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Between Roses in Mumbai

“My eyes can see in all directions” was another way he put it. He believed he could anticipate calamity while there was still time to get out of the way. The One Leg’s burning was the first time he’d been blindsided.

What time was it? A neighbor named Cynthia was in the maidan, shouting, “Why haven’t the police arrested the rest of this family?” Cynthia was close to Fatima the One Leg, and had despised Abdul’s family ever since her own family garbage business failed. “Let’s march on the police station, make the officers come and take them,” she called out to the other residents. From inside Abdul’s home came only silence.

After a while, mercifully, Cynthia shut up. There didn’t seem to be a groundswell of public support for the protest march, just irritation at Cynthia for waking everyone up. Abdul felt the night’s tension finally thinning, until steel pots began banging all around him. Startling up, he was confused.

Golden light was seeping through the cracks in a door. Not the door of his storeroom. A door it took a minute to place. Pants back on, he seemed to be on the floor of the hut of a young Muslim cook who lived across the maidan. It was morning. The clangor around him was Annawadians in adjacent huts, making breakfast.

When and why had he crossed the maidan to this hut? Panic had ripped a hole in his memory, and Abdul would never be certain of the final hours of this night. The only clear thing was that in the gravest situation of his life, a moment demanding courage and enterprise, he had stayed in Annawadi and fallen asleep.

At once, he knew his course of action: to find his mother. Having proved himself useless as a fugitive, he needed her to tell him what to do.

“Go fast,” said Zehrunisa Husain, upon issuing her instructions. “Fast as you can!”

Abdul grabbed a fresh shirt and flew. Across the clearing, down a zigzag lane of huts, out onto a rubbled road. Garbage and water buffalo, slum-side. Glimmerglass Hyatt on the other. Fumbling with shirt buttons as he ran. After two hundred yards he gained the wide thoroughfare that led to the airport, which was bordered by blooming gardens, pretties of a city he barely knew.

Butterflies, even: he blew past them and hooked into the airport. Arrivals down. Departures up. He went a third way, running beside a long stretch of blue-and-white aluminum fencing, behind which jackhammers blasted, excavating the foundations of a glamorous new terminal. Abdul had occasionally tried to monetize the terminal’s security perimeter. Two aluminum panels, swiped and sold, and a garbage boy could rest for a year.

He kept moving, made a hard right at a field of black and yellow taxis gleaming in a violent morning sun. Another right, into a shady curve of driveway, a leafy bough hanging low across it. One more right and he was inside the Sahar Police Station.

Zehrunisa had read her son’s face: this boy was too anxious to hide from the police. Her own fear, upon waking, was that the officers would beat her husband as punishment for Abdul’s escape. It was the eldest son’s duty to protect a sick father from that.

Abdul would do his duty, and almost, almost gladly. Hiding was what guilty people did; being innocent, he wanted the fact stamped on his forehead. So what else to do but submit himself to the stamping authorities—to the law, to justice, concepts in which his limited history had given him no cause to believe? He would try to believe in them now.

A police officer in epauletted khaki was splodged behind a gray metal desk. Seeing Abdul, he rose up, surprised. His lips, under his mustache, were fat and fishlike, and Abdul would remember them later—the way they parted a little before he smiled.

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