February 01, 2005

Still Warm

The hotel room seems unusually warm as I enter, a little detail I will have cause to remember later. For the time being, my college buddy Harvinder -- tall, broad and with the same chuckling good humour he had when we skipped classes together 24 years and more ago -- welcomes me in. The thought comes to me that after nearly a quarter of a century that we didn't meet, this is our third time together in six months, the second in two days. He's here on business and when we meet, the quarter-centuries drop away. The bonds of college. Over coffee, I savour them yet again.

From what Harvinder tells me, his business is poised to take off. He sees himself as a pioneer of sorts in the field he has chosen; and given the goodwill he has among his peers, given his sharp but never overdone self-confidence, he knows, and he tells me, "the sky is the limit."

But in another side to his life, Harvinder spends time in the Army, stationed near our border. Our first meeting after the quarter-century was actually there -- last July, I travelled to spend several days with him and his unit. Here in the warm hotel room, Harvinder says: "Oh, you know, plenty of action has happened since you came!"

And here is what happened a few months ago, up in that border area.

Part of Harvinder's job is to cultivate local sources. Of course, this is not unusual: in an area where terrorists roam, an Army can only function by working with local villagers, earning their trust and learning from them where and when terrorists might appear. Because terrorists have to work with local villagers too.

So one of Harvinder's sources told him, there are going to be five men coming in sometime in the next few days. Harvinder promised him a reward if his information was right; if it wasn't, Harvinder promised to shoot him himself. "The carrot and stick, you know," Harvinder says to me.

For three nights in a row, a dozen of his men lay in ambush near where the source said the men would pass. For three nights of acute tension in a row, nothing happened.

Then the source called and said, Sahib, aaj raat ko nabbe percent chance hai! "Sir, it's 90 per cent sure they'll come tonight!" So that night, Harvinder himself went with his men to lie in ambush. They split into three units, posted themselves on heights overlooking the trail. The night wore on, the trail visible, but empty, in the moonlight.

Nearing 11, some dogs began to bark in the distance. One of the men called on the radio: "Sir, I see two men." "What are they doing?" asked Harvinder. "Catching their breath, sir," said the jawan. They had climbed up a long hill, and had stopped for a break. "OK," said Harvinder, "wait a while, we are expecting five men."

The jawan called again: "Sir, they are moving." Harvinder ordered that post to open fire. They hit one of the two, whose AK-47 began firing as he fell, the bullets arcing harmlessly into the air. The other man ran.

Harvinder couldn't see this exchange, but he heard the firing. "I don't know why," he says to me, "but without thinking I stood and turned." One of the men with him shouted, "Sir, GET DOWN!" But where Harvinder had turned to look, the second man was running towards them, now only 30 metres away, a grenade in his hand. "I simply started firing," says Harvinder just as simply.

Harvinder hit the man, who fell and rolled down the slope. His bullets arced harmlessly in turn, his grenade fell from his lifeless hand and rolled into a ditch, where it exploded with a great loud bang that tore apart the night.

Harvinder looks at me. His famous chuckle is there somewhere inside him, I know, but his mouth is set half-seriously, half-smiling. That was the first time he had killed someone. "Do you ever think about it?" I ask, almost for something to say. "Not really," says Harvinder, looking at me with the same frank directness I've always liked in him, the chuckle still not quite to the surface.

My college buddy with the smooth sense of humour, the rangy youth I spent five fine years with. Sitting in this room and telling me this tale of terror and tension and killing over bad hotel coffee. I shiver slightly. But the room is still warm.

1 comment:

Parii said...

There is chilling enough to leave one speechless.