Positioned in his favorite spot on the beach Nirmal watched the first rays of the Sun hit the shimmering waters. As the sky turned from orange red to golden yellow he was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the spectacular scene. He picked up his note book and started scribbling. He wanted to capture each and every nuance of nature's glory unfolding before his enthralled eyes.
Nirmal had come to Simran, a lovely city with one of the cleanest and most beautiful beaches on the west coast of the Country, to spend his summer holidays. His Mama Mahesh Mehta was a successful criminal lawyer and his Mami Shobha was a school teacher. Their house was close by and Nirmal would come almost every morning and evening to watch the Sun rise and set.
He had even managed to locate a secluded spot on the beach right in the middle of a cluster of huge rocks. Covered with boulders on three sides it was like the mouth of a cave. Sitting ensconced in his hideout Nirmal was completely hidden from prying eyes.
A student of class nine, Nirmal was good in neither games nor studies. He had only one passion. And that was writing. He wanted to become a writer. He had met with modest success so far. A few of his poems and short stories had been published in children's magazines. Right now he was attempting the most ambitious project of his literary career. 'Natkhat', the most popular children's magazine, had announced a short story competition in English for school going children. The first prize was a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Nirmal had already thought of an outline for his story, the climax of which was to take place at a beach at dawn. He was here this morning to soak in the 'atmosphere' at the beach so that he could add that touch of realism which was so very important in modern fiction.
His story was about two friends who stumble upon a cache of heroin on the beach and set about investigating. He had even thought of a title for his story: 'Heroin on The Beach'.
Nirmal, with his pencil between his lips, was now deep in thought. The heroes had managed to reach the hideout of the gang which was smuggling the drug. Just as they were about to slip away and inform the police they were caught by the gangsters. Now Nirmal was flexing his creative muscles to set them free.
Suddenly the silence was shattered by a crash. Nirmal jumped in the air startled out of his wits. For a moment he thought the gang had decided to forget the characters and target the author. He looked around. A bottle had crashed on the rock to his left and its fragments lay scattered. He was about to get up and express his annoyance, when he heard something which made him freeze.
"Bhai, we should pack enough RDX to blow up the entire building," a gruff voice was saying.
Nirmal turned towards the spot from where the voice seemed to be originating. From the spaces in between the boulders he could see three men sitting above him slightly to the left.
"Munna, you don't have to teach me these things. I have already taken care of all the details," replied the fellow whom Munna had called Bhai. He was a burly man with shoulder length matted hair, a thick moustache and a straggly beard. He looked like one of those thugs who gets bashed up by the hero in the second or third reel of a typical Hindi movie. His voice however was distinctive. It was squeaky and sounded like a sharp nail being dragged across a tin sheet. Coming from the huge body it sounded quite weird. He was facing Nirmal while the other two had their backs to him. Nirmal confident that he could not be seen pressed forward to hear Bhai speak, his heart pounding with excitement.
"Today is Monday, the 27th. On 29th, exactly at eleven thirty, the Natraj Supermarket will be blown to pieces. Now listen carefully to the plan. The RDX will be placed in the dickey of a scooter and the time bomb will be set for eleven thirty. Few days back I bought a second hand scooter, got it repainted and changed the number plate. You, Munna, will drive the scooter and park it in the parking lot in the basement exactly at ten thirty."
"But Bhai why not earlier? I can park it at eight and vanish."
"You idiot, I asked you not to use your brains. Natraj opens at nine. If you go at eight will you not be too conspicuous. Later, when the police investigate they will find it much easier to trace you. By ten thirty the place will be very crowded and no one will notice you. And to make sure it is absolutely safe I'll be there by around nine."
"Where Bhai?" asked the third guy who hadn't yet opened his mouth.
"Right opposite Natraj is an over-bridge. I'll be there by nine. Munna, when you wheel in the scooter look up at me. If anything is wrong I'll remove this red scarf from my pocket and tie it around my neck like this," Bhai demonstrated slowly as if explaining to a mentally retarded three year old.
"But Bhai, will I be able to see you clearly?" asked Munna.
"You donkey! You have eyes or buttons. The over bridge is right opposite. From that distance you will even be able to see the colour of a baby's panties."
"And in case I don't remove the red scarf you can assume it is all clear and wheel the scooter in and park it in the basement. In the meantime Saheb, you will be waiting on a motorcycle which I have arranged. Both of you decide where you will park it. As soon as Munna parks the scooter he will rush to you and the two of you can disappear. I'll keep watch till ten forty five and then I too will slip away. We'll meet in our usual place at around eleven thirty. All the arrangements for our escape have been made. I'll tell you the details when we meet. But this much is certain, by 29th afternoon we'll have crossed the state border to freedom. Is it all clear?"
Munna and Saheb nodded.
"Okay then. You will proceed exactly as per this plan."
"Bhai do we meet again?" asked Munna.
"To.. to revise our...."
"Don't be stupid Munna. Don't you realize every time we meet we are taking a great risk. I had chosen this spot and time very carefully because I know this stretch of the beach is completely deserted in the mornings. We will now meet only after the job. In case there is any change of plan I'll contact you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Bhai," Munna and Saheb answered in tandem.
Nirmal shrank back, his heart in his mouth. He knew if they saw him he would be finished. With bated breath he waited for the footsteps to die down.
After around ten minutes he picked up his things and scurried out of his hiding place . He looked around, there was no sign of the thugs. He ran straight home and told his Mama and Mami the whole story.
His Mami immediately said, "Nirmal forget about the whole thing. You don't have to get mixed up with terrorists or whoever they are."
"Don't be silly Shobha. How can you say such a thing?" Mahesh said. "If those thugs succeed in their plan hundreds of innocent lives will be lost. You know an entire floor of Natraj is devoted only to kids' stuff. Just imagine what will happen to those tender souls," Mahesh paused for a moment and then continued, "The DSP of this area is Vikram Sinha. He and I have worked on several cases together. He is a dynamic and daring officer. I'll take Nirmal to him right away."
Two hours later Mahesh and Nirmal were sitting in DSP's house drinking tea. The DSP was a tall, muscular man who appeared extremely confident of himself. He heard the entire story and looking straight at Nirmal asked him, "Nirmal, are you sure you have heard exactly what you told me?"
"It is important that you tell me each and every detail, however minute. You know hundreds of lives are at stake."
"Yes, Uncle, I realize. I am sure I have told you everything."
"Okay, I believe you. You are a brave boy. In a few minutes my man will be coming with photographs from our rogues' gallery. We maintain albums comprising photos of all the people who have a criminal record. These include people who have been convicted as well as those whom we suspect. You have a look and see if you can spot our friends."
"Uncle I have seen only Bhai's face. If his photo is there I'll be able to recognize it."
Ten minutes later Nirmal was peering at the photos placed in three huge albums. After poring over them for more than an hour he shook his head.
"No, Uncle Bhai is not here."
"Just as I thought. These guys must be from outside the state. Anyway we don't have any more time to lose. Let me get things organized and then I will get back to you."
DSP turned to Mahesh, "I'll get Nirmal dropped home. You stay back, I'll need to consult you."
At three in the afternoon Nirmal was sitting the living room watching TV when his Mama entered along with the DSP.
"Nirmal the entire plan has been finalized. You have a very important role to play. A lot depends on you. I have already discussed with Mahesh. He is confident you can play your part. I'll tell you the details. It is then up to you to decide whether you want to involve yourself or not."
Nirmal nodded. He was feeling quite nervous.
"Tomorrow you and I will be on the over-bridge by eight thirty. Around hundred of my people, both men and women, in plainclothes will reach soon after the Supermarket opens at nine. They will spread out and mingle with the crowd posing as shoppers. On the over-bridge your job will be to keep your eyes open for that fellow called Bhai. As soon as you spot him you will quickly give me an indication . I'll take care of the rest. But Nirmal will you be able to recognize him?"
Nirmal thought for a moment and said, " Yes, Uncle, I think I will be able to.'
In the meanwhile Shobha had entered the living room with tea and biscuits.
"Bhai saheb, how can you involve this little fellow in such a dangerous business. You know where the scooter is being kept. You can simply ask your people to look for it and remove the time bomb."
"Bhabhi, if I do that I will only be postponing the inevitable. The terrorists will escape and make an attempt at some other time and some other place. I want to catch them red handed and this is the only way."
"But aren't you taking a big risk? Suppose Nirmal is not able to recognize the leader - then what?"
"Bhabhi, I have thought of all that. If by ten forty five we are not able to nab Bhai my people will swing into action. We'll make an announcement that a VIP is going to visit our area and hence a security check has to be carried out. We'll request all the shoppers to vacate the complex for some time. My people will ensure that the panic does not spread. They will quietly guide the shoppers out in another half an hour or so. Simultaneously some of my boys will look for the scooter and take care of the bomb."
"Vikram, why don't you first try to locate the bomb? In case you find it then you need not take the trouble of clearing the crowd," suggested Mahesh.
"If by chance we are not able to locate it in time there will be a disaster. I don't want to take any chances. And the only reason why I have thought of waiting till ten forty five is I want to give Nirmal enough scope to identify Bhai."
"I.. I don't know, I am still very scared..." Shobha muttered.
"Come on Shobha, what is there to be scared about? Vikram will be there, I will be there. Nirmal is a brave young man. Don't treat him like a baby," Mahesh said.
The next day by eight thirty Nirmal was sitting in a Maruti-800, a few meters away from the over-bridge. The car was parked under a banyan tree. The DSP and Mahesh were with him.
"Nirmal keep your eyes on the over-bridge. Though I am sure he won't appear before nine, let us not take a chance. Now the crowd on the over-bridge is not much. In another thirty minutes or so it will get really crowded. We will then go and stand there."
"But Vikram will the thug not recognize you?" asked Mahesh.
"That is why I have come in plain clothes. And moreover, these dark glasses and cap will make me look sufficiently different," the DSP said putting on the cap at a rakish angle and dark glasses. In his casuals he looked more like a model than a DSP.
"Mahesh you remain in this car. As soon as Nirmal spots Bhai he will signal to me and rush to you. You drive down quickly. My men will be waiting in a van down the road. As soon as they see you approaching they will drive up and take care of things."
"Is it a police van?"
"It looks like an ordinary Maruti Van from the outside but on the inside it is a perfect police van with transmitters, receivers, the works."
Sharp at nine the DSP opened the door of the car and Nirmal and he stepped out and walked towards the over-bridge. On reaching it they stopped at the railing and casually leaned against it as if taking a birds eye view of the supermarket.
The road was now quite crowded. Nirmal began scanning the faces intently. Children with their shoulders sagging under the heavy weight of their school bags, college students in their trendy clothes, office goers rushing to beat the clock, urchins peddling newspapers and magazines, hawkers selling their wares - it was quite an interesting mix. But in this sea of changing faces there was not even a single one that looked like Bhai's.
The DSP kept looking at his watch from time to time. Minutes ticked by and with every passing minute the tension increased. Nirmal scanned each and every face, hoping, praying that he would be able to recognize Bhai. But there was no sign of him.
Had they changed their plan? Had they already planted the scooter and vanished? Was the time bomb already ticking away somewhere in the basement?
As it neared ten thirty Nirmal's anxiety increased in geo -metric progression. He now started scanning the supermarket and its vast compound below. He was hoping to catch a glimpse of Munna even though he knew it was quite impossible for him to recognize him. The compound was teeming with cycles, mopeds, scooters, motorcycles and cars of every make and color.
Sharp at ten forty five the DSP lowered his head and whispered, "Nirmal, I think there is no use. Either that scoundrel has changed his plan or you have failed to recognize him. I am crushing to the van to tell my people to start clearing the crowd of shoppers. You go back and wait in the car with Mahesh."
The DSP started walking down the over-bridge. As Nirmal turned around to head towards the car some one bumped into him.
"You silly fool. Can't you see where you are going?" he hissed. Nirmal looked up. A tall, burly, clean shaven man with short hair glared at him and walked ahead.
Suddenly Nirmal froze and looked at the huge man walking ahead. The man had short hair and was clean shaven, but the voice - it was familiar - very familiar. Yes. It was Him!
Nirmal turned and scampering towards the DSP tugged at his shirt sleeve. "I have seen him."
"Come with me." They hurried back. "There, that huge fellow in the blue kurta."
“Are you sure?"
“100 per cent.”
Good, now go and ask Mahesh to alert my boys in the van."
Nirmal saw the DSP slipping into the crowd and ran back to the car.
Fifteen minutes later the DSP came to the car.
"It’s all over. It was Bhai. In the beginning he was acting tough. Because he didn't know how much we knew. I told him, ‘Sonny boy I know that the time bomb is in a scooter parked in the basement. If you don't spill the beans fast I'll tie you up and leave you in the parking lot. I'll clear the crowd and when your time bomb explodes, along with the building you will also be blown to pieces’."
"Did he talk?"
"Of course he did. He told us the location of the scooter. My men rushed to the spot removed the time bomb and diffused it. No one even realized what happened. It was all done so quietly and swiftly.”
"What next Uncle?"
"We'll take him to the police station and work on him a bit. A little persuasion, a little force and he will vomit everything out?" DSP paused and patting Nirmal on his back said, "I should really thank you, Nirmal for recognizing him in the nick of time. I must say you have a great memory for faces."
"Uncle, actually I didn't recognize his face. He had cut his hair very short and shaved off his beard and moustache. He looked really different."
"But than how did you _ ?"
"It was his voice which gave him away. I can recognize that voice any time, any where."
Three days later Nirmal was sitting and completing his story. The setting was the beach but the title and plot had changed. It was now called 'A Tryst With A Terrorist'.
Hearing a familiar voice he rushed out. His Mama had entered with the DSP looking really smart in his uniform.
"I have personally come to congratulate my brave, young man," he said shaking hands and handing him a box of Swiss chocolates.
"Thanks a lot Uncle," Nirmal said. "What happened Uncle? Could you get the rest of the gang?"
"Of course, your Bhai needed a lot of persuasion but finally he came out with the entire plan. This was only the first in a series of blasts planned in our state as well as the neighboring states"
"But Uncle who is behind all this?"
"The details are still being investigated because the actual master mind has covered his tracks real well. But indications are that behind the entire operation is a Mafia don operating from abroad."
"What about Munna and Saheb?"
"They, along with Bhai are cooling their heels in the cooler," DSP said. He then looked around and asked, "Where is Bhabhi?"
"She is in the kitchen making tea for us,” Mahesh said.
Just then Shobha entered.
"Bhabhi I have got great news for you. Your nephew's name has been sent by my department for this year's bravery award. So you can all start planning a trip to New Delhi around 26th January next year. Nirmal will receive the award at the Republic Day celebration from the Prime Minister. I hope at least now you will forgive me for putting your baby boy to so much trouble."
Everyone laughed and Shobha, pulling Nirmal close, hugged him.
Three months later the result of the 'Natkhat' Short Story competition was announced. 'A Tryst With A Terrorist' won the first prize and Nirmal was the proud owner of a complete set of the invaluable Encyclopedia Britannica.
On January 26, Nirmal received the bravery award from the President of India himself. His photograph appeared in several newspapers and two TV channels even carried his interview.
In his school he became a celebrity with the class one kids even coming and asking him for his autograph!