His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. “Be back before nine,” she said to him as he walked past the three bloated suitcases and two trolley-bags lining the corridor to the door. “Your uncle will pick us up at ten.” He nodded without looking at her, unbolted the door and headed out into the evening.
The overcast sky glowed orange from the thousands of streetlights burning under it. The pre-monsoon air stirred with sluggish humidity, buzzed with honks and horns and sirens and the chitter-chatter of rickshaws, and broiled in the September smells of exhaust fumes and steaming rubbish and chicken tikkas and shit that made their way to him through the a/c vent of his Civic. He drove past brightly lit shops selling motorbike silencers and paan, chai and fruit, cigarettes, samosas and wicker furniture, past large billboards advertising Lux soap, GulAhmed linens, Italian kitchen interiors and McDonald’s, past crippled beggars leaning on canes, heroin addicts in piles of rags and sauntering hijras. The street suddenly plunged into darkness, all illumination punctuated by load-shedding.
The Badshahi masjid remained unaffected by the sudden change, its tombstone white domes lit by tastefully-placed spotlights. His father had gone to those domes one day and returned riddled with bullets.
His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. She sat folding her elaborate embroidered saris, tucking jewellery away into the silken folds, and placing them into a large wooden box. When the box was full it would join the others waiting by the door. His wife sat close by, fingering the khaddar loom that would have to be left behind. “Don’t venture too far,” said his mother. “Your uncle should be here soon with the carriage.” He nodded and headed out.
The broad metalled street half a kilometre away from his house lacked its usual midday hustle-bustle; there were no fruitwallas pushing carts laden with apples and grapes, no hawkers shouting lists of items they bought or sold, no bright-eyed children weaving their way between the adults, laughing and occasionally picking pockets. The few stragglers went about their business, not inclined towards conversation. Sullen grey clouds pressed an unsettling silence onto the city. The crescented green flags of the Muslim League hung here and there, interspersed by a smattering of white-green-saffron Congress flags, both united in their limp listlessness. He made eye-contact with a man walking towards him. Vermillion marked the stranger’s forehead. They exchanged small, silent nods as they passed each other.
The marble domes of the Badshahi masjid to the North gleamed white against the pregnant sky. He stopped and stared at the domes under which men would be offering funeral prayers for those who the firangis had sent to other lands to fight, who had not returned and would not return, who had fathered and left behind sons like him.
His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. “Do not stay away too late,” she said as he headed to the door. “Your uncle said we should leave after sunset.” Their belongings stood by the door, bundled in blankets or stowed away in his mother’s large teak dowry chest. He nodded once and turned back just in time to see his wife pause her task of pressing his mother’s legs, look up and watch him leave.
The donkey fidgeted outside their house, keeping flies at bay with its ears and tail. It nosed the earth, struggling against its bolted creaking cart as it strained to reach a patch of brown grass. It paid him no heed as he walked past it, turning into a narrow dust-caked street.
The beard, bushy and reminiscent of his own, was the first thing he noticed about the stranger walking towards him on the opposite side of the street. He opened his mouth to wish the man peace before he noticed the stranger’s turban and averted his gaze. The men crossed without a word.
A breeze blew in from the North, where the Badshahi masjid stood. It was warm and heavy with the stench of horseshit and the Sikhs who had butchered his father.