fiddling with the damn thing,” the older man said.
“Get a grip on yourself.”
He crushed the
cigarette butt into the full ashtray on the coffee table and sat
back straight on the old, yellowed sofa. The younger man
gingerly dropped the 9-mm Marakov on the table next to the pile
of dusty magazines and two empty Styrofoam cups.
the volume,” the older man said.
The younger man
leaned sideways to the 12-inch black-and-white TV, and tweaked a
piece of exposed metal that had once been covered by a
volume-control knob. The TV finished playing the Ponds
talcum powder jingle, and started the eight o’clock news.
“Good evening,” the anchorwoman announced in
Assamese. “First the headlines: Security forces are
on a red alert after receiving a tip-off that eight hard-core
ULFA guerillas have slipped into the city. Authorities have
warned that the militants would attempt to strike public places
and vital installations to disrupt the Independence Day
celebrations. And in sports, India won the third one-day
international by seven wickets. Now the news in detail...”
“Shit, they know we’re here,” the
younger man said.
“What did you expect, kid?”
the older man said with a sneer. He was tall, muscular, and
in his early thirties, and had a deep, long scar that ran across
his left cheek. “It’s always a close call in
The younger man looked away toward the
TV. He was crouched on the smaller sofa, shaking his legs.
He was in his early twenties, clean-shaven, and a little shorter
but more muscular than the other man.
The older man
lighted a cigarette. As he took the first puff, suddenly
the lights went out and the TV blipped to silence.
of swines,” the younger man said. “One drop of
rain, and they cut off the fucking line.”
Don’t get so worked up before the operation. Go get a
candle from the kitchen.”
A ceramic object,
probably the vase on the side table, crashed on the floor as the
younger man stood up.
“Where’s your fucking
lighter?” the older man said.
The younger man
flicked his cigarette lighter on and headed to the kitchen.
He returned with a lit candle and placed it at the center of the
table. The flame flickered as he stepped back.
two men sat quietly. The younger man slapped in the air to
kill a mosquito. Then he walked to the window, lifted the
curtains, and peeked outside. The rain had begun to fall
after a brief respite. It was one of those long spells of
the monsoon that sometimes lasted for over two weeks. The
strong wind ruffled the leaves of the <i> krishnasura</i>
tree next to the house. It was an ordinary brick house with
a slanted tin roof. The narrow street in front was dark
because of the broken streetlights and flooded with rainwater and
sewage from the overflowing drains. In the distance, the
Khasi Mountains looked like a herd of sleeping elephants under
the occasional bolts of lightning.
shouldn’t Rahman have called by now?” The
younger man returned to the sofa.
eight thirty,” the man called Lombu said. “You’re
scared shitless, aren’t you?”
not scared. I’m tired of sitting here and becoming
fodder for the mosquitoes.” The younger man slapped
his ankle and scratched it vigorously.
tight. We can’t leave before Rahman drops off the
supplies with Sahu.”
The low buzz of the mosquitoes
hovered over the room, and the rain fell on the tin roof
The younger man cleared his throat.
“You don’t think we’ll have to shoot tonight,
“How many times are you going to ask
The younger man drew a deep
breath. “I’m asking only because of the
“Welcome to the real world, kid.
Besides, I’m the one who has to deliver the cargo.
What the hell are you getting so wired about?”
younger man looked down. The flame flickered, and its
yellow glow cast shadows of the men on the dirty, white walls of
the room. The rain kept pounding the roof. Lombu sat
quietly, while the younger man played with his cigarette lighter,
twirling it over and over again on the table.
okay, Powali?” Lombu said.
Powali, the younger man,
“Don’t freeze up if anything funny
“Oh, cut it out.”
Lombu shook his head. “I can’t believe
I’m stuck with a rookie again when the whole goddamn army
is combing the city. I hope you have a little more mettle
than the last guy.” He ran his fingers along the scar
on his cheek.
“You know, I was the best trainee in
“Bhutan is a fucking joke. Try
the real thing with the Nagas in Burma.”
to Lieutenant Gogoi if you have a problem with me. He
handpicked me to work with you.”
suck my bamboo,” Lombu said. “When was the last
time he was in the field? He’s having a good time
banging <i>billas</i?> in Bhutan. I should also
start kissing the C-in-C’s ass. Tell Gogoi I’m
not going to baby-sit his rookies any more.”
looked away. Suddenly, a car screeched to a halt in front
of the house. Both men lifted their heads, but the car sped
They became quiet again. The leaves rustled
in the wind. A dog barked somewhere nearby. Powali
slapped his ankle and coughed.
Then, the silence was
shattered by the sound of a police siren. Powali jumped up
“Don’t panic,” Lombu said.
“See if they’re stopping here.” He
Powali banged against the side table as
he dashed to the window. He lifted the curtain and peeked
outside. The raindrops splashed against the windowpanes
ferociously. The headlights of an army jeep, followed by
the lights of a convoy of jeeps and trucks, pierced the pitch
darkness as they approached the house. The neighborhood
dogs started barking.
“It’s an army convoy.”
Powali’s voice cracked. He reached to the coffee
table and picked up the Marakov.
“Take it easy,
man. They won’t stop here.”
looking through the curtain. The convoy passed the house.
He turned to Lombu. “They’re not stopping
here!” He looked out again, and kept gazing until the
lights faded away completely.
have heard them if they were coming for us,” Lombu said.
“They’re just doing the rounds. This is a new
safe house. They don’t know about it yet.”
Powali plopped on the sofa.
“Put away the
stupid gun. You’re going to shoot a convoy with that
Powali put the Marakov back on the table.
“If you want to bail out, you should do it now,”
Lombu said, looking Powali in the eyes. “Remember,
there is no going back after tonight.”
the hell are you talking about?” Powali’s voice
cracked and his eyes were squinted. “I didn’t
join to bail out.”
shook his head and chuckled. “You’re not going
to turn the world upside down.”
He picked up a
magazine from the coffee table and started flipping through it.
“Where did we find a <i>mokkel</i> like
“You guys begged me to join for
three years,” Powali said.
giving me <i>botola</i>.”
not shitting you, Lombu. Gezu asked me to join after I won
an all-state boxing championship in college.”
looked up from the magazine. “Boxing champion, eh?
Why didn’t you join right away? Too scared to go
“I’m not scared of
anything. Everybody knows I never back down. I won
the championship only three months after I fell and broke my
back. You can ask Gezu.”
“So, why wait
three years, tough guy?” Lombu leaned closer to the
candle to read the back cover.
Powali stretched forward,
touched the Marakov, and took a deep breath. “It’s
no big deal to knock someone out. But it’s another
Lombu looked at him with raised
Powali touched the gun again.
mind.” He cleared his throat.
want to end up like my brother, always running from one
minister’s office to the other,” Powali continued.
“There’s nothing out there. The job interviews,
the call letters are all fucking meaningless. Forget it if
you’re not the highest bidder.”
me a story I haven’t heard before.”
took out a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket, leaned
forward, and lit one with the flame.
“Let me tell
you about this business.” He tapped the cigarette on
the ashtray. “You said you want to learn from me,
“This is no boxing match, kid.
There’s no referee to stop the fight. You throw in as
many punches as possible before they finish your game.”
Powali sat with his arms tightly crossed in front of his
“The army is the worst,” Lombu
continued. “Those sons of swines treat even stray
dogs better. If they don’t shoot you right away,
they’ll beat you until every organ in your body becomes a
bloody pulp and you die of internal bleeding.”
leaned forward, with his arms still tightly wound around his
chest, and shook his legs.
“There’s only one
rule in this game. Gogoi and the others will you tell you a
bunch of crock. But believe me, there’s only one rule
that matters. The match can end at any moment.
Without any warning. Just like that!” Lombu
snapped his thumb and middle finger.
shaking his legs.
“There’s still time to bail
“I told you I’m not bailing out,”
Powali said. “I’ve never backed down in my
Lombu took a long puff and crushed the
cigarette in the ashtray. “Listen, like I said, the
first time is the hardest. But you have to pull the trigger
sooner or later. If you’re smart, you’ll get it
out of the way now.”
Powali coughed, and the flame
almost went out. His face was pale and tight in the yellow
“Believe me, it gets easier,” Lombu
said in a softer voice. “Soon it’ll be like
drinking water with your meal.”
The two men became
quiet again. The rain pounded the roof, and the leaves
soughed in the wind. Powali slapped in the air to kill a
mosquito, and started humming the talcum powder jingle.
Lombu lighted another cigarette and continued to smoke and blow
rings in the air.
It was a few minutes before midnight
when Lombu’s mobile phone rang.
happened to you, man?” Lombu answered the phone.
“I’ve been babysitting the rookie all night.”
happened?” Lombu said. Powali sat up straight
and looked at Lombu with raised eyebrows.
“Is the mission off?” He
“Another train. Which one?”
“Wait, let me tell the kid.”
turned to Powali. “Change of plans. The new
target is the Northeast Express. We have to go now.”
“Where is the cargo?” Lombu returned to
“Hold on. Let me get him to write
He turned to Powali and motioned him to
“On GS highway. Petrol pump.”
Lombu repeated what he heard on the phone. The flame
flickered again. Powali’s hands shook as he scribbled
on a piece of paper. “Gupta Services. Got it.”
“Petrol pump?” Powali said.
pick up the cargo from the petrol pump,” Lombu said to
Powali. “Rahman just dropped it off with Sahu there.”
“Rahman, you sure that the
pump is only a hundred meters from the station?”
Lombu was back on the phone. “Not like last time,
“Okay, okay. It could be two
hundred meters.” Lombu laughed.
They reached the petrol pump in Ulubari on
the Guwahati-Shillong Highway a few minutes after midnight.
Lombu jumped out from the pillion seat of the bike even before
Powali switched off the engine. The cashier and the pump
attendant were chatting inside the small office.
continued to fall and the wind howled against the coconut and
“I don’t see Sahu in there,”
Lombu said. “You can never trust these middlemen.”
Lombu looked around once more. An emaciated, brown
dog had climbed into the open garbage dump at the entrance of the
petrol pump, and was feeding on the trash, ignoring the rain and
the fetid stench. The two men walked to the office after
finishing the inspection. Halfway through, Powali stopped,
turned his head around and gazed at the empty highway. The
raindrops splashed against the asphalt. He turned back
after a moment and followed Lombu.
The pump attendant –
a dark, scrawny Bihari teenager – met them just outside the
“How much?” the boy asked, revealing
his yellowed buckteeth.
“Go back in,” Lombu
“Who are you?”
too many questions, <i>zohora</i>.” Lombu
grabbed the boy by the shoulder and shoved him into the office.
Powali stood guard at the door.
Sahu?” Lombu asked the cashier, a short, dark Marwari with
a mustache and oily hair parted in the middle like Shahrukh
Khan’s. The radio played the “Pepsi Generation”
“Who are you?” the cashier said.
“You know damn well who I am. Where’s
The attendant tried to say something.
“Shut up, <i>kela</i>,” Lombu said.
He pushed the boy to the wall opposite the register, under
Hrithik Roshan’s gray-eyed steely stare from the poster for
<i>Mission Kashmir</i>. Lombu swiftly pulled
out a .38 from under his shirt. Powali brought out his
“Face the wall and raise your hands,”
Lombu said to the boy. “Keep them up. And one
more thing. Keep your fucking mouth shut.”
the hell is Sahu?” Lombu now pointed the gun at the
“He left a few minutes ago.”
The cashier stuttered. “He waited for you a long
“Where is the cargo?”
cashier pointed to the cupboard behind him.
else here with you?”
The cashier shook his head.
Lombu took a quick glance around.
“I asked you a
“Nobody else is here,” the
“You sure Sahu didn’t call his
friends in the <i>thana</i>?”
didn’t call anybody.” The cashier drew a deep
breath. “Sahuji doesn’t want any <i>panga</i>.”
“Bring out the goods.” Lombu pointed
the .38 to the cashier’s head.
shoot, please.” The cashier’s voice quivered as
he folded together his palms in front of his chest and bowed to
Lombu. He turned around, opened the cupboard, and pulled
out a backpack. He placed it on the register and unzipped
it. Inside was a yet-to-be-assembled Timing Power Unit.
Lombu ran his fingers over the battery, detonator, timer, and the
“Where’s the rest of the
goods?” he said.
The cashier pointed to the
“Why the fuck didn’t you
bring it out with the bomb?”
The cashier brought
out a VIP briefcase. It was stacked with bundles of
“Count it,” Lombu said.
The cashier counted the bundles loudly. “Ten
<i>lakhs</i>. It’s all here.”
Powali looked away for a moment and checked the highway.
The rain continued its assault on the asphalt. Suddenly,
there was a loud pop. A man leapt from behind Lombu and
shot him on his right arm. The .38 fell on the floor.
Lombu turned around in an instant and kicked the attacker
in the groin. The man collapsed on the floor. “Sahu,
you <i>gaddar</i>,” Lombu yelled. “I’m
going to kill you.” Then he started kicking the
attacker in the ribs and stomach. Sahu curled into the
fetal position. The pump attendant turned around and
“Stop!” The cashier
picked up Sahu’s gun, which had skidded near him, and
pointed it at Lombu. “I’ll shoot you.”
The cashier shook like the banana leaves outside.
stopped kicking the body on the floor, touched the wound on his
arm, and then stared at his bloodied fingers. “Shoot
him,” he shouted looking at Powali.
the Marakov to the cashier, who still had the gun aimed at Lombu.
“What the hell are you waiting for?”
Lombu shouted. “Shoot the bastard.”
aimed his gun at the cashier’s head, but his hand shook a
little. He firmed his grip. The pump boy sobbed with
“Drop the gun or I’ll shoot,”
the cashier said.
Lombu clutched the wound with his left
hand. The right sleeve of his shirt was soaked with blood.
Powali touched the tip of his tongue to his upper lip, and firmed
his grip again.
pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the cashier in the
middle of the forehead. He collapsed and the gun fell from
Lombu picked up his .38 and pumped two bullets
into Sahu. The body stopped moving. Lombu dumped the
money into the backpack and strapped it on his back. The
radio started playing “<i>Yeh meri</i> India, I
Lombu and Powali ran to the bike. Lombu
clasped the wound on his arm, his blood mixing with the rain on
the concrete. Powali started the engine.
aborted,” Lombu said. “We better report to HQ.”
The engine sputtered a few times and stopped.
Powali fumbled as he started it again, but it just groaned.
“Steady yourself! We have time.”
Powali waited for a moment, and restarted the engine.
This time it roared to life. He pushed the gas hard.
The bike skidded over the concrete with a screech, and reached
the highway. The fat monsoon raindrops fell on them as they
sped toward the Khasi Mountains, away from the city. In the
distance, the mountains loomed like a dark, towering fortress
under a bolt of lightning.
“I knew Sahu was going
to pull a stunt like this.” Lombu screamed over the
crackle of the engine. “The bastard got too greedy.”
Powali kept driving silently.
good.” Lombu talked over the thunder of the bike and
the splashing of the raindrops. “I’ll put in a
word with Gogoi.”
Soon, they passed the lights at
the city limits, and began their ascent into the mountains.
Powali started negotiating the sharp turns on the dark, deserted
highway. An Ambassador crossed them from the opposite
direction, heading to the city. He looked back momentarily
at the taillights, but turned his head just in time to navigate
through an acute curve.
“What the hell are you
looking back for?” Lombu screamed. “You’ll
get us both killed.”
A few minutes later, another
car approached them from the opposite direction. Powali
looked back again for a moment.
hear me or what?” Lombu shouted. “What’s
wrong with you?”
“I heard you,” Powali
said. “There’s nothing wrong with me.
I’ll be fine.”
Lombu said something but his
voice was drowned by the thunder. Moments later, Powali
negotiated yet another vicious curve on the slippery, winding
highway leading to the bosom of the dark, inviting mountains.