There were no stars in the sky. There was no moon. Just the wet cold seeping through thick cloth and bone, and the fog slowly smothering the night.
Every once in a while, a truck would grope forward over the broken road. Sometimes a long-distance bus would rumble by, but no sooner would its headlights pass than the fog would flow back denser than ever before.
Milte hain dil yahaan, milke bichadne ko…
Kishore Kumar’s voice floated from the direction of the ramshackle bamboo structure that lay fifty yards to the side of the road, perceptible through the fog only because of a Hasag lantern that was hung to its front, illuminating a sign that read ‘Exide Batteries’. fte small shop, one of the few that still operated on this side of the highway, sold batteries, torches, kerosene, hot tea, pakoras and, if you knew what to say and how much to pay, desi hooch. It was closed now, the coal ashed, and the front covered with tarpaulin.
But it was not empty.
On a charpoy, at the front of the shop, sat two men, one hunched slightly forward and the other leaning back and looking up at the sky, holding in his right hand a small transistor radio.
‘Why don’t you turn the radio off? Or at least change the channel. I hate Kishore Kumar.’
‘It’s my radio. It plays what I want it to.’
fte first man pulled his monkey cap closer to his skull and clenched tightly the two thick shawls draped over his body.
‘Tell me why you like Kishore Kumar again,’ he said, tapping the ground rapidly with his feet in a desperate attempt to stay warm. ‘Because he has a great voice.’ In sharp contrast to his companion, the man with the transistor had on, as his shield against the numbing cold, only a flimsy grey sweater.
‘Because he has a great voice? That’s it? I mean that’s all you can say about the great Kishore Kumar? A ten-year-old would give that answer! Tell me the reasons why you like him, explain it to me.’
The man with the transistor said nothing.
‘Mohammed Rafi,’ the first man said, ‘Now…that man is God.’ fte other man yawned, still looking up at the sky. ‘Just because you say so.’
‘No. It’s not because I say so. It’s because I understand. You can’t hide classical training. Rafi has it. Kishore doesn’t. To his credit, he knows his limits and stays within them.’
‘Well, I don’t care.’
‘See? ftat’s the problem with Hindustanis. ftey hide their ignorance with a stupid “I don’t care”, as if that’s the honest end of all arguments. It’s why Manmohan Desai makes more money than Satyajit Ray and that Babumoshai Khanna is a superstar.’ fte man raised his shawls in one quick motion and brought out a little silver belt-flask. ‘Want some?’
The other man ignored the offer with a shake of his head. ‘Mooh mein le rahe ho kya? You have been like this the whole night. Just a hmm or aaah.’
Arjun let out a little laugh. ‘Just a fine night for listening to music,’ he said, then added for emphasis, ‘in silence.’
‘Fine night for music? Behenchod, here I am freezing my testicles off and you say this is a fine night for music. How do you take this cold? Oh yes, I know what you will say…you are from Delhi and…’
‘See Bangali, that’s why I don’t need to say anything. You complete my sentences.’
‘You are right,’ Bangali grumbled. ‘We are a regular married couple now, I know what you will say and you know what I will say and so we both say nothing. Soon I will even start looking like you, and we will be farting in bed together.’ He took a long swig from the belt-flask, as if exorcizing the horror of the thought. ‘Sure you don’t need this?’
‘I am fine.’
Bangali took the heavy metal torch that lay to his right on the charpoy, and shone the light on his wrist. ‘And now will you look at the time. It’s thirty to midnight and the party still hasn’t shown up.’
‘They will show up,’ Arjun said quietly. ‘They always do.’ ‘Fifteen more minutes and then I am off. It’s going to be an hour’s walk to town if the truck doesn’t get here. You realize that, don’t you?’
‘Well, there it is.’ Arjun pointed towards the road. Sure enough, a small tempo had broken through the fog and was moving slowly towards them over the hard and rocky ground, its headlights turned off.
Bangali quickly got to his feet while Arjun remained seated, still leaning languidly backwards on the charpoy. As the tempo ground to a halt a few yards away from them, its tyres spluttering dirt and stones, Arjun said, ‘You know the problem with you, Bangali? You are always too filmy.’
Bangali turned around, his hand once again snaking its way into the double-shawl.
‘What? Filmy? What do you mean? You are the one who watches all the bakwaas films.’
‘I do but I don’t let it get to my head. I am sure you have already thought of what you are going to say to my face right before you and your friends smash it in, with a bullet from your gun or with blows from the torch.’
Arjun now lay down fully on the charpoy, a smile at the corner of his thin, chapped lips.
‘All this planning. All this drama. All this anticipation. But in all the excitement, you forgot to check whether your gun is loaded.’ Bangali stumbled back, whipping out a gun from under his shawl. Pointing it at Arjun, he pressed the trigger. Once. Twice. All he got was one metallic click and then another. In dismay, he looked to the right and to the left. fte heavy metal torch was gone. Four men approached Bangali in the darkness. All that one could make of them were their eyes, glowing in the black with fierce violence.
‘Get him. Get him now!’ Bangali yelled out, his voice cracking with panic. Arjun lay back on the charpoy as casually relaxed as before, shaking his head mockingly. fte four men, their heads and mouths covered with cloth, made no move towards Arjun. Instead, they surrounded Bangali.
Bangali lunged at the one closest, swinging hard with a tightened fist. It hit the man square on the jaw, throwing his head back. Another came from the side, and he swung again but this time, the man dodged the punch, and the force of the forward thrust rendered Bangali off balance. He swore loudly and threw a solid left hook which merely grazed the man’s shoulder. Then he felt an arm tightening around his neck. He tried to shoulder- throw the assailant at the back but the man knew what he was doing. He stayed as he was. Bangali was built like an ox. But so were the four men. Within a few seconds, Bangali’s arms had been pinned back by practised hands. He tried to kick the crotch of the man in front but missed, and his right shoe flew away into the night, hitting the dusty ground a distance away. The man who had received the first blow to his mouth now landed his punch perfectly, straight on Bangali’s lip. For a moment, the cold soaked away his pain but then it stayed heavy, as the blood dribbled down the side, warm and lucid. Then a knee slammed into his stomach, and he doubled up in pain.
Arjun Bhatia stood up to his full height, a head and more shorter than Bangali, and brushed the dust off his trousers. He held a gun in his left hand.
‘Enough. Bahut ho gaya,’ he said as the men continued scuffling.
Yet another knee to the groin and several solid blows later, Bangali’s struggles had been subdued, but he was still trying to break free. ‘This gun is loaded,’ Arjun warned as he raised it once and then brought it back down to his side. ‘Move one more time and I am going to use it.’
Bangali wheezed from the effort, out of breath, his drool now mixing with the blood on his chin. ‘You are not going to kill me. I know that.’
‘Sure of that, are you?’
‘Yes, I am. You can’t kill your friend.’
‘Maybe we don’t read our thoughts as well as we think.’
‘And because you never kill people who know more than you.
‘If you are as smart as you think you are, why is it that you are staring down the end of the gun and I am the one holding the trigger?’ After a pause for half a breath, Arjun continued, ‘I know what you know, I always have. Sandhu and Talang want the business, and they made you an offer to split it three-ways. Provided you put a bullet in my head. Oh, I forgot. Not three- ways, but four-ways because Tripathi, the khaki-kufta who takes my money and still wants me dead, is also in on it.’
Bangali fell silent. He tried to shake off the hands pinning him back once again, failed, and then resigned himself to being overpowered.
‘Now let me tell you what you don’t know. After you were going to kill me, Tripathi had planned a little encounter for you a few miles down the road, and so the split would have become three-ways and Tripathi would get that government medal he’s been after. That was the plan.’
Somewhere in the distance, a jackal howled.
‘Unlike you, I am not filmy. I never was. So I am not going to stand here and tell you how exactly I know all of this. ftat’s what the villains do, don’t they? Talk and talk while the hero gets a chance to get away. Chutiyas. But since you and I go way back, I think I owe you a bit of…an explanation. Talang’s dead, and the Nepalis have his head. Actually have his head. ftey cut his head off. Now these big boys are Sandhu’s men, so that should tell you where he is now. Tripathi will get his medal, but it will be one of those died-in-the-line-of-duty-ones they give your widow on Republic Day. ftough I don’t know if they give you those if they find you drunk and dead in a ditch, having driven your service jeep off the road. Possibly not. Because that’s how they will think he died.’
The men holding Bangali laughed.
‘Which leaves you. And that’s the sad part.’ ‘I can’t die like this. Not here.’
Arjun shook his head.
‘I have a wife,’ Bangali pleaded. ‘I have a son.’
The men laughed again, and one of them twisted Bangali’s arm backward, making him scream in agony.
Arjun turned his coal-black eyes to the man holding Bangali down. ‘Hurt him without reason, and the one who does gets the first bullet,’ he said quietly.
fte cackles of laughter died instantly. Bangali was sniffling now, his chin touching his chest in a show of contrition. ‘Fifteen years we have run this business together. Fifteen years we have been friends. Doesn’t that mean anything?’
‘I guess it doesn’t. I mean, why else would you do this to me?’ ‘I made a mistake.’
‘Why? Why did you do it?’
‘It hurt me every day. To see you as the boss and me the sidekick. Once it was the other way round, after all. I got mad. When Sandhu came to me with the offer, I said yes. You had to be killed, there was no other way. You do see that, right?’
‘I am so sorry.’
Arjun reached out and gently tapped the side of Bangali’s neck. His voice softened, ‘I am sorry too. You have been a brother. Not a sidekick, not a partner, not even a friend, but a brother. I mean it. A brother. And if this was just about me, I would let you go. I would give you another chance and I know you wouldn’t sell me out again.’
Arjun made a gesture with his head and one of the men hit Bangali hard on the back, making him drop to his knees. ftey slid on the dirt, scraping the small pebbles. He did not resist. fte fight had gone out of him.
‘But it’s not about me. It’s about my business. It’s about my family. I can put up with traitors. After all, some may say, and not without reason, that I am a gaddar myself. But what I cannot put up with are fools. They get people killed. Fools like you. Fools who think, even after all these years of working with me, that I would not know, that I would not have seen this coming.’ Arjun’s finger tightened around the trigger. ‘Fools who think that knowing one’s limits and staying within them is foolish. Fools who don’t like Kishore Kumar…’
Bangali tried to say something but he never got around to it. The bullet spoke first. Then once more.
The radio kept playing.
Excerpted from ‘Sultan of Delhi: Ascension’ written by Arnab Ray, published by Hachette.
The son of a penniless refugee from Lahore, Arjun Bhatia has worked his way up from being an arms smuggler in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh to the most influential power-broker in Delhi.
But when the shadows of the past – of a friend he has lost forever and a woman he can never be with – finally catches up with him, Arjun finds himself fighting the biggest battle of his life. For at stake is not just his iron hold over the government, but something even greater – his family … and his soul.
Spanning five decades and two generations, Sultan of Delhi: Ascension is an explosive saga of ambition, greed, love and passion.
About the Author:
Arnab Ray is one of India’s most read bloggers, known online as Greatbong. A PhD in Computer Science from State University of New York at Stony Brook, he has also written three bestselling books – May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss, The Mine and Yatrik. He can be found on Twitter at @greatbong.