Aftab sat staring at the cemented floor of the house’s verandah early in the morning. This verandah was the centre of all the family frolics until yesterday. A hoarse voice coming from outside the wooden planked faded blue entrance gate cut-in his stare, and he ran towards the door, opened it,
Maybe it was a cow.
While shutting the door back, his gaze stuck (from the slit of the almost closed door) at Dargah Sharif, a tiny building holding huge faiths of men that stood a few hundred metres from that door.
“Abbu, today’s the tenth day of school vacation, and you haven’t bought me the blue paint yet”.
“Blue paint? For the entrance gate?”, Shazeen, Aaftaab’s father, asked.
“Yes! The colour’s fade now, and the uneven flakes that have fallen makes it look shabby”, Aaftaab said.” But why do we always paint it blue,abbu?”
“Blue is the colour of the infinite sky and the limitless oceans. When we step out of the door into the world, we need to be like them, boundless, yet striving selflessly for the betterment of the world”, abbu explained.
Where are you, abbu?
A tear rolled down his cheek as he recalled his chat with abbu while returning from dargah a week back. Shazeen Yakub, his abbu, was the cook,” khansamah”, of the Dargah Sharif located in Shaikpet, Hyderabad. He was known for his scrumptious and majestic biryani that he used to make for dargah staff. People said he was capable of bringing “soul” to food. Even elites from different parts of the city visited the dargah on Eid and Hijra to relish the feast prepared by him. All these factors were in stark contrast to the fact that he was now missing!
The police had interrogated various people in the vicinity. They concluded that six days ago, two people from the “Khurram” anti-national camp in Udupi, Karnataka, had come to dargah especially to eat the Friday meal which any devotee could avail. The two men had brought an offer for Shazeen to become the head cook of their camp and help invigorate their men.
“He said he would serve only the true followers of Allah, not those toxic rogues”, said a constable informing Nafees, his wife. Since they were adamant about taking him, they kidnapped him. After discovering this, the police of Shaikpet had utterly stopped the investigation. The problem was not the terror of Khurram but that they didn’t consider putting in efforts to find a simple, meek cook.
Unornamented people probably did not qualify as victims in the eyes of Shaikpet’s law keepers.
Arsheen had a habit of sitting with hundreds of pigeons on the sidewalks of the only crossroad near dargah. Being thoughtful yet reticent, she spent hours talking to the canny pigeons, who were also her advisors. Today, in her pink-white kameez, she sat with them but made no word, just kept rolling her eyes in the random directions of their flight until a thought dawned upon her.
Why don’t I ask Nabh about abbu?
Nabh was the only white pigeon in the flock and was Arsheen’s best friend. So she took Nabh in her palms and asked,” Is abbu alive?” The bird instantly flew out of her palms. This was a positive sign, according to her.
She further asked,” Can we find him?” after catching it in her palms, and it again flew away, this time higher.
Arsheen’s joy knew no bounds. She kissed Nabh and ran home.
“Ammi, Ammi!” she shouted as she kicked open the blue door and rushed to Nafees, her mother who was cleaning the small and ill-lit kitchen of theirs.
“This is no time for nuisance Arsheen, please start behaving like a thirteen-year-old kid”, Ammi said.
“Ammi Nabh says abbu is alive, and we can find him! Ammi, why are we not trying?” Arsheen shouted again.
“The police have failed, and so we have failed too. Where do we seek help? Whom should we approach?” Ammi said, sobbing.
“You haven’t failed yet”, someone standing at the door said. This person had a sturdy musculature and dark skin tone, like the colour of sun-dried raisins. He was wearing a stiff collared white shirt and black pant, portraying him as a decent working man. He came in without permission and sat beside Dadi Jaan on the old sandalwood couch.
“I am Hariom Patel; I am a builder, currently working on a housing project in Shaikpet”, he introduced.
“So what?”, dadijaan questioned.
“Eleven years back, my relationship with my family ran into rough weather. My father and I had become emotionally dead for each other. So I decided to throw myself into something that could make me ruthless and remorseless. So I changed my name to Shoeb and joined the Khurrams’.But the people there are spalpeens. They are all brainwashed young men with only one aim,’ aid crime and criminal profit’.The heinous acts of Khurrami men surpassed my bearability, and I sneaked out of that hell two years later”,Hariom spoke and fell silent.
Aftab suddenly came running out and asked, “What’ acts’ Mr…….white shirt uncle?” for he had overheard everything Hariom told the other three.
“I don’t want to trouble your pure soul, little friend”, Hariom smiled and said.
“How can you help bring my husband back?”
“I know every hole-and-corner of that area, I know Akbaruddin,their sargana,his tactics,his powers, weaknesses,
all-in-all, I know how to bring back the khansamah”, confidently answered Hari.
“How do we trust you?” dispirited dadijaan asked.
“I have no proof other than what I told you; it’s solely your call now”.
“White shirt uncle, my Nabh has told me that abbu can be rescued and so Aftab and I are ready”, undaunted Arsheen announced, holding her younger brother’s hand.
“Mrs Yakub, please, look at your kids, think of the khansamah, think of the shattered hearts of the dargah keepers”, Hariom pleaded,” you must believe me”.
Nafees first looked at the kids, then at dadijaan and finally looked at Hari and smiled.
“For khansamah!” Hariom shouted with fervour.
“For abbu!” whooped the kids.
For khansamah! For abbu! For khansamah!….echoed in the tiny house, setting in motion an air of zeal.
Nafees stood smiling.For khansama,for Shazeen.
Dadijaan’s voice silenced everyone when she asked what the exact plan was. Hariom broke the silence and started commanding,” We have seven days to get ready for the venture. You’ll have to learn to climb trees, and I will thoroughly teach you map reading, for Udupi is a maze. I will specialize Arsheen in compass and path tracking, Aftab in making bamboo boats and rowing methods and Mrs Yakub “, he stopped suddenly.
“What? What is it bhaijaan? Don’t hesitate, I will do what you say”, she sighed as she said.
“You will have to be my ally, disguised as a man and get into the camp with me. For that, you will have to eat nearly 25 ice-cubes a day and take excessive doses of vitamin-C to make your voice hoarse. You will have to get an armour-like garment to cover your chest, and the toughest of all, you will have to get real torture marks on your limbs so that they come to know that you have come with the same intention I went in”, he blurted everything out.
Nafees took a deep breath. Alright! For khansamah!
On the eighth day, the prepared party went to the dargah early morning to take the supreme power’s blessings. There Nafees tied a safety charm on the left hand of the kids to ensure their safety. Nafees looked finely masculine with the husky voice; a false beard,torture marks inflicted for seven days with a belt which were now blue and as painful as the absence of Shazeen.
“Dadijaan, stay safe as people outside know that we are going and would make attempts to bedevil you. Don’t go out but keep a check on everything through the secret cut out window in the door of terrace room gate”, instructed Arsheen.
“May Allah keep you safe”,dadijaan blessed all the four.
According to the stratagem, the party travelled four hundred kilometres to Shivamogga, the nearest town to Udupi. They then walked 4 kilometres to divert the kids into a forest that lay between the camp and the river. Arsheen was supposed to find and mark a way to connect the crooked camp and the river so that after rescuing Shazeen, the three of them could follow that path to reach the river and sail twenty kilometres downstream to a village in the boats that Aaftaab was going to make with the bamboo of the forest.
Hariom and Nafees continued to reach the “Khurram hill”.The moment they arrived at the Khurrami area of surveillance, a strider paced towards them ferociously and pounced over Hari.
“You nasty jerk! I will take all of your guts out with which you have stepped here again”, he screamed.
Hari said, gasping,” This double-dealing world needs to see the khurrami wrath. These people are treacherous pigs who can’t accept people like you and me, Adil. They need to see their end now, and that’s why I have come back”.
Adil was one militant of the camp who had joined this company eleven years back. He was also the victim of the same society which had troubled Hariom(family being a part of it) and severely hated that land of Hyderabad ever since. Hari’s statements appealed to Adil, and he crept off him.
Meanwhile, Nafees had started trembling with anxiety, and her hands sweated due to fear.
“I have brought my brother Shamsher to become a khurrami as well”, exclaimed Hariom.” Will you convince the sargana to keep us back?”
“Yes”, said Adil as he left them.
Nafees remained quiet until they reached the central area of the camp. Nafees was shocked to see massive caves built across the hill’s length and the main cave, a hall instead with a worn-out primaeval pillared entrance. Through that cave, only Akbaruddin and his managers could enter and leave.
Dumbstruck Nafees whispered, “How do we find where the khansamah is?”
“The cooks hold a position of respect here. So they live in the halls built inside the cave just adjacent to the “khurrami khaas” that is the main cave”, explained Hari.” So at night. We enter from the last cave and reach the cooking hall within an hour or so. Then I will guard the right entrance, and you will bring Shazeen there, but you must not take more than an hour. Tell the khansamah to convince all the guard to move out of the hall by saying that the sargana calls him.From there will head towards the forest and follow the trail marked by Arsheen.Clear?”
“Khansama”, Nafees squeaked by patting Shazeen’s shoulder.
“Take your hand off me, you filthy rogue”, he howled,” How dare you enter this hall”.
Without wasting a second, Nafees dragged him to a dark corner and removed her beard and cap.
“Nafees!” he was shocked. He cried so loudly that the guards of the Khurram khaas ran towards the cooking hall. Hari, on guard, used his wits to decept and veer the guards to other halls. But three of the guards, including Adil, attacked Hari as they had smelled a rat already. Hari screamed at the top of his voice,” Run to the right door”.
Adil launched numerous knives on Hariom. Hariom severely injured the other two men in their abdomen with his only knife but could not defend one of their knives that cut through the pinna of his right ear.
“Aaaaaaaaaaa!” he cried with pain. He took the same knife and charged it back at Adil’s neck, leaving him dead.
Around this time, Nafees and Shazeen had left the caves and embarked on the trail marked by Arsheen using cuttings of a brown shawl that only her ammi and Hari could recognize. They ran as fast as they could and finally reached a point where Arsheen was waiting. Hari was late and was now chased by Akbaruddin. He ran into the forest, but with the fear of ending up with everyone caught, he applied a bottle of eau de cologne on himself, which he stole from the cooking hall and started spilling the remaining cologne on the dried leaves taking a different route from the planned. He did this to make Akbaruddin follow him using the fragrance of cologne, making way for the family to reach Aaftaab.
Here Arsheen had been instructed to make the people rest on the trees for the night to avoid falling prey to predators and then start the following day. While the parents were breathlessly walking towards Arsheen, distance voices of militants could be heard.
“Ammi, faster”, Arsheen yelled. After they reached her, she quickly ordered Ammi to climb the tree she gestured towards and herself climbed the other. She then started helping abbu to climb in the light of three torches tied around her neck.
“There is some light, get there, you bastards”, a voice came cutting through the dense flora.
“Abbu faster,abbu faster, please”, cried Arsheen as Shazeen tried leaping on one of the branches. A militant almost reached that tree when abbu climbed the correct branch, and Arsheen switched off the torches.
We were almost dead. But where is Hariom uncle?
At the stroke of dawn, the three left to reach Aaftaab. Everyone was at a loss of words as Hari was lost.
“There it is”, Arsheen said, joy in her voice,” We have reached the least dense part of the jungle as the Sun was the brightest there. Hari uncle said that Aaftaab would meet you there”.
Aftab was looking at the vibrant sunrays falling from the sparse canopy with his hands clasped together.
“Salaam Aftab, I am named after you”, the ten-year-old said,” can you tell me why do these bad people always inflict trouble on simple people like abbu?”
“Because they possess the maximum power of God’, abbu said. Aftab swiftly turned to see his family had come. He rushed and hugged abbu tightly. After moments of joy, the little fellow fell silent.
Where is Hari uncle?
The family rowed the boat to a nearby village twenty kilometres downstream and took shelter there for a week.
They told Shazeen everything as he was shattered to see Nafees’s condition. Shazeen also told them about how his stay at Udupi made him realize that food is not just to appease hunger; it can be so important to some people that they may cross any limits to avail its benefits.
Dadijaan thrived on that door window to keep an eye on everything ever since her family left. This morning while checking for the vendors outside, her eyes fell on Shazeen walking towards that old blue door. She smiled and smiled at his sight but did not leave that square-cut hole until the entire family was inside the house.
She climbed down and rushed towards her family, hugged them while joyous tears flowed down her eyes.
After the reunion, she realized that Hariom was missing. When told by Nafees that they lost him there, she was utterly grieved.
“Allah, why do you always take a life to save one…”.
One month later, amidst the hush-hush of the morning, a man in a stiff collared white shirt and black pant stood leaning against the newly painted blue door.