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ILL-MET by MIDNIGHT – Abhay Narayan Sapru

ILL-MET by MIDNIGHT

IN THE EARLY 90’S MILITANTS OF THE UNITED LIBERATION FRONT OF ASSAM (ULFA) WERE IN CONTROL OF THE STATE. THE INDIAN ARMY LAUNCHED OPERATION BAGRANG TO REGAIN COMMAND. DURING THIS TIME, A YOUNG CAPTAIN IS SENT ON AMISSION IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, TO TRACK DOWN A FAMILY INVOLVED IN MILITANCY

His face was flushed and his eyes were getting glassier with each swig of rum. The Major looked at me and indicated with his eyes. I immediately filled the man’s glass from the rum bottle next to me pouring no water to chase the alcohol. He didn’t really ask for it; he was past caring. After all, it isn’t everyday that one gets a chance to drink free booze and the man wanted to make the best of the opportunity.

He suddenly leaned forward and lowered his voice to a conspiring whisper. We followed suit, our faces reflecting on the glass top cane ta­ble at the centre. His breath may have been reeking of alcohol, but the words he uttered were pure mu­sic to our ears.

“The entire family is involved, Sir. The husband works for the state government and is posted at Dibrugarh, the wife and her younger brother are involved as much, while the elder brother is married to a Naga girl and is settled in Nagaland. They are the well to do intelligentsia who support this sort of movement. The wife has hosted some of the top echelons of the ULFA at home. You look at their house at Cotton Road, the most posh locality of Tezpur and you wouldn’t believe that the family would be involved in militancy.” If the informer’s eyes were getting duller by the minute, the Major’s eyes, on the contrary, were sparkling in the lantern light like glow worms on a moonless night. The Major was wetting his lips in excitement, like a little boy would a lollipop and the way the informer was singing, I was sure he would have the Major sali­vating in no time. I was desperately looking for a chance to tell the man to shut up, before he worked the Ma­jor up enough to order the round­ing up of the entire population of Tezpur. Priya Ganguly and family, I was certain, were in deep trouble now.

Another look from the Major and I was running out to order the pick-up team to move. There goes my night. I thought. The informer sat in front, wearing green overalls like the rest of us. What with all the booze, his head was swaying with the motion of the vehicle, like the bamboo trees in the wind outside. I had to jerk his head back from hitting the dashboard a couple of times. I was more bothered about damaging the dash­board.

The man was high as a kite or, as he himself confessed, like a top; his head probably spinning like one and he was constantly muttering some­thing about squaring up with the bitches. As a rule, you don’t go pick­ing up people on a drunken man’s fancy. However, in an insurgency, one learns to expect the unex­pected. The most innocuous look­ing people can provide the best in­formation and if one wants results, every piece of information has to be verified on ground. The beams of the vehicle’s head­lights pierced the heavy blackness of the night, to disappear into noth­ing. The dark Assamese countryside flitted into the frame of the vehicle’s window. Even the ink-black dark­ness could not hide the awesome feeling of the Assamese expanse. A flicker of light visible through the thick foliage of bamboo groves was the only indication that habitation existed in that wide swath of dark­ness.

We hit the town. The drunk next to me gave directions to the suspect’s house. Dim streetlights threw a sick yellow halo of light, serving more as road markers than as streetlights. The place looked straight out of a science fiction movie where some bizarre alien spacecraft had sucked up the entire population, leaving behind a ghost town. A few street dogs ran across in alarm and raised a fee­ble bark of protest for having been disturbed in their sleep. Our vehicle turned into an up-mar­ket residential area and a few turns brought us in front of a big two-storey house. A couple of old cars were parked in the compound and a single, naked, feeble bulb lit the entrance to the house. The driver killed the engine. Silence and dark­ness engulfed us. I felt safe like this as I watched the house, collecting my thoughts. The night was filled with the loud croaking of frogs. Male frogs, I realised, calling for a mate. I envied them now; they were doing what they wanted to do. No orders from anyone and no drunks to be entertained. I wondered how life would be as a frog and immedi­ately banished the thought before my mind wandered further into the frog world.

“You are sure?” I asked, trying to look at the man in the darkness, “We can still abort the mission. This looks like a respectable house. Don’t get us into any trouble.” “I am sure. Sir – as sure as I am of my father’s name,” he slurred. “Right,” I said, looking back over my shoulder at the men behind me in the vehicle, “nice and quiet, no vio­lence and no waking up the locality.” A few minutes of persistent knock­ing and the door was opened by a stocky, sleepy, sour faced woman, with a growth of hair on her chin that usually comes from shav­ing. From the description given by the informer, I knew it was Mrs. Priya Ganguly. I wasn’t expecting a beauty, but definitely, I wasn’t pre­pared for what confronted me now. She had the looks and the aura of a prized bullfighter and I had a feel­ing that we were in for a hard ride. On occasions like this, one has to weigh up personalities immediately and decide on the course of conduct to be taken. To be polite, intimidat­ing or throw in a show of violence? I decided on a combination of the first two with Mrs. Ganguly. It took a while for her sleepy mind to register the sight: a group of men in the half-light,   wearing green overalls, their faces covered with black patkas. An uncertain scream escaped her lips as she tried to shut the door. I brushed her aside and en­tered the room.

“It’s the Army,” I said, turning on her just in time to cut short another scream in the offing. The way she gushed out air, it would have been the mother of all screams. Her bosom was heaving at a frightening pace and her face crumbled into an ugly mask of hatred. I turned my attention to the sur­roundings. It was a modest room, with a divan in one corner, a centre table and a bamboo sofa in the other corner. A sitar and a couple of tablas were carelessly lying on the divan, probably left where they had last been played. Except for the musical instruments, it could have been my sitting room back home. The more I saw, the less I liked the whole situa­tion. It’s easier to play the villain in unfamiliar surroundings. This was different – the house, the colony, the people were no different from the background I came from. It was like breaking into your own house and confronting your mother. “Right,” I said, “where’s Bijit? We have to take him back with us.” “What kind of an Army is this?” she screamed, her voice bordering on the edge of hysteria, “Soldiers don’t wear beards and why cover your faces?”

Before I could answer her, a short plump young man, about my age, walked in. He had pouting, sulky lips, a chest that was sagging and his whole manner, effeminate. The nail polish on his little finger confirmed my sus­picion. If he had worn a saree he would have passed off as a younger version of his sister, or the other way around. It was difficult to say who was manlier between the two.

“You are Bijit?” I asked, turning to him.

He nodded and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down at a furious pace as he swallowed, giving the im­pression that it would pop out of his throat any moment. “You need to come along with us for questioning,” I said, “under suspi­cion of harbouring ULFA militants.” Having said that, I realised how lu­dicrous and hollow my accusation sounded. The man and woman were both clearly beyond hurting a fly. The sister hit the ceiling now, clear­ing all doubts as to who was manlier between the two.

“Look at him,” she said in broken Hindi and Assamese, “does he look your kind who would go around wielding a gun and harassing inno­cent people? No, he comes from a re­spectable family, not like yours. My husband will hear of it and I warn you, if you take him, I will have an article out tomorrow on Army atrocities.”

Having had one look at the man I knew the information was disas­trous. I had already decided to run through the usual gamut of theat­rics and walk out gracefully. But her insults got me worked up. “Right,” I shouted back at her, “now that you are going to write about Army atrocities, you might as well see what it is all about, otherwise you may have to tax your imagina­tion and brains, which I daresay, you don’t seem to have too much.” All this while Bijit had stood in the corner biting his nails and chewing on those pouting lips, as he looked from his sister to me, as we were exchanging insults. Somehow, I got the impression that he was more frightened of his sister, “Shamsher,” I said turning to the man next to me “start throwing out the furniture and start with those musical instruments, probably running a knocking shop, are you?” I sneered, turning to her smiling and waiting for her to take off again at the insult.

For a change she kept quiet. She probably hadn’t understood me, or maybe she was in a state of shock. All her life she must have been used to getting her way with people. With her personality, I don’t blame her, for she nearly ran me over. So I pressed home the advantage. “And what about your elder brother, married to a Naga girl? Is he a mem­ber of the NSCN (Nationalist Social­ist Council of Nagaland)? Now that’s a nice way to form an alliance with the other insurgent groups,” I said. “No. He married against the fam­ily’s wishes.” she said, on the defen­sive now. “He doesn’t come home anymore.”

“Don’t care, lady,” I replied. “To­morrow, we might have to take you in, too.” It wouldn’t be a bad idea I thought, to give her ten minutes alone in a tent, with both the in­former and the Major. They de­served it for ruining my happiness. Before the first tabla could be hurled out, a sweet young female voice stopped us from behind. She must have entered unnoticed from one of the bedroom doors and was now standing next to the oriental female bullfighter, which, I guessed, had to be her mother. She whispered some­thing in Assamese to her mother and then turned to me and spoke in fluent English. “Are you the officer?” I nodded pointing at my shoulder epaulettes, feeling rather stupid with half my face covered. “Forgive my mother.” continued the girl, “she is very disturbed and with her high blood pressure, she has a tendency to be irritable.”

“Go back to your room,” I said, “this is between me and these two. You can go back to sleep.” I didn’t warn her around as she disturbed my style. It’s easy to be tough with a tough looking woman. A beautiful young girl, I wasn’t seasoned enough to handle and more important, I had heard enough tales of false rape and molestation charges against the Army. I didn’t want to give the mother an idea or two. The girl held her ground and held my gaze.

“This is my house, Sir and it’s my mother and uncle that we are talk­ing about,” she said. “If you can send your men out then maybe I can try and sort out the whole thing.”

I told the men to leave and indicated with my eyes for the informer to stay. I took in the girl at a glance. About five feet five, slim, with a brown, flawless complexion. She was delicately structured with long tapering artistic fingers, a small sharp nose and small eyes with just a slight hint of the oriental features she had inherited. A very balanced mix, I thought, between the north Indian and the Mongoloid features. I wondered how an ugly woman like Mrs. Ganguly could produce such a gem. Maybe she was the stepmother. “We are a law abiding artistic fam­ily,” said the girl, pointing at all the musical instruments lying around. “My mother is an accomplished sitar player and my uncle plays the tabla. We often have music sessions in the evenings. I am an Odissi dancer. You must drop in sometime, Sir and I am sure you will enjoy the evening. Would you like to have a cup of tea, Sir?” she asked.

“No thank you,” I replied. Bloody stupid one would look, picking up the lower end of the patka and try­ing to sip tea from under it. Her courage under the circumstances was admirable. Looking at her, I had the strong urge now to wrench the patka off, show my face and ask her out for coffee. I was at an age when beautiful female militants could have bombed the Taj Mahal for all it mattered, as long as they were prepared to go out with me. But this had been a disastrous introduction. “Look,” I said, “we have information about your uncle and in all probabil­ity it may be incorrect. Please under­stand I have a job to do and therefore we need to take him back with us. He will be back with you tomorrow after sunset and it’s my word that no harm will come to him.”

“Has this man given you the infor­mation, Sir?” asked the girl, looking at the informer contemptuously, who was now sunk into the cane sofa, clearly looking as if he was try­ing to blend into it. He was notice­ably uncomfortable with the situa­tion.

“John, you ungrateful swine,” she said to him in Assamese, “wait till my father hears of it, he will skin you for this.”

The informer kept quiet, looking out of the window and avoiding all the eyes that were on him now. I wasn’t surprised at the way events were unfolding. In any nascent in­surgency scenario, it’s a regular fea­ture for the locals to use the Army to sort out their personal differ­ences. Before I could intervene and tell her something straight out of a movie, like anything she said in my presence would be held against her in the court of law etc. she turned to me, her smiling sweet self again.

“This informer of yours used to come here for music classes with my mother, but he had more interest in me than in the music. He was told not to come to the house and thereafter, I have often found him hang­ing around outside the Science Col­lege where I study.”

“Well,” I said, certain that if I didn’t salvage the situation, it would fast slip out of my hands and the bull fighter woman would have me on the mat for sure, “the information has been verified from other sources too. So as I said, we need to take Bijit with us.”

The girl said something to her mother and then turned to me. “Take him, but stick to your prom­ise, Sir, and leave your contact num­ber please.”

“Can’t do that, but you will have your uncle back in one piece,” I said get­ting up and escorting Bijit out. The half man looked completely shat­tered. It was probably the first time that he was stepping beyond the shadows of his dominating sister. “Come on Bijit, we aren’t as nasty as we look. It’s just a little outing. See how the Army lives and you’ll prob­ably be happy you didn’t join it,” I told him, chuckling to myself. “Your promise, Sir!” cried the girl from behind, leaning against the door smiling, as we got into the ve­hicle. I waved in acknowledgement. Bijit was given a tent to himself, which was more than I could say for myself, along with a cot and some sheets to pass the night. The next morning after Bijit had tucked into a substantial amount of the breakfast of puri and sabji from the cookhouse, I walked in to question him. He was sitting on the cot blind­folded, swinging his short fat legs and looking as sulky as ever. “Morning,” I greeted him in my most pleasant tone, “had a comfort­able night Bijit?”

He mumbled something about the mosquitoes and the sentries dis­turbing him through the night. I checked my temper. He was after all innocent, the uncle of a good-look­ing girl and I had a promise to keep. “Sorry,” I said, “we are still trying to get funds for an air conditioner for the interrogation tent. We should have one on your next visit.” He kept quiet.

The questioning followed the usual sequence; name, background and what he did to earn a living besides playing the tabla. All the while he remained uncooperative, answer­ing the simplest of questions most reluctantly. I looked at him sitting contently after the heavy break­fast, swinging his legs defiantly and burping from time to time. Bijit, I realised, was one of those naturally irritating people, the kind who man­ages to arouse the most basic animal emotions in anyone who comes in contact with him, without having to work too hard towards it. Over a period of time, one gets the feeling that to punch his podgy face would he a most satisfying experience. He ate a hearty lunch and was snoozing when I caught up with him in the af­ternoon.

“Lunch okay, Bijit?” I asked. He answered grumpily with his feet crossed, lying on the cot and looking annoyed at having his siesta dis­turbed.

“Don’t you cook fish ever? I think I have a stomach problem with the dal you gave me. When do you re­lease me, for I can tell you my sister is capable of ringing up the Chief Minister?”

“Well sorry Bijit,” I said gently, “the next time you visit, we’ll have a menu for you to order from. Now shut up and get back to sleep,” I shouted, having reached the end of my patience with the man. Bijit was correct on one account, his sister had caused quite a ruckus and enough calls were coming in from all quarters for his release. We had decided to drop him home at night for fear his sister could have the residents of the colony fairly worked up during daylight. It was around ten at night when we knocked on Mrs. Ganguly’s door. All the lights were on and I could actually imagine the entire fam­ily pacing up and down in worried anticipation. Bijit was his sulky self. I was worried, for I knew that a peaceful handing over depended on what he conveyed to the family, especially to the sister. “Cheer up Bijit.” I told him, “could have been worse if the police had picked you up.” He didn’t answer -one of the irritating habits that he had was to remain mum to polite conversation.

Unfortunately, the sister opened the door again. I was hoping, in­stead, that the girl would do it, giv­ing me a chance to explain what had happened. Bijit walked in with­out looking at his sister. I noticed his chest had sagged more and he carried an expression of a man who has gone through hell. Bijit, I dis­covered, had more artistic talent than just playing the tabla; he was also a good actor.

The female bullfighter went ballis­tic at seeing him.

“Look at him!” she screamed at me, holding Bijit’s chubby checks, “what have you done to him? What kind of tortures have you subjected my poor brother to? I will take it up with the Chief Minister. Give me your name and take that patka off your face. If you haven’t done any­thing wrong then you shouldn’t be scared to expose your face.”

“Bloody hijra brother of yours,” I shouted back, “ate half our rations and has spent the last twenty-four hours sleeping and passing wind. And if you think I am going to cower down to your threats, then you are in for a surprise. I am going to do what I should have done last night. Shamsher, start throwing out the furniture.” I said.

The girl who had been a silent spec­tator stepped in now.

“You promised no harm will come to him Sir,” she said.

“I haven’t touched a strand of hair on his head, unless he is complain­ing about the mosquitoes at night. He spent a night at an Army camp, not a five-star hotel. If your mother behaves like this, I will demand an independent inquiry and I know I’ll come out clean and by God, I’ll get the lot of you. Don’t forget there’s still an Army rule and I am in the business of violence.”

Forget it,” Bijit spoke up realising his act was not worth the trouble it could brew. I knew the act had been to impress upon the family members the horrendous tortures he had gone through at the hands of the Army. To sit during cold winter nights, regaling the Tezpur cocktail circuit with his tales of the different methods of torture the Army practices. That was provided the town had a cocktail circuit to speak of. I could actually imagine the women hanging on to his every word, with the sister chipping in from time to time, on how terrible he looked when the Army brought him back. For Bijit, that would fi­nally be manhood regained.

I pulled out a piece of paper, scrib­bled something and handed it to Mrs. Ganguly.

“Sign it,” I said, “can’t trust folks like you. As they say in the Army, need to cover my backside in case you decide to play mischief later.”

Mrs. Ganguly, I think didn’t know how to read English or was too dis­traught, for she promptly passed the paper to the girl.

“All it says,” I said, “is that you have received one piece of shit, healthier on its return from the Army, and that you sign the release certificate at your own freewill and not under duress, or words to that effect.”

The girl read it quickly and told her mother to sign. I collected the pa­per and strode out of the house. “You will see me again.” I said over my shoulder.

I gave it a couple of days for the heat to cool. Then one evening, with my beard neatly trimmed, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and borrow­ing a course mate’s motorcycle. I dropped in at Mrs. Ganguly’s resi­dence. The agenda this time was different.

The girl answered my knock. She was wearing light make up, a sarong with a red top tantalising show­ing her cleavage, in the middle of which rested a gold ganesh. When she shifted, the bangles on her deli­cate wrists clinked. She gave me a cool look, no alarm and no recogni­tion. That’s when I realised I didn’t even know her name. “Yes,” she said.

“I am from the Army authorities and just wanted to have a chat about this very untoward incident that happened last week,” I stammered. This was turning out to be more difficult than facing the mother. Maybe I was out of practice when it came to talking to girls my age.

If she recognised my voice she didn’t show it. She maintained that amused, cool look.

“Well we have nothing to report,” she answered, “so please excuse me.”

With that the door banged shut.

As I kicked the bike to life, I gave the house a parting look. At the win­dow on the first floor, I saw a face pressed against the glass, looking down at me or maybe it was the set­ting sun playing tricks on my imag­ination. I gave a cheerful wave, en­gaged gear and disappeared down the road into the sunset. A decade later, I had left the Army and while on a domestic flight, I noticed one of the air-hostesses. There was more weight on her face and body, but the resemblance was remarkable. I decided to take a shot. As she offered me a glass of fresh lime, I tried to catch her eyes. “Thanks. Are you from Tezpur?” I asked. She stiffened with the tray in her hand, but said nothing. So I decided to probe further. “Cotton Road. Do you still dance? I suppose not, with all the flying around.” This time she met my gaze and held it. She was positively confused, so I gave a disarming smile to put her at ease. I didn’t want her jumping to conclusions. She gave me a big nod to my questions and thereafter, ensured she didn’t come anywhere near me. On disembarking at the Delhi airport, I saw her whispering to an air-hostess next to her, as she saw me walking down the aisle. “Hope you had a pleasant flight Sir,” she said, as I passed her on my way down.

“Definitely,” I smiled, “far more pleasant than the fright you gave me in Tezpur.”

I turned at the bottom of the stairs and looked up. She was standing there looking at me, her hands folded in namaste and quite oblivi­ous to the other passengers filing past her. I stood there briefly look­ing at her and thinking how the years had passed. Then giving her a big wave, I ducked into the termi­nal bus.

This story was part of the Borderlands section of The Outdoor Journal Summer 2016 edition of the print magazine.

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