[Short Story] Nine Minutes to Paradise
Bal'ur Badshah groaned as he sat in the sitting room of his ancestral house in Islamabad. He was getting bored of his confinement and wanted to step out. He was holed in this boarded bungalow as a house arrest. He craved fresh air. There was a time where he used to roam the streets of Islamabad like a tiger waiting to pounce, but those were simpler times and he was a simple silver smuggler. He did not get addicted to this new form of business- war. His connections and trade routes and logistic network that was built for the smuggling of silver, came in handy to supply and acquire ammunition. Things that could not be purchased on the radar, items that were not frequently available on the market. Not to mention, unlike silver, arms and ammunition were like drugs, once you have a customer, they would want more and more and more. He was happy to provide. But then as it happens, it was not always easy to acquire items without rustling few feathers and Bal'ur Badshah came in the sights of the international community. They wanted this twenty-something illiterate war dog in jail and the authorities had to oblige. Gah, diplomacy! he scoffed as if diplomacy is going to solve their problem. As if these walls are going to stop his network. He was like a spider sitting in the middle of a large web with big moving parts are independent contractors, he grinned.
Bal'ur Badshah grew up on the street and knew the value of honest work. Honest work was God's work and God's work must be perfect. He believed in perfection and perfection came from practice. Perfection to the tiniest detail came only from experience. He learned it the hard way. It was the reason he was given charge of handling the Paradise issue. The benefactors gave him a list of items to be supplied for multiple troops across the border. It was not easy to coordinate logistics of guns from an American dealership, sixteen hundred bullets from three Chinese manufacturers and route the illegal shipments via Russian back channels to the Indian shores. But he had achieved that, without moving an inch from his seat, holed up in this house and sixteen untraceable satellite phones. Perfection.
There were vested interest in paradise valley for last seventy years. Wars were fought for the land between the two nations. There were parties on both sides of the border who had their own agenda and Bal'ur was happy to provide weapons for everyone. As long as this guerilla war continued, he would keep getting a good paycheck. So what the price for the paycheck would be that he was forced to hole up in this house and stare at the butt cheek of the technician, who was kneeling under his television box, fumbling with a screwdriver. Months of planning and years of patience had led to this moment, only to be thwarted by the improper television connection. His expensive satellite television was not working, today, of all the days. He glowered at the thin husky man on his knees before the television. This was one of the cable 'boys' who was sent to fix his television. The boy did not inspire very big confidence when he stumped over the television using a screwdriver. On the biggest sale of his life. Gah, he exclaimed as the clock ticked.
They moved in synchronized steps as practiced and Rahim stumbled forward. The AK-47 gun was too heavy for him to carry, he was just a small and scrawny young kid. He heaved under the heavy helmet and pulled the gun closer and focused on the steps he took. Left. Right. Left. Wait was it left? Uh... there was a formation to adhere too.
The young stocky teenager standing next to him stifled and struggled to match his pace. Rahman was paired up with Rahim in their earlier recruitment drive. One bony teenager with one stocky large teenager. The irony did not die on the trainers who joked about them being the Laurel and Hardy of the unit. He was sure, they were paired together because somebody thought it would be funny to have Rahman-Rahim on the team. He could see no other reason why he would be paired with the bulky boy.
Rahim was going to make the valley a paradise again, just like old days. Back when he wasn't born, the valley was paradise, his Nana would tell him. Paradise comes only from the struggle. Didn't Karim Chacha tell this to his father? Rahim did overhear them speaking a month before his father went missing.
Rahim had no choice but to join the rebels, It was the only way he could get a school with better education. Karim Chacha, his father's best friend had told him that. He remembered the day Karim Chacha came to his doorstep, bearing the news of his father's demise. His mother was distraught and asked Rahim to leave the room but Rahim knew. He knew back then, now that his father was no more, he was the man of the house. Rahim listened to their conversation from behind the curtain. Karim Chacha told his mother what happened to his father. "It was those horrible soldiers," Karim chacha whined, "We were minding our own business in the valley when they ambushed us."
"Stealing, you mean," his mother replied curtly, "In the middle of the night, you went to burn the police station"
"You know I have the best interest of the valley in my heart, don't you?" Karim chacha asked, moaning loudly.
"Only you know what you have in your heart," his mother spat back, "I have lost my husband, just like many other widows in the valley. I don't see you losing your family?"
Karim Chacha wiped his tears and said nothing. His mother and sister did not know anything. How would they know the dealings of men? They were women after all. Behind his bullet was his path to a better school, a better life. He knew very well that once he got rid of the scum, he would make his valley a better place, Karim Chacha had told him that. And he understood. Therefore, he did not hesitate when they came to his school to recruit him on this important mission. He was a man now and he would prove it.
Abdul Bashir Bisht squinted his eyes from under the vizier of his helmet. His forefinger twitched on the trigger of his MP5 machine gun, a standard issue for all the CRPF forces, as it rested against his chest. It was dark and the visibility was near zero. He and his unit were warned by the intelligence report of a strike planned on the government armory by a separatist group. They had barracked the road and stopped the access to the armory. They waited in silence for an ambush.
Abdul twitched a bit in freezing cold under his heavy vest. He was nervous of who he would face today. Two nights ago, he had almost killed his childhood friend, who was joining the ranks of the terrorist. For as long as Abdul could remember, he wanted to fight for peace in his valley of paradise. Therefore, he had over-excitedly rushed to enroll his name when the call came from the Indian army. He would be part of the peacekeeping force and keep the terrorists from ruining his paradise.
But every single day, he regretted the decision. The job was turning difficult by the day. Initially, it was just a few unemployed boys with stones. Now it was full blown militants with sophisticated weapons. The dotted line between valley boys and the militants was getting thinner and thinner as the war continued. Not to mention, he was starting a family soon and that was taking another toll on him. How could he let another life in this world when his job was to take a life?
He had tried to convince his friend earlier, reason with him and tell the friend that war is not the solution. But the boy did not listen. Abdul squinted under his vizier, the visibility was near zero, he did not wish to engage tonight.
He was determined he would not engage tonight, come what may. He would not spill any more blood in this paradise.
Shaila knew something was amiss when Rahim did not return from the playground. She had warned Rahim not to wander around outside dark. Shaila was a mother of two, a beautiful teen daughter, Rihanna and a reckless young son, Rahim. She regretted having to let him go to the playground alone, now, when her husband was no more. Shaila knew the area was infested with the likes of Karim next door, the valley was trouble, especially at night.
She was now more concerned before she was observing her four months Iddah, a period of isolation for a widow to observe after the death of her husband. She avoided meeting other men in the locality, especially Karim. But the absence of Rahim even as the clock struck 7:30 worried her.
She glanced at Rihanna who was fiddling with her hair looking in the mirror. As any normal teenager, she had aspirations, dreams that would be difficult to be fulfilled in this war zone. That was the reason Shaila had decided to make a run for it, now that her husband was not around. She would first go to Delhi and then make her way to Hyderabad where her parents would receive her. She had to tear Rahim away from the company he kept if she wanted him alive as a young adult.
She glanced anxiously at the watch and at the door, hoping Rahim will return. There was nobody at the door. Finally, she adjusted her dupatta behind her ear, covered her mouth and stepped out into the night. She had a clear suspicion where her reckless son would be.
Karim Syed Walia was relishing on the spicy lamb curry prepared by his daughter-in-law. Being from the prestigious Walia family, one of the oldest family from the valley. The Walia's had a long history of being the advisors to the king and princes who ruled the valley. Theirs was a land of the peace and prosperity. His grandfather had told him tales of the paradise before idiots started ruling the land. He wanted to restore the paradise back to the way it was and there were no two minds about it.
People didn't understand, they never do. Our people were different. We were living in a paradise and he wished to keep it that way. There was no scope of any impure blood in the valley. They would be keeping it pure and pious. His son was hot-tempered and a religious nut. His son insisted they take help of neighboring nation and had even congregated a gathering of youth at the local mosque. Karim only came to know about his son's plan very late and he boycotted him from the area.
The paradise would be restored but without any outsider's help. His daughter-in-law, Roksana, served more lamb curry to him and he graciously accepted. She was blessed by God with excellent culinary skills. Roksana wanted to go with her husband but he would not allow it. How could he? His son was hot-tempered and she would not be safe with him. She was the daughter of his childhood friend after all. His son would be safe in the capital, cool off his head and return to the valley. He wanted his son alive for when the kingdom returned to the olden days, they needed a king.
He smirked at the thought.
Rahman heaved under the heavy gun and tried to focus. His head was paining from all the walk but he soldered on. He was in his late teens and wondering how exactly did he land in this soup holding a gun bee-lining for a mission? It was in July last year when he received the result of the secondary school. He had not scored enough for a higher education and therefore his father suggested he should join their apple trade from next term. Sure, Rahman had thought back then, but he wanted to do more. He always wanted to be a DJ, a musician who plays music in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
Working for a trade with his father, meant traveling to Delhi, Mumbai and other big cities and that made him happy. But since childhood Rahman always felt hollow in his heart. Something missing in his life and decided to spend the summer studying his religion on the advice of his Brother-in-law, Bashir. But Bashir was weak, and he left the education and the valley soon afterward, send to Delhi by his father. Rahman scoffed. Weak.
Only through this education, Rahman, realized, that his father was really working for the traitors and disbelievers and playing music was a sin according to God. Rahman thanked God that he stopped short of committing the grave sin. He started taking an active part in the mosque, feeding the poor, helping the needy and praying with young people his age. He liked it, he had found a purpose. It was therefore, he did not mind them taking the war back to the impures tonight. His mind was pious and his cause religious. It was therefore justified to spill the blood. His father would not understand. Therefore Rahman had to sneak away from the house when his father was away for his business.
They could no longer let the impure blood run amok in their city. It was time for the pure-bloods to take over, to impose the law of God on the valley. The foundation of their paradise would be laid on the impure blood they spill today.
Ahmed Khan pursed his lips and muffled a whine. The thumb of his left leg had just come out due to frostbite. With tears clouding his eyes, he glanced at the frozen wound that had a thumb attached to it before. He closed the mouth tightly and punched hard on the ground to bear the pain. He was determined to not cry and whimper but internalize the pain. He and his team were here for a mission and that mission was more important than his pain or even his life.
He closed his eyes to calm the heart that was beating hard. Was it always that he heard the heartbeat? He didn't know. His mind wandered to the old parents he left behind in his village. As a son of a poor mill worker, Ahmed had a simple life. His dreams of becoming a doctor were short lived when he realized that education costs money. Soon, he joined the tirade of unskilled workers who toiled endlessly to earn wages. He and his father, together, were earning enough for their house. That was until his father lost the job and whatever wages he earned were split between feeding himself or buying medicines for his mother.
That was the reason, him and his brother had to move to Islamabad in hopes of better wages. But toiling every day did not fulfill their needs and Ahmed was on the verge of breaking down.
He had no way out of his misery, until, he met Badshah. It was simple, Badshah had promised. Complete the mission and your mother will be treated in the best hospital in Lahore. His parents would be taken care of until their end. Only, Ahmed would have to sacrifice himself for the cause. His life was nothing, compared to the pain his parents felt. The only regret Ahmed had was that they would not see his corpse after his death.
A shrill noise filled the environment catching his attention. That was the signal, it was time. His team-mates arrived walking on their knees and nodding in unison. This is it. He pulled a tablet from the pouch around his neck. They all mimicked him. The tablet cooked by the combination of painkiller, caffeine, and drugs would give them enough adrenaline to complete the mission. And the tablet kicked in.
They screamed the God's name and charged.
TwoThe air-conditioner blasted in full blowing over the sweat and humidity from the air. It was a blessing, Paromita Dutta thought or her expensive makeup would be messed up. Paromita Dutta was a known name across the country. At one time she would boast of having the ultimate political connections in the establishment. For a decade, she used to get the most exclusive stories right from the top of the food chain. But all her glory was shortlived with the new government that hated her guts. They closed all her loops into the government and she was left in the lurch like an ordinary senior journalist. She hated that. She had to switch three jobs just to survive.
Sitting on the uncomfortable swivel chair, all dolled up for tonight's show, Paromita was glancing at her twitter feed between the few seconds of her live broadcast. Her twitter was full of hate-mongering and trolls who exercised their freedom of speech a bit too much. The noise drowned any sensible communication she had with people that matter. She blocked a few of them but soon realized it was a fruitless effort, "Because People's opinion matter," she said, loud and clear, as rehearsed, winking at the producer behind the camera, who gave her a thumbs up, "Welcome to People's opinion," she continued, "as we analyze the top story tonight and go straight to you people for your opinion. Because it matters."
"Our heartbreaking story tonight comes from the troubled paradise up north as we lost one more youth today in a mindless cycle of violence. Our camera man managed to catch glimpses of the incident before he was evicted from the area," she scoffed, hoping to get more, "A few hours ago, it was reported that militants tried to attack the CRPF armory. The images of the militants are flashing on your screen." she took a dramatic pause, "We advise viewers that the images you are about to see are not for the faint-hearted." She chuckled, that message itself increased their viewership ten-fold.
She was glad she still controlled the message.
OneWith the blip, the television blazed to life and Bal'ur Badshah leaned in to catch the news broadcast. He fumed to watch Paromita on the screen, "Six minutes?" he gruffed, "Six minutes, that's it?" he screamed and angrily threw the remote at the television set. The cable technician ducked in time to avoid the remote and jumped to the door. Something caught his attention from the corner of his eye. He wheeled around, transfixed at the television and the eyes widened with fear. He was watching the disfigured face of his elder brother, Ahmed flashed under the title of a terrorist.
The television blazed the images of shots fired into darkness. They could hear a woman scream but the producer had cleverly muted the wails of a young boy weeping on the cadaver of his mother to play the jingle of the most affluent benefactor. The advertisement would be linked to the news story, earning them millions for the sensationalization. One whimpering child was nothing compared to that.
But Rahim whimpered as the military police dragged him away. His body limp and his legs noodles from the horror he had witnessed in the darkness. Why did his mother leave the house? He asked himself but could not get to answer the question. The cadaver was turning blur as tears welled up in his eyes and he thought of Rihanna left behind, would she know? Would she know what he had done? Rahim whimpered as the cops dragged the body of Rahman who was shot in his head. He wished he had listened to his mother and packed for Hyderabad, instead of sneaking out. She would be alive and happy. Would Karim chacha take care of Rihanna now? He wondered.
But Karim Chacha was leaning in over his dinner plate glued to the television watching the broadcast. His daughter-in-law was serving him more curry when she dropped the spoon. The curried spoon clattered on the floor and the curry made a splatter pattern on the expensive rug. Karim glowered at her in disgust but she was hardly paying attention. He followed her gaze to the television and found in horror what had distracted her.
Blazing on the television was the face of her teenage brother Rahman disfigured and damaged with a wide gaping hole on his forehead and the ticker branded him as a terrorist.
Paromita swiveled on her seat, gulping down the emotions as she read the disastrous report. This was her job. She could sensationalize but she could not let this emotion internalize. She paused midway, as the earphone cracked and her producer cracked in her here. Holding her index finger to her ear she nodded and turned her gaze back to the camera, "This just in. It is with sadness we are reporting, a CRPF jawan Abdul Bashir Bisht was found dead along with his pregnant wife in their house."
This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are pure fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.