Flash House
By Aimee Liu
Published by Warner Books 
February 2003; 0-446-53097-2; 496 pages

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Flash House by Aimee LiuChapter 1

FROM THE BEGINNING, we were sisters more than mother and daughter. Joanna Shaw rescued me in her way, and I tried to return the favor. I do not say this boastfully, but ironies are the way of the world, and now that I am an old woman I tell you with certainty that those who presume to lift another are most often in need of being raised themselves.

At the same time, those who appear the weaklings of this earth may possess strengths that overrule the mighty-that, indeed, may surpass even their own deepest longings and desires. I have seen this to be the case among women and children of my kind for as long as I can remember. Mrs. Shaw, too, was of my kind, though on the now distant day when I first claimed her I did not know this to be true.

On the contrary, as I watched her making her way down G. B. Road in her stiff yellow dress and broad-brimmed hat with her handsome young Hindu escort I thought this must be some pampered firenghi who possesses no notion of pain. She looked younger than her thirty-four years, with a fire in her eyes that at once invited and warned me away. I was merely one of countless children of the redlight district. I owned nothing, not even my skin, but I knew why this foreign lady had come. The whole street knew. Tongas turned left instead of right at the sight of her. Khas-khas tati dropped over open windows. Smugglers bundled up their wares and trotted out of view. Women drew scarves across their faces, and the street became suddenly lively with dancing bears, monkey wallahs, and the calls of melon and paan vendors. All for the benefit of the foreigner who would come to save us.

My keeper, Indrani, said that in the days of the British her kind were missionaries and bored commissioners' wives. In the past two years since Independence they had been attached to the new Departments of Health and Social Welfare, and usually they were Indian, but they remained the same. Women with hair like dust clouds and radish noses who had never enjoyed the touch of a man - or so Indrani said. Such women in India, it was well known, were so weak that for centuries they had required the almighty power of the Raj to stand guard over their virtue. Now this responsibility had fallen to India's own officials and police. We in the street could not know why these men should protect the dust cloud ladies when they freely preyed on us, but neither did we question such things.

Mrs. Shaw was not ugly as the others I had seen. True, her body held hard juts and corners, and her lips were bare slivers against her teeth, but her eyes were large and filled with gold light, her skin and thick hair all the colors of honey. Her neck was long and slender and her ears shaped like perfect mangoes . . .

You see, even as early as that first day, I was viewing her in a different fashion. We were strangers, yet any stranger who is drawing such examination becomes something else, doesn't she? A stranger is strange, unknown, unexamined. When we study another we become familiar, and therefore cannot strictly be called strangers. I have often thought that of the thousands who pass in the streets each day, many hundreds may have passed before. Yet even if they pass two, five, twenty times, still they remain strangers except for those few who catch our eye, whose features we note and whose place in the street and day we remember - these are strangers no more but possessions of the mind. So in this way I, who was then called Kamla, claimed Mrs. Shaw even as I hid from her under the shadow of a bullock cart.

 

It was easy to see that she was new to India. Her face was like a child's at a puppet show, while her feet and twinkling gloves behaved as if they belonged to the puppet. How awkwardly they plucked at earth and air as she turned this way and that! For although Mrs. Shaw's small mouth rounded with evident pleasure at the sight of a tinseled altar or Bharati's little daughter, Shanta, with a red hibiscus in her hair, still she seemed to cling to herself, clutching her shiny white pocketbook to her waist as she stepped sideways past a dozing pi dog. Clearly she wished neither to touch nor be touched. Having claimed her, however, I dismissed this.

I could not help imagining how it would feel to press my small dirty face between those clean folds of her skirt, to rub my palms on the whiteness of her gloves. I pictured my wild black hair coming smooth beneath the answering strokes of her fingers. My heart would quiet to a purr as her foreign voice poured over me. I loved her foreignness. I adhered to it. I did not believe she would rescue me, but I believed that she could if she so desired.

At the same time, I did not desire rescue. Rescue, as it is understood in the red-light district, simply means greater suffering and risk. Oh, I had heard of girls who were "rescued" by husbands and lovers and caring friends, but I also had seen the deadness in their eyes when they returned. And Indrani made sure I knew all the many, many reasons why other less fortunate girls never returned.

Mrs. Shaw could not know these things. I imagined that her kind dreamed in black and white, as I was told they lived. Black was the dirt, the baby, the fly, the water she would not touch. White was the disinfected palace where she must sleep at night and the other firenghi home to which she would flee when her time in India was over. Home for Mrs. Shaw must be a refuge, while home to me meant a dark place filled with blood and cries and madness.

For I, too, was a foreigner, my homeland also a world apart from Delhi. But I dreamed not in black and white but in colors bright as the waters of Holi. Fertile greens and dirt red, glacial blues and gold, these were the hues of my vision of myself, my life, my possibilities.

These colors I had seen not only streaming in the riots of festivals and the bloodletting of India's Partition, but during my travels long ago away from that first place of fighting and death and what love I could recall. By the time I met Mrs. Shaw I did not remember the place or the journey, only those colors and the sounds that accompanied them. Sounds of thrusting rivers and wind, skittering rocks and rain, but also the throat-swell of men's voices, the partition of vowels and guttural sighs, the language of my keepers. Whenever one from the hills came into the brothel, I would know it instantly and engage him with words from a buried poem, a song, a voice that once lullabyed me to sleep, a voice that had lost its face. And the man from the hills would roar. He would pull on his beard, cup his hand about my neck, and grope me with his eyes. He would talk at me a little and laugh, then set me down with a shake of his head, and Indrani would jerk her thumb for me to get back to my sweeping or go to the pump or fetch Mira or Fatya or Shahnaz for the hill man before he grew ill tempered. But then for a night or two my sleep would blaze with pink and gold, and the sounds would haunt me.

An odd thing happened after I claimed Mrs. Shaw. Hers became the face of my dream voice, and the dreams themselves colored pale as her skin. Looking up through the yellow veil of her skirt I would see her head bent, the shadow shape of her nose and lips, that mane of hair. She would sing me the lullaby of the hills in low-drawn tones with a catch of the throat, and I would rock to and fro with her tenderness.

Some days later she returned to our lane. Her dress this time was a speckled orange like the petals of a tiger lily, her hair swept back under a man's hat, her pocketbook shouting out red. Her steps, too, were louder than before. This time when Bharati's child ran forward with her grimy palm outstretched, Mrs. Shaw extended a gloved finger to brush the flies from the little brat's eyes. Immediately, the Indian servant gestured his disapproval. The two exchanged words. If you brush the flies from one child's eyes, he seemed to be saying, you must brush the flies from all. But even as he spoke, Shanta pressed closer, touching Mrs. Shaw's skirt with her cheek and crying softly, grasping. The escort tried now to hurry Mrs. Shaw away, but she reached back and dropped three paise into those pleading hands. When Shanta ran over to show off her treasure, I knocked her into the dust. Indrani, who had been watching from the doorway, dug her nails into my arm and lifted me off my feet, screaming that I should learn such skill from Shanta and then maybe I would be worth the fortune she wasted to keep me.

It had not always been this way. When I was younger, Indrani pretended to love me. A child of five or six, I had just arrived in Delhi, and she had recently a daughter who died. She would tell me tales of her own lost beauty. She had been a nautch girl in Lucknow, singing and dancing her seductions. The house was a packrat's museum filled with artifacts of her wiles: A caged green parrot from the South African lover who had joined in Gandhiji's Great Salt March. The yellow gold bells with which she used to adorn her hands and ankles. Saris spangled with silver, headdresses dripping mirrors and pearls. Photographs taken by an Oxford-trained barrister of her Pathaka mudra portraying the sun. For a time she would take me into her bed and hold me, humming the ragas of her youth, petting my "golden wheat-colored skin" and fawning over my turquoise eyes. But the house was hardly a business then. She had only Bharati. She still entertained customers herself, and her heart still possessed some measure of softness.

The madness of Partition changed Indrani. She had a brother in Amritsar who was mistaken for a Muslim. He and his two young sons had their throats cut in their own home. While the Muslim quarter in Delhi burned, Indrani took to drink. Afterward, as business improved and our house became more crowded, she grew fat and hard-hearted, and her tenderness toward me soured. I was a weight pulling her down. I was the biggest mistake of her days. I was the demon child from the north, but I would pay when I finally grew old enough. I would pay and pay and pay.

I knew what Indrani meant. I was the one who emptied the slop pots, carried the water jugs, washed the sisters' clothes and bedclothes and monthly rags. I shaved their lipsticks and kohl pencils, tidied jars of powder and rouge. I combed the coconut oil through their hair, lit incense at twilight, filled their oil lamps, brought the clay cups from which they drank whiskey and gin with their babus. I took them their glasses of tea in the morning and swept up the occasional shattered bottle. Sometimes I tended their bruises and wounds after this babu flew into a drunken rage or that one chose to act out the part of the jealous lover Rama. Unlike Shanta, I did not lurk behind the slit curtains or crouch outside the barred windows. (Shanta was always competing with the babus for her mother's affections.) But even in my sleeping place in the kitchen I was surrounded by the sounds and smells, the undulations of brothel commerce.

"A woman's body is her implement," Bharati told me once as we sat together patting out chappati for the evening meal. "Like the plow of the farmer, it is her means of livelihood and survival. Some say it is sacred. Others say it is evil. But it is a necessary vessel for spirit and for life. If as a girl you protect and use this vessel wisely, it may bring you comfort and wealth, a good husband and many sons. Once violated, however, a woman's body is forever diminished. Like mine, it will yield only daughters and the shelter of the brothel." Knowing the secrets of the flash house, I did not see that the protection and wise use of a body was much under a girl's own control, but I accepted these words as a gift to hold in the back of my mind.

And now as I watched Mrs. Shaw, I thought, yes, here is a lady who succeeds in using her body to secure a good life. Surely that is why she takes such pains to protect it from the violations of dust and beggars and the harsh midday sun. But even as this thought crossed my mind, she did something most unexpected.

There had been an accident. A boy named Surie in the next house had lifted his mother's sari while she prepared the morning meal. Somehow the fire got into the cloth, and both were badly burned. I had seen the victims with my own eyes as the flames engulfed them. They were lucky their faces and hands were spared, the legs not so good. By the time Mrs. Shaw and her escort arrived, the excitement had died away. Plasters of mud had been applied to the wounds. But it was still the talk of the street, and the visitors were drawn in. I went to watch from the communal tap a little down the lane as Mrs. Shaw moved forward and dropped to her knees, not to help the boy as I had thought, but in front of the mother. I heard a cry. At firstI thought Mrs. Shaw was going to strike Surie 's mother, perhaps for allowing such a thing to happen to a son. But no, she called for water-boiled water, she insisted, and finally accepted a vessel of tea, which she used to clean the wounds with her own hands. She removed her gloves.

I thought surely she must stop and instruct one of the other women to take over, but no, she lifted the leg of the woman-a Shudra- with her bare hands. The servant brought a large white box with a red cross on it, and in the next instant Mrs. Shaw was stroking on the ointment with naked fingers, talking in a low murmur meant only for Surie 's mother. No one could believe it. Mrs. Shaw had the Untouchable 's very blood on her hands. Many of the onlookers turned away in disgust, but Mrs. Shaw's daring only drew me forward. She was so intent, so confident and fearless! She bound the wound in a long white cloth, then turned and began to do the same for Surie. All the time squatting, her speckled skirt dragging in the dirt, her hat - a Western - style man's hat of straw-slipping from this side to that until finally she flung it back to her young escort, who put it on his own head and then looked around as if he hoped no one would notice. And we all laughed at him, and he smiled. I had come so close, however, that it seemed he was smiling straight at me. Mrs. Shaw looked up and squinted through the light. She lifted a hand to shade her eyes. Quickly, I ducked back behind the water tank. My heart was racing, and my face was hot. I had claimed her, yes, but the very recklessness of her daring that had drawn me just instants ago now warned me away.

Mrs. Shaw clucked her tongue and finished dressing Surie's burn. Then she and the young man went from house to house asking after other injuries and sickness. I tried to keep out of sight, but I could see Indrani looking out for me and scratching at her collarbone, which meant that she was angry, so finally I collected my water jars and brought them back. She would have cuffed me about the ears, but the foreigners were approaching our house. So instead she fit her palms together and raised them, namaste. No, no one sick, Indrani assured them, no one needing tending. Mira, crouching behind me in the doorway, pushed Bharati's child back into the shadows and held a finger at her lips to command her to silence.

Again my heart began to pound. This time I refused to hide, yet when Mrs. Shaw herself pointed in my direction I was struck dumb. She wanted to know if Indrani was my mother. Her mother is away, said my keeper. I am her cousin. I watch her. She is a worthless girl, but I keep her out of goodness. She shook her pigeon-gray head and sighed.

Mrs. Shaw and her escort looked at each other. Then they both looked at me, a firm look as if they were trying to tell me something with their eyes, but while I might speak with my sisters in this secret way, I could not understand these two.

Indrani pushed me inside. I heard the strangers asking more questions, and a skittering at the back of the house - Bharati's babu had stayed the night and was probably fleeing out the alley. Now the others were called, and each in turn said she worked for herself, the old lady just rented them rooms. No, no one forced them. Nothing illegal. They came and went as they pleased. The answers were well rehearsed. The laws did not prohibit women from selling their flesh of their own free will, as long as they were of age, which, of course, we all said we were. At last, with much shaking of heads and fumbling of hands, the young man and Mrs. Shaw left.

That night, when the police came, I wondered if Mrs. Shaw had summoned them. True, they often came. Indrani had known Inspector Golba since her days as a nautch girl. Sometimes, still, he let her dance for him, drink with him. In return, she let them pick, any girl they liked. I knew their smells, of hair grease and sweaty palms, of curry and onion and whiskey. Sometimes they gave me a sweet or stuck out their tongue. But never before had they picked me out. Never before spoken my name. This night Inspector Golba pointed his finger just as Mrs. Shaw had done. Then his men took me away.

Indrani said nothing, did nothing to stop them. Mira cried out and Bharati cursed them. I struggled, but the two men holding my arms lifted me so that my chappals fell right off my feet, and my wails became whispers beneath the Hindi movie music squawking from loud-speakers at the back of their jeep. As we jerked forward I looked back at the many clusters of women watching along the lane. I remember so clearly, as if I'd never noticed and never would again, the glitter of the tinseled brothel lights, the brilliant colors those women wore, the casual relief with which they resumed their suggestive, welcoming poses. But most of all I remember the hot black silence of their knowing eyes.

The men took me straight to the police station and pushed me in through a back entrance. They marked me down as sixteen years old, though I was not yet near puberty. One of them joked they would call me China Blue - for my eyes.

I said nothing. Their talk was full of a swagger and heat that I knew full well from the brothel, but also from some more distant place buried deep within me. There were three of them. They placed me in a cell by myself. They bound my hands. Then they left me. I was too frightened to call out. The men's hard taunts echoed in my ears. Not by way of the flash house now. No. Through a nightmare perhaps. Or a time long ago. The sliver of recall gnawed at me, filled me with dread.

I forced myself to push the voices away, to listen to the lizards tsk, tsking across the ceiling. A scorpion dropped on my arm, but it did not sting me, and I was grateful, told myself this was a sign that I would be forgotten. I slept, but soon woke to the rattle of the door, the stamp of boots, grunting, and a new smell over me, of police sweat and breath like rotten fish.

They yanked at the drawstring of my kameez trousers. The bars of the cell's single high window divided the night into four flat blue-gray strips of sky encased in black. A crescent moon clung to one of these strips. By its light I could just make out the shadow shapes of three men leaning, heard the slap as they loosened their belts. One by one they pried my legs open and, wordless, shoved themselves inside me.

No recall now. No sweet dread. Only this. I felt my flesh tearing, burning, weeping as they pounded deeper. I did not mean to scream, for I knew it would do no good, but somehow the horror, not at the pain or even the raw physical invasion, but that sensation of their hot, sticky spill pouring over and out of me unleashed such revulsion that I did not hear myself. China Blue sings, they howled back, mocking before they gagged me.

When at last they left me alone, I thought, this is what it means to be rescued by Mrs. Shaw.

 

As she woke to the second week of Aidan's absence, Joanna realized she was beginning to enjoy the slower pace of these mornings. Her husband had a habit of lurching out of bed the instant he opened his eyes, and if that didn't rouse her, the arthritic squeal of the plumbing as he showered and brushed his teeth surely would. Before her own eyes opened she could all but hear the roar of ideas, problems, assignments cramming Aidan's overactive skull, and by the time he emerged in one of his immaculate seersucker or white linen suits, she might have managed to sit up, might even have her robe on, but he would already have set his day's game plan. This inner momentum and discipline, the sheer volume of purpose in his life were among the many qualities that Joanna admired in her husband, yet try as she might to keep up, she found his early rising a particularly hard act to follow in India's grueling heat.

She crossed the room and raised the grass blinds-khas-khas tati, she corrected herself, silently crisping the syllables in her mouth, or tats, as the British and Indians both called them for short-and stepped out onto the balcony. Their house was at the end of Ratendone Road, on the city's fringe. In the two years since India's Independence, Delhi had been expanding rapidly and this part of town would doubtless soon be swallowed by development, but for the moment, it enjoyed a curious double identity. At night, the quiet of the nearby wild lands lent an aura of isolation, yet by seven in the morning the street already was seething with tonga wagons, bullocks, rickshaw and bicycle traffic. A sadhu covered in ash squatted with his begging bowl on one side of the road. A belled elephant, draped in mirrored embroidery, lumbered along the other, while overhead a kite stretched its wings, riding the morning heat currents. Even after living here five months Joanna still marveled at the adventure of it all.

But she pushed aside the recurring question of where they would go-what Aidan would do if he did not come back with the story he needed to mollify his accusers. Right now she needed to get Simon off to school and herself to work by nine. And Aidan had assured her his lead in Kashmir was all but guaranteed.

Quickly she showered and dressed, then went in search of her son. For Simon, having absorbed both his mother's enthusiasm for India and his father's penchant for early rising, had already been up for ages. He'd been breakfasted and entertained and allowed to disrupt the chores of the entire household, from the gardener and cook to the bearer, Nagu. Joanna tracked him out to the garage turned servants' quarters where he was chasing lizards with Nagu's two sons. Dilip and Bhanu were eleven and nine but, generous as their father, embraced eight-year-old Simon as a peer. He reveled in their company and, predictably, didn't want to leave this morning. Even after Joanna got him into the car and was maneuvering the secondhand Austin out of the driveway and into the flow of bicycle traffic, he couldn't stop talking about the krait that Dilip had killed behind the servants' quarters. The krait is a deadly poisonous snake, but the force behind Simon's story was not fear or awe but an almost clinical fascination with the undigested toad that tumbled out when Dilip slit the krait's belly.

Joanna kept her hands on the wheel and warned herself not to react. This was the same slight, tousle-haired child who spent his last weeks in Maryland huddled with his kittens under the dining room table, who had told her definitively that if they didn't have cowboys in India, then he wasn't going. The table eventually was collected by the packers, the kittens were distributed among the neighbors, and Simon's red Roy Rogers hat blew into the Atlantic four days into their voyage. He 'd worn that hat-and slept in it - every day since he was three, but in the end Joanna mourned its loss more than he did. The cats, the hat, the good-hearted Bermans and Andersons next door, the house of cedar and fieldstone that Simon as a toddler had "helped" to build, all were out of mind the instant they were out of his sight. And now he was playing with killer snakes. Let it go, she told herself. Danger is inescapable, but fear is a worse trap. They reached Simon's school, and he grabbed his book bag, was about to scramble out when Joanna caught him around the shoulders. As she kissed him she tasted the salt of his skin, the morning dust in his hair. Then, before he could do it himself, she put out a thumb and wiped off her lipstick. By the time she reached the gate he was trotting yards ahead of her, making rushed namaste to his teachers, who were a mixed assortment of pinch-lipped Yankees and young uppercaste Indian women dressed in emerald and mustard and coral saris, with frangipani in their hair. The other children were already seating themselves on dhurries spread across the lawn under canopies dyed like circus tents.

Joanna paused to exchange small talk with two of the State Department wives who had founded this school as an alternative to sending their children to Indian-run institutions. The women addressed her with the same presumptive solidarity that she had come to recognize as an expat trademark, but as she walked away she couldn't help wonder how their attitudes would change if and when the FBI's accusations against Aidan became public. Would they shun her as the wife of a "Communist?" Or actively challenge her own political loyalties? Would they pressure her to pull Simon from school and forbid their children to play with him? Though she'd like to believe that some of these women might choose to defend Aidan, it would not help that she herself had sidestepped their clubs and bridge games, electing instead to take a job for the Indian government rescuing wayward natives.

Back in the car she squinted into the glare and, as she drove on to work, turned her thoughts defiantly to Aidan and their last night together. "Lying in wait," he'd joked when she tugged back the sheet and found him naked and preposterously ready. He'd gotten up onto his knees and slid her nightgown off over her head, then trailed his fingertips the length of her body, teasing her with affection and focusing all his restless energy into their mutual desire. Afterward, they lay cupped together drawing spirals on their sweat-slick skin and talking softly about the madness that seemed poised to engulf them.

Over the past few years J. Edgar Hoover and his friends with the China Lobby had repeatedly targeted Aidan, in part because he was half Chinese, but mostly for his articles criticizing Chiang Kaishek's Nationalist Chinese government. After learning there were wiretaps on Aidan's phone and surveillance teams following him to and from the Washington office, the Herald finally assigned him to India to get him out of sight. But Aidan did not stop writing his stories, and just last month he sent off a particularly inflammatory piece, which his Australian friend Lawrence Malcolm archly dubbed "The Generalissimo's Rag Team." The highlight of the article was a description of fourteen-year-old Nationalist conscripts wearing rags for shoes as they stood in the snow guarding a restaurant where Madame Chiang Kai-shek was accepting personal "gifts" of diamond jewelry and sipping French champagne with three notorious Shanghainese mobsters and their concubines. Joanna agreed with Aidan that this was one of the best pieces he 'd ever written and she believed every word of it. But scathing honesty about the Chiangs was still out of fashion in Washington, so two weeks ago Aidan was demoted from Delhi bureau chief to special correspondent. With the demotion came a directive. As Aidan put it, "Prove my Stars and Stripes and set the crusaders at ease." His objective in Kashmir was to write something damning against the Communists in the U.N. peace commission.

"Or else . . . ?" Joanna finally dared to ask. "I suppose they'll order me home. Fire me. Send me up before the Un-American Activities Committee for one of their show trials, followed by the blacklist or jail. Or, they could just deport me. America, the beautiful."

A shiver raced up Joanna's spine now as she recalled the bitterness in his voice. Up ahead a public bus had tipped over on its side and passengers were blithely scrambling out the windows as peddlers plied them with mangoes.

Farther on, a makeshift fair blared scratchy Indian film songs as two men hand-cranked a rickety wooden Ferris wheel stuffed full of schoolgirls in navy and pink, and all around the edges families camped under black tarpaulins or shreds of filthy matting. Lepers crouched caressing their wounds. Snake charmers held up cobras. And there, that old, old man in a soiled lungi curled down at the feet of a fat young dandy wearing movie star sunglasses. Joanna felt a surge of despair. Who exactly was in charge of doling out power in this world, and why did it always seem to wind up in the hands of those who deserved it least?

She braked to avoid a sauntering cow and squeezed the car between two battered cycle rickshaws in front of Safe Haven. In frustration she banged the heel of her hand, inadvertently tooting the horn. A child standing too close to the car jumped back as if struck, then immediately started forward again.

Joanna braced for the expected thrust of a palm through the open window, the stroking, pleading flurry of fingers demanding money or sweets - or perhaps delivering a trumped-up accusation that she had been struck. But though the girl was scrawny, bedraggled, and filthy as a beggar, her hair matted and her pajamalike salwar kameez stiff with embedded dust, she stood with dignity, watching and waiting as if expected.

In fact, on closer examination, Joanna did recognize her. Two weeks earlier she 'd received an alert from the Vigilance Society about a "blue-eyed hill child," ten, maybe eleven years old, believed to be a kidnap victim living in a brothel in the red-light district. The rescue agencies kept an eye out for girls around this age because there was still a chance of taking them into custody before they were initiated into prostitution. Joanna and her assistant, Vijay Lal, had investigated and promptly located the child. There was no mistaking her identity; the eyes marked her, even from a distance. They were aquamarine in color, almost Chinese in shape, and they burned so brightly they might have been lit from within. Her skin was golden, and though she'd worn the same clothing and seemed familiar with the other girls of G. B. Road, she had looked distinctly out of place, solitary even in the crowded lane. The expression on her face - neither forlorn nor self-pitying, but strangely reserved - alerted Joanna that this was an exceptional child. Unfortunately, she had not had the forethought that day to secure a search warrant. If the child had come forward and asked for asylum, all would have been well. But she ducked from their approach, and they were forced to leave without her. When they returned a few days later with the necessary warrant, the girl was nowhere to be found.

Now those same eyes trained on Joanna, waiting for her to get out of the car. Which she did slowly, closing the door with her hip. Without speaking, she extended her right hand.

The child stared at her naked fingers. No gloves. Perhaps this seemed too intimate, a brute violation of caste code, but just as Joanna was about to pull back, the girl snatched at her fingers, all but crushing them in her own small, powerful hands. "I am called Kamla," she said loudly in English. "You are Mrs. Shaw."

 

Everything had changed after I was returned from the police station. Indrani beat me with a leather thong - as a warning, she said. I saw her as an old woman, but her greed and anger gave her strength, and the strap ate the flesh off my bones, so when she had finished I could barely move. She locked me in the storage hut behind the house and refused to let Mira tend me, though I could hear through the wall Mira's arguments on my behalf. Why the child? my sister demanded. What can the child do? She cannot refuse. She would not dare to run away, and in any case, where could she go? She has no one, knows no one, is a stranger outside this house. But Indrani told Mira this was none of her concern.

Bharati had warned me, and now I knew. I was broken and worthless, yet only now was I worth the trouble of beating and locking. Now Indrani would take money for me. Now I had bled. But the bleeding had been forced on me. I was still a child. Still the girl they called Kamla. I told myself I had not changed, though I knew this was not true.

Days passed. The hut was mud-walled, tin-roofed, the floor packed dirt like an oven. During the day I could not move for the heat. My companions were old crates and packing boxes, scraps of cotton, a typewriter missing most of its keys, broken lamps, beer bottles, dented trays, a chair without a seat, a child's sandal with torn straps, rolled-up wall calendars six years old. In front, by the door stood sacks of dal, wheat, and rice, which attracted rats. I cleared a path through the rubbish into the farthest corner and made a nest of newspapers and cloth, but there was no way to stay clean. I tore rags from an old white mourning sari to sop the blood between my legs. Each time Indrani came for a cup of grain from her stores she would squint at me there in my corner before leaving a bowl of water and scraps. She would wrinkle her nose at my stink and make a noise of derision, but even when I called out to her, she did not speak. I chewed on bits of the raw grain, letting it soften in my mouth for many minutes before chewing and swallowing, and for the most part I kept it down. As my flesh healed, however, I grew weaker. At night, when the darkness threatened to smother me, I first took comfort in the sounds coming through the walls. Calling, commanding, crying - they were alive. But soon I realized that these noises belonged mostly to men. They would shout out the full range of emotion as if megaphones were implanted in their hearts. Meanwhile the answering silence of my sisters seemed a dirge.

I thought of Mira and the way she would sometimes spy me passing and smile while a customer was on top of her. We conversed with our eyes, Mira and I. Hers were heavy and brown, brimming with her kindness. She had not been brought to the brothel, but walked in alone, and Indrani had accepted her with tenderness as she had me in my time. Eventually I learned that Mira, like me, had no mother or father, and the uncle who raised her had spoiled her for marriage, so she chose the only path left. Her debt was lighter than my own, but often I felt Mira's load to be weightier. When I asked her to tell me the colors of her dreams, she could not answer. When I asked her to sing me a song, she told me that she knew none. Yet I knew her secret smile. I knew that even when a man as hairy as a pi dog or as cruel as the demon Ravana rode her, he could not touch her smile. But I could.

Fatya and Shahnaz spent no smiles on me. They abided by themselves, sometimes even taking customers together. But though they had each other they were a joyless pair. Fatya's husband had sold her to the flash house before he left for Pakistan during Partition. Shahnaz had been tricked by a girlfriend's mother who said she would take her to the cinema and instead brought her to the brothel. Both were from Bengal and did not speak Hindi, but they chattered continuously between themselves and seemed to need no one else. When I crossed behind their screen I could see how they, like Mira, turned their faces as their customers heaved on top of them and the beads that jeweled their skin would slide away like tears. I never saw any of my sisters actually cry, however, and now it was through their very silence that I felt myself disappearing. I realized that this was what Indrani intended. That she would take no chances until the last of my spirit was gone, and she could trade the body as she wished.

Then on the fifth morning I heard Mira calling softly outside the locked door. "Kamla," she whispered. "Indrani says she will release you tomorrow. She has bought a new charpoy, raised a new curtain. You will stay beside me."

This from Mira, my sister of smiles. Did she mean to warn, or reassure me? To this day I cannot say. But I knew from that instant, I must not allow Indrani to own my tomorrow.

I lay down to think, to make my plan. Instead, in the heat of the afternoon, I fell asleep. For the first time since my captivity, my dreams filled with color and song. I awoke clutching my own leg, but in my thoughts I was clinging to a hand that would lead me to safety. I had blamed Mrs. Shaw. Even now I understood that my freedom would have stretched another month, perhaps another year but for her intrusion. I knew in my heart that Indrani, not Mrs. Shaw, had called for Golba. Indrani had witnessed Mrs. Shaw's gesture, had seen her reaching for me. That pointed finger was not an accusation but an offer of safety. Surely Mrs. Shaw had not meant to harm me! No, it was Indrani who wanted to teach me a lesson, and the police were only too happy to oblige. I must be taught to keep quiet. And so my situation was caused by Mrs. Shaw and not Mrs. Shaw. And perhaps she would never come again. But if she had extended her hand to me once, would she not do so again, even now? I did not know, but the thought of Mrs. Shaw gave me strength. I remembered her bare hands against the white bandage, the sureness and quickness of her movements. I remembered the flashing amber of her eyes as they reached up and took me in. And I knew as suddenly as if she had spoken the words herself that my spirit was still intact.

Looking up I saw a crack of dusty light. Some days earlier, when I was still too weak to move, I had watched a rat nose through this seam in the roof. It was also a favorite passageway for lizards, and occasionally a pigeon would light here, pecking at the opening for bits of straw come loose from the mud brick. I was small, and the room was tall, but I thought if I could somehow climb up to that crack I might widen it enough to break through. I could not allow myself to wonder what I would do after that. I believed that Mrs. Shaw's world was far from any I had ever known, and I had no idea how I would go there. But I did know what lay ahead if I stayed. For the next hours, as the light through the crack changed from white to gold and finally dusky gray, I dragged the sturdiest sacks and boxes I could find into that back corner. All through the night, spurred on now by the same sounds of laughter and lust that days before had consoled me, I tested my ladder, climbing and tumbling, rising again until finally I succeeded in pressing my palm against the tin roofing.

The scraping when I pushed seemed as loud as a tonga horn, but gradually, bit by bit, I forced the gap wider. The dark morning air rushed through like water. I could hear the chug and shuffle of women rising to their chores, the wooden creak of bullock carts on their way to the river. Birdsong.

Fortunately, I was as narrow and light as I was weak. I felt for a chink in the wall with my toes and stretched my arms out and over the top. The sun was just coming up. A twist of smoke leaked from the stovepipe at the other end of the roof. That would be Bharati, starting a fire to cook breakfast for Shanta. Quickly, silently, I slithered down the outside wall until I hung from my fingers, then dropped the remaining distance to the ground. As I began to run I heard Indrani screeching for her tea.

Looking back, I realize that the only reason I was able to escape was the time of day. A few hours earlier or later, every doorway along the lane would have bristled with arms reaching out to catch me - friends of Indrani's, thugs visiting the brothels, babus trying to be helpful. As it was, the merchants who operated the ground-floor shops that fronted on G. B. Road were opening for business, and I could hear the grind of buses and horns barking from that direction. But most of the residents of this alley slept until late morning. Only Surie and his mother caught sight of me as I raced away, and they were not yet sufficiently recovered from their burns to give chase. Soon I was running along streets I had never seen before.

I had no plan, you see, no sense of the city. Although I had traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to get here, in Delhi I was not allowed to leave our lane. You will be kidnapped. You will be raped. The police will arrest you. Beggars will attack you. These were the dire threats with which Indrani had kept me close. But now all but the last of these things had been done to me, and if I was myself a beggar, then why should other beggars attack me? The only fear I felt now was of Indrani and the goondas I was sure she would soon enlist to find me. There was a girl I had known from another flash house who was caught trying to escape, and when the goondas brought her back, the flesh from inside her body was hanging between her legs. I needed to get away from the red-light district as quickly as possible, but where would I go to?

The general flow of carts and bicycles led me first to the banks of the Yamuna River, where I found throngs of dhobis doing their morning wash. I was so tired and weak that the motion of the laundrymen's arms, the long white sausages of cloth arcing high and then smashing down on the wet stones, mesmerized me. The rhythmic sound, the unison, made me think of a flock of cranes, though I could not have named them as cranes but as birds I dimly recalled from a river buried in my childhood. Coming back to myself, I bathed and drank. I loosened my hair until it streamed about me in the water. I was free, yet this freedom was meaningless. I could beg, but as a beggar without protection, I would soon end up in another flash house or worse, one of the cage brothels I'd been told of, where girls were penned like animals. I could apply for work as a maid, but who would hire a scrawny child? The same for factory work. And in every case I would be at the mercy of men, though I no longer believed men had any mercy. Mira had mercy, but no power. Only Mrs. Shaw possessed both.

I asked the dhobis if they knew where the firenghi lived and worked. They told me to go to New Delhi, on the other side of the city. By bicycle or bus only half an hour away. I had no bicycle or money for the bus, so I set off on foot. By day's end I had made my way to the white colonnades of Connaught Place. I had discovered the broad, tree-lined avenues designed in the time of the British. I had even tasted firenghi food, in the form of a sandwich dropped on the pavement by a small yellow-haired boy. That sandwich was all I had to eat until late that night, when I heard a commotion down an alley and found a group of street children scavenging scraps from behind a restaurant. I joined the group - four boys and two other girls about my age - and they led me to a park where the shrubbery was dense enough to conceal us as we slept. But when I woke, the others had left, and I was as lost as ever.

The size and strangeness of the city alone threatened to defeat me. Crossing the busy streets I would cleave to wandering cows so as not to be struck by the trucks and buses whirling past. When I came to the sweeping lawns near the government palaces I shrank like a mouse back into the hubbub of the smaller streets rather than risk walking in such open spaces. In one of the bazaars I picked up a yellow rag, which I wound about my head as a disguise. I pinched a salted plum here, a betel leaf there. I followed a group of passing foreigners in the hope they might lead me to Mrs. Shaw. They led me to a street of white palaces just like the home I had imagined for Mrs. Shaw, and even though I did not find her there, I discovered to my delight that I was slender enough to pass between the bars of certain private gates. For the next three nights I slept in the gardens of the rich.

These were cherished hiding grounds, so carefully groomed and tended that the very earth smelled privileged. Soft and rich and dark, the dirt held me like a mattress, and with summer arriving I was not cold. Sometimes, if the mali had watered late in the day, I would bury my hot feet in the mud, or scoop a cold pack of it onto my legs and arms where the skin was still raw. I would lie behind beds of cannas or underneath the drape of an oleander bush. Snails and centipedes would work their way over me, and through the foliage I would watch the lights of the house attached to the garden, the silhouettes of family and servants moving through their evening rituals. Sometimes there were children with loud, shrill voices, sometimes scolding, sometimes soothing ayahs. Once a foreign couple sat on their veranda not ten feet away, though it was so dark that I knew they would not see me, and they argued until the memsahib was in tears. I had been pretending that the couple were Mrs. Shaw and her husband, and the lady's evident misery was causing me some distress until I realized that their discussion centered around a certain fancy dress the sahib disliked! No, I thought fiercely, Mrs. Shaw would never waste her tears over such a thing. My indignation rekindled my desire to locate the real Mrs. Shaw, and long before the mali could catch me the next morning I was on my way.

Mrs. Shaw. I turned the name over and over on my tongue. I had heard her Hindu escort address her as they wandered through the district, and committed it to memory on the spot. The name was as much a part of her as the amber color of her hair or the emphasis of her smile. Little enough good it would do me. In those days I could speak bits and pieces of four languages - Hindustani, Urdu, English, and my native tongue - but I was penniless, and knew nothing of Delhi society. Today I might look in the telephone listings, or ask at the American embassy. I might go to the International School and ask one of the chowkidar if he had seen a woman of such and such description. But then New Delhi was to me a puzzle of walls and faces, glittering storefronts and meaningless signs. "Mrs. Shaw?" one old mali repeated, smacking his toothless mouth at the question.

"Why not ask for Mrs. Singh, or Mrs. Mukherjee, or Mrs. Jain?"

"Are there so many?" I asked, incredulous.

"As many as there are memsahib," replied the old liar. Almost certainly, he did not know even his own memsahib's name, but I took him for an expert and went on my way quite undone.

I had only her image to go by. An image of matching hair and eyes, the color of dying fire. Of narrow bones and thin wrists, a bird's neck and big feet in black strap shoes. Of dresses that clung to the dampness of her skin, and caught the breezes as she walked. I thought of the hollows of her cheeks, the deep settings of her eyes, the high square forehead and sharpened jawline with small knots of muscle that betrayed her tense nature. As I wound through the crowds, ducking out of the way of tongas and taxis, I practiced carving her image with words.

Meanwhile I strained to listen to the talk of the markets, the drivers for hire huddled outside big hotels, the schoolboys in their crisp white cricket uniforms assembling in the park. By nightfall of my fifth day on the streets I had found my way to a monument of an angrezi, very tall, with hat and waistcoat and sword in hand. Taller trees around him cast shadows in the twilight. A group of girls leaned against the statue, calling to one another, laughing.

They wore thin saris tied low across the belly and left their heads uncovered. The jitter of their glass bangles sounded like laughter through the groan of traffic. The road here was a small roundabout faced by compound walls, with other roads pulling like spokes of a wheel. So many directions to flee, I thought, as I worked up the courage to approach. A bicycle rickshaw slowed as if on parade, though I understood it was the girls who were on display, while the passenger, invisible in his covered cab, was the spectator. The cab stopped in front of a short, thick girl with round cheeks and flowing hair. A shirt-sleeved arm parted the oilcloth canopy. She climbed in, and the vehicle jerked away.

"Hey, little sister," called a voice. "Better shut your eyes or they'll fall out of your head." The girls all laughed, but it was not malicious laughter, and when they summoned me to join them I crossed, dodging cows and bicycles and pi dogs. The scents of rose petals and jasmine floated from their skin. Their eyes were rimmed with collyrium, their mouths with vermilion, and the gems in their noses and earlobes twinkled. They sniggered at my rags, the dust in my hair. "You will do no business like this," they warned. "Not even at your age."

Their attention was warm and soothing as nan, and I wished I had returned to the river to bathe, only so that these girls might stretch a hand, might feel moved to pet me. To praise me. But perhaps this failure on my part was also my saving, for their disgust, the friendly joking that now turned disdainful reminded me of my true business here. Before the next customer could approach, before they had begun to tire of me, I called out the words I had rehearsed that day. I described the foreign woman with the kind, not beautiful face, the body of sharp turns and soft skin and ignorant gestures. I did not speak of rescue, did not call her Mrs. Shaw. I only said she was known by the girls of the flash house and asked if she ever came here.

None knew her. In fact, a chill current seemed to sweep among the girls at the mention of a firenghi who would travel in their midst. I had not, after all, said what possessed her to seek their company. And then an automobile crept toward us, and the girls edged apart, each striking a pose like the cinema posters, hands on hips, lips pushed forward, saris draped to show off a comely throat or midriff or breast. But as I drew out of sight, a hiss beckoned me forward. The eldest of the street girls hung back from the others. As I approached I saw that her eyes were so heavily blackened that they appeared like gouges in her skull. Her sari was threadbare and, beneath, she wore nothing. Painted shadows exaggerated the roundness of her breasts and hips, and rouge enlarged the nipples. She reeked of sandalwood. After the car had stopped by one of the other girls, she turned to me. "This woman you seek," she whispered. "She is good firenghi?" At my nod, she said, "Yes. I know her. Mrs. Shaw. I have seen her rescue home. There is nothing for me there. But you are still young." Quickly, she spat out an address, directions, which I committed to memory without understanding. Then she pushed me away. I repeated the address to beggars, sweepers, rock pickers, ayahs on their way to work in the foreign houses. Two mornings later, I was waiting outside the gate of Salamat Jannat-Safe Haven-when Mrs. Shaw stepped out of her small green automobile.

 

First she ate. In the relative privacy of Joanna's office, with the windows open to the courtyard and the ceiling fan doing its best, the child stuffed herself with nan and vegetable bhaji and lhassi and fresh mango. Joanna was both impressed and concerned by the sheer volume she consumed. She must not have eaten in days. But though she used her hands greedily and unabashedly, there was something dignified about the way she sat, erect and silent, shoveling rice into her mouth, catching the occasional stray grain on a fingertip, sliding it between her lips with an amused - yes, amused - glance up at Joanna. She was pleased with herself. That was it. After Joanna had made two trips to rescue her, she instead had come here on her own. Filthy, she was, too, and raggedly hollow-eyed, yet there was nothing needy about her expression. She appeared to believe she deserved this food, this attention and all the protection that Joanna wished she could give her, as if it were her due.

Joanna pretended to busy herself with papers while the girl ate undisturbed. Salamat Jannat was a "Safe Haven" in name only. In reality it was little more than a dumping ground for girls remanded by the courts. There were sixteen of these inmates at the moment, all older than this child and most of them seasoned harlots, some wild and mean, some devious. As a newcomer to India and only recently appointed director of the home, Joanna had no choice but to temper her expectations. She could document the girls' exploitation and see that they received the necessary medical attention for the gonorrhea and syphilis, the abrasions and contusions, addictions and hysteria that were the side effects of their trade. She could offer them the means and contacts to attempt a different livelihood, but despite her best efforts, the girls were loath to give up their lifestyle. Among her charges were two devadasi, "temple girls" raised from birth to believe that sex was their spiritual calling. Another was a Beria, sent by her family into prostitution as a mandatory vocation - as were all the girls from her village according to centuries-old tradition. Still others had been lured to Delhi by friends or relatives promising easy money, or had fled alcoholic parents who would only beat them and send them back to the street if they went home. Hindu and Muslim cultures alike taught these girls that they were good for nothing but more of the same that had spoiled them. In the face of such teaching, Joanna knew that promises of hope must be made with care.

But this girl - Kamla - was obviously different. Her youth - and those arresting eyes - were the least of it. She stole another glance as the girl lifted her glass of lhassi with both hands and drank so deeply that her throat rippled. None of the other girls had come here voluntarily, let alone found their own way. And it could not be the home's reputation that had drawn her but some reading she had taken on Joanna herself. Joanna found it at once poignant and more than a little daunting to think how this child must have sized her up that day at the brothel, secretly marking her, then traveled the full length of the city to imagined sanctuary. How could Joanna not honor such faith? Certainly, she felt compelled to try.

Finally Kamla finished eating, wiped her mouth, and accepted a cup of milk tea. Joanna summoned her young assistant, Vijay Lal, to translate, and asked the child to tell them about herself. She had expected that "I am called Kamla. You are Mrs. Shaw" would exhaust the girl's English, but to her surprise, the tale that now tumbled unhesitatingly forth was studded with phrases such as "under arrest," "flash house," and "break free," which suggested either that the brothel she'd escaped had an unusually educated clientele or that the girl herself had been exposed to English earlier in her life. Joanna made a note of this, along with the core details of her story. Kamla, it seemed, had been sold by her family to the brothel keeper - or gharwali - when she was almost too young to remember. She had served as a kind of maidservant to the prostitutes, and she had never considered running away until one day recently when the police had come. She'd been used and beaten. Only then did she flee. She remembered that Mrs. Shaw had helped the Untouchable boy and his mother. (So the police had taken Kamla after her own attempt to rescue the girl, Joanna noted with dismay.) Kamla thought Mrs. Shaw might help her. It took seven days and nights but at last she had found her way here.

Vijay and Joanna exchanged looks. The young Hindu had a kind heart, but he was not one for complications. The girl's suggestion that the police had raped her was an indisputable complication. And Vijay clearly did not sympathize with Kamla. To him she was just another case to record, file, and dispatch. Neither the blue eyes nor the fair skin nor the defiance of her spirit shifted him out of his usual mode of thinking. More trouble than she is worth, his look warned. Joanna held his gaze and shook her head. "Tell her she is safe here."

He spoke the words, but Kamla frowned. Her head wiggled in an Indian shrug, at once accepting and dismissing the assurance. Joanna leaned forward - they were seated across a low brass table from each other - and stroked the back of the girl's right hand. The blue eyes lifted as Joanna's fingers closed around the delicate wrist. She could feel the throb of Kamla's pulse lining up with her own. "I will keep you safe," she promised. Kamla smiled and nodded.

Joanna let her go. She felt Vijay watching, but turned away. She 'd been warned not to get personally invested in people who were down and out, and not just here at Salamat Jannat. Over and over again, this lesson had been pounded into her by her teachers back in graduate school, by supervisors on her first jobs, at an adoption agency in Oakland, and later working with war refugees. "We're like doctors," one of her co-workers had observed. "A certain number of losses are inevitable, and it's not possible to predict which they'll be. If we identify too closely with the people we lose, then we risk losing ourselves."

"One step removed," Aidan called it. In his profession this was considered journalistic objectivity. A margin of safety that divided rescuers from rescuees, observers from combatants. Aidan himself, of course, routinely crossed that line. This was, in fact, precisely what had gotten them into their current political fix. Yet even though Joanna sometimes despaired over her husband's stubbornness in taking such risks, she wouldn't have him any other way. Well, this blue-eyed child was a risk she was willing - no, determined - to take.

She summoned the ayah to help, but attended personally as Kamla was bathed and deloused. Her body was emaciated, her back and arms covered with bruises and sores, and even though the girl did not make a sound, Joanna grimaced as she gently soaped the raw flesh. Afterward, Kamla lay rigid on the charpoy that served as an examining table while a public health nurse from the neighborhood clinic assessed the damage.

"Easy, child," soothed the nurse, a Christian Dravidian with skin the color of bittersweet chocolate. Joanna held Kamla's hand. The tightness of her grip was the only sign the girl gave of fear, but the nurse gently coaxed even that to gradually relax. The smell of alcohol seemed sharper than her wince of pain at the slide of the needle into her flesh. "Penicillin," the nurse apologized, as if Kamla could have known what this meant.

What it meant was inscribed on her chart. Rectal fissure, lacerated vaginal wall, ruptured perineum. Infection of reproductive and urinary tracts may compromise future fertility. Joanna closed her eyes and swallowed hard. If she'd rescued Kamla that first day at the brothel, this never would have happened. "Such injuries are not uncommon," the nurse said as Joanna helped Kamla into a fresh green cotton tunic and pants. "But ordinarily, a child in this condition would be doubled over in pain."

Joanna looked down at the small, insistent fingers threading through her own. She met those blue-green eyes. "I do not think our Kamla is any ordinary child."

Yet when she showed her to a quiet corner of the communal sleeping room, the girl would not release her arm. Joanna tried to reassure her, "No harm will come to you here." Her voice was strong and sure, but she remembered nights when Simon, aged three, would clutch her in just this way and demand that she console him about death. One of his cats had died, and for weeks he would ask when he, too, would die, and she and Daddy, and who would die first, and then would she promise not to die, or let Daddy die, or him. And she 'd promised, though she felt like a liar, for Aidan was still in China then, and what control, anyway, did one have over such things? Now, again, she was making a promise she could not guarantee. She'd already failed this child once.

She sat by the bedside, humming a lullaby as the girl curled herself into a ball and reluctantly let her exhaustion overtake her. What had happened to Kamla at the hands of the police might not be uncommon, Joanna thought, but the trust she showed in telling this story was. "I hate this inspector," Vijay said she had told him. "He comes to the flash house, sits with gharwali. He drinks his whiskey, and when my sister Mira is passing he will take her flesh between his fat fingers, he will squeeze until she cries out, and he only laughs and says she is begging, then he must go with her."

"And he is one of the men who forced himself on you?" Joanna had asked.

Kamla tipped her head, talking rapidly. "In the night there is no light," Vijay translated. "She says, the men grunt and sweat and shove like animals." He dropped his gaze. "Like goats. Like pigs. Only one is smelling like fish." Kamla's eyes locked on Joanna's. Then, "It is my first time, Mrs. Shaw."

The clarity and control of her voice as she uttered these last words in English had stunned Joanna all over again. She did not press for more. But she also knew that protecting this girl would not be a simple matter.

She stroked the sleeping child's forehead, smoothing tendrils of damp black hair behind one ear. She owed it to Kamla, and to herself. She would not fail her again. Pulling the curtain to the sleeping room behind her, Joanna returned to her office. The bungalow was quiet, as the other girls now, too, settled to rest through the day's worst heat. Vijay had retired to his cubicle on the other side of the compound to review the home's account books. Joanna thought for a moment, then picked up the telephone and called her superior, Hari Kaushal. Typically evasive, he said he would be passing that way within the hour, and they could discuss whatever concerned her then.

Hari was no fonder of complications than Vijay, which was why he'd signed her on. Not a month after her arrival in Delhi, Joanna had attended an embassy cocktail party, and by way of introducing herself was telling Nancy Minton, the U.S. Ambassador's wife, about her career as a social worker, especially how her work with refugee relief had saved her sanity when Aidan was overseas during the war. She'd like to find something like that here in India, she was saying when Nancy introduced Hari. The dapper Bengali sociologist had recently been appointed to head the government Social Welfare Committee's Moral Hygiene Programme. Before she knew it he was offering her the directorship at Salamat Jannat, a post that had been vacant for nearly a year. Joanna saw it as a chance to involve herself in the country. A viable defense against the stultifying teas and craft projects of the American Women's Club. In return, Hari had not balked at such incidental obstacles as her citizenship or her complete unfamiliarity with Indian habits, customs, and language, never mind the realm of prostitution. He had also not mentioned salary. Joanna, alone of the rescue home's staff of four, worked without pay, and five months later, this was still a bone of contention, though Hari insisted he had put in a request, and approval was "most certainly just now coming."

A broad voice behind her broke into her thoughts. "Behold, the rescuer in her element!"

She turned to find Aidan's friend Lawrence Malcolm leaning in through the low doorway. "Lawrence!" She frowned in confusion. "What are you doing here?"

"Sorry to surprise you," he said. "Won't take a minute." He removed his solar topee and combed a hand haphazardly through his damp hair as he gave her one of his unsettling smiles. Lawrence's eyes were different colors-one a metallic gray, the other hazel green. Though Joanna had known him now a month and, up until Aidan's departure, had been seeing him almost daily, this singular feature still threw her off balance.

She got up and moved a chair for him, cranked up the ceiling fan. Sweat drizzled down her back. It was far too hot for company, but she tried to make light of this. "Why aren't you sleeping like the rest of the world?"

He grinned. "Little heat never bothered me."

"No. So Aidan told me." The two men had become friends in the war, during which they'd reportedly had more than a few "heated" adventures, including a midsummer trek across Burma to escape the Japanese. Out of touch for seven years, they'd met up again by chance last month in Kabul, and Lawrence followed Aidan back to Delhi. "He's been an aimless mess ever since his boy died," Aidan told her. "He could use some friends." But welcoming him into the family was more than simple charity. Lawrence had worked with the Australian Foreign Office. He "understood" politics, and Aidan felt comfortable confiding in him about his work, his career, even - or perhaps especially - about his troubles with the FBI. He actually said he'd trust Lawrence with his life.

Joanna couldn't quite see it, herself. Even now, Lawrence sat without looking, his chair too close to the desk. He hadn't left room for his knees, so he had to edge back, in the process tipping the bamboo frame, and when the legs came down again, they hit the stone floor with a crack. Joanna half expected the seat to splinter beneath Lawrence's clumsy weight. Aidan, by contrast, was a model of grace and poise. The two friends were an odd pair, to say the least. Lawrence cleared his throat. "I just happened to be passing this way."

"The girls are asleep. Otherwise I'd give you a tour."

"No. That's all right." He looked past her to the studio photograph hanging on the wall. Aidan and Simon dressed as cowboys, Simon in his full Roy Rogers getup, Aidan in a ten-gallon hat, both of them leaning on toy rifles. They'd given it to her last Christmas. "Cowboys in India," Aidan had printed across the bottom. Lawrence dropped his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was brighter than his face. "I was wondering if I might collect Simon at school, take him to the Cecil for a dunk?"

Joanna hesitated. Before Aidan left, he 'd picked up Simon from school almost every afternoon and taken him to the Cecil to swim. It was one of just three hotels in Delhi that had a swimming pool, and often Lawrence would join them. Lawrence, unlike Aidan, liked to swim himself, which had immediately won Simon over. But Simon had a reckless streak. The krait with the toad in its belly stuck in her mind. Along with the fact that Lawrence's young son had died in some sort of accident (Aidan either didn't know or refused to tell her the specifics) when Lawrence was present. If she could get away herself to join them, she 'd have no qualms, but she needed to resolve this new girl's status, and she wasn't sure how long that might take. "That's kind," she said. "I'm sure he 'd love it, but . . . he's busy today . . . He-"

She felt his eyes on her even as she refused to look at him. She hated lying. Why was she, anyway? If Aidan would trust Lawrence with his own life, surely he'd trust him with Simon. And if Aidan would, why shouldn't she? But before she could reverse herself, Vijay popped his head around the door. "Mr. Kaushal is here, Mem." And in the next breath Hari Kaushal swept into the office, immediately taking charge.

As always, Hari was dressed after the fashion of Prime Minister Nehru, in a starched white khadi waistcoat with a red rose in the lapel. His thinning black hair lay smooth across the dome of his head, and his dark eyes snapped beneath a prominent brow. Vijay, who was in awe of Hari's authority, followed by several paces. Hari clasped Joanna's right hand warmly in both of his own. "So good to see you looking so well." But this was his standard greeting. He had already turned to her other visitor.

"This is Lawrence Malcolm." Then she added, "A friend of my husband. Hari Kaushal, my boss."

"Foolish me." Lawrence shook Hari's extended hand. "I thought Jo was the boss."

"Indeed she is." Hari beamed at Joanna. His standard trick. Paying in praise. She sighed, and Hari turned back to Lawrence. "Are you also a journalist, like Mr. Shaw?"

"Not quite." Lawrence jiggled the change in his shorts pockets. "More of a researcher these days." Hari waved them to sit down, so as Vijay scurried off in search of snacks they rearranged the three available chairs around the low brass table in the corner.

"What are you researching?" Hari asked.

"I s'pose you could say I'm revisiting my boyhood. Got hooked on the Great Game back in school - all that old Kipling lore, you know."

Hari rolled his eyes. They were large round black eyes that bulged enough to make this a theatrical display. "Spies and shadows. Don't tell me you're another would-be Kim?" Joanna could see he was taken with Lawrence.

Lawrence smiled. "Truth be told, I haven't half Kim's sense of adventure, nor Colonel Creighton's strategic omniscience. But I'm fascinated by the men that did have. The actual adventurers, explorers, spies - whatever you like to call them. Not just the British, but the Indians, and Russians as well, of course. Men who made their own maps, so to speak. I've fantasies of writing a book about them." In fact, this book was considerably more than a fantasy, and Joanna had spent more than her share of afternoons listening to Lawrence and Aidan arguing about the Great Game. The whole debate bored her; as far as she was concerned, Kipling had got it right, and this hundred-year "game" between Britain and Russia for access to India through Central Asia really was little more than a contest between overgrown boys. But Aidan and Lawrence were hooked. Was it an example of colonial paranoia, as Aidan insisted, or a warranted defense against Russian expansionism? Did the benefits of exploration outweigh the imperialist mischief, as Lawrence maintained, or had British meddling permanently destabilized Central Asia? The last thing Jo wanted was to sit here while Lawrence dragged Hari down into it, but if she was to turn the conversation, she had better act quickly.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," she said. "But there was a business reason I called you, Hari. And thank you for coming so promptly, but the thing is, that hill child I told you about is here, and I'm not sure how to proceed."

Vijay returned bearing a pitcher of lemonade and a plate of pakoras. Joanna hesitated. She felt uncomfortable discussing the particulars of this case in front of Lawrence. But Hari was rolling his hand for her to continue, so as succinctly as possible she described the alert they'd received weeks ago from the Vigilance Society, the two burn victims she had treated when she went out to investigate, and how a girl fitting the alert had come forward to watch. She told of the delays she and Vijay encountered at the magistrate 's office before being granted a warrant to take her into custody, about their return, then, to G. B. Road only to find the girl vanished and no one in the neighborhood willing to admit she 'd ever been there. And without going into intimate detail, she reported Kamla's rape and subsequent escape from the brothel.

When she finished, Hari merely shrugged as if to say, one more, one less, one had to be philosophical. "But she came here on her own," Joanna said. "Don't you see? The reason she was so desperate to find us is that she was raped. By the police."

Hari slid his thumbs together and tapped them against his glass. "What do you wish to do?"

"What do you think! A crime 's been committed - one of many, no doubt, but if it is the police-"

"I see several problems," Hari interrupted. "First, the judicial system is still in transition. Even if we bring this case before the courts now, it is bound to drag on for months. By then we will be governed by the new constitution that goes into effect this coming January. The case will no longer be argued by British advisors but by Indian prosecutors and advocates, and will bear the unique stamp of Indian reasoning. A legal action against Indian police so soon after the horrors of Partition, and over what many will consider such a trivial offense-"

"Trivial!"

"I am only telling you how the politicians will view this."

"Damn the politicians!"

"Hear, hear!" Lawrence lifted his glass in a toast, then threw Hari a shamefaced smile as Joanna shook her head in exasperation. "I've done a turn or two in government myself, so I know just how sorry a lot we are."

Hari sat back and made a tent of his manicured fingers. Vijay poured more nimbu pani. She tried again. "I want justice for the crime that's been done this girl. I'm not asking to run for office." Hari shook his head. "I try to remember what a short time you have been in India, Joanna. You did not live through last year, the year before that, or the fifty that preceded our Independence. You did not have to stand by as your best friends were rounded up like dogs and thrown into prison for daring to suggest that after two centuries of colonial rule, the British had overstayed their welcome. You did not bid your former schoolmates goodbye as they fled for their lives over some arbitrary border that had yet to be marked by an Englishman who had never set foot in this country. Nor did you witness the insanity of Partition, when the border he drew was discovered to slice right through villages, towns, hospitals, schools, even individual homes, turning brothers against fathers, against one another.

Co-workers hacking each other to bits, your own relatives hauling a machine gun to the corner and turning it on your neighbors. Women with no breasts, no hands, paraded naked through the streets. Wells overflowing with corpses." He took a shuddering breath and raised his eyes to the ceiling. "Barely two years ago . . . babies were nailed to the walls on iron spikes! And rape- you have no idea what is rape, Joanna. Yes, I called your crime a trivial one because next to what this country has suffered. . ." He snapped his fingers. "It is nothing."

In the thudding silence that followed, he shifted. "Nevertheless, because this is India, even such a nothing case is political."

Joanna kneaded a fold in her skirt. "Are you advising me to ignore this?"

"I am merely telling you that your protests will do little good. The police today are local heroes. They are the survivors, the peacekeepers. We have no United Nations mediators here as they have up in Kashmir. We have been branded as savages by the entire Western world, and the British and friends are only too glad to be rid of their obligation to us. They have cut themselves a deal that allows them to continue dipping into our saucepots for profit, but they no longer have to clean up the messes or put out the fires that result when these saucepots overflow."

Joanna thought of Aidan, also branded a kind of savage by the local heroes back home, now wandering around Kashmir trying to expose the treachery among those same U.N. mediators in order to save his political skin. The thought inflamed her all over again. "Is that what this little girl is? A messy saucepot?" Lawrence snorted, obviously enjoying Joanna's indignation. She tried to ignore him. "You know, Hari, I can't tell whether you're eulogizing the British, or vilifying them. What am I doing here if there's no recourse for these girls?"

"You are protecting them. Perhaps, in a few cases, you will rehabilitate them."

"But they're not what needs rehabilitating! What have they done wrong? You know, I give up. First you say there 's nothing we can do against the brothels. They're old as the gods, you tell me. And there 's no action we can take against the pimps and goondas that back them up, because that would be too dangerous. And the parents and husbands that sell these girls? No, too far-flung, too many jurisdictions. Besides, in some tribes, in some villages, in some castes daughters are expected to support whole clans by selling their bodies, so it would be against tradition to interfere!"

"You're getting yourself worked up for no purpose," said Hari. "You volunteered for this position, remember?"

"And have I done so poorly that you'd have me quit?"

Hari smiled. "You've done a splendid job, Joanna. This is not at all what I am saying, and you know it."

"What I hear you saying is, there 's no point in doing my job at all!"

Hari leaned forward, took a pinch from the bowl of fennel seeds and sugar on the snack tray and chewed it thoughtfully. "It is important to be realistic. I feel that already we have lost sight of this poor child even now lying in the other room. We are permitting ourselves to be dragged down into a debate of politics and police-"

"And justice," interrupted Joanna. "But who cares about that?"

"I do," said Lawrence in such a tone that he might have been teasing, and he might have been in earnest. Joanna met his eyes briefly, caught a conspiratorial nod, and looked away in frustration. She got up and went to the doorway. Beyond the veranda, the courtyard simmered, dusty green in the shade, blinding in the sun. The breeze generated by the wooden ceiling fan barely nudged the strands of hair pasted to her neck. It was simply too hot for argument, too hot to know for sure what was worth fighting for - or against.

Behind her, Hari warned, "You'll need a remand order to keep her."

"Is that a problem?" asked Lawrence.

She turned to see Hari wiggling his head."Remand orders come from magistrates. Magistrates depend on policemen, and in many cases are themselves former policemen."

"And when do magistrates issue remand orders for these girls?" Lawrence asked.

"That depends. Alas, too often, it is a matter of this." Hari rubbed his fingertips together. "Usually there is some interested party agitating for a particular girl. Sometimes this is a sympathetic babu who wishes the girl well without wishing to accept full responsibility himself. By coaxing the magistrate to issue a remand order, he feels he has 'rescued' her even if he never sees her again. Sometimes the petitioner is a missionary Christian who hopes to convert the girl.

Sometimes it is a well-intentioned social worker such as our Joanna. But then, too, certain magistrates issue remand orders for highly desirable young women because they know that the brothel owners and pimps will pay a pretty sum to get their beauties back. This sum is then divided between the magistrate and the police who bring the girls in."

Lawrence crossed his ankles, slapping the sole of one sandal against his heel. "Seems a simple solution to pay the buggers off."

"Wait a minute," Joanna said. According to Aidan, Lawrence was no stranger to the brothel trade, and what else he was willing to pay for was an open question.

But Hari had no hesitation. "I am afraid," he told Lawrence, "that as a government appointee, I myself am not at liberty to pay the buggers off, as you say. Salamat Jannat also is a government facility, and it would be most inappropriate for anyone associated with the home to attempt even such a seemingly simple solution."

"But I'm not associated with the home." Lawrence raised his palms. "And who's to say I'm not as sympathetic as the next babu?" Joanna shook her head. Vijay was staring slack-jawed as if Lawrence were proposing to take on all the goondas in Delhi with one hand behind his back.

"Whose money will you use?" she asked.

Lawrence's forehead pinched into an exaggerated frown. "I believe I've a few quid stashed away. Seems a worthy cause."

Hari stood up, extending his right hand to Lawrence. "You are a friend, indeed. I only hope Joanna does not take too much advantage of your generosity."

"We 're paying off the very men who raped her. You do realize that?" she said.

Hari clucked his tongue. "Not the very same men."

"It's the old means or ends game, Jo," said Lawrence, skewering her with his silver eye. "Decide which matters most."

Joanna felt at once that he was toying with her and that he was deadly serious. According to Aidan, money was not an issue for Lawrence, as his family owned a large sheep ranch in New South Wales, and for a man on sabbatical from government service, as he claimed to be, the time it would take to play out this charade was hardly a sacrifice. But she still didn't fully trust him . . . Couldn't they see the principle at risk? "For the girl's sake," Hari prodded her, "the order should be written this afternoon."

Joanna thought of the child sleeping in the next room. The trust she had placed in her "Mrs. Shaw," in spite of all she 'd suffered. "All right," she said grudgingly. "If you're sure there 's no other way."

"Excellent." Hari nodded. "It is settled, then. Vijay will take you over, Lawrence, and you specify to the magistrate that the girl must be remanded to Salamat Jannat."

Lawrence rotated the brim of his helmet between his fingertips. Joanna waited for him to say something, but after a moment he clapped the topee back on his head and followed the other two out without speaking another word. Half an hour later she was still wrestling with her conscience when the ayah banged on her office door. "Mem, police! Come quickly!"

Even under the massive courtyard neem tree, the light had gone liquid with heat, and the rounded features of the policeman standing there shone as if shellacked. He was a sturdy man with a babyish face. He introduced himself as Inspector Golba and said precisely the words she feared. He had come to collect the blue-eyed child. "I understand that this is a rescue home for just such fallen girls," he said, waving his hand in the direction of the bungalow, where a few of these "fallen girls" stood yawning in the doorway. "But surely, Mrs. Shaw, you are aware that certain procedures must be followed."

Joanna felt herself floundering. How did this man even know Kamla was here, let alone the unusual circumstances of her arrival? And why was he taking such interest in this case? She needed somehow to stall him, buy time for that remand order to come through. It occurred to her that her debt to Lawrence had just multiplied. "As I am aware," she said, working to steady her voice, "this child has requested asylum here, and until I myself have thoroughly documented her case I have no intention of releasing her to you or anyone else."

The man drew a rolled sheaf of papers from his back pocket and lifted it above his head, exposing an underarm stain that stood out like an inkblot against his faded uniform khaki. "Madam, I have instructions on highest authority!"

Joanna scrutinized the paper baton and made a calculated guess. She positioned her hands on her hips. The slightest crack would give her away. "I don't care if you're acting under the authority of God Almighty, which I've every certainty you're not."

The baton came down. "Certain homes are having licensed supervisor, Mrs. Shaw, these are official permitted homes. You are not licensed, I think."

She swallowed. "Are you threatening me, Inspector?" He hitched up his leatherette belt, and floated his large head on the stem of his neck. Neither-yes-nor-no-but-maybe-both. He had the velvet, self-satisfied gaze of a man used to getting his own way. Joanna suppressed a mental image of Kamla's bruises and wounds. She stepped deeper into the shade of the neem tree. His informants could be anyone, from neighbors outside the home to her own staff. And whether his papers were official or not for the moment was irrelevant. Though Joanna wouldn't risk looking toward the knot of girls now watching from the common room window, she sensed Kamla among them. She hoped the child had the wit to hide. She also fervently wished that Lawrence were still here. The inspector stabbed the papers with his finger and started in again. "Salamat Jannat has not been renewing its permit for more than two years."

She forced herself to meet his eyes. "You might as well know, Inspector, that I have already alerted my good friend, the American Ambassador Minton, to this case. He has promised to investigate. Police abuse of powers is a red flag in any democracy, and particularly in a new republic such as India, it warrants close review." This was a grotesque lie, particularly in light of the sermon Hari had just delivered, but Aidan had often remarked that America was regarded with awe in India as the Other Colony That Got Away and Showed Up England in the Wars. Based on this, she took the chance that the Ambassador's name would get a rise.

To her relief, the officer's moist face again began to float from side to side. His mud-brown eyes widened, and the soft lips stretched revealing flat betel-stained teeth. He muttered so incoherently that whatever he was trying to say got lost in the louder whine of cicadas and the splash and tangle of street sounds. One of which was the metallic thunk of a bicycle dropping against the gate. When the blue-uniformed messenger came striding across the courtyard Joanna felt like hugging him. Instead she said merely, "A moment, Inspector."

The messenger held out the telltale yellow envelope. "Please excuse, memsahib. I am bringing a telegram for Mrs. Joanna Shaw." Consciously slowing her movements, she dried her palms on the thin white cotton of her skirt and signed for receipt. Then she dismissed the messenger with a generous tip and slid her thumbnail under the flap of the envelope. The cable consisted of just a few lines. She stared down at the first of them.

"As I thought," she said, feeling herself go numb even as her voice reverberated inside her skull. Stay focused. "Ambassador Minton will be back in Delhi next week, and he has alerted me that he would like to personally interview the child in advance of his meeting with Mr. Nehru. In the meantime, I am under no circumstances to surrender custody." She dropped the hand gripping the telegram to her side. "I don't believe we have anything further to discuss."

Golba frowned, stopped wiggling his head. He eyed the message in her hand with evident suspicion, but after a moment's consideration he must have decided that if he asked to double-check her paper she might just ask to see his. "I am not forgetting this, Mrs. Shaw," he warned. They stood glaring at each other for several long seconds. Then he cleared his throat with a lugubrious rattle and strode out the gate.

Joanna managed to wait until he was gone, then groped blindly for the stone bench behind her. She sank down and finished reading the cable. She read it again. And again.

PLANE CARRYING YOUR HUSBAND DISAPPEARED LADAKH
RANGE DIFFICULT TERRAIN WEATHER INTERFERE SEARCH
PARTY DETAILS TO FOLLOW AS AVAILABLE
GEN PETER FARR

She looked up to find that the hill child had crept beside her. The girl had a hand on her arm and was staring at her with those wide blue eyes. A look of longing and unabashed will. Joanna reached out and pulled her to her. Perhaps some of the child's courage would rub off.

Copyright 2003 Aimee E. Liu
Reprinted with permission.
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Synopsis

"From the beginning, we were sisters more than mother and daughter. Joanna Shaw rescued me, in her way, and I tried to return the favor. I, who was then called Kamla, claimed her even as I hid under the shadow of a bullock cart..."

From acclaimed author Aimee Liu comes an extraordinary novel of love and loyalty, intrigue and survival set against the turbulent backdrop of post-World War II India and China. FLASH HOUSE introduces two singular heroines: a strong-minded American woman and a mesmerizing young Indian girl whose journey together through a mysterious and exotic land will lead them into the heart of danger - and forever transform both their lives…

"I, too, was a foreigner, my homeland a world apart…" On assignment in India with her journalist husband, Joanna Shaw runs a refuge for girls trafficked into Delhi's red-light district. It is here in the dusty, sunbaked streets of the old city that she discovers the turquoise-eyed Kamla. Joanna vows to rescue Kamla from the brothel - or flash house - where the eleven-year-old child has spent most of her life. But it is Kamla who claims Joanna at first sight, and when Joanna's husband, Aidan, disappears while pursuing a politically explosive story in the mountains of Kashmir, it is Kamla who must come to Joanna's emotional rescue.

Although the authorities insist that Aidan's plane has crashed, Joanna refuses to believe the worst. Aidan is alive, and she resolves to find him at any cost. Accompanied by Kamla and Aidan's best friend, an enigmatic Aussie named Lawrence Malcolm, she embarks on a dangerous trek across the highest passes of the Himalayas.

For Joanna, the trek to find Aidan is a quest for truth. For Lawrence, it is a rescue mission that will lead to Red China - and an agonizing, life-or-death choice that teaches him the meaning of love and betrayal. And for the orphan Kamla, caught between two worlds, it is an odyssey into the tantalizing mystery of her birth.

Weaving the story of all three into the chaos and confusion of Asia's cold war, Aimee Liu gives us a spellbinding, multi-layered tale in which the ultimate safe haven is the elusive place called home.

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Author

Aimee LiuAimee Liu is the author of more than ten books of fiction and nonfiction. Her novels include Cloud Mountain, based on the story of her grandparents’ interracial marriage at the turn of the century; Face, about a family’s struggle for identity in New York’s Chinatown; and Flash House. Her fiction has been translated into twelve languages.

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