Authors: Karan Mahajan
oon after Shaukat “Shockie” Guru received the order to carry out the blast, he went to his alley and washed his face under the open tap outside the building. Then he entered his room and sat on the bed, brooding. The room was small, foggy with dust, ripe with the smell of chemical reagents (there had been construction recently in the alley), poorly painted. The sole decoration was a poster of a slick-bellied Urmila Matondkar from
. Two charpais lay separated by a moat of terrazzo. The mattress under him was thin. He felt the coir through the clotted cotton.
After a while, he went back into the alley, where afternoon was announcing itself in the form of clothes hung out to dry between buildings and the particular yawning honking that comes from cars when the sun is high overhead, dwarfing human activity, and he went to the PCO and called home. It was his ritual to call home before setting out on a mission. His mother thought he was a student in Kathmanduâat least she made him believe she thought thatâand he wanted to give her an opportunity to save him. She is the only one who has the right to decide whether I live or die, he often thought when he smelled milk boiling in the shopsâyes, that was the smell he associated with his mother and with Kathmandu. It gave Kathmandu a sweet, plasticky flavor. Of all natural substances, milk has the most artificial smell.
Shockie was the leading bomb maker of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force, which operated out of exile in Nepal. An avuncular-looking man of twenty-six, he had catlike green eyes, wet lips, and curly hair
already balding on the vast egg of his head. His arms were fat rods under his kurta. In the past four years he had killed dozens of Indians in revenge for the military oppression in Kashmir, expanding the JKIF's “theater of violence,” as the newspapers called it.
Now he pushed the receiver close to his ear in the PCO booth. Deep in a crater of silence on the other side of the Himalayas, the phone rang. The phone was a drill seeking out life. “You're sick,” he imagined saying to his mother. “Should I come?”
His mother had been a presswali her entire life, and had developed a tumor in her stomach after years of exposure to the hot coals in the heavy, radiant, red-jawed iron, an iron that was shaped like a medieval torture device, something you might want to trap a head in. No one had been able to cure her. And yet she always refused his offer. This time, the phone wasn't even picked up (it wasn't her phoneâit belonged to Shockie's cousin, Javed, who lived a few minutes from his mother in Anantnag, in Kashmir). Sweat distorted the air before Shockie's eyes in the suffocating cabin of the PCO, with its thrum of phone voices. Back in his room, he asked his friend and roommate, Malik, “Should I not go?”
Malikâa slow, deliberate, hassled man at the best of times, the sort who seems to be exhaling deeply against the troubles of the worldâsaid, “You're making excuses.” He was sitting curled up on his charpai.
“I fear that she's back to work again. My brother is ruthless and callous. He never did anything growing up and he's used to being taken care of, and she likes taking care of people.” He spat. “Do you think this is a wise mission?”
“Not wiser or unwiser than anything else.”
“This is the first time Javed hasn't picked up,” Shockie said, unzipping his fake Adidas cricket kit bag.
A journey to Delhi to plant a bomb did not require much, at least in the way of equipment. Most of the stuff you needed you bought there. That way no one could trace you to your source. You destroy a city with the material it conveniently provides. But every respectable revolutionary needs
a few changes of clothes, and Shockie, on his knees in his shabby room, folded two shirts and a pair of black pants into the kit bag. On the journey, he knew, he would have to dress in pajamas and a kurtaâbrown rags. He was supposed to be a farmer attending an agro-conference near Azamgarh, in Uttar Pradesh.
These agro-conferences were among the most fascinating things about India. They happened several times a year, in far-flung parts of the country. Tinkerers and crackpots showed up, hawking inventions to solve irrigation problems and plowing “inefficiencies”; a good number claimed to have invented perpetual motion machines (Shockie remembered a machine shaped like a calf with a swinging leg). The farmers, dismissed by urban Indians as bumpkins, roamed in gangs, examining the machines, discussing the finer points with the inventors. They were the audience for these raucous fairs held under tents in eroded Indian fields. The farmers were uniformly suspicious. They were taken in by nothing. Shockieâwho had attended a fair to buy pipes for a large new bomb the group was building, as well as to purchase gunny sacks of ammonium nitrate and other fertilizerâwas impressed. When he heard another one was happening in UP, he decided to disguise himself as a farmer in tribute. After stuffing a few old farmers' newspapers in his kit bag, Shockie patted his hair into place, as if it needed to be coaxed into traveling with him.
The next day, with Meraj, another agent, he left by bus for the Indo-Nepal border at Sunauli.
Meraj and he were both in tattered kurtas. The bus, rattling over bad roads, usually took eight hours to Sunauli. Today it took almost ten. The landscape, a wild scrawl of reddish terraces and gushing private rivers, came right up to the bus, nearly shattering it. The dug-up road heralded the air with red dust. Plants with plastic bags over their heads crossed their leaves in surrender. A baby in the back screamed the entire way. Shockie and Meraj shifted on their shared seat, trying to apply enough pressure to keep Nepalis from sitting next to them.
When Meraj, an absent-looking fellow with a disarmingly stupid face you could consider capable of nothing dangerous, picked dandruff off his hair and sniffed his fingers, Shockie said, “Don't do that.”
“OK,” he said, smiling nervously. But he had obviously not understood Shockie's command and soon smelled his fingers again.
“That,” Shockie said.
At the border in Sunauli, a town reveling in its own filth, the policeman in the Indian immigration hut gazed at them for far too long. Shockie and Meraj remained impassive, but when they were halfway out, the policeman suddenly shouted after them. “You're meat eaters?”
“We're farmers. We told you,” Shockie said quietly.
“But you're of the terrorist religion, no?” the policeman said. A dandy, his mustache was trimmed to the same depth as his eyebrows. “I've lived among you bastards and you're all Pakistanis. Now go.”
Shockie and Meraj walked quickly to the Indian side, disappearing into a crowd of truck drivers. When they came across a small dhaba selling sandwiches wrapped in plastic, with a grassy patch in the back, they collapsed on the ground, breathing heavily. Meraj counted out money for ketchup sandwiches, but kept fumbling the notes.
Suddenly, Shockie burst out, “How much did they give you?”
“Two thousand,” Meraj said.
“Two thousand.” Shockie shook his head. “You think it's enough?”
Meraj kept smilingâbut it was a vacant, expectant smile. “It's not bad.”
“Nonsense,” Shockie said. “Do you know how much Abdul makes at the shop alone?” Abdul was the leader of the group, a thirty-year-old who ran a carpet shop and also taught in the local school. “Fifty thousand,” Shockie said.
“I've seen it with my own eyes. And that's on top of the dana we're getting from Karachi.” Dana was counterfeit money. The Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force prided itself on being composed entirely of native Indian Kashmiris, but received funding from NGOs run by the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency. “But why share it with us?” Shockie said. “We're little people. We're only making chocolate.” “Making chocolate,” the code for
bomb making. “You know how in restaurants they have a mundu who helps the cook? That's the amount of respect we get. We're
.” He snapped a Kit Kat they'd bought from the dhaba. “Listen to how it snaps. What a delicate sound. It sounds like
. They probably spent more for this one chocolate, in setting up the factory, than they give
for one chocolate.” He put a piece in his mouth.
Shockie said, “These small chocolates will achieve nothing.”
Meraj shook his head absently.
“You're listening?” Shockie said. “Fuck it. It's useless talking to you.”
This was not the best attitude to have, since they were soon on a five-hour bus to Gorakhpur, in India. A diesel-perfumed monster, its seats appeared ready to come loose from their moorings on the metal floor. Shockie looked out angrily at the landscape as Meraj drenched his shoulder with drool. How had this arid, dusty, ruthless part of the world become his life? Fighting for Kashmiri independence, he hadn't seen Kashmir in two years; he was an exile, and in those two years, he feared (with the unreasonable worry of all exiles) that Kashmir would have changed. What if it had become like
after all the warfare? What if the green had been exhausted and the placid mirror of Dal Lake had been smashed, revealing layers of dead bodies and desert that lay on the lake bed?
When he'd been growing up in the late eighties and early nineties, he was convinced that the bottom of the lake was choked with bodies, that each taut stem of lotus or water hyacinth tugged at the neck of a drowned person like a noose. Sometimes his friends and he boarded a shikara and went trawling, running their hands through the water, jumping back if they touched something or if they saw a small drop of red floating by.
When Shockie looked out of the window again, it was evening. It occurred to him through his sleep that maybe even Uttar Pradesh had once been as pretty as Kashmirâonly to be despoiled by wars and invasions.
Gorakhpur is one of the armpits of the universe. The best thing that can be said about it is that it is better than Azamgarh, which, along with
Moradabad, competes in an imaginary inverse beauty pageant for the title of the world's ugliest town.
Shockie and Meraj disembarked and checked in to their usual hotelâa half-finished concrete building that had once been a godown and was crowned with rooms in a gallery on the first floor and now called Das Palace. (Though
called it Udaas PalaceâSad Palace.)
The room was even more awful than the ones they were assigned in Kathmandu. Mosquitoes swarmed through the gaps in the doorframeâthe door did not fit properly. Meraj, alert after his nap on the bus, smeared his body with Odomos. “There's Japanese encephalitis here,” he said, offering the tube to Shockie and savoring the name of the disease: he had once been a compounder.
Shockie accepted moodily. Alexander the Great had died from a mosquito bite, from malaria, he knew.
In the morning, when they had drunk tea served by the hunchback, the only apparent employee of the hotel, they went to visit the Jain.
The Jain sat on a cushion in an impeccable house, impeccable only on the inside, of course: outside was a heap of roiling, shifting garbage, a heap that seemed a living thing with rats burrowing through itâswimming, really, floating in an unreal paradise of gnawables with pigs pushing aside layers of plastic and rotten trembling fruit with their snouts.
But the Jain's house, built like a Gujarati kothi, was oblivious to all this. The Jain was a boulder of a man with smooth coal-colored skin and a bald head offset by two equal tufts of hair. His nose was a beautiful chorus of tiny pores. He had large dark hands, whitish on the inside. He sat on his knees on a cushion in a white kurta, the rock of his paunch balanced before him. “I had orchiopexy, you seeâyou know what that is?” he started. “When one of your testes doesn't descend.” He must have been twenty-nine, thirty. No one in this world was very old. “For years I had lots of pain, and though I was strong, I couldn't run without losing my breath and getting a sharp pain in my torso. I used to always wonder why.” The servant set down three earthen cups of tea; the Jain accepted his cup daintily in his large hands. “Now that I've had surgery I have all this energy. I can run five kilometers without stopping.”
Where does the poor fellow run in this dump? Shockie wondered. But ideas of health, Western ideas, were spreading everywhere. Shockie himself was obsessed with exercise, with hanging from a rod in his doorway.
“Anyway,” the Jain said, putting his large hands on his thighs, thighs the size of cricket bats, “I overdid it, so I have been advised to rest. Hence this cushion under me.”
A fan turned overhead, raising a delicious current from the layers of sleeping air. It was dark in the drawing room, a welcome respite from the May heat of Gorakhpur.
The servant brought a VIP suitcase with a numbered lock and the Jain twisted it open on his lap. “Count it,” he said.
Meraj and Shockie each took a bundle in their hands and petaled the notes. Shockie was sleepy and slightly delirious; the room had a fan but not much air, and the smell of fresh money made him high. He kept losing count only to realize he'd been thinking of nothing, or rather, thinking of himself thinking.
When they had finally accounted for all the money, they dumped it into their kit bag and went off.
“You see what I was saying?” Shockie said, as they waited on the railway platform for the train to Delhi. “What we get is just a tip.”
The money was not for them. It was to be dropped off with an agent in Delhi, part of a hawala money-laundering operation that sustained the group.
“But this is also for chocolate,” Meraj said, speaking with the dazed clarity that comes to people in extreme heat.
“Just like that, it's for chocolate? If they have so many funds, why do you think they still bother to send us on such a long journey? Use your brain for once, Meru.”