When Aman reached Prakash’s doorstep, Prakash happened to open the door.

‘What the hell, man! What are you doing here?’ Prakash said.

‘It’s nice to see you too, Prakash,’ Aman said, rolling his eyes. ‘What’s keeping you from school these days? Are you up to the usual – ’

‘How’d you find my place?’ Prakash nervously looked past Aman and then put his arms on Aman’s shoulders to steer him towards the lane beside his house.

‘Quit it.’ Aman shrugged off Prakash’s hold. ‘Why are you trying to get rid of me?’

‘Am not!’ Prakash looked cross. He paused and then, after a moment, smiled anxiously. ‘Okay, fine! It’s just that...How do I put this...? Umm...My parents are old-fashioned.’

‘So...?’ Aman asked. Of course! How could I have been so stupid? Even scum-of-the-earth Prakash is embarrassed to be associated with a traitor’s son.

Aman felt like turning his back on Prakash and running home. Or maybe yelling at Prakash, maybe even smacking him. But he couldn’t. He’d been conditioned to weigh his words, watch his actions and be as passive as possible. There was no way he could make an enemy of the one person who provided him company. He swallowed his pride and said, ‘Nothing really, Prakash. Rohan and gang were extra desperate for attention, and today I became their muse.’

Prakash nodded. ‘Yeah man, listen...that all stinks...Like I said...I’m going to have to go back inside. But I wanna leave you with a gift...And I know you said last week that you weren’t interested, but THIS-IS-IT, Aman. I repeat, this is the solution to all your problems...Wait right here. No closer though. I’ll get it. Be right back,’ he said. Before Aman could respond, Prakash was already walking away.

He returned shortly and handed Aman a book. ‘Just give it five minutes. That’s all I’m asking.’

Aman looked at the rare hardback edition of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and put it in his backpack. ‘Yeah...Five minutes sounds reasonable...’

Engulfed in the ghosts of stale bidi smoke outside the apartment on the first floor, where he and his mother lived, Aman could still hear the voices of his classmates – He just can’t speak...! But he can surely cry! Those words had torn open old wounds and snatched away the last shred of his dignity. The moat he’d built brick by brick had been breached. His meticulous planning before every move, his scrutinisation of each situation for possible pitfalls, his overthinking every decision – it had all been for nothing. His armour had been undone.

But since he was the male child of an army family, his mother would not look kindly on his tears, so he wiped his face before knocking on the door. Aman told himself it would never get better for him. Society would never let him escape the ghosts of his father’s sins.

He took a deep breath. ‘Maa! Open up!’ he said, knocking for the third time.

Eighteen-year-old Aman Chandra didn’t really stand out in a crowd. He was just another gangly teenager, nothing but sticks and hinges: tall and extremely thin. Dark, with dishevelled, dusty hair, and a slouch to his walk, almost as if he wanted to be closer to the ground, away from anyone’s line of sight.

At that moment, what Aman did not know was that he and Prakash would never meet again. But if you had happened to tell him so, he would have been too angry to care. C’mon, open up! He clenched his jaw and kicked a pebble down the dimly lit hallway.

Aman heard footsteps getting louder, and then the door opened, revealing the yellow paint of the small apartment.

‘You’re back early,’ Upasna Chandra said. She was wearing a faded sari, which had once been bright red. She held out her thin arms, offering to take his schoolbag. ‘It’s only four.’

Aman charged in. He had so much to say but didn’t know where to start. He stormed across the room towards the steel almirah and slammed its doors open. He fished out his phone – an eight-year-old refurbished Samsung Galaxy S5 that lasted fifty minutes per charge – and started to scroll through it.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

He refused to look up. All he could think about were the innumerable times he had been shunned, by others, by his classmates, by everyone who sooner or later learnt of his last name.

‘What happened at school, Aman?’ she asked.

His mind raced until he snapped. ‘Why us? Why me?!’

‘Sit down, beta.’

‘No, today I need answers,’ he said. ‘You say that they lied about Papa. That in reality he did not betray this country...that he didn’t betray us...Then why am I called a “traitor’s son”?’

Upasna looked at her feet.

‘What exactly was Papa accused of?’ he asked, his voice getting louder.

She shook her head and took a step towards him. ‘All in good time, beta.’

‘None of this makes sen- ...I don’t understand...’ Aman said, waving his arms about, walking in circles. ‘Don’t want to live like this...’

‘But you have to believe,’ she said. ‘That thread around your wrist is a blessing from the gods. Your life will turn around.’

‘Mother, stop! Not again,’ Aman said. Frustrated, he yanked the thread off his wrist. ‘This thing didn’t work in the fifth or sixth grade. And it definitely didn’t work today. These useless superstitions have only ever given me false hope,’ he said. ‘Hope that maybe I will be able to speak normally to a friend one day...’

She met his eyes as if about to say something but then looked towards the floor. ‘Can’t...I can’t,’ she said with a catch in her throat. ‘I wish I – was that the door?!’

Aman stopped pacing.

And there it was again: a faint but impatient knock. They both looked at each other in surprise. They couldn’t remember the last time they had visitors.

Aman walked to the door and unlatched it. A four-foot-tall, pot-bellied man pushed past him. His hair was in a bun on top of his head and the rest fell in dreadlocks, all the way down to his arms. His teeth were yellow and his eyebrows bushy.

The colour drained from Upasna’s face as she stepped forward. ‘Namahkrita, Sanaka.’

Namahkrita? Aman thought. What does that even mean?

‘Namahkrita, Upasna!’ said Sanaka. ‘You’ve been in my thoughts. Both you and the child.’

Aman stared at this dwarf-like man. He had swept his dreadlocks aside, exposing his left forearm where a tattoo faintly glowed – no, not a tattoo – a blue design, a series of unbroken rings between his elbow and wrist. When his muscles flexed, and the intricate and busy pieces appeared to move, Aman realised that the image was of a blue serpent with large scales that encircled the man’s arm.

‘What brings you by?’ Upasna asked.

‘Only one thought. I have much to tell you, Upasna,’ the man said to her. ‘But before I do...’ he stopped mid- sentence, raising his eyebrows as if to signal something.

‘Oh, yes...uhh, Aman. Excuse us, please,’ she said.


‘Please, Aman. The balcony.’

Aman stood his ground. ‘Who is he?’

‘Aman! We just need a minute or two,’ his mother said. She escorted him to the small area outside they called a balcony and locked the door behind her.

He was alone. This, however, wasn’t his first time on the balcony. Aman instantly ducked and put his eye to the keyhole. Now he could see them, but he could only hear a faint mumbling; the spinning fan drowned out what they were saying. This guy is so weird, he thought.

It was only much later, when the voices were raised, that Aman caught something that made his blood boil: the mention of his father.

‘...to decide is for you, Upasna. No longer Avi,’ the man said sternly.

Aman bared his teeth.

‘Hah! My decision?’ He heard Upasna scoff.

Then, suddenly, instead of responding to her, Sanaka turned around and looked straight into the keyhole, his gaze locking on to Aman’s.

Aman jolted back with a start, his heart beating fast in his chest. He couldn’t dare to return to his vantage point. So, he sat on the floor with his back against the railing of the balcony, looking up at the sky’s twilight colours.

Ten minutes later, Upasna opened the balcony door. But she wouldn’t meet his eyes and refused to turn around to face him. Aman didn’t need to see her face to know she was crying.

Sanaka had clearly left – the front door was wide open. Aman’s thoughts were in turmoil – between what he had failed to say in class, what Prakash had said later and what the strange man might have said, everything bunched together into one unhappy cloud above his head. Aman had reached his breaking point. He clenched his fists and looked at his weeping mother. The man had surely thrown more insults his mother’s way and made more attacks on his family name. Any other day, perhaps, he would have let it slide. But not today.

I am going to kill him. He made a break for the door.

Excerpted with permission from Samsara: Enter The Valley Of The Gods, Saksham Garg, eBury Press.