It’s not often that the hunter becomes the hunted. But bad luck does befall the best of people. I guess it wasn’t my lucky Saturday last weekend. Or was it because I had a haircut and pared my nails (both considered inauspicious) that fateful morning which invited the wrath of Saturn (Shani) on me? I am not superstitious by nature, but one can never tell about such things. Why, there’s a colleague who believes that whenever a black cat commando crosses his path, he catches a cold. Another finds a cosmic link between waking up to Steppenwolf’s anthem Born to be wild and forgetting to brush his teeth.
To each his own, I suppose. To cut to my misfortune, Saturn, or some other celestial body that messes with human lives, must have been particularly pissed off for bestowing me with the worst assignment of my career and an even worse fallout on that fateful Saturday.
Like all things ominous, it all started rather innocuously. The boss broke the news late on Friday afternoon, “Shankar, it does look like a no brainer, but over the weekend, we have to prepare a list of young Urban Naxals or UNs in Delhi. The Home Ministry wants it. We have no choice but to deliver. Since it is a top priority assignment, I guess you will have to sacrifice your Saturday evening for this operation,” he said in a conciliatory tone, knowing full well that I hated to work on weekends.
I was in no mood to given in easily. “Mr Saxena,” I protested, “if by UNs, you mean those who are likely to vote against the BJP in 2019 or are opposed to government policies, then the list would be a humungous one for the IB to process.”
He conveniently ignored my sarcasm. “Don’t worry on that count. We have been provided a narrower definition of the people we are supposed to identify,” he said, showing no trace of annoyance. “What the government wants us to do is to track a few young ‘invisible enemies’ of the state... you know, the activists and intellectual types who are inclined towards the JNU line of thinking. All we have to do is throw up a few names.”
“But what’s all this got to do with Saturday? Can’t we do it early next week,” I wondered aloud.
“Well,” he said, sliding a dossier marked ‘Secret’ towards me, “it’s all in here. Research done for the Home Ministry by the PM’s favourite filmmaker, Vivek Agnihotri, suggests that such persons can be found in the bars and clubs that young people frequent in Delhi and Noida on Saturday nights. What you are expected to do is go undercover as a disgruntled intellectual and get talking to a few suspects. Of course, your booze and food bill will be taken care of,” he added with a conspiratorial smile.
“Wouldn’t it be better if someone younger is given this assignment,” I said, hoping to salvage my Saturday night. “I hate these noisy bars playing David Guetta and Honey Singh. It gives me a headache.”
“Shankar, we tried the younger lot,” he said, almost empathising with my predicament, “They got it all wrong. Last week, the chaps nabbed five kids who happened to be wearing Che Guevara T-shirts. We interrogated them for two days only to find they knew nothing about the Argentinean revolutionary and mistook him for a rockstar. In fact, they hadn’t even heard of Karl Marx, Fidel Castro or read Marquez! It was a bloody waste of time!
“But don’t get me wrong,” he quickly added, “we don’t expect you to pick up anyone. You just get us some names and addresses. We’ll leave the rest to the Delhi Police. They are good at detaining without valid reason and extracting confessions,” he said, rolling a dot pen between his fingers.
An uneasy silence followed his last pronouncement since neither of us had anything further to say. Eventually, I picked up the dossier and took my leave, cursing my bad luck and silently drove home.
The following evening, I set off early. Dressed in casuals with a copy of Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, in my hand, I looked every bit a middle-aged Urban Naxal. I first did the rounds of the clubs in Hauz Khas Village and the nearby Aurobindo Market in South Delhi and spotted a few youngsters who would fit Vivek Agnihotri’s UN label. Like millions of citizens, they were upset with the fuel price hike, inflation, degradation of the environment and the politics of hate patronised by those in power. I brought them vodkas and eats and heard them out but finally dismissed them as innocent dissenters rather than enemies of the state.
Later, I drove to the Gardens Galleria Mall in Sector 38, Noida. The Home Ministry dossier had identified ‘Time Machine’ on the second floor as a “bar and restaurant that attracts UNs by the dozens”. But when I surveyed the place, I found no one worthwhile. So I ordered a vodka and then another and another. As the evening progressed, I felt light-hearted enough to forget all about my assignment. “To hell with UNs,” I said aloud and a waiter hovering around wondered whether I worked for the United Nations and was frustrated with my job. I dismissed him with a wave of my hand.
I soon settled the bill and staggered out. As I exited the mall, I accidentally bumped into a group of hangers on at the entrance. I profusely apologised to them for coming in their way and walked towards my car. That was when I was stopped in my tracks by the night patrol of the Uttar Pradesh police.
“I am Shankar from the Intelligence Bureau,” I said officiously.
“You don’t look like anyone from the IB,” an inspector with a handlebar moustache barked. “Drunk people coming out from bars claim they are from CBI, Enforcement Directorate and god knows where else. Do you have any proof of your identity?”
I tried to pull out my wallet from my trouser pocket but found it was missing. “Where is my wallet?” I said aloud in shock.
The inspector broke out into snide laughter. “It always happens,” he said, sarcasm dripping from his voice. “Whenever big CBI and IB officers come out of bars late at night, their wallets with the ID card suddenly go missing. I bet your phone is also lost.”
I rummaged through my pockets and discovered he was right. “My wallet and mobile have been stolen. When I came out, I did run into a group of people, they must have picked my pockets. They seem to have suddenly disappeared. Can I make a call?” I requested. “That will clear things up.”
I was summarily denied permission. Instead, I was pushed into a police vehicle and driven to the local police station. There, I was taken to the interrogation room and seated on a rickety chair.
“So, Mr IB officer,” the inspector said coming to the point, “come clean and tell us who you really are. If you cooperate, it will do you a lot of good. If not, we have ways to make you talk. Remember, you are in Noida, which is under the jurisdiction of the UP police. We are a lot tougher than the chaps in Delhi when it comes to the third degree and human rights-shights.” His words held out a threat.
“I told you, I am from the IB. Let me make that call…”
He cut me short: “You think we are stupid! Do IB officers frequent bars with a copy of Lenin’s book. You surely must be a Naxalite. Tell me, where are your other comrades and why are you in Noida?”
“Sir, he must be an Urban Naxal. He fits the description of UNs in the Home Ministry manual,” his sidekick, a pot-bellied constable offered.
“Tewari, don’t butt in while I’m questioning a suspect,” his senior admonished him. The inspector turned to me: “What other books do you read — Mao, Marx, Engels…”
I tried in vain to impress on him that I was an undercover agent on a mission to find UNs for which reason I had Lenin’s book on my person. “I can see you are very clever,” he said dismissively, “but it won’t work with the UP police. You should have thought of something smarter to say. We have instructions from the top to be severe on UNs who are the scum of the earth with their anti-government communist talk.”
The constable could not help but chip in: “We even have the green signal to eliminate enemies of the state in encounters - both fake and real. The UP police have quite a reputation for that.”
His senior ignored him and turned once again to me. “So, Mr Shankar, tell us your real name and where did you get your training — in Bastar or in Gadchiroli? You seem rather well built for a Naxal. And, before I forget, who were you meeting at the Time Machine?”
“I am telling you I had come hunting for Urban Naxals and now I am being targeted,” I protested. “Allow me to make one call and you will realise that I work for the IB.”
“I know who you will phone — some lawyer who will create trouble for us,” he muttered under his breath.
“Inspector, I won’t call. I will give you the number. Why don’t you make the call…?” I was almost pleading.
He finally relented and dialled the boss and spoke with him for a few minutes. Then he handed the phone to me. “Mr Saxena, this is Shankar, I am in trouble,” I said with urgency in my voice, “someone stole my wallet and I have lost my ID card. I am in Noida and the UP police have detained me. They don’t believe I work for the IB. You have to help me…”
“Why the hell have they arrested you?” the boss was curious to know.
“Well they suspect I am an Urban Naxal,” I replied sheepishly.
There was silence at the other end. I swear I heard Mr Saxena chuckle.
(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)