All at once, traffic lights at the intersection blink and go dead. The brakes of a police van squeal as it halts at the middle of the crossroads with a massive jerk. Round-tummied sentries tumble out and scurry all over the intersection square, shouting at motor-cyclists, bikers, rickshaw drivers, motorists and a painted school bus to move back and clear the center…more …more and more. Passengers roll the window screens down and demand to be given an explanation. Their demands, as always, go unheard.
In the dewy school-bus windows, curious eyes behind quashed noses, watch the scurry.
The traffic stoppage has started to work its mischief. Beggars percolate through the trail of whirring engines. Salaam, the beggar boy who’s been staring at the school bus thoughtfully, works some arithmetic in his head; the simple equation he knows. Switched off traffic lights plus abundant police is equal to a traffic stoppage plus extra collection of money. And extra money is reciprocal to a big meal at the Daira.
A big meal! Salaam slurps. A smile dissolves in his artificially-frowning features. The shadow-man whose job is to shadow the beggars working at this square all day, passes him a glare. Salaam is not allowed to smile during begging time. He must save all the smiles for the evening gathering at the Daira where he's sometimes made to dance and entertain older beggars.
Riders are grumbling fiercely now. If it’s a minister for whom they’ve stopped the traffic, it’ll take 15 minutes. If it’s the CM, the Chief Minister, it’ll be no less than 30.
And then a rumor seeps down the squirmy band of vehicles - fast as a bullet:
It’s the Prime Minister. The PM.
Two greedy little ears devour the rumor. Salam has no inkling of what distinguishes a minister from a CM or a CM from a PM. However, his mental math is at work again. The word Prime Minister equals an even longer stoppage and that means even more money and even more money means an even bigger meal.
He hides behind the big graying tree, takes out the water-filled syringe from his pocket and presses its piston close to his eyes. Water tears spread around his eye bags and skid down his dirt-stained cheeks.
Work begins. Window after window, he whines the new story his trainer at the Daira has taught him. As for a veteran stage actor, the world hazes out as he plays the role of a heartsick orphan who needs to collect twenty two hundred rupees for the burial of his mother who has died last night. Coins and petti currency notes rain out from big hands into Salaam’s small ones. He keeps stuffing them in his pocket.
Tears dry up and he has to rush to the tree to wet his eyes again. He sees that a row of beggars and pedestrians holding small national flags has lined up along the edges of the square.
Suddenly, a tall man thrusts a flag in his hands and says: “You’ll get a hundred rupees for standing there and shouting “zinda-baad”
The words ‘A hundred rupees’ have no appeal for Salaam. He can collect the amount in ten minutes by bringing that extra woeful look to his face and, anyway, the money would go into Ustaad’s kitty in the evening. But holding a flag and shouting zinda-baad sounds like fun... like precious minutes of a mid-morning break in schools. Staring at the school bus once again, he accepts the flag from the tall man and joins the unkempt cheer-leaders. He flutters the flag this way and that, now smiling freely because shadow man is nowhere close.
To employ utmost vigilance, a policeman with eagle-like mustaches is feeling the bodies of the cheerers holding little green-and-white flags. He pulls it out if he feels anything suspicious; cigarette packs, cheap wallets. Nothing serious has been found so far.
It’s Salaam’s turn. The man with eagle-like mustaches pats Salam’s body. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. He feels his secret pocket. A frown appears on his face. He draws out the object that has spawned the frown and holds it up for his senior official to see.
It’s a syringe filled with light brown liquid.
“Grab him!” the official shouts.
Curious eyes behind quashed noses in the dewy school-bus windows, spread out with horror.
“A terrorist boy!” the teacher in the bus whispers.
And Salaam is hauled towards the gigantic police van.