A grieving child. A mysterious colony. A lurking menace. Will 9-year-old Varun survive the threats?

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Jyoti stood barefoot in the back garden and hung laundry on the clothesline. The grass was damp from the rain and the trees in the grove behind her rustled with every gust of wind. From the nearby construction site came the high-pitched whine of stonecutting, punctuated by drilling, hammering, blares of traffic, and the explosive hisses of pressure cookers from the adjacent apartment complex. She rubbed her forehead.

There was no peace in this city. Development was relentless. Soon some enormous shopping centre would be leaning against their boundary walls and once again they’d be forced to debate whether or not they should just chuck everything and sell the place. It was a shame Varun couldn’t experience the Bangalore of her youth. She carried the laundry basket back inside the house.

In the kitchen, Seema was stirring masala, which sizzled. Jyoti brushed past her and slid the laundry basket under the counter. ‘Is my mother awake?’

‘No.’

‘Very nice. She’s going to end up sleeping through the entire day.’

‘I’ll clean her room? It hasn’t been done for so long.’ Jyoti pressed a button on her phone and listened to the automated voice state the time. ‘No, it’s too late. Leave it.’

Sliding her hand along the walls, she headed for the guest bedroom but stumbled into a stool. She winced at the flare of pain in her shin. She needed to remind Varun that in this house he couldn’t leave stuff all over the place. Poor thing. All these new rules.

‘Varun?’ She knocked on his open door. ‘Varun?’

There was a flurry of movement, the scrape of a chair. ‘Hi, Jyoti Aunty.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Homework.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Promise?’

‘I… yes.’

She sat on his bed, patted the bedcover, and found Lego pieces and something larger that he’d been building. Balancing it on her palm, she traced its shape with her fingertips.

‘An aeroplane?’

‘It’s not yet finished.’

She twirled the propellers attached to its wings and felt a painful catch in her chest. Anu would’ve been so proud.

‘And your homework?’

‘It’s also not yet finished.’

‘Okay, well, maybe you could do that first, and then we could unpack your boxes? There are still three left, no?’

The boxes were stacked on top of each other by his wardrobe and she was keen to strike them off the to-do list.

It would help, she imagined, to have his clothes fill the wardrobe, his drawings hang from the walls, and his toys litter the floor. Maybe then he would feel more comfortable here.

‘Can I go outside?’ he asked.

‘Weren’t you just now saying your homework isn’t finished?’

‘I don’t even have school.’

‘I’ve told you, you have to keep practising. Otherwise, things will be extra difficult when you rejoin classes. This is important.’

‘Just for a short while. Please?’

There was such eagerness in his voice. She remembered playing a game with him when he was a baby, small for his age yet heavy in her arms. She would place him inside his crib and hide her face behind her hands. His agitation would grow, and just when it seemed like he was on the verge of
crying, she would re-emerge with a whoop. How he spluttered with delight. Where’s your Jyoti Aunty? Here she is! Yes, here she is! Disappear, reappear, disappear, reappear. What limitless joy he took from the game, from the moment of her return.

‘Okay. You can go play. But,’ the chair scraped back, ‘make sure you come back for lunch and don’t get caught in the rain and please be careful okay?’

He was already thudding his way out.

How had Anu managed? In their conversations, her sister always mentioned classes and after-school activities like swimming, trips to heritage sites, and fun little experiments in engineering. And yet, here she was, struggling to make him follow a bare-bones timetable. A month had passed and she still didn’t know what to do with him. What would happen when she went back to work?

She set the aeroplane down. It was a feat of imagination like the origami she and Anu used to make when they were children, or the paper boats they launched across puddles. Back then they loved embarking on adventures in the grove. They pretended to be fearless discoverers, though their bravery deserted them every time they returned home late to find Mama frothing at the mouth with worry.

She reached for her cane by the front door. Perhaps it would be best to bring him back and have him focus on homework for now. Keep him safe. But she hesitated. After she lost her vision, there were no more games or adventures in the grove. She was forbidden from entering it. How will you go? Mama
asked. All those thorns and roots. Who will help you walk between trees, huh? One trip, one fall, then I’ll be the one rushing you to the hospital to take care of your broken bones
.

She tapped the floor with her cane. Maybe being in a constant state of worry was what it meant to be a parent, and maybe climbing trees or playing hide-and-seek with the shadows was what Varun needed right now. Some time and space. Let him be, she convinced herself. It would be good for him to explore. And where was the harm? It wasn’t like he was going to vanish without a trace.

Excerpted with permission from The Colony of Shadows, Bikram Sharma, Hachette.

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