Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The Soldier and a Song

The Soldier and a Song

My name is Chitrangada Chattopadhyay; Dr Chitrangada Chattopadhyay, that is. Yes, I know: it is rather a mouthful (and not to mention, weirdly onomatopoeic!). My staunch Bengali parents having spent many days mulling over Tagore’s works to select the perfect name for their only-born, went kind of overboard with their final decision. I have a whopping twenty-four alphabets to my name; imagine the torture that I had had to endure as a pre-schooler in the effort of memorising the entire twenty-four and that too, in the correct order….! Of course, even during my school days, I’ve rarely been called Chitrangada. My teachers, pals and even my parents have always called me Chitra. And in these abbreviated days of the Internet with its lols, rofls and emojis, it is but natural that I get to hear my name rarely; in fact, never at all. At my workplace, they call me Chats. To tell you the truth, I’ve gotten so used to this that while answering a phone call, I often find myself hollering “Jai Hind, Captain Chats!” into the receiver!
Oh ho, I haven’t mentioned this, have I?

I work in the Army as a doctor; hence the rank and the ‘Jai Hind’. They do this thing in the Army: take away the ‘doctor and replace it with a rank. Not that I bear any misgivings about this; the ‘Captain’ is grander and infinitely more glamorous than just a dull ‘Doctor’. You see there are millions of doctors in this country but only a miniscule Captain doctors; which makes this prefix a matter of pride. But I do now and then shudder to think of the reaction of the guy at the other end if and when one day I do ascend to the magnificent rank of a general and  introduce myself with a “Helllloooo, I’m General Chats!”.

Absolutely cringe-worthy, no?

And the man responsible, the perpetrator, that criminal I’d love to vaporise in a white-hot incinerator for this deplorable, this unpardonable corruption of my beautiful` name is Adil.

Captain Adil Idris Shaikh.

No, Adil is not a doctor: just a soldier, an officer from one of the infantry regiments neighbouring my hospital.

I need to tell you more about Adil, because this story is not mine but Adil’s. I’m only sidekick in this tale whose dazzlingly handsome hero Adil is.

Adil is truly handsome, a Greek god: tall, touching six feet, with a body like Rodin’s Athlete, carved of rippling muscle and a face so beautiful that I often think he may have modelled as Adonis for Grecian sculptors in a previous life. And these good looks were precisely the reason why I had never paid him too much attention before. I do not like handsome men; I find them untrustworthy and narcissistic. I’m drawn to a man’s intellect instead; and more than that that, to his intent. But then, I’m digressing: let’s get back to my tale of Adil. And of his beauty.

I had once accused Adil, with all seriousness:
“You are much too handsome!”

To this he had laughed gaily, his beautiful eyes crinkling in mirth, his uneven, faintly protruding set of teeth gleaming in the morning sun. This set of jagged, misaligned, slightly yellowing teeth was the only flaw in his otherwise perfect physical self; and I found that he was rather sentimental about it, as one would be of a prodigal son. The misshapen teeth were what dentists diagnosed as a Class 2 Div 2 Malocclusion; but Adil steadfastly ignored all suggestions both of his peers as well as mine, his doctor and his best pal, to get them fixed.

“I like my teeth!” He had retorted. “Love them as they are. That’s why my favourite heroine is Moushumi Chatterjee!”

“Moushumi Chatterjee?!!!

I couldn’t stop spluttering in amusement. Of all the beautiful women of the Bollywood screen, this chap was fond of Moushumi Chatterjee!!!!!! In my opinion, she was only average in the hierarchy of awesomeness, my favourite being the ethereal Madhubala.

“She is plump.” I had dismissed her.

Adil had looked positively hurt. “She is beautiful. Sweet and winsome.”
At my unconsciously emitted snort of derision, he had then tried to justify: “Haven’t you seen her in the song Rimjhim Ghire Sawan?”

“Nah!” I wasn’t interested in Moushumi Chatterjee movies. I preferred Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them and The Crimes of Grindelwald. Occasionally though, I did glance at Madhubala in Mr & Mrs 55. No, I hadn’t seen Rimjhim Ghire Sawan. But I had heard Adil sing it.

By God, that man could sing!

But Rimjhim Ghire Sawan was not the first song that I had heard Adil sing. It was another one, from old Bollywood again, by Talat Mehmood. I somehow remember that summer dusk where the electricity had failed (again) and I was sitting in my room, trying to study. I had left the door ajar hoping a breeze would make an appearance; but none had yet accepted the invitation. Only the shameless mosquitos were entering in hoards, uninvited as I whiled away my time swatting them with my textbook. Our quarters were cubbyholes built around a quadrangle and as I sat there, a song wafted across the dusty courtyard from the rooms on the opposite end.

Jalte hain jiske liye, teri ankhon ke diye……

The voice was a deep, mesmerising bass and all the passion, pain and pathos of that song echoed around the dark, empty quadrangle.

I listened transfixed, wondering who the singer was. The voice moved closer and I was startled by the sudden silhouette that sprang up at my door.

“Hi Doc!”

Thankfully the electricity decided to return just at this point, illuminating the beauteous apparition that was Adil. (Disclaimer: Please note that the aforementioned description of Adil is his own, not mine).

I had of course not failed to notice the stance he had taken up at my door, calculated for effect: back carelessly oblique against the door frame, one hand patting the flick of hair falling over his eyes. Only there was no flick because his hair was cropped close to his scalp in the typical fauji crew cut. I took in everything at one go and then grinned in amused despair at his idiocy.

But I had had to concede: “You sing very well, Adil.”

“Thanks Chats. Tere dil pe teer lagi na?” Adil queried, raising one coquettish, exquisite brow.

“Ufffff! Yaar…chill.” I had dissuaded him in exasperation.

Adil was an incorrigible flirt. His good looks and deep baritone coupled with the intrinsic child-like candour made him irresistible to women. He had numerous girlfriends, all short term; and what amused me was that even the ones he dumped bore him no real rancour. It was a real mystery how he did it. But whatever the answer to that was, the one truth was that no woman, be it sixteen or sixty was immune to Adil’s charm.

Except me.

And that was why I was his best friend. Our bond was an improbable one but, as I often reasoned to myself, it existed because I possessed the ability to move beyond the veneer of his handsome face, past the turn of his Rhett Butler moustache, well beyond the shallow charm of his laughing eyes and see right into the whirring of his brain where the real Adil lived. Maybe it was helped by the fact that we connected at the level of our intellect; or because we shared a common interest in old Bollywood songs; or maybe simply because we were ordained to be pals, like Arthur Hailey wrote in Hotel:

Or was it fate, chance, circumstance -
Predestination, by whatever name?
Were we like nanoid stars whose orbits,
Devised at time's beginning,
In due season
Intersect?”

I had recited this piece to him one day but all he did in response was to run his palm over and across his head:

“OHT, Chats. Kya sab hi-fi padte rehti hai…..Mera to palle na paring!!!”

Peeved, I had stuck my tongue out at him.

Adil had not an atom of interest in literature. He had only three interests in life: his songs, his job and of course, women.

Adil loved old Hindi film songs especially those of the late fifties and sixties. But his repertoire was not limited to them. He sang everything: Elvis Presley, Ed Sheeran, Katie Perry, John Denver, Mohammed Rafi, Sonu Nigam, Usha Uthup, Bappi Lahiri, Mika, Anuradha Paudwal, ad jingles from FM and television, everything!

He was also extremely fond of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani singer. Sometimes, if I was too busy cramming for my upcoming exams and had refused to accompany him for his weekend pizza orgy, he would stand outside my closed door with his hands on his heart and sing out loud: Dagabaaz re…..hai dagabaaz re…. till I either opened the door and threw my mug of leftover tea at his shirt or gave in and joined him at the Café Pizza at our local mall.

One day he heard me humming a Christmas carol I had learnt from the nuns at my convent school and demanded that I sing it loudly and clearly for his benefit. I did, after much good-natured cajoling and threatening and was pleasantly surprised to find him singing it the very same evening, sitting outside his room in his multicoloured shorts, swatting mosquitos. And I must confess, he left me floored with his rendition of The Silent Night that dusk. No church choir could have done greater justice to the haunting melody better than him.

That night I told myself, Adil’s voice was touched by the Divine.

He had this special affinity for spiritual songs, probably because of their classical base.  One Sunday dawn I was awakened by his voice crooning Anup Jalota’s Jheeni Re Jheeni. I am especially fond of this bhajan; so, I poured myself a cup of tea and walked out to the porch. Just back from his morning run, Adil was sitting under the thorny babool tree that adorned our dusty quadrangle in his Tees and sneakers. His eyes were closed and he hadn’t realised that I was there, observing him. I stood there for a long time, watching that beatific expression on his face as his voice softly negotiated the curves of Kabirdas’ poignant creation. Then before his song ended, I tiptoed noiselessly back to my room, my tea un-drunk.

I had often heard him sing another well-known bhajan, Lata’s Shri Ram Chandra Kripalu Bhaja Mana. I was surprised by his choice of song because of his faith; but of course, I never articulated my surprise to him. Adil did not appear to be overtly religious but then it was something we never had discussed; not because of anything else but because religion never figured in our sphere of interest. Only once, on an evening when I had gone over to his room to see if he had some coffee to spare  that I had heard his voice rise softly in the evening namaz from behind his closed door. I would have gone back because I didn’t want to disturb him; but I had already knocked so I had stayed. He had opened the door soon after and for the first and only time I had seen Adil in the dress of his faith: pristine white shalwaar kurta and skull cap on his head.

His parents, I knew were devout Muslims. I had met them once when they came over to visit him and he had brought them to the hospital to get a general medical check-up. While his Dad had seemed like a grim man with his moustache-less beard, white cap, kohl lined eyes and unsmiling face; his mom, though covered from head to foot in a black-as-night burqa, was a piece of chortling sunshine. She chatted and laughed with me oblivious of anything and I realised Adil was the favourite amongst her three children.

“Still you let him join Fauj!” I couldn’t help asking. I knew how much my parents had resisted when I had told them I had qualified in my army exam.

Adil’s mom had thrown back her niquab, revealing pan stained teeth and dancing onyx eyes: “Beti, he is my bonus baby, Allah’s special gift to me. He goes as he pleases. Who am I to hold him back?”

It was good that Adil had joined fauj, for they fitted each other to a T. Adil was a pukka soldier: you know, the Rambo kinds- in love with guns and gyms. It seems he was an ace shooter too for he kept going out to various cities training other soldiers in the use of some special type of guns (or rifles or pistol or whatever). Not being interested in the wherewithal of what I termed ‘equipment for murder’, I had never shown much interest in this side of Adil’s. What bothered me instead was that he spent all his time with his paltan, even the free hours; so much so that like true conscientious and concerned friend, I advised him one day:
“Stick to your short-term girlfriends, Adil. Don’t get married. You’ll make one poor girl very lonely and left out.”

Adil had replied, unaffected, eyes grinning wickedly: “Let us get married then. You can live with your books and I with my paltan and all can be happy.”

Maddened at his levity, I had chased him around the quadrangle wielding my neurology hammer for a good ten minutes; till he gave up and promised never to ask me to marry him.

*****************************************************************
That evening was a Saturday; but I had an exam looming forebodingly before me and therefore was in no mood to feel happy. I had been sitting at my desk cramming since three and was now feeling distinctly crabby.

It must have been about six when Adil landed up at my room.

“Pizza, Chats?” he asked, his tone filled with an weekend jovialness I did not share in the least. But I did note the red collarless T shirt sticking brazenly to his torso and the skin-tight distressed jeans that he wore today.

“Girlfriend said no?” I enquired churlishly.

Adil pretended to be hurt. “Chats darling, how can a mere girlfriend ever compare to our only Doc……..”

I was unmoved, though mollified a tad. I removed the crabbiness from my tone, “Nahin re Adil. Not today. I really have to complete these two topics.”

But Adil was unfazed. He put his hand to his heart and was just starting on Dagabaaz Re when I decided to give in. Rather easily I admit, but that was only because neuro-anatomy is a subject that drains one out, a total bheja fry which only pizza can heal.

“Ok, ok chalte hain. For God’s sake don’t start singing now. Your boss is playing tennis in the court next door.”

Adil reluctantly stopped but couldn’t resist throwing at me a triumphant shot: “Dekh, dil pe teer lagee na?”

I did not deign to answer such flippancy.
**********************************************************************
We took Adil’s bike because I felt too drained and too cranky to drive. I was glad we were not on a four-wheeler because we found Main Road crammed end to end with traffic. There was a julus passing and the police had laid a temporary barricade.

A helpful traffic cop told us: “Adhaa ghanta lag jayega.”

It sounded reasonable given the length of the julus; so, we waited for the procession to pass. It was pretty huge: with tall saffron flags, a flotilla mounted on a truck and hundreds of young men sporting saffron bandanas around their fore-heads. They were brandishing swords and spears and cries of Jai Shri Ram rent the air.

It was Ram Navami today and the city’s main Hanuman Mandir was just around the corner.

I peered intently at the flotilla. A tall fellow was standing atop dressed as Hanumanji, complete with mace and mask. He had a tail too and I involuntarily smiled as I noticed it, my mind returning to my childhood Ram Navamis. There had always been processions like this one in my little town too and it was the highlight of the day for me to stand upon my Dad’s shoulders, reach out to the Hanumanji on the truck and shake his hand. And since then, I’ve always nurtured a soft corner for this childlike, this kind, friendly and fiercely loyal God. I remembered too, how my niece who was three shared my sentiments, referring to Hanumanji as “Hannu Dada”!

But today I did not spot any kid shaking hands with this Hannu Dada.

“Too busy with smartphones!” I explained to myself derisively.

Just then a streetlight caught itself on one of the waving swords and pierced my eyes.
“But why swords and spears on Ram Navami?” I wondered silently.
*********************************************************************
City Dreamz Mall was teeming with weekenders. Café Pizza thankfully though, still had a few empty tables. Adil and I stood in the queue waiting to order. I was looking at the menu displayed above the counter, wondering whether I wanted a Chicken Tandoori Pizza or a Barbecued Chicken one and whether I could sin and order two pockets of fries instead of one, when Adil nudged me furiously.
Oye dekh!” He whispered.

I looked to where he was pointing.

It was a young woman in a white windcheater and pink stole standing ahead of us in the queue.

“Kya?” I found nothing interesting about her.

Then, she turned back.

“Hello!” I almost whistled. She was gorgeous: alabaster skin, large limpid eyes, a halo of curly hair with light brown highlights around her beautifully shaped head and a deep red, luscious mouth …she was like a diva stepped off the movie screen……

I could sense Adil fidget impatiently beside me. I didn’t blame him.
I nudged him back, encouragingly. “Ja ja hello bol…!”And giggled.

Adil of course didn’t need much encouragement. He was itching to interact with the beauty. But he didn’t spring to action immediately. Like a seasoned player, he bided his time. The girl collected her order and began walking back, carefully balancing two large loaded trays one on top of the other in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

Adil now made his move and swiftly slid up to her. The girl looked surprised at the sudden barrier that had sprung up in her path; but Adil quickly said something to her softly, something I couldn’t catch. The young woman lost the surprised look and simpered. She then happily handed him one of her trays. I was impressed by Adil's technique, seeing the speed  and positivity of the girl's reaction; till I noted the other woman approaching.

This woman was older…….No she was old; and even from this distance I could see the numerous wrinkles on her face. But she was dressed impeccably, dressed youthful: in a pair of smart flared black trousers and a beige embroidered top. Her hair all white, was drawn back into a braid that was looped over her shoulders, giving her a faintly girlish air. But the look right now on her face belied any girlishness: it was directed sternly at Adil. Sensing trouble, I quickly approached the trio. By now the lady had taken the tray back from Adil’s hands and was saying:

“Thank you, young man. We’ll manage.”

I sidled into their midst, as unobtrusively as was possible. The lady spotted me and though her eyes softened a little, the stern gaze did not go away completely. Closer now, I noted she was pretty in spite of her advanced years, the deep kohl lined eyes holding a sweetness that shone through, even if her expression was severe. I found myself liking her instantly, though she was a complete stranger. I smiled reflexively, in response to which her expression reformed itself into a return smile. It was then that I noted, not without some amusement, her misshapen teeth.

She turned towards her companion, the young beauty who was now grinning mischievously at the older lady’s protective demeanour.
The lady noted the grin and addressed both of us, very firmly.

“Thank you so much, my dears.”

“Kamal, there’s an empty table over there. Come on.” And she gently manoeuvred the still grinning beauty away from us to the safety of the chrome and plastic tables arranged around the counter.

“Right Ma’am. You are welcome, Ma’am.” Chivalry dripped from Adil’s voice but I knew how majorly chagrined he was at the rebuff.
We got our orders and selected a table. It was at a little distance from the duo but they remained in the line of our sight. Though, Adil sat with his back to them as if it didn’t matter, but I knew.
Oh, I knew.
And I couldn’t stop giggling.
“So…!?” I asked through my laughter.
Adil didn’t join my mirth. He was looking a little grumpy, like a great cat whose antelope has just escaped.
“Arrey baba, Adil, jaane de. You don’t have to win over all the beautiful women in the world. That old lady is a piece of ferocity, total khunkhaar. Jaane de.” I advised him sagely.
But Adil was like a panther on the prowl. I could see the thrill of an anticipated chase slowly spreading through his being.
“Chats, the way to that babe’s dil is through the heart of that Mataji.” Adil was thinking aloud. “Not difficult, bus I need thoda time.” “No woman has ever refused me.” He finished grandiloquently. Then, for some reason, he winked at me. “Kyun Chats?”
“Huh! Says who?” I snickered, my attention now clustered on the two pockets of fries on the table before me. “Anyway, all the best. But you better eat your fries before attempting again or I’ll finish them.” I was actually hoping he wouldn’t eat his share of the fries.
But Adil scooped up his pocket away from my reach.
Moti! Heart attack hoga tujhe, itna aloo khaati hai……”
I promptly snatched it back from him.
“Why don’t you concentrate on your Mataji ka dil winning strategy? Leave the fries to me. Vaise I agree, it won’t be too difficult for you, seeing that you are the same species.” I conceded, cheesed off at his mention of my waistline.
Adil raised an eyebrow in query: “What are you hinting at?”
“You share something.”  
Adil was surprised: “Eh! What?”
“Malocclusion. Your teeth.” I couldn’t help giggling. Only a little. Adil was quite touchy about his teeth.
“Oh! I didn’t notice.”
“Yeah, I can understand. You were busy.” I giggled again. “So now all you need to do is flash at her your class 2 div 2 and Mataji will be electrified. Once she has melted, the babe is all yours….”
Even Adil couldn’t stop laughing at my idiotic advice.
“Yeah ok, Doc. Thanks for the input on strategy.” He acquiesced good-naturedly, handing back his pocket of fries back to me.
Khush reh.” He said, picking up a slice of his pizza.
****************************************************************
I looked at the pizza before me, thinking how sharply contrasted the red bell peppers looked against the muted white of the mozzarella: “Like new blood on old snow!”
Then I shook myself away from these morbid musings and placed a slice of the pizza inside my mouth. I had just clamped my jaws over the piece, my mind in happy anticipation of the pleasure that the mixture of biscuity base, crunchy peppers, succulent chicken and gooey, gummy mozzarella would soon be giving me; when some waiter dropped a whole stack of steel and glass plates on the floor with a clatter that reverberated round and round Café Pizza.

Yaar……..” I remarked aloud to Adil, annoyed at being interrupted at mid bite.

But Adil did not reply to me. Instead, he pushed me off my chair and was now shoving me under our wood and chrome table.

Adil! Yaar what’s….…”
But once more he didn’t let me finish.

He had his palms clamped across my mouth and was whispering. “Shut up. Firing…………”

So, it was not a waiter dropping plates on the floor. It was firing.

Who’s firing, I wanted to ask but something thundered again and there was a tinkle of breaking glass.
And the petrified screams of people. It sounded as if hundreds of spoilt three-year olds were having an ear-splitting tantrum spell, all at once, without a break.

Adil had now pushed me on to the ground under our table and was lying half on top of me. His six-foot frame felt like a ton of concrete and I found I couldn’t inhale. I tried to push him off. But couldn’t. He was too heavy. And determined.
And he had no intention of moving; because he was shielding my body with his.
From bullets.
Fired from large ugly black guns in the hands of two men standing in the centre of Café Pizza.
Two young men in blue denims, dark shirts, black boots and mottled cloth wrapped round their heads.
One of them had a triangular funnel kind of thing in his hands, white with a blue base.
A loudspeaker. And he was announcing in a mixture of Hindi and staccato English:
Allah Hu Akbar! Stay in your place. Don’t move. Anyone who moves will die.”
Die? Why? My mind was garbled. Guns? Why?
The other man was thrusting his black gun above his head, stabbing the air. “Allah Hu Akbar! Allah Hu Akbar!”
The man with the loudspeaker was shouting: “Kneel. Kneel. Don’t move. We’ll shoot if you move.”
But people were still screaming, still running….
The man with loudspeaker then fired in the air. The spray of bullets hit the glass roof and a snowfall of splinters descended once again, tinkling.
People now ducked for cover.
But the man did not duck. He kept intoning in his soft raspy voice “Kneel. Kneel. Don’t move.”
A tiny kid in bright blue emerged out from somewhere to my left and began toddling towards the opposite end. His mother was kneeling there, near the counters. The man with the loudspeaker took slow aim and then lazily pressed the trigger. The kid fell forward softly, soundlessly. A sudden explosive hush settled all around, louder than the sound of the gun that had preceded it.
I tried to get out from under the table, to crawl towards the child…but Adil wouldn’t budge.
“No!” He was whispering. “Chats, no.”
That small crumpled bundle of blue which was fast turning red had put the two men with guns in ascendency, in complete control.
People all around me suddenly turned to kneeling stones. There was now absolute silence all around. People had stopped screaming, whimpering, trying to get away……………….
The loudspeaker gunman was now directing:
“Woman separate. Man separate. Woman separate…man separate….”

The other gunman was prodding the kneeling junta with the nozzle of his gun: “Get up! Get up…”

Adil shifted his weight away from over me: “Go….”

“No..!” I protested but he had pushed me out from under the table.

A sharp poke from the gun hit me in the solar plexus. I shrieked and Adil shot out an arm to shelter my midriff. But the gun swung and caught him on his back. He winced aloud and I crawled away as fast as I could, on all four limbs towards the group of women kneeling on one side.

The men were huddling at the opposite end. Adil was made to join them.

The loudspeaker was booming: “Woman, cover head. Cover head. Don’t move. Kneel…kneel…don’t move….”

Some women around me were now whimpering. Others were covering themselves with whatever cloth they had with them: pallus, dupattas, jackets, stoles……

But I had nothing. I was dressed in tracks and an old t shirt.

The loudspeaker went on and on, in boring mono-tones: “Woman cover head……cover head.” Someone placed something over my head. I couldn’t see who it was but the cloth seemed like a windcheater.

“Kneel!” shouted the gunman who was now inspecting the parade on the women’s side. I knelt and bowed, till my head almost touched the ground. From the corner of my eyes, I saw the old lady and the young woman with their covered heads bowed next to me. The young woman’s white windcheater was now draped over me.
The gunman without the loudspeaker was now placing chairs in a row before us women, in a single file. He was creating a segregation between the men and women. Through the gaps in the legs of the steel chairs, I saw Adil kneeling, not far away from me, next to a waiter from Café Pizza.
The gunman with the loudspeaker was now conducting the inspection of the rows of men kneeling opposite us. He stopped before an elderly, bespectacled Muslim man in a pathani suit and kufi and yelled into his loudspeaker:
“Are you Musalman?”
The old man froze. And nodded his head weakly.
The gunman was enjoying his fear: “Are you scared, old man? Of this gun? But you are a Musalman. If you are a true Musalman, there is nothing to fear.”

As if conversing over a cup of chai, he continued, “Tell me,” and placed the nozzle of his gun under the old man’s chin: “You are a Musalman; but are you a true Musalman? A Momin?”

The frail man again, could only nod.

“Good.” The gunman sounded like a professor taking a viva: “Then old man, recite for us the Kalimah.”

The old man looked as if he would collapse.
The gunman placed the loudspeaker against the man’s lips and hissed: “Bolo!”

At first only faint gurgles escaped the poor man’s lips. At the gun’s prodding, slowly, very faintly the sacred words of the first Kalimah emerged from the frail old lips.

As he finished, the man collapsed sobbing to the ground. The gunman raised his weapon to the air and fired a staccato burst in triumph. The spent cartridges clattered around the old man who lay as if beaten, on the ground.

The gunman moved on. The next in line was the waiter from Café Pizza.

I was watching, my hands clenched. I had no thoughts in my mind; it was blank as if someone had pressed the Ctrl+Alt+Del button.

“What’s your name kid?” the gunman whispered.

The young man mumbled: “Ashok Singh, Saab.”
“Louder!” murmured the gunman. And pushed the loudspeaker before the waiter’s mouth.

The man whimpered: “Ashok Singh.”

The gun roared once.

Someone screamed. Was it me? I don’t know. Maybe it was. And maybe it was others too.

The gunman was muttering something over the body of the dead waiter, head bowed. Once he finished, he picked up the blood splattered loudspeaker and soothed the gathering: “Don’t cry for him. He is in heaven.”
Then he turned to the next lamb.
It was Adil.
He put the gun against Adil’s chest, right where his heart would be and bayed: “Aur tera naam kya hai?”
My whole body ached; my muscles were stiff with tension. I heard Adil say: “Adil Irfan Shaikh.”
The gunman chortled. “Really?”
He turned to the other gunman who was standing in front of us women. From behind the legs of the chairs before me, I could see his black gun nozzle touching the floor.
He repeated to his accomplice, tone snide: “Adil Irfan Shaikh…….!”
The other man also laughed. They didn’t believe him.
“It seems you don’t want to join your neighbour in heaven, do you?” The loudspeaker man was chuckling.
He thrust the loudspeaker into Adil’s face. “Recite the Kalimah, Adil Irfan Shaikh. And show us how much of a Musalman you are.”

But Adil did not budge. The butt of the gun descended with aloud thwack on his shoulders. I screamed again as Adil’s face contorted in pain.

Kalimah!” This time, it was the gunman standing in front of us. He was getting edgy.

Another merciless prod from the butt almost toppled Adil.

 “Kalimah!!!”

This time Adil moved. Very slowly. Very deliberately.

He bent over and kissed the cold tiled floor. Then he grasped the loudspeaker. It was a slippery red.

I was surprised how easily the gunman let go of it. Very cooperative. And then very softly, almost politely he asked: “Kalimah?”

But Adil only stood up.

Do you stand up when you recite the kalimah? I thought you didn’t. I thought you knelt in faith and prayer. Then why had Adil stood up?

I was trembling.

But the gunman looked relaxed, as if he was thoroughly enjoying this show that he had scripted. He was of course only biding his time.

From the edge of my vision I thought I saw a few shadowy figures run across the balcony just above us. Masked silhouettes crouching as they moved. Silently, stealthily. I saw them but my conscious mind did not register their presence.

It was occupied with Adil who was now was looking towards where we were kneeling behind the chairs. I don’t think he could see me, but I could see him. Very clearly, framed between the metal leg of the chair and the second gunman’s denimed covered leg.

But why was he looking at me? Why?
Oh why, why, why?

Was I moaning?

I wanted desperately to shut my eyes and ears and draw myself into some deep dark underground cavern far, far away from what was happening here, what was going to happen here. But I couldn’t. Like a hypnotised moth that flutters to its death into the open flames of a candle, I watched with my eyes glued open as Adil drew himself up to his full proud six feet two, placed his right hand over his heart and closing his eyes began to sing.

But it not the sacred Kalimah. No, no, that was not the Kalimah.

Adil was singing: Vande Mataram, Vande Mataram! Sujalam, Suphalam, Malyaja……

I was moaning again: He will die he will die…..

Adil’s rich, deep, breathtakingly beautiful voice echoed around that broken Café Pizza for exactly eleven seconds.

Till he reached the midpoint of malayajashitalam.

And in those precious eleven seconds as the two gunmen stood stunned, frozen in surprise, something staggering happened. The old lady kneeling beside me caught hold of the metal legs of the chair in front of her and swinging, crashed it in one desperate lunge against the back of the gunman standing in front of us. The man, his muscles relaxed by the momentary astonishment of Adil’s song was unable to the withstand the force of the attack. He fell forward, his gun clattering across the floor. The force of the fall must have activated the machine in some way, for as it rolled across the room it kept firing indiscriminately. One of these wild berserk bullets caught its owner, I am certain somewhere vital; because the man screamed, his body seizing up and then became deathly still.

At the noise, the other gunman whirled around. It was at precisely this point that Adil moved. Free from his song that had been broken in mid-sentence, he sprang upon his tormentor.

They grappled, two hefty young men in mortal combat.

This was the last cogent memory I have of that terrible evening.

I had stood up in terror just at the moment the gun between them went off. A white-hot pain had seared through my abdomen.

I don’t remember anything beyond the crest of that pain.
**************************************************************
My first thought as I came out of the anaesthetic haze was that I was dead. And that Adil was dead too.

But of course, neither of us died that day.

Four people did: Anil Singh, the hapless Café Pizza waiter, Sonu, the little baby blue and the two psychopaths who had held the whole Café to ransom for two excruciating hours. The seize had been brought to an end by the intervention of the NSG commandos who had entered the building within an hour of the crisis unfurling. They had been biding time on the upper floors, scared to intervene lest more collateral damage happen. Adil and the old lady had given them the critical window that they needed to launch into action.

So, who were the two men with the guns? No one was telling us much; but the bits and pieces that had seeped through the armour of secrecy the government had erected around the whole episode were that they were two misguided youth whose minds had irreconcilably been tampered with by what are known in RAW circles as “handlers” from overseas. But the young men were dead now and my mind did not want to dwell on them in the least.

Today was the first day that they had let me move unaided, unchaperoned from my room to anywhere else in this vast but beautiful hospital. Of course, the only place I made a beeline for was Adil’s cabin.

He had taken two bullets, like me in the abdomen and from the same gunman’s weapon. But while I had gotten off light, Adil had not been that lucky. The bullets had shattered his spleen and he would take a much longer time than me to fully recover. But he had past the worst and now was “out of danger”.

I found him surfing Rahat Fateh Ali Khan videos on YouTube. The curtains were firmly drawn and the room was dark.

Adil smiled and gave me a bright class 2 div 2 smile. 
"Chats darling!” He intoned, irrepressible as ever.

“You sang very well Adil.” I shot back.

Dekh, dil pe teer lagee na?” He was laughing softly.

It was then that I started to cry. Shamelessly. Like a kid. Great waves of sobs shook my whole body, hurting the stitches in my abdomen with their intensity.

Adil said gently, urgently: “Arrey Chats…Chats, Chats……..” And then put out his arms.

I went over to him and tried unsuccessfully to encircle his huge frame with my woefully short arms. Adil laughed at my futile attempts and enveloped me in his kind, gentle bear-hug.

Adil had two other guests in his cabin that day. Dr Mandeep Kaur Heer and her niece, Shivkamal. Dr Heer was a paediatrician and Kamal, her niece was in studying medicine.

They call women heroes ‘sheroes’ these days. Neither us nor the whole country had any doubts that Dr Heer was the shero of the Café Pizza incident.

She told me as we sat sipping some tepid hospital tea: “Chitra, I’ve also worn the uniform like you.”

I almost choked on my tea. “You did? You are an army doc?”

“Was.” She corrected me. “Hung my uniform twenty years back.”

I was delighted. “One day, Ma’am,” I told her, “I want be as elegant and as beautiful and as brave as you.” I know I was gushing but then when you are hero-worshipping, everything goes.

Dr Heer was amused. But not really thrilled. She was not the type to be easily flattered.  
Still she said kindly: “Really? Thank you, Chitra. One day, I hope Shivkamal will don the uniform, just like you.”
It was Shivkamal who spilt the beans. She smiled her dazzling smile at me: “Masi’s pretty taken in with you, Dr Chitra.”

I must confess I was flattered to bits at this revelation.

And of course, our in-house Casanova Adil had to spoil my moment by barging in right at this juncture:
“Ma’am,” he said to Dr Heer, in his most suave, most charming voice, “you are even more beautiful than Moushumi Chatterjee.”

“Oh hell!” I could have disappeared under the bed in embarrassment at Adil’s brazenness.

Dr Heer gave him her short severe look, the look we had already experienced at Café Pizza that day. Only this time she couldn’t hold it for long. Abandoning her stern countenance, she broke into a wide, open, disarming laughter, her misshapen teeth flashing unselfconsciously in a way that made me fall even more in love with her.

“Captain Adil,” she said once she regained her breath, “you sing beautifully.”

Adil, ever the thespian, bowed his head, hand on his heart.
“Thank you so much Ma’am.”

“But do you know the rest of the song? The original Bankim Chandra piece is six verses long.’

‘I do, Ma’am.”

Dr Heer looked surprised. 

“You do? Then please sing.” She requested. “I'd love to hear more of your voice. The Cafe Pizza performance was not exactly a pleasant experience.”

Adil cleared his throat and leaned back against the metal bed-rest. He paused, just for a few seconds. Then  closing his eyes, he began to sing.

Vande Mataram....

The room reverberated with his voice, the words part Sanskrit, part Bengali merging with the beat of my heart.

As he finished the antara, Dr Heer joined her voice to his. 
It was a surprisingly beautiful contralto.

Kamal was smiling amusedly at my expression of amazement. 

"Mandy Aunty's a trained classical singer!" she mouthed, explaining.

For a moment I sat motionless and watched  them sing, the young man and the old woman, marvelling at how  disparate they were and yet how terribly alike.

Then I tiptoed to the window and furled the blinds.

The late spring sun filled the room with its russet light.
  
 




The Soldier and a Song

The Soldier and a Song My name is Chitrangada Chattopadhyay; Dr Chitrangada Chattopadhyay, that is. Yes, I know: it is rather a mout...