The Last Chance

Rafiq sighed as he began to climb the steps leading to the waiting plane.  The noise from its roaring engines was unbearable.   In less than five minutes they were airborne – never before had he taken to the skies so quickly.  But then these were not normal times.  The entire operation had a typical English preciseness to it.  It was order amidst chaos.
“You will have drinks?” The pretty air hostess enquired barely fifteen minutes after takeoff.  The ‘No Smoking’ signs had disappeared with a bell.
“No, thanks,” he told her, politely.  He was surprised at the request.  But the solicitous air hostess was merely doing her duty.  Still he couldn’t wonder at the way luxury protocols were observed, even in times of crisis.
He stared outside the widow near his seat and observed with a twinge of remorse, the beauty of the clouds, the purity of the sky and felt the elation that comes with elevation. Yes, if there was God, He had meant the best for mankind. Strangely, it was mankind that had brought the worst for itself.
Somewhere he had read that if the earth was like a forty six year old woman (on a scale where  a million years were equated with one year) then mankind was born to it hardly eight months back. In that short a relative time mankind had beaten every other form of life in intelligence, ingenuity and superiority.  But when nothing else on earth had the power of challenging its superiority, it had become its own worst enemy.
His thoughts carried him into the distant past,  when he was young and incorrigibly idealistic.  His ideals had shone like a flame, and they had reflected in his poems. He had naively believed then that a pen was mightier than the sword.  When people clapped after he recited his poems, he felt happy. There was hope that if people appreciated the message of love that his poems elaborated it meant that they had love in their hearts as well.
He still remembered vividly the day he and his fellow students had gone to New Delhi on a cultural programme.  He had worked out three beautiful poems.  And his theme, like always, had been love – The love between people, communities and countries.  The programme had been a great success.
The inevitability of destiny had caught him and a girl student in a whirlpool of emotions that had swept them off their feet.  He was a traveller from South India and she from the North. But both shared the same passions -poetry and before they knew it, they were in love.
The days of separation, as they came near brought a despondency in their minds. On the last week of the tour he had proposed her. She looked terrified.
“My parents wont  approve of us,” she said quietly.
“You talk about strength of character in your poems, what happened to it?”
He still remembered her reply. Each and every word of it.
“ I don’t lack the courage to walk over my parents.  What I lack is the callousness that this will require.  I simply cant hurt the hearts that nurtured me against the cruel odds of this world.”
“But you will eventually have to leave them one day….  Why not with me?”
“Because you are a Muslim and my parents hate Muslims.”
“Why?”  He asked uncomprehendingly.
“They lost their only son in the Bombay riots.  My brother was eighteen years old.  Its something they will never overcome.”
“But what happened in Bombay was politics!”  He protested.  “The ordinary Muslim had nothing to do with it.”
“Whatever it was, they lost their son because of some Muslims who killed him cruelly and in cold-blood.”
“But it has nothing to do with me!  And what would have happened if some Hindu had killed him?  Would they have hated Hindus as well?  And married you to a Muslim?  We have to rise above bigotry Anjali, we have a whole life ahead of us! By the next year I will complete my internship. I’ll be able to look after you well.”
“You sound so convincing.  Why don’t you talk to them? Come  to my home try your luck with my parents.” She smiled.
“Will you prepare them for what is in store?”
“Everything else except your being a Muslim. I dare not do this on my own.”
“I’ll take the chance for our sake.”
The hatred that he had intercepted that  day had stunned him. The whole neighbourhood had come to save the pride of the locality Anjali, his heartbeat.  He would have been roughed up too had it not been for Anjali.
He pleaded his case, but to them he was only a Muslim -responsible for the partition and the arson that followed, and later the cause behind Bombay riots. All his reasoning was unable to change their hardened attitudes. He was shown the door and warned  not to see his beloved again. They threatened to kill him if ever he met her again.
The evenings had become unbearable for him by the enforced separation. Anjali didn’t come to meet him like he had feared.  His heart pined for a glimpse of her sight. Her liquid eyes, her  serene face, her slender fingers and that  magical voice – he yearned to see her, just once before he left. He stopped appearing in the cultural programs because he had seen the charade it was. The exercise was showcased by the very politicians who had sown the seeds of hatred in the minds of innocent people.
He spent the rest of the days waiting agonizingly for Anjali to come to their favourite meeting point. She never came.
When the train to Madras was about to leave, he searched frantically for the one face that mattered most to him. But there was no sight of her.
Then tearing the crowd asunder, came Anjali.  She was running. She had become very thin and her eyes had lost their sparkle. There were black circles beneath her eyes.
She caught his arm as it rested on the side of the window. “I had  to see you. It was impossible not to see you.” She gasped for breath.
He saw the marks of tears on her dusty face and a lump formed in his throat.
“You are not eating and sleeping properly,” he remarked. “You have neglected yourself.”
“What do you expect?”  She said quietly.  “When your heart is sliced away from your chest and you cant do a thing!”
“Come with me. Its obvious that you love me.”  He had begged.
“ I came here to tell you that I love you. And that I wasn’t a coward. I want you to  remember me as someone who was very brave. Because I chose the more difficult of the two options between duty and love. I’m choosing duty.”
“I understand,” he said hoarsely. The guard had raised a flag. The engine had hooted.  They were about to part.
“I wont be able to forget you,” he had said. She had smiled from her sick looking, haggard face.
“Eventually you must. Find some good woman who will take care of you. You are such a reckless person.” She had choked on those words.
The train had started to move and she began to move with it. Slowly at first then with a sense of panic. He hoped she would yet change her mind.
She kept chasing the train, her eyes drowning in tears. Then the inevitable happened. Their grip was cut lose and she stood at the edge of the station, waving at him. His heart cried out with a numbness that was painful and his sight grew hazy with tears.
He had kept looking beyond the window, trying to make out why it had happened to them…….
When he turned  his head away from the window of that plane, his eyes were wet with tears. He wiped them away stealthily, trying to appear normal. But it hadn’t  been so easy those days.
He had changed when he reached Madras. He had destroyed his poems. Before that he had held on to them as if they were his very life.
He lost himself in his world of medicine.  And in allaying the suffering of people did he seek the healing of his own wounds, the one that had been inflicted on his heart.  It was a small consolation to him that if his life wasn’t the heaven he had desired, then at least he would try to make the life of others a little more comfortable. He knew it was impossible to change the hearts of ruthless, hardened people.  So he thought of healing those afflicted by the cruelty of a world that was increasingly becoming violent and brutal. When he got the chance to study in UK he was glad. To him India had a past that would haunt him. He wanted to escape the memories of Anjali and so there couldn’t have been a better opportunity.
But he had been wrong.  He couldn’t forget Anjali.  The many women he met merely underlined the fact that Anjali was the only one who really mattered to him.  It was a relation made in the other world but destroyed in this world. From expecting the maximum out of life, he had adjusted to getting along with life.
But now even that bare minimum seemed to be a luxury, not to him but for mankind.  Its very existence was threatened.

It was afternoon when the plane landed in New Delhi.  The airport had survived the damage being located in the outskirts of the city.  The targets had been the Parliament and the central parts of Delhi.
They were whisked away in the Red Cross ambulances provided by the Government Of India.   He observed the barely furnished ambulance in which he sat.  The equipment was not enough to support life in the critical hours it swung between life and death, it was substandard and poorly maintained.  But this was to be expected.  Of countries where priorities of piling up nuclear technology took importance over the interests of the common man.  The same wouldn’t be true of the weapon systems.  They would be at their best, maintained and honed to perfection.
The senior official who had come to meet him looked glum and sober.  He introduced himself and came straight to the point.  “The situation is quite bad.  Nearly a million people have been affected in Delhi because of extensive bombings and the one nuclear bomb that was dropped.  The situation in Bombay, Amritsar, Agra is no different.  We are not able to cope with the Delhi crisis yet, on top of it we have people rushing from the bomb affected cities of Amritsar and Agra  as well.”
He had seen all that in the news.  It was pandemonium.  The untreated, uncared people affected by the bombings and the nuclear radiations had started to take law into their hands.  Several of them had been shot by the army to restrain them from indulging in loot and arson.
He couldn’t help wonder at the irony of it all.   The very army trained for slaying soldiers and terrorists across the borders was now training guns on its fellow countrymen.  The resource and medical infrastructure never a strong point with India or Pakistan had completely collapsed.  It left people insecure and angry leading to rioting and looting.  There were not enough doctors, not enough hospitals, not enough medicines, not enough beds in the hospitals, not enough nurses but there had been more than enough of nuclear bombs, more than enough of armed personnel.
They had changed into anti-radiation suits in which they looked more like aliens than people who had come to treat the affected, but the precaution was necessary.
Five lacs people had died in Delhi alone.  It was no different in Amritsar, Bombay and Agra.  The same fires stoked in Islamabad, Karachi and most Pakistani cities.  Pakistan was almost completely annihilated.  Opting to use the first strike, it had dropped four nuclear bombs on India when their armed forces were routed completely in conventional warfare.  The diehards within Pakistan’s armed forces had believed it to be the quickest way to winning the war.  The Indian reply had been equally swift and ruthless.  Six nuclear bombs were dropped in Pakistan as a retaliatory effort and they had twice the power of destruction than Pakistan’s bombs.  The result was a stunning military defeat and the roasting of Pakistan.  But who was actually the winner?  India?  Did New Delhi look like the capital of a country that had just won the war?  There could be no winners in this kind of war.  Only losers.  Children, parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives all had perished.  The dead had escaped misery.  The survivors would suffer the consequences and side effects for the next three generations.
There was another UN medical team attending to the sorrows of Pakistan, unleashed by the might of nuclear technology.  Medical science pitted against nuclear science.  The science of healing versus the science of death and destruction.  The battle was a hopeless one.
“Would you like to take some rest before….”
“No we would like to go to the hospitals, straightaway,” he told the official.  Rest was a luxury they could afford only after the mess left behind by the bombs was cleared, if at all it could ever be cleared.
They didn’t reach the hospital.  On the way itself they saw people who badly needed medical attention.  The government had put tents to shelter the homeless sufferers and was providing food to them but what they really needed was medical attention which was scarce.
“Stop!  We shall  begin right away!” Rafiq told the ambulance driver.
The Red Cross team got down from the ambulances and reached for their first aid boxes.  They fanned out to the people crying out in agony and pain.  Blood oozed out of the lesions of victims of radiation.  Gangrene had formed on the wounds.  Many needed amputation.  Even the bare necessities like bandaging had been ignored.  The apathy and lack of organisation was woefully apparent.
They gave antibiotic injections and pain killers to the affected.  Chemotherapy would follow later, if the International Red Cross was able to mobilise World’s funding agencies.  And even then to how many people would these services actually reach?
He bandaged a three year old kid whose face was charred.  She had lost her vision and there was a slim chance she would survive.  He attended to the wounds of  an eighteen year old boy whose arms and legs showed full blown gangrene.  The boy needed amputation.  It was a hopeless case that would get more and more complicated.
“Kill me…..”  The boy whispered desperately to him.  “Inject poison or shoot me.  But don’t leave me like this.  Please, I don’t want to live.  Just let me die quickly……”  He sobbed.
He was screaming when they took him away in the ambulance.  Strangely there were no politicians around. They were conspicuous by their absence.  Probably there was nothing to gain from these victims of war.   No votes to win.  And if people had there way the politicians would be lynched had they dared to make an appearance.
He got very tired in the next 10 hours but the sea of suffering didn’t recede, rather it threatened to drown the entire team with its ceaseless demands.  He began to work like a robot.  The never ending stream of sufferers had desensitized the earlier impact of the horror.  Maybe it was desirable.  He could work better without the thought process embittering his mind with a poison that didn’t contribute.
Then something happened.  His movements between the people and camps took him abruptly to a place that was a slice from his memories of New Delhi.  The same unwinding, narrow, disorganized streets that he had walked on the way to  Anjali’s home on that fateful afternoon in June, a long time ago.  That day suddenly came to life.  Only, instead of their earlier beauty, the houses were in a shambles, scarred beyond recognition by the ravages of war.  Charred trees, shattered homes, pits in the middle of the road and the unbearable silence stared back at him as he watched the place where he had lost the girl he so desperately loved.
Nostalgia weaved a spell on him.  He forgot his work and began to walk slowly on that street at the end of which was Anjali’s home.  His Anjali.  The only one whom he had loved.
He walked like a man in a daze.  Telling himself that she wouldn’t be there.  Couldn’t be there.  Shouldn’t be there.  He prayed and hoped the house would be deserted,  but a part of him wanted to confirm she wasn’t there, lying alone needing help.
When he came face to face with the house, there was no mistaking it.  The iron gate, the very place where the neighbourers had gathered and had all but thrashed him had it not been for Anjali’s intervention, was twisted and burnt.  He remembered the depressing hatred which he had seen in the eyes of the people who had gathered that day.  It was that hatred and intolerance on both sides of the border which had fanned this nuclear holocaust.  It was strange people chose hate when love was so much easier to give and so inexpensive. Where were those who nurtured hatred?  Did they see the destruction?  Did they feel a sense of remorse?  Or were they still busy blaming Muslims and Hindus for what catastrophe had befallen on humanity?
He saw a faint light from the decimated home.
The door creaked as he pushed it and he nearly stumbled at the stairs.
“Who is it?” A faint voice called from within.
The interiors were dark, without electricity.  But there was light at the end of the corridor, from a candle.  He switched on his pocket torch and moved forward.
At the far end of the room someone crawled.
He approached the figure with a faint heart.
When he saw who it was he was devastated.
Anjali lay on the floor, her face was scalded with radiation burns.  Blood oozed from the wounds that scattered on her entire body.  Most of her fingers were gone and blood and plasma seeped from them.
“Water, please give me water….” She said in a hoarse voice.
They were the signs of death.  Horrible, painful, slow death. His mouth had gone dry as he clutched his heart.  Oh, what was he to do?  The dispassionate attitude that made it possible for a doctor to treat a severely wounded patient failed him.  A sob escaped him as he sensed the pain she must be feeling.  If there was a hell this was it.  For both of them.  Fate’s ruthless ways had singled them for another horrible punishment.
He gave her his special bottle of water that shielded the radiation and she drank from it thirstily.  Then she vomited.  It was blood.
“Who are you?  Who has sent you?  I need more water….”
He gave her more of it.  This time she didn’t vomit.
“Who are you?”  She was almost breathless now.
“A doctor form the UN team….”
“Is it Rafiq?  Are you my Rafiq!  Rafiq! Why don’t you reply?” She almost screamed.
“Yes, I am your Rafiq!” He said.  Then he broke into sobs.
“My Rafiq has come!  At last!”  She smiled deliriously.  “I had been waiting only for you!  I knew you would come.” Her body racked in pain.
He offered her more water.
“…..For the last time before my death.  How I prayed all these years for one glimpse of you.  Look my prayers have been answered….”  She opened her mutilated hands, unaware of herself and the physical state she was in.
“Anjali…” He whispered hoarsely.
“You had to come!”  She whispered in pain.  “Because I never stopped loving you.  I knew you would come one day.  I couldn’t die without seeing you…”
“Stay calm, Anjali.  I am here, with you.  You are going to get better….”   He offered her words of consolation not knowing how to cope with the situation.
“You found someone to look after you?”  She ignored his lie.  She was trying hard not to show him now, how much she was suffering.  But that smile cost her an effort, he could see that.
“No.  There couldn’t be anyone after you.  Nobody could fill the vacuum you left…”
She shut her eyes, forcing the tears to squeeze through her eyelids.
“I understand.  There couldn’t have been anyone else.  Not for me.  Not for you.  In a way this death is a relief.  An end to the prolonged suffering that has been my fate…”
Something snapped within him and he tore off the anti-radiation suit from his body.
“No don’t do that Rafiq….” She protested weakly.  “Don’t be reckless….”
Then she fainted.
He sat down and cradled her in his arms, hugging her close to his body.  When she regained consciousness, she smiled at him.
“You look so handsome, so sophisticated…..  I must be looking horribly ugly.  But I have no shame.  It is so comfortable, this embrace of yours.  I yearned for it, all these years…..”
He smiled, trying to be hopeful, at least for her sake.  “You are going to live Anjali.  And come with me to U.K….”  He looked away.  It would be a miracle if she lived beyond six hours.
“Will you do me a favour….”
“Ask for it….”
“There on that shelf is the Granth Sahib.  Would you read a few lines to me from it?”
He nodded.
“Whenever I became weak and desperate without you, I took refuge in the word of God.  And always, I felt you close to me.  Today, I am fortunate you are with me.  I feel like reading it, to express my gratitude to Guru Nanak that I could see you in the last moments of my life….”
He understood her feelings and felt a surge of love for her.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you are a Muslim….” She misunderstood his speechless silence.
“My religion is love, Anjali.  I’m neither a Muslim nor a Hindu.  I don’t want to be any of those.  I’m just like you.  I have a heart like you and feelings.  Isn’t that enough?  I wanted a home for us, I wanted children.  But now I am glad all that didn’t happen.  What would have we given to our children anyway?  This death, this horror, this misery?  What do you want me to read?”
“Anything.  But read the English translation, so that we can be together.”
He flashed his torch on the text.
“Where do I begin?”  He was confused.
“Anywhere, just anywhere…”
“Bhaikaei uth papoliyai vinu bujjhei mugadh ajani.”
Each morning you pamper your body, think only about yourself – oh ignorant, thoughtless and selfish man. You forget that only in the love of the Lord lies true happiness.   You came to this world to earn your redemption from the cycles of birth and death, but you forgot your goals and fell on evil ways and scheming.  But your time is running out.  Only those shall be redeemed in the heart of whose flows Divine love.  You so selfishly provide for yourself in this transitory world, plundering and tormenting others but you forget of the world where you have to go one day.  Abandon your evil ways and be liberated.  Just like the Holy King saved Nanak who was drowning in this illusionary world of wants and greed!

His tears fell on the Granth Sahib.  Man would never learn.  Never.  Mankind was selfish to the core.  Death levelled everything, still man didn’t learn.  Hiroshima, Nagasaki, New Delhi, Bombay, Agra, Amritsar, Islamabad, Karachi and entire Pakistan.  Many more cities of the world had yet to perish.  The whole world had to perish before man came face to face with the horror he had perpetrated.
At three a.m. Anjali breathed her last.  She suffered terribly in her last moments.
“I have to pay for my karmas,” she said when he offered her pain killers.  “Let me suffer the punishment…  Besides I don’t want to sleep.  These pain killers put one to sleep.  I want to behold your face before I die.  Relish every moment that passes by.”
She had died looking at his face, stroking his hair.  He dropped her arm and shut her eyes .  He stared blankly at the void left by her demise.
He pocketed the Granth sahib.  That was the last gift to him from her.  There would be no more.  Not in this birth.  He would never forget the words that he had read with her.
He picked her limp body and stumbled out of the house.  The first rays of the sun illumined the eastern sky.  The terrible night had ended.  At least for Anjali.
But what of mankind?  Would this day ring in the message of love and tolerance? Would mankind ever be able to climb out of the bottomless pit it had fallen into?

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