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Iron In Soul

IRON IN SOUL

In those days of militancy in Punjab, terror swept the land like cloud of a poisonous gas, oppressive and stifling. In initial days havoc was brought about by the assassins targeting a particular community. Passengers were pulled out of trains and buses and shot in cold blood. People in parks and temples were sprayed with bullets. Targeted killings were rampant and after 5 o clock in evening highways, neighbourhoods, roads and localities became deserted. Many districts of Majha region were declared ‘independent’ entities of soon to be Khalistan. After much blood letting and the tide slowly turned in favour of security forces under the able leadership of KPS Gill. It was a fight to finish with no holds barred because at stake was the very idea of a united India. Brutality is a part of any such battle with excesses committed by both sides. No doubt many valiant police officers who led from fore front had iron driven into their souls by this brutalizing process, but that is how the things are. Many of them are being targeted now in name of excesses committed by them against a particular community which is patently wrong. Let us not forget those days which brought whole nation to a brink. Pl find below a story which I wrote in those days based upon a bus passenger massacre near the place of my posting.

SAND THIEVES
Wrapped in the dark blanket of the night, the small village lay submerged in sleep. Not even a dog stirred in its pitch-black alleys of the moonless night. But in one lane, there was movement as Mania picked his way slowly through darkness. Stopping in front of a door he knocked softly. Inside Pakhar turned upon the bed and looked at the door.
“Coming,” he said and pulling off the blanket got up. Putting on his slippers and picking up the blanket he stepped out. Cold hit him with a physical force making him to shudder. “Must be around two in the morning,” he thought
“Here,” said Mania offering a smouldering beedi. Placing it between his teeth Pakhar took a deep drag and looked around.
“Cold is killing tonight. Let us leave it for some other day,” he said and expelled the acrid smoke with a shudder.
“Don’t be foolish. It is a perfect night with frost all around and not a soul stirring. I have brought a couple of boiled eggs and a nip of ‘desi daaru’ also. Will keep away the chill,” said Mania patting him on the back.


“Thieves of the black night,” mumbled Pakhar wrapping one end of the blanket carefully around his turban and spreading the remaining fabric around his shoulders like a mackintosh. Both of them started off towards the edge of the village that occupied the high ground upon the eastern bank of the river. One of those ubiquitous, nondescript hamlets scattered all over the country side, whose claim to fame was the sand quarry on the bank of the river that was bandied about amongst corrupt cartels through sham yearly auctions.
“A nip and a couple of eggs between two of us on a cold night like this? You sure know how to keep a man on the edge,” said Pakhar as they trudged down the slope towards the bank. A thicket loomed ahead. Slowing down Mania lighted a match stick and approaching it slowly removed a pile of dried sarkanda grass from its side revealing a tractor and trolley parked inside. Pakhar took a ferocious pull at the beedi which made it to crackle and throwing it away climbed upon the driving seat. Mania jumped upon the mudguard behind him. The engine came alive and the tractor trolley lurched down the slope towards the sarkanda thickets lining the river bank.
“It is better to be on the edge on a night like this friend. After all we are thieves, aren’t we?” said Mania.
“Thieves in the eyes of law or for that harami guard of the contractor who can sell his own father for money? I hid the sword under the trolley. Let the b-,-,-,d come, thief or no thief I am going to cut his leg,” said Pakhar and pouting his lower lip exhaled a burst of breath which scattered the hair of his moustache. The tractor trolley crawled down the slope like a prowling predator and the pitch dark all around seemed to muffle the growl of its engine. A giant lurch made Mania to almost slide off the mudguard.
“ @m**er. Enough to make a pregnant woman abort that one,” cried Mania clutching the pipe of the canopy.
“Take out that nip of yours and light the lamp while I back up the trolley,” said Pakhar pressing the pedal right up to the floor to apply the worn out brakes.
“It is a nip but you make it sound like a bottle. Let us do something first to earn it,” said Mania. Ahead, the river bank emerged in the dark. Its surface ravaged by ditches created by relentless quarrying for the dark grey, mud less sand which sold at a premium in the town. Climbing into the trolley, Mania threw the spade and troughs upon the wet sand and jumping down, lighted the hurricane lamp.
“Back it slowly and keep to the left. There is a ditch on the right,” said Mania
Pakhar backed the trolley across the sandy slush, carefully keeping it on the left edge of the ditch.
“The spade for you for the first half,” said Mania tying the lantern with the low branch of a kikar tree. “Always cheating, you are no better than harami guard of the contractor,” said Pakhar pulling off his blanket and taking off his slippers.
“Sand cuts between the toes like a razor blade. But one cannot buy a new pair every other day and I don’t want to lose these in sand,” he said placing the slippers carefully at the edge of the sarkanda thicket.
Then spreading his legs, he dug his feet into sand, spitted between his palms, and picking up the spade balanced it above his head for a moment.
“Here, catch it,” he said bringing it down in a neat swipe and hewing off a large chunk of wet sand deposited it into the trough.
Soon, the night was filled with dull thuds of spade, heavy breaths, muted curses and stench of human sweat which rose in air riding the droplets of the mist rising off the bank. A pile of the wet sand gradually rose in the middle of the trolley, where Mania threw the contents of the trough with neat, twisting movements of his arms. An odd gust of breeze swayed the lantern making the shadows to dance crazily and the river water to throw up a dull shimmer in the inky night.
“Stop,” suddenly whispered Mania raising his hand in the air and pointing towards two beams of head lamps of a vehicle. Slowly they inched down the embankment towards the side of the bridge head, crazily flashing up and down as if large flash lights in the hands of a drunk.
“Shhh,” whispered Pakhar lowering the wick of the lamp and groping under the trolley. “Are you mad? It is a police raid. You show them sword and they are going to put a bullet through that stupid head of yours,” cried Mania jumping forward and pulling him back.
Suddenly the lights stopped and went off. There were loud clops of doors being closed and commotion of the human voices which made the duo to withdraw into the sarkanda thicket.
“It is something big I tell you, may be mining officer’s raid,” whispered Mania.
“Mining officer himself to nab two puny sand thieves?” Pakhar whispered.


Suddenly, staccato rat tat tat of the gun fire filled the air, punctuated by the pings of bullets ricocheting off the metal and the shattering of the glass. Simultaneously, screams rose as the blazing barrels of firing guns danced to and fro in darkness.
And then there was a lull.
“Kill them all,” shouted a voice and shooting started again till the screams died down.
Flashlights in faceless hands probed the darkness.
“Check for breath and pulse. Spare no one. Check inside also,” shouted a voice. Faceless hands yanked open the iron doors again.
“Don’t kill me,” wailed a voice and there was a muffled sound of something heavy being dragged.
“Spare me in the name of God,” cried the voice again and the sound of a couple of shots punctuated the gloomy stillness one last time.
“Let’s go,” shouted the voice and sounds of running feet died down into deathly stillness.
Pakhar peered at Mania’s face made ghastly with horror.
“Lie still,” he whispered gripping his arm.
Far away, there was the sound of an automobile engine coming alive and a vehicle sped away across the bridge.
“Come,” shouted Pakhar getting up. Both of them ran towards the kuccha embankment and suddenly it loomed out of darkness. A passenger bus tilted towards one side with tyres half buried in sand. Both of them stopped and peered, sniffing at the air that carried the smell of gunpowder. Holding Mania’s hand Pakhar stepped forward, slipped and fell down. Getting up he stared at his hands.
“It’s blood,” he whispered and digging his hands into sand rubbed them. Mania lighted a match stick and both of them gaped at bodies frozen in grotesque postures of the dance of death. They bent down to pick their way amongst them. Mania stumbled against something buried in the sand. It was a flashlight.
“Give it to me,” said Pakhar and switching it on, shined it upon the shattered bodies scattered around, with blood still oozing from the gaping holes in many. Tip toeing towards the door he stepped inside the bus. The driver lay hunched over the wheel, with two holes in his back.
“They have killed every one, wiped out the whole busload,” he whispered coming out.
A dull gleam struggled in the night from the darkness around Mania’s feet. He took the flashlight and shined it upon the spot. A pair of eyes frozen in the shock of a sudden, cruel death stared at him. Slowly he moved the flashlight in a circle. A fair, young face, with a silky, budding moustache and arms crossed over its chest came in view. Mania bent down and held the lifeless hand with a gold ring in its finger. Placing the flashlight carefully on the ground, he tried to pull it off.


“Stop you ba….d, stop,” yelled Pakhar jumping forward and giving him a blow which sent him sprawling upon the sand.
“How in the name of God can you think of doing this?” he cried.
“But we are thieves, are we not? How is one theft different from the other?”
“Yes, we are thieves but do we eat carrion left behind by merchants of death,” he cried snatching the flashlight from him. He shined it again upon the ring and bent down. A monogram of two intertwined letters came in view.
“Appears to be newly married. Must be of the age of my own son,” he said. Suddenly his legs felt lifeless and he slumped on the ground.
“Devils have massacred the whole bus load, have killed every single passenger,” he cried and sobs shook his frame.
“In the name of which God have they done it? Someone tell me?” he wailed striking the sand with his clenched fist.
Mania watched the whole scene rooted to the spot where he had fallen. Suddenly he got up and took out the nip of ‘tharra’ from his pocket.
“Here take it. It will steady your heart,” he said placing the nip upon Pakhar’s lips, who held it in his hand and finished it in one go. The fiery liquid crossing his gullet made him to wince.
“Yes, we are thieves and we steal sand. But we do not steal people’s lives, their dreams and happiness. We are better than these merchants of death. Thousand times better,” he shouted in darkness.
“Shhh,” said Mania pointing towards the bridge head, from where a procession of flickering flash lights approached.
“Let’s go,” he said placing his hands under the arms of Pakhar, who pushed him away and getting on to his feet tossed the empty nip towards the bus, where it shattered against the metal frame. Two thieves trudged slowly towards the undulating path and were gobbled up by the dark thicket of the sarkanda bushes.
Note:- All pictures are for representation purposes only. I have no claim over these.

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Navneet Bakshi
Navneet Bakshi
1 year ago

Very well narrated. A stunning tale of dark days of terrorism in Punjab. I am sure many of those devils who indulged in heinous acts must have escaped the clutches of law and may be roaming around freely. Some of them must have escaped abroad, like many perpetrators of crimes in the Third Reich escaped to Central America. It always happens in any turmoil, upheaval, coup or a failed attempt. And there are many innocents too, who have to pay the price for the crimes they may not have committed. It’s all very complicated. There are wolves in sheepskin. Amnesty has closed shop in India and they are crying wolf that their funding has all dried up because of clampdown by the government. Indian government is still very soft in the name of democracy a lot many things are allowed to happen here which shouldn’t be allowed at all.

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