Ghazni inclined his head, eyes narrowed. “What the hell are you trying to do here? You’re the only one I owe anything to right now, and nobody in this house is stupid enough to make a deal with you, Chattha.”
“Yes, unfortunately, the only one stupid enough for that is dead,” Chattha leaned back in his chair. “But shouldn’t you at least let me finish what I’m saying?”
“Do I have to?” Ghazni glanced at the clock. “I owe you my money, not my time. I have work to do.”
“Believe me, boy, I have something important to offer you. Ask them to leave.” He gestured at the three women.
“I’m not doing that. We all owe you. You have an offer, then it’s Razia’s as much as it’s mine to listen, and Maa’s even more so.”
“They leave or I do.” Chattha stood up resolutely.
Ghazni opened his mouth to say something but Razia shook her head slightly.
“It’s fine, Ghazni. Maa, come on, Radha, we’re in the kitchen, if you want to stay,” on her way out, she paused beside him to whisper tersely, “be careful.”
“Don’t fall into a trap. I’m your lawyer in case he has some new demand, all right?” Radha said loudly before stalking out behind the other two.
Ghazni threw a grateful glance her way before turning back to Chattha.
“All right, what is this about?”
“Independence, my child.”
“What?” Since when did Chattha become a Leagui?
“When is Pakistan expected?”
“It’s not a child, but in August, sometime.”
“And what happens when it’s happened?”
Ghazni gave him a puzzled glance. “Get to the point, Chattha.”
“People will migrate or die, boy.” Chattha tugged at one end of his moustache. “Now tell me, what is the majority in Punjab?”
“Yes. So who moves out?”
“The Hindus.” Ghazni answered, “unnecessarily so. We get along too well for us to harm them. I mean, I work for the richest Hindu in town. He respects me and I respect him.”
“Exactly.” Chattha pointed a gnarled finger in Ghazni’s direction. “Exactly. You work for the richest Hindu in town. He trusts you enough to let you into his house every day, doesn’t he?”
“Now, Ghazni, I can forget all about your debt if you do something for me.”
Chattha glanced at the door to make sure they were alone. “Kill Sethi.”
Ghazni stiffened. “What??”
“Kill Sethi, child.” Chattha leaned forward, his small eyes glittering with excitement. “Kill Sethi and my men will take over the house. You can keep half his wealth, I get the other half. Simple as that.”
Half Sethi’s wealth meant everything; marriage, a move to Lahore, a better studio, an exhibition. Despite himself, Ghazni calculated in his head the worth of what Chattha offered, before mentally punching himself for even considering it.
“I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to. Murdering someone isn’t simple.” He was surprised at how calm he was. Shouldn’t I get angry at the mere idea of murder? Why am I still sitting here talking to him?
“He’s Hindu.” Chattha waved a hand nonchalantly. “Killing Hindus is halal, anyway.”
“Who said that?” Ghazni stood up decisively, wishing he could feel slightly less relaxed than he did just then. “I cannot even think of killing a man I am working for. Get out of my house.”
“Not your house for long if you don’t pay me back, son,” Chattha said as he walked out.
That evening, Ghazni painted vigorously in his studio, skipping lunch, tea and supper.
It was well past his mother’s bedtime when someone knocked on the door.
“Come in, yaar,” Ghazni stood up from his rickety stool.
Razia slipped in, holding a tray in her hand.
“Bala has been after me to get you your supper.” She walked over to the old coffee table in the middle of the room and placed the tray on it. “You haven’t eaten a thing for hours now.”
Ghazni sank down wearily onto the cushion beside the coffee table, across from her.
“Then at least eat a little with me. I hate eating alone.” She ladled out some potato curry onto a plate and handed it to him before tearing a chapatti in half and putting one half on his plate. “I haven’t eaten anything myself.”
“Could I?” she shot him a withering look. “How do I eat without you at the table? Idiot.”
Silently, Ghazni broke a piece of the chapatti and dipping it into gravy, put it into his mouth.
“What was Chattha saying?”
“Don’t talk to me about that badmash.” He said sharply. “I’ve had enough of him for one day.”
“All right, then I’ll ask you the second question I’ve been dying to ask you since the morning,” she paused to eat another morsel of chapatti. He inclined his head expectantly.
“Who in the world was that pretty girl watching you paint today?”
“A bad replica of you.” He smiled.
She narrowed her eyes. “If buttering up to people was a course, you would top in it, wouldn’t you?”
“Most probably.” He bit a piece of the soggy potato. “Bala was in a bad mood today, wasn’t he? I can tell from the food.”
“He was. He especially hates Chattha. Which reminds me again, what did he want?”
“Just another of his sly deals.” Ghazni said, but even as he said it, snippets of Chattha’s words crawled to the forefront of his mind. Forgetting all debts, girl you want to marry, half of his wealth, killing Hindu, halal.
Shaking his head decisively, he placed the chapatti on the plate.
“I’m not making a deal with Chattha, Razzu.”
“No one wants you to,” she placed a soothing hand on his arm. “Let’s just pay off the debts. After I finish college, most probably I will find a good job too, hopefully,” she caught his eye and smiled. “Hopefully, in Pakistan.”
He smiled, too, despite himself.
“Things will be less erratic once we’ve got Pakistan.” He touched her cheek lightly. “We can get married after paying off Chattha’s debts, Razzu. You will find a job, I will start selling my paintings. Things will be perfect.”
“If you don’t run off with Sita first.” She said, rolling her eyes and he grabbed her hand, still with the chapatti in it.
“If I had to run away, which I don’t currently, I would do it with you.”
“You have a gentleman’s agreement, madame.” He kissed the tip of her thumb softly. “That’s better than same old promises.”
To be continued...