Month: January 2016

Dacoit’s Honor: Noori Natt and Paul Jatt

BAD DAD IN GARDEN

A. P. Gill

Noori Natt’s eyes crinkled as he stroked his flaring moustache. The floor to ceiling bars of his cell only seemed to enhance his legendary dash. He was enjoying the scene without feeling any discomfort at his situation.

On the manicured lawn of the Lahore, Qila Gujjar Singh police station, the little boy squealed with delight as his older brother picked him up and whirled him around while the girl clapped her hands and their young mother sat on a chair, smiling and knitting.

The old Police Stations in the Punjab are built around a hollow square entered through a gate protected by an armed sentry. Officers on duty sit in that block. The management offices face the entrance and the blocks on both sides connecting the entrance and offices are remand custody cells of which the inner wall looking out onto a lawn consists of steel bars.  There is no interrogation room — buttock beating on the well-cut lawn surrounded by flower-beds serves that purpose.

Beret set languidly back on his head, constable Hector Lal Din strolled indolently along the verandah running in front of the cell bars. Bloody hawalatis, he thought as he sporadically stroked the bars with his six-foot long stave, while scratching his itchy crotch with the other. As he neared Noori’s cell, he smartened up. Noori, a man with a name on both sides of the India Pakistan border, was not be trifled with and could also be the source of a fat tip.

“Ohé Hectorah!” Noori’s said quietly.

Hector went up to the cell bars. “Jee Noori Jee?” he inquired respectively, ensconcing the renowned bandit’s name in respectful prefix and suffix.

“Who’re these kids?”

“A. P. Gill’s!”

“The magistrate who remanded me?”

Hector nodded.

“What’re they doing here?”

“Safe place for them to play!”

The little boy suddenly started running in the direction of the cell, his brother behind him.

He came up the steps to the verandah and then stopped, staring at Noori.

“Are you a dakoo?”

“Yes, a good one!”

“Daddy says it’s ok to talk to the good ones.”

“Hey, you little brat —” snarled the older boy, then stopped as Noori raised an authoritative hand.

“Don’t — your mother’s just behind you.”

The boy stopped.

The young mum in a shalwar kameez came up.

“Salam aleikum, Begum Sahib,” Noori respectfully greeted her.

“Wa aleikum as salam, Noor Sahib.”

He was taken aback by the woman’s courtesy.

“Do you know who I am, Begum Sahib?”

She nodded. “Yes, another human being with a family waiting for him. But you look well.”

“Begum Sahib, he’s very well looked after,” Hector added.

“I’m due to appear for my first hearing in Gill Sahib’s court tomorrow. I’m locked up on his responsibility,” he added, eyes twinkling.

“You know about my husband. He’s never been accused of an unjust decision, or favouritism. And he doesn’t take rishwat bribes.”

“That’s the worry, Bibi Jee!” he remarked with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Put it in God’s hands. Pray and I’ll pray for you.”

He noticed the cross around her neck and bowed his head. “May your Yesu Masih, our Hazrat Issa, bless us all, and Allah  protect your beautiful children.”

Susan Gill walked away with her children and Noori’s mind went back fifteen years, just at the outbreak of the Second World War.

During the monsoon, in a dramatic dawn raid on a jeweller’s haveli mansion to the east of the river Chenab, Noori had decamped with five kilos of gold strapped to the saddle of his milk white steed. A police party led by Superintendent Nicky Nicholson and Sub Inspector Sant Singh Caleb Gill were hot on his heels. Pouring rain in a gale-force wind neither deterred them nor their horses, nostrils flared, snorting and foaming with effort and excitement.  After half an hour’s unchecked gallop the police were unable to shorten the distance between themselves and Noori’s steed. The waves in the mighty Chenab seemed to reach up and touch the black sky drenching them to the bone. Without checking his steed, Noori plunged straight into the jaws of the mighty Chenab in spate.

UNCLE CALEB

Sant Singh Caleb Gill

Superintendent Nicky Nicholson, pulled in the reins of his galloping mount. The horse raised its forelegs and neighed in the classic stance of a checked gallop and so did the rest of the party. An expert, left-handed shot, Nicky drew his revolver and sighted on the back of the receding Noori. Sub-Inspector Gill, riding to his right, pulled the left rein of his stallion and dug his left heel in its side, careening into his superior officer’s mount, and spoiling his aim. The shot went wide and Gill prepared to resume chase. Before he could fully disengage from his last maneouvre, Nicky had seized the reins of his subordinate’s stallion.

Both men glared at each other.

“Let me get him, Sahib!”

“No. I won’t lose my best officer to the bloody Chenab for a dacoit.”

“But you’d shoot him in the back, Sahib? He’s a man among men and deserves as much!”

A millisecond’s face-off, then teeth shone through brown and white-tanned skin. Both officers exchanged nods, they wheeled their horses in an about-turn and dug their heels into their sides. The elite Punjab Police patrol galloped behind them amid the screams of their ancestral war cries.

The news of Sub Inspector Gill saving Noori’s life spread across the length and breadth of the Punjab. Shortly, Gill was tragically killed in the line of duty, but Noori was unable to pay his respects at his funeral.  Noori’s arrest warrant, however, was submerged by the blood-letting madness of the 1947 Partition riots between Hindu / Sikhs and Muslims. Noori excelled himself by leading mounted parties to protect Muslim refugees fleeing Indian territory. And on the way in, he redeemed himself by taking Hindu / Sikh refugees into India. But he was unable to pay his respects at Gill’s funeral, and by the time Paartition settled it was too late and Gill’s younger brother was busy entrenching his magisterial reputation to replace his brother’s. It weighed heavily on Noori’s shoulders.

Noori shook his head. Hector had broken his reverie.

“There’s a message for you that was phoned into the office.”

The sudden lack of expression on Noor’s face told Hector how important the innocuous message was.

“All is well at home and elsewhere.”

“Thank you, Hector. You’ll be looked after.”

Hector bowed his head and strolled away.

Noori’s heart soared. At dawn, he would quietly walk out of his unlocked cell door and past the sentry, from where a Chevrolet Impala would take him to a private aircraft at Walton airport outside Lahore. He would be provided with two genuine passports in different names, foreign currency and a weapon.  In a few hours he would be in Dubai. Then another thought hit his gut.

A.P.Gill Court Kasur mid 50s

A. P. Gill holding court: the turbaned head is that of the court reader

Arthur Paul (A. P) Gill, section 30 magistrate, Lahore, was sub inspector Sant Singh Caleb Gill’s kid brother. Known in his family as Nikka’a, or kiddo, he had always wanted to be a magistrate and was fast-tracking his way to become a legend. Every morning he got in half an hour early to look over the day’s case files and today was no exception. Little did he realize, sitting on the dais, flipping the pages of Noori’s case file, that this day would be another personal and professional landmark. The fan whirred overhead and the morning was still fresh at that time.

“As Salaam aleikum, sahib bahadur!” a deep voice quietly greeted.

Nikka’a grunted without raising his head.

Footsteps neared the dais. Nikka’a finished the page, looked up and the world stood still.  A. P. Gill suddenly felt being stared at, and looked up from The Pakistan Times. His blood ran cold, he silently started reciting the 23rd Psalm but maintained his composure. He looked straight into the eyes of the smiling, handsome face.

“Oi, Noori’a’a, what the hell are you doing here, without handcuffs, or a police escort!” he demanded, then smiled wryly. “You’re early!”

“So are you, Gill Sahib,” Noori replied, adjusting the two-horse chinese boskey silk kurta over his shalwar with one hand. The other hand held a smart leather briefcase. “But if I’m here, it’s not to hurt you, but to offer you a gift.”

“You insolent dog, I could take you apart with my bare hands,” Gill said flatly.

Noori inclined his head. “We who live apart from your society know you’re a hard man, Sahib-ji. Give me five minutes, then take me apart or call your police.”

 Gill looked deep into Noori’s dark brown eyes, made a decision, glanced at his watch, and nodded.

Noori stepped forward, and put the briefcase on top of the railing that separated a magistrate’s dais from the public, clicked it open, then spun it around so Gill could see the contents.

Gill scowled at the contents.

“Check the revolver, Sahib-ji, and both passports.”

Gill removed the .38 Smith and Wesson revolver between two passports lying over packets of neatly stacked foreign currency, opened the cylinder, saw the shining brass of the cartridges, closed it, and offered it to Noori butt forward.

“Well?” Gill inquired, eyes glinting.

Noori pressed a lever, let the cartridges roll onto his other palm and put the revolver on the railing.

Gill grunted, and flicked open the passports, one British, the other Turkish. The picture in both documents was Noori’s, but not the names.

“Now please ring Walton Private Airport to confirm that a plane is waiting for Sheikh Azhar Zahoor’s private flight to Dubai.”

Nikka’ah put the phone back on its cradle and looked down at Noor.

“All right. What’s this tamasha all about?”

“Your brother spared my life. In return, I can’t steal your career — and it’s a brilliant one, Sahib jee! Had I said that I could escape at will in court later today, what would you have done?”

“Had you buttocks beaten to shreds!” Nikka’ah said with a grin. “So what are you hoping for?”

“Justice and mitigation.”

Gill nodded. “It will be done. Now fuck back to police custody before I change my mind and shoot you dead on the spot!”

Noori obeyed and Nikka’a kept his word.

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Indo-Pakistan LOC Tikka Party

Preamble. LOC Kashmir will offer autobiographical short fiction in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, the 740 kilometer Line of Control dividing the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir. Approximately 500,000 Indian and 300,000 Pakistani armed and battle-hardened troops face each other across their gun-sights. Both sides indulge in infiltration and aggressive patrolling. Exchanges of fire occur with regular frequency. This is where and how I spent my late teens, as a young officer in the wake of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, before having to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. I wish to see peace in beautiful Kashmir during my lifetime, even though I am not very hopeful.

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Jawan (private) Mansha, Punjab Regiment, Pakistan Army, sighted down the barrel of his MG 1A3 machine gun. Index finger outside the trigger guard: breathe in, breathe out, wait for Naik Sain’s order, then take up the slack of the first pull-off, block respiration and lemon-squeeze on the second pull-off to release 7.62mm rounds with a muzzle velocity of 2700 feet per second at 1300 cyclic rounds per minute.

He was in his forward earthen bunker in Chamb Sector, on the Kashmir Line of Control, 170 km southeast of Islamabad, ensuring the tenuous possession of the sylvan enclave divided by a sparkling tributary of the River Tawi. His battalion was deployed on a thousand metre frontage, two rifle companies up. The Indian Army was deployed opposite, at about two hundred meters.

Hereditary professional warriors facing each other, living rough, fingers on trigger guards, mindsets focused on killing and dying.

 The bunker was cool in the April heat, especially due to the thick branches of the lop-sided ta’ali hardwood tree with roots and trunk in Pakistan but branches in India. Shelves cut from the earthen walls held mess tins, enamel mugs and webbing, all neatly laid out by size. Just like on parade. There was no running water, only a field toilet a hundred meters to the rear and certainly no personal phones. Mail once a week for those who could read.

Ustad jee,” Mansha whispered calmly, using the customary form of address of ‘teacher’ for a Naik. “Five green uniforms entering my killing zone.”

Naik Sain put his tea mug on the ground, confirmed through his binoculars and wound the lever of the field telephone.

The battalion Adjutant, Captain Eric Peter, was enjoying his midmorning tea and samosas in one of the bombed-out rooms of Chamb Police Sation that served as the battalion headquarters. He was going over the morning’s SITREPS — situation reports submitted by spotters in observation towers along the LOC.

The field telephone rattled.

“Peter!” he barked into the mouthpiece, then listened attentively. Known for quick, bold decisions, he took one now.

“Well done, Ustad Sain. If they start trying to cut the branches, give them a verbal warning. If they ignore it or insult you, fire a five-round warning burst over their heads. I’ll put the battalion on stand-to and inform the Colonel Sahib and Brigade Headquarters … yes, if they return fire, waste them!”

Very quietly and without any fuss, the Pakistani Punjab Regiment battalion went through its stand-to drills. Every man and his weapon double checked, locked and loaded, ammunition belts in the feeding trays of MG 1A3s, razor sharp bayonets ready, last prayers.

Before sending out the wood-cutting party, Captain Diljeet Hooda, a Haryanvi Jat, Adjutant of the Indian Punjab Regiment battalion had put his unit on stand-to.

Now both sides waited in the nerve-jangling silence only experienced by active warriors.

The five soldiers of the Indian Punjab Regiment fanned out at the last line of trees, standing loosely, barrels of their 7.62mm SLRs pointed obliquely skywards in the high port. Two of them had axes in their belts. Sarfaraz Ali, their three-striper Havildar, , held his Sterling 9mm Sten gun in his left hand. His right, palm downward, extended in the Pakistani Punjab Regiment’s direction.

As one man, the Indian Punjabis fluidly went into the lying-loading position, each behind a pre-selected boulder.

On the opposite side, Sain gave an appreciative nod.

The glade had become deadly.

Even the birds and crickets seemed to know that it was time to hold their peace, and the water in the stream seemed to have surreally stilled.

At Sarfaraz Ali’s quietly whispered command, Jawan Mela Ram and one-striper Lance Naik Joginder  Singh got up, slung their SLR rifles on their shoulders, removed the axes from their belts and started walking towards the ta’ali tree branches whose trunk and roots were in Pakistan.

Mansha coolly lined them up in his sights and queried in a low voice, “Ustad Jee?”

“Not yet. Peter Sahib’s order — warning first, then five round brust over their heads. If they fire back, waste them.”

“And if we get wasted, Ustad Jee?”

“Then we go straight to paradise!”

“And if they’re Muslims too?”

“Then we all meet up there! Now shut up and concentrate.”

The string running out through the back of the bunker tautened and shook the empty tin can. Twice. Once to attract attention, the second time to tell them that Lance Naik Siddique, the third squad member and a crack shot, had spotted his Indian counterpart from his perch. Which meant that he, too, had been spotted.

Jawan Mela Ram and Lance Naik Joginder  Singh were now right under the overhanging branches. They were at a range of 50metres from Mansha’s MG 1A3.

The glade was deathly quiet.

The Indian Punjabis drew the axes from their belts.

At that second the graveyard silence was ruptured by Sain’s commanding voice.

“That’s a Pakistani tree. Don’t touch it or we’ll open fire!”

The Indians stood stock still.

“The branches are Indian!” Havildar Sarfaraz Ali’s battle hardened voice countered. “We need them for firewood. Cut them!”

Mela Ram and Joginder Singh raised their axes.

“Five round brust FIRE!” Sain roared.

Mansha had already taken the first pull-off on the trigger. He now blocked his respiration and very gently lemon squeezed the sherni — lioness — as the MG 1A3 was known by its operators.

DTrrrrr!

Five rounds in a perfectly controlled burst ripped through the branches above the Indians.

Neither target showed naked fear, but it was there, controlled and present.

The marksmen in the trees didn’t open fire.

Then there was a single shot from the Indian side, and a thud behind the bunker, but no cry from Lance Naik Siddique.

“Fire!” almost simultaneously from Havildars Sain and Sarfaraz Ali.

Both parties opened up.

The fragile integrity of the sylvan glade disintegrated under the onslaught of 7.62mm rounds. Muzzle flashes, dust spirals, shouted curses in Pothohari Punjabi and Haryanvi. The sulphorous odor of cordite started creeping onto the glade’s freshness.

The first burst sliced through Jawans Mela Ram and Joginder Singh. Rounds went right through them and they fell, their gushing blood spilling on the arid earth. The remaining Indians were steadily firing back from behind their boulders, their 7.62 rounds thudding into the roof of the earthen bunker. One came straight through the shooting slit, and went cleanly through Mansha’s left shoulder. He grunted but held his aim, sweeping the barrel gently to cover the remaining three Indians. Out-gunned, the Indians withdrew in disciplined leapfrogging fire and move drills.

“Cease-fire!” and then Sain wound the field telephone again. Only after his report did he take the medical kit, bind Mansha’s flesh wound and go outside to check on Lance Naik Siddique, but it was too late.

Puffing his rosy cheeks with an explosive release of air, Brigadier General Shireen Yousafzai, Pakistan Army, put down the red phone of the hot-line with his Indian counterpart. His immediate staff of Brigade Major (BM) and General Staff Officer Grade III( GSO-III) looked expectant.

“Well, gentlemen, this is what’s going to happen.

“The Indians will come for their bodies and as always, we’ll return them under an honor guard — as they do too — wrapped in new blankets drenched in perfume. The bodies on both sides will be classed as border accidents ….”

“So that’s done,” Brigadier General Musarrat Hussein of the Indian Army was concluding to his BM and GSO-III.

“At 11H00, after we recover our bodies, the woodcutting parties of each side will move forward. They will work as one to cut the tree down, chop it up and burn it to the last twig. Lamb and chicken tikkas will be grilled on the embers, and we’ll all have lunch.”

The staff officers nodded their approval.

“Day after tomorrow is our our Diwali festival of lights, and two weeks later, the Muslim Eid festival. We’ll exchange sweets as we have been doing.”