“Pasha Bhai!” Raghu yelled triumphantly as he came out of the office gate and approached cab number 45.
“Did I not tell you sir? India will definitely win the match today. The Pakistanis have tasted bitter defeat yet again!” Pasha said with excitement. Raghu’s arrival hinted that the rest of the commuters would be arriving shortly. Pasha adjusted the driver’s seat to its normal position and started cleaning the windshield of his vehicle.
Pasha was a simple man in his early forties. His surma-clad eyes and the skull -cap declared him to be a devout Muslim. The tan on his skin made it impossible to judge his original complexion unless when he occasionally folded the sleeves of his khaki uniform. The uniform had numerous marks of dried sweat that looked like an unsolvable maze, but it complemented his attire of a cab driver. He was in a tie-up with a BPO company and drove for at least ten hours on a typical working day. While most of the trips were through the traffic infested city of Hyderabad, it was his last trip that he liked the most; because it went through the highway and straight to his home. Pasha was a permanent driver to Raghu, Shiv, Arpana and Saranyan who worked for the BPO and lived in a common locality. The co-travelling had managed to sprout friendship among them. Movies, current affairs, news, gossips – they spoke about everything, all along their hour long drive from the office to their respective drop points. The hot topic of the day was kirkit (cricket).
“Kya match tha, chaakey, kya choukey…mazaa aagaya!” Shiv spoke from the front seat.
“Yeah! India must not lose to those Pakistanis,” Saranyan said grinding his teeth.
“It is only a game Saran. Why do you take it so seriously?” Arpana tried to understand the reasons behind the madness.
“Nai Madam!” Pasha took over.
“Pakis should get the treatment they deserve. Those bastards are good for nothing,” he said.
“But Pasha Bhai, you are a Muslim too,” Raghu started but was immediately interrupted by Pasha.
“SO WHAT? I am an Indian first. My religion has nothing to do with this. It is never with the religion; it is with the people and their upbringing,” Pasha silenced everyone with his patriotism and sense of humanity. The cricket-crazy lot verbally replayed the punching moments of the match throughout the drive before calling it a day.
It was a weekend. Arpana generally visited her mother on Fridays. She had to be dropped by taking a little detour, but Pasha did not mind it. Shiv and Raghu wanted to have a drink at the pub while Saranyan liked to be dropped home as usual.
It was nearing half past nine when Pasha reached home. He had to park his car under the tree on the opposite lane, as his regular parking space at his compound was already occupied by a motorbike that belonged to Mallesh, his neighbour. As soon as he knocked the door, “Abba aagaye!” shrill shouts of six children welcomed Pasha, but his tiredness did not even allow him to receive their warmth.
“Abba, did you get me the bat?” Hussain, his elder son asked.
“I have to pay the school fee Abba, I need money,” Nazia, his only daughter commanded.
“Aji, Jamil is sick, we have to see the doctor,” his wife, Ruhi, requested him.
Amidst all this chatter, Pasha was left with nothing but a tired body and empty pockets.
Ruhi erupted out of frustration at the helpless state of her husband.
“What is the use of working like a donkey for the whole day and getting nothing out of it?” she yelled.
“You have half-a-dozen children. Last Ramadan, we didn’t even get decent clothes. This is not the life that I wanted.”
After a little gap she spoke further, “Why don’t you join Ahmed? He is into some business and is earning decently. His wife told me that she even bought some gold jewellery. Can I even dream about it?” she ended tearfully and ran into the bedroom.
Pasha rested on the floor, but Ruhi’s words echoed in his ears. It reminded Pasha of a recent meeting with his childhood friend, Ahmed. Occupationally, he drove an auto-rickshaw. But that was before he was picked up for service in a madrasa. The previous week, when Pasha met him after a considerable gap, he found a complete stranger in Ahmed. The Ahmed he knew, prioritised his family over the regular namaaz, but now he does it five times a day, unfailingly. Clean shaven, he used to idolise Shahrukh Khan. But now, he had a fully grown beard. His Hyderabadi Urdu was coated with Arabic accent that Pasha and his kind failed to understand. His endless tales about movies were replaced by elaborate sermons about religion. All said and done, Ahmed was now a wealthy man. After returning from the madrasa, he had set up a business and was recruiting heavily. The selection was mainly based on close reference and the pay was said to be handsome. Before falling asleep, Pasha decided to visit his friend tomorrow to check out the feasibility of joining him.
Sunlight flashed over Pasha’s eyes and disturbed his sleep. He woke up with a loud yawn. The yawn was supposedly a signal that the head of the family was up. He felt stiffness in his neck and back. But that was common to him; he knew that it would disappear after having a ‘kadak chai’ made by his loving wife. While having a sip of hot tea, he remembered the previous days’ decision to see Ahmed. He quickly got ready and set out.
“Assalamaleykum Pasha bhai,” Ahmed yelled at the sight of his friend and welcomed him in.
“Kya baat hai Ahmed…you have become rich,” were the first words that Pasha spoke to his friend after his eyes ran over Ahmed’s drawing room. A cosy sofa set, a costly looking tea-poy, decorative wall-pieces and an expensive carpet on the floor; these items were enough to assess Ahmed’s improved financial status. In a while, Ahmed’s wife, Saaira, appeared with tea. Pasha couldn’t help but observe her glittering ornaments. In a while, they both went up to the terrace for a casual talk and Pasha clarified his purpose of visit.
“There is nothing hidden from you, my friend. I have a family to look after and the earning from my current profession is not enough. I heard that you are looking for men to join you. What do you think about me?” Pasha questioned softly.
“Definitely! In fact you have come at the right time. We are looking for cab drivers,” Ahmed’s friendly tone suddenly sounded like a capitalist. But what caught Pasha’s attention was the pronoun ‘we’.
“Hey Ahmed, I thought you worked alone, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Pasha, look, to understand what we are and what we do, you need to attend a meeting that takes place every evening at the mosque. Come with an open mind. Listen to the Bada Baba’s talks. I am sure it will help,” Ahmed’s words created doubts in Pasha’s mind.
“Bada Baba? What is it with him? He is not into any business. Religious service, that is what he does…no? Or…hey! are you doing something illegal? If so, Ahmed, you are on the wrong side. Think of your family, your children. That way leads to a shameful death,” Pasha panicked.
Listening to his judgmental statements, Ahmed spat out loudly, “Don’t call it DEATH…it is IMMORTALITY!”
Pasha read the maddening rage in his friend’s eyes. Quickly regaining control, Ahmed spoke consolingly, “Just come once and you will be rewarded. We will serve the purpose of the Almighty. We will bring justice to our race and honour to our family. Come, join hands, my brother.” The talk by Ahmed went on. His dialect was above Pasha’s intelligence level.
“Ruhi will have a comfortable life. Your kids will enjoy all the luxuries. Think about it, don’t you want them to be happy?”
At the end of the dialogue, Ahmed convinced Pasha to attend the meeting that evening.
Pasha returned home with a restless mind. Ruhi observed that he did not ask for his regular tea at eleven. At lunch, the fact that there was no salt in the dal did not occur to him until Nazia tasted it and yelled at her mother. Later, he went into the bedroom and tried to rest for a while.
Soon, it was evening. Pasha was still lying on bed, battling with his thoughts when someone knocked at the door.
“Look Ahmed bhai has come asking for you,” Ruhi said with a hopeful sparkle in her eyes. She had guessed that the two men might have had a fruitful discussion over the business and that their lives were about to change. Ahmed led Pasha towards the mosque. After offering prayers, Ahmed guided his friend to a room inside the premises. The room, he knew, was generally allotted to spiritually inclined people. They studied holy literature there. Ahmed knocked twice on the open door before entering in. Pasha followed him.
“Assalamalaykum…” Ahmed greeted.
“Waleykum salam…” a stiff voice replied.
“This is Pasha, he is a cab driver.”
Pasha did not like the way he was introduced. But the inmates in the room were so much delighted as if they had found someone with a rare skill.
“Oh! Bahut khoob...come in.”
He was taken in and the doors closed.
Monday morning was not as usual as any other weekday. Raghu was the first to observe that the Indian flag on the car’s dashboard was missing.
“Pasha bhai…where did the flag go?”
“Nikal gaya saab,” he answered carelessly.
“Did you hear this news? Freak riots in M.P. Seventeen people killed, most of them Muslims,” Saranyan read from the newspaper.
“Yes! Nowadays only Muslims are being targeted!” Pasha got enraged.
“No one is being targeted, Bhai. It’s just dirty politics.”
“Oh! It is we who are being targeted sir…we know the pain better than you,” Pasha spoke vigorously.
Arpana tried to pacify Pasha.
“Is everything fine Pasha bhai? If not, you can go home, we will take another cab,” she said with concern.
“I am absolutely alright, madam. You make yourself comfortable,” there was a kind of sarcasm in his words that day. The same trend followed in the evening too. Pasha was murderously quite. As days passed, Pasha’s behaviour grew mysterious. He drove rashly, his speech lacked politeness, he did not maintain time, he even refused to drop Arpana to her mother’s house. His was reluctant to talk, and rude when he did; for the most he was eager to pick up a fight.
One night, when Pasha returned home, he found Mallesh’s bike parked near his compound. Pasha exploded in a sudden fit of anger.
“Mallesh! Come out…you!”
His horrific shouts alerted everyone in the colony. Pasha jumped out of his car on seeing Mallesh and barked at him, “How many times should I tell you not to park your bike here…remove it…and listen, next time… I will burn it…this is MY place.”
Ruhi tried to calm her husband but he was out of control. Mallesh looked cluelessly at Pasha’s. He had never seen him getting agitated in the last 15 years of acquaintance. Ruhi helped her husband in. Alarmed with the strange behaviour, she tried to find out the cause of his worry. At bed, she rested her head over his chest, took him in her arms and whispered, “What happened? Why are you so restless nowadays? What’s troubling you, my dear?”
Pasha did not speak a word. Ruhi continued, “You don’t have to worry. Almighty has gifted everyone with what he deserves. I am sorry if I had hurt you. It just happens sometimes…the kids, the household work, the frustration…but there is nothing inside…kasam se.”
Ruhi held Pasha a little closer. He felt her tears on his bare chest.
“We need you, you are the head of this family, and you are everything to us. Please don’t get disheartened, Almighty has the best in store for us, I am sure.”
Ruhi’s words of love pacified Pasha. He recollected the past week and realised that he was living life on somebody else’s terms. He realised that when Arpana had asked for his well being, she meant it. He read the ‘who-is-this-stranger’ question in the eyes of Mallesh when he yelled at him. He felt the pain of everyone with whom he picked up a meaningless fight. The repentance flowed out of his eyes in the form of tears. A divine spark entered his diverted mind. It was like a message from the Almighty, the one he believed to be a messenger of peace.
Just then, someone knocked at the door, exactly twice. The knock made him remember his meeting with ‘Bada Baba’. A recollection of the meeting behind the closed door at the mosque came to haunt him yet again.
There were three people in the room. Pasha only knew ‘Bada Baba’. They asked him to take a seat and spoke casually. At many instances, Pasha felt that they used exactly the same words as did Ahmed during the talk that morning. After a while, ‘Bada Baba’ spoke business.
“I came to know that you are working for kafirs? And you are not quite satisfied with them?” he asked intriguingly. Without even waiting for the answer, he continued, “How does it matter the way they treat us, and the way they behave with our women and children…all we need is money… right? It is the new religion, it has replaced God! Wake up! You are the agent of the Almighty; you should do things that please Him. Behold the heavenly glory …and sacrifice is the only way to please Him.”
The words being said by Bada Baba started to have a hypnotic effect on Pasha’s subtle mind.
“Join the holy war and your family will be taken care of. We will give them the quality life and all the riches that you can only dream about. Join in the name of the Almighty….Holy War!”
Pasha started having goose bumps, the judgment of a common man failed, his innocence was easily defeated. All that Pasha could see was his family living in a luxurious house, eating food to their hearts’ content, dressed in new robes, Jamil in good health, Hussain with a brand new cricket bat and Ruhi adorned with gold jewellery.
“You will be called for service at the wish of Almighty when the time is ripe…. and remember, if you change your mind, the curse of Almighty shall befall on your family,” these were the last words Bada Baba said before the meeting ended.
The door knock was heard again. It was Ahmed calling for service. Pasha locked the door from outside and they walked towards the mosque, into one of those rooms in the vicinity. It housed Bada Baba and two others. There was a heavy-looking bag at one side of the room from which an electrical wire had cropped out.
“We need to travel to the neighbouring state right now,” Bada Baba commanded.
“Okay, I will get my car then,” Pasha suggested.
“No! No! We have a car. You need to park it wherever we tell you,” Ahmed said and handed over the keys to him.
“Be close to the car, wait for our signal and then press this button on the keychain.”
“Holy war!” they uttered and dispersed.
The bag was carefully carried and placed in the car’s dickey. With everyone on board, the car moved. It was nearly half past eleven and the car was now speeding on the highway. Pasha knew the outline of the plan and he could also guess the contents in the bag. He knew that the next day these mercenaries would rain death, kill innocent people in the name of the Almighty and barb their achievement as an act of justice. The chances that he will return back alive were bleak. But there was something else that was going to perish along with his body. It will be his true self, it will be the trust that Ruhi had in him, it will be the faith that his children had for their father. It will be the loyalty towards his country. Ruhi’s words and tears were no religious hymns but they managed to calm his agitation and bring a diverted mind back to its true essence. He could still feel the warmth in the wetness of his beloved’s tears. A hallowed voice spoke from inside of his heart.
“Holy war? What is holy about it? Betraying you family, your love, yourself? Are you going to be gifted heavens for killing innocent people? Are you going to be adorned with Glory for this act of cowardice? Wake up! You are an agent of the messenger of peace…
Holy war means to kill the devil inside you; it is to kill the evil around you…
They were travelling on a road that had bushes at one side and a cliff at the other. He checked the passengers; they were asleep. In swift moments of action, he opened the door at the driver’s side, steered the vehicle towards the cliff, gave enough acceleration and quickly jumped out into the bushed with a shrill shout
The car went along the road before losing control and fell off the cliff. A loud explosion was heard but that did not surprise Pasha. He ran as far as he could and waited for a vehicle that could give him a lift back home. Reaching home, he kissed his children, looked lovingly at his wife, bowed in prayer and slept peacefully at his place on the bed.
He suddenly remembered something and said to himself, “Oh, tomorrow India plays Pakistan again and India will have a majestic win again!”