that they were looking in every direction but mine. They were talking and walking about in the gate area, and laughing at a joke someone had just cracked. No-one saw me. I slipped back inside the building, crawled like a wolf on all fours up the stairs, and dragged myself up the cord to the manhole.

In the dark corner near the trough in the zigzag roof space, my friend lit the cigarette lighter. I saw that he'd connected the power saw to the cord. He was ready to make the cut. I took the lighter, and held it for him. Without a second of hesitation, he hoisted the heavy saw and clicked it to life. The machine screamed like the whine of a jet engine on a runway. My friend looked at me, and a huge grin tore his mouth open. His teeth were clenched in the smile, and his eyes were glittering with the reflected fire. Then he drove the saw into the thick wood. With four swift, ear-splitting cuts, he made a perfect hole that revealed a square of gleaming tin.

We waited in the silence that followed, our ears ringing with diminishing echoes, and our hearts thumping at our chests. After a moment we heard a telephone ring close by, at the main gate, and we thought we were finished. Then someone answered the phone.

It was one of the gate guards. We heard him laugh and talk on in a relaxed, conversational tone. It was okay. We were safe. They'd heard the power saw, of course; but, just as I'd hoped, they'd dismissed it as noise made by the workmen.

Heartened, I punched a hole in the tin with the screwdriver.

Sunlight from the free sky above shot in on us. I widened the hole, and then used the tin snips to cut a panel of tin around three sides. Pushing with two sets of hands, we shoved the flap of tin outwards, and I poked my head through the hole. I saw that we had indeed cut our way into one of the troughs of the roof.

The deepest part of that V-shaped trench was a blind spot. If we lay down in that narrow defile we couldn't see the tower guards, and they couldn't see us.

We had one job left to do. The power cord was still plugged into the outlet, downstairs and outside the building. We needed the cord. It was our rope. We needed it to climb down the outside of the prison wall to the street. One of us had to go down the stairs, push out through the door in full view of the guards in the adjacent gate area, unplug the power cord, and then climb back up into the roof again. I looked at my friend, his sweating face clear in the bright light bathing us from the hole we'd cut in the roof, and I knew it had to be me.

Downstairs, with my back against the inside wall, next to the door, I paused again, and tried to will the strength into my arms and legs for the move out into the open. I was breathing so hard that I felt dizzy and nauseous. My heart, like a trapped bird, hurled itself against the cage of my chest. After a few long moments, I knew I couldn't do it. Everything, from judicious caution to superstitious terror, screamed at me not to go out there again. And I couldn't.

I had to cut the cord. There was no other way. I took the chisel from the side-pocket of my coveralls. It was very sharp, even after the work we'd done with it in trying to penetrate the wooden barrier in the roof. I placed it against the trailing power cord, where it entered under the door. I raised my hand to strike. The thought occurred to me that if I blew out the power by cutting through the cord it could sound an alarm, and perhaps send a guard into the building to investigate. It didn't matter.

I didn't have any choice. I knew I couldn't go out into the open again. I slammed my hand down hard onto the chisel. It cut through the cord, and embedded itself in the wooden floor. I swept the snipped ends of the cord away from the metal chisel, and waited for the sound of an alarm or the tumble of voices to approach from the gate area. There was nothing. Nothing. I was safe.

I grabbed the loose end of the power cord, and rushed back upstairs and into the roof space. At the new manhole we'd cut in the roof, we secured the cord to a heavy, wooden bearer beam.

Then my friend started out through the hole. When he was halfway onto the tin roof, he got stuck. For a few moments, he couldn't move upward and he couldn't move back. He began to thrash wildly, straining with all his strength, but it was hopeless. He was stuck fast.

It was dark again in the roof space, with his body blocking the hole we'd made. I scrabbled around with my hands in the dust, between the roof joists, and found the cigarette lighter. When I struck it, I saw at once what had trapped him. It was his tobacco pouch-a thick, leather wallet that he'd made for himself in one of the hobby groups. Telling him to hold still, I used the chisel to tear a flap in the pocket at the back of his coveralls. When I ripped the pocket away, the tobacco pouch fell free into my hands, and my friend went up through the hole and onto the roof.

I followed him up to the tin roof. Wriggling like worms in the gutter of the trough, we moved forward to the castellated front wall of the prison. We knelt to look over the wall. We were visible then, for a few seconds, but the tower guards weren't looking our way. That part of the prison was a psychological blind spot. The tower guards ignored it because they didn't believe that anyone would be crazy enough to attempt a daylight escape over the front wall.

Risking a quick, frantic glimpse at the street below, we saw that there was a queue of vehicles outside the prison. They were deliverymen, waiting to enter through the main gate. Because each vehicle was searched throughout, and checked with mirrors beneath, the queue made slow progress. My friend and I hunkered down in the trough to consider our options.

"That's a mess down there."

"I say we go now," he said.

"We have to wait," I countered.

"Fuck it, just throw the cord over and let's go."

"No," I whispered. "There's too many people down there."

"So what?"

"One of them'll play hero, for sure."

"Fuck him. Let him play hero. We'll just go over the top of him."

"There's too many of them."

"Fuck them all. We'll go straight through 'em. They won't know what hit 'em. It's us or them, mate."

"No," I said finally. "We have to wait. We have to go over when there's no-one down there. We have to wait."

And we did wait, for a twenty-minute eternity, and I wriggled forward again and again to look over the wall, risking exposure every time. Then, at last, I looked down to the street and saw that it was completely empty in both directions. I gave my friend the signal. He scrambled forward over the wall, and down out of sight. I crept forward to look, expecting to see him climbing down the cord, but he was already on the street. I saw him disappear into a narrow lane, across the street from the prison.

And I was still inside, on the roof.

I clambered over the bluestone parapet, and took hold of the cord. Standing with my legs against the wall, and the cord in both hands, my back to the street, I looked at the gun-tower on my left. The guard was talking into a telephone and gesturing with his free hand. He had an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. I looked to the other tower. The guard there, also armed with a rifle, was calling down to another guard inside the prison in the gate area. He was smiling and relaxed. I was invisible. I was standing on the front wall of the toughest maximum-security prison in the state, and I was invisible.

I pushed off with my legs and started the descent, but my hands slipped-the fear, the sweat-and I lost the cord. I fell. It was a very high wall. I knew it was a killing fall to the ground below. In an agony of terror and desperation, I grabbed at the cord and seized it. My hands were the brakes that slowed my fall.

I felt the skin tear away from my palms and fingers. I felt it singe and burn. And slower, but still hard enough to hurt, I slammed into the ground, stood, and staggered across the road. I was free.

I looked back at the prison once. The cord was still dangling over the wall. The guards were still talking in their towers. A car drifted past on the street, the driver drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in time to a song. I turned my back. I walked on through the lane into a hunted life that cost me everything I'd ever loved.

When I committed the armed robberies, I put fear into people.

From that time-even as I did the crimes-and on through prison and life on the run, fate put fear into me. The nights were steeped in it, and sometimes I felt as if the blood and the breath in my body were clotted with fright. The fear I'd put into others became ten terrors, fifty, a thousand, filling the loneliest hours of every night with dread.

By day, in those early Bombay months, when the world worked and worried around me, I wedged my life into a busy thickness of duties, needs, and small pleasures. But at night, when the sleeping slum dreamed, the horror crept across my skin. My heart backed away into a black cave of memory. And I walked most nights, while the city slept. I walked, and I forced myself not to look over my shoulder at the gun-towers and the dangling power cord on the high wall that wasn't there.

The nights, at least, were quiet. At midnight, every night in those years, the cops imposed a curfew on Bombay. Half an hour before twelve, police jeeps gathered in the main streets of the central city, and began the enforced closure of restaurants, bars, stores, and even the tiny pavement shops that sold cigarettes and paan. The beggars, junkies, and hookers who weren't already at home or hiding were chased from the footpaths.

Steel shutters came down over the shop windows. White calico cloths were thrown over the tables in all the markets and bazaars. Quiet and emptiness descended. In the whirl and crush of people and purposes in Bombay's daylight scramble, it was impossible to imagine those deserted silences. But each and every night was the same: soundless, beautiful, and threatening. Bombay became a haunted house.

For two to three hours after midnight, in an operation known as the round-up, squads of plain-clothes cops patrolled the vacant streets in search of criminals, junkies, suspects, and homeless, unemployed men. More than half the people in the city were homeless, of course, and many of them lived, ate, and slept on the streets. The sleepers were everywhere, stretched out on the footpaths with only a thin blanket and a cotton sheet to keep out the damp of night. Single people, families, and whole communities who'd escaped some drought, flood, or famine slept on the stone paths and in doorways, huddled together in bundled necessity.

It was technically illegal to sleep on the streets in Bombay. The cops enforced that regulation, but they were as pragmatic about it as they were about enforcing the laws against prostitution on the Street of Ten Thousand Whores. A certain discrimination was required, and in fact the list of those they wouldn't arrest for the crime of homelessness was quite long. Sadhus and all other religious devotees, for example, were exempted. Elderly people, amputees, the sick, or the injured didn't find much sympathy, and were sometimes forced to move on to another street, but they weren't arrested. Lunatics, eccentrics, and itinerant entertainers such as musicians, acrobats, jugglers, actors, and snake charmers were occasionally roughed up, but they were invariably excluded from the round-up. Families, particularly those with young children, usually received no more than a stern warning not to remain longer than a few nights in a given area.

Any man who could prove he had a job, however menial, by displaying the business card or written address of his employer, was spared. Single men who were clean and respectful and could demonstrate some level of education could usually talk their way out of an arrest, even if they weren't employed anywhere. And, of course, anyone who could pay baksheesh was safe.

That left the very poor, homeless, unemployed, uneducated, single young men as the high-risk group in the midnight round-up. With no money to pay their way out of the police net, and not enough education to talk their way out, scores of those young men were arrested throughout the city, every night. Some of them were arrested because they fitted descriptions of wanted men. Some were found to have drugs or stolen goods in their possession.

Some were well known, and the cops arrested them routinely, on suspicion. Many, however, were simply dirty and poor and stricken with a sullen helplessness.

The city didn't have the funds to provide thousands of pairs of metal handcuffs; and even if the money were found, the cops probably wouldn't have burdened themselves with heavy chains.

Instead, they carried lengths of rough twine made from hemp and coconut fibres, and used it to tie the arrested men one to the other by the right hand. The thin rope was enough to hold the men because the victims of nightly round-ups were mostly too weak, under-nourished, and spiritually defeated to run. They submitted meekly, silently. When between a dozen and twenty men had been arrested and tied into the human chain, the six or eight cops in the round-up squad marched them back to holding cells.

For their part, the cops were fairer than I'd expected them to be, and undeniably brave. They were armed only with the thin bamboo cane known as the lathi. They carried no clubs, gas, or guns. They had no walkie-talkies, so they couldn't call for back- up if they ran into trouble on the patrols. There were no vehicles to spare for the round-up, so the squads walked the many kilometres of their beat. And although they struck out often with the lathi, savage or even serious beatings were rare-much less frequent than police beatings in the modern, western city where I'd grown up.

Nevertheless, the round-up did mean days, weeks, or even months of confinement for the young men in prisons that were as bad as any in Asia, and the caravans of roped, arrested men that shambled throughout the city, after midnight, were more melancholy and forlorn than most funeral processions.

In my late-night walks around the city, I was invariably alone when the round-up was done. My rich friends feared the poor. My poor friends feared the cops. Most foreigners feared everybody, and kept to their hotels. The streets were mine as I searched their cool silences.

On one of those night walks, about three months after the fire, I found myself on the sea wall at Marine Drive. The broad footpath beside the sea wall was bare and clean. A six-lane road separated the seaside path from a horizon-wide, incurving crescent of affluence: fine homes, expensive apartments, consular offices, first-class restaurants, and hotels that looked out over the black and heaving sea.

There were very few cars on the Drive, that night, only one every fifteen or twenty minutes, travelling slowly. Few lights shone in any of the rooms across the street behind me. A cool wind carried the clean, salt air in irascible gusts. It was quiet. The sea was louder than the city.

Some of my friends from the slum worried about me walking alone on the streets at night. Don't walk at night, they said. The night is no safety in Bombay. But it wasn't the city that I feared. I felt safe on the streets. Strange and troubled as my life was, the city enfolded it within the millions of others as if... as if it belonged there, no less than any other.

And the work I was doing enhanced that sense of belonging. I gave myself assiduously to the role of slum doctor. I found books on diagnostic medicine, and studied them by lamplight in my hut. I accumulated a modest cache of medicines, salves, and bandages, buying them from local chemists with money I earned in black- market deals with tourists. And I stayed on there, in those squalid acres, even after I'd made enough money to leave. I stayed on in the cramped little hut when I could've moved to a comfortable apartment. I allowed my life to be swept up in the broiling, dancing struggle of their twenty-five thousand lives. I bound myself to Prabaker and Johnny Cigar and Qasim Ali Hussein.

And although I tried not to think of Karla, my love put claws in the sky. I kissed the wind. I spoke her name, when I was alone.

On the sea wall, I felt the cool breeze wash across the skin of my face and chest like water poured from a clay matka. There was no sound but my own breath in the wind and the crash of deep water on the rocks, three metres below the wall. The waves, reaching up in splash and spindrift, pulled at me. Let go. Let go. Get it over with. Just fall down and die. So easy. It wasn't the loudest voice in my mind, but it came from one of the deepest sources-the shame that smothered my self-esteem. The shamed know that voice: You let everyone down. You don't deserve to live. The world would be better off without you... And for all that I tried to belong, to heal myself with the work in the clinic, to save myself with the fool notion of being in love with Karla, the truth was that I was alone in that shame, and lost. The sea surged and shoved at the rocks below. One push, and it would all be over. I could feel the fall, the crash as my body struck the rocks; the cold slipperiness of drowning death. So easy.

A hand touched my shoulder. The grip was soft and gentle, but firm enough to hold me there. I turned quickly in shocked surprise. There was a tall, young man standing behind me. His hand remained on my shoulder as if to brace me there; as if he'd read my thoughts a few moments before.

"Your name is Mr. Lin, I believe," he said quietly. "I don't know if you can remember me-my name is Abdullah. We met at the den of the Standing Babas."

"Yes, yes," I stammered. "You helped us, helped me. I remember you well. You left-you disappeared-before I got to thank you properly."

He smiled easily, and took away his hand to run it through his thick, black hair.

"No need for thanks. You would be doing the same for me, in your country, isn't it? Come, there is someone who wants to meet you."

He gestured to a car that was parked at the kerb ten metres away.

It had drawn up behind me, and the motor was still running, but somehow I'd failed to hear it. It was an Ambassador, India's modest version of a luxury car. There were two men inside-a driver, and one passenger in the back.

Abdullah opened the rear door and I stooped to look inside. A man in his middle to late sixties sat there, his face half illuminated by the streetlights. It was a lean, strong, intelligent face with a long, thin nose and high cheekbones. I was struck and held at once by the eyes, an amber brilliance of amusement and compassion and something else-ruthlessness, perhaps, or love. His hair and beard were close-cropped and white-grey.

"You are Mr. Lin?" he said. His voice was deep, resonant, and supremely confident. "I am pleased to meet you. Yes, very pleased. I have heard something good about you. It is always a delight to hear good things-and even more pleasurable, when it concerns foreigners, here in our Bombay. Perhaps you have heard of me also. My name is Abdel Khader Khan."

Sure, I'd heard of him. Everyone in Bombay had heard of him. His name appeared in the newspapers every other week. People spoke about him in the bazaars and nightclubs and slums. He was admired and feared by the rich. He was respected and mythologised by the poor. His discourses on theology and ethics, held in the courtyard of the Nabila Mosque in Dongri, were famous throughout the city, and drew many scholars and students from every faith. No less famous were his friendships with artists, businessmen, and politicians.

He was also one of the lords of Bombay's mafia-one of the founders of the council system that had divided Bombay into fiefdoms ruled by separate councils of mafia dons. The system was a good one, people said, and popular, because it had brought order and relative peace to the city's underworld after a decade of bloody power struggles. He was a powerful, dangerous, brilliant man.

"Yes, sir," I answered, shocked that I'd inadvertently used the word sir. I loathed the word. In the punishment unit we were beaten whenever we failed to address the guards as _sir. "I know your name, of course. The people call you Khaderbhai."

The word bhai, at the end of his name, meant elder brother. It was a term of respectful endearment. He smiled and nodded his head slowly when I said it: Khaderbhai.

The driver adjusted his mirror and fixed me in it, staring expressionlessly. There were fresh jasmine flowers hanging in garlands from the mirror, and the perfume was intoxicating, almost dizzying after the fresh wind from the sea. As I leaned into the doorway of the car, I became acutely conscious of myself and my situation: my stooping posture; the wrinkles in my frown as I lifted my face to see his eyes; the rim of guttering at the edge of the car's roof under my fingertips; and a sticker, pasted to the dashboard, that read GOD BLESS I AM DRIVING THIS CAR.

There was no-one else on the street. No cars passed. It was silent, but for the idling engine of the car and the muffled churning of the shuffling waves.

"You are the doctor in the Colaba hutments, Mr. Lin. I heard of it at once, when you went to live there. It is unusual, a foreigner, living in the hutments. This belongs to me, you understand. The land where those huts stand-it belongs to me.

You have pleased me by working there."

I was stunned into silence. The slum where I lived, known as the zhopadpatti, or the hutments, half a square kilometre, with twenty-five thousand men, women, and children, belonged to him?

I'd lived there for months, and I'd heard Khaderbhai's name mentioned many times, but no-one had ever said that he owned the place. It can't be, I heard myself thinking. How can any one man own such a place, and all its lives?

"I, er, I'm not a doctor, Khaderbhai," I managed to tell him.

"Perhaps that is why you are having such success in treating the sick, Mr. Lin. Doctors will not go into the hutments willingly.

We can compel men not to be bad, but we cannot compel them to be good, don't you find? My young friend, Abdullah, recognised you just now, as we passed you, sitting on the wall. I turned the car to come back here for you. Come-sit inside the car with me. I will take you somewhere."

I hesitated.

"Please, don't trouble yourself. I..."

"No trouble, Mr. Lin. Come and sit. Our driver is my very good friend, Nazeer."

I stepped into the car. Abdullah closed the door behind me, and then sat in the front next to the driver, who adjusted the mirror to find and fix me in it again. The car didn't move off.

"Chillum bono," Khaderbhai said to Abdullah. Make a chillum.

Abdullah produced one of the funnel-shaped pipes from his jacket pocket, placed it on the seat beside him, and set about mulling together a mix of hashish and tobacco. He pressed a ball, known as a goli, of hashish onto the end of a matchstick, and burned it with another match. The smell of the charras coiled into the perfume of the jasmine flowers. The engine of the car was still idling slowly and quietly. No-one spoke.

In three minutes the chillum was prepared, and offered to Khaderbhai for the first dumm, or puff. He smoked, and passed the pipe to me. Abdullah and the driver smoked then, passing the chillum for one more round. Abdullah cleaned the pipe quickly and efficiently, and returned it to his pocket.

"Challo," Khader said. Let's go.

The car moved away from the kerb slowly. Streetlights began to stream into the sloping windshield. The driver snapped a cassette into the dashboard player. The soul-wrenching strains of a romantic gazal slammed out at maximum volume from speakers behind our heads. I was so stoned that I could feel my brain trembling within my skull, but when I looked at the other three men they appeared to be perfectly controlled and composed.

The ride was eerily similar to a hundred stoned drives with friends in Australia and New Zealand when we'd smoked hash or grass, put loud music on the dashboard player, and cruised together in a car. Within my own culture, however, it was mainly the young who smoked and cruised with the music on max. There, I was in the company of a very powerful and influential senior man who was much older than Abdullah, the driver, and me. And while the songs followed regular rhythms, they were in a language that I couldn't understand. The experience was familiar and disturbing at the same time-something like returning, as an adult, to the schoolyard of childhood-and despite the soporific slump of the drug, I couldn't entirely relax.

I had no idea where we were going. I had no idea how or when we would return. We were travelling toward Tardeo, which was the opposite direction to my home in the Colaba slum. As the minutes passed, I reflected on that particularly Indian custom of amiable abduction. For months, in the slum, I'd succumbed to the vague and mysterious invitations of friends to accompany them to unspecified places, for unknown purposes. You come, people said with smiling urgency, never feeling the need to tell me where we were going, or why. You come now! I'd resisted it a few times, at first, but I soon learned that those obscure, unplanned journeys were invariably worthwhile, frequently interesting and enjoyable, and quite often important. Little by little, I learned to relax, and submit, and trust my instincts, just as I was doing with Khaderbhai. I never regretted it, and I was never once hurt or disappointed by the friends who abducted me.

As the car crested the long, slow hill, leading down to the Haji Ali Mosque, Abdullah turned off the cassette and asked Khaderbhai if he wanted to make his regular stop at the restaurant there.

Khader stared at me reflectively for a moment, and then smiled and nodded to the driver. He tapped me on the hand twice with the knuckles of his left hand, and touched his thumb to his lips. Be silent now, the gesture said. Look, but don't speak.

We pulled into a parking bay, beside and a little apart from a row of twenty other cars outside the Haji Ali Restaurant.

Although most of Bombay slept after midnight, or at least pretended to sleep, there were centres of sound and colour and activity in the city. The trick lay in knowing where to find them. The restaurant near the Haji Ali shrine was one of those places. Hundreds of people gathered there every night to eat, and meet, and buy drinks or cigarettes or sweets. They came in taxis and private cars and on motorcycles, hour after hour, until dawn. The restaurant itself was small and always full. Most of the patrons preferred to stand on the footpath, and sit in or on their cars, to eat. Music blasted from many of the cars. People shouted in Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, and English. Waiters scurried from the counter to the cars and back, carrying drinks, parcels, and trays with stylish skill.

The restaurant broke the business curfew, and should've been closed down by the officers of the Haji Ali police post, which was only twenty metres away. But Indian pragmatism recognised that civilised people in large, modern cities needed places to gather and hunt. The owners of certain oases of noise and fun were permitted to bribe various officials and cops in order to stay open, virtually all night. That wasn't, however, the same thing as having a licence. Such restaurants and bars were operating illegally, and sometimes the appearance of compliance had to be displayed. Regular phone calls alerted the police post at Haji Ali when a commissioner or a minister or some other VIP intended to drive past. With a co-operative bustle, the lights were turned out, the cars dispersed, and the restaurant was forced to a temporary close. Far from discouraging people, that small inconvenience added a touch of glamour and adventure to the commonplace act of buying snacks. Everyone knew that the restaurant at Haji Ali, like every other illegal nightspot in town that faked a close, would reopen in less than half an hour.

Everyone knew about the bribes that were paid and taken. Everyone knew about the warning phone calls. Everyone profited, and everyone was well pleased. The worst thing about corruption as a system of governance, Didier once said, is that it works so well.

The headwaiter, a young Maharashtrian, hurried up to the car and nodded energetically as our driver ordered for us. Abdullah got out of the car, and walked to the long, crowded take-away counter. I watched him. He walked with an athlete's touchy grace.

He was taller than most of the other young men around him, and there was a striking, heads-up confidence in his bearing. His black hair was long at the back, reaching almost to his shoulders. He wore simple, inexpensive clothes-soft black shoes, black trousers, and a white silk shirt-but they suited him well, and he carried them with a certain martial elegance. His body was well muscled, and he looked to be about twenty-eight years old.

He turned toward the car, and I caught sight of his face. It was a handsome face, calm and composed. I knew the source of that composure. I'd seen the swift and lethal way he'd moved to disarm the swordsman at the den of the Standing Babas.

A few customers and all of the counter staff recognised Abdullah, and talked, smiled, or joked as he ordered cigarettes and paan.

Their gestures were exaggerated. Their laughter was louder than it had been moments before. They crowded against one another, and reached out to touch him often. It seemed that they were almost desperate to be liked by him, even just to be noticed by him. But there was hesitancy as well-a kind of reluctance-as if, despite everything in their talk and smiles, they didn't really like or trust him. It was also very clear that they were afraid of him.

The waiter returned, and passed our food and drinks to the driver. He lingered at the open window beside Khaderbhai, his eyes pleading to speak.

"Your father, Ramesh, he is well?" Khader asked him.

"Yes, bhai, he is well. But... but... I have a problem," the young waiter answered, in Hindi. He tugged nervously at the edge of his moustache.

Khaderbhai frowned, and stared hard into the worried face.

"What kind of problem are you having, Ramesh?"

"It's... it's my landlord, bhai. There is... there will be an eviction. I, we, my family, we are paying double rent already.

But the landlord... the landlord is greedy, and he wants to evict us."

Khader nodded thoughtfully. Drawing encouragement from his silence, Ramesh plunged on in rapid Hindi.

"It's not just my family, bhai. All the families in the building are to be evicted. We have tried everything, made very good offers, but the landlord will not listen to us. He has goondas, and those gangsters have made threats, and even done some beatings. My own father was beaten. I am ashamed that I have not killed that landlord, bhai, but I know that this would only bring more trouble on my family and the other families in the building.

I told my very honoured father that we should tell you, and that you would protect us. But my father is too proud. You know him.

And he loves you, bhai. He will not disturb your peace to ask for help. He will be very angry if he knows that I spoke of our trouble in this way. But when I saw you tonight, my lord Khaderbhai, I thought that... that the Bhagwan had brought you here to me. I... I am very sorry to disturb you..." He fell silent, swallowing hard. His fingers were white in their grip on his metal tray.

"We will see what can be done about your problems, Ramu,"

Khaderbhai said slowly. The affectionate diminutive of the name Ramesh, Ramu, provoked a wide, child's smile on the young face.

"You will come and see me tomorrow, at two o'clock sharp. We will talk further. We will help you, Inshallah. Oh, and Ramu-there will be no need to speak to your father about this, until the problem, Inshallah, has been solved."

Ramesh looked as though he wanted to seize Khader's hand and kiss it, but he simply bowed and backed away, muttering his thanks.

Abdullah and the driver had ordered plates of fruit salad and coconut yoghurt, and they ate with noisy appreciation when the four of us were alone. Khaderbhai and I had ordered only mango- flavoured lassi. As we sipped the iced drinks, another visitor came to the window of the car. It was the chief officer of the Haji Ali police post.

"A great honour to see you again, Khaderji," he said, his face writhing into a grimace that was either a reaction to stomach cramp, or an oily smile. He spoke Hindi with the strong accent of some dialect, and I found it difficult to understand. He asked after Khaderbhai's family, and then made some reference to business interests.

Abdullah put his empty plate down on the front seat, and drew a packet, wrapped in newspapers, from under the seat. He passed it across to Khader, who opened a corner of the packet to reveal a thick bundle of hundred-rupee notes, and then passed it casually through the window to the cop. It was done so openly, and even ostentatiously, that I felt sure it was important to Khader that everyone within a hundred metres would see the bribe made and taken.

The cop scrunched the parcel into the front of his shirt, and leaned aside to spit twice noisily, for luck. He came close to the window once more, and began to speak in a quick, urgent murmur. I caught the words body and bargain, and something about the Thief Bazaar, but I couldn't make sense of it. Khader silenced him with a raised hand. Abdullah looked from Khader to me, and then broke into a boyish grin.

"Come with me, Mr. Lin," he said quietly. "We will see the mosque, isn't it?"

As we got out of the car I heard the cop say loudly, The gora speaks Hindi? Bhagwan save us from foreigners! We walked to a deserted spot on the sea wall. The mosque, at Haji Ali, was built upon a small, flat island that was connected to the mainland by a stone path, three hundred and thirty-three steps long. From dawn to dusk, the tide permitting, that broad pathway was thronged with pilgrims and tourists. At high tide, the path was completely submerged, and deep waters isolated the island. Seen from the retaining wall on the road beside the sea, the mosque at night seemed like a great moored ship. Brass lanterns, throwing green and yellow light, swung from brackets on the marble walls. In the moonlight, the teardrop arches and rounded contours glowed white and became the sails of that mystic ship, and the minarets were so many towering spars.

On that night, the swollen, flattened, yellow moon-known in the slum as a grieving moon-hovered hypnotic-full, above the mosque.

There was a breeze from the sea, but the air was warm and humid.

Swarms of bats flying overhead, along the lines of electrical wires, thousands of them, were like musical notes on a strip of sheet music. A very small girl, awake past her bedtime and still selling ribbons of jasmine flowers, came up to us and gave Abdullah a garland. He reached into his pocket to give her some money, but she refused, laughing, and walked away singing the chorus of a song from a popular Hindi movie.

"There is no act of faith more beautiful than the generosity of the very poor," Abdullah said, in his quiet tone. I had the impression that he never raised his voice above that softness.

"You speak English very well," I commented, genuinely impressed by the sophisticated thought and the way he'd expressed it.

"No, I don't speak well. I knew a woman, and she taught me those words," he replied. I waited for more, and he hesitated, looking out over the sea, but when he spoke again it was to change the subject. "Tell me, Mr. Lin, that time at the den of the Standing Babas, when that man was coming for you with a sword-what would you have done if I was not there?"

"I would've fought him."

"I think..." He turned to stare into my eyes, and I felt my scalp tightening with an unaccountable dread. "I think you would have died. You would have been murdered, and you would now be dead."

"No. He had a sword, but he was old, and he was crazy. I would've beaten him."

"Yes," he said, not smiling. "Yes, I think you are right-you would have beaten him. But the others, the girl and your Indian friend, one of them would have been hurt, or even killed, if you had survived. When the sword came down, if it did not strike you, it would have hit one of them, I think it is so. One of you would have died. You or your friends-one of you would be dead."

It was my turn to be silent. The sense of dread I'd felt a moment before was suddenly a full-blown alarm. My heart was thumping a loudness of blood. He was talking about having saved my life, and yet I sensed a threat in his words. I didn't like it. Anger began to rise in me. I tensed, ready to fight him, and stared hard into his eyes.

He smiled, and put a hand on my shoulder, just as he'd done less than an hour before at another sea wall, on Marine Drive. As quickly as the tingling, intuitive sense of alarm arose, it also passed; as powerful as it had been, it was suppressed and gone.

It was months before I thought of it again.

I turned to see the cop saluting and moving away from Khader's car.

"Khaderbhai was very conspicuous about giving that cop a bribe."

Abdullah laughed, and I remembered the first time I'd heard him laugh out loud, in the den of the Standing Babas. It was a good laugh, guileless and completely unselfconscious, and I suddenly liked him because of it.

"We have a saying in Persian-Sometimes the lion must roar, just to remind the horse of his fear. This policeman has been making problems here at Haji Ali. The people do not respect him. For that, he is unhappy. His unhappiness is causing him to make problems. The more problems he makes, the less respect he gets from the people. Now they see such big baksheesh, more than a policeman like him is getting, and they will respect him a little. They will be impressed that the great Khaderbhai pays him so well. With this little respect, he will make less problems for all of us. But still, the message is very clear. He is a horse, but Khader is a lion. And the lion, it has roared."

"Are you Khaderbhai's bodyguard?"

"No, no!" he laughed again. "Lord Abdel Khader needs no protection. But..." He paused, and we both looked at the grey- haired man in the back of the modest limousine. "But I would die for him, if that is what you mean. That, and a lot more would I do for him."

"There's not a lot more you can do for someone than die for them," I replied, grinning at his earnestness as much as the strangeness of his idea.

"Oh yes," he said, putting an arm around my shoulder and leading us back towards the car. "There is a lot more."

"You are making a friendship with our Abdullah, Mr. Lin?"

Khaderbhai said as we climbed back into the car. "This is a good thing. You should be close friends. You look like brothers."

Abdullah and I looked at one another, and laughed gently at the words. My hair was blond, and his was ink black. My eyes were grey, and his were brown. He was Persian, and I was Australian.

At first glance, we couldn't be more dissimilar. But Khaderbhai stared from one to the other of us with such a puzzled frown, and was so genuinely bewildered by our amusement, that we swallowed our laughter in smiles. And as the car headed out along the Bandra road, I thought about what Khader had said. I found myself thinking that, for all the differences between us, there just might be some perceptive truth in the older man's observation.

The car drove on for almost an hour. It slowed, at last, on the outskirts of Bandra, in a street of shops and warehouses, and then bumped into the entrance to a narrow lane. The street was dark and deserted, as was the lane. When the car doors opened, I could hear music and singing.

"Come, Mr. Lin. We go," Khaderbhai said, feeling no compulsion to tell me where we were going or why.

The driver, Nazeer, remained with the car, leaning against the bonnet and finally allowing himself the luxury of unwrapping the paan that Abdullah had bought for him at Haji Ali. As I passed him to walk down the lane, I realised that Nazeer hadn't spoken a single word, and I wondered at the long silences so many Indian people practised in that crowded, noisy city.

We passed through a wide stone arch, along a corridor and, after climbing two flights of stairs, we entered a vast room filled with people, smoke, and clamorous music. It was a rectangular room, hung with green silks and carpets. At the far end there was a small, raised stage where four musicians sat on silk cushions.

Around the walls there were low tables surrounded by comfortable cushions. Pale green, bell-shaped lanterns, suspended from the wooden ceiling, cast trembling hoops of yellow-gold light.

Waiters moved from group to group, serving black tea in long glasses. At some of the tables there were hookah pipes, pearling the air with blue smoke, and the perfume of charras. Several men rose immediately to greet Khaderbhai. Abdullah was also well known there. A number of people acknowledged him with a nod, wave, or spoken greeting. I noticed that the men in that room, unlike those at Haji Ali, embraced him warmly, and lingered as they held his hand between their own. I recognised one man in the crowd. It was Shafiq Gussa, or Shafiq The Angry, the controller of prostitution in the navy barracks area near the slum where I lived. I knew a few other faces-a well-known poet, a famous Sufi holy man, and a minor movie star-from photographs in newspapers.

One of the men near Khaderbhai was the manager of the private club. He was a short man, plumply buttoned into a long Kashmiri vest. The white lace cap of a hajji, one who'd made the pilgrimage to Mecca, covered his bald head. His forehead was discoloured by the dark, circular bruise some Muslims acquire through touching their foreheads to a stone in their devotions.

He shouted instructions, and at once waiters brought a new table and several cushions, setting them up in a corner of the room with a clear view to the stage.

We sat cross-legged, with Khader in the centre, Abdullah at his right hand, and me at his left. A boy, wearing a hajji cap and Afghan pants and vest, brought us a bowl of popped rice, sharply spiced with chilli powders, and a platter of mixed nuts with dried fruits. The chai waiter poured hot, black tea from a narrow-spouted kettle through a metre of air without spilling a drop. He placed the tea before each of us and then offered sugar cubes. I was about to drink the tea without sugar, but Abdullah stopped me.

"Come, Mr. Lin," he smiled, "We are drinking Persian tea, in the real Iranian style, isn't it?"

He took a sugar cube and placed it in his mouth, holding it firmly between his front teeth. He lifted the glass then, and sipped the tea through the cube. I followed suit, imitating the steps. The sugar cube slowly crumbled and melted away and, although the taste was sweeter than I preferred, I enjoyed what was for me the strangeness of a new custom.

Khaderbhai also took a sugar cube and sipped his tea through it, endowing the little custom with a peculiar dignity and solemnity, as in fact he did with every expression and even the most casual gesture. He was the most imperial human being I'd ever met.

Looking at him, then, as he inclined his head to listen to Abdullah's light-hearted conversation, the thought came to me that in any life, and in any world, he would command men, and inspire their obedience.

Three singers joined the musicians, and sat a little in front of them. A gradual silence settled in the room, and then all of a sudden the three men began to sing in powerful, thrilling voices.

It was a luscious sound-a layered and gorgeous music of passionate intensity. The men weren't just singing, they were crying and wailing in song. Real tears ran from their closed eyes and dripped onto their chests. I was elated, listening to it; and yet, somehow, I felt ashamed. It was as if the singers had taken me into their deepest and most intimate love and sorrow.

They sang three songs then quietly left the stage, disappearing through a curtain into another room. No-one had spoken or moved during the performance, but then everyone spoke at once as we forced ourselves to break the spell that had enveloped us.

Abdullah stood up and crossed the room to talk with a group of Afghans at another table.

"How do you like the singing, Mr. Lin?" Khaderbhai asked me.

"I like it very much. It's incredible, amazing. I've never heard anything like it. There was so much sadness in it, but so much power as well. What language was it? Urdu?"

"Yes. Do you understand Urdu?"

"No, I'm afraid I don't. I only speak a little Marathi and Hindi.

I recognised it as Urdu because some of the people speak it around me, where I live."

"Urdu is the language of gazals, and these are the best gazal singers in all Bombay," he replied.

"Are they singing love songs?"

He smiled, and leaned across to rest his hand on my forearm.

Throughout the city, people touched one another often during their conversations, emphasising the points they made with a gentle squeeze of pressure. I knew the gesture well from daily contact with my friends in the slum, and I'd come to like it.

"They are love songs, yes, but the best and most true of all love songs. They are love songs to God. These men are singing about loving God."

I nodded, saying nothing, but my silence prompted him to speak again.

"You are a Christian fellow?" he asked.

"No. I don't believe in God." "There is no believing in God," he declared, smiling again. "We either know God, or we do not."

"Well," I laughed, "I certainly don't know God, and frankly I'm inclined to think that God is impossible to believe in, at least most of the notions of God that I've come across."

"Oh, of course, naturally, God is impossible. That is the first proof that He exists."

He was staring at me intently, his hand still resting warm on my arm. Be careful, I thought. You're getting into a philosophical discussion with a man who's famous for them. He's testing you.

It's a test, and the water's deep.

"Let me get this straight-you're saying that because something is impossible, it exists?" I asked, pushing a canoe of thought out into the uncharted water of his ideas.

"That is correct."

"Well, wouldn't that mean that all the possible things don't exist?"

"Precisely!" he said, smiling more widely. "I am delighted that you understand."

"I can say those words," I answered, laughing to match his smile, "but that doesn't mean I understand them."

"I will explain. Nothing exists as we see it. Nothing we see is really there, as we think we are seeing it. Our eyes are liars.

Everything that seems real, is merely part of the illusion.

Nothing exists, as we think it does. Not you. Not me. Not this room. Nothing."

"I still don't get it. I don't see how possible things don't exist."

"Let me put it another way. The agents of creation, the energy that actually animates the matter and the life that we think we see around us, cannot be measured or weighed or even put into time, as we know it. In one form, that energy is photons of light. The smallest object is a universe of open space to them, and the entire universe is but a speck of dust. What we call the world is just an idea-and not a very good one, yet. From the point of view of the light, the photon of light that animates it, the universe that we know is not real. Nothing is. Do you understand now?"

"Not really. It seems to me that if everything we think we know is wrong, or is an illusion, then none of us can know what to do, or how to live, or how to stay sane."

"We lie," he said with a flash of real humour in the gold-flecked amber of his eyes. "The sane man is simply a better liar than the insane man. You and Abdullah are brothers. I know this. Your eyes lie, and tell you that this is not so. And you believe the lie, because it is easier."

"And that's how we stay sane?"

"Yes. Let me tell you that I can see you as my son. I was not married, and I have no son, but there was a moment of time, yes, when it was possible for me to be married, and to have a son. And that moment of time was-how old are you?"

"I'm thirty."

"Exactly! I knew it. That moment of time, when I could have been a father, was exactly thirty years ago. But if I tell you that I see it clearly, that you are my son, and I am your father, you will think that it is impossible. You will resist it. You will not see the truth, that I see now, and that I saw in the first moments when we met, a few hours ago. You will prefer to make a convenient lie, and to believe it-the lie that we are strangers, and that there is no connection between us. But fate-you know fate? Kismet is the word, in the Urdu language-fate has every power over us, but two. Fate cannot control our free will, and fate cannot lie. Men lie, to themselves more than to others, and to others more often than they tell the truth. But fate does not lie. Do you see?"

I did see. My heart knew what he was saying, even as my rebellious mind rejected the words and the man who spoke them.

Somehow, he'd found that sorrow in me. The hole in my life that a father should've filled was a prairie of longing. In the loneliest hours of those hunted years, I wandered there, as hungry for a father's love as a cellblock full of sentenced men in the last hour of New Year's Eve.

"No," I lied. "I'm sorry, but I just don't agree. I don't think you can make things true, just by believing them."

"I have not said that," he replied, patiently. "What I am saying is that reality-as you see it, and as most people see it-is nothing more than an illusion. There is another reality, beyond what we see with our eyes. You have to _feel your way into that reality with your heart. There is no other way."

"It's just... pretty confusing, your way of looking at things.

Chaotic, in fact. Don't you find it chaotic, yourself?"

He smiled again.

"It is strange, at first, to think in the right way. But there are a few things we can know, a few things to be sure of, and it is relatively easy. Let me show you. To know the truth, all you have to do is close your eyes."

"It's that easy?" I laughed.

"Yes. All you have to do is close your eyes. We can know God, for example, and we can know sadness. We can know dreams, and we can know love. But none of these are real, in our usual sense of things that exist in the world and seem real. We cannot weigh them, or measure their length, or find their basic parts in an atom smasher. Which is why they are possible."

My canoe of thought was taking water, and I decided to bail out, fast.

"I've never heard of this place before. Are there many places like this?"

"Perhaps five," he replied, accepting the change of topic with tolerant equanimity. "Is that many, do you think?"

"I guess it's enough. There aren't any women. Are women not allowed to come here?"

"Not forbidden," he frowned, casting about for the right words.

"Women are permitted here, but they do not want to come. There are other places where women gather, to do their own things and to hear music and singers, and no man would want to disturb them there, either."

A very elderly man approached us and sat at Khaderbhai's feet. He wore the simple cotton shirt and thin baggy pants known as a kurta-pyjama. His face was deeply lined, and his white hair was cropped into a short, punk cut. He was thin and stooped and obviously poor. With a curt but respectful nod to Khader, he began to mull tobacco and hashish in his gnarled hands. In a few minutes he passed a huge chillum to Khader, and waited with matches ready to light it.

"This man is Omar," Khaderbhai said, pausing with the chillum almost to his lips. "He is the best maker of the chillum in all Bombay."

Omar lit the chillum for Khaderbhai, breaking into a toothless grin and basking in the praise. He passed it to me, studied my technique and lung-power with a critical eye, and grunted a sort of approval. After Khader and I had smoked twice, Omar took the chillum and finished it with gigantic puffs that swelled his thin chest to bursting. When he was finished, he tapped out a small residue of white ash. He'd sucked the chillum dry, and proudly accepted a nod of acknowledgement from Khaderbhai. Despite his great age, he rose easily from the seated position without touching his hands to the floor. He hobbled away as the singers returned to the stage. Abdullah rejoined us, bringing a cut-glass bowl filled with slices of mango, papaya, and watermelon. The scents of the fruits surrounded us as their tastes dissolved in our mouths. The singers began their next performance, singing just one song that continued for almost half an hour. It was a lush, tripartite harmony built upon a simple melody and improvised cadenzas. The musicians accompanying the singers on the harmonium and the tablas were animated, but the singers themselves were expressionless, motionless, with their eyes closed and their hands limp.

As before, the silent crowd in the club broke out in rowdy chatter when the singers left the small stage. Abdullah leaned across to speak to me.

"While we were driving here in the car, I was thinking about being brothers, Mr. Lin. I was thinking about what Khaderbhai said."

"That's funny, so was I."

"My two brothers-we were three brothers in my family in Iran, and now my two brothers, they are dead. They were killed in the war against Iraq. I have a sister, in Iran, but I have no brother. I am just one brother now. One brother is a sadness, isn't it?"

I couldn't answer him directly. My own brother was lost to me. My whole family was lost, and I was sure I would never see them again.

"I was thinking that perhaps Khaderbhai saw something true.

Perhaps we really are looking like brothers."

"Maybe we are."

He smiled.

"I have decided to like you, Mr. Lin."

He said it with such solemnity, despite the smile, that I had to laugh.

"Well, I guess in that case you'd better stop calling me Mr. Lin.

It gives me the heebie-jeebies, anyway."

"Jeebies?" he asked, earnestly. "It is an Arabic word?"

"Don't worry about it. Just call me Lin."

"Okay. I will call you Lin. I will call you Lin brother. And you will call me Abdullah, isn't it so?"

"I guess it is."

"Then we will remember this night, at the concert of the blind singers, because it is the night we begin brothering for each other."

"Did you say, the blind singers?"

"Yes. You don't know them? These are the Blind Singers of Nagpur.

They are famous in Bombay."

"Are they from an institution?"

"Institution?"

"Yeah, a school for the blind, maybe. Something like that."

"No, Lin brother. At one time they could see, just as we are seeing. But in a small village, near Nagpur, there was a blinding, and these men became blind."

The noise around me was dizzying, and the once pleasant smell of the fruits and the charras was beginning to cloy and stifle.

"What do you mean, there was a blinding?"

"Well, there were rebels and bandits, hiding in the mountains, near that village," he explained in his slow, deliberate way.

"The villagers had to give them food, and other help. They had no choice. But when the police and soldiers came to the village, they made twenty people blind, as a lesson, as a warning to other people, in other villages. This happens sometimes. The singers were not from that village. They were visiting there, to sing at a festival. It was just bad luck. They were made blind, with the rest. All of them, those men and women, twenty people, were tied on the ground, and their eyes were put out, with sharp pieces of bamboo. Now they sing here, everywhere, and are very famous. And rich also..."

He talked on. I listened, but I couldn't respond or react.

Khaderbhai sat next to me, conversing with a young, turbaned Afghan. The young man bent low to kiss Khader's hand, and the butt of a gun appeared within the folds of his robe. Omar returned and began to prepare another chillum. He grinned up at me with his stained gums, and nodded.

"Yes, yes," he lisped, staring into my eyes. "Yes, yes, yes."

The singers came back to sing again, and smoke spiralled up into the slash of slowly revolving fans, and that green silk room of music and conspiracies became a beginning for me. I know now that there are beginnings, turning points, many of them, in every life; questions of luck and will and fate. The naming day, the day of the flood sticks in Prabaker's village, when the women gave me the name Shantaram, was a beginning. I know that now. And I know that everything else I'd been and done in India up to that night and the concert of the blind singers, perhaps even the whole of my life, was a preparation for that beginning with Abdel Khader Khan. Abdullah became my brother. Khaderbhai became my father. By the time I realised that fully, and knew the reasons for it, my new life as brother and son had taken me to war, and involved me in murder, and everything had changed forever.

Khaderbhai leaned across after the singing stopped. His lips were moving, and I knew he was speaking to me, but for a moment I couldn't hear him.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you."

"I said that the truth is found more often in music," he repeated, "than it is in books of philosophy."

"What is the truth?" I asked him. I didn't really want to know. I was trying to hold up my end of the conversation. I was trying to be clever.

"The truth is that there are no good men, or bad men," he said.

"It is the deeds that have goodness or badness in them. There are good deeds, and bad deeds. Men are just men-it is what they do, or refuse to do, that links them to good and evil. The truth is that an instant of real love, in the heart of anyone-the noblest man alive or the most wicked-has the whole purpose and process and meaning of life within the lotus-folds of its passion. The truth is that we are all, every one of us, every atom, every galaxy, and every particle of matter in the universe, moving toward God."

Those words of his are mine forever now. I can hear them. The blind singers are forever. I can see them. The night, and the men that were the beginning, father and brother, are forever. I can remember them. It's easy. All I have to do is close my eyes.

____________________

CHAPTER TEN

Abdullah took his brothering seriously. A week after the Night of the Blind Singers, he arrived at my hut in the Cuffe Parade slum carrying a satchel filled with medicines, salves, and bandages.

He also brought a small metal case containing a few surgical instruments. We went through the bag together. He asked me about the medicines, wanting to know how useful they were and what quantities I might need in the future. When he'd satisfied himself, he dusted off the wooden stool and sat down. He was silent for a few minutes, watching me pack the supplies he'd brought into a rack of bamboo shelves. The crowded slum chattered, brawled, sang, and laughed around us.

"Well, Lin, where are they?" he finally asked.

"Where's who?"

"The patients. Where are they? I want to see my brother healing them. There can't be healing, without sick people, isn't it?"

"I, er, I don't have any patients just now."

"Oh," he sighed. He frowned, drumming his fingers on his knees.

"Well, do you think I should go and get you some?"

He half rose from his seat, and I had a vision of him dragging sick and injured people to my hut by force.

"No, no, take it easy. I don't see people every day. But if I do see people, if I'm here, they usually start coming around two o'clock. They don't come this early in the morning. Nearly everyone works until at least noon. I'm usually working myself. I have to earn money too, you know."

"But not this morning?"

"No, not today. I made some money last week. Enough to last me for a while."

"How did you make this money?"

He stared at me ingenuously, unaware that the question might embarrass me or be taken as rude.

"It's not polite to ask foreigners how they make their money, Abdullah," I informed him, laughing.

"Oh, I see," he said, smiling. "You made it by the illegal means."

"Well, that's not exactly the point. But yes, now that you mention it. There was this French girl who wanted to buy half a kilo of charras. I found it for her. And I helped a German guy get a fair price for his Canon camera. They were both commission jobs."

"How much did you make with this business?" he asked, his eyes not wavering. They were a very pale brown, those eyes, almost a golden colour. They were the colour of sand dunes in the Thar Desert, on the last day before it rains.

"I made about a thousand rupees."

"Each business, one thousand?"

"No, both jobs together made a thousand."

"This is very little money, Lin brother," he said, his nose wrinkling and his mouth puckering with contempt. "This is tiny, tiny, very small money."

"Well, it might be tiny to you," I mumbled defensively, "but it's enough to keep me going for a couple of weeks or so."

"And now you are free, isn't it?"

"Free?"

"You have no patients?"

"No."

"And you have no little commission business to do?"

"No."

"Good. Then we go together, now."

"Oh, yeah? Where are we going?"

"Come, I will tell you when we get there."

We stepped out of the hut and were greeted by Johnny Cigar, who'd obviously been eavesdropping. He smiled at me, and scowled at Abdullah, then smiled at me again with traces of the scowl in the shadows of his smile.

"Hi, Johnny. I'm going out for a while. Make sure the kids don't get into the medicines, okay? I put some new stuff into the shelves today, and some of it's dangerous."

Johnny thrust his jaw out to defend his wounded pride.

"Nobody will touch anything in your hut, Linbaba! What are you saying? You could put millions of rupees in there, and nobody would touch anything. Gold also you could put in there. The Bank of India is not as safe as this, Linbaba's hut."

"I only meant that..."

"And diamonds, also, you can leave in there. And emeralds. And pearls."

"I get the picture, Johnny."

"No need to worry about all that," Abdullah interjected. "He makes such tiny money that nobody would have the interest to be taking it. Do you know how much money he made last week?"

Johnny Cigar seemed suspicious of Abdullah. The hostile scowl pinched his face a little tighter, but he was intrigued by the question, and his curiosity got the better of him.

"How much?"

"I don't think we need to go into this right now, guys," I grumbled, struggling to head off what I knew could become a one- hour discussion of my tiny money.

"One thousand rupees," Abdullah said, spitting for emphasis.

I seized him by the arm and gave him a shove along the path between the huts.

"Okay, Abdullah. We were going somewhere, weren't we? Let's get on with it, brother."

We took a few steps, but Johnny Cigar came after us and tugged at my shirtsleeve, pulling me a pace or two behind Abdullah.

"For God's sake, Johnny! I don't want to talk about how much money I made, right now. I promise, you can nag me about it later but..."

"No, Linbaba, not about that," he rasped, in a scratchy whisper.

"That man, that Abdullah-you shouldn't trust him! Don't do any business with him!"

"What is this? What's the matter, Johnny?"

"Just don't!" he said, and might've said more, but Abdullah turned and called to me, and Johnny sulked off, vanishing in a twist of lane.

"What is the problem?" Abdullah asked as I drew level with him, and we set off between the snaking lines of huts.

"Oh, no problem," I muttered, knowing that there was. "No problem at all."

Abdullah's motorcycle was parked on the roadway, outside the slum, where several kids were watching over it. The tallest of them snapped up the ten-rupee tip Abdullah gave them, and then led his ragged urchin band away at a whooping run. Abdullah kicked the engine over, and I climbed up onto the pillion seat behind him. Wearing no helmets, and only thin shirts, we swung out into the friendly chaos of traffic, heading parallel to the sea towards Nariman Point.

If you know bikes at all, you can tell a lot about a man by how he rides. Abdullah rode from reflex rather than concentration.

His control of the bike in motion was as natural as his control of his legs in walking. He read the traffic with a mix of skill and intuition. Several times, he slowed before there was an obvious need, and avoided the hard braking that other, less instinctive riders were forced to make. Sometimes he accelerated into an invisible gap that opened magically for us, just when a collision seemed imminent. Although unnerving at first, the technique did soon inspire a kind of grudging confidence in me, and I relaxed in the ride.

At Chowpatty Beach, we turned away from the sea, and the cool breeze from the bay was stilled and then choked off by streets of tall terraces. We joined shoals of traffic in a steamy drift towards Nana Chowk. The architecture there was from the middle period of Bombay's development as a great port city. Some of the buildings, constructed in the sturdy geometries of the British Raj, were two hundred years old. The detailed intricacies of balconies, window surrounds, and stepped facades reflected a luxurious elegance that the modern city, for all its chrome and glamour, rarely afforded itself.

The section from Nana Chowk to Tardeo was known as a Parsee area.

It had surprised me, at first, that a city so polymorphous as Bombay, with its unceasing variety of peoples, languages, and pursuits, tended to such narrow concentrations. The jewellers had their own bazaar, as did the mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, and other trades. The Muslims had their own quarter, as did the Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsees, and Jains. If you wanted to buy or sell gold, you visited the Zhaveri bazaar, where hundreds of goldsmiths competed for your custom. If you wanted to visit a mosque, you found several of them within walking distance of one another.

But after a while I realised that the demarcations, like so many other long and short lines of division in the complex, culturally polyglot city, were not as rigid as they'd seemed. The Muslim quarter had its Hindu temples, the Zhaveri bazaar had its vegetable sellers among the glittering jewels, and almost every tower of luxury apartments had its adjacent slum.

Abdullah parked the bike outside the Bhatia Hospital, one of several modern hospitals and clinics which were endowed by charitable Parsee trusts. The large building housed expensive wards for the rich, and free treatment centres for the poor. We climbed the steps and entered a spotlessly clean marble foyer pleasantly cooled by large fans. Abdullah spoke to the receptionist and then led me down a corridor to the busy casualty and admissions section. After more questions to a porter and a nurse, he finally located the man he sought-a short and very thin doctor who sat at a cluttered desk.

"Doctor Hamid?" Abdullah asked.

The doctor was writing, and didn't look up.

"Yes, yes," he answered testily.

"I have come from Sheik Abdel Khader. My name is Abdullah."

The pen stopped at once, and Doctor Hamid slowly lifted his head.

He stared at us with a look of apprehensive curiosity. It was a look you see sometimes on the faces of bystanders witnessing a fight.

"He telephoned to you yesterday, and told you to expect me?"

Abdullah prompted quietly.

"Yes, yes of course," Hamid said, regaining his composure in an easy smile. He stood up to shake hands across the desk.

"This is Mr. Lin," Abdullah introduced me, as the doctor and I shook hands. It was a very dry and fragile hand. "He is the doctor in the Colaba hutments."

"No, no," I protested. "I'm not a doctor. I've just been sort of co-opted into helping out there. And I'm... I'm not trained for it, and... not really very good at it."

"Khaderbhai tells me that when you spoke to him, you complained about the referrals you're making to the St. George and other hospitals," Hamid said, getting down to business, and ignoring my protest with the air of a man who was too busy to indulge another's modesty. His eyes were dark brown, almost black, and glistening behind the polished lenses of his gold-framed glasses.

"Well, yes," I replied, surprised that Khaderbhai had remembered my conversation with him, and that he'd found it important enough to tell the doctor. "The problem is that I'm flying blind, if you know what I mean. I don't know enough to cope with all the problems people come to me with. When I come across illnesses that I can't identify, or what I think are probably illnesses, I send them to the diagnostic clinic at St. George Hospital. I don't know what else to do with them. But a lot of the time they come back to me without having seen anyone-no doctors, no nurses, no-one."

"These people are not feigning illness, you think?"

"No. I'm sure." I was a little offended for myself, and even more indignant for the slum-dwellers. "They've got nothing to gain by pretending to be sick. And they're proud people. They don't ask for help lightly."

"Of course," he murmured, removing his glasses to rub at the deep ridges they'd imposed on his nose. "And have you been to the St.

George yourself? Have you seen anyone there to ask them about this?"

"Yes. I went there twice. They told me they're swamped with patients, and they do the best they can. They suggested that if I could get referrals from licensed medical practitioners, then the slum-dwellers could jump the queue, so to speak. I'm not complaining about them, at the St. George. They've got their own problems. They're under-staffed and overcrowded. In my little clinic, I look at about fifty patients a day. They get six hundred patients every day. Sometimes as many as a thousand. I'm sure you know how it is. I think they're doing the best they can, and they're pushed to the limit just trying to treat the emergency cases. The real problem is that my people can't afford to see a real doctor, to get the referral that would help them jump the queue at the hospital. They're too poor. That's why they come to _me."

Doctor Hamid raised his eyebrows, and offered me that easy smile.

"You said my people. Are you becoming such an Indian, Mr. Lin?"

I laughed, and answered him in Hindi for the first time, using a line from the theme song to a popular movie that was showing, then, in many cinemas.

"In this life, we do what we can to improve ourselves."

Hamid also laughed, clapping his hands together once in pleased surprise.

"Well, Mr. Lin, I think I may be able to help you. I am on duty here two days a week, but the rest of the time I can be found at my surgery, in Fourth Pasta Lane." "I know Fourth Pasta Lane. That's very close to us."

"Precisely, and, after speaking to Khaderbhai, I have agreed that you should begin referring your patients to me, when you need it, and I will arrange treatment at St. George Hospital when I think it is required. We can begin from tomorrow, if you wish."

"Yes, I do," I said quickly. "I mean, it's great, thank you, thank you very much. I don't know how we're going to go about paying you but..."

"No need for thanks, and no need to worry about payment," he replied, glancing at Abdullah. "My services will be free for your people. Perhaps you would like to join me for tea? I take a break here soon. There is a restaurant across the road from the hospital. If you can wait for me there, I will come across and join you. We have, I think, much to discuss."

Abdullah and I left him, and waited for twenty minutes in the restaurant, watching through a large window as poor patients hobbled to the entrance of the hospital, and rich patients were delivered in taxis and private cars. Doctor Hamid joined us, and outlined the procedures I was to follow in referring the slum- dwellers to his practice in Fourth Pasta Lane.

Good doctors have at least three things in common: they know how to observe, they know how to listen, and they're very tired.

Hamid was a good doctor, and when, after an hour of discussion, I looked into his prematurely lined face, the eyes burned and reddened by lack of sleep, I felt shamed by his honest exhaustion. He could accumulate wealth, I knew, and surround himself with luxury, in private practice in Germany or Canada or America, yet he chose to be there, with his own people, for a fraction of the reward. He was one of thousands of health professionals working in the city, with careers as distinguished in what they denied themselves as in what they achieved every working day. And what they achieved was no less than the survival of the city.

When Abdullah took us into the plaited traffic once more, his bike weaving a haphazard progress through the threads of buses, cars, trucks, bicycles, bullock wagons, and pedestrians, he called over his shoulder to tell me that Doctor Hamid had once lived in a slum himself. He said that Khaderbhai had taken especially gifted slum children from several slums throughout the city, and paid for their enrolment in private colleges. Through secondary and then tertiary studies, the children were provided for and encouraged. They graduated to become physicians, surgeons, nurses, teachers, lawyers, and engineers. Hamid was one of those gifted children who'd been selected more than twenty years before. In response to the needs of my small clinic, Khaderbhai was calling in some dues.

"Khaderbhai is a man who makes the future," Abdullah concluded, as we stopped for a traffic signal. "Most of us-me and you, my brother-we wait for the future to come to us. But Abdel Khader Khan dreams the future, and then he plans it, and then he makes it happen. That is the difference between him and the rest of us."

"What about you, Abdullah?" I asked him in a shout as we roared off with the traffic once more. "Did Khaderbhai plan you!"

He laughed out loud, his chest heaving with the pleasure and the force of the laugh.

"I think he did!" he replied.

"Hey! This isn't the way back to the slum. Where are we going now?"

"We are going to visit the place where you will be getting your medicines."

"My what?"

"Khaderbhai has arranged for you to get medicines, every week.

The things I brought you today-those are the first. We are going to the medicine black market."

"A black market for medicine? Where is it?"

"In the slum of the lepers," Abdullah answered, matter-of-factly.

Then he laughed again as he pushed the bike to greater speed through a gap in the traffic that opened for him, even as he reached it. "Just leave it to me, Lin brother. Now you are part of the plan, isn't it so?"

Those words-now you are part of the plan-should've woken some fear in me. I should've sensed... something... even then, right at the start. But I wasn't afraid. I was almost happy. The words seemed exciting. They rushed my blood. When my fugitive life began, I was exiled from my family, homeland, and culture. I thought that was the whole of it. Years into the banishment, I realised that I was exiled _to something, as well. What I escaped to was the lonely, reckless freedom of the outcast. Like outcasts everywhere, I courted danger because danger was one of the few things strong enough to help me forget what I'd lost. And staring into the warmth of the afternoon wind, riding with Abdullah into the web of streets, I fell as fearlessly into my fate, that afternoon, as a man falls into love with a shy woman's best smile.

The journey to the lepers' camp took us to the outskirts of the city. There were several treatment colonies for Bombay's lepers, but the men and women we went to see refused to live in them. Funded by state and private contributions, the colonies provided medical attention, caring support, and clean environments. The rules and regulations that governed them were strict, however, and not all the lepers could bring themselves to conform. As a result, some chose to leave, and some were forced out. At any one time, a few dozen men, women, and children lived outside the colonies, in the wider community of the city.

The elastic tolerance of slum-dwellers-who accommodated every caste and race and condition of person within their sprawl of huts-rarely extended to lepers. Local councils and street committees didn't endure their presence for long. Feared and shunned, the lepers formed themselves into mobile slums that settled, within an hour, in any open space they could find, and made a traceless departure in even less time. Sometimes they established themselves for several weeks beside a rubbish dump, fending off the permanent rag-pickers, who resisted their incursion. At other times they set up their camp on a swampy patch of vacant land or some outfall for industrial waste. When I first visited them with Abdullah, that day, I found that they'd built their ragged shelters on the rusty stones of a railway siding near the suburb of Khar.

We were forced to park Abdullah's bike, and enter the railway land as the lepers did, through gaps in fences and across ditches. The rusty plateau was a staging area for most trains on the urban route and many of the goods wagons carrying produce and manufactured articles out of the city. Beyond the sub-station itself were office outbuildings, storage warehouses, and maintenance sheds. Further on was a vast shunting area-an open space marked by dozens of railway lines and their confluences. At the outer edges, high wire fences enclosed the space.

Outside was the commerce and cosiness of suburban Khar: traffic and gardens, balconies and bazaars. Within was the aridity of function and systems. There were no plants, no animals, and no people. Even the rolling stock were ghost trains, trundling from shunting stop to shunting stop without staff or passengers. Then there was the lepers' slum.

They'd seized a diamond of clear space between the tracks for themselves, and patched their shelters together in it. None of the huts was taller than my chest. From a distance, they looked like the pup tents of an army bivouac wreathed in the smoke of cooking fires. As we neared them, however, we saw that their appalling raggedness made the slum huts where I lived seem like solid, comfortable structures.

They were made from scraps of cardboard and plastic held aloft with crooked branches, and braced with thin string. I could've knocked the whole camp to rubble with an open hand, and it would've taken me less than a minute, yet thirty men, women, and children made their lives there.

We entered the slum unchallenged, and made our way to one of the huts near the center. People stopped and stared at us, but no-one spoke. It was hard not to look at them, and then hard not to stare when I did look. Some of the people had no noses, most of them had no fingers, the feet of many were bound in bloody bandages, and some were so advanced into the deteriorations that their lips and ears were missing.

I don't know why-the price, perhaps, that women pay for their loveliness--but the disfigurements seemed more ghastly for the women than they were for the men. Many of the men had a defiant and even a jaunty air about them-a kind of pugnacious ugliness that was fascinating in itself. But shyness just looked cowed in the women, and hunger looked predatory. The disease was indiscernible in the many children I saw. They looked fit, if uniformly thin, and quite well. And they worked hard, all of those children. Their small fingers did the grasping for the whole of their tribe.

They'd seen us coming, and must've passed the word because, as we approached the hut, a man crawled out and stood to greet us. Two children came at once and supported him. He was tiny, reaching to just above my waist, and severely stricken with the disease. His lips and the lower part of his face were eaten away to a hard, knobby ridge of dark flesh that extended downwards from the cheeks to the hinges of his jaw. The jaw itself was exposed, as were the teeth and gums, and the gaping holes where his nose had been.

"Abdullah, my son," he said, in Hindi. "How are you? Have you eaten?"

"I am well, Ranjitbhai." Abdullah replied in respectful tones. "I have brought the gora to meet you. We have just now eaten, but we will drink tea, thank you."

Children brought stools to us, and we sat there in the open space in front of Ranjit's hut. A small crowd gathered and sat on the ground, or stood around us.

"This is Ranjitbhai," Abdullah told me, in Hindi, speaking loudly enough for all to hear. "He is the boss here, the senior fellow, in the slum of the lepers. He is the king here, in this club for kala topis."

Kala topi means black hat in Hindi, and it's a phrase used, sometimes, to describe a thief, referring to the black-banded hats that convicted thieves were forced to wear in Bombay's Arthur Road Prison. I wasn't sure exactly what Abdullah had meant by the remark, but Ranjit and the other lepers took it well enough, smiling and repeating the phrase several times.

"Greetings, Ranjitbhai," I said, in Hindi. "My name is Lin."

"Aap doctor hain?" he asked. You are a doctor?

"No!" I almost shouted in panic, disconcerted by the disease and my ignorance of it, and afraid he would ask me to help them. I turned to Abdullah, and switched to English. "Tell him I'm not a doctor, Abdullah. Tell him I just do a little first aid, and treat rat bites and scratches caused by the barbed wire, and things like that. Explain to him. Tell him that I haven't had any real training, and I don't know the first thing about leprosy."

Abdullah nodded, and then faced Ranjitbhai.

"Yes," he said. "He is a doctor."

"Thank you very much, Abdullah," I gnashed out through clenched teeth.

Children brought full glasses of water for us, and tea in chipped cups. Abdullah drank his water in quick gulps. Ranjit tilted his head back, and one of the children tipped the water in a gurgle down his throat. I hesitated, fearful of the grotesque sickness around me. One of the slum words in Hindi for lepers can be translated as the undead, and I felt that I was holding the nightmares of the undead in my hands. All the world of suffering disease was concentrated in that glass of water, it seemed to me.

But Abdullah had drunk his glass. I was sure he'd calculated the risks, and decided it was safe. And every day of my life was a risk. Every hour had its hazards, after the big gamble of escape from prison. The voluptuous recklessness of a fugitive moved my arm to my mouth, and I drank the water down. Forty pairs of eyes watched me drink.

Ranjit's own eyes were honey-coloured, and clouded by what I judged to be incipient cataracts. He examined me closely, those eyes roving from my feet to my hair and back, several times, with unshy curiosity.

"Khaderbhai has told me that you need medicines," he said slowly, in English. His teeth clicked together as he spoke, and with no lips to help him form the words, his speech was difficult to understand. The letters B, F, P, and V were impossible, for example, with M and W coming out as other sounds altogether. The mouth forms more than just words, of course: it forms attitudes and moods and nuances of meaning, and those expressive hints were also missing. And he had no fingers, so even that aid to communication was denied him.

Instead, there was a child, perhaps his son, who stood at his shoulder and repeated his words in a quiet but steady voice, one beat behind the rhythm of his speech, just as a translator might.

"We are always happy to help lord Abdel Khader," the two voices said. "I have the honour to serve him. We can give you much medicine, every week, no problem. First-class stuff, as you see."

He shouted a name, then, and a tall boy in his early teens pushed through the crowd to lay a canvas bundle at my feet. He knelt to roll out the canvas, and revealed a collection of ampoules and plastic bottles. There was morphine hydrochloride, penicillin, and antibiotics for staph and strep infections. The containers were labelled and new.

"Where do they get this stuff?" I asked Abdullah as I examined the medicines.

"They steal it," he answered me, in Hindi.

"Steal it? How do they steal it?"

"Bahut hoshiyaar," he replied. Very cleverly.

"Yes, yes."

A chorus of voices surrounded us. There was no humour in that concord. They accepted Abdullah's praise solemnly, as if he was admiring some work of art they'd collectively produced. Good thieves, clever thieves, I heard people mutter around me.

"What do they do with it?"

"They sell it on the black market," he told me, still speaking in Hindi, so that all those present could follow our conversation.

"They survive nicely from this, and other very good stealing."

"I don't get it. Why would anyone buy medicine from them? You can buy this stuff from just about any chemist."

"You want to know everything, brother Lin, isn't it? Well then, we must have another cup of tea, because this is a two-cups-of- tea story."

The crowd laughed at that, and pressed a little closer, picking out places to sit near us for the story. A large, empty, unattended goods wagon rumbled past slowly on an adjacent track, perilously close to the huts. No-one gave it more than a cursory glance. A railway worker, dressed in khaki shirt and shorts, strolled between the lines, inspecting the rails. He looked up at the lepers' camp from time to time, but his mild curiosity faded as he passed us, and he never looked back. Our tea arrived, and we sipped it as Abdullah began his story. Several of the children were sitting against our legs, their arms wrapped around one another compan- ionably. One little girl slipped her arm around my right leg, and hugged me with artless affection.

Abdullah spoke in very simple Hindi, repeating some passages in English, when he perceived that I hadn't understood. He began by talking of the British Raj, the time when Europeans controlled all of India from the Khyber Pass to the Bay of Bengal. The firengi, the foreigners, he said, gave lepers the lowest priority on their scale of privileges and entitlements. As the last in line, lepers often missed out on the limited supply of medicines, bandages, and medical treatment. When famine or flood struck, even the traditional medicines and herbal remedies were in short supply. The lepers became skilled at stealing what they couldn't obtain by other means-so skilled, in fact, that they accumulated surpluses, and began to sell medicines in their own black market.

In India's vastness, Abdullah went on, there were always conflicts-brigandage, rebellions, wars. Men fought, and blood was spilled. But many more men died through the festering of wounds and the ravages of disease than were killed in battles.

One of the best sources of intelligence available to police forces and governments lay in the control of medicines, bandages, and expertise. All sales from chemists, hospital pharmacies, and pharmaceutical wholesalers were registered. Any purchase or string of purchases significantly greater than the established norm attracted attention that sometimes led to captures or killings. A telltale trail of medicines, particularly of antibiotics, had led to the downfall of many dacoits and revolutionaries. In their black market, however, the lepers asked no questions, and sold to anyone who could pay. Their networks and secret markets existed in every great city in India. Their customers were terrorists, infiltrators, separatists, or just more than usually ambitious outlaws.

"These people are dying," Abdullah concluded, with the colourful turn of phrase that I was learning to expect from him, "and they steal life for themselves, and then they sell life to others who are dying."

When Abdullah finished speaking, there was a dense and ponderous silence. Everyone looked at me. They seemed to want some response, some reaction, to the story of their sadness and skill, their cruel isolation and violent indispensability. Whistling hisses of breath came through the clenched teeth of lipless mouths. Patient, serious eyes fixed me with expectant concentration.

"Can I... can I have another glass of water, please?" I asked, in Hindi, and it must've been the right thing to say because the whole crowd started laughing. Several children rushed off to fetch the water, and a number of hands patted me on the back and shoulder.

Ranjitbhai explained, then, how Sunil, the boy who'd showed us the canvas bundle of medicines, would make deliveries to my hut in the slum as and when I required them. Before we could leave, he asked that I remain seated for a while longer. Then he directed every man, woman, and child in his group to come forward and touch my feet. It was mortifying, a torment, and I entreated him not to do it. He insisted. A stern, almost severe expression burned in his eyes, while the lepers hobbled forward, one by one, and tapped their leathery stumps or the blackened, curled claws of their fingernails to my feet.

An hour later, Abdullah parked his bike near the World Trade Centre. We stood together for a moment, and then he reached out impulsively and enclosed me in a warm, bearish hug. I laughed as we came apart, and he frowned at me, clearly puzzled.

"Is it funny?" he asked.

"No," I reassured him. "I just wasn't expecting a bear hug, that's all."

"Bare? Do you mean it is naked?"

"No, no, we call that a bear hug," I explained, gesturing with my hands, as if they were claws. "Bears, you know, the furry animals that eat honey and sleep in caves. When you hold someone like that, we say you're giving them a bear hug."

"Caves? Sleeping in caves?"

"It's okay. Don't worry about it. I liked it. It was... good friendship. It was what friends do, in my country, giving a bear hug like that."

"My brother," he said, with an easy smile, "I will see you tomorrow, with Sunil, from the lepers, with new medicine."

He rode off, and I walked alone into the slum. I looked around me, and that place I'd once regarded as grievously forlorn seemed sturdy, vital, a miniature city of boundless hope and possibility. The people, as I passed them, were robust and invigorated. I sat down in my hut, with the thin plywood door closed, and I cried.

Suffering, Khaderbhai once told me, is the way we test our love, especially our love for God. I didn't know God, as he'd put it, but even as a disbeliever I failed the test that day. I couldn't love God-anyone's God-and I couldn't forgive God. The tears stopped after a few minutes, but it was the first time I'd cried for too long, and I was still deep in the mud of it when Prabaker came into my hut and squatted down beside me.

"He is a danger man, Lin," he said without preamble.

"What?"

"This Abdullah fellow, who came here today. He is a very danger man. You are better not for any knowing of him. And doings with him are even worsely dangerous, also."

"What are you talking about?"

"He is..." Prabaker paused, and the struggle was explicit in his gentle, open face. "He is a killing man, Lin. A murdering fellow.

He is killing the people for money. He is a goonda-a gangster fellow-for Khaderbhai. Everybody knows this. Everybody, except of you."

I knew it was true without asking any more, without a shred of proof beyond Prabaker's word. It's true, I said in my mind. In saying it, I realised that I'd always known, or suspected it. It was in the way other people treated him, the whispers he inspired, and the fear I'd seen in so many of the eyes that looked into his. It was in the ways that Abdullah was like the best and most dangerous men I'd known in prison. That, or something like that, had to be true.

I tried to think clearly about what he was, and what he did, and what my relationship to him should or shouldn't be. Khaderbhai was right, of course. Abdullah and I were very much alike. We were men of violence, when violence was required, and we weren't afraid to break the law. We were both outlaws. We were both alone in the world. And Abdullah, like me, was ready to die for any reason that seemed good enough on the day. But I'd never killed anyone. In that, we were different men.

Still, I liked him. I thought of that afternoon at the lepers' slum, and I recalled how self-assured I'd been there with Abdullah. I knew that a part of whatever equanimity I'd managed to display, perhaps most of it, had really been his. With him I'd been strong and able to cope. He was the first man I'd met, since the escape from prison, who'd had that effect on me. He was the kind of man that tough criminals call a hundred-percenter: the kind of man who'll put his life on the line if he calls you his friend; the kind who'll put his shoulder beside yours, without question or complaint, and stand with you against any odds.

Because men like that are so often the heroes in films and books, we forget how rare they are in the real world. But I knew. It was one of the things that prison taught me. Prison pulls the masks away from men. You can't hide what you are, in prison. You can't pretend to be tough. You are, or you're not, and everyone knows it. And when the knives came out against me, as they did more than once, and it was kill or be killed, I learned that only one man in hundreds will stand with you, to the end, in friendship's name.

Prison also taught me how to recognise those rare men when I met them. I knew that Abdullah was such a man. In my hunted exile, biting back the fear, ready to fight and die every haunted day, the strength and wildness and will that I found in him were more, and better, than all the truth and goodness in the world. And sitting there in my hut, striped with hot white light and cooling shadows, I pledged myself to him as brother and friend, no matter what he'd done, and no matter what he was.

I looked up into Prabaker's worried face, and smiled. He smiled back at me, reflexively, and in an instant of unusual clarity I saw that, for him, I was the one who inspired something of that confidence: as Abdullah was to me, so was I to Prabaker.

Friendship is also a kind of medicine, and the markets for it, too, are sometimes black.

"Don't worry," I said, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder. "It'll be all right. It'll be fine. Nothing's going to happen to me."

____________________

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The long days, working in the slum and grinding commissions from the hard, jewelled eyes of tourists, unfolded one upon another through the tumble of crowded hours like lotus petals in a summer dawn. There was always a little money, and sometimes a lot of it.

On one afternoon, a few weeks after that first visit to the lepers, I fell in with a party of Italian tourists who planned to sell drugs to other tourists at some of the bigger dance parties in Goa. With my help, they bought four kilos of charras and two thousand Mandrax tablets. I liked doing illegal business with Italians. They were single-minded and systematic in the pursuit of their pleasures, and stylish in the practice of their business. They were also generous, for the most part, believing in a fair minute's pay for a fair minute's work. The commission on that deal gave me enough money to retire for a few weeks. The slum absorbed my days, and most of my nights.

It was late April then, only a little more than a month before the monsoon. The slum-dwellers were busy making preparations for the coming of the rain. There was a quiet urgency in the work. We all knew what troubles the darkening sky would bring. Yet there was happiness in every lane, and excitement in the easy smiles of the young ones because, after the hot, dry months, all of us were hungry for clouds.

Qasim Ali Hussein appointed Prabaker and Johnny Cigar as the leaders of two teams who were responsible for helping widows, orphans, disabled people, and abandoned wives to repair their huts. Prabaker won the assistance of a few willing lads to gather bamboo poles and small lengths of timber from the piles of scrap at the construction site beside our slum. Johnny Cigar chose to organise several street kids into a marauding band of pirates who plundered the neighbourhood for pieces of tin, canvas, and plastic. All manner of things that might be used as weatherproofing materials began to vanish from the vicinity of the slum. One notable expedition by the tiny pilferers produced a huge tarpaulin that, from its shape, had clearly been the camouflage cover for a battle tank. That piece of military software was cut into nine pieces, and used to protect as many huts.

I joined a team of young men who'd been given the task of clearing the drains and gullies of snarls and snags. Months of neglect had filled those places with an accumulation of cans and plastic bottles and jars-everything that rats wouldn't eat and that scavengers hadn't found. It was dirty work, and I was glad to do it. It took me to every corner of the slum, and introduced me to hundreds of people I might otherwise never have known. And there was a certain kudos in the job: humble and important tasks were as esteemed in the slum as they were reviled in the wider community. All the teams who worked to defend the huts from the coming rain were rewarded with love. We only had to lift our heads from the filthy drains to find ourselves in a luxuriant garden of smiles.

As head man in the slum, Qasim Ali Hussein was involved in every plan and decision in those preparations. His authority was clear and unquestioned, but it was a subtle, unobtrusive leadership. An incident that occurred in those weeks before the rain brought me into the ambit of his wisdom, and revealed to me why it was so widely revered.

A group of us had gathered in Qasim Ali's hut, one afternoon, to hear his eldest son tell stories of his adventures in Kuwait.

Iqbal, a tall, muscular twenty-four-year old with an honest stare and a shy smile, had recently returned after six months of work as a contract labourer in Kuwait. Many of the young men were eager to gain from his experience. What were the best jobs? Who were the best masters? Who were the worst ones? How did you make extra money between the flourishing black markets of the Gulf States and those of Bombay? Iqbal held impromptu classes every afternoon for a week in the main room of his father's hut, and the crowd spilled out into the forecourt to share in his precious knowledge. On that day, however, his discourses were interrupted abruptly by shouts and screaming.

We rushed out of the hut and ran towards the sound. Not far away, we discovered a noisy mob of men, women, and children. We pushed our way to the centre, where two young men were wrestling and punching at one another. Their names were Faroukh and Raghuram.

They were from the team that was helping Prabaker to gather poles and lengths of wood. Iqbal and Johnny Cigar separated the combatants, and Qasim Ali stepped between them, his presence quieting the raucous crowd at once.

"What is happening here?" he asked, his voice unusually stern.

"Why are you fighting?"

"The Prophet, may Allah grant him peace!" Faroukh shouted. "He insulted the Prophet!"

"And he insulted the Lord Ram!" Raghuram countered.

The crowd supported one or the other with shrieks and condemnations. Qasim Ali gave them half a minute of noise, and then raised his hands for silence.

"Faroukh, Raghuram, you two are friends, good friends," he said.

"You know that fighting is no way to settle your differences. And you both know that fighting between friends and neighbours is the worst fighting of all."

"But the Prophet, peace be upon him! Raghu insulted the Prophet.

I had to fight with him," Faroukh whined. He was still angry, but Qasim Ali's hard stare was causing him to wilt, and he couldn't meet the older man's eye.

"And what of insulting the Lord Ram?" Raghuram protested. "Isn't that also a reason to-"

"There is no excuse!" Qasim Ali thundered, silencing every voice.

"There is no reason that is good enough to make us fight with each other. We are all poor men here. There are enemies enough for all of us outside this place. We live together, or we die.

You two young fools have hurt our people, your own people. You have hurt all of our people, of every faith, and you have shamed me terribly."

The crowd had grown to more than a hundred people. Qasim's words caused a stir of rumbling comments that rippled through them, as heads touched together. Those closest to him, at the centre, repeated what he'd said, relaying the message to others at the edges of the group. Faroukh and Raghuram hung their heads wretchedly. Qasim Ali's charge that they'd shamed him, rather than themselves, was a telling blow.

"You must both be punished for this," Qasim said, a little more gently, when the crowd was quieter. "Your parents and I will choose a punishment for you tonight. Until then, you will work for the rest of the day at cleaning the area around the latrine."

New murmurs buzzed through the crowd. Conflicts based on religion were potentially dangerous, and people were glad to see that Qasim took the matter seriously. Many of the voices around me spoke of the friendship between Faroukh and Raghuram, and I realised that what Qasim had said was true-the fighting between close friends of different faiths had hurt the community. Then Qasim Ali removed the long green scarf that he wore around his neck, and held it aloft for all to see.

"You will work in the latrine now. But first, Faroukh and Raghuram, I will bind you together with this, my scarf. It will remind you that you are friends and brothers, while cleaning the latrine will fill your noses with the stink of what you have done to each other today."

He knelt then, and tied the two young men together at the ankle, Faroukh's right to Raghuram's left. When it was done, he stood and told them to go, pointing with outstretched arm in the direction of the latrine. The crowd parted for them, and the young men tried to walk, but they stumbled at first, and soon realised that they had to hold on tightly and walk in step if they were to make any progress at all. They clasped their arms around one another, and hobbled away on three legs.

The crowd watched them walk, and began to chatter in praise of Qasim Ali's wisdom. Suddenly there was laughter where a minute before there'd been tension and fear. People turned to speak to him, but discovered that Qasim was already walking back to his hut. I was close enough to him to see that he was smiling.

I was lucky, and shared that smile often in those months. Qasim visited my hut two and sometimes three times a week, checking on my progress with the increasing number of patients who came to me after Doctor Hamid began to accept my referrals. Occasionally, the head man brought someone with him-a child who'd been bitten by rats, or a young man who'd been injured at the construction site beside the slum. After a while, I realised that they were people he'd chosen to bring to me, personally, because for one reason or another they were reluctant to come alone. Some were simply shy. Some had resentments against foreigners, and refused to trust them. Others were unwilling to try any form of medicine other than traditional, village remedies.

I had some trouble with the village remedies. In the main I approved of them, and even adopted them wherever it was possible, preferring some of the ayurvedic medicines to their western pharmaceutical equivalents. Some treatments, however, seemed to be based on obscure superstitions rather than therapeutic traditions, and they were as contrary to common sense as they were to any notions of medical science. The practice of applying a coloured tourniquet of herbs to the upper arm as a cure for syphilis, for example, struck me as particularly counter-productive. Arthritis and rheumatism were sometimes treated by taking cherry-red coals from the fire with metal tongs, and holding them against the knees and elbows of the sufferer. Qasim Ali told me, privately, that he didn't approve of the more extreme remedies, but he didn't prohibit them. Instead, he visited me regularly; and because the people loved him, they followed his example and came to me in greater numbers.

Qasim Ali's nut-brown skin, stretched over his lean and sinewy body, was as smooth and taut as a boxer's glove. His thick, silver-grey hair was short, and he sported a goatee beard one shade lighter than his hair. He most often wore a cotton kurtah and plain, white, western-style trousers. Although they were simple, inexpensive clothes, they were always freshly washed and ironed, and he changed them twice every day. Another man, a less revered man with similar habits of dress, would've been considered something of a dandy. But Qasim Ali raised smiles of love and admiration wherever he went in the slum. His immaculately clean, white clothes seemed to all of us a symbol of his spirituality and moral integrity-qualities we depended on, in that little world of struggle and hope, no less urgently than we depended on the water from the communal well.

His fifty-five years sat lightly on his taller-than-average frame. More than once, I watched him and his young son run from the water tanks to their hut with heavy containers of water hoisted onto their shoulders, and they were neck-and-neck all the way. When he sat down on the reed mats, in the main room of his hut, he did so without touching his hands to the ground. He crossed his feet over and then lowered himself to a sitting position by bending his knees. He was a handsome man, and a great part of his beauty derived from the healthy vitality and natural grace that supported his inspirational and commanding wisdom.

With his short, silver-grey hair, lean figure, and deeply resonant voice, Qasim reminded me often of Khaderbhai. I learned, some time later, that the two powerful men knew each other well, and were in fact close friends. But there were considerable differences between them, and perhaps none more significant than the authority of their leadership, and how they'd come by it. Qasim was given his power by a people who loved him. Khaderbhai had seized his power, and held it by strength of will and force of arms. And in the contrast of powers, it was the mafia lord's that dominated. The people of the slum chose Qasim Ali as their leader and head man, but it was Khaderbhai who'd approved the choice, and who'd allowed it to happen.

Qasim was called upon to exercise his power frequently because his was the only real day-to-day authority in the slum. He resolved those disputes that had escalated into conflicts. He mediated claims and counterclaims concerning property and rights of access. And many people simply sought his advice about everything from employment to marriages.

Qasim had three wives. His first wife, Fatimah, was two years younger than he was. His second wife, Shaila, was younger by ten years. His third wife, Najimah, was only twenty-eight years old.

His first marriage had been for love. The two subsequent marriages were to poor widows who might not otherwise have found new husbands. The wives bore him ten children between them-four sons and six daughters-and there were five other children who'd come to him with the widowed wives. To give the women financial independence, he bought four foot-treadle sewing machines for them. His first wife, Fatimah, set the machines up under a canvas canopy, outside the hut, and hired one, two, three, and eventually four male tailors to work at making shirts and trousers.

The modest enterprise provided living wages for the tailors and their families, and a measure of profit, which was divided equally among the three wives. Qasim took no part in the running of the business, and he paid all the household expenses, so the money made by his wives was their own to spend or save as they wished. In time, the tailors bought slum huts around Qasim's own, and their wives and children lived side by side with Qasim's, making up a huge, extended family of thirty-four persons who looked upon the head man as father and friend. It was a relaxed and contented household. There was no bickering or bad temper.

The children played happily and did their chores willingly. And several times a week, he opened his large main room to the public as a majlis, or forum, where the slum-dwellers could air their grievances or make requests.

Not all the disputes or problems in the slum were brought to Qasim Ali's house for a timely resolution, of course, and sometimes Qasim was forced to take on the roles of policeman and magistrate in that unofficial and self-regulating system. I was drinking tea in the foreground of his house one morning, some weeks after Abdullah took me to the lepers, when Jeetendra rushed up to us with the news that a man was beating his wife, and it was feared that he might kill her. Qasim Ali, Jeetendra, Anand, Prabaker, and I walked quickly through the narrow lanes to a strip of huts that formed the perimeter of the slum at the line of mangrove swamp. A large crowd had gathered outside one of the huts and, as we neared it, we could hear a pitiable screaming and the smack of blows from within.

Qasim Ali saw Johnny Cigar standing close to the hut, and pushed his way through the silent crowd to join him.

"What's happening?" he demanded.

"Joseph is drunk," Johnny replied sourly, spitting noisily in the direction of the hut. "The bahinchudh has been bashing his wife all morning."

"All morning? How long has this been going on?"

"Three hours, maybe longer. I just got here myself. The others told me about it. That's why I sent for you, Qasimbhai."

Qasim Ali drew his brows together in a fierce frown, and stared angrily into Johnny's eyes.

"This is not the first time that Joseph has beaten his wife. Why didn't you stop it?"

"I..." Johnny began, but he couldn't hold the stare, and he looked down at the stony ground at their feet. There was a kind of rage in him, and he looked close to tears. "I'm not afraid of him! I'm not afraid of any man here! You know that! But, they are ... they are... she is his wife..."

The slum-dwellers lived in a dense, crowded proximity. The most intimate sounds and movements of their lives entwined, constantly, each with every other. And like people everywhere, they were reluctant to interfere in what we usually call domestic disputes, even when those so-called disputes became violent.

Qasim Ali reached out and put a compassionate hand on Johnny's shoulder to calm him, and commanded that he stop Joseph's violence at once. Just then a new burst of shouting and blows came from the house, followed by a harrowing scream.

Several of us stepped forward, determined to put a stop to the beating. Suddenly, the flimsy door of the hut crashed open, and Joseph's wife fell through the doorway and fainted at our feet.

She was naked. Her long hair was wildly knotted and matted with blood. She'd been cruelly beaten with some kind of stick, and blue-red welts crossed and slashed her back, buttocks, and legs.

The crowd flinched and recoiled in horror. They were as affected by her nakedness, I knew, as they were by the terrible wounds on her body. I was affected by it myself. In those years, nakedness was like a secret religion in India. No-one but the insane or the sacred was ever publicly naked. Friends in the slum told me with unaffected honesty that they'd been married for years and had never seen their own wives naked. We were all stricken with pity for Joseph's wife, and shame passed among us, burning our eyes.

A shout came from the hut then, and Joseph stumbled through the doorway. His cotton pants were stained with urine, and his T-shirt was torn and filthy. Wild, stupid drunkenness twisted his features. His hair was dishevelled, and blood stained his face.

The bamboo stick he'd used to beat his wife was still in his hands. He squinted in the sunlight, and then his blurred gaze fell on his wife's body, lying face down between himself and the crowd. He cursed her, and took a step forward, raising the stick to strike her again.

The shock that had paralysed us escaped in a collective gasp, and we rushed forward to stop him. Surprisingly, little Prabaker was the first to reach Joseph, and he grappled with the much bigger man, pushing him backwards. The stick was wrenched from Joseph's hand, and he was held down on the ground. He thrashed and screamed, a string of violent curses spilling with the drool from his lips. A few women came forward, wailing as if in mourning.

They covered Joseph's wife with a yellow silk sari, lifted her, and carried her away.

The crowd might've become a lynch mob, then, but Qasim Ali took charge of the scene immediately. He ordered the people to disperse, or stand back, and he told the men who were holding Joseph to keep him pinned on the ground. His next command astonished me. I thought he might call for the police, or have Joseph taken away. Instead, he asked what alcohol Joseph had been drinking, and demanded that two bottles of it be brought to him.

He also called for charras and a chillum, and told Johnny Cigar to prepare a smoke. When the rough, home-brewed alcohol, known as daru, was produced, he instructed Prabaker and Jeetendra to force Joseph to drink.

They sat Joseph in a circle of strong, young men, and offered him one of the bottles. He glared at them suspiciously for a few moments, but then snatched the bottle and took a long, greedy swig. The young men around him patted him on the back, encouraging him to drink more. He gulped down more of the extremely powerful daru and then tried to push it away, saying that he'd had enough. The young men became forceful in their coaxing. They laughed and joked with him, holding the bottle to his lips and driving it between his teeth. Johnny Cigar lit the chillum, and passed it to Joseph. He smoked and drank and smoked again. Then, some twenty minutes after he'd first stumbled from the hut with the bloody stick in his hand, Joseph dipped his head and passed out cold on the rubble-strewn path.

The crowd watched him snore for a while, and then they gradually drifted away to their huts and their jobs. Qasim told the group of young men to stay in their circle around Joseph's body, and watch him closely. He left for about half an hour to perform the mid-morning prayer. When he returned, he ordered tea and water.

Johnny Cigar, Anand, Rafiq, Prabaker, and Jeetendra were in the watchful circle. A strong, young fisherman named Veejay was also in the group, and a lean, fit cart-pusher known as Andhkaara, or Darkness, because of his luminously dark skin. They talked quietly while the sun rose to its zenith, and the sweltering humidity of the day clamped a moist grip on us all.

I would've left then, but Qasim Ali asked me to stay, so I sat down under the shade of a canvas veranda. Veejay's four-year-old daughter, Sunita, brought me a glass of water, without my asking for it. I sipped the lukewarm liquid gratefully.

"Tsangli mulgi, tsangli mulgi," I thanked her, in Marathi. Good girl, good girl.

Sunita was delighted that she'd pleased me, and stared back at me with a furious little smiling-frown. She wore a scarlet dress with the words MY CHEEKY FACES printed in English across the front. I noticed that the dress was torn, and too tight for her, and I made a mental note to buy some clothes for her and a few of the other kids in the cheap clothing bazaar, known as Fashion Street. It was the same mental note I made every day, every time I talked to the clever, happy kids in the slum. She took the empty glass and skipped away, the metal bells of her ankle bracelets jingling their small music, and her tiny, bare feet tough against the stones.

When all the men had taken tea, Qasim Ali ordered them to wake Joseph. They began to prod and poke him roughly, shouting at him to wake up. He stirred, and grumbled resentfully, waking very slowly. He opened his eyes and shook his groggy head, calling petulantly for water.

"Pani nahin," Qasim said. No water.

They forced the second bottle on him, roughly insistent, but cajoling him with jokes and pats on the back. Another chillum was produced, and the young men smoked with him. He growled repeatedly for water. Every time, he found the strong alcohol thrust into his mouth instead. Before a third of the bottle was finished, he fainted again, collapsing to the side with his head lolling at an awkward angle. His face was bare to the climbing sun. No-one made any attempt to shade him.

Qasim Ali allowed him a mere five minutes to doze before ordering that he be woken. Joseph's grumbling was angry as he woke, and he began to snarl and curse. He tried to raise himself to his knees, and crawl back to his hut. Qasim Ali took the bloodied bamboo stick, and handed it to Johnny Cigar. He spoke one word of command. Begin!

Johnny raised the stick, and brought it down on Joseph's back with a resounding smack. Joseph howled, and tried to crawl away, but the circle of young men pushed him back to the centre of their group. Johnny struck him with the stick again. Joseph screamed angrily, but the young men slapped at him and shouted for silence. Johnny raised the stick, and Joseph cowered, trying to focus his bleary eyes.

"Do you know what you have done?" Johnny demanded harshly. He brought the stick down with a whack on Joseph's shoulder. "Speak, you drunken dog! Do you know what a terrible thing you have done?"

"Stop hitting me!" Joseph snarled. "Why are you doing this?"

"Do you know what you have done?" Johnny repeated. The stick struck again.

"Ow-ah!" Joseph shrieked. "What? What have I done? I've done nothing!"

Veejay took the stick, and beat Joseph on the upper arm.

"You beat your wife, you drunken pig! You beat her, and maybe she will die!"

He passed the stick to Jeetendra, who used it to smack Joseph on the thigh.

"She's dying! You are a murderer! You murdered your own wife."

Joseph tried to shield himself with his arms, casting his eyes about feverishly for some escape. Jeetendra lifted the stick again.

"You beat your wife all morning, and threw her naked from the hut. Take that, you drunkard! And that! Just as you beat her. How do you like it, you murderer?"

The slow creep of a foggy comprehension stiffened Joseph's face into a terrified anguish. Jeetendra passed the stick to Prabaker, and the next blow brought tears.

"Oh, no!" he sobbed. "It's not true! I haven't done anything! Oh, what will happen to me? I didn't mean to kill her! God in heaven, what will happen to me? Give me water. I need water!"

"No water," Qasim Ali said.

The stick came down again and again. It was in Andhkaara's hand.

"Worrying about yourself, dog? What about your poor wife? You didn't worry when you beat her. This is not the first time you took this stick to her, is it? Now it is finished. You killed her. You can never beat her again, not her or anyone. You will die in the jail."

Johnny Cigar took the stick again.

"Such a big, strong fellow you are! So brave to beat your wife, who is half your size. Come on and beat me, hero! Come on, take this stick of yours, and beat a man with it, you cheap goonda."

"Water..." Joseph blubbered, collapsing to the ground in tears of self-pity.

"No water," Qasim Ali said, and Joseph drifted into unconsciousness once more.

When they woke him the next time, Joseph had been in the sun for almost two hours, and his distress was great. He shouted for water, but they offered him only the daru bottle. I could see that he wanted to refuse it, but his thirst was becoming desperate. He accepted the bottle with trembling hands. Just as the first drops touched his parched tongue, the stick came down again. Daru spilled over his stubbled chin, and ran from his gaping mouth. He dropped the bottle. Johnny picked it up and poured the remaining alcohol over his head. Joseph shrieked and tried to scramble away on his hands and knees, but the circle of men wrestled him back to the centre. Jeetendra wielded the stick, smacking it onto his buttocks and legs. Joseph whined and wept and moaned.

Qasim Ali was sitting to one side, in the shaded doorway of a hut. He called Prabaker to him, and gave orders that a number of Joseph's friends and relatives should be sent for, as well as relatives of Maria, Joseph's wife. As the people arrived, they took the places of the young men in the circle, and Joseph's torment continued. For several hours, his friends and relatives and neighbours took turns to vilify and accuse him, beating him with the stick he'd used to assault his wife so savagely. The blows were sharp, and they hurt him, but they weren't severe enough to break the skin.

It was a measured punishment that was painful, but never vicious.

I left the scene, and returned a few times during the afternoon.

Many of the slum-dwellers who were passing that way stopped to watch. People joined the circle around Joseph, or left it, as they wished. Qasim Ali sat in the doorway of the hut, his back straight and his expression grave, never taking his eyes from the circle. He directed the punishment with a quiet word or a subtle gesture, keeping a relentless pressure on the man, but preventing any excesses.

Joseph passed out twice more before he finally broke down. When the end came, he was crushed. All the spite and defiance in him were defeated. He sobbed the name of his wife over and over again. Maria, Maria, Maria...

Qasim Ali stood, and approached the circle. It was the moment he'd waited for, and he nodded to Veejay, who brought a dish of warm water, soap, and two towels from a nearby hut. The same men who'd been beating Joseph cradled him in their arms, then, and washed his face, neck, hands, and feet. They gave him water. They combed his hair. They soothed him with hugs and the first kind words he'd heard since the beginning of his chastisement. They told him that if he were genuinely sorry he would be forgiven, and given help. Many people were brought forward, myself included, and Joseph was made to touch our feet. They dressed him in a clean shirt, and propped him up, their arms and shoulders supporting him tenderly. Qasim Ali squatted close to him, and stared into his bloodshot eyes.

"Your wife, Maria, is not dead," Qasim Ali said softly.

"Not... not dead?" he mumbled.

"No, Joseph, she is not dead. She is very badly injured, but she is alive."

"Thank God, thank God."

"The women of your family, and Maria's family, have decided what is to be done," Qasim said slowly, firmly. "Are you sorry-do you know what you have done to your wife, and are you sorry for it?"

"Yes, Qasimbhai," Joseph wept. "I'm so sorry, so sorry."

"The women have decided that you must not see Maria for two months. She is very ill. You almost killed her, and she must take two months to recover. In this time, you will work every day. You will work long hours and hard. You will save your money. You will not drink even one drop of daru or beer or anything but water. Do you understand? No chai or milk or anything but water. You must observe this fast, as part of your punishment."

Joseph wagged his head feebly.

"Yes, yes. I will."

"Maria may decide not to take you back. You must know this also.

She may want to divorce you, even after the two months-and if she does, I will help her in this. But at the end of two months, if she wants to accept you again, you will use the money you have saved by this extra hard work, and you will take her on a holiday to the cool mountains. During retreat in that place, with your wife, you will face this ugliness in yourself, and you will try to overcome it. Inshallah, you will make a happy and virtuous future, for your wife and yourself. This is the decision. Go now.

No more talking. Eat now, and sleep."

Qasim stood, turned, and walked away. Joseph's friends helped him to his feet, and half-carried him to his hut. The hut had been cleaned, and all of Maria's clothes and personal articles had been removed. Joseph was given rice and dhal. He ate a little of it, and then lay back on his thin mattress. Two friends sat near him, and fanned his unconscious body with green paper fans. A cord was tied around one end of the bloody stick, and Johnny Cigar suspended it from a post outside Joseph's hut for all to see. It would remain there for the two months of Joseph's further punishment.

Someone turned a radio on in a hut not far away, and a Hindi love song wailed through the lanes and gullies of the busy slum. A child was crying somewhere. Chickens scratched and pecked at the place where Joseph's circle of torment had been. Somewhere else, a woman was laughing, children played, the bangle-seller sang out his enticement-call in Marathi. A bangle is beauty, and beauty is a bangle!

As the pulse and push of normal life returned to the slum, I walked back to my hut, through the winding lanes. Fishermen and fisherwomen were coming home from Sassoon Dock, bringing baskets of sea-smell with them. In one of those balancing contrasts of slum life, it was also the hour chosen by the incense-sellers to move through the lanes, burning their samples of sandalwood, jasmine, rose, and patchouli.

I thought about what I'd seen that day, what the people did for themselves in their tiny city of twenty-five thousand souls, without policemen, judges, courts, and prisons. I thought about something Qasim Ali had said, weeks before, when the two boys, Faroukh and Raghuram, had presented themselves for punishment, having spent a day tied together in work at the latrine. After they'd scrubbed themselves clean with a hot bucket-bath, and dressed in new lungis and clean, white singlets, the two boys stood before an assembly of their families, friends, and neighbours. Lamplights fluttered in the breeze, passing the golden gleam from eye to eye, as shadows chased one another across the reed-mat walls of the huts. Qasim Ali pronounced the punishment that had been decided upon by a council of Hindu and Muslim friends and neighbours. Their punishment, for fighting about religion, was that each had to learn one complete prayer from the religious observances of the other.

"In this way is justice done," Qasim Ali said that night, his bark-coloured eyes softening on the two young men, "because justice is a judgement that is both fair and forgiving. Justice is not done until everyone is satisfied, even those who offend us and must be punished by us. You can see, by what we have done with these two boys, that justice is not only the way we punish those who do wrong. It is also the way we try to save them."

I knew those words by heart. I'd written them down in my work journal, not long after Qasim Ali had spoken them. And when I returned to my hut on that day of Maria's agonies, that day of Joseph's shame, I lit a lamp, and opened the black journal, and stared at the words on the page. Somewhere close to me, sisters and friends comforted Maria, and fanned her bruised and beaten body. In Joseph's hut, Prabaker and Johnny Cigar took the first shift to watch over their neighbour as he slept. It was hot, then, as evening's long shadows became the night. I breathed a stillness of air, dusty and fragrant with scents from cooking fires. And it was quiet, in those dark, thinking moments: quiet enough to hear sweat droplets from my sorrowed face fall upon the page, one after another, each wet circle weeping outward into the words fair... forgiving... punish... and save...

____________________

CHAPTER TWELVE

One week became three weeks, and one month became five. From time to time, as I worked the streets of Colaba with my tourist clients, I ran into Didier, or Vikram, or some of the others from Leopold's. Sometimes I saw Karla, but I never spoke to her. I didn't want to meet her eyes while I was poor, and living in the slum. Poverty and pride are devoted blood brothers until one, always and inevitably, kills the other.

I didn't see Abdullah at all during that fifth month, but a succession of strange and occasionally bizarre messengers came to the slum with news of him. I was sitting alone at the table in my hut one morning, writing, when the ghetto dogs roused me from my work with a fury of barking more frenzied than anything I'd ever heard. There was rage and terror in it. I put down my pen, but didn't open my door or even move from my chair. The dogs were often vicious at night, but that was the first time I'd ever heard such ferocity in the daylight hours. The sound was fascinating and alarming. As I perceived that the pack was coming nearer and slowly nearer to my hut, my heart began to thump.

Shafts of golden morning stabbed through rents and gaps in the fragile reed walls of my hut. Those mote-filled rays stuttered and strobed as people rushed past in the lane outside. Shouts and screams joined the howling. I looked around me. The only weapon of any kind in my small house was a thick bamboo stick. I picked it up. The riot of barking and voices concentrated outside my hut, and seemed to be centred on my door.

I pulled open the thin piece of plywood I used as a door, and dropped the stick at once. There, half a metre away, was a huge, brown bear. The animal towered over me, filling the doorway with awesome, muscled fur. It stood easily on its hind legs, with its enormous paws raised to the height of my shoulders. The presence of the beast provoked the ghetto dogs to madness.

Not daring to come within reach, they turned on one another in their fierce rage. Ignoring them and the excited crowd of people, the bear stooped and leaned in toward the doorway to stare into my eyes. Its eyes were large, sentient, and topaz-coloured. It growled. Far from threatening, the bear's growl was a rumbling, tumbling, oddly soothing roll of sound, more eloquent than the prayer that muttered through my mind. My fear slipped away as I listened to it. Across that half-metre of air, I felt the reverberations of the feral noise throb against my chest. It leaned closer until its face and mine were centimetres apart.

Froth dissolved to liquid, and dripped from its wet, black jaws.

The bear meant me no harm. Somehow, I was sure of it. The eyes of the beast were speaking of something else. It was seconds only, but in that thudding stillness the communication of an animal sadness, undiluted by reason and complete in its passion, was so intense and pure, from eye to eye, that it seemed much longer, and I wanted it to go on.

The dogs slashed at one another, whining and howling an agony of hate and fear, wanting to rip at the bear, but more afraid than enraged. Children screamed, and people scrambled to avoid the thrashing dogs. The bear turned, ponderously slow, but then lashed out swiftly and swept a massive paw at the dogs. The dogs scattered, and a number of young men seized the opportunity to drive them further away with stones and sticks.

The bear swayed from side to side, scanning the crowd with those large, dolorous eyes. With a clear view of the animal, I noticed that it wore a leather collar studded with short spikes. Two chains were fastened to the collar, and they trailed away into the hands of two men. I hadn't seen them until then. They were bear-handlers, dressed in vests, turbans, and trousers, all of which were a startling electric blue colour. Even their chests and faces were painted blue, as were the metal chains and collar of the bear. The bear turned and stood to face me again.

Impossibly, one of the men who held its chains spoke my name.

"Mr. Lin? You are Mr. Lin, I am thinking so?" he asked.

The bear tilted its head as if it, too, was asking the question.

"Yes!" a few voices in the crowd called out. "Yes! This is Mr.

Lin! This is Linbaba!"

I was still standing in the doorway of my hut, too surprised to speak or move. People were laughing and cheering. A few of the more courageous children crept almost close enough to touch the bear with darting fingers. Their mothers shrieked and laughed and gathered them back into their arms.

"We are your friends," one of the blue-faced men said, in Hindi.

His teeth were dazzling white, against the blue. "We have come with a message for you."

The second man took a crumpled, yellow envelope from the pocket of his vest and held it up for me to see.

"A message?" I managed to ask.

"Yes, an important message for you, sir," the first man said.

"But first, you must do something. There is a promise for giving the message. A big promise. You will like it very much."

They were speaking in Hindi, and I was unfamiliar with the word vachan, meaning promise. I stepped from the hut, edging around the bear. There were more people than I'd imagined, and they crowded together, just out of range of the bear's paws. Several people were repeating the Hindi word vachan. A babble of other voices, in several languages, added to the shouts and stone throwing and barking dogs to produce the sound effects for a minor riot.

The dust on the stony paths rose up in puffs and swirls, and although we were in the centre of a modern city, that place of bamboo huts and gaping crowds might've been a village in a forgotten valley. The bear-handlers, when I saw them clearly, seemed fantastic beings. Their bare arms and chests were well muscled beneath the blue paint, and their trousers were decorated with silver bells and discs and tassels of red and yellow silk.

Both men had long hair, worn in dreadlocks as thick as two fingers, and tipped with coils of silver wire.

I felt a hand on my arm, and almost jumped. It was Prabaker. His usual smile was preternaturally wide and his dark eyes were happy.

"We are so lucky to have you live with us, Lin. You are always bringing it so many adventures of a fully not-boring kind!"

"I didn't bring this, Prabu. What the hell are they saying? What do they want?"

"They have it a message for you, Lin. But there is a vachan, a promise, before they will give it the message. There is a... you know... a catches."

"A catches?" "Yes, sure. This is English word, yes? Catches. It means like a little revenge for being nice," Prabaker grinned happily, seizing the opportunity to share one of his English definitions with me.

It was his habit or fortuity, always, to find the most irritating moments to offer them.

"Yes, I know what a catch is, Prabu. What I don't know is, who are these guys? Who's this message from?"

Prabaker rattled away in rapid Hindi, delighted to be the focus of attention in the exchange. The bear-handlers answered him in some detail, speaking just as swiftly. I couldn't understand much of what was said, but those in the crowd who were close enough to hear broke out in an explosion of laughter. The bear dropped down on all fours and sniffed at my feet.

"What did they say?"

"Lin, they won't tell who is sending it the messages," Prabaker said, suppressing his own laughter with some difficulty. "This is a big secret, and they are not telling it. They have some instructions, to give this message to you, with nothing explanations, and with the one catches for you, like a promise."

"What catch?"

"Well, you have to hug it the bear."

"I have to what?"

"Hug it the bear. You have to give him a big cuddles, like this."

He reached out and grabbed me in a tight hug, his head pressed against my chest. The crowd applauded wildly, the bear-handlers shrieked in a high-pitched keening, and even the bear was moved to stand and dance a thudding, stomp-footed jig. The bewilderment and obvious reluctance on my face drove the people to more and bigger laughter.

"No way," I said, shaking my head.

"Oh, yes," Prabaker laughed.

"Are you kidding? No way, man."

"Takleef nahin!" one of the bear-handlers called out. No problem!

"It is safe. Kano is very friendly. Kano is the friendliest bear in all India. Kano loves the people."

He moved closer to the bear, shouting commands in Hindi. When Kano the bear stood to his full height, the handler stepped in and embraced him. The bear closed its paws around him, and rocked backwards and forwards. After a few seconds, it released the man, and he turned to the tumultuous applause of the crowd with a beaming smile and a showman's bow.

"No way," I said again.

"Oh, come on, Lin. Hug it the bear," Prabaker pleaded, laughing harder.

"I'm not hugging it any bear, Prabu."

"Come on, Lin. Don't you want to know what is it, the messages?"

"No."

"It might be important."

"I don't care."

"You might like that hugging bear, Lin, isn't it?"

"No."

"You might."

"I won't."

"Well, maybe, would you like me to give you another big hugs, for practice?"

"No. Thanks, all the same."

"Then, just hug it the bear, Lin."

"Sorry."

"Oh, pleeeeeeese," Prabaker wheedled.

"No."

"Yes, Lin, please hug it the bear," Prabaker encouraged, asking for support from the crowd. There were hundreds of people crammed into the lanes near my house. Children had found precarious vantage points on top of some of the sturdier huts.

"Do it, do it, do _it!" they wailed and shouted.

Looking around me, from face to laughing face, I realised that I didn't have any choice. I took the two steps, reached out tremulously, and slowly pressed myself against the shaggy fur of Kano the bear. He was surprisingly soft under the fur-almost pudgy. The thick forelegs were all muscle, however, and they closed around me at shoulder height with a massive power, a non human strength. I knew what it was to feel utterly helpless.

One fright-driven thought spun through my mind-Kano could snap my back as easily as I could snap a pencil. The bear's voice grumbled in his chest against my ear. A smell like wet moss filled my nostrils. Mixed with it was a smell like new leather shoes, and the smell of a child's woollen blanket. Beyond that, there was a piercing ammoniac smell, like bone being cut with a saw. The noise of the crowd faded. Kano was warm. Kano moved from side to side. The fur, in the grasp of my fingers, was soft, and attached to rolls of skin like that on the back of a dog's neck. I clung to the fur, and rocked with him. In its brawny grip, it seemed to me that I was floating, or perhaps falling, from some exalted place of inexpressible peace and promise.

Hands shook my shoulders, and I opened my eyes to see that I'd fallen to my knees. Kano the bear had released me from the hug, and was already at the end of the short lane, lumbering away with his slow, thumping tread in the company of his handlers and the retinue of people and maddened dogs.

"Linbaba, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, fine. Must have... I got dizzy, or something."

"Kano was giving you the pretty good squeezes, yes? Here, this is your message."

I went back to my hut and sat at the small table made from packing crates. Inside the crumpled envelope was a typed note on matching yellow paper. It was typed in English, and I suspected that it had been typed by one of the professional letter-writers on the Street of the Writers. It was from Abdullah.

My Dear Brother, Salaam aleikum. You told me that you are giving the bear hugs to the people. I think this is a custom in your country and even if I think it is very strange and even if I do not understand, I think you must be lonely for it here because in Bombay we have a shortage of bears. So I send you a bear for some hugging. Please enjoy. I hope he is like the hugging bears in your country. I am busy with business and I am healthy, thanks be to God. After my business I will return to Bombay soon, Inshallah. God bless you and your brother.

Abdullah Taheri Prabaker was standing at my left shoulder, reading the note out aloud, slowly.

"Aha, this is the Abdullah, who I am not supposed to be telling you that he is doing all the bad things, but really he is, even at the same time that I am not telling you... that he is."

"It's rude to read other people's mail, Prabu."

"Is rude, yes. Rude means that we like to do it, even when people tell us not to, yes?"

"Who are those bear guys?" I asked him. "Where are they staying?"

"They are making money with the dancing bear. They are original from UP., Uttar Pradesh, in the north of this, our Mother India, but travelling everywhere. Now they are staying at the zhopadpatti in Navy Nagar area. Do you want me to take you there?"

"No," I muttered, reading the note over again. "No, not now.

Maybe later."

Prabaker went to the open door of the hut and paused there, staring at me reflectively with his small, round head cocked to one side. I put the note in my pocket, and looked up at him. I thought he wanted to say something-there was a little struggle of concentration in his brow-but then he seemed to change his mind. He shrugged. He smiled.

"Some sick peoples are coming today?"

"A few. I think. Later."

"Well, I will be seeing you at the lunch party, yes?"

"Sure."

"Do you... do you want me, for to do anything?"

"No. Thanks."

"Do you want my neighbour, his wife, to wash it your shirt?"

"Wash my shirt?"

"Yes. It is smelling like bears. You are smelling like bears, Linbaba."

"It's okay," I laughed. "I kinda like it."

"Well, I'm going now. I'm going to drive my cousin Shantu's taxi."

"Okay then."

"All right. I'm going now."

He walked out, and when I was alone again the sounds of the slum swarmed around me: hawkers selling, children playing, women laughing, and love songs blaring from radios running on maximum distortion. There were also animal sounds, hundreds of them. With only days to go before the big rain, many itinerants and entertainers, like the two bear-handlers, had sought shelter in slums throughout the city. Ours was host to three groups of snake charmers, a team of monkey men, and numerous breeders of parrots and singing birds. The men who usually tethered horses in open ground near the Navy barracks brought their mounts to our makeshift stables. Goats and sheep and pigs, chickens and bullocks and water buffalo, even a camel and an elephant-the acres of the slum had become a kind of sprawling ark, providing sanctuary from the coming floods.

The animals were welcome, and no'-one questioned their right to shelter, but their presence did pose new problems. On the first night of their stay, the monkey men allowed one of their animals to escape while everyone was asleep. The mischievous creature scampered over the tops of several huts and lowered itself into the hut used by one group of snake charmers. The snake men housed their cobras in covered wicker baskets which were secured with a bamboo slip-catch and a stone placed on top of each cover. The monkey removed one of the stones, and opened a basket containing three cobras. From a safe vantage point at the top of the hut, the monkey shrieked the snake men awake, and they sounded the alarm.

"Saap alla! Saap alla! Saap!" Snakes are coming! Snakes!

There was pandemonium, then, as sleepy slum-dwellers rushed about with kerosene lanterns and flaming torches, striking at every shadow, and beating each other on the feet and shins with sticks and poles. A few of the flimsier huts were knocked over in the stampede. Qasim Ali finally restored order, and organised the snake men into two search parties that combed the slum systematically until they found the cobras and returned them to their basket.

Among their many other skills, the monkeys had also been trained to be excellent thieves. Like most of the slums throughout the city, ours was a stealing-free zone. With no locks on any of the doors, and no secret places for any of us to hide things, the monkeys were in a pilferer's paradise. Each day, the embarrassed monkey men were forced to set up a table outside their hut where all the items their monkeys had stolen could be displayed, and reclaimed by the rightful owners. The monkeys showed a marked preference for the glass bangles and brass anklets or bracelets worn by most of the little girls. Even after the monkey men bought them their own supply of the baubles, and festooned their hairy arms and legs with them, the monkeys still found the theft of such jewellery irresistible.

Qasim Ali decided at last to have noisy bells put on all the monkeys while they were within the slum. The creatures displayed an inventive resourcefulness in divesting themselves of the bells or in smothering them. I once saw two monkeys stalking along the deserted lane outside my hut, at dusk, their eyes huge with simian guilt and mischief. One of them had succeeded in removing the bells from around its neck. It walked on its hind legs, in tandem with the other ape, muffling the noise of the other's bells by holding on to them with both tiny hands. Despite their ingenuity, the bell music did make their usually noiseless capering more detectable, reducing their small felonies and the shame of their handlers.

Along with those itinerants, many of the people who lived on the streets near our slum were drawn to the relative security of our huts. Known as pavement dwellers, they were people who made homes for themselves on every available strip of unused land and any footpath wide enough to support their flimsy shelters, while still permitting pedestrian traffic. Their houses were the most primitive, and the conditions under which they lived the most harsh and brutalising, of all the millions of homeless people in Bombay. When the monsoon struck, their position was always dangerous and sometimes untenable, and many of them sought refuge in the slums.

They were from every part of India: Assamese and Tamils, Karnatakans and Gujaratis, people from Trivandrum, Bikaner, and Konarak. During the monsoon, five thousand of those extra souls squeezed themselves into the already over-crowded slum. With subtractions for the space taken up by animal pens, shops, storage areas, streets, lanes, and latrines, that allowed some two square metres for each man, woman, and child among us.

The greater-than-usual crowding caused some tensions and additional difficulties, but in the main the newcomers were treated tolerantly. I never heard anyone suggest that they shouldn't have been helped or made welcome. The only serious problems, in fact, came from outside the slum. Those five thousand extra people, and the many thousands who'd flocked to other slums as the monsoon approached, had been living on the streets. They'd all done their shopping, such as it was, in shops throughout the area. Their purchases were individually small- eggs, milk, tea, bread, cigarettes, vegetables, kerosene, children's clothes, and so on. Collectively, they accounted for large amounts of money and a considerable portion of the trade for local shops. When they moved to the slums, however, the newcomers tended to spend their money at the dozens of tiny shops within the slums. The small, illegal businesses supplied almost everything that could be bought in the legal shops of the well-established shopping districts. There were shops that supplied food, clothing, oils, pulses, kerosene, alcohol, hashish, and even electrical appliances. The slum was largely self-contained, and Johnny Cigar-a money and tax adviser to the slum businesses-estimated that the slum-dwellers spent twenty rupees within the slum for every one rupee they spent outside it.

Shopkeepers and small businessmen everywhere resented that attrition of their sales and the success of the thriving slum shops. When the threat of rain pulled even the pavement dwellers into the slums, their resentment turned to rage. They joined forces with local landlords, property developers, and others who feared and opposed the expansion of the slums. Pooling their resources, they recruited two gangs of thugs from areas outside Colaba, and paid them to attack the supply lines to slum shops.

Those returning from the large markets with cartloads of vegetables or fish or dry goods for shops in the slum were harassed, had their goods spoiled, and were sometimes even assaulted.

"I'd treated several children and young men who'd been attacked by those gangs. There'd been threats that acid would be thrown.

Unable to appeal to the police for help-the cops had been paid to maintain a discreet myopia-the slum-dwellers banded together to defend themselves. Qasim Ali formed brigades of children who patrolled the perimeter of the slum as lookouts, and several platoons of strong, young men to escort those who visited the markets.

Clashes had already occurred between our young men and the hired thugs. We all knew that, when the monsoon came, there would be more and greater violence. Tensions ran high. Still, the war of the shopkeepers didn't dispirit the slum-dwellers. On the contrary, the shopkeepers within the slum experienced a surge of popularity. They became demi-heroes, and were moved to respond with special sales, reduced prices, and a carnival atmosphere.

The ghetto was a living organism: to counter external threats, it responded with the antibodies of courage, solidarity, and that desperate, magnificent love we usually call the survival instinct. If the slum failed, there was nowhere and nothing else.

One of the young men who'd been injured in an attack on our supply lines was a laborer on the construction site beside the slum. His name was Naresh. He was nineteen years old. It was his voice, and a confident rapping on the open door of my hut, which scattered the brief, still solitude that I'd found when my friends and neighbours had followed Kano and his bear-handlers from the slum.

Without waiting for me to reply, Naresh stepped into the hut and greeted me.

"Hello, Linbaba," he greeted me, in English. "You have been hugging it bears, everyone says."

"Hello, Naresh. How's your arm? You want me to take a look at it?"

"If you have time, yes," he answered, switching to Marathi, his native tongue. "I took a break from work, and I have to return in fifteen or twenty minutes. I can come back another time if you are busy."

"No, now is okay. Come and sit down, and we'll have a look."

Naresh had been slashed on the upper arm with a barber's straight razor. The cut wasn't deep, and it should've healed quickly with no more than a wrap of bandage. The unclean humidity of his working conditions, however, accelerated the risk of infection.

The bandage I'd placed on his arm just two days before was filthy and soaked with sweat. I removed it, and stored the soiled dressing in a plastic bag for disposal later in one of the communal fires.

The wound was beginning to knit well enough, but it was an angry red, with some flares of yellowish-white. Khaderbhai's lepers had supplied me with a ten-litre container of surgical disinfectant.

I used it to wash my hands and then cleansed the wound, roughly scraping at it until there was no trace of the white infection.

It must've been tender, but Naresh endured the pain expressionlessly. When it was dry, I squeezed antibiotic powder into the crease of the cut and applied a fresh gauze dressing and bandage.

"Prabaker tells me you had a narrow escape from the police the other night, Naresh," I said as I worked, stumbling along in my broken Marathi.

"Prabaker has a disappointing habit of telling everybody the truth," Naresh frowned.

"You're telling me," I answered quickly, and we both laughed.

Like most of the Maharashtrians, Naresh was happy that I tried to learn his language, and like most of them he spoke slowly and very precisely, encouraging me to understand. There were no parallels between Marathi and English, it seemed to me: none of the similarities and famil- iar words that were shared by English and German, for example, or English and Italian. Yet Marathi was an easy language to learn because the people of Maharashtra were thrilled that I wanted to learn it, and they were very eager to teach.

"If you keep stealing with Aseef and his gang," I said, more seriously, "you're going to get caught."

"I know that, but I hope not. I hope the Enlightened One is on my side. It's for my sister. I pray that no harm will come to me, you see, because I am not stealing for myself, but for my sister.

She will be married soon, and there is not enough to pay the promised dowry. It is my responsibility. I am the oldest son."

Naresh was brave, intelligent, hard working, and kind with the young children. His hut wasn't much bigger than my own, but he shared it with his parents, and six brothers and sisters. He slept outside on the rough ground to leave more space for the younger ones inside. I'd visited his hut several times, and I knew that everything he owned in the world was contained in one plastic shopping bag: a change of rough clothes, one pair of good trousers and a shirt for formal occasions and for visiting the temple, a book of Buddhist verses, several photographs, and a few toiletries. He owned nothing else. He gave every rupee that he earned from his job or made from petty thefts to his mother, asking her for small change in return as he required it. He didn't drink or smoke or gamble. As a poor man with no immediate prospects, he had no girlfriend and only a slender chance of winning one. The one entertainment he allowed himself was a trip to the cheapest cinema, with his workmates, once a week. Yet he was a cheerful, optimistic young man. Sometimes, when I came home through the slum late at night, I saw him curled up on the path, outside the family hut, his thin young face slackened in sleep's exhausted smile.

"And you, Naresh?" I asked, fastening the bandage with a safety pin. "When will you get married?"

He stood, flexing his slender arm to loosen the tight bandage.

"After Poonam is married, there are two other sisters who must be married," he explained, smiling and wagging his head from side to side. "They must be first. In this, our Bombay, the poor man must look for husbands before he looks for a wife. Crazy, isn't it?

Amchi Mumbai, Mumbai amchi!" It's our Bombay, and Bombay is _ours!

He went out without thanking me, as was usual with the people I treated at my hut. I knew that he would invite me to dinner at his house one day soon, or bring me a gift of fruit or special incense. The people showed thanks, rather than saying it, and I'd come to accept that.

When Naresh emerged from my hut with a clean bandage, several people who saw him approached me for treatment. I attended to them one by one-rat bites, fever, infected rashes, ringworm- chatting with each, and catching up on the gossip that constantly swirled through the lanes and gullies like the ubiquitous dust devils.

The last of those patients was an elderly woman accompanied by her niece. She complained of pains in her chest, on the left side, but the extremes of Indian modesty made examination a complex procedure. I asked the girl to summon others to help. Two of the niece's young friends joined her in my hut. The friends held a sheet of thick cloth up between the elderly woman and myself, completely obscuring her from my view. The girl was standing beside her aunt in a position where she could look over the blanket and see me sitting on the other side. Then, as I touched my own chest here and there, the young niece imitated me by touching her aunt's breast.

"Does it hurt here?" I asked, probing my own chest above the nipple.

Behind the screen, the niece probed at her aunt's breast, asking my question.

"No."

"How about here?"

"No, not there."

"What about here?"

"Yes. There it is hurting," she answered.

"And here? Or here?"

"No, not there. A little bit here."

With that pantomime, and through the invisible hands of her niece, I finally established that the elderly woman had two painful lumps in her breast. I also learned that she experienced some pain with deep breaths, and when lifting heavy objects. I wrote a note for Doctor Hamid, detailing my second-hand observations and my conclusions. I'd just finished explaining to the girl that she should take her aunt to Doctor Hamid's surgery at once, and give him my note, when a voice spoke behind me.

"You know, poverty looks good on you. If you ever got really down and out, you might be irresistible." I turned in surprise to see Karla leaning in the doorway with her arms folded. An ironic half-smile turned up the corners of her mouth. She was dressed in green-loose silk trousers and a long sleeved top, with a shawl of darker green. Her black hair was free, and burnished with copper tints by the sun. The green of warm, shallow water in a dreamed lagoon blazed in her eyes. She was almost too beautiful: as beautiful as a blush of summer sunset on a sky-wide stream of cloud.

"How long have you been there?" I asked, laughing.

"Long enough to see this weird faith-healing system of yours in operation. Are you curing people by telepathy now?"

"Indian women are very obstinate when it comes to having their breasts handled by strangers," I replied when the patient and her relatives had filed past Karla, and left the hut.

"Nobody's perfect, as Didier would say," she drawled, with a smirk that fluttered just short of a smile. "He misses you, by the way. He asked me to say hello to you. In fact, they all miss you. We haven't seen much of you at Leopold's, since you started this Red Cross routine."

I was glad that Didier and the others hadn't forgotten me, but I didn't look her in the eye. When I was alone, I felt safe and satisfyingly busy in the slum. Whenever I saw friends from beyond those sprawling acres, a part of me shrivelled in shame. Fear and guilt are the dark angels that haunt rich men, Khader said to me once. I wasn't sure if that was true, or if he simply wanted it to be true, but I did know from experience that despair and humiliation haunt the poor.

"Come in, come in. This is a real surprise. Sit... sit here, while I just... clean up a bit."

She came over and sat on the wooden stool as I gathered a plastic bag containing used swabs and bandages, and swept the last of the litter into it. I washed my hands with spirit once more, and packed the medicines into the little rack of shelves.

She looked around the small hut, examining everything with a critical eye. As my gaze followed hers, I saw my little house for the shabby, threadbare hovel that it really was. Because I lived alone in the hut, I'd come to think of it as luxuriously spacious, in contrast to the crowding that was everywhere around me. With her beside me, it seemed mean and cramped.

The bare earth floor was cracked, and formed in lumpy undulations. Holes as big as my fist punctured every wall, exposing my life to the brawl and business of the bustling lane outside. Children peeped in through the holes at Karla and me, emphasising how unprivate my life there was. The reed matting of the roof sagged, and had even given way in a few places. My kitchen consisted of a single-burner kerosene stove, two cups, two metal plates, a knife, a fork, a spoon, and a few containers of spices. The whole of it fitted into a cardboard box, and was stored in one corner.

I was in the habit of buying only enough for a single meal at a time, so there was no food. The water was stored in an earthenware matka. It was slum water. I couldn't offer it to her because I knew Karla couldn't drink it. My only furniture was a cupboard for medicines, a small table, a chair, and a wooden stool. I remembered how delighted I'd been when those sticks of furniture were given to me; how rare they were in the slum. With her eyes, I saw the cracks in the wood, the stains of mildew, the repairs made with wire and string.

I looked back to where she sat on the stool, lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke out through the side of her mouth. A rush of irrational resentment seized me. I was almost angry that she'd made me see the unlovely truth of my house.

"It's... it's not much. I..."

"It's fine," she said, reading my heart. "I lived in a little hut like this in Goa for a year once. And I was happy. There isn't a day goes by when I don't feel like going back there. I sometimes think that the size of our happiness is inversely proportional to the size of our house."

She raised her left eyebrow in a high arch as she said it, challenging me to respond and meet her on her level, and with that gesture it was all right between us. I wasn't resentful any more. I knew, I was certain somehow, that wanting my little house to be bigger or brighter or grander than it was had been in my mind, not hers. She wasn't judging. She was only looking, seeing everything, even what I felt.

My neighbour's twelve-year-old son, Satish, came into the hut, carrying his tiny, two-year-old cousin on his hip. He stood close to Karla, staring unselfconsciously. She stared back at him just as intently, and I was struck by how similar they were in that instant, the Indian boy and the European woman. Both had full lipped, expressive mouths, and hair that was night-sky black; and although Karla's eyes were sea-green and the boy's were dark bronze, each pair wore the same grave expression full of interest and humour.

"Satish, chai bono," I said to him. Make some tea.

He gave me a quick smile, and hurried out. Karla was the first foreign miss he'd ever seen in the slum, so far as I knew. He was excited to have the task of serving her. I knew he would talk about it to the other kids for weeks afterwards.

"So, tell me, how did you find me? How did you even get in here?"

I asked her when we were alone.

"Get in?" she frowned. "It's not illegal to visit you, is it?"

"No," I laughed, "but it's not common either. I don't get many visitors here."

"Actually, it was easy. I just stepped off the street and asked people to take me to you."

"And they brought you here?"

"Not exactly. They're very protective of you, you know. They took me to your friend, Prabaker, first, and he brought me to you."

"Prabaker?"

"Yes, Lin, you want me?" Prabaker said, popping through the doorway from his eavesdropping post outside.

"I thought you were going to drive your taxi," I muttered, adopting the stern expression that I knew amused him the most.

"My cousin Shantu's taxi," he said, grinning. "Was driving, yes, but now my other cousin, Prakash, he is driving, while I am taking it my two hours of lunch breaks. I was at Johnny Cigar, his house, when some people came there with Miss Karla. She wants to see you, and I came here. It is very good, yes?"

"It's good, Prabu," I sighed.

Satish returned, carrying a tray with three cups of hot, sweet tea. He handed them to us, and tore open a small packet containing four Parle Gluco biscuits, which he presented to us with a solemn sense of ceremony. I expected him to eat the fourth biscuit himself, but he placed it on his palm instead, marked it off into even sections with his grubby thumb nail, and then broke it into two pieces. Measuring the fragments against one another, he picked the one that was minutely larger and handed it to Karla. The other went to his baby cousin, who sat in the doorway of the hut and nibbled at the biscuit happily.

I was sitting on the straight-backed chair, and Satish came over to squat on the floor beside my feet. He rested his shoulder against my knee. I was big enough to know that the rare show of affection was a breakthrough with Satish. At the same time I was small enough to hope that Karla had noticed it, and was impressed by it.

We finished the tea, and Satish gathered the empty cups, leaving the hut without a word. At the door, he gave Karla a long-lashed, lingering smile as he took his cousin's hand to lead her away.

"He's a nice kid," she remarked.

"He is. My next-door neighbour's son. You really sparked something in him today. He's normally very shy. So, what brings you to my humble home, anyway?"

"Oh, I just happened to be in the area," she said nonchalantly, looking at the gaps in my wall, where a dozen little faces stared in at us. The voices of other children could be heard, questioning Satish about her. Who is she? Is she Linbaba's wife?

"Passing by, huh? It couldn't be, maybe, that you missed me, just a little bit?"

"Hey don't push your luck," she mocked.

"I can't help it. It's a genetic thing. I come from a long line of luck-pushers. Don't take it personally."

"I take everything personally-that's what being a person is all about. And I'll take you to lunch, if you're finished with your patients."

"Well, I have a lunch date, actually-"

"Oh. Okay, then-"

"No, no. You're welcome to come, if you like. It's kind of an open invitation. We're having a celebration lunch today, right here. I'd be very happy if you'd... be our guest. I think you'll like it. Tell her she'll like it, Prabu."

"We will have it a very nice lunches!" Prabaker said. "My good self, I have kept it a complete empty stomach for filling up to fat. So good is the food. You will enjoy so much, the people will think you are having a baby inside your dress."

"Okay," she said slowly, and then looked at me. "He's a persuasive guy, your Prabaker."

"You should meet his father," I replied, shaking my head in a resigned shrug.

Prabaker's chest swelled with pride, and he wagged his head happily. "So, where are we going?"

"It's at the Village in the Sky," I told her.

"I don't think I've heard of it," she said, frowning.

Prabaker and I laughed, and the vaguely suspicious furrows in her brow deepened.

"No, you won't have heard of it, but I think you'll like it.

Listen, you go on ahead with Prabaker. I'll wash up, and change my shirt. I'll just be a couple of minutes, okay?"

"Fine," she said.

Our eyes met, and held. For some reason, she lingered, watching me expectantly. I couldn't understand the expression, and I was still trying to read it when she stepped close to me and quickly kissed my lips. It was a friendly kiss, impulsive and generous and light-hearted, but I let myself believe that it was more. She walked out with Prabaker, and I spun around on one foot, whispering a shout of joy while I did an excited little dance. I looked up to see the children peering through the holes in the hut and giggling at me. I made a scary face at them, and they laughed harder, breaking into little whirling parodies of my dance. Two minutes later, I loped through the slum lanes after Prabaker and Karla, tucking my clean shirt into my pants as I ran, and shaking the water from my hair.

Our slum, like many others in Bombay, came into being to serve the needs of a construction site-two thirty-five-floor buildings, the World Trade Centre towers, being built on the shore of the Colaba Back Bay. The tradesmen, artisans, and labourers who built the towers were housed in hutments, tiny slum-dwellings, on land adjacent to the site. The companies that planned and constructed large buildings, in those years, were forced to provide such land for housing. Many of the tradesmen were itinerant workers who followed where their skills were needed, and whose real homes were hundreds of kilometres away in other states. Most of the workers who were native to Bombay simply had no homes, other than those they found with their jobs.

In fact, many men accepted the risks of that hard and dangerous work for no other reason than to gain the security of one of those shelters.

The companies were happy enough to comply with the laws that made land and huts available because the arrangement was eminently suitable to them in other ways. The kinship fostered in workers' slums guaranteed a sense of unity, familial solidarity, and loyalty to the company, which served employers well. Travelling time to and from work was eliminated when men lived on the site. The wives, children, and other dependants of employed workers provided a ready source of additional labourers. They were hired from that pool and put to work, from day to day, at a moment's notice. And the entire work force of several thousand people were much more easily influenced, and to some extent even controlled, when they lived in a single community.

When the World Trade Centre towers were first planned, a large area was set aside and marked off into more than three hundred hut-sized plots. As workers signed on, they received one of the plots and a sum of money with which to buy bamboo poles, reed matting, hemp rope, and scrap timber. Each man then built his own house, assisted by family and friends. The sprawl of fragile huts spread outward like a shallow, tender root-system for the huge towers that were to come. Vast underground wells were sunk to provide water for the community. Rudimentary lanes and pathways were scraped flat. Finally, a tall, barbed wire fence was erected around the perimeter to keep out squatters. The legal slum was born.

Drawn by the regular wages that those workers had to spend, and no less by the plentiful supply of fresh water, squatters soon arrived and settled outside the fence-line. Entrepreneurs establishing chai shops and small grocery stores were the first, attaching their tiny shops to the fence. Workers from the legal compound stooped to crouch through gaps in the wire, and spend their money. Vegetable shops and tailor shops and little restaurants were next. Gambling dens and other dens for the sale of alcohol or charras soon followed. Each new business clung to the fence of the compound until at last there was no space left on the fence-line. The illegal slum then began to grow outward into the surrounding acres of open land leading to the sea.

Homeless people joined in ever-larger numbers, picking out squares for their huts. New holes were stretched in the fence.

Squatters used them to enter the legal slum to collect water, and workers used them to make purchases in the illegal slum, or visit new friends.

The squatters' slum grew rapidly, but with a haphazard, needs driven planlessness that was a disorderly contrast to the neater lanes of the workers' slum. In time there were eight squatters for every person in the workers' compound, more than twenty-five thousand people in all, and the division between legal and illegal slums became blurred, camouflaged by the crowding. Although the Bombay Municipal Corporation condemned the illegal slum, and construction company officers discouraged contact between workers and squatters, the people thought of themselves as one group; their days and dreams and drives were entangled in the ravel of ghetto life. To workers and squatters alike, the company fence was like all fences: arbitrary and irrelevant. Some of the workers who weren't permitted to bring more than immediate family into the legal slum invited their relatives to squat near them, beyond the wire. Friendships flourished among the children of both sides, and marriages of love or arrangement were common.

Celebrations on one side of the wire were well attended by residents from both sides. And because fires, floods, and epidemics didn't recognise barbed-wire boundaries, emergencies in one part of the slum required the close co-operation of all.

Karla, Prabaker, and I bent low to step through an opening in a section of fence, and we passed into the legal slum. A covey of children trooped along beside us, dressed in freshly washed T-shirts and dresses. They all knew Prabaker and me well. I'd treated many of the young children, cleaning and bandaging cuts, abrasions, and rat bites. And more than a few of the workers, afraid that they might be stood down from work when they received minor injuries on the construction site, had visited my free clinic rather than the company's first-aid officer.

"You know everybody here," Karla remarked as we were stopped for the fifth time by a group of neighbours. "Are you running for mayor of this place, or what?"

"Hell, no. I can't stand politicians. A politician is someone who promises you a bridge, even when there's no river."

"That's not bad," she murmured. Her eyes were laughing.

"I wish I could say it was mine," I grinned. "An actor named Amitabh said it."

"Amitabh Bachchan?" she asked. "The Big B himself?"

"Yeah-do you like Bollywood movies?"

"Sure, why not?"

"I don't know," I answered, shaking my head. "I just didn't... think you would."

There was a pause, then, that became an awkward silence. She was first to speak.

"But you do know a lot of people here, and they like you a lot."

I frowned, genuinely surprised by the suggestion. It never occurred to me that the people in the slum might like me. I knew that some men-Prabaker, Johnny Cigar, even Qasim Ali Hussein- regarded me as a friend. I knew that some others treated me with a respect that seemed honest and unfeigned. But I didn't consider the friendship or the respect as any part of being liked.

"This is a special day," I said, smiling and trying to shift ground. "The people have been trying for years to get their own primary school. They've got about eight hundred school-age kids, but the schools for miles around are full, and can't take them.

The people got their own teachers organised, and found a good spot for a school, but the authorities still put up a hell of a fight."

"Because it's a slum..."

"Yeah. They're afraid that a school would give the place a kind of legitimacy. In theory, the slum doesn't exist, because it's not legal and not recognised."

"We are the not-people," Prabaker said happily, "And these are the not-houses, where we are not-living."

"And now we have a not-school to go with it," I concluded for him. "The municipality finally agreed to a kind of compromise.

They allowed them to set up a temporary school near here, and there'll be another one organised soon. But they'll have to tear them down when the construction is finished."

"When will that be?"

"Well, they've been building these towers for five years already, and there's probably about three more years' work in it, maybe more. No-one's really sure what'll happen when the buildings are finished. In theory, at least, the slum will be cleared."

"Then all this will be gone?" Karla asked, turning to sweep the hutment city with her gaze.

"All will be gone," Prabaker sighed.

"But today's a big day. The campaign for the school was a long one, and it got pretty violent sometimes. Now the people have won, and they'll have their school, so there'll be a big celebration tonight. Meanwhile, one of the men who works here has finally got a son, after having five daughters in a row, so he's having a special pre-celebration lunch, and everyone's invited."

"The Village in the Sky!" Prabaker laughed.

"Just where is this place? Where are you taking me?"

"Right here," I replied, pointing upwards. "Right up there."

We'd reached the perimeter of the legal slum, and the megalithic immensity of the twin skyscrapers loomed before us. Concreting had been completed to three-quarters of their height, but there were no windows, doors, or fittings on the unfinished buildings.

With no flash or reflection or trim to relieve the grey massiveness of the structures, they swallowed light into themselves, extinguished it, and became silos for storing shadows. The hundreds of cave-like holes that would eventually be windows allowed a kind of cross-sectional view into the construction-an ant-farm picture of men and women and children, on every floor, walking to and fro, upward and down, about their tasks. At ground level, the noise was a percussive and exciting music of towering ambition: the nervous irritation of generators, the merciless metal-to-metal zing of hammers, and the whining insistence of drills and grinders.

Snaking lines of sari-clad women carrying dishes of gravel on their heads wove through all the workplaces, from man-made dunes of small stones to the yawning mouths of ceaselessly revolving cement-mixing machines. To my western eyes, those fluid, feminine figures in soft red, blue, green, and yellow silk were incongruous in the physical turmoil of the construction site. Yet I knew, from watching them through the months, that they were indispensable to the work. They carried the great bulk of stone and steel and cement on their slender backs, one round dish-full at a time. The uppermost floors hadn't been concreted, but the framework of upright, transom, and truss girders was already in place and even there, thirty-five storeys into the sky, women worked beside the men. They were simple people from simple villages, most of them, but their view of the great city was unparalleled, for they were building the tallest structures in Bombay.

"Tallest buildings in all India," Prabaker said with a gesture of expansive, proprietal pride. He lived in the illegal slum, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the construction, but he boasted about the buildings as if they were his own design.

"Well, the tallest buildings in Bombay, anyway," I corrected.

"You'll get a good view from up there. We're having lunch on the twenty-third floor."

"Up... there?" Karla said through an expression of exquisite dread. "No problem, Miss Karla. We are not walking up it, this building.

We are travelling first class, in that very fine lifts."

Prabaker pointed to the freight elevator attached to the outside of the building in a yellow, steel framework. She watched as the platform jerked and rattled upwards on heavy cables with loads of men and equipment.

"Oh, swell," Karla said. "Now I feel great about it."

"I feel great, too, Miss Karla!" Prabaker agreed, his smile huge as he tugged at her sleeve and pulled her toward the elevator.

"Come, we will catch the lifts on the next run. They are a beautiful buildings, yes?"

"I don't know. They look like monuments to something that died," she muttered to me as we followed him. "Something very unpopular ... like... the human spirit, for example."

The workmen who ran the freight elevator shouted safety instructions at us, gruff in their self-importance. We climbed onto the wobbling platform with several other men and women, and a wheelbarrow containing work tools and barrels of rivets. The driver blew two shrill blasts on his metal whistle and threw the lever that activated the powerful generators, controlling our ascent. The motor roared, the platform shuddered, throwing us at the panic-handles attached to the uprights, and the elevator groaned slowly upwards. There was no cage surrounding the platform, only a yellow pipe at waist height around the three open sides. In a few seconds, we were fifty, eighty, a hundred metres off the ground.

"How do you like it?" I shouted.

"I'm scared out of my brain!" she shouted back, her dark eyes shining. "It's great!"

"Are you afraid of heights?"

"Only when I'm on them! I hope you got a reservation, at this goddamn restaurant of yours! What are we doing eating lunch here, anyway? Don't you think they should finish the building first?"

"They're working on the top floors now. This elevator is constantly in use. It's not usually available for the workers to use. It's reserved for wheelbarrows and building materials and stuff. It's a long climb, up thirty flights of steps every day, and it gets fairly tricky in places. A lot of the people who work these upper floors stay up here most of the time. They live up here. Eat, work, and sleep. They've got farm animals and kitchens and everything. Goats for milk, and chickens for eggs, everything they need is sent up to them. It's sort of like a base camp that mountaineers use when they climb Everest."

"The Village in the Sky!" she shouted back.

"You got it."

The elevator stopped at the twenty-third floor, and we stumbled out onto a concrete surface that sprouted clumps of steel rods and wires like metal weeds. It was a vast, cavernous space, divided by equidistant columns and canopied by a flat, concrete ceiling adorned with a creepery of cables. Every flat plane was an unrelieved grey, which gave a startling vividness to the human and animal figures grouped on the far side of the floor. An area around one of the pillars was fenced off with wicker and bamboo for use as an animal pen. Straw and hessian was strewn about to serve as bedding for the goats, chickens, cats, and dogs that foraged amid discarded food scraps and rubbish in the pen. Rolled blankets and mattresses, for the people who slept there, were heaped around another pillar. Yet another pillar had been designated as a play area for children, with a few games and toys and small mats scattered for their use.

As we approached the crowd of people, we saw that a great feast was being laid out on clean reed mats. Huge banana leaves served as plates. A team of women scooped out servings of saffron rice, alu palak, kheema, bhajee, and other foods. A battery of kerosene stoves stood nearby, and more food was cooking there. We washed our hands in a drum of water and joined the others, sitting on the floor between Johnny Cigar and Prabaker's friend Kishore. The food was much more piquantly spiced with chillies and curries than any available in restaurants in the city, and much more delicious. As was customary, the women had their own banquet, laid out some five metres away. Karla was the only female in our group of twenty men.

"How are you liking the party?" Johnny asked Karla as the first course of foods was being replaced by the second.

"It's great," she replied. "Damn nice food. Damn nice place to eat it."

"Ah! Here is the new daddy!" Johnny called out. "Come here, Dilip. Meet Miss Karla, a friend of Lin's who has come to eat with us."

Dilip bowed low with his hands pressed together in greeting, and then moved away, smiling shyly, to supervise the preparation of tea at two large stoves. He worked as a rigger on the site. The site manager had given him the day off to organise the feast for his family and friends. His hut was on the legal side of the slum, but close to my own across the wire. Beside the women's banquet area, just beyond Dilip's tea stoves, two men were attempting to clean something from the wall. A word that someone had painted there was still legible beneath their scrubbing. It was the word SAPNA, written in large English capitals.

"What is that?" I asked Johnny Cigar. "I've seen it everywhere lately."

"It's bad, Linbaba," he spat out, crossing himself superstitiously. "It's the name of a thief, a goonda. He's a bad fellow. He's been doing evil things all over the city. He's been breaking into houses, and stealing, and even killing."

"Did you say killing?" Karla asked. The skin on her lips was tight, and her jaw was set in a hard, grim line.

"Yes!" Johnny insisted. "First it was just words, in posters and such, and writing on the walls. Now, it has come to murder-cold blood murder. Two people were killed in their own houses just last night."

"He is so crazy, this Sapna, he uses a _girl's name," Jeetendra sneered.

It was a good point. The word sapna, meaning dream, was feminine, and a fairly common girl's name.

"Not so crazy," Prabaker disagreed, his eyes gleaming but his expression grave. "He tells that he is the king of thieves. He talks about making it war, to help the poor people, and killing the rich peoples. This is crazy, yes, but it is the kind of a crazy that many people will agree with, inside the quiet of their own heads."

"Who is he?" I asked.

"Nobody knows who he is, Lin," Kishore said, his American accented English, learned from tourists, flowing in a liquid drawl. "A lot of people are talking about him, but nobody I spoke to has ever seen him. People say he's the son of a rich man. They say he's from Delhi, and that he got cut out of his inheritance.

But some people also say he's a devil. Some people think that it's not a man at all, but a kind of organisation, like. There are posters stuck up around the place, posters telling the thieves and the poor buggers in the zhopadpattis to do crazy things. And like Johnny said, now two people have been murdered.

The name Sapna is getting painted on walls and streets all over Bombay. The cops are asking a lot of questions. I think they're scared."

"The rich peoples are scared, too," Prabaker added. "They were rich people, those unlucky fellows, killed in their homes. This Sapna fellow is writing his name in English letters, not the Hindi writing. This is an edu- cated fellow. And who painted that name here, in this place? The peoples are always here, always work or sleep, but nobody has seen who painted his name. An educated ghost! Rich peoples are also scared. Not so crazy, this Sapna fellow."

"Madachudh! Pagal!" Johnny spat again. _Motherfucker! _Madman!

"He's trouble, this Sapna, and the trouble will be ours, you know, because trouble is the only property that poor fellows like us are allowed to own."

"I think we might change the subject, guys," I interjected, looking at Karla. Her face was pale, and her eyes were wide with what seemed to be fright. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she answered quickly. "Maybe that elevator ride was scarier than I thought."

"Sorry for problem, Miss Karla," Prabaker apologised, his face pinched in a solicitous frown. "From now, only happy talking. No more talking about killing and murders and blood all over the houses, and all that."

"That should cover it, Prabu," I muttered through clenched teeth, glaring at him.

Several young women came to clear the used banana leaves away, and lay out small dishes of sweet rabdi dessert for us. They stared at Karla with frank fascination.

"Her legs are too thin," one of them said, in Hindi. "You can see them, through the pants."

"And her feet are too big," said another.

"But her hair is very soft, and a good, black Indian colour," said a third.

"Her eyes are the colour of stink-weed," said the first with a contemptuous sniff.

"Be careful, sisters," I laughed, speaking in Hindi. "My friend speaks perfect Hindi, and she understands everything you're saying."

The women reacted with shocked scepticism, chattering amongst themselves. One of them stooped to stare into Karla's face, and asked her loudly if she spoke Hindi.

"My legs may be too thin, and my feet may be too big," Karla replied in fluent Hindi, "but there's nothing wrong with my hearing."

The women shrieked in delight and crowded around her, laughing happily. They pleaded with her to join them, sweeping her away to the women's banquet. I watched her for some time, surprised to see her smile and even laugh out loud in the company of the women and the young girls. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever known. It was the beauty of a desert at dawn: a loveliness that filled my eyes, and crushed me into silent, unbreathing awe.

Looking at her there, in the Village in the Sky, watching her laugh, it shocked me to think that I'd deliberately avoided her for so many months. I was no less surprised by how tactile the girls were with her, how easily they reached out to stroke her hair or to take her hands in their own. I'd perceived her to be aloof and almost cold. In less than a minute, those women were more familiar with her than I'd dared to be in more than a year of friendship. I remembered the quick, impulsive kiss she'd given me, in my hut. I remembered the smell of cinnamon and jasmine in her hair, and the press of her lips, like sweet grapes swollen with the summer sun.

Tea arrived, and I took my glass to stand near one of the huge window openings that looked out over the slum. Far below, the tattered cloak of the ghetto spread outward from the construction site to the very edge of the sea. The narrow lanes, obscured by ragged overhangs, were only partially visible and seemed more like tunnels than streets. Smoke rose in drifts from cooking fires, and stuttered on a sluggish seaward breeze to disperse over a scattering of canoes that fished the muddy shore.

Inland from the slum there were a large number of tall apartment buildings, the expensive homes of the middle-rich. From my perch, I looked down at the fabulous gardens of palms and creepers on the tops of some, and the miniature slums that servants of the rich had built for themselves on the tops of others. Mould and mildew scarred every building, even the newest. I'd come to think of it as beautiful, that decline and decay, creeping across the face of the grandest designs: that stain of the end, spreading across every bright beginning in Bombay.

"You're right, it is a good view," Karla said quietly as she joined me.

"I come up here at night, sometimes, when everyone's asleep," I said, just as quietly. "It's one of my favourite places to be alone."

We were silent, for a while, watching the crows hover and dip over the slum.

"So, where's your favourite place to be alone?"

"I don't like to be alone," she said flatly, and then turned in time to see my expression. "What's the matter?"

"I guess I'm surprised. I just, well, I thought of you as someone who's good at being alone. I don't mean that in a bad way. I just think of you as... sort of aloof, sort of above it all."

"Your aim is off," she smiled. "Below it all, would be more like it."

"Wow, twice in one day."

"What?"

"That's twice in one day that I've seen a big smile. You were smiling with the girls before, and I was thinking that it's the first time I've ever seen you really smile."

"Well, of course I smile."

"Don't get me wrong. I like it. Not-smiling can be very attractive. Gimme an honest frown over a false smile, any day. It looks right on you. You look, I don't know, sort of satisfied, not smiling, or maybe honest is the right word. It looks right on you, somehow. Or I thought it did, until I saw you smiling today."

"Of course I smile," she repeated, her brow creasing in a frown, while her tightly pressed lips wrestled with the smile.

We were silent again, staring at each other instead of the view.

Her eyes were reef-green, flecked with gold, and they shone with the luminous intensity that's usually a sign of suffering or intelligence, or both. A clean wind stirred her shoulder-length hair-very dark hair, the same black-brown as her eyebrows and long lashes. Her lips were a fine, unpainted pink, parted to reveal the tip of her tongue between even, white teeth. She leaned against the windowless frame with her arms folded. The tides of the breeze rippled through the loose silk of her blouse, revealing and concealing her figure.

"What were you and the girls laughing about?"

She raised one eyebrow in the familiar, sardonic half-smile.

"Are you making small talk with me?"

"Maybe I am," I laughed. "I think you're making me nervous.

Sorry."

"Don't worry about it. I take it as a compliment-to both of us.

If you really want to know, it was mostly about you."

"Me?"

"Yeah, they were talking about you hugging a bear."

"Oh, that. Well, it was pretty funny, I guess."

"One of the women was imitating the look you had on your face, just before you did it, and they cracked up over that. But the really funny thing to them was figuring out why you did it.

Everyone took turns at guessing why. Radha-she said she's your neighbour, right?"

"Yeah, she's Satish's mother."

"Well, Radha said you hugged the bear because you felt sorry for it. That got a big laugh."

"I'll bet," I mumbled dryly. "What did you say?"

"I said you probably did it because you're a guy who's interested in everything, and wants to know everything."

"It's funny you say that. A girlfriend of mine once told me, a long time ago, that she was attracted to me because I was interested in everything. She said she left me for the same reason."

What I didn't tell Karla was that the girlfriend had described me as interested in everything, and committed to nothing. It still rankled. It still hurt. It was still true.

"Are you... are you interested in helping me with something?"

Karla asked. Her tone was suddenly serious, portentous.

So that's it, I thought. That's why she came to see me. She wants something. The spiteful cat of wounded pride arched behind my eyes. She didn't miss me-she wanted something from me. But she had come, she was asking me, not someone else, and there was salvage in that. Looking into those serious green eyes, I sensed that it was rare for her to ask anyone for help. I also had the feeling that a great deal, maybe too much, was balanced in it.

"Sure," I said, careful not to hesitate for too long. "What do you want me to do?"

She swallowed hard, pushing past an obvious reluctance, and spoke in a rush of words.

"There's this girl, a friend of mine. Her name's Lisa. She's got herself in a very bad situation. She started working at this place-a place for foreign call girls. Anyway, Lisa messed up.

Now she owes money, a lot of it, and the Madame who runs the place where she works won't let her go. I want to get her out of there."

"I don't have much, but I think..."

"It's not the money. I've got the money. But the woman who runs the place has taken a liking to Lisa. Even if we pay, she won't let her go. I know what she's like. It's personal now. The money's just an excuse. What she really wants is to break Lisa, a little at a time, until there's nothing left. She hates her, because Lisa's beautiful and bright and she's got guts. She won't let her leave."

"You want us to break her out of there?"

"Not exactly."

"I know some people," I said, thinking of Abdullah Taheri and his mafia friends. "They're not afraid of a fight. We could ask them to help."

"No, I've got friends here, too. They could get her out of there easy enough, but that wouldn't stop the heavies from finding her, and taking it out on her later. They don't mess around. They use acid. Lisa wouldn't be the first girl to get acid thrown in her face because she got on the wrong side of Madame Zhou. We can't risk it. Whatever we do, it has to be in a way that convinces her to leave Lisa alone, forever."

I was uneasy about it. I sensed that there was more to it than Karla was telling me.

"Did you say Madame Zhou?"

"Yes-have you heard of her?"

"A bit," I nodded. "I don't know how much of it to believe.

People say some pretty wild and dirty things about her."

"The wild things... I don't know... but the dirty things are all true, take it from me."

I didn't feel any better about it.

"Why doesn't she just run away, this friend of yours? Why doesn't she get on a plane, and get the hell back to-where did you say she came from?"

"She's American. Look, if I could make her go back to the States, there wouldn't be a problem. But she won't go back. She won't leave Bombay. She'll never leave Bombay. She's a junkie. That's a big part of it. But there's more than that-stuff from her past, stuff she can't face back there. So she won't go. I've tried to talk her into it, but it's no good. She... she just won't. And I can't say that I blame her. I've got issues of my own-things in my past I'd rather not go back to. Things I won't go back to."

"And you've got a plan-to get this girl out, I mean?"

"Yes. I want you to pretend that you're someone from the American embassy, some kind of consulate officer. I've already set it up.

You won't have to do much. I'll do most of the talking. We'll tell them that Lisa's father is some big honcho in America with ties to the government, and that you've had orders to get her out of there and keep an eye on her. I'll have all that straight before you even walk in the door." "It sounds pretty fuzzy to me, Karla. You think that'll be enough?"

She took a bundle of beedies from her pocket and lit two of them with a cigarette lighter, holding the small cigarettes in one hand and playing the flame over them with the other. She passed one to me, and puffed deeply on her own before answering me.

"I think so. It's the best thing I've come up with. I talked it over with Lisa, and she says she thinks it'll work. If Madame Zhou gets her money, and if she believes you're from the embassy, and if she's convinced that she'll get into trouble with the embassy or the government if she hassles Lisa any more, I think she'll leave her alone. There's a lot of ifs in there, I know. A lot of it really depends on you."

"It depends on her, too, this... Madame. Do you think she'll believe it-believe _me?"

"We'll have to play it exactly right. She's more cunning than clever, but she's not stupid."

"Do you think I can do this?"

"How's your American accent?" she asked with a little embarrassed laugh.

"I was an actor once," I muttered, "in another life."

"That's great!" she said, reaching out to touch my forearm. Her long, slender fingers felt cool against my warm skin.

"I don't know," I frowned. "It's a lot of responsibility if it doesn't go down right. If something happens to the girl, or to you..."

"She's my friend. It's my idea. The responsibility's mine."

"I'd feel better about it, you know, just fighting my way in there, and fighting my way out again. This embassy thing-there's so many ways it could go wrong."

"I wouldn't ask you if I didn't think it was the right way to go, and if I wasn't sure you could do it, Lin."

She fell silent, waiting. I let her wait, but I knew the answer already. She might've thought I was weighing it up, trying to make up my mind. In fact, I was only thinking about why I was going to do it. Is it for her? I asked myself. Am I committed, or just interested? Why did I hug the bear?

I smiled.

"When do we do this?"

She smiled back.

"In a couple of days. I've got to do a bit of stuff first, to set it all up." She threw the finished beedie away, and took a step towards me. I think she might've kissed me, but just then a frightened clamour of shouting and shrieks started up among the people, and they ran to join us at the windows. In the jam of bodies, Prabaker pushed his head through, under my arm and next to Karla.

"Municipality!" he shouted. "B.M.C. is coming! Bombay Municipal Corporation. Look there!"

"What is it? What's happening?" Karla asked. Her voice was all but lost in the shouts and screams.

"It's the council. They're going to tear down some houses," I called back, my lips close to her ear. "They do this every month or so. They're trying to keep the slum under control, to stop it from spreading outside the edge, there, where it meets the street."

We looked down near the main street to see four, five, six large, dark blue police trucks rolling into an open area that was a kind of no man's land, enclosed by the crescent of the slum. The heavy trucks were covered with canvas tarpaulins. We couldn't see inside them, but we knew they contained squads of cops, twenty or more men to each truck. An open tray-truck, loaded with council workers and their equipment, drove between the parked police vehicles and stopped near the huts. Several officers climbed down from the police trucks and deployed their men in two rows.

The council workers, themselves mostly slum-dwellers from other slums, leapt from their truck, and set about their task of demolition. Each man had a rope and grappling hook that he swung onto the roof of a hut until it caught fast. He then tugged on the rope, collapsing the fragile hut. The people had just enough time to gather the bare essentials-babies, money, papers.

Everything else was tumbled and raked into the wreckage: kerosene stoves and cooking pots, bags and bedding, clothes and children's toys. People scattered in panic. The police stopped some of them, and then marched a few young men away to the waiting trucks.

The people at our windows grew silent as they watched. From our vantage point, we could see the destruction far below, but we couldn't hear even the loudest noise of it. Somehow, the soundlessness of that methodical, scouring obliteration struck at us all. I hadn't noticed the wind until then. It was a moaning wail in that eerie quiet. I knew that all through the thirty-five floors of the building, above and below us, other people stared mute witness, just as we did.

Although the houses of construction workers in the legal slum were safe, all work on the site stopped in sympathy. The workers understood that when the building was finished it would be their own homes that would lie in ruins. They knew that the ritual they'd all seen so many times before would be played out for the last time: the ghetto would be gutted and burned, and a car park for limousines would take its place.

I looked at the faces around me; faces struck with compassion and dread. In the eyes of some, I saw smoulders of shame for what the council's power had forced too many of us to think: Thank God...

Thank God it's not me...

"Great luck, your house is safe, Linbaba! Yours and mine also!"

Prabaker said as we watched the cops and council workers climb back onto their trucks and drive away. They'd scythed and smashed a swath, one hundred metres long and ten metres wide, at the north-eastern corner of the illegal slum. About sixty houses had been obliterated, the homes of at least two hundred people. The entire operation had taken less than twenty minutes.

"Where will they go?" Karla asked quietly.

"Most of it will be back again by this time tomorrow. Next month they'll come and knock them down again, or another bunch of huts just like them in another part of the slum. Then that'll be rebuilt. But it's still a big loss. All their things have been smashed up. They have to buy new bamboo and mats and stuff, to make new houses. And people got arrested-we might not see them again for months."

"I don't know what scares me more," she declared, "the madness that smashes people down, or their ability to endure it."

Most of the people had left the window, but Karla and I remained as close together as we'd been in the push and shove of the crowd. My arm was around her shoulder. On the ground, twenty floors below, people began to pick through the rubble of their homes. Canvas and plastic shelters were already being erected for the elderly, the babies, and the smallest children. She turned to face me, and I kissed her.

The taut bow of her lips dissolved on mine in concessions of flesh to flesh. There was such sad tenderness in it that, for a second or two, I floated free, and was adrift in its inexpressible kindnesses. I'd thought of Karla as street-wise and tough and almost cold, but that kiss was pure, undisguised vulnerability. The gentle loveliness of it shocked me, and I was the first to pull away.

"I'm sorry. I didn't..." I faltered.

"It's okay," she smiled, leaning away from me with her hands on my chest. "But we might be making one of those pretty girls at the feast jealous."

"Who?"

"Are you saying you don't have a girl here?"

"No. Of course not." I frowned.

"I've got to stop listening to Didier," she sighed. "It was his idea. He thinks you must have a girlfriend here. He thinks that's the only reason you'd stay in the slum. He said that's the only reason any foreigner would stay in the slum."

"I don't have a girlfriend, Karla, not here or anywhere. I'm in love with you."

"No you're not!" she snapped, and it was like a slap.

"I can't help it. For a long time now I-"

"Stop it!" she interrupted me again. "You're not! You're not! Oh, God, how I hate love!"

"You can't hate love, Karla," I said, laughing gently, and trying to lighten her mood.

"Maybe not, but you sure as hell can be sick of it. It's such a huge arrogance, to love someone, and there's too much of it around. There's too much love in the world. Sometimes I think that's what heaven is-a place where everybody's happy because nobody loves anybody else, ever."

The wind lashed her hair into her face, and she pushed it back with both hands, holding it there with her fingers fanned out across her forehead. She was staring down at her feet.

"What the fuck ever happened to good, old, meaningless sex, without any strings attached?" she rasped, her lips drawn tightly over her teeth.

It wasn't a question, but I answered it anyway.

"I'm not ruling that out-as a fall-back position, so to speak."

"Look, I don't want to be in love," she stated, in a softer tone.

She raised her eyes to stare into mine. "I don't want anyone to be in love with me. It hasn't been good to me, the romance thing."

"I don't think it's kind to anyone, Karla."

"My point, exactly." "But when it happens, you haven't got a choice. I don't think it's something any of us do by choice. And... I don't want to put any pressure on you. I'm just in love with you, that's all.

I've been in love with you for a while, and I finally had to say it. It doesn't mean you have to do anything about it-or me either, for that matter."

"I'm still... I don't know. I'm just... Jesus! But I'm happy to _like you. I like you a lot. I'll be head over heels in like with you, Lin, if that's enough."

Her eyes were honest, and yet I knew there was a lot she wasn't telling me. Her eyes were brave, and yet she was afraid. When I relented, and smiled at her, she laughed. I laughed, too.

"Is it enough for now?"

"Sure," I lied. "Sure."

But already, like the people in the ghetto, hundreds of feet below, I was picking through the smashed houses in my heart, and rebuilding on the ruin.

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