Twenty-four years ago
There was a high-speed car chase on the Antwerp-Breda Highway. A black mini-truck loaded with the ammunition was escaping Belgium in an effort to cross over to the Netherlands while the local police were trying relentlessly to intercept it. The fate had other plans, though. The mini-truck collided tragically with a sedan coming from the opposite direction, and before the cops could reach, both the vehicles exploded into flames. The pictures of the lone passenger of the mini-truck, the not-so-famous illicit arms dealer of Indian origin, Shahzad Husain who was charred to death beyond recognition was all over the International media.
The bodies of the two members of the drug-mafia, who were transporting Cocaine in the ill-fated Sedan, couldn’t be recovered. Back home in Moradabad, a young Samaira dropped the glass jug that she was carrying to the dinner table where her parents sat watching the news. The pictures of Zeshan, her husband of eight months claiming him to be a notorious arms dealer flashed on the screen.
To say that she was shocked would be an understatement. She’d known him to be a cop and had urged her parents to get her married to him after she’d fallen in love with him but her family was not ready for it. According to them, he was a stranger whose whereabouts they didn’t know neither did they try finding.
But Samira was head over heals in love with him and rebellious to the core. She convinced Zeshan that her family will eventually accept him once they were married and they both got secretly married in Pune where she was in the last year of her graduation. She very well knew that her parents’ resistance would crumble once they met Zeshan and knew about their nuptials. They would have no choice but to accept their marriage. For the year and a half that she’d known him, he’d appeared to be a thorough gentleman, a loving husband, and a staunch Nationalist. It was as unbelievable as it could get but she had a gripping feeling in her heart. After all, she knew about him as much as he’d told her about himself; a single man, a cop with no family to be called his own. He was an orphan and was brought up at an orphanage. He was good at studies and with the help of an NGO, managed to complete his studies and joined police force few years back. At which police station and in what capacity, she didn’t know neither did she try to find. Now she was confused and heart-broken all at the same time.
Her father got up angrily after watching the news. He had always wanted her to get married to Amaan, her second cousin but she’d turned it down saying that she didn’t love him and had never thought of him like that. Amaan no doubt was a great guy and had secured a post-graduation in MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. Having grown up in an educated family, having lived independently during her college years away from home and being in the company of friends from other faiths, the thought of getting married within the family had always repulsed her.
At Present, she had barely come back to Moradabad fifteen days earlier after her final exams were over while Zeshan went away for some training that was to last for about two months. He’d promised her that he would join her in Moradabad just as soon as his training got over since he would not be allowed to contact her during that period. They’d planned a grand reception at her ancestral house after he got back, to announce their nuptials.
“This is the man you had wanted to marry Samy, a gangster, a terrorist? This is what happens when you trust strangers.” Her father shouted, and a petrified Samaira ran to her room. She was scared to tell them that she was already married to him. Also, her heart was breaking into a million pieces, as it wasn’t ready to believe what she just watched on TV. Her stomach grumbled and she rushed to the bathroom to empty its contents, wishing if she could possibly do the same with her heart throwing up all the memories of her beautiful moments spent with him.
She fell into a restless sleep, and it was the bout of nausea that pulled her out of her bed making her realize that it weren’t just the memories of Zeshan that she would’ve to live her life with. A part of his being was taking shape in her womb as well. She slumped on her bed trying to figure out what to do next when she heard the voices of her father and that of Amaan. Amaan had come to visit their home anticipating her father’s reaction after having watched the news about Zeshan last night.
Amaan was more of a friend and a mentor to her than a second cousin and he along with Inayat, her best friend was the only one she confided in. Amaan was dating Inayat for four years when their families had proposed an alliance between him and Samaira two years ago. She turned it down and instead suggested Inayat's name. They both had thanked her a million times for making their respective parents agree to get them married and Samaira was happy for her friends indeed.
Shortly after, she herself fell in love with Zeshan and it seemed that everything had fallen in place, only if her parents could make sense of it. Both Amaan and Inayat made a great couple till the tragedy struck them. Inayat succumbed to death owing to excessive bleeding post her miscarriage four months back.
It was a huge setback for Amaan who was madly in love with Inayat and had blamed himself for putting her in the harms way. Samaira had taken a fortnight off and had come to mourn her best friend’s death and help Amaan get over his grief. He was still trying to deal with his wife’s death when Zeshan’s sudden death coupled with his possible betrayal must have startled him.
An insistent knocking at her door brought her back to reality, the situation at hand. She opened the door for Amaan. A worried looking Amaan got in, closing the door behind and before she knew, she was in his arms crying her heart out. He was the only one who understood what troubled her since he was the only one alive to be privy to her truth, the truth about her marriage to the man who had even convinced Amaan of his undying love for his favorite cousin. Amaan had instantly liked Zeshan and he along with Inayat were the witnesses to Samaira’s Nikah that had taken place in Pune eight months ago.
“Marry me Samy.” He said just as she’d gotten hold of her emotions.
“But Amaan, we don’t…” She couldn’t complete her sentence.
"Don't say a thing. Just reconcile with the destiny. We might or might not fall in love, but we both know, we have to live. How are you ever going to tell anyone that you were married to Zeshan? This is what our families had wanted ever since we were young, and I guess, this is what is best for us now, as well. Burn your Nikahnaama and no one will ever know, you married Zeshan.” Amaan said consoling her, trying hard to end her misery.
“There’s more Amaan. I might be pregnant.” She said bending her head, suddenly feeling ashamed of her reckless decision to have married the man, she knew very little about.
“Oh My God. How far along?" He asked, his eyes fixated on her stomach, his face a mix of incomprehensible emotions.
“Just over a month. I haven’t checked but..” She said in an effort to explain, but he interrupted again.
“We’ll get married tomorrow, Samy. Don’t tell anyone about it. I’ll take care of everything.” He said keeping his hand on her head and left to finalize things with her father while she kept looking at him, shocked.
On the other side of the globe, in Baarle-Nassau, Shahzad opened his eyes in a makeshift hospital room overlooked by strangers. His body ached badly, the recollection of the last of his conscious state coming back to him.
“Who’re you?” A mafia-man asked in broken English.
“Shahzad. An arms dealer from India and you?” He asked back.
"You rammed your lorry into our transport burning thousands of dollars worth of cocaine. My men saved you and got you here. Now, you would have to foot the bill for our damages once you got better, in cash or kind." He said arrogantly and left followed by two of his men who had accompanied him.
Shahzad kept his head back and closed his eyes, a faint smile creeping up on his lips.
It was a week later that he got out of the house, his transient stopover and was taken to the Boss, Emanuel; the man whom he’d met earlier.
“Not a popular man Shahzad but your patrons swear by your professionalism. They are disappointed that you are dead. You would work well for us, only that your identity would have to be re-established. Pick a name.” Boss asked looking intently at his face.
“You did try finding of me, didn’t ya? But it might be a futile exercise. I know nothing of the drug business.” Shahzad said lamely trying to dissuade the Boss.
“We have to know what or whom we are getting into our business, our underworld. Safeguards mate. Besides, drugs, arms, and women, the dealers might be different but the procurers are all the same, and so is the modus operandi. You'll learn. Your training begins today.” Boss said firmly as his men grinned to endorse his statement.
True to Emanuel’s words, Shahzad, now called Zeid was acquainted with their business soon and was learning the dos and don’ts of it. The Boss’s hawk eyes were always on him watching his every move. Zeid hadn’t given a reason for Emanuel to be suspicious and had gained his trust bringing home more dollars than he’d expected and sooner than he’d anticipated. In a matter of three months, Zeid had successfully averted Emanuel’s gaze from him becoming his trusted lieutenant and learning the deepest secrets of their business.
“Hey Ze. Where to mate? Come on; let’s celebrate the great feat.” Noah said clanking his glass of Whiskey with Roger as the entire gang partied after the delivery of a massive consignment of cocaine in Antwerp.
“Need a little more this time buddy. Some peaceful and pleasurable time at RLD while we are at Antwerp.” Zeid patted him suggestively and left with the others hooting behind him.
He soon drove to the infamous Red Light District and strolled along the road looking at each windowed block to take his pick. His eyes shone at spotting what he wanted, and they made their way to her room.
“Tired.” Sofia, the prostitute, asked pressing his shoulders.
“Yeah and I’m only starting out.” He said resting his head against her stomach.
"G-1 was worried. He'd been asking about you for over two months, but you never showed up.” She asked pressing his head this time.
“It’s not as easy as it seems to be Sofia. It’s taking longer than we estimated, much longer. Please pass him this chip.” He said giving her the information that he’d gathered while as Sophia tried peeling his shirt off.
"I'm a married man Sophie, and you know that I’m not here for this.” He said lazily.
“You’re going to be around for much too long Ze. Loosen up." She said as Zeid resigned to her ministrations. He did need a physical as well as an emotional release.
"I want you to do me a personal favor, Sophie. Tell G-1 to reach out to my wife and tell her; I'll be back home soon. I don't know how devastated she might be if she’s seen the news.” He said handing Sophie his wife’s parents’ address and tying his shoelaces before he left.
“I will. Come back sooner.” She said reassuring him.
“I’ll, as soon as I’ve something more concrete.” Zeid said and left.
Zeshan Khan, the extraordinary RAW Agent on an international mission to unearth the linkages between the drug cartels and the arms dealers who were providing the logistic and financial support to the homegrown terrorist groups infiltrating his country facilitated by the people sitting in power positions. So far, he was far, very far away from the information he needed. The days turned into months and months into years. All he knew meanwhile that Samaira had given birth to his daughter. His hands itched to hold his baby and the love of his life, Samaira but his duty always came in the way. He didn't want to put them in the harm's way either knowing the kind of people he worked with, thereby consoling his heart that he would soon be with them. How soon, he didn’t know.
It was eight years later when G-1, his superior, aborted the mission abruptly calling him back. He was too close to finding what he’d spent the best years of his life doing but he had to follow instructions. He was told to court his arrest quietly on arrival to India as Zeid. He did just that, but what he didn’t know was that his life was about to take a downturn.
The same night, G-1 along with his entire team of five agents met with a fatal accident burying the very proof of Zeshan’s actual identity. He was now Zeid alias Shahzad Husain, arms and drug dealer, a facilitator of terrorist activities in India. The trail consciously created to mask his real identity and to provide him with the cover-up to penetrate the mafia den came to bite him back, his name, and religion, adding fuel to the fire.
The slow-paced investigation lingered his stay in the jail for over a decade, and then some respite came in the form of a new jailer, Sukhvinder who believed his story. It took him another two years to establish Zeshan’s actual identity. Thus, Zeshan was released quietly handing him over the documents of his identification, a certificate of his integrity, a verbal apology and a fat cheque from RAW towards his benefits that were denied to him for years. Sukhvinder arranged a place for him to live and gave him the address of one of Zeshan’s co-agents who had survived the accident but was incapacitated after losing both his legs.
Zeshan’s quest to look for his family began. It took him to Pune, then to Moradabad, but he remained empty-handed. Too much of time had passed. The cities had changed with the turn of a generation. When all his efforts of finding Samaira and his daughter bore no fruits, he thought of meeting with his co-agent Sridhar. He finally went to Bangalore to meet Sridhar, his co-agent in his last mission.
"I thought, you would never come out." A haggard-looking Sridhar wheeled towards him after seeing him in his modest house in Bangalore. Sridhar looked surprised to find Zeshan at his doorstep.
“You knew me, Sri. You could’ve helped getting me out earlier.” Zeshan said crossly to which Sridhar laughed.
“You still didn’t get it. Did you? Your arrest, our accident, it wasn't a coincidence. It was a calculated move to safeguard the interests of those we were about to bust. They got to us before we could get to them. Some paid with their death and you and I with our lives.” Sridhar’s eyes welled up, and so did of Zeshan’s.
“What do you mean, Sri? All the years I spent in that God dammed Jail was part of a conspiracy. You mean to say that we were framed into aborting the mission.”
It was Zeshan’s turn to get surprised.
“We were knocking on the wrong doors brother or maybe the doors changed as did the political dispensation. Much bad Luck I guess.” Sri retorted, the pain evident on his old wrinkled face.
“Do you have any idea where my family is, Sri?” Zeshan finally asked reconciling with his destiny.
Sridhar took a deep breath as if he was dreading this question all along.
“There’s no family Ze. Samaira got married to Amaan three days after the news of your death and gave birth to a girl after about seven and a half months. Do the math buddy, to access her desperation. Amaan is a big businessman and had shifted to Delhi years ago. Where, I don't know, but I can activate my sources to find him. Give me a few days.” Sridhar said, and both friends sat down reminiscing the golden days of their lives, gone waste.
It’d been three weeks since when Sridhar called Zeshan to give the whereabouts of Amaan. Zeshan got the spring back on his feet. Even if it wasn't his family, his daughter was the living proof of his undying love for Samaira. He cleaned up well, dressed up in a suit and left to go to the given address. The cab took him in front of a luxurious bungalow decorated probably for a wedding. He got down and asked the guard for Amaan.
“Amaan sir and the rest of the family have gone to the Hotel Sheraton for Mahira Baby’s wedding.” The guard said forwarding him the venue details.
After a while, Zeshan was standing outside the hotel contemplating whether to go in or not, but still, his feet took him to the doorway of the banquet hall. He wasn’t able to decide what would be his alibi to be in a place where no one was expecting him.
He was looking for his little girl, his very own daughter who did not even know, he existed, or the story that had brought him there. He felt like he was trespassing on a territory that didn’t belong to him now but the desire to look at his daughter once, especially on her special day imparted him the courage to stay back. He was standing near the doorway and surveying the exquisitely decorated banquet hall, filled with elegantly dressed men and women busy socializing without a care in the world. He so wished to announce his arrival and the purpose of it. Should he?
He thought again.
The melody of Samaira’s carefree laughter touched his ears that had always melted his heart. She looked beautiful in her peacock blue sari mingling with her guests. Shortly, Amaan came and joined her winding his arm around her waist. They did make a happy couple, a place that belonged to him and her. He closed his eyes with pain as his heart twitched in the memory of days gone by when Samaira was all his.
Only then, the bride, believably his daughter came into his view in her beautiful red and gold wedding ensemble walking down the aisle, looking no less than a princess. His hands rose from behind the crowd to bless her while she crossed him. Their eyes met for a fraction of a second, her expressions froze but then her lips curved into a soft smile, and she walked past him. Her father Amaan lent her his elbow, and she daintily held it to allow him the ultimate pleasure of fatherhood, the right to give her away to the man she was going to espouse.
He looked around him. Everyone was happy. This was not his place to be. The life had gone past him just like Mahira did a while back. What he was trying to gather today were the shards of his shattered past. He never thought about them when he participated in the car-chase almost a quarter-century ago drunk on the elixir of Nationalism. They didn’t remember him today. He took a deep breath and resigned to his wayward destiny. He turned around one last time to absorb the happiness of his lovely ladies to sail him through the rest of his lonely life before he left, only to lock his sight with Samaira.
It scared him to the core seeing the changing expressions on Samaira’s face from astonishment to disbelief floating towards dread probably making her realize what his presence meant to her and her daughter. Tears sprang up in Zeshan's eyes as he made a hasty exit while Samaira kept looking his way till he was out of her line of vision.
He walked back, the winter chill returning as the sun moved westwards. He wondered as to how had his life played him. What was his fault to be where he was today? He'd pledged his life to work for his nation, but he wasn't allowed to do that either while it sucked the life out of him. He crossed JNU, some protest going on in the name of Nationalism. He laughed at the pettiness of the issues that people kept fighting for and creating the necessary distractions unknowingly for their bosses, but what happens at the highest of levels, no one even got an inkling of that.
He was tempted to compare his life of today or of a soldier with the years he spent being a rogue. It sure was a lot better, and there was content that he did it for his Country. Then there was Sophia, a prostitute who was normally looked down upon by the society but she stood up for her country when the country needed her. She not only soothed him when he became edgy but was a flawless messenger for the information, he and the men like him gathered for the Intelligence agencies.
He’d learned from Sri that she was believed to have committed suicide a few days after his arrest and now he knew why. Her sense of Nationalism seemed higher than reciting or standing up for the National Anthem when one didn’t mean it.
There were lakhs of people like him who went unnoticed day in and day out working for making their nation live, and he wouldn't have a regret if he could accomplish what he'd been chosen for even if it cost him his life.
His chain of thoughts broke by the loud honking of screeching vehicles as he found himself in the middle of the road but before he could react, a speeding truck hit him, and he was flung high in the air.
Samaira picked up the morning paper lazily and went through the headlines. Her expressions froze and the color drained from her face looking at one piece of news. Amaan, having walked in with two cups of tea in his hands looked at her with concern. Keeping the teacups on the center table, he pulled the paper out of her hand. It was an old picture of Zeshan, and it read;
‘Zeshan Khan, an ex-RAW agent who was instrumental in unearthing the most complicated cases of National interest and who had defied death when it seemed impossible died in an avoidable road accident last night. He’s survived by his …….. NATION.’