There was a loud roar. Salamat clutched at Muneer's hands. They were as cold as his own, he could feel them trembling.
"What will it be like?" He had asked the same question several times before. And always Muneer had responded, "No one has ever returned to tell."
Another deafening shout.
"There were three today. Our own Faiz is one of them."
Salamat started sobbing like a child. "Please, please, Allah, help me. Save me, O Allah, I did not knowingly do any wrong."
"My father's face keeps coming before my eyes," Muneer said. "I saw him in a dream last night. He is happy that I am in the holy land. He was asking me when I would be returning home."
Salamat, weeping uncontrollably, said in broken words, "My children were excitedly requesting me for the things they wanted me to bring for them. My Nasreen wanted a doll..." he chocked, and with difficulty continued, "My little darling Yousuf, for whom I did all this he wanted..."
He could speak no further.
With a clatter the window shutter slid open, and a white sleeved arm thrust in two trays of food. It was good food, better than what they had eaten at home. But neither ate a morsel.
Muneer awoke with a start. His father had been there in a dream, of course. He had been asking about the food they got. And then Muneer had started crying, and his father had started crying louder. When he opened his eyes, the tears ran out.
"Abbaji, Abbaji," he wept, "don't worry about me at all. The end will be swift, I will not even get to know about it. Abbaji, look after yourself, or it will not have been worth-while. Look after Ammi, and Hasan, and-and-and all of them" he trailed off.
Abbaji had been noticeably disturbed that last fateful month. He would not say why. Then one day he took Muneer aside, when his mother was out, and said, "Son, I am very worried."
"I could see that in fact, all of us could."
"Muneer, I have done something very wrong. It's a painful story. I had come to learn of a very profitable investment, where the risk was minimal and a person could comfortably end up with a goldmine. I was not the only one who invested his money. The scheme, believe me, is utterly foolproof. Several of my colleagues have put in substantial sums in it.
"The difference is, they could afford to, being well off, perhaps because they have not been too strict in their official dealings. I have always, with the blessings of Allah, kept my hands clean. I emptied out my bank account, which was not a large one. Then I took the maximum advance I could obtain on my Provident Fund. I felt very guilty about that, because I had planned to use my fund for your wedding, and for Hasan's education abroad. But I was dreaming about the huge profit I would make, and our life could then be completely comfortable.
"Somehow, either the estimate I had been given of the total sum I had to put in was erroneous, or I had miscalculated the full amount I had been able to raise, but the organisers informed me last week that I still needed to pay a final instalment of one lakh. When I told them I had nothing more, they allowed me as a very special concession to deposit a minimum of fifty thousand within ten days, and the rest by the end of the month. They warned me that I should somehow manage the balance or I stood to lose all that I had put in so far.
"A colleague suggested to me, Muneer, when he saw me mad with anxiety, that I could 'borrow' the required amount from the government funds that are kept with me."
"You didn't Abbaji, you didn't!"
"When Satan tempts, you lose all sense of right and wrong. I was fully confident of getting my profit within a maximum of six months. I thought I would take the sum for just a short period, and put it back as soon as I started getting the money, There was no question of misappropriation. The money was not in use, it was lying idle in the office coffers. I would have replaced it without anyone finding out. But to my horror, a few days ago I learned in secrecy from a friend in the Accounts department, that there is going to be a surprise audit next month 'to delve into certain reported irregularities'. And I cannot hope for any profit on my investment before the end of at least three months.
"What am I to do, Muneer? What am I to do? They will discover the discrepancy instantly, and all my years of honesty and high principles would have been destroyed. I have several times in the last few weeks thought of ending my own life, but that would not solve..."
"Don't, Abbaji, don't ever say or think such a thing again! We will borrow the amount from somewhere, and I will get an additional part-time job and pay it off somehow."
He could not bear to see his father so crushed. Next day, he took leave and went with him to their bank.
"You need a loan of a hundred thousand rupees. For six months? Against what collateral?"
"You will have to mortgage something to the bank, just in case you are unable to pay back the borrowed amount. Would you like to put up your house?"
"I do not think so. Just in case anything goes wrong, or I fall ill, or something, we should under all circumstances have a roof over our heads."
"A car then?"
Muneer shook his head. He had his old Honda-50 motor-cycle, on which he daily dropped his father at his office.
"So how do you otherwise plan to work off the loan?"
"I am intending to find some part-time work for the evenings, and I hope to be able to give all of this extra pay into the loan account."
"How much will that be?"
Muneer looked nonplussed. "I have still to start looking for the job."
The manager looked regretfully at the two pleading faces: the lined, haggard, elderly one, the eager cajoling youthful one. "I am sorry," he said, meaning it, "but we cannot do business this way in a bank." Then he suggested, "Why don't you try a moneylender? You need the money only for a brief period, so the interest will not be so considerable. You will, however, have to make certain that he is an honest one."
A sympathetic clerk in the bank itself gave the name and address of a party who, he had learned, had helped someone who had been in the same kind of distress as they were. "But," he cautioned," You must yourself make sure they are scrupulous. Most of them aren't. I know nothing about them, except that an acquaintance told me they had once solved his financial troubles for his friend. But he gave no details."
Clutching at this straw, they located the indicated office. The people there asked Muneer to come back alone.
It turned out they were not the ordinary kind of money lenders.
"No, you do not have to enter into any kind of agreement concerning the repayment, for the simple reason that we are not going to ask for it back. The money is all yours. All you have to do is to carryout an errand for us."
"It is not something illegal?"
"You see our successful business. How could it flourish on a permanent basis on illegal dealings? The fact is we are sending you on a religious trip to the holy land, and we will ask you to do something in that connection."
"This is not about drugs?" Muneer's voice quivered.
"Look, you have grave financial problems. We are helping you out to the extent of the full amount you need, and that almost immediately. This should be your main concern. But we can assure you there is not even the slightest risk for you. You will be perfectly safe, you have our guarantee. It would damage our business and reputation if it weren't a hundred per cent safe operation. Nevertheless, you have, of course, the option at this stage to refuse."
"And how much can I hope you will be able to lend or, as you say, give to us, if I do what you are asking me to do?"
"We will take care of all of your money difficulties, within less than two weeks, that is our promise. But we have to be sure of your co-operation and your absolute discretion."
to be continued...