“Not yet, Commissioner.” She peered along the line of traffic to her driver and waved that she would be with him shortly.

“Jolly good. I will come with you today, ah-cha?”

“Ah-cha, Commissioner. I’m just outside the building. Please hurry. My driver’s waiting.”

Commissioner Singh cleared his throat with censure and cut the connection. Rana cursed the fat, pompous pig. He liked to “get his hands dirty’, as he said, from time to time. See how his men were coping on the front line. Rana could have done without his ignorant presence today. He would frighten the kids away. She had worked hard to gain their trust over the years, to show them that she was an exception to their generally correct assumption that all cops were corrupt.

A minute later Commissioner Singh stepped through the sliding doors. He was not alone, Rana saw with dismay. In his wake shuffled a subservient private, turbaned like Singh himself.

The commissioner nodded. “Lieutenant Rao, Private Khosla.”

Khosla nodded. She knew the tall, gangling private. He was a file-shuffler in the computer division, one of a few young men who resented Rana her position of lieutenant and showed it by jibing her whenever they met. Not today, though; Khosla was on his best behaviour, toadying up to the commissioner. She wondered why he was coming out with them on this patrol.

The introductions over, Singh looked imperiously up and down the street. “Where is your car, Lieutenant?”

“Over here.” Rana led the way, dodging through traffic to where her driver had leapt from the car and opened the passenger door. He had seen the commissioner and was working for his tip. “Thank you, buba.” Rana smiled with feigned grace and slipped into the passenger seat.

Her driver goggled, then quickly whipped open a rear door. “Please, sir…”

Singh slumped heavily on to the back seat, leaned forward and tapped Rana on the shoulder. “So what is your agenda today, Lieutenant?”

The car started up and inched down the street.

“I’m going over to Howrah to talk to a group of children who live beneath the bridge,” she replied. “They’ve formed a co-operative: shoe-shining, tailoring, tattooing… This sort of enterprise is to be encouraged.”

“Ah-cha, but what about the Choudry girl?”

Shiva! So that was why the fat pig was with her today. Vandita Choudry had run away from home three weeks ago, a home where, Rana knew, she was being beaten by her father. She had fallen in with the group of children who lived beneath the Howrah bridge. It was Vandita who had first suggested the co-operative, and Rana had helped them get it started. Of course, she should have picked up Vandita Choudry and returned her to her father, but Rana didn’t play by the book. The kids knew this and respected her.

Rajiv Choudry was a Brahmin and a big-shot in engineering, and he was no doubt putting pressure on Commissioner Singh to find his daughter.

They crawled through the jhuggis to the south of the city, kilometre after kilometre of drab slums, dilapidated polycarbon and polythene shacks little bigger than com-screen kiosks housing entire families. Overhead, bright ad- screens hovered like giant butterflies beneath helium-filled dirigibles, their gaudy images offering the poor glimpses of an unattainable other world.

Amid the blare of horns and tangle of metal that was the usual congestion of traffic by the Howrah bridge, Rana’s driver slowed and indicated to turn off down a track to the wharf. Rana caught a glimpse of a gaggle of kids, Vandita among them, beside the water. The Choudry girl saw her, waved and ran towards the car.

“Keep straight on, buba,” Rana told her driver. “Not this side of the bridge, the other.”

The car accelerated, turned on to the bridge, and Rana began to breathe again. She stared back at the commissioner; he had suspected nothing. He probably wouldn’t have recognised Vandita from any other street-kid, anyway. It was amazing how even a Brahmin girl, with plaited hair, Chanel perfume and expensive shoes, could soon discard all the meretricious trappings of wealth and blend in with her barefoot peers.

They crawled across the bridge in a procession of slow-moving traffic. The space not taken by vehicles was packed with pedestrians, a surging crowd of humanity making its way back and forth across the bridge in a never- ending flow.

They turned off the bridge and Rana told her driver to pull up on the bank of the Ganges. She climbed out and walked to the edge of the wide river, Singh and Khosla joining her. A gang of kids, Dullits by the look of them, bathed their skinny brown bodies in the filthy shallows.

Khosla was shaking his head. “These days it seems there are more kids than ever,” he said. “It is an insurmountable problem.”

Rana stared at him, doing nothing to conceal her dislike.

“You are right, Private,” she said, emphasising his rank, “it seems there are more street-kids than ever. But at monsoon time each year this is always the case. You see,” she went on, as if explaining the obvious to a simpleton, “many children have nowhere to live other than in the storm drains. So when the rain falls, the monsoon drains fill up, driving the children out and on to the streets. When the monsoon stops, they will return to their homes.”

She fell silent, staring at a young boy dunking himself repeatedly in the brown water.

“And as to your claim that it is an ‘insurmountable problem’,” she continued after a short while, “I would dispute, first, that it is a problem, and then whether it -whatever ‘it’ is—is insurmountable. The only people the kids pose a problem to are the rich, who don’t like to be reminded of their guilt, and the tourists, who can go to hell. The children provide the means for a thriving economy to flourish. If you talk to the kids, you will find that in most cases they’re perfectly happy living on the streets. As for it being an insurmountable problem, well, if the government were to invest in more schools and jobs… but then these kids are only kids, aren’t they? They have no power, no vote.”

She stared at Khosla until he looked away. She caught the superior smile that played on his lips. She knew what some people said about her back at headquarters, that she loved street-kids because she had never known the love of a man. Well, she might never have known the love of a man, but that wasn’t the reason why she felt compassion for these children.

Commissioner Singh cleared his throat. “That is all very well, Lieutenant, but I am more concerned with the runaways, the children who leave good homes and families to live on the streets. It is all very tragic for their families.”

Rana felt a tightness within her chest. “It’s also tragic for the children that they feel they have to run away in the first place.” She glanced at the commissioner. “They have a lack of love and affection in their lives.”

Khosla looked at her with an expression that said, What do you know about love?

Not much, Rana admitted to herself, staring across the river to the lights of the ad-screens floating above the city, but I know something about the lack of it.

She pulled a sheaf of pix from the hip pocket of her trousers and walked towards the kids dancing about on the muddy river bank to get dry.

“Can I talk to you?” she said to them in Hindi. “I’m Rana and I’m looking for this girl. I wonder if you’d be able to help? Look, these pix can buy you food.”

She passed a dozen pix of Vandita Choudry to the gaggle of kids bustling around her to get a closer look. The pix showed a version of Vandita that bore no resemblance to what she looked like today: she was prim in a red Western-style dress, short white socks and plaited hair tied with ribbons. The kids were more bothered about the promise on the reverse of the pix: each one could be exchanged for behl puri at certain stalls along the Howrah bridge.

When Rana returned to Singh and Khosla, Singh said: “Where are the co-operative kids? I thought we were going to question them, Lieutenant?”

“I was going to talk to them,” she said. “But they seem to have disappeared. Well, they have better things to do than talk to me. Maybe another day.”

She was going to suggest they return to the car when a tiny figure squeezed from the press of humanity flowing from the bridge and ran across to her. Rana glanced at Singh and Khosla, but they were watching the antics of the Dullit kids who were playing kabbadi, with the pix as prizes.

Rana hurried across to the girl. “Vandita,” she hissed in Hindi. “I’m with my boss today. We can’t speak.”

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