Sethji – By Piyush Dhoot

4 PM. 25th May.

“It has to be done”, Samar said, breaking the tense silence that had engulfed the conference room of Bhagwati Mansion. Sethji stood in silence facing the window, staring out into blank space. The wrinkles on his inscrutable face became even more defined as golden rays of the evening sun scattered itself all over it. Age had only refashioned the once muscular and zealous lad into an experienced and wise leader. He gently lowered his chin, with the poise of unwillingly accepting the inevitable, as the cortège of his most trusted men awaited his response. He closed his eyes, knitting his eyebrows together; he had come too far to let it all go now.  Sethji breathed heavily as he turned toward Samar, placing his fist firmly on the polished wooden table. His hesitation had now transformed into uncompromising sternness as he stared stone-faced into Samar’s eyes. “Kill him”, he said, clenching his teeth together.


12 PM. 10th May.

Ramanathan paced inside his room like a caged animal. He knew what he was going to do was akin to suicide, and yet his journalistic integrity would be shattered if he backed down now. He knew this was a risk he would have to take if he wanted to be able to continue to hold his head high in his own esteem.

He had taken the outline of the story to his editor at the newspaper. The editor had scoffed at the idea and then, when he had seen how determined Ramanathan really was, told him in no uncertain terms to drop it with immediate effect. “This story cant be run in our newspaper. Do you know why there was no outcry over the sudden fire that burnt down the Mukrabad Slums all those years ago? Or the forced evacuation at Karnita slums about 4 months ago? Everyone knew it was being done, and yet no one printed a story, no news channel devoted their prime time to it, and no government official called reporters for a press conference to condemn a private company for taking forcible possession of prime land, usually a home-run human interest story. Do you know why? Because no one wants to kick a hornets nest. He owns the media and runs the government. Look, you’re a good journalist. Steer clear of him.”

That was more than 6 months ago. Ramanathan had doggedly stayed on the story, following leads to wherever they took him, and questioning victims and enablers both. He soon found out that Real Estate was only one of the sectors in which massive amounts of money had been made illegally. In fact, oil, farming and human trafficking were far more profitable than real estate. He had slowly pieced together a story of an organization that was massive in scale, shrouded in secrecy and completely invulnerable to any exposure or censure due to its reach and contacts in high places. He had also built a profile of the man who had built it all. That remarkable person had built this edifice of power brick by brick, deal by deal. Ramanathan knew this man was not to be trifled with. He was going to break the story of a lifetime. He had enough evidence to bring down the whole damn organization, and now he had the story of the Captain as well as the icing on the cake!

He was going to demolish the saintly reputation of the man he knew was corrupt to the core. He was going to destroy Sethji.


3 PM. 3rd May.

Sethji knew every thread in his organization and had sensed the tremors created by Ramanathan. He had laughed, bemused, by the pathetic attempts of the journalist to pry into his doings. However, Sethji’s amusement slowly turned to bemusement and finally to annoyance as Ramanathan kept poking and prodding into his affairs. Sethji had tried to ignore Ramanathan in the beginning, and that approach had clearly not worked. He had then asked Samar to quietly buy the intrepid journalist off, and that had not worked either. Ramanathan had instead started investigating Samar as well, spooking Sethji’s right hand man. Finally, Sethji had woken up yesterday to the news that Ramanathan had established contact with the skipper of an oil tanker that had mysteriously disappeared 22 years ago off the coast of Gujarat. Sethji had given the man ample money to remove himself from public view for the rest of his life, and for all these years, the man had done so. And now Ramanathan had found him out. Something needed to be done. He called Samar.


6 PM. 3rdMay.

Samar put down his phone and planned out his next moves. Sethji had been silent while he had updated him on his progress. He had convinced Sethji that the issue would be dealt with in the quickest, most efficient manner possible. Sethji had only given one piece of advice after hearing his plan.

“Make sure no threads remain hanging.”

Samar knew what he meant, and dreaded the consequences. He had already made the deal, but judging by his reputation, one did not simply double cross The Ghost and live to tell the tale.


8 PM. 3rd May.

The Ghost was sitting in his apartment, nursing a beer and replaying the conversation he had had earlier that morning with Samar. He had checked out the details Samar had given him earlier and was satisfied. There really was a journalist, he really was in hiding, and his editor had really asked him to stop working on stories that were apparently anti-national. He had checked out Samar and had learnt that he worked for one of the most powerful men in the country, a known patriot. It was understandable why someone so social-minded would take an interest in stopping blatant acts of inciting communal and class tensions for base motives. The Ghost didn’t believe in asking too many questions, believing more in his own research and investigations. He had a job to do, he’d been paid for it, and that was enough. So far, so good.

The Ghost had been the leader of an elite unit tasked with resolving thorny situations directly related to India’s national security. He had gotten his nickname after he’d cleared out a townhouse in New Mirpur City of 8 terrorists without firing a single bullet and left the last terrorist alive and pissing his pants about seeing a Ghost. Then the Indian Government had turned soft and disbanded his group and their activities in favor of diplomacy.

The Ghost had been disappointed, but not surprised. He had a very poor opinion of politicians, and thus their craven desire to be termed as heroes by doing a deal, any deal, with his country’s enemies didn’t cause him to bat an eyelid. What had disappointed him was that his teammates were unceremoniously told to report to different corps, battalions or regiments on fine morning. No thank you’s, no medals, no explanation.

They’d all gotten together to figure out just what the hell had happened. After this futile exercise, they asked The Ghost what he was going to do. He’d simply said, “We’re too good at what we do to stop doing it. I’m gonna do it freelance and do some good in the world by helping those who need it. Some of you may think of it as becoming a mercenary, but I think of it more in terms of providing a sorely lacking social service. What do you guys think?”

Everyone had joined him in his new mission.

The Ghost usually worked alone, only taking operational help from his team when needed. All of them had their own thing going as well, some consulting, some providing support to Black Ops of the Indian Government. He also helped people for free. He had enough money of his own to never have to worry about payment in lieu of services, and anyways, most of the people who appealed to him for help were in no condition to make any payments. However, he made it a point to charge a hefty amount if his client was rich. One rich and troubled client could subsidize the next five poor and troubled ones.

When he’d heard Samar’s problem, his blood had boiled. How could a journalist try to foment trouble when you know it could lead to rising tensions? A journalist should tell the truth, not twist facts to create controversy on his way to chasing page-views. If people believed half the stuff this journalist was going to write about, it would lead to calamity for the morale of the nation, further distrust between the citizens and the institutions tasked with running the country, and the nail in the coffin of journalistic integrity in the media, as everyone would start making stuff up to have the most controversial ‘breaking news’. And all this because of a pack of lies and the desire to make a name? Samar had told him some of the outlandish claims of the journalist, which were so outrageous that they would almost be funny if they weren’t so dangerous.

Such selfishness on the part of Ramanathan angered the Ghost, but he would suppress his emotions till the job was done. His Modus Operandi was simple – Acquire, Investigate, Neutralize, Sterilize. He’d done hundreds of missions for the army following this method, and he hadn’t changed once he got into his civilian clothes. It would be the same for this job.


8 AM. 9th May.

Within a week, he had found out where Ramanathan had been hiding. It wasn’t that difficult, really. People think that just by turning their phone off, they can stop people from tracking them. Or that if they left their phone at home, there was no other way to track them. In the army, the Ghost had access to gadgetry that normal citizens couldn’t even imagine. He’d learned all the tricks of the trade, and while drones, satellites and incredible surveillance gadgets had made his job easier, he’d always kept up with his tradecraft, so as to not get rusty if the need ever arose to be on the field. Now, he used his talents to doing the right thing for, and to, people who deserved it.

Acquiring had been pretty easy. After all, he was sure Ramanathan had seen tons of spy movies, and thus knew a few rudimentary ways of getting out of the grid, but actually disappearing required sacrifices that most people couldn’t do. There would be quiet phone calls from random places to people he loved at odd hours, internet activity on his accounts that could be tracked easily, the usual MO. But calls to familiar numbers from random places raised suspicion, not dissipated it. The need to stay online, however rundown the cyber café, and however short the duration, always betrayed the perp on the run.

Ramanathan had not prepared for the scenario where he would have to go into hiding and he made the same mistakes normal people fed on a diet of action movies and thriller tv shows do. He checked on his mother from a STD booth. These booths were anyways nearing extinction in urban areas, and thus made tracking the call to a specific location easy. By tracing the locations of the calls, a pattern quickly emerged. Ramanathan was going south… literally and figuratively.


6 AM. 12th May.

The ghost had been watching the houseboat in Kerela for two days now. He had seen Ramanathan through the window and heat signatures on his thermal scanner had assured him that his prey was alone. He could have destroyed Ramanathan with a well timed and strategically placed leak on the boat itself and thus made it look like an accident, just one of a dozen other ways. While he was angry at a journalist trying to foment trouble for the nation for personal gain, he was unsettled by the obvious danger Ramanathan felt. After all, why would the journalist find himself running for his life? If he was blackmailing a person in power, surely he would be better served to stay in an urban city, where meetings could more easily take place and transfer of cash (who takes blackmail money via cheque?) could be monitored. The man he had been watching for the last couple of days seemed less like a master blackmailer and more like a man at his wits end. This troubled The Ghost, which is why he had not moved against Ramanathan already.


1 PM. 12th May.

Ramanathan grew weary of hiding and decided to have lunch at the shack in the village. A short jaunt wouldn’t hurt, he rationalized. He made sure to lock everything down and spent a good ten minutes outside of the houseboat he had rented, looking for anyone or anything out of place. He had already placed his journal and laptop in his briefcase and then locked it in a cabinet, but he was paranoid, and he had good reasons to be. Still, his self-imposed house arrest was driving him crazy. A meal of idlis and piping hot rasam would be good for him, he thought.

He was back within fifty minutes of leaving. Everything was as he had left it. He unlocked the houseboat, went inside and made tea. He’d purchased a newspaper and was glad to read it over a pot of tea after days of getting sporadic news of what was going on in the world. After finishing his cup, he washed it, replaced it, went to the cabinet, opened the lock, opened his briefcase, took out the laptop and started working on the greatest story of his career again. Nothing seemed out of place, and all was right with his world.


1.33 PM. 12th May.

All was not right in the world of The Ghost. He’d easily broken into the houseboat, taking care not to leave any scuff marks on the lock. The search for Ramanathan’s laptop had taken barely two minutes, as only one cabinet had been locked. The briefcase was a piece of cake for the lockpicks The Ghost always carried. The laptop, on the other hand, had taken a minute. A USB drive containg an app with multiple self-detecting modules had done the trick. The app detected the Operating System version of the Computer, selected the relevant module, launched it, and voila! Inside were various documents with photographs, notes and emails, all about a man called Sethji. It had taken a further 3 minutes for the whole hard disk to be copied into an external hard drive, and then the USB automatically removed any traces of the laptop every having been activated. Meanwhile, the journal itself was treasure trove of notes and thoughts of Ramanathan. There were hundreds of pages, all of which The Ghost quickly and efficiently photographed. Finally, he locked up everything just as he had found it, and made a quiet exit. There was no need to wipe anything, as he always wore translucent rubber gloves in such situations. These things had become second nature to him.

He was in and out in twelve minutes.

The Ghost’s reactions went from anger to suspicion to curiosity to worry to anger, all in the space of the next couple of hours. 


7.30 AM. 25th May.

Samar burst into Sethji’s room with a copy of the newspaper.

“Did you see about Ramanathan! It’s a very small news article, but its him all right. He was hiding out in a boat in Kerela, that piece of shit. The article says that a gas cylinder exploded, though I am sure it was all The Ghost’s doing. Gotta give him credit, he knows his job. No wonder he was so highly recommended.”

“Has he contacted you yet?” Sethji asked Samar.

“That’s the funny part, he hasn’t. Maybe he’s busy getting out of the area?”

“Someone like him doesn’t do anything until they have all the angles planned, especially their exit. Lets give him till the evening.”

Samar walked off. Although he knew what needed to be done, he was not happy going up against The Ghost. He knew he would have to outmaneuver The Ghost pretty thoroughly to even come close to his objective, but he had something The Ghost didn’t. He had the infinite resources and power of Sethji.

By the evening, Samar had nothing new to report. The prearranged method of contact had not been used, and his burner phone had lain silent the whole day. He entered the Conference Room along with a few of his trusted men and waited anxiously for Sethji to arrive.


6.17 PM. 12th May.

PS had been hard at work testing the vulnerabilities of Afghanistan’s Defense Network’s firewall when The Ghost had contacted. Though he had left his unit, the same one where he had served with The Ghost, he still lent his expertise to certain friends and when the request had come from the PMO, he had been unable to refuse. He lived a frugal and simple life, where his only expenses apart from food and tons of subscriptions to various media networks were towards hi-tech networking and computing hardware. Of course, unbeknownst to the mandarins in the Government, he also had a sideline of helping The Ghost right the wrongs in the cases where normal justice had not been helpful. PS never had any issues as The Ghost had one of the straightest moral compasses he had known. He had respected The Ghost for many years, ever since first helping him in a critical mission in Turkey. The Ghost had insisted on finding a way to complete the mission without compromising the family of the staff that lived with the target in his bungalow. It had delayed the mission by 4 days and added an extra layer of complexity to the job, but PS had been impressed by The Ghost’s resolve to do all he can to not shed unnecessary blood.

The Ghost had sent over a bunch of material and information he had taken from a journalist’s house, and had asked him to figure out if it was misinformation or the truth. PS had spent the whole evening trawling the internet, hacking various bank accounts and checking when certain deposits were made, cross-referencing names with known associates of Sethji, and slowly, hidden behind layers of plausible deniability and shadowy companies, the truth had emerged. PS was equally shocked and impressed. Shocked at the sheer magnitude of crimes that were committed but never connected by anyone, except now by this journalist, and impressed by how magnificently it had all been executed throughout the decades. He felt a grudging sense of respect for the reptile at the center of it all, then quickly brushed it aside when he thought of the human misery Sethji had been the cause of. He picked up the phone.


4 PM. 25th May.

“It has to be done”, Samar said, breaking the tense silence that had engulfed the conference room of Bhagwati Mansion. Sethji stood in silence facing the window, staring out into blank space. The wrinkles on his inscrutable face became even more defined as golden rays of the evening sun scattered itself all over it. Age had only refashioned the once muscular and zealous lad into an experienced and wise leader. He gently lowered his chin, with the poise of unwillingly accepting the inevitable, as the cortège of his most trusted men awaited his response. He closed his eyes, knitting his eyebrows together; he had come too far to let it all go now.  Sethji breathed heavily as he turned toward Samar, placing his fist firmly on the polished wooden table. His hesitation had now transformed into uncompromising sternness as he stared stone-faced into Samar’s eyes. “Kill him”, he said, clenching his teeth together.


10 PM. 12th May.

The Ghost had heard everything PS said with equanimity. It confirmed his worst fears. Samar had tried to use him to silence someone who threatened to expose him, and more importantly, expose his employer. Over the next few days, PS would be able to ferret out far more information about Sethji’s nefarious activities than Ramanathan had found in months, but then, it was unfair to compare a Ferrari with a pogo stick.

Righteous anger bubbled up inside The Ghost. Samar had done all he could to get The Ghost to kill an innocent man, but he had made a grave miscalculation. The Ghost always, ALWAYS, checked everything he could about both sides of the transaction, the client and the victim. He did not think of himself as simply a gun for hire, but rather a righter-of-wrongs, a court of last resort where the just could get a last hearing. Most people always wanted to do the right thing – The Ghost was just a stickler to this code far more than most, and not just because he held the power of life and death over someone. He had always been like this, since childhood. He had quickly sifted through the voluminous research Ramanathan had conducted and come to the same conclusion as the journalist. PS had just provided confirmation. Of course, a judgment from PS was next only to the word of God. Having confirmed that he had been the victim of a deceit orchestrated to make him kill an innocent man, he contemplated his next move.


4.02 PM. 25th May.

The Ghost saw an eyeball in his scope . He pressed the trigger.


4.02 PM. 25th May.

As Samar and his team were heading out, there was a sound of breaking glass and then a thud. He jerked around, only to find the lifeless body of Sethji lying next to the shattered window. He fell to the ground and scrambled towards the body. He didn’t need to take a pulse to know that Sethji was dead. After all, half of his face was lying next to his lifeless body. Before he could realize what had truly happened, there was a soft sound of something hitting the opposite wall.

Within a second, the fireball had consumed Samar and his team.


4.03 PM. 25th May.

Hitting the cabinet with the bomb he had placed inside had been childs play for The Ghost. His days of scouting had given him a deep understanding of the workings of Sethji and his second team. The first team was, of course, the legitimate part of his organization. The people who knew Sethji by a different, much respected name. There were CEO’s who reported to him, various Board members, his PR managers etc. It was the second team in whom The Ghost had been interested in, the ones who lived in the Underworld, where the cloak of respectability vanished and Sethji emerged, and he had realized that they always met in a secluded floor of Bhagwati Mansions, an otherwise empty building owned by Sethji. Not anywhere else, and never at Sethji’s house. His team always came at least an hour before Sethji, so that he wouldn’t be seen entering with them, and left the building 2 hours later.

Breaking and entering had not been difficult, since no one else lived in or used that building, nor had disabling the CCTV video feed and installing the two dirty bombs. People like Sethji prided themselves too much on how invulnerable they were, which was true in a way – He HAD survived for decades. But going up against The Ghost was a different matter altogether. The extreme protections normal people took against surveillance were nothing to someone like The Ghost.

Within two minutes, amidst sounds of the fire brigade sirens, nothing remained on the rooftop that would show that someone had been there, someone with a sniper rifle, someone who had used the rooftop of this building because from 200 meters away, it provided the perfect sightline to the Conference Room floor of Bhagwati Mansion.


9 AM. 26th May.

Munna Sahab gave the newspaper to Ramanathan.

“Massive explosion at Bhagwati Mansion!” read the headlines. The subheading was “Political Leader involved in Terrorist plot!”

“He had always been involved in the separatist movement up north, though the connection being made so quickly by the press is surprising. Especially in this newspaper, well known for its cowardice and thus for passing on scoops. I would know, this was the newspaper I used to write for. Still write for, I guess, its not like I’ve been fired. Though I must say, there is a lot of detail for an event that happened just a day ago!” remarked Ramanathan.

“Oh, there’s nothing a well placed leak can’t make happen, you know. After all, you’re a journalist yourself!” chuckled Munna Sahab.

The article had gone into great details about how Sethji and his team had been collecting explosive materials and turning them into bombs to be used for terrorism. Perhaps they were putting the finishing touches to one of them when it had exploded. The other bomb had been found stashed in a specially insulated box in a cabinet and been defused, and it was noted that it was the kind used most commonly by a particular terrorist group that liked to foment terror in urban areas and had done so on many previous occasions in the country. It further went into great details about the speculation that had surrounded this Politician, about how he had actually led a double life as someone known only as Sethji, and an investigative story that will shortly be published by acclaimed journalist Mr. Ramanathan in this very newspaper. Ramanathan noted with a wry grin that the article had been written by his editor, the same one who had dismissed his story previously.

“Thank you for all you have done for me. Housing me these last two weeks must have been difficult for you. And how do I thank my benefactor, the one who refuses to even share his name?” said Ramanathan.

“You don’t. Keep doing good work and exposing all that is rotten and corrupt in the system. That will be thanks enough.”

Ramanathan stepped out of the nondescript building and hailed a taxi.


4.05 PM. 25th May.

After The Ghost had called Munna Sahab and thanked him for housing Ramanathan for a couple of weeks, he recalled his conversation with Ramanathan that night at the houseboat, the same night after he had first broken into it. Ramanathan had been terrified, but The Ghost had informed him that he knew about Sethji and wanted to help him. It had taken some time to convince Ramanathan to move to a more secure location, and once The Ghost had laid bare how easy it had been to find him, Ramanathan had become more accommodative. Munna Sahab, of course, was the obvious choice when it came to procurement and concealment. He had been everywhere, knew everyone, and had sources in all places. He hadn’t asked any questions, simply enquired about the number of people, the city, and the duration. Within 2 hours, he had arranged everything. With Ramanathan taken care of, The Ghost had moved his focus to Sethji, and the result was a foregone conclusion.

The Ghost walked away as the fire in Bhagwati Mansion raged on behind him. He didn’t know where his next mission would take him, but he would be ready, thought The Ghost, as he melted into the crowd.

Sethji – by Sudhir Dhoot

“It has to be done”, Samar said, breaking the tense silence that had engulfed the conference room of Bhagwati Mansion. Sethji stood in silence facing the window, staring out into blank space. The wrinkles on his inscrutable face became even more defined as golden rays of the evening sun scattered itself all over it. Age had only refashioned the once muscular and zealous lad into an experienced and wise leader. He gently lowered his chin, with the poise of unwillingly accepting the inevitable, as the cortège of his most trusted men awaited his response. He closed his eyes, knitting his eyebrows together; he had come too far to let it all go now. Sethji breathed heavily as he turned toward Samar, placing his fist firmly on the polished wooden table. His hesitation had now transformed into uncompromising sternness as he stared stone-faced into Samar’s eyes. “Kill him”, he said, clenching his teeth together.

__________________________________________________________

It might have been just another day for everyone else but for this kid from Delhi University, it was a day that would change his life forever. A rebellious and motivated young boy from Raipur, barely in his 20’s but with dreams to soar the skies, Iqbal was the leading political member of DU’s most powerful lobby. 

Although he was from a small town Iqbal dreamt that he would change the world, and he would do it with his principles intact. He believed in the inherent goodness of people, even the most notorious of them all, and trusted that with integrity and honesty he could overcome even the most punishing and onerous problems. A man with archaic principles and a heart of gold, he was certainly one in a million, the ideal leader. Sick of the debauched and immoral politics, Iqbal was the ray of hope Delhi had been waiting for, and it wasn’t long before he became the heart-throb of DU politics. Having lost his parents to communal violence, Iqbal had taken a very strong stance on religious equality and was famous for his policy of isolating religion and politics. 

Iqbal peered lazily over the mossy ledge of his apartment’s balcony as he heard the distant rumble of two Royal Enfield’s approaching. Being a motorcycle enthusiast himself, he immediately recognized the distinct sound of its 500cc engine, roaring with the authority of owning the streets on which it rode. However, his countenance transformed from anticipatory zeal into marked curiosity as he saw two men clad in white kurtas, saffron tikas smeared on their foreheads and rudraksha beads wrapped around their sweaty fists, get off from the motorcycles; a rare sight in the Islamic colony of Nizamuddin, Delhi. He squinted as he watched one of them brazenly spit betel juice next to the polished rims of his Enfield, as the other started enquiring about something to a passer-by, who pointed towards Iqbal’s balcony. However Iqbal wasn’t surprised. The disdain and arrogance of the two strangers, their overt appearance, and their advent a few months before the Vidhan Sabha elections made sense to him, as he looked at the two men gazing up at him through their shiny Ray Ban sunglasses. Iqbal smirked as he saw them walk into the rusty old building. He had calculated that this would happen. The door of his apartment creaked open as they walked in condescendingly, their dirty brown sandals leaving impressions on his freshly washed floor. There was a moment of cinematic silence before one of them rummaged in his pockets and took out a bunch of keys. He picked out the key to the Royal Enfield, and held it out towards Iqbal, “Raghu Pratap Jaykar sends his regards”, he declared with a smug face. 

Raghu Pratap Jaykar, an influential and powerful MLA, who led the coalition party in Delhi’s Legislative Assembly, had a reputation of recruiting young aspiring politicians from universities, and training them in his party. He himself had started out as a lobby leader in his college and had slowly risen up the political ladder to now become the sole undisputed leader of his party. It was a well-known fact that one of the only ways to rise up in Delhi politics was to associate with Raghu. Raghu Pratap although a self made man, had a smudged reputation on the way he conducted his politics. He had been accused of being involved in a lot of disputes over the years, but he had always been acquitted due to ‘lack of evidence’. Having built himself from scratch, Raghu had a special appeal with the lower classes, and over the years had earned a sobriquet for himself – Sethji. 

Two policemen saluted them as they rode through the gates of Bhagwati Mansion. The apprehensions in Iqbal’s mind grew furiously as he rode his Enfield behind his two guests. He knew that associating himself with Sethji went against all his principles and beliefs. Sethji may have tried to deceive the world with his innocent guise, but Iqbal was no fool. He knew how things in politics worked, exactly why he also knew that to achieve his ambitions he needed Sethji’s help. He could not “change the world” as he wanted to by winning in mere college elections. He needed to step up his game and play in the real world, and this was his best shot at it. The turbulent debate in Iqbal’s mind continued as they walked up the marble staircase leading to Sethji’s office. He paused before the office door as they reached the top of the staircase. He knew that once he went in there was no turning back. He closed his eyes, remembering the day he had left Raipur to come to Delhi. His sister had begged him to stay; “The capital changes people”, she used to say. “Not me, I promise”, Iqbal always replied, “Never me”. “What are you waiting for boy?” the bald man behind him groaned. Iqbal snapped back into reality. He had made a choice. With a deep sigh, he twisted the doorknob of the wooden door marked ‘Raghu Pratap Jaykar, MLA’. 

Four months had passed since Iqbal had joined Sethji, and he was right. Iqbal realized that DU was just a fragment of what Delhi politics was all about. He had seen nothing but the tip of the iceberg. This is where real power was, this is where real change would happen, and Iqbal was now part of it all. It had only been a matter of time before Iqbal’s popularity escalated beyond his university. Word of his honest and idealistic political character had spread and he had become an inspiration for the entire city. To Sethji he was an invaluable asset, his ticket to Delhi’s top leadership, the chief minister. 

Sethji’s experience had taught him that every man’s morality had a price. However, just as shrewd as he was experienced, he knew that Iqbal was a true believer. But to Sethji, that just made him a little more expensive than the rest. He trusted that someday Iqbal too would be ready to sell his principles. All he needed was to find the right time and the right price. 

Today, Sethji reckoned, he had found the right time. 

__________________________________________________________

(…….. His hesitation had now transformed into uncompromising sternness as he stared stone-faced into Samar’s eyes. “Kill him”, he said, clenching his teeth together.) 

Iqbal’s eyes widened in horror as he swiftly whirled his head towards Samar. He knew he when joined Sethji, when Samar had come to him as Sethji’s messenger, what he was signing up for, but he had never anticipated that he would be confronted with a situation like this. Murder – cold blooded, clear as day, this was murder they were talking about. He knew Sethji had his ways of getting things done, of ‘handling the situation’ as he liked to call it, and he had never interfered in Sethji’s business. In these past few months he had been smart enough to realize that he was nothing more than a glorified pawn in Sethji’s vast empire, and that his interference would be but a slight hiccup in the king’s way. He had always told himself that one day, when he would be significant enough a player, he would stand up for himself, true to his principles. 

But as he sat there appalled and outraged, he discerned that this wasn’t about his principles, or ethics any more. This was about humanity, plain and simple. In front of him stood Delhi’s most influential and powerful individual, a man with the capacity to refine politics, the ability to ameliorate millions of lives but all that was visible was a picayune and trivial murderer. And alongside stood his bunch of ‘wise’ counselors, the cortège of his ‘most trusted’ men, all with a deathly silence. Iqbal revolted at the mere thought of being a part his flock of yes-men. Repulsed by the mute troupe of the namesake counselors, he turned his gaze towards Sethji. 

All this while Sethji’s gaze had been fixed on Iqbal. Years of experience and training had turned him into a politician, and what is a politician but a crafty and conniving reader of men. One look at Iqbal’s face was enough for Sethji to know oceans of what was going through his mind. Perhaps this wasn’t the right time after all. “Out, all of you”, commanded Sethji keeping his eyes fixed on this painfully veracious protégé of his. Deep inside Sethji harbored a mild admiration for Iqbal, for he still possessed something Sethji had auctioned off years ago – honor. Had it been anyone else, he would’ve ‘handled the situation’, but Iqbal was his most valuable asset, and Sethji was not ready to lose him just yet, not when the elections were this close. 

“Murder”, cried Iqbal standing up with a jolt as soon as the last leaving person closed the teak door behind him. His chair tumbled due to the intense jerk, creating a minor racket. Sethji’s rheumy eyes glided over to the chair before returning back to a steaming young kid. “I will not let you do it, you hear me, I will not let you do it”, Iqbal stammered hastily. A scornful grin spread itself all over Sethji’s shriveled lips. “Let me?” he sniggered, “Let me, huh kid. What a shame, you aren’t all that smart after all.” Iqbal’s face turned scarlet with childish fury. “I will not sell my soul”, he uttered, this time calmly and with defiance. The grin from Sethji’s face slowly faded as he raised his eyebrows in understanding. In him Sethji saw the young version of himself, rebellious, zealous and pure. Then with a deep sigh he turned around and walked towards the window. The sky had turned purple and the darkness in the room accentuated Sethji’s silhouette looking outside the window, where in the embellished lawn, his daughter-in-laws sat sipping tea. 

“Your soul, you say”, Sethji muttered in tranquility, still gazing outside the window, “I’ve often wondered what souls are made of, collateral damages mostly! I imagine it as a garden with dunes of character traits that we’ve shed from time to time. Some happy fountains and memories written on fallen leaves, some we can’t really remember and some we can’t really forget. You want to know what my soul is made of?” Sethji pivoted steadily towards Iqbal as he continued in a steel voice, “ Well, it’s a large ocean with abysstical depths, and the surface, the surface is on fire. You can either burn above or suffocate beneath it. So Iqbal, my precious boy, choose your suffering.” Iqbal couldn’t say anything. Principled and honorable as he might be, he had just been threatened by the most formidable and vile man in Delhi, someone who was his mentor a few minutes ago. He had never seen Sethji in this form. Shaking his head vigorously he stepped back towards the door. “Ah, it’s terrible, it really is,” Sethji said with a sigh, shaking his head in disapproval, “They say she is really pretty, your sister. Isn’t she almost of marriageable age? It would be a shame if anything were to happen to her, Raipur can be a dangerous place you see.” 

The color of anger and rage had been flushed from Iqbal’s face as he stared at Sethji. His dry lips had gaped open and even in the darkness he could clearly see Sethji’s glass-eyed face. Fear and awe flooded him alike as his pale face stood in stark contrast to the man he had threatened a few moments ago. His moist eyes followed Sethji advancing slowly towards the door of the conference room. “You will do as I say Iqbal. Arkam Zahid is the only link holding our opposition’s party together and you will kill him, and no one will ever suspect you. I will become this city’s chief minister, do you understand?” he said crisply with a sickening arrogance as he placed a 9mm revolver on the table. “You have a lot of potential boy, do not waste it,” he added looking at Iqbal. Hesitantly, Iqbal picked up the revolver with his trembling hands, still staring pale faced at Sethji. Turning around, Sethji marched out, carrying a satisfied grin on his smug face. 

The earth burned feverishly as Iqbal rode his new Enfield on the parched roads of Delhi, riding his way to his college. He could feel the hot metal body of the revolver burn his back where he kept it tucked in his jeans. There was an election campaign in his college today. The college where he had started, where he had been nurtured and supported, the college to which he owed it all, and it only seemed fit for him to end it all here. The punishing rays of the midday sun scorched his sweaty forehead but he kept riding, oblivious and numb. The guards smiled, raising one hand in a respectful salutation as they watched Iqbal park his motorcycle. Iqbal nodded his head in acknowledgment as he walked in, crossing the barricade marked ‘Restricted’. It was almost time for the motorcade to arrive. Iqbal kept his head down as he walked towards the college building adjoining the stage. After all everyone knew him here, and he wanted to be invisible. He swiftly climbed up the staircase to the first floor corridor and after a few minutes of deliberation positioned himself between two pillars behind the railing. He nodded his head in contentment, he had a perfect view of the stage, and he was close enough without being in sight. Inspecting his surroundings and position for one last time, he pulled out the revolver, gawking at it blankly, as he continued breathing heavily. 

He snapped back, as he heard the wailing sound of sirens. Looking down he observed 4 vehicles, just as he had expected, entering into the compound. He lifted the revolver, clasping it in his shivering fists. Beads of sweat trickled down his greasy face as he breathed heavily. His heart pumped furiously, as he took aim, both his index fingers placed on the trigger. Tears concealed themselves on his wet face as he clenched his teeth, in a futile endeavor to steady his nerves. Squinting, through the barrel of the revolver, he could see two armed men get out from the first vehicle and rush to open the gates of a shiny white Ambassador. Iqbal felt a shiver go down his spine as he watched the feet of his target, clad in black leather sandals, lay step outside onto the green carpet. The same feet he had touched a million times. He saw the wrinkled knuckles, fists with a golden ring on each finger, clutching a wooden cane, come out. The hands that had been placed on his forehead so many times, so many blessings. He saw the intimidating and formidable Sethji exit the Ambassador; he saw it all through the barrel of his 9mm revolver. 

It was his only option, he kept telling himself. Iqbal was loved by the Delhi public, by his party supporters and by the opposition alike. He was seen as Sethji’s precious gem, his only asset in these times of debauchery, the last suspect in any political crime, leave alone when Sethji was the victim. Iqbal could not have killed Arkam, because he knew Sethji. He knew once he went down that road Sethji would never stop, not at any cost. This was his only option, he repeated. He had calculated it all. But what good are calculations to a man blinded by honor? He was a man true to his beliefs, a man of dignity and of principles. And yet he stood here with a revolver in his hands. But to Iqbal this wasn’t the greater sin. He stood there pointing the revolver to his mentor. A corrupt and crooked mentor, yes, but a mentor nevertheless. He clasped his eyes shut, a million thoughts racing through his mind. The grip on his revolver loosened as he remembered his last words to his sister, “Not me, I promise. Never me.” He allowed himself a faint smile, as he pictured his sister, and then suddenly, without any hesitation, with a firm grip and steely eyes, he pulled the trigger. 

Iqbal stood by the window at dusk, his broad muscular frame covering most of it. It had been months since Sethji’s assassination. Ironically the authorities were unable to find the assailant due to ‘lack of evidence’. Iqbal and Sethji’s party had received generous sympathy and commiseration from the entire city. The elections had been delayed, and even the opposition was in shock. Iqbal’s support had strengthened, as even the most loyal crusaders of the opposition sympathized with his cause. There was no question, no dispute, as to who would succeed Sethji. 

Iqbal took a deep breath as the cool winter breeze blew in. How much he wished to run back in time, to a much simpler world, a happy world, however a world which was far from reality. The teak door swung open as a meek lad entered hurriedly with a message. He was a new recruit in the party, a college student, and seeing Iqbal he immediately slowed down; he had heard a lot about this man. In their locality he was even considered to be a messiah. His pupils dilated as he took a few moments to grasp in the image of this man-god of his. Iqbal meekly acknowledged his presence by a brief sideway glance. Since Sethji’s death this had become almost a daily occurrence now. The boy immediately remembered his purpose and knelt down on one knee. Lowering his chin he stammered, “They are ready for you, Sultan.” 

Sultan. Every man is born nameless, and then his progenitors name him. But during the course of his life, every man’s deeds earn him a title and that is what becomes his legacy, what is left after he dies. Not the man, not his name, but the title. It does not matter whether you want it or not, for you cannot command it, it’s your cross to bear. Iqbal had left Raipur with a belief, a delusion that he would change Delhi. However this fire of delusion was never meant to forge diamonds, but to cast iron, and Sultan was the resultant weapon. 

Iqbal had met these men nearly a year ago as his seniors, and today Sultan met them again as his counselors. The same cortège of ‘trusted’ men that had reserved their counsel and kept shut, when their previous boss made the biggest mistake of his life, he contemplated with disgust. Sultan walked into the room, with defining strides, as he scanned each and every individual. Then placing both his fists on one end of the table, and eyes fixed at them, he uttered slowly, “Do you know what souls are made of?” 

Sethji – Finally!

Many moons ago, my cousin Sudhir and I decided to write a short story based on the same prompt. Sudhir already had a prompt and shared it with me. The prompt was as follows :-

“It has to be done”, Samar said, breaking the tense silence that had engulfed the conference room of Bhagwati Mansion. Sethji stood in silence facing the window, staring out into blank space. The wrinkles on his inscrutable face became even more defined as golden rays of the evening sun scattered itself all over it. Age had only refashioned the once muscular and zealous lad into an experienced and wise leader. He gently lowered his chin, with the poise of unwillingly accepting the inevitable, as the cortège of his most trusted men awaited his response. He closed his eyes, knitting his eyebrows together; he had come too far to let it all go now.  Sethji breathed heavily as he turned toward Samar, placing his fist firmly on the polished wooden table. His hesitation had now transformed into uncompromising sternness as he stared stone-faced into Samar’s eyes. “Kill him”, he said, clenching his teeth together.

Sudhir was done in 15 days.

It took me 4 years (and lots of free time due to a global pandemic) to finish writing it.

Here are our submissions:

Sethji – Sudhir Dhoot

Sethji – Piyush Dhoot