Tirlochen was looking at the sky for the first time in four years, and only because he was upset and had gone up to the terrace at Adwani Chambers so that he could think rationally in the open air.
The sky, clear and cloudless, stretched like a taut grey tent over all of Bombay. Scattered lights extended to the horizon. It seemed that the stars had fallen from the sky, alighted on the tops of buildings—which in the darkness of the night looked like large tree trunks—and glimmered on them like glow worms.
Being under the open sky was a new experience for Tirlochen, a new feeling. He realized that in the four years he had spent in his flat, he had been deprived of one of nature's great blessings. It was nearly three o'clock. The air was light and buoyant. Tirlochen was used to the fan's mechanical breeze, which weighed him down. When he awoke in the mornings, he felt as if he had been beaten all night. But now, in the morning air, every pore of his body seemed to be joyously absorbing the freshness. When he came up to the terrace, his mind was burdened with disturbing thoughts, but in half an hour the fever in his brain had abated and he found himself thinking rationally.
Kirpal Kaur and her entire family were in a neighbourhood dominated by staunch Muslims. Several houses had already been burnt down, and a great many lives had been lost. Tirlochen might have taken Kirpal Kaur and her family out of there, but a twenty-four-hour curfew had been imposed, there were Muslims everywhere, and surrounded by these dangerous people, Tirlochen felt helpless. In addition to that, there was news pouring in from Punjab of the widespread killing of Muslims by Sikhs. Any hand, any Muslim hand, could reach out at any time, seize Kirpal Kaur's delicate wrist, and push her towards the well of death.
Kirpal's mother was blind, her father was a cripple, and her only brother was in Devlali overseeing a new contract.
Tirlochen was vexed with Kirpal's brother, Niranjan. Tirlochen read the newspaper every day and had warned Niranjan a week ago about the rapidly spreading disturbances. "Forget about these contracts for the time being," he had told Niranjan, adding candidly, "We're going through a very delicate phase, and although you must stay with your family, it would [End Page 111] [Begin Page 113] be even better if you brought them over to my house. It's true there isn't much space, but in times of trouble one can manage." Niranjan ignored the warning. And when Tirlochen finished lecturing him, he smiled under his thick moustache and said, "Yar, you worry needlessly. I've seen many such disturbances here. This is not Amritsar or Lahore; this is Bombay…Bombay. You've been here for four years; I've lived here for twelve years…twelve years."
What did Niranjan think Bombay was? He probably figured this was a city where disturbances, if they did develop, would disappear of their own accord, as if by magic. Or he might have thought this was a storybook castle impervious to catastrophe. But Tirlochen could see very clearly that the mohalla was not safe at all. As a matter of fact, he would not be surprised if he read in the next morning's paper that Kirpal and her parents had been murdered.
He was not concerned about Kirpal's blind mother or her handicapped father. It would be fine, as far as he was concerned, if they died and Kirpal was spared. Better too if her brother also got killed, because then the way would be clear for him. Niranjan was not a stone in Tirlochen's path, but more of a khangar. And thus when Tirlochen talked to him, he called him Khangar Singh instead of Niranjan Singh.
The morning air blew lazily. Without a turban, Tirlochen's head felt pleasantly cooled. But inside his head, innumerable thoughts ran about haphazardly…Kirpal Kaur was a newcomer in his life. Although...