The Same World

Large Scale Map of Saanjh and its neighbours.
Small Scale Map of Saanjh and its Environment.

Saanjh

Leopards moved around the Wall now. So, Aarit had to be more careful when he chose to step out of the colony compound. He had to go out of the building annex, with the Watch, to visit Kolwad and Gulshan. The Watch was cool. Except for Suri. Geeta and he never liked Su – why not make him squirm more? Suri had no love lost for either of them. But Aarit could bear his buzzing, as long as the buzz did not scrape up the past. Suri liked doing that. Just to irk the rest of them.

‘You be careful, Aarit,’ Geeta said, as she handed him the duffel bag. It was filled with food, water, a curved breaking knife, a blanket, a first aid kit, a lighter (such a luxury), rope and his black and grey shemagh. Aarit looked at the contents for a moment. Three years ago, he would never have thought that this is what he would be doing. But hey, shit happens!

‘Yea,’ Aarit replied. ‘I’ll try my best.’ He started saying this two years ago, back in 2022, when the riots broke out. The fear and the loss of lives around them kept them guessing. Which would get them first: the gangs of thugs running around the area, or the fourth wave of COVID, that took over what remained of Mumbai?

‘Why does Noah want you guys to do the run so soon again?’ Geeta asked. She was worried. Aarit could tell. He was all that was left of her family. Aarit smiled and hid it. Four years ago, she and he could not see eye to eye on any issue. Life, love, faith or hope. Covid changed it all.

The first wave had the world bored. Who knew what the coming years would bring? The second wave took their aunt, early 2021. It almost took Geeta and him, too – damaged lungs. They endured; but then came the downward spiral from India’s north.

The third wave overcame Dharavi, in Mumbai. It exploded like an atom bomb. Right in the centre of the city. It destroyed lives from Chembur in the East, to Dadar in the south, to Bandra in the west. People who could flee, fled. The ones who could not, moved away, to the north and to the south. Mumbai’s twenty-odd million people shrank.

People who had been sick, did not suffer. Vaccines helped. Then, in June, came the typhus epidemic. Aarit closed his eyes. ‘Remember, the typhus?’

Geeta, busy at cleaning the house again for the third time, cast him a glance. ‘Are you picking a fight?’

‘Why would I do that?’

‘You know, typhus got to mom in the end. Why would I forget it? How could anyone forget how it started? Bodies floating in rivers!’ She stopped cleaning. ‘What the fuck, Aarit!’

Shit. ‘No, I know,’ Aarit said. He picked up the shemagh, and began tying it around his head. ‘I meant what happened in total.’

‘Yes. I don’t forget the death count. A million by the end of August.’

‘Then the lockdowns –’

‘The powers that be in shambles and people starting to riot.’

‘The poor started – leaving the city – ‘

‘Aarit,’ Geeta cut in. ‘You talk of Su talking about the past. What the hell are you doing? And what does this have to do with Noah?’

‘He fears we’ll run out of food.’

Geeta looked at him, pursed her lips. Then she walked into the kitchen and began scrubbing vessels with coconut hair. ‘We can live without food for seven days.’ She mumbled, after a long moment, of scraping.

‘I know. We’ve done it.’

‘I was being sarcastic and this is not a lecture.’

Aarit grinned. He came across and gave her back a quick hug. ‘You are being caring and it is a lecture.’

Geeta scoffed. ‘Yes and yes. Okay. I want the fish and mutton run, done quick. Be careful. You have to come back and help me with the laundry and filling the buckets with water. I’ve used up the last of it.’

Ugh. ‘I’ll try hurrying back.’

‘You love going out – no matter how dangerous it can get. Were the RR seen around the area?’

RR – the hostile gangs who graze for free food and people. ‘Not since a couple of months.’ Aarit picked up the duffel bag, covered his nose and mouth with the shemagh’s last corner and tucked it in behind his head. ‘I saw a leopard with her cubs.’

Geeta’s eyes flared. ‘What? No. Close to our compound?’

Our colony compound. When the RR attacks began, some building societies merged together for protection. Food was not scarce then. But the accord of buildings brought in more space and more people into one group. Four buildings had broken down their compound walls. Their own building, Saanjh, with Glory, Dua and Rajdoot. The council and the building members had joined forces. They set up a gated Wall around the four buildings.

The one with the large park, Saanjh, was given the job of vegetable and fruit farming. Noah, Saanjh’s secretary, was a notable horticulturist and landscaper. So, the task of creating a mini organic farm came to him. He handled it well. He was the kind of person who would see you pressing your temples and hand you a cup with warm water infused with basil leaves.

‘Yea, she was close.’

‘Warned the Watch?’

‘I am part of the Watch.’

‘Warn the Watch. Leopards can scale walls.’

‘Bye, Geeta.’ Aarit strode to the main door, making a mental note to warn the guards on the Wall. He picked up the large bamboo stick leaning against the door jamb. The ends were tied with red wool. They found the bamboo in the compound. They were cut down to six feet. Every guard could have them. But they could not find metal rings to put around the bamboo ends, to stop them from splintering. Noah had given them yarns of red wool. They were for his only sister, whom he had lost contact with completely. She used to be a South Mumbaiite. Aarit forgot what else Noah had said about her.

The door had three locks. The outside grill door had two. Before opening the second door, Aarit looked out. He then stepped back and waited for a few seconds. He listened. Then he opened the grill door and stepped out, closing it behind him. He looked at Geeta.

Geeta looked at him and smiled. He smiled back.

*

The outside had changed. It was very green. Grass grew everywhere now. Some places in the compound it was knee high. He was used to it. He was not used to the cleaner air. It felt cool every single day. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes. Then he looked around. The compound had about four people. It was a large space. Cleared out between four buildings. He could see the swimming pool, where they stored produce. He waved to the two guys there, keeping watch. They waved back.

No one chose to be out when they could be safe at home. After 2021, people did not like the outdoors. Though what they did at home, without electric supply or gadgets, Aarit could not figure out.

He had always liked the outdoors and –

‘Ready to hunt?’

Aarit let out his breath. ‘We don’t hunt.’

‘We are the food makers,’ Suri said. He used to be a gym freak. Aarit looked at him. Suri had a face that resembled the bronze Riace statue. Aarit squinted. Suri’s body was a statue, too. ‘Remember, the time we -’

‘Food makers?’ Aarit cut him off. ‘I would say we are the gatherers.’ Aarit shifted his stick from one hand to the other. ‘We go to the beach compound and get fish from the fishermen. Go to Gulshan and get the meat from there.’

‘Food takers.’ Suri said, cocking both brows.

‘Don’t argue,’ said Meera. Aarit turned to her shaking his head. When he knew Suri could not see him, he rolled his eyes. Meera snorted. Standing at five feet nine, Meera was energy. She kept her hair shaved, since a year. Now, all Aarit could see were her gleaming eyes. ‘You don’t learn.’

Because they got along, they decided to be partners. No one in the watch went outside the compound without three others, and the least number would be four, two pairs. Noah and the other Council members had stated this.

‘Nah,’ Aarit clacked his stick with hers. He turned to Suri. ‘Why is Billu always late?’

‘Everyone isn’t anal like you,’ Suri countered.

Aarit gave him a sneer.

They walked over to Glory. They passed by the cars no one used anymore. Duh, petrol. They had removed the car seats to create a circle for gathering, behind Rajdoot. Tyres were given to the kids. Headlights had been used as lamps, but not now they were useless. No electricity. Hoods, roofs, doors were used to fortify the Wall.

‘There he is,’ Meera said. Billu, or Balwant, as Noah called him, was at the landing of the main staircase of Glory. He was tying his turban and yawning. ‘Oye,’ Meera greeted.

‘Oye hoye,’ Balwant said, amidst the yawn itself. Suri gave him a hug. ‘Why so early always?’

‘So we can return early, always,’ Aarit said. ‘You know Geeta.’

‘Ya, fine.’ Balwant finished tying his turban. Then brushed his beard with his fingers. He burped.

Meera recoiled. ‘You didn’t brush.’

‘I don’t have a brush anymore, woman,’ Balwant grumbled. He fist bumped Aarit.

‘If you want me to keep seeing you,’ Meera said with a look, ‘you’ll use the neem sticks I keep in your bathroom – every fucking day. Got it?’

Balwant made a face. Tasted his mouth with his tongue. ‘Ya, fine,’ he said. Then made a face at her again. Meera gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘Let’s do this. We take the main road this time? Or go via the beach?’

Aarit frowned a bit. ‘I want to go via the main road.’

‘We saw the leopards around the main road last time,’ Suri said.

‘Yea, but it feels safer. We can get stuck against the sea.’ Aarit said, ‘I have a feeling.’

‘Man,’ Meera said, ‘these feelings of yours. Chalo, let’s be wenting.’

*

The Wall was fifteen feet high. There were guard rooms on the front and back of each building. They came to Saanjh’s gate. Noah was there, talking to the guards, Ranvir and Vikram. He looked at the four as they came up to the gate.

Post the good mornings, he asked, ‘There were leopards sighted?’

Aarit looked at him. Noah always wore coloured, Ikat kurtas. Loose white pyjamas. The white was always clean. The colours always warm. Everyone knew Noah was gay. But they never asked and he never declared. But because he wore bright stuff didn’t make him gay. Su wore bright stuff, yo! Macho dolt! ‘I saw a female with two cubs, around Tiwari’s.’

‘That’s just a kilometer away,’ Noah exclaimed. ‘This can be dangerous.’ He ran a hand through his thick, grey hair. ‘I’ll have to speak to the Council and get the children to stay in for a few days.’

‘That is a good idea,’ Meera said, ‘We’ll get the usual 60/60 kilo break up of fish and meat, Noah.’

Noah cast a worried look at them. ‘Maybe, this is a bad idea, and you guys should stay in the compound. We can use the last of the produce we have and you can go a few days later.’

Suri grinned. ‘We are not afraid of a leopard and her tiny cubs,’ he scoffed.

Noah gave him a look. ‘I know. But I am.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to speak to any more loved ones of death.’ He looked at each of them in turn. ‘Or feel the pain of loss myself,’ he added.

‘No one died in my family,’ Suri declared. ‘We are made of hardy stock.’

Balwant gave him a whack on the back of the head. “What the fuck, Su!’

Suri held the back of his head and whipped at Balwant. ‘What?’

‘Think before you utter the first shit statement that comes in your fucking head!’

Suri’s scowl faded. ‘I didn’t think – I was just -’

‘You never think,’ Meera said, glaring.

‘Guys,’ Noah looked at the guards – they were the only two watchmen from the colonies, who had stayed back. ‘Take Ranvir and Vikram along with you. You can segregate the meat into lighter portions. Walk faster. Maybe not go to Gulshan, today, just get the fish from Kolwad.’

Aarit smiled. He took Noah’s shoulder in a firm grip. ‘Don’t worry. We have been doing this for over a year. We’ll be extra careful and keep a closer look out for a problem. Let Ranvir and Vikram stay at their posts. We’ll be back before you know it.’

‘Alright, alright,’ Noah said, he turned around and picked up a red wool bag. He had made it out of that excess wool he had! He liked knitting. So Dumbledore, this one! ‘I have kept onions here, rosemary, thyme and garlic. I know it will add more weight to what you have to carry, but they will mask the scent of the meat.’

The four opened their duffels and divided the veggies and herbs. They said their byes. Ranvir climbed up a ladder, to the top of the Wall, did a scan of the perimeter. Then he signalled to Vikram to open the smaller gate. The four stepped out and Vikram shut the gate. No one looked behind. Superstitions had steeped into their systems.

Aarit looked around him. The gate opened out to what once used to be a main road of the locality. Now the divider on the road had created a massive wall of bougainvillaea. They could not see the other side of it through the foliage. Only the tops of buildings on the other side of the road. The blooms were white and crimson – a riot of colour and stillness. He looked to his left, the road was filled with dried leaves and flowers. The Wall was bare. He looked to his right, it was the same. He adjusted his bag on his shoulder, gripped his stick tighter and turned right toward the beach.

As they walked, they were silent. Each of the four in their own thoughts. They looked around and they looked at the ground. Snakes were about, too, not just leopards. They made very little sound as they walked. Aarit looked at the road and the tops of the buildings he used to frequent as a child. No building had been able to survive the RR riots alone. Most were now vacant. Birds flew around them. They had taken over the four-crore houses.

The walk always made him feel good. He loved the outdoors. Being cooped up in the compound made him sick to the stomach. Aarit loved travelling. In his thirty years, he had backpacked all over India. He would head out the first chance he got from his work. He loved wildlife reserves. He loved clicking pictures. Now, he could not access his photos and he could not click any more new ones. Pity, look at that sky, those flowers!

It was the middle of May. Nature had blossomed. The beach was to their right, about 400 feet away. They could hear the waves against the rocks. But the wall of bougainvillaea completely blocked their vision to the left.

They came soon enough to the clearing that opened the road into a T-junction. They walked close to the right, and came onto the open space. They all turned as one toward the entrance of the beach. The vision of the sea, blazing under a white sun, made them squint their eyes.

They waited for a few seconds, before they turned as one and continued down the road. The road was straight and did not have a lot of bends in it, which made it safe. When they saw people in the distance, walking towards them, Aarit signalled.

Suri and Balwant moved to the right and onto the footpath, away from the view of the strangers. They removed their knives from their bags. Meera and Aarit moved ahead. When the strangers saw them, they stopped. Meera and Aarit stopped, too.

Aarit made a fist of his left hand and raised it aloft. The gesture was adopted as a welcome greeting, and a sign of friendship. It was responded in kind. Aarit tried to see who they were but they were too far to be recognised. Suri and Balwant stayed a few feet behind and out of sight. It was difficult, because the outgrowth of plants was too dense at certain places. So Aarit had to slow his pace at times.

As they came close to see who it was, Aarit relaxed. He heard Meera let out a breath. It was Shobhit. From another compound, a couple of kilometres away from theirs. Shobhit was on a food run, too. He had six others with him. Suri and Balwant joined them in the open.

‘Hey! You freaked us out.’ Shobhit whispered, as they came close enough.

‘Right back at you,’ Meera said. ‘How are you all?’ Meera used less words and more signs.

Everyone exchanged pleasantries. It was so very good to see someone else beside the same people all the time. None of them could see it, but they were all smiling under their face covers. Everyone exchanged major news. Balwant warned about the leopards. Raj told them that people were lesser in number than usual at Kolwad. ‘I think you just told me the reason, people in the other two must have heard about the leopards and decided not to venture out.’

‘Just one mama leopard,’ Suri said, twirling his knife.

‘Yes,’ Meera shook her head, her voice heavy with sarcasm, ‘you’ve only ever hunted on PS4. Seen a leopard ten feet away from you?’

‘They are smaller than tigers -’ Suri began.

Aarit cut him off. ‘Leopards can leap more than twenty feet horizontally and ten feet vertically. They have a more advanced sense of smell than tigers. Their hunting technique is to either ambush their prey or to stalk it. In either instance, a leopard get as close as possible to you. It will then charge – at a speed you won’t ever expect. You won’t even have time to scream before it tears out your neck.’

Suri was glaring at Aarit. ‘What’s your problem, man?’

‘You.’ Aarit said through gritted teeth.

Balwant stepped in. ‘We are exposed, outside the safety of the compound! You both are loud!’ he hissed, his eyes blazing, ‘And you are being rude to the others.’

Aarit stepped back. Suri’s body was taut as a bow string. The situation having grown awkward, Shobhit made his excuses and left with his group. Balwant walked ahead of Aarit, muttering under his breath. The walk was no longer pleasant. Tension has a way of making people more vigilant. Not to mention, quicker!

Kolwad

As they neared Kolwad, the buildings grew smaller. They were empty. They did not think they would see anyone. They could smell the sea and the drying fish. They passed by one more group of people. The same code of conduct was maintained. The cement road became tar. Then the sand started to cover the tar. They reached the compound of Kolwad.

It had a Wall. Stone. They had used the cement rocks that had earlier prevented the tide from harming the buildings. Now the cement rocks were broken down over a period of two years. Aarit’s mom, Navaz, had known Usha for decades. Navaz was Parsi. She loved fish. She had a fair relationship with Usha, the fisherwoman. Usha used to visit their house every weekend. They had become friendly over the years.

When the Army was called into the city, Navaz was still alive. She was alive when the food shortages began. When the medical supplies began dwindling, she made it through the months with diet and extending her medicine stocks. Usha used to visit every weekend, while she could, and Navaz would appreciate it.

‘If there is anything I can do, besides the money,’ Navaz had asked.

‘I don’t think money will be the thing we miss,’ Usha said. ‘If you mean it, then we would like help to create a Wall. We don’t have enough man-power.’

‘A wall?’ Navaz asked.

‘For protection,’ Usha said, matter of fact.

Aarit and Geeta went to Kolwad, every day. They made new friends.

When the Centre collapsed, with the outbreak of typhus in the north, no one thought much of it in Mumbai. Another mistake, in a series of. Aarit did realise this, thanks to the Kolwad community. Geeta and he went and spoke to Noah. Noah agreed with them. He influenced the management of the three neighbouring buildings to combine forces.

When the State overtook city management from the Centre, the Wall around Saanjh, Glory, Rajdoot and Dua was ready. Leaders became mad and there was a lockdown that lasted for seven months.

The world had enough problems of their own and denied help. When the internet, along with phone services, died, people decided to take matters into their own hands. There was chaos. Riots happened. People came out onto the streets and burnt things down. The large crowds brought the fifth wave.

There came a new variant. It was called U349GH. Ugh! It was resistant to four of the six vaccines available then. It also brought with it secondary complications of the bowel. It spread from the east of India toward the west and then the south. It decimated the population that remained.

Navaz took ill, on 11th April, 2022. It began with loose motions and then it ended with her throwing up everything she ate. Within two days, she was gone. She was the only parent Aarit and Geeta had known. They had lost their father when Geeta was two years old. Navaz was an self-reliant woman. Until the day she died, she was employed by the bank, she had joined, when she was twenty.

Aarit blinked back the memory of his mother. He was at the gate of Kolwad. He knocked. A familiar face opened the small look-through. ‘Sandeep,’ Aarit grinned. Usha’s youngest son.

‘Aarit! Was waiting for you! As usual you are just in time for your collection.’

‘Aarit?’

‘Usha aunty!’

The door opened and he saw Sandeep and Usha. Aarit grinned. They all greeted each other. ‘I missed you last time, I could not hang around.’

‘Yea, we heard about the leopard, too.’

Sandeep moved behind to let them in. They walked in and the guard for the day shut the door behind them. ‘There are more around,’ he said, as he went through the bundles he had packed and ready to hand out.

‘How do you think that?’ Suri asked.

‘A lot of the usual stray dogs here and outside are missing.’

There was a moment’s silence.

‘Get the stray dogs in the compound,’ Meera said. She put her duffel bag on the ground, and knelt beside it. She removed a package of plastic. ‘Here are last time’s wrappers.’

‘Was going to ask.’ Sandeep said. He put the empty wrappers aside, he began to hand over packages.

Meera split them into four. She started stuffing them into each of their duffels. Then she used the herbs Noah had given. She crushed them in her hands and put it over the fish. ‘I can’t believe plastic is still around,’ she grumbled.

Usha walked over to Aarit. Suri was talking about the leopards again with the guards. ‘Aarit,’ she called, ‘a week ago, a girl came up to the Wall. She was looking for her uncle, she said. She said his name was Noah D’Silva.’

‘What?’

Suri stopped talking and walked over on hearing this. Meera and Balwant turned their way.

‘Yes,’ Usha said. She was holding her fingers tightly. ‘As you know, we don’t allow strangers in the annex. You are allowed because of how you helped us, but even you cannot pass the Second Wall here.’ She looked behind at the Second Wall, standing at a distance of about ten feet from the rock one.

Aarit wore a frown. ‘How do -’ He stopped. He pulled at his shemagh to breathe better. ‘She said she was Noah’s niece?’

‘Yes.’ Usha’s face wore regret. ‘Meghan.’

Meera sighed. ‘Yes, that’s the name of his sister’s daughter.’

Balwant looked at Aarit. ‘I thought she had died.’

‘Everyone assumed that must have happened, in ‘21, after Dharavi. They lived in Dadar.’ Suri said.

‘How did she -’ Meera began, then, ‘where was she all these years?’

‘I don’t know,’ Usha said, ‘the guards didn’t open the gate.’

‘You didn’t offer her any help?’ Suri questioned.

‘I was not at the gate,’ Usha said, ‘one of the guards informed us later in the evening meeting.’

‘Where did she go?’ Aarit asked, his voice loud, his anger peaking.

Meera looked at him. ‘Aarit,’ she cautioned.

‘A girl comes to your door, she must be scared, tired, stressed,’ Aarit stated, ‘and you guys won’t let her in? What – why – how do you guys live with yourselves?’

Sandeep stood up. ‘We let you in.’

Suri turned to him. ‘Because we have helped you for the better part of a year building this Wall here.’ He said, pointing to the stones. ‘Helping you keep safe.’

‘Please don’t forget,’ Meera added, ‘that we bring you, in exchange for the fish we take, produce from our farm. We do not take anything that we do not make up for in exchange.’ She reminded, her voice was very soft. ‘Now all you men need to calm down. I do not want any relationship to sour. You will all shut it.’ She turned to Usha. ‘Aunty, any idea where Meghan might have turned and gone?’

Usha nodded. ‘The evening guard was not aware of your compound. So he asked her to check Gulshan for clues for her uncle.’

‘Fair enough,’ Meera said, ‘that is where we are headed next anyway. Thank you, aunty, I am sure if you could, you would have helped more. But we all know how powers can take over. How they stop understanding right from wrong, in keeping with self-interests.’

‘Don’t talk down to my mum,’ Sandeep said.

‘She is not,’ Usha said, placing her hand on his arm. She pulled him back. ‘She is reminding me of how all this started, in the first place. I will speak to the council today. There are a few who think things must change. I must do the needful.’

‘That’s all we would like to hear,’ Meera said. She went back to the bags, ‘Guys, pick up. Let’s go, we have to head back. Aarit, let’s go. Now.’

Usha walked to Aarit. She took his hand. ‘I am sorry, but I know that will not help. I will pray you find her. Bappa will guide you.’

Aarit clenched his teeth. He did not say a word. He gave a curt nod. He walked over to the bag, Meera was holding out, took it, slung it on his shoulder, picked up his stick and walked to the gate.

Meera watched Suri and Balwant follow Aarit outside, then she turned to Usha. ‘We will be back two weeks later, aunty. Same time.’

‘I hope you find her.’

‘We will.’ Meera hoisted her bag on her shoulders. She reached out and pressed Usha’s hand. Then, she stepped out of Kolwad.

*

They walked in silence for a long time. That was why they heard her. She came out of the left side of the road. She’s as big as Samuel was. Samuel was Aarit’s last dog. A Great Dane. He must have been about two and a half feet tall at the shoulder, around 60 kilos. Why am I thinking of Sammy?

The moment she appeared, the four of them stopped in their tracks. Aarit stopped breathing. His eyes flared wide open, the grip on his stick tightened, until his knuckles turned white. She strode out onto the road, about two hundred feet away from them. Her coat caught the sun and blazed like gold. She walked out into the middle of the road. She turned and looked at them. Like a queen. Her eyes sparkled as she panted. The print on her coat dazzled!

Suri hissed. ‘Don’t look at her.’ He whispered. ‘Look down.’

Aarit frowned.

‘Guys,’ Suri’s whisper was urgent. ‘Trust me.’

The leopard sat down on her haunches. Right in the middle of the road. Her tail twitched. She looked back to where she had come from. Two small cubs, the size of pugs, came out onto the road. Aarit dropped his gaze.

‘Keep stepping back slow,’ Suri said next.

They did so. The pace was so slow that a snail in the undergrowth would have moved faster.

Moments that seemed eternal passed and Aarit heard Balwant say, ‘She’s gone.’

Aarit jerked his head up. The road ahead was empty. He scanned it.

‘She crossed it, she’s gone,’ Meera said.

Balwant sat down on the ground. Meera followed suit. Aarit did not want to, but his body decided for him. He let his legs bend, if he was not holding onto the stick he would have fallen onto his knees. He managed to get to the ground without letting on that he had lost control.

Though they were on the ground, they kept looking around, especially where she had crossed over. ‘She won’t double back, will she?’ Balwant whispered.

Suri looked as if he was smiling. ‘No one got the chance to ask her her plans.’

Aarit looked up at Suri who was still standing. ‘“Don’t look at her?” Where did that come from?’

‘David Attenbor-uff,’ Suri said, raising his eyebrows. ‘I remembered seeing that special on fishing leopards – shout at an elephant, stare out a lion but never make eye contact with a leopard.’

Meera’s eyes were wide. Balwant was blinking.

‘He also talked in another documentary of how very few female leopards become man-eaters -’

‘We are turning back,’ Aarit said, softly. He was gazing at the leaves on the ground near his crossed legs.

Everyone looked at him. ‘What about -’

‘We are turning back and going home.’ He repeated.

Meera frowned. ‘Aarit, we have to -’

‘We have to do nothing now. This is risky!’

Suri walked around them to face Aarit. ‘This whole shit is risky, dude. Or haven’t you noticed?’

Aarit looked up at him. Then he slowly got to his feet.

‘Yea,’ Suri said, shaking his head. ‘That leopard could be ten feet away from you right now and charge at you – what was it? At sixty kilometres per hour? You were all sitting down, you wouldn’t have been able to do anything, if it decided to attack. It’s all risky, man. We are out here. We could be attacked by anyone, wanting anything! We still have the fucking COVID virus around, and who the fuck knows what it mutates into now? We may become flesh eating zombies in the next fucking wave!’

‘We -’ Aarit began.

Suri raised his right hand, palm up and stopped him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘now you listen to me! It is we. You wanna be the leader, okay, we listen, okay. But now, I want to say, I am going to Iman Road. Things have changed, man. There is a girl out there. She is Noah’s niece. What are you going to tell the man when you return back knowing you didn’t try to find her?’ Suri stepped close to Aarit. ‘How are you different from those people who didn’t let her in Kolwad?’

Aarit used both his hands and the force of his entire body to lash out at Suri’s chest. The blow sent Suri flying off his feet and crashing a few feet away. Meera burst to her feet and went to Suri. Balwant came to his feet, and held his stick aloft, just in case the leopard came back and attacked.

‘Have you guys lost your minds?’ Meera hissed, pointing to her head.

Suri coughed and favoured his chest as he sat up straight. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘My mind is very clear. I know what I have to do.’ He looked directly at Aarit. ‘Got it out of your system, or do you want to have a go at me again? Let me know, because I have to go to Gulshan, get the meat from Awais, and look for the gay’s niece. She’s all he has left in this world.’

Meera flicked a finger at Suri’s ear.

‘Ow,’ he said, grabbing his throbbing ear, ‘what the fuck was that for?’

‘If you don’t get it, I am not explaining.’ Meera said. Then she looked at Aarit, ‘you know he is right. We are wasting time.’

Balwant looked at Aarit. ‘So we are going back home?’

‘No,’ Aarit said, still looking at Suri. He stepped towards Suri and stretched out his right hand. Suri took it and stood up. ‘We are going to Iman Road and doing what needs to be done.’

Gulshan

They reached Iman Road within half an hour. They had begun to measure time by the sun. It was a little after noon. Who knew I would be able to read time via the sun? The heat began to attack. The shemaghs absorbed the sweat, but as they walked, they could feel the sweat trickling down their backs, chests, around their groins. I guess thinking about a likely leopard attack is making us puddles of water.

Iman Road was a road off the main road. To get to it, one had to make a right off the main road. There were clubs and bars on the road. Deserted, now, with overrun gardens. There were smaller building compounds with which Aarit was unfamiliar. He observed one, as he passed. Windows barred. How people lived!

The area had been a residential area, with large market stores and public parks. Now the parks were usurped by the compounds, and the grocers had nothing left in them. Some of the buildings had even capsized because of lack of care and the monsoons. The buildings that lasted the longest were built of stone. There were hardly any in this area.

But that was very normal. Everyone knew that the upkeep done by the Municipal Corps was always shabby. Without it, at places, whole roads had caved in! Bridges had collapsed.

The area also had had a library. Books! A decade ago, two girls had started a normal café, in one of the back roads of Iman Road. When people did not show, they thought of setting up in the basement of the café a comic book library. People began to drop by to sit with a cup of coffee and read. Demand for other books increased. Loads of books were brought in.

When the fifth wave hit, it cut the world population by half. It affected the young and the old. People were dropping like flies. Nature was thriving. She outgrew her pots. She let her plants take over manmade buildings and roads. She helped insects flourish. She sent her birds hunting. She nurtured her animals. The drying organic material on the roads sometimes combusted, starting random fires.

This was scary, because Aarit remembered the forest fires in Australia, way back in the beginning of 2020. All the creeks he was familiar with had flooded. The Oshiwara creek had become a river! It cut off access to the suburb of Goregaon. He had seen this, in 2021. When he wanted to explore and when it was still safer to do so. It was around that time that he had visited the library-café and had picked up all the books from there. Over several visits, he got them all for Saanjh. Books were the only entertainment that lasted.

On his last trips to the library-cafe, he had met Awais. They had discussed books and poetry. Awais had told him about his own compound, Gulshan. They had taken over the largest park in Iman Road. They used it for goat and cattle rearing. They offered milk and meat for trade.

They walked to Gulshan Compound, with the yellow Wall. The bottom of the Wall was painted with flowers and butterflies. The children of the colony had done this years ago, when it was safe for children to venture out and stay. The Wall had been raised, barbed wire and broken glass sat on its edges, glinting in the sunlight.

The four came to the gate, and knocked at it. The gate opened and three men hailed them. The guards had swords in their hands. ‘Billu,’ one of them said, ‘welcome, welcome.’

When they stepped in, the guards put away the swords and ushered them inside the colony compound. It was bustling with activity. There were children running around and animals grazing in makeshift sheds. They were escorted to the left side of the compound, where there was a small rose garden.

‘Aarit!’ Aarit turned to see Awais coming to him. He was a tall man, with hair that fell over his brow. His eyes were crinkled with joy, they all could tell he was smiling broadly under his cloth mask. ‘I found it!’ He hugged Aarit and then showed him the book.

‘End of Watch!’ Aarit exclaimed. ‘Wow! How?’

‘A guy who we trade clothes with, had it.’ Awais nodded at the others. ‘He’s loaned it to me for a few days. You can have it, and get it back once you are through with it.’

‘That’s great, Awais,’ Aarit grinned. ‘Thank you. Something to look forward to doing tonight.’

‘Also, there’s someone we would like you to meet.’

‘Who?’

‘You’ll never guess – she came to our door a few nights ago. She was wearing a red beanie. It was made from this wool,’ Awais gestured to the wool that was tied around their bamboo sticks. ‘I thought she was from your compound – but -’

‘Meghan?’ Meera exclaimed. Her face showing her surprise and delight!

Awais raised his brows. ‘Oh, you know about her?’

Aarit told Awais about their journey to Kolwad and the news they had received from there. Awais was laughing by the end of it. ‘Good news then, she came here, after Usha told her you might be here, and I was on guard duty. So – it was God’s will that I meet her. I knew you were coming for the meat soon, so I didn’t make the trip to Saanjh. We waited. She is with my sister, I’ve already sent word, she’ll be – oh here, she is -’

Aarit turned around. He blinked. She looked like an elf from The Lord of the Rings. Arwen. Hair that reached her waist, tumbling in dark waves. Dark eyes that turned upwards, reminding him of Jasmine, from Aladdin.

She looked excited and her eyes looked as though they were just starting to hope. ‘Hi,’ she said. ‘You know Noah D’Silva?’

‘Yes,’ Aarit said.

Her smile showed above her mask and she sighed in the same breath. ‘Oh, thank God,’ she said, then burst into tears. She doubled in pain and began sobbing. Before Aarit could get over his surprise, Meera went to her and held her.

‘You are safe, Meghan,’ Meera promised. ‘You’ll be with family by the end of the day. Don’t worry.’

‘I am – not worried -’ Meghan answered, ‘I am just so – fucking – relieved!’

Awais chuckled.

Suri snorted. ‘As are we,’ he said, ‘I was thinking that we would have to get a search party organised, if the four of us would not have found you on this trip.’

Aarit cocked an eyebrow. ‘Search party?’

‘Wouldn’t you do it, if this were Geeta?’

Aarit sighed. ‘I would.’

Balwant scratched his beard. ‘Can we please have some water to drink?’

Awais jumped. ‘Oh, I am so sorry, I was going to invite you to my home for food. Please eat and then leave.’

‘We’ll have to eat quickly, then Awais,’ Aarit stated. ‘We must get back home before the dark. The food will be weighing us down.’

‘I’ll share the load,’ Meghan put in. She was wiping her tears. ‘We can carry back extra if you want, I can carry around forty kilos, if need be, and walk for about ten kilometres.’

Meera chuckled. ‘I so want to know your story.’

‘Not much to tell,’ Meghan said. ‘Mom died in the Dharavi Outbreak. I was twenty-two, alone. Sought shelter with an RR gang. Stayed with them in town, for about two years.’

Awais’ eyes flared. ‘You were with the RR?’

‘Yes,’ Meghan’s eyes flashed. ‘I gave them sex for food. Don’t judge me, or I walk out right now. You do not know what I have been through. You have no right to tell me whether my decisions were moral or immoral. My code is to survive. I survived. If you want me to leave, tell me, and I will walk out. I will survive again.’

There was pin drop silence.

‘I am sorry,’ Awais said.

‘Sorries do not help me. Food does,’ she replied. ‘Thank you for keeping me here and feeding me. Thank you also for not wanting much in return. But I have helped around the house as much as I could. If you need something more from me as a payment, you have to tell me. I will oblige.’ Meghan looked into his eyes. ‘To a point.’

Awais cleared his throat. ‘I am good,’ he said. Then, ‘oh, if you find books at any date, the first person you give them is me. Not Aarit.’ He added, with a smirk. ‘He does not share books.’

‘Done.’ Meghan said, without humour.

‘Woah,’ Suri said, ‘intense.’

Aarit lifted his hands. ‘Seriously?’

‘Never mind,’ Balwant said, ‘let’s eat.’

*

After their meal, they weighed the meat, stuffed their bags and said their goodbyes. As they passed the rose garden, they heard an uproar at the gate. There were shouts and whoops. The five of them walked towards the gates. They banged open and a crowd of men filed in. They were raucous and merry.

In another minute, they carried in the dead bodies of a female leopard and her two cubs. The bodies were cut and mangled. They held none of the grandeur that Aarit, Meera, Suri and Balwant had seen on the road a few hours back.

Suri stood gazing at the corpses being passed around. Aarit watched them, too. Then he lo oked at Suri. He put his arm across Suri’s broad shoulders. ‘They must not have known to look down, Su,’ Aarit whispered.

‘Or that females generally don’t become man-eaters.’ Suri mumbled.

Aarit sighed. ‘Come on,’ he gave Suri’s shoulders a tug, ‘let’s go home.’

***

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