Mahabharata Redux

The Last War is a re-imagining of the great epic set in the Mumbai underworld. In the dead of night, a few hours before he and his brothers go to war against their cousins for control of the city’s largest crime empire, Jeet Kuru starts having doubts. But that old fox Kishenbhai will have none of it. Extracts from a new novel
The Last War | Sandipan Deb | Pan Macmillan India | Rs 299
Excerpt

‘Are you ready?’ asked Kishenbhai.

Jeet was standing at the window, looking out at the apartment buildings on view. They were all dark, the inhabitants were all asleep. Dead to the world, in deep sleep, or fitfully, or just pretending. Some of them would have their minds peopled with as many ghosts as I have in mine, thought Jeet. No, not as many, but they would never know. Every man gets the number of ghosts he deserves. Or can bear. Lying there in bed, all alone, with his wife sleeping peacefully, a foot or two away…The balconies of all the apartments Jeet could see were grilled. In effect, they had all been converted to little ironing chambers. All of them had ironing boards in them. How many clothes did they iron every day? I have never ironed anything in my life. The ironing just happened. I don’t even know who ironed my clothes. Bizarre.

Jeet touched the gun snuggled in his waistband. He had dismantled it, cleaned and oiled it and put it back together a few hours ago. He loved doing that. Maybe ironing gave the same sort of pleasure…bringing something back to full efficiency and the original pristine identity. That was perhaps something everything in the world deserved. Except for living beings. They grew old and died.

Deserved.

Jahn was sleeping in the next room. Her soft, soft body.

‘Are you prepared?’ asked Kishenbhai.

Jeet turned from the window. He walked over to the large wall mirror and looked at his reflection. He drew the gun and pointed it at his face in the mirror. He remembered a physics lesson from thirty years ago: the reflection was the same distance behind the surface of the mirror as he was from it. ‘No, I am not ready,’ he said. ‘And fuck it, I don’t want to be.’

The gun had been with him for twentyfour years. Gandu, the pitiless ass-kicker. His companion, friend and pet. Jeet had never had a dog or a cat. What he had was Gandu. Loyal and effective.

Kishenbhai’s expression of serene equanimity did not change. ‘And why is that?’ he asked, picking up his glass, and taking a sip. Glenmorangie. Smuggled in from some country by men Jeet had never met, nor wanted to, but who could be trusted to deliver.

‘They are my blood,’ said Jeet. ‘They are my cousins, my uncles, my teachers. I am what I am because of them, damn it. My hand shakes when I hold Gandu and think that I may have to use him to kill Yash Bauji or BK Bauji. Aiming Gandu at them? Forget my hand trembling, Gandu will not fire. He knows them. It was BK Bauji who presented him to me, taught me to use him. It cannot be, I can’t.’

Kishenbhai was silent. He took a sip of the Glenmorangie and watched Jeet, waiting for him to say more.

Beyond the apartments obsessed with ironing, the Arabian Sea shimmered dimly. In three hours, people would begin to get killed. ‘I don’t know anything any more, Kishenbhai,’ he said. ‘I just, I just feel…you know, fucked up.’

Kishenbhai waited.

‘What will we gain from this war? Yes, we’ll gain control of Mumbai, but who the fuck cares? This slut of a city. Is she worth killing people in whose laps you have sat, you have shat on them, these are people who have taught you everything you know? You think the control of Mumbai will give me any pleasure? A keep you have for life. Yes, I spent eleven years in hiding. Yes, it was weird and tough. And it was much much tougher on Rishabh. But, Kishenbhai, all I want is Jahn and me in some small house in some town by a river. I just want to hear the sound of fucking water flowing and Jahn by me. And I know that Abhi will get drawn into this too. He is just sixteen, for God’s sake. Rahul is blinded by greed. Let him have the whore. We can still call a truce.’

Jeet sat down in a sofa. He tossed Gandu onto the table and lit a cigarette. ‘Don’t just sit there, looking superior,’ he said. ‘Speak.’

Kishenbhai smiled. ‘Lost your balls on the way, is it?’ he said. ‘A sex change? My friend, you are the most fearsome fucker in the whole of this god-forsaken city, and you are sniveling like a woman? Cut the bullshit, the action starts very soon.’

‘Karl, I believe, is the most fearsome fucker in this city,’ said Jeet. ‘He is better than me.’

‘We shall know soon enough,’ said Kishenbhai.

Jeet stubbed out the cigarette even though he had taken only four puffs. He ran his hands through his thick straight hair, a touch of grey now in it, and was silent for a minute. Then he said: ‘Yash Bauji or BK Bauji are like gods to me. I would rather spend the rest of my life begging on the streets of Mumbai than…And even Rahul and Ranjit, maybe I kill them. Then what? They are my cousins. It’s the same blood that flows in our veins, Kishenbhai.’

‘Well, technically not so,’ said Kishenbhai, ‘but we will let that be. I understand the sentiment.’

Jeet’s glass was empty. As he carried it to the bar, he said softly: ‘Kishenbhai, I am not going to fight.’

Kishenbhai watched Jeet pour. Then he spoke, and his voice was lazy. ‘You grieve for people for whom no grief is due,’ he said. ‘Why grieve? Either for the dead or the living? No point at all. We are here today, we were here yesterday, we will be here tomorrow. There was never a time when we were not around. Even they were around. I am Kishen Yadav now, I’ll have some other name later, but I will live on. You’re Jeet now. You’ll be killed tomorrow, or die of old age, you think that’s the end? All this shit—cold and heat, pain and happiness, they come and go; they’re not permanent. One just has to bear with them. Fuck them. We have to be what we truly are.’

The sweet darkness of the rum hit Jeet’s head and he felt the fatigue that had been stalking him for hours suddenly grip him by his shoulders. He wanted to go to Jahn, and hold her sleeping body, or just watch over her. Watch her sleep. Hear her deep even breathing.

‘You are a warrior, that is your dharma, the right and natural path and way of life for you,’ said Kishenbhai, his eyes hooded, studying the ice cubes in his glass. ‘You were born and you are going to die. That’s the writing on the wall. Then you get born again and take a look at the wall, and it’s still the same message out there. Who knows where’s the beginning, where’s the end? What we see are the intervening formations. Do your stuff, get the fuck out. Your duty.’

‘And that being?’ asked Jeet.

‘Warrior,’ said Kishenbhai, straightening up and looking Jeet in the eye, his tone suddenly cold and flat. ‘Nothing can be more welcome to a warrior than a righteous war. Don’t bloody waver in your resolve now. This is what soldiers’ lives lead up to, an opportunity to justify themselves, what they are. Refuse to fight, and you will be a traitor, men will talk forever of your disgrace. I know you, Jeet. Do you want people to think of you as a coward, as a man they trusted and who chickened out at the moment when he should have led them to the biggest war of his life? All your people will think of you as despicable, all those people who are willing to die for you right now. And just think of what your enemies will say. They’ll laugh at you. They’ll sms jokes about you. “What’s the difference between a chicken and Jeet? Answer: A chicken has guts.”’

Jeet thought of Rahul and Ranjit. They had played together as children. They had fired their guns together. How did it all come to this?

Stupid question. It had been Rahul’s hunger for power, Ranjit’s avarice, Shankar Paaji’s blindness, Yash Bauji’s dharma. And Karl was a different issue altogether. There was no way both he and Karl would come out of this war alive. One of the two would have to die at the other’s hand. Which one?

‘OK, you get killed,’ said Kishenbhai. ‘So? It’s perfectly fine as long as you, as a warrior, have given it your all. If you stay alive and win, you will be free to do whatever you want. Forget all this doubtful intellectual stuff. Go fight. Pleasure and pain, victory and defeat—you’ve seen them all, so you should know that they come and go. So look at them with an equal eye. Simple.’ Kishenbhai finished off his Glenmorangie and walked purposefully to the bar.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Jahn wanted the war.

‘Now listen, brother, and I will explain the fucking philosophy of action,’ Kishenbhai said, as he poured himself a stiff one and rummaged inside the ice-bucket with the tongs. ‘Stay focused. If we allow the mind to stray, it can take you into all sorts of unrelated detours. That’s a waste of time and mind. Focus on the target. And I don’t have to tell you how to do that.’

Jeet had a vague recollection of being told somewhat the same thing by BK when he was being sent on his first mission some hundred years ago. Focus.

Kishenbhai returned to his sofa, jiggling the ice cubes in his glass. Jeet had lit one more cigarette, though he didn’t want to smoke, really. My mind is straying, he thought. Because I am suddenly inside that crazy grotto in Capri, the entry to the cave so low that you had to lie down in the boat as it made its way in, and the unearthly iridescence of the water inside, and Abhi squealing in wonder and joy, and the boatman starting to sing, and all the echoes from the walls all around chasing their own tails…what I had felt there, was that what could be called pure happiness? Was happiness actually all about a safe place to hide in? In a way, my entire life has been about being on the run, looking for a safe place. Never fucking found it, though glimpsed it a few times, passing by at blink speed. Bloody mirages. Hang on, you can’t afford to get drunk, not tonight. Press rewind. The here and fucking now.

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 at 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.