The Last Train to Lucknow

Ahmad Razmid Khan sprinted down the platform, keeping one eye on the door handle moving away from him and the other on the dangerous maze of luggage piled up on the platform, strewn about in the haphazard manner characteristic of many Indian railway platforms. The last train to Lucknow was pulling out of the platform, gradually gaining momentum as the diesel engines strained to produce enough torque to haul the behemoth on its path. The platform was crowded, and Ahmad was finding it difficult to maneuver around the constantly moving mass of humans. At last, he managed to get a grip on the handle, only to find it frustratingly wrenched from his grasp as one of the porters brushed past him on the platform. It was then, when his attention was momentarily diverted from the train, that he saw the young man, in a full sleeve shirt and carrying a briefcase, running along side him, also intent on catching the train. Ahmad redoubled his efforts, and pretty soon was able to gain a handhold. He jumped onto the footrest on the train, and hauled himself into the carriage. No sooner had he went in than he heard an indistinct shout behind him. He knew the protocol. He turned back and proffered his hand, which was promptly grabbed. The young man managed to gain a foothold by means of a complicated jump, and Ahmad hauled him in. “Thanks….” the young man gasped. “No problem”, replied Ahmad.
They proceeded to their compartments, which by coincidence happened to be the same, and sank down into their seats, grateful for having caught the train. The young man immediately proceeded to take out a book from his briefcase and engrossed himself in its contents, while Ahmad, like the conscientious reporter that he was, took out his PDA and began checking his emails.
That hourly ritual having been completed, Ahmad flipped it shut and began aimlessly studying the contents of the paper he had bought at the station. He was already aware of all the main news, but wanted to see the spin put on the raw news that he, along with several other reporters, had brought in the previous night. It was the job of the editors to shape the news into a concise, readable package. But the process often ended up cutting out some of the sensationalism and potency of the material. At least, this was Ahmad’s opinion. He heartily despised the armchair editors who ruthlessly cut out chunks of the news that the field reporters painstakingly put together.
Ahmad shook his mind free of thoughts about errant editors, folded up the newspaper, and began inspecting his compartment and fellow travelers with some interest. The compartment was empty except for a young mother who was busy cooing to her infant and the young man who was still busy reading. Ahmad lost interest in the busy mother, and began to focus on the man. He caught a glimpse of the title of the book he was reading. “WHAT IS RELIGION?” “Interesting…. “thought Ahmad, “not what I would expect a young man to read”.
“Is it a good book?” Ahmad asked. The young man looked up at him. “This one…?” He enquired. “Yes”, Ahmad replied. “You see, I do read a bit myself. I haven’t ever come across this book. What does it speak of?” The young man smiled; a curious sort of smile, wry and mocking at the same time. Instead of replying, he closed the book shut, and asked, “What’s your name, sir?” “Ahmad Khan”. “Mr. Khan, to answer your question in short, yes, it is a good book. But I believe that the real question is not how good the book is, but what good you are able to extract from it.””Well said” replied Ahmad,” so, what good were you able to extract from this book?”
“That there need be no such thing as a religion for man to attain nirvana, or oneness with God”. “Oh, then religions are useless?” “Not exactly, Mr. Khan. Religion was invented by wiser men as a tool to keep the less morally upright among us humans on the straight and narrow path to nirvana.” “Are you a Hindu?”Khan couldn’t contain himself. The young man seemed taken aback, as if he hadn’t expected this question.” No Mr. Khan, my name is Althaf Raza”. “Althaf, “, began Ahmad,” you are a Muslim. How can you say that there is no such thing as a religion? Aren’t you denying what the Prophet said ?”
Althaf seemed at a loss for words. It seemed as if he were unsure of how to proceed. Finally, just as Ahmad was about to elaborate upon his point, he smiled again, that same, half wry, half mocking smile, as if he were patiently entertaining a rather slow child. “Whatever the Prophet said, he said several thousand years ago. It will not be logical to expect the entire code to remain applicable to our modern life. Things have changed; the world has moved on, science and technology have brought us to levels of growth unthinkable in the Prophet’s time. He was, after all, a human being. He had to preach what was imaginable in his time. It is upto us to extract those portions of the Koran that are applicable to our modern life and use them wisely.”
“Assuming the logic of what you said just now to be true, what portions would you be referring to?” “Why, those that teach tolerance and equality, of course” It was not so much the answer as the certainty with which it was said that triggered Ahmad’s passion. He felt the old familiar rush of adrenaline course through his body, and his breath quickened. His psychiatrist had taught him to watch out for these signals and to immediately focus on more peaceful thoughts, but he chose to ignore the advice this time. Althaf’s indifference could not be tolerated.”I accept what you are saying about equality, Althaf. I have no issue with that. But what you said about tolerance is way off the mark. That concept might perhaps have held water in the Prophet’s time, but not now. Tolerance in today’s world will have to mean standing back and letting people of other religions exploit us Muslims; and that is simply unacceptable.” “How many of our brethren have succumbed to persecution in India itself? Right from the British Raj, where we had to satisfy ourselves with lesser pay grades and rank than the Brahmins, to modern Gujarat and Malegaon, where we are being persecuted systematically?”
“If we are to go back in time, Mr. Khan, then what about the Mughal era, where Mughal kings persecuted the local Hindus by making them pay more tax as Jizya and pilgrimage tax, all to force them to convert to Islam?” Althaf seemed unfazed by Ahmad’s vengeful speech. Ahmad felt small beads of sweat form above his eyebrows, always an indicator that his temper was being tested. “Yes, I admit errors have also happened on our part, but taken as a whole, ours has been the most persecuted race. What about the Crusades?”
“Don’t you think, perhaps, that it is time to move on and put the past behind us, Mr. Khan?”
“We are nothing if we forget our past, Althaf”, Ahmad leaned forward, eager to push his point across. “Ours is one of the oldest religions around, and we would not have existed so long if we were to forget our past and forge ties of tolerance and understanding with kafirs”. At last, the word had escaped from his mouth. He had long ago consciously made a decision not to use that word or to assign its meaning sub consciously to any non Muslim. But still, in moments of weakness generated by such heated discussions, he proved unequal to the task of restraining himself. Althaf seemed taken aback at first, but then a smile formed on his face. It had no hint of mockery.
“So what do you propose should be done, Mr. Khan? Wipe out all other religions? Will that strengthen Islam?”
“I ….. I don’t know” admitted Ahmad. In fact, he had asked himself this question several times in the past. For long agonizing hours he had wrestled with this question, exploring it from several angles, analyzing its relevance, questioning its feasibility. It had torn away at his mind, fracturing the veneer of tolerance and respectability that enabled him to blend into the civilized society of which he was a part. And as always, the question had remained just that, an enigma without an apparent answer, as Ahmad had to accept defeat, so as to maintain his sanity.
“I don’t know if that is the ultimate solution, but I do know that it is humiliating to mutely watch the outrageous horrors being inflicted upon Muslims worldwide. It sometimes enrages me and makes me feel impotent that I’m unable to actively pursue some course of action which would provide justice to our dead brothers”” Perhaps you should join some relief organization, Mr. Ahmad, or do some charitable work”
“It ….It doesn’t seem enough, Althaf, its almost like mopping up the spilt milk. We need to ensure that no one dares to upset the milk bottle ever again….. You know what, in some way, at some level, I think I approve of the Jihad these mujahedeen are waging”
Althaf remained silent, his smile replaced by a quizzical look, as if waiting patiently for Ahmad to continue.
“Oh, I know I must sound terribly ruthless, Althaf. It’s just my nature that I get worked up easily and in my anger, say things which I really shouldn’t…… Let me be clear that I do not condone terrorism in any way. It’s just that I sometimes feel helpless at my own inability to bring about any change…..”
Althaf smiled again, the same old smile, and it began to irritate Ahmad. It was almost as if this young man was silently patronizing him. Althaf, seemingly sensing Ahmad’s irritation, glanced at his watch and began to get up. “Well, Mr. Khan, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, but I have to get off at the next station. I’ll leave this book with you; perhaps you will find it interesting. And yes, there are people who are ready to do what it takes to correct injustice. It just needs will power and the capacity to make sacrifices.”
Althaf collected his suitcase and left the compartment, leaving Ahmad clutching the book, trying to decipher the meaning of his erstwhile companion’s words.
Half an hour later, a passenger who went into the latrine three compartments away from where Ahmad was sitting was surprised to find a briefcase left unattended inside. He considered going to search for a security guard to report the matter, but then decided that it was probably not worth the trouble. Its owner would come back to get it soon enough.
“In a shocking development, it has been reported that the Lucknow Express has been derailed as the result of a severe explosion that ripped through 8 of its compartments. The incident happened just outside the Lucknow main station, at 9:00 pm tonight. Rescue forces and firefighting teams have been called in, and a massive search for survivors is underway. Official reports state that the death toll currently stands at 200, although reliable sources report that the actual number is close to 450. Police have already started an investigation, and the chances of this being a terrorist attack are quite high….” The news reader’s face was suitably grim as she announced this tragedy. Then the frame changed, and the horde of people milling outside the department store, trying to catch a glimpse of the news as it was being displayed on the TV sets for sale, was treated to a live coverage of the accident scene. The camera zoomed in on a hand clutching a book. The body was buried underneath the debris, leaving only the hand visible. Embers had fallen on the cover of the book, partially burning away the letters of the title, until only a few letters were visible….”W.A. .. R…….”
Author’s Note: This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Terrorism is a cowardly and barbaric act, and the author strongly opposes it, in any form. The author asserts his copyright over this story and its title under the terms of the copyright laws in force in the country you are reading this work in. No part of this story may be used, copied, distributed or displayed without the author’s prior permission.

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