‘She has a certain je ne sais quoi,’ declares Maddy dreamily, chin in his hands. ‘I could like her.’
‘Abbe, don’t start that qwa qwa again,’ Raka groans. ‘You’ll fall in love with anything in a skirt!’
‘Focus!’ Shaanu frowns. ‘She could have disguised herself, worn a burqa or something. We’ll have to be sharp.’
The three friends are sitting on a bench at the Jodhpur Junction Railway Station, sipping hot, sweet tea and examining a black-and-white photograph. It has been handed to them by the wife of their Chief Instructor, Mrs Poncha, and features a slim, vivacious young woman in a polka-dotted cocktail dress. At the back the Chief Instructor himself has written, in his small cramped handwriting: Tehmina Dadyseth.
This Tehmina has run away from Delhi and, clearly being an enterprising girl, has bought two tickets from New Delhi Railway Station. One for a bus to Udaipur and one for a train to Bombay. Mrs Poncha and three hatta-katta nurses from the Military Hospital are waiting to apprehend her at the bus stop, while Maddy, Raka and Shaanu have been instructed to stake out the railway station. They have to find her and bear her back (quietly, with minimum fuss) to Chief Instructor Poncha’s residence, and he will ensure she gets sent back home, to be married off to the good Parsi boy with the big shipping business her rich father has found for her.
She is the daughter of Poncha’s first cousin, Mrs Poncha has told the boys. He is a retired general, very well-respected, settled in Delhi.
‘All this is Maddy’s fault,’ Raka grumbles now. ‘Mrs Poncha’s nuts about him – because he’s a rich Coorgi murgi. All Parsis are like this only.’
‘It’s Coorg, not Coorgi,’ Maddy replies.
‘Well, I think it’s all a bit high-handed frankly,’ Raka declares. ‘The girl’s an adult, if she doesn’t want to marry this boy, she shouldn’t have to! I mean, she could be my Juhi!’
‘Why is she going to Bombay?’ Maddy wants to know. ‘It’s not a safe city for young girls to run away to. The papers are full of horror stories about girls who run away to Bombay.’
‘You all are thinking too much,’ Shaanu says. ‘Let’s just uthao her, bundle her into the Jonga and drop her off at the WingCo’s.’
‘This isn’t Chakkahera.’ Maddy frowns. ‘We don’t treat girls that way.’
Shaanu throws out his hands. ‘But he’s her uncle.’
‘And he has the deciding vote on the Sword of Honour,’ Raka says slyly. ‘Is that why you want to keep him happy, Baaz?
Shaanu grins. Old Kuch Bhi Carvalho has already sought him out and briefed him on this. ‘Just keep your nose clean through this final week, Chakkahera,’ he advised him in an aside during parade drill. ‘And the Sword of Honour will ride home with you to your dusty village in your battered tin trunk.’
‘That sword’s got my name on it, brother,’ says Shaanu confidently. ‘I don’t need to keep anyone happy!’
‘Dream on, brother,’ Raka smirks.
‘Look, how are we supposed to get her off the train without creating a commotion?’ Maddy demands. ‘Suppose she refuses to come? We’re in our Flying College uniforms, we aren’t even proper officers! We can’t just—oh shit, here comes the train.’
The Desert Queen has just steamed onto the platform, puffing self-importantly and creating quite a stir.
‘I’ll check bogies 1, 4 and 7,’ Shaanu says, springing to his feet. ‘Maddy, you take 2, 5 and 8. And—’ ‘I’ll take 3, 6 and 9,’ Raka finishes. ‘It’s a five-minute halt. Let’s go, boys!’
They board their designated bogies even before the Desert Queen comes to a full halt, moving smoothly down the central aisle, scanning every face. The innards of the train are a warm, humming space smelling comfortably of puri-aloo, Odomos and overripe oranges. Under the dim glow of the blue night lights, mothers rock their babies to sleep, fathers move about importantly, listening to the radio or brushing their teeth. In the doorways, there is the usual hubbub of passengers getting off and on, hailing coolies, humping suitcases or barking out instructions.
The three cadets move rapidly through the bogies with no success. Shaanu is just starting to think that Mrs Poncha’s information was incorrect when suddenly, sandwiched between a lugubrious-looking villager in a turban and a snazzy city slicker in a yellow bush shirt, he spots the girl in the photograph.
She is bundled in a long dark coat, a far cry from the cocktail dress in the photograph, but it’s her all right. She is fast asleep, her head tilted back against the bench. Her eyes are shut tight, the lashes dark, almost fanlike against her cheeks. Her fingers are curled loosely around a fancy purse and her mouth is slightly open. She looks limp, exhausted and absolutely defenceless.
Shaanu looks at the smudgy shadows under her eyes. She sleeps on.
The two men seated on either side of her stare back at him with undisguised hostility. Shaanu recognizes the self-important, slightly self-conscious look of self-appointed protectors. With a quick, confident movement, he flashes his Flying College ID at them.
‘Indian Air Force,’ he says in a low, business-like voice, motioning to the one in the aisle seat to move. ‘On national security business. Out of my way, please!’ The man gets to his feet without demur. So far so good, thinks Shaanu. He bends, slides a muscular arm under the sleeping girl’s knees and another behind her neck, and lifts her up bodily.
He is striding down the aisle to the door when several things happen at once. The girl’s eyes fly open, her body tenses and she lets out a scream piercing enough to make his back teeth rattle. Then she starts to struggle.
Simultaneously her two protectors spring to their feet, protesting hoarsely. ‘Hain? Aise kaise? Hullo! IAF! You are kidnapping and raping! Shame shame! Stop him, somebody!’
At the same time, Raka and Maddy appear on the platform and let out a roar. ‘You’ve found her! Oh, well done! Shabaash, Baaz, shabaash!’
And the train starts to move. Ishaan Faujdaar gives a laugh of pure reckless enjoyment, tightens his grip on the struggling girl, runs to the door and leaps off the train.
Excerpted with permission from Baaz, Anuja Chauhan, HarperCollins.
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