“Chacha Jaan, I need to come in.” Yusuf said for the fifth time, the vein in his temple ready to burst. “Just open the door and let me in.”
“Doctor Sahib,” Chachi Jaan knocked lightly on the door with a knuckle. “We need your help.”
Someone stirred inside the room, but the door remained bolted.
“Chacha.” Yusuf bent down, finally sliding the page under the door. “Don’t open the door, but take a look at this, will you?”
The paper was snatched from his fingers before he could slip it in completely.
There was the rustling of clumsy fingers straightening the page. There was a short pause, then a click and the door was unlocked. Chacha Jaan stuck his head out of the door and it could have been comical if he hadn’t looked so pathetically hopeless.
“You are not going on any meeting tonight.” He told Yusuf.
At six, the Rashtriya Rifles released a second official statement, saying the meeting with the Pakistani “story-writer” had been “cancelled with mutual consent” and that the RR would be hosting a presser at its Srinagar officers’ mess instead to “explain” the whole situation to the local media.
As Yusuf sat, aghast, in the living room of Makan Taintees, watching the television, he got a call from the Kashmiri journalist.
“I can’t prep you for anything right now, son.” He had said before cutting the call to take another urgent one. “You’ll have to do this one by yourself.”
At 6:30pm, an inside source of the RR sent a written statement to the media ahead of the presser in which Jaleelah Taheer Malik’s background was brought to light. The daughter of a black-market weapons dealer, she had always used Awaz to play the media person card, buying immunity for her father as he did illegal arms trade with Kashmiri Miltons. The army had deliberately never touched her, not because it feared Awaz or Jaleelah Taheer but because the Indian military understood the importance of a citizen’s life. No steps were taken to bring Jaleelah Taheer’s father to justice in the hope that he would reform. Many attempts, even by officials going to meet him at his home personally, were made by the army to convince him to stop the illegal weapon trade and the terrorist propaganda his daughter propagated through her magazine. All the army’s words fell upon deaf ears. The army had given up on the father-daughter duo ever reforming but had not taken any harsh steps. The army believed in the freedom of the Junta and the Junta was like a child. You never killed your child.
Why, then, was Jaleelah Taheer Malik nowhere to be found? Because finally, her father’s actions had come back to haunt his family. Because of a deal gone wrong, his daughter had been kidnapped by the Miltons and the propaganda against the army was an attempt to force the army to lead the search for her. The Indian military would not be gaslit like this, the statement said. Today’s presser would be an attempt on the RR’s part to defuse the whole situation and clarify the Military’s stance about Jaleelah Malik and what little role they had played in it. After this, all mention of Jaleelah Malik would be a thing of the past, as far as the Kashmiri populace, that had already rejected the separatist mindset of Miss Malik, was concerned. The Army regretted it would not be able to help her father bring about her release but communicating with atankwadis, it was said, was not the Army’s tradition.
And they were traditional, these Not-Men. Thought Yusuf as he felt his heart sink.
He turned to Chacha Jaan, who was standing, huddled, near the staircase.
“What happens now?” he asked the old man and for a second, he felt like a thirteen-year-old boy hiding behind bannisters.
“They’ll do a presser.” Chacha Jaan said feebly. “They’ll show records of my arms deals. They’ll misquote paragraphs from Awaz. They’ll turn her into a pariah. Then they will erase her.”
Yusuf shook his head. “There must be something we can do, Chacha.”
The old man shook his head. “This is Kashmir, beta. Nobody can do anything here.”
“Kashmir hei, Jahannam tou nahi hei! (It’s Kashmir, though, not hell!)” Chachi, who had been sitting beside Yusuf on the couch, sobbing into her chador, burst out suddenly. “There is always something to do!”
Chacha Jaan let out a long, shaky sigh. Yusuf picked up the paper again, straightened it, read it like he might discover something new in it, but there was nothing to read between the lines. Just one, blatantly obvious line.
“Bhagwaan aap ki rakhsha karey.” The sentence came to Yusuf through a cloud of memories as clearly as if he’d just read it on the note that was hidden inside a folded raincoat
His uncle knew what would happen next.
“Who wrote it?” he wondered - aloud, he realized a split second later. He turned to his uncle. “Chacha?”
He shook his head. “Somebody on the inside, who else?”
Imam Deen’s words returned to him. There was someone inside the military on their side.
“Wait here.” He told his uncle, rushing into the second bedroom that he had come to regard as his own to retrieve the single white envelope he had left in the otherwise empty study table drawer while packing his luggage the night she had been arrested.
Returning to the lounge, he put it on the table, pulling out the page inside.
“Chacha, look at this.”
The old doctor shuffled forward, sitting down on the couch beside chachi and took the page from him.
“Lal Salam arz ho.” He read it, then looked up at Yusuf, “How did you get this?”
“Chachi Jaan gave it to me. She said somebody left it for me on the doorstep.” He answered and she looked at the letter in her husband’s hand, recognition in her eyes. “Jaleelah and I thought it was from the army.”
As Yusuf sat, aghast, in the living room of Makan Taintees, watching the television, he got a call from the Kashmiri journalist
Chacha Jaan shook his head slowly, tracing the words with a rough fingertip. “The army doesn’t leave subtle threats, Yusuf. I know their style.” He tapped the first word. “The scarlet salute. Do you know what the scarlet salute is?”
“Yes,” Yusuf nodded. “But why would it matter in Kashmir?”
Chacha Jaan took a deep breath through his nose. “Yusuf, beta.” He said and there was a tremulous thread of hope in his voice that scared and excited Yusuf at the same time. “Yusuf, beta, the army isn’t made up solely of Amit Khatris, you know. There are some humans in there.”
“Chacha?” something was fluttering inside Yusuf’s ribcage but he was not ready to let it out just yet - not just yet.
“Is this the only letter you got?” Chacha Jaan turned the letter over and asked.
“There was another one. The driver of the military jeep gave it to me after I met with Amit Khatri that night.”
“What did it say?”
“Bhagwaan aap ki rakhsha karey.” The sentence came to Yusuf through a cloud of memories as clearly as if he’d just read it on the note that was hidden inside a folded raincoat.
Chacha Jaan looked at him with watery eyes that were suddenly less watery, and then he stood up.
“I know exactly what I am supposed to do, Yusuf. And only I can do it. You’ll have to stay at home.”
“But why?” Yusuf stepped closer to him. “I’ll do it with you.”
“No, son.” Chacha Jaan said and his voice was soft. “No. You must stay so that after I do it, you can go get our Jaleelah. Because there is someone inside the maze who wants to save her from the Minotaur.” He turned to Chachi Jaan. “Begum, where are the keys to my cellar?”
As Yusuf watched his aunt go downstairs, followed by his uncle, in search for the keys, he wondered who the writer of the letters was. And a part of him, the same part that had known who the Kashmiri Yusuf Malik had been since the beginning, whispered tremulously, I know. I know who the mystery Ariadne is.
To be continued ...