25th October, 1992, Bombay.
The city was reeling under the sweltering October heat. Even the early morning sun chose to show its intensity. The Celsius temperature was scaling upwards as early as 7 in the morning.
In the tiny shanty, lying on the hard ground, Bantu turned and tossed. His body was almost bathed in sweat.
He hadn’t slept well throughout the night. The heat was not the only cause of his discomfiture. The agony within him supplemented the restlessness.
Life had been no bed of roses for the seventeen-year-old Bantu, and today his destiny was to change for the worse.
Having struggled to complete his 5th standard he did menial jobs and polished shoes at the main road corner, and earned a paltry sum.
How was that going to be of any help in treating his sister Ruksana’s heart ailment?
He turned and tossed again, his mental turmoil being palpable.
At 7.30 he heard the door open. It was his mother Javeria returning from her work. The poor lady at thirty-eight had faced enough tribulations in life.
She worked at a construction site during the day and looked after a patient in her home during the night.
The whereabouts of her husband was unknown to her. He stepped out one fine evening when Bantu was nine, and Ruksana four, never to return.
In a way, it was a boon. She had endured physical abuse and mental torture at his hands from the time she was married to him. She was twenty then.
Ruksana’s treatment was getting very difficult to manage. Even though she had been approaching the government hospital, yet it involved expenditure for medicines and vials of injectios.
Javeria had already taken a loan from the local Pathan for Ruksana’s operation that was yet to be scheduled.
The Pathan had been harassing her to pay his interest, which she was unable to do on time. It was a hefty sum and had piled up to a considerable amount.
“Tomorrow either you repay me or come with me. I will take you to a place that will put an end to all your penury. You will earn good money. After all you are still young. With the amount you will earn, you can not only repay my loan but also give treatment to your daughter.” The Pathan had maliciously eyed her from top to bottom, the day before, twirling his moustache. Javeria wriggled under his scrutiny and trembled in fear.
Bantu had fiercely intervened when the Pathan’s sarcasm hit him hard.
“It is easy to get annoyed young boy but find a way to repay my money. If not your mother, I can take you instead and you will be paid handsomely for the job that my friend will depute you for. Take home some of the money and rest you keep repaying me. Mother and son mutually decide who will come with me tomorrow.” He had guffawed, and left.
“Ammi there is nothing to debate on. I know what Pathan is talking about. I have to go if we have to repay him and treat Ruksana. The doctor has assured us that she would be good in a couple of years.” Bantu looked at his mother with moist eyes.
How was poor Javeria going to retaliate?
She knew her son would be sucked into the underworld activities and would soon become a ruthless terrorist, bombing places and killing innocent souls. But was she left with an option other than entering the flesh trade?
“Don’t even think about it ammi. We have been caught in a whirlwind and the only solution to come out of it has been laid in front of us.” He stroked the head of his sister who was sleeping peacefully oblivious of the turmoil in the mind of her mother and brother.
No one becomes a criminal or a prostitute by choice. Circumstances push them into it.
Thus was born the terrorist Bantu in the dark lanes of the big city of Bombay.
11th March, 1993 Bombay
“This is your first assignment, Bantu. Are you ready?” The tall hefty man, who was addressed as Bhaijaan by everyone, asked, patting his back.
“Yes Bhaijaan,” Bantu replied meekly, though the very thought of the assignment made his blood gush.
Attacking an upscale hospital in Bombay!
The plot had been hatched, Bantu and three accomplices would enter the hospital at 6 pm the following day.
“The visiting hours start at 5 and go on till 7, but the crowd will be at its peak by 6 pm. We can make maximum number of people prey to our bullets.” Bhaijaan’s nefarious laughter thundered.
With the help of some inside staff, the necessary guns had already sneaked in.
Bantu did not dare to enquire why a hospital was being targeted but from titbits he overheard, he surmised that Bhaijaan had some serious scores to settle with the owner of the hospital. Even otherwise Bhaijaan’s intentions were to spread terror.
Bantu had only been paid a paltry sum all these four months. This attack was going to fetch him good money to fund Ruksana’s treatment. Bhaijaan had given his word that Bantu would continue to get good money, work or no work, after this mission.
It was a matter of survival for Bantu. Laying aside his pricking conscience, he decided to give his best. He had been trained in the last four months to use guns and weapons accurately.
12th March, 1993 Bombay.
It was 5.45 pm when Bantu and his accomplices entered the premises of the hospital with bogus entry passes.
At 6 pm one of them signaled as decided and Bantu sprinted to the third floor deputed to him for the attack in the three-storey building. He put on his mask and shot in the air as pre-planned. His accomplices carried on similar acts on the floors allocated to each of them.
Panic struck people began running helter shelter while Bantu randomly opened ward rooms and shot at people. Whether the bullet hit the patient or the visitor or both, was none of his business. He was out there to obey Bhaijaan ‘s orders and at the end of the so-called venture, accept his money.
He knocked opened the last door to the operation theatre and stood still for a moment. The human in him had taken over the beast.
A lady was about to undergo a heart surgery. The patient was in deep slumber as an effect of the anesthesia administered and lay oblivious to the terrible fact that she was under terrorist attack.
It reminded him of his sister’s surgery that was conducted just the week before at the government hospital.
He had watched from the foyer as she was reeled out of the operation theatre. A broad smile on the doctor’s face provided the much-needed respite. It spoke about the success of the operation.
Everything came back into his subconscious memory and he stood there for a minute, his eyes focused on the middle-aged doctor. One look at her, and his hands began shivering.
The doctor, her assistant, and a nurse looked at Bantu in awe and at that moment his mask slid down. Securing it Bantu managed to gather his composure when he heard his accomplice, approaching him. “Come fast the police will be here any moment. Make sure you have lodged bullets in all the wards including that operation theatre. Be quick.”
There was no time to waste. Bantu fired four bullets and soon rushed along with his accomplices out of the hospital.
His heart was beating fast. The wide fearful eyes of the lady doctor kept resurfacing in front of his eyes.
Bantu ran and joined his men waiting for him in a van.
He had been well trained to dodge the police, and so far he had been fortunate enough not to fall in the scanner. He was still not on any suspect list.
But Bantu was very careful and did not risk it visiting home frequently. He would send money across through a friend and learned that the Pathan had ceased his visits since his loan was repaid.
Ruksana’s health was recuperating after the major surgery. For another year a good amount would be needed for her medicines.
“Is there a way you can return home, my son?” Javeria implored when he had visited them one night.
Sadly there was no retractable path in this dark profession.
If he wished to stop doing the assigned job he would face the wrath of Bhaijaan and death was the only penalty. As long as he was in Bombay or anywhere in the vicinity, Bantu would be at the mercy of Bhaijaan. And who was going to give asylum to a terrorist outside this constituency, and free him permanently from this hell hole?
The terrorist attack on the upscale hospital hit the headlines. The list of those killed ran into hundreds compared to a very few who survived. Bhaijaan was pleased with the statistics.
Those who survived were interrogated, but they were too shocked to say anything. The police drew a blank.
Political parties accused and tried to throttle the ruling party’s reputation.
The wrath of the public and the opposition party was blazing as no arrest was made. Not even a clue of who had a hand behind it could be traced. Bhaijaan ‘s operations were always surreptitiously done.
Bhaijaan let things settle for a while. But the people who worked for him were paid their dues regularly.
“Your next assignment is in Cambodia,”. Bhaijaan had planned his next big attack in another two years.
“On a Saturday evening when the crowd would be surging at 6 pm at Central Market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, you four should attack. Unfurling fear in the world is our motto. No one would even suspect that a terrorist attack would happen in Cambodia. I have therefore made a thorough study of the Central Market.” Bhaijaan grinned exhibiting a set of tobacco stained teeth.
Bantu had become his trustworthy man and was hence selected for the terrorist operation in Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia, alongwith three other men.
Though it was a niggling thought, Bantu had not plucked up the courage to question as to why this operation was indispensable.
Still, he was a pawn in the game though his capabilities had made him Bhaijaan’s favorite.
Bantu wasn’t sure whether the favouritism that he earned was worth rejoicing or sulking.
He had been trusted with many small attacks and had been rewarded handsomely too, but
He wished this could be his last terrorist operation.
Ruksana was recuperating very well and he wouldn’t need that kind of money anymore to take care of her. He had amassed enough money to marry her off decently in a couple of years, but then the reigns of his life were held tightly by Bhaijaan. Only he could decide when he can go scot-free in Bombay.
Bantu did not mind going back to his menial jobs which included cleaning septic tanks. He wanted to get out of this mess. But how? Was the perennial question.
13th May 1995, Cambodia
Cambodia was a beautiful place. Bantu had heard about it.
As per the plan, on the evening of their arrival at Cambodia, some local acquaintances of Bhaijaan were going to take the four of them to the place that was the target to get a thorough knowledge of its topography.
The attack was planned two days after they arrived.
Bantu wished he could go sight seeing in the capital city, before conducting the nefarious operation.
However, destiny had made a different plan. Upon reaching his destination at Phnom Penh, Bantu felt a sudden wave of pain run through his body. This wasn’t the first time that it had happened, but this time the pain was so excruciating that the world around him went dizzy and all Bantu remembered was he fell flat in the room wherein he and three of his accomplices were ushered by Bhaijaan’s local acquaintances.
When he awoke from what seemed like a deep slumber, Bantu found himself in a hospital.
“Better get well soon, the day after tomorrow is our operation in this city. We have to survey the place at least once before that.
The doctor will see you in a while. This is Sihanouk hospital center of Hope.” One of the local acquaintance of Bhaijaan spoke.
Bantu was still in a daze when he was ushered into the consulting room. Within a few moments, the doctor arrived.
One look at her and Bantu froze, but the lady doctor smiled and made him feel at ease.
“Thank you for saving our lives that day. I can never forget the 12th of March 1993.” She heaved a sigh.
“You were kind enough to fire in the air which you probably did to let your accomplices believe that you had indeed done the job allocated to you. But as far as I know, you did fire ruthlessly in other wards. May I know why you were kind towards us in the operation theatre, knowing well that your mask slid exposing your face?” The doctor asked.
“I recognised you as the visiting doctor in the government hospital in Bombay, where you treated my sister and saved her life. How could I take your life? Though I knew that you and the others had seen my face, I was confident that none of you would expose me, firstly because it involves too many intricacies and secondly, because you would be only happy that your lives have been spared.”
The doctor smiled as what Bantu uttered just then was the truth. She, and the assistant doctor and the nurse on duty with her that day were indeed grateful to Bantu for having spared their lifes, though his kind act had left them bemused.
Like Bantu had rightly said none of them wanted to get involved in matters that would be a deterrent to their profession by saying that they had seen one of the terrorists at close quarters.
The doctor examined Bantu, and recommended some tests. She said that he had to be admitted and upon receiving the reports his discharge date would be decided.
Bantu’s accomplices were confused not knowing what to do. If they carried out the terrorist operation without Bantu it may be a disaster as Bantu was their main person.
Back home Bhaijaan was upset that his plan had got jeopardized. But he asked them to hold till such time Bantu was fit to carry on the operation.
Bantu awaited his medical test reports with bated breath. A premonition kept ringing in his mind.
As he had anticipated, the doctor came with a report that suggested Bantu was suffering from a rare terminal illness that had reached its last stages.
“What were you up to all these days?” the doctor was baffled. “You have ignored many a symptoms that could have helped you diagnose the ailment at an early stage. You never know it could have been treated too.” She said wistfully.
Well, he did have many issues related to his health but he never bothered about it, the nature of his work and his personal issues being such that he has no leisure time to brood over his health.
Was it karma that he was the one to be inflicted with a rare disease that the doctor said only one in a million are diagnosed with? He winced.
If so it was not fair. He had seen nothing but adversities in life.
His father abandoned the family when Bantu was a child. Seeing his mother struggle to make both ends meet and also cater to Ruksana’s medical needs, Bantu took up menial jobs. When he was seventeen he was pushed into terrorism for no fault of his. And today at twenty-one when he wished to end all this nightmares and live peacefully he was rewarded with this terminal illness.
“Doctor, how I wished I could come out of this impious life someday and lead a normal life with my family.” He sobbed.
“Listen, Bantu,” the doctor cleared her throat, “Do you wish to get out of this sinful entanglement? I can help you.” Bantu saw that her eyes were glistening with unshed tears.
“Consider this as an act of retribution for a folly that I did six months before.
My only son had taken to drugs and smoking. He became a perennial troublemaker in the house. My reputation as a medical doctor was at stake. That was the reason why I left Bombay and began practicing here in Cambodia.
Cambodia is my birth place. I was raised here during my formative years, but had to shift to India after my wedding. My father who is now seventy-eight was a prominent political figure here. Even today after his retirement from politics he is revered and has strong influence.
My son came to Cambodia, knowing that I was here. He wished to redeem himself and tread on a virtuous path, but I adamantly shut all doors, fearing he might again become a cause of anxiety to me and tarnish my image as a medical professional. I had lost my husband to cancer the year before and was already struggling to cope up with his loss.
Unfortunately, I later learned that my son committed suicide back in Bombay.” An agonizing sigh passed her lips.
“I see my son in you. He would be twenty- two if he was alive. You too wish to wean away from this irreverent path. I need to repay a debt to my son by helping you, though your life span cannot be decided by me. At least in your death you will find peace thinking that you had given up terrorism at some point in life. And from what you narrated about your life I understand that you have taken this path with no other choice to survive, and not intentionally.
She then made some paperwork to assure that Bantu would be in the hospital for another fortnight.
She also made an anonymous call to the police regarding an impending danger to the capital city of Cambodia, as Bantu had spilled the beans in distress.
Using her influence the doctor stopped Bhaijaan ‘s people from visiting him, citing serious infection as the reason. She shrewdly requested one of them to get his passport and relevant documents saying they were mandatory for hospital records. They couldn’t deny as they were advised by Bhaijaan not to do anything that might trigger suspicion.
“On medical grounds I can extend your stay here in Cambodia for six months. I will arrange for your stay. I can assure you that Bhaijaan or his men can do nothing to you here. Their influence is only in the boundaries of Bombay. We will think about the next move as and when we have to. I had decided to give away a good part of my savings that run into lakhs, to some orphanage or home for destitutes to honour my son’s untimely death.
I shall now utilise the amount for your stay and care here. I would like to help you send some money back home too, which I can continue doing by myself, later.” The doctor chose her words cautiously but it did not take much effort for Bantu to guage the inner meaning. He smiled sadly. She was inexplicably saying that his days were numbered.
Bantu sighed wistfully thinking about his mother and sister.
The doctor’s monetary assistance would help them to tide over all their needs.
His belief that Allah must have premeditated something to take care of them, stood fortified.
If not for His blessings why would Bantu have learnt about his terminal illness in a place like Cambodia which he had never dreamt of visiting? Wasn’t it premeditated that he had to meet the same doctor whose life he had spared in return for her benevolent act of saving his sister’s life?
And wasn’t her altruistic approach towards him and his family praise worthy?
Everything seemed like connected pieces of a puzzle!
Bantu closed his eyes and recited a silent prayer with quivering lips!
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people dead or alive is purely coincidental and unintentional.
All names used in the story are fictitious. Events and attacks mentioned in the story are not true incidents.
The writer has no intention to malign the name or reputation of any particular faith or religion. With due respect to all religions, the writer asserts that this is a pure work of fiction.
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