Narayan found it unbearable to listen to or watch their troubled preparations. He doubted if anything he said would make a difference. Pretending he was going down to the shop, he slipped out the back to their neighbour and told him of the planned flight.
“Is he serious?” said the hardware-store owner. “When we talked this morning, he agreed there was nothing to worry about in our neighbourhood.”
“He has changed his mind.”
“Wait, I will come to him right now.”
He collected the coal-merchant, the banya, and the miller, and
knocked on Ashraf’s door.
“Forgive us for bothering you at this hour. May we come in?”
“Of course. Will you eat something? A drink?”
“Nothing, thank you. We came because we got some news that is causing us great grief.”
“What is it, what?” Ashraf was agitated, wondering if there had
been riot casualties in someone’s family. “Can I help?”
“Yes, you can. You can tell us it’s not true.”
“What’s not true?”
“That you want to leave us, leave the place where you were born and your children were born. This is causing our grief.”
“You are such good people.” Ashraf’s eyes began to moisten. “But I really don’t have a choice, nah.”
“Sit down with us and think calmly,” said the hardware-store owner, putting his arm around Ashraf’s shoulder. “The situation is bad, yes, but it would be madness to attempt to leave.”
The others nodded in agreement. The coal-merchant put his hand on Ashraf’s knee. “Every day trains are crossing that new border, carrying nothing but corpses. My agent arrived yesterday from the north, he has seen it with his own eyes. The trains are stopped at the station and everyone is butchered. On both sides of the border.”
“Then what am I to do?”
The desperation in his voice drew the hardware-store owner’s hand to his shoulder again. “Stay here. You are with friends. We will let nothing happen to your family. Where is there any trouble in our neighbourhood? We have always lived here peacefully.”
“But what will happen when those outside troublemakers come?”
“Yours is the only Muslim shop in the street. You think so many of us together cannot protect one shop?” They hugged him, promising he had nothing to fear. “Any time you want to, day or night, if you feel worried about anything, just come to our house with your wife and children.”