This story is set in India.
We are running out of time, yelled out Ajmal as he peered up at the balcony of his friend's apartment. If Kamal’s tardiness was one headache, the more painful matter was his contemplation on whether to turn the engine off or not. Chances are Kamal will walk down the stairs as soon as he turns the engine off, but if he doesn’t shut it down now it might just give up for good. The poor thing was thirty years old and it was very common for someone to mistake the old engine for someone coughing intensely. “You asshole, be quick damn it,” yelled Ajmal in a last-ditch effort.
The people in Kamal’s neighborhood have gotten used to a young Muslim boy riding into their neighborhood early morning and yelling at someone vehemently. They now call him “Mr. Alarm,” since he wakes them up so early in the morning. Ever since Ajmal started picking up Kamal the Mishra’s started going on walks together every day, the Shastri’s began playing devotional music on their speakers for the whole neighborhood to hear, and kids started gathering in the streets for a game of cricket before school. The community now looked forward to Kamal’s friend angrily screaming obscenities at Mr. Kanti’s humble abode.
Kamal was usually punctual. But lately, he had started drinking on account of his girlfriend cheating on him. It of course didn’t help that he stopped talking to her a few months ago leading her to assume that he had broken off their relationship. “A lost girl is a lost girl Ajmal,” he used to say in his drunken daze. But today, the alcohol caught up to him. As he jumped down the stairs three at a time, he clung to his book bag. He vaulted onto Ajmal’s scooter right as Ajmal stepped on the gas.
“I am sorry, I really am!” Exclaimed Kamal seeking forgiveness from his generous friend. They were already late and were likely going to miss the morning train for work. The ride to the station was, silent. Weaving through narrow streets, they reached the local station and to their horror, the blue paint of the morning train peered through the slits of the station wall.
They made no effort to ensure proper parking, they were prepared to pay for the fine anyway. Regardless of the struggles they had experienced so far, they made it. The two of them ran like gazelles, climbing the two stories to reach the platform that their train was in. They could see it, the yellow sign on the blue paint that read “to Bandra Central Station.” Each step towards the train was a step towards proper wages for the day, a peaceful boss who would refrain from lambasting them in front of everyone, and a happy family -
Ajmal stopped. Kamal took a few more steps and looked back, nodding at his friend inquiring about what had happened that made him stop. “I forgot my wallet,” said Ajmal. Dread and horror infected Ajmal’s face paling his already fair complexion. Defeat in circumstances like this was simply out of the question, so he started scheming in his mind:
“Alright. Here, take my bag. When you get to the office, hang my bag to my seat, turn on my computer, and open the third file on the desktop.”
“What about the wallet?”
“I am gonna go home, grab the wallet, head to the main office, grab the files that I need and then head for work. If the boss asks where I am, you tell him that I went to pick up the main office files. Understood?”
Kamal nodded. It’s true what they say: the laziest people make the best liars. Kamal was proud of his friend for coming up with an intricate plan that solved all problems in one swoop. But, as the train blasted its horn signaling its departure, the friends waved each other goodbye and parted ways.
Kamal stepped onto one of the seemingly empty train cars and took a seat close to the door. He wasn’t alone. There sat a few people holding orange flags at the back of the car, and they looked tired. Kamal suspected that they were drunk, but he wasn’t one to meddle in someone else’s business. The early morning breeze was relaxing and he wished he was back in bed and didn’t need to get to work so soon.
The ride to Bandra was a long one, so Kamal took his phone out, connected his earphones, and started listening to some relaxing music. But from the periphery of his eyes, he could see someone walking toward him. He assumed it was someone walking towards the door to await the next stop. But the stranger slowed as he approached Kamal.
The man wore clothes doused in dirt. The stench of his body was strong enough that it made Kamal flinch almost disrespectfully. With his hand around the metal bar above him, he looked at Kamal with a very distasteful eye.
“What is your name?” He asked.
Kamal tried remembering if he knew this person. Perhaps he was approached because of familiarity. But Kamal knew he didn’t know this person. He came from a very respectful family. No one in his circles would present themselves in this state in public.
“Kamal,” was the reply.
“What’s the full name asshole?” The tone was alarming, to say the least. He was likely drunk, or high, or both and this was no moment for a soft-hearted person like Kamal to engage him in.
“Kamal Kanti,” he said very softly. He made no effort to conceal his fear of the situation. It was like adding fuel to the fire because this only made the man more suspicious. The man twisted his orange bracelet, like someone preparing for a fight.
“Then why does your bag say Ajmal Hussein? Are you trying to lie to me? Tell me you Muslim filth,” his voice grew louder. The other men sitting in the back started to join him, and the situation was slowly getting out of Kamal’s hands. The cold breeze was no longer so relaxing but instead was biting his neck as he faced this seemingly angry man with an agenda.
“Ajmal is someone I know. This is his bag, I promise.”
The man turned to the others. Disbelief was rampant among them. As his gaze turned towards Kamal, he only seemed to grow stronger in his resolve to harm his fellow passenger.
The man’s hands acted fast as they dragged Kamal onto the floor of the train car. The men practiced no restraint and no control. They were lost in their ravenous endeavor to hurt this alleged Muslim. They stomped, beat, and berated Kamal. As they seemed to slow down and catch their breath, Kamal tried to run. He thought that if he just jumped out of the train, maybe he could save himself.
But someone caught his leg. They dragged him to the door of the train car and pulled his leg outside the train. They then proceeded to slam the heavy metal door of the train car against his leg, laughing as Kamal screamed in pain clutching his broken leg.
But there was a subtle shift in the attitude of the assailants. While they were rogue in their actions in hurting an innocent man, they suddenly wanted more. It is as if some animalistic desire masked by millions of years of evolution was suddenly unearthed in this helpless situation. They picked him up and made him stand.
They grabbed Ajmal’s bag and made Kamal put it on. One of the men turned to his friend and whispered something in his ear and asked him to grab it quickly. As the man returned to the other end of the train car searching for some new instrument of torture, Kamal was given a speech.
“You Muslim filth are the reason honest people like me cannot get jobs in this country. You Muslim filth are the reason why so many women die on the streets. I think it is fair that you people start paying the price for your deeds.”
His friend returned and handed the man a matchbox. Two men grabbed Kamal’s arms and held him right next to the open door of the train car. Kamal’s eyes may have been swollen shut, but his ears could hear the screech of the wind as the train moved faster and faster. One of the men lit a match and enflamed Kamal’s pants. Then, they pushed him off the train. Their grotesque sick laughs were loud enough for the passengers in the other train cars to notice, but no one questioned.
Ajmal drove back to Kamal’s home later that night to inquire what had happened. His friend disappeared from work and stopped answering his calls. There was anger, but more than anything there was worry. He parked his motorbike and climbed up the mold-covered stairs to Kamal’s home. Outside their door were shoes, many of them. As Ajmal opened the door already ajar, he could see three men wearing khaki-colored clothes, standing over Mr. and Mrs. Kanti.
The policemen turned towards the uninvited guest who barged through the door and asked him if his name was Ajmal Hussein. As he nodded yes, one of the officers hands him a small black patch with his name that was a part of the bag he handed to Kamal.
“This is all there is left of him.”