In no man's land

Last Updated 24 September 2016, 18:39 IST

The Warehouse
S S Mausoof
2016, pp 260, Rs 399

If the daily news reports on acts of terrorism in Iraq, Brussels, Istanbul and Paris have whetted our appetite for more, we can follow S S Mausoof to the northwest.

Armed with powerful names like talisman, the journey begins in Pakistan, in an area that straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan, more divided than united by ethnicity and religion. You name the terror organisation, they have it. The Warehouse is where it all begins.

Syed Qais, a Loss Assessor and Surveyor, is offered an opportunity to make big money that’ll lift him up and away from his petty, middle-class existence. A warehouse that had held a consignment of cigarettes for the Americans stationed in Afghanistan has been burned to the ground. It has been insured for half a million dollars by Lloyds.

The warehouse is situated in Jandola, the heart of the Taliban land. A straightforward case, except that the client, Saif Awan, is dead and his father, Malif Awan, who once owned the warehouse, refuses to put in a claim for the money on the grounds that insurance is illegal under sharia. The snag is that, if the client denies the claim while the insurance company has already collected the payment reinsurance, things could become awkward. Qais, a certified surveyor, is persuaded by his ex-love Sonja to convince Malik Awan to claim his money.

What is it that motivates a man to walk into a situation so patently studded with danger? The whiff of sex, the glint of money, and the danger inherent in such a trip combine in a fine balancing act.

The only way to get things done in this part of the world is to know somebody who knows somebody influential. And so  Qais starts on a long trip of a thousand miles. He’s going to be gone for far longer than he has ever imagined.

His very first encounter with the Pakistan military is inauspicious. They first hit and ask questions later. Malik Awan is a grieving man. His son Saif Awan has been killed by an American drone. He’s clear-eyed in his principles and will not touch the “blood” money offered. Saif’s young widow is tempted and sees the offer of money as a chance to escape her present life.

Qais’s inspection of the burnt warehouse makes it clear to him that it’s less innocent than it seems. He finds the remnants of an American missile. By the time the true function of the warehouse dawns on Qais, he has already tumbled straight into a Taliban camp. People play double games there. Ruthlessness is the only dependable factor when men have turned into beasts. Qais finds that his body has bruised, ails, and recovers, but his spirit changes imperceptibly.

Mullah Nazeer, the spiritual leader of the camp, is a gentle, grandfatherly man who sees no irony in his promise to young soldiers to let go of worldly attachment and fight evil, urging them to sacrifice their lives to attain the pleasures of beautiful women in heaven.

Impossibly in this emotional wasteland, straggly plants of love and friendship put out shoots. Tariq, a young Taliban, and Bilquee, an Afghan widow, bring Qais back to the world of living.

Just as life in the Taliban camp becomes a routine, American drones drop bombs and Qais’s captors are now Americans. There is a retaliatory massacre by the Taliban. Qais’s identity changes like the shifting sands of this no man’s land. He is a mukhbir — an American spy; a munafiq — a hypocrite who only pretends to be a Muslim; and then he is labelled as a Taliban fighter. Truth lies in the eye of the beholder.

The swirling winds of destiny wrenches the tenuous friendship of Qais, Tariq and Bilquee, and flings them apart. When finally released, it is a baffled Qais who returns like one from the land of dead.

His identity is returned to him intact. He is once again Syed Qais Ali Qureshi, a Pakistani civilian, but his soul is bleached of its old desires. From the wads of currency that Sonia offers to him as his part of the deal, he carefully chooses just one Afghan note as a souvenir for his daughter. Sonia’s forceful intimacy reminds him of the innocence of Bilquee, and the memory chokes him. He has come a long way.

This is an interesting read on the bleeding wound that Afghanistan has become,  and the misfortune of those whose home it is.

(Published 24 September 2016, 16:08 IST)

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