The shape of a man filled the doorway, black and faceless within a halo of morning light.

“Today is the day, Mrs Gujar,” the shape said.

Amil’s heart almost burst with joy. He looked back at his mother, expecting her face to reveal the delivery of a special gift, or some other birthday treat. But she did not look back at him. Her eyes were fixed on the stranger.

“You are too early!” he heard his father cry.

The man stepped into the room. “Have you not told him yet? You knew this day would come.” Without warning he grabbed Amil’s arm and pulled him towards the open doorway. “I will explain the matter to the boy myself.” Amil screamed and reached for his mother, and she for him. But his father held her back. Amil expected her to break free and launch herself at the man like a lioness protecting her cub, to bite and claw at his flesh until he let him go. But his mother merely hugged her stomach, groaning, as his father held her. They did nothing to save him. They let the man drag him outside without a fight, as if it were the right and proper thing to do.

Amil kicked and screamed and scratched and bit and tried every way he could to free himself. But the man merely tightened his grip, dragging him further and further down the street, away from his home and his family. None of his neighbours came to his aid. Instead, mothers ushered their children indoors whilst their husbands looked on, some even nodding their approval. Everyone in Bhopal appeared to know what was happening to Amil. And why. Everyone, that is, except Amil himself. As they turned the corner the man lifted Amil off the ground and slung him over his shoulder like a sack of flour. He quickened his pace, as Amil continued to scream and lash out with his fists, pummelling the sweat- soaked shirt stretched across the stranger’s back like the skin of a plump, over- ripe tomato. But the man appeared barely to notice, and marched on.

Soon, Amil no longer recognised where they were. Through the acid haze of his tears he could see little more than the man’s cracked heels in his sandals, bicycle wheels spinning by, cattle hooves and cartwheels and, occasionally, the outstretched hand of a beggar. The man turned into a market, and the view changed. As Amil continued to pound on the back of his abductor, images flashed in front of him: rows of sandals laid out according to size and colour, precarious pyramids of limes and lemons, pumpkins and potatoes, coconuts, cauliflowers and cabbages, the threadbare backs of half-starved dogs weaving their way through a forest of legs, as a thousand people jostled through the narrow alleyways, kicking up dust. Amil looked up at the passing faces, hoping that one might recognise him and return him to his family. But no one even glanced at him.

They turned a corner, leaving the shops and market stalls behind them. The streets were wider now, but with few stone buildings. Instead, they were lined with hundreds of tumbledown shacks made from scraps of wood and rusty corrugated sheeting, crammed together like rotten teeth in a mouth that was too small for them. Rising out of this sea of deprivation, the crumbling facades of two stone buildings stood facing each other across the street, decaying remnants of more prosperous times. The man headed for the double doors belonging to the workshop on the left, above which stretched the words Kumar & Sons Printers in flaky, sun-bleached lettering. By the time they reached them, all Amil’s tears had leaked into the dirt and his throat felt as though it were full of broken glass. He stopped screaming. There was a jangling of keys, then the discordant creak of one of the doors as it opened. His captor carried him inside, then locked the door behind them and dropped Amil to the ground.

“Sit there,” he commanded. He pointed to a white plastic chair, similar to those which lined the streets outside every tea house in Bhopal. As Amil slid into the chair, the man drew up another, and sat facing him in the semi-darkness. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, and ran it over the wide hairless channel which stretched from his forehead to the back of his neck, dabbing sweat. For a few moments, he stared at Amil, drumming the arm of the chair with his stubby fingers. Finally, he leaned forward.

“Listen to me, boy,” he said, waving a finger in Amil’s face. “My name is Mr Kumar, and I am a respectable businessman. I am not kidnapping you, do you understand? This is a matter of family honour.”

Amil said nothing. Perhaps he was still asleep, dreaming. Or, perhaps this was what his mother meant when she told him not to let his imagination carry him away. He pinched his arm hard. Mr Kumar did not disappear.

“Do you know what honour is, boy?” Amil nodded, weakly, so Mr Kumar continued: “It means doing what is right, so that you may hold your head up proudly among your fellows. There is also such a thing as family honour. Do you believe in the honour of the Gujar family?” Amil nodded again, this time more confidently. “Sadly, your great-grandfather did not. He brought death and ruin to our family, and heaped shame on his own like a mountain of elephant dung. Look around you, boy. This was once a thriving business, set in the heart of a prosperous neighbourhood. Now, the place is falling to pieces and we are marooned in a sea of riff-raff. And it is all the fault of your great-grandfather.”

“What . . . what did he do?”

Amil croaked. Mr Kumar’s mouth tightened as though he had just bitten into a rotten almond. “Your great-grandfather left three of my ancestors to die on the battlefield – that is what he did. He betrayed them. He was a coward; a traitor; a deserter; a disgrace to every Indian soldier who fought and died for the honour of this country. The pain that gutless, low-caste Gujar inflicted that day has seeped like poison through generations of our family, bringing with it nothing but bad luck and hardship. That is why you are here.” He paused to wipe more beads of sweat from his forehead. “A debt is owed, you see. As we businessmen say, the books must be balanced. For without balance in all things, the world would tilt on its axis and spin out of control.” Mr Kumar returned the handkerchief to his pocket.

“But how can I repay this debt?” asked Amil. Mr Kumar frowned. “You cannot properly repay it, unless you can bring back the dead. All you can do is repay a small fraction of it, like your father before you. The stench of shame that clings to your family will take a thousand years to wash away. And hard work is the only soap. That is why, for the next eight years, you will sleep in here by night, and by day you will fold paper for our customers. And when you are not folding paper, you will fetch, you will carry, you will clean, you will stand on your head in a bucket of chicken guts, if I command it. And one day, when your first-born son is ten years old, he will do the same. Drop by drop, generation by generation, the Gujars will continue to atone for the tidal wave of grief that your great-grandfather unleashed on our family all those years ago. That is how the debt is to be repaid. Is that clear?”

Excerpted with permission from The Prisoner of Bhopal, Tim Walker, Andersen Press.