It was on the day the power went out that Naeem found the thing his cousin was hiding in his bedroom.
Naeem had been staying with his cousin for the last week, getting ready for an entrance exam to a business college. Naeem had no great wish to earn a business degree, but his father had decided that it would be of use when he came to run the family’s tyre wholesale business. So he’d been sent to the city to take the exam.
Naeem’s cousin was called Maqbool. Back when they were both kids, they’d played cricket in the fields with a rubber ball and a bat that someone had thrown away because it was cracked down the blade. Maqbool had been like an older brother to Naeem back then, but later he’d gone to the city to study, and then earn a living, and they hadn’t seen each other for years. When they’d met again, it had been with a little embarrassment, as though they were both ashamed of the past.
“You’ll have lots of peace to study,” Maqbool had said. “I’m not home much, what with my job. It’s nice to see you’re looking to make something of yourself.”
What Maqbool’s job was, Naeem didn’t know and didn’t ask. His parents had long ago decided their nephew had become “spoilt” by the big city, had probably even stopped going to the mosque or keeping Ramzan, and wasn’t really anyone they wanted to have much to do with any longer. Maqbool’s father was dead, had been for a couple of years; as for his mother, she was long since divorced and nobody knew where she lived, something which Naeem’s own mother had said was a blessing because she was a “smart” woman who talked back and didn’t know her place. Maqbool’s only sister was married to somebody in Dubai. So he didn’t have any other family to keep happy, and Naeem’s parents could drop him like a hot stone.
But when it had come to Naeem’s exam, of course, they hadn’t wanted to spend money on renting a place for him. So they’d put aside their dislike and called him.
“Of course he can come,” Maqbool had said evenly, and that was that.
In the week he’d been there, Naeem had hardly seen Maqbool except late in the evening. True to his word, he’d hardly ever come home. Maqbool rented the upper floor of a building in a ghetto on the fringes of the city, tall raw-brick houses built with common walls, narrow lanes in between choked with pushcarts and bicycles, small motorcycles and battered cars. There was a mosque at the corner, a tall minaret with a loudspeaker lashed to the top, which blared the muezzin’s call five times a day. Naeem, freed of his parents’ supervision for the first time in his life, had never set foot in it. He’d better things to do anyway, what with the exam coming up and the amount of preparation he had to do.
Only twice had Maqbool ever referred to religion. While they’d been sitting over their supper of chapattis and lentil soup, there had been some noise in the distance. It sounded like shouting.
Maqbool had put the piece of flat bread in his hand down and listened. “They’re fighting again across the street,” he’d said. “Old Zahoor must have got drunk again.”
“Zahoor?” Naeem had identified the name after a little thought. “Drunk? But I saw him coming out of the mosque just yesterday.”
“Going to the mosque and religion aren’t the same thing,” Maqbool had replied. “Didn’t anyone tell you that?”
Naeem hadn’t replied. The shouting was still going on when they’d finished eating, washed up and gone to bed.
The next day Maqbool had arrived home early in the evening, when it hadn’t even been quite dark yet. There had been two young men with him, who had glanced curiously at Naeem but not spoken to him. Nor had Maqbool introduced them. Once they’d gone, Naeem had asked who they were.
“Friends,” Maqbool ad replied, in a tone which indicated no further answer would be forthcoming.
“Let’s go out for dinner,” Naeem had suggested, on an impulse.
“Where?” Maqbool had asked. “The kebab shop in the next street?”
“Why there? I’d thought we could go out to a mall and –”
“Forget it,” Maqbool had said brusquely. “All those people buying things they don’t need and with their wives and daughters strutting about half naked? Forget it.”
Naeem had been a bit surprised, since Maqbool didn’t even have a beard or act religious in any way. But he’d decided to say nothing. In the end they’d gone to the kebab shop, and very good kebabs they were, too.
It had been raining for three days straight, and the low-lying areas of the city were under water when the power went out. The ghetto didn’t have much in the way of a power supply anyway – the civic authorities hadn’t upgraded the electric supply in years – but with the rain there was no telling when they might fix the problem.
Naeem was alone at home, and when the power went out he’d just decided he needed a break from the studying. Since there was no electricity he couldn’t watch the telly, so he walked over to Maqbool’s room looking for something to read. Maqbool, once upon a time, had been a great reader and had never been without three or four books of various kinds. He’d probably have a few around now.
This was the first time Naeem had entered Maqbool’s room alone. It was almost stark, with just a bed and a rack for clothes, a prayer mat in the corner, a table and chair, and a metal trunk along the wall opposite the bed. The only book on the table was a traveller’s guide of the city. Naeem wondered why Maqbool, who had lived in the city for years, would need it, especially since it was all about the tourist spots which he never visited anyway.
The trunk seemed the only place that might have any other books, and it wasn’t unlocked, so Naeem opened it. Inside was sheet of cloth, folded over the contents. He pulled away the cloth and looked down, frowning.
The oblong objects that were stacked in the trunk were certainly not books. They were wrapped tightly in polythene, but when Naeem picked up a piece, it was heavy and slightly pliant, like putty. Underneath, when he’d lifted a few of them aside, were several batteries, coils of wire, and a packet of little sticks that looked like cigarettes. But of course Maqbool didn’t smoke, and when Naeem picked one of them up, it was hard and not really very much like a cigarette at all.
There was also something else, wrapped in a dark coloured rag, pushed to one side. Naeem knew what it would be before he even lifted it out of the trunk and stripped off the cloth. The small, heavy revolver lay in his hand like something weighted down with doom. He wasn’t surprised to find his hands were shaking when he wrapped it up again and put it back where it was.
By the time Naeem had finished putting everything back in the trunk and returned to his room, his mind was made up. He made no attempt to put it off, to obey his first impulse to wait for the next day – because he wasn’t by any means certain what would happen if he waited till the next day. In all probability he’d lose his nerve, and decide not to do anything. Nor did he want to confront Maqbool and demand an explanation, because he knew for sure that none would be forthcoming. And perhaps his cousin would call in his friends and make sure Naeem kept silent. The more he thought about it, the more likely it would be.
Briefly, he considered calling his parents. But he already knew that all that would happen would be that his father would shout at him for poking into things that didn’t concern him, and his mother would ask him to come home at once. So that was out.
There was, therefore, only one thing to do. Calling would be of no use, they’d not take him seriously anyway; he’d have to go in person. Pausing only to pick up an umbrella and put on shoes, he left the house. Trying as hard as he could not to think, he walked to the autorickshaw stand and told the driver of the first vehicle to take him to the main police station.
“Where?” the driver frowned.
“The main police station,” Naeem repeated. “Don’t you know where that is?”
“Of course I know,” the driver said. “But what on earth do you want to do there? It’s not a place any of us...” he looked pointedly at Naeem’s salwar kameez to make sure the point went across, “...goes unless really necessary.”
Naeem blinked. “It’s not the police station I want,” he said. “It’s just a landmark I was given. The real place is near it.”
The driver frowned, and then shrugged. “Suit yourself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.” All the way during the drive he didn’t utter a word.
The main police station was surprisingly small for a city this size, a four-storey building on three sides of a concrete yard. The rain was coming down hard when Naeem hurried to the gate, hunched under his umbrella.
“What do you want?” the constable on guard at the gate demanded.
“I need to see the inspector,” Naeem said. “Or whoever is in charge. The senior officer.”
“The SHO?” The guard’s lip lifted briefly in a sneer. “He’s busy.”
“It’s important.” Naeem licked his lips involuntarily. “I mean, this is vital.”
“All right,” the guard said, looking him up and down. “Here, sign this register first.”
They put him in a small room, with a fluorescent light overhead, flickering slightly as though powered by a generator, as it probably was. The floor was wet and tracked with the mud people had brought in with their shoes. Some of the mud had formed patterns which almost looked like pictures, and Naeem tried to follow them, to keep his mind off what he was doing and to stop himself from wondering if it was the right thing at all.
A policeman with a thick moustache sat behind a desk on the other side of the room, clacking away at a typewriter. It was the first typewriter Naeem had seen since he was a child, and he hadn’t known anyone still used them. In between pushing the carriage back between lines, the policeman glared at him silently, as though he was responsible for something.
“How long is this going to take?” Naeem asked eventually.
“As long as it takes,” the policeman said. “You want to meet the SHO, you have to wait until he’s free. He’s got more important things to do. So sit down and stay quiet.”
Naeem sat and went back to staring at the mud.
At last another policeman came in, fat and with stars on his shoulder straps. He looked Naeem up and down with no pleasure whatever.
“Well?” he asked. “What is it? Someone stole your motorcycle or something?”
“Are you the officer in charge?”
“Never mine who I am. What’s your concern?”
“No,” Naeem swallowed. “It’s my cousin. I think he’s mixed up with terrorists.”
The fat policeman tilted his head and grimaced. “Had a fight with him and come here thinking you could cause him some grief, did you?”
“No,” Naeem repeated. “Listen.” He told the policeman what he’d seen in the trunk. The other policeman, behind the typewriter, was also listening intently.
“All right,” the fat officer said at last. “Come with me.”
He led him to another room where there were two more policemen at tables. “Now tell your tale over.”
Naeem did, as one of the two policemen wrote it all down on a form. “Name and address.”
Naeem told him Maqbool’s name and address. “So what happens now?” he asked. “Can I go?”
The fat police officer looked at him incredulously. “Of course not. Are you really that stupid? You’re staying right here.”
“But...” Naeem began to protest, but that was as far as he got. The second policeman at the table got up and grabbed hold of his shoulder.
“It’s for your own safety,” the fat policeman said.
But, from the way he was smiling, Naeem didn’t feel safe at all.
They’d taken Naeem’s mobile phone and watch away, and locked him in a windowless room so small he could barely walk five paces in it. There was a kind of bench along one wall, low and broad, and he finally went to sleep on it. When he woke, a policeman came in and gave him a tray on which was a cup of tea, two samosas and a few salt biscuits.
“I want to talk to the SHO,” Naeem demanded.
The policeman looked at him, up and down, as though he was a museum specimen, and then left without a word. Time passed, and eventually Naeem ate the samosas and biscuits, and drank the tea, which was far too sweet.
He’d long since lost track of time before they came for him again. It was the fat policeman, and three or four others he hadn’t seen before. “Come,” the fat one said.
“I want my phone and watch –” Naeem began.
“Don’t worry,” the fat policeman said. “You just have one little job to do, and then we’ll let you go.”
“You will?” Naeem asked. “Really?”
“Really. Come along.”
They led him to a jeep standing in the yard. It was night, he saw, and the rain was still falling. The yard was filled with activity, vehicles coming and going, armed policemen lined up on one side. Naeem eyed them warily.
“Get in,” the fat officer said.
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see.” They drove out into the night. The streets were mostly deserted, which was odd, because it was obviously only the middle of the evening. The jeep went by ways Naeem had never seen until they were almost outside the city. The rain glittered in the yellow beams of the headlights.
The jeep stopped by the side of the highway. “Get out,” the fat policeman said.
“Get out.” The officer slapped Naeem across the back of the head. Despite the fat, his hand was hard and heavy as a brick. “Out!”
Naeem got out, his mouth dry. There was another police vehicle standing by the side of the highway, up ahead, policemen standing beside it shining torches down on something lying in the grass.
“Is that your cousin?” the fat policeman asked.
Naeem looked only for a moment. In the torchlight Maqbool’s open eyes were pits of darkness, his mouth a cave. “Yes,” he whispered.
“Good,” the policeman said with immense satisfaction. One of the other policemen dropped a crumpled piece of cloth on Maqbool’s body. It was black with white Arabic lettering on it which Naeem couldn’t read.
“What did he do?” he whispered.
“Nothing that need concern you,” the policeman said. “Right, you can go.”
“Go?” Naeem looked up and down the empty highway. Except for a distant line of lights and the torches, the night was dark. The rain lashed his face. “Go where?”
“Anywhere,” the fat policeman said. “Go!”
Naeem looked at him and then began to trudge away towards the lights of the city in the distance. Long before the first gunshot sounded behind him, he already knew what was going to happen.
And after the shooting was over, of course, he knew nothing more.
The fat policeman watched the police photographer move the pistol to one side of the corpse. “It looks more natural that way,” the photographer said. “It doesn’t look so much like the gun was planted.”
The policeman shrugged. “I couldn’t care less,” he said. “Nobody’s going to question it anyway.”
The flash of the camera was bright in the rain, the blood black on the young man’s clothes. The fat policeman watched and smiled to himself. By morning the media would have the story that the terrorists who had done the bombing had been tracked down and eliminated; both of them, and they were relatives too, so everyone would know they’d been in it together. Retribution was so satisfying, and so much more marketable than prevention. Good work, he thought, watching the camera flash away. There would be a promotion in this.
For a moment he had a flash of pity for the stupid young man who’d come and dropped the whole thing into his lap, but he shook it off.
Pity was a shallow and meaningless emotion, and he had none to waste.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015