A great disciplined commotion stirs in front of a huge brown building as the lethargic ring of metal clashing onto metal seers through the soon to be deserted corridors only to be silenced by the spirited non-understandable buzzing of a thousand or so students as these seekers of knowledge burst out of their brown confinements into the playground and out through the main black iron gates. The chaos, as it were, was however an organised one as the proceedings took place through managed files beginning with the all-believing toddlers and ending with the all-rebelling teenagers, all eagerly culminating their quest of knowledge for the day by bidding their farewells to their respective chosen accomplices for such a treacherous task and heading towards their homes; or in the case of our ill-fated protagonists, at least towards the vehicle homebound.
A bunch of pre-teen girls with the usual giggle and gabble approached a boy of ten or so leaning against an old yet manicured car of importance; the girls maul his cheeks in affection and then continue to trot along the road with their uncharacteristic giggle and gabble, all except one. Sushma, or ‘Sukhama’ as she prefers to be called, is left behind with the proper farewell ceremony of her mates as she and her brother Swaraj climb into the Ambassador with a red light on the top of it and the Ambassador bearing the plate “Govt. of Assam” meandered sluggishly through the busy streets of Guwahati in front of a small security detail as the daughter and son of the most powerful man of Assam eased into its seats.
“And there she sulks”, sneers Swaraj at his elder sister as the colour of her face drains with every lamp-post that sped backwards as she gazed through the window with a frown increasing in intensity likewise. Having failed the first time, “Sulky Sukhama”, he teased again, this time with three-dimensional effects of poking her arm but albeit such, pretty much the same results except for a stare, hot enough to brew a sense of victory in his mind but cold enough to shun him into silence. Sukhama Baruah, a girl fifteen years aged by the world, was just the normal teenager with all their treasures and travails but except she wasn’t; she was the daughter of the Chief Minister of Assam and no matter however she tries to forget or pretend that she’s not, she always would be. She felt at home at school rather than at her ‘house’ and as she was headed towards her house, her spirits sank by the minute. At school, she was surrounded by people, friends whether fake or genuine, amiable or opportunistic she didn’t want to decipher and neither did she care as long as she was surrounded; for at those moments, she had a true human to talk to, at best, or an organic breathing dumpster to let out her vexing at the very least. On the other hand, for a home, she only had a big house with lots of servants to boss about but not even an organic breathing dumpster. Accordingly, she was this spirited butterfly fluttering with the easy breeze at school which slowly reverse metamorphoses into a grumpy caterpillar concerned with only the basic urges in order to survive at the house. However, she always had not been this two-faced daredevil, in fact she had been a firefly emanating warmth who dreamed that she was not an average Joe but was destined for great things but now, all she yearned was to be an average Joe and nothing even remotely more. The twist of the tale came in three years ago, her widowed father won the elections, a ‘landslide victory’ as the newspapers had termed it, and her grandmother died soon thereafter forcing her and her brother to leave their beloved Tezpur and move to Kahilipara, the official residence of the pitiful ruler of this proud state, to start a new life, ever surrounded but ever alone; in this despondence, did she stare out of the car-window like every other day as her brother merrily tweaked with his video game console by her side but little did she know that as the Ambassador went off the main road into a by-lane, history bated to be changed.
Raheem meandered through the packed main street with as much ease as a knife running through butter and then took a clean right turn into an oddly idle street keenly followed by a small Jeep carrying a small contingent of four armed policeman including the driver. There was a policeman sitting next to Raheem in his car while Sukhama and Swaraj reclined comfortably in the backseat. The policeman’s name was Pragyan and it had been hardly a week since he was posted at this detail, he was a man of strength and restrain who kept to himself rather than indulging in idle chatter while on the other hand, Raheem was a big old chatter-head. Having chauffeured the families of the most distinguished personas of the state, and sometimes the most distinguished personas themselves, for the better part of his life, Raheem had been privy to many a conversation and communing of which the general public shouldn’t be made aware of, but being the Raheem he was, minor ‘corrected’ details of such conversations often leaked out to his ardent listeners which he made out of almost every person he encountered yet Pragyan was one of the very few he failed in making so. He liked his earlier passenger seat policeman who was now promoted and transferred somewhere; they had shared interests and could go on and on about any and everything but with the man that began to sit beside him nowadays, he could hardly complete more than a few sentences and yet he tried every now and then. That day, however, Pragyan was strangely quiet even by his standards; the street was also eerily deserted and Raheem discerned that this might have added to the worries of the officer-in-charge sitting by his side.
“Where’s them people at, eh?” he blurted out to the astonishment of Pragyan. Pragyan looked at him eyes wide open but soon regained composure and enunciated in a cold tone,
“Probably nothing to worry about. You drive. How many minutes before we reach?”
“20 more minutes, Sir.” Raheem muttered wondering whether the man could ever be regardful.
The Ambassador continued along a straight line as the man behind the wheel chose to return the favour of aloofness to his co-passenger and wondered about how to ask for a leave of a week from his master in order to visit his village for his beloved niece’s wedding and her early years when he used to play with her as a child every evening after returning from his work as a peon at PWD; surely he had made enormous progress from such an humble position and his niece too has transfigured herself into a beautiful maiden inviting her uncle to her wedding from a child who played on his laps. As he continued his stroll through his memory lanes, a police jeep approached them from the other side and stopped a few paces in front of them, the driver in his khakis signalled Raheem to stop the Ambassador. Raheem looked at Pragyan staring unflinching at the jeep as he stopped the car along with his little stroll.
Sukhama was startled as their car paused abruptly while her brother was too indulged to care. She peeked through the two heads in the front seat and noticed that a jeep had intercepted their path and five men in uniform approached their car out of the jeep in front. One of them halted near the passenger’s seat and talked with the new police officer sitting by Raheem whose name Sukhama didn’t yet know. A minute later, the five policemen proceeded towards the jeep behind their Ambassador and started talking with those inside the jeep at which point Sukhama lost interest in them as she sinked back into her seat, her brother had been the same all this while. Suddenly, she heard a sound and turned back at the jeep to find the men still talking; she asked her brother if he heard anything, he barked at her to stop disturbing him. Two men entered that jeep while three of them walked towards their car with silenced pistols in their hands, she noticed. She was confused about what was going on when suddenly the new policeman shot a bullet through Raheem’s head off his own silencer laden pistol and took over the steering wheel pushing Raheem’s bleeding body to the other side. Swaraj jumped in his seat dropping his console as he stared wildly at Raheem and his sister in turns, his mouth opening wide without a sound and his pink cheeks slowly turning into a pale white. His sister, on the other hand, let out a wail only to be hit by the back of the pistol on the head by the policeman demanding her to be shush. Two policemen entered from either side into the back seats and tied and taped the two shocked siblings; Swaraj surrendered without a fight, his round clear eyes still wide with surprise, but Sukhama staged a resistance as she twitched, scratched and screeched only to silently give in at last as the men seated themselves on either side and nodded at the man who murdered Raheem moments ago. Another policeman came round the driver’s seat and said,
“Well, that was way too easy, Pragyan. You command such slackers.”
“Should be grateful that they are slackers. The job’s not yet done. Lead away into the place.” The murderer commanded in his clear and cold voice.
“Aye.” The man in khakis hooted as he went on to climb the jeep parked ahead and rode through a narrow diversion ahead with the Ambassador and the other jeep following like a proper convoy. The convoy sped past the maintained roads into the unmaintained ones and then into a wilderness as the two siblings looked at each other, helpless.
Pragyan’s conscience begged him to kill all of his accomplices and free his captives as he administered the vehicle into the woods, the body of the last person to administer it slowly getting cold by his side, yet he wouldn’t. He tried to silence his conscience by convincing it that all of it was but for a greater cause, a cause greater than the two spoiled kids he had kidnapped, a cause even greater than their imprisoned leader for whom they plan to exchange the two kids for, the cause of his people, the people of Assam; a cause he believed in earnestly at times and disbelieved with equal passion at other times. The leader of their cause, who had inspired countless youths to leave their families and take up arms to fight in a war to claim what was rightfully theirs, was arrested a few months ago in an ambush of the Assam Police and thereafter kept imprisoned as some sort of symbolic victory over their Liberation Outfit of Assam (LOFA) while in fact, the LOFA continued to wreak havoc at its own will. Even though symbolic, the arrest had taken its toll on the morale of the outfit and new recruitments had been few and far thereby instigating the need of rescue of their topmost leader. A plan had been hatched accordingly and the wheels were set in motion for the successful kidnap of the children of the Chief Minister of Assam and thereafter the stipulated exchange for their supreme leader; Pragyan, an erstwhile spy for the outfit in the Assam Police, was selected among the various aspirants to lead the mission to the envy of many others; subsequently, arrangements were made for his deployment at the appropriate security detail and also for the total vacation at the destined time and place for the mission to be carried out and there he was carrying the hostages for the second phase of their plan. It sometimes bemused Pragyan at how much power the exiled outfit still had over such matters in the administration but it bemused him further that during his childhood, all he wanted to be was a Policeman serving the state and how fate had played its cards so that he would become a Policeman but in totally different circumstances. He clearly remembers the morning when the army marched into his home and dragged away his elder brother out of their home on charges of ‘suspicion of working with the outfit’ as his screaming mother was kicked away by another man of military. He was later shot down in public on these unproved charges; in those times during the Operation RANG-BAJ as it was codenamed, in the remote villages of Assam, the word of the military was the law as they hunted for members of the outfit subjugating and killing anybody they thought had connections with the outfit and no proof was needed and neither the regional police and administration nor the regional political party which was in power during those turbulent times dared to challenge the militia. His brother, a petty fishmonger, had, in fact, no alleged connections but the cause of his demise was his scuffle with one army officer over the price of one of his fish the previous evening. Pragyan was boiled to the brim that day and even tried to take on the army with his axe but was somehow stopped by his sobbing mother who didn’t want to lose another son; he already had made up his mind to avenge his brother and a fortnight later when the rites of his brother were done and his mother was asleep in her quarters at midnight, he stealthy touched her feet and fled from his home to join a group of hot-blooded youths of his village on their way to join the outfit for the people, but more-so for oneself. The times have changed now, he has risen among the ranks of the outfit but never has been to his home ever again nor been able to truly avenge his brother; Assam too had tranquilised itself somewhat with the militia almost completely retreating out of the villages but it was not a peace that their leaders had envisioned and hence they fought. Sometimes Pragyan wondered if their vision of peace, the good that would come out of it, would it ever outdo the damage they had already caused and all other damages that they would cause in order to obtain such a state but that day was no such day of retrospection as work had to be done and the second phase of the plan to be implemented. The three cars halted near an abandoned shabby house in the middle of the forest and Pragyan stepped out of the Ambassador to a flurry of salutes from a dozen or so green-clad armed men.
“Round up the dead bodies and dump them near the old tree for now. Bring the two kids to the hall and switch on the TV. I bet they’ll have news.” Pragyan ordered as men hurried to follow his commands.
Sukhama and her brother were dragged into the hall by two green-clad men, their ropes and tapes all still intact. Swaraj was deathly quiet since he watched their driver’s head explode and pellets of his blood splash all around the place and a fountain of blood erupting thereafter from the hole left by the bullet; his eyes betrayed no sign of fear and shock as they continued to stare wide-open into the nothingness in front of him. Sukhama too was quiet for the moment, but that might have been more due to the fatigue of suppressed squealing and wriggling about during their journey rather than that of fear and shock; her eyes too were wide open but a fire raged in them instead of a hollowness as they stared at their captor’s stark figure reclining in an armchair switching through the news channels. She noticed that the news channels kept flashing the photographs of her and her brother with letters written against a red background and the title of BREAKING NEWS above it,
“CM’s Children Kidnapped; Security Sabotaged; No claims made; State of the children uncertain as the Police scrounge through the city.”
No claim made, she thought; she was restless to know who was behind all of these. During their little miserable trek into these woods, she tried hard to figure who these men could be, were they the leaders of the opposition who sweetened their teeth at their home but spoke evil of their father in public or those extreme communists who were rumoured to plan an attack on the state or one of the many separatist terror outfits that spawned every week, she pondered hard without stopping her squealing behind the tapes when she was slapped hard at last which had silenced her thereafter. Lying against a faded wall watching her photos swarm the television screen surrounded by strange armed men, she narrowed it down to the extreme communists or terror outfits but seeing no hammer and sickle flag or any other symbolism around, she felt it ‘safe’ to assume that it was but a terror outfit. She looked at her brother who was barely alive mentally and rage brewed in her minds; she was vexed at herself for being too weak to do anything, she was vexed at her father for not doing anything till now, vexed at the police for being so incompetent, vexed at the military which didn’t succeed to totally wipe out these insurgents during their several missions: she remembered reading a news article a few days ago about how the military spared a dozen insurgents who surrendered after being outnumbered and cursed the military for not killing those cousins of the ones who held them captive now but most of all, she was vexed at her father for winning that damned elections which spelled doom for them. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she withdrew her gaze from her little brother still staring into nothingness.
“Put me on the phone with the government offices. It’s time they knew our babysitting fees.” Pragyan spake slowly as a man tinkered with a strange phone and passed it onto him.
“The Secretariat, Assam. May I be obliged with the identity of the speaker and the reason of the call?” A woman spoke from the other end in her practiced tone.
“Whole of Assam must be obliged to know me, but first let me introduce myself to the hon’ble CM of Assam. Patch me through, woman.”
“May I know who is on the line? The CM Office is currently in a state of urgent shake-up and wouldn’t accept…” She retorted back irritated
“Shush… I am the emergency, woman, and if the CM wants to see his kids again, you’d better patch me through.”
The woman shivered and hurriedly pressed a few buttons and the call was patched through to the CM’s office as she briefed the matter and opened the line.
“WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE… KIDNAPPING MY CHILDREN??!!”
“People usually say Hello when they pick up the phone….”
“Cut the crap and tell me who you are and what you want,” the CM demanded as he signalled a person with a laptop something.
“No wonder the state’s rotting with an impatient leader as you… Nonetheless, my name doesn’t matter but my organisation does and you have an essential element of my organisation’s mental framework which I’m willing to trade back for an essential element of your mental framework.”
“You are with LOFA, aren’t you? What do you want, your jack-ass leader? And you think kidnapping my kids will guarantee the release of a State prisoner? How do I even know they are with you and this is not a hoax?” the CM tried to hide his emotions.
“Answering your questions one by one…”
“SCRAP THE DRAMA!”
“Yes, I am with the LOFA… we want our jack-ass leader in exchange for your jack-ass kids… and yes, the kidnapping of the children of the CM guarantees the release of a state prisoner. The CM’s before you have committed far more heinous crimes than releasing a prisoner and the CM’s after you will also continue the tradition so can’t you, who’s fairly clean, can’t commit such a petty crime for love?” he paused, “You do love them, don’t you?”
“I’ll… I’ll have you… have you…k… k… killed….”
“I could kill your kids right now so mind your tongue and you wanted proof, right? Here’s your proof… Bring the girl and untape her filthy mouth.”
A man dragged Sukhama towards Pragyan and untaped her mouth as she snatched the phone from her captor’s hands and the rage still boiling in her eyes and spoke unfazed,
“Dad, save Swaraj but don’t give these bastards a thing they demand…”
She was slapped right across her face by the man who untaped her and was taped again and pushed against the faded wall again.
“Sukhama… Sukhama… Sukhama…”
“Brave girl, I must say… Stupid but brave… Hope you are smart enough and let our leader walk alone on the outskirts of the Pakdong forests by four hours and you’ll be delivered with your kids as soon he’s confirmed to be safe with our forces. I guess, by now your IT specialist has already triangulated the co-ordinates of this place and I frankly don’t mind your pathetic police surrounding the place, we are on a suicide mission the day we enrol ourselves, we want to live but we’re meant to die, but even if a bullet is fired at us until our leader’s free, your kids will not go out of this place alive… That I promise. Now make the arrangements.” Pragyan disconnected the phone and handed it over to his assistant with a sheepish grin pointed towards Sukhama. “Untape her,” he commanded as his men followed his orders with a puzzled look on their faces.
“What is your name, little one?” Pragyan asked with sincerity sparkling in his eyes.
“Sukhama Baruah,” she spat.
“Sukhama… meaning grace… Spitting is not graceful. A disgrace.” He grinned
“Disgrace? I’ll tell you what disgrace is… You are… All of you… Killing people for your selfish interests… My father’ll come with the army any moment and all of you’ll die… die you will.” Sukhama uttered making a deadly eye contact.
“Ha-ha… It’s your teenage speaking… The age of knowing it all… I like brave people. You’re stupid, of course, and that is a deadly combination I must warn you. Maybe we have selfish interests, but a self when extended also encompasses the community, and we believe that we fight for our community’s selfish interests and we do not deny being selfish but do you think the ones who fight us, the army, the police,” he pauses, “your father… are they all fighting for selfless reasons?”
“Don’t you dare utter a word against my father… so what if he’s selfish… he’s good selfish and you’re bad selfish!” she barked
“Good and bad selfish? I’m learning something here… You are in school right, they don’t teach this in history but you surely must have heard of Operation RANG-BAJ, haven’t you? The mighty failed mission of the Indian Army against the LOFA involving killing of a lot of innocents on baseless charges and military atrocities in the name of wiping out the insurgent LOFA… How is that good selfish?” Pragyan grinned.
“They were good… I mean… Good… They… They weakened LOFA and… established peace… These were… were but collateral damages one faces in war.” The words escaped meekly out of Sukhama’s lips.
“Acchha. Theirs was collateral damage and ours is terrorism? Priceless… well what could one expect from one crooked daughter of one crooked leader of one crooked state? Tape her mouth again… She’s the same nitwit like all the others.” He stood up from his arm-chair and went out of the room as his men followed their orders.
At the Secretariat, an uneasy silence was broken by the carefully selected words of the Directorate General of Police only to be met with no response from the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Assam. The Chief Minister had been deathly quiet since his phone-call with the terrorist and half-heard all the elaborate action plans he was presented with as he wondered why all hell broke loose only upon him, every single time. He still remembers the day when he was elected the head of this state after decades of conceived misruling of the opposing party and how an era of fulfilling unmeant promises began. The problems that he faced, Assam faced, were old and unconquerable and a new banner could never change that; everybody knew that and yet they hoped for some kind of redemption from every kurta-clad person who deems himself worthy enough of taking the limelight of which the general masses were afraid of. He mused about how he loved his children and how seldom he was able to express the same; how he was not there when they had taken their first steps or when they had spoken their first words and how he could not manage to fulfil the promises he so truly meant to them. He regretted all those times when he should’ve been with them but for the first time, lamented as he was to abandon them forever. He nearly strangled the DGP when he put forth the rescue plan of sending his elite troop into the jungles and not giving into the terrorists’ terms. “How dare he even think of something?” the CM boiled as he was dragged away from the DGP but now as he sat tranquil in his majestic chair he gloomily saw the reason in the DGP’s scheme; the prisoner they had was of utmost importance and though the outfit falsely proclaimed that nothing has changed with the arrest, it was an open secret that the arrest has resulted in an unprecedented decrease in both their activities and fresh recruitment and hence, the release of him on the terms of the terrorist outfit for two mere kids, whomever be their father, was unreasonable to the brim and a symbolic loss in this war against LOFA. If it had been a matter of him against LOFA he would have never agreed to such but it unfortunately wasn’t; it was a matter of Assam against the LOFA and he was Assam’s principal representative and nothing more and this was all he could muster to speak to himself as a resort to sole his burning soul. With a heart heavier than whole wide world, tears on the verge of breaking out from the confines of his tired eyes and a voice as pale as winter he said, “Commend the Rescue Operation.”
Pragyan felt pity for the little boy that leaned half-dead against the wall having to witness such viciousness at such an young age but hey, the world was cruel enough to him as well, as he, a boy of fourteen, watched his elder brother shot in the head by the military right in front of the whole village; he shrugged the haunting image as he strolled through the courtyard. He, however, was impressed with the way Sukhama held her own and hoped that she might have a just and liberal view and thus, was thoroughly disappointed when she went on to defend the army’s actions as collateral damage; he bummed a cigarette and tried not to think about them: they were nothing but living currency. Suddenly, he started and ran inside the house shouting, “THEY’RE COMING… I CAN HEAR THEM TRUCKS… ALL INSIDE… ALL INSIDE… STAND GAURD…”
He switched on the TV and read the news which said that the CM has refused the demands of LOFA and ordered a rescue operation. He heard the trucks stop as men clambered down from them and surrounded the house on the outside as a man spoke over a megaphone,
“You are heavily outnumbered. It’s better if you’d surrender and hand the children… All of you’ll be spared with your lives and don’t attempt anything stupid.”
“Stupid father of a stupid daughter. This will be interesting.” Pragyan spat as he untapped and untied Sukhama and her brother and dragged them out of the door signalling his men to aim at their heads.
“Oh, there’s a camera too. I love journalists… unafraid of their lives and off to report little crimes… I told the CM to act wisely and this is how he acts? You there, don’t you dare shoot me or they die, you understand? Oh, where was I? Oh, yes, perhaps the CM doubted my honesty and integrity. Well, then you unafraid journalist, send my regards with the video you’ll record.” Saying this, Pragyan took out his gun and shot Swaraj right through his head as he fell on the floor with a thud and blood erupting out of the hole and splashing all around as Sukhama screeched and tried to kick Pragyan while the military personnel stood in shock aiming for Pragyan’s head awaiting orders. The commanding officer shook his head.
“Maybe this will do… A bullet fired and she’ll be the next. You still have 3 hours. Set him free and you all can take her and then kill us. We don’t care.” He said as he put his pistol at her head and started walking backwards in defiance and seeming victory when as fate would have him, he skipped a step, slipped and lost his balance as at that very fleeting instant, Sukhama pushed him down and snatched the pistol from his hands and pointed it shivering towards a Pragyan lying unafraid on the floor.
“DON’T SHOOT,” Pragyan yelled to his men as they fixated their aim on the little shivering girl.
The commanding officer of the rescue operation also used restraint as his men fixated their aim on the lying insurgent and the two visible insurgents inside but they knew there ought to be more and hence opening fire might prove fatal for the CM’s daughter and they slowly started moving towards her with cautioned steps.
“I do not know what you want. I do not care what you want. You killed my brother. You killed Raheem. You would kill me even if you get what you want, won’t you?” The rage never leaving her eyes, Sukhama looked at Pragyan who just snorted at her.
“You don’t have it in you to kill me.” Pragyan grinned.
“So my father’ll try to save me and give you what you want and I’ll still die anyways. Better to die and give you nothing. No, I don’t murder. I suicide.”
“All talk. Now give me my gun back.. And you lot, not a step more!” Pragyan slowly stood up and went for her as the rescue troops halted.
“I want to live but I must die.” Sukhama shot herself in the head and fell onto the ground with a grin on her face and blood all around as Pragyan stood awestruck, eyes and mouth even wider than that of Swaraj’s along with all the rest of the spectators.
Pragyan and the commanding officer yelled together, “OPEN FIRE.”