Oh yes, Jethamoshai, she said to Saifuddin. And how is he now?

Saifuddin, who was a stocky, powerfully built man, in his mid-forties, explained to her, in rapid Hindustani-accented Bengali, that he wasn’t well, that they ought to do something for him as soon as possible.

My grandmother, nodding gravely, looked down at her hands, and saw to her surprise that she was carrying a brown-paper packet. Then she remembered why she had brought it, and thrust it into Saifuddin’s hands. Here, she said. It’s a sari for your wife.

A smile of pleased surprise appeared on Saifuddin’s grease-blackened face. He protested that she shouldn’t have bothered, and then thanked her profusely and shouted up to his wife to bring tea for their guests from India.

But shouldn’t we go and talk to him now? Mayadebi said. We haven’t got much time.

You have to have a cup of tea here before you go, the mechanic said firmly. After all, you’ve come all the way from India. Besides, it’s no use going to see Ukil-babu on your way; you have to wait for Khalil.

And who is Khalil? said my grandmother.

Khalil and his family look after Ukil-babu, Saifuddin explained to her. He’s a nice fellow. He came over from India too; from Murshidabad, in Bengal. He’s a bit stupid, but he’s got a good heart. That’s what I always say to people – I say, he may be foolish, but he’s got a good heart, otherwise why would he bother to look after that old man, a Hindu too, when he could easily have thrown him out and kept both rooms for his family?

He turned to Tridib, and said: Have you been to Motihari, sahb, in Bihar? That’s where I was born.

Tridib shook his head.

Saifuddin pursed his lips in disappointment. That’s sad, he said. You must go and visit Motihari when you get back. It’s a nice place, though of course there’s a lot of trouble there now.

How does Khalil earn a living? my grandmother asked.

He runs a cycle-rickshaw, Saifuddin said. And does little odd jobs here and there. Just about makes enough to keep his wife and children going. It was all right for them when the Ukil-babu was earning a little. But now that he’s bedridden, I don’t know how they manage.

He fingered his chin thoughtfully. There must be hotels in Motihari now, he said to Tridib. I believe the town has dozens of cinema halls.

Does Khalil’s wife cook for him too? my grandmother asked in a hushed voice.

Of course, said Saifuddin. If she didn’t the old man wouldn’t get anything to eat.

She exchanged a look of amazement with Mayadebi. Do you know, she whispered to Robi, there was a time when that old man was so orthodox that he wouldn’t let a Muslim’s shadow pass within ten feet of his food? And look at him now, paying the price of his sins.

Ten feet! Robi explained to May in a hushed whisper, marvelling at the precision of the measurement. How did he measure? he whispered back at my grandmother. Did he keep a tape in his pocket when he ate?

No, no, my grandmother said impatiently. In those days many people followed rules like that: they had an instinct.

Trigonometry! Robi cried in a triumphant aside to May. They must have known trigonometry. They probably worked it out like a sum: if the Muslim is standing under a twenty-two foot building, how far is his shadow? You see, we’re much cleverer than you: bet your grandfather couldn’t tell when a German’s shadow was passing within ten feet of his food.

But how, Tridib was asking Saifuddin, did Khalil come to move into this house? Was the house requisitioned by the government and divided or something like that?

No, Saifuddin said in mild surprise. He came like the rest of us, only later. Don’t you know? After Partition Ukil-babu went around looking for people to move into the house because he was afraid his brother’s family would come back to claim their share. He used to stand at the gates, welcoming people in. His own children had gone away long ago, no one knows where. One of his sons came once, but Ukil-babu sent him back. Khalil came much later than the rest of us. He just turned up with his family, and the Ukil-babu let him stay. And Khalil has looked after him ever since.

He glanced at them quickly, out of the corners of his eyes. Of course, he added, it’s getting very difficult for him now. He can’t afford it any longer.

Poor old man, my grandmother said, shaking her head. Do you think he’ll agree to go back with us now?

Who knows? Saifuddin gestured towards the heavens with his open palms: He’s very old and not quite right in the mind. He doesn’t recognise people any more – that’s why you have to wait for Khalil before you go to meet him. You may not find it easy to get him to leave. He’s grown old here. I couldn’t get my father to leave Motihari to come to Pakistan with us. He’d grown old there too … But you will have to try; there’s no alternative now.

The reedy blast of a rubber horn sounded in the lane outside. A moment later a rickshaw banked steeply through the gate and came shooting into the yard. The driver was standing poised on one pedal, preparing to jump off.

That’s Khalil, said Saifuddin. He usually falls off. Dhishum! Right on his head. But he has a hard head.

Khalil leapt off the rickshaw while it was still in motion, fell on all fours and abashedly picked himself up. He was a small, stocky man with powerful legs, broad shoulders, and an indeterminately young face. Respectfully lowering his folded lungi, he shuffled up to Saifuddin and said: Yes, sir? It was evident from the deferential angle of his head that he held the mechanic in considerable awe.

These are Ukil-babu’s relatives, Khalil, Saifuddin said. I told you about them. They’ve come all the way from India to take him back. You must do what you can to help them persuade the Ukilbabu to leave.

Khalil turned to them and grinned: there was a wide gap where his front teeth should have been. May remembered later that her heart was instantly won by that broad smile: it was a shy, simple kind of smile, but looking at his face she knew instinctively that behind it lay, not simple-mindedness, but its exact contrary, a quality of mind.

In a deep, low voice, shaking his head, Khalil said: He won’t go. It’s no use talking to him. He won’t go.

Khalil! the mechanic said sharply. You remember what I told you? You have to do something to persuade him to go. It’s for his own sake. It’s not safe for him here any more.

Khalil shrugged. All right, he said. You can try. But I tell you, it’s no use: he won’t go.

He gestured to them to follow him and led the way across the yard. My grandmother had difficulty rising to her feet now; Tridib had to help her up. Mayadebi linked arms with her as they slowly walked across the yard. They both had tears running down their cheeks when they stopped at the door. We’re going to find out at last about the upside-down house, said my grandmother.

Khalil pushed open the door and ushered them in.

The room was large and very grimy, not from neglect, but from being too densely inhabited. The plaster drooped in blackened scrolls on the walls, and honeycombs of cobwebs hung down from the ceiling. The floor was littered with old tyre tubes and rusty handlebars while the walls were lined with shelves of peeling books and beribboned files.

Mayadebi and my grandmother began to laugh, hugging each other. Nothing’s upside-down, said my grandmother.

A woman, hooded in a sari, with two children clutching her knees, was watching them from the shelter of a curtained door at the far end of the room. Ei! Khalil said to her: make some tea for them, quick, they’re Ukil-babu’s relatives, come from Calcutta.

The curtain dropped and she disappeared, but the children stayed, watching them with bright round eyes.

It was not until Khalil crossed the room that they noticed the old man. He was sitting on a high, four-poster bed at the far end of the room, looking out of the window, unaware of their presence. Robi shrank back. He had never seen anyone as old as that: he was so old he seemed childlike – shrunken, tiny, with spit hanging in threads from the corners of his mouth.

My grandmother’s eyes misted over as she looked at the old man. Jethamoshai, she cried. We’ve come home at last …

He saw her then and turned his head slowly to look at her.

She covered her head and hurried towards him. We’ve come back, Jethamoshai, she said, her voice dissolving into a sob. We’ve come to take you with us.

Stop! he screamed shrilly, cowering back into the grimy bolsters and pillows that lay scattered around him. Stop, stop, stop! What are you doing woman? Stop!

My grandmother froze, in confusion. What do you mean stop? she said, her tear-choked voice taking on an edge of indignation. Don’t you recognise me? I’m your …

I know who you are, woman, he said irascibly, his thin voice quavering. But I never let clients touch me. My father never allowed it. It’s a dirty habit, he used to say. Now go and sit on that stool over there and tell me about your case.

My grandmother, taken by surprise, obeyed him and sat down.

The old man shook a twig-like finger at Khalil, and gestured at the others.

Tell them to wait in a queue outside, he said. I’ll see them one by one. I can’t see more than one client at a time.

Now listen to me, Ukil-babu, Khalil bellowed, at the top of his voice. They’re not clients, Ukil-babu. They’re your relatives.

But the old man was not listening. His eyes were fixed on May. His sagging mouth had fallen open and his tongue had spilled out from the gaps between his teeth.

Playfully, he waggled his head at her. She smiled back.

She’s a foreigner, Ukil-babu, Khalil shouted, so loudly that Robi heard him with his feet. She’s come from Calcutta with your relatives.

I know, the old man said, blinking at her. I know. I know everything. Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, I know.

Ukil-babu has so much knowledge in his head! Khalil said proudly to my grandmother.

How do you do? the old man said to May in English, whistling through the gaps in his teeth. How do you do?

A thought seemed to come into his mind and he raised his head and surveyed the walls. The pupils of his eyes had leaked into the whites liked punctured egg yolks. He found what he was looking for and slowly raised a matchstick-thin arm.

There, he said, pointing at a picture. Our King-Emperor. God save our gracious king.

There was so much dust encrusted on the picture that Robi could see nothing except a pointed beard near the bottom of the frame and a crown floating on a cloud of cobwebs at the top.

The old man began to sing – God save our gracious … But then he forgot the tune and managed somehow to convert the words into a cheerful hum.

May laughed and began to sing too: God save our …

That’s right, the old man said, slapping his pillows in applause. Then suddenly, his mouth fell open and his face darkened with worry.

Khalil! he whispered in a whistle that shrilled through the room. Khalil, run, run, go quickly and buy some toilet paper.

What’s that? said Khalil. Why?

What if she wants to shit? the old man said. My father always said: the first thing to remember if a foreigner comes to your house is to buy toilet paper. He knew: he read books.

Don’t worry Ukil-babu, Khalil shouted, trying to soothe him. She’s already been this morning.

How do you know? he snapped. Has she told you? You can’t even speak English.

My grandmother was distraught now; she couldn’t bear to sit still any longer. She leapt to her feet and shouted: Jethamoshai, don’t you know who I am?

His face twisted into a peevish scowl as he turned slowly to look at her. Didn’t I tell you to sit down, woman? he snapped.

Obediently, my grandmother sat down again. Can’t you see? she moaned, wringing her hands. I’m your own brother’s daughter.

All right, then, woman, he said. Explain your case to me. What’s it all about?

Then Tridib stepped in. Now listen, he said very loudly. We’re your relatives; we’ve come to take you back. Do you remember your brother who lived in the other part of the house?

The old man’s face lit up. They died! he said, his voice quivering in triumph. They had two daughters: one with a face like a vulture, and another one who was as poisonous as a cobra but all pretty and goody-goody to look at.

Tridib began to laugh. Well, they’ve come back to rescue you now, he said.

They both went junketing off somewhere, the old man went on. And as soon as I could I went out into the streets and got hold of whoever I could and moved them in. Now I’m just waiting for them to come back.

He grinned, and Tridib flinched from the festering malevolence in his bare, black gums.

I’m just waiting for them to come back, he said, so that I can drag them through every court in the land up to the Viceroy’s Council. ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law’ my cousin Brajen used to say, and he knew because he had taken his uncle’s family through every court in the kingdom because they had taken away a handful of soil from the land on his side of the canal and added it to theirs.

It’s true, Mayadebi said to Tridib. I remember him: he had to sell his land to pay his lawyers.

For one handful of soil! the old man marvelled, staring up at the ceiling. That’s the kind of flesh I’m made of. They’ll find out: just let them come back.

They have come back, my grandmother said gently. But not to fight you in court. We don’t want the house. We’ve come to take you home with us. It’s not safe for you here. There might be trouble any day now. You must move while you can.

Move? the old man said incredulously. Move to what?

It’s not safe for you here, my grandmother said urgently. I know these people look after you well, but it’s not the same thing. You don’t understand.

I understand very well, the old man muttered. I know everything, I understand everything. Once you start moving you never stop. That’s what I told my sons when they took the trains. I said: I don’t believe in this India-Shindia. It’s all very well, you’re going away now, but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move to? No one will have you anywhere. As for me, I was born here, and I’ll die here.

At that my grandmother gave up. She sighed and got up to go. There’s no use talking to him any more, she said. We’ve done what we can. We’d better go now.

Then Saifuddin the mechanic, who had been listening carefully, went quickly across the room and said: It’s no use talking to him. He’s not responsible for what he says; it’s the same as being mad. You’ll have to think of some other way of taking him back.

Suddenly Khalil turned to my grandmother, appealing with open arms.

Don’t listen to him, he cried. He’s only saying this because he wants to put in a claim for the whole house and he can’t do it while the old man is still living here. You can’t take him away; he won’t go. Besides, he’s like a grandfather to my children now – what will they do without him?

The mechanic wrenched him around and pushed him back against the wall.

He’s lying, he said. It’s got nothing to do with claiming the house. You can see Khalil is simple-minded; he doesn’t understand anything. I’m telling you to take him away for his sake. He’s made a lot of enemies over the years. The last time there was trouble we had a hard time protecting him. Who knows what’ll happen the next time?

You can’t take him away, cried Khalil. He’ll die.

Then a female voice broke in; it was Khalil’s wife, half hidden by the curtain.

Take him with you, she said. Khalil doesn’t know what he’s saying. He doesn’t have to cook for him and feed him. We have two other children too. How long can we go on like this? Where will the money come from?

And while they were sitting there, frozen into a tableau of indecision, the driver of their car came running up to the door.

Please come quickly, madam, he shouted. We have to leave – there’s going to be trouble outside.

He turned on his heel and disappeared.

My grandmother made up her mind.

Listen, Khalil, she said. What we’ll do is this: we’ll take him back now and keep him with us for a few days, until the trouble’s over. Then if he wants to return, we’ll bring him back. What about that?

Khalil’s head was hanging down in defeat now. All right, he said sullenly. But he won’t go in your car. I’ll have to bring him in my rickshaw. I’ll tell him he’s got to go to court – otherwise he won’t leave the house. I’ll follow your car.

The mechanic laughed scornfully. How can you follow their car? he said. Have you seen it? It’s a Mercedes.

Don’t worry, Khalil said, glaring at him. I’ll manage: if they go a little slowly.

Then he went up to the old man and said something into his ear. The old man turned his head away and shook his hands wildly in the air. But Khalil argued with him for a while and at last he nodded and stretched out his arms. Khalil took a black cotton coat off a peg and helped him into it. Then, reaching under the bed, he pulled out a pair of shoes, put them on his feet and tied the laces.

All right, said the old man. I’m ready to go now.

Khalil handed him his walking-stick, put an arm around his shoulders, and helped him climb off the bed.

Go on ahead, he said to my grandmother. Get into your car.

They left the room with Khalil and the old man following behind. When they reached the yard Tridib helped Khalil lift the old man into the rickshaw.

The mechanic walked with them as far as the gate.

You’re doing the right thing, he said to Mayadebi and my grandmother. It’s the only thing you could have done.

Ignoring him, they turned to take a last look at the house: at the balconies and terraces, rising in steps out of the ground; at the garden where they had once spent their evenings making up stories about their uncle’s part of the house.

Then they stepped through the gate and set off down the lane.

The children were waiting for them and followed them down the lane, laughing and chattering amongst themselves. The little girl who had befriended May appeared again and took hold of her hand. Some of them ran along with the rickshaw, talking to Khalil, and trying to jump up on the handlebars.

The driver was waving to them frantically from the car. He and the security guard threw the doors open and hurried them in.

Quickly now, madam, the driver said, biting his lip. Quickly now.

Robi had expected to see a crowd waiting for them, but the road was empty, deserted, and all the shops were shut.

There’s no trouble here, he said to the driver. What were you so worried about?

Just wait a little, the driver said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. Just a few minutes, Robi-master.

He started the car and they set off slowly down the empty road with the rickshaw following close behind.

It was Robi who saw them first, immediately after they turned the first corner, the corner my grandmother remembered so well, where the boys used to play football on a patch of grass.

There were dozens of them, stretched all the way across the road. They had lit a fire in the middle of the road, with a few broken chairs and bits of wood. Some of them were squatting around the fire, others were leaning against the lamp-posts and the shop-fronts. Robi could tell from the way they were watching the road that they had been waiting for their car.

He knew then, because of the chill that was spreading outwards from the pit of his stomach, that trouble had come to him at last.

Every word I write about those events of 1964 is the product of a struggle with silence. It is a struggle I am destined to lose – have already lost – for even after all these years I do not know where within me, in which corner of my world, this silence lies. All I know of it is what it is not. It is not, for example, the silence of an imperfect memory. Nor is it a silence enforced by a ruthless state – nothing like that: no barbed wire, no check-points to tell me where its boundaries lie. I know nothing of this silence except that it lies outside the reach of my intelligence, beyond words – that is why this silence must win, must inevitably defeat me, because it is not a presence at all; it is simply a gap, a hole, an emptiness in which there are no words.

The enemy of silence is speech, but there can be no speech without words, and there can be no words without meanings – so it follows, inexorably, in the manner of syllogisms, that when we try to speak of events of which we do not know the meaning, we must lose ourselves in the silence that lies in the gap between words and the world. This is a silence that is proof against any conceivable act of scorn or courage; it lies beyond defiance – for what means have we to defy the mere absence of meaning? Where there is no meaning, there is banality, and that is what this silence consists in, that is why it cannot be defeated – because it is the silence of an absolute, impenetrable banality.

So complete is this silence that it actually took me fifteen years to discover that there was a connection between my nightmare bus ride back from school and the events that befell Tridib and the others in Dhaka. And then, too, my discovery was the result of the merest accident, a chance remark. For a long time after I made that discovery it was difficult for me to forgive my own stupidity. But of course, in a sense, there was nothing to forgive. I was a child, and like all the children around me, I grew up believing in the truth of the precepts that were available to me: I believed in the reality of space; I believed that distance separates, that it is a corporeal substance; I believed in the reality of nations and borders; I believed that across the border there existed another reality. The only relationship my vocabulary permitted between those separate realities was war or friendship. There was no room in it for this other thing. And things which did not fit my vocabulary were merely pushed over the edge into the chasm of that silence.

I could not have perceived that there was something more than an incidental connection between those events of which I had a brief glimpse from the windows of that bus, in Calcutta, and those other events in Dhaka, simply because Dhaka was in another country.

One afternoon in 1979, soon after I began work on my PhD, I went to attend a lecture in the Teen Murti House Library in New Delhi. The speaker was an Australian specialist on Asian affairs, and he spoke on India’s war with China in 1962. He was not a particularly good speaker, and he had nothing new to say, but still, he jogged our memories, and when my friends and I went down to the canteen after the lecture, we found ourselves talking about our recollections of that time.

We were all surprised by how much we could remember of that month – October 1962. I, for one, remembered that we had only recently moved to our new house on Southern Avenue when the war began. It was soon after the Pujas. My mother and I had dressed up in our new Puja clothes one evening, and we were waiting for my father to come home so that we could go out visiting relatives. But he was very late, and when at last we heard the squeak of the front gate, my mother led me out into the garden at once so that we could glare at him. But when he stepped out he was not at all abashed by our frowns. His eyes were bleary and there was a huge smile on his face. He swung me up over his head, grinning (I could smell the whisky on his breath), and he said: Do you know what’s happened? Nehru’s told the army to drive those Chinkies back from our border. There’s going to be a war.

I leapt out of his arms and went running up to my grandmother’s room, cheering all the way. Tha’mma, I shouted. There’s a war, a war with China.

She laughed, I remember – it was a long time since she had laughed – and gave me a hug, and said: Let’s hope we teach them a lesson.

Over our half-pots of tea in the canteen, we recalled how quickly we had taught ourselves to distinguish the shapes of their aircraft from ours, how our mothers had donated bangles and earrings for the cause, how we’d stood at street-corners, taking collections and selling little paper flags. We could all remember how the euphoria had faded into confusion as we slowly realised that the Chinese had driven the Indian army back; how we had wondered whether they were going to occupy Assam and Calcutta.

One of us, a tall, bearded Marxist called Malik, told us how his father, who had been a Member of Parliament at that time, had opened the paper one morning, and shot straight out of the house, dressed in a lungi, and gone running down to the Foreign Secretary’s bungalow down the road.

Isn’t it odd, someone said, that we can remember it so well?

Why, no, said Malik. It’s not odd at all. It was the most important thing that happened in the country when we were children.

The others nodded in agreement, but I had my reputation for contrariness to preserve, so I shook my head and said: Oh, come on, it was just a stupid little skirmish somewhere in the hills. It wasn’t important at all. We wouldn’t even remember if it the Indian army hadn’t taken such a beating. It didn’t mean a thing to most people.

All right, said Malik, smiling. You tell us, then – what was more important than the ’62 war?

I was at a loss now that he had called my bluff. They watched me as I scratched my head, thinking hard.

Suddenly, for no reason that I can remember, I said: What about the riots …?

Which riots? said Malik. There are so many.

Those riots, I said. I had to count the years out on my fingers.

The riots of 1964, I said.

Their faces went slowly blank, and they turned to look at each other.

What were the riots of 1964? Malik said with a puzzled frown. I could tell that he really had no idea what I was talking about.

I turned to the others and cried: Don’t you remember?

They looked away in embarrassment, shaking their heads. It struck me then that they were all Delhi people; that I was the only person there who had grown up in Calcutta.

Surely you remember, I said. There were terrible riots in Calcutta in 1964.

I see, said Malik. What happened?

I opened my mouth to answer and found I had nothing to say. All I could have told them about was of the sound of voices running past the walls of my school, and of a glimpse of a mob in Park Circus. The silent terror that surrounded my memory of those events, and my belief in their importance, seemed laughably out of proportion to those trivial recollections.

There was a riot, I said helplessly.

There are riots all the time, Malik said.

This was a terrible riot, I said.

All riots are terrible, Malik said. But it must have been a local thing. Terrible or not, it’s hardly comparable to a war.

But don’t you remember? I said. Didn’t you read about it or hear about it? After all, the war with China didn’t happen on your doorstep, but you remember that. Surely you remember – you must remember?

Regretfully, they shook their heads and blew out clouds of cigarette smoke.

I stood up and tapped Malik on the shoulder. I was determined now that I would not let my past vanish without trace; I was determined to persuade them of its importance.

Come with me, I said. Let’s go into the library and look up the newspaper files for 1964. I’ll show you.

He grinned at the others and gulped down the rest of his tea. All right, he said. Let’s go.

We went into the quiet, air-conditioned gloom of the library and made our way to the shelves at the back where the bound volumes of old newspapers were kept. The volumes of the newspaper I wanted – a well-known Calcutta daily – were stacked along the third row of shelves. There were four massive volumes for 1964.

Do you remember the date? Malik said. Or even the month?

I shook my head. No, I said. I don’t remember.

Well, we can’t look through all of these at random, he said, nodding at the four volumes. It would take us days.

Then what shall we do? I said.

Maybe there’ll be a reference to it in a book or something, he suggested.

And what if we can’t find the right book? I said.

Then, Malik said patiently, we’ll have to assume that you imagined the whole thing.

He turned and walked off towards a row of shelves.

Malik knew that library fairly well; he’d been researching one thing or another there for several years. He stopped at a shelf and pointed. It was the section on the war of 1962. There were whole shelves of books on the war – histories, political analyses, memoirs, tracts – weighty testimony to the eloquence of war. He pointed out another set of shelves, smiling broadly: it was the section on the 1965 war with Pakistan.

At least we won that one, he said.

But after half an hour we still hadn’t found anything on my remembered riots.

Malik was bored now. He stole a look at his watch and gave me a friendly pat on my shoulder. I’ve got to get back home now, he said. Maybe some other day …

I nodded silently, unnerved by the possibility that I had lived for all those years with a memory of an imagined event. And then, as Malik turned to go, an odd little detail stirred in my mind, a faint recollection of the excitement I had felt while I was standing on the pavement that morning, waiting for my school bus to appear.

No, don’t go, I said, clutching Malik’s arm. I remember something now. It happened during a Test match – with England, I think. Do you remember that series? When that wicketkeeper who was dropped later scored a maiden century?

Yes, of course, he said laughing. Yes I remember that. It was Budhi Kunderan, wasn’t it?

Yes! I cried. Yes, that’s it – Budhi Kunderan. So it must have happened during the cricket season – perhaps January or February.

All right, said Malik. But this is your last chance – let’s go and look.

We went back to the newspaper section and took down the volume for January and February, 1964. Opening it, we began to go through the papers backwards, turning first to the sports pages. Soon Malik found a reference to the visiting English cricket team. A few pages later we stumbled upon a headline which said: MADRAS TEST BEGINS TODAY.

That’s it, I cried triumphantly. That was the day, I remember now. I listened to the commentary on the radio after I got home from school.

It was the edition of Friday, 10 January 1964.

Quickly we turned the limp, yellowing pages back until we came to the front page.

So where’s your riot? said Malik.

The lead story had nothing to do with riots of any kind, nor with Calcutta: it was about the 68th session of the Congress Party in Bhubaneshwar. Dazed and disbelieving, I read through a report which quoted a speech in which Mr Kamaraj, the party president, had extended an invitation to everyone who had faith in the ideology of socialism and democracy to come together in the common task of building a new society.

It looks, said Malik, as if your riots didn’t manage to make it to the front page.

But a moment later, I found what I had been looking for: a short report at the bottom of the page, with a headline which said: TWENTY-NINE KILLED IN RIOTS.

There, I said, pounding on the paper with my fist. There: Read it for yourself.

I stood back panting, light-headed with relief, and watched his face as he read the report. He read it once, slowly. A frown appeared on his forehead, and he went back to the beginning and read it through again.

Then he looked up at me and said: Didn’t you say the riots happened in Calcutta?

Yes, of course, I answered.

That’s strange, he said, tapping the open newspaper. Because these riots here happened in Khulna, in East Pakistan, across the border from Calcutta.

The floor of that quiet, familiar library seemed to drop away under my feet leaving me suspended in space. I would have fallen if Malik had not put out a hand to hold me steady. Holding myself upright with both hands, I leant over the desk and read the report.

It said the army had been called out the day before in Khulna, when a demonstration had turned violent and ended in a riot.

It’s strange, said Malik, looking at me curiously. It’s really very strange that you should remember a riot that happened in Pakistan.

Then he nodded and went away.

Long after he had gone, it occurred to me that newspapers carry the news a day late. I turned the pages to the edition of Saturday, 11 January 1964, and sure enough, there it was: a huge banner headline which said: CURFEW IN CALCUTTA, POLICE OPEN FIRE, 10 DEAD, 15 WOUNDED.

Indistinctly, through the white haze that was swirling before my eyes, I noticed another headline, at the bottom of the page. It said: KUNDERAN’S DAY AT MADRAS, UNBEATEN 170 IN FIRST TEST. And right above it was a tiny little box item in bold print, with the headline: SACRED RELIC REINSTALLED, which said ‘the sacred hair of the Prophet Mohammad was reinstalled in the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar today amongst a tremendous upsurge of popular joy and festivity throughout Kashmir’.

It was thus, sitting in the air-conditioned calm of an exclusive library, that I began my strangest journey: a voyage into a land outside space, an expanse without distances; a land of looking-glass events.

It is said that the sacred relic known as the Mu-i-Mubarak – believed to be a hair of the Prophet Mohammad himself – was purchased by a Kashmiri merchant called Khwaja Nur-ud-din in Bijapur (near Hyderabad) in the year 1699. The following year the sacred relic was transported to the valley of Kashmir. This is only one version of the provenance of the relic; there are several others. It is agreed, however, that the arrival of the relic was greeted by a great tumult of joy in the valley. People are said to have marched in their thousands from every part of Kashmir – even from such distant and remote eyries as the Banihal Pass – in order to get a glimpse of the relic. Later, the relic was installed at the picturesque Hazratbal mosque near Srinagar. This mosque became a great centre of pilgrimage, and every year multitudes of people, Kashmiris of every kind, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, would flock to Hazratbal on those occasions when the relic was displayed to the public. This is well attested, even by those European observers whose Christian sense of the necessity of a quarantine between doctrines was outraged by the sight of these ecumenical pilgrims. Thus, over the centuries, the shrine became a symbol of the unique and distinctive culture of Kashmir.

On 27 December 1963, two hundred and sixty-three years after it had been brought to Kashmir, the Mu-i-Mubarak disappeared from its place in the Hazratbal mosque.

As the news spread, life came to a standstill in the valley of Kashmir. Despite the bitter cold (the weather columns of the Delhi papers note that the water mains were frozen in Srinagar that day), thousands of people, including hundreds of wailing women, took out black-flag demonstrations from Srinagar to the Hazratbal mosque. Schools, colleges and shops pulled down their shutters all over the valley and buses and cars vanished from the streets.

The next day, Sunday, 29 December, there were huge demonstrations in Srinagar, in which Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus alike took part. There were a number of public meetings too, which were attended and addressed by members of all the major religious communities. There were some incidents of rioting and a curfew was quickly declared by the authorities. But the targets of the rioters (and with what disbelief we read of this today) were not people – neither Hindus, nor Muslims, nor Sikhs – but property identified with the government and the police.

The government blamed these attacks on ‘anti-national elements’.

Over the next few days life in the valley seemed to close in upon itself in a spontaneous show of collective grief. There were innumerable black-flag demonstrations, every shop and building flew a black flag, and every person on the streets wore a black armband. But in the whole of the valley there was not one single recorded incident of animosity between Kashmiri Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. There is a note of surprise – so thin is our belief in the power of syncretic civilisations – in the newspaper reports which tell us that the theft of the relic had brought together the people of Kashmir as never before. They ascribe this in part to the leadership of Maulana Masoodi – an authentic hero, forgotten and unsung today, as any purveyor of sanity inevitably is in the hysteria of our subcontinent. He it was, they tell us, who persuaded the first demonstrators to march with black flags instead of green, and thereby drew the various communities of Kashmir together in a collective display of mourning.

In Delhi there was consternation. Prime Minister Nehru appealed for patience and dispatched the highest officials of the Central Bureau of Intelligence and the Home Ministry to find the missing relic. The Premier of Kashmir declared that the theft was a ‘mad act of some miscreants’.

In Pakistan there were meetings and demonstrations in towns and cities in both wings of the country. The religious authorities, usually so quick to condemn idolatry, declared that the theft of the relic was an attack upon the identity of Muslims. Karachi observed 31 December as a ‘Black Day’, and soon other cities followed suit. The Pakistani newspapers declared that the theft was part of a deep-laid conspiracy for uprooting the spiritual and national hopes of Kashmiris, and rumbled darkly about ‘genocide’.

On 4 January 1964, the Mu-i-Mubarak was ‘recovered’ by the officials of the Central Bureau of Intelligence. There were no explanations; indeed, to this day nobody really knows what happened to the Hazratbal relic.

But the city of Srinagar erupted with joy. People danced on the streets, there were innumerable thanksgiving meetings, and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs marched together in demonstrations demanding that the conspirators be revealed. For the first, and almost certainly the last, time the celebratory slogan ‘Central Intelligence zindabad!’ rang out on the street of an Indian city.

Within this great festival of joy, there was only one small rumble of warning. In Khulna, a small town in the distant east wing of Pakistan, a demonstration that was marching in protest against the theft of the relic turned violent. Some shops were burnt down and a few people were killed.

When I was reading through that short report for the fifth time, it struck me suddenly, like a slap in the face, that May, Tridib and my grandmother must have left for Dhaka the day before. And then I saw Tridib once again, turning to give me our secret Inca salute for the last time, before he turned to go into the departure lounge at Dum Dum airport.

For a long time after that I could not bring myself to go back to that library. I lay on my bed in my dank hostel room in the university, staring at the furry green patches that had sprouted on the ceiling during the monsoons, wondering how, and why, my father had allowed them to go. It seemed so wanton and senseless – and so uncharacteristic, for he was a realistic, practical, and above all cautious man. He must have known that something was going to happen – I distinctly remembered how he had cut himself short when he saw that I had heard him mention ‘trouble’. I could make no sense of it, and slowly, watching those green shapes crawling across my ceiling, it began to seem to me that he had sent them there on purpose; that he had conspired in Tridib’s death.

But later, when I went back to the library, took down a volume of the newspaper we had subscribed to at that time, and opened it at that date – now branded in my memory – 4 January 1964, I made another discovery. I found that there was not the slightest reference in it to any trouble in East Pakistan, and the barest mention of the events in Kashmir. It was, after all, a Calcutta paper, run by people who believed in the power of distance no less than I did.

There is nothing quite as evocative as an old newspaper. There is something in its urgent contemporaneity – the weather reports, the lists of that day’s engagements in the city, the advertisements for half-remembered films, still crying out in bold print as though it were all happening now, today – and the feeling besides that one may once have handled, if not that very paper, then its exact likeness, its twin, which transports one in time as nothing else can. So, looking at the paper that my father had read that morning, I knew he could not be blamed for ignoring the stirrings of the silence around him: in that paper there was not the slightest hint or augury of the coming carnage; it was replete with the fullness of normalcy. And when I looked back at the editions of 1, 2 and 3 January, they were the same: how could I blame him? He was merely another victim of that seamless silence.

And yet he knew, and they must have known too, all the canny journalists; everybody must have known in some voiceless part of themselves – for events on that scale cannot happen without portents. If they knew, why couldn’t they speak of it? They were speaking of so much else, of the Congress conference, of the impending split in the Communist Party, of wars and revolutions: what is it that makes all those things called ‘politics’ so eloquent and these other unnameable things so silent? Those journalists and historians were, after all, men of intelligence and good intention on the whole, no less than anyone else, and once the riots had started they produced thousands of words of accurate description. But once they were over and there was nothing left to describe they never spoke of it again – while those other events, party splits and party congresses and elections, poured out their eloquence in newspapers and histories for years and years after they were over, as though words could never exhaust their significance. But for these other things we can only use words of description when they happen and then fall silent, for to look for words of any other kind would be to give them meaning, and that is a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness.

So that is why I can only describe at second hand the manner of Tridib’s death: I do not have the words to give it meaning. I do not have the words, and I do not have the strength to listen.

Once the riots started in Khulna the government of East Pakistan lost no time in sending the army there to put down the ‘disturbances’. But it was already too late. One of the headlines of 7 January reads: FOURTEEN DIE IN FRENZY OFF KHULNA.

Over the next few days the riots spread outwards from Khulna into the neighbouring towns and districts and towards Dhaka. Soon Hindu refugees began to pour over the border into India, in trains and on foot. The Pakistani government provided these trains with armed guards and appears to have done what it could to protect them. At some places on the border the trains were stopped by mobs, some of which were heard to chant the slogan ‘Kashmir Day zindabad!’ (perhaps at that very moment, the crowds in Kashmir were shouting ‘Central Intelligence zindabad!’) But there do not appear to have been any serious attacks on the trains. The towns and cities of East Pakistan were now in the grip of a ‘frenzy’ of looting, killing and burning.

In Calcutta, rumours were in the air – especially that familiar old rumour, the harbinger of every serious riot, that the trains from Pakistan were arriving packed with corpses. A few Calcutta dailies printed pictures of weeping, stranded Hindu refugees, along with a few lurid accounts of the events in the east. On 8 and 9 January, with refugees still pouring in, rumours began to flow like floodwaters through the city and angry crowds began to gather at the station.

And so the events followed their own grotesque logic, and on 10 January, the day the cricket Test began in Madras, Calcutta erupted. Mobs went rampaging through the city, killing Muslims and burning and looting their shops and houses.

The police opened fire on mobs in several places and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed on parts of the city. But the scale of the events had already swamped the police. On 11 January the army was called out of Fort William and several battalions were deployed throughout the city. In the next day’s papers, underneath the banner headlines, there are pictures of Sikh soldiers patrolling deserted streets. But in the Moulin Rouge on Park Street, it was business as usual, with a tea dance from 5 to 7 p.m. and a Dinner Dance with Delilah accompanied by the ‘popular Moulin Rouge quintette’.

The next day, with patrol trucks roaring through the streets, the Moulin Rouge advertised a twist competition and jam session to ‘Bongo rhythms’. Perhaps because of the curfew they couldn’t get to the newspaper offices in time to withdraw the advertisement.

‘Stray incidents’ of arson and looting continued, in Dhaka as well as Calcutta, despite the presence of the two armies, for a few days. It took about a week before the papers could declare that ‘normalcy’ had been ‘restored’.

There are no reliable estimates of how many people were killed in the riots of 1964. The number could stretch from several hundred to several thousand; at any rate, not very many less than were killed in the war of 1962.

It is evident from the newspapers that, once the riots started, ‘responsible opinion’ in both India and East Pakistan reacted with an identical sense of horror and outrage. The university communities of both Dhaka and Calcutta took the initiative in doing relief work and organising peace marches; and newspapers on both sides of the border did some fine, humane pieces of reporting. As always, there were innumerable cases of Muslims in East Pakistan giving shelter to Hindus, often at the cost of their own lives, and equally, in India, of Hindus sheltering Muslims. But they were ordinary people, soon forgotten – not for them any Martyr’s Memorials or Eternal Flames.

As for the two governments, they traded a series of curiously symmetrical accusations. On 7 January, a spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi declared that the situation of ‘lawlessness’ in East Pakistan was an ‘inevitable consequence of the incitement and provocative statements’ made by Pakistani leaders and the Pakistani press. A few days later the Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan was summoned to the External Affairs Ministry and informed of the Pakistani government’s view that the communal incidents in East Pakistan were being played up by the Indian press in order to ‘divert the people’s attention from the serious happenings in Kashmir’. But even more curiously, within a few days an almost congratulatory note entered into the exchanges between the ministries as they reviewed their respective success in ‘quelling’ the disturbances. For a while the presidents of the two countries even seriously considered issuing a joint appeal for communal harmony. But soon enough, that plan went the way of all good intentions in the subcontinent, and the memory of the riots vanished into the usual cloud of rhetorical exchanges.

In fact, from the evidence of the newspapers, it is clear that once the riots had started, both governments did everything they could to put a stop to them as quickly as possible. In this they were subject to a logic larger than themselves, for the madness of a riot is a pathological inversion, but also therefore a reminder, of that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments. And that prior, independent relationship is the natural enemy of government, for it is in the logic of states that to exist at all they must claim the monopoly of all relationships between peoples.

The theatre of war, where generals meet, is the stage on which states disport themselves: they have no use for memories of riots.

By the end of January 1964 the riots had faded away from the pages of the newspapers, disappeared from the collective imagination of ‘responsible opinion’, vanished without leaving a trace in the histories and bookshelves. They had dropped out of memory into the crater of a volcano of silence.

A few months after I had made my discovery in the Teen Murti Library, I found, at the bottom of my bookshelf, the tattered old Bartholomew’s Atlas in which Tridib used to point out places to me when he told me stories in his room. Mayadebi had given it to me many years before.

One day, when it was lying open on my desk in my hostel room, quite by chance I happened to find a rusty old compass at the back of my drawer. It had probably been forgotten there by the person who had lived in the room before me.

I picked it up and, toying with it, I placed its point on Khulna and the tip of the pencil on Srinagar.

Khulna is not quite one hundred miles from Calcutta as the crow flies: the two cities face each other at a watchful equidistance across the border. The distance between Khulna and Srinagar, or so I discovered when I measured the space between the points of my compass, was 1200 miles, nearly 2000 kilometres. It didn’t seem like much. But when I took my compass through the pages of that atlas, on which I could still see the smudges left by Tridib’s fingers, I discovered that Khulna is about as far from Srinagar as Tokyo is from Beijing, or Moscow from Venice, or Washington from Havana, or Cairo from Naples.

Then I tried to draw a circle with Khulna at the centre and Srinagar on the circumference. I discovered immediately that the map of South Asia would not be big enough. I had to turn back to a map of Asia before I found one large enough for my circle.

It was an amazing circle.

Beginning in Srinagar and travelling anti-clockwise, it cut through the Pakistani half of Punjab, through the tip of Rajasthan and the edge of Sind, through the Rann of Kutch, and across the Arabian Sea, through the southernmost toe of the Indian Peninsula, through Kandy, in Sri Lanka, and out into the Indian Ocean until it emerged to touch upon the northernmost finger of Sumatra, then straight through the tail of Thailand into the Gulf, to come out again in Thailand, running a little north of Phnom Penh, into the hills of Laos, past Hué in Vietnam, dipping into the Gulf of Tonking, then swinging up again through the Chinese province of Yunnan, past Chungking, across the Yangtze Kiang, passing within sight of the Great Wall of China, through Inner Mongolia and Sinkiang, until with a final leap over the Karakoram Mountains it dropped again into the valley of Kashmir.

It was a remarkable circle: more than half of mankind must have fallen within it.

And so, fifteen years after his death, Tridib watched over me as I tried to learn the meaning of distance. His atlas showed me, for example, that within the tidy ordering of Euclidean space, Chiang Mai in Thailand was much nearer Calcutta than Delhi is; that Chengdu in China is nearer than Srinagar is. Yet I had never heard of those places until I drew my circle, and I cannot remember a time when I was so young that I had not heard of Delhi or Srinagar. It showed me that Hanoi and Chungking are nearer Khulna than Srinagar, and yet did the people of Khulna care at all about the fate of the mosques in Vietnam and South China (a mere stone’s throw away)? I doubted it. But in this other direction, it took no more than a week …

In perplexity I turned back through the pages of the atlas at random, shut my eyes, and let the point of my compass fall on the page. It fell on Milan, in northern Italy. Adjusting my compass to the right scale I drew a circle which had Milan as its centre and 1200 miles as its radius.

This was another amazing circle. It passed through Helsinki in Finland, Sundsvall in Sweden, Mold in Norway, above the Shetland Islands, and then through a great empty stretch of the Atlantic Ocean until it came to Casablanca. Then it travelled into the Algerian Sahara, through Libya, into Egypt, up through the Mediterranean, where it touched on Crete and Rhodes before going into Turkey, then on through the Black Sea, into the USSR, through Crimea, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Estonia, back to Helsinki.

Puzzling over this circle, I tried a little experiment. With my limited knowledge, I tried to imagine an event, any event, that might occur in a city near the periphery of that circle (or, indeed, much nearer) – Stockholm, Dublin, Casablanca, Alexandria, Istanbul, Kiev, any city in any direction at all – I tried to imagine an event that might happen in any of those places which would bring the people of Milan pouring out into the streets. I tried hard but I could think of none.

None, that is, other than war.

It seemed to me, then, that within this circle there were only states and citizens; there were no people at all.

When I turned back to my first circle I was struck with wonder that there had really been a time, not so long ago, when people, sensible people, of good intention, had thought that all maps were the same, that there was a special enchantment in lines; I had to remind myself that they were not to be blamed for believing that there was something admirable in moving violence to the borders and dealing with it through science and factories, for that was the pattern of the world. They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland. What had they felt, I wondered, when they discovered that they had created not a separation, but a yet-undiscovered irony – the irony that killed Tridib: the simple fact that there had never been a moment in the 4000-year-old history of that map when the places we know as Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines – so closely that I, in Calcutta, had only to look into the mirror to be in Dhaka; a moment when each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free – our looking-glass border.

There was only one small chink in the armour of austerity that had sat so heavily on my grandmother ever since I could remember: she had a secret fondness for jewellery. There’d been nothing secret about this weakness of hers when she was a girl: it had been a passion.

I know this because I sometimes heard relatives – people who had known her in Dhaka – teasing her about her love of jewellery; asking her what had become of all those necklaces and bangles she had made my grandfather buy her.

Their teasing didn’t bother my grandmother at all.

It was a good thing I had something to fall back on, she would say quietly. How do you think I managed, all those years when I was living in that slum, when all of you’d forgotten about me? How do you think I would have survived if I hadn’t had my jewellery to fall back on?

The offending relative would be stung into silence. But later, when we were out of her hearing, they would explain to me, chuckling, that her love of jewellery had been a family joke when she was a girl. She would often be seen at the little gold-merchant’s shop at the corner of Jindabahar Lane, peering in through the bars, staring at the goldsmiths working inside. She took so much delight in exclaiming over her married cousins’ jewellery cases that they had kept the keys ready on the ends of their saris whenever she went visiting. At weddings, knowing old housewives would ask her for her opinion on the jewellery the bride had been given, as though she were a gold-merchant’s grandmother, rather than a chit of a girl.

She had stopped wearing jewellery publicly, of course, after she was widowed, and later, when my father married my mother, she had given her all the jewellery she hadn’t yet sold. She loved to see my mother wearing the bangles and necklaces she had given her. But my mother didn’t particularly care for jewellery and rarely wore any – even to weddings.

This never failed to infuriate my grandmother. So you’re going to a wedding with your neck bare? she would snap at my mother. I suppose you want to give everybody the impression that you’re starving here.

But it’s horrible to be weighed down with gold in this heat, my mother would protest.

So then what did I save all this stuff for? my grandmother would say, glaring at her. I could have sold it off, along with all the rest – God knows I needed the money – but I saved it so that my daughter-in-law wouldn’t have anything to complain about. And now you tell me you’re too fashionable to wear gold at a wedding. The problem is that your generation of girls has grown too used to luxury – you’ve forgotten the value of things. I’d just like to see you bringing up that spoilt son of yours in a one-room tenement in a slum; I’d just like to see it.

So, to mollify her, my mother would open the steel box in her cupboard, take out one of the necklaces she had been given and put it on.

My grandmother would pretend not to notice for a while, but in fact, of course, she was always delighted. After a decent interval she would summon my mother and run her fingers over the necklace, smiling to herself and reminiscing about the place where she had bought it, trying to remember the name of the shop.

My mother would take it off and slip it into her handbag as soon as she was out of the house (horrible heavy thing!), but my grandmother was not to know, and the mere sight of the necklace would leave her contented.

But there was one piece of jewellery that she had never parted with. It was a long, thin gold chain with a tiny ruby pendant. It was so much a part of her that I hardly noticed it: she had never taken it off, at least not in my recollection.

But all the same, she was very ashamed of wearing it, and went to great lengths to hide it under her blouse, spreading it out over her shoulders, with the pendant tucked deep inside so that nobody would see it. She believed that our relatives would gossip if they saw her wearing it.

I know what they’d say, she would mutter. They’d say: Look at her – she’s been a widow for years and she’s still wearing jewellery as though she were a girl. Why, I’m sure even your father thinks that, deep down in his heart.

Of course she did not neglect to inform my father of her views. He, for his part, would try to persuade her that he didn’t mind about her necklace at all, that, indeed, he would have been happy if she’d worn more jewellery. And perhaps in a way he would have been; perhaps it really would have pleased him to see her, all dressed up, like his fashionable colleagues’ mothers, who went to clubs with their sons wearing just the right touches of gold around their necks and wrists, laying claim to chicdom through their defiance of the ancient, but sadly démodé, proscriptions.

But my grandmother didn’t believe my father when he said he didn’t mind, and perhaps she was right: maybe my father, despite his protestations, did mind her wearing even that thin gold chain; maybe somewhere deep in his heart he did really think of it as a sign of disrespect to his dead father.

But my grandmother didn’t intend any disrespect to his memory; far from it.

I wear it because He gave it to me, she explained to me once. You know – your grandfather. It was the first thing He ever gave me – in Rangoon, soon after we were married. They have wonderful rubies there. I couldn’t bear to give it away now – He wouldn’t like it. I haven’t taken it off once in these thirty-two years – not even when I had my gall-bladder operation. They wanted me to take it off, but I made them sterilise it instead. I wasn’t going to have my operation without it. It’s become a part of me now.

Sometimes, while massaging her neck, or when she had fallen asleep in her chair, I would pull the chain out of her blouse and run it through my fingers. It was so scratched and discoloured it didn’t look like gold any more. It smelt exactly like her, of soap and starch and powder, but in a sharpened, metallic kind of way. It really was a part of her.

And then, one day in the year 1965, more than one and a half years after her trip to Dhaka, she gave it away.

One afternoon I came home from school to find the radio blaring at top volume in my grandmother’s room, upstairs. It was so loud I could hear it on the pavement, where the schoolbus had left me. I ran in and found my mother lying prostrate on her bed, with her fingers jabbed against her temples and a wet cloth draped over her eyes.

What’s going on? I asked her.

Who’s to know but God? she said. Your Tha’mma went out of the house at ten this morning and came back a couple of hours later. She wouldn’t have anything to eat – I asked her myself, I said, you’ll fall ill if you don’t eat, but who’s listening to whom? – and instead she went upstairs and turned on her radio and it’s been going like that ever since. She turns it even higher when the news comes on; it’s happened three times already.

Where did she go? I said. I was very surprised, because at that time my grandmother hardly ever left her room: we could count the number of times she had been out of the house in the last year on the fingers of one hand.

My mother shrugged again and pulled a face. Who knows where she went? she said. Who cares?

Didn’t you go up and ask? I said, knowing that the answer would be no, because at that time I was the only person in the house whom she would allow into her room.

Why don’t you go and tell her to turn it down now? my mother said. She might listen to you. It’s no use my asking her.

I ran upstairs and pushed my grandmother’s door open. I could only see her back. She was crouching over the radio, with both her arms around it, as though she were waiting for the noise to blow a hole through her.

I knew at once, the moment I saw her.

Tha’mma! I shouted. What’s happened to your chain? What have you done with it?

She turned to look at me then. Her hair was hanging in wet ropes over her face; her eyes were glazed and her spectacles had fallen off. I was frightened by the sight of her: I wished I hadn’t shut the door behind my back.

I gave it away, she said, her glazed, unfocussed eyes alighting, not on me, but on a point on the wall above my head.

Why Tha’mma? I said. Why did you do that?

I gave it away, she screamed. I gave it to the fund for the war. I had to, don’t you see? For your sake; for your freedom. We have to kill them before they kill us; we have to wipe them out.

She began to pound on the radio with both hands. I took a step backwards, fumbling with the doorknob, behind my back.

This is the only chance, she cried, her voice rising to a screech. The only one. We’re fighting them properly at last, with tanks and guns and bombs.

Then the glass front of the radio shattered as her fist drove into it. Bits of glass tinkled on to the floor and the radio sputtered and fell silent. She wrenched her hand back, gouging out flesh and skin on the jagged edges of the glass. She gave her bloody hand a shake, put it on her lap and stared at it, bemusedly, as the blood dripped down the sides of her sari, dyeing it a gentle, batik-like crimson.

I must get to the hospital, she said to herself, perfectly calm now. I mustn’t waste all this blood. I can donate it to the war fund.

It was then that I screamed. I screamed from the pit of my stomach, holding my head and shutting my eyes. I screamed until my mother and the servants came and carried me to my room, and even then I screamed and would not open my eyes.

I was still whimpering when my mother came into my room with the doctor. She patted my head and said: The doctor’s going to give you an injection so that you’ll be able to rest for a while.

I struck her hand away and said: What’s happened to Tha’mma?

Don’t worry about her, said my mother. She’s all right. Your father came with another doctor and they took her away to a nice hospital where she can rest for a few days. Doctors and nurses will look after her, and she’ll be very calm and happy. Don’t worry about her.

Why did she do that? I said. What did she want?

My mother felt my forehead worriedly while the doctor tested his syringe.

Don’t worry about Tha’mma, she said. It’s this war with Pakistan. She’s been listening to the news on the radio all the time and it hasn’t been good for her. She’s never been the same, you know, since they killed Tridib over there.

‘Killed’ Tridib? I said, as the needle slipped into my arm. Who killed Tridib? You told me it was an accident.

Yes, yes, my mother said quickly. That’s what I meant. Now go to sleep, don’t worry.

Why did you say ‘killed’? I said. What did you mean?

But the soporific glow of the tranquilliser had already begun to warm my body, and in a moment I shut my eyes and forgot.

That was the first time I had any inkling that Tridib’s death was the result of something other than an accident.

I was sent to stay with my mother’s brother in Durgapur when his body was brought back from Dhaka. He was cremated while I was away. May left for London the same day, and immediately afterwards Mayadebi and her family went back to Dhaka.

I knew nothing of what had happened, nothing – not even that Tridib was dead.

My parents came to Durgapur a week later, to fetch me, and on the way to Calcutta my father stopped the car at the great temple of Ma Kali at Dakshineshwar. I was taken aback, because I knew my father hated fighting his way through the crowds at the temple. Why have we stopped here? I asked.

Never mind, he said, and I knew at once that it was a special occasion.

We locked the car and went in, followed by a swarm of importuning pandas. My father spotted our family priest, and he came running across the great paved courtyard and led us through the crowd up to the inner temple. While we were circumambulating the inner temple, with our offerings cupped in our hands, my father put a hand on my shoulder and said: Listen, there’s something I have to tell you. A very sad thing happened while you were away in Durgapur. Tridib died in an accident in Dhaka.

He stopped and bent down to look into my face; I think he’d expected me to burst into tears. But for me ‘dead’ was just a word, associated vaguely with films and comic books. That was all; I had no means of attaching that word to a real presence, like Tridib’s. I felt nothing – no shock, no grief. I did not understand that I would never see him again; my mind was not large enough to accommodate so complete an absence.

What sort of accident? I said.

Their car was stopped by some hooligans, my father told me. Just ordinary ruffians like you have everywhere. But the car swerved and crashed into a wall or something … That was all. No one else was hurt.

I nodded and went ahead, my offerings still safe in my hands.

No, wait, my father said, pulling me to a halt. Listen: you have to promise me something. Remember you’re holding Ma Kali’s flowers in your hands, so you can’t ever go back on your word. Promise me that you’ll never talk about this anywhere – never, not in school, not to Montu, not to your friends at the park. You know that Meshomoshai – Tridib’s father – is a very important man in the government? He doesn’t want people to hear about this – it has to be kept secret, so you mustn’t talk about it. Most of all, you mustn’t ask your Tha’mma any questions about what happened. She’s already very upset, and it would only get worse if you made her talk about it. You’re growing up now, you’re a big boy, and you have to understand that there are things grownups don’t talk about.

I nodded, but I didn’t really give him my word – not because I did not think I could keep it, but merely because I could not understand why he was making such a fuss. My friends wouldn’t have been interested in an accident in some far-off place anyway. There was nothing to talk about: an accident was such a petty way to die.

The first time Robi ever talked about Tridib’s death was in London: at the end of that beautiful September day when Ila took us to Lymington Road to meet Mrs Price.

Ila had promised to give Robi and me dinner at her favourite ‘Indian’ restaurant – a small Bangladeshi place called the Maharaja, in Clapham – after we’d been to see Mrs Price. She did her best to persuade Nick to come with us too, when he walked us back to the West Hampstead tube station. But Nick declined politely: he had something to do that evening, he said; he would have to put it off till some other time. He waved us goodbye at West Hampstead station.

Ila was so disappointed she did not say a single word all the way to Clapham Common.

The restaurant was only a few minutes’ walk from the underground station. Ila pointed it out to us as soon as we climbed out – a dimly lit plate-glass window, with heavy velvet curtains, wedged in between a dozen other eating places, ranging from Guyanese to Turkish. When Robi pushed the door open, we found ourselves in a narrow, rectangular room, divided into little cubicles, each with its own table and chairs. The tables were lit by brass lamps with tasselled shades and the chairs were upholstered in worn purple cloth. The room smelt powerfully of spices, as though the central heating had grafted the odours of the kitchen deep into the wallpaper and upholstery.

The restaurant was almost empty when we went in. The man behind the counter, at the far end of the room, waved when he saw Ila, and came hurrying towards us.

How are you, Rehman-shaheb? Ila said as she handed him her coat.

I’m very well, he said, smiling broadly. He was a short, middle-aged man, with round cheeks and greying hair, dressed in a black jacket and a white bow tie. He spoke Bengali with a nasal Sylhet accent, and we had to listen to him carefully to follow, even though he was obviously making an effort to match his speech to ours.

Where have you been all these days? he was saying to Ila. We haven’t seen you in here for so long we thought you’d moved away from Stockwell.

Ila laughed. Oh no, Rehman-shaheb, she said. I wouldn’t move away without telling you first.

Rehman-shaheb ushered us to a table, pulled back the chairs and handed us each a menu. Robi opened his, looked at it for a moment, and gave me a sidelong glance.

Chicken Singapore? he said under his breath.

Prawn Bombay? I responded.

Robi sighed and snapped his menu shut. Why don’t you order, Ila? he said. You obviously know the place.

Ila ordered quickly, without bothering to look at the menu. When Rehman-shaheb had taken our orders and gone into the kitchen, she leant towards us and whispered: Treat it like something exotic – like Eskimo food – and you’ll enjoy it. You’re not going to get your mothers’ chochchori and bhat; you mustn’t expect anything familiar.

She was proved right when the food came: everything fell just beyond the border of familiarity – the usual taste of spices transformed by stock and cream and Worcestershire Sauce. But the food was delicious in its own way, and we ate heartily while Robi told us stories about his colleagues in the Indian Administrative Service – funny stories about lonely young men who lived in huge colonial mansions in remote districts and spent their time writing symbolist poetry and masturbating.

After the plates had been cleared away and Ila had paid for the dinner with her credit card, Rehman-shaheb came back with three cups of coffee on a tray.

This is from us, he said. I mean, ‘Compliments of the House’, ar ki; you know? It’s a custom over here.

Oh, Rehman-shaheb! exclaimed Ila. Why did you do all this? You shouldn’t have. But now you have to sit with us for a while.

Yes, do sit with us for a bit, I added. For me the experience of hearing Bengali dialects which I had never heard in Calcutta being spoken in the streets of London was still replete with unexplored ironies.

All right, Rehman-shaheb said, and pulled a chair up to our table. There was an awkward moment of silence, and then Ila said: Rehman-shaheb, do you know, my uncle Robi over there lived in your part of the world when he was a boy, in Dhaka.

Oh, is that so? said Rehman-shaheb. I lived there too for a bit. When were you there?

It was a long time ago, said Robi. From 1962 to 1964.

I see, said Rehman-shaheb, I left before that – joined a ship, you know. Have you been back after that? After Bangladesh became independent?

Robi shook his head.

You must go, said Rehman-shaheb. It’s completely changed now – so modern. You won’t believe it. But tell me, which part of the city did you live in?

In Dhanmundi, said Robi.

Ah there, said Rehman-shaheb. That was for rich folks and foreigners. Did you ever go into the old city? Now that’s where you should have gone: the sweets you’ll get there! Like nowhere else in the world, not even Calcutta. And the people! They’re so hospitable, they’ll take you straight into their houses.

Robi smiled thinly.

Ila gave me a worried glance and pushed her chair back.

But I don’t suppose you’ve ever been into that part of the town, have you? said Rehman-shaheb, smiling at Robi.

Yes, said Robi. As a matter of fact, I have. You see my mother was born there.

Really? cried Rehman-shaheb. Where? Do you remember where?

Robi’s smile was like a grimace now. Yes, he said. I do remember. You had to go past Shador-bajar, and then turn off the road and go down a long road crowded with shops, and then you had to turn off at a corner where there was a kind of field where the boys used to play football, and then there’s a hardware shop, and that’s the corner of the lane where my mother was born – Jindabahar Lane, Dhaka.

Allah! said Rehman-shaheb. You remember it very well I can see. But you must have been very young then. How is it that you remember?

I pushed my chair back and stood up. We ought to go now, I said.

But Robi didn’t hear me. He was leaning towards Rehman-shaheb, gripping the table, his knuckles white.

I remember it because my brother was killed there, he said. In a riot – not far from where my mother was born. Now do you see why I remember?

Rehman-shaheb leapt to his feet, his face red with embarrassment.

Robi stood up, pushed his way past us and went out.

Oh, I’m so … Rehman-shaheb said to Ila. I didn’t mean … I really didn’t.

Don’t worry, Ila said quickly. It’s not your fault. I know you didn’t mean it. It’s mine – I shouldn’t have brought up the subject. Ila snatched up her coat, gave Rehmanshaheb’s arm one last pat and whispered: It’s all right, don’t worry. Then she followed me out of the restaurant.

He was gone by the time we were out. It was a while before we saw him, in the distance, as he passed a lamp-post. He was striding fast down the Clapham Road, towards Stockwell. We began to run.

When we caught up with him we tried to fall in step, but his strides were so long we virtually had to run to keep up. We walked past the fast-food shops on the Clapham Road, beneath the railway bridge and the underground station at Clapham North. At length Robi came to a halt. He shook his arms free and said: I need to sit somewhere. Just for a minute.

There was an overgrown garden to our left, and within it a derelict white church, with a short flight of steps in front. Robi led us through the gate and up to the steps. Clearing a space for himself among the leaves on the stairs, he sat down and lit a cigarette.

It’s a dream, you know, he said, blowing a plume of smoke at his feet. I only get it about twice a year now, but it used to be once a week, when I was younger – in college, for instance. But I learnt to control it – I often know when it’s coming, and on nights like that I try not to sleep. It always begins with our car going around a corner. There’s a muddy kind of field on one side, a very small one, but it’s got a crooked goalpost stuck in the mud. We turn the corner and there they are, ahead of us, strung out across the road. Sometimes it’s a crowd, sometimes just a couple of men. I know their faces well now, better than I know my friends’. There’s one with a very thin face and a wispy moustache and a crooked mouth. He’s always in it. The odd thing is, that no matter how many men there are – a couple, or dozens – the street always seems empty. It was full of people when we went through it – a bazaar, all the shops open, people going in and out, rickshaws, thela-garis, vendors, donkeys. And there were people in the houses above the shops too, looking down at us, from the windows and balconies. But all the shops are shut now, barricaded, and so are the windows in the houses. There’s no one on the balconies. The street’s deserted, but for those men. I can see little details sometimes: a green coconut, for instance, lying in the middle of the road, wobbling when the breeze catches it; a slipper on the pavement – not a pair, just a single rubber slipper, lying there abandoned.

There’s a grinding kind of noise somewhere inside the car, and it lurches, throwing everyone forward, so that I almost bang my head against the dashboard. Someone in the back seat, I think it’s my mother, but I’ve never been sure, cries: Don’t stop, go on.

And the car does go on, in fact the driver had merely changed gears without declutching properly. It’s moving forward again now – not steadily, but in short jerks, because the driver’s so scared he’s lost control of his right foot. His cap’s fallen off, and he’s sitting hunched over the wheel, with sweat dripping down his face. The security guard, sitting beside me, in the front seat, is looking ahead, fingering his shirt.

Then the men begin to move towards us – they’re not running, they’re gliding, like skaters in a race. They fan out and begin to close in on us. It’s all silent, I can’t hear a single thing, no sound at all.

The security guard pushes me down and reaches back to make sure our doors are locked. I can only see his blue uniform now, from where I am. I can’t see his face and I can’t look outside. I see him reaching under his shirt, and when he pulls out his hand there’s a revolver in it, a very small one. It’s got an odd colour, sort of slate-grey. I can see it in detail because it’s right next to my face.

Then the car veers away, and suddenly there’s a huge thump on the bonnet, and somebody screams at the back. I look up then, lifting my head just a little, until it’s level with the bottom of the windscreen, and there’s a face there, on the other side of the glass, the nose flattened, the eyes looking in. It’s the man with the crooked mouth; he’s lying flat on the bonnet, and he’s seen me. He raises his arm and swings it back; there’s something in it, but I don’t know what it is, I can never see it. His arm comes swinging down, over his head in an arc, and suddenly the windscreen clouds over and crashes in. When I look up at the driver there’s a cut across his face, and he’s clutching a flap of skin trying to hold it in place, on his cheek. He doesn’t have either hand on the steering wheel. The car lurches, rolls forward, and stalls, with its front wheel in a gutter.

The security guard pushes me down again, and then he throws the door open and jumps out, with the revolver ready in his hand. He shouts something, I don’t know what, and then he shouts again, and there’s a crash, and I know he’s fired a shot. I look out then, out of the window, and I see the men, circling around us, drawing back, and the sound of the shot is still echoing off those closed windows and empty balconies.

There’s a moment of absolute quiet as they watch us and we watch them. It’s so still I can hear the sound of the driver’s blood dripping on the steering wheel. And then the silence is broken: there’s a creak somewhere behind us – it’s a small sound, but in the quiet it sounds like a thunderclap. We all turn: we in the car, they outside. And do you know what it is? It’s the rickshaw – Khalil’s rickshaw – with the old man, our grand-uncle, whom we’d gone to rescue, sitting at the back, all dressed up in his lawyer’s coat.

And as I watch, the rickshaw begins to grow. It becomes huge, that rickshaw, it grows till it’s bigger than the shops and the houses; so big that I can’t see the old man sitting on top. But those men are running towards it, as fast as it grows, they’re scrambling up its wheels, up its poles, along the sides. They’ve forgotten us now; there’s no one around us – they’re all busy climbing up the rickshaw. The security guard jumps in, grinning, and shouts something to the driver: he’s telling him to start the car and get going while he can – to think about his face later. And they’re shouting at the back too, telling the driver to be quick, to get going. The driver reaches for the key, he’s stretched his arm all the way out, as far as it’ll go, but it doesn’t reach, no matter how hard he tries. And while he’s straining to reach the key, somebody gets out at the back; I hear the door slamming shut. When I look around I see May: she’s tiny, shrunken, and behind her is that rickshaw, reaching heavenwards, like a gigantic anthill, and its sides are seething with hundreds of little men.

May is screaming at us; I can’t hear a word, but I know what she’s saying. She’s saying: Those two are going to be killed because of you – you’re cowards, murderers, to abandon them here like this.

The door opens again, and I know in my heart that Tridib is going to get out too. I stretch out a hand to pull him back into the car, but my hand won’t reach him; I try to shout, but I have no voice left, I cannot make a single sound.

And that is when I wake up, gagging, trying to scream.

Robi shook another cigarette out of his pack and tried to strike a match. The first match broke, and he threw it away and struck another, held it steady and lit his cigarette.

I’ve never been able to rid myself of that dream, he said. Ever since it first happened. When I was a child I used to pray that it would go away: if it had, there would have been nothing else really, to remind me of that day. But it wouldn’t go; it stayed. I used to think: if only that dream would go away, I would be like other people; I would be free. I would have given anything to be free of that memory.

He laughed, looking at the glowing tip of his cigarette.

Free, he said laughing. You know, if you look at the pictures on the front pages of the newspapers at home now, all those pictures of dead people – in Assam, the northeast, Punjab, Sri Lanka, Tripura – people shot by terrorists and separatists and the army and the police, you’ll find somewhere behind it all that single word; everyone’s doing it to be free. When I was running a district I used to look at those pictures and wonder sometimes what I would do if it were happening in my area. I know what I’d have to do; I’d have to go out and make speeches to my policemen, saying: You have to be firm, you have to do your duty. You have to kill whole villages if necessary – we have nothing against the people, it’s the terrorists we want to get, but we have to be willing to pay a price for our unity and freedom. And when I went back home, I would find an anonymous note waiting for me, saying: We’re going to get you, nothing personal, we have to kill you for our freedom. It would be like reading my own speech transcribed on a mirror. And then I think to myself, why don’t they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It’s a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide a memory? If freedom were possible, surely Tridib’s death would have set me free. And yet, all it takes to set my hand shaking like a leaf, fifteen years later, thousands of miles away, at the other end of another continent, is a chance remark by a waiter in a restaurant.

He shrugged, threw away his cigarette, and stood up. I suppose we should be going, he said.

Then Ila, who had been sitting beside him, stood up too and put an arm around his shoulders and another around mine, and held us together. We stood a long time like that, on the steps of that derelict church in Clapham, three children of a free state together, clinging.

I had hoped to spend my last day in London visiting my old haunts – West End Lane, Lymington Road, Stockwell and the Embankment – one last time before leaving for India. In the evening I was to go to Islington because May had invited me to dinner.

But, as it turned out, the day went past in a breathless rush, and I almost forgot about dinner.

I had to make the journey from Fulham to the West End twice, with my suitcase still unpacked: once when I discovered that I had merely overlooked two of the names I thought I had already ticked on my list of presents. I ran all the way from the house to the tube station at Putney Bridge, sweat pouring down my face, my shirt clammy on my back. Then I pushed my way out into the crowds on Oxford Street, into teeming, confused shops, and then out again, clutching morose little parcels – brushed-denim jeans of just the right length and colour for a friend in Delhi, and a digital watch for a family friend in Calcutta – and back into the bowels of the tube station and into the first train, drumming on the armrest of my seat, trying to avoid the glare of the Walkman-ed skinhead opposite me. Back to my room, to pull everything out of my suitcase and start all over again, only to find a note I had left for myself in my ticket folder, which told me that my ticket had not yet been confirmed. So back again then, all the way to Regent Street, the chilly wind grafting my shirt to my back, running all the way to the airline office, and of course, when I get there, the girl in the uniform, behind the counter, tells me, smiling kindly, seeing me mopping the sweat off my forehead: You could have done it over the phone, luv. Back again to Fulham, my feet aching, nothing done yet, so much left to do, and no time to do it in.

I have to be at Heathrow, tomorrow at midday.

At lunch-time I telephoned Ila at her office.

Oh, it’s you, she said abruptly, when she recognised my voice.

There was a short silence, and then I said: Ila, don’t you remember? I’m leaving for India tomorrow.

I know, she said, with an unfamiliar note of awkwardness in her voice. Puzzled, I asked her whether there were other people in the room.

No, no, she said quickly, it’s not that. There’s no one here.

Then what’s the matter? I said. Why do you sound so odd?

Look, she said. I meant to come to the airport with you, to see you off. I really meant to, you know. But …

Don’t worry about that, I said. What’s happened?

Well, it’s like this, she said. Nick and I are driving down to Cornwall for the weekend. We’re taking a little holiday.

That’s nice, I said, in my most neutral voice.

You mustn’t pay any attention to what I said the other day, she said in a rush. I wanted to tell you that. I was just overwrought, and it made me suspicious. Nick wouldn’t dream of doing anything that might upset me, really, believe me. You mustn‘t believe a word I said. I made it all up. That’s what I did, I made it all up. That’s the truth of it. I talked to him later, and he showed me how silly I was being. It’s all fine now. We need a little holiday, that’s all.

She was speaking very fast, in an unnaturally high voice.

Of course I believe you, I said. Why shouldn’t I? I hope you have a nice time.

I know you don’t believe me, she said.

There was a catch in her voice, she sounded almost as though she was choking.

Ila, I said. Shall I come over? Are you all right?

Of course I’m all right, she shouted into the phone. I’m fine. Have a nice flight.

There was a click as she slammed the receiver down, and the line went dead.

I went back to my suitcase, upstairs.

At about seven in the evening, when my packing was nearly done, I found myself trying to make room for a small porcelain vase in a corner of my suitcase. It was soon evident that it would break if I put it in. Scratching my head, I wondered what had possessed me to buy it in the first place.

And then I remembered. I had bought it a week ago, when May had telephoned to ask me to dinner. I was so touched I’d gone out and bought her a present that very morning. That was what that vase was, her present, and I was meant to give it to her that evening.

I raced out of my room, hurled myself down the stairs, burst into the kitchen, and more or less snatched the telephone out of the hands of the Scandinavian flagellationist. He glared at me, banged a fist on the tin-topped kitchen table and stormed out of the kitchen.

An age seemed to pass before I heard May’s voice.

Hullo May, I cried in relief. I’m coming; I’m on my way. I hope you hadn’t given me up yet.

Of course not, she said, I wasn’t expecting you till half-past.

I’ll be with you in half an hour, I said. I’ll take a taxi.

That’s all right, she said. There’s no hurry. Come when you like.

Within a short while I was standing at her door, with the vase stuffed into my pocket.

Later, when I was back in Delhi, I often used to wonder whether I would ever have had the courage to ask May the one question I had so long been longing to ask. I don’t know, and I never found out, for she spared me the task. It was she who ended the desultory conversation about my thesis that had sustained us through dinner, and raised her head to look at me, her blue eyes clear and forthright, and said: Why haven’t you ever asked me how Tridib died? I thought it would be the first thing you’d ask.

I told her the truth: that I hadn’t known how to ask, that I simply hadn’t possessed the words; that I had not had the courage to breach her silence without a solid bridgehead of words.

You should have asked, she said. It was your right and it is my duty to try to find an answer.

She was sitting bolt upright, her hands on the table, one upon the other.

I suppose you know most of it already, she began.

I could tell that she had been preparing herself for that moment.

We were on our way back from your grandmother’s ancestral house, she went on. The car was stopped. By a mob. I’m sure you know that. Some of them attacked us. They broke the windscreen and injured the driver. We had an armed security man with us. He fired a shot at them. They drew back. They might even have gone away. But your grandmother’s uncle was following behind us. In a rickshaw. The man who had looked after him all those years was driving the rickshaw. The mob went after them instead. Your grandmother wanted the driver of our car to drive away. She shouted at him to get away, fast. I shouted back at her and got out of the car. Your grandmother screamed at me. She said I didn’t know what I was doing, and I’d get everyone killed. I didn’t listen; I was a heroine. I wasn’t going to listen to a stupid, cowardly old woman. But she knew what was going to happen. Everyone there did, except me. I was the only one who didn’t. I began to run towards the rickshaw. I heard Tridib shouting my name. But I kept running. I heard him running after me. He caught up with me and pushed me, from behind. I stumbled and fell. I thought he’d stop to take me back to the car. But he ran on towards the rickshaw. The mob had surrounded the rickshaw. They had pulled the old man off it. I could hear him screaming. Tridib ran into the mob, and fell upon their backs. He was trying to push his way through to the old man, I think. Then the mob dragged him in. He vanished. I could only see their backs. It took less than a moment. Then the men began to scatter. I picked myself up and began to run towards them. The men had melted away, into the gullies. When I got there, I saw three bodies. They were all dead. They’d cut Khalil’s stomach open. The old man’s head had been hacked off. And they’d cut Tridib’s throat, from ear to ear.

That was that; that’s all there is to tell.

We cleared away the dinner-plates then, I remember. I wiped up some ice-cream I had spilt on her table while May washed the plates and the knives and forks. She had cooked a nice dinner – a rich tomato soup and a spinach and asparagus flan. There was ice-cream, too, and a bottle of white wine. I had made a mess around my plate as I often did and it took me a while to clean it up. When I finished, May was still in her small kitchen, wiping her plates dry.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was almost eleven o’clock. May, I said, I must go now, tomorrow I have a plane to catch.

I suppose you must, she said briskly.

She was in the kitchen, so I couldn’t see her face. But there was a note in her voice that made me wonder. I stepped into the kitchen and touched her arm, and when she turned to face me, I saw that her face was wet with tears.

Don’t go, she said. Please; I don’t want to be alone – I’m afraid.

I grasped her shoulder then, and she leant her head against my chest so that I could feel her face wet against my shirt. I stroked her hair, once, twice, and then, afraid of frightening her as I’d done once before, I tried to step back. She held me for an instant and then she let go and straightened up.

Do you think I killed him? she said.

I stayed silent; I did not want to answer her.

I used to think so too, she said. I thought I’d killed him. I used to think: perhaps he wouldn’t have got out of that car if I hadn’t made him, if I’d understood what I was doing. I was safe, you see – I could have gone right into that mob, and they wouldn’t have touched me, an English memsahib, but he, he must have known he was going to die. For years I was arrogant enough to think I owed him his life. But I know now I didn’t kill him; I couldn’t have, if I’d wanted. He gave himself up; it was a sacrifice. I know I can’t understand it, I know I mustn’t try, for any real sacrifice is a mystery.

She touched my face gently, with her fingertips, and said: Why don’t you stay here tonight? I’ll come to the airport with you tomorrow morning.

I stayed, and when we lay in each other’s arms quietly, in the night, I could tell that she was glad, and I was glad too, and grateful, for the glimpse she had given me of a final redemptive mystery.