Pakistan’s entrails are about to be dismembered by separatist fervour, charismatic undercover agents, and romance in the dust bowl. For, Balochistan in 2003 is seething with militant activity. The Mir, a Baloch who rides well on a black stallion and is gentle with gap-toothed old bards with a repertory of love songs, has butchery on his mind and a group of derelicts to carry out his plans. Haunted by a past that festers with the gangrene of revenge, he goes on a rampage, annihilating retired brigadiers walking their Pomeranians, and kidnapping the inventor of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb.
Aruna Gill’s The Indus Intercept is a swivel of intrigue and action, with Baloch poetry thrown in for literary relief. The story is flagged off with a delectably murderous Prologue – the 12-year-old Mir’s father and brother are taken away by Pakistani soldiers on the first day of Ramzan, just as the young boy ‘…sat salivating in the candlelight, inspecting the iftar meal spread before him, staring longingly at the freshly made naans, browned and crisp at the edges, breathing in the aromatic spices of the goat meat curry drizzled with crunchy fried onions.’ A childhood scarred with police atrocity turns the young boy from a medical student into the Mir. His misdeeds, borne of a love for his homeland, tighten the brawn of a book that sometimes threatens to sag under the weight of CIA agents, houbara bustard-hunting Arabs, prostitutes on a special mission and a professor of Balochi literature whose niece arrives from NYU to shoot a documentary, boyfriend in tow.
Amidst the throng of characters is Alejo Covas, deep-cover agent posing as a tour guide, who, one is informed, is, ‘…tall, broad-shouldered and handsome…’ Alejo has other desirable traits – the son of illegal Mexican immigrants, his skin colour helps him blend in with the locals in Quetta; he is a gifted linguist, fluent in Urdu, Balochi and Spanish; he can slide backwards on his stomach when the need arises. He must use every inch of his genius and inventiveness to interpret the symbols on pendants and scraps of paper found on those caught from the Mir’s army of vagabond freedom fighters.
Believed to be mnemonic prompts from the ancient Indus Valley script, the symbols hold the key to the Mir’s cunning intentions.
The story unravels in the desert city of Quetta, with its severe landscape, rickety trucks and open-air latrines. Despite the all-pervasive granules of dust and stench of faeces, blood, rotten flesh, the beauty of the place jumps out defiantly from the debris: ‘Once on the national highway, the air cleared and he could see the sunlight brush the pale quartzite mountains, the glassine striations changing from mauve to rose to a warm orange.’
A cinematic vividness redeems the houbara hunt, and preempts the fate of the hunter: ‘The mid-day sun was behind them, a time when the houbaras came to ground, to feed and bathe in the sand and dust. But Saiqa had her quarry in sight. Wings flapping a few times, she soared higher and higher, arching to the rear of a large houbara that appeared to crawl in comparison to Saiqa’s speed.’
Languid interludes of descriptiveness soften the glare of maiming and murder. And while the narrative, like the landscape, is devoid of affectation and prettiness, it rushes forth only to be mangled by the plot. One is given a glimpse of soul in the sordid details of the story –like the thick dark lashes of a female rebel who lay stiff and cold in a morgue, that stir an attendant immune to the dead – but one is not allowed to dwell.
Romantic relief is also dealt with like a cube of stock flavouring that slips into a pot simmering with everything. The handsome Alejo meets Professor Dehwar’s niece Adiva, and is instantly taken in by the slender woman whose dark-grey shalwar-kameez is interrupted by a bright fuchsia-pink silk scarf. The silent chemistry that develops between them holds the promise of burning metaphysics as they race down busy streets and share a mattress in the rear of a truck. But what could’ve become the stuff of urban Baloch folklore dwindles into the common mush of a paperback. And reduces Alejo from smouldering undercover hero to love-struck foreigner, wrapped in fuchsia clouds of befuddlement: ‘Alejo could not tell which was more hurtful; her deep suspicion and distrust of him or the fact that her sole concern was for Dante. Would telling her the truth make a difference?’
In the midst of the fret and fury, there are old Baloch ballads that stand out with unwavering resilience.
For one tells the tale of undying love and the other, an old battle song that proclaims,
‘Mountains are the Baloch’s forts,
The peaks are better than any army…’
And while The Indus Intercept twines the two in a story with enough thrills to be labeled a potboiler, it ends poignantly enough to fall short of the title. For, after the battle is over and the dust settles, it is love that prevails.