On the morning of his planned raid on the illegal gunmaker, Dharmendra Khandal wakes well before sunrise, purifies himself with a ritual bath, and then studies several verses of the Durga Saptashati, one of Hinduism’s holiest books. Given the nature of the war Khandal is waging, it seems an appropriate text. In it, the radiant goddess Durga—“the One who can redeem in situations of utmost distress”—rides on the back of a tiger, her ten arms brandishing weapons and a lotus flower as she hunts down and destroys the demon Mahisasura.
If Khandal’s past raids are any indication, having Durga’s protection is not a bad idea. There’s no telling how he will be received by the village of Pilukhera, but after driving an hour north from his home near Ranthambhore National Park, with 15 cops and me, Khandal means to find out. Maybe they’ll unleash ferocious dogs on us. Maybe they’ll chase us with stones and axes. Khandal has experienced all this and more. One mob even broke both his boss’s legs and left him for dead. It goes without saying that Khandal’s target this time, the gunmaker, will be heavily armed. So no one says it. We park at the edge of a wheat field and do the last mile and a half silently on foot. Whatever awaits us in the village, it’s imperative we arrive before daybreak.
A pink stripe appears across the gray-black sky. We pick up the pace. A dog barks.
We’re running now.