Saturday, June 27, 2009

Clear and present danger

They were like weathered cliffs. With eyes like cave-mouths, I never could make out what was happening inside.

Two men. Different countries, different years. But the two men that I recall, in all my life, who inspired fear when one looked upon their faces.

* * *

Moscow, 2003. A* had taken it upon himself to take me around, show me the sights, keep me from starving to death every two hours. He was interesting. School drop-out, self-made millionaire, natty, vain, disarmingly charming at times, two roving eyes, and an evident streak of ruthlessness. He’d made Moscow his bailiwick. Not bad for a Bangali boy from the alleys of North Calcutta. He showed me a side of Moscow I’d never have imagined on my own, let alone seen. Cocky, cool, self-assured, nothing he couldn’t handle.

Till the evening he took me back to his place. And found a man waiting in his den. Sitting on a chair with a half-glass of neat amber. I noted the guy hadn’t chosen either of the very comfortable armchairs. He was astride the chair from the writing table, one arm laid on the back holding the glass of whisky, the other in his lap. A* stopped in his tracks at the sight. Then he smiled a slow careful smile, said a few words in Russian and stepped back to hang up his coat. I nodded at the chap, stood my ground and decided against smiling. This guy looked like he didn’t DO smiling.

We were introduced. He stood up to shake my hand. Which was educative. He put down his drink instead of just transferring it to his other hand. One hand free at all times? Probably. His palm enveloped my hand, it felt like an industrial gauntlet, his knuckles were the size of pigeon eggs. He wore a full-sleeved plaid shirt buttoned right up, jeans with a broad belt, very elegant boots of supple leather. Which meant only his hands and his face were visible. About 5’10”, built lean, but his movements showed the animal in him, flat muscles moving smoothly over each other like sheets of armour. Hard, that was the overall impression. Hard and elemental, something primal about him, feral.

He said something to A*, his voice surprisingly smooth, quiet. A* glanced at me almost involuntarily, looked back, shook his head slightly, spoke in Russian. I took the hint and went into the other room. About 15 minutes later A* came through, said the guy was leaving, would I like to say Bye to him? I did. He didn’t smile this time either, he kept one hand on my shoulder as he shook the other. (Did I look like I could use any kind of shake-hand grip on this walking pile of rock?!) Then he vanished through the service door.

I didn’t ask any questions. A* told me of his own as we sipped his Talisker (smoke on the palate, fire in the throat). There are (were?) 5 major gangs in Moscow. One of them was Chechen. The others didn’t mess with them. They were crazy. Reckless. Killed for the slightest transgression. Ruled through fear, not favour. And the Mayor of Moscow, Luzhkov, had come to power through their support. This man was one of the commanders of the Chechen mafia, near the top if not at the very top. Beslan had not yet happened, but the Chechnyan conflict had been in the news for nearly 4 years. I said nothing, listened.

And thought of the man’s face. Hard, seamed, expressionless, with eyes that revealed nothing. More than the impression of physical capability, the man seemed resolute. Unflappable. If he had to take down a railway locomotive or a T-Rex with his bare hands, he’d give it a cool-headed try. If he had to kill his brother, he’d weigh the benefit-cost ratio, not the emotional damage.

This man was fear.

* * *

19--, Kashmir. The insurgency had just flared up. Fifteen of us had volunteered for a “study tour” dreamt up by the Director of the LBSNAA, a scenario that drove our Course Director round the bend. “You bloody bandicoots, any of you so much as stubs his toe out there and you’ve HAD it for the rest of your training, you hear me? I don’t want the national press going to town about young officers injured in a crossfire!” On our first full day in Srinagar, we saw the tiny crater in the road where a man had died 48 hours earlier. We knew belly-tightening fear as we accompanied a patrol through the close-leaning, blank-eyed, shuttered-window alleys of Batmaloo. But those are other stories for other days.

We spent a fair amount of time with the National Security Guard group. They gave us a run-down on their organization, training, weaponry, ops. I was young enough to drool over their Heckler & Kosch carbines, but they didn’t offer us a chance to try them out. (We were bloody civilians, below contempt. They weren’t very complimentary about the SPG either. The NSG are the ops wing - apparently now called the SAG - while the Special Protection Group are deployed exclusively for VIP security.) One of the things we learnt was that the NSG operate in groups of three called “hits”, each group trained for a specific part of an operation. For example, in a storming operation, one hit of three men would just effect entry – the first to open the door with a suitable explosive charge, the second to move in and provide cover, the third to enter and clear the immediate area. Each operative is issued a specialised weapon – anything from a recoil-less rifle to a needle gun – and carries another side-arm of choice.

So I was looking around to see what side-arms they chose to carry, the overwhelming favourite was the Heckler & Kosch 9 mm. pistol (clip of 14) though at least two carried machine-pistols, when I notice one man who didn’t carry any side-arm that I could see. Big guy, at least 3 inches over 6 feet, I couldn’t see his face because the bandanna was flapping over it in the wind over the Dal Lake. I turned to Captain R (a show-boater if ever there was one, but he could put 4 bullets in a man’s head at 12 ms. In 5 seconds. Starting blind) and asked him about it.

He called to the guy, a name from the hills of Kumaon. The man turned around. And I was looking in the face of a killer. I didn’t know his back story, he hadn’t said a word. But one look at him, the broad immobile face, the narrowed eyes, and I just felt in my gut that this man could not only kill a man if he had to, he’d do it without a tremor. He might even look forward to it.

R* said “Hathiyaar dikhao”, show us your weapon. The man bent his knees slightly, his left hand went near his ankle-high boots, and suddenly he was holding a knife. A gutting knife, blade at least 10 inches with a serrated edge, handle bound with a leather strip. Then he flipped it over and caught it by the blade. The throwing grip. He looked at me, no expression at all, and swung it, the handle moving less than an inch each way. And I knew that if I pushed him, expressed the slightest doubt of his ability, he might just prove it then and there. I froze.
He still didn’t say a word.

I knew fear.

* * *

Monday, June 22, 2009

Statutory Warning

I’m a gorment paarsen. Therefore muzzled. See, my Rules of Service rule out my pontificating in public on the things that seem really important. Anarchy. Hypocrisy. Bloodletting. Woman-bashing. Stealing. So when my blood boils about these, what I usually do is call a friend and vent. Because I won’t risk expressing opinions on political issues here.

Sport is a possibility, but by the time I put something together Google will show about 5935 “similar stories”.

What am I left with? Travel, food, the occasional rant. And some stories. Totally Awld Gaffer material.

You have been warned.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


(My first foray into "guest-blogging". Here.)

Four little levers all in a row. One to stop, one to park, maybe one to go? I suppressed a faintly hysterical yelp and concentrated. OK, if we pull on THIS one …The lower part of the seat back suddenly thrust itself into my sacral region with a malevolent hiss. Rattled, I pulled at all the other levers in turn. With the result that when the stewardess came round with the cold towels, her plastic smile dissolved into a giggle at the sight of me. Sprawled in one corner of the seat in a most undignified manner, legs kicking in the air as the evil foot-rest moved up independent of the leg rest and the “recline” lever plotted my downfall.

I don’t think I’m particularly tech-challenged. Not a geek, no, but certainly not one of the lost-tribes-of-the-Amazon-forest types. Then why should I be so helpless in the grasp of a SEAT, darn it? Only it’s not just the seat. EVERYthing seems to conspire against me. You know how business class offers you “the widest variety of entertainment in the sky”? Riiigghhht. Now, where do the headphones go? I spent nearly 10 minutes on a flight to Dubai trying to conceal my utter perplexity, all but whistling nonchalantly while I felt around the armrests, bent over to peer at the middle upright, ran my fingers over the padded sides, looking for That. Damn. Socket. All to no avail. In the process I plugged my headphones into an ashtray. Or a fuelling port. Or the autopilot, even. I must have looked like Mr. Bean. Eventually the lady next to me heaved a deep sigh, gently removed my hand from the vicinity of her Dior-sheathed knee and pointed out the socket nestled under the armrest. Evil, I tell you. Whatever happened to standardization?

It’s all about upgrades, of course. I’m just not mentally equipped to fly business class. Last time, between Chennai and Delhi, the damn engineering even managed to ruin my “chiefest, sole delight”. Well, not sole, really. Salmon steak. In a lovely herb reduction. It was just about the best meal one could have hoped for, considering how grotty in-flight food usually is. I was smart. I did NOT try to open all the little packs of condiments, because I KNOW the vinaigrette is implanted with an evil computer chip that will make it splash all over my trousers. Or worse, on my neighbour’s trousers. I didn’t even try to figure out all the superfluous cutlery that cascaded out of the folded napkin. (THREE identical spoons for ONE meal? What is this, the St. James’ Court?!) Then I had to go and ruin it by deciding to watch some TV while I ate at my leisure.
You know how the nifty little TV screen folds out of the armrest? Yes, but why is it equipped to swivel in 27 different planes? Try working it round to face you when there’s already a large napkin-draped tray occupying the same space. In 3 minutes I managed about 29 different positions for the TV screen, none of them facing me. Rather like a Rubik’s cube. Then I gave in to destiny. And my temper. The stewardess ran out of her little curtained alcove at the sound that ensued.

Trying ineffectually to bend over the dinner tray to pick up (a) one soup bowl, empty (b) 236 pieces of fruit salad, all sticky (c) enough cutlery to fit out another French Revolution while at the same time avoiding (d) the baleful look of a neighbor with a sticky chocolate brownie in his lap and (e) a TV screen that seemed to be doubled over in laughter, I accepted that I do not BELONG in business class. Next time, no Rosa Parks song for me. Come on over to the back of the ‘Bus, I’ll be waiting right there. Given that I’m the large or economy size, it’s economy class for me from now on.

Monday, June 01, 2009


I think I was about 6 years old. They’d come down the road a little before 7 in the morning, when I was just about awake, and from the bedroom where I lurked under the covers for those oh-so-sweet ten extra minutes of sleep on a schoolday morning I’d hear them coming. They always sang the same song – Bhojo Gourango, koho Gourango, loho Gourango’r naam re”. “Sing of Gouranga, speak of Gouranga, take Gouranga’s name.” The tune that has been used by Chandrabindoo for the satire “Aaji ei Boshonto diney”.

An old man and a boy. The man seemed infinitely old to my 6-year-old eyes; when I review my memory, I realise he must have been about 50. The boy would have been a year or two older than me, or perhaps short rations made him look younger. But his clothes were always clean, unlike the draggled rags of his bearded companion. His voice was very sweet, soaring above the man’s tenor in a tracery of song. I’d run out to the balcony, lean over the railing to hear them. They always walked from the Raja Basanta Roy road crossing towards Lake Market, perhaps to sing for a cup of tea and biscuit before the tea stalls on Janak Road. The first few times, they’d look up at me, the boy would put out his hand with the palm upwards without interrupting his song. I went and asked my mother for a coin. She gave me 25P, a denomination that I don’t see these days and yet a fair amount for alms back then. The boy caught it deftly as I tossed it from the balcony, raised the hand to his forehead in salute and walked on, still singing.

It became a habit. Twice or thrice a week I’d hear their voices raised in song and run out to the balcony with a 25P coin, then watch them wander off towards the market. In the year or so before we moved to Delhi, I never spoke to them, never asked them any questions. They never broke off their song to speak to me. But it lingers in my memory like a grainy shot from an old film. Complete with slightly scratchy soundtrack.