The screams have stopped. I’m cold and my teeth are talking among themselves. Then Runu-Didi’s hand darts out of the darkness, snatches me, and drags me forward. She runs fast, as if she’s competing in a relay race and I’m the baton she’s about to pass to a teammate.
‘Stop,’ I say, hitting the brakes. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Didn’t you hear what people were saying about Bahadur?’ ‘He’s lost?’
‘You don’t want to find out more?’
Runu-Didi can’t see my face in the smog but I nod. We follow a lantern swinging from someone’s hands, but it’s not bright enough to show us the puddles where washing-up water has collected and we keep stepping into them. The water is icky and I should turn around but I also want to know what happened to Bahadur. Teachers never ask him questions in class because of his stammer. When I was in Standard Two, I tried going ka-ka-ka too, but that only got me a rap on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Ruler beatings hurt much worse than canings.
I almost trip over Fatima-ben’s buffalo, who’s lying in the middle of the alley, a giant black smudge that I can’t tell apart from the smog. Ma says the buffalo is like a sage who has been meditating for hundreds and hundreds of years in the sun and the rain and the snow. Faiz and I once pretended to be lions and roared at Buffalo-Baba, and we pelted him with pebbles, but he didn’t even roll his big buffalo eyes or shake his backward-curving horns at us.
All the lanterns and phone-torches have stopped outside Bahadur’s house. We can’t see anything because of the crowd. I tell Runu-Didi to wait and jostle past trouser-clad, sari-clad, dhoti-clad legs, and hands that smell of kerosene and sweat and food and metal. Bahadur’s ma is sitting on the doorstep, crying, folded in half like a sheet of paper, with my ma on one side and our neighbour Shanti-Chachi on the other. Drunkard Laloo squats next to them, his head bobbling as his red- rivered eyes squint up at our faces.
I don’t know how Ma got here before me. Shanti-Chachi smooths Bahadur’s ma’s hair, rubs her back, and says things like, ‘He’s only a child, must be somewhere around here. Can’t have gone that far.’