Sitting in the auto, Sirius found herself recalling the old games of Quidditch that were so much a part of Hogwarts memories. Back in those days, the bludger hadn’t seemed worth much thought, but now, in this auto, Sirius was feeling respect and an enormous swell of empathy for what the bludger went through, lumbering through the air during a Quidditch match. As the auto swerved to one side and hit a pothole and then braked because the light had turned green – they’d just gone past a red light. Not because the auto driver wanted to break traffic rules but because a moustachioed cop had cursed him for stopping at the signal – Sirius was reasonably certain this was what it felt like to be a bludger.
By the timed they reached Bandra station, Sirius was reasonably certain that her internal organs had been rearranged, but since they were all still inside, Sirius took it to be a good sign. She quickly paid the auto driver and rushed into the station. Just as she entered, there was an announcement on the crackling PA system. It was difficult to make out the words because there was so much disturbance and the speakers in the station were rubbish, but this was what Sirius heard:
“Bogwards Express going to Churchgate, via Dadar, is leaving from platform number three in seven minutes.”
She went up to the nearby magazine stand and asked, “Excuse me, what train was that announcement for?”
Without looking at her, the man at the stall replied, “Bandra Local. Platform number three.”
Sirius wondered whether she’d imagined the announcement, but since she had little time to waste, she did all her wondering while running up the stairs and across to platform number three. She made it to the train comfortably and even had the time to find a First Class Ladies compartment that wasn’t packed, but just crowded. Sirius decided to stand near the door. That way, she’d get something of a breeze once the train got going. Otherwise, it was going to mean being in a loosely-packed human sandwich.
Precisely three minutes later, the train lurched forward and Sirius felt a spurt of happiness. She was on her way to the Order of the Phoenix Mills! Dumbledore would be there, the one wizard who would be able to explain to Sirius what the hell was going on. Just the thought of the old professor made Sirius feel cheerful. She wondered how much longer Dumbledore’s beard had grown. It was at this point that Sirius realised there was a woman a short distance away who was staring at Sirius in a funny way. Sirius checked herself. Maybe she had been grinning like an idiot. But even after Sirius arranged her face into the blank, bored expression that all commuters have on Mumbai’s trains, the other woman kept staring at Sirius. So Sirius decided to stare right back.
The woman was wearing a sari with a golden border. Her hair, neatly tied in a bun, was white-streaked hair. Golden earrings glinted from her earlobes and between her eyes was a big, red bindi. For some reason, the more Sirius stared at the woman, the more she thought of mangoes. The woman glared at her and Sirius could practically taste the sweet, lushness of mango pulp in her mouth.
Their staring contest was broken when the ticket checker showed up at the other woman’s side. The woman handed a chit of paper to the checker and then pointed at Sirius. Sirius looked away quickly and felt rising panic. What was she going to tell the ticket checker? Could she get away with the expired pass? A strong gust of foul smell hit Sirius’s nose. The train was approaching a pool of black sludge on which bits of garbage floated lazily. Sirius wondered how deep it was.
“Don’t be stupid,” a voice hissed in Sirius’s ear. “Who ever heard of jumping because you don’t have a ticket? And that too into the bog that is the Mithi River? Come on, Sirius Black, your end can’t be such downer.”
Sirius whipped her head around to find herself face to face with the woman she’d been staring at earlier. The bindi, Sirius realised absently, was shaped like a miniature mango.
“Relax,” said the woman. “I told the ticket checker that you’re with me.”
“Thank you,” Sirius replied. “But how did you know my name? And, sorry if this sounds rude, but who are you?”
The woman stared at Sirius for a long moment. When she finally spoke, her voice was filled with despair. “They really did a number on you back in Andheri, didn’t they? Or is it now Azkaban? Whatever it is.” She clicked her tongue miserably. “Anyway, you asked about me. With my sons over there,” she gestured towards the next compartment that was visible through a partition made up of metal bars, “I am The Magnificent Amboli and Sons.”
Sirius looked over at the next compartment. Two men of indeterminate age were lounging against the partition, looking towards Sirius and the Magnificent Amboli. Her sons looked relaxed, but there was something about their stance that was keenly alert.
“They’re keeping a lookout. Don’t worry,” the older woman told Sirius.
“That’s good to know.” Sirius turned her attention back to her companion. “So should I be calling you Amboli?,” she asked. “The Magnificent Amboli?”
“And sons,” the woman said with a nod.
“That sounds vaguely like a novel I tried reading once,” said Sirius. “The author had an outstandingly silly name. Booth Tarkinton.” Sirius tried to remember what happened in the novel and if it involved any mangoes, but all she could remember was a very annoying chap called George and something about a small town turning into a city.
Another cloud of foul smells hit Sirius and she grimaced. “What the hell are we going over? It’s vile.”
“That’s the Mithi, or at least it used to be until He Who Shall Not Be Named killed it,” the Maginificent Amboli replied. “That rat has built so many things that belch out smelly ugliness, and all of that gets emptied into the river.” She sneered. “River! It’s not a river anymore. It’s just a bog. That’s why we call this train the Bogwards Express.”
“I knew it!” Sirius exclaimed. “I knew I heard Bogwards! I knew that stupid magazine had heard it wrong. He told me the announcement had been for a Bandra Local.”
The Magnificent Amboli looked at Sirius strangely. “For Muggles, it’s still the Bandra Local,” she explained. “Magical folk hear the PA system differently.” After a brief hesitation, she said to Sirius, “You really don’t know anything, do you?”
Sirius bristled. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I know nothing. It’s just that I’ve spent so long in Andheri, everything looks incredible.” Sirius laughed. “Even the bog, in a way.”
The Magnificent Amboli laughed too and again, Sirius was assailed by the memory of mango pulp.
“You’re not going to believe this, but Andheri wasn’t always the way it is now,” she said to Sirius. “It used to be beautiful and green. People used to have holiday homes there. My area, Amboli, for instance, was all mango and coconut trees. It was so fragrant and calming. Lots of mosquitoes, yes, but still, it was a wonderful place to call my own.” She sighed. The smell of mangoes was suddenly intoxicatingly strong and Sirius closed her eyes, lulled by its sweetness. Then, just as suddenly, that fragrance was gone. Sirius opened her eyes.
The Magnificent Amboli was looking out of at open door of the crawling train. Her face looked hard and gnarled, like a mango seed that had been sucked dry. The train clattered as it dragged itself over the Mithi. She was quiet.
“What happened?” Sirius asked tentatively.
For a moment, Sirius thought the Magnificent Amboli hadn’t heard her, but then she spoke.
“He Who Shall Not Be Named happened,” replied the woman. “Him with his bulldozers, his concrete mixers and his malls.” She spat the last word out like it was something rotten. “First, a few trees were cut down. It was progress, he told people. Then the trucks came and then, the machines. He charmed everyone into obedience, dazzling them with the rubbish he sold in the shops that were in his malls. Then he wiped out entire orchards, people’s homes disappeared and all anyone could do was turn to He Who Shall Not Be Named and live in the towers that he’d built. Because he’d taken everything. Every single thing.”
“That sounds terrible. He sounds terrible.”
“It was and he is,” the Magnificent Amboli said, nodding sadly in agreement. “And if we don’t figure out how to stop him, he’s going to do this to every part of the city. He’s already come all the way till here.” The Magnificent Amboli pointed at the sight outside the door.
Sirius saw tall buildings that, despite their size, looked strangely precarious and appallingly ugly. Everything was shrouded by a haze of thick, white smog. As far as the eye could see, it was all just dirty white and dull grey. The only specks of colour were in banners, hoardings and the clothes of people. Somehow, even though there was a lot of colour, darting around as people crossed the road and went about their business, it all looked lifeless and plastic.
“Where the hell are we?” Sirius asked.
“This, my dear, is where we get off. Mahalaxmi station is coming up in a minute or two,” the Magnificent Amboli replied.
“What?” Sirius yelped. “Mahalaxmi! I was supposed to get off at Lower Parel!”
The Magnificent Amboli launched at Sirius and stuffed Sirius’s mouth with mangoes that seemed to have appeared out of her, well, love handles. From the corner of her eye, Sirius could see The Magnificent Amboli’s sons had straightened and were looking distinctly tense, as though they also wanted to launch themselves at Sirius.
“Are you insane?” the Magnificent Amboli hissed. “Get off at Lower Parel? And then what? Walk into Phoenix Mills, go to McDonald’s and ask for a Filet-O-Fish and an appointment with You Know Who?”
Sirius’s stomach grumbled at the thought of a Filet-O-Fish. She wasn’t a fan of McDonald’s, but the idea of a burger wasn’t bad at all. Even if her face was full of mangoes at the moment. Always balance the sweet and savoury, Sirius thought to herself.
To the Magnificent Amboli, Sirius said, “I think we have a misunderstanding here. I’m not sure where this McDonald’s is, but I actually need to go to the, well, my head office.” The Magnificent Amboli and Sons seemed like good, magical people, but Sirius didn’t want to risk the Order of Phoenix Malls’ cover when there was someone taking Death Eaters out of Azkaban and plonking them in an Andheri multiplex, and the Mirror of Erised was floating around in Muggle Mumbai.
“Your ‘head office’?” the Magnificent Amboli hissed louder and again stuffed more mangoes into Sirius’s mouth. “You think you’re being discreet? You, with your ‘I’m going to Lower Parel’? They’d sniff you out as one of the Order within seconds. Just look at you! Wearing a sari and walking into Phoenix Malls. You have no idea what you’ve got out of or what you’re getting into. Now shut up and just follow me.”
Next thing she knew, the Magnificent Amboli had shoved her out of the train and on to the platform, where her two sons were waiting. With one son on either side and the Magnificent Amboli herself right behind – and poking a mango, from the feel of things, into Sirius’s lower back – Sirius realised she was being frogmarched out of Mahalaxmi station. To where? Sirius hadn’t the faintest idea.