The boy broke in just before dawn, when people apparently sleep their deepest, at least he hoped they did. Getting into the house was easy – just as the cook had said – up the drainpipe to the flat roof, strung with clotheslines. He was stopped for a moment by a mosquito net that someone had hung out to dry, flapping in the dawn breeze. Like the fishing nets back home, by the river, he thought. Except no smell of dried fish here – just the lingering after-smell of the wedding-feast–rice, dal, baby aubergines fried in glistening batter, fish curry and mutton.
He had sneaked in yesterday and had a taster. The cook was already sweating over a bubbling cauldron in a makeshift tarpaulin kitchen in the courtyard. ‘Get over there and grab a plate. Folks here won’t notice. If anyone asks, say you’re with the suppliers’.
‘What suppliers? What if they get suspicious?’
‘They won’t. There are always a thousand people milling around during a wedding. Just say you’ve brought the wood, or the rice – anything – you might even get paid for the delivery!’ the cook chuckled.
He had sat there, watching the wedding bustle in that courtyard. No one asked him any questions – the driver of the bus that would bring the bride’s party over from the other end of the city even offered him a smoke. The bride was a teacher, the driver confided. The bus came at a discount – it was the school-bus, you see.
The door from the roof to the stairs was open, just as cook had promised, which saved time. It was a big old house, this. The stairs still had remnants of old marble mosaic that felt startlingly cool under his bare feet. His senses picked up the fading remnants of the wedding scattered around – tuberoses from some girl’s hairdo, squashed under foot; smears of paan on the wall – the brilliant red stain of betelnut chewed and spewed by satisfied but careless guests; grains of auspicious rice.
His wedding had been an occasion too, back home in the village, the boy thought, considering that Shila’s father had been quite a good fisherman back then. He hadn’t wanted to say no in front of Shila when the cook came up with this proposition. He had seen her eyes light up at the prospect of being able to go back home, with a little bit of money to save face, too! It was a stupid idea, coming to the city. She had always maintained that, but had come anyway, just to keep an eye on him.
It was as he stood in the kitchen, about to pack the caterers’ equipment that could fetch such a good price in the second-hand market, that disaster struck. For a moment he stood still, eerily lit by falling metal as the huge pile of shiny saucepans and ladles collapsed – inexorable, like the sudden mudslides on the river-bank back home, but cacophonous, insistent.
The house stirred.
‘Who?’ ‘Where?’ ‘How?’ Then the dreaded ‘Thief! Thief!’
He ran, heart pounding, yet exhilarated by his own swiftness. If only Shila could see him now! Zipping past that confused fat woman who screamed, through and out of rooms, up and down these innumerable flights of steps. As he slipped down the drainpipe to freedom, he caught a glimpse of the young man through a window – furtively, surreptitiously, giving his hair a quick lick of the comb before he ran out to join the chase. The groom. Still dazed and tired after the wedding. Still determined to look his best in front of his new wife.