Round goes the slithering wheel

Round goes the slithering wheel

of my new Ferrari

round and round it goes

but it is all imaginary;

For I ain’t that rich

but neither am I poor

such flux is a witch

desires without a cure;

Some day I say

and lull myself asleep

alas there’s no way

for my dreams are too steep;

for dreams from the assembly line of the dream factory

the dreamers never taste victory.

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I Opened her purse

I opened my angel’s blue purse and peered inside

the girl who I once wanted forever to be by my side

no clues that she would leave me by myself

but that is old news like herself

my sad life now has no one except the devil by my side.

 

 

 

I am not a poet

I am not a poet, not yet quite,

I hunger for fame, the loud acclaim,

I am all alone be it day or night,

not pleased with my scribblings lame;

I am the laziest boring person ever

giving nothing to this world

yet wanting all deeming myself too clever,

I wander never able to fit any mould;

who decides what is wheat and what is chaff,

what sweet nectar and what tar,

the sun shines the other side and tonight is tough,

yet for me and my brethren dawn is not far;

I’ve opened my doors as days come and nights pass

my words yearning for sweet company to trespass.

The Caretaker (Full Novel)

PROLOGUE

Life is meaningless. There is no deeper purpose to it. We are creatures of instincts drawn to trivial pleasures like moths to a flame. Crisis and grief are inevitable. Here they engulf a nation all at once. There is no good or evil. Violence and strife seem to be the natural order of things. At times a person comes who changes the lives of people for the better. Seemed unlikely here in the burning streets of an once prosperous nation. Soon there may not be a nation India anymore.  

It is unknown when, where or how the nation began to crumble and came to such a pass. Some say the economic collapse brought about the break down of law and order. Others claim internal strife, violence and lawlessness crippled the economy. The fact is that the economy and the law and order situation has collapsed. Unemployment was at its highest since independence. Millions of people lost their jobs overnight. Many were government employees and they took to the streets first, soon joined by others. In many regions people wanted to secede from the union so they can take care of the mess. 

A few ruthless politicians in power saw it as a chance to permanently hold power by taking control of the democratic institutions by intimidation. The unruliness of their supporters added to the chaos. Some promoted caste violence and hatred, burning villages and cities. There was an intense law and order problem. Terrorist attacks had risen through out the nation. Foreign terrorists were working hard to drive the final nails in to the coffin of a languishing nation and force it in to disintegration. Some of the truly affluent had skipped the nation. A vast section of people unaffected as of yet continued as if nothing much was amiss.  

The nation has passed through a period of stagflation which is inflation without any actual growth in production. Now hyperinflation has set in with a loaf of bread costing a few thousand rupees. The inflation was predicted to double in a couple of months. After that it would spiral and the fiat currency almost worthless now would truly become worthless. The failure of the monsoon and resulting crop failure was said to be one factor. The global recession and poor GDP posted for several quarters was cited as a factor. Poor Fiscal prudence, increasing international debt and low GDP pushed the nation in to a debt trap. The increase in the NPAs of the public sector banks and the need to close down a few led to a panic of the people. It resulted in a run on other banks and a few couldn’t manage it. This resulted in high levels of panic and was said to be a major factor for the situation. The unchecked unemployment scenario led to riots and lawlessness and caused the collapse it was said. 

What was not said was that the ever increasing divide between the ultra rich and the poor became untenable. There were several major political scams. Several second generation businessmen and other heirs of business empires ran their businesses to ground and filed for bankruptcies or where they were personally liable fled the nation. This caused the banks to crumble. The people took to the streets and burnt shops and properties, crushing an already weak economy. The political opportunists and secessionists helped by foreign terrorists joined the fray bringing the lawlessness to untenable proportions. 

It was sad that all this had to happen in the Prime Ministership of Mr. Satyendra Dubey. He was an honest uncorrupt politician. At a time when the nation needed a strong leader the electorate gave a fragmented mandate. The Jan Shakthi Party to which Dubey ji belonged came as the third largest party next to BJP and Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Janta Vikas Sankatan (JVS) Coalition under the Jan Shakthi party was asked to form the government. There was a fight for Prime Ministership between Manoj Pandey who was now the Home Minister and Vikram Bhatt who was now the Finance Minister. This threatened to break the party. Ninety year old Ashok Gaekwad, the founder of the party, with a couple of Septuagenarians constituted the high command of the Party. The high command invited the austere Dubey ji, who had been Education Minister in the NDA coalition, to be the Prime Minister as a consensus candidate. The date today is August 26 , 2021 and the country even in its ravaged state had a festive independence day, a few days earlier, but to see another independence day it has to cross the threat on the coming Republic day in 180 days. 

PMO, South Block, Secretariat, New Delhi, Aug 26

One of Samyuktha’s assistants gave her a cordless phone and said, “Call from the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra.”

She got the phone and the Chief Secretary said, “We need more CRPF personnel here urgently.”

“The CRPF is already stretched thin through out the nation. I will see what I can do,” she said. 

“The Chief Minister wants to talk to you,” said the Chief Secretary. 

She waited on the line as the Chief Minister said, “The condition here is worsening by the day. We need additional forces urgently.”

She said, “Don’t worry sir, I will deploy an army contingent there as soon as possible.”  

She then made her way in to the meeting room and waited for the others to arrive. Soon they arrived and the meeting started. She yawned and wondered why the damn air conditioners were so chilled in the Prime Minister’s office, as the wise and powerful men of the nation exchanged pleasantries. She was sitting beside Dubey ji who sat at the head of the table. She was a principled pragmatist. She worked within the constraints of the existing system not struggling to change it. But she never compromised on her principles and personal integrity. She felt comfortable in the black and white salwar kameez. She mostly wore salwars or saris. She hadn’t bothered much with her shoulder length curly hair today. She was short, fair complexioned, mild featured but with piercing eyes, she was told. At thirty six, she considered herself stylish and attractive. Then she turned left and her eyes fell on Mayuri sitting beside Dubey ji like her and she felt unsure of herself.  

Mayuri was a vivacious girl. She was a tall alluring beauty. She was wearing a knee length black skirt and a violet shirt tucked in neatly. The shirt had the top two buttons undone. This exposed her ample melons, which she shamelessly thrust in the face of anyone she was talking to. Shame on that vixen, can’t she at least button up when she talked to other girls. Samyuktha found it very distracting. In the short bob cut hair Mayuri looked fairly fashionable.     

This was an important meeting to review the steps taken to handle the crisis in the nation. Though frankly all steps have not helped to change the situation. Samyuktha loved the nation enough to want things to change. Yet she was cynical about the nation’s ability. The situation was so precarious that they were only fighting to postpone the inevitable. She was worried for the nation. Yet she was more worried about her nemesis Mayuri, two years her junior in IAS and also in joining Dubey ji. Both were with him from his days as union minister for education. Dubey ji did not trust Mayuri as there were rumours that she was corrupt and was on the take. Yet even Samyuktha had to grudgingly accept that she had certain cunning in political and party affairs. She was a wild fun girl and extremely popular. This made Samyuktha even more furious. Mayuri was only a private secretary yet was cunning and influential. Samyuktha could tell from the way Mayuri was hovering over Dubey ji that she was upto something. Whatever it was would not bade well for a nation in crisis and must be thwarted at inception. 

She worked hard putting in more hours than others. She put up with inconveniences because she loved her work. Being a joint secretary to the PM was a prestigious and powerful job. She was proud to have the distinction of being the youngest Joint Secretary to the PM at thirty six. She just loved waving her ID in the face of everyone in the capital and see them cringe. She loved shouting at people even more. These perks don’t come with any other job.  Technically except a handful of bureaucrats above her everyone else in the nation worked under her. It was as if the whole administrative wing of the nation bowed to her. She had scores of people working directly under her command who would dance to any tune of hers. Dubey ji had made bold decisions and was loved by the people before the crisis. She had the ears of the most powerful man in the country. Her ideas found its way into several executive decisions and a few legislations. She was proud of it.

The morning had not gone well for Samyuktha. She slipped on her sister’s strewn clothes and fell in the living room. She liked neatness but that was not to be had sharing an apartment with her irritating younger sister Pratyusha who worked in an IT firm. She received a call from her parents. The issue was the same as always, her marriage. She had postponed her marriage talks on one pretext or other. They used the same old routine, only if she got married could they search a groom for Pratyusha.This made her really angry. She conveyed the decision, she had made a while back, that she would never marry. She felt like a rat chased by a storm. She wanted to marry but she wanted to be in love and then marry that person, like in the movies. She bathed in cold water as her sister had forgotten to repair the geyser. She then read two major national newspapers almost page to page even while dining. Then the chauffeur arrived and she had left for work. She saw picketers lining the road side and glimpsed a couple of tanks on the road on her drive to work. 

She snapped back to reality as the meeting got underway. The meeting was attended by the Principal Secretary Hari Prasad, the National Security Advisor Pankaj Mehra, the Cabinet Secretary Harish Wadia, the Home Secretary and Finance Secretary. 

“What is being done to check the hyper inflation? Prices are skyrocketing,” said Dubey ji. 

“The Indian Rupee has been pegged to the dollar. It is the standard measure in such situations,” said the Principal Secretary Hari Prasad. 

Dubey ji turned to Samyuktha who said, “The measure needs time to take effect Dubey ji.”

Though she herself didn’t believe it. It has been months since the Rupee had been pegged to the dollar yet it hasn’t restored confidence domestically or with foreign investors. 

“What else has been done about this?” asked Dubey ji

“RBI has increased the Repo rates and the CRR, this also needs time,” said the Finance Secretary.

“What else?” asked a frustrated Dubey ji. 

“The loan to IMF which is apart from their bailout package is due shortly. If we fail to make it the consequences will be disastrous. Moreover we have already exhausted most of the bail out money far ahead of schedule,” said the Finance Secretary. 

“I ask for what can be done and you pile up more bad news. I am moving America and Europe for more aid. We will see how that pans out.” 

Samyuktha yawned again and felt guilty about it. She had been in so many of these meetings where various measures were discussed and some implemented but the situation just kept worsening. 

“We are taking stern measures for fiscal discipline and have cut expenses across all ministries. We have stopped almost all subsidies across sectors. We need more time sir for these measures to take effect,” said the Cabinet Secretary Harish Wadia.

“The law and order situation is worsening. What has been done about it?” asked Dubey ji. 

“The situation is unprecedented I agree. It seems as if the whole nation has took to the streets in protest. There has been heavy rioting, looting and arson in many parts of the nation. We have begun to clamp down heavily on it. We have taken several persons in to preventive custody to improve the situation,” said the Home Secretary. 

“You’ve arrested everyone opposing Pandey ji while his supporters and goons are on a rampage. You are worsening the situation,” said the National Security Advisor Pankaj Mehra. 

“But…” started the Home Secretary but was cut off by Dubey ji.

“I don’t care if Pandey’s supporters get zealous but ask him to restore law and order to the nation or else all of us may be out of our jobs soon,” said Dubey ji then turning to the National Security Advisor asked, “What of the terror situation?”

“There are reports of increasing terrorist incursions and something big has been planned for the Republic day that is capable of destroying the nation. It includes a series of bomb blasts in the capital. We don’t have any more intel on that as of now,” said the National Security Advisor Pankaj Mehra. 

“Then please find intel on that. What use in knowing something disastrous will happen on a day if we don’t exactly know what it is. Step on it,” said Dubey ji and the NSA nodded his head. 

“Sir, the terror strikes are on the rise, the law and order scenario is a mess, the opposition isn’t helping either with their protests and picketing. We are of the opinion that the only way to restore law and order would be to impose emergency,” said the NSA Pankaj Mehra. 

“No one can stop the inevitable. We will see how the situation is in a month’s time when I return from hospital after my surgery. If it still hasn’t improved we will impose emergency,” said a visibly tired Dubey ji. 

Dubey ji glanced at Samyuktha and Mayuri and asked, “Have I missed anything?” both nodded their heads in negation, then he said to the group, “that is all folks. Hope you have better news by the next meeting.”

Samyuktha who was still feeling mildly sleepy was glad that the meeting was over. She looked at the ornate clock on the wall. It was almost noon. 

Home Minister Pandey’s Residence, Akbar Road, New Delhi, Aug 26

Home minister Manoj Pandey was in his pyjamas and a vest helping his grandson feed red meat from a bucket to the twelve doberman dogs in the cage at the back of his house. These dogs would be let out only at night and were fed only once during the day. He was an unprincipled pragmatist. He was a pious man but that didn’t prevent him in doing anything wrong or convoluted to achieve his ends. He was a doer. He did things on the ground while the principled idealists stood on the sidelines never doing anything. He liked the word pragmatism a device to hide behind for any person without integrity. Integrity was a myth according to him. He was tall, muscular and had a thick greying moustache and greying hair. It was said he used to be a wrestler in his youth. He was from a village in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh known for its caste violence. He was born to a poor shopkeeper of a dominant upper caste in the region. He caught on to caste politics at a very early age and was now the home minister at 62. He would have been the Prime Minister if not for the London educated prick Vikram Bhatt. Yet it doesn’t matter as he was now presented with the opportunity of holding on to power forever as the PM. He was Home Minister at a time the nation was crumbling and the Law and order situation was the worst. He would be unquestioned in his measures now. Any lesser mortal would pass up this opportunity but not him. He would strike at his enemies and inspire fear among the people and take over the institutions of democracy like the courts and the election commission. 

 His aides, his P.A Milind Shukla, his Man Friday Vipul Bakshi and his top goon Jignesh Malviya were standing behind him patiently. Shukla was a corrupt IAS officer, meek and balding. Vipul was once a henchman. He used to run an underworld gang with Jignesh in Mumbai and had steadily distanced himself from the underworld and joined active politics. Jignesh, a dark lean guy with a pock marked face, on the other hand had stuck to being a gang leader and ran his goons all over the nation from the capital. Pandey seeing potential in the men and the multiple uses they could be put to had promptly absorbed them. 

Pandey gently caressing the hair of his grandson turned back with an empty bucket and Jignesh soon replaced it with a bucket full of red meat. Pandey was the god of his world. People fell at his feet seeking blessings but mostly out of fear. He liked it that way, fear and awe are a sure fire way to maintain power. He had started at the grass root level. He had a basic degree to his name, that is all. He wasn’t London educated like that thug Bhatt. He had pasted party posters as a humble party worker when he was young. He had grown with the party and was powerful now.

Seeing the dogs go for the meat he thought human beings were like them. It was truly a dog eat dog world. Human beings would also do anything for their survival. They just didn’t know it yet. When put to test in perilous times all their principles would vanish. Fear was the ultimate motivator.

He started speaking as he fed the dogs, “What has been done about the movie?”

There was a movie in which a character similar to him was shown in bad light.  

“Babu ji, protests have been successful in four states in north India. Several buses have been burnt down and shops forced to close. Normal lives have been effectively disrupted,” said Vipul with a quiet pride in his voice as though he had done something remarkable. 

“That is not enough. We need to stop the screening of the movie. Burn down the theatres that screen the movie.”

“But the courts have allowed the screening and asked us to protect the theatres.”

“I don’t care about the movie. But we need to prove a point to people that the courts can’t be trusted anymore. I want the judges themselves to know that. The people have to come to us and the courts have to act through us. Let Jignesh take care of this for now.”

Jignesh said excitedly, “I will burn down the theatres and kill anyone opposing us, Babu ji.”

Pandey used to favour the political savvy and discrete Vipul to do his bidding. But changing times meant a more ruthless man needs to handle things and Jignesh was the man for it. 

“Do it in broad daylight in full view of the world. I want the people to know who is in charge and fear us.”

He finished feeding the dogs and stood up and patted his grandson in the back sending him inside the house. He washed his hands in a nearby tap and dried it with the towel Vipul extended. 

He then turned to Shukla and said, “Align all the MPs to our side soon. If your persuasion and money alone aren’t enough use Jignesh. Also get through several business deals including the Worlington deal quickly we will be needing the cash.” 

“It will be tough as Dubey ji is uncorrupt but I have Mayuri working on it,” replied Shukla.

“What about the recruitment?” asked Pandey placing his hand over Vipul’s shoulder. 

“A lot many youngsters have become what is being called the ‘Pandey Sainiks’,” said Vipul.

“No, the other recruitment.”

“We have a lot many bureaucrats with us who are mostly corrupt and where they are not they are being intimidated to join us. The cops are under our control by law but we are making them absolutely ours to the extent of overriding the control of the PM. The judges are the most difficult and there is little headway except the lower levels. The armed forces can’t be breached.”

“The judges will be vulnerable with their families and the forces will not interfere out of fear of protocol.” He took a shirt from a hook on the cage and wearing it said, “I need to be in unquestioned control of the nation within the new year which is in six months time.” 

He looked at his watch it was time to feed himself. It was almost noon. 

ISI Headquarters, Aabpara, Islamabad, Aug 26

Salim Akmal sat on the sofa studying the notes in the file on his lap. Despite the meeting being a regular part of his work, he was still nervous each time he met General Hamid Qureshi, the head of the Inter Services Intelligence. For several years he had never been to this plushly furnished section of the ISI headquarters containing the top brass.

He was a short, spectacled and clean shaven man who gave the impression of being a docile and harmless person. He was married and had a fourteen year old daughter. He used to be a software programmer in California. He was a fun loving youngster with a tinge of faith and nationalism. It was to be expected from the son of a man who died in the Bangladesh war. Then he lost his job and had to return to Karachi, Pakistan. After several hardships he became a freelance podcaster or news journalist on the web. He found faith and nationalism in a deep profound way. 

He had to travel heavily and the ISI initially used him to recruit skilled youngsters abroad for the cause of the nation. He became zealous about it and began to take pains to recruit high value assets for the ISI. Back then the ISI had began to recruit civilians in to their fold and Salim was rewarded with a job. He moved to Islamabad with his family. He was put on a stint of field duty in Azaad Kashmir where he handled several hard core terrorists. He had relatives in India and used to visit often. His biggest success was in enticing a top Indian intelligence officer with money. Not resting with the laurels, with the help of that officer he had honey trapped a top Indian politician. He earned the nickname of ‘Recruiter’. This and the economic collapse and lawlessness in India made him hatch a plan to disintegrate India once and for all. This got the attention of the top brass and the plan was approved and Salim was made the terrorist handler in charge of execution of the plan. He was asked to report to General Qureshi himself. 

For this plan on Salim’s idea, for the first time in history, as a cover and carrier for the terrorists, two ten year old girls were recruited and trained. The two girls were from backward villages and were daughters of dead terrorists. The girls were special. A girl Zohura did not talk with people for she had some mental condition. The other girl Ghazia had a heart condition not treatable in Pakistan and will die soon. Salim recognising the value of the girls had used them extensively. Zohura as a resource has been used across terrorist cells and he himself had used her as cover while meeting with the various separatist forces in India. Zohura was considered retarded and therefore not a threat to the plan. Yet she had the uncanny ability to remember things and follow orders. Salim was happy that the plan was going smoothly so far. 

Salim was called in and he was greeted by the General and he sat across the table from the General. 

“Salim, how is your wife and daughter?” asked General Qureshi. 

“They are fine sir. The plan so far has…” Salim was saying when he was interrupted by the General. 

“Relax Salim, what is the hurry. Why are you so uptight and wound up all the time? How do you get work done if you are always like this?”

“Sorry sir.”

“Please tell me the steps in the plan again,” said the General and took the file Salim gave.  

“Sir there are five stages of the plan. Stage one is the recruitment and training of  personnel. This has been done using the terrorist camps in the Kashmir Valley. Stage two is establishing contact, co-ordination and control of the separatist forces. I have visited India and taken care of this.”

The General pressed a buzzer and a man came with two cups of tea. Salim sat silent till the man departed. 

Then he continued, “Stage three is the moving and assembling of our personnel as terrorist cells inside India. It is underway and partly done. Stage four is execution of several major terrorist strikes like the assassination of the Indian PM that can be claimed by the separatist forces increasing their credibility.”

“Assasinate the PM did you say. Isn’t that like a mission inside a mission?”

“Yes sir, the separatists from Tamil Nadu are weak without a militant arm and feel they need to claim something substantial like this before people there could be motivated to join them.”

“Okay, go ahead.”

“Stage five is the final blasts to destabilise and deconstruct India sir.”

“So stages one and two of training personnel and controlling separatists is over. Stage three of assembling our guys there is underway. You can share the burden of stage four of major terror strikes with others on the Indian desk. I am giving this plan the highest priority over everything. If you have trouble with any resource come to me.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Now go over stage five.”

“It has four parts sir. First, blasting the Secretariat building and the Parliament making the nation leadership deficient. Second, our forces with separatist forces will take control of Kashmir, North East, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Thirdly…” Salim was saying when the General took a call from his home on his mobile.

When the General signalled Salim to continue he said, “Thirdly, our guy, the union minister will unilaterally make an announcement supporting Nationhood to these regions. Finally the United Nations under Chinese and our lobby will grant diplomatic status to these regions and send in UN peace keeping forces from Ireland and other neutral nations.”

“Wonderful, what is the schedule for this?”

“On January 26, the Indian Republic day, at exactly noon the Secretariat and Parliament will be blown and India will disintegrate in to pieces.”

The meeting was over and Salim looked at his watch it was almost noon.  

Tuticorin, Tamilnadu, Aug 26

Oblivious to the events of the world a lazy Saravanan rolled over in his bed and peeked at the clock it was not yet noon so he went back to sleep.

His mother shouted to him from outside his room, “Get up Saravanan it is almost noon and you haven’t had breakfast yet.”

Saravanan impervious to the midday heat because of the air conditioner in his room, pulled the blanket firmly over him and rolled back to sleep. 

Lack of accountability and transparency were the primary reasons for the state of the nation and Saravanan. 

CHAPTER 1

Tuticorin, Tamilnadu, Aug 27

Samyuktha stretched her limbs on the side of the stage as the Prime Minister Dubey ji addressed a massive state assembly election rally in the south eastern tip of Tamilnadu, India. 

“Thud,” Samyuktha swatted a mosquito on her arm.

“By the year 2020 India will be a super power, you are just pigs,” boomed the voice of Prime Minister Satyendra Dubey over the loud speakers.

A shocked Samyuktha hurriedly referred the speech in her hands, it was written ‘India will be a super power if you don’t vote for those who think you are just pigs’. Some loose connection in the microphone had cut a few words. But it didn’t matter as the crowd cheered in the high decibel levels she was used to. Damn the mosquitoes, damn the heat and most of all damn this dead beat town, she thought. She felt uncomfortable as perspiration soaked her armpits, chest and other parts of her body. If standing in the shade she felt like this, then what about all the poor idiots standing out there in the sun. It was early evening and the wretched sun had not yet set in this god damned town. Seeing the crowd she realised you can never separate people and politics. She hated politics and politicians but the only exception was PM Dubey ji. Even that was a grudging exception. 

Samyuktha was standing in a corner of the stage.  So that if the Prime Minister glanced in her direction, she could help get whatever he wants, from his monkey cap to his false teeth. She wished she hadn’t worn the thick, high cut, brown salwar kameez. It didn’t help with the heat situation. She felt like a pig being roasted. She will make a tasty meal she mused.

To her left stood her rival, the vile and vulgar Mayuri. To her right stood Kalpana who was dressed in her standard issue uniform of black suit and pants. She looked mean carrying a machine gun. Samyuktha wondered what turn on men found in women in men’s clothes. She would never want her boyfriend to wear women’s clothes, not that she had any boyfriend. Kalpana had a navy cut hair and was beautiful in her own way. The tall, dark and crisp looking Kalpana was an agent in the special protection group assigned to protect the Prime Minister. Samyuktha liked her company though she was of the silent type.  

Dubey ji was campaigning for the state legislative elections of the state of Tamil Nadu. Despite the dominance of the national parties in the north, here the two Dravidian parties dominated the scene. All that has began to change under the leadership of Dubey ji. This was Samyuktha’s home state and she had with her wise counsel and innovative ideas helped change the scene. Though yet the Jan Shakthi Party was not a contender and had no chance of forming a government in the state. 

She could smell her sweat and she cursed the hot and rundown town. She was born and brought up in the city of Chennai. She had never been this far south and was appalled by the stupidity, brazenness and uncouth behaviour of these mongrels. What more, she would have to babysit one of these idiots for a month, all thanks to Mayuri’s bright idea. 

Mayuri leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Didi, you look tired, if you want please go ahead and rest. I have everything covered here.”

“How very considerate of you, thanks, but it is all right,” replied Samyuktha with the sweetest smile she could muster which came out as a half scowl. 

 Everything covered my foot, cover the babies peeking from your shirt first, thought Samyuktha. ‘Didi’ means sister and she hated it when Mayuri called her that. She put her hands around Mayuri’s neck and strangled her with her bare hands or at least wished she had done so. 

Mayuri was on the phone with the State youth wing president of the party and asked him to be prepared. The day had dawned weirdly for her. She woke up in a strange place in bed with a stranger and had a terrible hangover. Then she remembered she had hooked with him at a party last night. Guys and almost all people were to be used as pawns in a game as far as she was concerned. Heck did she hate the serious sentimental types. She really hated the guts of that prude Samyuktha. She silently snuck out from there and raced to her bungalow in her Ferrari. She was the only bureaucrat to live with such a grand lifestyle. Not just because she was on the take but also because she wasn’t stingy like the other buffoons who hoarded. She was the only one in the top rung of Dubey ji’s circle who was on the take. She had contact and influence with most cabinet ministers who were corrupt.  Once in her bungalow she got ready real quick and hopped in to her other car and drove to work. 

The principled bureaucrats and others who talked of poverty and the suffering masses and the need to uplift their plight were the ones who never knew the meaning of the word poverty. Having been through the slums of Mumbai while growing up and having used public libraries to crack the UPSC she knew the in and out of poverty. She had started up as an honest bureaucrat but her higher ups and politicians had reminded her that she came from the trash and could be easily sent back to it. She then immersed herself in corruption and cunningness like a monster and started living it up. Hell, life is short and principles have no place in it, was her policy. 

Her car was stopped three times and she had to show her ID at all places. At the last stop her vehicle was checked summarily before being allowed to pass. Then after a metal detector screening and handbag check voila she was at her office cabin. She was only a private secretary and not a Joint secretary like Samyuktha but still had a private cabin. She had the ears of the PM more importantly, so she was in a powerful position like Samyuktha. But it was not to be denied that Samyuktha had the respect of Dubey ji and the party high command while she had contacts with corrupt cabinet ministers like the Home Minister Pandey. The way things were going in the nation Pandey might grow powerful than Dubey ji. She was waiting for such a day where she would be far more powerful than the prude Samyuktha. For the past few days she had been pitching an idea to Dubey ji. It was time to see if it worked or not. 

As soon as she settled in the office she didn’t bother about her routine work files. She called Dubey ji and asked him of what he thought of her proposal to have the caretaker PM she suggested while he had surgery. She stated that Gulzarilal Nanda had been such a caretaker PM for a fortnight twice, once when Nehru died and again when Shastri died. She added how making a guy from Tamil Nadu, caretaker PM, would bolster their party’s performance in the coming Tamil Nadu State elections. When Dubey ji said he’ll talk to the high command she was pensive. But then he called and said her plan was approved and that he’ll make the announcement during the campaign speech in the state youth wing president’s home town. Mayuri was elated. All this meant was that she could have a few dubious files signed when Dubey ji was indisposed. But it meant a lot of money and to have pulled it off without that nag Samyuktha knowing was something.  

Samyuktha’s attention fell on Dubey ji and she couldn’t help feeling a bit let down by the various compromises he made for electoral politics. He had a kidney problem that required major surgery and will hospitalise him for a month. He felt it was too long a time for the country to go without a Prime Minister. There was a problem in appointing a caretaker Prime Minister because of the feud between Pandey and Bhatt.  

That morning under the helicopter’s wings Dubey ji said “Today Mayuri made an interesting proposal. If we announce a caretaker PM from this state, it would bolster our performance here and will not antagonise Pandey or Bhatt. She has vetted a candidate who belongs to the town we are going to visit. He is the state youth wing president, I am told. Even I haven’t seen him before. It is kept as a secret, even the man doesn’t know yet. The party high command has approved.”

“But sir, who else has vetted –“ started Samyuktha.

“That is why I need you to stay behind the guy full time. I have made it clear to Mayuri that once the new person assumes office, you would be the one in charge of him. I trust you to hold the fort till I return from hospital,” said Dubey ji. 

“Sure sir,” she replied. 

She didn’t like this even a teeny bit. She was pissed that Mayuri had managed to pull this off from right under her nose. She had no doubts that this strange unknown candidate must be well known to Mayuri and of the same breed, the corrupt breed. She just hoped they don’t loot the nation to bankruptcy before the month was over.  

What the hell, why do the damn speakers have to be so loud. Samyuktha eyed all the television cameras and crew in front of the stage. Even in a normal campaign speech of Dubey ji these wolves would be in full force. But today it has been leaked to them that an important announcement was about to be made. They were having live coverage of every single minute. She hated the press and wished she could swat them like mosquitoes. They just didn’t get that running a country is a tough job. 

If not for the likes of her, the nation would crumble. She was such a smart individual to rise to such heights at so early an age. But she knew smartness needs to be backed by real hard work to bear fruits. She knew this from her IAS preparation days. Boy was she a nerd then, she was sort of a nerd even now. She didn’t have much of a social life. May be all high risers were like her she mused until her eyes fell on the twerp Mayuri. 

Samyuktha thought, that girl Mayuri was almost in the same level as far as job goes, but was a few years younger. She had a string of boyfriends and was close to several political bosses. She danced at parties and was popular. But that minx drank and Samyuktha can’t tolerate even the boys who drank. Was this all because of the fact that Mayuri hailed from Mumbai and Samyuktha from an orthodox family in Chennai. No, how could she even compare, she was the more mature and wise person. 

She was brought out of her reverie when she saw Mayuri waving to someone in the front row.

Ignoring that she turned to Kalpana standing beside her and said, “We are beginning to stink, aren’t we? 

Kalpana smiled and said, “Yes, I am used to the heat and the cold, part of a field job. But at times like this, don’t you smart cats wish you had taken a different job?” 

“It isn’t everyday that I’ve to suffer this. I will live,” said Samyuktha with a genuine smile on her face. 

“I am proud of what I am but when I see you, I feel a tad envious. Want to trade jobs with me?” asked Kalpana.

“I don’t think so. In the mood I am in, if I am given a gun then quite a few people might find release from this world.”

“That bad huh, is it just the heat or are you having a real bad day.”

Samyuktha wiped the sweat from her neck with her kerchief and said, “I am riled up. Please don’t ask.”

“Cheer up. At least soon you will be in an air conditioned office while I sweat it out on the outside.”

That was true Samyuktha thought. Kalpana was in no way less intelligent than her. In fact Kalpana had to also be physically fit to do summersaults, flip flops or whatever the black suited people do. Both jobs were highly prestigious. Her job though had more power and perks attached to it. More over the influence she had on the Prime Minister was considerable while Kalpana would never fall in the radar of the Prime Minister. Tough world and lucky me thought Samyuktha.  

“Didi, when do you think the Prime Minister will make the announcement?” Mayuri asked. 

Samyuktha knew it was less of a question and more of a boast to piss her off. 

When you are dead and rotting in hell thought Samyuktha but instead smiled and told, “Anytime soon, most of the topics are over.” 

Saravanan sitting in the front row closed the game he was playing on his mobile. He was of average height and build, fair with an unshaven and pock marked face. He was a sore and disgusting sight to the eye in the condition he was in. 

He whispered in his friend Kamal Pasha’s ear, “It is great man that you got a front row seat to the Prime Minister’s speech but I am bored and leaving.” 

“Please wait buddy till the announcement,” Kamal begged.   

Kamal was a friend of the nephew of the state youth wing president of the Jan Shakthi party. An important announcement concerning the youth wing president was about to be made it seemed. Today too like all days Saravanan had woken up at noon around twelve and after breakfast had promptly immersed himself in pirated movies from the internet. He lived life watching movies on his laptop while smoking continuously. Books and movies were not only his pass time but also his whole life. 

Saravanan rarely ventured out of his house except to drink cool drinks and buy several packs of cigarettes from the shop adjacent to his home. He lived with his parents who were retired bankers. He had no job and had squandered quite a bit of money on business ventures in the distant past. He suffered from a mental condition called Bipolar disorder and his parents and brother supported him now without any questions asked. He was defeated by life and didn’t even make attempts to socialise with others. He had a couple of friends like Kamal with whom he drank and went to restaurants occasionally. He stopped taking the effort to go out even for that a while ago. Out of the blue Kamal had called and compelled him to come here.

He had however managed to complete his Bachelor of Engineering and Masters in Business Administration. He even had worked two jobs for six months each, ten years apart. He was thirty eight and single. He had given up hopes of getting married. What girl in her right mind would marry a loser, loony and jobless guy like him. The one lucky thing for him was he never had to worry about money from his childhood. Yet he too had felt the pinch of poverty as a jobless youth in Chennai searching for a job. Those were the days when he still had some fight left in him.  

He didn’t mind spending money. Yet he had to be prompted to do good like give alms to a beggar or biscuits to a dog. He lacked initiative to do even these ordinary things. He though acted impulsively at times shocking everyone around him. In short he was a dude who was in no hurry to get anywhere and enjoyed life the way he was. 

Today Kamal had called and despite Saravanan’s protests had dragged him here. The youth wing president left to the restroom and he had left his mobile on the chair. Saravanan was wondering when that damned announcement would be made and he could leave. 

Right on cue Dubey ji said, “Due to a medical necessity I will be hospitalised and  indisposed for a month. The party high command has decided to make a son of this soil, one of your own, as the Prime Minister till I recover.”

 The phone on the chair was incessantly ringing and the youth wing president’s nephew and Kamal panicked and pushed Saravanan to go to the stage and stall them for some time.

As soon as Saravanan, the young man with a pock marked face and unshaven half grown beard, climbed the stage Dubey ji hugged him and dragged him to the microphone and said, “This is the new face of India for a month from now,” and raised the hand of the youth. 

But Saravanan didn’t notice anything else except the girl in the brown Salwar Kameez who was looking at him curiously. He noticed that the girl standing next to her was stylish in her short skirt but this one looked so homely and captivating that he didn’t have the heart to take his eyes off her. He chided himself for he was destined to be alone forever. Marriage and a family of his own was one dream he will never attain. 

“Didi, this isn’t the person,” shrieked Mayuri and rushed to Dubey ji and Samyuktha followed her close behind. 

Dubey ji got away from the microphone and waved to the crowd as Mayuri went and whispered in his ears. 

“Wrong man or not, this is the guy who will be Prime Minister for a month unless he has any terrorist or other party affiliation. Samyuktha, call a meeting of the high command and make sure they are okay with this,” said Dubey ji and climbed off stage, closely followed by others. 

Kalpana followed the developments unfolding before her with bewilderment. She wondered at how a bizarre turn of events has made an unassuming young man the PM, but she did not let it show on her face. Any by stander seeing her standing on the sides with a machine gun in her hand would have thought of her as some tough person on a dead beat job with less intelligence. 

They would have been too far from the truth as Kalpana was an IPS officer of the rank of Assistant Inspector General. She had put in her share of days in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) while working for the Indian Police Force and had even recently in the Special Protection Group (SPG) been in the intelligence function. She and intelligence were entwined together. Yet she couldn’t help but wonder what this accident could mean for her and most of all this nation.

She was from Assam and believed herself fortunate to have born to such dependable and supportive parents as hers. Her elder brother was an army man who died at the border and this left a gaping hole in her heart. She was tough and had dealt with corrupt politicians and underworld goons with a firm hand. She was patriotic to the core but still people in the bureaucracy doubted her antecedents since she was from Assam in the North East. At a time when the nation was facing its gravest crisis this clueless and unassuming man has been made the PM. She wasn’t sure if she should feel sorry for the nation or for this youngster who was sure to be out of depths in his new job.  

Samyuktha tried to hide her fury. What a folly of gigantic proportions. It was a stupid plan to start with. Only an idiot like Mayuri would come up with such absurd ideas. And Dubey ji, how could he let himself be trapped by that fool Mayuri. But now his decision to go ahead with the plan was a colossal blunder. Has he lost his mind? 

“But Dubey ji, we can still say it was a mistake and announce the selected guy,” said Samyuktha. 

“What difference does it make, I will be back soon and I have full faith in you,” said Dubey ji and then putting a hand on the young man’s shoulder he asked, “are you willing to be the Prime Minister for a month?”

“Sure sir,” replied the young man.

 “What is your name boy?”

“Saravanan”

“What were you doing in the stage?”

“The youth wing president asked me to enquire what the issue is.”

“So you are a sincere party cadre.”

“No sir, I was bored and a friend brought me here.”

“Do you belong to any other party?”

“No sir.”

“Have you been to prison?”

“No sir.”

“See I told you, destiny has made the ideal choice for us,” said Dubey ji looking at Samyuktha and Mayuri. 

Samyuktha didn’t like Saravanan from the moment she laid eyes on him. What a creature with so much hair, left uncombed and ruffled. He had an unshaven face with a sort of a goat beard. He had no sense of personal hygiene and had big dirty nails. He is a god damn cave man she thought. Now it fell to her to take care of this mess and hold the fort for a month. She thought maybe it is for the best. She wouldn’t have to worry about Mayuri’s pawn being the Prime Minister for a month. Yet this month is going to be a great ordeal she thought. Little did she know that this incident had irrevocably entwined the fate of these four people and that of the nation together for much more than a month.   

CHAPTER 2

Connaught Place, New Delhi, Aug 27

Mayuri sipped her lemonade observing the Home Minister’s P.A Milind Shukla from the corner of her eyes. This balding and bespectacled old man might fool others with the look of helplessness, but not her.

“Have you been waiting for long?” she asked leaning forward. 

“Not really, no problem, none at all,” he said to her chest. 

She didn’t mind ogling youngsters but lecherous old men made her murder crazy. She sorely wished to knock hard on the baldpate before her with her knuckles. She wondered how these stupid ducks managed to grow this high. They were just chump change to her. Cunningness was her staple diet. The person sitting next to Shukla was Jignesh, Pandey’s goon, whom she knew by reputation. The mere sight of him gave her the shivers. They were in a private booth of the Bonbon restaurant in Connaught place. She had helped the restaurant get a permission to add extra floors. So she was taken good care of, whenever she visited the place, which was often.

“So what is the real status of Dubey ji’s health? Will he be back in a month?” asked Shukla. 

“Yes, unless any complications creep up,” she said. 

Old man, don’t worry about Dubey ji’s health, he will be here even when you are rolling in your grave, she thought. 

“So how does the presence of this new one instead of our planned man affect the plan?” asked Shukla. 

“Now it is a whole new game. We’ll have to wait and see.”

She enjoyed such parlays but with weaker moronic opponents like Shukla one just gets bored. The new Prime Minister was a curve ball she hadn’t expected. All her carefully laid plans spoiled on the last moment by sheer mad chance. She had even hoodwinked Samyuktha. Now that was a worthy adversary. 

The new guy had been elected Prime Minister by the selfless wise guys in parliament as soon as Dubey ji tendered his resignation. They neither had self nor self esteem. He had also been sworn in by the president. Dubey ji was now hospitalised. Samyuktha had managed to keep the new guy away from public eye and her eye too so far. But it is early days yet. 

“The client is getting impatient.” said Shukla still looking the wrong way, at her chest, maybe he needs a map to find the face.

“I will get in touch with you within this week. By that time I would have pulsed out our new Prime Minister.”

Impatient or not, the only way to get shady deals through the PMO was through her. She was the only one on the take in the PMO. Dubey ji was a clean man and ran a tight ship. She was a lone wolf in a den of lions. This new Worlington lead extraction plant was considered untouchable. It was so polluting that several countries had rejected it. That wouldn’t deter sweet India though, after all folks here shunned any form of untouchability. This one month window was the only chance to get permission for the venture. 

She watched with distaste at Jignesh slurping his ice cream but took a box and said to Shukla, “Here is the newest remote controlled helicopter for your Grandson on his birthday.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” Shukla said while his eyes told a different tale, “this is the difference between you and the others.” 

At least this time he had looked at her face. Not so hard now, is it, looking at the face. 

“How is minister Manoj Pandey ji doing? Convey my regards to him,” she said.

“I’ll do. He has high regards for you. As do I. With age on your side you’ll go very far.”

“But I am hoping for an early retirement.”

“At your age you shouldn’t talk of retirement. Leave such talk to old men like me.”

Very true, why don’t you retire? You old cretin, she thought. 

“So with Dubey ji hospitalised, is that other girl Samyuktha, the one calling the shots,” asked Jignesh. 

“Yes, but not for long if I have my way with this new guy,” said Mayuri. 

She admired Samyuktha, that clever fox. But it was inevitable that they both were pitted against each other. Samyuktha was as straight forward as they come. Her motivation was to do something big and good for the country, what a load of crap. Mayuri on the other hand had no pretensions. She craved power and wealth, a heady cocktail. She was corrupt, devious and cunning.   

She parted with Shukla and Jignesh and got in to her car and drove to the Prime Minister’s residence on 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. There had been no sign of the new Prime Minister in the Secretariat office for quite some days. So she decided to flush him out of his cocoon and came here. She had with her a few files that needed the Prime Minister’s signature, but nothing important. This should help her get past Samyuktha.

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Aug 27

Mayuri breezed through the security check ups and entered the main building. She was told that the Prime Minister was still in his bed room. Samyuktha came down to the foyer and greeted her. Samyuktha was wearing the usual salwar kameez, this time in blue colour. Mayuri looked at her own dress, a grey skirt and a cream shirt. She can beat that old girl at fashion anytime, she thought to herself. 

“Didi, I know you don’t trust me and that too with good reason. But if we are going to get through this month, I think you need my help. You can’t keep him locked up forever,” said Mayuri

“You don’t know how true that is. He is an absolute nut case. Come with me,” said Samyuktha and led her to the Prime Minister’s bedroom. 

Kalpana was standing outside the bedroom door in her usual black suit. How can people tolerate jobs doing nothing all day long wondered Mayuri. She pitied these poor creatures on such deadbeat jobs. She could never last for a day in such a job.

“Is the Prime Minister ready? Has he come out yet?” asked Samyuktha.

“Not so far,” replied Kalpana. 

Samyuktha knocked the door and a brusque voice yelled, “Come in.”

As soon as the door opened a rotten burning smell hit Mayuri in the face. Saravanan had a towel around his waist and was drying his hair with another towel. Mayuri saw that the dustbin had been converted in to a giant ash tray. It was lying near the bed already half filled with ash, cigarette butts and copious amounts of spit. She felt like puking. The bed stand had three unopened cigarette packs and a litter of empty cigarette packs. She looked at her watch, it was twelve already. The television was tuned in to some music station.  The whole place looked like a pig sty. The smell of tobacco was too strong for even her, who occasionally smoked.  

Samyuktha looked exasperatedly at Mayuri and said, “His highness can’t wake before eleven and the most he could be made to do is ten. More importantly highness takes longer than any girl to get ready. He looked a lot worse when he came in. But I had hairdressers come in to cut his hair and shave him. Highness doesn’t know to shave himself. We even had to give his highness a manicure and pedicure.”

Mayuri was happy seeing this state of affairs. Samyuktha was pissed beyond limits but not enough to dump this person in Mayuri’s hands. Still it was enough to make her seek Mayuri’s help. This meant that Mayuri still had a chance to push the industry deal that would make her filthy rich. 

“Please don’t talk like I am not even in the room, it is demeaning. Be glad that I am not a greedy or power crazed political animal,” said Saravanan. 

“Prime Minister, please forgive Didi, she forgets herself in her dedication to the job. I am Mayuri,” she said shaking his hands.   

“Let me be frank with you guys, I have an Engineering and Masters of Business degrees. That doesn’t mean much though. I’ve only been in two jobs in my life, ten years apart and both for not more than six months,” said Saravanan.

“We don’t want your Resume pretty boy. Just do what you are told for a month and you’ll be out of here and out of our faces,” said Samyuktha. 

 “I’ll show no pretensions. I don’t have any interest in politics or the affairs of the state. I am a bachelor who once had this one girl friend. I am not interested in romance either. I am here to have a nice time away from my parents. Yes, I am thirty eight years old and still living with my parents,” said Saravanan. 

“That also doesn’t concern us. Just cooperate for this month and make our job easier,” said Samyuktha. 

“I’ll do my best. As you can see I am a chain smoker and can’t help it. I couldn’t drink as much as I liked when with my family. So I intend to be drunk for the next month.” 

“You can’t smoke in public and neither can you be drunk. You are the Prime Minister for god’s sake. Can you do that?” asked Samyuktha. 

“Sorry, you have to work around those things,” said Saravanan. 

“Prime Minister, we are here to help you. So don’t worry about anything. Didi and I will find a way to make sure you enjoy this month,” said Mayuri. 

“If you girls wait here for a moment, I will get dressed,” said Saravanan. 

“Today dress as you like, tomorrow the Kurta Pyjamas will arrive and you are to dress in that,” said Samyuktha. 

Mayuri turned to the buffoon who was now Prime Minister and mouthed the word ‘Sorry’. 

Saravanan mumbled “Who is the high and mighty now,” and went to an inner dressing room in the suite.

Mayuri got a call in her mobile from Principal secretary Hari Prasad. At 72, the man still worked zealously and was the architect of several major policy decisions of the nation. Technically he was the big boss and most strategic decisions pass through him but the day to day running of the nation and other major political decisions stem from the secretary or joint secretary closest to the PM.  

She flashed the caller name in the mobile to Samyuktha and took the call, “Hello sir.”

“Where are you?” asked Hari Prasad.

“I am at the Prime Minister’s residence with Samyuktha Didi”

“Do you both need to be there? Dubey ji disposed most of the important stuff before he got hospitalised but a few things are still pending. Will the new Prime Minister come here or do I have to come over.”

“No, please, not today sir. I will come to office around evening and brief you.”

Saravanan came out wearing a red and black checkered shirt and black pants. 

“Is there anything planned for me for today?” asked Saravanan. 

“No, nothing today, we still got to vet you, train you and make you presentable,” said Samyuktha. 

“You talk as if I were a monkey. You are lucky that I am kind of a cool fun guy. Any other person will take affront at the way you talk.”

“Any other person wouldn’t be as degenerate as you. So take your Prime Ministerial ego somewhere else.”

“My ego doesn’t come from being PM. Though I guess your ego comes from being a hot shot IAS and in being secretary to the P.M. Yet I must admit I love your candidness.” 

“Didi, did you realise, caretaker or not, he is the youngest Prime Minister we’ve got yet,” said Mayuri. 

“How can I miss, when it is plastered all over the idiot box. He has been a silent partner in some shipping firm. That has effectively camouflaged his being idle for over ten years. His parents are retired bankers and his brother runs a successful restaurant. All this I learnt from the news. No skeletons in the past, we are lucky that way at least,” said Samyuktha. 

“You hate  me, don’t you? Not an iota of respect. You are pissed that sheer luck has made me PM, your boss,” said Saravanan. 

“It doesn’t matter what I think of you or for that matter what you think of me. Let us get this month done,” said Samyuktha. 

They are like snake and mongoose, throwing daggers all the time. Samyuktha has let her prejudice take precedence over her rationality thought Mayuri. Things have gone beautifully, more than she expected. Yet, Samyuktha can’t be counted down yet. That wily fox will not let anything come between her and her job. Still Mayuri thought conditions were favourable to her. She just had to get the approval of this clown.. All she had to do was to stoke his ego. 

“So when are you planning to let loose the new Prime Minister?” asked Mayuri.

“I am thinking of our Prime Minister hosting a party here for the visiting Japanese delegation. That way there will be no media monkeys. We can cover our mistakes,” said Samyuktha. 

“Excellent idea Didi, don’t worry, nothing can go wrong that way,” said Mayuri. 

“There you go again, talking as if I am not here,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri got ready to leave. She would play the fool of the caretaker Prime Minister some more, but when he was alone. She was giving the files she brought to him when Samyuktha got a phone call. She went outside to attend the call. 

When Samyuktha came back she looked crestfallen. There were mild tears on the corner of her eyes.

“Dubey ji’s operation has gone well but it seems that he has slipped in to a coma. Doctors say he might recover in a month, maybe a year, maybe even more, they just can’t tell. Party high command says choosing a new Prime Minister now might break the party. They want our boy to continue until they find a consensus candidate,” said Samyuktha. 

“No, that can’t be, I agreed to only a month of this and I am already beginning to hate it,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri felt as though Diwali had come early. This clown may just turn out to be her ticket to great fortune and power. 

Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, Aug 27

Ten year old Zohura sat in the bus looking through the window at all the big buildings packed closely together and the people in colourful clothes milling about in great hurry through the crowded roadsides. Her village wasn’t like this at all. It had small shanty houses but there was space, wide grazing fields and lush green farms. She had never seen such crowds in her village. She was a Pakistani but she had never been to any of the Pakistani cities like Karachi or Lahore either. These people were the bad folks, the devil worshippers who had killed her father. She looked at the old woman sitting near her and thought she didn’t look like a bad person. But then chastised herself not to be weak and be fooled by appearances. 

Her father was a freedom fighter killed by the godless people living in this nation. She loved her mother very much. She missed her and wanted to be hugged by her and to hear stories from her. She wondered how she agreed to be taken away from her mom and village. She could talk only to her mother and a few other girls of her own age like Ghazia. She intuitively knew she was not like other girls. She couldn’t talk to people like others and she always seemed to think slow and different from others. She stuttered when talking to the girls. She has heard people telling that she was not right in her mind. She used to wonder why God had made her that way. But now she got a chance to prove that she can do things just like others. She will be known fondly by all and God was on her side.  

She looked through the window at the cloudy skies. At first the clouds looked like mountains in the sky, then she thought she could discern the shape of a face in the clouds, but then no, no, it definitely looked like a person reading a book. She tapped the shoulder bag lying near her feet making sure it was still there. She felt proud to have been entrusted again with a task to do all alone. She had done several such errands for commander Naqvi. She had carried a few such bags from Rajasthan to here. She had been counting stops and was now anxious as she had to get down in the coming stop and the crowd was heavy both outside and inside the bus. She hefted the heavy bag on her shoulders and slowly made way towards the exit of the bus. She somehow managed to get down from the crowded bus. Then came the next ordeal of crossing the busy road.     

Kalpana went to visit a friend who lived in Lajpat nagar before starting her shift. As she was walking by the road she saw an affable traffic cop trying to help a school kid cross the road. Kalpana liked to see kindness in people in this increasingly cynical world. But as the cop offered to get the bag off the kid’s sagging shoulders the girl resisted. The bag seemed unusually heavy for the girl. Kalpana’s suspicious instincts kicked in and she quickly went and flashed her badge to the cop and snatched the bag off the girl. Inside were a couple of books and several packets. She opened one with her Swiss  knife and found black sticky material which her trained eye recognised to be Semtex. 

The girl by then had panicked and started to run. The traffic cop followed suit and the girl hit an opposing passerby and fell. In panic the girl took a gun from her salwaar and fired at the rushing cop. Kalpana had arrived on top of the girl and had her arm with the gun crushed beneath her foot and took the gun out.  One look at the fallen cop told her that he was dead. She phoned her friend who was DIG at the Intelligence Bureau and yanked up the girl. Without a sign of drizzling, rain suddenly began to pour in sheets accompanied by heavy lightning and thunder. She felt it was the foreboding of some very grim things to come. 

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Aug 27 

Samyuktha patiently explained how the PM should behave with a foreign delegation but Saravanan was half listening to her and half fiddling with his mobile phone. She wondered how a person could sink to such depravity as to not respect the opportunity of a lifetime. How could a person be oblivious to everything. This was not even selfishness but depravity and indifference at its extreme. 

Samyuktha got a call from the Director of IB and listened to him patiently. She finally said “I’ll get back to you shortly,” and kept the phone down.

As soon as she recovered she snapped at Mayuri, “Get off the phone, something has come up.” 

Mayuri didn’t take affront at Samyuktha’s manner for there seemed to be some sort of secret code between bureaucrats that indicated when something bad had happened. She ended the phone call and went near Samyuktha. 

Samyuktha said, “A ten year old Pakistani girl Zohura has been caught in the capital with seven kilos of Semtex enough to blast 20 Boeings to smithereens.”

Then Samyuktha hesitated a bit before continuing, “An IB officer has threatened her and man handled her a bit and she has told them of a terrorist hangout and a phone number and mail id to be used in case of emergencies. IB believes her story but have intelligence that the girl could lead to the plan of the terrorists and their capture. The first few hours after the capture of a terrorist are vital. IB wants permission for advanced interrogation of the girl. They are sure they can end this once and for all. We have to reply soon.”

Samyuktha and Mayuri kept talking as usual as if Saravanan was not there. 

Saravanan clapped and said, “Enough, girls,” and then he hollered, “Kalpana,” and when she entered the room he said, “have the staff bring me brandy, Err… one second.”  

He turned to Samyuktha and Mayuri and said, “Get me the emergency phone number the girl gave, I want to know what kind of people would use kids for their nefarious purposes.”

Samyuktha spoke on the phone and then got Saravanan’s mobile and stored the number under the title of ‘Handler.’

She then said to Saravanan, “The number has been traced to Islamabad and is suspected to be of the ISI handler behind whatever blasts they have planned for the Republic day. There is no use trying to contact it as you won’t get any response.”

He called the number and was diverted to a voice mail box and he said, “What kind of low life are you to use kids for your plans? Shame on you scoundrels.” 

He then paced the room for a while and said to Samyuktha, “Reprimand the officer who had been rough with the little girl and say no to advanced interrogation, yuck what an euphemism for torture. I can’t think how you guys would even contemplate torturing a little girl. End of discussion. I am the PM after all, you can blame it on me if something went wrong. Now move away I want to watch a movie on the TV.” 

Saravanan said this with such a force that both Samyuktha and Mayuri were taken aback. 

He then turned and said, “and sweet Kalpana, a chicken tandoor along with the brandy please.”       

      A stunned Samyuktha looked at him haltingly but glad to have a weight lifted off her shoulders silently called the Director IB and conveyed the PM’s decision. 

   

CHAPTER 3

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Aug 28

More than the Prime Ministerial position, the presence of young and attractive women around him made Saravanan happy. He felt like a rabbit in a carrot shop. The capital must be swarming with beautiful girls he thought. Why do grumpy old men alone become Prime Ministers and get the chance to be surrounded by the most beautiful women. He was no flirt but he loved talking to girls. He was not the type looking to score with anything that moved and had a pair of headlights. He was thinking of cars of course. 

 just wanted to have a few laughs with girls. Samyuktha and Mayuri seemed to be constantly around him. Having no sisters and only a brother, he had little exposure to girls growing up. 

He wasn’t exactly a nerd, he had wild fun in his college days. His excessive smoking, joblessness and a sort of a mental condition has made him almost a sociopath. At thirty eight, he was the only bachelor in his batch. He lost touch with most of his friends over the years. Was life back in college one big party with the head ache and hangover still tormenting him?  

 The party for the reception of the Japanese foreign minister and his delegation was hosted on the terrace of one of the five buildings in the Prime minister’s residence complex. He went there accompanied by Samyuktha and Mayuri. All other guests were already there. He was wearing an orange and white kurta pyjama. The girls were wearing saris, Samyuktha in green and Mayuri in pink. Both looked ravishing. 

The Japanese foreign minister and his wife were introduced by Samyuktha. He greeted them in Japanese, telling them it was an honour to meet them. 

“What was that?” asked Samyuktha when they were alone. 

“I googled some Japanese,” he said smiling. 

He greeted most of the other guests and had polite conversation about climate, food and other naïve topics. After those numerous conversations he gleaned that Japan had the loveliest climate and the most delicious food and India was worth crap. At least that is what the Japanese claimed. Everyone claimed this about their junk countries and called it nationalism. After half an hour of this he was left alone with Samyuktha and Mayuri. Almost everyone had a glass in their hand, sipping something. He had declined everything so far. He was bored and was thinking maybe it was time for him to hit the drinks. 

Samyuktha said, “You clean up well. You look fine in this dress. The foreign minister’s wife told me, ‘we not only have a young but a very well mannered Prime Minister.’ Even the kitchen staff were all praise for you. It seems you’ve dropped in and complimented the cooking. But I know you’ve not taken a bite of anything yet.”

“We’ve got ourselves a winner. Cheers,” said Mayuri raising her glass and then looking at him, “Where is your glass? I’ve specially ordered your preferred black rum.”

She swished her fingers and suddenly a glass of black rum appeared from nowhere. 

Saravanan finished the glass in a single gulp. He never had enough patience to sip his drinks or enjoy the so called finer things in life.  

“Boy, do I like you. You downed it straight and fast,” said Mayuri. 

“What are you drinking?” asked Saravanan looking at Samyuktha.

“Oh, me, it is just lemon juice. I don’t drink,” said Samyuktha and left to mingle with the other guests. 

“She is confident about you that she is leaving you alone,” said Mayuri. 

“Damn her and damn these foreigners. Let us get drunk,” said Saravanan and led Maayuri to the makeshift bar that had been set up there.   

Drink after drink was downed by them. It became a kind of a competition on who would out drink the other. Both were drinking fast and had not factored that the effect of alcohol takes time to set in. Soon both were sloshed and pretty tipsy. He had never drunk with a girl before, heck he had never done pretty much anything with a girl before, and so loved this moment intensely. 

“I’ve never been this drunk before, not even in the private parties with my friends,” said Mayuri giggling at him. 

“Let us do something completely insane,” he said drowning his glass in a single gulp as always. 

“Let us start by playing a truth or dare game,” said Mayuri.

“Okay, ladies first.”

“Have you ever slept with a girl?”

“No, and you?”

“With a girl, no, no way. With a boy yes, with two boy friends who were going steady then and a few one nighters.” 

“What? Why do girls opt for one nighters? I’ve heard they are more in to the emotional aspects of a relation than the physical.” 

“I don’t know about other girls but I opt for the one nighters for the thrill. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” he said. Truth was easy for him. He always spoke the truth. He never had to lie or use subterfuge. He was clever but not cunning. He trusted others and even tried to put himself in the shoes of the buggers who wronged him. A dare would be fun he thought. 

She raised her eyebrows and whispered in his ears. 

“That’s easy,” he said and got up with Mayuri following him, and went in to the crowd and stopped at the first Japanese delegate he came across. “All you fools look the same, like monkeys. Now tell me which the head monkey is.”

Luckily the man said, “No English, no understand,” and bowed and went away. 

Saravanan returned to his chair and Mayuri said, “Boy, that was close, an international disaster was averted there.”

“Your turn, truth or dare?” he asked. 

“Truth,” she said giggling and almost fell off her chair. 

Saravanan thought for a while and wondered if she would reply honestly to the next question. 

“Are you corrupt?”

She paused for a long while and after thinking hard said, “Yes, did Samyuktha tell you that?”

“She warned me against you,” he said and admired her audacity in accepting the truth to him. 

“My turn, I dare you to slap the behind of any girl in the party.”

He got up and she too followed suit, he slapped her behind hard. 

“Ouch, no, that’s cheating,” she said laughing.

He turned and slapped the behind of a passing Japanese female delegate. The woman yelped like a puppy and turning to him spewed a tirade of words that he guessed could only have been profanities. 

“A cockroach, not to worry, I got it,” he said with a bashful smile on his face. 

Mayuri stood with her jaws open and looked like a puppy that has lost its dog food.  

“My turn, I dare you to walk a straight line,” he said.

She put her glass aside and tried to walk straight but was zig zagging this way and that and almost fell but steadied herself holding on to the bar table. 

“Don’t stand there laughing, why don’t you try doing this,” she challenged. 

“I can do even better,” he said and climbed on the parapet wall and began walking on it. He had to balance with his hands to keep from falling. All conversation stopped and everyone there was gaping at him. Samyuktha who was standing in a far corner rushed towards him. But a hand pulled him in even before Samyuktha reached him. He was standing in front of Kalpana in her ever faithful black suit.   

Samyuktha took charge from then on. She confined him and Mayuri to their chairs and disbursed the delegates slowly after they had their dinner. At last the terrace was empty except the kitchen staff and the four of them including Kalpana who was standing in the shadows. He had never seen her sitting. He looked at Mayuri who was sleeping in the chair. Samyuktha called them over to a table in the centre. He woke up Mayuri and dragged her to the table. He invited Kalpana over too. She refused at first but finally relented.  

“I give up, it is a disaster. He is a walking, talking disaster. I could have managed a month but any more with this moron is just impossible,” said Samyuktha burying her head in both hands. 

“Didi, don’t exaggerate, we’re fine, not a word of this will go out. Quit worrying,” said Mayuri. 

“See,” said Samyuktha pointing her mobile phone, “some idiot has photographed the Prime Minister’s monkey dance on the parapet wall with a mobile and it is plastered all over social media. The media have found sources within the party attendees confirming his drunkenness and are running it as we speak.”

“Didi, forget it, I assure you, if we ignore, it will go away. Let us have him do something substantial and all this will go away. We’ll take care. Silence is the best damage control for now. Relax Didi,” said Mayuri. 

Saravanan felt bad for Samyuktha. She was sort of a busy bee with no life outside of her work. She was kind of like him, except that he had never really worked. He had thought being Prime Minister would be fun. But seeing the sad face of Samyuktha, he felt she deserved better. Mayuri at least had a life outside her work and was fun he mused. 

“Not one of us has had dinner. Let us all have a bite,” said Samyuktha and signalled a waiter.

“I don’t want food, all I need are a couple or more of drinks,” he said. 

“Are you serious? No more drinks. It is bad for health to sleep on an empty stomach after drinking, I’ve been told,” said Samyuktha. 

Saravanan also felt tizzy and a mild rumbling in the stomach. Maybe it would be wiser to eat he thought. Soon food was brought for all four of them. The egg noodles and chilly chicken felt very tasty to him. 

“Mayuri was a lot of fun today. Have you ever been like this enjoying life without a care,” Saravanan asked Samyuktha pushing his plate away.

“No, I’ve always been a bit of a more serious person than Mayuri. I always was an ambitious girl,” said Samyuktha. 

“It must have sucked not being popular and having very few friends,” said Saravanan. 

Samyuktha blushed a little and said, “I was popular in my own way with quite a few friends. I was a kind of a singing sensation in my college days.”

She then hummed a few lines of the evergreen ‘Pyar hua ikrar hua’ love song. Saravanan was mesmerised by the cute sincerity of her voice. He wished he could hear her sing all through his life. Soon everyone finished their dinner. 

 “Sir ji, Can I ask you something? You could have died out there if you had fallen from the parapet wall. Even I wouldn’t dare such a thing. Was it the alcohol or was it something else?” asked Kalpana. 

He realised that this was the first time she had spoken to him and he replied, “No, it wasn’t the alcohol. Yes, it was stupid and yes, indeed I was really afraid.” He mused on how the emptiness of his life made him do it but instead said, “leave me, where do you come from Kalpana? What prompted you to become who you are?”

 “I am from a village in Assam. Where I hail from, you are either a patriot or part of a riot. My family was patriotic right from the word go. My brother was in the army and he died at the border.”

“Was it Kargil or something else?” he asked.

“No, my brother died of a stomach flu but he was my inspiration that made me what I am today.”

They all finished their dinner and were having ice creams when Samyuktha got a call. She moved away to attend the call. When she returned she looked tired yet pensive. 

She said, “News of Dubey ji’s coma has already made the two factions fight as to who the next Prime Minister should be. High command wants our guy to fight a by-election and thus hold the fort for the next few months until a consensus candidate emerges.”

On that note every one departed saying good nights to each other. 

Samyuktha’s residence, Chanakyapuri, Delhi, Aug 28

When Samyuktha reached her apartment she found her sister Pratyusha watching news on the television.

Her sister greeted her saying, “So finally her highness, miss perfection has decided to grant us humble mortals with an audience.” 

Samyuktha slumped on the sofa next to her sister and hit her with a pillow. On the television was the news of the girl with Semtex which was cut short for the breaking news of the Prime Minister dancing on the parapet wall. 

“Oh, what a nightmare for me and what a gargantuan fool to have landed on my hands,” said Samyuktha. 

 “He is kind of a cute and handsome fool though. Won’t you agree?” Prathyusha asked. 

Samyuktha pinched her sister hard and asked, “are you insane?”

“Ouch, I am saying what is a popular opinion with girls. I kind of have a crush on our youngest PM as do most of my friends. He is trending as the third hottest Indian on Facebook neck and neck with movie actors.”

“Good, if at all any good has come out of this terrible ordeal, it must be the spicing up of the desirability of this moron. Let him have that.”

Prathyusha detected a hesitancy in her sister while talking so she asked, “Come on, what is bothering you, spit it out?”

Samyuktha sat up straight and said, “There is something about this guy that bothers me. Leave alone the life threatening parapet walk. He is an insufferable, indifferent moron. What right minded person would get bored by being a PM. He simply isn’t interested in the trappings of being a PM or leading the nation.”

Prathyusha was about to say something when Samyuktha interrupted her and continued,      “And one more thing. There was the question of harshly interrogating Zohura, the kid with Semtex, which me and Mayuri were pondering over when he said no in such forceful yet nonchalant manner. Was it indifference or conviction I can’t tell yet. I hate that moron like anything but he is also a puzzle that intrigues me at times when I am away from his madness.”

“Didi, what is happening? Tell me, do you find him interesting?”

“May be if it weren’t for the PM thing I might not hate him this much. Heck what am I saying, he is the greatest moron and the quicker I get him away the best it is for me.”

“Didi have you fallen for his charms?”

“Yuck, what?” Samyuktha hit her sister with the pillow and said, “If that moron was the last and only man standing I still wouldn’t fall for him. So sleep peacefully.”

Vasant Vihar, Delhi, Aug 28

Kalpana got a phone call as she was opening her apartment door. She entered and closed the door and switched on the lights before attending the phone. 

“Papa, your timing is perfect I just entered the apartment. You’ll live a hundred years too for I was just thinking of you,” said Kalpana.

“You remembering me. Do you need money?” asked her father. 

“Come on Papa, I never took money from you after my first posting as ASP.”

“Ah, come on, I was kidding you my girl. Your first posting was in Rajasthan, wasn’t it? I believe your posting as the SP of IB, Mumbai though was the high point of your career. I still don’t understand why you opted and got deputed for the dead beat job in SPG. I saw the dance on the parapet wall by our PM.”

“I opted this job for the prestige and also the experience. As for our PM, for the first time I feel proud and content in my job because of him. He is a good guy. He is unassuming and affectionate to all, including us. I am confident he will do great service to the nation.”

“Okay, did you have dinner?”

“Yes, I am not twelve anymore.”

“Yes, okay, go sleep early, bye.”

Kalpana took a book in to her hands when another call came from her friend Arun who was DIG in the IB. 

“Kalpana, You heard of a plan of the terrorists for Republic Day?,” he asked. 

She replied “Yes”

“A guy in Rajasthan who rents out premises says he saw Zohura there. He also claims seeing maps of Delhi and black plastic like substance probably Semtex. The guys have shifted from that place though. We are enquiring.”

“So the terrorists have crossed via Rajasthan,” said Kalpana.

“Yes, also a call intercepted by RAW confirms an impending threat to the PM’s life by the same gang who employed Zohura.”

“Wow, aren’t those fellows ambitious.” 

“Anyway analysts feel since the bombing and assassination require separate planning, the attempt on the PM’s life might be very soon. This has been submitted to the regular channels and you’ll be informed. But I thought of giving you a heads up.”  

She cut her call and sat there brooding. This guy had been plucked out of nowhere and made PM and now his life is under threat. What a sorry state of affairs for him. She had heard him put the foot down on torturing Zohura. She resolved to protect this guy from the impending danger. 

CHAPTER 4

PMO, South Block, Secretariat, New Delhi, Oct 5

Mayuri carefully double checked the mile long list of permissions and no objections required prior to the Prime Minister’s approval. Everything was in order. She pitied the poor young Indian fools who wanted to start an industry of their own. One could easily hack a way through the forest but not the intense red tape around starting an industry. The rich corporates and the foreign conglomerates with big money though found the country, a haven, for any rule could be subverted. The only thing that stood in the way of the most polluting Worlington lead extraction plant, that would make her and many others like Pandey rich, was the signature of the Prime Minister. 

Worlington had approached Manoj Pandey because of his high profile and corrupt nature. She could have easily got all the permissions herself. But it was always good to have such a wily ally like Manoj Pandey. So she didn’t grudge his profiting. She felt the intense chill of the air conditioner in her office which she always kept at the minimum temperature. She looked at her watch, it was twelve. The clown and the witch, Saravanan and Samyuktha, must be here soon. 

It has been a week since the spectacle at the dinner party. The next day all the tabloids had ran headlines like ‘Our Prime Minister or a Monkey’ and other such derogatory remarks. No Prime Minister in the history of the nation has been mocked thus. She had visited him and spent time with him on a daily basis all week. He seemed to be least bothered about what the media said. 

When she broached the subject of the Worlington lead extraction plant and the amount he could earn, he seemed disinterested. But one day he said ‘What the heck’ and accepted. A Swiss bank account had been opened in the name of a popular charitable trust for children’s education and his full cut had been deposited. She had the uncanny feeling that he was not doing this for money as the charity seemed genuine and totally bonafide when she verified. He had no connection with the charity organisation at all. It seemed he had pulled it out from the internet. This moron was giving hundreds of crores to a charity he did not know. He seemed to have no interest in the money at all. He was a loose cannon that she couldn’t tie down to a reason. He can take her down along with him and that worried her a lot. 

She had convinced Samyuktha that it was time for the Prime Minister to come out and he can start by coming to the office. She knew the first major signature of the Prime Minister would be the Worlington lead extraction plant. She really didn’t like dumping him this, right after his monkey debacle but time was not on her side. 

One of her assistants scampered in and squeaked that the Prime Minister had arrived in an excited voice. No need to get excited, he was just another political pig and no messiah thought Mayuri. She gave him a few minutes to settle down and went to his office. She knew Samyuktha would be there and the whole spectacle was for her benefit. She knocked the door and it was opened by Samyuktha. Both Samyuktha and Mayuri took seats across the table from Saravanan. 

“Sir, this is the file for the Worlington Industry approval that I told you about,” she said and handed him the file. 

“But Worlington was rejected by Dubey ji a long time ago. We can’t have another controversy in our hands right before by-elections,” said Samyuktha.

“Yes, but I am pro industry and pro development and intend to send the message across by signing this,” said Saravanan and signed the file and pushed it towards Mayuri. 

“Why are you doing this, are you really that great a moron?” asked Samyuktha. 

“Why don’t you concern yourself with the by-elections for now, P.A,” he said stressing the word P.A

There were several questions raised on the approval of the Worlington factory but the PR campaign by Worlington and the huge number of jobs it provided silenced any major stir. There were a few protests and some bad media coverage though. The whole issue was put on the back burner in a few weeks time when an idiot slaughtered a donkey in the middle of the road. Mayuri wasn’t surprised that the donkey was more of a prime time material than the Prime Minister. 

From that day Saravanan signed any papers for the right amount even if it didn’t come from Mayuri. Everyone from the peons to the secretaries was haggling over prices with the Prime Minister. She realised what a monster she had created when he sold parking slots in the secretariat building for a few thousand rupees apiece. This created a lot of commotion in the power circles of the ministers. 

The next controversy came right in the very same parking lot where he was selling spaces. He was smoking without a care in the world and some fool had photographed it and this news became viral. 

When in the very same parking lot some of the media had cornered him and asked, he had replied, “It isn’t as if my smoking can add to the already polluted capital. It is time to quit the cars and industries before I quit smoking.”

His comment caused a great uproar in the parliament and also in the nation. He confessed to Mayuri that he could do with a hearty donkey slaughter. Despite this he seemed unperturbed. In fact he said the cat is out of the bag and started smoking everywhere including the office in the secretariat building. He even started giving poses to the media with a cigarette in hand.  

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Oct 12

Samyuktha had called Mayuri for a meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence regarding the by-elections. Mayuri looked at her watch as she met Samyuktha at the door of the Prime Minister’s bedroom.

“Why can’t we have the meeting in the office rooms here?” she asked.

“Because your Prime Minister can’t be bothered to move outside his bedroom,” came the terse reply.

She didn’t like Samyuktha’s tone. Samyuktha had been growing too distant and annoying towards her. This had to be expected after all the stunts Saravanan and Mayuri pulled lately. Still she didn’t like it. Samyuktha had more credibility with the party high command than her. 

They knocked and entered, the room seemed to stink more than before and smoke swirled around. Saravanan was playing video games on the television while smoking at the same time. He stubbed his cigarette in the dustbin and Samyuktha went and opened all the windows in the room. Samyuktha was almost in a rage as she paced back and forth. 

She paused for a moment and said “The party high command has decided to make you face by-elections in its safest seat. But you are here smoking and playing video games oblivious to the world.” 

She plucked the game controller from his hand and threw it away and yelled, “Do you know what havoc your corrupt practices have caused the party and the nation? The nation is about to be bankrupt and riots are breaking everywhere including the capital.”

“Didi, do you mean to say he is to contest from the New Delhi Lok Sabha constituency?” asked Mayuri. 

“Yes, Manjunath Singh is resigning right now. I too wanted to resign, I wanted no part of this fool but high command refused, they want me to babysit this chimp for a while more. They say they are simultaneously working towards establishing a consensus candidate. The sooner it happens, the better it is for me.”

Mayuri was a bit surprised that Samyuktha was still behaving rudely with Saravanan, after all he was the PM of the nation. Only if they had accepted Samyuktha’s resignation it would have been great thought Mayuri. It seemed very clear that the old fools in the party high command were backing on Samyuktha to handle things and not on the clown to manage himself. They needed him till a consensus candidate emerged. 

“Didi I can’t see why you are upset. All party leaders have met with our Prime Minister and are pleased with him. Home Minister Manoj Pandey and Finance Minister Vikram Bhatt are all praise for our man. May be he can even emerge as the consensus candidate.”

“I accept being Prime Minister seems to be a little fun. But I can’t be here a minute longer than required. Maybe I should lose this election,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri almost lost it. Is he insane? She knew his indifference wasn’t enacted. He simply isn’t that much interested in being the Prime Minister anymore. He is bored and Mayuri just couldn’t believe it. 

“It is tough to lose even if you tried to. New Delhi is the party’s stronghold,” said Mayuri.

 “Yes, at least that is for sure,” said Samyuktha. 

Soon after that Mayuri excused herself and came out. Her calendar for the day was pretty much filled up with appointments. 

Home Ministry, North Block, Secretariat

New Delhi, Oct 15

After delivering the Worlington deal she hadn’t had a face to face meeting with Pandey. Both she and Pandey knew Shukla was nothing like her and was only a low level facilitator and liaison. So she met directly with Pandey from time to time to smooth wrinkles, thrash on new ideas and ensure they are on page on everything. She drummed her fingers on the hand rest of the sofa as she waited in the lobby of Pandey’s office. She was ushered in to Pandey’s office in a few minutes time.   

“Welcome, my favourite daughter,” greeted Pandey.

If you were my father I would have strangled you long back thought Mayuri but smiled and said “Now that Worlington is done, you call me your favourite again.”

“Even otherwise you’ll be my favourite always. It is because of working intelligent daughters like you that I can satisfy the complaints of my real daughters who want bigger T.Vs and bigger cars.”

Pandey assumed his seat and she also sat. The office was the same except for the big fishes in the aquarium. She suspected the fishes weren’t fed but rather thrown away when they die and replaced with new ones. She couldn’t put it past these evil morons. Pandey was a  low life viler than the worst of thugs. To him politics was as much negotiating as breaking down glasses of shops and buildings or sometimes even bones. 

“Is that fool of a Prime Minister for real? When I parked the car in my usual spot in the Secretariat and was told that my spot has been sold by the Prime Minister to someone else, I almost had a heart attack,” said Pandey.

“He is eccentric and the worst clown I have ever met but …“ Mayuri trailed off. 

“What is bothering you?” asked Pandey patting down his grey hair. 

“Leave it. We have a fool in the office that’ll do what we want. If he stays the full term it will be jackpot for all of us.”

“No, we don’t want him to stay the full term. I can’t wait till next term, we can’t be sure how the electorate would behave. I want to be Prime Minister now.”

She realised that the debacle of the caretaker and the coma of Dubey ji might seem like a great opportunity to this thug. 

“May be that is for the good. When I trailed off before, it was because I have a bad feeling about our guy.”

“No worry, our guy has had his hand right in the cookie jar and he hasn’t stopped. Even if not, no need to worry about fools and their consciences.”

 “No he doesn’t seem to have a conscience. He seems to be an even greater monster than us.”

“Then what is the problem?”

Mayuri rotated the table weight on the table and said “He seems okay. I can’t decipher how he came to be such a fool, for I am sure he isn’t acting. The monkey dance on the parapet wall was no acting. There is something about him that isn’t right. He isn’t a normal politician or a normal person for that matter.”

“All the more reason we want the guy to be defeated in the by-elections. I’m going to give Vikram Bhatt one last chance for a deal, even if he doesn’t come on board I’m going to push for being Prime Minister.”

“But New Delhi constituency is our stronghold.”

“Yes, but I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”

 “That is a tough ask. I’ll give my best shot at defeating the clown. I’ll see if I can have Sushant or someone from his party throw their hat in for the By-elections”

“Mayuri I want you to meet Bhatt and talk sense to him. Try to have him support me for being PM,” he said. 

 As she exited the building, she phoned and fixed an appointment with Sushant Kumar  for the next day. 

SPG Office, Secretariat, New Delhi, Oct 15

Kalpana was in the office of the SPG in the secretariat building attending a meeting headed by the Director SPG and attended by a few other officers of the SPG. Her friend Arun, the DIG in IB was there as a liaison. It was a meeting to discuss the new threat on the life of the PM and it was over soon. Arun remained and talked with Kalpana on the new developments. 

Arun said,  “Zohura has pointed to the terrorists hang out in Lajpat nagar in the ground floor of a building complex there.” 

Kalpana interjected “that is good.”

“Of course the terrorists have fled and have sterilised the building but we are examining every bit of scrap and are interviewing the building owner and anyone who might have come across them.”

Kalpana said, “Would you mind if I took part in the investigations, the interviewing and examining of the evidence, would you.”

Arun said, “Be my guest but why suddenly back to intel from operations?”

Kalpana replied, “It isn’t that. I kind of like this guy, our PM and don’t want to leave anything to chance in protecting this one. I am sort of doing this for him.” 

Arun said, “The forensic team is swarming the place collecting photographic evidence, finger prints , DNA and what not. But we don’t expect any matches from the databases as intel has it that these are terrorists from a splinter group of the Jaish who have crossed the border and been here a while. The recruitment and use of girls are a new M.O that was completely unknown. If not for you Kalpana we would never be on to it.”

Kalpana shrugged and motioned for Arun to continue. 

Arun continued, “A RAW communication intercept has placed the assassination attempt to be this month precisely.”

On hearing there would be an attempt to kill the PM this soon Kalpana decided not to waste any more time. 

She dragged Arun aside and told him, “I would like to see the terrorist hide out and meet the people who’ve seen them immediately.”

“So you are serious. Do you still have that magic or do you want to just tag along to assuage your curiosity or conscience or whatever?” asked Arun.

Kalpana looked down to see her eyes reflected in the shiny spotless shoes and then looking up and in an authoritative tone challenged her friend “I never lost my magic do you want to bet?”

“No one in their right mind would bet against Kalpana the fox, the one time investigative legend of IB.”

“You know I’ve always wondered if the epithet fox was for my investigative skills or was for my looks.”  

“Don’t flatter yourself. You never really looked like a fox. We share our intelligence with the NIA and Yadav is handling this there,” he said while driving. 

Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi, Oct 15

They went straight to the ground floor apartment where the terrorists had stayed. The place had been sealed off by police tape. But there was nothing inside as all things including trash must have been bagged and examined by the forensic team. It was a sparse 1BHK apartment. There on the wall of the bedroom were scribblings and drawings near the bottom probably done by a kid. Kalpana took out her mobile and took several photographs from several angles. She also took photographs of the walls of the other rooms and the shelves including the bathroom. 

The place looked sterile with no signs of a clue except the drawings. There was a rack underneath the roof and on the bed room wall of the rack there was one non dusty portion distinct on the wall. It was smaller and more narrower than a tennis bag shape but it was semi rectangular. It could have been any item placed there regularly for there were traces of dust in the non dusty portion as well and a overlap of the same shape. She then went around the perimeter of the building and at the back she found fragments of half burnt paper scattered. It looked as if someone had burnt a few papers and scattered them from the roof. She circled the building again slowly and carefully looking for all such paper fragments. She collected them and bagged it in a polythene bag. 

They met the apartment owner who luckily lived on the second floor of the same building. He invited them inside and offered them tea which they declined. 

They sat down and the owner said, “They seemed like any normal family. Two little girls, the father and an uncle. They said the mom was in village and would arrive shortly. The father called himself Tariq Naqvi and the uncle Iqbal. I have given their description to sketch artists and they have given fairly accurate drawings. ”

Arun asked “What other details do you recall about the stay of the terrorists?”

“I’ve told everything already to the cops. There were quite a few visitors to the place over the period of few months they stayed here. About four guys regularly visited here. It was as if they stayed here. At one time there were almost a dozen people in the apartment. Naqvi said it was the birthday function of a girl.”

Arun asked, “Did they go out often?”

“Iqbal went out often. Sometimes Naqvi went out alone. But someone was always there with the girls. I’ve also seen the girls going out alone. A couple of times I’ve seen the big girl with a bag, the one that got caught. The one that killed a cop, what a vile creature.”

Kalpana asked, “When ever they were in a group who were they deferential to. Did they bow or obey any visitor in particular?”

The owner scratched his head and said, “Now that you mention it, it was Naqvi that everyone bowed and obeyed to. All people including the old visitors bowed and obeyed him.”

“Is there any particular habits of the people you’ve left out?”

“No, Naqvi and Iqbal took early morning walks together leaving the girls alone. These and many other tiny details I’ve thoroughly told the police as they rigged me. Not that I am complaining.”

“You have a rooftop at the fourth floor isn’t it. Do any of them frequent it?”

A frowning owner said, “Yes, Iqbal went there often.”

“Did he carry anything with him?”

“Yes, now that you mention, he carried a bag almost like a miniature violin bag with him. I didn’t inform this to the other cops because they never asked.”

“What did it look like plastic, synthetic, cloth, leather?”

“Synthetic.”

“Did it have any markings on it?”

“Yes, but it had been scratched off.”

“Do you remember any odd conversations with them?”

“I’ve told all. They mostly asked about the functions here. The weather, traffic, festivals here like the Diwali. They asked a lot about Republic day.”

Kalpana nodded to Arun and he said to the owner, “That is all for now but we will be back if we need anything.”

After they were out in their car Kalpana said to Arun, “I have the photos of the dust prints on the rack beneath the roof. Send it to forensics. It has the shape of what could be a sniper bag. Let forensics try and determine the probable rifles it can contain. Naqvi must be the mission commander and he has isolated Iqbal for he must be the sniper. The other visitors must be part of the Republic Day attack plan. The four regular visitors can be for Iqbal’s assistance like getting the itinerary of the PM etc. Two separate teams one for PM assassination and one for Republic Day strike must be working under Naqvi.”

“Are you sure, it doesn’t seem probable for the same team to coordinate two missions simultaneously?” asked Arun scratching his head.

“Yes, that and the fact that they normally operate in small cells to avoid exposure but here there is contact of many, tells me that something unusual is happening here. They must be planning something big and must be stretched thin on human resources.”

She handed the polythene bag to him and said, “Get this to forensics too. These are fragments of paper, looks like some sort of drawings or plans and when forensics pieces this together we might have an idea about their plans. 

  “Wow, you are something,” said Arun in clear admiration of Kalpana. 

“No, every time the PM comes out a sniper’s scope might be focusing on him. Now that is something.”

“Yet we now know that it will be a sniper attempt on the PM’s life. That will give you guys in the SPG a lot to focus on. We can beat these guys, cheer up.”

CHAPTER 5

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Oct 17

Mayuri was driving to meet Saravanan. He was cornered when he was standing in the parking lot of the secretariat building by a few media persons and he had sort of given an informal interview. Under normal circumstances this one interview alone could have ended his chances of winning the By-elections. But in New Delhi Lok Sabha constituency people voted for the party and there was little chance of Jan Shakti being defeated. 

There were only two credible national parties in the country. The Congress and the BJP, till recently. Dubey ji’s persona changed all that as he took the oath of office on behalf of the national party Jan Shakthi representing the Jan Vikas Sankatan, JVS, coalition. The Aam Aadmi Party that was born out of a national movement got itself limited to a party of the Capital. These would be the only major parties to field candidates unless she convinced Sushant Kumar and let ‘Aag’ sweep over the New Delhi constituency.

Mayuri drove into 7, Lok Kalyan Marg and knocked Saravanan’s bed room. It was opened by Samyuktha with a remote in her hand. Mayuri noticed that the room had been recently cleaned by the staff. The smell of tobacco was also very faint and the aroma of a room freshener was distinctly felt. 

Samyuktha changed to a news channel and asked Mayuri, “Have you seen this?”

On screen a reporter asked, “There are rumours that you are corrupt, what do you say to this?”

Saravanan responded, “What a foolish question. If I were corrupt do you expect me to accept? Money corrupts but so does power. I can assure you that I am not corrupt by power.”

“So do you accept you are corrupt by money?” persisted the reporter.

“I take the fifth amendment,” replied Saravanan to the shock of everyone around. 

“What?”

“The fifth amendment of the U.S constitution that allows people to remain silent.”

Mayuri couldn’t suppress her laughter and Samyuktha glared at her.

“The seat for the upcoming by-elections is the stronghold of Jan Shakthi Party. Some think we might have a surprise with a controversial candidate like you. What do you think of this?” asked the reporter. 

“You’ve thought for both of us, so does it matter what I think, though I do love surprises.”  

“What do you think of the –“

“Later mate,” he said and got in to his car waving at the media. 

“There you have our Prime Minister accepting by his silence that he is corrupt. Do we need to have such a man ruling us is the great question we must all answer in good conscience,” said the reporter. 

“Can I watch my movie now?” asked Saravanan and grabbed the remote from Samyuktha’s hands.  

He switched channels and Mayuri saw Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant on the screen. 

“Is it notting hill?” she asked.

“Yes, I just love this movie, I love romantic comedies,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri was surprised by this side of Saravanan. He is kind of cute she thought. 

“The whole nation is in pandemonium over the economic collapse and worried about the probably corrupt Prime Minister and all you care about is your stupid movie,” said Samyuktha. 

Saravanan sat on his bed leaning against the wall and stretching his legs on the bed. He patted the bed on his side and said, “Come on climb in, let us watch the movie.”

Mayuri needed no second invitation and stretched herself on the bed leaning against the wall. 

Samyuktha rolled her eyes and said, “What the heck, I too love this movie,” and sat on a chair.

“If only I had landed a loving girl for myself I wouldn’t have bothered with this Prime Minister thing. In the end all one needs is a soul mate,” said Saravanan.

“I never figured you to be the romantic kind of guy,” said Samyuktha looking across at him. 

“It is just a kind of nostalgia but now the time has passed for me. I have been cast to be a single guy. If only I could find my self esteem and honour back, I might not regret being single,” said Saravanan.

“Why what has happened to them now?” asked Samyuktha. 

“I just don’t know,” said Saravanan. 

“I think I kind of know that feeling. But I don’t let it bother me. I keep myself occupied all the time,” said Mayuri. 

“Let us drink while watching the movie. It is the ultimate enjoyment,” he said looking at Mayuri. 

“So early in the evening, don’t –“ 

“Come on,” he said and hollered “Kalpana.”

Kalpana entered and asked “What do you want sir?”

“Can you have drinks sent to us and why don’t you step in and watch the movie with us? I promise you no terrorist will break in till the movie is over.”

Kalpana smiled at this and said, “Thank you sir, but I would prefer to stand outside,” and left the room. 

Mayuri thought this guy is kind of affable and sweet if you really get to know him. But the public will never get to know the real him. This guy never had a chance, he was steamrolled from the beginning. Now the people consider him to be a kind of monster except for the ardent party supporters. Despite this, her work of defeating him in the elections was an uphill task unless Aag contests. Samyuktha had it easy as getting him elected would be a cake walk. 

As they got drunk Mayuri shed her guard and tipsily asked Saravanan “Do you trust me?”

Saravanan glanced at her and downing the drink in a gulp said, “You won’t understand. I know you and Samyuktha hate me but I love you and her all the same, though I know that you aren’t trustworthy. I have had only solitude for company for over a decade so I am cherishing every minute with you guys here.”

“I am plotting to defeat you in the by-elections,” she said looking at him warily. 

“What? You wench how can you –“ started Samyuktha. 

“Yo, yo, wait, we may be in politics but let us not drag ourselves in to petty behaviour over politics and start infighting. It doesn’t matter to me either way, if I win or lose. But it matters much to Samyuktha and the party and I am fully with that. I don’t mind you working to defeat me as long as you promise that, if I win you must quit being corrupt and side with Samyuktha here fully,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri even in the drunken state couldn’t help but wonder at this fool, she wasn’t sure if she could gamble on her future in the cool manner he did. 

She cocked her head at him and said, “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

Mayuri knew Samyuktha was fuming. But Samyuktha kept silent biting her lips. They heard a knock on the door and Samyuktha went and opened the door. 

Kalpana peered in and looking at Saravanan said, “Sir, my shift is over, I am about to leave, can I do something for you?”

“Yes, you could be with us for a while. The movie is over though,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri thought that this guy still didn’t get that he was the leader of a nation. He was content being himself and playing the fool trying to impress and earn the love of those around him. She had seen people with a craving to be approved and abhorred them. He wasn’t like that, he didn’t mind the whole nation condemning and mocking him. He just wanted to have a good time. 

Kalpana blushed and came in and sat on a chair. She sat there looking at her feet.

“Forget that I am the Prime Minister. Hell, even I forget it at times,” said Saravanan. 

“Would you mind if I indulged in shop talk. After all it was why I was here before you dragged me in to seeing the movie. The Parliament is about to debate the Lok Pal amendment bill. It had been Dubey ji’s brain child. So you need to make a presence and read a prepared text. Can you do that?” asked Samyuktha. 

“I will if you give me something in return. There are a lot of  things to celebrate if I win the by-elections like Mayuri turning a new leaf. I want to visit Paris. So if you arrange that, I’ll address the parliament,” said Saravanan. 

“But –“ said Samyuktha.

“No buts, I am the Prime Minister for god’s sake. I deserve a foreign tour,” said Saravanan and then looking at Kalpana asked, “How would you like to visit Paris.”

“I’ve already been there on tour of duty sir. I loved it,” said Kalpana. 

“Have you two been also to Paris?” asked Saravanan looking at the other two. Both nodded their heads in the affirmative. 

“So it is just me who hasn’t seen any thing in the world. Okay, we are still going to Paris. With me by your side you will see a whole new Paris.”

Mayuri could believe that for right here in Delhi she has had more fun with him than when she had on her visits to Paris. The life of top Bureaucrats and top politicians must be a life of solitude surrounded by fake people who wanted something in return. Her flings with boys were a sort of escape from all such things. 

Saravanan closed his eyes and said, “I want to record this moment for posterity. Me surrounded by three beautiful and intelligent women. To me this relation with you guys is more important than Prime Ministership.”

“You act like a love starved puppy. Have you never known romance in your life?” asked Samyuktha. 

“There was a girl. I loved her more than life itself. But she left me on account of my loser life and lifestyle that you girls also find disgusting.”

“So did you become like this because the girl left you?” asked Samyuktha. 

“Didn’t you hear me. She left me because I already was like this. I have a sort of a mental illness that got worse every time I tried to do something useful. It ruined my life and that is part of the reason why I am like this, a disgusting loser.”

Mayuri was shocked by this side of Saravanan. Both the romantic side and the illness. She couldn’t but feel sympathetic for him. 

Mayuri looked at her watch, it was seven. She still had plenty of time for her appointment with Sushant Kumar. But she thought it better to get moving. 

Aag HQ, Laxmi Nagar, New Delhi, Oct 17

She arrived at the old dilapidated building that was the head quarters for the party Aag. She went in and told of her appointment to a guy. The place was swarming with party cadres. She found Sushant Kumar writing slogans on a placard. They were protesting the special V.I.P flyover proposal in the capital. The room was full of cadres sitting on the floor and preparing placards. Sushant Kumar was sitting on the floor too. She was offered a chair which she declined and sat on the floor. 

She came straight to the point and said, “I am tired of working for a sloppy Prime Minister. I believe if your party contests in the polls you could pull out a surprise victory.”

“The idea has been nagging me too. We want to expand from being a two state party. But we aren’t ready yet and a by election alone wouldn’t mean much to us,” said Sushant Kumar.

“Yes but this isn’t an ordinary by election. You would be contesting against a sitting PM and when you win you will be creating history. The PM is so corrupt that you will be doing the nation a favour. You owe this to the nation.”

“Okay, we will contest,” said Sushant getting up.   

She shook hands with him and a few others and left the building. She wished she could be a part of them believing in a greater cause and devoting herself completely to it. She knew if ‘Aag’ fielded a candidate it might spoil the chances of Saravanan. ‘Aag’ had little chances of winning but their voter base overlapped heavily with Jan Shakthi’s and votes would be split causing either the BJP or Congress to win. It was good news for her. She always thought you were either honest or corrupt like her. She didn’t know of the possibility of quitting corruption as Saravanan called it. She knew that if even if he won she can’t quit being corrupt. Realising that Saravanan’s days as a PM might be short lived than expected she decides to be kinder to him till he has to depart.  

Tihar Jail, Delhi, Oct 17

Zohura sat on the cement cot with her face on her lap and her hands clutching her feet. The window in the room was too high for her and the door faced a passageway wall. She was all alone in the room. She had been confined like this for quite a few days away from all the other girls she had seen when entering this place. She was wearing the same clothes she had when she was captured. She was shivering as it was very cold. She remembered being told on the outside that it was nearing winter in Delhi. She was in Tihar, she remembered for she always clung to and remembered snippets of information from the world. 

When she had been captured the frightful evil people had threatened her, slapped her hard several times, bound her and hit her with big sticks on her feet and buttocks. Oh, what an awful agony all of it was. She had difficulty sitting from then on. One guy even had immersed her in a bucket full of water and held her there while she gasped for breath. She remembered crying and wailing for mercy at each instance of her brutal treatment. She had told them the truth and what she knew. For she knew little and had been instructed to tell things when she was caught. She told them the location of her people. Not that it mattered now for as soon as she failed to take any call, her mobile was taken away, her people would have shifted places. She had a mail id which was given to her to contact in emergencies that she didn’t tell her captors. But that too didn’t matter, for it was an insignificant detail. But she remembered things, things about her people and the plan that she overheard or guessed that even her own people didn’t know she had such knowledge. The things on the tour of India she had with Salim ji. She didn’t hint about it to her captors. People under estimate the intelligence of children.

The food was bad and barely sufficient. More than the cold and the hunger, being alone without company of other girls and being locked up without much light or fresh air tormented her. At times when she was not praying she would slip in to the make believe world of hers. A world of wonder and fun, she would be a princess or a poor girl rescued by a prince or some such thing.  She prayed almost constantly. She was a tough village girl but it was God who helped her withstand the torture. When her torture stopped, she heard a guy say to the cruel man who immersed her in water, that orders from the PM, no more torture. But their PM was a godless person she had been told by her people, then why did he help her she wondered. 

Zohura shut that moment of killing out of her memory. When ever it cropped she offered fervent prayers of apology again and again. But there were also rare times when she remembered grown ups of her people talking about killing other people. How they were feared and respected. She felt like a grown up when she thought of what she did. After all she only killed a Kafir, a godless person. May be in future she would be respected and feared for what she did.

Saravanan was in the offices in the Prime Minister’s residential complex signing documents that Samyuktha and Mayuri were pushing towards him. 

Samyuktha received a phone call and she sighed and said to Saravanan, “It was the director IB, there have not been any new leads in the terror threat. They are sure that the girl has information that could lead to the capture of the terrorists. They want to interrogate the girl closely.”

Saravanan drummed his fingers on the table and said, “It is Kalpana’s shift isn’t it? Ask her to come in.”

Saravanan understood the position of the IB. They believe the torture of the kid was a small price to pay for the safety of the nation. They had knowledge that the girl had vital clues that will lead to capture of the terrorists. Yet she was a little girl who has been through a lot already. 

He looked up at Kalpana and asked, “You caught the girl. What do you think of her?”

“She looked big for her age, like fourteen but was ten and…” Kalpana was saying. 

Saravanan interrupted her, “How can you be sure of her age?”

“Medical tests were conducted. Later, closer up she seemed like a special girl to me.”

“What do you mean by special girl?”

“Not like other girls, like may be she was not right in the head.”

“Do you think she should be aggressively interrogated?”

“It is not my place to say, you have able secretaries on whose counsel you can decide.”

Saravanan swirled his chair towards Samyuktha and asked her, “Is it customary to ask for the PM’s approval for interrogation.”

“No, but this was a unique high profile case involving a child. I’ve heard that they now regret having referred this to us. For having referred they can’t go against explicit orders. They expected a summary approval from us but you negated. Every one including public opinion is against the girl.”

“Why are they hell bent on torturing the girl?”

“They believe the girl has info that can lead to capture of terrorists. These guys have lost friends in protecting the nation. They want to save lives of so many innocent people including kids. I think you should give the go ahead for close interrogation.”

“I think the same too. It will be a mild discomfort to the girl and she will recover soon. Many lives would be saved,” said Mayuri.

“Torture is no mild discomfort,” said Saravanan swirling in the chair and then looking up added, “let us go to prison and visit this girl now.”

Saravanan travelled in a motorcade of a dozen vehicles that had about seven BMWs that he counted. Accompanied by Samyuktha, Mayuri and Kalpana he entered the meeting area in the prison and was seated. He saw a little girl brought in being pushed by the guards. She seemed so innocent and fragile that Saravanan’s heart skipped a beat. She sat there looking down at her foot. The way she stared at her foot and at times looked up at the ceiling with a blank face signalled to him this was not an ordinary girl. She was a special girl with some psychological disorder. His heart went out to the little girl who had to suffer like this at an early age. 

Saravanan introduced himself and tried to talk to her but she kept staring at her feet. The guards were about to force her to answer but Saravanan silenced them with his hands. An IB official said she talked only on hard interrogation but at all other times remained silent. He asked the guards and the IB officials to leave. 

Samyuktha didn’t like this impromptu visit a bit. Yet she was surprised by the care that Saravanan showed the little girl.   

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t talk. I like you and would love to talk to you,” he said and continued talking about how he played hide and seek and other dice games when he was a kid. 

He kept talking softly unperturbed that he didn’t receive a reply. He had been talking for an hour when the girl mildly looked up. 

He said, “We could do this while having something. I feel like an ice-cream,” he said and looked at Kalpana who left and returned after some time with ice creams. 

The girl accepted it and started eating it slowly. Samyuktha saw a whole new persona of Saravanan by his handling of the girl.  

The girl looked up and said, “I am Zohura. At first th.. th.. th.. they beat me and even immersed me in water. Then it stopped, I heard a guy say it wa..wa.. was because of your orders. That is what I do, I hear and remember things. I’ve told all that I know. Believe me.”

Saravanan was taken aback by the stuttering of the girl. His resolve to protect this innocent slip of a girl intensified.  

“I believe you. I would like to meet you often. I hope you don’t mind. Do you want anything else.”

The girl looked up with apprehension and asked slowly, “They keep me lo.. locked alone. Can you make them place me with the other girls. Also it is cold, a blanket would be nice.”

Saravanan beckoned the Jailor and ordered, “Take the kid out of isolation, give her a blanket and have a child psychiatrist look at her.”

The way the girl’s face lit up when she heard this convinced Saravanan he had done the right thing by coming here.  

CHAPTER 6

ISI Head Quarters, Islamabad, Oct 18

Salim sat sipping his tea wondering what brand it was, it was unlike the one in his office. Despite the General’s friendliness Salim couldn’t bring himself to ask what brand the tea was. He was always formal with the General and never took any liberties. He wasn’t as much concerned with personal improvement as he was concerned with the improvement of the cause. He wanted his daughter to be proud of the nation as much as she was of her father. 

The Indian economic crisis and law and order scenario has deteriorated considerably that some bureaucrats in Pakistan have started worrying about a probable refugee crisis on their hands. Hyperinflation has aggravated beyond controllable limits. The law and order situation has deteriorated considerably that the army has been heavily deployed across all states to control the situation. If Pakistan were to invade India now it would be a cake walk for them. 

The streets of India were lined with protesters and rioters that burned, looted and pillaged everything in sight. It was said that India now was in a worse state than most of the internal war ravaged African nations at their worst. It was true that the villages, towns and second tier cities were the worst hit. The major cities were beginning to feel the impact of things. The day the capital New Delhi was as hit like the rest of the nation was soon. It will merely be hastened by their actions on the Indian Republic day. 

“Can you believe it that a leader of a nation is dancing drunk on a wall?” asked the General sipping his tea. 

“There are actually video footages of it sir,” said Salim placing the tea cup on the table. 

“The nation is crumbling and see the corruption of the PM. He actually sold parking spots in the Secretariat. How low can a nation sink to?”

“This PM might be our lucky ticket for the success of all our plans sir.”

“I am actually worried that with this clown as the head, their nation might crumble all by itself without our help and render all our plans useless.”

Salim laughed heartily at this and was joined by the General. 

“On a more serious note what of the arrest of our girl Zohura?”

“It was an unfortunate event sir. But she has proved more than useful as a cover and carrier. The Semtex she was caught with was one of the last shipments in to the capital. The mission has reached a stage where there is little need of a cover or carrier. For the remaining meagre needs the other girl Ghazia can be used. As for the interrogation of Zohura we need not fear sir, that girl is special and can’t talk to any outsiders.”

“Are you sure? For the strength of terrorist operations is its cell structure. No member of a cell knows the full plan or the other cell members. So if a cell member is caught only his cell is compromised and the rest of the cells and the plan is safe. Here we have Zohura being used across cells and even you have used her for your tour of India.”

“Sir, Zohura is a little girl and a special one at that. I am sure she knows nothing of the plan even if our team had been careless around her. She can’t understand things like normal people. Her special disability is that she can’t communicate with outsiders. Doctors say her condition will only worsen under torture making her shut down forever. So you need not worry on that account sir.”

“Good then. Make use of the asset in Indian Intelligence you acquired to be informed of Zohura and other things but be careful when sharing him with cell members for we don’t want him compromised. As for the honey trapped Minister, avoid using him for anything other than to announce acknowledgement of the cessation of the Indian regions.”   

“Yes sir. Except for the valley and Punjab our people have taken assumed identities in  Tamil Nadu and the North East.” 

Salim passed a file to the General and continued, “They have taken both identities as locals and also as people from other SAARC nations. They have mostly been smuggled in as civil and electrical contractors and labourers for front companies allegedly involved in reviving the Indian economy. Our people can get in to the Valley and Punjab through mass infiltration across the border at an appropriate time.”

“Excellent, all this done so soon. Then can we prepone the date of execution of the plan.”

“No sir. The making of the bombs is going on. The operational details of the plan to bomb the Secretariat and the Parliament have to be prepared and finalised. We have to share at least part of our agenda with China to get their help in lobbying the UN. But more importantly our operatives in India have been instructed to take control of the regions on their own if for some reason contact between us is broken. So the date has to be the Republic day in 109 days.”

“Good, do this successfully and then you may even end up having one of the offices here,” said the General and stood up shaking Salim’s hands. 

Salim came to his desk and saw a mail from Naqvi asking for the SPG security standard practices to be helpful for planning the assassination of the Indian PM. Salim had already got the details from the mole and he mailed it to Naqvi. He had a secure phone and so did Naqvi and other people in terrorist cells so he could call them if wanted. All communication was kept minimal and carried out on a need to know basis. 

Aag HQ, Laxmi Nagar, New Delhi, Oct 18

Sushant Kumar was sitting behind  a desk and going over the account statements of the party. Sitting across him were his two faithful assistants and party workers Sushma Sawant and Anil Dhawan. Anil was the treasurer of the party and Sushma was one of the prime spokesperson of the party. The office bearers of the party were treated like any other ordinary party worker. 

Sushant was from a poor low caste family in U.P and was the pivotal man in the movement against corruption. Picketing was a way of life for him and he had been arrested many times. Though he now was thinking of stopping the picketing activities for a while. The nation was in the streets picketing and rioting with a mad frenzy that frightened him. He knew it was time to do something or the nation would go to the dogs.  

The clown who was PM now seemed the least bothered about the plight of the people. 

He looked across the table at Sushma and said, “You are going to fight the by election in New Delhi constituency against this clown of a PM”

Sushma said, “Are you sure? There are more suitable candidates.”

“This is your home constituency and you have maximum exposure as a spokesperson of our party. Thanks to Anil here funds are beginning to pour in to the party. No one from the voters realise the importance of money in elections. Of course we won’t cheapen ourselves by trying to win votes with money.”

“Then I will contest but make sure the party funds are available for hoardings, posters, rallies and other things. We will give it our best shot.”

“The nation is crumbling and the ruling party is unable to do anything and it is a sad thing really. Use it heavily in your campaign. Given the state of things I don’t think the government can last for much longer.”

“Yes that is true. I have heard rumours of a South Indian party trying to bring a no confidence motion in the house very soon,” said Anil. 

“We must be prepared to face a General Election soon.”

“Are we confining ourselves to the North Indian states for now?” asked Sushma. 

“Yes MP, UP, Rajasthan and Bihar will be our focus. We will try to form a coalition with the parties in the south and elsewhere,” said Sushant twirling his moustache a bit. 

“The nation is in such a bad shape with the economy collapsing and with the hyper inflation pushing people to take the streets and cause rampant lawlessness.”

“Yes, thats why I am trying to organise an economic summit here in Delhi that includes the country’s top economists. We will then submit our recommendations to the government.”

“We must do something or the nation will come to pieces soon. Did you see the tanks standing by the roadside. It is almost surreal,” said Sushma. 

“Our people protesting against the Worlington Lead extraction plant have been beaten by Pandey’s thugs who call themselves Pandey’s sainiks. The cops instead of arresting them have arrested our people. They are still in jail. We must continue the protests and show that we can’t be intimidated.”

“Interestingly I’ve heard that Pandey’s goons are actually working for us in the by elections. They don’t want the clown of a PM to win,” said Sushma. 

Sushant was deep in thought stretching back in his chair and looking at the ceiling. He shook his head and said, “The nation is crumbling before our eyes and we are sitting here planning strategies for elections. This is not right.”

“What else can we do. This is how democracy works,” said Sushma. 

“This is not a time to fight. This is the time to speak in one voice. Try to convene an all party meeting soon Anil. We must stand united in facing the scourge before the nation.”

Home Minister Pandey’s Residence, Akbar Road, Delhi, Oct 18

Pandey was seated in his chair eating hot samosas, dipping them in pudinah chutney, in the office room in his home. 

“Eat it, don’t sit there staring at me. These are home made and delicious. You must eat it before the heat wears off.”

Shukla, Vipul and Jignesh who sat across from Pandey began munching the samosas in their plates. 

Pandey asked, “How are things going Shukla? Is it done?”

“Babu ji, after Dubey ji’s coma MPs supporting him have split to join us and Bhatt and we have the edge as for now. But there are few who are undecided saying Dubey ji will recover soon.”

“What a load of crap. Have them over to our side soon. If they resist use Jignesh to persuade them.”

Pandey then looked at Vipul biting in to his samosas and gestured with his hand for him to go on. 

“Babu ji, when news got out that Pandey Sainiks won’t be arrested the number of people becoming Pandey Sainiks went up manifold. Almost all the people lining up the streets for picketing, rioting or looting want to be a part of us.” 

He took a bite of his samosa and continued, “the bureaucrats, cops and few of the lower court judges too are falling in to line. All national news channels are in our pockets. While the nation is burning these puppets have been singing our praise for controlling the situation.”

“Good, but I am worried about the loyalty of the bureaucrats and cops. Jignesh have your men visit the families of these puppets to remind them who is in charge.” 

“Yes Babu ji, and one more thing I have systematically killed everyone opposing you. The list you gave is almost over. Please give a new list soon Babu ji.”

Pandey laughed at this and Jignesh joined the laughter before continuing, “We have bashed almost all the opposition party rallies and Bhatt’s rallies so far. We have also bashed the news channels telecasting the interviews of these leaders or Bhatt. Not one of them is able to communicate freely with their supporters.”

“Good, good work all of you. Now make sure this clown of a PM doesn’t win this by election.”

“He will defeat himself sir. No need to worry, the chances of his winning are very remote,” said Vipul.   

IB HQ, New Delhi, Oct 18

Kalpana eyed her friend Arun as she sipped soft drinks from the styrofoam cup in his office and asked, “Why have you called me over here? This is highly unusual?”

“There are fresh inputs in the terror investigations and I thought of letting you know them personally. That is all.”

“Come on, we are good friends and I know I asked you to allow me a peek in to the investigations but I have never known you to be this forthcoming about your work before now. Come on spit it out or I am out of here.”

“Relax will you. Pandey has been using the police force as his errand boys and has started poaching on other government officers too including the IB personnel. He has begun to intimidate the officers to join him. Given the state of the nation, many feel they have no other option except to comply with Pandey’s wishes. So the big man, Director IB, himself has asked me to cultivate you.”

“So you want me because of my closeness to the PM? But many including the IB consider this PM to be a passing fad. Then why this?” 

“The PM may be a passing fad but you are not. You can be close to any PM who comes after. You are an ex IB officer and we are simply welcoming you back to the fold. We just need an indirect channel to the PM.”

Kalpana sipped her soft drink and said, “It feels nice to be back here after all. We will handle Pandey and his plans in time but what about the fresh inputs on the terror situation you have.”

“Among the finger prints found in the terrorist hangout in Rajasthan, two prints belong to known Khalistan terrorists.”

“The Khalistan guys were defunct or low level I thought.”

“So did I but it seems there is a sort of revival. The prints at Lajpat Nagar in Delhi have been matched to four people from the North East. Two prints are of ULFA terrorists from Assam and the other two prints are of people with no criminal records from the North East and we matched their prints only through the Aadhaar database.”

“This doesn’t make any sense. ULFA terrorists and Khalistan terrorists working together with Pakistani terrorists to carry out blasts in Delhi. If they succeed who will take credit for the attack. Something is amiss here. Why co ordinate so many outfits for terror activities that are beginning to be common place.”  

“May be the next piece of information will clear your doubts. The pieces of half burnt paper you collected from the Lajpat Nagar terrorist handout have been pieced together. They seem to be fragments of papers containing the itinerary of the PM, that includes secret meeting schedules, and also SPG standard protocols that only a high level bureaucrat or intelligence official would know.” 

“Am I here because I am under suspicion? Is that it?”

“No, there is more bad news and that clears you from suspicion. The papers include what could only have been detailed structural plans of the Parliament and the Secretariat. You have been away from intel for so long and have no access to these things. You are in the clear.”

“My goodness they are planning to blast the Parliament and the Secretariat. If they succeed most of the leadership of the nation will be wiped out.”

Kalpana stood up deep in thought and went to the dustbin in the corner and deposited the empty soft drink can in her hand. 

Arun said, “An email intercept talks of exploiting the under used high level mole in the Indian Intelligence. We’re tracking the emails from that account but it is of no use. They are changing the email accounts often.”

“Still it doesn’t make sense if Pakistan has established operational contact with Khalistan and ULFA terrorists, what is the point in blasting the capital and wiping out the leadership if not for establishing control over the regions. But they don’t have the resources in place to do that and even if they did they can’t maintain control as our armed forces will roll in and wipe them out.”

“Still it would be hell of a blow to the nation don’t you think. We are going to arrest the people whose finger prints have been identified.”

“No don’t do that. These are low level operatives and arresting them will  yield little information. Put them under surveillance that might lead us to something. I think there is more to this than meets the eye and the Pakistanis have somehow hatched a plan to seize and maintain control of these regions.”

Arun took out his mobile phone from his pocket and issued instructions and said to Kalpana, “I’ve cancelled the arrests and ordered them to be put under surveillance.”  

Kalpana left the building thinking to herself that the nation she loved is going to the wolves and nothing can be done about it.   

CHAPTER 7

Terrorist hideout, Laxmi nagar, Delhi, Oct 19 

Naqvi looked through the window from the first floor of the building. Everything was peaceful and quiet just the way he wanted it. It was a 3BHK apartment. It was a three storey building. The ground floor and second floor were also theirs but have been kept locked for now. They have leased the entire building stating office use a while back. The capture of Zohura had necessitated shifting to this safe house. If an emergency arises there were other places ready to accommodate them or other members of their gang. They had all come to India specifically for the mission and would leave when the mission was accomplished. All of them have assumed new roles and identities with fool proof back stories. But what ordinary people do not get is that there are people who are full time in India and it is they who provide the back up and logistics support. Of course that most of these people don’t know they are helping terrorists is immaterial. They are mostly underworld elements who know something shady is on. Of course there are hardcore sympathisers of the cause who are given responsible tasks. He was commander of operations of two of the most important missions of the year. If successful it would become the most successful mission of several decades. Recruiting little girls was his idea along with Salim. Two girls Zohura and Ghazia were recruited and trained as test cases. Both were daughters of dead freedom fighters, he abhorred the word terrorists that others used. Both were from impoverished families belonging to backward villages. 

The girls had been extremely useful as carriers and messengers. They have transported several kilos of explosives in to the capital successfully. They seemed harmless and innocuous yet sure of themselves and their grounds that no suspicion has been raised. The capture of Zohura, he learnt from news was due to the nosiness of the SPG officer and not from any weakness of the kid. It was a setback but such setbacks were to be expected. There was nothing to worry as the girl knew little to nothing. Even the hardcore guys knew little to nothing of the total plan. They were communicated errands on a piecemeal basis and only their handler in Pakistan would know the full picture. But in this case the mission commander. that is he Naqvi, knew the full picture as the planning and execution were in his control. He was to have been only the handler but the mission seemed so important that he volunteered to come to India and execute it. If successful this would destabilise India shaming it forever before other nations. 

The girl Zohura had been with him almost constantly. Normally that shouldn’t have been a problem. Except Zohura had the uncanny ability to recall even little tidbits of information from long back. This nagged Naqvi a bit. Zohura didn’t talk to adults like others and Naqvi had to use Ghazia to communicate with her. There was a shrill noise from one of the bedrooms. He went in to see Ghazia playing with toys on the bed. On seeing him she fell silent. 

“What have I told you? God’s children don’t make noise when playing. Zohura was never as noisy as you and yet God has taken her away from us. Do you want to be taken away too?” asked Naqvi. 

“No, I want to be here with you,” replied Ghazia meekly.

“Good girl,” he said and left for one of the other bedroom.

Iqbal was watching a Salman Khan movie on television. On seeing Naqvi he promptly switched off the television. Naqvi liked this about the guy and therefore kept him here. The others were at different places. Last time necessity of planning for bringing in the Semtex made him invite a few of them over at his place of stay. Not this time, he intended to stay here for a while. So no outsiders knew of this place of stay. A few explosive devices were being made.  But the commission had been allotted and that work will get over in its own time. The deadline for that mission is yet far away. He needed to focus on the mission at hand of assassinating the PM of India. 

Naqvi was interrupted in his thoughts by Iqbal asking, “What is it commander?”

“The time has come for you to know the target and location. Though you would have guessed the target by now, yes it is the PM of India. He is to address three rallies campaigning for the upcoming by elections, the locations, timings and other details are here in the file. Scout the locations and select the appropriate one for the job.”

“Yes Commander,” said Iqbal and began browsing through the file.    

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Oct 19

  Samyuktha called on Saravanan to discuss the campaign for the by election. As usual she had to meet him in his bedroom. At least this time he was not playing video games or watching any movie on the television. There was another young man with him sitting on a chair by the cot. He seemed well groomed and was in formals complete with polished shoes. He was thumbing through a book ‘Fountain Head by Ayn Rand.’ Samyuktha thought if instead of Saravanan they had got this guy how nice it would have been. Saravanan got off the phone and soon they were joined by Mayuri and Kalpana. 

“Nice book,” she said hoping to engage the strapping man in a conversation. 

The man looked up and said, “Oh, this is a gift from Saravanan. He is a voracious reader and it was he hooked me on to books. But he was also the one who taught me smoking and drinking.”

When everyone was seated, Saravanan properly introduced the friend, “Hi, this is Kamal, my childhood friend who brought me to Dubey ji’s rally and started all this in the first place. He is the Chief General Manager (CGM) of State Bank of India for the south zone, incharge of loans and advances. He brushes shoulders with the CEOs of MNCs and the top Indian firms in the Fortune 500 list.” 

Every one greeted Kamal and he greeted them back with such confidence and assertiveness that Samyuktha again thought if only this guy had climbed the stage in Dubey ji’s rally instead of Saravanan things would have been a lot better. 

Kamal said, “I cleared the preliminaries and mains for IAS but was disqualified in the interview. If Saravanan had tried he would have breezed easily. I am not exaggerating he answered almost all questions for IAS without an ounce of preparation.”

Saravanan shrugged and said, “You made it in life and that is what counts while I just got stuck like a bad headache,” and then he added, “Kamal is here for a Banking conference and will be here a week. I am thinking of brushing up my grasp of economics while he is here.” 

“He never cared for studies. He was a real bad guy in Engineering getting rough with fights and stuff. He never backed down and those who made the mistake of threatening him were really sorry. When he showed the least bit of interest in studies in his M.B.A he became the national topper. He got a splendid job but…” his friend trailed off.

“But I had the first episode of my mental illness and everything crashed. Each time I tried to bounce back the illness hit me and here I am the sore loser.”

Samyuktha was impressed by the supposed intelligence of Saravanan. He must have once showed promise and potential for his friend to carry on like this. 

“He is a paradox too. He never copied in exams himself yet helped everyone else by showing his answers. He was always drawn to bad habits and violence yet had zero ounce of cunning in him. He loves kids like anything and kids love him. He is the favourite of my daughter. Yet he remains unmarried without kids.” 

Then the topic turned in to other recent things and Mayuri recounted his mischiefs in the capital.

“Sorry to say this buddy, but you are considered a clown who is fully corrupt. You are easily the most hated and ridiculed PM till now,” said Kamal.

“Yes and that is my biggest problem and with the By election it has become my nightmare,” said Samyuktha. 

“Trust me when I say this but if at all there is a person who can climb out of this misfortune to become popular and respected, it is my friend Saravanan. It is just like his college days. Just as he was not in to studies then, he is not in to politics now. But if he tries, there is no stopping him.”

“Then why don’t you make him try?” 

“Are you kidding me. He will listen only to pretty girls and that too only if they say nicely. Be nice to him and it will make wonders. Okay I’ve got to leave now. Bye you guys. Consider what I said buddy, the top CEOs are considering withdrawing from this nation. Do something and stop the slide man before it is late.”

Kamal waved to them and left with the book in his hand. 

Kalpana as usual had sat silently without participating. After all she was with the PM and his secretaries, very powerful people. IAS was the first option for toppers of the qualifying UPSC exam. There is a hierarchy of departments. What many didn’t know was that Kalpana despite being eligible for IAS chose IPS. There are a few like her. Moreover in her days as ASP in Rajasthan, she had ruffled the feathers of quite a few political bosses and was transferred frequently. Seeing her soft spoken nature and her silence if one estimated her to be a pushover it would be far from the truth. 

She received a call from Arun. She took the call and stepped out of the PMs bedroom. 

He said, “A RAW intercept has a handler asking our person Naqvi here, if he received the schedule and security arrangements of the PM from the mole  inside intelligence. He then instructed to schedule the assassination of the PM in the coming week.”

The RAW among other things has an automated system that records and tracks mobile  conversations with certain flagged words like bombs or killings etc. They also screen all calls that come from Pakistan. The terrorists use scramblers or routing softwares that bounce the call to various towers across the world making tracing the origin difficult. But they don’t know that RAW has technology to unscramble most of the calls. 

The trouble is the sheer volume of calls to be monitored. So human monitoring is done only for certain hot numbers and calls flagged in by automated systems. The terrorists regularly change their sim cards so that their conversations are safe and their location is not compromised. The terrorists mostly use codes in their conversations but there are dedicated decoders working in RAW who use sophisticated programs to decipher most codes. So the RAW communication intercepts are an important pillar of the intelligence work apart from field intelligence. Actual detailed intelligence are the work of analysts who piece together evidences including field intelligence. 

Kalpana replied, “Okay, Arun keep me in the loop regularly and try to find that mole fast. It is your goddamned job. Now let me go try and do my job to the best of my ability, that is to protect our PM.”

She went in to see Samyuktha seriously arguing with the PM, business as usual she thought.

Samyuktha was saying, “All you have to do is to read prepared speeches at the three campaign rallies. Is that too difficult or too much to ask from you.”

“I can’t smoke for a couple of hours at least. I can’t do that, I simply can’t,” said Saravanan in a nonchalant yet stubborn manner. 

Kalpana spoke up, “On the subject of rallies can I speak sir?”

“Yes, lovely lady feel free to speak whenever you please.”

“Sir, from the security stand point I think you shouldn’t speak in the rallies.”

“See, didn’t I tell you I can’t speak, now security agrees too,” said Saravanan to Samyuktha. Mayuri felt like an intruder after having brought ‘Aag’ in to the race in the by election. As an effect of that the opinion polls showed a clear lead for the BJP. There is no way the trend could be reversed in such short time. Saravanan would definitely lose and the high command would not have him around after that. It would soon be time for him to pack his bags. She would have no cause to interact with him after that. She might have to vacate the PMO for some other department. She might even remain in PMO and be promoted if Pandey comes to power. Whatever happens she will be a powerful bureaucrat in Delhi while Saravanan will be back in his hometown a failure. 

She said mildly, “His security is important Didi.”

Samyuktha glared at Mayuri. She was pissed beyond limits by Saravanan’s child like behaviour. She knew that all her efforts at this stage were useless. Saravanan was going to fail miserably and will have to leave. Saravanan exiting from her life would be a good thing except for the fact that she would have failed to do the job entrusted to her by Dubey ji. She had betrayed Dubey ji sorely. 

“How serious is the security situation?” asked Samyuktha

Kalpana felt she was wasting precious time being here. The threat on PM’s life was imminent. She must be reviewing and revamping SPG protection and must put the people on alert. They must change some of the previously established patterns of checks with additional ones. Yet she composed herself to brief them on the situation.

“PM is targeted by a sniper. We believe his itinerary and security arrangements have been compromised. I think rallies are excellent choices for a sniper to have a crack at the PM.  His life would be under great threat in the rallies. This shouldn’t be taken lightly as the terrorists planning the Republic day blasts are the ones behind this too.”

  “What? Is there any new info on them. Wait, this is interesting like a thriller movie or novel. Tell everything without excluding any detail,” asked Saravanan.

Kalpana smiling a bit warned Saravanan, “This won’t be interesting as actual investigations are like a giant Jigsaw puzzle with the various pieces coming from various sources at various points of time. There is no single investigating hero who solves everything.”

“It doesn’t matter tell everything you know in detail,” said Saravanan. 

Kalpana went on to share all her information and how she got them including her brief field trip.

Saravanan replied, “Interesting, interesting. Nice work. We are being pressured to allow the girl to be tortured as there is no fresh evidence. The way I see it, I won’t be here much longer as per the opinion polls. Any one replacing me would fry the girl in a jiffy.”

Samyuktha said, “True, but there is nothing you can do.”

Saravanan sat deep in thought for sometime and scratching his head said, “Make the three rallies in to two. Keep the Ramlila maidan venue. It is a vast ground with no tall buildings near. For the second rally cancel the other venues and choose a controllable venue that seems to be a sniper’s wet dream with accessible tall buildings around. Have our sniper mark probable spots and have lax security to lure him and once he is in, nab him.”

“Of course you won’t be speaking at the rally but the sniper would be arrested. Nice plan,” said Kalpana. 

“No, I’ll have to speak or else the sniper might leave and not take the bait.”

“But sir, then your life will be at great risk. We can never allow that.”

“Yes your life will be in immense risk and we don’t want that,” said Samyuktha and even Mayuri nodded solemnly. 

“Come on guys, nabbing the terrorist might lead to capture of others and end the Republic day threat. Even if not, catching the guy would ease the pressure on the little girl. We can nab the sniper as soon as he is in place. I agree there would be a mild threat to my life. But come on girls it would be fun,” said Saravanan. 

“I agree the plan is sound but are you sure you want to risk your life for that little girl,” asked Kalpana.

“Look guys I am about to leave this place. My life is pointless anyway. I want to do one good thing at least before I leave. I want this to be a parting gift to the girl.”

Samyuktha after much thought said, “Yes, this might work. But are you sure Saravanan? This is no drunken dance. Here the risk to your life is a lot greater.”

A numbed Mayuri said, “I never expected you to risk your neck for anything. That must be one special girl. I am with the plan. But a slight miss in timing, we might nab our man but you won’t be there to rejoice. You sure?”

Kalpana said, “This would be escalating the threat. We choose the riskiest place for the rally, easiest for the sniper to enter, kill and exit. We have to maintain security lax before you speak, to lure him. We act only after you’ve started talking. You sure.”

“No one really contemplates their death, they hope to escape,” said Saravanan.

Kalpana sighed and said, “I’ll go about setting the trap then.” 

CHAPTER 8

Mayuri’s Residence, Vasanth Kunj, Delhi, Oct 20

Mayuri was thumbing through the channels in her TV with her mind elsewhere. She left it in a news channel that was having a debate on the ‘Green Gate scandal.’ It was this scam that caused her misery in the first place. The scam was nothing big like the coal gate or 2G spectrum nor did it have a notorious body count like Vyapam. But it had the distinction of being able to send a sitting Union Minister to prison. Brij Mishra, minister of Environment, forest and climate change had been minister of the same ministry in the previous NDA regime too. Now his party was part of the ruling JVS coalition. He had taken hefty bribes for giving clearances to highly polluting industries. The evidence against him was so overwhelming that his conviction was almost assured. After Lalu Prasad Yadav and Jayalalitha he will have the dubious distinction of being arrested when in power. 

All this happened a long while before Worlington so the deal was safe and so should have Mayuri except a few bureaucrats caught in green gate had squealed at her. Her grand lifestyle and unreasonable wealth had not helped either. She had been careful in the  beginning and had all tracks covered. Then she got bold and careless to the extent of not being able to explain most of her assets. The CBI is going to have a field day nailing her. Yet she was sure she can wriggle her way out of this. For she was a survivor. She knew several top political bosses but she didn’t hesitate to call Pandey. Always use the one in play. 

“Pandey ji, Mayuri here. ‘Aag’ is in the play and I am helping them. I have the media under our influence continuously ridiculing the PM and accusing him of corruption. Samyuktha is preparing a campaign for the PM but I can handle her. He will lose the By election surely. But I have a favour to ask?”

“Wait Beti, you talked of Samyuktha. She should be taken care of. Find some dirt on her.”

“Pandey ji, you are talking about the protege of Mr.Clean Dubey ji. There is nothing on her. If there was won’t I have used it already.”

“Now that you mention Dubey, find some dirt on him. It need not stick on him. Just find something to malign him. I am sure Samyuktha will defend him out of loyalty. That would be enough to bring her down.”

“I will see what I can do sir. But there is a favour I need. I am under the CBI scanner and I am sure if you called, it would be pulled off.”

“Try to understand Beti, I couldn’t match the support Dubey had when he was well. Now that he is unwell, his supporters have split to join me and Bhatt. I have a lead but there are a few who still are undecided and claiming Dubey will be well soon. If we slime Dubey and accuse Bhatt of that then all will support me. So you find some dirt on Dubey first and then we can talk of your little problem.” 

This man was devious and the father of Chanakyas thought Mayuri. She never trusted him but now she needed his favour and decided to do the thing he asked for. 

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Oct 21

The next day Samyuktha was going over the plans of the two rallies for the by elections. The first was the Ramlila Maidan and the next was the venue at Patel Chowk. 

Samyuktha was saying, “The central push of the campaign must be the Ramlila Maidan speech as the focus of the second rally would be to nab the sniper” when Mayuri nodding disinterestedly got up, went to her cabin and sat on her computer. 

There was nothing in Dubey ji’s tenure as PM, all deals were clean and involving various ministries. She then went to the ministerial orders of Dubey ji when he was the education minister. Then realising this was heading nowhere she browsed Dubey ji’s private correspondences. There were half a dozen recommendation letters for medical admissions months apart he had sent on behalf of Brij Mishra now in the hot seat. They can allege a bribe right there. The thing was the leak could be easily detected to her as only the private secretaries of Dubey had access to the letters. She sent copies of the letters to the Public Prosecutor arguing against Brij Mishra and silently joined Samyuktha and Saravanan. 

Samyuktha was beyond herself trying to hash together a last minute campaign for Saravanan. She had been confident since it was their safe seat but now opinion polls had them tagged as a definite loser. 

She glanced through the few pages and giving it to Saravanan said, “This is the speech you will give. So read it.” 

“I am not going to read any prepared texts. I will give my own speech,” said Saravanan.

“No, you won’t. No more of your stupid whims and fancies. You wanted to visit the murderous girl in prison. Look where it has got us. Everyone is bashing you as being soft on terror. Anti terror sentiments are at a high and everyone is against the girl but you go and spend hours with her. Read the goddamn speech will you.”

“Has it ever crossed you that I might have principles just like you. I won’t read a prepared speech.”

Samyuktha laughed at this, “You whose corruption has put us in this debacle is talking of principles. Okay have it your way, write your speech and we’ll see how it is.”

“I would prefer to make an extempore speech.”

“Fine do as you wish. It is your own funeral. I don’t know why I bothered with you in the first place. It is good in a way that I would finally get rid of you.”

Mayuri silently went near Samyuktha and whispered to her, “Didi, it is true that Saravanan was corrupt but he didn’t touch a penny of it. He donated all of it to charity. He did it for fun I think.”

Samyuktha asked, “Why are you saying this to me now?”

“Because Saravanan is to lose the by elections and leave us soon. I didn’t want you having the wrong impression of him.”

One of Samyuktha’s assistants came in and said Principal Secretary Hari Prasad wanted to see her. She went to his office to see him.

He looked up from his computer and said, “A summons came for you to appear in the Green Gate case.”

“But I have no relation to the case whatsoever.”

“You knew Brij Mishra didn’t you. May be they want you to be a character witness.”

“When is it?”

“They have a court date tomorrow. You are required then. I normally don’t involve in the political side of things but is your man alright. I mean will he compromise on national security issues he is privy to.”

“He might be a clown sir but you needn’t worry about him on that aspect.”

SPG Office, Secretariat, New Delhi, Oct 21

Kalpana reviewed the security arrangements once more with her peers and seniors in the SPG. The Patel Chowk venue was surrounded by a few residential buildings and a shopping mall. The Forensic team of IB had returned from the specifications of the sniper bag that it could only contain a dismantled Russian Dragnov sniper rifle. This meant the sniper had a limited range of 800 metres. This and the accessibility and height of the mall made it the ideal place for the sniper attempt. The mall was a five storey structure. The ideal sniper positions would be on floors two and three. On the stretch facing the campaign venue were eight windows in the pathway and three closed shops and a set of restrooms on second floor. The pathway would be crowded making the closed shops and the rest rooms the ideal choice. 

It was decided to fill the mall with plain clothes people and nab the sniper at the gates itself when he was trying to make entry with his rifle to minimise the risk on PM’s life. If he somehow gained access then plain clothes people would be ready to nab him at any of the mentioned locations, inside the closed shops or in the restrooms. 

“Are we sure these are the only places from which he could strike?” asked Kalpana. 

“A shot from the other floors are near impossible yet we will fill those floors with our people and plain clothes cops. The other residential buildings can’t be used too yet will be guarded by our people. Other teams and operational procedures guarding the PM will be in place too so any close range shot or sneaking of a bomb will be thwarted. Yet if the sniper somehow finds a position in the mall the PM will be a sitting duck. I think we should call this off.”

“That is not up to us and has been decided by  the PM himself. So be on alert and do your jobs guys.”

CBI Special Court, New Delhi, Oct 22

Samyuktha was sitting inside the courtroom bored with the proceedings and waiting to be called. 

Soon she was called but the defence counsel said, “Objection your honour. The witness was not named in the witness list.”

The Public Prosecutor said, “But it was specified in the affidavit that all Bureaucrats related to the case can be summoned.”

“But it implies only those working directly under the defendant.”

“Objection overruled. Witness allowed,” said the Judge.

Samyuktha took the stand and took the oath. 

“What do you do Miss Samyuktha?” asked the affable Prosecutor.

“I am Joint Secretary to the Prime Minister,” she replied proudly. 

“Were you P.A to Mr. Satyendra Dubey when he was Education Minister?”

She hadn’t expected this question. She was not here as character witness. Something was brewing here. 

“Yes, I was,” she replied guardedly. 

“Was Dubey in a position to make admissions to medical college. To be more precise were admissions made based on his recommendations.”

She now guessed where this was heading. Yes, there were a few letters based on merit and economic considerations. It was not wrong technically and no one outside Dubey ji’s team had access to the letters. The recipients were Deans and would not be the source. It was clearly an attempt to slime Dubey ji. 

She got time to decide when defence objected, “Objection your honour not at all relevant to the case.”

“We believe these letters were sent for the defendant Brij Mishra as a return for bribes.”  

They couldn’t have the letters or they won’t be needing her. They are hoping for her to say yes so they can slime Dubey ji. She can’t allow that.

She said, “I don’t think any letter was sent in the sense you are implying sir.”

The Prosecutor took a few papers from his desk and showing her the printed copies of the letters asked her, “Then what are these may I ask?” then he muttered under his breath, “Someone like you must know what Perjury is. A case for that will be filed tomorrow. You are going to prison for a long time. A gift from Pandey ji.”

Samyuktha was trembling. It was a set up. When she came out reporters were all over her asking why she lied under oath. She was too numbed to answer and got on her car and went to her apartment. 

Tangent Mall, New Delhi, Oct 22

Mayuri who was in Tangent mall phoned Pandey and said, “I’ve delivered my end of the deal. So please call the CBI guys and ask them to back off.”

“Beti, it isn’t as easy as that. The CBI is in its own way an independent body and can’t be controlled.”

“I know you can call them off. So what is the angle here.”

“This is what I like about you. A mere recommendation letter or perjury by one of Dubey’s assistant isn’t enough to tarnish the sainted Dubey. A charge of corruption against Dubey’s secretary, that is you, can do the trick neatly which I’ll lay at Bhatt’s door. Dubey’s remaining loyal followers will back me and there is no stopping me from becoming the Prime Minister.”

“What if I tell everyone that it isn’t Bhatt but you who is sliming Dubey ji.”

“No, you won’t, for prison is a lonely place and you will need friends and not enemies there. Believe me when I say you don’t want me to be your enemy.”

There was a chill in his voice and Mayuri understood the threat. 

“Understood. Nice talking to you,” she said and disconnected the phone. 

She knew that the case will come and proceed in its own time. She will of course fight it with all her might and money. As for as prison she’ll face it when it came. Now she decided to go snow bowling to lift her spirits up.  

Samyuktha’s Residence, Chanakyapuri, Delhi, Oct 22

Samyuktha’s phone was ringing incessantly but she ignored all calls except her sister’s. 

“Didi, are you all right? You were the talk on Social Media. Should I come home?” asked her sister Pratyusha. 

  “I am all right. It is nothing really. You take care,” replied Samyuktha. 

She was sitting staring at the wall. Her mind numbly chastising herself and trying to pin point where it all went wrong. But she knew it was all useless. Everything was over. She knew when she was defeated. She had nowhere to go, Dubey ji was in a coma. There was the shrill sound of the doorbell. Who could it be at this time of the day she wondered? She opened the door to find her sister there.

“You needn’t have bothered to come,” said Samyuktha.

Pratyusha hugged her sister and said, “Didi, I can tell from your tone all is not well.”

They both sat on the sofa and Pratyusha asked, “ I’ve never seen you like this. What is the big issue.”

“Lying under oath is perjury and carries a sentence of three to seven years. I’ve been caught red handed lying in the courtroom. Tomorrow I will be charged and sent to prison. Please convince mom and dad that I never did any wrong intentionally. Promise to come and visit me regularly.”

“Please don’t talk like this. Things will be fine soon.”

“Life isn’t a fairy tale where good things can happen just by wishing. There is no knight in shining armour waiting to rescue me. I must prepare for the inevitable. Prison won’t be that bad.”

Pratyusha scrolled through something on her mobile and told her sister, “There is a text message on WhatsApp from a friend asking to see news on television followed by a smiley. So it must be good news.”

She switched on the TV and on screen was the Public Prosecutor saying, “I apologise to the PM’s Joint Secretary for having dragged her in to this. There won’t be a perjury case.” 

A relieved Samyuktha started to cry and said, “But how is this possible? What happened?”

She took the remote from her sister’s hand and started browsing the news channels and halted at a news channel when  she saw Saravanan addressing the media.

A reporter asked, “So you say Samyuktha didn’t commit perjury?”

“Yes, her testimony was what I asked her to give. The whole affair was an attempt to discredit my mentor Dubey ji. I asked her not to reveal anything harming Dubey ji.”

“So you forced her to give false testimony.”

“I would call it miscommunication, but if you think you can come after the PM on the charge of forcing false testimony. Then I would say good luck to you. There is no connection between Green Gate and Duubey ji or Samyuktha. There might be a departmental enquiry against the Public Prosecutor if he doesn’t apologise and drop all mention of perjury.”

“Sir, don’t you think your admission here might affect your by election?”

“No more questions please,” said Saravanan and moved away. 

Samyuktha turned off the television and wiped the tears that had flowed smoothly. Pratyusha hugged her and said, “Didi, your moron is your knight in shining armour.”

  Samyuktha laughed and replied, “He is a knight, I concede. But he is not my knight. He is more like Don Quixote, more of a buffoonish knight saving all girls and the like.”

Tangent Mall, New Delhi, Oct 22

Mayuri was getting lucky with ten pin strikes repeatedly. She wasn’t in a jolly mood as she hoped to be. She was thinking hard to find a way out of this mess. She got a phone call from a contact of hers, a clerk in the CBI.

“Mayuri ji you are one cool cat. You’re a vile minx,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” Mayuri asked guardedly.

“I am talking of how you are off the scanner and CBI has taken your name off the probable cases to be filed. As a routine courtesy the folks here had called upon the PM for filing a case against you. He got enraged at this and accused them of acting under bias. You know how the CBI acts at the behest of the PM. So they’ve taken you off scanner.”

“Thank you for the good news,” said Mayuri.

“If I were you I would dispose of all unaccountable assets while under the guardianship of the PM and start over with a clean slate.”

Pandey for whom she was acting had betrayed her while Saravanan against whom she was acting had rescued her. She marvelled the irony of the whole situation. She decided to thank him in person and exited the building. As she entered the south block of the secretariat building she saw Samyuktha walking ahead of her.  

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Oct 22

Samyuktha was humming a song to herself as she walked to the Prime Minister’s office. She could see that there were few office assistants on the outside. She wondered where they had all gone and got the answer when she knocked on the door and entered the PM office. On the Prime Minister’s chair was seated a fifty year old guy of the assistance staff eating a cake. Saravanan was seated across chatting to the girls. 

One of the girls was openly flirting with him saying, “The social media isn’t doing you justice. You shouldn’t be number three handsome man of India.You are even hotter than the bollywood stars.” 

Samyuktha saw Mayuri enter and stand behind her. 

On seeing them Saravanan said, “Come on, come in. I saw them celebrating a birthday and invited them inside. I was hoping to teach them a few tricks about celebrations.”

Seeing the look on the faces of both Samyuktha and Mayuri he said to the crowd, “Guys forgive me but I think it is time to take the party back outside.” 

Everyone except Samyuktha and Mayuri left saying good byes and tittering among themselves. 

Samyuktha came forward with a file in her hand and politely said, “Sir with only a few days to the by elections opinion polls are against you and a reversal this late is not probable. Yet there have been a few miraculous turnarounds in the past. We have arranged for additional hoardings, posters, ads etc. The key will be the two rallies and…”

Saravanan interrupted her saying, “What have I done to earn your displeasure. Why are you so formal. Why are you calling me sir. Call me by name or your preferred epithet of moron.”

“Sir, I apologise for having disrespected you in the past. You risked yourself by almost accepting forcing false testimony charges to save me from perjury. No one has ever done something like that for me.”

“Oh, thats okay, a simple thank you would have sufficed. But please don’t be too formal with me. Please be the old you full of confidence with a tinge of haughtiness.”

Samyuktha  considered what he said. Surely she can’t treat him like before after what he did for her. Yet if it is what he wanted then there is nothing wrong in being a bit informal. 

Mayuri came forward and said, “Thank you sir. The people on whom I relied turned me to the wolves while you came out of nowhere to save  me from a CBI enquiry.”

Samyuktha’s face reddened in anger when she said, “How dare you talk to him when I am almost damn sure that it was you who leaked Dubey ji’s confidential letters.”

“Did you do it?” asked Saravanan looking at Mayuri.

“I did it before you helped me. I didn’t know you would be such a nice person and I would be indebted to you,” replied Mayuri. 

“You owe me nothing. But hear me clearly you can be posted to some other position but if you choose to stay here you will be working fully under Samyuktha and if  you want access to the PM you must come through her. You can always talk to me as a friend though.”

“I can’t leave you now. I choose to stay.”

“Why did you help us?” Samyuktha asked Saravanan.

“I helped you because you are a kind and loyal person. I helped her because despite being disloyal and cunning she too was a good person in her own way. But more importantly I have very few friends and you two are my friends and I never let my friends down,” said Saravanan. 

CHAPTER 9

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Oct 23

Samyuktha was busy on the phone in the PM’s office in the Secretariat while Saravanan was busy changing TV channels. 

She said to Saravanan, “That was the National Security Advisor asking for a meeting with you. There is intel on wide spread infiltration of terrorists from POK to Kashmir.”

Saravanan thought for a while and said, “Invite the chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy and Airforce and the Principal Secretary to be here for the meeting.”

In exactly half an hour the NSA Pankaj Mehra, Principal Secretary Hari Prasad and the chiefs of staff arrived to meet him and were promptly ushered in. 

“There are plans for a widespread incursion of terrorists and also Pakistani army personnel in the guise of terrorists. In preparation of that heavy shelling has already been started in those border areas. This is bigger than the incursion attempt during Kargil war but this time we have strong intel and can rebut them on the first attempt of terrorists to cross the border,” said the NSA Pankaj Mehra. 

“Terrorist activities have been on the rise and any attempts at peace have been futile,” said Saravanan. 

“The hardliners in the Pakistani military establishment are in total control there now. The democratically elected government is a puppet government. The military have started to support the terrorists brazenly. We have to rebut the incursion at its inception and send a tough message,” said the Principal Secretary Hari Prasad. 

“I wonder what tough message a mere rebuttal of terror attack will send,” said Saravanan. 

“There is nothing to worry as the intel is accurate and far in advance that we can handle this with out a fuss,” said the chief of Army.

“But what if we wanted a fuss. What if we ignored the intel or act like we did. What if we allowed the situation to escalate in to a Kargil like situation,” said Saravanan. 

“But,” started the NSA Pankaj Mehra but was cut off by Saravanan. 

“How long will it take for you to mobilise additional troops to the border and can you do it without being detected by anyone including the Americans,” asked Saravanan 

“It will be difficult but is doable sir. If we are talking of the jawans alone without artillery, we can have them shipped here in the guise of civilian tourists,” said the Army chief. 

“We can’t encourage a war like scenario, not when our enemy is a nuclear power. This is not as easy or simple as it seems sir. I beg you to reconsider your whole line of thinking,” said Hari Prasad leaning his old frame towards Saravanan. 

Samyuktha standing behind Saravanan leaned in and whispered in his ear, “What are you doing, this is no game and you best leave such things in the hands of these experienced people.”

Saravanan ignored her and said, “When will you understand that terrorism is an act of war. This time our rebuttal of the incursion will neither be a mere statement nor a full war. We will call it hot pursuit but will destroy the terrorist training camps and leaders across the border that it will set back terrorist activities by a few years.”  

He scratched his head and asked, “Can we destroy all major terrorist camps in POK in quick time without the use of artillery or air support that will make it look like a war?” 

“We’ve never even imagined such a scenario so there isn’t even a hypothetical plan but with adequate troops it can be done sir,” said the Army Chief. 

“If we cross that border with our forces it would be war whether we call it hot pursuit or anything else. They will come at us from other border areas. We must be prepared to tackle any full fledged reprisal on the land, sea or air. There is little time to prepare yet it can be done,” said the naval chief and the Air Force chief agreed. 

“Good we must be prepared but I don’t think it would be put to use for we would be having surprise on our sides. It would be just like any other hot pursuit or surgical strike but on a massive scale. Also we need a team of special forces to start training on a couple of extractions from Karachi. The identity of the persons to be extracted will be made known soon,” said Saravanan.

“This is preposterous I don’t want to be a part of this madness in starting a nuclear war. We should resolve our differences with talks,” said Hari Prasad and stood up to leave.

“Sir, please hear me out. We will engage in talks. In fact right when the supposed hot pursuit happens you will be trying to prevent the situation escalating and coordinating our external affairs push with the other nations too. We need you to carry this out with out any major diplomatic fall out,” said Saravanan to Hari Prasad and stood up. 

Then looking at everyone he said, “We should be seen as the victim and not as the aggressor. When we negotiate we should negotiate from strength. We will be setting a new policy of zero percent tolerance on terrorism that won’t be a rhetoric but practice that future governments can emulate.”

 He then went near Hari Prasad and said, “Think on it sir, please.”  

Hari Prasad sat there nodding his head right and left in an agitated manner. He glanced in Samyuktha’s direction but she looked away. 

Saravanan pressed on, “Our people are regularly slaughtered by terrorists functioning openly out of POK and supported by the Pakistani establishment. This strike would put them on a back foot. For the first time we can have them on the table with a serious intent to negotiate and find a way out.”

After much thought Hari Prasad came on board and soon other aspects of the plan were discussed and the meeting was concluded. 

When all of them left Samyuktha asked Saravanan, “What was that all about?”

“I thought it was time for a little excitement in all our lives. What is the point of putting my neck on the line to catch one of the bastards if we allow thousands to enter our nation easily,” said Saravanan. 

“But we could easily have chased them away. Why allow it to escalate and go on war like this.”

“If we chase them back. They will be here again tomorrow or the day after. Technically we wouldn’t be going on a war but would be involved in a hot pursuit operation chasing the terrorists running back to their camps and would be destroying those camps.”

“But…”

“The first rally on Ram Lila Maidan is next week isn’t it. Have you looked over it.”

“On that I was wondering when you will give me your prepared speech. Don’t think for a moment that you will be climbing that stage with out a prepared speech in my hands.”

  Mayuri never approached Saravanan after the last conversation. She was being given mundane tasks by Samyuktha which she was doing with out a complaint. She was never given any important task nowadays. Yet she was overburdened with routine tasks. She seemed to work more than before. She never had a chance to meet Saravanan. If at all she had to cross him at times she kept her head bowed and hurried along. In fact even Samyuktha hadn’t talked to her. She used to send one of her assistants to tell Mayuri of her work. May be being honest felt like this she thought as she laboured over the pile of files on her computer. She too had been fresh and honest and full of hope when she started out as a fresh recruit of the IAS. 

Once when she went to submit a few files to the Principal Secretary Hari Prasad, he said, “So are you out of favour with the new PM? You seem to be doing most of the brunt work.”

She knew the old man was a veteran with keen perception yet was surprised at this observation and said, “I never was anyone’s favourite to start with but this PM isn’t like others.”

“So you too have been taken in by that wild horse have you. Let me tell you something, that PM of yours can be good to the nation if given the chance. Even I didn’t realise it at first but his wisdom and guts have made me a fan.” 

Mayuri wanted to redeem herself in the eyes of Saravanan. She knew he will be gone soon and she would never get a chance to repay her debt. She sat idly in her office thinking if she will ever again get the chance to laugh at his comic antics and carefree attitude. 

Saravanan was surfing the english movie channels from his desk in the Secretariat when Samyuktha said, “That television is to watch the news and if you had to just watch movies why did you come here you could have stayed at the residence.”

Saravanan replied, “I have commitments here. I have a chess match going on with the brown haired beauty in the PR department. I have the regular game of Rummy with the peons. I must win back the money I lost last week.”

Samyuktha frowned and said, “I am not classist or anything but you shouldn’t be fraternising with the office staff and the peons. You shouldn’t even be allowing me to take liberties with you the way I have. You lose respect and that makes life difficult for you.”

“I agree with what you say but I’ve always chosen fun and happiness over respect so far and it has worked fine for me. Don’t worry I know when to put my foot down and get things done. Talking of that I dealt severely with Mayuri but you seem to have exploited that  by taking vengeance on her.”

“Yes, I burdened her with work hoping she would use her political connections and migrate somewhere but astonishingly she insists on sticking around.”

There was a beep sound and Samyuktha looked at her mobile and said, “Talk of the devil and there she is. Mayuri has messaged me that Shukla said to her that Pandey is thinking of threatening you to support him for Prime Ministership.”

“Why should Pandey threaten me when it looks like I would be out of here on my own soon. Do you think it is time to let Mayuri off the hook?” asked Saravanan.

“Why do you sympathise with her when she worked to bring you down?”

“She is almost like you or at least she started off like you before being disillusioned to take a different path. Did you know that unlike you and me who are from a middle class background she was from a poor family. She even had to live in the slums for a while. She used public libraries to prepare for her UPSC exams. Now tell me, don’t you think that kid deserves another chance?”

“Have it your way but I can’t start to like her just because you say so. Hell I am not even sure if I like you. I am in debt to you and am working to pay it off.”

Samyuktha called Mayuri on the phone and soon a surprised and smiling Mayuri entered the office.

Samyuktha said, “You are off junk duty and back to normal duty as of now. Yet you will report to me understood. As for as Shukla’s statement try to find anything concrete.”

Mayuri came close to Samyuktha and said, “Of course Didi, you won’t know how lonely I was lately. Yet it was a time for retrospection and I have mended my ways.”

She seemed genuine and remembering what Saravanan told of her past Samyuktha regretted having been too harsh on her. 

Samyuktha said, “We now have to focus on the by elections and see if we can keep our PM still in play.”

“Yes Didi, I have ideas for that. Our guy is portrayed as a clown and a fool. We need to make him do something substantial and focus media attention on that.”

As Saravanan was browsing through the channels searching for a good movie he came across a news channel featuring the dismal conditions of the accommodations of athletes who’ve come to participate in a national athletic meet in Delhi. 

An irritated Samyuktha said, “Could you please turn off that thing, we are trying to do some work here.”

Saravanan said, “Actually we are going to forget the work and do something nice for a change. Mayuri phone the organisers of the athletic meet and ask them to give the phone to the athlete who eats the most.”

Saravanan turned to Samyuktha and said, “Come on, let me have good time while I am here. Even if I magically win this by election I still will have to leave as soon as a consensus candidate emerges. Heck, I’lI have to leave if  Dubey ji wakes up, it is what you want isn’t it?”

“Don’t be like this. It would be a disaster to the nation if Bhatt or Pandey came to power. You must hold the fort till Dubey ji is back,” said Samyuktha. 

Mayuri passed her mobile to Saravanan who said in to the phone, “So you are the eating champion of the contingent.”

  “Coming from a family of eight with limited rations I don’t pass up any opportunity to have a hearty meal sir,” said the girl. 

“You are after my own heart. What is your name and where are you from?”

“I am Poorna from Jharkand sir and I hold the national record for 100m, 200m and 400m races.”

“How big is the contingent of athletes including the coaches?”

“I would say about sixty sir.”

“How would you guys like a stay in the Taj hotel till the events are over.”

“None of us ever stayed in a five star hotel before so it would be awesome sir.”

“Okay that would be arranged. What would you like to eat now?”

“Any spicy chicken would be fine sir.”

“I am going to get some chicken from Taj and will be there to meet you guys.” 

Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, New Delhi, Oct 23

They came to the venue of the athletic meet after getting chicken from Taj hotel. Poorna stayed true to her claim and ate heavily. After all the chicken was over Saravanan settled in the stands with the other athletes and his two Secretaries. 

Saravanan said, “Having a good time athletes? For that is the most important thing. We must love what we do and endeavour to enjoy each moment with our inner passion driving us forward.”

“We are having a blast sir,” came the chorus from the athletes.

“We are extremely proud that you’ve come to encourage us in person,” said Poorna. 

“Poorna you hold the national records in the short distance events but there is almost a five to eight second difference between your records and the world’s best timings. That is far too wide a gap to be bridged easily,” said Saravanan. 

Samyuktha was surprised that Saravanan knew all these things. He must have googled these things when he was on the way here. She realised that he could be smart if he chose to. 

Poorna said, “I am working on my timings sir. I promise to do better and give my everything sir.”

“I know you guys don’t have the best coaches, trainers, nutritionists and facilities that other international athletes have. But these alone aren’t enough to win medals.”

“We need natural ability to win medals sir,” said Poorna.

  “Of course natural ability and talent play a part but you need something more. You need heart. You need to keep alive the fire and hunger burning within you.”

  Saravanan continued to chat with the athletes for a long time. He learnt that Poorna was from Jharkhand, worked for the Railways and was posted in Delhi. He then ran a lap accompanied by the athletes. By that time the media had got a whiff of it and were covering every detail. Saravanan visited the athletes regularly and especially loved talking to Poorna. 

Once Poorna said, “You know how I got the job in railways under sports quota. Sports has been my life. My grandmother passed away yesterday but I am here attending the meet. Even when she was well I could only spend less time with her as I was always busy with sports.”

Saravanan replied, “To go up in any walk of life one has to make sacrifices but you have the unique opportunity to do the nation proud.”

She said, “I am ashamed to say this but all this stress has had an effect on me. I have depression problems.”

“My girl it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is quite common than you think. I have a full fledged mood disorder called Bipolar Disorder that has rendered me completely mad on several occasions. So don’t worry kid, be yourself and never lose heart.”

When Saravanan was traveling back with Samyuktha and Mayuri he said, “I am contemplating introducing a set of sporting reforms. It won’t bite the back of any of the corrupt and self indulgent politicians so that they won’t trouble us on account of this.”

Samyuktha said, “Actually that would be a good idea. It would give you something to do and might even play well with the media and the people. Myself and Mayuri will help you in all ways in this regard.”

So in the next couple of days Samyuktha and Mayuri worked on Saravanan’s ideas to improve sports and a series of ordinances were passed. The expenditure on sports was increased with the approval of the Finance Ministry and several sports infrastructure projects were initiated. But Saravanan’s innovative idea was to announce tax incentives for corporates who sponsored sportspeople who became medal winners in the world arena. 

The Prime Minister’s sports reforms were the subject of debate on various news channels and the overwhelming verdict was in favour of the PM. The general public also began to appreciate the PM. Yet Samyuktha was worried that it was not enough to win the by elections.   

Ram Lila Maidan, Delhi, Oct 30

Then the day for the election rally at Ram Lila Maidan came. Saravanan had not prepared any speech despite Samyuktha’s repeated insistence. Samyuktha was angered beyond limits. She was sure he was going to bomb miserably. There was nothing to be done now. 

Saravanan went to the podium and spoke, “Nobody knew me a while back but now most know me as the PM or the clown or fool. Then came the corruption charges and that must at least have convinced some that I am a politician indeed.”

What is he doing? Don’t implicate yourself thinking that you are endearing yourself? Samyuktha worried. This is worse than bombing. She shouldn’t have allowed him to go up there without a prepared speech. 

Saravanan continued, “Then I made a few sporting reforms but many complained when the nation was burning was it necessary. To them and you I say all pressing issues of the nation will be tackled in time. I ask those that are complaining what has upset you? Are you upset that a youngster from the south far away from your homes and with little political aspiration is trying to do things for the nation.”  

He sipped water and said, “More than the crowd here I am more concerned about the picketers lining the burning streets that I saw on the way here and others through out the nation. I say now there is nothing to worry. All of you who have lost their jobs return to your offices tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if it is a government sector job or private. Tomorrow resume your work and by the end of the month you will be compensated with arrears. I assure you that inflation will be brought down within this week and you will buy bread for less than a hundred rupees. There is no denying that India has been burnt and is wounded but shall emerge shining and better because of it.”

Samyuktha was shocked beyond words. She even contemplated removing the mike from him. He was making promises with no way of keeping them. If restoring the jobs of the millions of people were as simple as making an announcement then the nation’s woes would have been solved long ago. She knew that if the nation’s condition now was bad it would be far worse when it came to be known that he could not keep his promises. 

The crowd was enthralled with his news and erupted with euphoria at his every word. He went on to address other issues like farmer suicides, poverty alleviation, new job creation amongst others. He maintained the same tempo. He was a natural orator who knew the pulse of the people. He spoke from his heart. Samyuktha knew that his speech was a hit but for how long she wondered. Yet as he sat down finishing his speech to a crescendo of applause she fiddled on her mobile checking the media and social media response to his speech. It was positive and encouraging on one side and downright appalling on the other. One headline ran ‘Today the nation witnessed the birth of a great leader’ while another said ‘the worst empty promise in history’. She knew the by elections might be in the bag but at what cost. 

When they were returning to the Secretariat in the motorcade Samyuktha asked, “Have you gone out of your mind? What made you make such an outrageous statement? Do you have any idea as to the peril you’ve put the nation under?”

“I didn’t think, that’s the problem. The adrenaline rush got to me as I spoke,” said a defensive Saravanan. 

“Relax Didi,” said Mayuri and then turning to Saravanan, “You did that on purpose, I know it. I’ve seen you for a while and realise this is the way you function. So what is the grand plan.”

“Okay I did it on purpose but there is no grand plan. The way I saw it, the offices will be there and there is work to be done, so what stops the people from working is just money.”

“Money is everything you ignorant fool,” shouted Samyuktha. 

“Send a circular to all Government industries and PSUs to take in the people who come to work. Send a note to the private companies requesting them to reinstate personnel promising to compensate them for it in future. Have our PR department working round the clock to avoid eroding faith in this measure. Threaten the media with blacklisting if need be. Leak to the media that we’ve got funding from somewhere. I shall try to find money for all this somewhere.”

Samyuktha realised that all measures taken by her and Dubey ji have been a failure. So what is wrong in giving this moron a shot she thought. After all he had the best intentions in his heart.Yet she knew this would never be funded by the international agencies or world nations. This might in fact hamper any partial aid they were contemplating. 

Certain loss of jobs was a given in any economic collapse. If they invited everyone who lost their jobs back to work then how to pay them. The collapse partly came from stagflation, inflation without productivity. This measure would mean exactly that, lack of productivity from people who are a dead weight on the economy. It will only increase the inflation. 

“Didi, why are you always so pessimistic. The PM has made a bold speech and it is our duty to support him in the crisis,” said Mayuri. 

“Yes, I made a mistake I agree but it is your duty to support me. Is it not?” asked Saravanan.Samyuktha now sat up straight in her seat and said, “I will do all that you ask but where will you get the money?”

“I’ll tell you what I told the athletes, like facilities in sports, here money is important. But what is more important is heart. Without it everything else is useless. I just tried to give the nation the heart it so needed.” 

CHAPTER 10

Terrorist Hideout, Laxmi Nagar, Delhi, Oct 31

Iqbal after his Namaz sat relaxedly on the cot in the bedroom going over the plan in his mind. Today was Friday and he would have liked to visit the mosque but with the rally on the next day Naqvi had confined him to the house. Iqbal didn’t mind it as he was about to do something great for his God and nation. If he was successful his name would be remembered forever by the true supporters of the cause.  They have changed the schedule of the rallies. Of the three rallies as per the original plan only the Ram Lila Maidan rally has been kept and was over. The other two rallies have been cancelled. Instead the rally at Patel Chowk has been organised. The venue seemed ideal for a sniper strike with the tall mall at a mere six hundred feet from the stage. These rallies were public events and information about them were available to the public. But the SPG security protocols and measures were private information leaked to Naqvi by someone high up in the Indian intelligence. 

So now Naqvi and Iqbal knew that a week before the rally the security of the mall would be tightened and plain clothes people would be milling around day and night. Iqbal has scouted the mall and decided that the women’s toilet on the second floor was the ideal place for the sniper strike. He even earmarked the spot in the stall of the women’s toilet from whose window he will be targeting the PM.

As for as getting the sniper rifle in to the mall it was one of the hardest tasks. It had not been Iqbal’s headache. Naqvi was responsible for planning the thing. Naqvi was more than just a mission commander. He had been a handler in the past and was the prime architect of these terrorist plans. It was decided that Iqbal would not be carrying the rifle on his person on the day of the strike. 

Iqbal heard that in a movie called “The day of the jackal”, the assassin had re-assembled the components of the rifle to look like a crutch.  He suggested it to Naqvi, but Naqvi said such re-engineering was not feasible here and often the complex of tasks can be done with the simplest of methods. Naqvi entrusted a person to scope out the security details of the mall. That person assumed the identity of a cab driver and befriended most of the security personnel at the mall. 

Naqvi entrusted the task of getting the rifle in to the mall to that person. Almost a week before the PM’s visit when the mall was empty after the night show movies, the person distracted the security and another sneaked in and taped the rifle bag to the back of the toilet in the stall of the women’s rest room and placed a false cover over it and the toilet cover. 

Iqbal was to sneak in to the mall wearing a purdah and though there will be heavy security and plain clothes persons, since he will not be carrying anything he can easily enter the toilet and finish his task. He will have ample time to exit from the place before anyone has a clue to what’s going on.  

SPG Office, New Delhi, Oct 31

Kalpana went over the security arrangements of the rally one last time. The SPG snipers pointed the obvious that the four stalls, two in the men’s room and two in the women’s rest rooms were the prime positions for a sniper attempt. Two plain clothes cops a male and a female were arranged to stay on the outside of these stalls in the rest rooms for the full duration of the rally. They have been asked to check if anyone took too long in there. Everyone has been clearly asked to nab the person alive as for as possible.

Kalpana knew that if she was in outer perimeter duty or in the mall she could have greater control of the security operations. But as far as a sniper attack goes the body shield is the last resort or sure fire way of protection. But you just hope to god that the first shot misses the target as you take the rest of the bullets in to your body. For wouldn’t it be sad to lose two lives instead of one. She knew that anyone in the SPG proximate duty wouldn’t hesitate to put their lives in danger to protect the PM of the nation. Hell, they would consider it an honour. Yet Kalpana couldn’t in good conscience place any of her friends or subordinates in that position. She decided to be on proximate duty that day. 

Patel Chowk, Delhi, Nov 1

Saravanan was upbeat before the rally. All opinion polls had him far ahead of the opposition and predicted his winning the by elections comfortably. He had no prepared speech for this rally despite Samyuktha’s harsh admonishments. After he was introduced he took to the lectern and began to speak. His mind wandered from the speech. He wondered how a sniper bullet would feel like? Will it be painful? Will he die instantaneously? He noticed Kalpana hovering behind him closer than usual. He tried not to get distracted and continued to speak. He had not spoken more than a few lines when there was a sudden loud sound and he could feel the vibrations of the lectern. Before he could react Kalpana enveloped him in a hug and pushed him on to the floor. 

She was saying in to her mike piece, “Shots fired, multiple fired, what the heck are you doing up there guys.”

Saravanan was on the floor and he found his hands around Kalpana wet. There was a splatter of blood on the floor. Saravanan wondered if he was hit but he did not felt anything. Then he realised all the blood was Kalpana’s and that her Kevlar bullet proof vest has been pierced. She was rolled over and a few hands pulled him in front, at the same time a few men covered his back and they enquired if he was alright while pushing him forward. They had him safely ensconced in his car before someone even bothered to look at Kalpana. His motorcade whirred away from there before he could ascertain if Kalpana had stirred or not. It took time for reality to sink in. Someone might have died to save his life. The whole affair of being the PM didn’t seem like a joke anymore. 

Orion Mall, Delhi, Nov 1

Iqbal clearly missed the first shot which hit the lectern. He had not properly factored in the weather conditions and wind speed. He fired the next two shots in quick succession as the guard covered the PM. He wasn’t sure if he got the guy. He heard someone breaking open the door of the stall. He had no hand gun with him so he turned the rifle and was about to focus when the door opened and a lady in a Jean and T-shirt fired at him. The shot took him in the shoulder and he fell dropping the rifle. 

The lady kicked away the rifle and mumbled in to the earpiece, “Threat removed, target injured but secured. Need assistance in second floor women’s restroom and… ”

She was interrupted by two shots fired in to Iqbal’s head and chest from behind her. She turned to glimpse a guy with his face masked by a cloth and a earpiece attached to his ear leave before she could react. 

The lady turned to him and said, “Don’t die dammit. Not now, not after what we’ve gone through to nab you.”

But Iqbal knew it was over. He had made peace with his maker the day before itself. His mind drifted to Zohura who didn’t speak and the talkative Ghazia and his own daughter across the border. He realised he hadn’t helped their cause in any way. He hoped that there would be someone who would take care of the girls. He prayed God to give strength to who ever it was. 

Sundar Nagar, Delhi, Nov 1

The man known as lizard in the intelligence circles received a phone call from his man in the mall, “Sir, target eliminated.”

As soon as the assassination attempt was over and he got news from the field that Iqbal had been compromised, he issued orders to his subordinate on the field to eliminate Iqbal. They were trained to execute orders without questioning. The deed had been done surreptitiously without his man being compromised. 

He was called the Lizard because he surveilled almost anyone knowing all details about them like a lizard on a wall. He also made his moves stealthily like a lizard and struck at his opponents while they are least expecting it. He was corrupt but it was not common knowledge. Then he was blackmailed with incriminating evidence against him and he was also promised lots of money that he started doing little things for them. He realised only too lately that he was being used by ISI, Pakistan. By then he knew it was too late for him to turn back. His biggest mission to date was honey trapping an influential politician for them. 

He had been promised by them that he’ll be allowed to retire after this mission if he chose. He has decided to migrate to Australia with his family as soon as this was over though he had not told them this. He would be settling down as a rich man. He thought may be working with the ISI wasn’t that bad after all. He made a call to his ISI contact in Islamabad from a sterile phone.

ISI HQ, Islamabad, Nov 1

Salim sat in the waiting room thumbing through his report on the current status of operation. The idea of using little girls for missions as a cover has worked out beautifully. When he visited India he had taken Zohura with him wherever he went using the cover of a father daughter duo. It had effectively helped reduce scrutiny on him. Her capture was a setback but she was a little girl with communication problems who can’t talk to people she isn’t comfortable with. She never talked to him or even Naqvi for that matter. She only talked to Ghazia. Yet her capture nagged Naqvi, him and the General. Now he had to report another setback. The failure of the assassination attempt. It doesn’t affect the overall mission by a lot yet it was a setback. Hell, Naqvi’s planned Republic day blasts were only a means to an end. An end envisaged and planned by Salim and shared by the General. 

Salim was called in. He sat on the chair across General Qureshi and gave his report to him.

He said, “The assassination attempt has failed sir but it doesn’t in any way affect the bigger plan.”     

The General said, “It does affect the bigger plan. We need major terror strikes that the separatist forces can claim responsibility to. Agreed the Republic day blasts will rock their nation to a stand still. But we need to use it to forever disintegrate them from where they can never get up. Make another play for their PM’s life. If that is hard arrange for bomb blasts that could be claimed by separatists. ”

“Yes sir, we will work on that right away.”

“What have you decided about the captured girl Zohura? We are not sure as to what she knows. She has been with you on your tour. It is highly probable that she might know some things about the plan.”

“No need to worry sir. The girl doesn’t talk to adults she doesn’t know.”

“I’ve heard that story but I want the girl taken care of once and for all, understood.”

  “Yes, I will set up a contract to take care of the situation through the goon of a corrupt politician in power.”

“Hope it isn’t the politician we have compromised and working for us. We can’t risk his exposure before he is put in to use by us for the bigger plan.”

“No sir, this is another politician and we will try to put this one also to good use if chance permits. The girl shall no longer be a problem.”

“Good, then get on with your work.”

AIIMS Hospital, New Delhi, Nov 8

It had been a week since the rally on Patel Chowk. Kalpana was now well and out of danger yet was unable to meet visitors Saravanan was told. For a couple of days Kalpana’s life had been in danger and Saravanan was very much worried with guilt enveloping his entire being. He had won the By elections but no one was in a mood to celebrate including Samyuktha and Mayuri. 

With the failed attempt on the PM’s life the intelligence agencies were under tremendous pressure to find the terrorists responsible for it. They in turn began pressing the PM for permission to interrogate Zohura closely. He was with Samyuktha and Mayuri in the Secretariat office. 

Mayuri said to Saravanan clutching her mobile, “Call from the hospital, Kalpana is awake and can receive visitors.”

Saravanan said, “Let us go then,” and all of them left for the hospital. 

They were ushered in to the hospital room by a nurse and they found Kalpana propped up on the bed with two pillows behind her. She tried to get up on seeing Saravanan but he asked her to rest. 

When they were seated Saravanan asked, “How are you feeling?”

A smiling Kalpana said, “I am fine sir. How are you sir? By the way congratulations on the by election victory.”

“Thanks. I won’t waste time on pleasantries. I want to know why you risked your life for me. Is it because of your duty?”

“Any SPG official would have done the same, for it is our duty. But I would have done this for you even if you were not the PM. For I believe in you as an individual. The way you took care of those around you, your caring nature and kindness for others as in the case of the girl Zohura, make you special. I know you don’t realise this yet but you are one of the best things to have happened to the nation.”

Saravanan was at a loss for words but said, “I’ve never been a serious person. When I became PM, seeing the nation’s plight, a part of me wanted to change the nation for the better. But a major part said loser when you can’t change even your life how will you change the nation. But the faith you’ve shown in me has given me courage. I promise not to let you or the nation down.”  

A nurse informed Kalpana that a person Arun was waiting outside.

Kalpana said, “He might have the latest news on the situation. If you don’t mind can I call him in?”

Saravanan nodded and soon Arun came in and bowing to Saravanan greeted Kalpana. 

“Please don’t waste time and inform us of the developments in the investigation,” said Kalpana. 

“The sniper was killed by one of our own people and there are no leads on that yet. Must be the work of the high level mole. The sniper has been identified as Iqbal Basheer of the Jaish. Except for the rifle and his wallet no other things were with him. They are being scrutinised now. The rifle bag had several prints and two sets of prints have matched with the Aadhar database. They belong to two guys from Tamil Nadu.”

“This definitely is a plot to disintegrate the nation, people from Tamil Nadu, the North East and Punjab working with Pakistani terrorists. But how? A mere terror attack is not on the cards. What is their grand plan and ace in their sleeve.”

“Don’t worry the match was found only now and steps are being taken to arrest them as I speak.”

“Arrest only one guy and put the other under surveillance,” said Kalpana. 

“Yes, I’ll do that but you get well first.”

“One more thing have a coordinated surveillance log maintained for the seven guys at IB Headquarters and I’ve decided to officially rejoin IB while working for SPG if the director approves.”

“That wouldn’t be a problem. Take care,” said Arun.

The IB had an option for people working in the defence forces or other such jobs that they can simultaneously work for IB as well. Kalpana needed access and authority in the IB if she had to crack this case. She decided that she would crack this case and stop the blasts and whatever other plans from happening on Republic day.  

Tihar jail, New Delhi, Nov 8

Samyuktha received a phone call and after answering it she turned to Saravanan and said, “that was Principal Secretary Hari Prasad, he too hated to say it but considering the safety of the numerous kids in the capital it is time to put this kid Zohura in to mild discomfort. As we are speaking a child psychiatrist is working with her but with little results so far.”

“Let us go there directly and see for ourselves,” said Saravanan. 

Soon Saravanan with his secretaries left in the motorcade to the prison. On reaching the prison, when they heard that the psychiatrist was with Zohura, Saravanan decided to wait outside. 

But a tall, fair and slightly plump lady in her mid thirties accompanied by a well built middle aged man approached them and the lady shaking Saravanan’s hands said, “I am Dr. Radhika Sharma of AIIMS and this is…” she hesitated and looked at the person.

“I am Amal Hegde, Deputy Director or DIG IB, Counter Intelligence. Pleased to meet you sir,” the man said shaking Saravanan’s hands. 

Dr. Radhika said, “I want to state clearly that I am here to treat the child and not interrogate her. She seems to be suffering from selective mutism, a type of anxiety disorder of children. Such children have difficulty talking to people they don’t know, especially adults. They do tend to talk to other children. She seems to stutter and has difficulty talking even to other kids. I’ve been trying to talk to her for an hour without results. I’ve heard, she talked to you before so please come in.”

They all followed doctor Radhika to the meeting room where Zohura was sitting. She was looking out through the window at the empty passageway smiling to herself. 

“Do you see her smiling to herself? This is common in such girls,” said Dr. Radhika as they all took a seat across Zohura. 

“Zohura do you know who this is?” asked Dr. Radhika.

Zohura sat silently now looking at her feet.

“Zohura, I’ve told you many times that I am a Doctor. I am here to help you but I can help you only if you talk to me.”

She took a miniature toy dinosaur from her pocket and going near Zohura extended it to her. “Do you like toys or are you grown up for such things?”

Zohura sat there looking at her feet.

“For God’s sake how long will you keep up this charade. The girl is a cold blooded killer who is taking you all for a ride. Let me interrogate her my way and she’ll spill the beans in no time,” said Amal. 

Dr. Radhika and Saravanan both stared sternly at Amal silencing him. 

Zohura clutched and unclothed her hands and began to tremble a little at Amal’s outburst. The girl can understand what is going on around her thought Saravanan. 

“Don’t worry no one will do anything to you. Were you treated unkindly when I was not here?” asked Saravanan.

Zohura looked up at him and said, “I can now wa… watch TV with the other girls. I have a blanket, thank you.”

“You talk to me nicely, why don’t you talk to the Doctor who is here to help you?”

“I don’t know how I talk to you, a Kafir, a godless person. I can’t talk with my own people who bro… bro… brought me here. I wish to talk to the Doctor but I can’t. Can you get me that toy please?”

Saravanan got the toy from Dr. Radhika and gave it to Zohura. She plucked it from Saravanan’s hands and examined it. She then began to play with it by placing it on the cement bench she was sitting on. She played oblivious to the rest of the world. 

“Sir, with due respects we are wasting our time here. This girl definitely has actionable intel on the terrorists. If we leave her be then many Indian children will be in danger,” said Amal.

“I understand your frustrations Amal. What do you think I am doing here? I assure you I will deliver the intel to you in time. If you torture this girl it will permanently affect the child. Am I not correct Doctor?” asked Saravanan. 

“Leave alone torture, if this girl isn’t treated and doesn’t open up to anyone soon that girl will be permanently damaged for the rest of her life,” said Dr. Radhika.

“Goddamnit enough of the worry about this monster who killed a cop on the streets. I am looking to save the lives of many girls like her,” so saying Amal went near Zohura and slapping the cement bench hard looked in to Zohura’s eyes and said, “You don’t fool me, you devil, I will have my turn with you soon.” 

Zohura began to cry and clutching the toy in her hand mumbled, “Mommy, mommy, I want to go home to mommy.”

Saravanan looked at Kalpana who restrained Amal and escorted him outside. Saravanan went near Zohura and gently caressed her hair. He realised a thing, he wasn’t sure if the girl felt good by this but he felt nice. It was as if the comforter was the one getting comforted by the little girl. 

He whispered in her ear, “You’ll be with your mommy soon. Very soon. I promise. Now go to your cell and play with the toy. I will come and meet you soon.” 

CHAPTER 11

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Nov 9

Samyuktha was in her office reading the latest report on the law and order situation in the nation. After Saravanan’s speech all the Government and private firms had taken back their employees on promises made by Saravanan that he would take care of the compensation of the employees. This has effectively put many of the people protesting on the streets back on to their jobs. This has reduced the law and order problem on the streets. But Samyuktha knew it was a mirage as these people would be back with a vengeance when they are not paid at the end of the month. 

She placed the report down and took another sheaf of papers. The IMF loan was due tomorrow. The initial bailout packages had been squandered quickly to resolve the Balance of Payments crisis in hope of a economic revival. Now the nation was hopelessly bankrupt and IMF was displeased with the fiscal discipline exhibited by the nation. The nation needed not an extension but capital and loads of it. The IMF was not going to give an extension on its loan and even an extension meant little without additional loan. It wasn’t going to throw good money after bad money. It was a known fact and the stock market which was at an all time low since the economic collapse plummeted further. The World Bank had already overextended itself with developmental projects in the nation. It was an unbreakable spiral. Intervention of US and UK was the last resort but they have been non committal till now and delaying the decision. 

Samyuktha saw the Principal Secretary Hari Prasad leave Saravanan’s office and wondered what it must be about. Then dismissed it as something routine that Hari Prasad ji must have needed taken care of. The nation was slipping to chaos with many affluent people preparing to leave the nation. What a bunch of cowards. She could afford to take her family abroad but she would never do such a thing. This was her nation and she will help it, but how?

Her assistant came in and said, “The Prime Minister wants you madam.”

Samyuktha arranged the papers on her table and saw Mayuri and Kalpana entering Saravanan’s office. She liked Kalpana but she had no function fraternising with the PM. Her function was to protect him alone. She walked to Saravanan’s room. When she entered the room she saw Mayuri and Kalpana seated across him. She took a seat. 

“Girls we are going to Paris,” yelled Saravanan lifting his hands. 

“We can’t leave like that. The nation is in ruins and the IMF loan is due tomorrow. Moreover a state visit has many protocols,” said Samyuktha and stood up to leave. 

“Sorry, I didn’t give you much time to pack. We’ll get what we need in Paris. It is time to board Air India one,” so saying Saravanan marched in front of them whistling to himself. 

Meurice Hotel, Paris, Nov 9

It was a nine hour flight to Paris from Delhi. Almost everyone napped during flight. It was still early evening in Paris when they reached due to the time difference. Samyuktha deposited her luggage in the room in hotel Meurice and met Saravanan in his room, Mayuri and Kalpana were already there.  

“So what is the agenda for the visit? What are we trying to accomplish here?” asked Samyuktha with a hand on her hips. 

“The agenda is to have fun. This is a private visit,” said Saravanan. 

Though it was a private visit the French Prime Minister and authorities were alerted and when they landed, a junior minister in the cabinet, had hurried to the airport to greet them. The french security forces joined hands with the SPG to provide cover to the Prime Minister. All the fanfare seemed a colossal waste to Samyuktha.   

“Let us compile a list of places to see in Paris. Do you know the places or must I google them?” asked Saravanan and he patted the cot and motioned for them to sit. 

Mayuri sat on the cot near him while Samyuktha chose to sit in a chair while Kalpana remained standing. Saravanan would have none of it and dragged Kalpana to the cot and made her sit. 

“The Eiffel is best seen at night. We can go to the Louvre now. The Notre Dame and Champs Elysees are a must see,” said an excited Mayuri. 

“Then let us go to the Louvre,” said Saravanan. 

Louvre Museum, Paris, Nov 9

Samyuktha tagged along with utmost irritation and despondency. As soon as she got out of the car in front of the Louvre museum she could sense the Paparazzi with their high zoom cameras lurking there. She walked a step behind Saravanan and Mayuri.  

Saravanan put his hands around Mayuri’s shoulders and said, “Let us set the mood for the tour before entering the Louvre. We are in the city of love. Why don’t you kiss someone here?”

“What? Kiss an absolute stranger in broad daylight? You must be nuts. If you are that inspired by the city of love why don’t you kiss someone?” asked Mayuri. 

Saravanan approached a girl who asked,“Do you need a guide to show around the Louvre?”

“Yes, but before that. You see the guards around me? I am the Indian PM but have not kissed a girl before. I want the first time to be before the Louvre. Would you humour me and kiss me?” asked Saravanan. 

The girl broke in to laughter at this and then said why not and kissed Saravanan full on in the mouth. 

Samyuktha was shocked by this. Leave the fact that he was the PM of a nation, she was abhorred by the audacity and arrogance of Saravanan to indulge in such a shameful act in broad daylight. When she was inside the Louvre she got a text from her sister enquiring if she had been near the PM when he kissed the foreigner. There was a picture of the kiss going viral in social media. Her sister was an active social media geek. Samyuktha was pissed beyond limits and was silent and maintained her distance from Saravanan. It was darkening by the time they got out of the Louvre. 

“Why are you so silent and morose? asked Saravanan stepping beside Samyuktha. 

“Do I have to say? The nation is collapsing and here you are enjoying yourself doing abhorrent things,” accused Samyuktha. 

“So that is the thing bothering you. May be our next visit would cheer you up.”

Ritz Hotel, Paris, Nov 9

Samyuktha followed Saravanan along with others as he pressed the door bell to a suite in the Ritz. A tall french man invited them in to the drawing room of the suite and seated them in the sofa. 

“Prime Minister I was surprised when you called. I could have come to visit you sir,” said the man. 

“No need to trouble yourself Mr. Lagarde. This is just an informal visit,” said Saravanan. 

It was then that Samyuktha realised this man was Christine Lagarde, a french guy who was chairman of the IMF. But this was a totally inappropriate manner to set up a meeting and discuss business. Saravanan was going to bomb himself and the nation in his flamboyant style she thought. 

“Let me come straight to the point, I hate the term bailout fund applied to the current situation. India was the fastest growing economy in the world when this crisis hit. The fundamentals are still the same in the country. I agree there have been great flaws and overreaches in the policies of the government.”

He paused and looked at Kalpana who handed a file she had been carrying from the hotel. He handed it over to Lagarde and said, “Here is the proposal for a fresh loan with details of how it will be returned in ten years. As I speak to you our diplomatic assistants will be addressing the twenty four executive directors with this proposal. Let me remind you that your bank was created for this specific purpose. Don’t shrink in your duty. For if Indian economy collapses it will reverberate badly around the world.”

He then shook hands with Christine Lagarde and departed. So that was what Hari Prasad was discussing with Saravanan Samyuktha deduced. It was late by the time they came out. There were reporters outside and Saravanan to her surprise invited them over.  

“Did you come to Paris to see Christine Lagarde?” asked a reporter. 

“No, actually I came to Paris to see the French Prime Minister. I consider France to be on the top of what I consider the ‘Good Samaritan’ nations. If ever the French had the chance to help the world then it is now. They can help the world by resurrecting the Indian economy which will in turn boost world economy.”

“What was the kiss all about?”

  “I was trying to experience the city of love. Hope you don’t hold it against me or my nation.”

A reporter said,  “On the contrary we loved it. But what else is on the agenda?”

“The Indian growth story is not a lie. The fundamentals are still strong. I want to convince the captains of industry here to invest in India, if not they’ll be missing an opportunity.”  

After some humorous banter Saravanan excused himself. Everyone except Saravanan were tired and wanted to go to the hotel, dine and sleep. Saravanan finally relented and they headed back. 

Meuse Hotel, Paris, Nov 10

Samyuktha overslept because of tiredness and jet lag. When she came out to have breakfast she was told the PM had gone out. She was mildly surprised by this but assumed he must have gone to tour Paris. She saw a missed call from Hari Prasad ji and made a mental note to call him after breakfast. She had breakfast and was crossing Mayuri’s room which was open with her watching TV intently. Samyuktha knocked on the open door and stepped in. 

“Didi come in. Can you believe it?” asked Mayuri in astonishment and joy. 

“What are you talking about? I just woke up and had breakfast,” said Samyuktha sitting beside Mayuri. 

Mayuri muted the television and said, “First up in the morning was the announcement from IMF. They not only granted an extension but announced a fresh loan of an astonishing amount unexpected by anyone. Then came an announcement from the World Bank giving a long list of loans for various developmental projects in India.” 

“Wow, that was unexpected.”

“Didi, wait there is much more. When I woke up today I was greeted with the news that our PM had received an invitation for a breakfast meeting with the French PM and had left. After breakfast I switched on the TV and have been glued to it ever since. The PMs gave a joint interview in which the French PM announced a huge loan to India.”

“That is good news indeed but it is early days to celebrate.”

“No, you wait Didi. Don’t you see? Coming to France first instead of going to US was a master stroke of Saravanan. The delaying US and UK with their pride hurt and not wanting to be left behind have unilaterally announced a relief package much bigger than that of France. It would take us years to spend all this money.”

“But getting funds is only one half of the story there is still much to do.”

“Then I got a call from Principal Secretary Hari Prasad ji asking if I am near our PM and to talk some sense to our PM about the RBI announcement that Saravanan had asked to make via phone. The RBI was begging to reconsider he said.”

“What folly did Saravanan do now?”

“Folly my foot, it was genius. The rupee that was pegged to the dollar was floated again. Do you remember the rupee was almost worthless with the hyper inflation and a dollar was worth a few thousand rupees when it was pegged to the dollar. Now the currency exchanges have rallied behind the rupee and it is now rallying at ninety four rupees to a dollar.”

Samyuktha took some time to digest all this and meekly said, “This might be a false start.”

“Wait Didi all the above measures show the guts, courage and timing of Saravanan. But the thing in which Saravanan defied Hari Prasad ji and the RBI was a matter of acumen. We know increasing Repo rates and Cash Reserve Ratio of RBI will decrease bank lending and combat inflation. This is common logic, too much money chasing too few goods. Saravanan decreased the Repo rates and the CRR with an oral rider to lend to productive entities and people.”

“What a disaster?”

“No, if the commodity index falling drastically is any indication of things to be then inflation will reduce drastically.”

“But…” started Samyuktha but was cut off by Mayuri.

“The Stock market index Sensex just shot up by a thousand points and the day has just begun. This is the highest it has gained in a single day in the history of the nation.”

“Am I to believe that the greatest economic crisis in the nation’s history was wiped away with a magic wand. Go tell your fairy tales to some one else.” 

“A skeptical reporter asked the same question that you are asking. Saravanan replied that the fundamentals of the Indian growth story has always been strong. The crisis witnessed was a serious setback but exaggerated tenfold by the panic reaction of the people. Macro Economics was a discipline dependent on the mood of the people.” 

Mayuri went and closed the door and returned to sit on her chair.   

She continued, “He said this comeback had started the day he had asked the people to return back to their work and that he just channelised the mood of the nation for the better.”

Samyuktha sat there stunned, if what Mayuri says was to be believed India was on the road to economic recovery. What she and the think tank of the nation failed to do under the austere and able Dubey ji, this charlatan from a small town in the southern most tip of the nation has done. 

She began to believe the economic resurgence of the nation and felt proud of Saravanan. Yet the law and order situation was still worse and a disastrous terrorist threat looms ahead. It is too early to celebrate there was a lot of work ahead.   

Mayuri removed the mute on the TV but still kept talking, “He is being called the wonder boy of the nation. Can you believe it? I believe it. Only a guy who danced drunkenly on a parapet wall tempting death and kissed a complete stranger with guts can do the wonder he did.”

Samyuktha realised that Mayuri was completely taken in by Saravanan and so must be a whole nation by now. Yet why was she still pensive? He was a good guy, all things considered, the way he saved Mayuri, herself and the little girl Zohura. But he was a slacker who had gotten lucky. Can he be trusted to lead the nation out of the threats ahead. She couldn’t deny that she had a new respect for him.

She got a text message from her sister and while she was looking at it Mayuri said, “Right as we speak here, he is talking to leaders of industry who are promising more and more investments in India.”

The text read ‘Are you with the wonder boy, the hero of the nation. I won’t disturb you. Please call me when free. You know I don’t follow politics but all that changed today and with this guy. I am proud of you sis.”

Samyuktha thought her sister is proud of her, what did she do to deserve it. She has been nagging and belittling Saravanan from the day she saw him. She never believed in him. She decided to show him the same if not more of the loyalty she showed Dubey ji, going forward. 

She called her sister, “Prati, are you at work?”

Her sister shrieked in to the phone, “Can you hear that? We are celebrating. We are exploding crackers here right inside the office. It is the same in offices all over the country. Your guy is no Don Quixote. He is a true knight in shining armour.”

Samyuktha said, “That is something true. But what is he to me? He is my boss but I don’t treat him like one. He repulses and intrigues me at the same time. Why is it that when the nation is celebrating I am lost?”

“I can’t answer that. But please open up to yourself and be frank about your emotions before it is too late.”

“Who am I kidding here? He talks pleasingly and even flirts a bit. But he has never shown real interest in me or any girl for that. Hell you are talking of the rejuvenation of the nation while I am rambling about my personal thoughts.”

“Didi, you’ve always wanted romance and your knight in a shining armour. Don’t shut yourself now.”

“Silly girl, don’t put ideas in my head. Being single is taking a toll on me. May be I must ask our parents to find a groom for me. Take care, I’ve got to go now.”

Saravanan came and the way Mayuri fawned over him irritated her. So when they went for shopping she feigned a head ache and remained back.  

Forum Des Halles Mall, Paris. Nov 10 

Mayuri was getting stuff from the mall to give to friends and relatives back home. Saravanan was hovering around disinterestedly.

“Don’t you want to get something for the people back home like your parents or your brother?” asked Mayuri.

“No, I am used to them doing things for me. It would feel odd for me to get a thing for them.”

“You could get something for me, a gift perhaps,” said Mayuri and winked at him. 

She had thought of him as a clown. But then he had saved her from the CBI enquiry. She had given up on people being kind to her without expecting something in return. He had been different, this fool. He had inspired her to mend her corrupt ways. She was close to her family but all they wanted was to get this thing and that thing from her. She didn’t mind it for they were family and she loved them. She thought this fool had no pretensions and could fit in with her family with a humble background. But he was never serious and how to make such a man commit himself, she wondered. 

“What do you think of me?” she asked.

“You are a bright and successful kid who has a lot to be proud of.”

“No, what do you think of me as a girl personally?”

Saravanan paused before saying, “You are beautiful and funny and someday would make some guy very happy.”

“Any interest in being that guy?”

Saravanan smiled and said, “You don’t know me, the loser who is unfit for anyone,” and went to a rack with electronic gadgets and pulled out an audio or MP3 player and said, “Record Bollywood and Urdu songs in this.”

“Who is this for?”

“It is for Zohura, she must be so miserable being locked up in the cell.”

Wow, he is so kind and loved kids. He would be a good father. God, he is such a great catch. She had been propositioned a lot many times but she rejected them all. May be she had been waiting for a guy like him to come along.  

“What do you mean unfit?”

“I am not always like this. I lose my mind and stay insane for months. It is unbearable and my brother takes care of me then. When I recover I am a total wreck who is disgusting with smoking and lack of a routine and personal hygiene. I stay lazy waking after noon and shut myself from the rest of the world. Then I have bright patches like this one. Then the cycle continues.”

“What if I deem you fit?”

“Stick around a bit more, you will see me in my rough patch and then we’ll see what you think of me.”

“I plan to stick around forever but I won’t press you on this for now. We’ll see where this takes us,” she said. 

God, despite being successful this guy is insecure and shy at the core. She wanted to hug him, assure him and protect him from this world. She contented herself with patting him on the head and left to browse the mall humming a song to herself.  

CHAPTER 12

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Nov 11

Mayuri was tired from the trip to Paris. Yet she had come bouncing when Saravanan had called for her. Soon they were joined by a tired looking Samyuktha. Saravanan though looked upbeat and cheerful. Why shouldn’t he be? All media attention was on him and he was the darling of the nation.  

“Paris was fun, don’t you think?” asked Saravanan. 

“Yes, I enjoyed your company much,” said Mayuri twirling her hair. 

She had been mildly hitting on him whenever she had the chance since the trip to the shopping mall with him in Paris.

“Mayuri despite the bump with the CBI investigation thing you can still call yourself close to Pandey. Can’t you?”

“If left to my choice I wouldn’t have anything to do with that twerp but I think he counts me as part of his circle,” said Mayuri.

“Call Pandey and request him to send the Home Secretary and the Special Secretary for Internal Security here please.”

“You can just order them here. Why call Pandey?”

“I want it to seem like I am asking a favour of him and that I respect him greatly.”

Mayuri never thought of Saravanan as the one who played politics the old way. So she was surprised by his attitude of not confronting Pandey. Mayuri took out her phone and made the call. 

Samyuktha said, “What ever you do will be superseded by Pandey’s orders. You can’t do anything without his help. You have to challenge and tackle Pandey sooner or later.”

“How did you find Paris?” asked Saravanan to Samyuktha. 

“I am more concerned about India than Paris. I understand that you are trying to do something about the Law and Order situation here by calling them over. But I would prefer if you kept us in the loop on these things. If you dislike me you can at least tell Mayuri what you are up to. She will help you,” said Samyuktha. 

Saravanan laughed and said, “Me dislike you. On the contrary I like you very much. Your dislike for me is a different issue altogether.”

Mayuri could detect Samyuktha going red in the face at Saravanan’s comment. There was a knock on the door and they were joined by the Home Secretary Nitin Vogle and the Special Secretary for Internal Security Nirmala Kaushik. The Home Ministry was in the North Block of the Secretariat across from the PMO. It was a short walk from there to here. Home Secretary Vogle was a politically cunning diplomat and firmly in the Pandey camp now. Secretary for Internal Secretary was a post occupied by an IPS officer in a Home department otherwise filled by IAS officers and had to report to the Home Secretary. Nirmala was a sincere and tough officer and had a sterling reputation. There was a day when Mayuri used to detest people like Nirmala. Saravanan greeted them and they took their seats. 

“Good Morning Vogle ji. How is Pandey ji? Convey my regards to him. He is doing a good job in handling the law and order crisis in the nation. I have a few requests though if you would consider them,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri didn’t like the way Saravanan was intentionally being over nice to Vogle. He usually was blunt and direct with most people he handled. 

“I would be obliged to be of service to you sir,” said Vogle.

“The prisons are overflowing with people taken in to preventive custody. It was okay when the situation was bad but I think it has improved a bit. Most of the agitators taking to the streets now have someone close to them in prison. Why provoke them? What do you think of releasing everyone except the top leaders.”

Samyuktha spoke before Vogle could respond, “The nation is facing a law and order crisis and instead of taking sterner measures you want to release rioters.”

“I too don’t think it might be appropriate given the circumstances,” said Vogle. 

Saravanan stared long and hard at Samyuktha who returned his glare. 

“Forgive me, when I am unable to maintain order in my own camp, who am I to talk of law and order of the nation. But I am not asking you Vogle. I know for a fact this and the other measures I am about to propose will cause no displeasure to Pandey ji. So will you do what I ask or should I have Pandey ji talk to you?”

Now this is more like the Saravanan we are used to thought Mayuri. 

“I didn’t mean to offend you sir. I’ll immediately order the release of the prisoners and do things you say that will not displease Pandey ji.”

“Remove all tanks standing on the roads.”

“Yes sir, that can easily be done.”

“Let the central forces in the states be there as a reserve but don’t deploy them visibly out in the open.”

“Sure sir. An excellent suggestion if I may say so.”

“Wherever possible in the places where section 144 of unlawful assembly is in place, remove it.”

“Consider all of it done sir.”

“I want Nirmala here to take care of operations on the ground from now on. Of course she will report to you. That is all, you can leave now,” said Saravanan and Nirmala rose along with Vogle, “Not you Mrs. Nirmala.”

Nirmala sat back as Vogle got out of the room. 

“Who do you work for?” asked Saravanan.

“The Home Secretary Vogle,” replied Nirmala. 

“Who do you really work for?” Saravanan asked again.

Nirmala straightened herself in the chair and stiffening her body said, “The Government of India sir.”

“What do you think of the steps I’ve outlined so far?”

“Frankly sir, they are well intentioned but utterly foolish given the circumstances.”

Saravanan laughed at this and said, “That is where you come in. I don’t want another riot happening anywhere in India. Use teargas, rubber pellets and lathi charges at the outset itself. But I want to stop these things before they happen. I want intelligence working round the clock to nab the miscreants. You have full authority.”

“Yes sir, but what about the Home Secretary?”

“You will report to him. But what and how much is up to you.”

“Yes sir.”

“What do you think of the Pandey Sainiks?”

“I don’t think of political matters that don’t concern me”

“Then I will think for both of us. Deal with them harshly where and when required. No arrests. But make sure that people don’t fear them but fear to be a part of them. I rely on you to restore the law and order situation in the nation. Good luck and thats all.”

These steps were not advisable given the situation but given the magic touch of Saravanan who seemed to be on a kind of a roll anything was possible. 

But Samyuktha didn’t share the thought it seemed for she said, “I don’t think liberal measures will help the current law and order situation.”

“I’ve been selectively liberal while giving a free hand to Nirmala. She used to be a terror of the goons and used to have the record of the most encounters by a female officer before being replaced later by,” paused Saravanan and asked “Guess who?”

“No one I know,” replied Samyuktha.

“Wrong, Kalpana now holds the record for the most encounters which she made while working for the Mumbai police.”

Mayuri was surprised and said, “Wow, who would have thought that docile girl would be such a killer. How come you know all these things while we don’t?”

“You girls busy yourself with the regular stuff of running the nation while I focus only on things that interest me like the economic crisis.”

Mayuri wasn’t fooled by his humility, he had succeeded when the think tank of the nation including herself had failed. He was intelligent no doubt but people were fooled by his unassuming nonchalant manner in to thinking of him as a fool or a clown. She had an intelligent clown in her hands and she was no fool to let someone this charming to slip through her hands. 

IB HQ, New Delhi, Nov 11 

Kalpana walked in to the surveillance monitoring room, that will soon be called simply as the Republic Day room, established in the IB headquarters. There were three people in the room, two guys and a girl, and all of them were sitting before a computer with earphones connected to their heads. The short bearded guy was Tharun, the guy with spiked hair was Gopi and the spectacled girl was Sheela. They were on loan for this project from the cyber crimes division of IB. All mobile phones of the seven of them under surveillance had been bugged and so were other places like offices wherever possible. There was also physical surveillance of these guys by the local IB guys. They phoned in regularly and logs were maintained on the computers for that. Screening of the voice data in real time was not possible with just these three. So they screened recorded voices for clues. 

On seeing her Sheela said, “Hi Madam, nothing new here. The same secessionist planning in Assam and Punjab, the Tamil guy seems tame compared to his counterparts. We have enough to haul the behinds of these guys to Tihar and lock them forever. What more do we want?”

“We need something concrete,” said Kalpana. 

“Two guys in Assam are planning the assassination of some Collector. As soon as we get the details on it we haul those two in right?” asked Tharun. 

“We shall protect the collector but the guys will be free.”

“Look I told you so. You owe me fifty,” said Gopi.

“Guys I appreciate the effort you guys are putting in but after all that I explained to you guys, the questions you ask worry me. There are plans to carry out major blasts here. It is likely these guys know little to nothing about it. Yet we are monitoring them in the hope of them being contacted again regarding the blasts and slip a clue.”

“Sorry madam, we are new to the field intelligence and stuff. We will do our jobs. We started with seven guys but are now monitoring an additional three. There has been no outside contact so far. These guys are roaming around and talking in cloistered circles,” said Sheela. 

“You guys carry on. I will come back.”

“To see the prisoner? His court date is in a couple of days but we will get custody again I’ve heard,” said Tharun. 

“See the arrested guy has little or no useful information. That is why we didn’t arrest the other guys. It is obvious that they once had contact with the main terrorists.” 

Kalpana drank water from a bottle on the table and continued, “The arrested guy had his handprints on the rifle bag used to make an attempt on the life of the PM. He says he helped them on orders of his home organisation not knowing what he did. The thing is, for these errands they need not have recruited people from afar. So there must be another contact with at least one of these guys.”   

“We will not miss it or even any minor clue that might come up madam,” said Sheela. 

“Also remember what I said about not to let any detail waste and identify the organization, leaders and members of the groups. Get all details about the assassination plan of the collector and mail me the details.”

Kalpana exited the room and headed towards the holding cell. For the first few days she had only roughed him up without talking so he realised she was in charge. Then she had established his story which seemed genuine. He was Manohar who worked as a clerk in a textile manufacturing firm in Tiruppur. He had been active in the textile union along with the recent involvement with theTamil separatist group Tamil Nadu Liberation Army. 

He had been ordered by a leader, Navaneethan who is also under surveillance, to go to Delhi and help the guys there. She had then worked on his knowledge of Navaneethan and other members of the group he knew. She then got details of the two guys in Delhi he knew. One of the guys was the other Tamil guy and the other guy must be Naqvi. Naqvi seemed to be a high level operative, why would he expose himself to this guy Manohar. She is now going over these details again and again with him to find any clue that might be there.  

  Kalpana entered the cell and Manohar rose up from the cement bench. She motioned for him to sit and sat in the wooden stool opposite him. 

“You know what has been bothering me till now is why would Naqvi expose himself to a nobody like you?”

“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” said Manohar.

Kalpana stood from the stool and advanced towards him.

“I don’t know, I promise,” he said crying and shrank back in to the wall, “May be our leader wanted it to be that way. I’ve heard Navaneethan tell me that I had nothing to worry as our leader had considerable influence with these guys and that I would finally meet our leader after I returned.”

The wheels in Kalpana’s mind clicked in place. Naqvi didn’t need the guys in these states to help him carry out blasts in Delhi. There was something else planned in these states along with the blasts in Delhi in a coordinated manner. Naqvi was actually humouring the leader of the TNLA by meeting Manohar. So now the blasts in Delhi and whatever it was planned in these states must be stopped before Republic day which was in two and a half months or seventy five days to be precise.   

 Tihar Jail, New Delhi, Nov 11

Samyuktha was seated in the Jailor’s office. She had received a phone call telling that there had been an attempt on Zohura’s life and that she had been injured but there was nothing to worry. When she had said it to Saravanan, he had hyper ventilated and kept asking her repeatedly if Zohura was okay. She made him sit and gave him water and yet he had not calmed. He had insisted on coming here immediately. He seemed a bit calmer now. 

The Jailor said, “There is nothing to worry it was only a superficial cut that we treated in the Jail hospital itself. If it were anything serious we would have taken her to the AIIMS.”

“Are you sure?” asked a perturbed Saravanan. 

  “Yes, don’t worry. A girl attacked her with a broken piece of glass but other girls intervened and saved her life. The attacking girl confessed that she had been told to kill Zohura by her brother who had got the contract from Jugnu Thappar.”

Kalpana who was standing behind Saravanan leaned and whispered in his ear, “He is a henchman of Jignesh Malviya who works for Pandey.”

  “We have told the local SP but he informed us that Jugnu had absconded,” said the Jailor. 

“The Pakistanis must have contacted Jignesh and issued a contract on Zohura,” said Saravanan looking at Samyuktha and Mayuri who  were sitting near him. 

Then turning to the Jailor he asked, “How safe is she here?”

“Normally prison is the safest place to be, if you are under a murder threat but these aren’t normal times. The prisons are overflowing with traffic they can’t handle. I have assigned additional security to Zohura for now.”

“Can we see her?”

“Yes, of course,” said the jailor and they all left to meet Zohura. 

Samyuktha couldn’t understand the worry of Saravanan. She had been concerned for the little girl and that was normal. But Saravanan was acting as if it was his own girl who had escaped an attempt on her life. She didn’t know if she should like him for the care and affection he showed or hate him for his weakness towards a girl who was a terrorist. As they sat across Zohura who sat looking at her feet Samyuktha reminded herself that this girl had killed a human being. 

Saravanan got up from his chair and went near Zohura and caressing her hair asked, “Are you all right?”

Zohura looked up and said, “I am well. It didn’t hurt. It hu.. hurt more during torture. But God is with me.”

Saravanan took the music player and earphones from his pocket and gave it to her saying, “It contains Bollywood and Urdu songs.” 

He looked at the Jailor and asked, “She is allowed to have this, isn’t she?”

“For you such exceptions can easily be made sir,” said the Jailor. 

Zohura had by then connected the earphones to her ear and started listening to the music. 

Saravanan patted the girl on the head and left wondering what a fate for such a young girl.   

CHAPTER 13

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Nov 12

It was early evening and Samyuktha was in Saravanan’s room going over the latest law and order reports in the nation. She was wondering at how in the beginning she had commanded and lorded over Saravanan but now she simply did all that he asked. It hadn’t happened in an instance but gradually in such a manner that she never can pin point the moment of transformation. She still treated him irreverently and argued with him, though more out of habit than anything else. 

Mayuri was there in a blue Salwar Kameez and it surprised Samyuktha. She doubted it must have something to do with Saravanan’s comment that he liked girls in Indian clothes more than in western outfits. Mayuri now openly flirted with Saravanan and he didn’t seem to mind it. This angered Samyuktha beyond limits and she put it off as the general irritation she had towards Mayuri and Saravanan. But at times she wondered if she was jealous about Mayuri being close to Saravanan. She kind of wished he would banter with her as jovially as he did with Mayuri. 

“The law and order situation has improved considerably. The western nations including the US and the UK have withdrawn the warning to tourists against visiting India. The Australian cricket team which had refused to tour India on security grounds has now fixed the date for the tour. The streets are calm and peaceful. Do you have a magic wand or something?” asked Mayuri.

“Yes, I have a wand and it is pure magic. Want to see,’” said Saravanan.

“Don’t be vulgar and that too before Samyuktha Didi,” said Mayuri giggling. 

“My goodness, I meant nothing inappropriate, you are twisting my words you rogue.”

“Really how did you do it?” asked Samyuktha. 

“Management is all about delegation and finding the right person for the job and giving them a free hand like I gave Nirmala. She did the trick,” said Saravanan.  

“Don’t be modest, the measures you took like releasing prisoners restored the confidence of the people in the system and has helped a lot. Yet Nirmala has done a good job in curbing the Pandey Sainiks. Pandey is pissed on you and will make a play against you soon,” said Mayuri. 

Samyuktha received a call from the National Security Advisor Pankaj Mehra that the situation at the border has become untenable with the Pakistan military forces disguised as terrorists encroaching and entering through the border, all across the LOC. She gave the phone to Saravanan. 

He said on the phone, “We respond as required for now and launch our massive counter attack at night under the cover of darkness. Has all necessary troops from around the nation assembled in the border camps?”

“Yes sir, the troop mobilisation has been successful and nobody is any the wiser including the Americans,” said the NSA Pankaj Mehra. 

“Convene the National Security Council and have them assemble in the PMO.” 

“Yes sir, but the ministers might be unavailable on such short notice. I’ll convene the others.”

Saravanan said to Samyuktha, “Have a meeting room ready here with large screens to depict satellite images among other things. Get going now.”

Samyuktha readied the meeting room and it was night by the time the National Security Council convened there. Only the Defence Minister Piyush Chavan was present among the ministers. All the Chiefs of staff, the Defence, Home and Foreign Secretaries and a deluge of other important bureaucrats who were part of the NSC were present there. It was a power packed room and Samyuktha felt proud to be standing in its centre beside Saravanan. 

Saravanan said, “Pull up the news coverage on the Pakistani infiltration so far.” 

Mayuri tapped on the laptop before her and the screen came alive with images of the domestic and international media reporting on how this was a far worse situation than the Kargil incursions. It said that the Indian intelligence has utterly failed and India was caught off guard with its pants down. A few faces in the room cringed at such remarks by the media. 

“It is time to prove to the world who was napping and who was in charge. Let us launch operation ‘Jai Ho’ but I want to address our soldiers before that,” said Saravanan. 

Samyuktha had raised her eyebrows when Saravanan said ‘Jai Ho’ but he said, “What? I am an A.R Rahman fan, does that bother you?”

Mayuri gave Saravanan a microphone and said his words would be broadcast to the soldiers. Images of the soldiers in the camps were telecast on the screen. 

He said, “God be with you brave brothers whose lives are sacrificed first on any threat to the nation. Your sacrifices have become too commonplace and frequent that the tyrants across the border don’t value it anymore. I assure you now and here that your lives haven’t been put at stake for any meagre cause. Rather you would today strike at the heart of those tyrants by destroying the terrorist camps across the border once and for all. Good luck. Jai Ho.”

Samyuktha realised that she was witnessing a historical moment of the nation. She normally would have been skeptical of Saravanan and his plans but not any longer. Like Mayuri said he really was on a roll. The jawans took off from the camps and the government spokesperson was saying, that there is nothing to worry and that the incursions would be dealt with, and a fitting reply would be given. 

Saravanan then turned to the Foreign Secretary and said, “I want all our ambassadors and diplomats emphasising that terrorist insurgency has become a commonplace but costly affair and we were pushed to react the way we did. I don’t want any diplomatic fallout because of this.”

He then turned to the rest of the room and said, “For those of you who don’t know this yet, there is the extraction of two known terrorists from Karachi planned along with this. Two choppers with ten Garud commandos flying low to avoid radar will take care of the extraction of Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim.”

There was a flurry of activity after that and Saravanan took a back seat with the chiefs of staff taking control. At around two in the morning the less needed bureaucrats were told they could leave if they wished. But none of them budged from their seat. By two thirty most of the terrorist camps had been blasted and the two targets were firmly in custody and were being brought back. Around three thirty the targets and rest of the Indian troops were in Indian territory and operation ‘Jai Ho’ was said to be a success. There was a huge celebration in the room. Saravanan in his usual flamboyant style corked open a champagne bottle and splashed it all across the room and on Samyuktha. But Samyuktha didn’t mind. After the initial cheer, it was time to take count of the casualties. There were thirty seven casualties and as the others were upbeat about the low figure, Saravanan was upset. Samyuktha consoled him and sent him to sleep it off.  

ISI HQ, Islamabad, Nov 13

Salim sat silently while the General paced the room angrily. Salim was wary of the General even in normal times but today the General was in a genuine fury. Salim was himself saddened and angered at the events of yesterday night. But he was sure they would be more than avenged on the Indian Republic day on January 26, when India would be split in to pieces. 

“How did this happen? How in the world did this happen?” asked the General turning towards Salim. 

“Sir, we had zero intelligence on this. Their own people had no knowledge of this. Their intelligence was kept in the dark about this. Our high level mole in the intelligence and the Union minister swear they had no knowledge of this.”

“What use is a mole if such a shame couldn’t be averted. All major terrorist camps have been destroyed. Dawood and Azhar have been kidnapped from right under our noses. We were talking of how India would crumble then we have this.”

“All this is because of the clown Saravanan. Their economy has revived, law and order restored and now this. We’ve underestimated this clown.”

“I want the guy removed and also take care of the girl Zohura,” said the General sitting down on the chair.

“The contract for Zohura is still out and we will work on doing something about the guy sir.”

“I put all our resources on your plan and we were caught unawares here. What do you say?”

“We will get them back on January 26 sir. They still have no clue sir. While we have our personnel in place. The incursion we attempted in the valley was only for additional support. The bombs are now ready sir. The operational plan to place the bombs has been in place for quite some time.”

“Then why don’t we blast them sky high and split their nation now itself.”

“Sir I have said this already, the date can’t be changed. We have conveyed the date to all our personnel and the separatist forces who  are training for that date as we speak.”

“Who is co-ordinating all this on the ground.”

“We have the Jaish’s veteran terrorist Naqvi orchestrating the blasts on the Secretariat and Parliament. He intends to plant the bomb in the PMO himself.”

“Are there any chances of us being blown and the plan thwarted?”

“With the high level mole we will get wind of anything from their side. No one except Naqvi knows the full plan. Even Naqvi doesn’t know the operative details other than the blasts. Only the militant commanders of the separatist forces know the full operational plan to take control and that too only of their regions.”

“What does taking control of the regions entail?”

“We take control of the state secretariat and assembly holding as many ministers as possible as hostage. We also take control the district Collectorates and police stations in the region.” 

“Do we have the personnel for this assembled there?”

“The core team consists of our personnel and the rest are supplied by the separatist forces.”

The General laughed violently and said, “We have a force ready to wreck their nation and take control. We’ve done this right under their noses and there is little they can do about it now. We just have to wait till their republic day to split their nation. Brilliant.”

“This would be our vengeance for yesterday, Bangladesh and everything else.”

Terrorist Hideout, Laxmi Nagar, New Delhi, Nov 13

Naqvi now had with him Asif Khan in place of Iqbal to function as his Man Friday. After the failed attempt on the PMs life he had received instructions from Salim in ISI headquarters to make another play on the PM and concentrate on the Republic Day blasts. He had received instructions from Salim to give the contract to eliminate Zohura to Jignesh Malviya and he had done so. He didn’t know the operational details of the plan to take control of the states. But he had contacts with the people of each of the separatist forces so that resources can be shared and coordinated for the big day. 

He suspected Zohura knew more than he did for she had been with Salim since the inception of the plan and also on his tour of India. But she was a retarded little girl. Still it was nice to take care of loose ends and the contract on her head would achieve that. For the Republic day blasts the terrorists have used the cover of video journalists of a reputed Hindi news channel. The mole in the Indian Intelligence had helped in establishing this and other covers. The two houses in the parliament will be targeted with two very powerful bombs fitted in video cameras used to telecast live the proceedings of the houses. The Secretariat building will be targeted using four powerful bombs fitted in to laptops carried by terrorists posing as journalists. Two each for the North and South block.

The terrorists were actually working as reporters now and were frequenting the blast sites with the equipment sans the bombs. He had been informed that the bombs were ready. Naqvi himself will carry a laptop and place it in as close to the PMO as possible. He will have the detonator for all laptops with him and once when he is outside and at a safe distance he will detonate the bombs. The Home, Defence, Finance and External Affairs Ministries along with the PMO will be blasted. The Parliament and the Secretariat will be functioning to celebrate the Republic day. 

If any of the terrorists were for some reason stopped on the Republic day, they will be provided with two phone numbers to use. First the phone number of the Lizard, the high level mole in the Indian Intelligence. Secondly the phone number of the compromised Union Minister. These two will clear any low level hassles encountered by the terrorists. 

Naqvi had crafted the operational details of this plan himself along with Salim. Though he didn’t know the operational details of the plan to take control of the North East, Kashmir, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, he knew that the plan was to establish control in these regions. He now had to call his contacts in the separatist groups and ask them what they needed in terms of explosives and guns and arrange for them. He knew like with him, Salim would be in touch with the leaders of the separatist groups coordinating the attack. His task was to contact the low level operatives and supply them what they want. 

The leader of his terrorist group Jaish e Mohammad, Masood Azhar had been captured by the Indians and he was angered beyond limits. He resolved to carry out the blasts successfully as an act of vengeance. Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim had been nabbed from Karachi but the Indian officials claim that they had been captured in POK during the Hot Pursuit operations. Eliminating the Indian PM from a close range shot with their new cover and the help of the mole would be a simpler plan. But they can’t risk blowing the cover intended for the blasts. So some other detailed plan had to be hatched. It can wait for now. 

“Asif, where is Ghazia?”

“She is watching TV. Should I call her?”

“No, leave her be.” 

Poor girl she was alone after Zohura had been captured. She would die soon because of a heart problem. She could be saved using facilities available in India some said. Better to die than put your life in the hands of these goddamned Kafirs. 

“Only one guy has been arrested from the Tamil guys right. Do you think the other guy has also been compromised?” asked Naqvi.

“I don’t think so,” said Asif.

It wouldn’t matter much as Naqvi would be using new sims for making the calls with the separatists and he would discard them immediately. Anyway it was good to take some precautions. He would call one of the Tamil leaders Navaneethan instead. 

“Asif I want you to make a plan for the assassination of the PM. Seek my help where needed.” 

Home Ministry, Secretariat, New Delhi, Nov 13

Home Minister Manoj Pandey sat in his chair signing files without reading or even glancing at them. He had grossly underestimated this new Prime Minister. They thought of him as a clown and a fool but now it seems he would make a fool out of them. 

He knew the situation was worse than before. Before at least only a few of the Dubey supporters were undecided and waiting for Dubey to recover. The rest were with him and Bhatt. Now a huge chunk of Dubey’s supporters have cast their lot with this new guy. No need to worry though as the numbers are nowhere near to let him make a play for being PM permanently. 

“Shukla do we have enough MPs to make a play for the Prime Ministership?” asked Pandey.

“We can win a no confidence motion now if Bhatt votes for it but will be left neck and neck with Bhatt for Prime Ministership,” replied Shukla. 

“We don’t want that. What we need then is the support of this new PM Saravanan and his supporters. It will give us a clear edge over Bhatt.”

“But why would he do that? He is secure in his position now.”

Pandey sat thinking for a while and said, “Then we must give him a compelling reason to do so.”

“That is not possible. His being corrupt is a myth. He has given all that money to charity.”

Pandey stopped signing files and stood and said, “No, I was thinking along the lines of Jignesh influencing this guy.”

“Are you suggesting that we threaten the PM of India?” asked Vipul.

“Why are you so shocked? He is a clueless outsider and a clown. An intelligent clown perhaps but without the guts to face a brutal threat. He will be most vulnerable with his family like everyone else. If we hit him hard and fast he will do as we ask.”

“I will look after it immediately,” said Jignesh and got up from his chair. 

Pandey patted Jignesh’s shoulders and said, “Give some time for Shukla to put the ducks in a row, that is take care of the other MPs. Then proceed. I want to be the PM in a couple of days time.” 

CHAPTER 14

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Nov 20

Samyuktha was studying the report from the NSA assessing the terrorist threat situation in the nation. It had been a hectic week for her. Saravanan was a national hero after destroying all terrorist camps across the border and capturing the two most wanted terrorists Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim. The first day after that Saravanan lifted the ban on all the books and movies in India. The lifting of ban on the ‘Satanic Verses’ outraged the Muslims and the lifting of the ban of ‘Hinduism, An Alternate History’ enraged the Hindus. 

The very same day he sent a circular to the state Home departments to fix a target for the anti corruption, vigilance department for the number of cases to file in court. He also fixed such a target for corruption cases for the CBI, Loka Yuktas and other central bodies. He linked the incentives for them to the number of successful cases. 

The next day he said to Samyuktha, “You said there are no more riots or protests but in TV in the background I see people lining the streets.”

Samyuktha who by now had accepted the authority of Saravanan politely replied, “Those are people belonging to casteist organisations demanding various things. The chief among it is increased quotas for the various caste groups.”

Saravanan replied, “The best thing to have happened to the nation is Reservation and affirmative action and the worst thing is casteism.” 

  Saravanan thought to himself, you can’t expect thousands of years of oppression to be set right by a few years of reservation. Yet in the globalised privatised world, ensuring a few educational seats and government jobs is insufficient. We make them lame by giving them crutches. There must be an expiry on reservation. A gradual roll back over the next century would be good. All caste associations should be banned. All speeches and conversations on caste should be banned. 

He all of a sudden worked for almost half a day in his laptop drafting two bills and ignoring Samyuktha who was pestering him to look in to pressing issues of the nation. 

He looked up from his laptop and said to Samyuktha and Mayuri, “Let us go to the Parliament. I am going to present two fresh bills on my first visit there.”

He dragged Samyuktha and Mayuri to the Parliament and introduced the ‘Anti Caste’ and ‘Reservation Rollback’ bills. Surprisingly enough Sushant supported the bill but Pandey, Bhatt and the coalition partners opposed the bills as vehemently as the opposition. The bills were discussed and discarded with much hue and cry and drama in the Parliament.

Saravanan was really sad for the first time since he came to Delhi. For he poured his heart and soul in to drafting these bills with the best interest of the nation. If there were flaws it could have been pointed out. Heck any new alternatives could have been suggested. Instead his efforts were rejected out of hand.  

When returning from the Parliament, the way to the Secretariat was blocked by piled up garbage left there intentionally by Corporation sanitation workers protesting for a pay rise. The motorcade prepared to take another route. But Saravanan citing the nuisance to rest of the public got  down from the car and began removing the garbage with his bare hands. 

Media persons covering the protest asked, “Is this a publicity stunt by the eccentric PM?”

Saravanan responded, “At least I am willing to get my hands dirty for whatever reason and helping the people here, whereas I felt totally useless in the parliament.”

Other passers by joined him and then the protesting workers themselves came and cleared it. On the car itself he called the Corporation and asked them to give the pay rise. 

Things were going more smoothly than planned when the events happened that rocked their world. First there was a bomb blast in a crowded railway station in Mumbai and the ULFA and Khalistan terrorists took joint responsibility for the action. The very next day a bomb blast occurred in a mall in Bangalore and the hitherto dormant Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA) claimed responsibility. Anti Pakistan and anti terror sentiments were at an all time high in the nation. People protested in the streets wanting the hanging of Masood and Dawood. But they also protested for trying Zohura as an adult and give capital punishment for her. Saravanan angrily responded to a reporter that Zohura was a kid and not a terrorist. The media began to brand him as being soft on terror. 

Samyuktha looked at the report from NSA again. It said so many terrorists have infiltrated in to the nation in the guise of contract workers from SAARC nations involved in the economic revival of the nation. The situation was getting grim and required immediate attention from the government. Samyuktha looked at the time it was almost noon and still no sign of Saravanan. 

She went to Mayuri’s room and peeped in and asked, “Where is Saravanan?”

“I am also searching for him. I called him but his phone was switched off,” said Mayuri. 

Samyuktha called the staff at the Prime Minister’s residence but they too didn’t know of him. Samyuktha was miffed by this but knew the best way to locate him was to find the SPG guard with him. She called Kalpana and after talking for a few minutes cut the call.

She looked at Mayuri and said, “Looks like Saravanan is holed up in one of the five bungalows in the PM’s residence. He has been drinking heavily since morning. Want to come along and talk some sense to him?”

 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Nov 20

When they entered the room in the bungalow where Saravanan was in, they found Saravanan sitting in a chair and drinking and Kalpana standing beside him in a distance. Mayuri went and stood before him but Saravanan ignored her and kept drinking. Samyuktha and Mayuri sat in chairs across from him. Samyuktha had seen him gulping down drink after drink for fun and joy. Though she didn’t approve of it she was not worried by it. Even the drunken dance though risky was done in joy as a dare. An empty full bottle was lying on the table before him. Another open bottle was half finished. 

Mayuri asked, “Why are you drinking like this? It seems you have been at it since morning.”

Saravanan did not look up at her and kept on drinking. 

“What is the matter? Are you sad? Are you angry? Speak to me damnit.”

Mayuri seemed genuinely concerned and angry. Samyuktha had never seen this side of Mayuri. Yet Mayuri couldn’t fathom the reason for his behaviour while Samyuktha could guess the reason. He was concerned about the hate sentiments in the nation. May be he was afraid that Zohura would be tried as an adult. There already was a contract on her head and her safety in jail was also a question. 

She asked, “You are concerned about Zohura, aren’t you? Why? What is she to you?”

“Yes, damnit, she is the child I never could have. The toughest thing about being single is not the lack of a life partner but the lack of innocent kids to take care of. The moment I first saw her and realised that this child that has suffered so much is a special child with a mental affliction like me, my heart went out to her.”

“She killed a person. She isn’t an innocent kid.”

“Don’t you think that a kid had to do such a thing, at such a tender age is itself a reason for this kid to be taken special care of.”

(Scene needs to be elongated from Saru’s love for Zohura)

Saravanan received a call and said in to his phone, “Calm down Dad. No need to do anything rash dad, I will take care of things from this end.”

He looked up and said to them tersely, “That was my Dad, Pandey’s goons have threatened my parents and my brother.”

He received another call and he said, “Understood Pandey ji. You need not worry.”

He got up from the chair and said, “That was Pandey, he threatened me and asked me to support him for Prime Minister along with the MPs who support me. No one threatens my family. I want you both to drop all that you are doing and find all the dirt on Pandey and his aides. Meet me in the PMO at evening.”

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Nov 20

 Mayuri sat with Samyuktha across Saravanan who was browsing the file they had prepared. Mayuri had shamelessly flirted with Saravanan and he had responded with jovial banter. Yet she could feel that she was getting nowhere with him. She felt he need not fret about Zohura when she can give him all the daughters he could want. She never wanted anything in life the way she wanted Saravanan that it physically hurt her. 

Saravanan looked up from the file and said, “Send for Vipul and have him come here immediately. Also have Nirmala send cops to his daughter’s house ready to charge her now.”

Mayuri made a call and soon after that they were joined by Vipul who sat in an empty chair away from Mayuri and Samyukktha. 

“I want you to testify against Pandey and confess to the malpractices done in the construction of the bridge that collapsed killing seven people in Mandsaur,” said Saravanan casually. 

“Like hell I will, you are talking to the wrong man,” said Vipul. 

“Do you remember that a man was killed in a property dispute concerning a property of your  daughter.”

“Are you threatening to arrest me for murder? Go ahead, I am not new to this.”

“No, I am going to arrest your daughter. The lawer tells me a conviction is guaranteed but even if it is not, your unmarried daughter will be an old maid when she is free of all the charges.”

“But I can’t testify against Pandey. He will eat me alive.”

“So are you going to ruin your daughter’s life for your own selfishness and fear of Pandey? Think about it for a while. You know I learnt this going after the family thing from you guys. Why don’t you phone your daughter in the meanwhile? Come on, do it,” said Saravanan swirling the paper weight on the table. 

Vipul took out his mobile phone and after talking for a while kept the phone down and turned to Saravanan and said, “Okay, I will testify but I hope to God you know what you are doing or Pandey will have both of us fried.”

The details of Pandey’s corruption was leaked out to the media and was the subject of national debate. Saravanan dismissed Pandey as a Home Minister citing his corruption. Vipul was produced before a Magistrate and on his testimony a warrant for Pandey’s arrest was issued.

Pandey was arrested in his home. Mayuri was overjoyed by Pandey’s arrest and wanted to celebrate. But Saravanan warned that Pandey was a wounded snake. The veteran politician will hit back with force. 

Tihar Jail, New Delhi, Nov 21

Saravanan, Samyuktha, Mayuri and Radhika Sharma were seated in the meeting room waiting for Zohura to be brought in. Kalpana was standing near the wall away from them. Saravanan was in the PMO going over the terrorist threat situation and thinking of forming a special team to tackle it when he got a call from Radhika telling him that Zohura’s condition has worsened and that she was in terrible fright. Saravanan had dropped all other things and came here as quickly as possible. 

“The kid has seen on TV about the protests to try her as an adult and have her hanged and has been terribly affected by it. She is deeply afraid now. I never could get her to talk to me even earlier but I keep trying. But now she sits there trembling and looking at her feet.”

Zohura was brought in being dragged by the security guards. They brought her in and forced her to sit on the cement bench. 

“Sorry for the delay in bringing her in. She was uncooperative and didn’t want to come in. We had to drag her here,” said the Jailor. 

Zohura sat there looking at her feet and shivering. She clutched her hands tightly around her chest and sat there rocking her body back and forth muttering under her breath what must have been devotional hymns. 

“No need to be afraid. Nothing will happen to you. Look at me Zohura,” said Saravanan. 

She didn’t look up at him but still looking at her feet replied, “I am not afraid. Why should I be? God is with me. I tru… tru… trusted you. You betrayed me. You are a bad person. You are my ene… ene… enemy now. I will never trust you again.”

“I am sorry but I didn’t …” Saravanan was saying when he was interrupted by Zohura’s shriek. 

The guards stepped near her but were stopped by Saravanan’s hand signal. 

Zohura looked up at Saravanan and shouted, “You are a Kafir, a godless person, but I trusted you and you let me down. All people want to hang me.” 

She began to shiver uncontrollably. She started crying and began gasping for breath. Radhika got up and rubbed her back and took her pulse. She then came back to her seat. 

“Okay, I agree I am a bad person. But you know what I said earlier about putting you out of isolation, happened right. I have no need to lie to a mere girl like you. I promise you nothing is going to happen to you. You can be yourself and play with the other kids. Relax my sweet angel,” said Saravanan. 

Zohura calmed a bit but still looking at her feet replied, “Okay, but you are my enemy, a Kafir, I will never trust you again.” 

Saravanan went near Zohura and tried to place his hand on her head but she shrank away. Saravanan came away from there with a heavy heart. He was deeply disturbed by the condition of the little girl. There was a lump in his throat as he left. 

Home Minister Pandey’s Residence, Akbar Road, Delhi, Nov 22

Pandey who was just out on bail after a couple of day’s in prison was greeted and hugged by his daughters and family members whom he sent away after a brief chat. He went to his study followed by Shukla and Jignesh and they were all seated.

“I will strangle that traitor Vipul with my own bare hands,” said Jignesh in fury. 

“A time will come for that too but now is not the time. We don’t want anything to happen to Vipul now,” said Pandey. 

“Yes, Babuji, what do we do now?”

“Nothing and everything. Saravanan has taken the route of legal recourse to get back at me. It is a pretty strong case too and would have worried me if the nation was like before. A lot many things can happen by the time this lengthy legal battle happens. But first, we need to make Saravanan pack his things and go home with his tail between his legs.”

“Tell me, what to do Babu ji?”

“I will do what needs to be done. Shukla, call Bhatt and inform him that I will support his Prime Ministership in return for being the Home Minister.”

“But Babuji, supporting Bhatt, why?” asked Jignesh standing up from his chair. 

“Bhatt will be Prime Minister in name only. We will have all the power on the ground being the Home Minister. This is unexpected but is the only quick way to rid us of this Saravanan menace once and for all.”

 

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Nov 23

Samyuktha rushed here along with Mayuri as soon as she heard the news. Pandey was released and he had done what no one previously thought was possible. He had reached out to Bhatt and supported him for Prime Ministership. A vote of no confidence was passed against Saravanan with the new combined strength of Bhatt, Pandey and coalition MPs. Immediately a vote of confidence in favour of Bhatt was passed making him the Prime Minister. He had been sworn in as the PM by the President in a hurriedly organised function. 

Saravanan had been asked to vacate the premises of the PM residence immediately. Surprisingly enough an announcement was made stating there would be no changes in the Cabinet or the bureaucratic positions. This meant that Samyuktha and Mayuri won’t be transferred and would retain their powerful positions. Yet it was a known fact that the new PM would come with his own battery of IAS officers around him and they would take precedence. 

They arrived at the door of the PMs bedroom which was open and found Saravanan packing his bags. 

Saravanan who was trying to fold his shirt saw them and said, “Oh, come in guys. Mayuri will you please help me fold the clothes and pack my bag. My Mom used to do these things for me. I never quite learned how.”

Mayuri got the shirt from his hand and began folding it. Samyuktha helped Mayuri and they silently folded the clothes. 

Samyuktha felt sad that Saravanan had to leave in such a manner to his old life when she would be carrying on with her life as if nothing was the matter. 

Saravanan said, “Why do you girls act so surprised? It was a known thing that I have to leave you guys soon. Yes, we didn’t expect the end will come this way.”

“Are you not the least bit sad about leaving all this behind? You must be used to these things by now,” asked Samyuktha. 

“I will definitely miss you guys. But there is nothing that can be done about it, is there?” asked Saravanan in reply. 

Samyuktha had no reply to this. She had crossed quite a few farewell parties in her life starting from her school and college days but this seemed different. When he was with her she had been always fighting with him but now when she wanted to change all that he was leaving her forever. 

“There is nothing to worry. We can be still in touch with each other. With WhatsApp and videoconferencing it won’t be like we are separated at all,” said Mayuri placing a folded shirt in to his bag. 

“Sorry, I am not good in such things or long distance relationships. I think this is it as for as we are concerned,” said Saravanan.

“You came like a waterfall in a desert to quench our  thirsts. You saved us and the nation,” said Mayuri and finishing packing the bag lifted it and gave it to Saravanan. 

“May I come in sir?” asked Kalpana from the outside.    

“I am no longer anybody’s sir. You are a hotshot IPS officer while I am just a loser returning home,” said Saravanan. 

Kalpana said, “Photos from Paris,” and  gave Saravanan an album who got it and saying good byes to them left.  (scene to be extended)

 CHAPTER 15

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Nov 25

The first thing that the Bhatt government did after assuming power was to denounce Saravanan completely. They attributed the victory in the mini war to Defence Minister Piyush Chavan and claimed Saravanan had no part in it. They attributed the economic revival of the nation to the foresight and planning of the then Finance Minister and now Prime Minister Vikram Bhatt. Surprisingly enough the bureaucrats were not shuffled as promised by Bhatt. Yet the Director of IB was transferred to being the IG Prisons and Amal Hegde was made the Director of IB. Samyuktha remembered Amal Hegde as the one who wanted to interrogate Zohura harshly. She thought to herself may be it was tough luck for the girl but may be it was best for the nation. 

All the people she knew carried on like it was all right and Saravanan was never a part of their lives. She felt herself being drawn to Mayuri more and more and they would reminisce about the good old days. Despite not being changed from their designations, they were not important. Bhatt had brought in with him his own team of IAS officers and they ran the show. Samyuktha and Mayuri had very little to do. They were incharge of overseeing the implementation of a few minor policy decisions and that was all. They were remnants of an old regime and were treated as such by the new usurpers. It seemed the nation easily forgot its wonder boy Saravanan. But Samyuktha felt that in all good sense she couldn’t fault the nation as she was also almost on the way of forgetting him. She was sure that the nostalgia she had for him and the feeling of missing him she had, would erode over time. 

She went to Mayuri’s cabin as was her custom for the last couple of days. Mayuri was working on something on her computer. 

“I am just going over the reports on farmer loan positions across the nation Didi. You have a seat.”

“I am stuck here. I don’t know anything except my work and Dubey ji. I became a political assistant only for Dubey ji. You are not like that. Why are you here? You have political connections,” asked Samyuktha as she sat on a chair beside Mayuri. 

Mayuri looked up from the computer and said, “I guess Saravanan has spoiled me for political manoeuvring and personal aspirations. By the way, Pandey called me and asked me to take an active role in administration and keep an eye on Bhatt.”

“That is good news. Why don’t you get involved more?”

Mayuri turned her chair around and faced Samyuktha and said, “Didi, don’t tell anyone yet but I am thinking of resigning my job.”

Samyuktha was shocked. She could never contemplate leaving her job. She had sacrificed so much in her life to come to this position. 

“Why are you talking like this. What will you do?” asked Samyuktha. 

“I don’t know really. I loved Saravanan but he evaded committing by saying he was unfit for marriage. I am confused right now.”

Samyuktha was surprised by the open admission of Mayuri about her love for Saravanan. She felt kind of odd and worried that she herself harboured some secret romantic affection towards Saravanan.

“I agree with you, we all loved Saravanan. But he is not here. He is gone from our lives forever. We have to carry on without him. It is our destiny and duty to finish the tasks he started without him,” said Samyuktha placing a hand on Mayuri’s shoulder.    

That was the last they spoke of Saravanan for a long time. For with an unspoken agreement to go forward without looking back they began to relax in their new diminutive roles and lives. 

IB HQ, New Delhi, Nov 25

Kalpana entered the surveillance control room in the IB headquarters and was greeted by Tharun, Gopi and Sheela. They started with the surveillance of seven persons but now were monitoring over fifteen people. Navaneethan, a leader of the TNLA, was found to frequent an unoccupied house and he didn’t meet anyone there too. He went there weekly and mostly on Tuesdays. The IB guys had found that the place had a phone and bugged the phone from the junction box. He received a call from a person from Pakistan, probably an ISI agent. 

Kalpana had established so far from the conversations that on Republic Day along with the blasts of the Secretariat and Parliament the terrorists have planned to take control of Kashmir, Punjab, North East and Tamil Nadu and announce its secession from India. There was talk of an important Union minister backing the secession claims and to have the UN give diplomatic recognition. She promptly took everything she had to Arun who had booked a meeting with Lizard, the nickname of the new Director of IB, Amal Hegde. The meeting was to take place tonight. She had already prepared the file to be submitted and came here to see if there were any new developments.   

“Any new contact to Navaneethan from Pakistan?” asked Kalpana sitting in a chair beside the guys. 

“Yes, but we were not sure of what to make of it and were waiting for you Madam,” said Sheela and handed over a set of headphones to Kalpana.

Kalpana wore the headphones and started the phone tap.

The Pakistani ISI agent asked, “Are things going on schedule? The deadline is nearing, are you guys prepared?”

Navaneethan replied, “Our guys are training along with your guys to take over the major Collectorates and Police stations. But our chief is worried, the situation isn’t the same as when we started. The economy has revived and the law and order situation has improved. If in this improved situation we undertake an open takeover it might end very badly for us.”

The Pakistani said, “The situation is more favourable than before. Since you are worried I will share something. The new PM is totally under our control. The Lizard with whom you have talked to is the new Director of IB. We are in total control now and there is nothing that can stop us now.”

“I know about the Lizard’s appointment but am not sure about your claim about the PM.”

“I will have him say something like a code to confirm. But let us not discuss that over the phone. You will be contacted by a courier with the message the PM would be saying.”

The phone tap ended and it seemed to Kalpana for a moment as if her own world had ended with it. She just couldn’t believe what she heard. The Prime Minister of the nation was under the control of the ISI and the Director of IB, the famous lizard was the high level mole. She immediately called Arun over. 

When Arun arrived she sent the three guys away and played the phone tap for Arun. Arun after listening sat in a chair too stunned to move.

“Should we go to the President or move the courts?” asked Kalpana. 

  “No we can’t move against the PM of the nation on the basis of an insignificant and dubious wiretap. Moreover the President is a puppet and can’t do anything as there are no precedents. There isn’t even a fraction of evidence to establish this in court.”

“Then what do we do?” asked Kalpana. 

“There is nothing that we can do. We must cancel the meeting with the Director for tonight. That alone is for sure,” said Arun.

Kalpana sat there with her head in her hands thinking long and hard and then looking up at Arun said, “Don’t cancel the meeting with the Director. Meet him and tell him that I am on to him and planning to do something. You endear him and be his guy. He will make a move to strike me out and we must hope he trips himself in the attempt.”

“That will endanger you. I can’t allow that. The odds are stacked against us.”

“Listen, no time for chivalry. I will sound the contacts in PMO I have and ask them to try and topple the government.”

“That will be a hell of a task, for the opposition don’t have the numbers to topple the government. But that is our only chance,” said Arun getting up from the chair. 

Azadpur, Delhi, Nov 26

Saravanan when he left from the Prime Minister’s residence didn’t have the heart to return to his hometown immediately. As an ex Prime Minister he was entitled to SPG protection but the new government in power claimed that since he was only a caretaker PM he wasn’t entitled for SPG protection. They offered him police protection instead. Saravanan who didn’t want to attract any attention to his few days in fame and power, declined the offer. He wanted to spend a few days in Delhi and after having some fun return to his home. He called his friend Kamal who had a friend Ajay working as a video journalist for the popular news channel ‘Sandesh.’ Saravanan had stopped taking his BPD medications a while back, on the day the nation wanted to try Zohura as an adult and hang her. Ever since he arrived here he had been drinking continuously. 

He got the warning signals, the eerie feeling of the world reacting to his thoughts and communicating through it. The world was populated by vultures, scavengers searching for rotten decayed human flesh to eat upon. Every one was decadent and involved in a conspiracy to eliminate him from the race of life. For life was a race and the unfit were cast away. He was the last beacon of hope for the poor, weak and helpless people. The honking on the road responded to the questions in his mind. The honking sounds were either yes or no depending on the mood of that instant. 

Ajay was asking if they should dine out or get parcels to eat in the room. He was talking of food, he was talking of a means to control Saravanan by adding something in the food. ‘Beeep’ the honking sound said ‘Yes’ to Saravanan. Ajay was not to be trusted said his mind. ‘Beep’, ‘No’ he was not to be trusted said the horn. Accountability was the issue in life as well as politics. Lack of accountability was the sole reason of corruption, black money, hoarding, adulteration. Adulteration of goods, adultery of spouses. There must be UN resolution against adultery. There was no such thing and may be that was why he was unmarried. 

He must marry immediately. Samyuktha, he must marry Samyuktha immediately. But wait, wasn’t she his wife already. He didn’t know it then but the rules have changed now. The conversations he had with her were a code language for getting married. So she was his wife. But if she were his wife where was she now. 

“Where is my wife? Tell me where is my wife?” he asked catching hold of Ajay’s collar and shaking him. 

Ajay was saying something. He was saying something long. Ajay must know where his wife Samyuktha was. He was lying. ‘Beeep’ the horn sounded telling ‘Yes’ Ajay was lying. How to escape all these villains and get to her. Was he married to her? ‘Beeep,’ No, he must find her and get married to her before it was too late. But how to escape, they are everywhere. He was surrounded by villains. He walked out of the room and descended the steps. He was sure there were no steps when he first came to this place. Must be another trick of the villains to keep him away from his girl and end him forever. Was it the villains or was it God? Was God trying to say something to him?

  Mayuri’s Apartment, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, Nov 27

Mayuri was showing around her two storey apartment to Samyuktha. She lived in the ground floor and had the first floor furnished for guests. Her family or friends used to visit once or twice in a year may be. Mayuri and Samyuktha settled in the sofa in the living room in the ground floor. They had stopped discussing about Saravanan a while back though she suspected he was never far from their minds. But not for long, she was sure that with time he will be slowly eroded from their minds. Mayuri wondered what was the secret that Kalpana wished to discuss that it could not be discussed in the Secretariat. 

“Do you know why Kalpana has asked to meet us here?” asked Mayuri. 

“I don’t know. But she said it was something important and sensitive and could not be discussed in the Secretariat. She seemed worried about something. I suggested your place since I knew you live here alone. But I didn’t know the place would be so big and plush,” said Samyuktha surveying the living room. 

The door bell rang and Mayuri went to answer it. She returned with Kalpana following her. 

She said, “You guys chat while I will heat some Pizza and bring it here.”

Mayuri heated the Pizza in the oven musing to herself that though they all knew each other, yet there was no camaraderie between them till a few months back. He came and changed their worlds forever. She was trying hard to shut her mind off him but he kept popping up like this. She went back to the living room and placed the Pizza in the small table in front of the sofa and joined Samyuktha on the Sofa. Kalpana was sitting in a chair by the side of the sofa half facing the sofa. 

“What was the pressing thing, that you had to meet us here like this?” asked Samyuktha taking a slice of Pizza from the table. 

“Everything is in ruins. It is a catastrophe. I was hoping you guys could come up with something to postpone the catastrophe at hand,” said Kalpana leaning forward from the chair. 

“If you are talking about the blasts planned for the Republic day then it is your responsibility to find out more about it. We will assist you in all ways possible,” said Samyuktha taking a big bite out of the slice of pizza. 

“I am not talking about that. By the way the plan for the Republic day isn’t just to blast the Secretariat and Parliament. They have intended to take control of the regions of the Kashmir valley, North East, Punjab and Tamil Nadu and announce their cessation,” said Kalpana folding her hands and leaning back in to the chair. 

“Oh, my goodness. Does the Director of IB know? What does he have to say about this?” asked Mayuri taking a slice of Pizza and folding her legs under her on the sofa. 

“That is one of the problems. The Director of IB is the high level mole in the Indian Intelligence we have been seeking so far,” said Kalpana still with folded hands. 

“Take the Pizza while it is hot. Are you sure about the Director? But don’t worry, just give me the proof and I will give it to the PM,” said Mayuri.  

      Kalpana stared at the floor and said, “That is the problem I’ve come to talk to you about. The PM is compromised, he is a puppet under the complete control of the Pakistani ISI.”

Samyuktha who had been eating the Pizza slice, spat it out in shock and asked, “What? Are you sure. Don’t make far fetched allegations.”

“I have a phone tap of a known ISI agent claiming this to a Tamil separatist leader,” said Kalpana. 

“What if it were some kind of disinformation campaign to make us suspect our PM? They do such things you know,” said Samyuktha wiping her mouth with her hands. 

“I only wish that it was so but it is not. They didn’t know we were tapping that phone line and moreover they exchanged sensitive information in the conversation. There is no doubt, our PM is compromised.”

“Do we have enough proof to move the courts?” asked Mayuri. 

“That is the problem we only have this flimsy wiretap and no corroborating evidence. The courts will dismiss us out of hands. I came here to ask about a no confidence motion. Can you guys pull it off?” asked Kalpana. 

Mayuri got off the sofa and pacing back and forth said, “I can move the opposition parties and table a no confidence motion. But it would be a futile exercise as they don’t have the numbers required.”

Kalpana looked up expectantly and asked, “Do you guys know where Saravanan is? He is not answering his mobile. He will know what to do.”

Samyuktha said, “Heck guys, I forgot to tell you. I got a call from Kamal. Saravanan hasn’t gone back home but instead stayed with some friend of Kamal here. Saravanan must have had a relapse in to his mental illness Kamal suspects. For he had walked out on Kamal’s friend and never returned last night.”

“What?” asked Kalpana and Mayuri in unison. 

“How can you forget to tell us such an important thing?” asked Mayuri stopping her pacing and looking at Samyuktha.    

Mayuri felt deeply concerned about Saravanan. The concern about the nation took a back seat. Though he came in to her life for a brief period, he had made a deep and profound impact. 

“I called the CID wing of the Delhi police as this didn’t seem like a matter for the IB. I swear I was genuinely concerned for him. But Kamal said not to worry much as Saravanan would turn up somewhere in a couple of days. Then I completely forgot,” said Samyuktha. 

Mayuri advanced towards Samyuktha and pushing her shoulders with her fingers said, “This shows how much you are interested in the well being of Saravanan. Hell, I used to use people but I thought you were different. You turned out more selfish than me.”

“Guys I feel guilty already. Please don’t push it. Saravanan will turn up soon. If not we will put all our resources in to finding him. But now let us find a way to resolve the current crisis. How to remove Bhatt as the PM,” said Samyuktha straightening up a bit. 

“Yes, I agree,” said Kalpana though still staring harshly at Samyuktha. 

“There is nothing that can be done. The numbers simply aren’t with us. I can try to move the coalition partners but it would be a lost cause. They wouldn’t want to risk losing power. We can’t approach them with the flimsy evidence either. It might expose our hands,” said Mayuri. 

“Yes, we can’t use the evidence but must topple the government,” said Kalpana. 

“What would Saravanan have done in this situation. He had the uncanny ability to think out of the box in situations such as these,” said Samyuktha. 

“Don’t you dare utter his name,” said Mayuri advancing menacingly towards Samyuktha but Kalpana intervened and stopped Mayuri. 

Samyuktha stared at the floor and muttered under her breath, “Goddamnit Saravanan what would you do?’

Mayuri stared at her and said, “It is okay. You can say his name. May be that will help us think like him. The way I see it, the only play possible is to try and poach as many of the coalition partners as possible. I will do that.”

Samyuktha suddenly jumped out of the Sofa and yelled, “Yes, thats it. Dubey ji’s daughter is a primary school teacher in Delhi who has stayed away from politics so far. I think I can explain the situation to her and drag her in to politics. It would vertically split the ruling Jan Shakthi party right down the middle with Dubey ji’s supporters joining her.”

Mayuri joined in saying, “Yes, that along with the opposition and few coalition partners I can garner will definitely topple the government.” 

“You girls work these things out while I figure out a way to stop the whole Republic day thing. Don’t forget Saravanan again please. Try to trace him,” said Kalpana. 

She got up and shaking Samyuktha’s and Mayuri’s hands said, “I am going to resign my job in the SPG and work full time for the IB. Bye guys and best of luck for you.”  

CHAPTER 16

IB HQ, New Delhi, Nov 29

Kalpana paced to and fro in Arun’s office. She was agitated about the state of affairs in the nation. She knew that if only some one good was in power the terrorist threat could be handled effectively. But that was not to be the case. It had been a day since her meeting with Mayuri and Samyuktha. She was worried about the no confidence motion to be brought in Parliament the next day. Even if it was passed Bhatt will still be the Prime Minister of the caretaker or provisional government till the newly elected government assumes office. The powers of a provisional government would be limited but more than enough to support the terrorists and thwart actions against them. But she had to focus on the job at hand. The meeting Arun had with the lizard, Amal Hegde, now Director of IB. 

Kalpana stopped her pacing and asked, “How did the meeting with the Director go?” 

“It was splendid. You should have come. I didn’t meet him here but rather at a posh five star hotel and talked over dinner. The lobsters there were splendid,” replied Arun leaning back in his chair.

“I didn’t ask about the menu damnit. Did you tell him that I was on to him. How did he react?” asked Kalpana. 

“Relax, will you. He and me go a long way back and he considers me his friend but is wary of me for he thinks I am uncorrupt. When I told him that you were on to him he didn’t look too worried. May be because the PM is in his pocket,” said Arun blowing his nose in to his hand kerchief. 

“He can’t be that overconfident. Did he tell anything else?”

“He thanked me and asked me to keep an eye on you and to not let the investigation go out of hand. He laughed and said if you had any break throughs you could only come to me. He told me I would be taken care of financially. He thinks I am his man now, exactly the way you wanted it.”

“Good job. Try to casually find out as much as he knows about the terrorist operations,” said Kalpana and exited the office.

She had converted the surveillance room in to a full fledged counter terrorism investigation room focussing on the rebutting of the Republic day plans. There were around twenty six persons under surveillance and a team of thirty people were directly on to it. There were teams piecing together all available recent and historical information about the separatist groups. If she had the support of the government she could have attempted to break down these groups. Yet she worked on the details hoping a conducive government will soon be in place and she can act on all the intelligence compiled. The original three guys have been pulled off surveillance and put to compiling info on separatist groups. 

She entered the big room where people were engaged in a flurry of activity. There were people working on computers that lined the long tables in place there. There were scattered papers, files and chips and soft drinks on the table. She approached Tharun, Gopi and Sheela seated separately. 

She asked, “Tharun, what have we got on the separatist leaders?”

“Only important separatist leaders have knowledge of the complete operational details of the plan. In Tamilnadu, it is Manimaran of TNLA, Bhim Singh in Punjab of Khalistan, Birinchi in Assam of ULFA and Abbas Mastaan in the valley,” said Tharun. 

“So we need to nab Manimaran, Bhim, Birinchi and Abbas in time to know the details and stop the plan,” said Kalpana sitting on a chair facing them. 

Sheela sipping soft drinks said, “We have Navaneethan in contact with Manimaran under surveillance and Bhim Singh’s mobile directly under surveillance but no leads regarding Birinchi and Abbas.”

“Work on the surveillance consistently they are bound to slip up sooner or later. We need to gather all information on the leaders,” said Kalpana and got up from the chair and left.   

Mayuri’s Residence, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, Nov 30

Mayuri had herself baked some cookies especially for Samyuktha and Kalpana who were sitting in the living room waiting for her. Mayuri loved cooking but previously couldn’t find time for it. Now she had time on her hands and occupied herself cooking a variety of dishes. Despite being a strong feminist she sometimes felt with all the cooking it would be better if some male was around to relish her delicacies. If that someone was your beloved, your husband then it would be bliss indeed. Nowadays of course there was only one whom she would like to fill that role. Saravanan would make an ideal partner for her in marriage. She arranged the cookies in two plates and took them to the living room. She placed the plates on the table and sat on the sofa alongside the girls. 

Samyuktha took a bite of the cookie and said, “Bringing Dubey ji’s daughter Mrs. Meera Sharma in to active politics worked like a charm. As expected the MPs in Jan Shakthi split the votes and that combined with the BJP, Congress and other opposition votes and the coalition votes brought in by Mayuri comfortably passed the no confidence motion.”

“But Bhatt will be in power as the PM of the caretaker or provisional government. The elections will be a long and painful process,” said Kalpana. 

“Haven’t you heard? I brought a Public Interest Litigation and pulling a few strings had it heard quickly. It was for the conducting of a swift election by the Election Commission as the nation in its current situation needs a fully functioning government soon,” said Samyuktha.

“I heard and as per court directions the EC has announced that the elections would be held nationwide on a single day on January 20 and the results will be announced on January 23. But what use is that? It leaves us hardly three days before the Republic day,” said Kalpana taking a cookie in her hand. 

  Mayuri could perceive the dangerous situation the nation was in. An ISI puppet was in charge and nothing much can be done against the terrorists when he is in power. There was a three day window only if his party lost the elections. 

“Meera has only split the MPs but the Jan Shakthi party is still in the hands of Bhatt and Pandey. Almost all opinion polls at this stage predict that the Jan Shakthi Party will come to power. So to thwart the plan of the terrorists the Jan Shakthi party must be defeated in addition to finding out the details of the terrorist plan,” said Mayuri.

“There is little we can do in this situation. We’ve done our best. Even Saravanan cannot do anything more,” said Samyuktha with cookie in her mouth. 

“Don’t underestimate Saravanan. Don’t forget he defied the RBI and the nation’s intelligentsia to defeat inflation and revive our economy,” said Mayuri. 

Mayuri used to have admiration for Samyuktha even when she was a foe but the recent tendency of Samyuktha to make flippant remarks about Saravanan when he was not around angered and irritated Mayuri beyond limits. 

“What more can we do? We can’t campaign for the BJP and Congress. Even if we do they will lose. For the Jan Shakthi party is strong and the favourite for this election. I like Saravanan too but even he can’t do anything about the situation,” said Samyuktha.

She is going there again. Is Samyuktha being disrespectful or is it she who is being extra reverential towards Saravanan wondered Mayuri. Where was he when the nation needed him again? Not knowing if he was alright was something but knowing he was unwell in mind and missing was a downright painful feeling. She remembered him warning her when she sort of proposed, that she hadn’t seen him in his worst days, and that he was unfit to marry. 

“Have you heard anything about Saravanan yet?” asked Mayuri.

“I’ve been pressing hard on the CID branch of Delhi police but they have no news of him yet. Believe me, I am as worried as you,” said Samyuktha. 

“I’ve enquired through the IB channels too but no news yet. But don’t worry I am going to start an active investigation and will find him soon,” said Kalpana. 

Mayuri wasn’t satisfied with Samyuktha’s reply but took heart that once Kalpana involves herself directly Saravanan could be located. She was as worried about Saravanan as she was about the nation. 

ISI HQ, Islamabad, Nov 30

Salim sat across from the General silently waiting for him to speak first. Their puppet minister becoming the Prime Minister was an unexpected bonanza for them and the General and he had laughed at the folly of the Indians and the happy turn of events for them. Now the removal of that government by a no confidence motion was a minor setback as the Bhatt government will continue 

as the caretaker government till the new government assumes office. 

The General closed the file he was seeing and asked, “How does this toppling of our guy affect us?”

“Not a bit sir. Bhatt will continue as PM till the new guy assumes office some time after January 23 when election results will be announced. By the time the new guy takes office our Republic day plans would be over,” said Salim sitting straight in his chair. 

“There is a three day time gap between election results and Republic day. Should I be concerned?” asked the General. 

“Nothing can be done in three days sir. Moreover all opinion polls show Bhatt as the favourite in the elections. It seems we will be ruling the leftover India too through Bhatt after the regions secede,” said Salim. 

Salim recalled the often quoted Indian criticism that the military establishment superseded democracy in Pakistan. Look what democracy left untended has led India to. They now have a traitor as their top leader. There is no one who can rise above Bhatt in the short span of time. 

“What about the girl Zohura and the guy Saravanan?” asked the General. 

“What about them? Are they still important?” asked Salim smiling a bit. 

“They are very important and have to be eliminated immediately. Saravanan was the guy who defeated us in war. He is a sort of a national hero. Before he becomes something more, he needs to be stubbed out,” said the General loudly.

“There is already a contract for the girl given to Minister Pandey’s goon Jignesh. I shall give the contract for Saravanan to him and ask for both to be carried out immediately,” said Salim. 

    That girl Zohura had real bad luck. He liked her but the plan was more important. The girl had to go and disposing the moron Saravanan would be a pleasure. 

Samyuktha’s residence, Chanakyapuri, Delhi, Nov 30

Samyuktha was watching television lying on the sofa and with her head on her sister’s lap. On the television was running a program on discovery channel on the rule of the jungle where might was right. Samyuktha was troubled by the indirect allegations of Mayuri and Kalpana that she cared little about Saravanan. She had forgotten to tell them about the missing of Saravanan. But that was a genuine mistake. As far as telling them that even Saravanan couldn’t do anything differently it was the truth. She liked Saravanan as a person but as far as his abilities were concerned she never had much of an opinion about it. Yet she was awed by his magic in the economic revival of the nation. She was not the kind of person who used people and then discarded them when they were of no use. That was what Mayuri implied about her. 

She straightened herself from her sister’s lap and asked, “Do you think I am a good person?”

Pratyusha slapped her sister’s hand and said, “What sort of question is this Didi? If you ask me I’ll tell you are the worst person,” and laughed and continued, “but seriously Didi, you are a good, kind person not yet corrupted by this cynical world.”

“You know, don’t you that Saravanan got unwell in the mind and is missing?” asked Samyuktha.

“How can I not know when that is all you talk about? Don’t worry he will turn up, didn’t his friend himself say so?” asked Pratyusha gripping her sister’s arm hard. 

“I am worried about that but also equally disturbed by the way Mayuri and Kalpana treated me as if I don’t care about Saravanan. If only they knew?”

“They would have said things they didn’t mean in their concern for Saravanan. They know you care,” said Pratyusha caressing her sister’s head. 

“No, even you don’t know. Mayuri confessed to me that she loved Saravanan. I am fighting hard with myself not to confess the feelings I have to myself,” said Samyuktha. 

“Why didi? It is good that you care about some one that way. Why struggle with it?” asked Pratyusha. 

“The person I care about is no ordinary person, he is a national hero. I am an ordinary civil servant who used to serve under him,” said Samyuktha.

“Mayuri is also like you yet she owns up to her love,” said Pratyusha.

“Mayuri is different. She was always a forward girl. My emotions are better buried inside me. Please don’t talk further on this,” said Samyuktha and placed her head on her sister’s lap again.  

Near Lalbagh Slum, Delhi, Dec 1

It has been a couple of days since Saravanan escaped from the place he was confined in. He has been roaming the streets since then. He has not tended himself since exiting the PMs residence. He now had a half grown unruly beard caked with dust. His hair was also caked with dust. His clothes were untidy and torn. His mind though was not on all these things. He was confused and anxious as his mind wandered off in different tangents making him suspicious of every action and person around him. 

He was outside a tea shop watching the news on a news channel. He saw a photo of Zohura followed by the news that an inmate had tried to strangle her but she had managed to survive. Even in the inebriated state he recognised Zohura. His Zohura, his daughter, more precious than his wife Samyuktha. This message must have been from god. God was trying to warn him of the danger Zohura was in. He must get to her. But how? He began to walk swiftly forward not knowing where he was going. He crossed the busy road by walking fast. Cars halted and people in bikes cursed him. 

A car passing slowly through the road stopped before him. Two men got out of it and asked him if he was Saravanan. He nodded his head slowly and cautiously. One of the men took out a gun and shot him in the chest. A crowd of onlookers began to gather around to see what was happening. The assailants got in to the car and fled. Saravanan’s mind was filled with just one thought, the bad guys have got to him. He must find Zohura and save her before it is too late. He pushed the gathering onlookers away and ran from there. When he was a bit farther he hailed an auto and asked to be taken to Tihar jail.   

AIIMS Hospital, New Delhi, Dec 1

Mayuri and Samyuktha were about to leave for home from the Secretariat when she received a call from Sushant Kumar. He said that when he went to meet his party workers imprisoned he found Saravanan at the gates of Tihar begging to be let in. He was bleeding and babbling incoherent things. Mayuri immediately phoned Kalpana and left for Tihar jail with Samyuktha. There she found a person covered in dust and in tattered rags fighting with Sushant Kumar and his supporters. Mayuri was shocked by the sight before her. She could never have imagined that the stylish and intelligent Saravanan she knew would become thus, so pathetic and terrible. 

Despite his inebriated state, he identified Mayuri, Samyuktha and Kalpana who had just arrived. She could see that his shirt was drenched in blood.

He came towards them and greeted them and said, “Samyuktha my wife, our kid Zohura is in danger inside. These guys outside aren’t allowing me inside. Please save her.”

“We’ll take care of all that soon. But it seems you are bleeding. Please come to the hospital with us first,” said Samyuktha. 

Surprisingly enough Saravanan listened to her and they managed to bring him to the hospital. He was admitted at the casualty ward of AIIMS. Mayuri was shell shocked by what Saravanan said and did. Her reasonable mind told her that Saravanan calling Samyuktha his wife and conceding to her request happened in his inebriated state. It was a psychiatrically disturbed Saravanan speaking and not the normal guy. Yet her heart couldn’t digest the fact that he called Samyuktha his wife, while she was pining in her heart with love for him. 

The attending physician came and said, “He has been shot in the chest and we have removed the bullet. His life is in no danger now. He can be taken home after he recovers more in a couple of days.”

As soon as it was known that he was physically out of danger and on the road to recovery she called the psychiatrist Dr. Radhika Sharma working at AIIMS. She was the psychiatrist who was treating Zohura. She came and visited Saravanan. 

She then came out and said to the waiting women, “It seems he has stopped taking his BPD medication a while back. He is now in a badly affected state. Sad to see such a good man like this but we can expect full recovery soon with medication and therapy.”

The women Samyuktha, Mayuri and Kalpana then went in to see Saravanan. He was lying on a cot with his chest bandaged. 

“I did what you asked so now you please go in and rescue Zohura and bring her to me,” said Saravanan. 

“We will do that but you promise to take rest and get well,” said Mayuri gently caressing his head.

“When? When will you bring Zohura?” asked Saravanan. 

“We will bring back Zohura in a couple of days but you must stop worrying about that and rest,” said Kalpana. 

Saravanan nodded his head like a little child. A nurse came in and asked them to wait outside. They came out and stood in the corridor. 

“Thanks for lying inside for the sake of Saravanan,” said Samyuktha. 

Kalpana stretched her hands forward and flexed her muscles and said, “I wasn’t lying there, I am thinking of rescuing Zohura. Even in his affected condition the well being of that little girl is what he is concerned about.”

“Yes, I think the same. He has asked us in good faith and we’ve promised him. It is our duty to rescue Zohura and bring her to him now,” said Mayuri. 

“What? He is mad and blabbering and there is no need to take him seriously. We are talking of rescuing a girl from prison, it isn’t possible,” said Samyuktha.

“The actual rescuing of the girl from prison I can plan on, but I need the moral support of you  guys to carry on,” said Kalpana. 

“I am with you on this fully,” said Mayuri.

“What else can I say? Do as you wish,” said Samyuktha and turned away from them.

CHAPTER 17

Tihar Jail, New Delhi, Dec 2

The IB had permission to interrogate Zohura as they pleased from the current PM. She had been subjected to some rough beatings by some over zealous IB officers without yielding any results. That and the disinterest in the case shown by the Director of IB himself made the IB lose interest in the girl quickly. It was rumoured that the Director of IB, Amal Hegde was involved in tracking and subduing opposers of Bhatt and Pandey. What the others didn’t know and Kalpana knew was that he was also involved in helping the terrorists in all ways possible for the Republic day plans. 

She came here today as the IB officer interested in interrogating Zohura. She didn’t meet her in the usual meeting room but went directly to the cell where Zohura was kept. The kid true to her nature was staring at her feet sitting on the cot. Kalpana had seen the girl talk only to Saravanan. He had a magic surely and Kalpana was under his spell. For she was here risking her life and career to do something illegal on the basis of a request of Saravanan who was certifiably mad when he made the request. 

She asked the girl a few questions maintaining the charade of investigating the girl. The kid just sat there staring at her feet. After some time she took water in a cup and surreptitiously added the powdered medication that would induce a severe fever with heavy vomiting. It would be so severe that it would not be treatable at the prison hospital and Zohura would have to be shifted to the AIIMS hospital outside. She gave the kid the cup and the kid gulped the water fully. She then asked the kid a few more questions and left. 

IB HQ, New Delhi, Dec 2

Kalpana had come to the IB head quarters straight from the jail. She entered the busy anti terrorism intelligence room she had set up to find Arun interacting with the people there. She felt as though the whole nation was sleeping not knowing about or not caring about the impending terrorist blasts and other plans for the Republic day. She felt as though the entire weight of preventing the catastrophe rested on her shoulders. 

She neared Arun who was bending and staring at a computer monitor and asked, “Any new developments?”

“Nothing new, we have been stonewalled beyond this point in getting information on the blasts or gaining access to the leadership of the separatist forces,” said Arun raising himself. 

“Anything new from your friend the Director?” asked Kalpana plonking herself on a nearby chair. 

“No, nothing from that end. He seems pretty cocky and confident in his position,” said Arun.

“Then shake him up. Pit me against him. Tell him that I am being too nosy and thinking of going to the media behind your back. That will shake him up for sure,” said Kalpana stretching her legs in the chair. 

“That will put you in danger. He is in absolute power and can do anything to harm you if he feels threatened by you,” said Arun dragging a chair and sitting across her. 

“Do it damnit we are nearing the deadline without any breakthrough. And as for as going to the media, is it a viable option?” asked Kalpana. 

“No, it would be sensational for a week and would be debated but would be rejected as being a flimsy and contrived story without substantial proof. Why are you thinking along those lines?” asked Arun setting right his crewcut hair with his hand. 

“I want to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to thwart this terrorist strike thats all,” said Kalpana. 

Kalpana was concerned and worried about the lack of improvement in the investigations from the beginning. She was fed up being passive in this game of sleuth and criminal. She needed intelligence on the terrorist activities and she needed it immediately. 

“Don’t we have undercover informants in any of the separatist groups?” asked Kalpana. 

“We have informants in all the groups and even undercover operatives in a few of them but none are of a level to interact with leaders of the groups,” said Arun. 

Tharun came with a printed sheet of paper and said, “Sorry to interrupt you Madam. We just intercepted a call from Naqvi to Navaneethan. As usual Naqvi keeps using new SIMs for each call that is from Delhi but we believe he must be outside in travel when making the calls. So it is difficult to find his location.” 

“You came here to tell us this?” asked an irritated Arun.

“No sir, during the call Navaneethan asked for more arms for the mission. Naqvi enquired if the last shipment was insufficient and then promised to deliver them soon and to be in touch soon through a courier.”

Kalpana got the paper transcript from Tharun and said, “Good work. Keep an eye out for any such things in future and put it in the report. Good job again.”

Tharun thanked her back and returned to his seat. Kalpana sat there with her head bowed when an idea hit her hard. 

“That is it. The separatist groups need large quantities of arms and ammunitions for this plan and Naqvi is taking care of it for all the groups. Do we have an undercover guy who can at least set up a meeting with Navaneethan?” asked Kalpana standing from her chair in excitement. 

“Yes, but where are you headed with this?”

“Is there a veteran undercover operative with us who is on our side and can be trusted to operate without the knowledge of the Director?”

“Yes, Michael Motha is a friend of mine who can be trusted to act beyond the purview of the Director. Of course you know all these taps are pre approved and therefore easily known to the Director.”

“Yes, may be thats why the taps are revealing little and couriers are being used for sensitive information. We need Michael to pose as an arms supplier to Navaneethan with promise of arms enough to supply all the separatist groups. He should emphasise the strength of his distribution channel to supply to any remote part of India,” said Kalpana pacing back and forth.

“Navaneethan should refer him to Naqvi and if Naqvi takes the bait then Michael will have access to Naqvi and all the separatist forces. We might get lucky enough to gather enough intel to bring them all down. Brilliant,” said Arun and got up from the chair. 

Kalpana received a call from Mayuri telling her that Zohura had fallen sick and has been taken to the AIIMS Hospital. 

AIIMS Hospital, New Delhi, Dec 2      

It was almost midnight when Kalpana made her first reconnaissance round around the room in the hospital where Zohura was confined. She had covered her face completely with her churidar shawl as she made the round. the room was in the second floor of the hospital. There were around half a dozen cops in the corridor outside her room and more spread through out the hospital. They didn’t bother her but what bothered her was the presence of two cops right inside the room where Zohura was stationed. 

There was an attached bathroom in the room. She surveyed all these things from afar as she crossed the room through the corridor. She then made a round of the outer perimeter of the block of building where the room was located. The entry and exit gates of the hospital were guarded by cops. But that wasn’t a problem either as the wall in the parking lot of the hospital can be easily scaled and used as an exit point. 

She had parked her car outside the walls of the hospital at a convenient point under a tree by the roadside. She then went to her car and retrieved a rope and a battery operated drill and threw it over the compound wall in to the hospital. She then went in to the hospital and from the secluded backside of the block secured the rope to a grill in the third floor and climbed to the second floor bathroom window of the room. She drilled open the window grill and removed it. She had a kerchief soaked fully in chloroform with her. She was an expert in Krav Maga the close combat martial arts discipline and using it and the kerchief subdued the two cops before they could make a sound. 

She then used the kerchief on Zohura too to be on the safe side. For one couldn’t be certain on how she would react. She then tied Zohura on to her back and climbed back down the way she came. She had worn gloves so as not to leave any forensic evidence. She knew the old rope she used couldn’t be used to trace her and so she left it hanging. She then scaled the compound wall and exited with Zohura in her car before the cops even realized she was missing. 

It had already been decided that Mayuri’s residence would be used as the hiding place for Zohura for the time being. It was an isolated bungalow and she lived alone making it the perfect hiding place. She had recruited four bouncers on a full time basis from a local pub to act as guards for Zohura. They would work in pairs on a shift basis. They would be there at Mayuri’s house along with Samyuktha and Mayuri now. She drove straight to Mayuri’s bungalow. 

Mayuri’s Residence, Vasanth Kunj, New Delhi, Dec 2 

Kalpana carried an unconscious Zohura in to the bedroom and deposited her on the bed and came in to the living room where Samyuktha and Mayuri were waiting. 

She said, “She hasn’t recovered from the fever yet. I’ve placed the pills for it on the bedside table. There is nothing to worry for now as no one has any clue.”

“What do you mean by no worry for now. Are you expecting any trouble for later,” asked an anxious and restless Samyuktha. 

“We’ve rescued a person whom the nation deems a terrorist. There would be a nationwide manhunt launched soon. Rescuing her was a short term plan. It is untenable in the long run,” said Kalpana sitting down on the chair by the sofa as her legs were tired after the exercise. 

She liked Samyuktha but the way she felt cautious in dealing with Saravanan and other things irritated Kalpana. She realised that Samyuktha felt uncomfortable outside the safety of her own  cosy little world. Mayuri on the other hand was prepared to take risks for her belief in Saravanan just like Kalpana did. They rescued Zohura only for Saravanan. Otherwise they would not have risked everything to meddle in the affairs of a confused kid. 

“What do you mean untenable in the long run?” asked a worried Samyuktha sitting on the sofa by the side of Kalpana. 

“Didi, stop asking questions and relax a bit please. Why don’t you tell Kalpana the good news?” asked Mayuri standing. 

“What good news?” asked a surprised Samyuktha. 

Mayuri placed her hands on her hips and stared hard at Samyuktha.

Samyuktha jolted in the sofa and slapped her head hard and said, “Oh, that. The doctors at AIIMS and Dr. Radhika Sharma have said that Saravanan can be discharged tomorrow. Radhika has said that Saravanan was well physically but still not right mentally yet.”

“Have you informed Saravanan’s friends and family that he has been found and that he is doing alright?” asked Kalpana stretching her legs and placing it on the sofa near Samyuktha. 

“We did that as soon as we admitted him to the hospital,” said Mayuri sitting beside Samyuktha. 

Samyuktha took Kalpana’s feet and placed it on her lap and said, “I have recently acted in a manner that made you both despise me a bit. I like Saravanan as much as you guys, how much only I know. But his impulsiveness and these risks are all new to me. Please understand me.”

Samyuktha started pressing Kalpana’s legs. Kalpana liked this about her, she was simple and had no pretensions. She must feel left out with Kalpana and Mayuri backing Saravanan blindly when she was hesitant. 

Kalpana dragged herself forward and took hold of Samyuktha’s hand and said, “Do you realise that by doing this for Saravanan the three of us have taken a step that pits us against the rest of the world. We are together in this until we find a way out, which might be very long.”  

It was decided to shift Zohura to the first floor bedroom to be inconspicuous to any stray visitors. The bungalow was of two floors, the ground floor used by Mayuri and the first floor reserved for guests. Kalpana shifted Zohura herself. Kalpana decided to stay for the night at Mayuri’s place while Samyuktha left promising to come in time in the morning to discharge Saravanan. 

When Kalpana woke up in the morning, she rushed to the bedroom where Zohura was sleeping. The kid looked confused in her new surroundings. 

Kalpana sat on the cot beside the kid and said, “Some folks tried to harm you inside the prison. Saravanan therefore wanted to have you safely on the outside and therefore we have brought you outside,” said Kalpana.

The kid just kept staring at the cot and Kalpana wasn’t sure if the kid understood or not. Kalpana raised her hand to touch the kid’s head but the kid shrank away. Kalpana had seen the kid allow Saravanan to do that. There definitely must be a connection between the two. 

She said, “You can roam freely around the house but don’t step outside. There will always be two people outside for your protection.”

She then woke Mayuri up and took a leisurely bath. She then had dosas that Mayuri prepared for breakfast. From the day she tasted Mayuri’s cookies she became a fan of Mayuri’s cooking. The crispy delicious dosas only reinforced her opinion of Mayuri’s cooking. Samyuktha came in advance and with Mayuri departed for the hospital. Kalpana decided to stay back and give company to Zohura, not that it was necessary. For there were two guards outside and Zohura was used to isolation. She tried to talk to the kid but the kid didn’t respond.  

Samyuktha and Mayuri arrived and escorted a confused looking Saravanan to the first floor bedroom apart from the one in which Zohura was in. Samyuktha raised her voice in a commanding manner and admonished Saravanan at times. Kalpana understood it was necessary and he had to be treated like a kid at times like this. 

The three of them sat on the cot next to Saravanan who was made to sit leaning back on the cot. 

Samyuktha said in a hushed tone to Kalpana, “He is still unwell and Dr. Radhika Sharma has discharged him only conditionally. He has to be supervised at all times till he improves a bit. He must be made to take the medication without fail.”

Saravanan sat straight and said excitedly, “I am alright. My wife Samyuktha is with me. Where is my daughter Zohura. She is in danger. Please save her.” 

“She is safe and in the other room. We will go to her now,” said Kalpana placing her hand on Saravanan’s shoulders and calming him a bit. 

Mayuri rose from the cot and muttered under her breath, “If only you called me your wife for once even in a mad state, I would be yours forever. But I am an ill fated girl.”

Kalpana who heard Mayuri’s mutterings was mildly surprised. She had for long had inklings about the romantic nature of the affections of both Samyuktha and Mayuri for Saravanan. Yet the intensity of the response of Mayuri to a mad rambling of Saravanan seemed too much. 

They all left to Zohura’s room where they saw her looking out through the window. She rushed back to the cot and sat on it when she saw them. 

Saravanan rushed to her and hugged her. He then sat back on the cot and started to cry. Kalpana was at a loss as to what she should do and sat beside him and rubbed his back. 

Zohura shouted at Saravanan, “They said you brought me here but I ha… ha… te you. I am angry at you. I was beaten. You broke your promise.”

Kalpana realised that even for expressing her anger she chose only to speak to Saravanan. This kid had some kind of a trust equation with him while there was a trust deficit with others.

“Zohura, my daughter, I am sorry for not being able to protect you. The monsters got to me and I tried my best to stop them from getting you. We are surrounded by devils,” said Saravanan. 

Zohura caught his hand and asked, “Why are you ta… talking and acting funny like this. What happened?”

Kalpana wondered if she should respond and then deciding that she better do said, “He is unwell. He is taking medication and will be well soon. Till then try to talk to him the best way you can.”

Zohura stared hard at Saravanan for a long time and said, “I understand. You are like me. We aren’t like the others. We are different. May be that is why I liked you from the beginning and could talk to you.

Kalpana signalled to Samyuktha and Mayuri with her eyes and they retreated towards the entrance of the room away from Saravanan and Zohura. They left the two of them to talk and bond and be in their own worlds. 

Kalpana leaned on the door and said, “Some one has to be with Saravanan all the time till he is well. We will take turns and be with him.”

“Will he ever be normal again?” asked a doubtful Samyuktha. 

“I understand your doubts. It looks bleak and unpromising now but I’ve been with people like these before to know that they get better,” said Kalpana. 

Mayuri stared at Samyuktha accusingly and said, “I’ve talked to his family and friends. They say this is now a pattern in his life where he looses himself but gets better quickly on medication and good care.”

Samyuktha stared at Saravanan and turning back said, “As for as taking care of him you needn’t worry. I’ve decided to resign my job.”

Kalpana couldn’t believe her ears, Samyuktha was a career girl to the core and her resigning must be an emotional decision and should be stopped.

Before she could respond Mayuri said, “But Didi to you your job is your life. Don’t make a spur of the moment decision like this.”

“May be this was the right decision for me all along and Saravanan came along to point the way. I became a politician’s assistant only for Dubey ji and felt let down even by him. Saravanan changed my life in ways I can’t tell. Now I am sure I don’t want to continue in the job.”

“Didi you know I too was contemplating resigning my job. I’ve amassed enough wealth and to me the job never meant as much as it did to you. I too shall resign my job,” said Mayuri. 

“As you know I am not with the SPG anymore and the IB job allows me discretionary timings. But babysitting Saravanan shall not be our only job, we must find a way to save the nation from the crisis it is facing on the Republic day,” said Kalpana. 

“Our toppling the government is of little use as Bhatt heads the caretaker government,” said Samyuktha. 

  “It seems there is no use waiting for the next government in the hope to do something in the three day window before Republic day. As Bhatt is sure to come back to power in the elections as all the opinion polls show him victorious and his star seems to be rising and rising,” said Mayuri. 

“The way I see it defeating Bhatt, Pandey and the Jan Shakthi Party in the coming elections is the only hope for the nation. But the BJP and Congress seem nowhere near. We are doomed for sure this time,” said Samyuktha. 

“The BJP is stronger at the moment, should we try to influence the elections in their favour?” asked Mayuri. 

“You know very well that elections are no game and we as outsiders can do little to influence it. Let us sleep on this for a while and see if we can come up with something,” said Samyuktha. 

Kalpana realised that they were out of their depths in the given situation. The villains had all the power in their hands now. It seemed that they will win the elections to become unchallengeable. She was a person who believed that human will is capable of overcoming insurmountable odds. She thanked God for the meagre progress in the investigation so far. She decided to work hard and establish enough intelligence in the hope that the three day window will be available with someone favourable in the government.  

CHAPTER 18

Mayuri’s Residence, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, Dec 5

Zohura had a free run of the house. The Godless women thought of her only as a child. She watched TV a lot and even had the use of Kalpana’s mobile to play games. There was wifi in the house and she could have used the mobile to send an email to her people. She had a mail id that she could use for emergency purposes. But she decided against it. She didn’t know if allowing her freedom was a trap to catch her people. They say emails and phone calls could be tracked. She had to escape first. She can send an email from a net parlour outside. She scrounged for any loose change lying around the house and hid it inside a sweater she didn’t use. The Godless fools had got her a nice set of clothes that she wore a fresh dress each day. 

Once she went outside the house but two huge men dressed in black had sent her back. The vile women were not that great fools. She talked with Saravanan at times but he rarely made any sense. She still patiently listened whenever he talked, for though a Godless Kafir, he had been kind to her. In fact he was the only one who had been kind to her in this country. She was not an ungrateful person. So she patiently listened and even tried to talk to Saravanan. She even prayed to God to cure him soon. 

There was a roof top above the first floor and it had a metal pole connected to a dish on it. The view from there to the ground didn’t seem frightening to her. If only she could find a rope long enough to climb down to the rear of the house. The distance between the outer wall and the house was very less. She can tie the rope to the pole and put it outside the wall and climb down directly out of the house. 

There was no rope through out the house. She tried stringing together the dresses but it was of no use. The women were mostly downstairs with one of them keeping a watch on Saravanan upstairs. She knew that there was a room downstairs where all sorts of junk was stored. She located a sturdy and long rope there. But the problem was how to take it upstairs. One woman or the other was always downstairs and the stairs would be in plain view of them. She knew sooner or later an opportunity would present itself. She waited patiently. 

That opportunity came now. All the women were talking among themselves in one of the bedrooms on the ground floor. She silently went to the storeroom and hefted the rope on to her shoulders and climbed the stairs. She met Saravanan on top of the stairs but was not worried as he was not thinking straight. 

He said, “Accountability is not there. No one cares. We must stop it or the world will collapse.”

She said, “Not now,” and brushed past him to her room and took the sweater with the money and tied it around her. 

She then went to the roof top and tied the rope to the pole and threw the rope over the wall. She almost started climbing down when a movement in the side caught her eye. Saravanan had climbed over the ledge and was peering down.

She rushed to him and tried to drag him back, he was down but he clutched the parapet wall strongly. He was muttering something under his breath. 

She gleaned a few words like, “No accountability… My death an example…”

She tried to drag him away from there but he was powerful. She glanced in the direction of the rope hanging over the wall. She could escape and go to her people if she wished. She would eventually be joined with her mother. She longed to meet her mother more than anything else. But she chastised herself, she can’t accept freedom at the cost of the life of the man who had been kind to her. She decided immediately what she should do and rushed down stairs. 

She ran in to the room where the three women were talking and gasping for breath said, “Saravanan roof, trying to jump down.”

The three women rushed upstairs and she followed them. Saravanan had again climbed the parapet wall and was muttering something under his breath. Kalpana and Mayuri grabbed him and pulled him down and took him downstairs to the first floor. Samyuktha who had stayed behind and spotted the rope went near Zohura and knelt down. 

She asked, “You were trying to escape?”

Zohura looked at her feet and meekly nodded her head.

“You abandoned your escape to help Saravanan.”

Zohura again nodded without lifting her head. Samyuktha hugged Zohura hard and patted her head affectionately. She then took Zohura downstairs to the first floor bedroom where Saravanan was in. 

She said, “Zohura was escaping when she saw Saravanan and yet decided to saved him.”

Saravanan who was a bit calmer said, “Don’t worry kiddo I will send you home.”

Samyuktha who treated him like a kid or an insane man said, “Of course you will. Now take rest.”

But Kalpana who treated him like an equal adult even when he was babbling incoherent things said, “We have rescued her but we can’t keep her hidden for long. As for as sending her safely back home only some one in power can do it and that too only in a secret manner.”

“Then we will come to power. We send her home safely at all costs. I will jump down from the roof if need be,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri stepped closer to Saravanan and caressing his head said, “No one needs to jump from anywhere. We will find a way out of this. You take rest now.”

Zohura who stood there silently watching this thought that these women were not that bad in their hearts. She somehow trusted Saravanan even in this state. She believed that he will save her as he had in the past. 

She went near him and said, “I believe you will send me home. But there is something more important. Ghazia is unwell and will die soon if she doesn’t receive heart surgery soon. Please save her too.”

“I will save her. When there is accountability everyone will be saved,” said Saravanan. 

“We will do what we can to save her. Now let him rest,” said Kalpana clutching Zohura’s hand. 

“Thank you,” said Zohura looking up at Kalpana. 

This was the first time she had talked to any person other than Saravanan. 

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Dec 5

 Pandey surveyed the hall and particularly noted that the paintings that hung on the wall and the furniture was the same as before. He guessed that it must be the case with the rest of the house. Bhatt was a person without a forceful personality. He would remain as the puppet Prime Minister while Pandey would hold actual power as the Home Minister. This arrangement was not what he had in mind but Saravanan had changed all that by imprisoning him. But this arrangement was not that bad thought Pandey. 

He eyed Bhatt sitting across him and smiling genially said, “We are far ahead in all the opinion polls. The people not wanting to give a fragmented mandate at this critical juncture have decided to back Jan Shakthi party fully. What a bunch of idiots.”

Bhatt laughed at this and said, “Don’t be modest. The Pandey Sainiks had a crucial role in strengthening the party and putting us in this victorious position.”

Pandey had known all along that Bhatt was a vile and cunning but cowardly guy. He never realised what a pushover this guy was until now. Shamelessly praising Pandey for his unlawful activities and strength despite being the Prime Minister. 

“For a moment that Dubey’s daughter had me worried. She not only toppled our government by splitting the MPs but also split the party effectively. Luckily the general voters were not swayed by her and we are faring comfortably well now,” said Pandey leaning back in to the chair and placing one foot over the other. 

“We are sure to win this elections and there is nothing to worry Pandey ji. What voters don’t understand is that money wins elections. For this election we will receive surplus funds from abroad. We will be funded like no other party in the history of the nation,” said Bhatt. 

Pandey smiled at Bhatt’s comment. He then took the lemonade glass from the table and sipping it went near the painting depicting a forest infested with wolves. He thought how politics was a forest right in the midst of civilisation. It had its own set of rules and the do gooders and righteous were eaten alive by the professional politicians. Outsiders had no chance of surviving this forest. Man was an animal after all and cannot escape the laws or rather the lawlessness of the jungle. Might was unquestionably right and anyone claiming otherwise were impostors. He liked the word Democracy as it still had a very righteous ring to it. 

Democracy was an institution like any other institution or rather an industry like any other industry. Do you use products that are the best for you or do you use highly advertised products. Democracy is an oligopoly with the highest barrier of entry than any other business. Even the biggest monopolies can be defeated but the oligopoly of politics can’t be breached. People will still buy a product even if it is the market laggard. But people don’t like to vote for a losing party and waste their votes. Democracy was a sham in a country like India which was rooted in corruption and had very little inner party democracy. 

He was as capable of understanding this as much as the London educated Bhatt. He didn’t underestimate the intelligence of the people. He knew that the people were aware of the very same things that the intellectuals and others knew in an intuitive manner. Yet they were helpless creatures who had to align themselves with any of the established parties and hope to secure their positions through an elaborate scheme of butt kissing. They defended their parties like a religion out of fear of being left out in the rat race of mankind if they loose their grip. 

He must concede that new parties did come to power after a wait of a couple or more decades. The Jan Shakthi Party itself was an example of this. But nobody would speak of the arduous road taken and the cost given. Dubey was the final pacifist and soft face of the party. But what of the inciting and hate speeches knowingly spewed out to kindle an emotional reaction out of normally rational people. What of the disturbances caused to the people to grow the party. The mob violence, hooliganism and killings. He knew any honest statement from a dishonest man like himself would be rejected outright by political experts. The honest truth is that at least a thousand lives would have been lost as a direct consequence of the rise of parties like the Jan Shakthi Party. 

If so much blood had to be shed to promote a party and come to power. If open intimidation was to be the norm then what is the point of voting and the democratic process. 

Pandey returned to his seat and said, “We are sure to win this elections. I need not worry about this damn strong case that Saravanan has foisted upon me as long as we are in power. I’ll intimidate the witnesses and quash the case before long. But we need to look beyond this elections alone.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Bhatt. 

“Before this debacle of imprisonment I was involved in the process of compromising the bureaucracy, judiciary and the election commission. This would secure our power forever. I was hoping that with your support the process would be much quicker and smoother,” said Pandey sipping the lemonade in his hand.

“You are a man of foresight. I will cooperate fully. But do you think it is feasible?”

“Once an entity acquires power it is not an easy task to wrest it out. We have power and can do what I said with corruption and coercion,” said Pandey.   

ISI HQ, Islamabad, Dec 5

Salim was sweating heavily after the table tennis match with General Qureshi. He knew he was rising in stature and credence within the ISI when the General invited him to play table tennis. The smooth processing of the plan and the fact of their guy being the PM of India has put the General in good mood. He knew democracy was overrated. Look where it has brought India to. Pakistan needn’t worry too much about it because of the strong and all pervasive army there. It was more true now than ever. The army was in full control and the government there was a puppet government. 

He came to the table tennis match with the resolve to lose gracefully to the General on purpose. Boy was he in for a surprise. The General turned out to be a genuinely good table tennis player, far better than him. He took a towel from a nearby rack and wiped the sweat away from his face. He wondered if they were fragmenting India by their actions alone or were they only hastening the process. Though Pakistan followed a federal structure of governance they were mostly a homogenous entity. India on the other hand was already split in terms of caste, religion and region. The separatist forces were not the handiwork of Pakistan but rather the product of inequity in India.

The General took a towel and after wiping himself asked Salim, “How is the plan progressing?”

Salim placed the towel on the rack and turned to the General and said, “Things are going better than expected sir. The people are in place in the valley and Punjab too. This had been delayed for a while but now is complete. There is request for more arms and ammunition from the separatist forces.”

“Provide them that then. We have the arms with us then what is the problem. We don’t want any hitch ups on account of minor things,” said the General tapping the ball with his bat. 

“The problem is in getting the arms to them undetected. Moreover we reckon they have enough arms to carry out the operations,” said Salim. 

“So what if they equip themselves a bit heavily. We will stand to benefit. Make sure they get the arms they want,” said the General placing the ball on the table. 

Salim could understand the logic of the General. Strengthening the separatist forces will only benefit them. Every penny spent that way would reap heavy dividends in the form of weakening India. They had bled the enemy by a thousand wounds. Now it was time to go for the jugular. 

“An arms dealer capable of supplying arms anywhere in India has been in touch with the Tamil separatists TNLA. I will have his credentials verified and arrange for the arms shipment,” said Salim.

“What about Zohura and Saravanan?” asked the General.

“We made an attempt on their lives but they both escaped. Saravanan has become mad it seems. Zohura has escaped and no one knows where she is. The contract on their heads is still there,” said Salim. 

“What do you mean when you say Zohura has escaped and her whereabouts are unknown. If we haven’t helped her then who is helping her?” asked the General. 

“We have no idea at the moment sir. But we will find out soon,” said Salim.

This question has troubled Salim for quite some time. Even supposing that the girl had escaped by herself it simply wasn’t possible for her to avoid detection by herself. She was after all a kid and a special kid at that. But whatever it was, it was unimportant to the plan. Salim didn’t subscribe to the theory that Zohura was a threat to the plan. 

Mayuri’s Residence, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, Dec 8

It had been a few days since Saravanan almost fell off the roof. Kalpana waited in the living room for Samyuktha and Mayuri to arrive from the hospital with Saravanan. Saravanan had shown mild signs of improvement. He was much better than before and had started to coherently respond to questions posed by others. Kalpana had just switched on the TV when they arrived. Zohura who was playing with a large plastic foot ball upstairs came down clutching it in her hands. 

They came in and settled themselves in the living room. Samyuktha sat on the sofa next to Mayuri and Saravanan and fanned herself with the newspaper lying on the table. 

She said, “Dr. Radhika Sharma says he is getting well and has reduced the pills. We can also feel the improvement in him. I thank God that the worst is over.”

Saravanan placed his hands on the shoulders of Mayuri and Samyuktha sitting on either side of him and looking at Kalpana said, “I am thankful to all of you for taking care of me during my turbulent time.”

“Don’t bother, it was nothing,” said Mayuri patting Saravanan’s hand that was on her shoulder. 

“People are right when they think that psychiatric patients can’t remember what happened when they were unwell. Yet I can remember a few snippets each time I recover. I remember calling you my wife Samyuktha. I am embarrassed and sorry,” said Saravanan. 

“Oh, it is okay. You are well now and that is what that matters. You gave us a scare you know,” said Samyuktha looking up at Saravanan. 

Zohura crept close to Saravanan with the ball in her hands and said, “Now that you are well. Will you rescue Ghazia?”

Kalpana said, “Ghazia is probably staying with the terrorist kingpin Naqvi. To locate her we must locate him and that seems very tough right now.”

Zohura looked at the floor and said, “But if we don’t re.. rescue her soon and get her treated she will die.”

“No harm will come to her. We will save her,” said Mayuri. 

Kalpana was the first person to whom Zohura talked apart from Saravanan. Then she slowly spoke a few words to Mayuri and Samyuktha too. Yet she spoke fluently and with less stuttering only with  Saravanan.  

Mayuri and Kalpana seem to think you are some kind of magician who can solve all problems with a wave of your wand. So let me hit you with the problems we face,” said Samyuktha.

Saravanan removed his hands from their shoulders and sat straight and said, “I am no magician. The stunts I pulled before were mostly beginner’s luck. Yet together we can try to overcome problems we face.”

“Bhatt who is the caretaker Prime Minister is under the control of Pakistani ISI. Fresh elections have been announced and their results will be announced on January 23 giving a three day window before Republic day. But the problem is that the Jan Shakthi Party is the favourite now and Bhatt is all set to return as PM,” said Samyuktha. 

“The solution is simple. We must collect thorough intel enough to act in a three day window and curb the bomb blast and separatist plans. Bhatt must be defeated in the elections at all costs,” said Saravanan.  

“But the BJP is far behind and…” Samyuktha was saying when she was interrupted by Saravanan. 

“We must first rescue that girl Ghazia or she will die. Kalpana any thoughts on that,” asked Saravanan. 

“We have Naqvi in touch with people under our surveillance. He calls from outside using different sims. We haven’t been able to locate him so far. The chances seem slim in the future too,” said Kalpana. 

She switched off the TV and leaning forward said, “We can’t locate him passively. We are trying to make contact with him and the separatist leaders through a man posing as an arms dealer. But it will take time and time is something the kid Ghazia hasn’t got.”

“We have something to use but I don’t want to risk it. We can use Zohura as a bait to locate Ghazia and Naqvi,” said Saravanan. 

Zohura to whom they paid no heed had not only been listening to them but also understood most of what they said. 

For she said, “I don’t mind being a bait to save Ghazia. I have a mail id to be used in case of emergencies. I can tell I’ve escaped and mail them.”

“We can fit a GPS device to Zohura’s clothes and send her there. When she has seen Ghazia she can activate the device and we can locate and rescue Zohura and Ghazia,” said Kalpana. 

“Okay, look after that. I am still not fully well. I am not in a mood to engage in these activities now. I’ll watch a movie may be and take a nap,” said Saravanan and got up from the sofa. 

CHAPTER 19

IB HQ, New Delhi, Dec 10

Kalpana was waiting anxiously to receive the GPS signal from Zohura. She was pacing back and forth in the room which was now known as the Republic day anti terror room. Zohura had sent the email from an internet parlour and had waited to be picked up. She decided not to follow Zohura at that point as the terrorists would be suspicious and extra careful at the point. Since then Kalpana had been waiting for the GPS activation from Zohura. She received the activation, the computer monitor showed a house in Laxmi Nagar as the location. Kalpana maintained the operation as a secret from the Director Amal Hegde for obvious reasons but also kept even Arun and others in the dark to avoid detection of Zohura. 

She had no ground team prepared to make the strike on the location. For if she involved IB personnel then Zohura and Ghazia would be taken in to custody. They didn’t want that to happen. They were trying to save both Zohura and Ghazia from being placed in custody. She exited the headquarters in her car and signalled to Mayuri who followed in her own car. 

She was going to take out an entire terrorist location single handed but she was not worried. She had been in too many of these crux situations when dealing with the Mumbai underworld that it seemed natural to her. She found the ground floor locked but the first floor open. She still went to the second floor on top to find it locked and she checked the roof top too. Only after that she went in to the first floor. She encountered an unarmed man watching TV in the living room. She hit him hard on the head with her pistol butt and swiftly cuffed him before checking the rest of the rooms. She found Zohura and Ghazia playing in one of the bedrooms but no one else was there. She called Mayuri who came and collected the kids and left to her apartment. She then phoned the IB headquarters and informed them of the bust. This unsterilised location might yield a few clues. Moreover they now had a live terrorist. He might lead to a few clues himself. 

She returned to the headquarters a while back and was resting in a chair in the Republic day anti terror room. She had been hitting the captured terrorist roughly before interrogating him. Then she hit him hard again and the cycle of beatings and interrogation continued. The captured terrorist was Asif Khan and has been staying with Ghazia and Naqvi. Naqvi it seems has went to Punjab for an important meeting with the separatists. She has posted people there if Naqvi returned but she knew it was of no use. Naqvi by now would have got wind of this operation from the Director Amal Hegde by now. Damn bad luck Naqvi not being there she thought. 

Asif Khan has so far accepted that they intended to blast the Secretariat and the Parliament on Republic Day. This they knew already. He said that the separatists in the Valley, North East, Punjab and Tamilnadu were to take control of the respective regions. A senior politician was to recognise the cessation and the UN was to grant diplomatic recognition to these regions and send peacekeeping forces. So this was their master plan to disintegrate the nation. He knew nothing of the operational details of the blasts or the take over plan. 

She got a call from Samyuktha that Ghazia has been safely sent to Chennai with a friend of Mayuri’s and there Saravanan’s friend Kamal would take care of ensuring the surgery of Ghazia. There were many articles including a laptop confiscated from the site. Asif has confessed that the laptop belonged to him. It had some anti India propaganda but was sterile except that. There was an id of Asif as a reporter working for the popular news channel Sandesh. She thought it must be a fake id at first and asked an assistant of hers to verify it. Surprisingly enough it was an actual job in Asif’s name. She realised that the news channel has been compromised and there might be many more covers like that. She instructed her assistant to keep unearthing the cover a secret. 

She realised she could do only the research work now and would have to wait for the three day window to act upon her intelligence. She saw the people in the room leaving for a snack break. She closed her eyes to catch a quick nap in the peace and quiet. 

A gruff voice rudely awakened her, “Resting after a hard day’s work are we? Congrats on the arrest. He is being transferred to prison and anyone wanting to question him should go through me. A security precaution after the escape of Zohura.”

She opened her eyes to see Amal Hegde standing before her. She didn’t bother to stand or salute him. She just looked at him in irritation for disturbing her peace and quiet.

“What do you want?” she asked arrogantly placing one foot over the other. 

“I want the understanding and cooperation of the famed fox of the IB. Arun told me that you suspect me of being an ISI mole based on some obscure tap. I’ve come here to convince you that is not the case,” said Amal extending his hand. 

“Foxes don’t socialise with lizards,” she said ignoring his hand. 

“Whoever it is, has to comply with the rule of the forest. I am in charge now and I am watching you. I am a good person really,” he said and left the room. 

Kalpana unclenched her fingers which she had clenched in to a knot. She did it to control herself. She had been tempted to shoot him then and there. But then controlled herself saying he needed to undergo the torture and humiliation of imprisonment. 

After some time she got a phone call from Arun who said, “I got a visit from our Director and he wants me to watch you closely. He even wanted to bug you but I convinced him otherwise saying you were too smart for that and that I had wide access to you and can keep adequate watch on you.”

“Feed him tidbits and keep him in your loop. Try to get an intel from him on the blasts as soon as possible,” said Kalpana. 

“I’ll try my best but you focus on the arms supply angle and see if you can gain any momentum there,” said Arun.

“I will and you take care,” said Kalpana cutting the call. 

Mayuri’s Residence, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, Dec 11

Mayuri drove her car in to the parking lot in the house and got out with a bag containing groceries and other necessities. When she entered the house she saw Kalpana and Samyuktha sitting in the living room. 

“Where is Saravanan?” she asked heading towards the kitchen. 

“Upstairs playing with Zohura,” said Samyuktha smiling. 

Saravanan had asked Mayuri to get an xbox for Zohura. But now it seems he is playing as much as Zohura. She placed the bag on the counter and entered the living room. 

She hollered, “Saravanan get down,” from the bottom of the staircase. 

She then plonked on the sofa and placed her feet on a chair opposite her. She thought it was high time to resolve the crisis before the nation. The only option available was to defeat the Jan Shakthi Party and do something in the three day window before Republic day. But the BJP was far too lagging to harm the Jan Shakthi Party’s chance. 

Saravanan came downstairs and joined them. Mayuri put her foot down so he could sit. He sat but then took her feet and placed it in his lap. God he was so endearing but he had called Samyuktha his wife when insane. Was it a crazy slip or was it his subconscious talking. Moreover he remembered that slip when he was alright and apologised to Samyuktha. What should she infer from that. What did Samyuktha do to receive Saravanan’s affections. It had been Mayuri who steadfastly defended him while Samyuktha only criticised him. But she distanced these thoughts from her mind as more serious things were at stake.

“We can’t do anything about the terrorist threat as long as Bhatt is in power. We must defeat him somehow,” said Mayuri.

“We will come to that but first I want to know what can be done about sending the girls back home?” asked Saravanan. 

“That is a tough ask. We can try to smuggle Ghazia after surgery but Zohura has an Interpol red corner notice on her. Our personnel are on full alert and searching for her. We can’t even keep her hidden for long. She is a lost cause as I see it,” said Kalpana. 

“If it is possible for Bhatt to help the terrorists easily it must also be possible to smuggle the kid back to her mom in her village,” said Saravanan. 

“Bhatt is not helping the terrorists overtly and he is in power and that makes all the difference,” said Kalpana.

“What if we have power. Then what?” asked Saravanan. 

“By power, you can’t mean some one else in power as the action contemplated is illegal. But if you yourself are the PM then it is possible to have the folks look the other way when Zohura is smuggled out of the country. It is the only safest escape route for Zohura,” said Kalpana. 

“The way I see it the BJP is nowhere near to challenge the Jan Shakthi Party. The people see an alternative to the BJP and the Congress in the Jan Shakthi Party. We are going to challenge that and that way we can save Zohura and then the nation,” said Saravanan. 

“I agree with what you say but what confused set of priorities do you have, first Zohura and then the nation. And by the way your Zohura still hasn’t told all that she knows about the terrorists,”  said Samyuktha. 

Mayuri was annoyed by Samyuktha’s attitude and her criticism of Saravanan. Though she herself couldn’t understand his obsession with Zohura. He called her his daughter when he was insane. Did he mean it and was his subconscious acting out when he was insane. 

“I am not confused about my priorities, to me it has always been Zohura over the nation. If you can’t accept that then you can leave me. Though I’ll be forever grateful for your help when I was sick,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri was surprised by the terse response from the usually genial Saravanan. She had never seen him react like this before. 

“Sorry if I offended you. There was no need to react that harshly. There were times when I wished to be rid of you. But when you were sick I prayed to all the Gods in the world to make you well so we could be like before,” said an emotional Samyuktha. 

Saravanan pinched the nose of Samyuktha sitting across from him and shook her head a few times. Samyuktha laughed at this and Saravanan joined the laughter. Mayuri felt conflicting emotions, on one side she was envious of this behaviour and on the other side she was happy that tensions have eased between Saravanan and Samyuktha. 

“So what do we do to defeat the Jan Shakthi Party in the elections?” asked Kalpana. 

“We start our own political party for starters,” said Saravanan. 

“How childish? You think you can start a political party and sweep the polls with only a month to spare. It takes decades to build parties. I think we must think of Zohura later and think of backing the BJP for now,” said Samyuktha looking at Saravanan openly challenging him. 

“We are talking about the wonder boy of the nation, our national hero Saravanan. The people love him. We just might pull it off or it will be worth trying,” said Mayuri.

“The way I see it the BJP has little chances of winning as they stand now. If we enter the fray we will be splitting only the Jan Shakthi votes and not the BJP’s and that could by itself be a strategy to propel BJP to power,” said Saravanan. 

Samyuktha who had leaned forward in interest said, “I see the merits of your case. I support this move.”

“I declare on the outset that if BJP wins it will be a corollary and all my efforts will be to win ourselves and rescue Zohura,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri admired the skilful way in which Saravanan used logic to manoeuvre Samyuktha to agree with him. Whatever the reasons, they were now in the hunt for an election victory in time to save the nation and a little girl. There is no denying that life was a lot more interesting with Saravanan around. 

“The Jan Shakthi rebel party under Meera has a presence across the nation. Sushant Kumar’s Aag party is strong in North India. There is the Dravidian party Dravidam headed by Ravikumar that is strong in the South Indian states,” said Saravanan. 

“We must try to make them alliance partners,” said Mayuri.

“No, we must make them dissolve their parties and merge in to a single entity of this party. I know they will never give up the provincial principles on which their parties were formed. Before you approach them you must find common ground and assure them that their interests will be safeguarded,” said Saravanan. 

“That is only part of the issue, the leaders wouldn’t want to work under anyone else,” said Mayuri.

“Tell them they will have a shot at being President of the party. This party will have a strong internal democracy and as proof of it the election to the post of president of the party will be a well publicised and democratic affair. It will help us enrol more members for the party,” said Saravanan. 

“It would weaken your chances of becoming President considerably,” said Kalpana. 

“But a democratic President election would make the winner a strong contender for being the PM,” said Saravanan. 

IB HQ, New Delhi, Dec 12

Kalpana was cheerful for there was a minor break after a long time. Michael, their undercover operative has contacted Navaneethan a leader of the TNLA about supply of arms. Navaneethan has promised to set up a meeting with their leader Manimaran. He also promised to convey the offer of arms supply to Naqvi when he contacted again. The surveillance operation has also escalated. Now they had almost a hundred and thirty operatives of the separatist forces under tap and about sixty persons were working on this operation. But of it only a few were top level leaders like the leader of the Khalistan group Bhim Singh. 

A few hundred operatives were planning to take on the Collectorates and the police stations and take the whole region hostage. The Khalistan terrorists were careless and from the phone tap on Bhim Singh they were able to identify the top operatives directly involved in the operations. As for as Punjab was concerned as soon as there was someone favourable to the nation as PM the operatives would be hauled in and the threat neutralised. 

There was some information and progress with the Tamil separatists but it still wasn’t enough to identify the people engaged in the operation. But they were almost there with the proposed meeting of Michael with Manimaran. Michael has been instructed to bug the phone of Manimaran if possible. The process would involve Michael exchanging phone numbers with Manimaran and sending a test message. Then on the pretext of verifying the test message get Manimaran’s phone and attach the bug on the back. It all depends on the trust that Michael is able to  establish with the separatists. 

As for as the North East was concerned one of their operatives is trying to lure the top aide of Birinchi with money. If that goes successful then they could have information enough to nab the separatists and neutralise the threat. As for as the valley is concerned they had very little to go on. But the heavy military presence in the valley made any isolated attempt to take control untenable. Yet the terrorists can’t be counted out and more information must be gathered. 

As for as the actual bomb blasts in Delhi, the only useful lead is that they are using jobs in the news channel Sandesh as cover. Kalpana had a list of the new employees in the last few months with her. The list was big and had more than a hundred names on it. She has instructed to verify the credentials of all the people in the list. She has also ordered background check in to the editorial staff who could influence recruiting decisions. She has asked these things be done in a low key manner without attracting the attention of the Director. 

All in all the progress was slow given that the deadline was nearing. But she was sure she could piece together evidence to nab the culprits in time. But they needed a change in leadership. That was beyond Kalpana’s control and she relied on Saravanan to do something. 

She decided to speed up the process and went to see Arun in his cabin. Arun was looking at some file in his hand. 

He looked up at her and said, “Jignesh and his buddy Jugnu Thappar, goons of Pandey are out on a rampage. They are disrupting all rallies of the opposition. That is partly the reason for the poor showing of the opposition.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” asked Kalpana. 

“Me, nothing. What can I do?” asked Arun.

“We will deal with that menace later. How do you stand with the Director?” 

“He trusts me and considers me a friend. But not enough to talk about his involvement with ISI,” said Arun. 

“We must force his hand. This hand holding of him will not lead us anywhere in time. He isn’t worried about me that much to make a move. Did you say to him I am considering going to the media?” asked Kalpana. 

“I haven’t done that yet. Are you sure you want that?”

“Yes, do it without fail and before that try to bug his phone. We want to study his reaction,” said Kalpana.   

Ganesha Temple, Vasant Kunj, Dec 13

“You guys go inside and pray, I’ll stay outside. I told you guys that I don’t do temples but you dragged me here. I’ll wait out,” said Saravanan. 

He didn’t like to visit temples. Back home though his family would drag him somewhere occasionally. Here he felt he could put his foot down. 

“When you were unwell I prayed to God that I would come visit him with you if you got well,” said Samyuktha getting outside the car. 

“Moreover  we are going to start a new party tomorrow. We must get God’s blessings for that,” said Mayuri from outside. 

Saravanan reluctantly got down from the car and was dragged before the temple by Kalpana who held tightly to his hand. 

Saravanan would have gone in without noticing them if not for Samyuktha who said, “Let us get some flowers and garlands as offerings.”

A stout middle aged lady was selling flowers and garlands placed on a table. Beside her on the floor sat a teen girl threading loose flowers in to a garland. She was focused on her work and didn’t look anywhere else. Something in the girl’s demeanour reminded him of Zohura. She definitely didn’t have any disorder like Zohura. It wasn’t the innocent look either as all kids look innocent. No, it was the look of someone who had been treated unkindly by the world at so early an age. A look of sadness and dejection. 

Samyuktha was buying flowers from the lady when Saravanan asked the teen, “Are you studying?”

The teen was silent but the lady prompted the girl, “Answer the gentleman Swarna.”

I’ve finished my studies,” said the girl without looking up.

“You seem too young to finish studies. What have you studied Swarna?” asked Saravanan. 

“Twelfth,” said the teen. 

“Why didn’t you study any further?” asked Saravanan.

The girl didn’t reply and her mom replied, “My husband works as a temple priest here sir. We asked her a lot to study further but she refused. She is angry that she didn’t get a medical seat.”

“Not everyone are fit enough to be doctors. God must have other plans…” Saravanan was saying when he was rudely interrupted by the girl.

She looked up at Saravanan and shrieked, “I am fit, I got very high scores in the medical entrance exams. My classmates with far lower marks have got in. If it wasn’t for this damned reservation I would be a doctor. I drank rat poison but even death was denied to me. There is no god.”

Saravanan was moved by the girl’s plight and said, “Think of your parents and do something else. Life isn’t over. There are so many things you can do.”

“Will you tell Husain Bolt not to run. Similarly I was meant to be a doctor. I used to feel bad for all the evils done by my ancestors in the name of caste. But now I don’t feel that way anymore. For they are having revenge on me and a few others like me,” said the teen. 

Saravanan was shocked by the rage and hatred sown in to so innocent a child. He prayed to God to look after the girl and other girls like her.  

CHAPTER 20 

Aag HQ, New Delhi, Dec 14

Samyuktha was late on an important day as she had overslept. She had caught a late night movie with her sister last night. She looked out of the window of the car to see people with placards lining the streets. The placards read ‘catch and kill Zohura’. It started again with an interview by the PM Bhatt who said they will catch Zohura soon and this time they would try her as an adult and try to get capital punishment for her. He had taken a hard anti terror stand, what a farce. This sparked reactions from the people who wanted the government to catch Zohura immediately and hang her. The whole nation was whipped in to a frenzy. 

This was a sideshow. The main event was the formation of the new party. It was the talk of the town. Mayuri has acquiesced Sushant Kumar to dissolve his Aag and join the new party. Ravikumar has dissolved his Dravidam party and joined the new party. Meera has joined the new party with her rebel Jan Shakthi party. A slew of other smaller parties have also joined the new party. The first executive meeting of the party was happening today at the Aag headquarters and Samyuktha was late for it.    

She still couldn’t believe that all these parties have decided to dissolve themselves to join a new party. Mayuri said that all the leaders and party workers were working under the feeling of being stuck without progress. The mere mention of Saravanan’s name and the opportunity to rise above their small statures has propelled them to come together. 

The car went in to the parking lot of Aag. She got down and there was a sea of reporters waiting outside the doors of Aag head quarters. She navigated her way through the crowd. Then inside the building there was a crowd of people, old office bearers of old parties. She navigated the crowd and reached the inner room. She told the people outside that she was Saravanan’s aide and was let in. Inside were the folks sitting on cushions on the floor. Saravanan and Mayuri were sitting leaning on the wall in the room. Meera and Ravikumar were sitting on the side. Sushant Kumar with his aides Sushma and Anil was sitting opposite Saravanan. Samyuktha sat beside Saravanan and apologised for being late. 

Mayuri said, “Didi on Saravanan’s suggestion the party has been named the ‘Cuckoo’ party. For this party like the cuckoo bird has hatched on the nest of other parties.”

Sushant asked, “Should we have an election for the post of Party President? Wouldn’t it be better if we agreed on it within ourselves. Moreover it is said that the president will be the party’s PM candidate. It will be disadvantageous for someone like Saravanan as I come with a party and have better chances at an election.”

“We can agree but the people outside will have their desires. A publicised party president election would strengthen our chances in the general elections,” said Saravanan. 

“I represent the interests of the southern states and have no desire for the party president post. I will remain neutral,” said Ravikumar.

“I came to politics because of Samyuktha. I shall support and campaign for Saravanan as the Party President,” said Meera. 

“So it will be a presidential election between Sushant Kumar and Saravanan,” said Mayuri.

“We will fight on issues of course and I shall fight on good governance, improving trade and commerce etc,” said Sushant.

“I shall focus on political change, incentivising politics, increased pay like CEOs to politicians, incentives linked to measurable statistical indicators and resignations on poor performance based on the indicators,” said Saravanan. 

“You don’t need an election I can tell now Saravanan will lose,” said Samyuktha and everyone laughed at this. 

“I will have a tough time selling this to the people. It goes above my head,” said Meera and more laughter followed. 

“Okay I shall include good governance too,” said Saravanan. 

“Yes but keep the thoughts on political change too. They are idealistic and I’ll attack them but you can defend it and we might have a stellar fight in our hands. We want that don’t we?” asked Sushant Kumar. 

Many other things were discussed including the strategy to enrol more party members to get involved in the electoral process. It was decided that with the general elections too close at hand the internal elections must be completed before January fifth. The party flag was discussed and it was decided to have the tricolour saffron, white and green as three triangles in the bottom and have three inverted triangles of black, red and blue in top. With the help of Kamal a fund raising party with all the important CEOs of the nation was organised. Anil was made the provisional treasurer for the party. The elections for the post of other office bearers were also to be held with the elections for the president. They then decided to let in the media persons and announce the launch of the Cuckoo party to them and the supporters. Saravanan said he would lag behind them as he didn’t want to say anything off the cuff and spoil the mood of the party. 

Samyuktha was caught in the mood of the creation of a new party and rewriting the history of the nation. But realistically what were the chances of such a hastily formed party to come to power in such a short time. She was like a protected civil servant under Dubey ji but now she didn’t know who she was anymore. The press conference started and Meera and Sushant took the centre stage and answered all questions. Saravanan stood a bit back and on the sides. The presidential elections between Sushant and Saravanan was announced amidst much fanfare. Meera and Sushant emphatically claimed that they would come to power to loud cheers. 

A bearded reporter then asked a specific question to Saravanan, “You’ve earlier supported Zohura and seemed soft on terror. Now with renewed protests to catch her and hang her what is your position?”

Saravanan remained silent. He looked far in to the distance and stood there quietly. 

The reporter persisted by asking, “The people want her hanged and the democratic elected government backs it. Isn’t it your duty as a patriotic citizen to back the people and Democracy?”

Saravanan came forward and took the microphone from Meera and said, “If Democracy stands for the death of the little girl then I shall end such a democracy with the last of my breath.”

“No need to get emotional,” said the reporter. 

“I am not emotional but it is rather the democracy you seek to serve that is easily swayed by emotions. The demand now is a classic example. Anti terror sentiments are on a high and you seek murder and that too of a child.”

Samyuktha didn’t like the tone the interview was taking. So far the focus had been on the new party and the issues of governance that this party would tackle when they came to power. There was a mood of euphoria and speculation was rife in the air as to whether this new party could come to power. But now the attention has been diverted tangentially. 

A female reporter came forward and asked, “I don’t back the reporter’s claim that it is our democratic duty to back the government’s efforts to hang the girl. But don’t you think lashing out at democracy is carrying it too far especially after your efforts to carry out Party Presidential elections in a fair and transparent manner.” 

  Sushant stepped forward and said, “My sentiments exactly. We don’t stand for or against any action on the girl. We want the courts to decide that. I know Saravanan wanted strong internal democracy for the party. So he could never be against democracy.”

“Thanks Sushant but the majority demand to hang the little girl has clarified me about my stand on present day democracy. Democracy demands the death of the little girl and I demand the death of democracy. In fact that would be the topic of debate between us for the President elections,” said Saravanan. 

Sushant moved near Saravanan and lowering the mike said in to his ear, “Cool down, don’t get hot headed.”

Saravanan raised Sushant’s mike to his face and then raised his own mike and said, “I announce the issue on which I shall fight Sushant for the post of party President and if I win contest the poll for Prime Ministership,” he came to the edge of the makeshift Dias, “the death of democracy.”

He lifted his hands and a muted and confused splatter of applause came from the audience. 

“If you stand for the death of democracy then you shouldn’t be involving yourself in the democratic process of elections for party president or the general elections for that matter. Don’t you see a contradiction right there?” asked Sushant. 

“We’ve seen militarist struggles establish a democracy. I take the available route democracy to defeat itself. There are no contradictions. Is this the best democracy can throw at me?” asked Saravanan and a mild laughter erupted from the media and some of the audience. 

Eliciting laughter was easy but there was no way Saravanan could escape from the grave he had dug for himself. He didn’t pit himself against Sushant or Bhatt for that matter, he has instead chosen to pit himself against democracy. There was only one winner in this race. Samyuktha could at least pity Saravanan when he was mad. But now he was mad in a different way and Samyuktha couldn’t even pity him. 

A bald and spectacled reporter came forward and asked, “Democracy has been debated and accepted as the norm the world over. There is no way to refute it now. You are isolated in your quest. Moreover actual elections are hardly a place to debate this and such debates are better confined to academics. Is it possible that you are overreacting to the plight of the little girl?”

“Democracy is finally warming up. And as for….” Saravanan was saying when he was interrupted by the same bald reporter.

“By the way I too want to see the welfare of the little kid but within the democratic framework,” the reporter said. 

“You say Democracy has been debated and has become the norm, I agree. Do you know who stands by your side and who stands with me. You have nobody while the great philosophers and thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are by my side. They reject democracy,” said Saravanan. 

“They rejected Athenian democracy which was sheer madness and not democracy. Democracy now has evolved in to a far better model for efficient governance,” said a young female reporter with much zeal. 

“They rejected democracy in favour of Aristocracy. So can we deduce that you are arguing in favour of Aristocracy,” asked a young reporter in a Kurta Pyjama. 

Saravanan said, “You can do no such thing. Some actions in life are like a prose where you know before hand what will come next. But some are like poems where you don’t know what comes next before hand. I stand here arguing for the death of democracy. I don’t know what comes next,” said Saravanan. 

“But how can you argue against democracy without knowing what will replace it. Aristotle didn’t reject democracy outright, he said we need a combination of aristocracy and democracy. Experts have agreed that such a combination exists in constitutional democracy,” said a voice from behind. 

The other reporters standing in front parted to make visible a reporter coolly sitting in a chair. He was aged and had a short white beard. 

“Supposing Aristotle argued for a combination of aristocracy and democracy what makes you conclude that it has been achieved in constitutional democracy. Even if it were we reject anything to do with democracy as we see it,” said Saravanan. 

“Try your oratorial skills elsewhere. You are a disillusioned youth or a person with a hidden agenda. Democracy has been attained at so great a price and will stay. I don’t want to waste my time here anymore”, said the man and took a cloth bag and hoisted it over his shoulders and prepared to leave.  

Samyuktha felt the old reporter had said the right thing. The way Saravanan spoke mesmerised her a bit. She even realised for the first time that she was truly in love with him. The romance she was interested in had stories of hero fighting villains and may be even monsters and then take the girl home. But here Saravanan has vowed to defeat Democracy. It would mean Aristocracy or Anarchy and Injustice or Chaos. More importantly Democracy was what she had fought all her life to preserve. She realised that Saravanan was reacting spontaneously the way he always did. What started as a normal anger for protecting a little girl has turned in to something more. She realised that he was not playing with words and trying to introduce the same thing in another form. He wanted the end of democracy period. That was some battle in which she can’t be with him. 

She approached him and whispered in his ear, “Give me the mike and I’ll handle things. We need to discuss this before you proceed any further.”

Saravanan moved away from her and stepped to the edge of the Dias and said, “Sir, before you go can you tell me what this democracy is that you fervently defend.”

The old reporter who was actually walking out turned and said, “Democracy is a government of the people, by the…”

“We’ve all heard that sir. What is its basis that is used in practice?” asked Saravanan. 

“I can literally give you a hundred definitions of Democracy. But I don’t know which definition shall satisfy you.”

“Good point. If I say that Democracy is based on the majority principle or the strength of numbers and is based on the one person one vote principle would you agree?” asked Saravanan. 

“Of course I agree and I can also guess where you are going with this. You are going to ask what of the minority interests in democracy. The racial discrimination of the African Americans is a case in point and…”

“African Americans, can’t you find something closer to home?” asked Saravanan. 

“Yes, the minorities here too. But their rights are protected and we have an esteemed judiciary and…”

“Yes, the judiciary that was so efficient in dispensing justice to an unruly mob that destroyed a place of worship…”

“I do condemn that but the factors…”

“If at all there is something that outrages me more than a rapist or a terrorist it is an unruly mob. And democracy I realised today is the rule of such an unruly mob. I shall end it.”

The old reporter slowly moved forward and came to the front and said, “I appreciate the concern you have for the minorities but…”

“The minorities can go to hell for all I care. I am not here to support some section and garner votes. The minorities at least have strong lobbies and support which they must have. But I am more concerned about the absolute minority, the individual.”

“Yes, the fundamental question of what our goal should be? The betterment of mankind or the creation of a superman.”

“Keep your knowledge to yourself. I am not concerned with the superman but worried that another different man like Socrates would be forced to drink hemlock. To be precise I will end this madness of wanting to hang a little girl by ending democracy,” said a fairly excited Saravanan. 

Some one from the crowd yelled “Saravanan Victorious” and soon the yell caught on and most of the crowd joined the chant. 

Saravanan looked at the crowd and said, “Democracy will never tell a time frame for ending reservation. I will not stop until I get a time frame which means I must end democracy. I will deliver justice to Swapna’s dreams.”

Samyuktha plucked the mike from Saravanan and announced, “There by we conclude this meeting. Thank you all for coming. Any further questions will be dealt with later. The Cuckoo party will sweep the polls,” she said and loud cheers and applause erupted. 

She then dragged Saravanan to an inner room as Mayuri followed her. Meera, Sushant and Ravikumar came to enquire after Saravanan. 

Samyuktha said to them, “He is fine. Can we please have this room to ourselves. We have a few things to discuss.”

Samyuktha turned to Saravanan and said, “You just committed political suicide there. But more important that you betrayed the trust that I, Mayuri and Kalpana had on you.”

“Political suicide my foot. I feel like committing actual suicide,” said Saravanan. 

“Didi, shut up will you. He is like that and can’t help what he says. Don’t you know this simple thing about him. Are you alright Saravanan? Should we visit Dr. Radhika Sharma now?” asked Mayuri. 

Samyuktha was shamed by Mayuri’s genuine concern for Saravanan. She for a moment got carried over there. They must find a way to stop the blasts and the separation of the regions while Bhatt was still in power as it didn’t seem possible to defeat him now. For that was their goal wasn’t it. For apart from that they had little interest in ruling the nation. But Saravanan wanted to save Zohura. They must risk sending her illegally across the border for what else can they do. Saravanan will now be seen as a mad man surely. How absurd spouting nonsense like he will end democracy. 

Saravanan looked up and said, “I stand by what I said I shall end democracy and become the PM and we shall foil the terrorists and send Zohura safely back home. If you are abhorred by this idea then think of it as a newer improved form of democracy. I need your support.”

He raised his hand and Mayuri without hesitation immediately gripped his hand firmly. Samyuktha hesitated a bit before placing her hand on top of Mayuri’s hand. She realised that she was in love with him but he was so far away from her. 

   

CHAPTER 21

IB HQ, New Delhi, Dec 18

Kalpana was waiting for Arun in his cabin. He was out on lunch with the Director Amal Hegde. She recalled the meeting she had with him here a couple of days ago. She had dropped in after receiving a call from him. 

He greeted her and said, “I warned you against pressing Amal hard didn’t I? Look when I told him that you were thinking of going to the media he decided to do what he does best. He has asked me to bug your phone. He wants to hear every word you say.”

Kalpana responded, “Thats good news. We can fix a bug in my mobile phone. I can use it to feed information we want. I’ll tell that I hate you and suspect you of being involved with the terrorists. This might prompt him to open up to you.”

That was couple of days ago. She had from then used another phone for important calls. In this mobile she had falsely confided to Mayuri that she was troubled by Arun and that he was involved with terrorists. Then Arun had received this invitation for lunch out of the blue. She knew that Amal would have confided something to Arun. She waited here to know what it was and how important it was. 

She received a call from Michael Motha on her secure mobile and he said, “Meeting with Manimaran took place successfully. I have bugged his phone. They have set up meetings with Khalistan terrorists and the ULFA guys in the North East. But no proposal came for supplying arms to the valley.” 

She said, “Good job and bug the phone of Birinchi too when you meet him. We have Bhim Singh already under tap. We will give you faulty arms to supply so that your cover isn’t blown prematurely.”

This left only Naqvi with his blast plans and the terrorists in the Valley unmonitored. This was her idea to approach the terrorists with an arms deal and it has worked out beautifully. Her mind wandered to the outburst of Saravanan at the launch of the party. If Saravanan had not reacted that way then too the road to a general election victory would be hard and tough and near impossible. Now Saravanan has boxed himself in to a corner by openly ousting democracy. He has definitely been the headlines and the talk of the town. If he somehow got out of the corner his chances of victory would increase manifold. When she visited them she found Samyuktha and Mayuri discussing various hybrid forms of democracy but Saravanan seemed disinterested. Samyuktha seemed to be picking one fight or the other with him as usual. 

But once when she was alone with Kalpana she confessed, “I can’t live without him but I don’t think I can live with him either.” She blushed and added, “I must keep on dreaming for he seems to live in a separate world.”

Kalpana asked, “Why don’t you talk frankly with him and express your affection for him?”

Samyuktha said, “Mayuri indirectly proposed to him but he laughed it away saying she didn’t see the real him. He must have meant the sick him. Now both myself and Mayuri have seen the real him and both our love has only grown. But I don’t know to proceed further.”

That was the first time that Kalpana saw Samyuktha unsure of herself and lost. Love can make even the most confident of persons insecure. She was interrupted in her thoughts when Arun came inside the office. He was whistling and smiling to himself. 

He said, “Your plan has worked like a charm. He confided in me that you suspected me of helping terrorists and laughed. I said I wouldn’t mind doing anything as long as I get paid. He said an arms shipment was being smuggled across the border in to the valley.”

Kalpana interrupted him saying, “That is why they didn’t want Michael supplying arms to the valley.”

“You got a call from Michael?” asked Arun.

“Yes, I will tell later. You continue,” said Kalpana. 

“Amal says since he is high profile now he can’t visit the valley. He wants me to coordinate with the leader Abbas Mastaan and ensure the arms transfer takes place successfully. I am sure I will be able to fix a bug in his phone,” said Arun.

“Excellent, soon we will have ears in to all the separatist leaders and will have enough details to take them out when the three day window crops up. What we don’t have is info on Naqvi and his plan for the Republic day blasts,” said Kalpana. 

“That is not true. We know that they are using the cover of reporters and especially Sandesh reporters,” said Arun.

“Yes, but that won’t help us that much if we don’t gather additional information on Naqvi soon,” said Kalpana. 

Mayuri’s Residence, Vasanth Kunj, New Delhi, Dec 19 

 Mayuri gave Zohura the latest video games she bought for her. Zohura now talked to everyone but with a stutter. Mayuri had boldly expressed her desire to Saravanan when she had first been attracted to him. Then she had seen him sick, tended to him and her love for him intensified over time. She was jealous of Saravanan’s affection for Samyuktha. Yet she couldn’t flippantly flirt with him like before. She decided to do something substantial and impress him.

She then climbed downstairs where Saravanan, Kalpana and Samyuktha were talking and laughing. She thought to herself wherever Saravanan was there would be no dearth of laughter. She went inside the kitchen and prepared lemonades for all of them. She had stopped preparing tea when she realised Saravanan preferred lemonade to tea. She prepared it using only salt and without sugar as Saravanan preferred. She placed the glasses on a tray. She then placed some chips on a plate and placed it on the tray. She avoided biscuits and cookies for she knew Saravanan preferred hot fried substances to sweets. She took the tray to the living room and placed it on the table and sat beside Saravanan on the sofa such that Samyuktha and Mayuri were sitting on either side of Saravanan. Kalpana always sat aloof on the chair. 

Samyuktha was saying, “We are struggling because you said something in your hot headedness. We should instead be focusing on saving the nation from disintegration by the separatist forces.”

Saravanan said, “I didn’t realise it before I said it but I stand by what I said. I believe our improvement lies in the end of democracy. You talk of the separatist forces, what do you think is the reason behind that?”

“You can argue that democracy is the reason behind all evils. I am not ready to get in to a debate with you,” said Samyuktha. 

“I won’t debate but only prompt you and you truthfully answer. What do you think is the reason for the troubles of the North Eastern states?” asked Saravanan. 

“May be because they are border states,” answered Samyuktha hesitantly. 

“May be,” said Saravanan laughing aloud. 

“No, it is because they are small states with less population meaning lesser parliamentary constituencies and therefore have been neglected by the union governments,” said Mayuri quickly trying to impress Saravanan. 

Samyuktha extended her hand beyond Saravanan’s shoulders and pinched hard on Mayuri’s arm. Mayuri yelped in pain.

Samyuktha mumbled, “It isn’t as if I don’t know what you said but I didn’t say it because I didn’t want to give fodder to his claims. So restrain yourself.”

Saravanan said, “Forget the North East for now. What is the problem of Tamil Nadu? You are Tamil aren’t you?”

Samyuktha said, “We tamils are a proud race and want to preserve our identity and it led to protests and some fanatics who don’t believe in democracy and spew rubbish like you have turned in to separatists.”

Saravanan laughed while Mayuri said, “The tamils here felt affinity to the tamils oppressed and engaging in a civil war in Srilanka. This was a big contention initially. Next Tamil Nadu has always been dominated by the two dravidian parties and the national parties had little stake in the state leading them to abandon the state.”

Saravanan took the lemonade glass in his hand and sipping it said, “Mayuri seems to know more about your state than you do,” then turning to Mayuri said, “You’ve added extra salt today and I like it better this way.”

Samyuktha again pinched Mayuri hard and said to Saravanan, “Why don’t you just enjoy your lemonade instead of asking pointless questions.”

Saravanan smiled and said “Concede then that Democracy is a problem and should be ended.”

“End democracy and replace it with what? Aristocracy or Anarchy? The problems faced by the North East are due to the complexity of federalism and not due to democracy,” said Samyuktha. 

“What basis of federalism is troubling the smaller North Eastern states. It is the democratic principle of one person one vote that is troubling the small states,” said Saravanan. 

“I don’t buy what you say. And what of the separatist forces in Punjab and the Valley. Surely democracy can’t be blamed,” said Samyuktha. 

“Let us not go in to Punjab for now as it begs a deeper question. But as far as the question of the valley at the beginning of the issue there was talk of a plebiscite that never happened. What way do you think it would have gone?” asked Saravanan. 

“I can’t take the unpatriotic crap that you throw at me just to prove a point,” said Samyuktha and tried to rise from the sofa. 

“I am not being unpatriotic and it is in the interests of the people in the valley to remain with India. But what I want to point out is that if a plebiscite was used, today the valley would be with Pakistan and tomorrow with India. The mind of the general masses is fickle,” said Saravanan. 

“What about Punjab and what question does it beg?” asked Samyuktha.

“The question of the minority in the world of democracy which runs on the principle of majority. The Sikhs as a minority feel threatened by democracy in India.You know that the majority isn’t always right. If left to the whim of majority Zohura would have been hanged by now,” said Saravanan sipping the lemonade. 

“Democracy is the best tool available to us. What would you suggest if you denounce democracy.”

“I have nothing for now,” said Saravanan. 

  “We have a constitutional democracy which is as best as it can get. We have bureaucrats and judiciary forming the aristocratic arm of government. We have bicameralism with the Rajya Sabha and it provides the checks and balances needed for a democracy,” said Samyuktha. 

“What ever it is has failed to work properly on everyone’s behalf. If Rajya Sabha and Bicameralism is the required check then it clearly isn’t working as the nation is under constant duress of the mob frenzy of democracy. Even the judiciary is no exception,” said Saravanan. 

“I don’t agree with you,” said Samyuktha.

“I used to believe in democracy as much as you do. But it is time to kill democracy as we know it and usher in a new improved and balanced doctrine,” said Saravanan. 

“I will work on an improved version of democracy,” said Samyuktha. 

“Why work on something new when we can use what we have to our advantage. We must stop the practice of sending politicians to the Rajya Sabha. Instead the states must only nominate eminent persons from various fields, people in NGOs and Sociopreneurs who’ve worked for the betterment of the nation,” said Saravanan. 

“We can argue for that and it can be done,” said Samyuktha. 

“The Rajya Sabha should be as active in passing legislations like the Lok Sabha. Half the cabinet must be comprised of the best persons from Rajya Sabha even including members nominated by opposition,” said Saravanan. 

“That would be tough but can be argued for. Is that all you want? It wouldn’t be the death of democracy but a new hybrid combination of democracy and aristocracy. We can call it an improved version of democracy,” said Samyuktha. 

“Call it whatever you want but this is just the first step in preventing the fickle mindedness of democracy that contemplates the killing of a little girl. I will also fight to get a time frame for ending reservation,” said Saravanan. 

Samyuktha and Mayuri immediately set to work to prepare thee campaign for Saravanan in the party elections. Samyuktha called Meera and updated her on the political change plank on which Saravanan would campaign. She ignored Saravanan’s madness about reservation. 

Saravanan got a call and after speaking he said, “That was Kamal. The operation on Ghazia has been successful. There is no longer a risk to her life. Call Zohura we’ll give her the good news.”

Kalpana rose and went upstairs and returned with Zohura a while later. Mayuri wondered to herself how this unassuming man had touched the lives of so many persons in a short time. He was responsible for saving the life of Ghazia and also Zohura in a way. 

Saravanan said, “There is nothing to worry Ghazia is well. She will join us shortly.”

Zohura beamed at the news. There was pure joy visible on her face. She had a game controller in her hands which she placed on a chair and neared Saravanan. 

She looked up at him and said, “Thank you. I wa… want to tell you something in return. I remember and piece together things to know things. You’ve been too ki… kind to me that I’ll tell you. Naqvi plans to place two bombs in cameras in the Pa… Parliament and four laptop bombs in the Secretariat. I know the bomb maker’s address as I delivered a bag to him and know the shop where laptops were purchased.”

Kalpana immediately got the details from Zohura and went to work. Soon after that Samyuktha also left to meet with Meera. Mayuri was left alone with Saravanan. She felt this was the time to find out once and for all whom he loved. She knew that delaying would only increase the damage of any bad news. 

She was sitting near him on the sofa and she mildly caressed his head and said, “Once I sort of pseudo proposed to you but you said you were unfit for marriage. You said I hadn’t seen the real you. I think you meant seeing you when you were sick. I tended to you then but the love I had for you didn’t diminish but increased.”

Saravanan turned to her and said, “You are one hell of a person. You are a complex being that I admire immensely. But the slip I made by calling Samyuktha my wife told me something about myself. I love her but it is of no use as I am still unfit for marriage.”

Mayuri felt a deep physical churning from inside of her. It started from her stomach and rose to her head. She felt dizzy. This was what she had been worried of all along. She was unworthy of his affections where as that prim and proper Samyuktha was eligible. 

“Is it because I’ve had a few boyfriends unlike Samyuktha?” asked Mayuri in a mild voice. 

“If only it were so, I would have married you in a jiffy. Do you realise that we both, you and me, are so similar. We are pretty fun loving people. We are better friends than I and Samyuktha are. But her simple straightforward and innocent biased nature has conquered my heart,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri steadied herself and her trembling voice and said, “If you love her then why don’t you go for her. I am sure she’ll accept you.”

“If only life were that simple. You saw me when I was sick. Once it might be a novelty but when you have to deal with it repeatedly it becomes a strain. I am a chain smoker and a heavy drinker. I love kids but am incapable of shouldering any responsibility. Despite wanting it I simply am unfit for marriage,” said Saravanan. 

“You were not concerned about bearing the responsibility of a nation then why are you so afraid of taking the responsibility of a family,” asked Mayuri. 

“One person can’t wreck a nation and so I was not bothered but one person can wreck a family and I don’t want to be a home wrecker. I’ve seen up close and personally experienced the pain of growing up in a dysfunctional family. I can’t in good conscience put a kid through it,” said Saravanan.

“I believe you’ll make a good husband and a father. So despite the pain it gives me I will pray for the union of you and Samyuktha as it is the best for everyone,” said Mayuri. 

IB HQ, New Delhi, Dec 25

Kalpana was in a happy mood and humming to herself in the anti terror room which was buzzing with activity. Meera and Sushant had faced some problems when organising rallies from the goons of Jignesh and Jugnu. She had acted as a personal escort in future rallies and thrashed any goons trying to disrupt. At one point of time she even had her gun at Jugnu’s head and warned him that if he ever tried any of his antics his head would be splattered on the door. But the reason she was in a happy mood was because as per the details given by Zohura first the bomb maker was put under surveillance. Then slowly all the rest of the members in their terrorist cell including Naqvi were put under surveillance. Naqvi’s phone was bugged and he can’t make a move without their knowledge.

She even went to the extent of sharing the intelligence with Nirmala the Special Secretary for internal security. Yet all of this would be meaningless if Bhatt isn’t ousted from power. They can’t act against the terrorists and would have to be puppets as the terrorists wreaked havoc in one form or the other. She can temporarily act against the terrorists and try and stop the blasts but the rest of their actions would go as per plan on Republic day and cause harm. If only Saravanan could come to power then there would be no problems as action against all terrorists could be taken. 

She was about to leave for the canteen when Arun arrived and said, “I’ve never been in a situation like this before where inspite of having complete intel we are unable to take action. Are you sure Saravanan can win this elections? He is talking of Rajya Sabha nominations and ending reservation among all things.”

She said, “He is the magic glue that held together the crumbling nation before. I am sure he will come through again to save the nation.” 

 

CHAPTER 22

Mayuri’s Residence, Vasant Kunj, Jan 19

It was the day before the general elections. It was a hectic month for Saravanan. Saravanan first outlined his hybrid democracy at the meeting of sponsors and was met with skepticism but soon his persuasion and logic held sway and more importantly his reputation as the man who brought about the economic turnaround convinced them to pour funds in to the party. Then he had to use his oratorial skills in a nationwide tour where he fought on issues with Sushant. Here too his stature as a national hero who had helped in the economic recovery and won a war helped him. More than anything this open battle for party presidentship attracted lot of attention and support from the people. People joined the party by the scores in their interest to influence the internal elections. This demonstrated how inner party democracy can strengthen a party. 

Saravanan was aware that you can’t wipe away thousands of years of oppression by a mere seventy years of affirmative action and reservation. Yet he was sure that reservations in the modern day globalised world affected the people getting reservation more than it did the upper caste people. The starting of so many engineering colleges made getting an engineering education easier than ever before. Getting a job in a private MNC was based on merit and was more lucrative than the government jobs. Studying medicine was still a bit tricky but many were beginning to surpass that hurdle by studying in places like Russia where it was cheap. But the people under reservation still used to the crutches of quota were finding it difficult to compete in the privatised world. 

Reservation was much like the freebies and sops the government gave to lure the voters like free TVs and grinders. Saravanan and most of his friends came to know of caste only when they were asked to fill a form in school specifying the caste to which they belong. The community certificate was still the only proof of caste of a person. Without that you can’t determine what caste a person belonged to even with medical testing. Saravanan wanted to end and do away with casteism once and for all. It would be in the interests of the weaker castes to do away with it. 

But it isn’t possible to do away with casteism when you make it the basis of education and jobs with reservation. Kerala has announced reservation to people who denounce their castes. Saravanan with his oratorial skills and rational and logic convinced people on the evils of casteism and the need to roll back reservation. Yes reservation was not to be ended suddenly but to be rolled back making the people realise they can’t rely on it forever. It would make them competitive. The objective of mankind shouldn’t be the betterment of all of mankind but the possibility of creation of superman from the masses. 

Meera actively campaigned for Saravanan in this election. Soon the date of the party presidential elections came and Saravanan won that by a considerable margin. Sushant graciously accepted defeat and put himself behind Saravanan fully. Meera, Sushant, Ravikumar and Saravanan campaigned heavily across the nation. Pandey and Bhatt discredited the image of Saravanan as a national hero by claiming that the then defence minister was responsible for the victory in the war and that Bhatt was responsible for the economic turnaround. Despite all this Saravanan’s campaign managed to bridge the gap between Bhatt’s lead and their position. Now it was all over with the campaign ending and elections tomorrow. It was clear from news reports that their efforts were not enough and Bhatt would win comfortably. 

Zohura and Ghazia were playing with a plastic football. Saravanan as usual sat on the sofa with Mayuri and Samyuktha on either side. Kalpana sat on a chair by the side. Saravanan decided that the only option available now would be to approach the media with the evidence against Bhatt. But that would only raise hue and cry but the terrorists would be free to carry out their plans. To Saravanan as important as that was the plight of Zohura and Ghazia. They would have to be smuggled illegally out of the country without the support of intelligence. This would put their lives in great danger. 

“We gave it our best shot. We fought hard and if I have to go down I would go down with you guys by my side than anyone else,” said Samyuktha extending her hands on both sides and gripping Kalpana’s and Mayuri’s arms. 

“We can’t count ourselves out. A miracle can happen,” said Mayuri.

“I don’t believe in fairy tales. If it were so my prince charming would have taken me long ago. In reality he keeps ignoring me even as I sit nearby,” said Samyuktha clearly alluding to Saravanan as she leaned in to him placing her cheeks on his shoulders. 

Kalpana who had the remote flipped the news channel and on the screen was covered live the olympic race for the 400m women’s event. Poorna was seen among the athletes taking her guard. 

Saravanan said, “Please don’t change the channels. I want to see how our girl Poorna fares.”

The race started and the unassuming tribal girl from Jharkand had a slow start and was lagging far behind.

“It is to be a day of failures,” said Samyuktha. 

“What did you expect an olympic gold? Where is your realism now?” asked Mayuri.

Poorna broke free from the pack in the last leg of the race and surged forward beating one and then the next as she surged towards the finish line. She made another spurt and overtaking all others crossed the finish line to claim gold. She fell on the ground gasping for breath.

Saravanan yelled and jumped up from the sofa. He jumped up and down in joy and was joined by Samyuktha and Mayuri. He hugged them and sat back on the sofa. Soon the award ceremony began and the national anthem was played. Kalpana was the first one to rise and the others followed. As the euphoria died they got the surprise of their lives. 

When the media interviewed her, “She said I dedicate this medal to my nation, my family and our ex PM Saravanan who inspired me to give the best for the nation.”

Saravanan was at a loss for words. Kalpana switched to a news channel where the olympic feat of Poorna was shown and was followed by a debate of sporting reforms by Saravanan. That was cut off by a breaking news where an army colonel who had took active part in the mini war recounted how he saw Saravanan live and leading during the mini war. He emphatically denied the role of the then defence minister. 

Samyuktha looked at her mobile and said, “A montage of achievements of Saravanan has been compiled by my sister Pratyusha who is a social media geek. It is now trending with several million views.” She looked at Saravanan and added, “You are the buzz in twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and all of social media.”

A breaking news had Dubey ji recovering from his coma and appreciating Saravanan’s performance as PM and endorsing him.

There was another breaking news and the French Prime Minister responding to an interview question said, “As far as I can tell Saravanan was the architect of the economic turnaround of India.”

“What does all this mean realistically? Can this force a turnaround this late?” asked Kalpana. 

“Of course it will. The voters will be bombarded with positive news of Saravanan as they head to vote tomorrow,” said Mayuri. 

Her views were echoed by the news channels who concluded that the last minute surge was considerable and sufficient to overtake the Jan Shakthi party and Bhatt. Surprised by all the commotion Zohura and Ghazia had stopped playing catch with the ball. 

Zohura clutching the ball in her hands came and sat on Saravanan’s lap and turning towards Saravanan asked, “What happened? Why are you so excited?”

Saravanan ruffled her hair and said, “You and Ghazia will finally be going to live with your moms.”

Zohura smiled widely and then blushing looked at her feet and asked, “Will you re.. remember me?”

“I can never forget you. Moreover I shall be in constant touch with you over the phone. I also promise to come visit you as often as possible,” said Saravanan. 

“Someone once said they were poor at long distance relations,” said Mayuri cheekily from the side. 

“That was for adults and not kids and especially not Zohura,” said Saravanan hugging her close to him. 

PMO, Secretariat, New Delhi, Jan 25

Mayuri was redecorating the new office allotted to her. She was Joint Secretary to the PM now. The election results had been announced a couple of days back and the Cuckoo Party swept the polls and emerged as the single largest party of the nation. The Cuckoo party with its allies had a comfortable two thirds majority in the Parliament and assumed power. The first thing that was done was to send the girls Zohura and Ghazia back to their villages and their moms under the care of Arun. 

Nirmala and Kalpana oversaw the arrests of hundreds of terrorists across the nation. Naqvi and his team were arrested and the bombs confiscated. This was done as one huge operation across the nation. Mayuri dropped in to Samyuktha’s office to see her but it was empty. She then went back to her room and saw the list of the appointees to the PMO and Samyuktha’s name was not on the list. Mayuri and Samyuktha had a complicated relationship but she still considered Samyuktha her ‘Didi’ and friend. 

Saravanan was a national hero and had saved the nation again by winning the elections and thwarting the terrorists. He may be all that and much more but he still had no right to treat a girl shabbily like this. He had used Samyuktha and had cast her away probably for the confusions in his mind regarding her. Yet he should resolve his confusion on his own and not deprive a faithful aide of her rightful position and job. After all the hard work and emotions she put in, what must be the state of her mind now? Saravanan was a typical male after all. She decided to confront him and went to his office. He was seated there discussing with Kalpana. 

Mayuri sat across from him and said, “Why haven’t you appointed Samyuktha to your crew?”

“I have my reasons. You might have guessed that,” said Saravanan. 

“What ever your reasons you have no right to cut her off like that after what she did for you,” said Mayuri.

“Samyuktha is a real good and caring person. She loves her work. Please reconsider,” said Kalpana. 

“No, I have decided she will have no job in this office,” said Saravanan emphatically. 

Samyuktha’s Residence, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, Jan 25

Samyuktha was browsing the channels but her mind was not on it. She was not made a member of Saravanan’s team. May be it was for the better. She could no longer withstand standing near him with all her romantic affections for him. Pratyusha came out of the bathroom in a night gown and sat near Samyuktha. 

Pratyusha asked, “Aren’t you off to work or something now that your guy has become the PM?”

“I am not a part of his team anymore. I’ve not been given a job. May be it is for the better. I can’t be around him anymore. Who was I kidding he is a national hero and PM of the nation. I am a nobody,” said Samyuktha dejectedly. 

  “What a selfish guy. Forget him Didi. You marry someone our parents find for you,” said Pratyusha. 

“No, marriage is not for me anymore. He has spoiled it for me. I am destined to die an old maid,” lamented Samyuktha. 

The calling bell buzzed and Pratyusha went to answer it. Saravanan followed by Mayuri and Kalpana entered the room. 

Samyuktha started saying, “I understand…” but was cut off by Saravanan who lifted her, hugged her and kissed her full on the lips. 

He said, “Will you marry this mad man?”

Samyuktha nodded and hugged him back and everyone around erupted in to cheers. 

Velan in Yavvan (First 13 Chapters)

CHAPTER 1

“Servant, here too you are just a servant, same as before, never forget that boy,” said Velan’s father to twelve year old Velan as they walked on the forest road. 

Velan shivered now and then, half from cold and half from fright. He wasn’t afraid of the forest or the dangerous creatures it may hold. He was afraid of the new place, the ashram, wondering if the new masters will be cruel.

“Vayanad being a border village is populated by all kinds of lowlife drifted from Kingi. Black magic is practiced by some of the scum. Don’t do anything foolish boy. Stay away from focus,” said Velan’s father. 

Velan was surprised as to why his father was telling all these things. Normally he never spoke to Velan.  

“Not that it matters, for the world we know, our kingdom Malla is coming to an end. The person ending it has already been born and will finish his task in a couple of years,” continued his father. The sky was overcast and it was dark even though the sun was up. For as long as he could remember Velan had been a servant in the household of lord Pamba. He rarely saw his father. He had been told that his mother had died giving birth to him. 

Up ahead, Velan saw two bullock carts parked on the side of the road and an old man and a woman standing nearby. 

“Hi,” they greeted as Velan and his father approached them. 

“Are you the boy’s father? Are you taking him to Rishaba Shringa’s ashram?” the old man asked. 

“Yes, this is my son, he is to join as a servant there,” Velan’s father replied.

“We are going to drop our master’s children off at the ashram,” said the old man.

“Help, help, someone please get this freak off me,” a voice hollered loudly from within the woods. 

All of them rushed towards the source of the sound. A thin pale faced boy of the same height and build as Velan but fairer was lying pinned on the ground. Sitting on top of him was a broad shouldered and strong girl with a huge boulder in her hand, poised to drop over the boy’s head. 

On seeing everyone come, the girl nonchalantly threw the boulder away, got off from the boy and said to him, “See, I told you, girls can fight too.”  

 “Whatever freak,” the boy muttered under his breath and got up and dusted his clothes. “One minute I was telling girls don’t know how to fight and the next minute I was lying on the ground with that freak over me. It isn’t like I can’t tackle her or anything but I was just caught unawares,” the boy said to everyone around.

“What is a freak?” the girl asked the boy.

“Err… hmm… It means a nice girl,” stuttered the boy. 

“I am a freak, I am a freak,” the girl hummed as she caught the two plaits of her hair in each hand and began to dance a little.

“It is enough Gowri,” said the woman giving the girl a stern look. 

“And you master Mithun, do mind your words. I apologise for the behaviour of my charge,” said the old man.

Velan was astonished. He had never seen servants ordering around lord Pamba’s children like this. The servants there were treated more like slaves.

“Shall we leave the children to themselves and go see if the bullocks are ready,” said the old man and the adults including Velan’s father left. Velan was confused as to if he should stay behind with the soon to be students of Yavvan. He ran behind his father to the forest road again. 

Just then a gold coloured chariot drawn by two spotless white horses approached. A tall, beautiful and fair girl about his age with a taut expressionless face was seated in it. “Stop,” the girl said and the chariot came to a grinding halt beside them. 

The girl got down and pushing away a strand of her shoulder length hair from her face said “Hi, I am Apsara,” then looking at Velan, “you must be a student who is about to enrol.”

“No Madam. I am just a servant about to join the Ashram. Two new students though are just behind the woods. If you like I can take you to them,” said Velan.  

  Apsara curtly nodded her head and Velan led her into the woods. Mithun and Gowri were not to be seen in the earlier place. Velan went deeper into the woods with Apsara closely following him. That part of the forest had rotten. There was only deadwood and fallen branches and leaves mostly. He found them near a muddy pond. Mithun was wetting his feet in the muddy water while Gowri was sitting on a rock a few feet behind. 

“Hi, I am Apsara, also a new student, I come from the capital city Anantpur” said Apsara looking at both of them with an earnest smile. 

“Hi, I am Gowri from the river tribe north of Malla.”

  “She is a tribal, that’s why she is a tad dumb. Damn Rishaba Shringa, teaching girls, tribals and what not. I must have gone to Kaala Nathan’s ashram. The prince studies there and they don’t allow girls too. I am stuck here instead,” said Mithun.

“What is up with him?” asked Apsara.

“Oh, don’t mind him, he is just upset that he lost fighting with me,” said Gowri with a thin smile on her lips. 

Mithun jumped up and said, “Lost, you must be joking. One moment we were talking and the next moment you pounced upon me,” then looking at Apsara he added, “She even had a boulder over my head. Can you believe it? She is mad. She is out of her mind. She must be locked up.”

“You lost fair and square. Yet if you want we can wrestle again. You know what bothers you too much? It isn’t losing but the fact that you lost to a girl,” said Gowri and stood up and edged towards Mithun. 

  “You stop right there. Look at Apsara, a proper girl who is here to learn knitting, cooking etc. Take a leaf from her book,” said Mithun. 

“What? Are you out of your mind? I am here to learn how to fight and also learn ancient magic, like the rest of you,” said Apsara bristling with anger. 

“Poor dearie, you don’t know, do you? He is right. We tribal folks from the river have women soldiers. So we are allowed to train in the arts of war. The daughters of lords from Malla aren’t allowed. They are trained in domestic activities by the Guru’s wife,” said Gowri. 

“No, that won’t do. I came here to learn to fight and I will do it,” said Apsara clutching her fist.

  “Save it for the Guru,” said Mithun. Then looking in the direction of Velan who was standing several paces behind Apsara, he said, “Boy, why are you all silent. Can you speak at all? You are not a mute, are you?”

Velan was happy as long as they were talking to each other. He was always happy when he was left alone. He was even happy when he was doing his chores. But when he was in the presence of the upper class and especially when they were talking to him he felt uneasy and nervous. 

“Can I do something for you sir?” Velan asked hesitantly.

“Yes, you can drop the ‘sir’. Just relax man, chill, we are all kids here. You can save the servitude thing for the adults,” said Mithun. 

“In an ashram, not just the guru but even the students need to be obeyed and tended to, I was told,” said Velan. 

“Yeah man that’s true. It is kind of a tough life for you. But as far as me and the freak here, we aren’t that kind of students I guess,” Mithun said and then looking at Apsara added “I am not sure about miss haughty face there though.”

“No need to fear on my account. I am a friendly person really,” said Apsara.

“How many friends have you got then?” asked Mithun.

“No one till now but now I can count on you three as my friends. Can’t I?” asked Apsara.

“Friends aren’t made like that. You must like them, play with them, fight with them before you can be friends,” said Mithun.

“You can be my friend Apsara. I can’t believe that you have no other friends. You must be really lonely,” said Gowri. 

“Ouch! What the hell is this,” yelled Mithun lifting his pant leg and shaking his leg here and there in a sort of a one legged dance.

Gowri laughed and said “Easy hero. Those are just leeches. They’ll suck off your blood, fatten themselves and then drop off.” 

Mithun still jumping around said, “Easy for you to say.”

“If you heat them they’ll just drop off. Anyone here have any matches?” asked Gowri. 

Apsara took a match box from the hip pocket in her dress and threw it to Gowri. Gowri lighted a match and burned away the leeches in Mithun’s leg one by one. 

“Here all done,” said Gowri letting a deep breath. 

Velan sensed the smell before he saw it. “We must get out of here,” he said to one and all.

“Whoa! What the hell is that,” yelled Mithun. They were surrounded by fire. Tall flames were leaping into the sky. The matches must have lighted the dry leaves around them. They might be the cause of a forest fire if the flames weren’t put down Velan realised. He looked for an exit but fire had encircled them.

“Help, help,” yelled Mithun. 

“We are so deep into the forest that no one from the road can hear us,” said Apsara.

“Someone walk through the fire and bring back help,” shouted Mithun.

“I’ll go,” said Velan and began to walk towards the fire. He felt a hand grasping his hand and pulling him inside away from the fire. He saw Apsara standing beside him holding his hand. 

“No, it is too risky,” she said.

“Ippidy dippidy do will turn out the fire for true,” chanted Gowri fervently.

“Have you lost it, what in the name of the seven kingdoms are you doing?” asked Mithun.

“It is a chant to quell fire that my friends taught me,” said Gowri.

“Has it worked before?” asked Mithun.

“How would I know, I’ve never been in a fire before,” said Gowri shrugging her shoulders.

“The world today shall lose a valiant warrior, all because of a stupid fire and a stupid girl,” said Mithun. 

“Look there is a rabbit. Let us at least save it,” said Gowri.

“That is very considerate of you given the fact that a lot more animals than just a rabbit are going to die because of the fire that you started stupidly,” said Mithun. 

“If not for your fear of leaches none of this would have happened,” said Gowri.  

Velan felt bad for these kids. They seemed kind enough towards him. Suddenly the sky exploded with lightning and thunder. A ferocious rain came down upon them. They were all drenched but the fire was put out. Everyone rushed outside to the forest road. Velan was offered a ride in the bullock cart with Mithun.  

Velan’s father pulled aside Velan and crouching beside him so that they were eye to eye said, “Listen carefully boy, I might lose my head if this gets out. This is the last time we will be seeing each other. I am not your real father. You were given to me to be raised by a high officer of the court when you were just a baby. It was on his orders that I made you a servant in lord Pamba’s household and now here. I am sorry that I didn’t act like a father to you. I wanted you to know the truth.” 

Nothing in the world had prepared Velan for this. All the euphoria and joy he felt a little earlier were wiped away. He really had no one in the world. He was an orphan. He was all alone. May be it would have been better if he had perished in the fire, for his whole life seemed to be a misery.

CHAPTER 2

Even from a distance Yavvan was the most spectacular sight Velan had ever seen in his life. It was situated in a huge clearing in the forest. There was a clear stream flowing around and further up was a clump of dense trees to both sides of a lengthy open ground that led to the spectacular central mansion. The mansion was flanked by an assortment of other buildings. There were too many people beyond counting assembled in small groups in the great open ground. There was a big banyan tree outside of the mansion. The most amazing thing was it had no surrounding wall around all of this. 

Velan climbed out of the cart after the other kids and followed at a respectable distance behind them. 

“What is this place? I was expecting a hut and a dozen students. What is a Guru without a hut? Maybe they’ve got a hut hidden somewhere in all of this,” Gowri said with disappointment.

“Wow! Toss aside what I heard, Guru Rishaba Shringa does have a cool, comfy and spectacular haunt,” chimed Mithun.   

“Yuck, what is the smell? What a small and spartan place, how do people live here?” asked Apsara.   

The Guru was sitting under the banyan tree on a raised platform. He seemed young for a guru but he did have a long and dark beard that extended up to his chest. 

“Well, well, if it isn’t the dreaded quartet who almost caused a forest fire on their very first day. I have a mind to send you all away and save a great deal of trouble. I might send away the servant at least,” said the Guru.

“He had nothing to do with it. He was only a silent witness,” said Apsara in a challenging tone. 

“Are you then willing to take responsibility for him if he does anything bad?” asked the Guru.

“We all will,” interjected Gowri before anyone else could speak.

Mithun pinched Gowri’s arm discretely and whispered, “Speak only for you, freak.”

“You two,” said the Guru pointing Gowri and Mithun, “Go join with your fellow classmates.”

“Can I ask you something? How did you know about the fire and stuff?’’ asked Apsara.

“I have the forest road and the perimeters of the ashram marked by the stream under a protective spell. I can sense things like the fire, happening within its boundaries. The spell also prevents intruders and dangerous creatures from entering,” said the Guru. 

Velan saw a young, beautiful woman with kindly disposition emerge from the mansion. She came and stood beside the Guru. 

“This is my wife Avantika and she will teach you Apsara, things like cooking and other etiquettes as befitting a girl of your stature.”

  “But Guruji, I want to learn martial arts and to fight like the others,” said Apsara.

“What good will that do for you. I shall have no complaints,” said the Guru and then looking at Velan said, “You too will be told of your daily chores by Avantika. That is all.”

A dark and slim boy approached the Guru and said “Guruji, I am Rudra from the village, please accept me as your student.” 

“I sensed you as soon as you entered the forest road. I can’t train every aspirant here. My advice to you would be to quit this foolish desire and learn a trade as befits your stature in society,” said the Guru. 

“I will learn to fight, if not from you, then someone else,” said the boy and left.

They were in the library and Avantika smiled from across the table at Velan. She said, “Each day first thing in the morning you’ve to milk the cows and feed the horses and cows. Keep the stable and cowshed clean at all times. You must scrub the floors of the entire mansion, two times a day. There are other servants to wash clothes, help in cooking etc, you’ve got to help them in whatever way they ask you, understood,” said Avantika.

“Yes madam,” replied Velan. 

“You can start now,” said Avantika. 

  Velan went to the cowshed and was happy to be alone at last. He whistled as he worked stacking hay for the cows, filling water and then cleaning the place. He then worked the stable too. It was almost noon and Velan felt hungry. He didn’t have breakfast and all the work had induced hunger. He walked back to the mansion and found Avantika and Apsara chatting and laughing while having lunch in an inner room with other students. 

A stout middle aged lady came and said, “You, new boy, come to the back. That is where we servants eat. I am Jabala and I am the head of the servants here.”

Velan followed her to the back. The aroma was tempting. He had one of the most delicious meals he ever had. He had rice, rabbit curry and roasted mutton. 

“Madam Avantika is an excellent cook. Now you have rest boy but come evening scrub the mansion floors real clean,” said Jabala. 

Velan was astounded by the fact that the servants and the masters had the same food. Avantika had prepared the food. She was nothing at all like his previous masters. 

Velan was lying in the hay mattress he had prepared himself. Yavvan is a far better place to work he thought. Life was simple and easy here. The work seemed easy and he had a lot of time to rest. 

He was interrupted in his thoughts when Apsara came and said, “The classes are over. Come let us find Gowri and Mithun.”

Poor girl, Velan thought. She had to be confined inside the mansion for most of the day. Now she seeks Velan’s company, a lowly servant boy’s company. Velan got up and followed Apsara. They found Mithun and Gowri under a neem tree near the stream. 

“Boy, do I regret partnering with her. She clobbered my shield and then me. It is just practice for god’s sake,” said Mithun. 

“You are stuck with me now. May be I will harden you up,” said Gowri. 

“You are nothing compared to what I am. I cut you some slack today, that’s all,” said Mithun angry and red faced. 

“You used swords?” asked Apsara with excitement. 

“Just stupid wooden swords and shields,” said Mithun. 

“Still, it is cool. Avantika has promised to teach me sword fighting if I behave,” said Apsara. 

“Great, for I’ve heard that she is far better skilled than all the other masters put together. Only the Guru is better than her,” said Gowri. 

The students were taught by masters who were really the senior students of the Guru who have stayed behind to learn even more. Hours ran by as the kids talked. Velan mostly nodded silently.   

“Sorry, I’ve to get back to the mansion. Catch you later,” said Velan and returned to the mansion. 

Yavvan looked even more beautiful under the starry skies. He had scrubbed the entire mansion squeaky clean. Velan was meticulous in all he did and took great pride in his work. He had his dinner alone at the back of the mansion. He explored part of the woods within the perimeters of the ashram. He was tired and wanted to shut his eyes. He sought Jabala in the servant’s quarters.

“There is no space in the servant quarters for now boy. You go and sleep with the students. There is ample space there,” said Jabala. 

When Velan entered the boy’s quarters there was a lot of noise, laughter and even a few pillow fights going on. At the far corner of the room Velan saw Mithun regaling a bunch of guys with jokes. A boy as tall and well built as Velan blocked the way. He was flanked by a few other boys.

“Hi, I am Briju, the General’s son. What is a servant like you doing here?” he asked.

“I was told I could sleep here,” replied Velan.

“I don’t care what you were told. Get out now,” shouted Briju.

On seeing the commotion Mithun came across and said, “Hey, leave the boy alone.”

“I don’t want a lowly servant sleeping here,” said Briju and in one swift motion slapped Velan hard.

Mithun lunged at Briju but was caught by Velan and he had to use all his strength to drag back Mithun. The students who were talking to Mithun earlier caught hold of Mithun and dragged him to a corner and held him back.

“Sorry sir, my mistake,” Velan said to Briju and was about to leave when Briju kicked him hard on the legs. Velan fell down. Briju and his friends started kicking Velan wildly. After some time they grew tired of it. That allowed Velan to rise and drag himself away from there. 

As Velan was crossing the mansion he came across Avantika and he asked her, “Can I sleep in the cowshed  madam?”

Avantika looked at him curiously and said “Yes.” 

At the cowshed Velan took off his shirt and lay down on the hay. Velan wasn’t angry. He knew this Briju was only trying to show himself brave before his friends. He hoped one day he would rise in stature above this Briju and that alone would put Briju and the likes of him in place. He reserved his true anger for lord Pamba and the likes of him. He tossed and turned until sleep finally came to him.

He felt someone, a hand shaking him. He opened his eyes to see Apsara handing him his shirt. Mithun and Gowri were standing beside her.

“We came to console you about today but now realize you’ve seen worse,” said Apsara. “The scars on your back, a neat set of lines that go all the way down, must be canings.” After bowing her head silently, she looked up and asked “Who?”

“Many, lord Pamba mostly,” said Velan. 

“I had no friends until I met you three. I didn’t have enemies either but now I have. Your enemies, all three of you, are now my enemies too,” said Apsara. 

Velan was by now used to Apsara’s grand words and style yet Velan believed that she meant every word she said. 

“How come you three came here?” asked Velan.

“Oh boy, I was all riled up about what Briju did and came outside. I found Gowri and Apsara taking a stroll because they couldn’t sleep, it being first day and all. I told them what happened,” said Mithun. 

Velan grew fond of these kids. He might not have to be alone all the time after all. Yet a silent part of him warned that this trust was a glass shell that might also break like the way it had broken with his father. After some time they all left.

Velan went back to his sleep and his nightmares.

CHAPTER 3

The days and then months passed in a blur for Velan. He didn’t mind doing the work. He was happy when he was with his friends. Meeting them was something he looked forward to each day. 

 Velan was dusting the furniture in the hall of the mansion when Apsara came out of Avantika’s study. 

“I am on a break, come, let us go and watch the classes. It would be fun,” she said. 

There were many groups for the various classes on the ground. Apsara led the way to the place where Mithun and Gowri were learning to fight with wooden swords and shields. 

Master Vikram was shouting “Higher, hold your sword higher, when you go for the upper cut. See how Briju is holding the sword. That was fast Briju, you just gave your opponent a death blow.”

Velan could indeed see that Briju was really good. Mithun waved at Velan and got a hurting blow on the ribs from Gowri. 

“Ouch! Give me a break will you,” yelled Mithun. 

Gowri overpowered Mithun by sheer force. She was also very quick and nimble. She was a very good swordsperson thought Velan. 

“Sir, the two servants there are disturbing us,” said Briju to the instructor Vikram and he gave a sly smile to the two of them.  

“Kids, go away, you are distracting the students,” said Vikram to Velan and Apsara.  

Apsara led Velan away. 

“That Briju dares call me a servant,” puffed Apsara, then looking at Velan quickly added, “not that there is anything wrong in being a servant.”

“That is the price of mixing with servants like me,” said Velan. 

“Leave being called a servant, I wouldn’t mind being a servant if that is the price to pay for our friendship,” said Apsara.

“The world will force us apart, if not now then when we are grown up,” said Velan.

“That is true but I will not allow it if I can,” said Apsara. 

Thus talking she led him to where the students were playing catch with a ball while riding ponies. Master Madhan welcomed them from atop a tall brown horse. 

“Hi, Apsara and Velan, it is good to stretch your legs in the ground after being confined for long, isn’t it?” said Madhan.

“Master Madhan, how do you know our names?” asked Apsara. 

“Who doesn’t know the notorious four who caused a forest fire on their very first day? The whole ashram knows. Some of the other miscreants are jealous of your head start. Keep up the good work and I’ll have it ensured that only the finest ponies are assigned to you guys,” said Madhan. 

Apsara s wasn’t too pleased by the notorious fame. They then went to the archery range.

Master Vipul greeted them while scratching his chest “Hi, Velan and Apsara. Forgive me, I am running a fever for almost four days now, so don’t come too near. It is only today that I’ve come down to take class.” 

 Vipul was teaching the students to nock their bows swiftly. He emphasised speed was as important as accuracy in some close range situations. 

After seeing this for a while they walked back to the mansion.   

Velan and Apsara were seated on chairs in Avantika’s study. Avantika looked oddly at Velan. For a long time she did not speak but kept studying Velan. Velan got red in the face and looked away. He looked at Apsara, the tea pot and everywhere else but Avantika’s face. 

“You have a great opportunity here Velan being close to Apsara. She considers you a very good friend and that can be useful, for I know something about Apsara that you don’t. May be it was meant to be this way, for I also know something about you, that you don’t,” said Avantika. 

This piqued Velan’s interest and he looked up at her. Does she know what he did at Pamba’s place? Does she know his dark secret? May be she knew about who his parents were. What secret could someone like Apsara have? 

“Wha—”   he started but was cut off in midway by Avantika.

“Please don’t ask what it is, let it come, all in its own time. Now you are lovely little children, so just enjoy life. I love the way the four of you guys have bonded. I adore you guys,” she said. 

Usually after his own chores are over Velan would have enquired if the others needed help or would have went to the cowshed. Today Apsara had dragged him in to Avantika’s study saying she was bored by being alone with Avantika all the time. To her credit Avantika showed no surprise at the presence of Velan. Avantika talked of black magic to Apsara.

“Did you know that black magic is allowed in Kingi. The chief priest of Kingi Vakrasura has usurped the throne. He has killed the former king and queen. He is the vilest and most powerful black magician in the world. He is making preparation for war. I want you Apsara to know more about the history of Kingi and the situation there today. Know your enemy well,” said Avantika.

“Ok, but can’t we do something more fun for now?” asked Apsara.

“Well, the three of us can play a game of dice but I want you to read this book later,” Avantika said.   

 Avantika sent them away when she realised that the classes outside have ended. 

On Mithun’s suggestion the four of them decided to go to the village. The village was a vast, colourful and vibrant place. There was the rich part with towering mansions and the poor part with ad hoc shanties. There were also several dangerous places that they were warned against visiting. The villagers were tough but simple creatures. It had its share of strangers and travellers as it was a border village. 

They entered the Vrindha inn in the rich part of the village. They saw that Briju and his friends were seated with a few strangers. One was tall and aristocratic and a bit older than them. A table on the side was occupied fully by the king’s soldiers. 

“Here comes the beggar gang. Go away. Can’t you see we are dining with the prince,” shouted Briju. 

Apsara was irritated by this and she tugged at a waiter and rolled her fingers dropping gold coins into the waiter’s hands. A separate table at the centre was placed and they were accorded royal treatment. Apsara gave the server and anyone that cared to come that way, gold coins. The prince was forgotten and every server flocked their table. 

An irritated Briju shouted “That girl needs a lesson in manners, acting shamefully, not respecting the prince of the realm.”

Somehow this upset the prince and he left in a huff with his friends and retinue of soldiers. 

An one eyed man with a sheathed sword at his hips and wearing silken robes asked them “What is all this commotion. Why did the prince leave in such a hurry?” 

“How would we know? May be he didn’t like the company he was in,” said Mithun eyeing Briju.

This didn’t escape the attention of Briju. He was seething with anger. 

Sharing the table with the one eyed man was the boy Rudra whom the Guru had refused to teach. On an adjacent table several masters from the ashram were seated. Even though it was situated in the rich part of the village Vrindha inn attracted all sorts of people due to its tasty food.   

“Well, well, I had a nice appetite, but the leeches here have ruined it,” Briju said and approached their table.

“Look, a miracle, Vermins are now talking about leeches,” said Mithun. 

Briju came up from behind and kicked the chair Mithun was sitting in and Mithun fell on the floor. 

Velan didn’t know what came over him but he had lifted Briju by the throat and had him thrust against the table.

He said “If you hit me it is okay but if you even lift a finger against my friends you’ll have hell to pay for.”

Velan released his grip on a gasping Briju when he realized that the whole inn was looking at him. 

A fat youth with a freckled face who was eating snacks got up and said, “You so tough boy, why not show it to someone like me.”

The fat guy lunged at Velan. Velan sidestepped and the fat guy hit another man instead. Soon a full-fledged fight broke out. 

“Let us escape in this confusion,” Mithun said. 

The girls on the other hand, patiently broke up the fight and Apsara paid the inn keep for the damages. They also apologised profusely to everyone. Soon the other customers came and appreciated them for handling the situation responsibly. 

They returned to the Ashram. Jabala came and said that they must report to the mansion immediately. When they entered they saw the Guru standing with Avantika. Briju was standing near them with a serene face as if he were the symbol of obedience.

“You can leave,” said the Guru to Briju and he left with a wicked grin on his face. 

“First a forest fire and now an inn fight. I knew you were trouble from the moment I saw you. I’ve never struck or caned anyone in my life but I must confess that you tempt me sorely,” said the Guru. 

Avantika placed a hand on the Guru’s shoulder and said “Please be kind, they are just children.”

“They are not children, they are monsters. Since you are such a gang I will punish one of you and let it serve as a lesson to all. Velan shall have only gruel for a week. No tasty food for him. Let us see if that diminishes his interest for mischief,” said the Guru. 

“But that is unfair. All of us were involved. If punished, all of us should be punished,” squealed Apsara. 

The Guru just waved his hand and went inside. 

Avantika said “I don’t know what to say.”

Velan smiled and said “In my previous employ I was starved a lot and had to clutch my stomach as I tried to sleep with an empty stomach. I respect the Guru too much and believe he has dealt with me kindly so far.”

“You poor little creature, you’ve been through a lot before you came here. It is all the more reason you must be taken good care of,” said Avantika. 

Velan and his friends got leave and departed. 

“We will also eat only gruel for a week,” said Apsara.

“Gruel is actually very tasty. I look forward to the week ahead,” said Gowri and everyone laughed at this. 

“Why are you laughing?” asked Gowri innocently.

“Nothing, you just reminded us how good it is to have you around,” replied Mithun.  

 

CHAPTER 4

Apsara was trying to learn bird talk from Avantika who could talk with birds. Velan was scrubbing the floors. The classes outside got over and the students entered for their evening snacks. Avantika fetched the snacks and came in. Just then Briju and his friends entered.

“Clean properly servant boy,” Briju said and kicked the bucket with the dirty water. It splashed all over Velan.

Apsara flew over in anger and jumped on Briju twisting his arm and pinning him face down on the floor. By then Mithun, Gowri and the Guru had also entered. 

“Enough,” shouted the Guru and Apsara slowly left hold of Briju.

“I was here and I saw Briju start it,” said Avantika in Apsara’s defence.

“If you so much want to fight, then you better learn it properly. Start attending the classes from tomorrow,” the Guru said.

“No, I will attend classes only if Velan is also allowed,” said Apsara and folded her hands stubbornly. 

“Are you sure? Learning to fight was all you ever wanted,” said the Guru.

Apsara remained unmoved.

“Okay, but he will still be a servant, do all his chores and also do the bidding of other students and treat them respectfully. He shall also be a servant forever and use his skills only in the service of his future master,” said the Guru.

Apsara jumped up and down in joy and was joined by Mithun and Gowri. Velan was happy but without showing it went back to scrubbing. 

They were mostly taught by the masters under the observation of the Guru. Occasionally the Guru would have them assemble in front of the Banyan tree and talk on subjects ranging from philosophy to politics. Most of the time they were wrestling, sword fighting with wooden swords and shields, throwing spears or shooting arrows in the archery range. Velan wasn’t as quick a learner as Apsara but with hard effort made progress. He had a knack for swordplay though. Even with time Velan couldn’t believe he belonged with the students. He got mixed reactions from them. At least he felt at peace with his three friends and he thanked god for that. 

One day master Vikram praised Velan for his deftness and intelligence in swordplay. 

An envious Briju said to Velan, “You are a servant, you don’t belong here. Leave,” and looking around to see no one was seeing, he spat on Velan’s face. He hoped to enrage Velan in to fighting and thus land him in trouble with the guru. Gowri who had seen it jumped on Briju hard and punched him hard in the face and stomach. 

“Enough, if you are so intended on fighting each other then do it properly. We shall have a competition between the two groups. Let us call them the lordlings and the servant gang,” said the Guru who approached them from the neighbouring group of students. 

We shall have it tomorrow the Guru said. The whole ashram was abuzz with the news. There were bets going on as to who would win. A majority of them betted that the lordlings would win as they had been in training for long. Velan and Apsara had only recently started to train. But there was no dearth of people who wanted the under dogs to win. 

When they came across Avantika she said, “Don’t place too much emphasis on tomorrow’s events as it is only a game. The real competition is the life ahead of you. That is where you need all the strength. For tomorrow just go and have fun.”

The next day everyone in the ashram including the servants had come to see the spectacle. The servants liked the name servant gang and rooted for them to win. On the other hand most of the masters wanted the lordlings to win for they were themselves lordlings. The students were equally divided in their support. 

The Guru said, “There will be five events. Wrestling, sword fighting, archery, spear fighting and a test maze.”

  Gowri was the obvious choice for wrestling from their end. But it wouldn’t have mattered as a brute of a boy entered the ring from the opposite end. They hadn’t seen this boy previously near Briju, so they must have specifically recruited this boy the day before for this. Gowri fought brilliantly. She used his strength against himself. She parried his attacks and even managed to lift him and throw him hard on the floor. But in the end the boy had her pinned on the ground with her arms twisted. He was declared winner. 

Briju and Velan sparred with their wooden swords and shields. Briju was on the offence from the beginning trying to inflict kill blows. Velan was cautious and caught all of Briju’s blows on the shield. His defence was solid and he worked at Briju’s arms and ribs with non lethal but hard blows. Briju got tired while Velan was just warming up. But the time got over and the contest was declared a tie. 

At archery both Apsara and her opponent managed to hit the target board but were nowhere near the bull’s eye. After some time their contest was declared a tie. 

With two ties and a loss only if Mithun won they had a chance.

“I am a champ man,  but y’all know that and know I’m going to win,” Mithun said and entered the ring.

“That we know hero,” said Gowri. 

The contest got over even before it started. Mithun kept the opponent at bay using his spear and jumped to and fro from left to right, never still. He then feigned a blow to the left with his spear but actually came full force to the right dealing a killer blow that knocked down the opponent. The whole ground erupted in applause. 

Now they were tied with the maze being the decider as to who would win. The others were tired and entreated Velan to take up the maze challenge. Velan was the most tired but he didn’t complain. 

All of them went to the part of the ground where there were two mazes built by the Guru.

The Guru said, “This is a test of the mind and soul. Inside the maze you’ll encounter pale imprints of people which are the spirits of people being tortured for their sins. You have the power to release them but use it carefully. You can save only seven of the souls. Be sure that you don’t free unworthy people while banishing the more worthy. You’ll enter the adjacent mazes.”

Briju came from their side. Both Velan and Briju entered the mazes. After what seemed a couple of minutes Velan came out. In another fifteen minutes Briju too came out. 

The Guru said, “Briju has saved two souls while Velan saved all seven souls. Yes, there were only seven souls in both mazes. But often those inside keep judging the worthiness of the people to be freed. Those kind enough don’t judge. I declare Velan and the servant gang to be winners. But in real life you have to choose the worthy over the unworthy.”

All the people in the ground erupted in revelry irrespective of who they were supporting before. Spectacles like this were not a common occurrence in the Gurukul. A crowd of students swarmed around the four of them. They soon managed to escape all this and get to the cowshed where there’ll be no students, masters or servants. 

“Who’s the man? I am. Woohoo, Did you see how I danced with the spear?” asked Mithun. 

“Yes, for the hundredth time, yes we won because of you,” said Apsara smiling and winked at Gowri. 

“I saw that. You wouldn’t be winking if I had lost, would you? I am glad that the days of drinking gruel are over. Today, it is time to feast,” said Mithun.

“I am kind of sad that there would be no more gruel. It was nice. Hey, why don’t we do something, that we are again made to eat gruel,” said Gowri.

 “You are some weird girl. I’ve been thinking lately of going deep into the forest to the waterfalls and have fun bathing to our heart’s content,” said Mithun. 

“We are not allowed to step beyond the stream, beyond the perimeters of the ashram. In fact only a few of the masters have ever been there. It is very dangerous,” said Apsara.

“I am going to have lunch and then finish my chores. You guys do whatever it is, but without me,” said Velan.

“Hey don’t chicken out man, I’ll be there to protect you,” said Mithun.

“Yeah, like you did at the fire and the inn fight, that was very brave of you,” said Gowri.

“Okay, we are doing this to celebrate our victory. Let us all meet here in the evening,” said Mithun. 

Velan was scrubbing the floor when his three friends barged in.

“Come on let us scoot. We’ve got to be somewhere,” said Mithun.

  “No, I’ve got to finish this,” said Velan. 

“Okay, let us help and it will be over in a jiffy,” said Gowri. 

“No, if the Guru or Avantika sees, it will be my neck on the block,” said Velan. 

They didn’t heed him and came with buckets of water and wash clothes and each took a room and began scrubbing the floors. 

Avantika came and on seeing them laughed aloud and pointing to Apsara she said “I know a juicy tidbit about this girl. She is a spoilt little girl and seeing her like this makes me weep and laugh at the same time.”

Velan became skeptical about this activity as Briju and his gang came in. 

“Oh! Wow! Look at this, the servant brigade and who is leading the charge, miss high and mighty herself,” said Briju pointing at Apsara. 

    Apsara ignored him, as did everyone else and the work was over soon. 

The four of them were standing on the edge of the stream on the northern border of the ashram. Ahead lay the dangerous forest and crossing the stream would mean they are stepping out of the protection of the Guru’s spell. 

“Let us do this,” Gowri said and holding their hands together all of them waded through the water to the other bank. 

They began walking in to the woods. Apsara was marking a few trees with chalk as they went deep in to the forest. 

 “Did you see it? There in the bushes did you see it?” asked Gowri jumping up and down. I saw a cardboard like figure of a man jumping from that bush to this bush.”  

All of them went and peered into the bush very carefully. There was nothing there. 

“You must have imagined it Gowri,” said Apsara. 

“Whatever it is that is hiding in the bush, please show yourself, for I am going to stomp on it and tear it into little pieces,” said Gowri. 

“Please don’t,” said a voice and a cardboard man, red in colour, the size of their knees showed up. “I am Zunga who belongs to the Lota lotis tribe and we can shrink to the size of ants invisible to human eyes and grow up to this size. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must return to our city. Maybe some other time we can chat. Or perhaps you can help me with something,” said Zunga. 

CHAPTER 5

“We’ve got to come a great distance from our village for water. Can you build a canal to our village?” asked Zunga.

“Yes,” said Velan. 

The others knew nothing about this and followed Velan’s lead. They banked the canal which was a small pathway really with shores of wet clay. The Lota lotis village wasn’t that far and their work was completed shortly. The Lota lotis village was camouflaged and in a hollow of a huge tree several feet wide.. It was full of bright colours like red, orange and yellow. They were celebrating the canal, drinking some herbal juice. 

“Boy, am I thirsty,” said Gowri and lifted a glass of the juice and Apsara too followed suit.

“No don’t –“ said Zunga but the girls had drank the juice. “Don’t you feel nauseated or anything.”

“No, why do you ask?” asked Apsara.

“This is our staple drink but can be fatal to humans,” said Zunga.

“Oh god, are you okay? There is a reason not to take food uninvited,” said Mithun touching Apsara’s shoulders. 

Apsara pushed his hand away. 

“Ouch!,” Mithun had fallen some twenty feet behind Apsara. 

“If your body does accept it, then the juice would give you the strength of a dozen elephants. But it wanes away soon and you must sip it regularly for you to have that strength. I will fill two hip flasks full of the juice. You can come for a refill anytime you want. Boys can’t handle it and it is fatal for them. But I must warn you not to show this to anyone as there are all types of people. It might land you and us in trouble,” said Zunga. 

Gowri went and shook a nearby small tree and she totally uprooted the tree with its roots. She threw it away and it landed more than a hundred feet away.

“My god this is awesome. Want to play with me Mithun,” said Gowri calling him with her fingers. 

“In the mood you are in, I don’t think so, I won’t come within a hundred yards of you. Girls collect your flasks and let us go. We must hurry if we are to reach the falls before dark,” said Mithun. 

They kept walking deeper and deeper into the forest. They heard it before they saw it, the sweet gush of the waterfall. Then they saw the massive lake and the awesome waterfall. 

All of them jumped into the lake. They began swimming towards the falls. They bathed at the falls while hollering loudly. They screamed at the top of their lungs. Even Velan joined the fun.

“What is that?” asked Gowri pointing to the other bank of the lake. 

“Maybe another Lota loti,” said Mithun. 

All of them began to swim to the other bank towards the object that seemed to be writhing.  There was a tiger cub and two arrows had pierced its stomach. Nearby lay dead a few other adult tigers. 

“This is the act of a poacher. Someone dangerous, for killing a tiger is punishable by death. The wound is fresh and the poacher will soon come here to collect the cub. Let us get out of here and also get the tiger cub to safety, maybe Avantika can heal the tiger cub,” said Apsara. 

They took the tiger cub, swam to their side of the bank. They ran towards the ashram. But as they tried to cross the boundary stream of the ashram, they were pushed away by an invisible force. 

“It is the Guru’s protective spell. The tiger is considered dangerous. You guys wait here. I will go and fetch Avantika,” said Gowri and ran towards the ashram. 

Velan felt like he was being steam rolled with all that was happening. All he ever wanted was peace. At a distance they could see Avantika and Gowri hurrying. Gowri was carrying a pouch which must contain the medicinal herbs. Avantika came and examined the cub. She went to work, removing the arrows and bandaging the tiger with medicinal herbs. 

“Don’t worry, the tiger cub will survive. But it will take a few months before it can regain full health. The arrows have been black magicked to pierce deep. It is not the work of any ordinary dabbler of black magic. This is an expert of black magic. 

“As you all know black magic is allowed in our neighbouring kingdom Kingi. It has always attracted a dubious sort of crowd there and now with Vakrasura as king it must be a riot there. Being the border village some of the dabbling in black magic has trickled to Vayanad as well. But here is an expert of black magic, probably coming from Kingi. This makes him very dangerous. He must have a deeper purpose to come here. We will have to wait and see.

“On another note, are you out of your minds to break the rule by going out of the perimeter? Then you try to bring a tiger cub in, when you are under the scanner. Don’t you know that the Guru could sense your comings and goings on the perimeter?” said Avantika biting her lips.”

Gowri removed her pendant chain and tied it firmly around the tiger cub. She patted its head and others also petted it before finally leaving to the ashram. 

“We will come and feed it until it is well enough to be by itself,” said Mithun.

“We will call her Libi. She can be our pet tiger,” said Gowri.

“Tigers are no one’s pets,” said Avantika, “I think there is testing time ahead of us.”

 The next day, Velan finished all his chores and reported to class. Everyone knew who they were, now. They had become famous overnight at the ashram. Master Madhan was waiting on his brown horse. 

“Welcome, to our competition winners. I have brought the best ponies for you as promised,” he said. 

A servant led several ponies to the ground. All of them were properly saddled. Master Madhan pointed the four ponies that he had selected for them. They were all white. Apsara and Gowri mounted their ponies with ease. Velan and Mithun had trouble getting up and to be seated on their ponies. The ease with which Gowri rode her pony amazed everyone including master Madhan. Briju went in his pony near her and scratched her pony with thorn. The pony reared up but Gowri handled it well and soon had the pony calmed up. 

Velan had promised that if Briju ruffled any of his friends there would be hell to pay for. So he rode his pony towards Briju. Briju seeing this went full speed on his pony. Velan went after him in a hurry. They cut through the other classes on the ground. All the masters told them to stop. Finally Velan caught up with Briju and jumped on him pushing him down. He would have clobbered him, if not for Gowri and Apsara jumping from their ponies and grabbing him and pulling him away. 

They were brought to the Guru. Velan got away because Master Madhan had seen what Briju did with the thorn and told it to the Guru. 

“This is the most shameful batch of students to arrive at the ashram. If I hear any more complaint I would be severe,” the Guru said and waved them away. 

When they were back to the class all the talk wasn’t about Velan or Briju. Everyone was speaking with wonder of how after giving Velan and Briju a head start, Apsara and Gowri rode fast and hard and caught up with Velan. 

“Why did you stop him? Briju deserved a thrashing,” said Mithun. “If Velan had laid his hands on Briju, he would have got it from the Guru,” said Apsara. That night they were back in the cowshed. Mithun stretched himself on a bale of hay. Though they hate to admit it, all of them liked to lie on the hay. 

“Saving the tiger cub was cool, but it worries me, the poacher being a black magician from Kingi. Some dreadful black magician named Vakrasura has become king of Kingi, I am told. If this is somehow related to him …” teetered off Apsara.

“I too heard of his becoming king. It is just a formality, for some time now he is the one ruling Kingi. But he wouldn’t set his eyes on something as trivial as an ashram. Maybe they are testing the strength of the borders, who knows. But by god he is the most powerful black magician in the world,” said Mithun.

“Say if he attacks Malla, do we have the strength to ward him off?” asked Apsara.

“Don’t worry, our king is not only noble but also wise and strong. Moreover ancient magic is far more powerful than black magic. Vakrasura won’t attack unless he has an ace in his sleeve,” said Mithun. 

“May be it is in pursuit of that edge he has sent this black magician who shot the tiger cub,” said Apsara. 

“Call her Libi. She isn’t any other tiger cub. She is our pet,” squealed Gowri in anger. 

“Whoa, cool it,” said Mithun.

“Why are there only black magicians. Why aren’t there white, red or blue magicians?” asked Gowri.

“Black stands for darkness and bad things and that’s why we call them black magicians,” said Mithun.

“I don’t care, I want to be a blue magician. But what does it matter, the world is going to end soon,” said Gowri. 

 “What are you saying?” asked Apsara. 

“It is true someone has predicted that the world, our kingdom will perish soon. Many have started moving to other places. This talk has been around for a decade,” said Mithun. 

“It is very late and is time to sleep. Even if the world ends, I want to be well rested when that happens,” said Velan.

“I don’t feel sleepy, let us go for a walk in the woods,” said Gowri.

The others agreed and dragged Velan along. Gowri was leading the way. Suddenly Gowri screamed in a high pitched voice and they ran to where she was standing. There was a cow’s head and a circle of bones around it. Briju who had come to the place on hearing the scream, quickly bolted towards the ashram. Soon Briju came back accompanied by the Guru and Avantika. 

“What is it that I hear, that you’ve been sitting in a circle and chanting something,” said the Guru and on seeing the cow’s head his face became grim. He tugged at his beard and said “If it is one thing that I despise most, it is black magic. Ancient magic is the only magic allowed in this kingdom. Black magic is a serious offence. Your presence here is suspicious. If you don’t prove your innocence soon, I will have to expel you. I shall be watching you and any one unwarranted step will get you all expelled.”

“Please let me take care of this and them,” said Avantika.

“So be it,” said the Guru and left.

“All of you come and meet me tomorrow after your classes. You can leave now and let me examine this,” said Avantika and leaned over the cow’s head peering at it carefully.

CHAPTER 6

All four of them had assembled in the library after classes waiting for Avantika who was busy in the kitchen. 

“We have not yet broken any major rules but going beyond the perimeter of the ashram was a grave rule to break at this time,” said Gowri. 

“We have bigger problems. The Guru suspects us  of black magic and wrong doing and will expel us if he–” Apsara was saying when she was cutoff in mid sentence by the arrival of Avantika. 

“Hi guys. I’ve watched you all from afar for so long and I know things that even you don’t know yourself, like the crush Velan has on me,” said Avantika as she sat across from them on a chair. 

Velan got beet red on hearing Avantika’s comment. 

“Nice interrogation technique, to start by intimidating us like this, while sounding so sweet and loving,” said Apsara. 

“What interrogation? What intimidation?” Avantika laughed sweetly and continued saying, “And Apsara you who’ve known me should think that, it pains me. I do not believe that you guys had anything to do with the cow’s head or any other black magic. I believe Briju was lying. I called you here because I believed you guys will help me prove your innocence beyond doubt. Show some trust please.”

“I trust you,” said Velan in an innocent manner and all the others began to laugh. 

“See, I was right about the crush,” said Avantika and added “but seriously, it has been confirmed that one of our cows is missing. So what can you infer from what you saw yesterday?” asked Avantika. 

“It seemed odd that there was no blood on the floor not even congealed blood. So the cow must have been slaughtered elsewhere and the head brought to the place,” said Apsara. “Excellent, what else?” asked Avantika. 

“The rest of the cow, the carcass, what happened to it?” asked Gowri.

“Excellent question, it hasn’t been found lying anywhere. It must have been disposed somehow, buried or perhaps thrown in the river or something else,” said Avantika. 

“The bones around it were cow bones. It might have been taken from that cow itself,” said Velan.

“But who did it and why?” asked Mithun. 

“Those are the most pertinent questions. It was an attempt of black magic by someone inside the ashram,” said Avantika. 

“But why wasn’t the evidence hidden after the act? Why leave it in the open?” asked Mithun.

“That might be because the person might have been interrupted. I believe the person was actually involved in doing the black magic ritual when your sudden arrival near the spot prompted the person to escape,” said Avantika.  

 “Briju was there. I bet he was the one doing all the black magic stuff,” said Mithun. 

“While I agree that anyone near the spot at the time is a suspect, holding Briju to be the culprit is prejudiced, Mithun. The cut is clean, not made by a sickle but made with the fighting sword. Only a powerful adult and expert swordsman could have made the cut. That makes one of the masters the most likely suspect. I’ve compiled a list of masters who’ve been near the place and will enquire them. I will sort out those without alibis or with shaky alibis,” said Avantika. 

“Why would a master want to dabble in black magic all of a sudden?” asked Mithun.

  “The most disturbing thing is the purpose of the magic as sensed by the Guru is to try and penetrate the protective spell around the ashram. Why would someone who is inside want to do that? My guess is that the culprit is acting under the orders of someone outside. What does this outsider want? Anyway, keep your eyes and ears open and report anything you find,” said Avantika.

“By outsider, do you mean the black magician who shot the tiger cub?” asked Mithun.

“Yes,” replied Avantika. 

“What if the culprit had led the cow to the outsider and the black magician had slaughtered the cow. Then servants and even women could be suspects,” said Velan.

“Valid point but mostly the belief is that to appease the demons of black magic, the performer of the rituals must have killed the life by their own hands,” said Avantika.

Velan had not shared something with them. He had seen someone like Jabala in the shadows, the night of the incident. He did it not so much as to protect Jabala but because he wasn’t entirely sure it was her. 

That day all through training Briju kept smirking at them and made snide remarks about them being sorcerers doing black magic. Apsara had to be restrained from attacking Briju on more than one occasion. The other kids and a few of the masters kept a wary distance from them. Mithun sulked all day long. It was only Gowri who somehow through all this felt upbeat. She made the pony gallop fast and encouraged the other three to keep up with her. Before evening she had everyone in their spirits. 

Near finishing time, the Guru called and all the students and masters assembled before the banyan tree. 

“We have reason to believe that a powerful black magician lurks in the woods beyond the perimeters of the ashram. So don’t venture beyond the stream even if you had done before or were in the habit of doing it often. If you do so your life will be in peril. I scouted the woods without result. The king’s guards have been alerted. You can go to the village but be wary of strangers and avoid talking to them. That is all,” the Guru said. 

 “Where shall we go first?” asked Gowri as the four of them entered the village. “We’ll go to the butcher first. The crowd will be thin now. Later it will be overcrowded and all the good meat will be gone,” said Apsara. 

“How much will Libi eat. Do you have an idea?” asked Gowri.

“We’ll buy plenty today and by tonight we’ll have an idea how much she’ll eat,” said Apsara. 

“We’ve got to collect a figurine that Avantika has ordered from the statue shop,” said Mithun. 

After almost an hour the four of them were outside the statue shop having the meat sack in their hands. The man inside the shop was a lanky man with peering eyes. 

 The figurine was of the goddess of knowledge. The man carefully wrapped it in straw and then with a cloth. 

“Be careful, it is fragile, handle it carefully,” said the shopkeeper.

A man came barging in to the store. He had a long dagger in his hands. The frightened shopkeeper ran out of the shop. The man looked menacingly at the kids and stepped towards Mithun. 

“Don’t be afraid, I will not hurt you guys. I  just need a boy hostage to threaten the guards chasing me,” said the man and neared Mithun. 

Mithun backed away in to a shelf and he hit the shelf behind him hard. A big bronze statue fell on the man and he dropped to the floor.

They dragged him outside the shop. The villagers outside began to clap their hands. Soon a stocky man with pencil thin moustache came followed by the guards. 

“I didn’t want to kill the chief minister’s assistant. I was trying to obtain information for Vakrasura and the man didn’t know anything. If I had went to Vakrasura empty handed, you know what would have happened captain Prakash. Can’t you give me some slack,” pleaded the man. 

“Take him away,” said the captain and turning to the kids, “It was brave of you to have taken on such a hardened criminal all by yourselves. Which Gurukul do you belong to?” 

“We are from Rishaba Shringa’s ashram but how did you know we study in a Gurukul?” asked Apsara. 

“Age, your clothes, demeanour and the fact that you were brave enough to take on the man,” said captain Prakash. 

“Yes, it was brave me who fought with the man and made him incapacitated thus,” said Mithun. 

“Yes, it was all work of the champ here and we had nothing to do with it,” mildly interjected Velan. 

“Why were you chasing the man? What did he do?” asked Gowri to Captain Prakash. 

“He is a lowlife. But he has recently murdered the chief minister’s assistant. It is a robbery gone wrong, we believe. He claims that he was recruited by Vakrasura as if that vile creature of Kingi would deal with the likes of this lowlife. Convey my regards to your Guru and Avantika,” said the captain and left.

The shopkeeper came and thanked them. Soon the other villagers surrounded them to offer their congratulations. All of them except Apsara shook the hands offered and soon they left from there. 

 As  they were walking Gowri asked Apsara, “Why didn’t you shake their hands?”

Apsara replied, “Their hands were dirty.”

“You don’t mind getting your hands dirty when you get in to a fight.”

“That is different.”

Mithun said, “My hands are dirty. Would miss high and mighty shake my hands,” and offered his hand.

“No way you filthy mongrel and no more talking about this,” said Apsara.

They headed straight to the northern woods outside the perimeters of the ashram. The tiger cub Libi seemed to recognise them. They fed it and petted and patted it. Gowri cuddled with the creature. Apsara soon followed. 

“Look who is getting all dirty,” said Gowri. 

After playing with Libi they headed back to the ashram. When they reached the ashram, the guru was waiting near the banyan tree with a sword in his hand. There seemed to be some congealed blood on the sword. 

“This is the weapon used to behead the cow. It was found in the cowshed near the place where Velan sleeps. It was found by Jabala. All of you are expelled and Velan shall be sent to prison,” said the Guru. 

“I know what it looks like but please give them some more time to prove their innocence,” pleaded Avantika.

“They get two more weeks to prove their innocence. If they do not, expulsion of all and imprisonment of Velan shall follow,” said the Guru angrily and went inside.  

 

CHAPTER 7

Velan wondered what prison might be like. It must be no worse than his time with lord Pamba. He couldn’t bring himself to hate the Guru for his unreasonableness. The Guru had given him an opportunity to learn with the others. He felt grateful. 

He had finished all his chores early today. He waited for his friends to come to the cowshed and he didn’t have to wait for long. 

Apsara came and sat beside him and asked, “If it weren’t for us you would have been a lot better off, don’t you think so?”

“No, I’ve felt alive and happy only after I met you guys. People respect me nowadays, other students and some at the village, all because of you guys. A servant’s life is hard to consider but for me with Pamba it was the worst. Please don’t worry. No one is going to prison, we’ll find the person behind this,” Velan said.

“And how do you propose to find the person. We are just kids and this isn’t any game. Given we are smart but we are way out of our depths here,” said Mithun.

  “I saw someone like Jabala in the woods when we found the cow’s head. I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure. Now that she claims to have found the sword here, I think we should pay her a visit,” Velan said. 

They found Jabala washing clothes by the stream. 

“Why did you lie to the Guru about finding the sword in the cowshed?” asked Velan. 

“I didn’t lie boy, I found the sword in the cowshed like I said,” Jabala replied.  

“I saw you in the woods the day the cow’s head was found,” Velan said.

Jabala stared at him for a long time and said “I was taking a stroll when someone with a cloth around his face and a human skull in his hand ran past me. I stayed there in fear  a long time after he was gone. I didn’t say this to anyone out of fear. I came to the cowshed looking for you but found the sword instead.”

They returned to the cowshed. 

“I don’t believe a word she is saying,” said Mithun.

“No, she is telling the truth. There is no reason for her to invent such a lie,” said Velan. 

“A skull could be hidden anywhere. This is a dead end. We have no hope of catching the culprit,” said Apsara

“I wish I had a human skull. I could decorate the skull and have it as a table piece. Human skulls definitely look more beautiful than human faces,” said Gowri. 

“And while you are at it, why don’t you feed it lemon juice and rice cakes and see if you could make the skull talk. May be make the poor thing your friend, like us fools here,” said Mithun. 

“That’s it. A human skull cannot be bought in ordinary shops. He must have got it from the graveyard,” said Velan. 

“But a guard is there day and night,” said Mithun. 

“Yes, but I bet they would sell you the skulls if a right price is offered. We must visit the day guard soon,” said Velan. Then looking at Apsara asked, “Did you ask for any missing sword?”  

“Seven swords have gone missing. It seems when he decided to plant the sword to implicate Velan, he has stolen other swords to hide his tracks. A dead end,” Apsara said. 

“No, our man will not have disposed his hard gotten skull or swords. He will have kept it nearby. When the time comes that is all the evidence we’ll need to nab him,” said Velan. 

The day guard at the graveyard was a thin scrawny man with dirty clothes. Apsara had to shell out a few gold coins before he conceded to talk. 

“It isn’t that uncommon for me to sell skulls as you think. Black magic is widespread than people think. My buyers don’t tell where they come from. People order all forms and shapes of skulls. If only you gave me something more to go on, sorry I couldn’t be of much help,” the guard said. 

They all started to leave when Velan turned and asked, “Has anyone recently been here buying skull but not knowing what he was doing, like he was buying a skull for the first time,” Velan asked.

“Now that you ask, there was this young man who kept fidgeting and looking over his shoulder all the time. He had his shirt buttons undone on account of a freshly gotten skull tattoo on his left chest,” said the guard.

They thanked him and left. 

As they were walking Apsara said, “We can’t go asking everyone to remove their shirts. But other people might have noticed something, and it won’t harm to ask.” 

“No he would be careful. He must know that a skull tattoo is a giveaway for black magic,” Velan said.

“What if we tell the Guru and examine everyone?” asked Apsara. 

“The Guru won’t allow that and the culprit might use a skin patch or some other such thing to deftly hide the tattoo,” said Velan. 

“Are we heading for the tattoo shops then?” asked Mithun. 

“No, we must head back to the ashram. I have chores to do. Some important person is coming this evening and Avantika will be expecting me to keep the mansion spick and clean,” said Velan. 

“Your call man, but not many days are left. So keep that in mind too beside Avantika,” said Mithun.

Apsara and Gowri giggled at this. 

“You can laugh all you want but it is his head on the block, he is the one who’ll go to prison,” said Mithun.

“And that is so unfair,” said Apsara clenching her fist. 

“It is okay,” Velan said.

Ordinarily Velan could have handled prison, he had seen worse, he kept telling to himself. But now he had got accustomed to his new carefree life. 

“You know what, it is you guys I’ll miss mostly in prison,” Velan said.

Gowri and Apsara hugged him from the sides.

“I think there is time enough for a round up of the tattoo parlours. There is a time limit hanging on our shoulders. The faster we get this over with, the easier it would be for us,” said Velan.

Rang was the most famous tattoo parlour in the village, they decided to start their investigations from there. The owner Sarah was putting finishing touches on the scorpion tattoo she was giving on the arm of a person. They waited outside the shop for her to finish.

 When she was done Apsara asked “Have you recently given a young man a skull tattoo on the chest?”

“Scorpion, skull and rose tattoos are very common and most men after their arms prefer to be tattooed on their chests. So I don’t recall any particular person. Sorry for not being much of a help,” replied Sarah.

There were about half a dozen tattoo parlours in the village. They visited all of them including those in the seedier parts of the village. Everywhere they got the same reply, skull tattoos were too common that they don’t recall any specific person.   

“I am thirsty. If rich girl here is willing to shell out a few coins, I wouldn’t mind a jug of pomegranate juice,” said Gowri.

“Not today, may be some other time. It is already too late. We’ve got to return to the ashram,” said Velan. 

Avantika stared at them from across the desk. From the day that Avantika said Velan had a crush on her, he became even more nervous in her presence and couldn’t bring himself to talk with her. He even had difficulty seeing her face. 

“So how is the investigation of my most favourite kids in the world going?” she asked. 

“The culprit inside, has a tattoo on his left chest, probably hiding it with a skin patch. He is also in possession of a skull and seven swords,” said Apsara. 

“That is good you’ve got to clear yourselves from this cow’s head black magic accusation but keep in mind that it is the outsider, the really powerful black magician, we have to catch. He is up to something. Anyway Velan, start cleaning now and finish before the guest arrives,” Avantika said. 

Velan had finished cleaning the entire mansion thoroughly. He was in the back drinking water and chatting with the other servants when he saw the guest, a tall gaunt man, come through the front entrance escorted by the Guru and Avantika. 

After a while he heard the Guru’s loud voice, “… but chief minister are you sure? You say the prince has been kidnapped .” 

Velan left in search of his friends mulling over what he heard. He found them under the neem tree near the stream. 

“I overheard the Guru talking to the guest. The prince has been kidnapped. This is what the outsider, the vile black magician must have been planning all along. The black magic with the cow’s head was to test the strength of the protective spell. Guru Kaala Nathan also has such a protective spell around his ashram,” said Velan.

“But he failed. He couldn’t break the protective spell here and I don’t think he has managed to break the spell of Kaala Nathan either. Moreover Kaala Nathan’s ashram is surrounded by tall surrounding walls and there is almost a garrison of soldiers there. Even at the village the prince is heavily protected. How in the world could this have happened?” asked Mithun.  

“We must find and rescue the prince. We can. We are good at this investigation thing,” said Apsara in a tight lipped manner. 

“No we can’t. We have to solve our problems first or Velan goes to prison, remember,” said Mithun. 

“Yes. The king’s guards will find the prince. We are kids. I don’t think anyone would take us seriously,” said Gowri. 

Apsara broke down into tears, “But he is my brother. I have to save him.”  

“You are the princess and you’ve been keeping it away from us for so long. That isn’t cool girl,” said Mithun. 

So this was Apsara’s secret that Avantika obviously knew, Velan thought. Velan patting Apsara on the back said, “Don’t worry we’ll find your brother. The cases are related anyway.”  

 

CHAPTER 8 

The Guru talked on the evils of black magic and its prevalence in Kingi. He stated that ancient magic was far more superior and mixing it with black magic was not advisable. He then stood before the platform and nocked  his bow and chanted some mantras. He then took aim and fired his arrow at the skies. After a flash of lightning a thunderous downpour of rain came down forcefully. He launched another arrow and the rain stopped. 

“This is the power of ancient magic,” he said. He then asked the students to train but asked Velan and his friends to remain. 

“First a forest fire, then an inn fight and now black magic. It doesn’t matter what you did. Just tell me who contacted you to perform black magic and where he is. The issue is far more serious and grave now. A life is at stake,” said the Guru. 

“We know. The prince has been kidnapped. He is my brother, how can you mistrust us?” asked Apsara.

“I am not accusing all of you. Perhaps one of you has misled the others. If only I can find the truth with my inner sight. That is not to be,” said the Guru looking at Velan. 

“Why do you hate and mistrust Velan so much? Is it because he is a servant?” asked Apsara.

“I have far more graver reasons to not trust him but it is none of your concern,” said the Guru and waved them away with his hand. 

Avantika was watering the plants in the garden when Apsara barged in followed by the other three.

“How can you water the plants at a time like this, my brother, the prince of the kingdom, has been kidnapped.” shouted Apsara.

“So you  know. It is a testing time for all of us. What do you want from me?” asked Avantika.

“We want to help in the investigation,” said Apsara.

“That can be done. Captain Prakash is in charge of the investigation. A fresh set of eyes and thoughts would help. In fact it has been two days since the kidnapping but captain Prakash is still flummoxed by how the kidnapper gained entry in to the ashram. If you guys could shed some light, you’ll earn his respect,” said Avantika. 

“We are just kids, there is no way we’ll be taken seriously,” said Mithun scratching his ear. 

“Kids who’ve already subdued and helped nab a hardened criminal. In any case I’ll write you a letter of commendation to whoever you give it to. It will not help you with the ordinary folks but I assure you that eminent people like Captain Prakash, Kaala Nathan and a few others will take you seriously,” said Avantika.  

She led them to her study and began writing the letter. 

“Do you have any idea who might have done this? My brother hasn’t been prepared for hardships, they’ll rescue him soon, won’t they?” asked Apsara sitting on the edge of her chair and clasping and unclasping her fingers.

“Your brother is tougher than you give him credit for. Furthermore your brother is only held as a bargaining chip. So rest assured that no harm will come to him,” said Avantika.

“If it is money they want why not just give it to them and get it over with,” said Apsara. 

Avantika stared at Apsara a long time and then said, “It isn’t money. No one kidnaps a prince for money. I believe it is the black magician who had shot the tiger cub who is the person behind this. Don’t worry about the ransom for now, consultations are going on that. The Guru is going to the capital regarding this. You just make yourself helpful to Captain Prakash and let us hope that the prince is rescued soon.”

Avantika finished her letter and gave it to Apsara. 

“Take the ponies and ride to Guru Kaala Nathan’s ashram. You’ll find Captain Prakash there. He’ll lead you from then. No need to attend classes until this mess is over. Remember this isn’t a game anymore. If you don’t want to be treated like children anymore then you must stop acting like it. Good luck,” said Avantika. 

They collected the ponies and rode towards Kaala Nathan’s ashram. Kaala Nathan’s ashram is on one edge of the village unlike Yavvan which is inside the forest. One side of Kaala Nathan’s ashram is the forest though. They soon came within sight of the tall walls of the Ashram. Starting from the guard room till the entrance were guards at regular intervals. They were stopped at the gate by a guard. Apsara handed the letter.

A few minutes later the guard appeared and said, “You can leave the ponies here, they’ll be taken to the stables. Captain Prakash has asked you guys to be accompanied to the scene of the crime, the prince’s chambers.”

They followed the guard to the prince’s chamber. Captain Prakash was waiting outside.

“Let us go right in,” he said and opened the door. 

Kaala Nathan’s ashram and the rooms there were huge and shone of opulence but they lacked the quaint beauty and simplicity of Yavvan. The prince’s room was piled with things here and there but what caught the attention was the message ‘Give me Ender’ in red on the green wall.

“We browsed through each item here thoroughly but there isn’t one suspicious thing. We also brought in the prince’s friends to look at the place. They say it is exactly the way it used to be here. For a scene of crime it unusually lacks any sign of struggle. We asked the guards and they say they saw nothing unusual that day. Kaala Nathan is sure his protective spell wasn’t breached,” said Prakash. 

“Then why do you suppose this is the scene of crime? Just because of the message?” asked Apsara.

“Obviously someone came here and wrote this message.”

“But what if it were an accomplice, someone from the inside?”

 “What makes you say that?”

“The message is on the bottom portion of the wall. Any adult would have written the message larger and right in the centre. A kid has done this as instructed by the Kidnapper.”

“Excellent,” said Prakash eyeing Apsara for a while and then patting on her back. 

“Is it human blood on the wall?” asked Mithun.

“The message has been written with goat blood,” said Gowri.

“Yes,” concurred Prakash. 

“It must have taken a few gallons of blood to write this. Obviously the kidnapper doesn’t carry goats along with him. Any person buying that much blood without meat would be uncommon. In fact I believe the butcher would have emptied his stock,” said Gowri.

“I’ll send a man to the Butcher’s immediately,” said Prakash. 

“No need, we’ll visit him when we leave. At least we can make ourselves useful that way,” said Apsara. 

Guru Kaala Nathan entered the room. He seemed much younger than Guru Rishaba Shringa. He was tall and had no facial hairs. He had tonsured head so there was no hair there too. 

“The kids just confirmed that your protective spell wasn’t breached. The scene of crime must have been elsewhere outside the ashram,” said Prakash. 

Gowri went close to the wall and peered carefully at the message for a long time and said “Flowers will be flowers and fruits will be fruits.”

Velan could see the expression of the captain and the guru. He was amused, welcome to Gowri talk. 

“What is it Gowri?” asked Mithun.

“The letters are slanted from right to left. The message has been written by a left hander,” said Gowri. 

“There are only two left handers in the inner circle of the prince. We can interrogate them both and find the truth,” said Prakash. 

“No need. Just get me their hand written notes and I will tell you who the accomplice is,” said Gowri.  

Soon guards rushed to get what was required. 

“Sorry, Kaala Nathan ji, that we didn’t greet you properly,” said Apsara.

“It is okay, such brilliance and yet I hear Guru Rishaba Shringa complaining about you guys. You’ll get all the assistance you need. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’ve got to leave for the capital,” said Kaala Nathan and went away. 

“This Ender, is it a jewel or some precious gem or something with magical properties?” asked Mithun. 

“Oh, I forgot you guys would have been babies when this Ender thing hit the streets and swept like a fire through the common folk. There is an Ender’s maze, you must have at least heard of it,” said Prakash.

“Yeah, we’ve heard of a maze in the forest that no one has completed. Anyone attempting it has either died or suffered grave injuries. So if it is a stupid maze the kidnapper wants then give it to him,” said Mithun. 

“Ender is not just a maze it is a person and only the person Ender can complete—“ Prakash was saying when Gowri cut him off.

She struck her forehead and said “Ender is the prophecy about the end of Malla.”

“Actually the prophecy is about the person who’ll bring the end of Malla. Ender is a person. We have committed resources to find about this Ender person. No success so far,” said Prakash.  

“Ender I won’t let you end the world nor let my brother wither for you. By god I’ll have you swapped for my brother,” said Apsara. 

A guard came and gave two sets of notes to Prakash. Gowri got them and browsed through them. 

After reading them for a long time she said “They learn some cool things here.”

On reading the stares her friends gave her she said, “Okay, okay.”

Now she peered through the two notes carefully. Then tossing aside one note she said, “This Hiresh is the person we want.”

“Will you allow us to interrogate him first?” asked Apsara.

“Sure,” said Prakash. 

Velan felt proud of the intelligence of his friends. Yet he had a bad feeling about this Ender prophecy thing. It needs further probing he thought. 

CHAPTER 9

Kaala Nathan’s ashram had indoor classrooms too. In one class room Hiresh was confined by the guards. 

“I would prefer if you stayed outside while we question him. For we believe he will be more forthcoming if he sees only us kids,” said Apsara to Prakash.

Prakash obliged and the four went inside. Velan went to a corner chair and looked outside the window while listening carefully. Mithun took the hint and sat at a distance. Apsara pulled a chair and sat right before Hiresh. He was a short, thin kid. Gowri sat beside Apsara. 

“We know you are innocent and that you’ve been tricked in to writing the message. If you had known what was going to happen before hand you wouldn’t have done it. We promise you if you cooperate you can continue your studies like nothing ever happened,” said Apsara. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Better stop this nonsense right now,” said Hiresh. 

“If you want to play it that way it is cool. The Captain and his guards won’t take a lenient view of this. Unless we intervene forget studies it would be prison for you,” said Apsara.

“Look I don’t know—“ 

“You have a really good handwriting. Neat but at the same time very unique though. I wish I could write like that,” said Gowri.  

“Listen, you can’t do this to me just under the assumption of it being my handwriting,” said Hiresh.

“Look we aren’t here to find proof of your guilt. The captain is already convinced and is going to arrest you. We want information, anything you have, it will help rescue the prince who was your friend. We are giving a chance to amend your wrongs,” said Apsara.

“I don’t believe that on the sayings of kids like you, the Captain will leave me alone,” said Hiresh.

Apsara waved to the captain outside and he waved back.

Then leaning towards Hiresh she said, “I’ll tell you a secret, I am the princess and I can influence –“ 

“So it is true what he said,” said Hiresh

“Who said what?” asked Apsara.

“Okay, I’ll tell you everything. Not because I believe you can help me. No one can help me out of this mess. I want to set things right and if it may be, help my friend come back,” said Hiresh. 

“Good,” she said and waved over Mithun and Velan. 

They came and sat near Apsara and Gowri.

“Would you mind if the Captain was present?” asked Apsara.

“No,” said Hiresh. 

She beckoned the captain and he too came and sat beside them. 

“I met a kid in the village. He was about the age of you kids. He was also from your ashram. He bought me food and dessert often. He told me the princess was studying with him and was a close friend. I didn’t believe it at first but when I asked the prince, he didn’t refuse. One day he came up with a bucket full of what he claimed was red paint. He said the princess wanted to play a practical joke on him. He said she was in the western guard room near the forest waiting for the prince. He asked me to write the message on the prince’s wall saying he won’t mind it. I did as told and the prince left for the guard room. When I found what happened I got afraid and didn’t say a word to anyone,” said Hiresh. 

“You should have come up with this first but now you are going to prison,” said Prakash.

“We kind of promised Hiresh that we’ll keep him out of prison, can you make it happen?” asked Apsara twirling a ringlet of her hair that had fallen over her face.

  “For now, yes, but if the prince isn’t rescued soon we’ll have to take him in,” said Prakash.

Hiresh sighed with relief. He thanked Apsara and the others profusely. He said he must leave now before the other students get suspicious as to why he was detained for so long. 

At that moment Guru Kaala Nathan entered the room and said to Captain Prakash, “As I was leaving for the capital, I realised I had left my snuff box with you. I can be without anything but not my snuff box,” and then he turned to leave. The snuff box was made of gold.

Gowri asked Captain Prakash, “If you can pardon Hiresh then you can definitely pardon Velan too. You can definitely keep him out of prison.”

“It is not in my hands and moreover your Guru has some serious misgivings about Velan’s innocence and is bent on sending him to prison. But I can say this if the prince is rescued then there is a big chance of him being excused.”

“I don’t mind prison except for the fact that I would be separated from my friends. I don’t believe prison would be any worse than what I went through at Lord Pamba’s place. Moreover after learning that the Prince is Apsara’s brother I would do anything to rescue him,” said Velan.

Kaala Nathan who had gone half way across the hall turned on hearing this. He took a pinch of powder from his snuff box and inhaled it deeply and asked Velan, “You mean what you say kid?”

Velan nodded his head.

Kaala Nathan asked Prakash to leave the room and said, “My weakness is wealth and luxury but Rishaba Shringa has a greater weakness which is his patriotism towards Malla. Your fate is worse than prison if the prince isn’t rescued. So my advice to you would be to leave this godforsaken kingdom kid. Don’t tell anyone I told you thus,” and left.   

An eerie silence fell over the room. “Like Apsara’s secret it seems there is a secret about me too. My father told me that I was given to him by a senior officer of the court.”

Gowri said, “Don’t worry we will coax it out of Avantika. But first let us try to find Apsara’s brother, the prince first.”

“They went to their regular Butcher’s place for he was the biggest in the village and only he would have got such a huge amount of goat’s blood. They went near closing time and waited till he was about to wind up before they approached him. 

“Did anyone recently purchase more than a couple of gallons of goat’s blood?” asked Gowri. 

“Yes, a boy your age bought recently. Had to almost empty my stock to give him. Why do you ask?” asked the butcher. 

Ignoring his query Gowri asked “Did you remember anything peculiar about him?”

“No, he just had a book with him. Teach yourself swordplay or something like that,” said the butcher. 

They thanked the butcher and left for the ashram. They went straight for the cowshed. 

“I can’t believe Hiresh was so dumb as to get mixed in all of this,” said Mithun.

“Hear the wise man speak,” said Gowri. 

“All in all it takes trust and a little bit of persuasion for people to do stupid things in the name of friendship,” said Apsara. 

Velan raised his eyebrows at Apsara for this.

“I am lucky with you guys, your brains may not be up there but all your hearts are in the right place,” said Apsara. 

“What do you mean by brains not being up there miss clever girl. I have more brains than you lot put together,” said Mithun. 

“Careful it is spilling all over the floor,” said Gowri.

“What?” asked Mithun. 

“Your brains,” said Gowri. 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. When I said that I meant my brains also not being up there. Suresh and Keerti from our class are real brainy but I am glad to have you guys than them, as close friends,” said Apsara. 

“Now that you mention it, someone from our class has deceived Hiresh. So now we must find that black sheep. Only then can we find this black magician,” said Mithun. 

“No, I don’t think so. Hiresh has been led to believe that the person was from our ashram. Why would a person in an ashram want a teach yourself swordplay book? I believe it is a kid from the village,” said Velan.

“Could it be the kid Rudra rejected by the Guru?” asked Mithun.

“May be, may be not, we can know only if we have conclusive proof,” said Velan. 

“Shall we go for a walk? It is too early to get to bed,” said Gowri. 

“No, not today,” said Mithun.

To everyone’s surprise Avantika entered the cowshed carrying a big plate of sorts. 

“What are you doing here?” asked Apsara.

“Why? Can’t I come? It is still my property after all. Jabala said you guys have returned. The Guru isn’t here and I was feeling bored so I came here. There is another reason also. So how is the investigation coming along,” said Avantika. 

Gowri briefed Avantika about all the latest developments in the case. 

Avantika lifted the cloth from the plate and delicious jilebis and some milk sweets were there. Everyone took the sweets.

“Why did you bring so much? We can’t eat this much,” said Apsara.

“Speak for yourself. I know the capacities of the boys. Don’t let Velan’s silence fool you. Mithun alone can finish the whole plate,” said Gowri between mouthfuls of jilebi. 

“What is the occasion?” asked Mithun.

“Tomorrow is the birthday of one of you. I decided to celebrate a bit early,” said Avantika. 

“Whose?” asked Velan.

“Your’s,” replied Avantika. 

“No, that can’t be. Even I don’t know when my birthday is,” said Velan.

“But I do,” said Avantika. 

It is true, thought Velan, she knows about my birth and who I am. If so why hasn’t he been told about that? 

“Don’t ask me anything for now. In a little while you’ll yourself know all of it. I can’t say anything because I’ve been sworn to secrecy for your own well being,” said Avantika. 

She is really a nice person. She is in fact nice to everyone, the servants, the students, the villagers. But with him, is she nice because of his friends or about something in his past. A lot of questions swirled around in Velan’s mind. 

Gowri shivered and hugged herself.

“Why are you shivering? Do you have a fever?” so saying Avantika touched Gowri’s forehead.

“No, it is just the wind,” said Gowri. 

“Did you ask the masters discretely as to if any of them has a skull tattoo?” asked Velan to Gowri. They figured since Gowri was liked by the masters it would be best. 

“But wouldn’t that warn the culprit?” asked Avantika.

“We have to take that chance,” said Velan.

Apsara was still touching Gowri’s forehead checking for signs of fever.

“That’s it,” said Velan hitting his forehead. “Around the same time the culprit got a tattoo, master Vipul had a fever and was scratching his chest. Tattoos can cause fever,” said Velan.

“That is a very long shot but still the Guru is not here so you can corner Vipul. Even if it is a dead end nothing is lost,” said Avantika.

CHAPTER 10

Though Velan was distraught with the slow progress in solving the mystery behind the disappearance of the prince he took solace in the company of his friends. He was happy in their company. He thought of his deepest darkest secret in lord Pamba’s mansion. One of lord Pamba’s distant relative, a girl named Madhana had arrived to the mansion and had enticed him to their study. Velan was so bewitched by her beauty that he did not mind any consequences that might arise from courting her favours. She was like a goddess to him. Little did he know that she was the devil incarnate enticing him to the gates of hell. She kissed him and was telling sweet words to him when Lord Pamba’s fat wife came and screamed at the top of her lungs. The whole of lord Pamba’s household woke up and no one was ready to hear his side of the story. The girl feigned innocence and accused Velan of taking undue advantage of her. 

Velan was made to hang upside down and was stripped and given a caning that he would never forget to this day. More than the caning, the indignity of the whole episode hung like a cross around his neck. It made him lose the trust of people and especially girls from then. But he never revealed the girl’s role in the whole misadventure. He kept silent as if it was his cross alone to bear. He hung upside down as the whole of Lord Pamba’s household and other outsiders watched. This treachery was his deepest darkest secret whose signs lay in the form of the marks on his back. His friends and especially Apsara had seen the marks of his torture but didn’t know that it was the symbol of a deep dark betrayal. 

After classes they all met in the cowshed. They all sat on the hay bale and chatted. “Master Vipul is no naive boy like Hiresh, so how to get him talking,” asked Mithun.

“First of all, we don’t know for sure if he is the culprit,” said Gowri. 

“He is one of the strongest suspects and we must proceed as if he is the culprit if we are to find the truth behind this whole black magic mess,” said Mithun.

“I agree, for that we must expose his tattoo or find the skull and swords he must have stashed away like Velan said. There is no other way,” said Apsara twirling her shoulder length curly black hair.

“There are always other ways but I agree this is the best course of action for now. Come let us go feed Libi. It will keep us distracted,” said Velan. 

Velan got some meat from the kitchen and they all ventured silently outside the perimeters of the ashram.

Libi being an orphaned tiger cub knew nothing of hunting and would usually be waiting for them by the stream for them to come with meat. Today it was to be seen nowhere. 

“Libi sweetie, munchkins, baba pyare,” intoned Gowri affectionately as though it were a puppy instead of a tiger cub. Libi was closest to Gowri and being from the river tribes she had a way with all animals. Apsara on the other hand was being trained by Avantika the art of bird talking which Gowri had no clue about. 

After waiting for sometime they decided to search the bushes and thereby they ventured in to a part of the forest where they hadn’t been before. There amidst dense foliage and tall rosewood trees clumped together without allowing daylight to seep through, they found Libi tearing at the last remains of a cow’s carcass. A bare minimal skeleton of the cow was left remaining. 

While the rest of them were watching in astonishment Gowri went and hugged Libi, she had been worried that something might have happened to him. 

“This is the skeleton of the cow whose skull had been used for black magic.  Vipul must have beheaded the cow here and carved out the skull to take it back within the perimeters to perform the black magic,” said Mithun.

Despite it being early evening it was pretty dark in the woods and there was a howling sound emanating from the bushes.

“I think it is dangerous to tarry here any longer, this spot gives me an eerie feeling,” said a tense Apsara and Mithun nodded in nervousness. 

But a quaint Gowri said “I have no idea about black magic but if there is pink magic I would like to learn it. What do you think Libi darling.”

Velan suppressed a smile and said Jabala will be waiting for me to milk the cows for the evening. Avantika is preparing some sweets it seems. Let us head back to the ashram. 

They all returned to the outer perimeter of the ashram followed by Libi. They tried to feed Libi but it had a full tummy and refused to eat any further. They all played with it for a while before heading to the ashram. 

Jabala was waiting for Velan with a frown on her face.

“Where’ve you been boy, don’t you know that the cows need milking,” she said. 

The other three left to play after saying good byes to Velan. Velan went to the cowshed and took the bucket and let his mind wander while milking the cows. The essential clue to finding the insider who helped the black magician was the skull tattoo. The masters took bath in the river outside the stream which formed the perimeter of the Ashram. It was on the west side of the ashram. They have already broken rules and crossed the perimeters of the ashram and ventured in to the forest and the falls. The problem therefore was to observe them without themselves being observed. 

Velan finished milking the cows and shared his plan with the others. The next day before sunrise they went to the west side of the ashram to the river. 

When crossing the stream Gowri asked, “The Guru can sense any crossing of the perimeters by anyone including us. Then why does he choose to selectively scold us instead of scolding us each time?”

“It is an age old technique. If scolded often we will lose fear and do as we please,” said Apsara.

“I don’t know about that but every time I got a caning at Pamba’s it put the fear of god in me.” said Velan. 

Every one fell silent on hearing it. It was the first time he was talking about it openly before his friends. It inadvertently slipped out of his mouth. 

“Sorry I didn’t mean to upset your moods,” said Velan.

“Dum da dididi dum, a caning spoils your morning,” said Gowri. 

“Gowri,” yelled Apsara but both Velan and Mithun erupted in laughter.

“I think we are the only students to have daringly ventured outside the perimeters of the ashram. Briju and his friends are only all talk and a cowardly lot,” said Gowri. 

A thick mist hung over the winter air and they had difficulty seeing in the poor light. They shivered and their teeth clattered as they talked. There was no tree cover near the river and they hid behind a huge boulder and waited for the masters to arrive. 

“How will the masters bathe in the cold water of the river. We students are used to hot water,” said Mithun. 

“They chant some mantras to keep them warm. Have you seen the masters always mumbling under their breath sabu skritham sash yam bush yam etc. I find it very funny,” said Gowri. 

This time around Velan held his tongue and didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to be always the tragic or sorry figure amidst his friends. 

But Apsara looked at him tersely as if reading his mind and said, “At Yavvan even the servants bathe in hot water but I know someone who doesn’t. Velan bathes in the cowshed in ice-cold water.”

“I am used to bathing like that at Pamba’s and I don’t mind….,” Velan was saying when he stopped in mid-sentence and added, “but how do you know, I bathe without any clothes on,” said Velan flummoxed.

“I saw you the other day morning when Avantika asked to fetch some dung for her Kolam (rice powder art). You looked cute without your clothes on,” said Apsara and everyone except Velan erupted in laughter. He reddened in his face but then again joined in the laughter. 

All the masters bathed in their underclothes scratching their armpits or blowing their noses. This elicited a lot of giggles from Apsara and Gowri. But three of them, masters Vipul, Madhan and Gorakh bathed with their vests on. 

“This means it is either of the three is the insider culprit,” said Apsara. 

“How can you doubt master Madhan. He has been so helpful to us and he is a trusted lieutenant of the Guru. It is that scoundrel Vipul and it has been confirmed today,” said Mithun. 

“His being helpful to us and being a trusted lieutenant proves nothing,” said Apsara. 

“Apsara is right and our list of suspects has widened from just one to three. We must watch them closely,” said Velan. 

Gowri didn’t pay any heed to the conversation and was giggling loudly seeing the masters in their unguarded moments of bathing. She stumbled on a stone behind and crashed in to a thorn bush with full force. Her face was scratched roughly by the thorns and she squealed in pain. She then shut her own mouth even in the pain. Apsara opened her mouth to call for help from the masters but Mithun shut her mouth tightly from behind. Blood was leaking out of Gowri’s wounds. 

The sound had attracted the attention of  the masters bathing and Gorakh and Vipul tried to find out what it was but master Madhan stopped them and said, “must be some wounded animal, let me inspect.”

Master Madhan came behind the boulder and shushed them before taking out a potion from his locket and bathed Gowri’s wounds with it. All the blood congealed and the skin healed instantaneously. 

By then the other masters had bathed and were walking towards the ashram and they beckoned Madhan. 

He waved them away saying, “It is a wounded cat and you guys carry on and I will follow shortly,” then turning to them he said, “I know that you guys are trying to find the insider culprit who helped the black magician but let me suggest that it is not a job for kids. Why don’t you leave it to the adults. The Guru will deal with this matter. Trust him”

“The Guru is busy and we have the blessings of Avantika on this. We suspect master Vipul and it is almost confirmed now. Does he have a skull tattoo on his chest?” asked Mithun.

“Shut up. We also suspect you. Why don’t you show your chest to us,” said Apsara. 

Madhan laughed at this and said, “Don’t be childish. If I wore a skin patch or if I had black magicked the tattoo in to disappearing would you kids know the difference.”

Apsara folded her hands and said stubbornly, “I still want you to show your chest.”  

  Madhan paused for a moment and then lifted up his vest to show his chest. 

“See there is no tattoo.”

“Why don’t you have any chest hairs and why do you three bathe with your vests on?” prodded Apsara relentlessly. 

“oh, come on yo….” started Mithun but Madhan cut him off by raising his hand. 

“I have a skin condition and I am taking potion from Avantika ji to rectify it. You can verify it from her. As for the other two I guess they are just shy. Why don’t you grill them also like you grilled me,” he said in an irritated tone and then softening added, “I love you kids too much. Why don’t you kids leave it to the adults and focus on learning. I’ll talk to Avantika.”

“Teachers and masters love the student bloopers. Yuppidi dippidi boo, we still can’t do what you want woo hoo, bless us or curse us, we children outshine men,” said Gowri suddenly. 

“What?” asked Madhan in an astonished voice.

“She says thank you for your concern but we still need to focus on the case for other reasons,” said Velan.

“Will you help us in this?” asked Mithun. 

“Yes, but I don’t like the idea of spying on my own colleagues,” said Madhan and left for the ashram. 

Gowri wanted to bathe in the river and so they all dipped in to it. They went back to the ashram and after breakfast they all gathered in Avantika’s study. 

Mithun said aloud to Velan, “I love bathing in the river to bathing in the falls.”

Apsara kicked Mithun’s foot hard. 

Avantika stamped Mithun’s foot hard.

“So you’ve been crossing the perimeters of the ashram again,” said Avantika with a  mild frown and then a smile.

Apsara said, “It was for the investigation” and updated Avantika on all the recent developments. 

Avantika nodded her head and said “Okay, let us play a game.”  

   

CHAPTER 11 

Avantika went to a shelf and took out a pack of cards. Her room was adorned with pictures of birds and that of  various Saivite gods and goddesses. 

A girl came in and  gave a plate of sweet pongal to Avantika who tasted it and said, “Nice work, child,” and sent her away. 

There were several girls of aristocrats like Apsara under Avantika’s tutelage who learnt soft arts like cooking, kolam (rice powder art), classical dance like Bharatanatyam etc. There were also several girls from the river tribes and other tribes who learnt martial arts from the Guru. Avantika herself was well versed in martial arts and other esoteric stuff like bird talk but she was from a northern kingdom called Athivanam. Apsara was the only aristocrat and that too a princess training in martial arts as for as Velan knew. 

The outside of the cards were designed with the picture of an hour glass. On the inside were several other colourful pictures. She came and sat on the cot with it’s soft mattress along with them and shuffled the cards. 

She said, “The game is simple. These are astrologer’s cards used to predict the future but we will use it to play. I will show a card and you guys can tell the words that come to your mind. Then you have to tell their definition or meaning. You can do it as many times as you want.”  

“Oh, bug it, oops, sorry, when you took the cards I thought we were going to play some sort of a card game with even a bet of a few gold coins perhaps. I am a bit disappointed that’s all,” said Mithun.

Avantika smiled and shuffled the cards and drew out a card with a picture of a noose. 

“Death,” said Mithun.

“Suicide,” said Gowri.

“A rope knot,” said Apsara trying to outshine the others in intelligence. 

Velan just shrugged his shoulders as if he had nothing to add. 

“Okay, good, now say a definition of death as you see it,” said Avantika. 

“Going to god,” said Gowri.

“The end of life. There is no return. I fear it a lot,” said Mithun.

“Pain, emotionally and physically to us and others. It is a permanent separation giving a lot of sad memories and grief,” said Apsara.

“A lasting sleep. Every sleep is a minor death. May be it is a kind of coma or amnesia. Err.. ittty.. bitty…, it is black or red in colour,” said Gowri

Velan again shrugged. But this time Avantika coaxed him to answer.

“To me death is just an announcement after which the person supposedly dead travels with others who have not heard the announcement. In my depression and desperation at Pamba’s I’ve seen a lot, dogs and things disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, people morphing faces etc. I even tried to kill myself a lot many times, slashing my wrist or falling in to a well but I survived or was rescued for another round of torture.”

Avantika kindly caressed his hair. Apsara patted his back.

Velan continued, “I don’t think there is any pain in death and I don’t fear it. What I used to fear was life itself before I met these guys. Now my friends have given me a purpose and a new lease of life.”

“Well said,” Avantika said and drew another card in which was a picture of a boy and girl in embrace without any clothes on.

Gowri and Apsara started giggling heavily. The boys averted their eyes in shyness. 

“Sex,” said Gowri.

“Define it,” said Avantika, herself smiling shyly. 

“loving of boy and girl, kissing, hugging, seeing another without clothes. Though I have never kissed anyone,” said Gowri.

“I too haven’t kissed anyone, but I’ve seen that those that have kissed and seen another without clothes they become a very close and intimate couple forgetting everyone else.” said Apsara.

“There need be no love in sex and it involves a lot more than shedding clothes. I’ve seen pictures of it. I’ve been told it is quite pleasurable. It is a kind of ownership, for the girl is then irrevocably intertwined with the boy and obeys his wishes,” said Mithun.

  “Yuck, what a thought?,” said Apsara.

“Ippidy dippidy do, chicks leap, hens weep but cocks are always cheap and a lousy creep,” said Gowri.

This time around too Velan tried to remain a mute spectator but Avantika compelled him to say something.

“I’ve kissed a girl but then the girl betrayed me when caught and I received the worst caning of my life. I have a distaste towards all things sex,” said Velan. 

Avantika smiled and in mild admonition nodded her head left and right and said, “Today’s kids, don’t you think it has something to do with marriage and children.”

“I was about to say it,” said Apsara.

Mithun smacked her head and said, “Don’t try to be the smart one always.”

Avantika admonished Mithun for hitting Apsara.

“What? Sex is all about love, marriage, children and lots of fighting. I was about to say it. I swear,” said Apsara placing her hand on Mithun’s head. 

Now Avantika got a bit really angry and scolded Apsara, “Never ever swear on someone’s head for trivial matters.”

Apsara sat with a sullen face. Gowri tickled Apsara and she first giggled and then erupted in hilarious laughter. But she had a mild resentment towards Mithun for accusing her of trying to be over smart. 

Avantika said, “Okay kids, enough of this game. The summer break starts today. All other kids are leaving to see their families. What are your plans?”

“We wish we could also go see our families. But the time the Guru gave us to find the insider culprit and clear ourselves of this black magic mess is almost over,” said Mithun.

“Or else it would be just expulsion for us and our families might scold us but they will take us back. They might even admit us in another ashram but for Velan it would be prison,” said Gowri.

Velan felt a wave of gratefulness and kindness towards his friends. He didn’t want them to suffer on his account. He thought of voluntarily going to prison or escaping out of the ashram without telling anyone. 

He was interrupted in his thoughts when Apsara said to Avantika, “Can’t you change the Guru’s mind and let Velan walk free.”

“Black magic is a serious offence in our kingdom Malla. People are facing a lot worse for black magic and killing a cow in our kingdom. Still I would have talked to the Guru but for the disappearance of the prince and it being connected with this black magic incident.”

Avantika got up from the cot and after thinking for a while said, “Tell you what, you find this insider and Velan can stay out of prison and I will give you all the help you want. In fact I will even talk the Guru in to giving you all a holiday when you find this insider.”

They told Avantika about the interaction with master Madhan, their suspicion of master Vipul and the three masters bathing in their vests.  

“We can’t identify a skin patch easily and I as a grown woman cannot ask the masters to disrobe and inspect. The Guru has gone to the capital and even otherwise he won’t take lightly to suspecting his own masters on the words of some newbie students. After all, all masters here are his old students. It is a catch twenty two situation,” said Avantika. 

She held her chin for a moment and added, “Why don’t you try and locate the stash of swords and the skull. It might lead you to the culprit.”

They came out and headed towards the cowshed. 

Apsara plonked on the straw bale and the others followed. 

She said, “There is an old set of store rooms near the masters’ rooms that is locked all the time and piled with junk. Each master has a key to the entrance and to a special store room allotted for them. It is meant to hold teaching books, devotional items and other personal effects. The keys are jealously held by each of the masters and the locks can’t be broken.”

She scratched her head and added, “If only we could somehow enter the store room of master Vipul and verify.”

“Ha, ha ha, look at miss high and mighty, clever girl and princess of the land coming up with a master plan. If the lock can’t be broken how are we supposed to get in,” said Mithun. 

Apsara broke in to sobs and jumping from the hay bale said, “I have my brother kidnapped and though I grudge him for being haughty I love him. Yet instead of being with my parents to be comforted by them I am here trying to sort out the mess we have gotten Velan in to. But all you do is ridicule me,” she said and ran away crying.

Gowri glared at Mithun and saying, “She must have gone to the girl’s quarters. I will calm her,” she followed suit.

Mithun still lying on the hay bale turned to Velan and said, “What did I do wrong? I just said the truth.”

“You shouldn’t have man. Anyway its just our Apsara she will calm down as usual,” said Velan. 

But that was not to be. For Apsara refused to come out of the girl’s quarters. The rest of the students had went home leaving behind these four along with the masters and servants.    Mithun felt guilty about the way he acted out with Apsara but did not show it outside. He talked cheerfully with Velan. 

Mithun set about furthering Apsara’s plan and thought of using the Lota loti Zunga to steal Master Vipul’s store room key while he was bathing. He thought this would douse the quarrel between Apsara and him. They told the plan to Gowri asking her to convey it to Apsara. 

Apsara came out of her room but said, “I am only here because if the insider culprit isn’t found with proof by day after tomorrow Velan will go to prison. So I will help with the investigation but will not talk to any insensitive scoundrel.”

Gowri agreed while Mithun simply stood there seeing the ground. 

“Is it that soon? By day after tomorrow I might be in prison. Believe me, I’ve seen worse. You guys need not strain on my account,” said Velan. 

“Don’t talk like that we will find the insider culprit and keep you out of prison,” said Gowri and Apsara nodded eagerly.    

The next day they crossed the perimeter of the ashram marked by the stream and ventured in to the forest in search of the Lota loti Zunga. They reached the Lota loti village and found Zunga. While Velan and Mithun talked with Zunga the girls refilled their hip flasks with the magical potion that gave them immense strength like that of elephants. Mithun collected wax from the Lota loti village to take the impression of the key. 

Apsara suggested, “While we are at it, why don’t we collect the keys of all three masters under suspicion, Vipul, Madhan and Gorakh.”

“She suspects master Madhan, but we don’t. I am almost damn sure it is master Vipul,” said Mithun looking away from Apsara. 

Apsara scowled at this but didn’t respond. Despite the best efforts of Gowri and Velan, Apsara and Mithun were at loggerheads with each other and were a bit hostile to each other. Mithun at times conceded to Velan his willingness to end the quarrel. But Apsara was too hurt to accept any attempts at brokering peace.

That night while the masters were sleeping Zunga shrunk himself and creeped in to the marked masters’ rooms from under the door and after searching found the big keys that looked like room keys and took their wax impressions. Velan went to the kitchen and melted some old iron spoons and cooled them in the wax impressions to make keys. The quartet bid good bye to Zunga and went near the back entrance of the set of store rooms. It was too dark outside. A loud howling noise was heard and the chill sent shivers in to everybody’s spine. They used a rope to climb the back wall and slipped in through the ventilator shaft. 

Gowri who had brought an oil soaked cloth tied to a wooden log, lit up that torch. A feeble light seeped from it. 

“Eeeeeeeeew…..,” Apsara shrieked at the top of her lungs.    

  

     

 

CHAPTER 12

There were cobwebs all over the place. They could feel them sticking to their face and skin. Spiders were scurrying along. But that was not what made Apsara shriek. A thick black snake was curling on a broken and abandoned bedpost. Gowri tried to unsuccessfully burn it with the torch. Velan took a wooden stick from nearby and struck hard blows on it. The snake hissed and reared it’s head up. The rest stepped back but Velan undeterred struck the snake hard till its head was mashed in to a pulp. 

They then slowly made way towards the front, clearing the cobwebs with their hands. 

All of them suddenly stopped dead in their tracks. For there inside an open chest were the missing swords and the skull. All their supposition and hopes were based on the assumption that the skull and swords were hidden inside the allotted store room of one of the three masters. Now that turned to be a dead end with no new leads. They returned and all of them slept in the cowshed itself tired in their minds and body. 

At dawn the girls and Mithun silently left to bathe and get ready for the day. Gowri and Apsara were the first to return and they tried to cheer Velan up. Mithun joined them in a short while. 

“If you go to prison, I will also go to prison. Let them try to arrest the princess of this land,” said Apsara.

“It doesn’t work that way, the prince of the realm, your brother is missing. Velan is under suspicion and won’t be let free even for you,” muttered Mithun under his breath. 

Apsara threw daggers at him with a look that would frighten the night owls to flight. Mithun turned away hastily. He was trying to mend fences with Apsara. His snide remarks to her comments were his own feeble attempts at that but Apsara was unforgiving towards him. 

Gowri, Apsara and Mithun tried to come up with any valid plan to rescue Velan but the time constraint made all plans unviable. Velan listened to all plans in a detached manner. The sky darkened and it became night. Everyone except Apsara had given up and reconciled to the fact that come dawn Velan will be sent away to prison. 

But Apsara in exasperation shouted at Velan, “We are trying hard to save you but you remain disinterested. Come on dammit try to think of something.”

Velan felt sorry for her and then pondered on it heavily for sometime scratching his chin and then said, “We’ve been going it the wrong way around. Instead of finding him we  must make him find us.”

“What are you rambling about?” shouted Mithun

“We give messages to all as if it is from the black magician, asking them to meet in the normal meeting place. The place must be where the cow skeleton lies,” said Velan. 

Apsara and Gowri both said, “A brilliant plan.”

Mithun also nodded his head to appease Apsara than his belief in the plan. 

So Gowri discretely placed a message under the banana leaves of the three masters while they were having supper. All of them ate sitting on the floor in banana leaves. 

“What if all three come?” asked Mithun

“Idiot, only the culprit would know the meeting place and only he would come,” said Gowri. 

“But even if he comes, how will we prove to the Guru that he is the culprit?” asked Mithun. 

“We are taking Avantika along. I’ve spoken to her,” said Apsara.

At that moment Avantika came to the corner of the dining room where the three were standing and said, “Let us leave. We need to have a head start in order to be able to properly hide in the bushes before the culprit comes.” 

“If the culprit comes,” said Mithun and added, “It is going to be a long night.”

Gowri smacked him hard on his head.

They went to the place where the cow’s skeleton lay and hid behind the bushes. Mithun sat peering around the bush. The others soon felt drowsy, yawned and went to sleep one by one. 

Suddenly just before dawn Velan was shook awake by Mithun. Velan yawned and by that time Mithun had shook awake the others. They all wearily got up. There standing by the skeleton was master Madhan. Everyone except Apsara were shocked by this.

They all came out of hiding. Madhan was shocked on seeing them. 

“So finally the kids have outshone me. You must know how I was trapped in to this. You all know Guru Rishaba Shringa has a rule for masters and students alike that they should not teach what they learnt to outsiders and…,” Madhan was saying but was interrupted by Apsara. 

“We know that but what has that got to do with your betrayal,” she said.

“There came this boy asking me to teach him martial arts, he had been rejected by the Guru. I took pity on him and began teaching him. But soon a black magician came and blackmailed me that if I didn’t co-operate he would tell the Guru about my secret teaching.”

By this time Gowri had crept behind Madhan and twisted his hands behind his back and held him with a neck lock. 

“Can you describe this black magician to us?” asked Velan.

“He had an eye patch. He also had an enormous wound up moustache and a bald head and he was dark in colour. He always carries a dark red pouch attached to his hip that contains black magic powder and materials.”

“Do you know anything of the kidnapping of the prince?’

“No, I swear on my mother’s grave that If I had known I wouldn’t have helped the black magician.”

“What ever your reasons, you will go to prison,” said Avantika. 

“No, let him be. His shame shall be his punishment,” said Velan. 

“Are you sure? You could have went to prison because of him,” said Gowri.

“Yes, leave him be,” said Velan and Gowri released Madhan who went away with his head bowed down. 

“So this means Velan isn’t going to prison,” said Apsara and jumped up and down with joy. 

She hugged everyone including Mithun. 

“So does this mean you are no longer angry with me?” asked Mithun carefully. 

“The way you kept awake for Velan when we all slept, for that I can forgive all your mistakes. Yes we are still friends.”

Velan was also mildly relieved at the prospect of not going to prison and being with his friends. 

He said, “I feel extremely grateful to you guys. If only I could do something for you guys in any way, I….” said Velan halting in mid sentence. 

“What buddy, forget it you owe us nothing,” said Mithun.

“No, there is something you can do. You have a great potential in learning martial arts and other stuff. You are truly brave too. But you don’t apply yourself fully well. I want you to immerse yourselves in learning and rise up to your full potential,” said Apsara.

“Yes, you have great potential and we don’t want you to waste it for us,” said Gowri. 

“Yeah man, master martial arts like wrestling, swordplay, mace, spear and even ancient magic using bow and arrows. You are better than all the rest of us in these things. You concentrate on developing these things. Maybe it will come in handy for us someday with all our adventures or misadventures should I say,” said Mithun. 

“Your friends are right. It is time you cast away the ghosts of your past and immerse yourself in learning,” said Avantika.

“Okay, okay, I am willing to do anything for those three and what they ask now I will definitely do it,” said Velan. 

They then went back to the ashram and finished their incomplete sleep. The Guru arrived the next day. 

“It is great that you guys found the insider culprit. But you shouldn’t have let him away. I still don’t trust Velan. I have my reasons. Anyway the prince is still missing and the new term starts tomorrow. So make yourselves useful and helpful,” said the Guru and left. 

They went to the stream on the southern edge where the path from Vayanad came to the ashram and sat under a tree. An old lady with a mild stoop and a youngster with a bald head and a choti (a tuft of hair bound in to a bun) came and stopped near them. 

The young man said with a  northern accent , “I Miskin. Where Guru Rishaba’s butt?”

“What?” asked Mithun incredulously. 

“Butt, butt, Guru lives inside his butt, no?” asked Miskin innocently. 

The girls and Velan tried not to laugh. 

“It isn’t butt but a hut and our Guru doesn’t live in a hut, he lives in a mansion,” replied Mithun. 

“But I thought butt, but it hut okay but where?”

Before Mithun could answer the old lady stepped in front and said, “Pardon him, he doesn’t know English that well. I am Sunaini, I would have asked but I am hard of hearing. So tell us where is the Guru’s hut?”

“The Guru lives in a mansion,” said Mithun again. 

“So the Guru lives with a mason. How odd. Okay but where?”

Mithun in exasperation pointed to the path straight ahead leading to the Guru’s mansion.

They then left in that path. By that time three others about their age had come up to the stream. The one leading them was tall, lean, dark and handsome, the one behind him was gigantic and fair with strong muscles and finally was a very pretty girl clothed in a half saree which was pretty new to Velan. Apsara and Gowri wore upper vests or shirts and skirts that extended to their calves. This new girl was much shorter than the guys in front of her and also  Velan and Mithun. 

The tall and lean one in front said, “I am Kishkan and this is my brother Dhinda and that is my sister Sathvika.”

The girl smiled shyly at this. Mithun, Apsara and Gowri started talking with them easily. But Velan didn’t open his mouth. They wore rich clothes and he felt shy and inadequate in their presence. The girl also remained silent and spoke only when spoken to and that too looking at the ground. 

It was learnt that they were the children of the ambassador Mithran of a northern kingdom who had to come here to take charge as ambassador of Kingi during tense times. They were transfer students here to continue their learning. The brothers were learning warfare while the sister was here to learn arts of hospitality from Avantika. Unlike Apsara and Gowri she had no interest in the arts of warfare. She was content to learn the art of hospitality as befitted a girl in Malla. 

Kishkan told them stories of the various northern kingdoms they had visited. Dhinda and Sathvika obeyed anything that Kishkan told. Dhinda talked proudly of his brother and shared various stories of the misadventures of the brother in their earlier ashrams.  

They were so much fun to be with that Gowri said, “We can now go from being a gang of four to a gang of seven.”

Somehow this hurt Velan. He felt left out in this enlarged gang. 

CHAPTER 13

Velan put all his efforts in to mastering the martial arts and other arts including the arts of cooking and bird talk by Avantika. He took learning very seriously and took it to his heart. He was never like this before. He realised that knowledge is power. He realised that true power lay with people like Guru Rishaba Shringa and Kaala Nathan and not with lords like Pamba. He did not want power for its sake. He wanted the power to do good to others. He still had to do all the chores of a servant like scrubbing the floors clean and milking the cows. He helped Avantika in cooking. He learnt to prepare herbal medicine from her. He also learnt to prepare tasty yet healthy foods that kept the body and mind fit. 

He did this all as a dedication to his three best friends. But he got so much in to learning that he spent less and less time with his friends. The three new transfer students became more and more close with Mithun, Gowri and Apsara. Velan couldn’t find fault with the three new students but didn’t relish the fact of them getting close with his three best buddies. In fact when Mithun found the girl Sathvika very attractive and liked her soft and shy nature, Velan was skeptical. 

Velan wanted peace of mind and found it in learning and even trained in the night. Whenever he got tired or disillusioned during practice he thought of Lord Pamba and new energy flowed within him. It became a common thing for the nine of them to hang out inside the cow shed at night, Velan and his best buddies, the three new students and the servants Sunaini and Miskin. 

Mithun said, “We have woken up the tiger in Velan. I liked the old Velan better.”

Apsara and Gowri remained silent. 

Kishkan said, “You mustn’t immerse yourself this fully for you will only be setting up yourself for disappointment. You must rise beyond the state of passion and reason and enter in to a detached state of mind.”

Velan knew what Kishkan said was true but he wasn’t ready to accept it from Kishkan’s mouth.

“What ointment this ‘disapp’ ointment. Please give Kishkan baba. I sores in groin,” said Miskin.

“With you around there won’t be any disappointment,” said Mithun laughing a little. 

“What appa’s (father’s) ointment. My appa is long gone and he didn’t have an ointment either,” said Sunaina. 

“Velan has been rescued from being sent to the prison but my brother, the prince is still in captivity. We need to rescue him,” said Apsara almost in tears. 

Kishkan consoled her hugging her close and said, “Don’t worry the whole kingdom is looking for him. He will be found out.”

Velan felt a deep churning in his stomach it must be envy he thought. The envy of a good friend and secret crush being more close to another person. But dismissed the thought and thought it must be hunger. 

Apsara released herself from Kishkan’s embrace and said, “The young helper of the black magician had a teach yourself swordplay book with him. That is the only clue we have.”

“It must be that kid Rudra. Remember seeing him with an one eyed man at Vrinda inn. The one eyed man must be the black magician. There are no book shops and only one old library in the village. If we enquire at the library and at Vrindha inn we can track down the helper,” said Mithun. 

“You are intelligent and funny at the same time, I like you,” said Sathvika looking shyly at Mithun. 

On hearing this Apsara turned and winked at Velan with a mischievous smile and twirling her hair. 

Velan found himself gasping for breath and felt an even severe pain in his stomach. It was at that time that he realised that he was in love with Apsara. She looked gorgeous in the light green tunic and black skirt.  This was no childish crush like he had on Avantika. This was a profound deep love and yearning to be with her and share everything with her. But a voice said in his mind that his friendship with the three came first. But another part of his brain said it is okay, for he can still love Apsara with the approval of other friends. He started breathing normally. But he hadn’t forgotten Madhana of Lord Pamba’s place and the canings and the deceit. He didn’t want his heart broken again.

Another glaring thought was the social divide between them. He was just a lowly servant while she was the princess of the realm. Some one of a higher status like Kishkan will not only have a better chance of marrying her but also can keep her happy. But his heart refused to accept what his mind told him. 

Velan excelled in martial arts defeating Briju and his gang regularly. But in archery Kishkan and Velan almost tied each time. Moreover Kishkan’s grasp of ancient magic was deep. Velan managed to tie Dhinda too in mace fighting and wrestling. He wanted to be the undisputed champion and didn’t like Kishkan defeating him at times.

Velan never feared death as he feared life itself. But now his greatest fear was losing his three friends. He never felt so insecure as he did now. 

Mithun said, “Let us go to the public library in the village now itself.”

“We can’t go in to the village without getting the permission of the Guru,” said Kishkan speaking for his brother and sister too. It was a known fact as those three never broke a rule and were the pets of the Guru and the ashram. 

“I also want come but Avantika ji want water her behind,” said Miskin. 

“What? Oh, you mean watering the plants in the backyard, I was shocked for a bit” said Mithun and winked at Satvika. This didn’t go unnoticed by the others. 

“Have you guys had lunch? First do that before anything,” said Sunaina.

“We haven’t had food. Why don’t you bring some here. We’ll share and eat,” said Mithun. 

“Oh, you guys have eaten, otherwise I thought of bringing the food here itself,” said a deaf Sunaina. 

Apsara giggled and said, “I can’t eat in this stench in the cowshed. Let us go to the dining room and have lunch and then we can visit the library.

Everyone started to leave for the dining room but Apsara stayed behind with Velan. As he was about to leave she caught his hand and tugged him near her.

“What do you think of me?” asked Apsara. 

Standing close to her sent shivers down Velan’s body but he said, “You are a spoiled brat but a very good friend.”

“Am I just a friend?” Apsara asked with a mischievous smile and a curious look in her eyes. 

“Yes,” said Velan steeling himself. 

“Have you noticed how Mithun and Satvika are almost a pair. Even Gowri and Dhinda are a pair. You don’t know but I’ve seen them kissing, hugging and chatting for hours together lost in each other. I want us to be like that,” so saying Apsara leaned in for a kiss. 

But Velan pushed her away and then seeing her hurt face said, “Sorry Apsara, it is not you I don’t think I am ready for that yet. May be never will be.”

“Are you still thinking of the hurt caused by that evil girl Madhana. Do you think I will be anything like her. Anyway as you want we can be just friends. But let me say I am a girl and I have desires too. I can’t wait for you as I know how steel hearted you can be in your decisions.”

Apsara was about to leave but turned back and said, “You know you are setting up yourself for great pain and sorrow. You call us friends but you  don’t let anyone else in and don’t let anyone help you.”

She then left followed by Velan. Velan ate lunch with the servants in the back while the rest ate in the dining room. The four of them left for the library. 

There a plump lady sat in the librarian’s chair. In the guise of customers they all enrolled as members. When they were enrolling Gowri scanned the members register scroll and with her acute memory noted that the book ‘Teach yourself sword play’ had been taken out to a man named Sandip and had not yet been returned. She memorised the address. 

“The address is in the seedier part of the village. It must be somewhere deep in the slums,” said Gowri. 

They were oddly looked by the people there because everyone except Velan were wearing bright coloured fairly new clothes. Velan wore his tattered old clothes. They somehow located the house of Sandip which was in fact a small thatched hut amidst a lot many such huts narrowly spaced together. 

“Have you borrowed any book named ‘Teach yourself swordplay’ from the library?” asked Mithun.

Sandip was drunk and said, “I don’t read books, it must be my nephew. So what has my notorious nephew done now that you kids have come in search of me. But let me say that I have no control over him. He belonged to an even poorer village south of Vayanad. His father was a potter. He committed suicide unable to repay his debts. His mother, my sister, passed away soon too. After that Rudra came to live with me. He gives me money for my drinks and so I don’t question him.”

“When will he be back home?” asked Gowri.

“Home, hell no, he uses me like he uses others. I haven’t seen him for three months now. You can probably find him in Dharindha inn. But be careful it is a place of Bhaang (country liquor) and Ganja (Marijuana). It is filled with scum practising black magic,” said Sandip. 

They’ve heard of this Dharinda inn. It is a completely forbidden place for students of the ashram. Visiting it would be not a minor infarction of rules like crossing the perimeters of the ashram. Just mere mention of visiting it would land them in expulsion. Moreover only the vilest people visited there and at least one of them would be expected to drink Bhaang.  

   

 

 

  

Before the night is over

Before the night is over
the world shall kiss my feet,
Drunk on pride, I’ll never be sober,
all pains and sorrows shall beat retreat;

Before the night is over
she should come bowing to me,
beseeching not to be the vengeful lover
I’ll sadistically enjoy it with Glee;

My family, blood relations, friends
shall serve me stooping beneath me,
all dreams true with none that contends
or opposes my anger and cruel decree;

for this is my last night on Earth
towards hell I breathe my last breath.

If I were a grasshopper

If I were a grasshopper

I would hop from tree to tree,

If I were a party pooper

I would issue my own decree,

Alas I am an ugly duckling

Wish I could hang to be free;

If I were a guy

I would seek flesh, ever sly,

If I were a girl

would never entice, hide beneath skirts, never twirl;

Don’t ask me what am I then, why so bitter?

for the confused mad mind has no gender;

If a mad mind’s all wishes were to come true,

It would be hell on earth anew.