We always lost people along the way, and that day was no exception.
Vinay lived only a block away from school, so he was always the first to go. He ran into his yard and slowly climbed the stairs to his house, his eyes fixed on us all the time.
The three of us went on. We zigzagged down the road from his house, bouncing along, chattering incessantly, swatting stones with sticks broken off the trees that struggled for life along the sidewalk.
Soon we heard the distinct puttering of a Vespa engine and stood watching as Nayan's father rolled up in his old blue scooter. Without a word, Nayan got on behind his dad. He was always the second to go. And his dad was always 10 minutes late to pick him up.
That left Vijay and me, and we embarked on the rest of our journey home from school.
We turned the corner and entered the huge empty lot, the size of at least six city blocks, from the breach in the fence on the eastern corner. The lot sloped downhill from east to west and had a deep ditch that ran down its centre. It was going to be a new telephone exchange, but that rumour had been around for years.
The neighbourhood was quite new, pockmarked with undeveloped lots, but this was the biggest. Abortive attempts had been made to develop it and the breach in the eastern fence had been used to drive in truckloads of dirt to fill up the ditch. That had mostly failed, leaving behind a wonderful paradise of little hillocks and valleys, dirt mounds prone to mini-avalanches, lizard-infested jungles of weeds, crevices, buttes and plateaus.
Our 10-year-old imaginations went into overdrive as soon as we raced into this field. We were instantly transformed into superheroes, negotiating the thick forests, climbing impossibly tall and rugged mountains, ricocheting from mound to mound. Our backpacks were wounded soldiers who needed rescuing. The lizards were monstrous, fearsome animals that needed chasing and killing.
We explored ravines, tumbled down dunes and consolidated our positions behind fortresses of boulders. We skinned our knees, soiled our clothes, stubbed our shoes and got sand in our hair.
When at last we emerged at the other side of the lot, we were dirty, euphoric, triumphant. Our eagle eyes had spotted vile foes before they had had a chance to strike. Rocks, transformed into lethal missiles in our hands, had vanquished the villains with deadly accuracy.
Those we did not finish off with weapons, we had lost among the weed forests. We had fought off all manner of animals and carried the wounded on our backs to safety. All that was needed was to walk down the remaining 20 yards of paved road to my house for some well-deserved rest. Vijay could then proceed to the bus-stop and get on his bus home.
Which is why, when the two arms came up from behind us and squeezed us by our throats, we were taken completely by surprise. Suddenly, the harsh afternoon sun burned my skin. My knees hurt. My breath was ragged. My face stung with the brutal slap of reality. Our hearts stopped, and then raced again.
The arms that held us were dark and powerful, hairy and sweaty. A smaller, less powerful figure came up in front of us, and quickly tore off our wristwatches. He took Vijay's first, the one with the pale green dial and silver hands. Then he took mine, with the white dial and the smiling, black-and-red figure of Mickey Mouse, who cheerfully pointed out the time to me with his gloved hands, his tail indicating the seconds.
Tears sprang into my eyes. No, not my Mickey Mouse watch. For a while, things melted into one another. My vision was blurry, interspersed with flashes of clarity.
The hands released us, and we staggered down the 20 yards to my house. Both of us were now weeping profusely, shamelessly.
I remember the flashes of clarity. My mother running out of the house, calling out to my sister. My sister, jumping on to her moped, grabbing me by the arm and forcing me to sit behind her. My cheeks cold with the tears evaporating in the wind.
My sister frantically riding around the neighbourhood and finally screeching to a halt and asking me, are those the guys? Me watching two ragged, rough-looking men, slinking away through an empty lot.
My sister shouting, over and over, hey, give the watches back, where do you think you are going, to no avail. The little guy looking back, only to be clipped on the head by the hairy-armed brute.
Both the men vanishing behind a half-built house. Riding back, slowly, to a still mildly sobbing Vijay, and escorting him to the bus-stop. Waiting silently with him until the bus arrives and he gets on. Waving to him as he bravely tries to smile through his tears.
The next day at school, the class was abuzz. The story had spread like wildfire and everyone looked at us a little differently. The whole day I walked around on winged feet. I felt I could get used to this newfound celebrity status. The teachers seemed a little forgiving that day, the bullies a little hesitant.
After lunch, the principal's secretary escorted us to her office. As we were ushered into her presence, the principal expressed her concern from behind her massive desk. She told us she had called the police over to talk to us. A flabby man in a tight brown uniform crouched in front of us, sweating profusely from the effort, and assured us we had nothing to worry about. The thieves had nowhere to run and would soon be apprehended.
He asked us to describe the men, and an assistant faithfully recorded our somewhat contradictory descriptions. We went back to class, grinning foolishly at each other. The day ended all too quickly.
Vijay and I never walked back home together after that. His mother picked him up for the next few days, and later, got him a new cycle on which he rode home. I never went back to that vacant lot again. And we never heard back from the police.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh