This scene is dedicated to The Tattered Cover, Denver's legendary independent bookstore. I happened upon The Tattered Cover quite by accident: Alice and I had just landed in Denver, coming in from London, and it was early and cold and we needed coffee. We drove in aimless rental-car circles, and that's when I spotted it, the Tattered Cover's sign. Something about it tingled in my hindbrain -- I knew I'd heard of this place. We pulled in (got a coffee) and stepped into the store -- a wonderland of dark wood, homey reading nooks, and miles and miles of bookshelves.
Ashok wove his pretty bike through the narrow alleys of Dharavi, his headlamp slicing through the night. Yasmin's mother would be rigid with worry and anger, and would probably beat her, but it was OK. She and Ashok had sat in that studio shed for hours, talking it through, getting meat on the bones of her idea, and he had left long, detailed messages for Big Sister Nor before getting them back on his bike.
Yasmin tapped him on the shoulder at each junction, showing him which way to turn. Soon they were nearly at her family's house and shouted at him to stop, hollering through the helmet. He killed the engine and the headlight and her bum finally stopped vibrating, her legs complaining about the hours she'd spent gripping the bike with the insides of her thighs. She swung unsteadily off her bike and brought her hands up to her helmet.
Her hands were on her helmet when she heard the voices.
“Is that her?”
“I can't tell.”
They were whispering loudly, and a trick of the grilles over the helmet's ear-coverings let her hear the sound as though it was originating from right beside her. She put a firm hand on Ashok's shoulder and squeezed.
“It's her.” The voice was Mala's, hard.
Yasmin let go of Ashok's shoulder and brought her hand down to the cables tying the lathi to the bike, while her free hand moved to the helmet's visor, swinging it up. She'd repinned her hijab around her neck and now she was glad she had, as she had pretty good visibility. It had been a long time since she'd been in a physical fight, but she understood the principles of it well, knew her tactics.
The lathi was really well anchored -- Ashok hadn't wanted it to go flying off while they were running down the motorway -- and now she brought her other hand down to work at it blind, keeping her eyes on the shadows around her, listening for the footsteps.
“What about the man?”
“Him too,” Mala said.
And then they charged, an army of them, coming from the shadows all around them. “GO!” she said to Ashok, trying to keep him from dismounting the bike, but he got to his feet, squared his shoulders, and faced away from her, to the soldiers who were charging him. A rock or lump of cement clanged off her helmet, making a sound like a cooking pot falling to the floor, and now she tugged as hard as she could at the lathi and at last it sprang free, the steel hooks on the tips of the bunjee cables whipping around and smacking painfully into her hands. She barely noticed, whirling with the two-meter stick held overhead like a cricket-bat.
And pulled up short.
The boy closest to her was Sushant. Sushant, who, that afternoon, had spoken of how he'd longed to join her cause. His face was a mask of terror in the weak light leaking out of the homes around them. The steel tip trembled over her shoulder as her wrists twitched. All she would need to do is unwind the swing, let the long pole and its steel end whistle through the air with all the whip-crack force penned up at the lathi's end and she would bash poor Sushant's head in.
And why not? After all, that's what Mala's army was here for.
All this thought in the blink of an eye, so fast she didn't even register that she'd thought it, but she did not swing the lathi through the air at Sushant's head. Instead, she swept it at his feet, pulling the swing so that it just knocked him backwards, flying into two more soldiers behind him, boys who had once taken orders from her.
“Stand down!” she barked, in the voice of command, and swung the lathi back, sweeping it toward the army's feet like a broom. They took a giant step back in unison, eyes crazed and rolling in the weak light. Sushant was weeping. She'd heard bone break when the lathi's tip met his ankle. He was holding onto the shoulders of the two soldiers he'd knocked over, and they were struggling to keep him upright.
No one said anything and there was just the collective breath of Dharavi, thousands and thousands of chests rising and falling in unison, breathing in each others' air, breathing in the stink of the tanners and the burning reek from the dye factories and the sting of the plastic smoke.
Then Mala stepped forward. In her hand, she held -- what? A bottle?
A bottle. With an oily rag hanging out of the end. A petrol bomb.
“Mala!” she said, and she heard the shock in her own voice. “You'll burn the whole of Dharavi down!” It was the tone of voice you use when shouting into your headset at a guildie who was about to get the party killed by accidentally aggroing some giant boss. The tone that said, You're being an idiot, cut it out.
It was the wrong tone to use with Mala. She stiffened up and her other hand worked at the wheel of a disposable lighter -- snzz snzz.
Again, she moved before she thought, two running steps while she brought the lathi up over her shoulder, feeling it thunk against something behind her as it sliced up, then slicing it back down again, in that savage, cutting arc, down at Mala's skinny legs, sweeping them with the whole force of her body, and Mala skipped backwards, away from the lathi, stumbled, went over backwards --
-- and the lathi connected, a solid blow that made a sound like the butcher's knife parting a goat's head from its neck, and Mala's scream was so terrible that it actually brought people to their windows (normally a scream in the night would make them stay back from it). There was bone sticking out of her leg, glinting amid the blood that fountained from the wound.
And still she had the petrol bomb, and still she had the lighter, and now the lighter was lit. Yasmin drew back her foot for a footballer's kick, knowing as she wound up that she could cripple Mala's hand with a good kick, ending her career as General Robotwallah.
Afterwards, she remembered the voice that had chased itself around her head as she drew back for that kick:
Do it, do it and end your troubles. Do it because she would do it to you. Do it because it will scare her army out of fighting you and the Webblies. Do it because she betrayed you. Do it because it will keep you safe.
And she lowered her foot and instead leapt on Mala, pinning her arms with her body. The lighter's flame licked at her arm, burning her, and she ground it out. She could feel Mala's breath, snorting and pained, on her throat. She grabbed Mala's left wrist, shook the hand that held the bomb, smashed it against the ground until it broke and spilled out the stinking petrol into the ditch that ran alongside the shacks. She stood up.
Mala's face was ashen, even in the bad light. The blood smell and the petrol smell were everywhere.
Yasmin looked to Ashok. “You need to take her to the hospital,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. He was holding onto the side of his head, eye squeezed shut. “Yes, of course.”
“What happened to you?”
He shrugged. “Got too close to your lathi,” he said and tried for a brave smile. She remembered the thunk as she'd drawn back for her swing.
“Sorry,” she said.
Mala's army stood at a distance, staring.
“Go!” Yasmin said. “Go. This was a disaster. It was stupid and evil and wrong. I'm not your enemy, you idiots. GO!”
“We have to splint her,” Ashok said. “Make a stretcher, too. Can't move her like that.”
Yasmin looked at him, raised an eyebrow.
“My father's a doctor,” he said.
Yasmin went into the flat, climbed the stairs. Her mother sat up as she entered the room and opened her mouth to say something, but Yasmin raised on hand to her and, miraculously, she shut up. Yasmin looked around the room, took the chair that sat in one corner, an armload of rags from the bundle they used to keep the room clean, and left, without saying a word.
Ashok broke the chair into splints by smashing it against a nearby wall. It was a cheap thing and went to pieces quickly. Yasmin knelt by Mala and took her hand. Her breathing was shallow, labored.
Mala squeezed her hand weakly. Then she opened her eyes and looked around, confused. Her eyes settled on Yasmin. They looked at each other. Mala tried to pull her hand away. Yasmin didn't let go. The hand was strong, nimble. It had dispatched innumerable zombies and monsters.
Mala stopped struggling, closed her eyes. Ashok brought over the splints and rags and hunkered down beside them.
Just before he began to work on her, Mala said something. Yasmin couldn't quite make it out, but she thought it might be, Forgive me.
SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022