Chicken Biryani

It was almost sunset when he stepped outside the university gate, the time of day, when the sun as a last gift before bidding goodbye, turns the sky the color of honey, and everyone and everything after a long hard day is ready to go home. So was he. He had planned to leave the university early that day because the tension in the area had been gradually mounting as more people learned of the terrible event. But one thing after the other had come up and he found himself at the bus stop only fifteen minutes before the university gates would officially close. Because of the scarcity of public buses only a few students had been able to get to the university this morning. Most had preferred to stay home on account of the riots that were expected to erupt.

A political leader or two had been killed. He did not know who and did not even care. It had become a custom now and like everyone else, he had learned to live with the sudden strikes, unexpected outbreaks of violence and abrupt closure of transport. His mother had begged him not to go that morning but he had paid no heed. After all, mothers always worried over trivial things. If he had stopped going to university at his mother's every request, his attendance percentage would be reduced to such an extent that he would have to repeat the entire year altogether. Thinking about his mother brought to mind the thought of chicken biryani, his favorite, which his mother had promised to cook for him that night.

Fifteen minutes had passed since he arrived at the bus stop and not a single public bus had passed by. A car or two had zoomed past him at such high speeds that he had been unable to even make out the drivers' faces. It always happened in such situations. Eager to reach the safety of their homes, they pressed their feet a little harder on the accelerators. A little fear crept into his heart. What if he could not get a bus home? He could spend the entire night at the bus stop but his mom would go berserk. He had a cell phone but the landline in his home had been dead for months. His mother had never gotten a cell phone of her own because she never could figure out how to operate them. The thought of his mother waiting with the delicious biryani made him wish he could fly home.

At last he saw a single bus coming. The bus thankfully slowed down as it approached. The conductor, in stereotypical fashion, was leaning out the door. He asked, where did he want to go? On hearing his reply, the conductor turned his head, and banged one hand on the shutters, an indication for the bus driver to move on. The bus was gone in no time, with the conductor's words, shouting something in incomprehensible Pathan about the trouble in the city, trailing behind in its wake.

The hurried attitude of the conductor increased his dread a little but soon he spotted another bus coming his way. It was packed. As the bus stopped, he somehow managed to get a foothold between the feet of two passengers standing on the steps and the bus moved. His mother had always instructed him not to ride standing on steps but this time he had no choice. The sky was getting darker and waiting for another bus would have wasted more time. A part of him now believed that there would not be another bus, at least not until morning. Again thinking of his mother, he remembered the delicious biryani at home and his stomach lurched a little with excitement.

Almost halfway to his house, the bus came to a halt. A number of buses stood on the road, vacant; their drivers and conductors milling outside. There was some problem up ahead and no one was willing to go any further. He stepped out along with the other passengers, many of whom had started cursing the driver for bringing them to the middle of nowhere. Unhappy passengers started dialing numbers on their cell phones to inform their loved ones of their whereabouts and this latest delay in their travels. It seemed the whole city was in the same state. He stood in the road, confused and now totally scared. His house was two kilometers from here. He decided he would take the risk, and started moving on foot. He was now able to assess the situation in the city more carefully. Everything was shut. Not a soul was in sight. The American fast food restaurant usually bustling with people was closed, its shutters down and foreboding. The small hawkers selling fruits and vegetables by the roadside were nowhere to be found. Their absence made the road look abnormally wide. After twenty minutes of continuous walking, he heard the rumble of an engine behind him. It was a jam-packed bus. It stopped, giving him a second to board, and then zoomed off again. He hung on the steps of a bus for the second time that day. This bus was the answer to his prayers, yet with each passing moment his fear continued growing stronger and stronger. The tense and pale faces of the others on the bus did not help either.

The bus passed a still and soundless town. Banks, schools, grocery stores, everything stood closed and silent. It kept moving and finally stopped at the next junction. A few ranger mobiles stood there. They stopped the bus and ordered the driver to turn around. While the driver argued with the ranger, he dropped off the steps, onto the ground. Turning left, he moved towards his house which was not very far from this point. He passed the very familiar landmarks. The nearby clinic run by a local doctor where his mother usually came to get her blood pressure checked, the small video shop dealing in the latest CDs and DVDs, the grocery store where his mother generally sent him to bring a thing or two, the bakery, the medical store, and the barber. Every door stood closed and every shutter was down; however, this site no longer looked threatening. He knew his house was a short distance from here, where his wonderful mother was waiting for him with his favorite biryani. He would have a cup of tea after the delicious meal and start studying or perhaps watch that new movie his friend had given him.

The air was still deadly silent, the evening quiet, but close to his home he knew everything was going to be all right. He could now see the main gate of his small yet comfortable bungalow. He thanked Allah for letting him reach his house safely. He was about to ring the doorbell when two hands grabbed him from behind and a gloved hand covered his mouth. He felt a cold metallic object pushed against his head, and a stiffening chill ran down his spine. "At last we have got you," a hard voice said from behind. He had no idea what was going on. All his senses had suddenly gone dead. "Make your last wish," the faceless voice behind him added menacingly. He felt the pressure on his temple increase. He tried to struggle out of the man's grasp and managed to tilt his head a little towards the side. He spotted another man a small distance away. As soon as this second man saw his face, his expression changed a little. But the man behind him unmercifully jerked his head towards the front again with a speed that made him cry out in pain. He heard the second man cry out, "Asghar! Wait! I think this is not the boy." But, it was already too late. There was a momentary sound of a gunshot and then everything was silent again.

He lay on the ground sprawled at an odd angle in a pool of blood with his bag beside him. The biryani inside the bungalow was already growing cold.

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