“I know you will make us proud, Tariq,” Master Ahmed calls out to me as I step onto the dusty sidewalk outside the school gates.
I lift my palm to my face, fingertips to my forehead, bow. “Khuda hafiz.”
“And may He guard you as well,” Master Ahmed replies. “Give my best to your parents.”
I speed up as I round the corner with its scrubby cricket pitch. It seems like longer than a year has passed since I sat for my examinations, since I enrolled at the college. Doing nothing has a way of slowing time. The college shut down after the professors got scared and quit teaching, when both the school and the faculty became easy targets for the Sikh mobs. And with no school, with nothing changing but the way people all over Punjab seem to have gone crazy, I’ve felt stuck. Trapped, even.
But now. Now there is hope.
My hand sneaks into my pocket, just to make sure the slip of paper is still there. I have already memorized the number of the house on Mani Margh, the time of my appointment with this Darnsley man, the few details about the job. I don’t need the paper anymore. All the same, I like knowing it’s there, like a railway ticket. Proof that I have someplace to be.
Someplace other than Abbu’s shops, selling gold and stones.
And maybe, just maybe, someplace other than India altogether.
This Mr. Darnsley must have gone to Oxford. Why else would this chance come?
I walk half a mile, rubbing the paper like some kind of talisman, my mind racing ahead to how hard I’ll work to impress this Englishman. It’s perfect, really, the timing of it all. I’m so lost in my thoughts that I don’t notice the crowd of men running up the lane behind me until they overtake and surround me.
I let go of the paper and brace myself for a fight before I see the men are Muslim, most of them around my age. A few wear prayer caps, but there is not a pagri on the head of any of them, and all have hair cropped close like mine. My hands uncurl.
They are not interested in me. Let them pass.
But then one stops a few yards ahead, turns around. “Tariq!”
My hands clench.
“Sameer,” I say. Sameer. There’s always trouble when Sameer turns up. Even when we were at school together, he had a way of finding trouble, of drawing me into it.
He fights the current of the men, grabs my arm, and pulls me into the flow.
“What’s going on?”
“What do you think?” he asks, smiling. He is a little winded. The mob is keeping up a quick pace. There must be twenty or thirty men here.
Up ahead, two of them break off from the pack, dash over to a market stall, and snatch up armfuls of cricket bats. They’re already back in step before the shopkeeper even has a chance to say anything. Not that he would. Not that any of the people in the shops would. They have all stopped to watch.
Someone near the front begins the chant. “Pa-ki-stan Zin-da-bad.”
The stolen bats begin to filter through the mob, still keeping pace. Sameer hands one to me before taking one for himself.
My gut turns inside out, hollow. I look around for some way to get myself out of here.
“I have to get home!” I yell so Sameer can hear me over the chanting.
His face goes hard. “No you don’t, brother.”
The fellow on Sameer’s other side, a giant of a man, with a heavy beard that makes him look even more threatening, leans around to give me a look. A look that dares me to say I need to go home again. I shut my mouth.
I don’t know where we’re going, or what we’re going to do when we get there, apart from the fact that it will be not be good. I’ve been careful so far. Managed to avoid getting caught up in any of this violence. Allah’s teeth! Why today of all days?
Even if I could sneak away, I’m as worried about what Sameer will think of me—what he might say about me—as I am about getting hurt in some brawling.
This is no time to let loyalties be suspected.
Some of the men with bats in their hands have taken to beating the tips against the ground in time with the chant. “Pa-ki-stan Zin-da-bad.”
The lane widens, empties into a little cuanka. Across the way, moving in from the other street, another mob is moving in. Bigger than ours.
My grip tightens, and I realize that this is it. I’m going to have to go through with this, just to survive.
But instead of clashing with the other mob, they take up our chant and we merge together, angling south across the square, which is empty now.
“Pa-ki-stan Zin-da-bad.” Some fifty voices chant together.
We are heading for the gurdwara, I realize.
The Sikh temple is not the only one in Jalandhar. It is not the biggest or grandest, either. A single small dome squats in the center of the roof, topped with the gilt khanda, the crossed swords glinting in the morning light. It is nothing fancy compared to the dozens of gurdwaras in town.
But it is the only one that has no outer wall to protect it.
There are still people inside. I can hear the prayers spilling out the windows.
No . . . no . . . I can’t do this.
I can’t . . .
“Ready?” Sameer presses close and asks me.
No. I don’t want to be here. I can’t be here.
But I manage to nod, even though I know I look as scared as I feel.
Sameer leans around, forces me to look at him as we slow up. He lifts an eyebrow, shakes his head. The same shake he used to give me when we were kids and I wouldn’t take him up on a dare.
But he doesn’t have time to say anything. The mob abandons the chant and rushes at the whitewashed sides of the building, screaming.
And it begins.
The building is burning before I even see that some of the men have been carrying cans of petrol. But there are people still in there! Maybe kids. Maybe women.
It all happens too fast.
Rocks sail through the windows; glass shatters inward. Rags soaked in oil and set alight find their way through the holes. But the people inside—
It’s a nightmare come to life.
I don’t know what to do.
Sameer is gone, joining the attack. I should run now.
Sikh men begin to pour from the building, chased out by the smoke. But as soon as they step outside, someone is there to make sure they don’t get far.
The bodies begin to pile up at the entrance without even making it to the street.
There’s nothing I can do to stop it. I don’t know how to begin to stop it.
The only thing I can do is run before I have to do anything to hurt any of them.
I don’t see Sameer. If I go now, he’d never know.
But I’ve barely taken a step when movement to my right catches my eye. A man, his white pagri already black with smoke, launches himself from one of the broken windows on the ground floor. The fight is centered toward the front of the building. No one is there to meet him when he comes out.
But then he sees me. Me, standing there with a cricket bat outside his temple.
He screams, brandishing a kirpan, the little sword flashing silver in the sunlight.
He rushes at me, the knife tracking straight for my chest. I freeze, but I have to move. Move! Maybe I could knock it from his hand, knock him off balance, give myself time to get away. But what if I miss? What if my timing is off? But I have to try. So I lunge forward, swinging the bat like I have in matches a thousand times before. I swing as hard as I can for his arm. But to my horror I realize he’s moving too fast. . . . I’m going to miss his hand . . . and I can’t stop.
The end of the bat catches him square on the chin. Blood spits from his mouth as his head snaps sharply back.
He drops at my feet, the knife falling from his slack hand.
I can’t move for a second, the impact of the bat jarring through me like an aftershock, the crack of his jaw echoing in my ears. But I am still standing.
The man is completely still. Allah, please, no . . .
He lies facedown in the dirt, blood running from his mouth and chin. No, no, no. I can’t have killed him. Can’t have. I only meant to keep him from killing me. I didn’t mean to—
My stomach retches, and I bend forward, heave into the dirt. My hands are covered with a spray of blood—his blood. I get sick again.
Maybe he isn’t dead, I tell myself. Maybe he’ll wake up later. He would’ve killed me. And as I think it, I realize someone still might.
I straighten, look up quickly, and ready the bat in case someone else is coming at me. There are bodies all over the courtyard. A pile of them blocks off the front entrance, and the mob I came with has spread itself out, picking off the others coming out the windows now. I don’t see any women. Or children. I don’t know if it means they’re all still trapped inside, or if they just weren’t here today. I hope, I pray it’s the latter.
Just then Sameer sprints by with a couple of other men on their way to the back of the gurdwara, where more must be trying to escape. He catches my eye, glances down at the body at my feet, the bat in my hand, and raises his own bat in salute. He gestures for me to follow before disappearing around the side of the building.
But I don’t. I throw the bat down next to the man I hit—the man who hasn’t moved, hasn’t even stirred. Then I turn and run.