The Last War (PanMacmillan India) by former Outlook Managing Editor Sandipan Deb is a re-imagining of the Mahabharata set in the Mumbai underworld. Spanning five decades and three generations of the Kuru family, the novel is an account of brothers in arms and families at war played out in the gritty expanse of India’s most dynamic city, from its ritzy high-rises to its mean streets and slums. As loyalties are tested, and blood is shed, can even ‘dharma’ justify the means to a devastating end? Exclusive excerpts:
The Night Before The War
Jahn entered the room. Her face was puffy from sleep, but nothing could ever erode the curious glint in her eyes. Her hair extended almost to her waist, and in her short nightdress, Jeet could have almost believed she was still a teenager. She didn’t notice Kishenbhai initially and said: “Jeet, throw that drink away and come to bed. It’s almost morning.”
“Darling mine,” said Kishenbhai.
He meant it. Kishenbhai and Jahn shared a bond that Jeet knew he would never be able to fully understand. Jahn always knew what to cook for Kishenbhai. And Kishenbhai instinctively sensed her slightest desire and fulfilled it even before she had articulated it properly in her own mind.
He had saved her, when Rishabh, Vikram and Jeet had been helpless.
“Kishenbhai!” said Jahn and sat down next to him. “Is he drinking too much?”
“Not so much that his aim wavers in the morning,” said Kishenbhai. “I am here to see to that.”
“We are having a deep discussion,” said Jeet.
“Oh, I like deep discussions,” said Jahn. “I have participated in several.”
“Jeet is having problems with what he has to do,” said Kishenbhai.
Jahn’s eyes flashed, and for a fleeting instant Jeet saw that murderous deity—the thing that he knew resided inside her—in all its feral horror. “Problems, Jeet? After what they did to us? After what they did to me? I have not oiled or tied my hair for eleven years now. And you have problems?”
Jeet was looking down at the floor as she strode up to him. He felt her hand under his jaw, roughly thrusting his face up. “Look at me, Jeet,” he heard the deity hiss, and he looked into her eyes and saw the fathomless cruelty. “You know exactly what you have to do, don’t you, Jeet?” Her lips were slightly parted, and memories of the wetness of her tongue flooded his head. “You have to go out and kill them all.”
He felt that strange chill in his heart. He felt that familiar warmth rise in his loins.
“Each and every fucking one of them,” she said.
“Besides,” said Kishenbhai, suddenly getting irritated. “Who the fuck do you think you are, man? You eat, breathe, shit, fuck—these are all interactions between bodily objects and the sensory world, you are dealing with a material world that is a dream dreamt up by a clever writer! It’s not you who’s doing all this, it’s just a manifestation of something that existed thousands, maybe millions of years before someone called Jeet appeared, or Kishenbhai appeared, and will exist for a million years more. But right at this point of time, you are Jeet, and you have gone through certain life experiences, and you have to act. Even if you lose, the cycle will go on. Someone somewhere will be born who will not remember you, but will be you, and absolutely unlike you. Maybe he will be a bloody scientist, a cricketer, a cripple. You won’t know. What you will want to know is that you have done what you believed was right in your life.”
“You have to do your job,” said Jahn.
“And with no desire, no anger, no attachments,” said Kishenbhai. “People seal their own fates. God does not take any interest in good and evil, He has better fish to fry. But Nature is different. All that we do, good or bad, is dictated by Nature. These are worldly acts, that involve selfish desires and egos. You have to rise above these, because these bring fear and avarice and doubt. Look at the gun you are holding in your hand. Can there be a purer creature than that? All it doesn’t have is an intellect. Be that gun with an intellect that is above worldly shit, a bullet that knows where it is headed, implacable, indivertible. A gun is never deluded. A bullet has no doubts. That is how you should be. Excuse me, but I am a bit riled up by this sudden show of cowardice.”
“And the cigarette that I hold in my other hand?”
“Ah, the kamikaze warrior. The cigarette burns itself down knowing fully well that it is taking three minutes of your lifetime with it. It is pure dharma, beyond everything. Be the fucking cigarette, my friend, never deviating from your task. Learn from it. If you have achieved the balance between a bullet and a cigarette, you have reached.”
In the first few months of their married life, Rishabh was enraptured by the physical aspect of the relationship. He could not help but want sex with Jahn more than once a day, every day. He was thrilled that Jahn hardly ever objected, and even her rare attempts at escape seemed nothing more than good-humoured exasperation—she would make a face, roll her eyes and pretend to push him away. Then one morning, lying beside her in bed, watching her sleep, it struck him—and he felt stupid that it had to strike him at all—that he loved the whole of her, not just her body, but everything about her. He realized he felt happy in a way that he had never felt before in his life.
Then one day, eight months into their marriage, everything seemed to change for Rishabh. He had returned from work at three in the morning, and Jahn was fast asleep. Rishabh got into bed. He could feel the warmth of Jahn’s body, a few inches away from him. She was lying on her side; very carefully, making sure not to wake her, he turned her so she was lying on her back. He found that her nightdress had already ridden up above her knees. He pulled it gently up, over her thighs till her body was bare from the navel downwards. She was still in deep sleep. Rishabh parted her legs very slowly. She murmured in her sleep, but did not resist. He entered her.
She had never climaxed before with him inside. He had always reached orgasm first, and then used his fingers to take her over the edge. Sometimes, after even fifteen minutes of his ministrations, when she could not come and his fingers were getting tired, she would gently push his hand away from her, whisper “It’s OK”, and kiss him; she had never made him feel guilty or inadequate in any way. But tonight, she came, while he was thrusting inside her, and her orgasm was more intense than anything he had seen before. Her body arched; at one point, her hips jerked upwards from the bed with a mighty heave, almost pushing him out of her, and then she screamed a helpless keening scream that seemed to go on and on, consisting of just one word repeated over and over again till Rishabh felt himself grow soft and slip out of her: “Jeet Jeet Jeet Jeet…” Rishabh flung himself away from her as she continued to shudder and gasp and moan. Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Rishabh, her body fell still again, and she turned over and continued to sleep, lying on her side again, her back to her husband.
Rishabh couldn’t sleep at all that night.
In the morning, when she woke, she smiled at him and asked: “Did you fuck me in the middle of the night? Or was I dreaming? I am so confused…”
Rishabh knew the answer to both her questions—yes—but he answered only the first one.
The Death of the Patriarch
Dusk was falling by the time Yash came out of a mansion close to the Taj Hotel after a meeting with a few of his suppliers. They had expressed some concern about the war, but Yash thought he had successfully managed to reassure them that all was well, and there was nothing for them to worry about.
He stopped on the steps and breathed in the salty sea air. The Gateway of India was lit up in front of him, and he remembered his days as a roadside archer. Then it struck him. In the fiftytwo years since he got into Pestonjee’s Rolls-Royce that day, he had never taken a walk near the Gateway. He had had countless meetings at the Taj, and just called his car and driven away.
“Shall we call the car, sir?” asked one of his two bodyguards.
Yash was silent for a while. Then he said: “No, I’ll just take a walk. I’ll be back in five minutes. You wait here.”
“But, sir…” started one of the guards. Yash held up one arm to silence him.
“I’ll be all right,” he said. “You wait here. I just want to be alone for a while.”
He crossed the road and walked towards the Gateway. How little had changed here since those days, he thought. The same pigeons, the balloon sellers, the candy floss merchants, the telescope-wallahs, who, for a fee, showed you an island or two and a ship or three, the lovers in search of solitude in crowds. He could hear the sea crashing to the right of him. The teenaged Shankar, Shiv and Satya innocently putting their lives at risk every day at his hands. If the arrow missed its mark by an inch, one of them would possibly die, or at least be maimed for life. And then a Rolls-Royce comes, a window glides down.
Since that night at Alibaug, Yash had not killed many men with his own hands, though he had ordered the slaying of dozens, if not more than a hundred. Pestonjee had made him the organization man, while BK had taken over field operations. Both of them had grown the organization far beyond what perhaps Pestonjee had dreamt of: BK the hammer, Yash the hand that wielded the hammer. Yash wondered whether Pestonjee was watching them from somewhere, perfectly groomed, a smoking Pall Mall between the index and middle finger of his left hand.
Would he have approved of how his organization had turned out? Yash felt a deep sadness descending on him. All around him, people were happy, out for a good time, children chasing one another with their parents running behind them, trying not to lose sight of them.
Lose sight. He had lost sight of the problem, or rather, known about it and had procrastinated, looked away from it, hoping that if you don’t look at it, ignore it, it would go away. He had been foolish and he had strayed from his principles and the oath he had taken at the bedside of the dying Pestonjee. Things had not been helped by Shankar being blind in more ways than one. But now, there was no going back. All bridges had been burnt.
Pestonjee had been wrong in one of his dying predictions, thought Yash. He had said that there would be a great war, and the side that wins would rule Mumbai. Yes, the war was on, but whoever won the war would not rule Mumbai. They would be far less powerful than the united Pestonjee organization. Stray groups would flourish, new satraps would seize power because the organization would have been weakened, the centre wouldn’t hold. It would take years, if it was possible at all, to bring them all under one roof. And that would again mean blood, a lot of blood.
When did dharma desert him?
Yash suddenly found himself in a limitless empty space. There was absolute silence all around, just the beating of his heart. Whichever way he looked, it was pitch dark, and he knew instinctively that there was nothing in that space, not a soul. He tried to move, but his body seemed paralysed, condemning him to an eternal stasis. Is this death, he wondered. He stood still, willing, from the bottom of his heart, to accept whatever was on offer.
A sharp blow on his shoulder spun him around, and he was no longer in that empty space, he was standing in front of the Gateway of India. Ten feet away from him stood the eunuch Chameli, pointing a silencer-fitted revolver at him. Hidden almost entirely behind her was Jeet.
Chameli fired again, and missed. Yash did not draw his gun. He stood there, waiting, waiting for Jeet to shoot.
He saw Jeet’s gun, also fitted with a silencer, come into view, his hand resting on Chameli’s shoulder for support. The first bullet hit him in the chest, and Yash staggered back. The second bullet hit him in the neck and he fell. He lay on the ground, his mouth filling with blood, watching Chameli walk up to shoot him the one final time, to make sure.
As Chameli touched the cold silencer barrel to his forehead, Yash could hear Jeet weeping in the background.
His last thought, in that instant between the final flash and the ultimate darkness, was that Jeet had nothing to weep for, nothing to ask forgiveness for.