As Perveen approached the knot of soldiers, an Indian constable moved in front of her. Gruffly, he said, “This area is closed.”
Affecting an innocent tone, she said, “But the prince is far away. I’m not encroaching on his passage, am I?”
“The prince does not matter.” Glowering down from a foot higher than her, the man added, “This is police business!”
“Oh, is that so? I am only wishing to walk along.” As she set another foot forward, the constable squarely blocked her, waving his lathi in front of her face.
Perveen’s heartbeat thundered, but she did not move. If he struck her, the crowd might react. But his emotion was high. She could be badly injured, blinded, even killed.
“What is this woman’s business?” a man demanded.
Perveen glanced at the interloper, a furious-looking Anglo-Indian with a badge that said sergeant TL Williams on the breast of his uniform. Quickly, she said, “I have no complaint, sir. I am Perveen Mistry, a solicitor at law wishing to see the arrested person.”
“Bombay’s lady solicitor.” The police officer wrinkled his nose, as if he’d smelled something bad. “Never mind, the rabble-rouser is already gone.”
Perveen caught Sergeant Williams’s gloating tone and was filled with fear. “Do you mean you killed him?”
“No. The boy’s going to lockup at Gamdevi Station. And I think it’s vile of you to want to represent him. Positively vile.” He stared down at her, as if daring her to cause a commotion so she, too, could be arrested.
“Sergeant Williams, may I please have a word with you?” a commanding female voice rang out, and Perveen realized that Alice Hobson-Jones was not with her students, but right behind her.
“Is something wrong, madam? Is someone bothering you?” The police sergeant’s manner became more compliant, now that he was talking to an Englishwoman with a posh accent.
Alice used every one of her seventy-two inches to glare down at the officer. “I am extremely bothered to see you harassing Miss Mistry, the noted solicitor and community philanthropist who assists my father. Perhaps you’ve heard of him – Sir David Hobson-Jones?”
Sergeant Williams’s face flushed. “Madam, we mean no disrespect and there was no harassment. We have arrested a person for a threat against His Royal Highness. He never said he had an advocate.”
Dinesh had only shouted three words, but unfortunately, one of them had been “death.”
“Very well. Let’s go, Perveen.” Alice’s hand was on her arm, and the police didn’t protest as the two of them walked back in the direction of the college.
“I don’t need to be saved by an Englishwoman’s intervention. And I don’t work for your father!” Now that Perveen was safe, she was conscious of feeling nauseous – first from fear, and now from shame at being rescued like a child.
“But you have worked for him! You accepted the request to go to Satapur,” Alice said defiantly. “I said what I did because the police were all around you. I got the most panicked feeling. I didn’t know if – ”
What Alice would have explained was interrupted by one of the female Woodburn students. Perveen recognized the heart-shaped face of Lalita Acharya. Her expression was anguished. “Miss Hobson-Jones, please. You and Miss Mistry must come with me!”
Lalita sounded anguished, making Perveen think that someone at the college was angry about Alice’s brief absence. Alice’s deep blue eyes were stricken as she regarded Lalita, and Perveen realized that though Alice had no fear of the police and military, she was terrified of losing her hard-won job.
“What are they saying?” Alice asked.
“It’s Freny Cuttingmaster!”
Perveen felt her stomach drop. “Where is Freny? Is she – ”
“Let me speak. I was walking through the gate back into school ahead of the others, and I saw Freny lying in the garden!” Lalita’s voice was panicked. “She didn’t answer me and won’t look up.”
As Perveen felt herself becoming dizzy, Alice jerked her arm. In a controlled voice, Alice said, “Are there responsible people around her? Has a doctor been called?”
“Yes, there are loads of teachers trying to keep the students from seeing her. Miss Daboo told me that I needed to fetch Miss Mistry. Miss Daboo said only Parsis should be around Freny right now. I don’t understand it – ”
“It’s a religious custom. I’ll go.” Perveen felt terror rising inside her. The rule was that deceased Parsis could only be touched by those of the same religion. Miss Daboo must have feared a mortal injury but couldn’t say that.
“Don’t worry, Lalita. We’ll come with you.” Alice’s voice was reassuringly confident, though her face was still tight with worry.
As the two of them followed Lalita, Perveen recalled her pre- monition that the day would bring trouble. It had, but in a far worse manner than she’d imagined. One student had been beaten by the police and arrested; the other was...no. She could not think ahead to the worst. “Miss Hobson-Jones, what is the plan for the rest of the school day?”
“You mean, after the procession? There’s going to be a celebration lunch followed by early dismissal. The student body was proceeding to the canteen when I cut out to look for you.”
Perveen kept her eyes focused on Lalita’s bright red sari as they struggled against the crowd, which was slowly dispersing in the wake of the vanished procession. It seemed like a hundred people were between them and the college fence.
“She’s with me!” Alice said to the college’s chowkidar, pulling Perveen along without bothering to sign the logbook at the guard station. Perveen took a close look at the guard, a short man in his twenties wearing a dark blue uniform that had no nameplate. He was twisting his hands in a helpless motion as he stared into the college garden.
Lalita had told them about Freny’s condition, but Perveen felt unprepared for the surge of horror that filled her.
Freny’s body was on its side with the head jerked back, the curly hair that had been tightly bound before now loose and half-hiding the right side of her face. Two rivulets of blood ran out from underneath her head. Her arms lay askew and her legs, underneath the loosened sari, were stacked one on top of the other. There was something odd about the position, although Perveen couldn’t figure out why.
Professor Daboo was kneeling beside Freny. The poetry lecturer had placed one hand on the student’s wrist and the other on her heart. Her lips were moving, and Perveen recognised that the teacher was silently intoning Ashem Vohu, the prayer that every Parsi was supposed to recite before death.
Miss Daboo was worried that Freny was hurt so badly that she might die. And in the heat of midday, Perveen had never felt colder. If only she’d said when she first saw Alice: Excuse me, but can we please go inside the college for a moment? They might have found Freny in this garden and convinced her to come to the stands with them.
Alice’s grip dug painfully into Perveen’s hand. Her friend was clinging to her like she was a lifeline cast from a boat into the sea. If only that lifeline could have reached Freny.
“Miss Daboo, please tell us what happened.” Perveen struggled to sound composed, although she felt like she was collapsing. “I don’t know anything except that she was lying here, perhaps as if she’d fallen.” Miss Daboo’s voice trembled.
Perveen looked at Freny lying so silently, and maybe close to death. Panicked, she scanned the crowd of teachers and students standing ten feet back and noticed Naval, the boy with the camera. He had it on his shoulder and was standing stock-still, his mouth agape. She asked the crowd if anyone had called for a doctor.
Mr Gupta stepped forward to answer. “Yes. Reverend Sullivan is in the principal’s office making a call to the European Hospital.”
“What? The European Hospital won’t admit Indian patients and it doesn’t have...” Perveen suddenly realized she was about to say, “a morgue,” and was grateful for a swift interruption from Miss Daboo.
“Because of our religious laws, it would be better if a Parsi doctor came. Surely one is near!”
But would they still be in the stands? Perveen thought about what else was nearby, and then had an idea. Her eyes returned to Naval, who hadn’t taken his eyes off Freny. “Mr Hotelwala, may I ask you something?”
His mouth twisted in anxiety. “What, madam?”
“Will you please summon a Parsi doctor? Ask in the street, and if nobody answers, go across to the Orient Club.” Perveen turned her attention back to Freny, who hadn’t changed position.
“Yes. But what kind of doctor? A surgeon, or – ”
“Any kind will do!” Alice interrupted. “Tell them there’s been a very serious occurrence at Woodburn College.”
Perveen watched Naval speed off. The camera was over his shoulder again and bumped against his hip. She thought of calling out that he could leave the camera with her in order to move faster, but it was too late.
Everything she’d done was too late.
Excerpted with permission from The Bombay Prince, Sujata Massey, Penguin Books.