Now sitting down in the bleak nothingness of the Interstate, he imagined those eyes. But this time, he found them silent. And silence always confounded him. Harish was sitting near him, looking at the infant who had gone to sleep. The camp was quiet. He didn’t stir.

Easwaran stretched out his hands to draw Harish closer to him. Harish, giving in, shifted towards his father. Easwaran, thinking this would be a good time to introduce the infant to his son, tried to place the baby on the young boy’s lap. Harish, however, refused any such advances and recoiled from him.

Easwaran felt a tinge of fear crossing through his heart like a shard of glass piercing through one’s skin. He didn’t do anything more. He wanted to glare at his son, thinking that’d change things, make his son more deferential. But he knew doing so would have only hardened his son towards him.

It was then that he realised something he hadn’t considered till now: Harish was growing up and was learning to form his own decisions. And a man that he was, he’d only respect it. But he knew that something had changed, not just in his son, but also between them.

“There’s a saying...” Eaklavya said, walking closer to Easwaran and squatting beside him, “...Sons are never one’s own. Daughters, yes, but never the sons.”

“Yes, and one should just let them be. That’s what my father did with me.”

“I wonder what Jaidev would say once he sees that thing on your lap.”

“He has nothing to do with it. It was what I had to do, so I did.”

“Yea, but that’s not how things work. I saw that little thing that happened between you and that Rajendran guy over there. He’s an asshole, you can ignore him. But what he said was right. There’d be a scene when we get back.”

“I am expecting it too. But I did what I had to do. And I am not turning back. Not as long as I am walking on this Earth.”

“And how do you propose to raise this thing? Have you any idea what all it entails? What it can do to Old City and our ways of life? You’re not in Millennium, and you don’t have the goddamn bucks and those big-ass houses. How the hell will you deal with it all?”

“Let’s just leave it to time now, shall we?”

“My mother was right. You’re just like your father. A stubborn piece of shit.”

“What’s with Phanai over there? Any news on the boy?”

“None. But that’s precisely why it’s worrying. I don’t know what the old man will do.”

Almost as if by instinct, the two looked towards Phanai, who was sitting on the ground, whimpering and talking to ghosts. At times he’d be quiet and not speak. But this silence would soon be disturbed by a large staccato of words addressed to the thin invisible air.

Easwaran could estimate that it was almost noon, which meant they’d have to leave sooner if they wanted to reach Old City by late evening. The two men Eaklavya had sent scouting hadn’t returned, but he expected them to be back soon.

“We should prepare to leave, Eaklavya. The longer we stay, the more dangerous it becomes here,” Easwaran pointed out, his eyes still fixated on Phanai. “Gather the old man and let’s leave.”

“One thing or the other, we leave once the two men are back.”

Suddenly, Phanai got up and took his rifle, slung it over his right shoulder and began to shoot at the empty horizon, the loud sounds jolting everyone in the camp.

“Kreeeeeech, I kill you all. I kill all of you, one bullet at a time,” the disorderly, disjointed voice that was Phanai’s rang out in the primordial wilderness. Dust and ash whirled around him like Turkish dervishes in their garb of white and black.

Easwaran had considered telling Jaidev about Phanai, long before the commencement of this part of the gang’s travels. Phanai, now pushing seventy, used to work in the same coalfield as Easwaran’s father. Years later, when the fields were closed, auctioned and sold off, removing an entire workforce from employment, the young Phanai had driven all the way into Millennium City on his stammering Toyota truck, tracked the old mine’s general manager – who’d become an employee of Inspire Corporation – at his palatial French windowed-apartment and shot him dead.

One bullet, from a range of over six hundred yards and two open windows, was all that it took. The news had travelled fast and thick through Old City, making Phanai an important person to be recruited. When asked about his shooting skills, he would always say it came naturally to him like poetry.

Easwaran remembered how his father had regarded Phanai with a degree of awe the old man hadn’t reserved for anyone. For, he suspected, Phanai reminded his father of the very possibility that a man was capable of, if he only set his mind to it.

The general manager and the other mining officials were all bought over by the Inspire Corporation. After buying out the properties of the older Sterling Inc, which included the mining operations, the corporation decided it needed these officers, who had important degrees in mathematics and engineering. Engineering was how Inspire thought the world, and all the things in it – once bountiful, now a mere shadow – could be remade. And like god in the Book of Genesis, the company decided to remake the world in its own image.

During particularly dark days, Easwaran could still picture the scene when he was barely eighteen, waiting for his father to come home. And his father did come back but only much later.

Inebriated and with a quiet anger that was slowly flowing through his intestines. When Easwaran’s mother had brought his supper to him and inquired what had happened, his father, perhaps for the first time in his life, had snatched the plate only to fling it towards her, hitting her head on the way. It was also for the first time in his eighteen years of existence that he saw his father sob uncontrollably.

Months later, when Phanai “had done the job”, as Easwaran’s father would exclaim with glee sparkling in his eyes, he had gone to Phanai and was the first to congratulate him. When talking about what a perfect man ought to be like, he always gave Phanai’s example. Now, with age, Easwaran knew deep down that his father had congratulated Phanai not because he appreciated the deed – for his father, as he knew him to be, could never condone violence – but because Phanai did what his father wanted to do that night when he was laid off from the mines but lacked the conviction to see it through. In his father’s world, conviction mattered more than anything else.

Seeing the same Phanai dancing stark, raving mad and shooting at his imagined ghosts, calling out the name of his son who once was, Easwaran felt a thread of sadness coil around his throat. He knew he could do nothing.

Excerpted with permission from Darklands, Arnav Das Sharma, Penguin Books.