I’m dreaming of mountains, icy and terrifying, when a surreptitious sound wakes me. It’s very early, the sun barely risen. I sit up cautiously on the frayed charpai I share with my mother and my older sister, Balbir. I must not disturb them. Once they’re up, the morning will no longer be mine.
Silence all around except for Biji’s mild snores. Then I hear it again, the cautious click of a wooden door. I extricate myself from under Balbir’s leg. She’s a greedy bedmate, a stealer of pillows in the summer and of our shared quilt in the winter, quick to pinch me if she thinks I’m being insolent, and quicker to complain that everyone treats me better because I’m prettier.
I hurry out to the yard. The charpai where my brother Jawahar sleeps is empty. But the hanging chain-latch on the outer door still sways lazily. I rush outside without changing my night salwar-kameez. I have only two other pairs anyway, both for school. I don’t bother with sandals. Where we live, on the muddy edge of Gujranwala, it doesn’t matter.
My brother’s off on another adventure. I’m determined to share it this time.
Jawahar’s adventures mostly have to do with stealing food, because we never have enough to eat. Unlike the children of poorer families, we can’t beg either. That would destroy our father’s reputation as a big man. Our father, Manna Singh Aulakh, works – and lives – in the Badshahi Qila in Lahore; he’s told us that Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sarkar himself, speaks to him every day. It wouldn’t do for the townspeople to see his children begging.
My mother is the hardest worker I know, a skilled embroiderer of phulkari shawls. But there are many talented women in our village and not enough business. So Jawahar steals. He usually sets his spoils next to the wood-burning chulha for Biji to find: corn from a khet, grain laid out to dry, mangoes from someone’s orchard. Biji accepts them wordlessly, thankful and ashamed at the same time.
Jawahar always keeps aside something for me: a juicy apricot, or a handful of sweet jamuns that turn my lips purple. We sit on the bank of the grass-choked stream that stutters along behind our hut, pretty enough but sadly devoid of fish. I listen with hushed breath as he tells me how he crept into the orchard, how he managed to outrun the guard dogs. At eleven, he’s only two years older than me, but there’s no one in the world I admire more. I want to be a provider like him, not just a mouth to feed.
Today, I’ll prove myself.
I run down the dusty path and when it forks – cornfields to the left, orchards to the right – choose the orchards, praying to Waheguru that I have chosen correctly. Is it appropriate to pray on a thieving mission? It must be, for there’s Jawahar, loping along, bony-shouldered, barefoot like me because he broke his chappal straps months ago. I catch up with him, panting.
Hearing footsteps, he whirls around, fists up. When he sees me, he scowls. “Go home, Jindan. Now.”
I beg. “Please, veer. Please.”
Finally he gives in, mostly because time is passing. Soon the farmers will come to water the trees, and we must get away before then. I slip my delighted hand into his. We run to the guava groves.
High in the branches, we search for the riper fruits. I’m proud of how I scrambled up the tree, keeping up with Jawahar, though in the process I ripped my salwar at the knee, which is bound to earn me a beating from Biji. There are fewer guavas than I’d hoped for.
“Not the season yet,” Jawahar explains, “but later you won’t be able to get into the grove because the farmer will hire guards.”
I bite into a fruit that’s green and tart. I know I’ll get the runs if I eat too many, but I’m so hungry. Jawahar’s deft fingers seek out the best guavas. He drops them into his jute bag. He gives me a couple to tie into the corner of my kameez. The bag is getting respectably full. He whispers that he might be able to trade with a neighbour who’s not too finicky about where things come from: a handful of guavas for a bowl of wheat. Then he stiffens. There’s a green turban in the distance.
“The owner,” Jawahar whispers. “Quick! Jump!”
He’s down already, ready to run. But the ground looks so far.
“Come on, Jindan.”
Panic freezes me. The turban bobs, closer now. I’m crying. We’ll get caught because of me.
“Do what you did when you went up, only backwards.” His voice is calm and patient. “One foot at a time. I know you can do it.”
I start down, still sobbing. But I’m too slow.
Jawahar says, “I’m going to distract him. You take the bag and run. Go by the river path. The grasses will hide you. Put the bag in our special place behind the broken kiln. Don’t tell Biji anything.”
He dances away from the tree, shouting derisively while holding up two guavas. The man bellows and chases after him. He’s caught the farmer’s attention. I slide to the ground. My knee is skinned; my salwar rips further. But I have the bag of guavas. I run and pray. Waheguru, protect my brother.
At home, I lie heroically to Biji. Sometimes it’s better for mothers to not know the truth.
“I was at the river, trying to catch a fish. I lost track of time. No, I don’t know where Jawahar has gone.”
Biji twists my ear but not too hard, because she hasn’t seen the torn salwar yet. Hurriedly, I wash with the leftover water at the bottom of the bucket and change into my school salwar-kameez, a too-large hand-me-down from Balbir, discoloured from many washings. I don’t want to be late for school which, unlike my siblings, I love.
I feel lucky that Biji gave into my entreaties and let me study. Most of the families here don’t believe in educating their girls. I drink the watery lassi Biji has saved from last night and pick up my slate and chalk.
Someone’s banging on the door. It’s green turban, dragging Jawahar by a thin arm. My brother’s nose is bloody and one eye is swollen shut.
I didn’t pray hard enough.
Green turban describes the thievery with dramatic gestures. Listening to him, you’d think we’d stolen a mountain of guavas. He tells Biji there was someone else with the boy, but he hasn’t been able to get that information out of him. The boy wouldn’t even tell him his name, but luckily one of the farmhands recognized him. He glares at all of us. “If I wasn’t such a kind man, I’d have taken this thieving bastard to the village sarpanch.”
Balbir, who’s timid and law-abiding, starts to sniffle. I join her because it’s a good strategy, but I wish I could run a kirpan through his fat gut instead.
When he kicks Jawahar, though, I can’t control myself. I run at him and butt him hard with my head, yelling at him to leave my brother alone.
Everyone is shouting now, Biji saying get back here, Jawahar saying stop. I kick at the man’s shins and pull at his kurta, trying to tear it, but the cotton is too thick. He gives me a hard slap that lands me on the ground.
“Crazy bitch,” he snarls. And to Biji: “A fine way you’ve brought up your children! Even the girl’s no better than a wildcat.”
Biji’s face grows dark. She grabs my arm and twists it hard. But I don’t care. Jawahar has crawled under the charpai. I’ve saved him, at least for the moment.
Green turban shakes his fist and shouts some more insults in which he generously includes our entire ancestry. Finally, having run out of breath, he turns to leave. At the door, he tells Biji, “You’d better control your children, woman. Next time I’m going to the panchayat. I’ll make sure the boy ends up in the jailkhana.”
After green turban leaves, Biji slaps me hard. “Because of you, I have to hear all these gaalis from a stranger!”
Jawahar crawls out from under the charpai. “Don’t punish her for my fault,” he croaks.
Biji picks up a piece of firewood. “Your fault! You’re right about that, kambakht! Shaming the family like this. I’ll show you today.”
He crouches, resigned, shielding his head as she brings the firewood down on his back. “Tell me who was with you! Which no-good loafer are you running around with? Tell me!” She hits him again. We’re all crying now, Biji loudest of all. “Your father’s bound to hear of this, and then what will I do?”
But I suspect a deeper reason for Biji’s grief. Sure enough, she drops the firewood and crumples to the ground, sobbing. “What kind of mother am I that I can’t even feed my children?”
Jawahar raises his face a little. With his good eye, he winks at me. Smart girl. I’m proud of you. I know that when all this is over, we’ll slip away to the old kiln. He’ll give me the ripest guava from the bag and call me a clever girl, and we’ll laugh over the day’s adventures. At night, after Biji and Balbir have gone to sleep, he’ll repair my salwar because he knows how to do everything. Maybe I’ll tell him about my strange mountain dream.
I’m going to remember this moment forever, and my brother’s bruised, smiling face, which I love so much that it feels like someone is wringing my heart like Biji does with our laundry.
The two of us, Jawahar, against the world.
Excerpted with permission from The Last Queen, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, HarperCollins India.