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WHERE THE RIVER PARTS – PROLOGUE

The tonga cart jolted hard and came to a stop.  A wave of muted panic rose from the passengers.  Some sighed their frustration, some were roused from a restless sleep, others – older, in painful consciousness of what lay in wait – held in a mounting hysteria at the back of their throats.  The horse, dark as the night they were travelling in, snorted through steaming nostrils before pacing back.  The cart lurched to one side, the crowd jostling along with it.

Asha felt a fresh wave of nausea well up inside her.  ‘No,’ she prayed silently.  ‘Please no.  Not here.’

She needn’t have fretted.  Someone from further up the packed cart – another young, lost girl perhaps, or maybe a humiliated matriarch – retched and leaned noisily over the side.  A new wave of frustration rose, and now people began to voice their irritation.  Firoze stood up.  He held his hand high, urged restraint. ‘Brothers,’ he said.  ‘You don’t know where they are lying in wait.  We must be silent.’

‘Why have we stopped then?’ came a rough voice.

The back – filled largely as it was with Asha’s family – started complaining about the halt.  Someone in the front objected, and the debate looked like turning lively when Firoze jumped off his perch.  All fell silent at once, watching anxiously as he bent to the road to inspect the obstacle.

Yah Khuda,’ he invoked.  ‘They’ve placed a huge boulder on the road.  There’s another further ahead.  They must be nearby.’

They worked quickly.  The men in the cart joined Firoze and together they set to moving the rocks to the side of the road.  The cart had fallen absolutely still, and now the night seemed to heave with noise.  A cricket chirped in the distance, and the crowd shrivelled in their fear.  Was that the sound of gunfire?  A boy stepped on a twig, and all turned towards the night – was this them, was this the Muslim butchers?  The wind appeared louder than normal, more protective of their would-be killers, the dark more absolute.  The men seemed to work loudly, too loudly; they heard them sigh, grunt, they heard their sweat fall on the ground.  And yet they didn’t dare speak, they scarcely dared breathe.

Asha barely noticed the others in the cart.  She held on to her stomach, tried to still its churning.  She began to feel a warmth between her thighs, a spreading clammy wetness.  Slowly her hand felt under her long kameez shirt, softly she lifted it back up to under her nose.  Even this was full of danger.  The cart was quiet, and she was scared of attracting attention.  For a moment she didn’t register the smell, and then, as her mother darted a furtive look in her direction, she breathed it again.  It was the same as her monthly blood.  Her eyes clamped shut, she shivered into the heat of the night.  She held tightly onto the earrings she had placed inside her fist.  She fingered them fervently, turning them like so many rosary beads as she whispered her desperate prayer.  ‘Bhagwanji, please,’ she said.  ‘Please, please,’ but there were no further words inside her, even here, even as her voice disappeared into the air.

Mataji looked her way again, squeezed her shoulder.  ‘Don’t worry, Beta,’ Asha heard her whisper.  ‘Bhagwanji will take care of us.’

The blood had begun to trickle down her starched cotton salwar, and once more she tried to will herself to stay calm.  It was nothing.  These things happened.  She had bled before.  She looked at her mother, wondering what she had heard and how much she had guessed, but the clouds had moved and the dark had too complete a hold of her.  A soft, slow tear fell down her cheeks and through to the pooling wet in her salwar, and as she felt its warmth diffuse into her thigh, she couldn’t be certain if she cried from sadness or relief.