Sadasivan looked up from his book, as if at an intruder. He looked at the strange number on the dial-screen. Hesitated for a moment, and then pressed the red button. And returned to the page.

The book was a novel about urban terrorism. Page after page of bomb-making, recce trips, planting of bombs in market places, killing of innocents….In the city he lived, these were facts of life. He could identify himself with the victims. In fact, he felt a strange thrill and even relief to reflect that he had not had the occasion to witness any of such gruesome incidents. Much more, deep down somewhere, he believed he would never be a victim. He would be spared somehow. This sense of immunity gave him a kind of exhilaration. These were happening to other people. He went on reading with a faint superstitious strain in his mind that reading this novel worked like an expiatory act, which provided possible protection against his being anywhere in the vicinity of such future attacks. The fascination for morbid details had chained him to the chair.

He was working in a Scheduled Bank which had its headquarters in Kerala. He had got a promotion the previous year, with a transfer to the National Capital as a compulsory corollary and was required to put in at least one more year of service before seeking a posting nearer home. Delhi was such a vast ocean that he had felt completely lost during the initial months. He was living alone in a small flat in Rajinder Nagar; shifting the entire family establishment with his wife and two children was simply out of the question. Moreover, he had begun to quite enjoy his bachelor existence, with weekly booze sessions in the company of a couple of Malayalees he had scraped acquaintance with, and also with mild single-male indulgences which the city offered. Things that didn’t involve a hell of a lot of expenditure.

Reading was not a serious engagement of his. Right from his college days he would read only thrillers, beginning with Chase, graduating to Ludlum and then branching out to various others like Arthur Hailey and Eric Van Lustbader. On ordinary days, he would read past midnight and then go to sleep, to wake up at six in the morning and get ready for a rigorous day at the bank. On Saturday afternoons, he would venture out to the dens of a couple of journo compatriots who were also posted in the Capital, and operated from INS Building. He would go with them to the Press Club of India, have a rocking evening, come back around midnight and sleep like a log. No reading that day.

Sundays he got up late, watched the Malayalam channels Asianet, Kairali or Surya TV, mostly news digests and one or two feature films. Evenings he would go to Connaught Place and hang out. And eat dinner from a medium-range restaurant to compensate for the daily kanji and payar he made for himself in the weekday evenings and the scrappy breakfast he would put together in the mornings before rushing to the bank.

Days were rolling by uneventfully when the terror attacks in Connaught Place, Karol Bagh and Greater Kailash Part II took place.

Connaught Place was his favourite haunt. The gory scenes on TV in the backdrop of familiar landmarks gave him a sick feeling in the stomach. The contorted, grotesque postures of the dead, limbs and trunk shattered, many of the bodies only in parts, turned his head. The wailing and screaming of the injured and of the near and dear caused a lump rise to his throat. Without knowing it, his eyes were brimming over. A silent scream escaped his open mouth, as he watched the flitting images.

For days together after the bombings, Sadasivan avoided going to CP. Then he gradually grew out of it like all Delhiites did. The minutiae of the quotidian accumulated in him. He even began to reflect, with a strange sense of pride, that he was living in the middle of a momentous epoch, with a ringside view of the happenings.

The police had claimed to have cracked the case in record time. Within a couple of hours of the blasts they had made the first arrest, and that too, of the suspected mastermind. Within a week, the other suspects had been traced to a hideout within the city itself. The ensuing encounter, which resulted in the death of a highly decorated officer and that of two terrorists, and the arrest of two from the spot, had been mired in controversy. The public was strongly divided on the issue. A group of intellectuals and academicians had found a number of loopholes in the police version of the story and accused them of having poorly conducted a fake encounter in which the officer had fallen as an unwitting victim. Common people who looked at the dead officer as a hero had felt disgust for those who termed it as a fake encounter. It had simply defied commonsense! Sadasivan had mumbled to himself the Malayalam proverb, “Even if one beats up one’s own mother, there would be two sides arguing the merits of the case!”

Following the controversy, somewhere at the back of his mind lurked a keen curiosity concerning the terrorists; an urge to understand their motives and strategies took hold of him. In his home State, he had been an avid reader of crime reports in certain Malayalam weeklies, like any average office-goer who’d catch the morning train for a three-hour ride to the workplace. The novel he was reading catered to his hidden sensitivities.

The cellphone came alive once again.

The same number. He looked at the watch. It was nearing midnight. He hesitated. Who could it be? Should he attend it? Finally he decided against it.

He reminisced about his young days. At that time, cellphones were not in vogue. Only black, gargantuan landphone sets. No caller-ids. If the phone rang, there was no option but to attend it if one didn’t want to miss out on important information or news. Now, the cellphone provides the luxury of selecting the calls one needs to attend. Calls from near and dear or acquaintances can be discerned from the names fed. Calls from strangers can be avoided.

The phone rang the third time. The same caller. Once again, he decided against taking the call. One, two, three—onnu pizhachaal moonnu(‘One false step, thrice repeat’—implying that the fourth time it will either be over and done with, or it will turn out to be wholesome, whatever it be.)

The phone rang once again. This time he took the call.

Someone was speaking in his own language.

“Can I come over?”

“Who are you?”

“I cannot reveal that now from where I am.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to talk to you.”

“Talk to me? You are doing just that right now.”

“Not on phone. In person.”

“What about?”

“I can’t explain it from where I am.”

Sadasivan mulled over the situation. A Malayalee. Speaking cryptically. At midnight. Should he? Should he not? Finally he decided to have the visitor over.

“Okay. Just for a short while. Do you know my place?”

“I do.”

So, he has done the recce. What sort of a person is he? A stalker? Why should he stalk someone as nondescript as I am, he thought. More than anything else, he was overcome by curiosity. Besides, the stranger sounded soft-spoken and inoffensive.

“Come over, then.”

Barely a couple of minutes later, Sadasivan heard a knock on the door. In fact two light taps, in quick succession. Hesitant and meditative.

Sadasivan opened the door. There stood before him a lanky youth barely into his twenties. He wore a sparse beard. Dishevelled hair. Sunken eyes. Clad in stonewash jeans and a matching jacket. A light backpack. He looked famished.

“Come in.”

The youth entered. Looking around, he found the inviting sofa. Without asking for permission, he almost collapsed into it.


“Yes, please.”

Before heading towards the kitchen, Sadasivan looked around for any valuables which could be easily lifted and made off with. There were only two pairs of well-worn shoes, and some old magazines on the teapoy. Also, the cellphone he had carried with him while coming out of the bedroom, which he had left on the teapoy when he went to open the door. He quickly picked it up. The youth smiled wanly.

Sadasivan returned from the kitchen in a moment with a decanter of water and a glass. The youth helped himself to two-three tumblerfuls, which he poured into his mouth without the lips touching the glass. He belched as if after a hearty meal.

“Now tell me, what is it?”

“Is there anyone else in this house?”

Sadasivan was suddenly gripped by apprehension. What is on his mind? Is he some kind of a ripper? He remembered the ripper in Kerala in the late 1980s who went about murdering people, hitting them on their heads from behind with a hammer he carried in a light backpack, the moment the victims turned their backs to him. Sadasivan slowly kept pacing the drawing room, in a wide arc, always facing the visitor, much like a police interrogator. Instantly, the boy lost his composure. He was almost on the defensive about something.

“You seem to know all about me and my whereabouts. Why not this little detail?”

“Just wanted to make doubly sure.”

“No. I live alone.”


He opened his backpack and took out a cellphone. One of the oldest Nokia models which was no longer in vogue.

“This has cost me my life.”


“This is one of the most sought after pieces of evidence the police are looking for in the ‘—————‘

bomb blast case.”

Sadasivan stopped in his tracks. Those blasts in an ancient Gangetic city farther east, were just a couple of days ago. The visuals on TV were fresh in his mind. He recoiled from the memory. The heart-rending scenes of the dead and the dying and the relatives weeping and wailing inconsolably, brought to his mind the shock and disbelief of the Delhi blast days, his blood-baptism almost soon after arrival in the National Capital. He shuddered at the thought, and swallowed hard. He found it difficult to breathe normally.

“This is the handset the terrorist used to detonate the bombs.”

Now Sadasivan was truly shaken. His eyes widened, resembling two saucers. His speech was no more than a husky whisper.

“Why take it to me here? And how come you are in possession of it?”

“It is a long story. Please listen to me patiently. And trust me. I am a 100% harmless person.”

Sadasivan somehow felt like taking the boy at his word. He desperately wanted to believe that he was speaking the truth. If he was not, there was nothing one could do about it, he reflected as if in an aside. Why should the boy trust him so much, as to confide in him as he does now, he mused. And he provided himself with the answer: ‘My own meek, gentle visage must have tempted him. A compatriot, who was most likely a compassionate one too….’ Before this reflection ended, Sadasivan began to smile sardonically to himself. He sat down on the settee opposite.

The boy began in fits and starts. Often he would stop in mid-sentence and stare blankly into space. Sadasivan had to prompt him often, with perspicacious remarks, to bring him out of his reverie. And he had to ask him questions to collect connecting details. What he could make out from the bits and pieces he got out of the boy, was roughly this:

His name was Abdul Jaleel. He was a first year BA student of Arabic in a renowned university in north India, where students from all over the world studied. Boys from Kerala, especially from Malabar, had regularly joined this institution over the last several decades. A prestigious seat of learning, this university had played an important role in the education scene in 20th century India. But, of late, dubious elements had crept into the student community, and some terrorists caught and interrogated by the police over the last few years had admitted to links with in-campus contacts.

At first Jaleel felt totally out of place in the new surroundings. Throughout his life he was almost always at the receiving end. His bapa’s hostile attitude towards him, the many bullies in his class in the junior college who made fun of him on account of his dreamy nature and love for poetry, the seventeen-year-old beauty of the neighbouring house who had rebuffed his first ever romantic overture—all these had left their scars on his sensitive mind. Upon reflection he felt that all those were far less grievous than the kind of strange pain he felt now in the pit of his stomach whenever he thought about his hapless mother and the two younger sisters who doted on him. He had no one to share his feelings with, no one to confide in. Though he could somehow manage with a little bit of coarse Urdu he had picked up from his clan back home, his cultural isolation in the campus was almost complete, as there was little else there, except the five azaans and the namaz that he was familiar with. Most of the time he would start at the slightest noise, or at the sudden appearance of someone. One could say he was always on edge, highly strung….

If he was at home, his umma would certainly have taken him to the mussaliar who would chant a black thread and tie it around his arm or waist.

Abdul Jaleel had shared a hostel room with a boy from Eastern Uttar Pradesh. A deeply religious and mild-mannered person, this youth had been a more than welcome presence in Jaleel’s campus life, as he never interfered. He would read the Quran, do namaz five times a day, and go about his business of studying regularly during fixed periods of time. And retire to bed around 11 pm.

However, after his return from an unexplained absence of a few weeks, Jaleel noticed a marked difference in his demeanour. He turned more taciturn, displayed a certain kind of grimness and agitation at times. Above all, he had brought with him a cellphone. Late at night he would talk to someone in a strange language over the phone.

Sometimes he would explain away saying that marriage proposals for his brother were scuttled by jealous relatives. He belonged to a rare tribe found in Eastern Iran/Western Baluchistan region; their tiny group had settled in an ancient enclave in UP a couple of centuries ago. They would not mix with the local Muslims and inter-marry. They were strangers in their own birth-place, marrying within their small group riddled with constant feuds and quarrels….

On the night before the bomb blasts, he appeared to be in a bright mood and was very warm towards Jaleel. He said he had to go out for the night on some urgent business and would return around noon the next day.

The blasts were between 8 and 9 in the morning. Cellphones had been used to detonate the bombs, it was revealed.

When Jaleel returned from the mess hall, the boy was waiting for him in the room, fresh and cheerful. He told Jaleel that his family had cleared the current marriage proposal for his brother after he had checked the antecedents of the bride through a third party the previous evening, and reported the matter to his father over phone. That the marriage of his brother was finally fixed on the date both parties had agreed upon; that he would leave right away and would be back after a fortnight.

That evening, as Jaleel looked under his bed for a pen that fell down and rolled away, he noticed something unusual. He was seized by a suspicion that his old leather suitcase, which he had pushed under the bed long ago, had been freshly disturbed from its bed of dust. Or, was he imagining it?

Curious, he pulled the suitcase closer and pushed it to one side. Then he peered under the bed. In the semidarkness, something darker caught his eye. There it was! An old black Nokia. Was it there before? He had never swept under the bed after he had pushed that suitcase beneath, ages ago when he first occupied the room. How would he know?

Suddenly panic gripped him. He began to fantasize the worst. What if his room-mate was one of the terrorists, or their collaborator? Was the Nokia one of the sets used in the blasts? He felt as if wave after wave of thought-locusts were descending on his brain. His ears burned. His temples throbbed. He seemed to be hearing a piercing whistle and started. Then it was a rumble of bass-drums. His heart began to pound. A dull weight got lodged in his solar plexus. Below the navel, he felt total emptiness. As if his legs were giving way….

That day and the next, Jaleel didn’t leave the room except at mealtime. Within two days, he had become a nervous wreck. On the evening of the second day, TV screens flashed the pictures of the suspects in the bomb blast. Didn’t one of them resemble his roommate? The more he strained to concentrate on the silhouetted figure on the TV screen during the several replays of the newsflash, he seemed to get more confused. However, his suspicion grew strong that his roommate could have been in the group.

Jaleel was completely lost. He feared that it was a matter of hours or minutes before the police swooped down on his room. No amount of explaining or entreaties would convince them of his innocence. What could he do? He decided to flee. And flee he did– but not even picking up his wallet, so as to give the impression that he was still around in the campus, and thus, to gain time. The only blunder he committed was that he had forgotten to take out enough cash from the wallet. He had with him just a few rupees in the pocket of his shirt, and his cellphone. He reasoned to himself that the police would look for him in bus stations and railway stations. So, he decided to walk along the highway and hitchhike. The very first truck that came his way, stopped. The swarthy, benign Sardarji who drove the truck, hauled him up by the hand from the road. Jaleel gave him some excuse of being a tourist to Agra, kidnapped, robbed and cast away midway. The fatherly Sardarji stopped the truck near the next dhaba, fed him heartily and took him to Delhi. That was in fact his last meal. It was three days ago.

Getting down at ITO at daybreak, he had walked up the road. Turned right, and spotted a familiar board. The signboard of a premier Scheduled Bank, with headquarters in a south Indian city. He decided to look for some compatriot who was most likely to be found there. Opening himself up in his own sweet mother-tongue to a sympathetic listener was the only thing he craved for now. He walked about, waiting for it to be 10 O Clock. As soon as the bank opened, he entered. There it was, right in front of his eyes! The name board, “L. Sadasivan, Manager” kept on a table in a corner.

Jaleel decided to be cautious. He knew that no one would entertain a visitor of his nature during the busy hours of transaction in the bank. The Chief Manager’s cabin was right across. He decided to wait and see what kind of a person Sadasivan really was. Jaleel sat down in one the chairs for customers outside the counter, observing him closely for a long time.

Jaleel found him to be extra-solicitous to customers, kind to old ladies and professionally businesslike to all. He was obviously a kindly, cheerful soul. This reassured him. He chose Sadasivan as his confidant.

That night, he waited out sitting under a metro-bridge. The next day, he came back to the bank and resumed his observation. By sheer chance, he overheard Sadasivan shouting his mobile number during a long distance call. Immediately he memorized it and noted it down.

That evening he followed Sadasivan at a distance; when he boarded the bus home, Jaleel too boarded it and bought a full ticket for ten rupees. When Sadasivan got down, he too got down and again followed him at a distance. He noted the house, and went back to the by-roads. He spent time loitering around within the housing colony, and around midnight, when it grew quiet, approached the house. Luckily, he spotted the light in the bedroom. He guessed that Sadasivan was awake. He then made the first call. Then he spotted a Gurkha on night-watch walking up with his stick; the Gurkha demanded of him to identify himself. Jaleel explained to him that he was a visitor from Kerala, looking for one Mr.Sadasivan in House No…….and was trying to locate the house by phoning him. Reassured, the Gurkha left him in peace. He then repeated the calls until Sadasivan answered.

During the entire narration, Jaleel didn’t seem to blink his eyes. They were sort of glassy, but not dull…on the contrary, there was a steady sheen in them. Not a stare…but a kind of fixed look. He was talking as if it was about someone else. He glided from sentence to sentence, with a languor betraying extreme detachment. Yet, there was a plaintive edge to his voice, verging on total desperation. The overriding impression Sadasivan got was of a lethargic withdrawal one wouldn’t expect from a fugitive with adrenaline flooding in his veins.

“Won’t the police catch up with you eventually?”

“No; I am in heaven.”

Sadasivan was puzzled. What did the boy mean?

“What? Are you planning to commit suicide in my house?”

“No; don’t you see that I am a dead person already?”

“If you mean you are in such a hopeless position as to consider yourself equal to a dead person, don’t worry. Take heart. I will take you to a police station, narrate all what you told me, and ensure a fair deal for you. In fact, there is a Malayalee IPS officer here in the top echelons of the CBI whom I happen to know personally. I can talk to him and make arrangements for you to be interrogated in the most professional manner. Think of it, you will certainly be an invaluable witness for the prosecution.”

As soon as he uttered those words, Sadasivan saw the futility of it all. If he turned into a prosecution witness, the moment he walked out after the trial, he would be a dead person. The terrorists would see to it. If the police caught him, too, he could be a dead person. So many torture deaths and encounter deaths are reported these days. If he returned home, his father would probably disown him and hand him over to the police, to keep the family honour intact, and to protect the other members, as has happened in so many recent cases.

“I know that I am 100% innocent, and told myself so repeatedly without stop, without sleep all this while. I then willed myself to be dead and gone. There is no place for innocents in this world. I am already in heaven. What you see here is my dead body.”

“Then why did you come here? What do you want to do with this phone?”

“I wanted to prove to the world that I am innocent. I have done that at least in front of one good individual. This is the only piece of incriminating evidence on my person. An innocent man need never carry such an instrument of murder with him. I am leaving it here.”

“Why did you choose me, of all people to confide in?”

Jaleel didn’t answer that question. He rose and made for the door.

“Where are you going?”

“It doesn’t matter where I am going; I know that now I am 100% innocent. Thank you.”

He disappeared into the darkness outside.

Sadasivan sat back; he remained in that position for a long time, unable to readily take in what had happened. When he suddenly realized that he was sitting there with the door wide open, the lights on and with the most lethal evidence in the world in connection with a most heinous crime, he sprang up and shut the door. Then he gingerly picked up the cellphone. Strangely, it felt unusually light. He opened it with difficulty.

Its inside was empty. Clogged with scraggly cobweb and dust. Clearly undisturbed for many years.