Navy Nagar Parade Ground Sea Wall,

Colaba, Mumbai, India

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Wednesday 26th November, 2008

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The Japanese container ship I had been following was barely visible now against the afterglow of the sunset. Amaretsu Maru. It was large, around 100,000 tons, I figured. I had read the name off the hull with my Oberwerk Ultra. The Oberwerk was mid-range stuff, still way above anything one might find on a Walmart shelf. It was crystal clear at 5000 metres and the Back Bay Was only 3500 metres wide.

I couldn’t afford a Kowa. I used to pack one though, when I was Lt. Commander on the Sindhudhanush. The Kowa could grab star light and enhance the image resolution, making it seem like you were viewing something that was sitting right next to you in broad daylight. For my current hobby – ship gazing – the Oberwerk was going to be just fine.

Twenty minutes prior, the Amaretsu had passed within ten cables of the sea wall where I was perched. I discerned around five or six tiny figures, crew, leaning against the stern rail, dwarfed by the mountain of neatly stacked, multi-colored containers behind them. P&O NedLloyd, Hapag Lloyd, Maersk, COSCO; the containers were a jumble of brand names garishly painted over their rust-colored bases.

I wondered what the seamen were doing, standing there idly. In the Navy, where I had been 35 years, there was no such thing as an idle seaman. Perhaps they were just taking a breather, after the extreme exhaustion from the act of setting sail.

Perhaps they were simply savoring the last sight of land for the next several months, feeling the melancholy of an invisible umbilical cord being severed. In 20 minutes, the growing dusk would swallow them, before the earth’s curvature did.

Maybe the guys at the rail were just standing there and taking a long pee. I used to do that when I was a sub-lieutenant on the Nilgiri. Standing precariously over the raised parapet on which the stern rail was mounted, I would let loose and watch the stream disappear into the churning wake, turning the sea infinitesimally more acidic. I thought with a chuckle that that’s all Leonardo di Caprio would be left doing at the bow rail of the Titanic, had Kate Winslet jumped before he arrived.

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I was sitting facing the surf, my legs dangling a few feet above star-shaped concrete blocks that were haphazardly placed in the sand, to break up the waves. The Colaba seawall was where I always sat and caught my breath after the jog, dripping sweat all over the concrete.

Till six months back, I had company. Shanta. She came along most days, when she felt a bit better. I ran while Shanta walked. Reaching ahead of her, I would be sitting on the sea wall parapet long before she came trudging slowly up. We would sit on the concrete parapet and pass the Oberwerk back and forth between between us. When it was my turn, I watched the ships and when she had the binoculars, she followed the gulls and the fishing skiffs. When we got bored looking, Shanta would take out some chutney sandwiches and we munched quietly, our arms round each other.

Shaking out of my reverie, I swept the Oberwerk over the waves. The Amaretsu Maru was gone, blended in with the dusk, swallowed up over the edge of the horizon. Off to the south-east, across the Back Bay, the Nhava Sheva Terminal of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, was ablaze with lights now, looking like some alien space port from a Ridley Scott sci-fi picture.

As if on cue, the vada-pau vendors and their pushcarts, the pony rides, the mini Ferris wheel and the balloons, all melted away and the beach fell silent as it began ceding territory to the tide. Phosphorescent foam washed over the rocks, making them glitter.

I was stowing the Oberwerk in my back pack when a light blinked briefly, somewhere beyond the surf. Couldn’t be a fishing boat this late. Instinctively I brought up the Oberwerk and trained it in the general direction of the flash. Immediately the two speeding zodiacs filled my eyepiece. I hadn’t heard their approach, the breaking surf muffling their sound.

I counted five in each Zodiac, huddled forms outlined in an eerie red glow by the Oberwerk’s night vision. Each man seemed to be toting a bulky backpack. The two inflatables pitched and bounced on the waves, releasing bursts of spray as they hit the troughs and bounced off the crests, racing toward the little strip of sand that bordered the jumble of the concrete blocks by the seawall. On their heading they would be beaching right about a hundred meters from where I was perched.

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As I followed their progress, the conversation I had had with Commodore Jimmy Taraporewala at the Navy Club the previous evening leapt into my consciousness. Instead of evening wear, Jimmy was in overalls with those shoulder patches with the graphic red and black crocodile lashing out with its tail, an insignia I had myself worn for six eventful years. Jimmy had succeeded me as head of MARCOS.

We were nursing sodas, except that mine had a couple of fingers of McDovell Premium in it. Not needing much coaxing, Jimmy whispered,” We have a red alert, Krish. Something is about to happen.”

I looked up sharply, “You mean a landing?”

Jimmy nodded and then grimaced. “Those assholes at the IB have no clue. No news from our assets at the ISI. JCB and DNI are working on it non-stop. All Coast Guard vessels, as well as the Sindhukirti and Sindhuratna, have slipped their moorings. The Talwar and Trishul are on their way from the Maldives. We ourselves are at 5-minute readiness”. That explained Jimmy’s overalls.

I leaned forward, “Tip-off?”

“MI6,” Jimmy nodded, “ And Mossad. Of late, there have been more exchanges between us than you had in your time, Krish.”

“What about those Neptunes you just acquired? We have two now, don’t we? Put them on a permanent orbit over the west coast till this thing is over.” I was referring to the new Boeing P-8I Neptune reconnaissance aircraft that have just been inducted into the Navy.

“Boeing technicians are still sorting out some glitches with the Magnetic Anomaly Detectors in them,” Jimmy made a disgusted face and the conversation veered away to his son, Ronnie, who was passing out of the NDA in a week.

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Premonition. The hair at the nape of my neck stood rigid. Fishermen weren’t out so late and besides, they didn’t flaunt zodiacs. I swung my legs over the parapet, stowed the Oberwerk inside my wind-cheater and quickly dropped down to the ground on all fours and began picking my way through the rubble on the side of the road in a crouching gait, remainIng below the level of the parapet.

10 yards of knee-lacerating crawl brought me to a crack in the seawall where the cement had crumbled, forming a gap large enough to let a man through. It had probably been deliberately created just to have a short-cut to the asphalt, by those street urchins who begged around the beach during the day. I slid through the gap and started slithering down toward the sand, gingerly stepping over the star-shaped blocks, knowing they would be coated with moss and slippery as hell.

As I stepped on the squishy sand, I saw the silhouettes. The men had run the boats onto the sand and begun getting out of their polyurethane suits. I reached behind the small of my back and felt the irregular striations of the handle of the Glock. Ex-special forces members are licensed to carry a firearm of their choice and mine was a Glock34.

The man who was already out of his wetsuit and still bare-chested, was the first to sense my presence. In a single fluid motion, the man’s right hand came up holding a handgun while he went into a crouch.

I had expected that. I raised my hand, palm outward and whispered,” Salaam, Bhaijan.” (Greetings, brother). The man peeled off from the rest and came forward. The gun was a 9mm Luger and he brought it down, holding it loosely in his right hand, as he came to a halt a few feet from me. In the twilight, he appeared clean-shaven and wiry and had piercing bright eyes that had no fear in them. A pro.

“Salaam,” said the man,” Do you have our stuff, janab?”

I stepped into the role quickly as my training kicked in. I gestured toward the star-shaped blocks by the sea wall and nodded,” Its all in there.”

“Aapki tareef?” (Who are you?), the man’s eyes kept probing the darkness all around.

“Aftab. Aur aap hain, janab…?” (And you?)

The man returned his piercing gaze on me and said, “Babar”.

“Leh, usko samhal, Ajmal, “ the man named Babar barked and a wild-eyed guy who looked young enough to be a teenager, dropped what he was doing and made his way toward the blocks.

I braced myself. The star shaped blocks were about 100 meters from where we were standing. The boy, Ajmal, would be gone maybe five minutes max. They had five minutes before they realized there was nothing there.

As the seconds ticked away, the man called Babar said,” Rana ne wapsi ki koi zikar kiya? (Did Rana mention the extraction plans?)”

“Rana?” I stared at the man named Babar, “Nahin, hamein Rana ne nahin bheja.” (Rana? I have no idea. Rana didn’t send me)

“To phir?” I could see the first flush in the man’s eyes. Was it simply puzzlement or was it alarm? I guess I would find out soon enough. Babar straightened and stared, “Kisney bheja?” (Then who sent you?)

“MARCOS,” I pronounced the acronym clearly and it hung in the air for a second. I had said it so softly that only Babar heard.

Maybe it was fatigue from the 50km zodiac ride, but a second is a long time in this business. Long enough to die.

The man called Babar was bringing his firing arm up when the Glock appeared almost by magic in my hand. It took another half millisecond for Babar to grow a third nipple, right between the other two. He collapsed in a heap and rolled over, staring up, squinting, his eyes trying to focus on the star-studded night sky. Perhaps he had noticed a new star on the belt of Orion. A trickle of blood pulsated out of the corner of his lips and his nostrils, in step with the frantic thrashing of his dying heart.

Instantly the confined space on the beach erupted with the klicks and coughs of silenced automatic weapons. The dark gave me cover while the Glock did the talking. One of my rounds opened up the kid, Ajmal’s head like a melon. He kept walking a while, his body still believing it had a head, before it realized it didn’t and collapsed. I dispatched the rest quite easily. These were dumb kids, just a bunch of miserable suckers, convinced of the twisted glory that they fantasized awaited them.

The last two dropped their weapons and tried to run into the waters. Maybe they wanted to swim all the way back to Karachi. They never had a chance. When you are up against the MARCOS, you never have a chance. We were trained to shoot in pitch darkness, by sense alone. I picked them off pretty easily. Looking around at the carnage, I speed-dialed Jimmy.

I was turning to pick my way back to those blocks, when I heard a groan. It was the man named Babar and I walked over to him. The sand around him had turned a slaughterhouse crimson. His chest heaved as he made an effort to speak and I brought my face closer. If Babar had any last words, I wanted to find out what they were.

Alas, the man named Babar disappointed. He just uttered one word,” Gaddar” (traitor). His eyes gradually began taking on the glazed sightlessness of the dead and I decided to hurry him along. I brought the Glock up and pressed it against his forehead.

At the moment of being shot, it is said that a man is overwhelmed by a sense of indignation – at the unfairness of it all – that he didn’t deserve to die. No one should die unfairly and all deaths are intrinsically unfair. That sentiment showed in the look in the eyes of the man named Babar.

I believed differently. I grinned. I wanted Babar to see me enjoy myself. I pulled the trigger.

I had climbed back up onto the asphalt and was leaning against the parapet of the seawall when I heard the first wails of the sirens charging up Pilot Bundar Road.