Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Crossfire, the story, was inspired by a video report I saw on CNN: Pakistani truckers face deadly drive

Time was running out for Zafar Iqbal. As the owner of a fleet of trucks, contracted to carry fuel from the port city of Karachi to the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan, he was short of one driver. Earlier in the morning, several of his regular drivers had simply refused to turn up for work and he had been forced to round up men, who were desparate for work even though they had little experience in driving a two wheeler or a car, let alone a truck.

The decision had to be made, he would fill in for the missing driver. The NATO contractor had been on his case since several days and more so today. There was a reason why his drivers were not turning up. Over the past several years, militants had attacked anyone that supported the NATO forces, no matter what the form of support and regardless of nationality or religion of the people that provided it.

But Zafar had no choice. He had gotten into this contract because the money was better. Like a good Muslim, he used the income to look after the well being of his extended famlily including those of his married brothers and sisters. Nephew Aamir was in the US thanks to him and the rest that stayed in Karachi led a good life, comparatively that is. Besides, there were loans to be paid on the new trucks that he had added to the fleet in order to meet the contract terms. There was no turning back.

As they turned the ignition of their respective trucks, the men uttered silent prayers and then they were underway on a gruelling journey that would take them several days to reach the destination.

In far away Philadelphia, Aamir was celebrating a new job along with his fellow Pakistani and some Indian friends at the apartment that he shared with some of them. In an hour or two, he would call or Skype his mother and the rest of the family in Karachi and let them know the good news. Most of all he wanted Uncle Zafar to know - he would be most proud and vindicated. Zafar had always wanted Aamir's being educated in the US and had financed all of it even at the detriment of his own children.

As the trucks made their way to the highway, Zafar called up Khaleeda his wife to let her know that he would not be coming home as he was on his way to Afghanistan. Despite all her protestations and some by other elders in the household, Zafar held firm. He had to go...

The Asian boys had decided to make Biryani and Dum Gosht for dinner and were making a mess of it. Beer cans changed hands frequently and the music grew louder everytime a raunchy Bollywood song started to play. Aamir excused himself so he could call his family and locked the bedroom door behind him. Damm, they were not online! Another of those power cuts in Karachi? In their consternation, the family had forgotten to go online and would not do so for several hours. The boys continued to party through the night, amazingly, the food had turned out to be good and there was still a lot of beer to be had. Aamir intermittently checked to see if anyone had come online, he wanted to do this over Skype as he most definitely wanted to see the reactions on the faces of his mother and others in the family.

Several hours later, Zafar's convoy had entered the province of Balochistan. At a distance, he noticed an American Humvee approaching the highway. "Ya Khuda, Taliban, Taliban", he began to shout. What was he to do? Drive as fast as he could and hope to go past the Humvee? Or stop, abandon the trucks and save his life and that of the other drivers? Or use his negotiating skills to work out a deal to have their lives spared?

His young assistant opened the door of the truck and leaned outside so he could warn the drivers following them. Zafar heard a rapid burst of gun fire. The assistant was dead in an instant, his face bloodied, his body slumped on to the seat. Zafar slammed on the brakes, bringing the heavy truck to a screeching halt. Soon the defenseless trucks were torched and bombed, the drivers, including Zafar looted and then some shot and some let free but crippled for life.

Some time in the early hours, long before dawn, Aamir's Skype ringtone came alive on his laptop. The party was over and they had all gone to sleep. It took him several seconds to realize the ringing and answer the call. On the other side, he could hear his mother screeching out his name and that of his Uncle. As she recounted the incident, the euphoria of just a few hours ago was now replaced by rage, gloom and utter helplessness. Aamir began to cry and scream in anger at the same time. His friends, now awake tried to console him and his family on the other side of the call.

Khaleeda Begum's world lay shattered. If only, she had persuaded her husband not to go on that journey. If only, she had resisted him from expanding the business a few years ago, he might have been alive. Over the next few days, as the family began to pick the pieces, they could never reconcile to the senselessness of it all. Why were innocent civilians, being made unwitting soldiers of a war that they had no interest in fighting?

And also the hypocrisy - only a few weeks ago, a drone attack had killed a few civilians and that had led to a national outcry. Were her husband and his employees not citizens of the same nation? Were their lives any less important?

Zafar never returned home. No one is quite sure what happened. Was he shot dead, did he die in the fire or succumb to his injuries? Yet another honest, man of God had died, for no fault of his. A bread winner, forced to leave his family with crippling debt and destitution. But then there was Aamir...

A week after the incident, Aamir disappeared. His friends undertook a massive hunt to locate him, but he was gone. Just like that - no trace at all.

Ever since, friends and family tune in to every small terrorist incident around the world hoping he does not surface - dead or alive.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A poor man's tale

Who will tell the poor man's tale
Un-noticed, story of hope and despair
Silently he melts amongst the thousands
Another day of sweat and toil
His children, wake up to an uncertain future
Unperturbed, they smile knowing dad will deliver
This evening is different
An aching motorbike bears the burden of five
A rare outing on borrowed money
And as he settles down for a spurious drink
His wife cooks a meal that will barely feed
Hungry stomachs and starving minds will go to bed
This story will never make it to any center-spread

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Aitai Jeebon (This is life)...

In the ICU, Punit Sharma, knew the end was imminent. He had decided to stop fighting and let death overcome him. In the instant he took this decision, he stopped feeling the pain that had been wracking his entire body for over two months. His feeble hand reached out to hold Richa’s, his wife for three years. Then, with his palm locked firmly between those of Richa’s, he attempted to smile, as if to say goodbye. Peace descended on his face as he waited for the final minutes.

Richa had just returned from a discussion with Dr. Vora and there seemed to be a tiny ray of hope. As she held her husband’s palm and began to talk, she realized the change in the look on his face. Her instincts kicked in instantly. This was not right, this was not right. Oh, no, she knew what the look meant. She tried to free her hands so she could rush out and call the doctor or nurses, but Punit wouldn’t let go. With her left hand she pressed hard and long on the buzzer and hoped the on-duty nurse would come quickly.  Then turning her attention to her husband, she began calling his name and exhorting him to hang in and fight.

Directly eight floors below, Mandar Kadam, a sales representative of a medical equipment company was animatedly describing the features of a new ventilator model to Susheel Shinde, the hospital’s Purchase Manager. Way behind on his quarterly targets, he had to convert this one. Earlier in the day, his Manager had issued an ultimatum – close a deal soon or look for another job.

On the ground floor, in the OPD section, Anusuya Mathur, an intern, kept glancing at the wall clock. It was three minutes to 1 PM and from the end of her shift and she was fervently hoping she could leave on time today. Emergencies always had a way of popping up at the wrong time. Not that she was averse to tending to emergencies or working outside of her shift hours, however, today was an exception. After all, she had plans to meet her boy friend after a gap of three months.

In the ICU, Dr. Vora and some of his support staff had gathered around Punit Sharma. He looked at Richa directly in the eye and shook his head gently, indicating there was no hope. Richa started sobbing inconsolably even as a thousand thoughts started racing through her mind. This was completely unfair. Just three years into their marriage, and a daughter barely a year old, there was an entire lifetime to look forward to. Why me, why Punit and why should this be happening to poor Ritu who would never know her father? What wrong had they done to deserve this? All she wanted to do is fall on her knees and plead and beg for her husband’s life. But to whom? Dr. Vora? God?

Half way through his attempt to explain the technical specifications of the ventilator, Mandar knew he was talking to a wall. It was clear Shinde was least interested in the working of the equipment or why it was better.  It was now down to price and like many other deals before, this one too seemed to be beyond his grasp. Mandar decided to take one deep breath and start all over again. But Shinde would have none of it. Abruptly, he stood up pointing to the clock. It was time for lunch. Mandar began to collect the many brochures from the table and put them in his bag. Did education and quality not mean anything to anyone? Were medical equipment purchased to save money or save lives? Both men started walking towards the door, one thinking of his lunch the other about his career. At the door, they shook hands without exchanging words and departed their separate ways.

The mobile in Anusuya’s hand vibrated. It meant her boy friend had reached the lounge. Luckily for her, there were no emergencies. She wished the resident doctor and nurses on duty good bye and started walking in the direction of the lounge. A large smile broke out on her face as she saw him from a distance. Within seconds, they were clutching hands and making their way out of the hospital.

In the ICU, Richa felt Punit’s palm go limp. One look at the LCD panel confirmed that Punit had passed away. She felt a hand on her shoulder, perhaps it was Dr. Vora and heard what seemed to be distant voices. Unable to register things happening around her, time was grinding to a halt.

In the corner of the room, the head nurse made an important note: time of death, 1:00 PM, 14th June, 2011.