Authors: R. SREERAM
R. Sreeram is the quintessential Indian – loves cricket, spends a month’s salary on gadgets and is stubbornly opinionated. He’s written a few poems and short stories before
, and often threatens to pen a few more. In what he sees as an ironic twist of fate, he too has joined the engineer-turned-MBA-turned-writer bandwagon that he once pooh-poohed. He lives in an undisclosed location with his wife and two imaginary dogs. He blogs on ramsutra.blogspot.com.
61 Silverline, Alapakkam Main Road, Maduravoyal, Chennai 600095
No. 38/10 (New No.5), Raghava Nagar, New Timber Yard Layout, Bangalore 560 026
93, 1st floor, Sham Lal Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi 110002
First published in India by westland ltd 2014
First ebook edition: 2014
Copyright © R. Sreeram 2014
All rights reserved
Typeset in PalmSprings Regular by SÜRYA, New Delhi
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, circulated, and no reproduction in any form, in whole or in part (except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews) may be made without written permission of the publishers.
9.30 p.m., 15th September, 2012. New Delhi.
‘Those are your choices, Major-General. I am sure you will make the right one.’
An hour after these words had been uttered, Major-General Iqbal Qureshi still felt the sting of humiliation, of abject helplessness at being outmaneuvered by the civilian in front of him. Thirty-four years of service, twenty-seven of them on the frontline, and he had nothing to say, no power to carry out any threat powerful enough to destroy those arrayed against him.
He looked around his office, once a symbol for everything that he had worked for – now, a painful reminder that they were mere trappings, illusions of power that truly lay in the hands of others. His eyes eventually rested on the framed picture of his family – a wife lost to a terrorist attack, a son who had followed in his footsteps and whose future he would soon decide, a daughter-in-law he had neither approved nor disapproved of, a grandson he had not seen often enough . . . In the picture, he had been haughty, confident of his own abilities, proud that he was in the ascendant not because of his name or network but because of his faith in his own righteousness.
That pride, he reflected – not for the first time since he had started his latest battle – had led to this path of destruction. Of having to choose between the principles of a past and the compromises for a secure future. It was not the choice itself that was uncertain, but how long he could live with himself having made it.
He picked up his glass of whiskey, a vice from those long days on the cold mountains, and downed it in one gulp. The liquid burned his throat but failed to bring any solace. Overcome by a sudden feeling of disgust, he flung it against the closest wall, where it shattered into a shower of crystals on the carpet. The silence that followed was punctuated by his own heavy breathing.
He sat down in his favourite chair, fingering the epaulets that had once meant so much more. The fact that he had a star instead of the national emblem did not rankle as much as it once had, for he had finally come to terms with what he would need to do to earn it. One of the points of the star pricked his finger, drawing a little drop of blood, and he gazed absently at the droplet, mesmerized by the purity of the colour. He was just as powerful now, he mused, as that single drop.
He glanced up once to ensure that the door was locked before drawing his service pistol out of its holster. The black metal gleamed dully, its oily surfaces reflecting the recessed lights that dotted the ceiling of his office. The walls, he knew, were thick and soundproof; the windows were ornamental, the glass bulletproof, protected from eavesdroppers by a vacuum layer between two separate plates. Like every dutiful soldier, he maintained his gun with pride. Every Friday, he personally broke it down and put it back together again before heading over to the range and firing a few rounds. It was a matter of honour that he could hit the bull’s-eye from fifty yards.
He pulled out his journal and added one final entry for the day. Closing it, he clasped the security band around it firmly and engaged the lock. A gift from his son, he thought, and now gifted back to his son. Unless
found it first . . .
He hid the journal in the recess at the back of his drawer and pushed it shut, not sure if it was truly a secret hiding place, not really sure if he cared anymore. In a way, he supposed, it was better that his son never receive it.
He looked at his gun once more. The helplessness had left him; in its place was a hardened resolution that he would still have the final say.
option. The middle-finger to the middlemen who had driven him to this.
A few moments later, Major-General Iqbal Qureshi fired the shot that shook the nation’s conscience.
10.30 a.m., 16th September. Chennai.
‘Hello, am I talking to Mr Balamurali Selvam?’
I sighed in frustration. The day had hardly begun, but I had already received three calls from three different banks, the scripts practically identical. This promised to be the fourth.
‘Not interested,’ I replied curtly.
‘One moment, sir. Is this Balamurali Selvam, author of
That made me pause. None of the telemarketers who had ever called me had made the association, and I wasn’t sure I was unhappy about it. It was two years since my book had been mentioned anywhere, and even then, at the time, the publicity had more to do with the circumstances around it than the work within. As a writer, it should have rankled; as
writer, I was trying to imagine it had never happened.
The next instant, a deeper voice was on the line. ‘Mr Selvam, you do not know me – I am Raghav Menon, from the Public Relations Department. Government of India. I hope it’s a good time to talk.’
‘I have nothing to say to you,’ I shot back even as the shock of it hit me. Of all the calls I could have expected, one from the government – especially from the PR wing – was definitely not on the list. All my loathing returned in a surge that made me want to fling the phone across the room. I gripped the instrument tighter to let that emotion pass, biting down the remarks that rose to my throat. My words had once caused me irreparable loss – I was damned if I was going to be dragged into it once again.
‘Wait, let me explain,’ he said. ‘We would like to offer you an unconditional apology and extend an invitation to join us – be in on the action, so to speak.’
The one vice of any writer, as anyone will tell you, is curiosity. Despite my cynicism that this was in all likelihood a prank call, possibly from one of my old colleagues at the magazine, I was intrigued. I did not hang up. I did not say anything. I just waited for him to continue.
After a few seconds, he broke the silence. ‘Mr Selvam, are you there?’
‘I can understand if you think this is a prank call,’ he said, speaking slower now, ‘but if you want, I can give you a number to call me back and verify my identity. Or else you can go to our website and find me listed in the directory.’
‘That’s not really proof,’ I pointed out. ‘How do I know you are the same person?’
‘Mr Selvam, time is of essence,’ he replied urgently. ‘I am sending a vehicle for you – it should be stopping outside your gate as we speak. You can Google me on the way . . .’
‘Wait a minute!’ I interrupted indignantly. ‘I am not going anywhere. You can’t just call me like this and –’
‘It’s your choice, certainly,’ he said smoothly. ‘But personally, I think you got a raw deal two years ago. I could not do anything about it then, but things are different now. This . . . could be your redemption. But it’s up to you. Our car should have reached by now – you can ask the driver to leave if you don’t want another chance.’
Another chance for what, I wanted to ask, but the line was already disconnected. Sure enough, there was a honk at the gate the very next moment. A sleek white sedan with a board that designated it as an official vehicle of the Central Government had pulled up outside.
10.30 a.m., 16th September. Guwahati.
The reporters milled about aimlessly, waiting for the boarding call that would initiate their ride back on Air India One. Some of them worked on their laptops, filling in secondary stories or checking their emails, while others networked, forming and leaving groups. The members of the preferred media groups – the ones that supported the government and received massive advertisements in return – were gathered in the executive lounges, feeding on free liquor and snacks, while the freelancers and ‘opposition’ media-personnel scrounged for refreshments in the ‘economy’ ticket-holders’ waiting section. Outside, on the tarmac, they could see the gleaming craft awaiting its exalted passengers.
A few minutes later, a convoy of vehicles appeared on the tarmac, was waved through the security gates near the main terminal, and sped towards Air India One. In a few minutes, the lead vehicles emptied their passengers out onto the tarmac – black-clad commandos who represented the Z-Category security for the prime minister of India. They fell into formation even as the vehicles peeled away, leaving a single Mercedes Benz in the middle. After a few seconds, during which the perimeter was swept for threats one final time, the back door was opened and the prime minister of India stepped out.
A few of the reporters – the younger, more enthusiastic ones – rushed towards the observation deck to snap a few pictures of him, while the rest of the crowd watched with a bored been-there-done-that-means-nothing expression. The elderly politician waved a couple of times towards the terminal, noting with satisfaction the flashes from cameras, smiled benignly and then turned around towards the aircraft. A cargo elevator lifted him to the doorway and he walked in, careful not to let the top of his head hit the frame.
His attendants bustled about him with purpose, ensuring that he and his immediate entourage were seated comfortably in the forward section. The PR officer deputed to the Prime Minister’s Office leaned in to whisper to the prime minister, Kuldip Razdan, that the press conference would start once they had taken off and reached a level altitude.
That was why, when the doors closed and the aircraft started taxiing immediately, the PR officer stared with surprise through the windows. He had not imagined it – they were actually moving. That was not the plan.
He debated with himself whether he should bring it to the notice of the prime minister or try to find out what had happened. Opting for the latter, he stood up and walked towards the cockpit, flagging down the steward who had seated him earlier. The crew was different from the one who had flown them out – not that he had paid much attention to them at the time, given that he had been racking his brains for the government’s spin on Major-General Qureshi’s suicide – but that was not his concern. He was worried about antagonizing the people waiting in the lounges. Some of them represented important voices of public opinion.
‘What’s the matter?’ the PR officer asked. ‘Why are we taking off without the reporters?’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ said the steward, leading him away with a hand on the elbow. ‘I was ordered to close the doors and prepare for take-off as soon as the prime minister was on board. Please take your seat, sir. It’s not safe to be standing.’
Even as he sat down, the PR officer bit the bullet and briefed the prime minister on the situation. Kuldip Razdan shrugged his shoulders, assuming that the orders had come from the party headquarters through the PMO. He was used to such abrupt changes in plan. His only reaction was to speculate on the cause – did it have something to do with Qureshi’s death, news of which had broken out earlier that morning, or was it finally time for him to make way for the next generation? Either way, he was unconcerned beyond a certain point. The script would be waiting for him when he landed.
In the cockpit, the pilots cleared their flight for take-off. They moved onto the main runway, lined up the nose-wheel exactly over the white line that ran down it and then switched on to full power. In a short while, they were airborne, the city of Guwahati fast fading behind them, destination . . . unknown.
As they crossed over from the Guwahati ATC to Nagpur ATC, the pilot switched to the new frequency. ‘Air India One here. Approaching flight speed of 500 knots, bearing 280 degrees. Request permission to clear airspace at 32,000 feet, bearing 28 degrees. Over.’
‘Cleared for altitude 32,000 feet, bearing 28. Suggested speed at 450 knots, expect a headwind towards destination.’ A pause. Then, ‘Changing flight designation from Air India One to Air India Three One Five. Confirm, please.’
The captain exchanged a look with his pilot. ‘Understood,’ he replied into his mike. ‘Changing transponder identifier to Air India Three One Five. Over and out.’
11.05 a.m., 16th September. Mumbai.
The old man stared out of his office windows and across the haze at the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Despite it being a Sunday, he could hear the muted buzz of energy on the other side of his office doors. Sunday was just another day for the employees of Infinity Pvt Ltd; trades and negotiations happened just as normally as on any other day, money flowing in and out of the coffers in a tireless stream of commerce and speculation.
The sound of his door opening distracted Gyandeep Sharma from his reverie. The light tread told him who it was; within the instant, he ran through the list of possibilities and identified three distinct reasons for the interruption. Any single reason would be unfortunate, he knew. The combination of any three was catastrophic.
‘It is as we suspected,’ his visitor told him, seating herself on the plush leather chair opposite his desk. He heard the sound of a folder being dropped on the wooden surface. ‘Qureshi’s death has opened a can of worms. He has committed suicide, but there’s a rumour out on the streets that he was killed.’
Gyandeep sighed. The old soldier had used the one last trump in his hand – maybe not even a trump, but the strongest play he had – and had reacted in the one way they had not been prepared for. He shook his head at his own mistake in underestimating the desperation the major-general had been driven to.
‘That also means that the schedule has been pushed up,’ Leela Sharma, his niece, continued. ‘Operation Kalyug has been accelerated. We expect a strong move within the next three weeks. Our sources tell us that everyone’s in a state of readiness – and this time, it’s not an empty exercise.’
Leela could sense her uncle’s shoulders tensing at the second piece of information. He stood unmoving, still staring at the Sea Link but no longer seeing it, fearing the newest – and most likely the toughest – challenge that he and his associates were facing. Despite their concerted efforts at sabotage, Operation Kalyug looked like it would take off. Of course, the whole concept behind Kalyug was fantastic and should fail under its own contradictions . . . but Powerhouse never left anything to chance.
‘And?’ he asked, noticing the intake of his niece’s breath. Bad news never came in twos, he was sure.