His father had left for work and never come back. His mother wasn’t well. He did not know where his father had gone. He had heard rumours from neighbours that “they” had taken them away. He could not believe the rumours. A part of him hoped that baba would come back: with sweets and money and make everything okay. Maa was dying. He was too young, but he knew she was. Rini had died too. At eight years of age he would sit by her sickbed and hold her hand for hours on end, until one day her hand went cold.

He stopped praying after Rini died. He stopped believing in God.

Now he was ten, as he sat by his mother’s bed and watched her fade, by and by, into oblivion. He wondered if she would go to where Rini had gone. If they would be together there. That would be good for Rini, he thought. She would have mother again. He would miss Maa badly, yes, but it would be good for Rini.

On a sultry July afternoon, Maa called Kabir to her bedside and said in a voice that sickness had softened to a point of near inaudibility:

“I am going soon.”

“To Rini?” asked Kabir, with not a trace of emotion in his eyes.

“Yes, but I will always be with you too. Take care of Kunu for me.”

Kunu was five and was curled up on the floor, drooling a little as she napped. Kabir’s older brother strode into the house with a fruit in his hand.

“Cut this and feed this to mother,” he instructed, without so much as a glance at him. Since the day father had left for work and never returned, Adhresh had been the sole breadwinner of the family and hence a figure of authority. He came home once a day, after having procured something for the family to eat, and nobody questioned where he got it from.

But mother was not in a mood to eat that day. Maa called Adhresh to her side and whispered:

“You’ve been such a good boy.”

Adhresh looked at her for one long moment, before saying, “Don’t go, please?” Perhaps he couldn’t be as strong as Kabir was after all.

That night their mother died and Adhresh ran away from home. Kunu spent the entire night wailing and Kabir had no idea what to do with the dead body, so he just sat by it and stared. The next morning, the neighbours came and took the body away. Kabir followed them and watched them bury their mother. When he got home Kunu was curled up in a ball, clutching her stomach. He knew Adhresh wasn’t coming back and for the first time he accepted that neither was their father.

He walked up to Kunu and hugged her. Something he felt he should have done hours back and wondered why he hadn’t. She hugged him back with as much force and intensity as her nimble frame would allow her to.

He gave her the fruit his mother had not eaten, and decided to go ask their neighbours for food. But the lady next door told him that they had nothing to give and asked him to go away. Another man shut the door at his face. One dark skinned man, dressed in blue-green paramilitary fatigues, saw him loitering on the streets. He was carrying a rifle, which he pointed at Kabir and shouted something about “curfew.” Curfew he understood. Curfew meant being attacked by the paramilitaries on the roads outside their tiny, dilapidated living quarters. Being attacked inside their quarters was something called “operation.” He ran back home without thinking twice. That night Kabir slept hungry.

The next morning he was awoken by the smell of bread and milk. It all seemed too good to be true. Kabir wasn’t even sure if he was awake, but Kunu was. Presently, she sat on the lap of a rifle toting man wearing very white, very clean clothes. The man had broad shoulders, a sturdy jaw, and blank eyes. He appeared rather intimidating to Kabir. But, his lips were parted in a wide smile, as he stroked Kunu’s soft hair while she munched happily at the bread he had given her. There was milk boiling on the stove and slices lathered with butter on shiny white plates.

Kabir got up immediately and asked with evident awe and curiosity: “Who are you?”

“I’m your saviour, child. I’ve been sent by our God to save you from all this misery and poverty,” he said, exuding a certain authority coupled with enough warmth for a child who was only scrounging for something to hold on to. “You have suffered too much. Your mother is in peace and she will soon be proud of you. A boy like you deserves a special place in heaven. Now come here, child. Do you want some bread and milk?”

“But I don’t pray to God,” Kabir still asked.

The man considered it for a moment, but then his face broke into a smile again, and he continued running his fingers through Kunu’s hair.

“That is the root of your suffering. But God is kind and forgiving. He will give you another chance, child. You have a lot to repent for. Make up for your absence of faith and you will be saved.”

Eight years later, when Kabir held his semi-automatic rifle over the bloodied corpse of a ten year old’s mother, he thought back at the time when his mother had died. All he had wanted then was some bread and milk.

Had he been saved now?

Mekhala Saran is a student of law and journalist at The Quint. She holds a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Ramjas College, University of Delhi, India. She is also a theatre artist and poet. Find her on Twitter at @mekhala_saran.