It was the 29th of December 1999. Rohan Khatri was ecstatic as he stood in the line to board the flight to India, departing from FortWorth International Airport in Dallas. He was going home.
Home…. A place he had been waiting to get back to for over two years…. A place where he would be fed endless rounds of Makki Di Roti with Sarson Da Saag tirelessly prepared by his loving mother….. A place where he could stay under his Super-Man quilt well into mid-morning, enjoying the caressing Delhi winters rushing through his soul. More importantly, he was going back to Smita, whose tearful face whilst seeing him off to the US, was etched in his memory. Even with tears in her eyes, the shy smile she gave him as she wished him luck had made her seem the most beautiful woman ever.
Rohan was an engineer, who, typical of his middle class background, had slogged through school and college, to join a top IT company where he had the opportunity to slog more. He was one of a large number of engineers sent by his company to the US to resolve the Y2K issue. It had been a good two years for Rohan. He had saved his per day allowances diligently, sometimes skipping dinner, always walking to work, and, never joining weekend getaways his friends undertook. He had to save money, for he had made up his mind to buy Smita the diamond necklace that was on display at Motilal’s in CP, as a wedding gift. He was already imagining how elegant and perfect it would look on her slender neck.
By the time Rohan boarded AI 435 to India, it was already the 30th of December, just two days to a new millennium. The flight was full of Indians going home to loved ones. No Americans were in sight, for it was Christmas Eve and a holiday period that they preferred spending in their homeland.
Rohan squeezed himself in the aisle seat on Row 28, where the emergency exit was situated. It was a stroke of luck he had got that seat, where he could stretch his legs out and try to catch some sleep, as this was going to be a long journey, with a stop-over in Brussels. He had always thought that flight journeys would be similar to the ones they showed on TV – fully reclining seats that people could sleep on just like in a bed, kind air hostesses pampering the guests with food and drinks, and large screens showing movies unavailable in India. But, his onward journey had made him understand that advertisements were not to be believed, even when telecast on national television by a national aircraft service. Hence, on the return leg, all he was looking forward to was 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, despite the snoring lady next to him and the farting old man in the seat ahead of him.
Rohan woke up with a start. He had just dreamt of Smita and his mother crying inconsolably. What a nightmare! How he longed to see them, hug his mother like a school boy, and hold Smita’s hand and never let it go away. He checked his watch. The flight had just landed in Brussels as per schedule. Thereafter, it was another 10 hours to Delhi, including the 2 hours of stop-over in Brussels.
No one deplaned in Brussels, only a few kids with large backpacks and ears glued to high end MP3s boarded. A pang of jealousy hit Rohan as he thought about these kids’ rich backgrounds affording them a Euro trip at their age. He also realized that he was referring to a bunch of college students as kids. Well, he was turning old. This time next year, he would be a married man, perhaps even a father. Rohan leaned back making future plans for his yet-to-be-conceived baby with his yet-to-become-wife Smita – a house with a separate kids’ room, enrolment in a top school, college education from the States – and slowly fell into a deep and satisfying slumber.
The next time he woke up, he heard the pilot announcing that they would be commencing their descent into the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi shortly. He re-set his watch to 8 a.m. on 31st December 1999.
As everyone settled down, the seat-belt sign was switched on and the cabin lights were dimmed, the air hostesses back in their designated positions after a round of monitoring to make sure everyone was seated and belted.
Rohan hadn’t particularly enjoyed the landing in Dallas two years back. He swore his life went out of him, if only for a minute. This time, he decided to keep his eyes closed till the flight safely touched the Delhi tarmac. Just then, he heard a shot. Damn these nightmares. He opened his eyes and looked around. This wasn’t his nightmare. Many passengers were looking around bewildered. There was some commotion up ahead in the business class section. And, then, footsteps approaching.
He saw one of the rich kids who had boarded in Brussels walking through the doorway separating business from economy. What was he carrying in his hand? My God, it looked like a rifle, the kind he had seen policemen carry with pride during Republic Day parades. The kid was saying something in a devastatingly calm tone, and Rohan wasn’t able to hear it. He was coming closer, and his words were more legible, in clear English. “We represent the Army of the Righteous, a people’s movement against the atrocities of the Indian Government in Kashmir. We are not here to kill you. We have certain demands and once your Government co-operates, you will be free to go. This may only take a few hours. But if India delays in meeting our demands or tries to play dirty games, we will kill you, one by one, slowly and painfully, till none of you are left to tell your tale.”
Everyone looked on, shocked. Rohan was panicking inside, not so much at what he heard the boy say, but the way he said it. This boy reminded him of Naren, an atypical school bully. While other bullies at school believed in scaring fellow students off through menacing shouts and terrifying expressions, Naren always wore a dead-pan expression on his face. He had a soft-spoken demeanour, devoid of emotions and intonations. But, when he held a victim’s hand behind his back, the victim wished he was rather dead than at Naren’s mercy.
No, Rohan told himself, there is no need to panic. This ordeal would be over in a few hours. If he shut his eyes tight and tried to sleep, he would wake up right in time to deplane in Delhi.
A child from the seat behind started wailing, perhaps having sensed the danger she was in. The boy with the rifle – the terrorist, Rohan corrected himself – walked to Row 29. His rifle was pointed away from the child, right at Rohan’s back, as he spoke to the child’s parents. When he heard the terrorist say, “Are you going to silence her or shall I?” Rohan felt an immense need to puke his guts out.
The terrorist moved back to the cockpit, but the stench of the fear he left behind clung on to the air like the smell of the burning corpses that filled the air at the Mayur Vihar cremation ground. Rohan had gone there many years back bearing his father’s corpse in a mortuary van, and the rekindled memory left him in despair.
What would happen to his mother and Smita if he were to die on this flight? The thought left him drenched in sweat, his shirt clinging on to every inch of skin on his torso.
The flight seemed to have stopped descending and Rohan recognized it was moving at a higher altitude again. He saw the terrorist coming back and there seemed to be an ominous purpose to his walk. Rohan thought very little of embarrassing himself by peeing right there on his seat. But, fear was paralyzing him and he couldn’t feel the muscles in his arms and legs anymore, let alone pee.
The terrorist stopped right in front of row 28 and got into the space at the emergency exit, leaning back comfortably at the exit doorway. Rohan silently cursed his luck for having got that seat, while the terrorist began speaking. “We have decided to release 5 of you from the economy class as a gesture of commitment to our promise while the Indian Government makes preparations to meet our demands. The flight will land in Kabul shortly when you 5 will be allowed to deplane safely. So, who wants to get home soon?” A sardonic smile played on his lips as he spoke. When there was no reaction from the passengers, he continued, “Since you do not want to volunteer, let me choose those lucky 5 myself.” He started picking seat numbers at random while pointing at people to stand up. 32G, 25A, 23E, 34F, 28C. Rohan looked up. The terrorist was looking at him, his eyes boring right into him as he repeated, “28C”. Rohan stood up slowly, as he felt himself shake all over. Once the 5 passengers had been chosen, the terrorist asked them to follow him ahead to the front of the aircraft. Passengers had been re-shuffled to make space for the chosen 5 in business class.
The flight started descending again, this time without any announcement from the pilot. As the flight landed, the terrorist spoke again. “You will all wait in your seats as we close out formalities with the Afghanistan government and the Indian embassy. I expect you all to be co-operative as usual.”
Rohan didn’t know how many hours passed thus. He had ceased to check his watch a long while back. It hadn’t registered in his mind that he was now seated in business class, in one of those large, fully reclining seats that he had seen only in advertisements.
There was unrest in the seats behind, as children started crying from hunger and adults tried to request the terrorists monitoring the aircraft to let them go to the toilet. The atypical bully stepped out of the cockpit just then and this time his face carried no smile, sardonic or otherwise. He said, “We will release the chosen passengers and then distribute food packages that are being loaded into the flight currently. Till then, you will all wait silently.”
Then, whilst the aircraft door was being heaved open by a pale-faced air hostess, he took a sweeping look across the 5 passengers and fixed his gaze back on Rohan, asking him alone to follow him downstairs. A mobile staircase had been left close enough to the aircraft and this was aligned correctly by the terrorists using a long crowbar. As Rohan descended the stairs, he could hear his heart beat as fast as the wheels of a full speed train against the tracks, and was sure the terrorist could hear it too. He could see a group of people in army attire at a distance. While his brain tried to question why he was walking alone with the terrorist, his heart urged him to rush towards the waiting men, whom, he assumed, were his saviours. Just then, the terrorist turned to face him with a small gun pointed at his forehead. As another terrorist, who had descended the stairs by then, started filming the scene on a video camera, the first one started talking into the camera. Rohan, not knowing what to do, attempted to run.
The last sound he heard was a clock bell striking as the skies filled with firecrackers. His eyes closed as he slumped to the ground, dying without reason, leaving behind his love, dreams and normal life.