not have takenmuch provocation, so it seemed then, for the whole lot of them to stop fighting among themselves and to fall on you like a pack of hyenas. Accompanying the howls would be the sounds of objects getting thrown: chairs, spoons, pots and pans.
Periodically too – for better or worse it was always hard to say – the grandfather came to mete out punishment. He was a small thin man in a crumpled white drill suit and a black fez. He brought with him a cricket stump, held firmly at the spike with what seemed a certain urgency. When the door closed behind him the howls became ferocious, interspersed with the sounds of the old man’s oaths. Downstairs in the street people would look up and pause, some knowingly, others in alarm.
I remember the first day we moved into that building. I had taken my two younger brothers up to the roof terrace to keep them from getting under people’s feet. There we were, myself looking down on the traffic below, and these two youngsters making hopscotch markings with charcoal, and what happens but we get our first treat to the howling chorus: varaa, varaa, varaa.
She swept in through the doorway, trailed by her two youngest siblings, making emphatic gestures with her fat arms, thumping along from wall to wall, glaring at us. Then she came and stood in front of me, arms akimbo, eyes fiery. The message was clear: this was her territory. My youngest brother had started to cry, and my own hair stood on end. It was my first sight of her – let alone of a dumb threesome – and she looked wild. Slowly I walked past her and down the stairs with my two charges and this foretaste of things to come. What a way to move into a new home.
It was us and them. There were no other kids in the building, and they had Ahmed. Vocal, strong, a bully, a fighter; a loafer. The staircase was his domain. He would sit sideways on a step near the bottom, his feet stretched across it, daring you to jump over. Sliding down a balustrade he would call out names. At night the staircase was dark and menacing. When threatening sounds – hootsand chortles and moans – issued forth from its shadows there was no doubt who lurked behind them.
He roamed the streets with a gang of boys, and he made threats about what they could do. He loved a fight. It would be nothing for him to take you into a hold from behind and make you fight or trip you. The school had given up on him, he came and went as he pleased. And like many bullies, he was an expert at marbles. It was sheer folly to play with him, however much he persuaded you, for he could make you ‘serve plays’ for a lifetime if he wanted.
We might have moved from that unholy place if some sort of unstable truce had not been declared between our families. And I take no small credit for that.
It started the following way. I had finished buying a cut-up chutneyed mango from the roadside on my way home from school and was putting back my five-cent change when he walked up to me. After school a row of hawkers squatted behind a display of wild or unripe fruit normally forbidden at home. Those who had the money bought, others borrowed, begged slices or bites, or hung around unfulfilled and drooling.
‘Can I borrow five cents,’ he said. ‘I’ll return it tomorrow.’
I then did one of the wisest things I’ve ever done; I said ‘Goodbye, copper.’
He bought a mango with it and we walked back together. Thus began our dubious friendship, held together delicately with a reasonable supply of cash. For me began a period of revelations – of grisly little bits of information that shocked yet sent tingling sensations down my spine and left me yearning for more; of guilty knowledge: forbidden fruit. My bought prestige was duly recognised on the block – and became a cause for concern at home. I must confess that my life at home was one tedious drone. I was ruled by a triad of females – my mother and two older sisters – and I had, besides, one drip-nosed and another