It was an axiom widely known in Pandua that it was infinitely better to fall into the hands of the police, rather than any other force. The police recognized that a captive today could be a minister tomorrow. They possessed a fine sense of the infinite gradation of social rank, changing winds and other subtleties of political and social order in deciding the treatment of anyone in their custody. Furthermore, the daily exposure to crime inured them to many human foibles and frailties. New forms of trespass provoked a sense of wonder, not moral indignation. A brother pimping a sister, an uncle taking a nephew for surgery only to sell off his kidneys, an eighth-grader killing a friend for his cell phone or 'to see what it was like', nothing perturbed them. All such developments were treated as novelty. Their treatment of any custodial subject had little to do with the depth of that person's moral turpitude. What it did depend on were mainly three criteria: a direct order from on high, the victim's unwillingness to pay the minimum rates or the victim getting outbid by his or her accuser. Given these rules, Kaiser would have little to fear from the police, even under the Emergency. Kaiser could outbid anyone, even pay high enough to muffle an order from above. Besides, the police didn't want any incidents to erupt; more than anything else, they valued order.
So from the moment Bahadur knocked on their bedroom door to say, 'Sir, some men are here, they want to see you,' Kaiser's first thought was: Men from where? Is it the police, or is it them? Them to Kaiser, as indeed to all of Palitpur, was the BNI.
Kaiser took a few seconds to tie on his burgundy silk dressing gown and slip on his hand-sewn crocodile leather sandals. He ran his fingers through his hair, as he went down the hallway toward the stairs. While Bahadur had not specified who the men were, and in theory it could have been anyone � company men coming to report a major calamity or relatives in distress � he knew who it was most likely to be.
On reaching the foyer, Kaiser found three men. A tall and unexpectedly good-looking man in a suit, clearly the team leader, stood at the centre of the foyer, surveying the expansive white living room visible through glass-panelled doors to his left. He was flanked by two men, also not uniformed: a short and pudgy man whose cherubic face looked uncommonly well shaved for the hour, and a taller, dour man with gelatinous fish eyes, who seemed deeply bored by the proceedings.
Kaiser stopped halfway down the last flight of stairs. Bahadur had lit the chandelier that hung from a long chain in the high-ceilinged foyer. The light glittering off the cut crystal pieces and scones made for the jarring accompaniment to the moment.
'What is this?' Kaiser said, trying to sound in control.
'Sir, you need to come with us,' said the team leader, who looked � Kaiser could not help noticing this, and also noticing the absurdity of his mind generating such an observation at a moment like this � a bit like Omar Sharif, the famous actor.
'To go where? What for?' The form of address � 'sir' � held out a faint ray of hope. They must be police.
'Just some questions. It won't take long.'
Without looking around, Kaiser could sense Natasha behind him, even though her footsteps made no noise.
'If it is just questions, why not do it right here?'
'We are not the only ones who wish to talk to you,' the man said ominously.
'Who are you? Who else wants to talk to me?'
'The Special Branch, sir,' said Omar Sharif, pulling what looked like a little booklet out of his breast pocket. Did the police hold metal badges only in TV shows? The Special Branch of the police was reputed to consist of the smartest officers and could be counted on to show even more discretion than the main body of the police force. Kaiser felt a wave of relief roll through the charred landscape of his mental expectations. It wasn't them!
Natasha was standing beside him by now. They had descended a few steps together, but remained three steps above the floor level.
'Let me see that ID,' said Natasha, extending one hand.
'It's all right,' said Kaiser, not wishing for her to have any interaction with these men.
'Do you have a warrant? Under what authority, on what charges, are you taking him?' Natasha ignored Kaiser's mediation.
'It's not an arrest, madam,' said Omar Sharif. 'We are here to request that he come with us.'
If it's not an arrest, he doesn't have to go,' said Natasha, more full of suppressed anger, it seemed, than fear.
'Under the Special Powers Act, madam, we don't need a warrant,' said Omar Sharif, still smiling, still polite.
Kaiser had heard enough. He knew there was nothing to be gained with this kind of parlay. As he turned to go back up, he touched the hem of Natasha's sleeve � and realized that she was not in her nightgown and slippers, but in a long-sleeved kurta and mysteriously soundless slip-ons.
'Please have a seat. They will bring your tea,' said Kaiser, in another disguised attempt to retain some control of the scene.
'Thank you, sir. But we don't have much time.'
'Fine. Let me change.'
'You can pack an overnight bag, if you like.'
Natasha and Kaiser exchanged a silent glance. Kaiser turned to go back up without a word. As he climbed the stars again, he noticed Bahadur standing at the kitchen door; other servants peeked from behind him, not daring to come forward, either out of their innate fear of police, or � and this to Kaiser was the more depressing thought � reluctant to bear witness to their master's humiliation.
Natasha stood firm on the stairs, holding their unwelcome visitors in a stern gaze.
'I'm sorry, sir,' Omar Sharif said to Kaiser's back. 'One of us has to go up with you.'
It was Cherub who followed Kaiser. Kaiser kept climbing without comment or without looking back. From the top of the stairs, he could hear muffled voices below. Natasha was demanding more information from the visitors: which station are you from? What are your names and badge numbers? Who is your commanding officer? Are you taking him to the station or the Headquarters � or the Central Jail?
Simon too had come out of his room and had been watching the whole proceeding from the top of the stairs. He was wearing a very loose T-shirt and what looked like sweatpants. Kaiser could not tell sleeping wear from home wear or outdoor clothes when it came to Simon's generation. He was struck though by the fact that in his hurry the boy had put on a pair of brown loafers that did not go with the rest of his costume.
Simon followed his father into the bedroom, cutting ahead of Cherub and taking a hurried step to gain up to his father. He said in a whisper, 'I called Uncle Hissam. He is on his way.'
'Call Barrister Quader,' Kaiser replied not in a whisper.
'Okay,' said Simon, flipping the phone with one hand, and pressing buttons without looking with the fluency of the prestidigitator.
Kaiser feared that his situation was already beyond his friend's powers of intercession. To see Simon quite unafraid, indeed steadfast, in a moment like this came as a small but pleasant surprise. His mind was racing fast, trying to think of anything that ought to be told to Natasha or Simon before he went away. Many times, in recent weeks, he had even thought of making a list of things that they should know or think of doing at a moment like this, but somehow he could never quite find the energy to put the pen to paper � not for that task. And now he was drawing a blank.
Bahadur had brought up a simple black shoulder bag. The Cherub had stepped deeper into the room; it seemed less to keep an eye on Kaiser than to satisfy a prurient curiousity about the luxuries and appurtenances of the legendarily wealthy.
Kaiser noticed Simon silently heading over to the walk-in closet to pull out a choice of garments for his father. Kaiser went into the bathroom and busied himself with gathering some toiletries and medication. He had a travel pack ready at practically all times, but he rifled through the contents to make sure it contained all the desired items: a folding toothbrush and two tubes of travel-sized Colgate toothpaste, one shaving razor, two packs of Mach III blades, a L'Occitane aftershave cream and four rolls of floss � more than he ever packed for a trip. A two-in-one bath gel and shampoo and a small hairbrush. A deodorant. A nail clipper. Was he allowed to bring a nail clipper? Or was it only airlines that forbade any metal accoutrements?
Kaiser turned on the tap and washed his hands and face. When he looked up at the mirror, he did not experience any of the strange disassociation that had haunted him lately. There was no duel of consciousness left. As though the faceless, nameless part of one's self, the eternal I that unobtrusively provides coherence to all one's sensations and experiences was no longer the master within his mind. Like a creature in a fairy tale, the original I seemed to leave him and float into the looking glass, as fluid as the mercury that captured it, while it was the image � flat, insensate, impersonal � that was ready to walk away and become the property of others.
'We will get you out,' Natasha said. Kaiser hadn't noticed when she had crept up on him. He was looking down at the sink, and now he turned the tap off.
'Baba, they're saying to hurry,' Simon said, poking his head around the door.
'Tell them he's coming,' Natasha said.
'I feel terrible about putting Simon and you in this situation.'
'Don't worry about us,' said Natasha. 'We'll get you out as fast as possible.'
'Sir, we need to go.' This time it was the officer himself, with a sharp rap on the bathroom door.
Natasha glared at the man. 'Really, will two minutes make a difference? Is there any traffic at this hour? On this night?'
Ever since the List, the thought of Kaiser's arrest had been the constant black cloud in her horizon. Till this moment it was her deepest cause of fear. In the presence of the moment, though � and since the regime had chosen the night of Shab-e-Barat, of all nights, to visit them � her fears evaporated, and she was filled instead with fury.
'Call Quader,' Kaiser said, as he zipped up his toiletries bag.
I will call everyone we need to,' Natasha said, placing a hand on Kaiser's chest.
When they stepped back into the room, they found the Cherub standing by their bedside, idly looking at a framed photo he had picked up from Natasha's nightstand.
'Put that down!' Kaiser shouted. 'You are here to take me. Not anything else.'
The Cherub looked up with a start and placed the photo frame back in its place. His characteristic smile disappeared for a moment, but when it came back it did not connote the earlier conviviality. It now read like a smile that said, Don't worry, I will have enough time with you.
Natasha started to place the clothes into the bag, but now the man stepped forward, and said, 'Only one set. One set change, one set night clothes.'
This time Kaiser held his temper. It was impossible to know in moments like these what was actually in the rules or not. It was pointless too to challenge such assertions of authority by the lowly plenipotentiaries of the state.
'Simon, take the officer outside the room,' said Natasha.
Even the officer could not ignore something in her tone and followed Simon out of the room.
Natasha raised a checked cotton shirt and a pair of khakis, both among Kaiser's favourites to wear at home. She also held up a set of soft T-shirts, eyes filled with tears. Kaiser shook his head to dismiss the ones he didn't like, and Natasha folded the last one into the bag. Kaiser could not bear to look her in the eye anymore. He had found that difficult ever since the List came out. He nodded assent to whatever else Natasha proposed � a full-sleeved white kurta-styled cotton shirt, and a pair of light blue pants. In this final ritual of wordless domesticity, they managed to blot out the intruder who stood by the door, and to weave a new knot of intimacy that would have to hold them for an unknown number of days.