The years have been kind to Bhudevi Thakur. Her iron-grey curls have brightened to white and her eyes are softer, more peaceful. Her need for constant politicking well nourished by the torturous daytime TV serials she watches so avidly, she has become almost mellow. Besides, her philandering husband Ashok Narayan Thakur has recently been operated for prostate cancer and is currently out of sexual commission, thus giving her a break from her constant, agonized husband-guarding. Still, she keeps up with the dramatic happenings on Hailey Road, just to keep her hand in, so to speak.

Now she tilts her eyebrows at her niece inquiringly.

‘No,’ Bonu responds, mouth full. ‘What happened at number 5, Chachiji?’

Bhudevi Thakur blows out her cheeks and assumes a lugubrious expression. ‘Bhai, it is very sad. The brothers were fighting – over the property, of course – the case has been going on for fourteen years – and this morning the younger brother took out a pistol, put it inside his elder brother’s mouth and pressed the trigger. I heard there’s a hole in the back of his head like a sambar vada. All soggy and uneven.’

Bonu puts down her sandwich. ‘Ugh.’

Chachiji continues, ‘Of course, some are saying it wasn’t just the property. Apparently the older fellow – a bachelor, you know – was carrying on with the younger one’s wife. She’s lucky her husband didn’t shoot her too—really lucky, because now one is dead and the other will go to jail and she will end up inheriting everything!’

‘Wow.’ Bonu looks impressed. ‘You think she planned it, Chachiji?’

‘Maybe.’ Chachiji lowers her voice into a confidential whisper. ‘She’s as chunnt as they come. Does yoga the whole day so she’s as supple as a snake. They say she can twist herself into any position, that’s why all the men are mad after her. Now, of course, she will swallow the whole property like a python and digest it so completely that there won’t even be any shit left to fight over.’

The Judge and Bonu consider this, stunned.

Chachiji continues, ‘And at number 4 toh you know what is happening. Such a close family they used to be, mother-father, two brothers and one sister. But today there is an ad in the newspaper saying ki please, we want to make it very clear ki there is no sister-shister! This woman was an orphan we kept in the house out of kindness and now she is getting ideas above her station and demanding a hissa! The brothers have burnt her birth certificate and told the old parents ki khabardaar! She has no hissa! If you open your mouth we will borrow the next-door-ka-pistol and sambar vada you both. Imagine!’

What drivel this infernal woman talks, the Judge thinks as he munches drearily through his soggy sandwich.

Always going on about hissas. Hisssssas! He’s not very sure what the word means anymore, but it makes him think of a cobra, all flickering tongue and flared hood, hissing and swaying, ready to strike. Why does she visit so often, anyway? He has no idea who she is. Lachhu’s wife perhaps? Or the cook? If she’s the cook, he’s got a thing or two to say to her about these insipid sandwiches. Or is she one of those pushy ladies who keep coming around seeking donations?

He prods Bonu in the ribs. ‘Give her a hundred chips and tell her to git.’

Bonu hushes him. Just then, the curtains fly up as a massive gust of breeze sweeps through the room. ‘Oh God, is it raining?’ Bonu groans. ‘Please let it be just breeze but not too much breeze—shit!’

She puts down her tea, grabs her shawl, and rushes out to the lawn just as another gust of wind sweeps in, tossing the treetops, scattering champa flowers over the grass and, as Bonu watches horrified, hurling all the buttercup yellow, Dubai-bound boobie-padding into the air and sending them tumbling and spinning in the misty wind, towards the front gate.

With a collective agonized wail, the entire tailoring unit gives chase.

Bonu leads the charge, hitching up her black pyjamas, and kicking off her shoes.

‘It’s okay,’ she calls out pantingly to her little crew. ‘They’ll hit the gate and stop. Thank God the gate is shut. If it wasn’t, they would have blown right out into the stree—’

And even as she says this, the gate opens, the wind surges, and just like that, the entire consignment of feather-light falsies is loose and whirling on Hailey Road.

‘Oh no!’ groans Bonu, doubling up in dismay. ‘Go, Masterji! Run! Why are you staring at my face? I don’t have my shoes! Catch them! This is all your fault! Go!’

The miserable Daulat and the rest of the unit caper out, leaping and lunging after the wildly whirling pads. Bonu, meanwhile, squares her shoulders and turns to face the person who has opened the gate at that exact, inopportune moment.

‘Your sense of timing,’ she says with exaggerated politeness, her heart thumping hard and not just because she’s been running, ‘is perfect.’

The new arrival, tall, brown, scruffy, and attached to a bulging backpack, looks down at her sardonically.

‘Lovely to see you too,’ he says politely. ‘What are those poor unfortunates being yelled at for now?’

‘You’re the one I should be yelling at,’ she says shortly, not quite meeting his eyes. Her step-cousin Samar’s eyes have always been hard for her to meet. Looking straight into them, for some reason, feels like looking straight into the sun. ‘If the gate had been shut we’d have caught them in time.’

‘What’s “them”?’ he enquires, looking out onto the road interestedly.

‘Boobie padding,’ she replies shortly. Let him make of that what he wants.

‘How, uh, uplifting,’ he murmurs, then bends to kiss her carelessly on the cheek. ‘How’ve you been, little Bonu Singh?’ ‘Fine,’ she manages to reply nonchalantly. ‘It’s been a while since you visited.’ (It’s been almost three years, actually, but God forbid he ever find out she’s been counting.) ‘Is that your

only bag?’

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘It’s been a while, yes, but I’ve been busy…’ He trails off, looking about the property, which appears rather shabby. The grass is both overlong and patchy, the trees need pruning, the house needs a coat of paint, one of the lights at the front gate is busted. The only person who’s looking in the pink of health, glowing like an exotic bloom in this muck, in fact, is his brat of a step-cousin.

‘But you’re free now?’ she asks.

It might be an innocent question, but it makes Samar wince. She must have read about the Sparkler Awards incident. Damn.

‘Sort of. But like I said, I’ve been busy. I know I should’ve called before I showed up, but I won’t be any trouble. I’ll stay upstairs.’

Bonu Singh gulps, then quickly recovers.

‘Uh…upstairs? You want to live upstairs? But your hissa’s all locked up and I don’t have the key, and it’s probably filthy.’

Samar grimaces. ‘Ugh. I didn’t think of that. So maybe I can just shack up in one of the bedrooms downstairs?’

‘Good idea,’ she agrees instantly.

His gaze grows speculative. ‘What are you looking so happy about, suddenly?’

‘Oh, just happy to see you,’ she assures him demurely. ‘BJ will be happy too.’

‘I’ve been busy,’ Samar repeats defensively. ‘The film and so on… But we’ve been talking on the phone. Well, I’ve been talking—he just tends to say a loud and cheerful hello and then zone out till it’s time to say a loud and cheerful goodbye. How is he?’

Her lips tighten.

‘See for yourself.’

Saying which she whirls around and starts to walk back to

the house, her turquoise shawl billowing behind her like a super-heroine’s robe.

Samar follows at a leisurely pace, taking in the generally run-down state of the house, and also, it must be admitted, the voluptuous figure of the girl in front of him.

Quite the local hottie, he thinks, amused. Nothing hot about her walk, unfortunately. Whatever devil’s brew she’d sold her soul to buy, drink and thus transform herself from a scrawny brat into this luscious avatar, it clearly hadn’t been potent enough to alter her barrelling strut. She has retained that aggressive, outta-my-way swagger which used to make his stepmother shudder and say, ‘This girl walks like a rapist. Kuch karo iska.’

He also notices that, because of her nose pin, the tiny ghungroos swinging at the end of her ridiculous gypsy belt, and the stack of jingly bangles around one wrist, she gives the impression of being lightly sprinkled with oxidized silver. There is a slight chhamchhamming quality to the whole package. A chhamchhamming rapist, Samar thinks to himself as they reach the house and she announces him. God help us.

Excerpted with permission from The House That BJ Built, Anuja Chauhan, Westland.