It was the month of November back then and it was the month of November now. Probably it shows Allah’s consent in their mission. Allahu Akbar, Abdel Khader thought to himself as he got up after offering his ‘Maghrib’ namaaz. He checked on the other two men accompanying him, Ezra and Saleh. The two boys were sitting by the fire, smoking beedi. Khader didn’t smoke or drink. Ever. He was a God-fearing Muslim who never did anything that wasn’t acceptable in the eyes of Allah. Lahore was pleasantly cold and it reminded him of his childhood days in Sulaymaniyah. It was considered to be Iraq’s most beautiful city in those days. The land of the Zagros mountain. If there was something beautiful in Khader’s life worth looking back to, it was his days in Sulaymaniyah.
“Bhaijaan, Melbaaf is here. He says we shall prepare to leave," Ezra’s voice brought Khader back to the present. Ezra, the young and youthful nineteen years old companion of Khader. What kept him in such high spirits always, Khader would very often ask him, to which he would just laugh. Between the three of them, it was a parent-child relationship. He first met Ezra in the streets of Karbala. Some street urchins were beating him up and this little boy was offering no resistance. They would have beaten him to death had it not been for Khader. To his amazement, the boy got up and laughed himself while he dusted off his soiled pajama.
“Shukriya Bhaijaan”, he said and turned to go when Khader stopped him.
“What’s your name kid?”’ Khader asked.
“I don’t have a name. That is why I was just beaten up. They asked my name and I said I don’t have one, which they obviously didn’t believe” came a prompt reply.
“Will you work for me?”, Khader asked politely.
“Will I get food two times a day?”
“You will get everything you ask for”, Khader said.
“Can I bring my friend along too? He doesn’t have parents either like me and his uncle beats him up all the time.”
Kind hearted men don’t make good militants, Khader recalled what Al Ayub, their leader had once told him.
“Yes. Come fast.” Khader replied, clouding off the doubts.
And since that day, Abdel Khader had two companions who were orphans like him. He had named them Ezra and Saleh after the popular Sufi singers of Iraq. The two boys were excellent learners. Back then in 1991, Iraq was preparing for the holy war, Jihad, against the fair skinned and black-hearted Americans. Ezra and Saleh, along with some twelve thousand young boys were trained how to plant landmines, operating massive arms like assault rifles, automated machine guns, and AK-47. The boys never once questioned Khader’s opinion and since then had made it a point to follow him like a shadow.
In 2006, when the president of United States of America visited India and thus declaring India an ally in their war against terrorism, Iraq accepted India as their new enemy. The Iraqi militant organization, also called the ‘Muhafazah jundi’ meaning the Arab speaking soldiers, began to plot a bombing in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India. The plan was to teach India a lesson through which the rest of the world too would understand what it would mean if they shook hands with this arch enemy of Iraq.
The relations between Iraq and America had deteriorated with time ever since Saddam Hussain came to power. To add to it, after the war between Iraq and America got over, the president of the USA had said that it was for the benefit of the Iraqi citizens. Is a country’s betterment possible by killing the leader they voted for? In the eyes of America, yes it is. None of the twelve thousand youngsters in Iraq had dreamt of becoming a militant but when it came to protecting their motherland from exploitation, they readily gave up their dreams. To be the reason behind the occurrence of terrorism and then to find allies to fight it clearly showed America’s dual faced personality.
When Al Ayub chose Khader to carry out the attack in India and asked him to choose his men for the mission, he readily chose Ezra and Saleh. On the same night, three of them were sent to Baghdad for about seven months of training. They were to learn to talk in Hindi, know about the dishes the people there ate, their lifestyle, issues with the residents of Kashmir since they were to portray themselves as Kashmiri weavers. They were also taught a little bit of weaving. To learn a new language in seven months was a feat in itself.
The journey from Iraq to Pakistan had been the easiest part of this mission. They were in Lahore for almost a week, waiting for the right day to board the only railway link between India and Pakistan, the Samjhauta Express and enter India.
Mohd. Melbaf, their man in Pakistan was to help them with the officers at the visa office. He had been popular among the terrorist groups for this very reason. There were stories that he had not undergone the basic ritual of being a Muslim, the ‘Khatna’, and because of this when once he was caught by the army men of India he managed to convince them that he was a Hindu. The man never spoke much. He opened his mouth only to give instructions.
“I hope you people have packed your bags. We’ll leave right away,” Melbaaf commanded. On their way to the station, Melbaaf kept telling them the story they were supposed to tell in the case of any interrogations. They were going to meet their relatives in Attari. Omar was to come and pick them up from the Attari station. They stood in the line for the train, trying to memorize everything their ID said about them and their family.
Once they were seated in the train, the situation seemed under control.
“Khuda Hafiz brother. You are blessed to be carrying out Allah’s holy war. My prayers are with you,“ Melbaaf spoke with utmost sincerity and got up to leave.
There were happy faces all around. If the people of these two nations are so happy to meet each other, why did they opt for partition in the first place, Khader thought to himself.
The train had Indians who were going back to their country after meeting their relatives in Pakistan and Pakistanis who were excited about seeing their loved ones who lived in India. While the Indians talked tirelessly about the beauty and tranquility of Lahore, the Pakistanis kept talking about the Indian markets and shopping malls. Not once did Khader feel that there were people from two enemy nations in that very train.
“Bhaijaan, grab some sleep. I’ll wake you up once we’re about to reach Attari,“ Saleh said looking at Khader’s tired eyes.
The train was delayed due to foggy weather. During the checking at Attari station, the officials found a tiny dagger in Khader’s bag and he was cross-questioned for about fifteen minutes regarding the same. He kept saying that he meant no harm. Telling them that it was his father’s only belonging he had left would mean further making up a story and Khader didn’t want to take the risk. When Ezra and Saleh finally saw Khader coming out of the inspection room, they felt relieved.
Omar Qureshi worked for Pakistani terrorist organizations in Kashmir. His leader had agreed to help Iraq carry out this operation.
“Assalam Alaikum Bhaijaan!” the young man who had received Khader spoke. “I am Mazhar and this is where I stay. Today evening I will take you to Kalka. Miyan bhai will meet you there and give you your fake ID proofs. Till then you stay inside and rest.”
Just as the three of them began to get settled, the boy came back again “Bhaijaan, welcome to India”, he said smiling warmly.
The boy returned with some edible stuff and chai. “In Iraq you people drink lots of chai I’ve heard”, he said trying to make a friendly conversation.
“Yes. It’s like an energy drink for us," Ezra answered laughing.
“Here, this is shaving cream. Shave your beards off. This will make you look like everyone else here. Keep the mustache if you want to. It’s Miyan bhai’s order,” and with that, he left.
It took them almost five hours to reach Kalka. Khader got plenty of views to rest his eyes on. Saleh sat in front with Mazhar and Ezra kept looking out of the window like a four-year old child, shrieking at the view time and again. There were hills, green pastures, beautiful crop fields and the view of the sunset. Kalka itself was surrounded by hills.
When they entered Miyan bhai’s house, they were made to sit down on a carpet in a room which had a huge screen on the front wall. Minutes later a man’s face appeared on the screen. Khader had seen this man. He was Omar Qureshi, the number 2 from LeT in Kashmir. His photograph had appeared in the newspaper once. So this is Miyan bhai, Khader thought to himself. The face on the screen began to speak.
“Bismillah ir-Rehman ir-Rahim. My brothers, men wage wars for profit and principle, but they fight them for women and land. Sooner or later the other causes and compelling reasons drown in blood and lose their meaning. Surviving is the only logic and dying is the only vision. You, my brothers, are fighting this war because Iraq is God’s holy land. Anyone who supports our enemy in snatching away our land is our enemy. With India destroyed, America will be at a loss of power and support. It’s Jihad, Allah’s holy war. And you my brave brothers, are his warriors.
"May victory be yours”, and with these words, the screen went blank.
Those words seemed to be infusing a new sense of power and superiority in Khader. He realized how close he was to attaining his goal. He got up and walked out of the room.
“Here are your new ID proofs. We stay here tonight, memorize the details mentioned on the ID. Tomorrow morning you will be catching the train for Thiruvananthapuram for your training from Kalka station.” Mazhar said, handing them their ID proofs.
Lying in their beds, all three of them were filled with the thoughts about their journey.
Next morning, Khader woke up at the time for namaz. To say that nervousness had crept inside him would not be wrong. Last night he had a dream in which he saw the scenes post their bombing Bangalore, a city in India. There was chaos all around. The most disturbing part was the young boy that Khader saw in his dream. He looked exactly like Khader did as a child. The boy was looking for his parents and crying when a group of extremists killed him. Khader didn’t understand the meaning of that dream but he sure did get nervous.
They reached the station bout fifteen minutes earlier. On their way to the station, Mazhar kept calling them by the name on their IDs. Khader’s name was Damodar Bhushan, Saleh’s name was Manohar Bhushan and Ezra’s name was Braj Bhushan. They were carpet weavers in Kashmir and had some business prospects in Kerala for which they were traveling to South India. Mazhar took leave once they reached their bogie.
“Khader.. I mean Damodar bhai.. I’ll get some water bottles and come meanwhile you guys occupy the seats,” Ezra spoke and walked towards the shop.
The train wasn’t much crowded, to their relief. They settled in their seats and waited for Ezra to return. This country has so many colours, Khader thought to himself. Everybody around him wore green, red, pink, saffron, blue and purple. In Iraq, all these beautiful colours were worn only on special occasions. He has never seen Iraqi women dress so colourfully. But the faces, they’re all so much like our faces. I’ll easily pass for an Indian, Khader thought.
The train suddenly began shifting slowly and Khader looked around for Ezra. He hadn’t yet boarded the train. He saw Saleh looking out of the main door for Ezra.
“Is he there? Can you see him?” Khader asked.
“He’s very far Bhaijaan. He won’t be able to catch up let’s get down here”, Saleh spoke fearfully.
‘Any problem, gentlemen?” a hoarse manly voice emerged from behind Khader.
“Bhai Saab, my brother, he’s missed the train. He.. we.. how can we get down?
“Relax sir. I’ll just pull the chain. Give me a minute.” The Youngman had moved towards his seat and pulled a red colored handle to make the train stop.
After a few seconds, Ezra was almost near the entrance door and the train had stopped. He jumped inside without even taking a moment to breathe.
“Bhaijaan..I..I was just waiting for the change money and..and.. the train moved”, he said panting heavily.
Khader brought him to his seat and opened up a water bottle for him. He drank from it and tried to get his breath back while Khader thanked the man who had pulled the chain and helped Ezra catch the train.
Ezra had hurt his knee while he was rushing to catch the train. An old man came to their rescue. He pulled up Ezra’s Pajama and cleaned the wound with an antiseptic . A women gave them some warm water which she was carrying for her child to clean the wound. He then tied up a bandage over it and sealed it. The old man told them that he was a doctor and he always carried a first aid kit with himself. He had once helped in the delivery of a child in a moving train. They thanked the old man again and again. Khader felt sad in his heart when the thought of bombing these same helpful people came to his mind.
The people here, they’re nowhere different from the people in Iraq. Had it not been for these Indians whom he hated so much, Ezra would have missed the train and probably left crying in pain, Khader thought.
“Had it not been for you, my young brother would have missed the train today. Thank you so much!” Khader said, earnestly.
“But why didn’t you pull the chain yourself? If the train is on the station and a person is about to miss it you can always pull the chain” the man asked.
“Bhaijaan, we’re traveling in a train for the first time. We’re from Kashmir and we never have moved out of Mirpur in our lives. We knew nothing of the chain” Saleh came up with an instantly brewed reply. Ezra thanked him soon after that with his gleeful smile and the man answered to him as humbly as he could.
‘It’s absolutely fine kid. You’re my younger brother. Just be careful next time”, he said, patting Ezra’s back.
Brother? To an Indian man? Save me from such endearment Allah!
This man is a God sent angel. He saved us from thus delaying our mission, Khader thought to himself.
As the train caught speed and everybody had settled in their seats, the man who had helped them tried to strike a conversation again.
“Bhai Saab, tell me something about Kashmir yaar. I’ve always wanted to visit that place but could never find time because of my schedule. Is it really as beautiful as they speak it to be or is it just overrated? Tell me about your city ”, he said down right frankly.
He seemed to be in his early thirties and had a sporty build. Maybe he’s an athlete or something, Khader thought to himself.
Whatever he is, why be rude to him? It’s his government that has taken America as their friends. I’ll not let the hatred be shown.
“Mirpur is a very small town Bhaijaan. All the place has is the scenic beauty to boast of, that’s it! It’s on the foothills of the Himalayas. We are from the clan of weavers there. Life is tough in Mirpur. And talking of beauty, I realized how beautiful Kashmir is when I came away from my place today.” Khader answered. He had recited all that Mazhar had told him about his village on their way to Kalka. Word by word. Thank God Mazhar was from Kashmir! Khader thought.
“Have you seen all of Kashmir?” he asked curiously.
“I’ve been to places like Gulmarg, Katra, Leh and Srinagar for business purposes.”
“Well, The place must be very beautiful”, he replied.
“Not like it was a decade ago. All you get to see now are army men, bombed houses, sad and afraid faces and exploited markets. Kashmir has lost all it’s beauty due to the India- Pakistan scenario”, an old man sitting next to the man spoke up.
“Very well put, chacha. I feel that even an enemy couldn’t have harmed Kashmir as badly as these two nations have. The residents have lost their everything to the wars these two nations have fought. I wonder what kind of government let's it’s citizens suffer only to call them Indians” the man replied.
This man is indeed an angel, why else would he so readily care for the people rather than the land, Khader thought.
“I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Arjun Khaliq. Indian Police Service, serving here in Kalka for past two years”, the man spoke looking at Khader.
Police? This man is clearly after us! Why else would he stop the train to let Ezra inside?
“That’s one unusual name”, the old man said.
“Great observation, chacha” , Arjun spoke laughingly. “It is unusual. My mother is a Hindu Brahmin and my father is a Muslim. He fell in love with my mother during their college days. That’s why I’ve got this peculiar name.”
“Mashaallah, I’m a Muslim too and it makes me so happy to know that! So your mother changed her religion?” the old man asked.
“Not at all chacha. She is all the same Hindu. I can recite the namaaz as well as the Hanuman Chalisa. No religious issues at all.”
This country has weird people who do weird things! A Muslim married a Hindu woman? What kind of sin in God’s name is this? There are far more beautiful woman in Islam, Khader, who was awestruck by all that he heard, thought. But he called the old man ‘chacha’. And I thought the people in India treat Muslims indifferently! These people have no enmity against other religions. None of them. Why, then, their nations fight? Why, even here every old man is chacha, every young boy is a son and every woman is mother or sister, just like in Iraq.
Saleh, who understood why Khader had gone quiet took control of the situation.
“I have never met a policeman so friendly”, he spoke. “I’m Manohar. Damodar Bhaijaan is my elder brother and this is Birju, our youngest brother” Saleh said pointing towards Ezra, who was busy discussing Bollywood movies with a young boy of his age. He looked up at them, smiled, and then got back to his gossip.
Khader condemned cinema. He condemned everything that was against Koran. Koran Sharif also said that anybody who has a different God should not be befriended but killed and at that moment, Khader was impressed and drawn to Arjun as a friend. He didn’t see their religion, he saw humans. Just like the humans who were his countrymen. As other’s sat down to have brunch, Khader looked outside the window. The beauty of everything around him made him feel very positive. He was no longer to be afraid a terrorist. He didn’t feel like he was a terrorist. He felt as if he was like those people in the train. He saw village people, walking in the fields of the crops they had sowed. He saw school children waving happily at the train. He felt a connection with everyone around him.
It was beginning to get dark and the sun was almost kissing the land on the west end. Soon the shadow of the night covered the area. While they settled to have dinner, Ezra told Khader that the man he was talking to is Kuldeep. He was going to Ajmer to offer a chadar at the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Auliya. The mannat his family had made had come true.
Any country where people of different religions can leave peacefully is like a home where all kinds of individuals are allowed to flourish, Khader recalled this line from a book he had read.
His adoration for this country was growing. This place seemed to be the opposite of what Khader had thought it to be.
Arjun was telling the old man that he was on his way to see his daughter. She stayed with her grandparents.
“Don’t you miss her? Your wife could stay here in Kalka”, Khader spoke.
“My wife is no more. She passed away almost a year ago in the bombing at the military camp in Ladakh. She was a doctor there. The militants bombed the hospital. Luckily, my daughter was too young then to remember her mother. So that’s not a problem. But I definitely do miss staying with my daughter”, Arjun said trying to hide the tears that had appeared in his eyes. Khader could feel it. It was like his own story was replaying in front of his eyes. Lying on his berth, Khader’s mind carried him back to his childhood.
It was a usual September morning. They all sat on the table eating Fattoush, Khader’s favorite dish. Ammi was feeding little Baano with her own hands. Baano, Khader’s three years old sister was the center of his universe. Abba came to the table, gave Khader a fist full of almonds and sat on his chair.
“Khader, Your Ammi and I are going to the city to buy clothes and decorations. You can go play with your friends after you come from Madarassa. I’ll come and pick you up on our way back.”
But they didn’t return. That night, Khader sat alone in the playground with his football and cried thinking that nobody remembered to take him home. Next morning when he walked back to his home, the place was still locked. A neighbor came rushing and took him home. No one said anything about Ammi and Abbu until the police personnel came. They told him that there had been a shootout in the Kh’aar Market by American soldiers. The next thing Khader remembered was seeing Baano’s fingers clutching Ammi’s kameez. He tried to wake them up but Ammi wouldn’t open her eyes. The policeman confirmed that it was his family, threw him out of the room. Khader was an orphan since then. Injila, the sweeper at Madarassa had taken him to the militants and since then Khader’s new life had begun.
He came back to the present when the train blew a whistle. They were leaving Bhopal station. Arjun must have got down, he thought. He lost all that he had to terrorists. Terrorists like me. His daughter must have been like Baano. Am I not equally ruthless like the Americans? Aren’t we doing exactly the same thing? Killing people.
Khader realized that tears were dripping from his eyes. He had not cried even once in the past eighteen years. He often thought of his family but somehow he had turned into a stone. That night, lying in his berth, Khader cried like a child for hours.
What does Allah want me to do? Why is he showing me these things and make me meet such people? Is he trying to change my mind? Why can’t he just show me the right path!
Just then, Khader heard an azaan. Khader sat up on his seat hurriedly. As if he had been caught committing a crime.
He looked out the window and saw that the train was standing in between nowhere and there was a mosque a few meters ahead.
I know what you want me to do. I understand it now. I know your plan Allah and I will follow it.
He pulled out his bag and walked away but returned back again to his seat. He woke up Ezra. Saleh was already picking up his bag as if he knew what Khader was up to.
“Pick up your things Ezra. We’re getting down here”, he spoke solemnly.
“But Bhaijaan here? Why? Does the policeman know about us? Bhaijaan?” Ezra asked, confused.
“Pick up the bag Ezra. We’re getting down”, Saleh spoke strictly.
They were walking towards the mosque when the train suddenly started moving as if it had stopped there only to let them get down.
There was only the Maulvi in the mosque. Ezra and Saleh sat down at the front gate while Khader went inside to offer a prayer.
Allahu Akbar! I knew you would answer all my questions, my lord. All these years of agony, I never once doubted your will. I knew that you must be having a plan for me. Till now I thought this mission was your plan for my life. I was so wrong! How could you, my father, ask me to kill another human being. I just want to thank you for showing me this day. For bringing me to this place and making me meet these people. I know that I am a changed man now. From this day on, my services shall be for humans and humanity and not against them. Bless me Allah so that I carry out this task properly.
And with that, Khader got up. At a distance he could hear Saleh talking to Ezra in a hushed voice, “Ezra, Allah had a different plan for us. That is why he made us take this journey and come to India. Our life was about to change brother. For the better. You’ll see in days to come.”
Khader smiled and walked out of the prayer hall.