Syed and Gayatri didn't mean to fall in love. But love happens when you least expect it. It creeps up suddenly. When someone needs attention, care, conversation, laughter and maybe even intimacy. Love doesn't look at logic, or at backgrounds and least of all, religion.
Gayatri was from a very conservative South Indian family that went to a temple every Saturday. Syed bought goats for his family every Eid. That said it all. Their paths would never have crossed if it hadn't been for that fateful day. That day when he walked into the coffee shop. Gayatri wondered if destiny chose our loved ones for us. Did we have any role to play at all?
She looked at her watch. Syed was late. They met every Thursday at 5pm to catch up. Their conversation lasted for hours. Sometimes at the cafe, sometimes in his car, sometimes in places that she could never tell her friends about. They would never understand. And yet Syed made her happy.
Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. "On my way. Have something important to tell you."
Gayatri stared at it and realised she had knots in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her?
She ordered a latte and stared out her window. The incessant hum of Bangalore’s traffic somehow pleased her. She loved the city, the independence it gave her after her non existential life back in her conservative hometown of Palakkad. Her mundane life that went on and on in the deepest of ruts disgusted her. She desperately wanted to get away if at all just to see what her life outside of her hometown , would be like. She was ecstatic when she got the job offer from an IT company in Whitefield, a year ago. Convincing her father hadn’t been easy at all. But with a little help from her mother, they had persuaded him into agreeing. She was a little scared but thrilled at the very thought of being able to live her life on her own terms – of not worrying about what she wore, keeping her hair short or for eating meat.
The guy at the cafe brought her latte and interrupted her train of thoughts. Syed wasn’t usually late. He was a perfectionist to the point of obsession. She lazily picked up a tissue and wiped away a stain at the base of her latte mug. Syed a cleanliness freak; he would’ve thrown a fit and sent back the latte right away. She smiled at the very thought of him.
It wasn’t love at first sight – at least for her. He had walked over to her table at this very same coffee house a few months ago and asked her if he could make a call from her phone – his phone battery was dead, he’d said. He’d offered to buy her a cup of coffee as a way of saying thanks. To this day she wondered if it was his well thought-out plan to get talking to her. She’d trusted her instincts and taken a chance on conversation with this stranger. Thus began an interesting friendship over the clichéd cup of coffee. He wasn’t just a good listener – he was the type who would randomly tell little things about her, the ones that she never told him, but the ones he’d picked up simply by observing her. She found it endearing. Somewhere between all their laughs, long talks and little fights, she fell hopelessly in love.
Almost as if she could sense him in the air, she suddenly looked up and saw Syed walk in with a guy beside him.
‘Sorry I’m a bit late.’ He apologised and gave her a chaste peck on the cheek. His unabashed show of affection was yet another thing she loved about him. It felt strangely comforting to be with someone who didn’t mind flaunting his love for all the world to see.
‘This is my college buddy Irshad.’ He introduced the newcomer.
As Irshad excused himself for a call, Syed leaned across the table and whispered conspiratorially – ‘Now for the surprise... I’ve found a great apartment for us to move in together!’
Gayatri stared at him too stunned to speak. They’d casually discussed moving in at some point, but she hadn’t realised how serious he was about it, until now. She had her qualms about living under the same roof with someone whom she knew so briefly – it called for a certain level of readiness. Was it all happening too fast? She wondered how her family and friends would take it, that she’d decided to move in with a stranger, a Muslim, within months of dating him. Maybe it wouldn’t work out, but seeing if it does could turn out to be the best adventure ever, she thought and nodded happily, trembling with anticipation and excitement.
The small apartment with the bright window and yellow curtains – her books and his music CDs , her clothes and his shoes strewn around carelessly, their everyday morning cup of tea and late Sunday brunches – their cosy evenings and the long nights of passion – undoubtedly those were the happiest days of their lives. Syed loved the way in which she’d tiptoe around the room, not wanting to disturb him, as he did his Fajr at the break of dawn. Gayatri continued to frequent a temple near their place every Saturday. Sometimes, he would join her, despite her vehement protests.
‘What if someone finds out that you aren’t a Hindu?’
‘I guess I'd be dead cow meat then! Oops... anything but cow's meat!’
‘Isn’t this Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge?’ he’d ask switching topics, pointing at an idol of Hanuman and she’d giggle uncontrollably despite the anxiety in her heart.
That had been two months ago. Syed thoughtfully read the message on his phone from Irshad. He gently removed a sleeping Gayatri’s arm that lay over his bare torso and slid off the bed and got dressed. Twenty minutes later he was at the Central Mall, waiting for him. For the past few weeks they had been staking out the Mall and the neighbourhood, one of the busiest areas of Bangalore. Watching from shadows, observing the place from all angles and observing the security measures, looking for the weakest link. The plan had been devised many months back – a backpack with a metallic disc containing C4 plastic explosive. A remote detonator. A simple bomb capable of killing or maiming dozens of people within a 100-feet radius. Simple but mean. He spotted Irshad at the Mac Donald’s outlet and walked over to him.
‘Is it ready?’ Irshad asked.
‘Almost. I’m working on the detonator.’
‘Damn it Syed, we’re already running short of time. Tell me exactly how many days you need?’
The cold look in Irshad’s eyes chilled him. ‘Two days.’
‘Alright. I’ll be in touch.’
Gayatri got off the phone with her mother and burst into tears. She was still mad at her. She wished she could’ve explained to her that they were wrong about Syed, that he made her happy. But how could she, when she really wasn’t? How could she admit that moving in together had changed so many things in ways that she hadn’t anticipated? Initially it was all wonderful, living in the moment not worrying about the next, a deliciously ambiguous existence.
But of late Syed had begun to reveal a side of himself that she hadn’t seen before – moody and distant. He seemed to have morphed into someone alien right before her eyes – the sound of his laughter was all of a sudden unfamiliar. The person she knew so well like the palm of her hand was now turning out to be someone whom she used to know. Something was eating him up from inside and Gayatri began to suspect that it was her.
That was until the day she mistakenly took Syed’s phone instead of hers to work. In her haste to reach office in time, Gayatri failed to notice that she was carrying the wrong phone.
Until she received a call from a furious Syed – ‘You’ve taken my phone by mistake!’ He was literally yelling, ‘How many times have I asked you to get a different model, but you just can’t listen to me for once can you? I’m coming over to get it back.’
Gayatri was stung by the malice in his voice. Why would he overreact thus, unless he had something to hide? She took out the phone and unlocked it – the passcode was her birthday – she smiled sadly at the irony. The inbox had no messages. She checked the sent folder. A few undeleted messages sent to a private number remained.
‘Work on detonator delayed – need more lead wire.’
‘Met with the handler. Agreed on place and time. Central Mall, 26th Jan, 11am.’
‘Need cash and 2 new SIM cards ASAP. Please make necessary arrangements.’
As she read the chilling messages one after the other, the room swam before her eyes and her throat went dry. Was she hallucinating? Could her Syed be a hardened criminal with terror links?
The constriction in her chest tightened and she felt an incredible urge to throw up. Fighting the impulse, she rushed into the washroom. In the privacy of the tiny cubicle she gave vent to hot tears of regret and pain. This was far worse than she’d ever imagined. A deep sense of betrayal washed over her. She was revolted at the very thought that she’d fallen in love with a terrorist.
She had never been the one to believe in the stereotype of the ‘Muslim Terrorist’. She decried the generalisations made by people about Islam being a violent religion. ‘Warfare in the name of God wasn’t unique to Islam. Haven’t other faiths throughout the world waged wars with religious justifications?’ she’d argue. She firmly believed in the existential goodness of the Human spirit. And it had led her to this mess. She’d trusted Syed with all of her heart, but sadly realised that his emotional and intellectual depth had concealed a twisted inner mind.
She was left with no choice but to do the right thing and get the authorities involved. She shuddered at the very thought. But she had to be sure first.
An hour later, she met him at the cafeteria.
‘Here’s your phone.’ She said forcing a smile onto her frigid features. ‘You look worried. Anything wrong?’
‘Of course not! I’m late for a meeting… I’ll see you at the flat, okay?’
Her deadpan expression made him uncomfortable and he quickly walked away from her glare.
It was the morning of January 26. She saw him go about his regular morning routine – brushing, shaving, bathing and breakfast – it was business as usual for him. She was amazed at how cool he was.
He walked out of his room, almost colliding with her, in his haste. She stared unflinchingly into his eyes .He realised that his game was up.
‘Gayu, what’s wrong with you?’
‘Why don’t you tell me Syed? Is there someplace that you have to be at, hmm… 11am sharp? Perhaps the mall?’
She saw his jaws clench and unclench for a minute.
‘You’ve got it all wrong. I can explain.’
‘I’m sure the police would be very interested in your story.’
‘You called the police? Are you crazy, woman? I need to go right now, but I swear I’ll be back and clear it all up!’ He was furious.
‘You aren’t going anywhere until the cops arrive. I’m done trusting you.’
Soon the police arrived and hustled him into the bedroom asking Gayatri to wait outside. Endless minutes trickled by. Suddenly the door flew open and Syed came out barking orders to the men around him. The Commissioner of Police actually walked up to Syed and shook hands with him and conferred in hushed tones. What the hell was going on?
She got her answer soon enough when the Commissioner himself explained: ‘Syed Azhar Khan is our undercover informer, trained by our Counter Terrorism Bureau to infiltrate communities with terror links and ferret out would-be terrorists. We then provide these would-be terrorists the means to move forward with a terrorist plot – in some cases even planting specific ideas and providing the necessary infrastructure, so that they may be caught red handed in the act. We’ve foiled numerous terror plots over the last few years.’
Gayatri’s head was reeling. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or shocked. An undercover agent? An informant? It somehow looked like a scene taken out of a B-grade Hollywood thriller.
She perused him disbelievingly as he continued, ‘A year ago the agency believed that Irshad had tried, but failed to contact terrorists in Pakistan. We brought in Syed who carried out a sting operation by pretending to be a part of the same terror group and promising him assistance. It would all have ended today with Irshad being arrested in the act of planting the explosive at the Mall, if it weren’t for....’ He glared at Gayatri accusingly.
‘My meddling.’’ Gayatri ruefully completed the sentence for him. To say that she felt self-disgust would be an understatement. After all her big talks about not believing in the ‘Muslim Terrorist’ stereotype, she’d fallen prey to exactly that kind of religious profiling, mistrusting the man she loved just because he came from a religion that had been unjustly maligned. If only she’d given him the benefit of the doubt and confronted him instead of going behind his back and messing up months of hard work and putting lives in jeopardy.
The apartment was swarming with policemen. Her eyes searched for Syed in vain. Someone told her that he’d already left. Slowly the apartment emptied out and it was just her and her miserable thoughts for company. Ignoring hunger and thirst, she sat there staring at her phone, waiting and willing for it to ring, desperately. Would things ever be the same again, she wondered. What if he couldn’t bring himself to forgive her? It was a frightening thought. Finally unable to fight her sheer exhaustion from crying her eyes out, she fell asleep on the couch.
He paused for a minute before ringing the doorbell. Did he really want to go back in there, he wondered. Was it even worth it? What good was a relationship in which there wasn’t an ounce of trust left? He realised that nothing was forever – all you had is the time you spent between Hello and Goodbye. Even as he stood there undecided, the door suddenly opened and he found himself staring into her deep, soulful eyes.
‘’Thank God, you’re okay! I’ve been worried sick!’’
He looked done in, sapped of all energy. The operation must’ve been a failure, she realised, the burden of guilt weighing heavily on her conscience.
Syed flopped into a chair and eyed her wearily.
‘Not planning on any more surprises today, are you?’ He asked sarcastically.
‘I’m so sorry Syed, I freaked out when I saw all those messages on your phone...’
‘And simply assumed the worst about me, right?’
‘I thought you were a jihadist.’ She finally admitted in a small voice.
He stared at her a long minute before answering – ‘Well, you were right about that. I AM a jihadist. To me, jihad is the spiritual struggle within. It is an emotional crusade I wage everyday aimed at bettering myself – being a better Muslim, a better son, a better boyfriend and a better agent. Yes Gayu, I AM A JIHADIST and a proud one at that. You have a problem with that?’
The look in her eyes said it all as she cupped his tired face in her hands and kissed him like there was no tomorrow.
‘Terror bid at Central Mall foiled through a commendable sting operation by Counter Terrorism Unit. Terror suspect taken into custody.’ Screamed the headlines in the papers, the next morning.