(Sketch from an ancient Portuguese manuscript)
1600 AD, MarakkarKotta (Marakkar’s Fort):
The canons occasionally blazed from the northern side of the fort breaking the tranquility of the early morning, done more to intimidate than injure. It was a reminder to the people inside the fort that they had no escape. The air was full of smoke, the smell of gunpowder but more importantly, fear! If it had not been for the heavy stone walls of the fort, the enemy would not have played the waiting game.
The majestic fort stood on the banks of the MooradRiver; a massive stone complex, built by the late Kutty Ahmed Ali (Kunjali Marakkar I), admiral of the Arabi-kadal. The admiral had always been an advocate on the importance of a good defense and there was not a more impressive fort built on the mysterious land, said to have been reclaimed by Parashuraman’s mighty axe.
The Portuguese fleet on one side with their heavy battleships on the Moorad River and the army of the king of Kozhikode on the other; the situation looked bleak for the people inside the MarakkarKotta, for people still loyal to Mohammed Ali (Kunjali Marakkar IV), the current admiral and the great grandson of Kutty Ahmed Ali. The army of the Admiral was a motley mix of mercenaries who had come to serve the admiral; Hindus, Muslims and Christians who had all come in search of something exciting instead of the banal. They were men who had thrown away their mundane lives in exchange for glory and riches. They were men of the sword; neither religion nor caste separated them as they lived the sailor’s life with impunity. They were all armed to the hilt and ready for a fight; all waiting for the admiral’s command.
The Marakkar stood casually with one foot resting on the walls of the fort, coolly assessing the situation; an aura of supreme confidence as if this brush with defeat and death meant little to him. His mere presence inspired confidence in his men. Dressed in a sailor’s tunic, the man held his golden sword casually and those electric eyes coolly took in the entire scene. Legends said that his ancestors had come to Keralam from the Egyptian coast many generations back as traders and it showed in his sharp features and his olive skin, which looked distinctly different from the rest of his men.
Vikraman, a brooding beast of a man, stood along with his admiral assessing the situation biting his finger nails, supervising the troops and desperately searching for an opening, any weakness which they could use to their advantage. He was one of the admiral’s closest friends and he had spent over ten years of his life with the admiral. Built like a bull, he was dressed in heavy armor, which gave him an imposing look.
“So what do we do now admiral? The men are waiting for your command,” Vikraman asked.
“Let’s see if the paranji (Portuguese) fleet backs down. I am not worried about them as yet and our walls are strong. But I definitely am worried about the army on the other side. Right now, they are just waiting, ensuring that we do not escape. But if they also jump into the fray and lay siege, then we will not have much of a chance. Our resources are already stretched thin.”
Wringing his hands in frustration, he added as an afterthought, “Why didn’t our spies report this to us? The king could not have bought them off.”
Vikraman’s thoughts went back to a time over ten years back when he had first met this legendary man! They were younger and adventurous back then and at Kozhikode, the coastal port town, the admiral had invited him, a young teenager to join their expedition to protect the trade routes between Hindustan and the Arabian Peninsula from the paranji fleet. Vikraman had grown up on the streets of Kozhikode; an orphan who had to fend for his own self from an early age and the lessons that he learnt early in his life were some of the most important.Kozhikode was then a bustling little port and people from all corners of the known world came over for trade including the Arabians, Africans and the Europeans.
After joining the admiral, he had worked his way up the ranks and now, was one of the admiral’s most trusted aides. He could only marvel at the changes that had happened over the ten years. The paranji had come over as traders but increasing tried to assert their will over the people and the Kunjali Marakkars had led most of campaigns against them. The Kozhikode king along with the others had initially supported the Marakkars, but the current Marakkar had lost the king’s approval and started acting as a free agent. Vikraman, at times, compared himself with Karnan; who never left his king’s side.
Just then the Marakkar said, “Damn; my sister should not have visited now.”
“Where is she now?” asked Vikraman, intrigued. He had never seen any of the family members of the admiral, who all lived to the north near the village called Thallasery.
Just then, a woman came up the stone steps leading up to where they stood. One look at her, and Vikraman’s knees went weak. She was the most beautiful woman that he had seen in his life. He had travelled all over the western coast of Hindustan, been to the Arabian Peninsula and the Maldives, but he had never seen an apsara quite like her. Her dressing was simple and elegant but Vikraman found it hard to look past her beauty!
“Brother,” she asked; “What is the situation here?” Just like her brother, her voice commanded an innate respect.
Their eyes met and Vikraman felt the spark of desire singe his heart. It had never happened to him before in his life and he felt mildly unsettled. As the Marakkar explained the situation to her, all Vikraman could do was look at her. He could not take his eyes of her!
Suddenly, the Goddess turned to him and as recognition flooded through her visage, she asked, “Are you Commander Vikraman?”
“Yes, I am!”
“I am Ayesha. I have heard a lot about you, including your exploits at the Lakshadweep Islands.”
Vikraman smiled and replied, “I hope he has left the bad parts out.” And they had a laugh about it.
“Vikraman; hold the fort. I need to speak to my sister in private,” the Marakkar said and went below to his quarters along with his sister.
For the next couple of hours, Vikraman stood there on watch, but his mind was not in it. The girl kept flashing before his eyes and he found it hard to concentrate on the task at hand.
Around 2 PM, he was invited to dine with the admiral and they sat around the table; the Marakkar, Ayesha and Vikraman. Lunch consisted of a simple rice broth filled with meat and a lot of fruits.
After the meal, the Marakkar said, “Vikraman, I called you over to have lunch with us because I have a request to ask of you.”
The Marakkar walked up to the window, with his back turned on Vikraman and continued, “We both know that it’s the end of the road for us. We just have a 2 day supply with us and then we are out. I am thinking of surrendering.”
Vikraman, at once jumped up and said, “You just have to command us. We can take this fight to the finish! Our men will gladly lay down their lives for you! We cannot surrender to these barbarians.”
The Marakkar looked at him with a sad smile and said, “Vikraman, you are young and temperamental. These men have been with me for many years now and I do not wish to be the cause of their deaths. Allah would never forgive me for that.”
Vikraman put his hand up in exasperation, “Oh, here we go again.”
Just then, Ayesha interjected, “Commander; do you not believe in God?”
In the heat of the moment, Vikraman had completely forgotten about her!
Vikraman looked at her and replied, “I believe that consciousness ends with death. The Atman ends when the heart stops beating. I am a Carvakan.”
At that moment, the Marakkar walked up to him, clasped his shoulders. “Do me this favor for old time’s sake. I am going to surrender this evening. They probably just want me and not our people. I want you to rescue Ayesha and take her to our ancestral home in Thalasherry. She will be protected there.”
In the years that he had known the admiral, he had never seen the Marakkar make a request before.
“Ok, I will,” Vikraman replied wiping away a tear from his eye. As much as he hated to leave the Marakkar’s side, he knew that he had no other option but to obey.
“As you know, we have a secret passage under the fort from this very room, which opens upstream. Get her out of here as soon as I raise the white flag.”
There was an outcry among the men as soon as they realized that the Marakkar was going to surrender. But they knew better than to disrespect him. They all waited patiently for nightfall; for dusk and at 6 PM, Vikraman and Ayesha slipped through the trapdoor as soon as they saw the Marakkar raise the white flag. The image of the Marakkar would remain etched in his memory throughout the rest of his life! With one last glance, he slipped through, followed by Ayesha.
The passageway was constructed when the fort was built and had never been used until then. It had become home to a vast number of insects and ancient cobwebs covered the dark tunnel. The walls of the tunnel were damp as water trickled down and Vikraman used his torch to clear the way for Ayesha. As Vikraman knew, the tunnel ran for about a mile underground before it opened into a clearing near the banks of the river.
He had to stop thinking about the past and start thinking about the future. Hand in hand, they inched forward in the tunnel, hoping that it had not caved in. Inch by inch, step by step, they eased forward through the slush as the insects crowded around them; the intruders who had disturbed their peace. Ayesha’s face by completely covered with her robe to protect her from the insects and her eyes glowed red thanks to the torch flame that he carried. He was not claustrophobic but as they walked forward, he felt the heat within him escape from every pore of his body due to the oppressive humidity!
His love was turning into reverence minute by minute, an obsession and he could not do anything about it. He could not let anything happen to her! After about 50 minutes, they burst out into the open under the moonlight sky
Vikraman took a deep breath, the clear air clearing his head and they both sat down on the banks of the river. From a distance, they could spot the brightly lit fort.
“So what do we do now?” asked Ayesha after a few minutes after regaining her breath.
“We eat first and then start moving upstream towards the mountains. Taking the coastal route will be suicidal now,” Vikraman replied and they both had their dinner; some bread and fruits that they had packed with them.
And they started on their journey, inland, away from the barbarian fleet!
They walked steadily upstream for the next couple of hours as it was still enemy territory; their fears adding fuel their internal resolve until it was time to sleep. Vikraman had his sword unsheathed for any emergency. Finally at around 11 PM, exhausted, they both sat down under a huge banyan tree.
“Commander, will my brother be ok?” Ayesha asked. It was the first time she had spoken during the long trek. It was a question asked more out of human despair than anything else.
Vikraman feared the worst but he could not bring himself to answer that question. He looked away as his eyes were filling up. Ayesha at once came over to him and put her hand on his shoulder. And he knew that he had to tell her that he loved her, even though the moment was all wrong.
Ayesha said, “I know that you don’t believe in God but I do! Allah will take care of him.”
Vikraman looked up at the moon and said, “I never said that I don’t believe in a higher power.”
“So what do you believe in?” she asked, clearly confused.
“Advaitham,” he said, “What I believe in is Advaitham.”
He then said, “I also have a confession to make. Right from the moment I saw you, I have been madly in love. I cannot think of anything else.”
Her expressions remained unchanged as he delivered those words. Without saying a word, she then embraced him and gave him a passionate kiss which lasted a full minute.
Vikraman felt intoxicated and lost all his weariness. Nothing else in the world mattered to him at that moment.
“But what is Advaitham?” she whispered softly into his ears. Her warm breath felt like hot embers of coal.
He looked at those beautiful eyes, those full lips and replied, “It is spiritual state of mind when two people cease to be two different people but become one. It is that state of mind when the future of our souls is intertwined in a single path by fate or accident. It is that state of mind where the world becomes a mayam (illusion). It is that state of mind when physical quantities like time, distance become irrelevant and rules set by man are rendered meaningless. It is a quintessential existence closer to the supreme where one remains incomplete without the other. Neither Life nor death can separate us now.”
The twinkle in her eyes suggested that the night was not yet done and that she was impressed. Sleep would have to wait; the entire cosmos would have to wait for them that night!
With a smile, Vikraman said, “Lokham dvaitham; pranayam advaitham.” (The world is dual; love is non-dual)
- This story was written based on a conversation that I had recently. And in that conversation, I ended up classifying true love as “Advaitham” (based on Advaita-Vedantam). And this post is to make sense of what I said that day.
- The Marakkars ruled the Arabian Sea in the 16th century leading many of the campaigns against the Portuguese. They are our heroes who organized the first naval defense of our country against imperialism.
“This is a perfect evening,” the man thought to himself and stretched his muscles, kicking away his sandals.
Major Riyas Mohammad sat on the beachfront leading to the famous Calangute beach in Goa, nursing a cold beer in a thatched hut. The cool breeze that came in from the sea had a tinge of salt in it; and he could hear the sea from a distance. The waves did not just break on the sand, they drenched his heart as well and a feeling of bliss permeated throughout his entire body.
It was the holiday season and with just a few hours left for the New Year and the whole town had a festive cheer to it. A lot of tourists, both Indians and foreigners had come into Goa to usher in the New Year and party hard.Goa was such a place where people could live in the moment and not bring in any emotional baggage!
Major Riyas Mohammad was no different. He had also come in to do the same as well. He just had to get away from his life; his work and his troubled past for atleast sometime. Working for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had been his dream, right from childhood but as he took another sip of the beer, he realized that it had also scarred him for life.
It was not the long work hours; it was not the time when he had been undercover; it was not the failed marriage. He considered all that to be a sacrifice for his country. But working for the RAW had sucked away his ability to empathize with anyone or anything. All that remained was a black heart, devoid of any emotions.
Which was precisely why, he had come over to Goa leaving all his emotional baggage behind! He almost looked like a hippie or a wandering monk; with his scraggy beard, dark brown hair which had been gelled back and those green eyes. He was dressed in a white kurta and his wiry frame was small but one could not mistake the fact that he was in great shape, thanks to years of training. His looks carried the genes of both his parents; his desi looks and his square jaw thanks to his Malayalee dad and his brown hair and those green eyes betrayed his mother’s Iranian heritage.
“I really think that it is time for dinner now,” and thinking of the Goan fish curry made his mouth water.
He paid the bill and started walking to his hotel. There were drunken people all over the place, enjoying their moment with destiny; hoping that the New Year would bring in the cheer!
Just then, his phone rang. Not the normal phone, but the secure one reserved for work! He was dismayed! The last thing that he wanted now was a call from office but in his line of work, it could not be avoided. He was one of the best agents in the department.
“Identity yourself,” said the caller on the other end.
“Riyas Mohammad,” he replied knowing that it was his boss, the inscrutable Mr. Sameer Sharma and then proceeded to give his security code.
“It is a chilly evening and I don’t want you to catch a cold. Why don’t you head out to your hotel room? We have arranged for some medicine for you.”
And the call went dead! There was a sense of urgency to his boss’s tone and he knew that he had to get back fast.
Riyas walked back to his hotel room as fast as he could without drawing attention and slipped into his room after checking that there were no intruders inside. It was something that had become an involuntary habit; just the same way that he slept with a gun under his pillow. On the bed was a package marked “Burn after reading.”
“Aliya, so it is the next mission. Why am I not surprised?” he thought to himself and opened the file, which had small tablet pc in it.
He hit the play button after entering his code and his boss’s voice crackled into life.
“We have received information from the IB that at 11:30 PM tonight, a hit has been planned at “The Shack” night club in Calangute. We don’t know who the target is nor do we have any information on who is planning the hit. Over the last couple of years, we have been receiving reports of a shadowy group who specialize in high profile assassinations and we have reason to believe that they are in this as well. Find and negate the threat!”
“Perfect,” said Riyas as he lit a cigarette and contemplated on the implications of the message. No longer was it a perfect evening for him! He looked at the watch, and it was already 9 PM and he only had just over two hours before it would go down. He quickly shaved, showered and put on some decent clothes, cleaned his gun and drove down to “The Shack” situated near the Calangute beach. His fish curry would have to wait!
“The Shack” had a reputation for being one of the best nightclubs in town; catering to the rich and the famous. Built near the beach, the club had an airy feel to it with its large expansive windows and loud music. The party had already started by the time Riyas reached the place and there were a lot of people, both inside and outside. The police too, were out on the streets, which was a good sign.
He was stopped outside by a bouncer.
“20,000 Rs, Sir for entry,” he said.
“What? 20,000! This is day light robbery,” replied Riyas but he paid up grudgingly. As every good Indian, he carefully saved the receipt so that he could bill it on the department later.
The dance floor was crowded as expected. The neon lights flickered incessantly and there was little space to move around. There was chaos all around, and he knew that it would be difficult to figure things out inside. So he ordered a beer and walked to a corner of the hall, where there was a slightly elevated platform. From that position, he could watch the entire dance floor and the bar. The best that he could do in the current situation was to see if he could observe anything, which seemed out of place; anything which broke the ordinary pattern.
It was 11:00 already and he focused on the crowd; observing every single person and assessing them. Ten minutes passed; fifteen and Riyas got a gradual picture of the club. People came in; people left but he could identify the people. It took immense concentration on his part and a pattern emerged; people who were the jocks; people who were drunk; people who were rich and people who were cheating.
Suddenly he spotted a man, who was standing in a corner, totally oblivious to the music and the crowd. He was a handsome man dressed in a suede leather jacket and tight jeans. The jet black hair was gelled back and he looked composed, which seemed totally out of place in the club. There was also something about the man, which interested Riyas. Confidence such as this could only stem from military training. He stood with natural elegance and a comfortable ease, which very few people possessed.
Riyas had nothing else to go on but that man. He was not sure but it was the best lead that had under the circumstances. Riyas also kept looking around desperate for any other lead but he could find anything.
It was 11:30 PM and the man started walking to the centre of the dance floor and from his jacket, took out a syringe and hid it in his right hand! Riyas knew that he had to move fast but without alarming the guy and so, he blended into the crowd and moved, discreetly towards the man.
He still did not know who the target was!
They had both reached the centre and Riyas was within an arm’s distance away from the man, when the man made his move. He took his syringe and was about to inject the person in front of him and Riyas had to move fast. As fast as he could, he reached out and grabbed the man’s right hand just in the nick of time!
The frenzied crowd around had no inkling of what was happening as they danced around the two stationary men, who both stood rooted to the spot. The assassin looked at Riyas in confusion but recovered instantaneously. With his free left hand, he lashed out at Riyas and got him square in the jaw. Any other man in Riyas’s position would have fainted at that moment but not Riyas who had taken many such blows in his life. He reeled back but never left his grip on the assassin’s right hand.
Fighting a conventional fight was out of the question in the crowded club and maybe, the man thought that Riyas had backup and so, he dropped the syringe and pushed Riyas away before fleeing to the door. Riyas at once followed, literally pushing people away as he chased after the assassin. There was supreme chaos as they both made their way to the door but finally they were out and the man started running towards the beach and Riyas followed.
The man was quick, but Riyas was not a slowcoach either. As he pursued the man, Riyas also called in for backup and asked the police to cordon off the club. As soon as the assassin reached the water, he stopped running; turned back and Riyas stood about 10 feet away from him.
Riyas had to say his usual line. “Dude, I am with the government. Drop your knife and surrender. Then it might work in the interest of both of us.”
The assassin, looked at Riyas in the eye, and shouted out aloud in Arabic, “I, descendent of Hassan-i-Sabbah, having pledge my life to the ancient order, will kill you.”
“Man, this is getting crazy. Arabic here in India,” Riyas thought to himself. He had a working knowledge of that language.
The assassin then took out a mean looking knife from his jacket and the hilt of the knife was made of solid gold. With a war cry, he charged at Riyas. Riyas could have ended the contest with his gun in a matter of seconds but he wanted to bring in the man alive.
The man slashed right across Riyas but he was a second too late, because Riyas had ducked under the blow and aimed a punch to the man’s stomach. It was a perfect blow, one which would have stopped many in their tracks but not the man. He clearly was trained. And so, they fought on. Both were equally matched and skilled but the man had the upper advantage with his knife while Riyas was unarmed. Riyas, with his quick feet was just able to stay out of reach from the man’s knife. They were both testing out one another in a bout of strength and they both knew that only one would survive.
The next time the assassin charged, Riyas sidestepped to the left after feigning to the right, and he had a clear advantage, which he used to grab the man’s right wrist and jumped up, and landed a powerful round house kick to the man’s jaw. He knew at once that he had connected properly as he could hear a crunching sound as the assassin’s jaw broke. The man lost his grip on the knife, staggered back, and rolled over. With blood oozing down his chin, the assassin took one quick look at the knife on the sand and then looked at Riyas again, but this time, it was different. There was fear in those eyes and Riyas knew that he had to do something before the man did something foolish.
As Riyas started running towards the man, the man took out a pill from his jacket and swallowed it. He was dead in a matter of seconds.
“Shit! I should have stopped him.” Suddenly fire works filled the sky and he looked at his watch!
The New Year had started, literally with a bang for Riyas. With the adrenalin racing through his veins, he was in no mood to celebrate the New Year. He placed a call to his boss on the secure line and explained to him what had happened.
Sameer listened in rapt attention to what had happened and said immediately, “Just wait there, I will send someone to pick you up. I will have a plane waiting for you at the Goa Air base.”
Riyas asked, “What about the body?”
“Bring it along with you.”
Just before Riyas cut the call, he added, “One more thing. Find out who Hassan-i Sabbah was.”
The Indian defense forces were not known to be efficient but Riyas was surprised to find himself in Mumbai at 2 AM, just two hours after the call with his boss. He knew that his boss must have pulled many strings for this to happen. Sameer was in office when Riyas got in, and asked Riyas to relax while they did a postmortem of the body. And Riyas poured himself a cup of coffee and waited in Sameer’s office.
After about 15 minutes, Sameer walked in, “We have reason to believe that the assassin belongs to secret clan, which operate within India.”
“Did you find any evidence on the body?” asked Riyas.
“This is what we found tattooed on the body near his hip bone. It was really miniscule, but we have enlarged it”. Sameer took out a file from his bag and showed Riyas a photograph.
Riyas had no idea what it was. “What the hell is this building?”
“I have my research team working on this as we speak. I also did my reading up on Hassan-i Sabbah. Here is the interesting thing. Hassan-i Sabbah was an ancient warrior in the Middle East; leader of a group called the Hashishins; a band of ruthless mercenaries who killed for money. The English word ‘assassin’ originated from them. They lived in their base Alamut from 1092 AD to 1265 AD until the Mongol invasion. It is further said that the Hashishins then moved into South Asia to escape from the Mongols. Isn’t it fascinating to think of the possibility that the descendents of that man started their business here in the subcontinent as well?”
“Here is another fascinating thing. They were Shiites; and as we know, they are a minority here in India, so finding that building should not be difficult.”
“Who was the target at Goa? I never got a chance to follow up on that,” asked Riyas.
“We have that covered as well. It was Industrialist John Mathai’s son there. The assassin probably had the contract to kill him, but we also need to figure out who gave the contract.”
Just then, Nilay walked into the room. A short man with a pudgy frame; he was one of the best researchers in the entire department. Riyas had often relied on him for information.
He said, “I have reason to believe that this is an obscure Imambara in Lucknow. I ran this building against all the Shiite architecture in India and this came up immediately. This mosque has been in disuse for the last 100 years.”
Riyas looked at Sameer and with a broad grin said, “What are we waiting for? All I need is an NSG (national security guard) team waiting for me in Lucknow.”
Now this was something that he really liked!
By 6 AM, Riyas found himself with his NSG team in their headquarters in Lucknow. They went over the blueprint of the building and also discussed their plan of action.
“Gentlemen, this is how it’s going to work. We will barrage our way in and hope to shock the enemy into submission even before they realize it. We will take them all in for questioning but if they fight back, you go in for the kill,” said Riyas.
By 6:30 AM, they had reached the decrepit Imambara. There was not a soul in sight and the building had a ghastly look to it as the morning mist had just started to clear.
The chief commander of the NSG squad came up to Riyas and said, “Our heat sensors have picked up activity inside the building and we have secured all the exit points. Let’s roll.”
And they stormed the building. The team split into subgroups as soon as they entered the building, and made their way in. Riyas always preferred to work alone and climbed the expansive stair and made his way up, with his gun ready in hand. His nerves were on edge, ready for the slightest intuition of threat.
He could hear the staccato of gunfire from below and realized that his team had engaged the enemy. Cautiously, he made his way up, and just then, a middle aged man, burst out from one of the rooms. He had also heard the gunfire.
“Freeze,” Riyas shouted.
The man stopped in his tracks and looked at Riyas. There was not an iota of fear in his persona, and that really troubled Riyas.
Riyas had to say his usual line and wondered why he always had to keep up this futile charade. “Dude, I am with the government. Surrender now. Then it might work in the interest of both of us.”
The man smiled and said in Arabic, “I, descendent of Hassan-i-Sabbah, have pledged my life to the ancient order. Surrender is not an option.”
And he switched to Hindi, “I don’t know how you guys found us. Our order has survived the Mongol invasion in the Middle East, has survived the Mughals, the Marathas and the British in India. We both know that it does not end here.”
And then he charged like a crazy elephant, directly for Riyas!
Riyas had no other option but to pump bullets into the man! At that moment, the chief commander of the NSG squad came running up the stairs with his group.
He said, “We have secured the building. The enemy forces would not go down without a fight but we have captured a few alive whom we can question.”
And then, he ran down again to rejoin his team.
Riyas then became acutely aware of an overpowering silence that had filled the room and he then slowly walked up to the dead man.
“Enemies will rise and enemies will fall. Heroes will rise and heroes will fall. If there is one thing I know, it is that it never ends! Not for people protecting this country; not for people who walk in the path of dharma!”
Warning: Long post!
It was 6 PM and Major Riyas Mohammed was in his office, with a big pile of papers in front of him and he hated every minute of it. It was peak summer in Mumbai and the climate did little to alleviate the feeling of extreme suffocation and the dusty ceiling fan on top was just an ornamental piece in his miniscule room.
It had just been over a month since his exploits in Kerala, where he had solved a major case involving the naxalites for which he had received a Medal of Honor, all done in secrecy. Yet another medal, which he could not show the world!
Yes, this was his world; the shadowy world of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) where victories were often celebrated in mute secrecy and failures, signaled to the whole world by the 24 gun salute.
Dead men never did talk!
As he looked at the huge pile of papers which he had to process before the end of the day, a sigh escaped his wiry frame. RAW operated this “office”, under the cover of an export business and hence, the facilities available were barely adequate.
“No, no, no! I am not meant for this,” he swore out loudly and cursed his boss who had decided to give him a desk job for sometime, away from the action. The many cups of tea and his cigarettes did not help in alleviating the crushing disappointment that his life had become.
Just then, his phone rang. It was his boss, Mr. Sameer Sharma on the other line.
“Riyas, come into my office,” said the curt voice and the line went dead. His boss was not a man who engaged in friendly chit chat. As Riyas walked to his boss’s office, he felt a familiar tinge in his spine. His intuition said that it was his next assignment.
As soon as he entered, his boss motioned him to sit down and asked, “What do you know about Ibn Battuta?”
Riyas smiled at his boss. Was this going to be the start of another crazy adventure like the last one, where he had uncovered a Roman ruin in the middle of Kerala? Why did stuff like this keep happening to him?
“Well, he was the greatest traveler of the ancient world. He was a North African who travelled all over Asia, including our country,” he replied.
“What do you know about his voyages in India?”
“Not much,” replied Riyas.
“The dude travelled all over the Indian subcontinent. He initially started from the north of the Indian subcontinent, travelled to the south and from there to the Maldives. And from there, he travelled to Bengal and from there, on to Indonesia. From South East Asia, the dude later travelled to China and finally went back home and it was there that he finally wrote his epic book called the ‘Rihla’.”
Sameer leaned into the table and in a more sober tone continued, “That is common history; now onto a myth. As the story goes, on his travel from Chittagong to Indonesia, he set sail with three ships full of treasures. But on the journey, they ran into some rough weather and two of the ships were separated. His ship somehow managed to reach Indonesia but the other two ships were never spotted after that and were presumed to have been lost at sea.”
“Ok,” replied Riyas.
“Now tell me,” said Sameer. “What do you know about the North Sentinel Island?”
“Well, I know this one,” replied Riyas. “It is a small island in the Bay of Bengal, which is home to Sentinelese; the last remaining un-contacted tribe in the Indian Republic who have rejected and often attacked anyone who has tried to contact them. It is our policy is to leave them alone and let them live in the way they have been living for the last 50,000 years. They are the descendents of the first great migrants out of Africa.”
Throwing his hands up, he also added, “But what I don’t understand is why you are giving me GK lessons at six in the evening? Why don’t you just cut to the chase?”
Clearing his throat, Sameer replied, “As you know, we make it our business to track and obtain intelligence about the various drug cartels operating in and around South East Asia, especially within Burma which has been without a proper functioning democracy for many years now. Once in a while, they use many of uninhabited islands which belong to the Indian Republic as a base for their operations. One of the stories that we picked up recently was that a band of smugglers, due to some unforeseen circumstances were forced to dock at the North Sentinel Island for a few hours. As the story goes, the Sentinelese tried to attack them but the smugglers were able to hold them off.”
“The story gets hazy here but one of the smugglers saw something interesting there and was able to steal it from a native. Once they got back to Burma, they realized that it was pure Gold and had many archaic Arabic inscriptions on it describing the tales of Ibn Battuta written in his own words; worth a ton on the black market. It now seems likely that the man had written his own records even before reaching Africa. Our intelligence agents picked this story up when they had gone to a collector. Our intelligence reports further suggests that the smugglers are planning a specific expedition to the North Sentinel Island soon. But this time around, they are going in with heavy firepower. And we need to stop them before they wreck the island.”
“Can’t we just send in our destroyer and our MARCOS (marine commandoes) to deal with this?” asked Riyas.
“Unfortunately we cannot. The last thing we want to do is to draw attention to the Island and encourage more mercenaries to search the island and the human rights commission will never accept our plea to search the North Sentinel Island. The island is sacred to the Sentinelese and off limits to everyone. Moreover, it will also be a diplomatic disaster with the Burmese.”
“So what do we do then?” asked Riyas.
“This is where you come in,” replied Sameer. “We will airdrop you into the island under the cover of night and your mission is to find out if there is really any lost treasure within the island, and protected by the Sentinelese. You have to really find out if there is any truth to that ancient myth. I need the best man for such a sensitive job; one who can blend into the night without being spotted.”
“So when do you want me to leave?” asked Riyas.
“Right now,” replied Sameer. “And one important thing, you are under order to not hurt or maim the Sentinelese.”
“Sounds sweet,” replied Riyas; “So you want me to go to a remote island; find the hidden treasure if any; be a moving target to the natives and expect me to report back to this office by tomorrow?”
Sameer signaled that the meeting was over and handed him a dossier. “Just come back alive! A car is waiting outside as we speak. You will be flown to our Air Force base in Chennai and from there to the Island. You will find all the details of the mission in this file. And in Chennai, you will find all your equipment.”
On the flight to Chennai, he went over the file and learnt about the basic topography of the island, the coral reefs and studied more about the natives, including their weapons. As he read more about the Sentinelese, he found it fascinating that they were still living in the Stone Age.
At 8 PM, the plane landed at the Air Force base in Chennai and Squadron Leader Vetrivel, an impressive Kargil War veteran with an equally impressive moustache was waiting for him on the tarmac.
“I have read the report and the sensitive details of the mission,” Squadron Leader Vetrivel said as soon as they were in his office. Riyas liked him immediately. Just like Squadron Leader Vetrilvel, he was also a man who did not like wasting time in stupid chitchat.
“We will rendezvous with the INS Trishul, our Naval destroyer about 10 miles away from the Island, which is out patrolling that area and you will have one of the ultra stealth, modern jet skies, which we can borrow from the navy. There is a risk of someone spotting you from the beach but we don’t have any other option. The Sentinelese settlements are on the northern side of the island and hence, we will drop you on the South. As soon as you are done, just activate the homing beacon and we will find you. You will also find all the non-fatal firearms that you will need out here.”
Riyas spent the next fifteen minutes getting ready for the mission. As he looked into the mirror in the locker room, as he was applying a special black paste all over his face, he could not but help notice his light green eyes and his tousled brown hair speckled with shades of grey. He was 35 but he knew that he could never settle for a desk job. It was not in his character; his self destructive streak! The combat fatigues that he wore now were a part of him, like the great Karna’s Kavacha.
Squadron Leader Vetrivel had personally volunteered to drop him and pretty soon, they were in the air, flying out to the Andaman Islands in a helicopter.
At about 10 PM, they landed safety on the helipad of INS Trishul. It was really dark and the water was warm and still. Riyas started riding out to the island without wasting time. Using GPS co-ordinates, he was able to make his way to theIsland, past the protective coral reef cover and docked at the beach.
He knew that the island was a tropical paradise but ironically this was going to be the most difficult mission in his life. He could not risk being discovered and he did not wish to stay till day break. The palpable tension was something that he lived on and so cautiously, he blended into the surrounding thick foliage after hiding the ski.
The island had a total area of about 72 square kilometers and he had to trek for about 5 to 6 kilometers to reach the main settlement. Absolutely nothing was known about the Sentinelese or their customs.
As he made his way cautiously through the woods, all he had was a single question. “Would they have guards on duty at night?”
He knew that he would find out soon enough! Inching forward like a snail, he knew that he had to bring all his experience to succeed in this mission. His eyesight had gradually adjusted to the lack of light but he knew that the Sentinelese would have sharper senses, trained thanks to years of living in the wilderness. The loose sand and the thick bush cover made it even more difficult for him to walk through without making noise.
Finally, at 3:12 AM, he reached the main settlement of the natives, a huge clearing in the middle of the woods. A big bonfire was burning in the middle of the settlement which had about 30 to 40 huts in total, which were spaced generously and there were 7 men around the fire. All the wooden huts were evenly distributed and mostly of the same size.
“Looks like it is their job to keep the fire burning,” Riyas thought to himself and he found it strange that the men, just sat there in silence without talking. Even though, he had seen videos of them before, nothing prepared him for this. They looked so different!
He spent a good 15 minutes in reconnaissance to ensure that there were no other guards on duty. The progress on the mission was excruciatingly slow, but he did not have any other choice. The last thing that he wanted to do was to let the natives know that they had an intruder amidst them!
Just as he finished his reconnaissance around the settlement, he noticed a hut on the northern side which was constructed differently. It did not have the same square pattern as the other huts and it was significantly bigger than the others.
“Could this be their temple?” he wondered and decided to investigate. He took out his gun, which had been fitted with a special magazine and crawled to the hut, hidden from the view of the men around the bonfire.
Once he reached the hut, he slipped in through the open door and he saw the most amazing sight!
It was the decrepit remains of a huge ship broken into many pieces; the total length of which was about 30 feet! A small fire was burning in a corner which illuminated the whole ship giving it a golden hue and in front of it, was a huge stone carving, presumably a God. After looking around to ensure that there was no one else but him in the hut, he tiptoed to the ship and was amazed at what he saw.
Huge wooden boxes filled with solid Gold bars!
“Man, we have hit the jackpot,” he thought to himself and the Arabic inscriptions on the gold bars were mesmerizing to look at, as it almost seemed to dance in front of his eyes thanks to the flickering flame! It really was the lost Rihla; an account of Ibn Battuta’s travels in his own words!
His mission was complete! All he had to do was to get back alive and so carefully, he slipped out of the hut and retraced his steps.
The journey back to the beach also took a long time, after which he activated the homing beacon.
In a minute or two, he could hear the chopper and so he walked over to the open beach. And in sometime, he could make out the chopper as it approached him.
Suddenly, his instincts told him to duck down, which he did and an arrow screamed past his torso. Yet again, he was saved by his instincts. He rolled over and looked back! The seven men were standing about 20 yards away!
“Shit, they followed me all the way back here and I did not even know about it! They are good!” he said under his breath.
After the briefest interval, the seven men charged shouting out aloud, all armed with a knife.
He blocked; he rolled; he ran; he disarmed them; he grappled with them; he did everything in his capacity to not harm the men. He knew that he only had to hold them off for a few more moments and suddenly, a huge flash light beamed down upon them from the helicopter.
The men froze in their tracks, clearly confused and that all he needed. He ran towards the chopper and grabbed the ladder. And in a couple of seconds, he was airborne again, away from the island and from the Sentinelese!
He climbed into the chopper, helped by the MARCOS and it was a short flight back to the destroyer.
He could not believe that he had made it out alive! It was almost dawn and so, lighting a cigarette, he stepped out onto the deck.
“What is our government response going to be to the hidden treasure?” Squadron Leader Vetrivel asked him.
“I just hope we do everything to protect the people; from the smugglers and more importantly, from us as well. I hope that we do not take ‘civilization’ to them! They have done remarkably well for the last 50,000 years without it.”
He then placed a scrambled call to his boss to make his report. As soon as he was done, he spent the next quarter of an hour watching the Sun rise, marking the beginning of another brilliant day.
“But would it be just another day for the Sentinelese?” was the burning question in his mind.
1) This is a work of fiction and the second story which involves Major Riyas Mohammed. You can read the first one: “The Roman Hoard”.
2) The Sentinelese are the last remaining “un-contacted” tribe in the Indian Republic and they live in the remote “North Sentinel Island”. I just hope that we don’t interfere with their natural habitat or their lives. Check this video out.
3) Ibn Battuta was the greatest traveler of the ancient world before the invention of the Steam engine. He travelled for many years and visited many places but there are no records of him having composed his “Rihla” before going back home.
A friend of mine Mr. X had come home recently and as we were having tea, the discussion veered towards the complexity of the universe and what is beyond the edge of the universe.
No, we generally do not talk about such stuff. And no, we are not geeks.
That was when Mr. X looked at me and said, “It really is fascinating, just like the marvel which is the human brain. The creator must be great.”
I generally do not let such statement fly without a suitable riposte and I replied, “Well dude, I don’t exactly believe in the concept of a divine creator.”
“What?” he said, “You don’t believe in God? Then in that case, how can you explain the complexity of the universe? Can ‘your’ science explain what is beyond the edge of the universe?”
I smiled and replied, “My friend; this statement that you just made, is exactly the difference between you and me! You just said it now.”
“And what is that?” he asked, intrigued.
I replied, “I am humble enough to say that I do not know the answer. But on the other hand, you have already decided on the answer. That is your first mistake!”
And I continued, “If we were having this discussion 2000 years back, you would have also claimed that the earth is flat and the center of the universe and the Sun is revolving around it. Science has really come a long way in explaining many things from that day. I am still willing to give science a chance, but you are not. That is the basic difference between you and me; the difference between a Rationalist and a Theist.”
With a look of mild contempt, he asked, “So what if one day, you finally realize that there is God?”
I replied, “My friend; this statement that you just made, is another perfect example which shows the difference between you and me!”
“And what is that?” he asked.
I said, “I would be pleasantly surprised if that day ever comes. But on the other hand, my friend; you would be crushed if that day comes when you realize that there is no God.”
It was one such evening at the kallu-shaap where alcohol was the only thing that flowed more freely than free speech and the quintessential mallu liked both, on his own terms.
“Chandranna, give us another bottle of the best kallu that you’ve got,” said Devassy and quietly slipped a 20 rupee note into Chandran’s pocket with a wink only to be greeted by a seedy smile.
The logistics in a kallu-shaap worked slightly different than in a normal bar. As the blokes knew, that in a kallu-shaap, one tips the waiter even before getting the stuff, because kallu unlike other forms of alcohol tasted best when had fresh! And in a kallu-shaap, the best kallu went to the highest tipper (bidder?).
It was a hot Friday afternoon, and they had come to celebrate after what they deemed had been a particularly efficient and successful strike at theKerala University Senate hall campus that morning. As they sat there in the dilapidated hut situated on the Trivandrum bypass road near Technopark, they could see vehicles whiz past them; everyone in some form of hurry or the other.
“We’ve dealt a crushing blow to the university chancellor’s hopes today,” said Devassy. He was a left leaning student leader and he was proud of it. He belonged to a rare breed; people who were always busy even when they had absolutely nothing to do.
Even though he had passed out of college three years back, he remained back as a member of the politburo because he had nothing better to do. He was happy; merely living in his comfort zone.
“Jithesh; enthuvadey! Are you even listening to me?” Devassy asked, mildly irritated that his friend did not seem to share his enthusiasm.
At that moment, Jithesh looked up. All that while, he had been paying particular attention to his karimeen polichathu.
“I heard you but it hurts when I see you without a regular job.”
Jithesh was quite the opposite. A simple man from a humble middle-class family, he had found a job right after college and was living a content life. And for a vacation, he had come back to Trivandrum to meet his friend and drill some sense into him.
Devassy was angered, “Regular job? What is wrong with you? I am happy now and you want me to find a boring desk job like you in a company full of the bourgeoisie? Capitalism is messing with your brains, my dear friend!”
But Jithesh was persistent; “But can you atleast quit the politburo. Aren’t you too old for this petty post?”
On hearing that, Devassy picked up his glass and emptied it in a single gulp and he said, “Cant you get it? We are fighters; always ready to serve a worthwhile cause. There is not a single person who can touch me as long as I have this post.”
He filled his glass once again, raised it haughtily; looked Jithesh in the eye and said it once again very slowly, “We are merely warriors; warriors without rest.”
Jithesh let you a sigh and said, “You, my friend, are suffering from an addiction. An addiction of a comfortable lifestyle corrupted with power. Let us drop this topic for now.”
And they both went back to what they both loved! More kallu!
Pretty soon the afternoon became evening but still they were not done; not done in reliving those tales from college. They were living in the past; in pleasant memories that they both cherished.
Finally, at around 6 PM, it was time for them to leave as it was time for Jithesh to get back to the railway station. As they rode back to the city through Kazhakootam, they were stopped by the police.
“Kalippu aliyaa; it is the month end and they will not let us go without money,” said Devassy quickly to Jithesh as they pulled over.
And soon, they were surrounded by the cops.
A formidable looking cop with a big moustache and an oversized paunch said, “Drunken driving eh? Ok guys, you know the routine! Pay up 300 rupees or get into the police jeep.” And he quickly turned off the ignition and pocketed the bike key.
The cops left them alone to corner more people. There was no escape for them; not without the bike.
“How much money do you have on you now?” Devassy asked quietly after a while.
Jithesh said, “Just 80 bucks and what about you?”
“When have I ever had any money with me? Endae Karthavae! We are in deep shit!” Devassy replied and said, “What the hell do we do now?”
And they stood there, unsure; uncertain about what was going to happen.
Finally, after some time, Jithesh asked with a mocking grin, “Devassy, I thought you were one of those warriors; warriors without rest!!”
“So?” Devassy asked with a blank expression.
With as much contempt as he could possibly muster, Jithesh replied, “Nindae vandi alle? Poyi police-inde kaalu pidi” (It is your bike right? Beg the cops to let us go)
PS: Story inspired by an old incident which involved a couple of friends.
PPS: The title in Malayalam means “Warriors without rest!”
Tuesday was just another ordinary weekday until about 6:30 PM as I was trudging back to my house from office.
As soon as I entered my housing society, I spied upon a wallet on the pavement. My first instinct was to ignore it and mind my own business and I almost started walking away when something inside urged me to pick it up before someone else stole it.
The wallet belonged to person called “Sergio”; it had a lot of papers in it, an ID from Guatemala, a health insurance card, a photo of Jesus, and more importantly about 150 dollars of cash in it.
Thankfully the ID card also had a local American address, which was thankfully within my own housing society and I walked up to the house and returned the wallet.
The old lady who opened the door was taken aback when I returned the wallet and as I left said “God bless you, my child” with a huge smile!
That pretty much made my day and I was filled with an inner glow which lasted for more than 15 minutes; and I walked back home with a spring in my step.
I realized at that moment that the line was in fact a powerful mantra!
It just reaffirmed the fact that no amount of money could ever equal that feeling; that inner joy of having a clear conscience; that satisfaction of simply being humane.
As it turned out; it was not just another weekday…
It was a 3 day weekend here in America and my friend Mr. FR decided that he would come over to the Bay Area since he had nothing better to do in LA.
Last week, Mr. FR called and said, “Dai, I am coming over on Saturday. Do you mind if I book my tickets to the San Francisco Airport instead of San Jose as it is cheaper?”
And to people who do not know, the SFO Airport is about 45 minutes away from my place (Sunnyvale) and SJC Airport, about 5 minutes.
I replied, “Not a problem”.
So Mr. FR booked his ticket and forwarded the mail to me. Being the busy man that I can be, I noted the arrival time (in the mail) and nothing else.
So on Saturday, I got up early and timed my arrival to the SFO airport to match Mr. FR’s arrival time, 12:15 PM. Just as I was about to drive into the airport, Mr. FR called, “I am standing outside at the arrival gate.”
I replied, “Perfect timing (glowing with pride as I was on time); I will be there in a minute.”
I made my first pass through the arrival section, and did not spot him. So I made my second pass and still could not spot him. And then, I made my third pass and realized that something was wrong.
I called him immediately, “Dai, I have made 3 passes through the arrival gates and did not spot you.”
Mr. FR was mildly angered when I suggested that he might have made a mistake by standing at the wrong place and replied, “Nope. I know that I am at the correct arrival gate and I have been watching every single car. You just did not pass this way!”
“Ok!” I replied and decided to park the car and then find him.
Again for people who do not know, the parking in the SFO airport has got to be the most complicated parking lot in the entire world; designed with a singular objective to confuse the common man and cause brain damage! And it took me a good 20 minutes to find an empty parking spot.
I called him and said, “Dai, I have parked my car now. Can you come over to parking lot F/G-35, level 4?”
He said that he would give it a try and after 5 minutes, I got a call from him, “Aliya; there is nothing here which even remotely looks like parking lot F/G-35, level 4!”
“This guy is really pathetic; what a loser,” I thought to myself and I said (with a condescending tone which I like to use in such cases), “Ok machu; go back to the terminal. I will come there!”
It took me a good 10 minutes to walk from parking lot F-G-35, level 4 to the domestic terminal. But still I could not spot him.
He claimed that he was standing at the correct terminal; I claimed that I was standing at the correct terminal. We tried a variety of things but we just could not spot one another!
And thus, we wasted more time, walked a lot more; got irritated and finally, we were exhausted, almost waiting for “rapture” when suddenly Mr. FR asked (with an almost pleading tone), “Dai, I hope that you are at the San Jose Airport!”
And that was when the penny dropped! We were at different airports. He had booked his ticket to the San Jose Airport and merely thought that forwarding the mail to me was good enough!
Apparently, it was not! It was 1:45 PM by the time we realized that we were at different airports.
He then said, “Kollam aliya; so what do we do now?” He actually took about 10 seconds (I counted) to finish the “kollam aliya” part of his line.
I really am perceptive when it comes to deciphering such things. The line was said in a tone which really meant, “You Dumb F; when are you going to stop being such an idiot?”
I replied very slowly, “Take a taxi and wait outside my house. I will be back in about an hour!”
“Athu sheri” he said and then ventured to say a few other things; certain unprintable things, which I will exclude from this post in the interest of the general public!
The lesson I learnt that day: “Airport Rage” can certainly turn a seemingly docile mallu into a hate spewing maniac (for about 15 seconds)!
The rest of the weekend was pretty awesome. I saw T-3 (was ok) and also saw “Delhi Belly” (was awesome). On Monday, I managed to drop him at the correct airport for his return flight. We Sagittarius dudes tend to botch up many things, but we live and learn!
And if anyone is interested in the map/airport locations: