It was open warfare. Crash of tin pots, clatter of cutlery flung asunder, shrill cracking of glass, thump-thump as something rolled down the carpeted stairs, finally ending up in a scuffled tumultuous heap in the courtyard. Laughing, panting, the two children surveyed each other warily. Right on cue, both jumped up and prepared for the final duel. A few minutes of struggling, a muffled shriek, the world flying upside down in a tangle of bare limbs and swirl of green-gold-brown, and the smaller of the two boys was sitting astride the other's chest, grinning widely.
Neer squirmed ineffectually and then deflated. "Get off me, Chhotu!" he said at last, "You've forgotten what I told you!"
The boy called Chhotu looked at the other doubtfully. "But you said we were playing War! I won!"
Neer managed to shake his head. "No, you forgot. I said I'm the Americans and you're the Japs, remember? The Americans always win!"
Chhotu looked unsure, his hands loosening slightly on Neer's chest. Before either could move, a barefooted woman came out of the house. With a loud exclamation, she lunged at Chhotu, hauling him up by the arm and whacking him so hard that it was uncertain whether she was brushing the dust off him or attempting to give him a thrashing.
"Can't take my eye off you for a second! Rolling in the dirt like pigs... and why were you sitting on Baba Sahib like that? Get inside!"
Neer got up and dusted himself off while Chhotu wriggled away from the woman and tried to get the feeling back into his arm. The two boys trudged back to the house together. Inside, Neer ate his favourite puris and talked loudly about his conquests in War. The woman we have met earlier praised his bravery and filled his plate again and again. Chhotu hovered in the background and collected the dirty plates when his mother had taken Baba Sahib upstairs for his bath. He washed the dishes slowly, reflecting on a day of boyhood glory. He waited impatiently for Neer to return so they could play again. Even though he knew by now that he would never be allowed to win.