Aboard the Duronto to Iraq. And back.
He was occupying my seat – number 33 – when I boarded the Duronto Express from Hazrat Nizamuddin to Ernakulam on July 5.
“The terrorists were nice?” He asked incredulously into the phone in Malayalam. Now my assigned seat was a window – a good fortune which interminably brightened up my journeys – and I really wanted it back. But catching that bit of conversation put me in two minds: He obviously had something to do with terrorists and Hollywood had taught me that the nicer ones were usually the most dangerous. Besides to reach my compartment I had to hold an anxious breath around a very frisky sniffer dog which suspected explosives not in my bag or pockets but in that part of the person we are most protective about, freezing me well, stiff with fear.
“But why would they be nice to you? Did you know them?” Alright, this was good news – he did not know them. I gestured with a sort of rude relief that he was sitting in my rightful place. His eyes hovered over my face, lingered on my luggage and wandered out of the window again fleetingly before my not-so-subtle signal registered.
“What? Say that again, mole*?” He said into the phone before moving across to the other window seat and resuming his non-seeing gaze through the pane – across a tangle of unloaded freight cargo and trucks in one jumble of a silhouette.
“So the terrorists were local lads only?” It was unable to figure whether what he heard from the other side made him happy or set off his alarm bells in some another direction. I knelt down and tucked my luggage beneath the berth for the 44-hour, 2,943 kilometre journey.
“I was very scared when I read the statement that girl gave out last week asking the government to send in coffins…” My paranoid inter-looping of luggage done, I stood up to be closer to the air conditioning ducts; apparently the batteries of the Duronto Express cannot support sufficient cooling when the train is stationary; a piece of news imparted with psychotic glee by a guy who doled out blankets to the still-sweating passengers. The rain that evening had disproved the Met, as usual, and had arrived a full day in advance; the humidity was killing.
“That was really a dumb thing to say especially when the terrorists were, er, nice to everybody, right? Does she have any political ambitions to be passing stupid comments like that?” Thinking this would be an opportune time to break the ice for the long journey ahead, I smiled at him; after all I could second what he said about harbouring political ambitions and being vacuously opined. He did not respond to my friendly overtures but chose instead to stare unblinking at the tangle yard outside.
“What? The terrorists wanted to renew contracts? Do they have the right to do that anyway?” He looked at me despicably and dumbfounded as if I were a caitiff wielding a gun in one hand and pen and paper on the other.
“But you surely cannot accept payment in dinar instead of dollar…” He shrugged at me and I replied with a sincere, sublime nod of approval happy to be of any use, however Macawberish.
“Then again, who wouldn’t go back once conditions become normal?” I was ready to nod again but he was back to staring out through the cloudy double glass pane.
“Oh…you were all told to say that that you will never go back to Iraq? But why?” He turned to frown at me making me look away, pained.
“I heard there was large media frenzy at the Kochi airport when you all landed?” Though I had to arrange for dinner – the Duronto didn’t serve dinner but ‘everything from breakfast tomorrow onward’ as I was informed by a steward with a helpful ‘Meals on Wheels’ threaded in gold across his pocket – I was in part a bit queasy about leaving my luggage in the company of a total stranger. And in large part intrigued too. Obviously whomever he was talking to was one of the 46 Kerala nurses who were held captive by ISIS militants in Iraq who had been making headlines the past few days. Their ordeal had begun almost a month earlier when the Islamic militants laid siege to Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, where the nurses were employed at a local hospital. The first batch of Indians – including the nurses – had landed at the Kochi airport that afternoon and was received by the state chief minister, his party cohorts and members of the rising opposition party which held sway nationally; each party out-sloganeering the other.
“I am glad your friend didn’t make any more outrageous demands to be repatriated to other Middle East countries. I mean, let’s just be glad that you and everybody else are back alive. We can always find jobs as long as we are alive, right…” Things were getting a bit emotional and I noticed him choke which he tried to cover with a cough.
“After the last news about insurgents taking you all from Tikrit to their camp in Mosul I had no idea what would happen. I feared the worst, didn’t know whom to call up or pray to…” This time he choked and made no attempts at camouflaging it. Openly emotional must mean a nice guy; I could maybe leave my luggage after all and find food.
“God bless those businessmen who acted as intermediaries…I don’t think any of the governments, state nor central, could have done anything by themselves.” This was getting really interesting; the newspapers over the next few days kept referring to ‘two prominent Kerala businessmen’, billionaires, with expansive commercial empires in the region who played an active role in negotiating the nurses’ release. Probably true as the Indian government wasn’t able to secure the release of some 50 labourers from Punjab who were still held captive when the nurses were allowed to go.
“So if you knew these terrorists wouldn’t that land you in trouble?” The insurgents were local lads only who obviously would use local hospitals. In fact the papers reported of the ISIS members getting treated by the same nurses whom they had abducted; probably firing up my fellow passenger’s imagination. I could feel the patience on the other side wearing thin; mine certainly was. The scheduled departure was 9:35 pm; it was 9:45 pm and the Duronto still hadn’t moved. And I didn’t want to go to bed hungry. I stepped out of my compartment and spotted a fruit vendor parked beside a lode on the platform mucked up in the rain. A pleasant looking chap wearing a rumpled white oversized kurta was engaged in earnest bargaining in pidgin Hindi.
“I was worried about missing the train. Delhi traffic is crazy.” Shiraz told me as we stood around the vendor checking out his wares which resembled newly discovered mummies. He had come to Delhi for an interview and was in a hurry to head back to Kerala and tell his folks the good news – that he had been selected – in person.
“Telling good news over the phone is a killjoy.” Shiraz used a prepaid phone connection which, I came to know later, was left with no balance after all the ‘reporting to umma in Kerala’.
“Told her everything except the result,” he said. I offered him the use of my phone which he declined. “In fact it was a good thing it ran out of juice as I would’ve otherwise called up the Railways with a bomb hoax when I feared I’d miss the train.” Shiraz said and laughed. I didn’t know whether to believe him – or whether he actually did – I remembered the sniffer from before.
“More than calling my umma, I was talking to my girlfriend. Now that I got this job we can make and share dreams.” And that was what Shiraz was doing – sharing with me his dreams after dinner as I drank my whiskey clandestinely out of a soup cup (Indian Railways do not approve smoking and consuming alcohol in compartments). A devout Muslim, he wouldn’t take even a celebratory sip. The eldest in a family of six, Shiraz’s umma had mortgaged their house and a small plot of land to pay the agent who had arranged the job/interview. The girlfriend had promised him a new pair of white canvas shoes if he got the job; something he had yearned for since school. The girlfriend – his childhood sweetheart – knew how much he coveted a pair and had been saving for it from her meagre salary working at a pickle factory.
“I will work for five years, pay off all the debts and come to India to marry her.” His plans were watertight, dreams on track.
“Where you headed to Shiraz? I hope not Iraq…” I asked.
“It is Iraq, Baghdad… why do you say so?” He asked with spotless consternation.
I headed to the toilet and smoked a cigarette before kicking myself.
*Mole (mol-ay) is Malayalam for ‘little girl/daughter’ – an address that can be used for any younger female, related or unrelated.
Travel is as much about mood and event as it is place. Tony Wheeler