“Don’t go home. They’re looking for you.”
Nadeem blinked and looked at the display on the cell phone. The number meant nothing to him. “What? Who’s this?”
“I’m Imran’s friend, Arif. You’ve met me a couple of times but probably don’t remember. He told me to call you. They’re after him too.”
“Who’s after him? What is this about?”
“The police. They have information that you were involved in the blasts – they’re waiting for you at home. Get away as fast as you can.”
“Imran is waiting for you in the house in old Chowk. You know the house? Go there quickly, and make sure you aren’t followed.”
“I’ve never...” Nadeem began.
“Do it. And don’t try to phone home, they’ll be waiting for you to call.” There was a brief pause. Nadeem could hear traffic in the background. “One more thing,” the voice said. “Make sure to dump this mobile, they can trace you through it.”
“Listen,” Nadeem began, but the flat silence at the other end told him the conversation was over. He tried calling back, but got a recording saying the phone was turned off.
He called Imran, already knowing his cousin’s phone would be switched off too, and it was. For a moment he thought of phoning Ammijan at home, but hesitated, remembering the caller’s words. What was his name? Arif? Try as he might, he couldn’t remember ever meeting any Arif.
Nadeem shook his head. It was the kind of thing that happened sometimes in dreams, but he wasn’t dreaming. The blinding summer sunshine on the street was real. The slow hot wind was real, too. He felt sweat trickle down his neck, and automatically raised his hand to wipe it away.
“Sugarcane juice?” someone said at his elbow, and he started. It was a boy, the assistant at the juice stall past which he’d been walking when the call came. The kid’s eyes were red and inflamed from conjunctivitis, and Nadeem felt his own eyes water in sympathy.
“No, thanks,” he said, walking past quickly. “It’s all right.” It wasn’t, though. Suddenly, nothing was all right.
He remembered the bomb blasts last week, of course. He’d been just coming out of the grocery shop at which he worked, on his way to the mosque next door for evening prayers, when there was a noise like thunder, and a vibration in the ground he’d felt through the soles of his shoes. A smudge of smoke had risen in the distance, staining the air. Flocks of pigeons which had started settling in for the night on the eaves of buildings had fluttered into the sky again.
“What’s that?” Danish, the other shop assistant, had asked Nadeem.
“I don’t know,” Nadeem had replied. “A gas cylinder blew up maybe. I’m going to the mosque.”
Danish, who had no use for religion or mosques, had still been looking at the smoke when Nadeem had gone into the mosque. And just as they had started namaaz, there had been another distant explosion.
And that had been the point at which Nadeem had suddenly realised that it hadn’t been a gas cylinder blast. Long before the sirens of ambulances, fire engines and police vehicles had come in through the windows of the little mosque, he’d understood that something very major had happened. And as soon as the namaaz had been over, he’d gone home at once. He’d not been the only one, either. The whole street had been closing down.
“Get away quickly,” his employer had said, his round face shiny with sweat as he pulled down the shutter. “There may be riots.” Nadeem had taken an autorickshaw home. It had been expensive, but he’d been lucky at that. Two hours later the authorities had clamped a curfew on the old town.
But that was last week. There had been no riots, and the city had limped back to life. Nadeem had thought the worst was over.
Suddenly, he felt very afraid. The street, familiar and crowded, abruptly looked strange and hostile. There was a fat old policeman ambling past opposite, someone he’d probably seen a hundred times before, but he felt as though the man’s eyes were on him, watching.
He had to get away, he told himself. He had to run off somewhere and hide, till he’d managed to find out what was going on.
What had this Arif said? Go to the house in old Chowk.
He vaguely remembered the house in Chowk. Imran had taken him there once, months ago, saying he’d got some urgent work. Nadeem had waited in the street outside, looking up at the walls of bare red brick and wondering who could possibly live in this kind of place by choice, where the lanes were narrow enough to span with one’s arms and where the sky was a slice of light far above.
Several people had gone in and out while Nadeem had been waiting. None of them had said anything, though they’d given Nadeem curious glances.
When Imran had come out he’d given Nadeem a package wrapped in cloth. “Hold this.”
Nadeem had felt it curiously. It had been surprisingly heavy, and his fingers had felt something hard through the cloth. Metal, perhaps.”What is it?”
“Never mind,” Imran had said. He’d been carrying another, rather larger, parcel. “Nothing important. Just bring it along. Or if you don’t want to, give it to me. I’ll manage.”
Nadeem had felt a familiar dropping sensation in the pit of his stomach, which he always got at the prospect of any disagreement. “”All right, I’ll carry it. No problem.”
But that had been a long time ago, back in the spring. He didn’t even know if he could find the place in Chowk again.
What on earth was going on? Why should the police be waiting for him? Why would anyone believe he had anything to do with the bombs?
It didn’t make any sense. He felt dizzy trying to understand. The only thought he could fix on was that he had to get away as soon as he could. The house in Chowk, he thought confusedly. He would have to get to the house in Chowk.
And what of Ammijan, he wondered. She’ll be frantic with worry, especially if the police are there. But he couldn’t worry about that now. She’d be much more worried if he was arrested. And there was his sister, Najma, to take care of her.
He thought of taking an autorickshaw, but at the last moment decided not to. Autorickshaws could easily be stopped and searched. He’d take the bus instead. And the moment he decided that, he realised that he was thinking differently, like a hunted animal, and that scared him even more.
The bus was terribly crowded, with barely standing space. Normally, he’d have hated it, but this time it made him feel grateful for the anonymity. Nobody looked at him. They hardly had the space to turn their heads to look, even if they’d wanted to.
The tiny lanes of Chowk were even more crowded than he remembered, and much hotter, the noon sun bouncing off the bare brick walls till the air seemed to be made of fire. He lost his bearings almost immediately, and after the second time he’d passed by the same laundry he admitted to himself that he was going around in circles.
There was nothing he could do about it. He didn’t know the address of the house, or who owned it. The only thing he recalled was that it was diagonally opposite a kebab shop, and Chowk was full of kebab shops. And, besides, even if he’d known the address, it would probably have been a mistake to ask. He suppressed the urge to look constantly over shoulder. Everyone he passed seemed to be watching him.
He had just passed the laundry for the third time when a bearded young man came up. “You’re Nadeem?”
“Yes?” Nadeem was startled. He had absolutely no idea who the man was. “Who are you?”
“I’m Arif. Imran sent me. He was getting worried that you’d lost your way.” He glanced quickly over Nadeem’s shoulder. “Are you sure nobody followed you?”
“I don’t think so,” Nadeem said. “At least I didn’t see anyone.”
“Good. Come on.”
“What’s going on?” Nadeem asked. “Why do the police think I’m...”
“Don’t talk about anything out here,” Arif snapped. “Wait till we get indoors.” He led Nadeem past a tyre shop, the black corrugated rubber rings stacked in heaps. “You dumped the cell?”
“No,” Nadeem said, stricken. He took the phone out of his pocket. “I forgot, sorry.”
“Sorry?” Arif sneered, grabbing the old Nokia from Nadeem’s hand. “After I told you...” Quickly, he switched the phone off, slid open the back cover and removed the SIM card. “This is the kind of stupidity that gets people killed.”
Nadeem felt his ears grow hot with resentment. “If I’d known anything about what you were talking about...” he began, but Arif raised his hand, pointing.
“Here we are.”
The house was one of a row of unpainted red brick edifices, the mortar squirting unevenly from cracks, the windows small and set with bars. Nadeem followed Arif up a set of stairs so dark and narrow that his shoulders seemed to brush the walls at every step, and he couldn’t see his feet. At the top was a corridor, and Arif knocked at the first door on the right, paused, and knocked again. The door opened a crack.
“Good,” said a familiar voice. “Come in quickly.”
Imran looked tired and haggard, far different from the plump youth Nadeem had always held in some awe. His eyes were bleary and bloodshot, and his cheeks covered with stubble. He peered at Nadeem. “Glad you got here all right.”
“He didn’t even switch off his cellphone.” Arif produced the instrument and held it up accusingly. “Hasn’t anyone taught him anything?”
“Don’t be too hard on him,” Imran replied. “He’s not been told.”
“Told what?” Nadeem looked from Imran to Arif and back again. “Will either of you explain what’s going on? Why are the police looking for me?”
“You know the bombs last week?” Imran said. “Well, it wasn’t our outfit which did it, but the cops think it was.”
“Your outfit?” Nadeem blinked at him. “What outfit?”
“We’re part of the Ghazi Mujahideen,” Arif said. “Didn’t you know that?”
“The...” Nadeem’s jaw fell open.
“Yeah,” Imran said. He grinned, completely without humour. “Your cousin is the local cell commandant. You didn’t know this?”
“No,” Nadeem whispered, unsure whether he was denying the information he’d just received or replying to the question.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Imran snapped. “What did you imagine we were carrying away when we came here last time? Sweets? Dry fruit?”
“I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me.”
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. We had an operation planned, a big one, but whoever used those bombs scuppered it. And someone else must have tipped off the cops that we were responsible. They’re looking for me...and for you, of course.”
“Why me?” Nadeem asked. His voice came out like a squeak. “I haven’t anything to do with this!”
“Someone must’ve said you were always with me. Who knows. But they’re after you as well. We’ve got to stay here till things cool down, and then we’ve got to leave town.”
“Leave town? What about Ammijan? Najma?”
“They’ll have to manage,” Imran said. “My own parents will have to as well, you know.”
“How long will we have to leave for?”
Imran shrugged. “How on earth can I tell you that? We have a network outside, which can help us to hide, but as for how long...”
“Wait!” Arif had gone to the tiny window. He spun round, his eyes wide. “Police,” he said. “There are police all around.”
“Where?” Imran rushed to the desk at one side of the room and fished in a drawer. His hand emerged holding a revolver. “What are they doing?”
“They’ve surrounded us,” Arif whispered. He glared accusingly at Nadeem. “It was that cousin of yours who drew them to us, I’ll bet. I told you to sacrifice him, but you wouldn’t. And now look what happened.”
“Calm down!” Imran snapped. “Check what they’re doing.” He pointed at Nadeem. “Go out,” he said. “Walk slowly down the stairs...slowly, mind you. Go out into the street with your hands up. They’ll arrest you, but they won’t kill you.”
“What are you doing?” Arif asked. From somewhere, he’d acquired a handgun too. “What are you letting him go for?”
“Pipe down! He didn’t ask for any of this. I shouldn’t have involved him in the first place. Besides, he might still be of use.” Imran looked back at Nadeem and at the door. “Out!”
“Imran,” Nadeem began, “I...”
“Shut the hell up and get out!” Imran snapped. “Get out before it’s too late. We’ll take care of ourselves.”
His heart hammering, Nadeem blundered out of the door. For a moment he was totally disoriented, and started walking in the wrong direction before he realised the stairs were behind him. Imran or Arif had already closed the door and as he walked past, he heard the noise of a bolt being drawn shut.
He went down the stairs, slowly as warned, his hands already held high. He’d hardly emerged from the door at the bottom before hands grabbed his shoulders and pushed him down into the street. Something hard ground into the small of his back, and he cried out in pain.
“Listen to him squeal,” somebody said. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of a khaki uniform. “Who’s up there, you bastard?”
Nadeem tried to speak, but with his face being ground into the dirt he couldn’t make a sound. All that emerged was a moan.
“Won’t say anything?” the voice said. The hard thing ground down on his back, and he realised it was a knee. The policeman was kneeling on him. “How many are up there? Three? Four?”
“I don’t know,” Nadeem spat out a mouthful of dirt. He felt salt blood on his tongue. “I was just up there visiting –“
The policeman’s hand came down and smacked his head back on the road. “Liar! We saw you go up there with one of your terrorist friends.”
“Get him up,” another voice said. “Let’s have a look at him.”
The hands pulled Nadeem to his knees. Through a haze of pain he saw a face peer into his, under a khaki inspector’s peaked cap. “Listen, you little traitor. How many of your Pakistani friends are upstairs, and where are they? Tell us or we’ll beat it out of you.”
“I’m not a traitor,” Nadeem said. Anger suddenly filled him, like a burning fire spreading through his limbs; anger towards the police, yes, but at Arif for sneering at him, and at Imran for getting him into this mess. He was so filled with fury that he could hardly see. He struggled to free himself. “I am not a traitor!”
“Yeah, right, that’s why your lot set those bombs last week. Bastard.” A boot smashed into Nadeem’s ribs, driving the breath out of him. “I’ll ask one more time. How many of them are up there? And where are they?”
“Two,” Nadeem whispered, the breath in his chest agony. “They’re in the room at the near end of the corridor.”
“Imran Siddiqui,” Nadeem said. They’d know Imran was there. “Arif...I don’t know his full name. That’s all.”
“We’ll see.” The officer straightened up, and hands shoved Nadeem back into the dirt. He heard booted footsteps rushing past.
There was a crashing noise which went on and on. For a moment he wondered who was letting off strings of firecrackers, and then realised it was gunfire. He’d never heard it before. It continued for a long time, and then abruptly stopped.
Suddenly the hands pulled him up again. The same police officer bent over him, but his face was disfigured with anger and blood was spattered on his khaki cap. “Bastard,” he said. “You lied.”
“I didn’t...” Nadeem began, but got no further. A fist like a rock struck him in the mouth. He felt his lips split.
“You lied!” the officer yelled. “They got away, and now two of my men are dead.”
“I didn’t lie,” Nadeem whispered through his mangled mouth. “They were where I told you.”
“Bastard,” the officer repeated. “They were waiting in ambush at the end of the corridor, and they’ve vanished. Got away over the roofs, probably. And it’s all because of you.”
Nadeem suddenly remembered what Imran had said at the last. He might still be of use. Imran had known he’d tell the police where they were. He’d been counting on it. Nadeem had been set up.
“Listen,” he began. “It’s not...”
“I’m through listening.” The officer turned away and fumbled at his belt. “There’s no point listening to you any longer.” He turned back to Nadeem and raised his hand. The sunlight glinted on the revolver barrel. “Terrorist,” he said, his face a grimace of hatred.
Nadeem never heard the shot this time.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013