Bubba dragged his legs along as he walked back home from school. He hated school. The teachers always looked at him as if he was going to hit them. He sighed. At eight, he knew what his village stood for. Sadpur, near Muzzafarnagar, had always attracted that reaction from anybody. It was famous for illegal arms trade and gang warfare. And Bubba’s family was one of the foremost arms dealers in the area.
It was obviously a very unsafe area. But Bubba had nothing to fear. His father’s men were forever around, looking out for him. He rarely ever saw Abba, though. His mother, on the other hand, was always home. Always. He had never seen her leave the house even once. He’d heard her speak of the town she was from. “When I was your age, we used to play all evening after school. Shahpur is much bigger than his place. A city, almost,” she would say. And after she said so, she cried. Bubba never understood why girls cried. They must have been made wrong. That’s why they cried so easily.
Bubba never cried. He was the leader of the children at school. They all listened to him and did what he said. If there were any new children, they were either forced to submit to his authority or they’d have to leave the school. But, he didn’t get any satisfaction from that. He’d heard his father’s men say that the truest followers came by themselves. He was not sure what it meant, but he knew that he was doing something wrong.
He wiped the dust from his sleeve and rubbed his face on his arm. It was a hot, dusty day and he was trailing behind two other boys. Malik and Ajay were his best friends, even though they walked much faster than he did. Malik turned around and yelled, “Oy Bubba! What’re you doing? Move fast, will you? It will get dark very soon, and I don’t want my Ammi looking for me.”
Malik’s mother came out of the house. He didn’t have an Abba. She worked in some company and always brought sweets for Bubba. Abba didn’t like Malik’s Ammi. He said she was too independent. Bubba did not know the meaning of that word, but he knew that she was doing something wrong and that she would never be forgiven.
Ajay was a quieter boy. He was the pujari’s son, and he helped his father out in the evenings. Bubba liked Ajay more than Malik. Malik was too loudmouthed for his taste, Bubba’d decided. As he kept walking he could see the two outposts of the village. Unlike other villages, his had outposts or watchtowers as that government man had called it. There was a man on either one with a big gun. They looked around all day. Bubba never knew whom they were waiting for with such big guns, but they always scared him. The meanest of men were put up there.
One of them nodded at Bubba and waved him away. He ran. Ran till his legs could. Ran till he couldn’t breathe. Ran till he fell on his doorstep. He felt intense pain. All that happened after was a blur. Someone opened the door, picked him up and took him inside. His Ammi came with something in her hand and rubbed it on his leg. He was put to bed after that.
Childhood memories assailed Bubba as he woke up with a sweat. Images of Sadpur on a dusty evening, his father’s men chasing him and his friends missing. He looked around half expecting all that to happen here and now. ‘Here’ was a word of permanence for him, something that didn’t exist. For the last ten years, he had been on the run, hiding, questioning, fearing everything that came his way. Until the day he’d decided to leave Sadpur, he hadn’t realised the extent of his father’s network, or the old man’s need for blood. “Revenge”, he’d called it. To Bubba that only meant bloodlust and craziness.
His father never really understood what it was like to want to live a normal life. Bubba wanted that. He got out of bed, and walked towards the wall on which a broken piece of glass served as a mirror. He could usually see only one eye at a time, but on some days, when he felt like it, he’d take a few steps back and see even half his face. He’d inherited his father’s mean looks, he thought — a broad forehead, sharp, hooked nose, deep-set eyes and a chin of ‘determinance’ as his mother’d called it.
He missed her a lot sometimes, but mostly he never even thought of her. On the days he did think of Ammi, he was consumed by guilt and he hated everything in sight. Bubba sighed and walked back to his bed. It was still midnight. He didn’t have to get to work at the fishmarket at Sassoon Docks until a couple of hours later. He loved the fishmarket. The sights and smells gave him a heady satisfaction everyday, but he never really understood why others found it difficult. Only last week, he’d taken the new girl at the grocery shop down the road to the market. She’d scrunched up her nose real funny-like and walked off.
He tried to go back to sleep, but those watchtowers kept coming back. It was like one of those movies he had watched in the cinema hall he’d snuck into while following that stupid girl home. He couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was going to happen and if experience had taught him anything, it would be something bad.