The flight over the jungle dragged up memories he thought were buried forever, mostly of coldness, of his fingers getting so numb that he could not feel them, and of his dead brother. The memory sent a jolt through his skull, as if a bullet had gone in between his eyes, and the aero-rickshaw bumped. He nearly lost control and plummeted into the dense forest. He pulled the hover lever, and the aircraft stabilized, now making a flapping sound as it stood still, although it did not have any wings. Its shadow vibrated on the treetops.
The tears surprised him. He did not wipe them away. He wished his wife was there to see his wet face. Maybe it would give birth to a miracle in her womb—it had clogged up since their daughter’s death. He held her hand at the hospital as a mysterious fever boiled her life away, yet he had not shed a tear. “How can you not cry?” Sangita had wept. “Do you not love her?” Bollywood had taught Sangita that men cried for the flimsiest of reasons, even the superheroes. “Your parents named you Dil Bahadur because you have a heart of stone.” The sharp edge of her tone cut him more than her accusation.
A week later, she had a miscarriage. He suspected she swallowed strong painkillers to induce an abortion. Now, a year later, though she had not divorced him, he knew she did not want his children until he had reformed. They had moved from New Delhi to Kerala, where he started a new life as a sweets shop owner. It did not bring as much money as being a dacoit, but it made enough to ensure they would have a comfortable life. Still, her doubts remained. Each night he came late, she thought he had gone on a mission. When he bought her an air-con sari for Teej, she refused to wear it. She believed he had paid for it with blood money. They shared the bed but didn’t make love anymore. If his family came to live with them, Dil Bahadur thought, they might remove her doubts and rekindle their love.
There was no mist in the forest below. The trees grew so thick that he couldn’t see the children playing on the ground below. He thought he heard their laughter as they chased each other with paint and water bombs. It was Holi, after all. He remembered watching older boys play as his elder brother filled a red pistol at a water pump. A mischievous smile radiated through the colors that smothered dai’s face as he chased Dil Bahadur from the blue UNICEF tent, and drenched him with his water pistol, forcing him into the game. He was only three when his brother died.
Dil Bahadur looked away from the forest, toward the horizon, at the flatland with rice fields where his family now lived. He eased off the hover gear, and the aero-rickshaw jerked forward. He pedaled hard, pushing it to the speed limit—which might draw traffic policemen.
He turned on his iSnic and used voice prompts to search for the best Nepali music sites. Soon his cabin filled with the sweet voice of Kunti Moktan crooning khutta tandai gara. Back then, they never owned a music system. Whatever music they had listened to had wafted from the master’s living room as he and his sister, Pragya, scrubbed pans in the kitchen. The first time he heard this song, he had been about twelve. The hakim’s daughter was practicing a dance routine like a filmy heroine. Then Pragya started to dance too, and she was a good dancer. When the hakim’s daughter caught her in the act, the two girls became secret best friends.
The fond memory surprised Dil Bahadur. How could a slave girl be worthy of their master’s daughter’s friendship? He found it hard to believe that his former life was not completely tragic, but now the laughter of the hakim’s daughter dancing with Pragya swirled beside the laughter of dai firing a water pistol at him. He switched to another music portal to distract himself from the memories that threatened to overwhelm and disarm him.
As the rickshaw flew over the master’s farm, Dil Bahadur saw a buffalo-drawn cart trudging on the ground, buried in a golden mountain of harvest, the driver barely visible beneath the load. He frowned: the image was three centuries old. Why had they not switched to hi-tech farming after the technological revolution? It had started only ten years ago, but already flooded every village with cheap gadgets. He could not understand why the farm still used archaic carts with wooden wheels. He glanced over his shoulder at six yantramen that he had brought to bargain for his family’s freedom. The robots, though only four feet tall, could be programmed to perform any farm work, and it was a hundred times more efficient than human labor. Now, seeing the cart, he didn’t know if the yantramen would buy his family’s freedom.
Dil Bahadur had sent a hundred thousand rupees a month earlier, enough to pay off any debts the hakim claimed his family owed, but he had gotten no reply. Was the master afraid that accepting the money would imply he owned his parents and sister?
He knew his family still slaved for the same hakim, as they were listed as his employees in the database of Inland Revenue Department, on a contract for the next thirty years. Legally, the bonded labor system was dead but it had only changed shape. Many Kamaiyas returned to work for their old masters after the failed revolution, and the masters, wary of the new government and of international pressure, were wise enough to bury the whole thing in employment contracts.
As the rickshaw flew over a yellowish two-storey house, a life-size statue of Ganesh appeared before him on a roundabout at the end of a mile-long driveway. Four men sat under a tree, sweat gleaming on their bare chests. They paused their card game to squint at him. He was low enough to notice the frowns on their painted faces. He thought he recognized them all, the supervisors who helped the master run the farm. They could not see him for his rickshaw had a tinted-glass dome.
Dil Bahadur flew in a straight line until he came to a cluster of buildings forming a rough rectangle. It looked strange to see the yard he had grown up in from the air. Not a bit of it had changed. He gently landed the aero-rickshaw in the middle, beside a short, dead tree that had been dead even in his childhood. The gray mud walls had fresh charcoal drawings, and on one was written for a New Year’s Day even though it was still a month away. Potted flowers stood in the verandas.
At first, he thought no one was home. Then he saw a crowd in his father’s living room, watching TV at full volume. The sound of horses racing and swords clashing had muffled the approach of his aircraft. A man near the door looked out, saw the rickshaw, and surprise flared on his face and turned into a shout. Several heads popped up on the doorway, trying to see through the tinted-glass dome. But he could not find his father’s face, nor that of his sister, nor that of his mother among them. Where were they?
He checked his hi-tech suit. It looked like an ordinary costume—a wide brimmed hat, jean trousers, leather jacket, crocodile boots—except for the LED lights on the hat, the shoulders, the hips, and on the heels of the boots. He had stolen it from a high-ranking police officer’s house in New Delhi. It had an air-conditioner, a gun that slid out of the sleeves, and a bulletproof feature. He used a wristwatch to set the temperature to a cool twenty-one degrees, and then he stepped out.
Three men in light cotton pants had emerged from his father’s house. He did not recognize any one of the bare-chested men with painted faces. Their protuberant bellies gleamed with a mixture of paint and sweat. Then, an old, scrawny man shoved his way past them. His hair had gone completely gray. His face had five different colors, green being dominant. Sweat created tracks on the wrinkles. “Dil Bahadur?” the man intoned.
Father? Dil Bahadur’s vision blurred. He hated himself for crying. He was not prepared when a woman’s body slammed into his, hugging him so tight that for a moment he could not breathe. Pragya was soaked in sweat and paint. He hugged his sister, his fingers clawing her lungi. He was aware of the sweet scent that wafted from her pores, and her sobs on his shoulders.
Dil Bahadur could hear the melodramatic soundtrack rolling out of the TV in the background. The song was slow and gloomy. When he heard the hum of an aero-rickshaw, he at first thought it came from the TV, but a flying rickshaw in a story that had horses and swords did not make sense. The engine grew louder, and he looked up to see an aircraft similar to his, with a box-shaped bottom, and a glass-domed top. It sunk behind the rooftops to land outside the courtyard.
“Leave me alone!” Pragya cried when strong hands ripped her off him. “Let me hug my brother!”
His father watched from the veranda, tears pooled in his wrinkles. Everyone had come out of the house and they huddled around his father with painted faces.
“We can’t welcome him,” a woman barked at his father. “You know we can’t!”
“Buwa,” Dil Bahadur said, approaching the old man.
“Please go away,” his father said, his voice strangled as though he had a hot piece of metal stuck in his throat.
Dil Bahadur did not stop. He wanted to tell the woman that a father need not be afraid to welcome his son, even if he were a runaway slave.
“I came to take you away,” Dil Bahadur said. “I sent money.”
“Stolen money,” one of the men said.
“You’ll bring us trouble if you stay,” another woman said.
All eyes then turned to the courtyard gate when three men walked in. Two had electric guns. It struck Dil Bahadur as odd that the hakim had not upgraded his farm to hi-tech agriculture, but had aero-rickshaws and battery-operated guns. The pistols had several modes, from Whip, in which a laser ray whipped a target, to Terminate, in which the laser became a lethal beam. The red flash on each gun meant they were prepared to terminate him.
He tapped a button on his wristwatch to turn on the bulletproof feature of his suit.
“It is indeed the runaway son,” the hakim said. He was in his sixties with long hair that fell to his shoulders. The sun had baked all emotions out of his cold skin and stony face. He grinned at Dil Bahadur, showing off a gold tooth. “He comes back dressed like a hero!”
The two gunmen laughed with their master.
“I sent money to pay all your debts,” Dil Bahadur said.
“Take these yantramen and let my family go,” Dil Bahadur said, after dragging a large case out of the rickshaw. He flipped the lid open to show off the six robots. Sunlight bounced off them and cast a silver hue upon the hakim’s face.
“You are mistaken,” the hakim said. “Your family owes me nothing. Your father and your sister are all free people. They are not Kamaiyas.” Dil Bahadur noticed he had not mentioned his mother.
The hakim turned to his father. “Are you a slave?”
The old man could not respond, could not look into the hakim’s eyes. His fists clenched, but they could not hide the trembling. The hakim took a step closer to him.
“Tell me.” The hakim’s voice was now gentle, almost a whisper. “Are you a slave?”
Dil Bahadur watched his father’s hopeless struggle towards freedom. Tears fell, washing paint off, mixing with the sweat that had pooled in his wrinkles as the old man finally shook his head.
“You see?” The hakim turned towards Dil Bahadur, spreading out his hands with a grin on his face. “There are no kamaiyas here. Everyone is an employee. Everyone has a contract and earns a salary. Your father is free to go with you, but of course he’ll have to formally resign, giving us a month’s notice.”
The hakim turned back to Dil Bahadur’s father, and said, “Go. Go with your son.”
Dil Bahadur looked quickly from the master to his father, and then to his sister, who had stopped fighting the man holding her.
“It’s Karma,” his father said, resigned. “It was written in our fate. There’s nothing we can do.”
“No!” Dil Bahadur screamed.
The first time he had heard of the line of fate was after his brother’s death, less than a year after a bloody civil war and a revolution had given them a brief taste of freedom in the government camp in the jungle. They had no lands or homes of their own. In the summer, the trees kept them cool. But when winter struck, they missed the warmth and shelter of their masters’ homes.
Dil Bahadur woke up one morning to find his brother frozen in a blanket. His father did not blame the cold. He did not blame the government for its failure to provide them with proper housing. He blamed fate. He died because we ran away from the fate that was written. Three days later, they returned to slavery.
“Your mother suffered a stroke the day you left,” his father said. “She couldn’t walk or eat or talk. You killed her.”
Dil Bahadur wanted to protest. He was the cause for her stroke, no doubt. At the age of fifteen, when he had not even been to nearby town in Dhangadi, he had run away without any money to New Delhi. The worry over her son might have caused her stroke. But he knew it was inadequate medical care that led to her death. He wanted to tell his father that it was not him, or fate, or divine punishment that had killed her, but the words could not come out. His blood turned into mud, his flesh into rock as he struggled to hold himself together on his feet.
He looked at his left palm, where his mother had once drawn intricate patterns and flowers with mehendi, even though he was not a girl. She had written his name in the middle. Dil Bahadur. “You are a warrior,” she had made him believe. “The strongest man who ever lived.”
“You didn’t tell me she died,” he hissed, as if grinding stones with his teeth.
“We didn’t know where you were,” his father replied.
“Come with me,” he said. “I can look after you and Sangita.”
His father shook his head. “This is our home.”
“You know,” the hakim told Dil Bahadur, “it’s a crime to run away without fulfilling your employment contract.”
Dil Bahadur gritted his teeth. “I didn’t sign any contract.”
“You were a minor. Your father signed on your behalf. We were supposed to educate you since your father couldn’t afford it, and upon finishing school, you were to work for us to pay off the debt. Then you’d be free to go wherever. But you ran away, and that’s a crime. Read the Employment Act. It says an employee who takes his employers’ money and breaks the contract before completing his task will face arrest and punishment.”
“The money I gave you is enough to pay off –”
“We didn’t take that money,” the hakim cut in. “We were not sure of its source, and we were afraid of being charged with money laundering, so we handed it over to the government. If you want it back, go to the Inland Revenue Department and declare your source.
“But even if it’s clean, it can’t buy off the contract. There’s interest from your education, the fines of you running away, the costs we incurred searching for you, then add your sister’s education. She’s now in university. She’s going to be a nurse. Do you know the cost of a nursing course?”
Dil Bahadur turned to his sister. Her lips were pursed. She glared at the hakim.
“Your yantramen,” the hakim said, standing above the robots, nudging the case with his boots, “might be stolen property.”
Dil Bahadur had changed their metadata and serial numbers. Unless the hakim’s men knew where to look inside the six robots, they wouldn’t find out that he had stolen the yantramen from SusmaTec’s warehouse, the company that manufactured them. He had vowed to himself that it would be his last crime. He was determined to live an honest life once the presence of his family healed his marriage. When money failed to win his family’s freedom, he had had to pull off one last job thinking that the yantramen would convince the hakim to let them go.
“I’m not a thief,” Dil Bahadur said. “I own a sweet shop in Kerala.”
“Hmm,” the hakim said. “And from the profits you are able to buy six yantramen?” The two men with guns laughed. “Well, even if you somehow got rich in Kerala,” he paused, shrugging. “It happens, in this techno age, we hear stories of inventors becoming billionaires overnight, so you might be one. Maybe yours is a digital sweet shop producing technopuri.” They laughed again. “Anyway, I can’t take your yantramen because they put people out of work. If I buy them, where will all these people earn their rice? How will they survive? No, I’m not a bad man. These people are my family.”
Now, Dil Bahadur understood the master’s reluctance to go hi-tech. Family. It wasn’t just because human labor was cheaper and more profitable. They could reproduce, unlike robots, and so their off springs could be contractually bound to work for the farm.
“You still have a case of fraud,” the master added. “Turn yourself in to the police. Of course, if you agree to return to work for me, they will drop all charges.”
The hakim’s bodyguards stepped forward, raising their guns a little higher to aim at his chest.
Dil Bahadur tapped a button on his watch, and a red gun slid out of his sleeve. He had painted it red, like all his other guns, in memory of his brother. He aimed at the hakim.
“Very well,” the hakim said. “I knew you were a criminal.”
“Tell your men to back off,” Dil Bahadur said. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m wearing a bulletproof suit.”
The hakim glanced at the lights flashing on Dil Bahadur’s shoulders. His smile gradually vanished into a strained expression. He looked at the rebel son of his slave for a long beat, his lips trembling as he struggled to say something. Then he gave up, and nodded at the gunmen, who turned off their guns.
His father shook his head when Dil Bahadur asked him to get in the rickshaw. Dil Bahadur then turned to his sister, who was already getting into the rickshaw. Pragya climbed into the backseat.
“Father, I came here to get you,” he said. “If being a Kamaiya is written in my fate, I’m ready to suffer the consequences of escaping it. But I need you. I’m married. I want children, and I want my children to see their grandfather. I’m not leaving without you.”
His father looked at him for a long moment, and then slowly walked to the rickshaw.
No one spoke until they were up in the air, speeding away from the farm, towards the jungle. Once they were over the forest in India, Nepali police would not shoot at them. The Nepali police could radio Indian police, but Dil Bahadur hoped to enter New Gauriphanta before that happened, and once there, the Indian police would have trouble picking their rickshaw out of the thousands in the air. His legs pumped the pedals as fast as he could.
“They killed Aama,” Pragya said.
Dil Bahadur thought he had not heard well. He was concentrating on steering the aircraft, which became unsteady at high speeds.
“Don’t talk like that,” his father said.
“I saw them,” Pragya said. “She didn’t become paralyzed until that man injected her with something. They said it was punishment for your escape.”
“It was Karma,” his father intoned.
Before Dil Bahadur could react, police sirens blasted the rickshaw from behind. He glanced at a panel of screens on his dashboard, and saw the aircraft in the rear view. It carried up to twelve officers, and it had a gun on its roof. He pulled a lever and the rickshaw nosedived into the forest. His aircraft was small enough to weave between the trees, whose thick foliage would make it difficult for the police aircraft to track him from above. The police craft was too big to fly in between the trunks, so they would not follow him down there. He only had to find a clearing to enter the jungle.
But then, the rickshaw jerked, and went out of control.
Pragya screamed. His father yelped.
They had been hit.
He pressed a button to activate the bubble shield as they plunged into the forest, crushing through leaves, bouncing off branches. By the time they hit the ground, the rickshaw was in pieces. They would have been dead if not for the bubble shield.
“Are you okay?” Dil Bahadur asked his sister.
“I’m fine!” Pragya replied. “I’m fine.”
“Buwa!” he cried. Blood gurgled out of his father’s neck, washing paint off his skin. A metal rod had ripped through the shield and stabbed him.
“Buwa!” Pragya screamed, her palms pressing onto his wound to stop the blood. “Buwa!”
“Go!” Dil Bahadur told her. “Run!”
“He’s dead! Go!”
She withdrew her hands, and looked at the blood as though not comprehending what it was.
“Run!” Dil Bahadur said. “The police are here! Go!”
He could not extricate himself. The wreckage had trapped his legs in the bubble shield. He would have to saw off the metal if he were to free himself. That would take more than ten minutes. He pulled out his iSnic and was glad to see it unscratched.
“Do you know how to use it?”
“Please don’t leave me,” she cried.
“I’ll find you,” he said. “Do you know how to use this?”
“Yes,” she said.
“My password is a combination of your name and Aama’s name. Wait for me in New Gauriphanta. If I don’t come by evening take the train to Kerala. Call Sangita. She’s my wife. She’ll help you. Go now. Run! Go!”
The police craft roared above them. Pragya took the iSnic. She grabbed a yellow ribbon on the bubble shield and pulled hard, ripping it to create an exit. Now, they could hear jetpacks turning on, roaring. The police were hovering just above the trees. One of them was shouting a warning that the fugitives were armed, had bulletproof suit, that no one should go down alone. That caution, Dil Bahadur saw, would give Pragya enough time to get away.
“I’m scared,” she said.
“Go,” Dil Bahadur said. “I made it at fifteen without an iSnic. Go!”
She gave him one last look before vanishing into the forest.
Dil Bahadur heard her crashing through the undergrowth, running hard. Then he pulled out his gun. The bulletproof on his suit was still on. Maybe he could hold off the cops long enough to allow him to saw through the wreckage. He had a chance to see his sister and his wife again if the cops didn’t get him first.
He turned on the laser saw and began cutting through the metal with one hand, while holding his gun in another, waiting for the cops.