A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi
Sometimes, life takes you by the hand and guides you to your destination, and sometimes it presents you with two options, and the path you choose defines your destination. This is the story of Zahid, one of the many dead people roaming this city.
He looked to the policeman sitting on his left and then to the one sitting on his right. Both of them seemed disinterested and a little drowsy. The police van had no AC, and its windows were covered by thick grates. It was almost as if they were all packed in a moving oven. The smell of his own sweat mixed with that of the policemen would've been enough to make anyone vomit, but a few days in the lock up had made him immune to all kinds of smells.
He looked to the seat across from him, and the policeman sitting there was fully awake and attentive. He even threw him a smile when they made eye contact. He looked at his handcuffs and tried to calculate the amount of time they had been on the road. There was no way he could try to peek out the window because the cops were blocking his view, but the lack of sound from the outside meant that their vehicle was not in an inhabited area. Yes, this will be an encounter, he silently thought.
An ‘encounter’ was something the police had come up with decades ago when the judiciary consistently failed to punish the criminals they caught. Before there was such a thing as an encounter, witnesses were threatened, the judges were bribed, the evidence disappeared overnight, and the criminals with the backing of powerful political organizations found themselves on the streets again in no time.
When one of the most notorious criminals of the city was released by the court due to lack of conclusive evidence for the umpteenth time, the police force decided to take matters into their own hands. They raided one of his hangouts a few days after his release, and arrested him again with a handful of evidence. However, this time around the guy uncharacteristically attempted escape on his way to court, and was shot dead. After that, it became a common practice among notorious criminals to die while attempting escape from police custody. Almost everyone in the city knew what was really going on, but the people were more than okay with it.
Whenever a criminal was killed while trying to escape from police custody, the police reported it as an encounter.
However, good things do tend to get corrupted with time. The police used this unofficial license to kill to their fullest advantage and started extorting money out of the political organizations that depended on criminals to serve as their enforcers. The police still ‘performed an encounter’ from time to time, just to remind everyone about who’s in charge. The encounters always happened in remote areas with no witnesses around.
Realizing that the police van was in a remote area, Zahid knew his last moments were upon him. He wondered how they’d do it.
May be they will take off my cuffs and tell me to run, only to use me as target practice. Or maybe they will shoot me first, and will take off my cuffs once I am dead.
The cuffs and the policeman with the smiley face were annoying him to the point where he was kind of relieved that his end was near.
A normal person would be trying to come up with ways to save his life right now. His thought was justified. But a quick look back at his life indicated that he had nothing to look forward to, and nothing to live for.
It’s not like I have a thriving career to get back to. His bachelor’s degree in psychology had failed to get him a job, and after years of being broke he had given up and joined a showroom as a car salesman.
It’s not like I have someone waiting for me back home. He never married, his parents were dead, and all his siblings were busy in their own lives. I wonder if they even know I am in police custody. His siblings were not doing any better than him financially, and were barely scraping by.
The lack of money, love, and any kind of accomplishment in his life made him loathe himself. I couldn't even be a proper criminal. He looked back at his failed attempt at becoming a criminal mastermind.
Zahid’s story was not that different from the rest of the guys his age. He belonged to the lower middle class segment of the society. To him, and to others like him, getting a degree followed by a good job promptly followed by marriage was the definition of an ideal life. He was not wrong to wish for financial stability and the love of a beautiful woman, he was just unlucky to be born in a society where such things were impossible to come by, at least for people like him.
Like many of his peers, he set goals for himself, and then failed to achieve those goals one at a time until there was nothing left. His job as a car salesman was barely enough for him to pay the bills, and he always found himself in need of cash at the end of the month. This was not just Zahid’s story, it was the story of every man who was born and raised in a lower middle class family in his country.
When Zahid heard that the receptionist he had secretly admired was getting married to his boss, the similarities between him and his peers ended. He did what every car salesman with a bachelor’s degree in psychology would do in such a situation, and tried to rob a bank.
He acquired a gun for an astoundingly cheap price from a friend in a local political organization, ‘borrowed’ a getaway car from the very showroom where he worked, and headed for the nearest bank.
As if all those factors combined were not enough to get him caught, he attempted to shoot the security guard outside the bank in the middle of the day. It was as if he was trying to get caught.
Now that he was sitting in a police vehicle moving to an unknown destination for his extra judicial execution, he realized that he never truly wanted to rob the bank, he just wanted to die. His train of thought came to an abrupt end when the car stopped, and the policeman with the shiny teeth asked him to get down from the car.
This is it, this is the end. He closed his eyes and waited for the sound of the gunshot that was to be followed by the sweet release of death...but it never happened. He stood there with his eyes closed, every passing second an eternity. After a minute, he wanted to open his eyes and see what the delay was all about, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it.
What if I open my eyes and they shoot me at the exact same time? I will look like an idiot.
‘Open your eyes idiot.’ The guy with the smiley face, whom he had nicknamed Mr. Smiley in his mind, spoke in a surprisingly harsh tone.
He slowly opened his eyes and saw that there was a Prado parked along the side of the road. The policemen were out of their vehicle, and one of them was talking to someone in the other car. The Prado had tinted glass, and only one window was slightly rolled down to let sound through. From the looks of it, the policeman was receiving instructions from the person in the car. His body language indicated that the person in the car was infinitely superior in station.
‘You are lucky.’ Mr. Smiley smiled at him again, or maybe he never stopped smiling. Zahid wondered what the policeman’s face would look like without his teeth on full display but could not come up with an image. He just stood there staring at the man’s teeth, wondering why he was still alive.
‘I said you are lucky, idiot’ the policeman reminded him again, this time a little louder. When his comments about Zahid’s amazing luck failed to solicit a response from the guy, Mr. Smiley just went ahead and started explaining the situation. ‘You see that car?’ he pointed to the Prado with the tinted glass. ‘That car belongs to Mr. Qureshi, the Chief Minister of the province.’ Holy shit! The Chief Minister is here. The minister’s presence only added to Zahid’s confusion.
‘You see that man my colleague is talking to.’ Mr. Smiley again pointed towards the car, only this time he was pointing at the slightly rolled down window. ‘That man is the driver of the CM, and he is here with instructions for you.’ Being the driver for the CM of the province was indeed a huge deal, considering that the guy most probably made more in a month than what Zahid did in a year.
‘So why is he here?’ Zahid spoke for the first time.
‘Because soon you will be a dead man.’ The policeman never stopped smiling.
‘But you guys could have just shot me by yourself, why the Prado?’
‘Because the CM has plenty of uses for dead people.’
Their short conversation was interrupted when the policeman who was talking to the CM’s driver walked up to them. ‘Have you explained everything to him?’ he asked Mr. Smiley.
‘Dammit can’t you do anything quickly?’ Unlike his colleague, this cop was all business.
‘Here is the deal. We can shoot you right now and be home for dinner, or you can get in the Prado and go with the CM’s driver. We will say that your gang tried to free you, and will report that you got caught in the crossfire. We will report you dead. We will give your family a body. You will live and work for the CM. You will never contact your friends or family again. If news ever gets out that you are alive, we will be quick to rectify the situation. So what will it be?’ The policeman had clearly given this speech many times before.
Zahid weighed both options, but was distracted by the shiny surface of the Prado. I wonder if it’s air conditioned. He looked at the car and scolded himself the moment the thought came to his mind. As if there is such a thing as a Prado without air conditioning.
‘I would like to sit in the Prado please,’ he informed the policeman decisively. He wondered what kind of use the CM had for dead people like him, and whether the salary was higher than his last job.