Malika took a few steps in the wrong direction and ducked behind a heap of scrap metal. She was in an area of the slum that specialized in recyclables, where she had been working since dawn.
Sorting days were generally good days. The work paid well, and her hands didn’t get too cut up. But she always dreaded the walk back home.
There was a seedy bar at the edge of the dump where Rufi and his gang drank in the evenings. It depended on Rufi’s mood, and how drunk he got, whether he would take note of Malika or not. But Malika didn’t want to take any chances. She walked along in a crouch, scurrying from heap to heap in an effort to remain undiscovered long enough to pass into the boundaries of her own dwelling.
She could hear Rufi laughing boisterously above the cacophony of the evening traffic from the nearby Ring Road. It sounded like he’d been drinking all day.
“Hey stop!” a loud voice called from behind. Malika snapped upright and spun around, bracing herself for a fight.
“Where are you running off to kid?” the man yelled, his voice increasing several decibels as he came nearer.
It was Bindas, Malika’s quirky neighbor who never made it home without stopping off at the bar first. He wobbled over to Malika with a lopsided grin, and patted her on the back.
“How was the day at the dump?” he shouted into Malika’s ear. Bindas was going deaf after years of working at the factory and seemed to think that all of Delhi had been struck by a hearing loss epidemic as a result.
“You don’t have to shout, Bindas. I can hear you just fine.”
“What?!” he yelled back, screwing his pinky finger into his waxy ear.
“Hey Malika, listen, if you don’t have a job for tomorrow, there’s extra work at the factory right now,” he managed in between hiccups. “Too many guys are out with TB-951. Come with me in the morning, and I’ll get you in.”
“I’m taking the day off tomorrow, remember?” asked Malika, a note of hurt creeping into her voice. “It’s my birthday.”
Bindas slapped himself on the forehead, and then nearly stumbled backward from the force. “Oh yeah, of course I remember! Dinner at Valmiki’s tomorrow. I’ll be there, on time, and with a special gift!” He assured Malika, patting her again on the back as he regained his balance.
Malika could guess what the gift would be. A bottle of whiskey no doubt.
“I don’t need any gifts, Bindas. Just bring yourSAHELP!”
Malika swallowed the last word in a gasp, as a forceful shove in the back knocked the wind out of her. Her arms flailed and hit Bindas in the head, who stumbled again and, unable to recover in time, fell into a pile of scraps with a crash.
“So you’re going to be all grown up, heh squirt?”
Rufi and his gang cackled as they closed in on her from all sides. There were five of them.
“Time to stop playing with rubbish and join the big leagues then. I’ve got a job to give you,” he smirked, twisting a metal rope around his hands and inching nearer to Malika step by step.
“But first you have to get trained in the art of street fighting. Adult work is dangerous, and you wouldn’t want to be caught flat footed. I’d feel terrible if something happened to the smartest kid in the slum.”
Rufi had been harassing Malika for years, ever since Valmiki began teaching her to read and write. There weren’t many street kids who knew their letters, or got any type of education whatsoever, so it had made Malika stand out from the others.
Some people in the slum appreciated the fact that Malika was studying, like Bindas. “She’ll make a name for this slum one day, and we’ll all be proud we knew her,” he would always say.
Others would murmur in hushed tones about Valmiki’s witchcraft. “She better watch out. She’ll turn her brain into mush and eat it for lunch.”
Most of the slum dwellers didn’t really care either way. They had their own problems to worry about.
But Rufi found it detestable.
“The slum is no place for book kids,” he clarified. “What you really need is some street smarts knocked into your head.”
Rufi uncoiled the metal rope from his hands and started swinging it in a circle above his head.
The first lash fell on Malika’s feet. She yelped and jumped back, her big toe on her right foot bursting open from the impact and gushing blood all over her sandal. The next lash came down on her side. Malika bent over involuntarily, clutching her side and panting from the pain.
“Rufi, you thug. Stop it!” Bindas came running up to them with a faint hope that they would listen to the reason of an elder.
One of Rufi’s lackeys shoved Bindas back toward the metal heap, and another came up beside him and punched him in the jaw, knocking him out cold. Bindas slumped down into the trash unconscious, and said no more.
During the commotion, Malika was huddled in the corner trying to collect her wits and noticed a small black object lying next to a heap of oddities, glinting in the moonlight. She grabbed it quickly while the gang’s attention was on Bindas and flipped around to find Rufi swinging the rope faster and faster, building momentum for a final blow to Malika’s head. As Rufi flung his arm to lash the rope, Malika took aim and threw the object directly at the apex of the rope’s trajectory toward his head. The object smashed into the rope, clinging to its end, and pulled it in the opposite direction, yanking Rufi’s arm along with it and knocking him off balance. Malika jumped to her feet and steadied herself for another blow, as Rufi found his footing again.
“Enough!” a gruff voice called out from the shadows. Dusk had fallen, and it was getting difficult to make things out clearly from a distance, but everyone knew that voice. It was Daku Takur, the slumlord.
Rufi dropped the metal rope next to his feet.
Daku approached calmly. He grabbed Rufi’s shirt collar and looked him straight in the eye. “You’re drunk, you filthy scum.” He shoved Rufi away, but his cold stare held its grip.
“I told you to stop making trouble. If you cause one more incidence like this, I’ll kick you out for good. Now go get cleaned up, all of you. Tomorrow is a full day. GO NOW!” He bellowed at the gang. They scampered away like dogs with their tails between their legs.
Daku shifted his gaze to Malika, his eyes hard and unforgiving. Malika thought he might pick up the rope Rufi had dropped and start lashing her again.
Many kids had been disappearing from the slum recently, and rumors spoke of Daku’s hand in the unnatural events.
“I heard you’ll be turning sixteen tomorrow,” said Daku, softening his gaze and extending his hand to Malika as she stood up. “It’s time to start thinking about your career.”
Malika brushed herself off and stood speechless, recoiling instinctually from Daku’s advance.
“You won’t last here long without taking an official position with me. These rats like Rufi will eat you alive.” Daku flashed a big toothy grin, showing off his golden molars, which matched the heavy gold chain hanging around his neck.
He put his thick hand on Malika’s shoulders, a large emerald ring sparkling on his middle finger, and urged her to walk with him along the creek at the edge of the slum. Malika walked, and listened.
“I can make you very successful,” said Daku. “You’re a smart girl, I can see that. You’re different from the others. You’ll go far, if you take my advice and accept my protection. I’ll train you to be my right-hand woman.”
Malika just kept walking silently alongside, staring at her feet. Blood was still oozing out of her injured toe. She noticed her reflection in the creek beside her, her body tall, dark and lean, shimmering in the moonlight. Her short hair was sticking out wildly in curls, disheveled by the fight, and golden specks glittered in her large brown eyes. Her ragged t-shirt was grimy with sweat and torn on the side where Rufi had lashed her.
Daku stopped suddenly and turned to face her, putting both hands on Malika’s shoulders.
“How long can you go on living hand-to-mouth with these garbage day jobs anyway? Barely enough to eat. Always struggling. Join me and you’ll see, I’ll make you rich.”
Malika shifted uncomfortably under Daku’s embrace.
“You don’t have to make the decision today, but make it soon. Time is running out for you. They’ll kick you out of the slum, or kill you first. You need my protection.”
He slipped a card into Malika’s shirt pocket and patted her on the back like a proud father. “You know where to find me when you’re ready. Happy Birthday kid.” Daku walked off into the shadows and disappeared.
Malika went back to the trash heap and revived Bindas, slapping him a few times and splashing some water on his face, and helped him get to his feet. They looked around furtively to make sure the gang was out of sight, and then began limping slowly together in the direction of their own shanty cluster.
Malika slouched as she walked, feeling deflated. The slum walkway was unusually quiet. Everyone was in their shanties by now, sleeping off the exhaustion from a long day of labor. Many had probably gone to bed without dinner.
“Daku made me an offer.” She said to Bindas, unable to get the slumlord’s cajoling voice out of her mind. “He wants me to join him. Maybe I should accept. He said he would make me his right-hand woman. Rufi wouldn’t be able to touch me then.”
“Rufi would hate you even more,” replied Bindas. “He’d do whatever he could to get you out of the way, and there would be others after him. Daku won’t protect you. He’ll just exploit you like he exploits the rest of them, and throw you back into the streets when he’s done.”
“He said he could tell I’m smarter than them, that I’m special.”
“Of course he can see that, kid. Everyone knows you’re smart. That’s why you can’t let yourself get trapped in this shithole with the rest of us. You have to get out of here. Bigger things have been written for you.”
“Written by whom? I don’t believe in any of that stuff,” replied Malika.
“Then go write the story for yourself. Whatever you do, don’t just let your talents fester here in this dump. Find a new path.”
Bindas stopped in front of his shanty and gave Malika a reassuring smile, his eyes sparkling with the undying hope of the poor.
“Thanks for trying to save me today, Bindas. You could have been killed.”
“Nonsense. They would never kill old Bindas.” He waved his hand above his head, dismissing Malika’s concern and swatting at a bee that was buzzing around his ear at the same time. “Want to share my dinner tonight? I got some extra rice from the factory rations.”
“No thanks. I have leftovers from yesterday,” Malika lied. “And besides, I need to finish up some stuff on my invention. I’m testing out a new formula tomorrow.”
“That’s right! Your invention! You will be famous soon for sure, girl. Don’t forget me when you’re a bigshot tycoon. Remember old Bindas!” Bindas waved goodbye over his shoulder as he slipped into his hut to enjoy a night of solitary libations.
Malika paused before going into her own hut and looked up at the glimmering night sky. The moon stood bright above Delhi like a watchful eye.