The essay below is one of my personal favourites from that little collection. (I actually posted an early version of it here last year, but I've always wanted to put up the finished version). Your comments welcome.
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 a quarter of a century during which 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 sit down, the quarter-centuries drop away. The bonds from college. Over coffee, I savour them, know why I treasure them, all over again.
From what Harvinder tells me, his business is poised to take off. He's in town to sort out some details at a big bank, and once that happens he'll roll. He sees himself as a pioneer in the field he has chosen, which actually has nothing to do with what he did in college. Unless you count thinking innovatively and on your feet, which traits we all like to think we did learn in college. Anyway: given the goodwill Harvinder has among his peers, given his sharp but never overdone self-confidence, given the novel ideas he has for what he wants to do -- he knows, and he tells me, "the sky is the limit."
There is all that, and yet it is just one side to his life. In another avatar altogether, Harvinder spends time in the Army. These days, his battalion is stationed, as they say, "somewhere near the Line of Control." In fact, our first meeting in a quarter-century was actually "somewhere" there -- I travelled to spend several days with him and his unit. Here in the warm hotel room, Harvinder asks: "Remind me, when did you come?" When I tell him, he says: "Oh, you know, there's been plenty of action since then!"
And here is what happened, plenty of action weeks after I visited, somewhere near the Line of Control.
Part of Harvinder's job, as he sees it, is to cultivate local sources. Of course, this should be no surprise: in an area where terrorists roam, an Army can function efficiently -- or at all -- only by working with local villagers, earning their trust and learning from them where and when terrorists might appear. Because of course, terrorists have to work with locals too.
Over his time here, Harvinder has had several such sources. Most gave him nothing worthwhile, so he has now winnowed them down to three or four men from whom he gets his information. One day last September, one of those came to meet Harvinder in his office. He told him there were going to be five men coming in through this unit's area of functioning, at some point in the next few days. Harvinder promised him a reward if this tip was accurate; if it wasn't, he promised to shoot the man himself. "The carrot and stick, you know," says my college chum to me with a chuckle.
So for three nights in a row, a dozen men from the unit lie in ambush near where the source said the men would pass. For three nights in a row of acute tension, but also frustrating boredom, nothing happens.
On the fourth day, the source calls and says excitedly, "Sahib, aaj raat ko nabbe percent chance hai!" "Sir, tonight it's 90 per cent sure they'll come!" So this night, Harvinder himself sets out to lie in ambush with his dozen men. Split into three groups, they have posted themselves on heights overlooking the trail.
The night wears on. In the moonlight, the trail is visible. But it stays steadily and nerve-wrackingly empty.
Nearing 11, some dogs begin barking in the distance. A man from one of the other posts whispers on the radio: "Sir, I see two men." "What are they doing?" Harvinder asks. "Saans le rahen hain, sir." "Catching their breath, sir," says the jawan. The pair have climbed a long and steep hill to get to this point, and they've stopped for a break. "OK," says Harvinder, "keep watching them. But let's wait a while, because we are expecting five men, not just two."
Several minutes later, the jawan calls again. "Sir," he said, "they are moving." Keenly aware that if he keeps waiting for all five to show, these two will get away, Harvinder orders that post to open fire. They do. They hit one of the two, whose AK-47 begins firing as he falls, the bullets arcing harmlessly into the moonlit air.
The other man runs.
Harvinder cannot see this exchange, but he hears the firing. "I don't know why," he says to me, "but without thinking I stood and turned towards that post." This is a great risk, because standing up, he is immediately a target: broad and imposing, but a target. So one of his men shouts, "Sir, GET DOWN!" But Harvinder is already otherwise preoccupied, and the moments are passing too quickly to think of getting down till later. Much later.
Where he has turned to look, the second man is running towards them. Now only 30 metres away, he has a grenade in his hand. "If he had thrown that thing," says Harvinder, "all five of us would have ...", and here his voice trails off, but his hand slices cleanly across his neck. "I gave him some abuse," he goes on, "and then simply started firing."
Says it as simply.
He hits the man, who crumples and tumbles down the slope. In turn, this man's bullets arc harmlessly up. His grenade drops from his lifeless hand and rolls into a ditch, where it explodes with a great loud bang that tears 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 is the first, and so far only, time he has killed. "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.
Soon, it does reach. "Did the source get his reward?" I ask, still for something to say. "Of course!" says Harvinder. "You have to follow through on these things, you know. But usko do bata paanch karke diya", and this is where the laugh returns, a shaking, rumbling one like I remember Harvinder for. "I gave him two-fifths of his reward." Because only two out of the promised five men came over, that moonlit grenade-lit night.
The source was pleased, nevertheless.
My old friend with the smooth sense of humour. The rangy youth I spent five fine class-skipping, girl-watching years with. The "sky's the limit" businessman who has now been recommended for an Army gallantry award for the "action" he's seen since I visited him "somewhere" up there, for his part in defending my country,
My college buddy of uncommon substance, 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.