Malika takes a few steps in the wrong direction and ducks behind a heap of scrap metal. She’s in an area of the slum that specializes in recyclables, where she has been working since dawn.
Sorting days are generally good days. The work pays well, and her hands don’t get too cut up. But she always dreads the walk back home.
There is a seedy bar at the edge of the dump where Rufi and his gang drink in the evenings. It depends on Rufi’s mood, and how drunk he gets, whether he’ll take note of Malika or not. But Malika doesn’t want to take any chances. She walks 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 can hear Rufi laughing boisterously above the cacophony of the evening traffic from the nearby Ring Road. It sounds like he’s been drinking all day.
“Hey stop!” a loud voice calls from behind. Malika snaps upright and spins around, bracing herself for a fight.
“Where are you running off to kid?” the man yells, his voice increasing several decibels as he comes nearer.
It’s Bindas, Malika’s quirky neighbor who never makes it home without stopping off at the bar first. He wobbles over to Malika with a lopsided grin, and pats her on the back.
“How was the day at the dump?” he shouts into Malika’s ear. Bindas is going deaf after years of working at the factory and seems to think that all of Delhi has 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 yells 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 manages 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?” asks Malika, a note of hurt creeping into her voice. “It’s my birthday.”
Bindas slaps himself on the forehead, and then nearly stumbles 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 assures Malika, patting her again on the back as he regains his balance.
Malika can guess what the gift will be. A bottle of whiskey no doubt.
“I don’t need any gifts, Bindas. Just bring yourSAHELP!”
Malika swallows the last word in a gasp, as a forceful shove in the back knocks the wind out of her. Her arms flail and hit Bindas in the head, who stumbles again and, unable to recover in time, falls into a pile of scraps with a crash.
“So you’re going to be all grown up, heh squirt?”
Rufi and his gang cackle as they close in on her from all sides. There are five of them.
“Time to stop playing with rubbish and join the big leagues then. I’ve got a job to give you,” he smirks, 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 has been harassing Malika for years, ever since Valmiki began teaching her to read and write. There aren’t many street kids who know their letters, or get any type of education whatsoever, so it has made Malika stand out from the others.
Some people in the slum appreciate the fact that Malika is studying, like Bindas. “She’ll make a name for this slum one day, and we’ll all be proud we knew her,” he always says.
Others 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 don’t really care either way. They have their own problems to worry about.
But Rufi finds it detestable.
“The slum is no place for book kids,” he clarifies. “What you really need is some street smarts knocked into your head.”
Rufi uncoils the metal rope from his hands and starts swinging it in a circle above his head.
The first lash falls on Malika’s feet. She yelps and jumps back, her big toe on her right foot bursting open from the impact and gushing blood all over her sandal. The next lash comes down on her side. Malika bends over involuntarily, clutching her side and panting from the pain.
“Rufi, you thug. Stop it!” Bindas comes running up to them with a faint hope that they will listen to the reason of an elder.
One of Rufi’s lackeys shoves Bindas back toward the metal heap, and another comes up beside him and punches him in the jaw, knocking him out cold. Bindas slumps down into the trash unconscious, and says no more.
During the commotion, Malika is huddled in the corner trying to collect her wits and notices a small black object lying next to a heap of oddities, glinting in the moonlight. She grabs it quickly while the gang’s attention is on Bindas and flips around to find Rufi swinging the rope faster and faster, building momentum for a final blow to Malika’s head. As Rufi flings his arm to lash the rope, Malika takes aim and throws the object directly at the apex of the rope’s trajectory toward his head. The object smashes into the rope, clinging to its end, and pulls it in the opposite direction, yanking Rufi’s arm along with it and knocking him off balance. Malika jumps to her feet and steadies herself for another blow, as Rufi finds his footing again.
“Enough!” a gruff voice calls out from the shadows. Dusk has fallen, and it’s getting difficult to make things out clearly from a distance, but everyone knows that voice. It’s Daku Takur, the slumlord.
Rufi drops the metal rope next to his feet.
Daku approaches calmly. He grabs Rufi’s shirt collar and looks him straight in the eye. “You’re drunk, you filthy scum.” He shoves Rufi away, but his cold stare holds 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 bellows at the gang. They scamper away like dogs with their tails between their legs.
Daku shifts his gaze to Malika, his eyes hard and unforgiving. Malika thinks he might pick up the rope Rufi has dropped and start lashing her again.
Many kids have been disappearing from the slum recently, and rumors speak of Daku’s hand in the unnatural events.
“I heard you’ll be turning sixteen tomorrow,” says Daku, softening his gaze and extending his hand to Malika as she stands up. “It’s time to start thinking about your career.”
Malika brushes herself off and stands 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 flashes a big toothy grin, showing off his golden molars, which match the heavy gold chain hanging around his neck.
He puts his thick hand on Malika’s shoulders, a large emerald ring sparkling on his middle finger, and urges her to walk with him along the creek at the edge of the slum. Malika walks, and listens.
“I can make you very successful,” says 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 keeps walking silently alongside, staring at her feet. Blood is still oozing out of her injured toe. She notices her reflection in the creek beside her, her body tall, dark and lean, shimmering in the moonlight. Her short hair is sticking out wildly in curls, disheveled by the fight, and golden specks glitter in her large brown eyes. Her ragged t-shirt is grimy with sweat and torn on the side where Rufi has lashed her.
Daku stops suddenly and turns 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 shifts 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 slips a card into Malika’s shirt pocket and pats her on the back like a proud father. “You know where to find me when you’re ready. Happy Birthday kid.” Daku walks off into the shadows and disappears.
Malika goes back to the trash heap and revives Bindas, slapping him a few times and splashing some water on his face, and helps him get to his feet. They look around furtively to make sure the gang is out of sight, and then begin limping slowly together in the direction of their own shanty cluster.
Malika slouches as she walks, feeling deflated. The slum walkway is unusually quiet. Everyone is in their shanties by now, sleeping off the exhaustion from a long day of labor. Many have probably gone to bed without dinner.
“Daku made me an offer.” She says 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,” replies 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,” replies 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 stops in front of his shanty and gives 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 waves his hand above his head, dismissing Malika’s concern and swatting at a bee that’s 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 lies. “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 waves goodbye over his shoulder as he slips into his hut to enjoy a night of solitary libations.
Malika pauses before going into her own hut and looks up at the glimmering night sky. The moon stands bright above Delhi like a watchful eye.