It was a sultry March morning in 1993. After the pleasantness of winter was over, the weather was getting towards being nasty. It was still months to go before monsoon to set in. It was a Friday and the air carried the lightness of the approaching weekend. There was a glint of happiness on commuters’ faces, who seemed as always in a spell of rush. And, why not? A difference of a minute or two can bring about such startling differences in this amazing city called Bombay, a city known for its relentlessness and ruthlessness. Who would say a few months back the city witnessed such violent riots. Like any other busy working day this March 12th was running at break-neck speed.
Byculla was no different from the rest of the city. The old man at Shalimar was almost halfway with his chopping, the masala grinding was about to start. Below Minara Masjid, at Suleman Usman Mithaiwala, the cleaning was getting over. The whiff of boiled milk had just about started to captivate the neighbourhood. With headscarves dutifully tied, girls in flocks were going towards their schools. For the vagabonds, nothing like street cricket to remain super busy and perpetually active.
Sitting far away from Bombay, something was amiss in one person’s life – maybe many people’s lives. But in this blog today we will just talk about him – the protagonist – Arshad.
“The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. That is his punishment.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Days turned into nights and nights into mornings, but the vacuum did not end. There was a certain kind of listlessness within the prison walls. The activities seemed to tumble together to result in a merciless void. The young man thought it was wise to maintain distance from others, remain reserved and immersed in his own world. He knew his stay was temporary and he would soon step out to the busy life of Bombay. There was so much to be done. The calculations of his pending work kept him awake for nights.
His optimism had its effect on other inmates as well. There was a particularly lanky fellow with protruding eyes who stopped crying as was his wont at nights. He attributed this change to Arshad bhai’s kind words. The old chacha’s letter-writing woes were now sorted. Arshad wrote such soulful letters to his son that he always got prompt replies along with a once in two months visit. Chacha was happy with these simple joys of life.
Arshad usually won love and respect from mostly all the inmates. Be it teaching the other inmates, writing letters, filing petitions or any other documentation which needed to be done from inside the jail premises, Arshad was the go-to man. And no matter how pensive or dejected he felt, Arshad would never ever say no for an answer.
He often thought of Noori. How beautiful the days were just after they were married. Business was flourishing and it was paradise at home. God had been too kind and was probably taking it all away from him now. His thoughts hovered on his best friend Chirag. With all the unadulterated joys, the blissful days of childhood had been the best years days of his life. Chirag had been very ambitions and together they dreamt of making it big in life. Chirag had this odd fascination of seeing his name on the papers. And now all newspaper headlines carried his name almost every day. How a childhood fascination had become a curse for Arshad! Tears came to his eyes.
“Are you out of your minds? Did your education turn you into a lunatic? What do you think the Indian cops will welcome you with flower petals? Why the hell did the thought of surrender come to you in the first place?”
His brother Yusub was beyond himself with anger when Arshad told him the news of surrendering to the Indian police. The ISI guarded affluence pricked him like thorns. The satin sheets made him restless at nights and the closed air conditioned calm induced a sense of claustrophobia. He longed for the sultry sea breezes at Bombay beeches. He longed to visit Mahim with Noori and see fisherwomen bickering among themselves. He missed building the sand castles at Chowpatty and eating corn with his family. He missed the simple pleasures of life. It had been so long he had attended the Antonio D’Souza High School reunion. The last reunion had been so much fun. He and his friends had partied the entire night.
He had to get out of this exile. What would he do with the money if he spent his entire life in this confinement? The clear blue sky beckoned him and he longed to fly high like the birds above.
His parents were getting older, his wife was expecting a baby soon. It was not for this life that he had studied so hard. The CA degree was not so easy to get. Years of hard work had paid off when he finally got the coveted distinction. But what use was it today if he was unable to give his loved ones a better life. He would be a father soon. What would be his child’s life with the ISI keeping a close watch on all their movements, 24/7? Yes he knew he had sinned to believe Yusub but was it so grave that there was no hope of redemption?
There must be a way to untangle himself from this mess. Yes Arshad was desperate to find it out.
By the time the third blow hit him the pain had quite numbed his senses. Only he could feel a warm liquid trickling by the side of his eyes and down his face. He presumed it must be blood. It was unnerving how in such a serious situation he suddenly remembered one of Chirag’s stupid jokes and wanted to laugh aloud. Was he losing his sanity? Soon came the next blow and then he couldn’t remember any more.
He knew they had made him lie down on ice and he was naked, stark naked. But he felt no sense of shame. He was amused how Bollywood movies copy exact prison scenes. He wondered which of the inspectors must be the informers to the movie producers. He didn’t understand how he was supposed to behave because he himself had already surrendered and was ready to cooperate with the cops. He said that so many times. Why did they fail to understand? With the sudden blow to his groin Arshad cried aloud and kept giving out the shrill cries each time they struck him with that iron rod.
He didn’t know what time of the day it was – late evening or probably early morning. The CBI officer with the flared nostrils seemed the no-nonsense type of guy. He said he was ready to listen. He wanted Arshad to surrender and cooperate and he could expect a compassionate treatment from the Indian police. Wasn’t this the thing he wanted to establish for so long? He wanted to tell them everything. But everybody thought his story was too incredulous to believe. Whenever he stated the facts, whatsoever he knew, all he received was disbelief. How can the brother of a seasoned terrorist be innocent? But no one ever pondered why he left all the luxuries offered by Pakistan to tread on the dangerous soils of a country he had left more than a year back.
April 18th, 1986: The final of the Austral-Asia Cup in Sharjah was turning out to be the nothing short of ‘nail-biting’ as it was precisely called. Four runs were needed to win the match. The only grace was that Javed Miandad was on field. OMG! What a genius of a stroke by Miandad! It went for a SIX and Pakistan won the match.
The cheers in the Byculla neighbourhood were deafening. How predictable that each time there would be any India-Pakistan match, 80 per cent Muslims cry hoarse for Pakistan. But when asked if they would want to go and live in that holy land for followers of Islam, promptly they would say no. Arshad was immersed in this thought only when Rubina, his bhabi put in a gulab jamun into his mouth. There were widespread celebrations even in their household. Arshad was filled with a certain sense of irritation mixed with anger.
He wanted to solve the puzzle and end this perpetual hypocrisy. But like always he could not say anything. He could not voice the fact that he was not one among them. He could not tell them he looked at things differently and viewed the world through an altered spectrum. Like always he was quiet and aloof.
Little did he know that this would not be the first time when he would face a situation where he would do something against his wish, against his own approval. At that time also it would be done at the insistence of a family member as well. It was this nature of his that would bring forth the doom in his life years later.
First it was irritation then it turned into resentment, which became pure unadulterated hatred and finally resulted in a sense of dejection, sadness and depression. Arshad went through these varied emotions in the endless years he spend within the confines of the prison walls. He had his sense of hopes in between. There were days when he woke up with a wonderful sense of optimism. The millennium changed while he was still in jail and all he could pray was that things would be better in future. Was this why he took the trouble of turning away all the comforts and luxuries of life offered in Pakistan? Was this the reason he came to India? Paying a price with his life for being Yusub’s brother, huh?
His daughter must be a big girl now. The thought of his child brought a warm glow to his face. There was a sense of pride. He had faith that one day his daughter would understand why he acted the way he did. She would be the one, even if the only one to support his stand. Even if he got condemned and was hanged, at least she would know his intent was right and he was indeed honest and forthright when he dared to do the impossible and defied all odds to surrender himself to the Indian authorities.
Sleep was hard to get within the confines of the prison. He often felt a sense of dejection but knew very well that he had to get over it. He had always been an optimist and needed to get that zeal back in his life. He believed that things could not be like this always. He had read about the wheel of fortune. Everything was transient in life. He had his share of misfortunes and now the time had come when things would change. Better days would certainly follow.
He knew he was not naive and innocent. He had confessed to the crime that Yusub did and how his brother had weaned his assistance in the complicated financial transactions. But he did his bit too. He gave his confession against his own blood brother, Yusub, the person with whom he had always maintained a distance in spite of living in the same house – the person who got him embroiled in all this mess.
He wanted to turn back time and go back to the careless and easy days of life when every moment wasn’t such a strain for survival – when all he had to bother about was his CA firm, his family and friends.
These days he had found a new vocation – education. Unlike every other member of his family he loved to read. The touch of the pages of a book gave him an amazing thrill. Yusub had often made fun of this inclination of his and told him a coward. Yusub said feel awesome with the touch of guns and bullets. Arshad differed but never told his brother anything about it. He carried on with his readings on his own.
He was happy that he enrolled for English Literature Masters’ programme at IGNU. At least his days were not rotting away uselessly. He had Keats, Hardy, Dickens, Wollestonecraft, Rushdie and so many others for company. When the professor at jail recited the soulful lines from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner,
“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS”
it felt March 12th, 1993, was stuck in his throat like an albatross. He wanted to get over it, throw it away or forget it like a bad dream. But no matter how hard he tried it kept getting stuck on him tighter and tighter.
“And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.”
The day for sure chased him even today with a ferocious tyranny.
Today he was old, tired and worn-out. Yes he had sinned. He helped his brother while Yusub masterminded the Bombay blasts in March 12, 1993. But no one would trust him that his intent was not evil. He was not aware of the consequences of his actions. Yusub said he wanted some help with certain financial transactions and since Arshad was a CA he felt it was his duty to assist his brother.
He didn’t expect anyone to believe his story but Allah knew he was not wrong. Earlier he was angry and bitter but now he had submitted to the fact that he was paying the price for his brother’s actions. But he was hopeful that he would not get a death verdict. He wanted to live no matter how pathetic his situation might be. He wanted to see his daughter get married and live a peaceful life. English Literature had soothed his emotions; the Masters’ programme in Political Science sharpened his brain. He wanted to study more and learn and learn.
He didn’t know if ever he would get freedom but he dreamt of visiting beautiful mountains and discovering unknown, unexplored lands. He wanted to live so that he could do penance for his sins and live a sane man’s life once and for all. He wanted to roam around his beloved Bombay and do things he did as a boy. He wanted to get drenched in the rains and rush back home to his mother’s admonitions.
He wanted to relive the day of his wedding and see his beautiful bride dressed as a queen. He wanted to hold his daughter in his arms and flung her high up and then catch her back. He knew he dreamt for the impossible. His mother was a very old woman now, his wife though lovely, had lost her sheen and his daughter was soon to turn 21. And he knew he could never be free.
But he wanted to live… And so he sought for MERCY…
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:…
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings ,
It is an attribute to god himself…”
William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene I)
President of India finally rejected Arshad’s mercy petition for the second time and he was hanged on his 54th birthday at a jail in Nagpur after being convicted in the 1993 Bombay blast case. His hanging took place despite last minute efforts by his lawyers to delay it.
He was calm and composed as he walked to the gallows after being brought out of his barrack at 6.50 am.
Arshad’s last words were, “Main aur mera rab hi janta hai ki asliyat kya hai. Aap log toh duty kar rahe hain isliye main aapko maaf karta hoon (I and my God know the truth. You people are just doing your duty, so I forgive you).”