No dog in our town was safe. Mo and his gang instinctively reached for stones the moment they saw one. With savage glee they would attack the mongrel as if impelled by some atavistic urge, as if not to hurl a rock would violate some secret adolescent code.

Similarly, no schoolgirl could escape their catcalls. When the girls saw the gang coming, they turned around and changed their path. Clueless village yokels got their headgears tossed and clothes pulled. From unsuspecting beggars the gang stole coins — and with the bounty they would descend on a shop, all seven of them, yelling and jostling, pestering the shopkeeper to show them this and that from behind the counter, and when his back was turned they would have a go at the jars pocketing cookies and lozenges and anything else they could get their hands on.

One time the gang was at the community hall for a meal. They always arrived with voracious appetites and stuffed their faces until the pots were upended and the servers literally flung their arms in exhaustion. The meal was served on a large platter and everyone sat around it to eat. An old man staggered in late that day and having nowhere to sit ended up joining the gang.

That particular occasion was teeja, the third day of mourning. It is customary to say a prayer for the dead over a sweet dish at the start of the meal. When the food arrived, the old man, as was his wont, shut his eyes and started reciting the fatiha. After a couple of seconds when he made for the sweet dish, it had vanished. The poor sod wanted to look up to see if the halva had actually flown away. The gang cackled brazenly. The old man was a down-and-out layabout and didn’t expect much by way of respect, but being robbed of food from under his nose was like a kick in the stomach. To protest would have simply invited more ridicule. Meekly with a hangdog expression, he swallowed his loss and remained vigilant for the rest of the meal. Nobody saw him near the gang ever again.

Such were Mo’s friends, rowdy and rambunctious, and I was in awe of them. They must have been in mid-teens, oozing testosterone, and tumescent with more energy than our small town had the wherewithal to channel it. People wondered what their mothers had eaten before giving birth to such monsters. The boys came from middle-class homes but somehow the petty-bourgeois pieties and pruderies had escaped them, consequently bringing constant complaints and shame to their parents.

I must have been eleven at the time and had no friends my age, so sometimes I hung out with Mo, my older cousin, and his crew. Their treatment of young kids was only marginally better than that of dogs. But I was spared their malice, for Mo held a certain authority and nobody dared to mess with his kid brother.

Hashim was the only challenger. Tall and strapping, he hated Mo’s guts and made no secret of it. The two would often get into arguments and invariably end up on the ground in a knot. When that happened the rest of the crew watched in amused indifference, cheering the one who was dominant to sock it to the other. There were no loyalties or any sense of right or wrong. Winning was the end, and the means to achieve it were mostly foul. Having fun was all that mattered, but how it was had did not. In my boyish innocence, I admired their chutzpah. I thought they were a cool bunch, brassy and unafraid. They went looking for rules so they could break them – and got away with it.

Except for one time when I tagged along with them on an overnight camping trip to a farm a few kilometres out of town. There was no electricity or running water and we had to lug pots, pans and groceries and other necessities with us.

On a Saturday afternoon, we gathered outside our house. Gunny sacks filled with the stuff of civilization, such as it was, were strapped to the sides of bicycles. What could not fit into the sacks was mounted haphazardly on rear racks. The party made quite a production, yapping and yelling at each other, and blocking the street. People picked their way through the scatter of bicycles. Now and then, Sabir, the rascal slapped the backs of passerby and looked away. If the victim turned around, somebody else would smack him from behind. Seeing so many of them nobody retaliated, instead they made haste to get out of there.

By the time the convoy started it was late afternoon. Mo’s mother from the second-floor window admonished loudly, “You boys better behave yourselves.” Her words ricocheted off heedless ears. The neighbours exhaled a collective sigh to see the backs of us.

“We are very late,” Sabir announced. He was roundly ignored.

The boys rode ahead in twos, shouting and sashaying, letting the world know of our expedition. Mo and I brought up the rear. Sitting on the crossbar I enjoyed the spectacle. Our progress was slow and the night fell before we reached the farm. The full moon illumined our path but beyond the edges of the road darkness descended thick like a wall. The boys made creepy noises to spook each other. Stiff with fear I kept my eyes on the moon, silently thanking it for showing up. When we came to an uphill stretch of the road we dismounted and walked our bicycles.

On reaching the farm, we set up camp in the open under the starry sky, the moon had inched eastward and was now all coy behind a lone cloud. I lay down on a cot woven with jute rope; the boys played cards by the light of an oil lantern. The night buzzed with crickets, their chirping overlaid with strange sounds of the wild. The smell of manure was thick on the air; the cows in the nearby shed mooed and could be heard flicking flies with their tails. I sincerely wished the gang would leave the poor creatures alone when daylight came. From a distance, a dog’s bark reached us like a lament. Hashim said dogs cry in the night when they see ghosts. I scrunched up in fear, and pulling the sheet over my head and wondered if it was a good idea to come at all.

When I awoke the boys were slurping tea and dipping toast rusks in their cups. “Hello, somebody prepare breakfast for the prince,” Sabir taunted. I smiled, feeling special. In the soft slanted rays of the sun the farm looked like a surreal vista from a dream. Lying down, I stared at the vision sideways in awe. I could see across the field the farmer’s hut and the well with its mandatory waterwheel, my gaze gliding over the velvet green shoots of a young crop. “What are they growing,” I was curious.

“Grass for donkeys. Would you like some?” Hashim said chuckling, looking around for approval.

“Hey, leave the boy alone, Okay!” Mo snapped.

I got up and splashed my face with water from a bucket, and realised I had not brought my toothbrush. I called out to Mo, “I forgot my brush.”

“Use mine,” Hashim said, and this time everyone laughed.

Mo said they had all chewed a neem twig. Would I like to do that? I nodded and he chucked one at me. The twig was bitter as poison, but I did not complain for fear of being laughed at again.

Later in the morning, Hashim came running, grabbing a chicken by its legs. He was as excited as the bird was terrified, flapping its wings and making quite a racket.”

Dogs were harassing this poor thing,” he panted. “I rescued it.” He proudly held it aloft like a trophy.

At the prospect of chicken curry, a wave of thrill swept over the campers. Everyone started suggesting where to slaughter it, for it could not be done openly. It was a Hindu village and eating meat or killing animals was sacrilegious. We had learned to be discreet about these things from a young age as though our mother’s milk carried such sensibilities. Regardless, Hashim went ahead and slaughtered the fowl behind a temple. Mo was gallivanting around the farm when this drama was unfolding. When he learned what had happened, he was livid.

“If they find out they will slit our throats,” he screamed. “It’s like cutting a pig in front of a mosque.”

“Oh please, scruples don’t look good on you,” Hashim retorted. “These village idiots don’t have a clue. What can they do?” He was kindling a fire in a makeshift brasier, and brushing the smoke from his eyes, added, “By the way, you’re having none of that chicken.”

Mo lunged at him like a bull but others grabbed him. “Idiot, you know we can’t mess with religious shit,” Mo said shaking away his restrainers. The fracas was forgotten when it came time to breaking bread. Mo relished the curry licking his fingers and complimented Sabir, the cook. Hashim needled him over his outburst. Mo spat out a piece of gristle and said nothing.

In the afternoon the boys got wind of female presence. Thin and sharp city-bred voices wafted over the gauzy heat that had enveloped the village. A surveillance party was quickly dispatched and it reported back that the goods were indeed of the female variety and, to everyone’s delight, some items were of familiar vintage. Another wave of thrill passed over the gang.

“From chicken to chicks,” Sabir grinned. “We’re in luck today.”

“Let’s check them out,” Mo said, stubbing a bidi under his flip-flop. He motioned to me and I padded along with a couple of others in tow. As we walked I picked up a dried fallen branch and absentmindedly scored the dirt behind me.

The girls were playing cards on the veranda, sitting in a circle on a neatly-spread calico counterpane. Their slippers stood guard behind them. Rashida, who lived on our street, saw us coming and said something softly nodding in our direction. Heads turned in unison, and a few lips moved in a faint murmur of disapproval.

“Hello,” Mo launched his gambit. “Can I also play?”

There were a few chuckles.

“I’ve an extra joker,” he said pointing to me.

They all laughed. I kicked Mo in the shin, stung by the sudden attack.

“Your joker is too young…ummm for us,” one girl said.

Mo pleased by the audacity of the response saw in it an invitation to flirt. “Take me, then,” he said winking at me. I kicked him again.

The girls giggled. The rest of the gang had caught up with us by now and we stood around forming a cordon, reeking of sweat and dust, and belching curry on our breath. One girl complained, “Guys, we need air,” and wrinkled her nose.

“Hello, Queen Victoria wants air,” Hashim guffawed.

Mo was standing behind Rashida and presently sat down on his haunches and cheekily suggested what card to throw.

“Mind your own business,” she said half-mockingly.

“If you get rid of this one,” he persisted, “by your next turn you can declare rummy.”

The girls howled in protest. “Keep your snotty nose out of it,” one of them said.

Mo laughed, unfazed. Though I was still seething at his betrayal, I couldn’t help marvelling his felicity with the girls. In their presence, he was a different person. Absent was the smart-ass bravado, instead he was funny and charming, a naughty smirk flitting on his lips as he parried their insults with endearments which only elicited more jibes.

Rashida followed his advice and won, the rest of the group erupted in protest, called Mo names and told him to go make himself useful someplace else.

The girls began another round, ignoring the boys and hoping they would get bored and slink away out of neglect. But the boys had found a honey pot. They buzzed around, bantering and teasing the girls, picking on the style of their hair or the colour of their scarves; the bold ones badgered them to hook up after school. Unable to concentrate the girls finally gave up the game half-way through. Somebody suggested it was time for tea.

“Yeah, good idea.” Sabir blurted out. “We boys ‘ve got tea, you girls bring your milk.”

The boys snickered as the girls squirmed, their faces flushed, not sure whether to take the innuendo as a joke or an affront.

Seeing Rashida pumping the kerosene stove Mo went over to give her a hand. They whispered as they got the stove going; somebody fetched water from the well and poured it into a largish saucepan. As the tea simmered everyone broke into small clumps, Sabir’s voice rising above the din. When the tea was ready Rashida and Mo ambled off into the field with their cups. Sabir let out a shrill whistle after them, frightening the sparrows in the trees. Mo swung back and flipped him the finger.

“Queen Victoria” came over to me as I sat reclining against a pillar and asked what I was doing with these louts. They are my friends, I said proudly. She laughed, jerking her head back and revealing her pink upper jaw.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” she said and walked away ruffling my hair. Turning back, she winked. For days her face stayed with me.

Soon the girls started packing, and the boys decided to accompany them on the way back. They sprinted to the campsite and started loading stuff with furious urgency as if a tsunami was on their tail. Mo loading a sack on his bike noticed that the rear tyre was slashed. He checked the front tyre, that too was ripped, its tube spilling out like a gut. Hoots of curses went up as we discovered tyre after tyre hacked. It was like in a movie I had seen: cowboys finding their horses shot dead as they stumble out of a tavern after a drunken shindig.

“Motherf…..?” Hashim shrieked.

“This is all your fault, you idiot,” Mo said through gritted teeth.

Hashim punched him in the face, and in no time the two were rolling in the dust like pigs. Nobody paid them any attention, for they were trying to make sense of what had happened. Sabir said the punctures could not be repaired. “We’ll need new tyres and tubes.” Their hearts sank, how will they explain this to their fathers they wondered aloud.

The girls had long departed, and forgotten. We began a slow trek home as if retreating from a battle, defeated. The mood was sullen and if anyone spoke it was only to utter profanities. Village idiots had shown them up and I could see they were very cut up about it.

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