For those of you coming in late, this is Chapter 02 of my novel, Percy’s War. You can read Chapter 01 here.
The party was exactly as they expected it to be – an excuse to get drunk and listen to the conversation around them – always cheerful, always upbeat, but tinged with an edge of desperation, of people believing that if they just sounded happy enough, they really would be.
Percy and Derek stood at the bar and got steadily drunk, in a slow unhurried manner. They were silent for the most part, only speaking when needed –mostly to the bartender, who was a quiet professional himself. At 9.00 pm, the music dimmed and the lights went even lower. All but the most serious of the drunks left – when Percy looked around, the room looked more than half full. A card table was brought out, and five or six men sat down around it and began a noisy game.
“Come on,” said Percy. “Time to go.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I don’t want to risk getting busted because of them.” He nodded towards the gamblers.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Let’s go… We just have enough time to get home before the curfew anyway.”
Outside, the night was empty, but a stink of chemicals from the sea permeated the air. The huge slum below Malabar Hill was silent, except for a couple of barking dogs somewhere far within its mazelike interior. They made their way, walking slowly, towards Grant Road station, about 30 minutes away.
They took a quick shortcut through Forjett Street and past the little row of brick houses there. Originally servant’s quarters for the large mansions built on Malabar Hill and up Altamount Road, this part of the city had barely changed for the past 150 years. They walked down the dark street, wrapped in their own thoughts, until Derek spoke. “You know, I saw Tendulkar play his last match live?”
“What, really? Before the war?”
“Yeah. The old Wankhede Stadium. It was in, hmm, let me see, must have been 2017 or ’18. Yeah; the West Indies tour. I was in the Sunny Gavaskar stands, sun in my eyes as usual. This was before all your action goggles nonsense, you had to either watch this gigantic screen where they played out the TV feed or look at these stick figures 65 yards away. But boss, what an experience. Nothing to beat it…”
“Yeah, I always said you were an old fart but now I know exactly how old!”
“Arre, It was sad, really. He was being mercilessly pummeled. He was just hemmed in by the pace. Out for 25; bowled, I think.”
“Why’d you suddenly think of that?”
“Because I know how he must have felt now… Everywhere I look, I’m reminded of that day. It’s the worst feeling in the world.” He shook his head slowly.
Percy looked at his friend, wondering what to say.
“Every time I look out of my window, or come to work or just walk down the street like right now, I feel like that bastard is going to come out and finally hit my wicket. Thwack! Out for 25. Except in my case its 58, haan – I made half a ton, at least, not bad compared to the Little Master!”
“You’re drunk. Walk faster, if we get late we’re fucked.”
“Yeah, what’s the time anyway?”
Before Percy could answer, the sound of running feet made them look up towards the end of the street. Their mouths went dry. Percy pushed Derek into a darkened doorway next to them and they stood still.
“Shh!” Percy hissed. “Shut the fuck up or we’re dead!”
He watched four men run down the road. Each of them carried something in their hands. They stopped and huddled near a solitary lamppost, then one of them, the leader presumably, pointed at one of the doors facing the street. They went up to it and knocked. The night was quiet, but Derek and Percy couldn’t hear what was going on. They heard a distant conversation, then a cry of alarm as the men pushed their way into the house. Sounds of a struggle floated into the air and Derek tensed.
“What are we going to do?” He whispered.
“Nothing!” hissed Percy. “Shut the fuck up and don’t move!”
A sudden clatter of metal drew their attention back to the street where a young boy darted from the house that had been invaded. Two of the thugs burst out of the house and caught him a few steps from the door. A short sharp cry was stifled by a dull wet sound. Percy couldn’t even hear the grunts of the men as they brought down their machetes. Behind them, a soft glow lit the doorway, flickering anxiously. The remaining men walked out of the house briskly and joined the two outside. They strode off towards the end of the street as the fire in the house rose higher. They watched in silence, wondering what to do for a few minutes. Then they heard it – a thin, high cry, from inside the house.
“There’s someone in there! We have to help!” Before Percy could stop him, Derek was running towards the gaping door. As he walked past the corpse of the boy, Percy watched him slow, look down and then, with a visible shudder, enter the house. Percy ran up to the doorway and looked around for help. The street was steadfast in its silence, not a single door, window or curtain moved. He looked up and saw Derek emerge. His eyes were wet, his clothes slightly singed. In his hands, he carried a body.
“It’s a woman. She’s dead. Those bhenchods – fucking sisterfuckers – they did it, Percy, they just killed her.”
Percy took hold of his arm and helped him put the body on the ground, gently.
“Who was screaming just now?” He asked.
“There’s nobody in there. They tied her down and lit the fire around her bed. Smoke got her, she isn’t burned, thank god. But we could have saved her!”
“How? You want to take them on? See what good it did him.” Percy pointed at the boy, careful not to look at the corpse.
Percy began to lead him away from the house, which was earnestly ablaze by now. As they walked away, Percy half supporting Derek, he heard his friend burst into a loud shuddering sob. Derek slumped to his knees, in the middle of the road. He held his hands up to his face as he knelt there, lit by the flames that were licking at the doorway. Percy sat by him and put his arms around his shoulders. “Come on, Derek, we have to get out of here! The fucking cops will be here any minute, think of Amrita! What do you want me to tell her? Move, you bastard!”
Somehow, they staggered to the side of the road and paused. Derek breathed deeply and seemed to recover, though his eyes were still red and haunted from the experience. He looked at Percy once, silently, and they walked on, setting a brisk pace away from the street. As they turned the corner, they saw the station, and walked in.
It was like a bad dream. There on the platform, clean and empty-handed, were three men, waiting for the train to come in. A fourth man stepped out of the public washroom on the platform and joined them as Derek and Percy watched. Percy tensed and laid a warning hand on Derek’s shoulder. The older man was heavier, and shrugged off his grip. He walked toward the men, with a suddenly jaunty air. Percy’s heart fell as Derek went up to one of them and said something barely audible.
The men laughed. Percy cringed. “Go home laudoo – take your little dick and write your story with it, we’ll see what happens.” The talkative one slapped Derek. “We’re the Sena, don’t fuck with us – you saw what happened to that Paki bitch back there.”
Percy ran forward and pulled Derek back frantically, mumbling apologies. He grabbed Derek by the arm and yanked. The men laughed uproariously. Derek was in a daze. The men looked at each other and spoke amongst themselves. Percy and Derek were walking away when the men turned back and moved towards them.
“Look, I’m sorry. My friend has had too much to drink; he’s seeing things. Please forgive us. We’ll not trouble you any more. Maaf karo.” Percy tried. The leader silently reached into his pocket and pulled out a small knife. Percy dropped Derek’s hand and kept his eyes on the man. As he reached out in a wide slashing arc, Percy turned into the angle of the swing and brought his hand down hard on the attacker’s wrist. A short expulsion of air as, in the same motion, he drove his elbow into the man’s throat. The knife dropped with a tinny sound.
Percy reached down and picked it up as the man sank to his knees, gasping for breath. The others slowly walked up. Percy backed away, Derek behind him. They formed a semicircle around the pair. Percy folded the knife and flung it off onto the tracks. Two of the men glanced after it, distracted. It was the opening Percy needed. He grabbed the nearest man by the arm and pulled him in close, simultaneously twisting so that his opponent lost balance. With his eyes on the others, he kneed the fallen man in the solar plexus, hard. The man went limp and Percy stood and looked at the other two. They rushed him. This time there was no space for tricks.
He was outnumbered and though his opponents clearly had never been in any organized military force, they were street fighters and brought their own brand of skills to the fight. Percy was dizzy from a hard whack to the side of his head and his left wrist and forearm felt like it was on fire, when Derek, who snapped back to life, settled the issue by grabbing a metal trashcan and swinging it bodily into the back of one of the men. The other was in no mood to face two opponents by himself; he turned and ran.
Percy looked around him, cradling his now-swelling wrist. The three men on the platform were quiet, but alive. Derek’s victim was moaning lightly and writhing. The train pulled in, empty as usual, and Derek and Percy limped in and took their seats. They pulled down the armored blinds and sat back, listening to the sound of the train as it gained speed. Derek was the first to speak. “Percy, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I was just so angry and then he slapped me and-“
“Fuck, your hand, is it broken?”
“I don’t think so, just twisted it the wrong way.”
“I don’t know what’s become of us, of me…”
“It’s ok, Derek.”
“No it’s not, that was a fucking SS death squad, like in the fucking riots! What the fuck have we done? What the fuck have I done?”
“Derek, they don’t know who we are, we rarely go to Grant Road and we won’t any more – I’m going to avoid the embassy in any case. Relax. They probably won’t even tell anyone. What’re they going to say, a crazy bawaji and a catholic geriatric beat up an entire SS crew? Not fucking likely. Just let it be. Next few months, lie low and with any luck we’ll be fine.”
They got off at Bandra and walked to Derek’s house in Pali Hill, just as the curfew sirens went off. It was 11.00 PM. Amrita was asleep and Brian was in the clean room, so Derek let them in. Percy put a compress of ice on his wrist, made sure Derek went to bed and then lay down on the couch. As he watched the stark shaft of light that entered the room from the streetlight outside chase itself up the wall, he remembered what Derek’s face looked like after he brought the woman’s body out of the house.