Authors: Karan Mahajan
He considered Mansoor's friendship with Ayub, a young intelligent boy from the provinces, another stage. “Send him over today itself,” he told his son. “I'm in the office all day. My meetings with the PearlPET people got canceled.”
When Ayub heard the news from Mansoor, he was overjoyed, and yawned with a weird, thrilling happiness. Which terrorist interviews for a job on the day he sets off a bomb? He left the hotel in a DTC bus, drowsing in the mottled sunlit look of the city. It was early afternoon and it appeared that afternoon might never end. Everyone dropped beneath trees or awnings, the bus was puffed full with people like a patila of rice, young men hung out of every opening, and God only knew how they were holding the hot metalâinstinctively, Ayub remembered moments spent on swings as a child when he'd come to Delhi on visits to see relatives. These swings were among the most exotic things about Delhiâentire structures made for play! Nothing of the sort existed in Azamgarh, even in those days when the buildings outnumbered the mountains of trash and slush. And yet, when he remembered the swings and the playgrounds of Children's Park, with their rectangular rusted ladderlike fixtures, what he recalled was the feeling of burning metal against his skin and a lacerating jolt of static that sent him
leaping off the jungle gym. The bus lurched like a person weighed down with bags. The muscles of the people in the vehicle were aligned, rippling in unison.
What if a bomb goes off now? he wondered. And I am finished here itself, never to have a chance to follow through? When the bus dropped him off in a puddle outside the Surya Sofitel hotel he felt an acute sense of loss.
Zakir Nagar, Jamia, Sarai Jullena, New Friends Colony, Community Centerâthese were parts of South Delhi he knew well; most of the Muslims from his group lived in these areas and he himself had lived in Batla House when he'd moved to Delhi. Being back home, or in the vicinity of home, set his nerves tingling. He was overwhelmed with sentiment for his youth here, the time he'd spent showing Tara aroundâTara, who'd grown up in Delhi but admitted she knew nothing about Muslims; there had been no Muslims at the prestigious Delhi Public School where she'd studiedâand he kept looking at the women in the fevered light of afternoon and thinking they were his former love. A city of a thousand Taras! That was Delhi. He passed through the door of a nondescript building and up some stairs artfully covered in paan spit and came to Sharif's office.
“You're early,” Sharif said, surprised; he had not been expecting him. “Come, come. God, it's hot outside for October, no? Look at how you're sweating. Will you have water? Mohsin,
, bring water for sahib.”
The office wasn't much to look atâone of those seedy low-roofed places where every piece of furniture is covered in a layer of dirt or a plastic sheet and the computers and printers have long turned a milky brown or gray.
As Sharif spoke, Ayub smiled and held his chin in his hand and pretended hard to listen. Then, suddenly, Sharif was pointing at him. “You're OK? Your eyes are very red. Do you have a fever? You look very tiredâyou have dark circles under your eyes.”
Not just thatâAyub was out of breath. “I'm OK, uncleâit's very hot outside,” he managed.
“Where are you staying now?”
“With a relative,” he lied. “Nearby only, in Jamia. Batla House.”
“They're giving you enough to eat, I hope.” He smiled, his large, hollow teeth visible through his graying beard.
“Yes, uncle,” he said, trying to smile, but failing to fall back into the natural stream of conversation.
“You brought your biodata?”
“It's not that important,” Sharif said. “You're the friend of my son and that's the most important thing. There's nothing in plastics that can't be taught. You're from Lucknow, right?”
They'd had this conversation many times at dinner and Ayub had long since learned that Sharif was not a good listener. “Actually, Azamgarh, uncle.”
Sharif nodded. “Yes, yes, Azamgarh. Named after Azmiâthe father of your Shabana Azmi, no?”
This wasn't quite right, but Ayub did not disagree. “Yes, uncleâactually we're very distantly related to them. Even the train to Azamgarh was named after him. My great-grandfather was his cousin and a freedom fighter. He was quite a famous poet. But after him, the family went into decline. I have many cousinsâthe smart ones are in the Gulf, but most are uneducated. I don't know how such a rapid decline happened in two generations. Now there's just the name, nothing else. The whole town lives off the name.” Ayub was surprised at his own confession. The A/C made the place excessively cold. Maybe he did have a fever.
But Sharif was not thinking about Ayub or his family. He was thinking, ratherâafter a long timeâof the Khuranas, of how similar Ayub's story was to that of Vikas's family, how so many great families had come crashing down after independence, as if the end of the revolution had robbed them of their raison d'Ãªtre and they were condemned to forever looking back at towering figures from the previous era. Had these figures even been that great? Or was independence like any industry in India in which a bunch of mediocre entities with money cornered the market and congratulated themselves endlessly? Sometimes, in his darker moods, Sharif felt there had
been no great figure in this country ever, that it had always just rolled along, a moody rock, a sticky mess of fictions and chaos and egosâlike this fellow: Was his grandfather really great? Or had the mediocrity of the present made him think so?
“I see, I see,” Sharif said, smiling. Then he began to describe the job. Midway through, he stopped. “You should go home, beta. You seem very sick. This is a formality anyway. The job is yours if you want it.”
“Thank you, uncle.”
“Don't thank. Any friend of my son is a friend of mine.” Then he said, “It's up to you to raise your family name.” He said it cheerfully.
Ayub, his heart crinkling like a tissue, nodded desperately and went out.
His heart was thundering; it wouldn't stop. Forget it, he told himself. There's no way to fight it off. Accept this excess energy. He took a bus back to his room and spent the last scraps of the afternoon masturbating, crying, moaning, alternatively hot and cold, joyful and ready and alone and sick. Then it was time. He went to the designated shop in Paharganj, picked up the backpack with the bomb, and took an auto to Sarojini Nagar. The bomb was made of ammonium nitrate and charcoal tied with a threadâit was shaped like a coconut. A mobile phone was attached to a mass of materials and covered up with a gauzy cloth, so that if someone were to open his backpack, it would look like he was carrying a coconut for a ceremony.
An odd calm overcame himâthe calm of living in cinematic time. He had spent the past few weeks using up his drama and tensionâhe saw the point of being sent early and remembered too what Rafiq had said about Shockie's emotional behavior, how it drained him so he could focus coldly on action.
Sarojini Nagar is a horrible market in a nice part of South Delhiâan area characterized, in general, by wide roads, stately flyovers, government and private houses spaced decently apart, and well-demarcated lanes and street signs. He passed through the colonies the way a helpless person may topple down a waterfall, drawn along but also happy about every beautiful sight he encounters as he discovers he is not dying after all. With the
evening had come an iota of relief and cool and he didn't even mind the traffic or the slightly circuitous route the plump auto guyâwearing a thousand old rakhis on his wrist, rakhis like a fungus or infectionâtook to bump up his meter. It's already happened, he told himself. It's long over. When I get to the market, I'll discover it's on fire and it'll be as if I wasn't even present for what I did.
He had a sense, suddenly, of why Mansoor might have walked away from the blast without understanding or comprehending why. He hadn't even set off
blast and time was compressing and skipping beats. He sucked on a Vicks; his throat flooded with cold.
When he paid the auto driver, he savored the texture of the notes, how difficult it was to uncurl them, how each one was crumpled in an individual way, how some had turned as soft as cloth from overuse. And that old-money smellâthe smell of old keys.
The auto dropped him off at the mouth of the bazaarânear the square where the pukka market was based. He smelled ripe fruit. Elbowing rude unaware people, people passing quickly, people energized with purpose and conversation, pulling up their sleeves and smiling at the setting sun the way one may pose for a large camera, he went in deeper, into the warren, into this aquarium of fake brands. On either side, in a long row, shops churned with shoppers and shopkeepers, curling branches of incense, shiny baskets on sale for Diwali. A woman called her son close after he wandered off to a shop. A fat man stood talking loudly on his mobile, his hand pleasurably plucking the worry lines on his forehead and closing over his face like a crab, his eyes shut in happy concentration, his mouth open, his tongue moving about inside as mysterious roars came out. “Arre, bhai. No. No. No.” He kept shaking his head. It was the most joyful
Ayub had ever heard in his life. Another man sat on a bench, crouching over, washing his hands with water from a used plastic bottle, its brand sticker torn off, leaving behind a patchy residue, the ribs of the bottle pressed and distended. The man had alert eyebrows and curly hair with streaks of baldnessâsomething was wrong with his hair; he was too young to be baldingâand as Ayub looked at him, he looked back and a question passed between them
and Ayub kept going, conscious of being watched. He could imagine the man's head turning toward him, taking in his backpack. For that reason he went off for as long as he could. When he turned, the man was gone.
These looks were exchanged daily between men of a certain class. They said: I know you. I wonder how you made it.
There had been a momentâwhen he had seen the woman and the childâthat he'd lost focus, become a shopper himself, but now he was worked up to full alertness. Standing before a shop, he took the bag off his back and held it at his side as if freeing himself to gaze.
The people in the shop did not notice him. The bespectacled owner, sitting behind a desk, was shouting at one of his assistants. The assistant was jammed halfway up a wall of clothes, his feet bare and his hands plunged into the layers of plastic. Ayub put the bag down on the road, turned, and walked.
A few seconds later, the bomb opened with a seismic roar.
Hundreds of people lay on the ground. From the shop came only silence. Ayubâthrown to the ground, rolling, slidingâthought: Tara will hear me now.
hen Vikas saw news of the bombing on TV, he called his wife to come over and watch. Deepa, who had been reading the paper in the drawing room, creased it into a tight square.
“How many dead?” she asked, peering into the cabin of the bedroom and then sitting on the edge of the bed and adjusting her spectacles.
The Khuranas, in the past few years, had started taking a morbid interest in blasts in all parts of the country, especially Delhiâthey were excited by these bombings in a way that only victims of esoteric, infrequent tragedies are motivated by horrors. They knew instinctively what the victims and families would go through: how the government would promise help but the Municipal Corporation of Delhi would harass the shopkeepers, advising them to lower their estimated losses; how compensation would be announced in the papers, never to be paid out; and how the injured and dying would linger for hours in the market and the hospital before being treated.
“Are they saying who did it?” Deepa asked.
“No one's taken credit for it. The news came in only ten minutes ago. It's too bad. Sarojini Nagar is such a crowded market, especially at Diwali, and there aren't any solid structures to absorb the blast.”
“They know this risk exists,” Deepa said, scowling a little. “Why they don't improve security, I don't know.”
“In this kind of market, how can you have security? I'm sure the shopkeepers would be against it.”
Vikas, especially, had turned himself into a student of terror. He had come to see that people were blind to tragedy till they experienced it firsthand, and that they were willing to risk the unknown if it meant they could make money in the interim. This was the case not just with small Indian markets, with their reluctance to secure themselves, but with the U.S. as well: Airlines had known for years about the danger of hijackings, but had lobbied against security because it cost time and money to process passengers. Better to let a plane be occasionally hurled off track, the heads of the airlines reasoned, than to hemorrhage money in the terminals.
It didn't occur to them that a hijacker might wish to plough a plane back into the country, invest the blown and fluted metal into the mineral-rich earth.
“When should we go meet them?” Deepa asked.
“Tomorrow, maybe,” Vikas said, putting his hand in hers.
In 2002, the Khuranas had founded the Association of Terror Victims. Over time, they'd come to realize that no one remembered the smaller blasts peppering the history of the country, blasts that vanished into a morgue of memories, overshadowed by bigger events. Therefore, the Khuranas reasoned, the thing to do was to corral the victims of these small blasts and create a group that could lobby for their rights and collectively remember the blasts in which they had lost their relatives or limbs. And why did the Khuranas want the blasts remembered?
Vikas grappled with this privatelyâwas it just a zidd, the demand of a hurt child? Or was there substance to it? He decided it was important to remember in order to keep the past from repeating itself; the country was moving so fast, hurtling so enthusiastically into the future, that people had little idea of how easily everything could be undone. More important, a blast was a political tragedy, an act of war, in which people perished not because of their own mistakes but because of the mistakes of the government. Therefore it held that blast victims should be remembered the way dead soldiers areâVikas always thought of the names of Indian soldiers who had fought in World War I inscribed in the sandstone biceps of India
Gate, a monument the boys had loved, and where he had often taken them for ice cream, the three of them standing on the reddish earth, the boys asking if it was true that the flame inside the gate had been burning for a hundred years and Vikas not knowing the answerâwas it possible? Weren't all sorts of crazy things possible? The boys. How would they have been now, all these years later? Were they still alive somewhere else, being shown around monuments by another set of parents? Had they grown up in this alternative universe where they wore white office shirts and black pants and got ready for work, their adult heads emerging from sweat-stained collars, the shoes on their feet gleaming blackly, Tushar an earnest trainee in some firm, Nakul batting his handsome eyes at some girl who sat at the other end of the office, hiding herself in a giggling group of friends? Sometimes if he closed his eyes he could imagine them as adults and the vision would be so exact, his heart would stop and he would think they were alive or that, by thinking itself, they
be brought back to life and then he would chastise himself for admitting defeat so easily in 1996, for accepting the official cant that the boys were dead instead of brazenly imagining the opposite.
The bomb was so distant now that it did not quite seem real. When he went to Lajpat Nagar these daysâand it was oftenâhe tricked himself into believing nothing had happened, and in fact, it wasn't hard to do: the market had covered over every sign of damage.
Yes, it had never happened. He was forty-seven, successful, with a loving wife and two boys and a daughter. It was the thought of Anusha that jolted him to the present, pricked him with dread. She was the most solid recurring evidence that his life had changed. He hated his daughter. She was cute and round-eyed with flowing streamers of hair and an odd interest in learning how things were madeâshe was always hugging the walls, asking how they had been poured by workersâbut he wondered if she were a little slow. He didn't want to be near her. Better to stay cramped in the markets of Delhi, among the throbbing crowds, shoulder-to-shoulder with death, with the city, the city that crammed you back into yourself.
Whereas his wife had grieved instantly, he only began to grieve after Anusha was born.
He didn't see it as grieving, of course. He thought he was taking an interest in the larger world, an interest brought on by the bomb; he thought he was gathering material for a documentary. He filmed it all, became known as the eccentric with the movie camera; people in the markets learned to ignore him after a while.
He was making an encyclopedic film about Delhi, he told himself; capturing the fluctuations in the moods of places. But he was always a little vacant and bored when he carried out these explorations, just as he was vacant at home, draped in his Bhutanese gown.
He was only happy when he was leaving his house, shedding the yoke of this new life that had been thrust upon him.
His marriage fell apart. Deepa at first was patient, but then she became shrill in her disappointment. “Not again!” she shouted, confronting his cosmic sadness and anger.
She'd wasted too many years putting up with his depressions: depression over art, his parents, his kidsânow a depression over his daughter. As she shouted at him to wake up from his grief, she became nauseated and started burping and went to the sink and retched, but finally all that came were tears, tears ransacking the dignity from her eyes. “Shame on you,” she said, coming back to the drawing room, where Vikas had not moved from the cloth embrace of the broad sofa chair as he read the
, the alpine slopes of hair on his feet visible as they rested on the ground beside the leather slippers. “You're not a real man.”
Vikas appeared to listen earnestly, attentively, releasing one hand from the paper, which sagged into his lap, the free hand massaging his chin. Then he got up and walked out of the house.
Deepa's anger at her husband grew. She didn't know what to do. That's when she visited Mukesh again.
Mukesh, sitting in his office, still dolefully managing construction sites for a living, had been waiting. From behind his glass doors, he had been following the distant eruptions in the Khuranas' marriage, noting the
frequency of Vikas's exits, his chancy drumming gait as he fled the house, his late returns in the evenings. He knew the marriage was at its end. He was an invigilator of griefâa realist. He knew, unlike the rest of the people in the complex, who confused optimism with high-mindedness, that no matter what Vikas and Deepa did, their marriage could not recover. Nothing did from a bomb.
He had seen the crater left by it when he had gone to the market soon after the blast. It had taken his breath away, given him vertigo, and his mind had circled the ditch with its lacing of trash blended in with the roots of a tree trying desperately to hold on to sinking soil.
When Deepa came to his office one morning, looking frighteningly thin and worked up, he was sympathetic and placid again; he listened to her talk about the construction the neighbors were doing, which disturbed Anusha.
It was in the anger that Mukesh saw the first shoots of life in Deepa.
Then, one day, when Vikas was out, Mukesh went over to the entrance to the house and rang the bell. The dour Nepali servant answered and led him up the cracked stairs into the drawing room. Deepa sat tense in a plain white salwar, clutching her own wrists.
She welcomed him in with a thin smile and offered him tea.
Mukesh was in there for an hour making faces at Anusha, who had come into the room, excited to see her chachu, who gave her dates and candies whenever he saw her. “What a little princess,” he said to her in his disturbingly sexual manner.
“Show uncle your Ajooba dance,” Deepa said.
Anusha was oddly obsessed with this Bachchan movie from the 1990s, and Mukesh, sitting there in his white pants, clapped. There was something perverse about how joyful this child was, he thought. It would have been better if she were morose. Her joy only outlined the tragic background. It brought out the sickness in the yellow walls, the groans emitted by every off-center painting and troubled spot of seepage on the walls.
Mukesh knew from Deepa's face that he was being watched too, carefully.
“How is the money situation?” he asked suddenly.
“Good,” she said, but in a way that made it clear she had whispered a thousand
s before it.
“So Vikas is finishing his film about markets?”
Another pause. “Yes.”
“Good.” Mukesh smiled, bending down from his chair to do a card trick for Anusha: he always carried a pack of cards with him, fanning them in concert with his lecherous grin.
His visits became more frequent. He would come up in the middle of the day and play with Anusha; Deepa would watch him. Then, one morning, when Anusha was at her play school, Deepa led him into the bedroom and took off her clothes.
Mukesh looked on from the door, hard, amused. Her nakedness made him aware of his own clothes: a checked half-sleeve shirt, loose gray pants, black Batas.
She sat down on the bed, her buttocks on the sheet, and began to read a gray dusty book titled
The Magic Mountain
, which she lifted from the side table.
Mukesh sat down on the sofa in the room, clutching and mopping his brow. Now that he had what he'd wantedânow that he was so close to itâhe had a mind to turn back.
After a while, he got up as if to leave, but then turned around and, still fully clothedâthis is how he liked to do itâclimbed onto the bed.
It was not loveâwhat happened. Though she had opened herself to him in that bed, on that morning, she was not aroused when he speedily covered her body with his.
It was as if she would only let him have her by pretending to be dead.
Their passion took on the flat quality of those mornings with their archipelagoes of white light thrown on the floor, the bones of the windows visible and gaunt, Mukesh coming over and rummaging around in her life, her bedâshe never thought of it as sex, but as
She had long since evacuated the sphere of full feeling. In some ways Vikas had been right about her after she'd come back from visiting Malikâshe was gone. What remained was a bright shadow, a disturbance of light intent on going on a little longer.
The trouble started when she began to fall in love with Mukesh, as she looked forward to these illicit visits, imagining the imprint of his hands on the old wooden railing that ran alongside the staircaseâthe hands with their blisters from breaking and peeling branches with Swiss knives on trips to Dalhousie; hands that dragged the sliding door at the entrance to the drawing room so it hung, like a man taken by the throat, a few inches above its rail on the ground.
That's when she asked him for money.
That had been the implicit agreement from the startâthat he would give her money for Anusha; he had offered it after the first visit as he buttoned up his shirt and put on his brutal black shoes: the patriarch getting dressed before his family, entertaining petitions. And they never once talked about
wife and two grown-up daughters. “I should go pick up Anusha,” she had said after that first time, still half-smiling, half-radiant, abashed, touching her hair, confused, scared. She too knew she had crossed a threshold and, having done it, could not say why. It was not out of attractionâshe had no physical feelings for Mukesh, disliked his breath, disliked even the tender, consoling way he had held her, as if putting her in a hypnotic lock before committing his actâno, she felt only a warping stasis, the desire to be rid of a station of life, no matter the method or means. And Mukesh, with his kara-cuffed arms, his triple-ringed fingers with their superstitious ruby insets, his almost synthetic mustache, his filigreed eyes, was such a meansâhad become complicit with her mission even before she'd set out on it. So she'd let him play his part.
And putting on his clothes, offering to help with future school tuition, boasting about how the sale of the lands had swelled his bank account so much his kids couldn't even squander it on TVs and cars, he was not so bad. She accepted.
He kept giving her money, but it was to slap the relationship back into the realm of transaction that she began asking for it directly, her eyes hard. The more she liked him the more she hardened herself against him.