Fahim was an Afghan. A big, burly boy of 17 or 18 who loved to play football. I knew him from my junior college days in Elphinstone College. He was one of the many youngsters from a war-torn Afghanistan who had found safe haven in neighbouring countries like India. Fahim’s family wanted him to escape from the constant threat of cannonade from Russian Mil Mi24 attack choppers, stray rockets of the Afghan Arabs or mindless prosecution by KHAD, the dreaded Afghan secret police.
I didn’t think much about that back then when we played football. Two years later, in 1984, we passed out of junior college. Fahim told me his village home had been bombed by the Russians. He was very angry. He was going home to his family in Bamyan for the summer break. I never heard from him after that day.
Later that year I met Ajay Pasbola, a gangly boy from Garhwal who had enrolled for the undergraduate course. His father was in the Military Engineering Services and had recently got posted to Mumbai. It didn’t take us long to become friends and partners in the many crimes of teenage wasteland.
About a year later, I met a girl from Anantnag in Kashmir at a party. I do not remember her name but I remember she was exceedingly pretty. She had come to Mumbai to study and live with her aunt because Kashmiri Pandits were being hounded out of the Valley. One of her cousins had been recently killed in a riot in and their family temple was destroyed. A few months later, I read about the infamous riots that took place in Anantnag in February 1986 and thought of the girl. I never met her again.
Bite of the Black Dogs; Sanjay Bahadur; Hachette India
Ajay took his Combined Defence Services exam and went on to join the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun. He got commissioned in 1989. That year, I cleared UPSC Civil Services exams and joined the Indian Revenue Service.
My friends took up jobs and some went abroad for higher studies. Slowly, we drifted apart. As far as Ajay was concerned, his only contact address was care-of Army Post Office. I met him again late in '89 or early '90 at Belgaum where he was finishing the arduous commando course at the "Commando Wing". I remember the legend in large fonts at the gates of the commando training centre: "We make men out of boys".
Ajay was the same cheerful and warm person we had known through college but he was no longer a boy. He was limping a little from a sprained muscle but that didn’t deter us from having a good time that night. That meant eating a lot of food, drinking a lot of army rum and talking. Back then, Ajay had recently finished a tour of duty in the Indian Peace Keeping Force posted in Sri Lanka. We heard stories of how they slept with loaded guns under their pillows and on patrols, and even went to the toilet with their weapon’s safety catch off and a nervous finger on the trigger.
We lost touch again, except for sporadic exchanges of letters. I graduated from the National Academy of Direct Taxes, Nagpur and was posted to Delhi. I got to know Ajay had volunteered to serve in Rashtriya Rifles – an elite unite of Special Forces.
Kashmir was burning. Insurgents from across border and homegrown militants wreaked havoc everywhere. Stretched to its limits, the civil administration turned to Indian Army. Rashtriya Rifles – or RR – was in the thick of the initiative to bring under control the terror unleashed by organisations like Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and Lashkar-e-taiba (LeT) tutored by Afghan Arabs. Kashmiri Pandits were being butchered. The line between friends and enemies had blurred. Into that heart of darkness, Ajay went.
Afghan Arabs made me think of Fahim. The killings of Pandits reminded me of the pretty Kashmiri girl I had met. News about Indian soldiers dying in Kashmir by the dozens made me worry about Ajay.
After finishing his tenure in RR, Ajay stayed for a few days with us in Delhi. He had long, shaggy hair, chest-length beard and vacant eyes. He told us he had seen too many corpses. We understood his sunken eyes and moody silences.
A year later, we attended the investiture ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan where Ajay was awarded Shaurya Chakra for killing militants in a hand-to-hand combat. Most gallantry awards were being given posthumously. We watched with pride and relief as Ajay marched to receive his medal.
Fahim, the pretty Kashmiri girl and Ajay were butterflies going about their individual lives when I met them. Afghan Arabs, Kashmiri Pandits and commandos of Indian Special Forces were not connected to them. But in my mind, the bite of those butterflies resulted in my novel, Bite of the Black Dogs years later. RR commandos were called “black dogs” by the militants.
The book is based on real military operations of the Black Dogs, in the backdrop of the conflict between those butterflies.