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.

* * *


Bengali Guy said...

You'll surely find your Chechen in the pages of Misha Glenny's encyclopedic McMafia. Let us know. Superb post.

Idling in Top Gear said...

I could visualize the situations/ men from your excellent narrative, sirjee.

However, I think a run in with a lone armed crackhead (who'd kill you for your shoes) in an American side street seems a lot scarier than running into any ruthless killing machine that's part of a regimented organization, because the latter would need some level of provocation.

Anonymous said...

The word "refreshing" would normally not be appropriate given the nature of the narrative - but I was SO tired of reading about MJ everywhere that this compelling read provided a much-needed relief.

Rimi said...

Utterly fantastic. Unquestionably superb.

Yet another reason added to the "now write a book" pile.

km said...

Everyone's said it already, but it needs to be said again: just fantastically written.

Now if you will allow me, I am going to go back and visualize pigeon egg-sized knuckles and shoot some coffee out of my nose.

Progga said...

Quite the life, JAP. Goosebumps down my arms.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

B Guy, have to go look for it. Thanks for the tip.

Top Gear, you have a point. On the other hand, the crackhead can be taken down.

Anon, glad to be of service. You don't like short sentences?

Rimi, praise from you is pleasant, but books don't PAY in this country.

Krishna, 'shoot' yes, but coffee and nose?

Progga, a life in the wings, actually. "Not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be ..." - remember?


Sucharita Sarkar said...

Edge-of-the-seat stuff! Books don't pay, as you say, but what about some more of this Dashiel Hammett style posts?

Tai Chi said...


I'm m'self almost against all religion, organised especially - regimented worse. ;-)

Rimi: Our man, whom U know better, works only on "Just do it - or else" - reasons are redundant. ;-] :-}

Lazyani said...

Reminded me of the well dressed cold eyed emotionless young man who had met me somewhere in Upper Assam in the late nineties to remind me of my family after I had refused to supply lubricants to a group who had professed Anti -India feelings in front of me.

Very well expressed sir, as usual.

Chronicus Skepticus said...

Oh *very* good.

And we second Rimi, we want the book!

Tai Chi said...

Jolly Good Show, Copernicus!!

*Conditions Apply* - at both ends of the word very.

Jolly Good, man. :-)

M'mita said...

Gripping! Very well written..

Plumpernickel said...

V. Interesting. The most intriguing/ dangerous/ mysterious/ cold-blooded person I ever met used to be a US Marine and had dabbled with colombian gangs. Last I knew, he was a private eye.