Wasi Ahmed’s short story translated by Hugh Ferrer and the Author

Wasi Ahmed
Translated by Hugh Ferrer and the author

Kalashnikov’s rose

A rose is a radiant rose…
Michael Kalashnikov
poet & designer of Ak-47 assault rifle

1.

The two policemen were almost on top of the man. The one with the ten-shooter aimed at his ribs stood barely ten yards away. The man didn’t move, but limply dropped the bundled blanket. The sound as it hit the ground had a controlled hardness about it– not blunt, not sharp, but less soft and supple than a simple blanket would have produced.

The policemen, however, didn’t look perturbed. The one with the ten-shooter moved cautiously a few paces forward to almost point-blank range. His partner gave the bundle a kiss of a kick making it roll a few yards away and then bent down on his knees to cut the strings strapped around it. This helped the other one; with no space to get closer, he stretched his legs comfortably wide and began to tickle the suspect’s chest, partly bare from the unbuttoned grimy yellow shirt, with the tip of his gun barrel. It was then that he suddenly became edgy. Not because of this fellow or his dropped bundle, but the uncertain throbbing of his own index finger coiled around the trigger.

The late March evening air mingled with fine, powdery dust. Above the halogen-lit street light, dusty smoke hung like dark clouds of cotton. The assorted stinks of burnt diesel and ammonia from urine couldn’t completely subdue a faint scent of fresh ganda flower. In the near distance, a fresher, more innocent air seemed to stir in the slits of garish light flickering between the silhouettes of the bustling bus terminal.

The policeman with his gun pointed at the man looked sideways as though to drag his thoughts away from the man, from the trigger, from his own throbbing finger. He looked into the murky sky with barely any sign of stars. Scanning the low, smoke-filled night sky, he seemed mildly irritated, as if the timing were odd and this encounter would have been more palatable had it been during the day instead of early evening; as though the respite that immediately followed the hullabaloo of Eid holidays had made him forget the normal din and chaos of the city streets. Now that the usual noise and clamour had returned, he thought the assorted smell hurting his nose might also have an overpowering smell of the noises too.

Although the week-long holidays had ended four days ago, most people who had made an exodus for their village homes were only now retuning, after a few extra days of French leave, as always. They were returning in a mad rush and in huge numbers. After the long bus rides, the returnees at the Gabtioli bus terminal looked thoroughly puzzled. The heat was disturbing, but it wasn’t the heat alone: there was something freakish in trying to navigate the extravagant chaos to hire a rickshaw or CNG-run three-wheeler, or (if the remains of the Eid-bonus could afford it) a yellow or black cab. One couldn’t be expected to be in the right state of mind.

The man, aged thirty to thirty-five years, had in no way been recognizable amid the swirling, hectic crowd.  He was neither stoutly built nor frail-looking.  But as he stepped off the curb on to the road, the policemen could not help but notice him.  Slowly he paced up and down the street, sweating profusely. The darkly ashen blanket, cinched with nylon, looked too heavy in his hand – so much so that he had to struggle to make adjustments, his right shoulder repeatedly jerking. And yes, it was his jerking shoulder that drew the attention of the two policemen. If it were just a blanket, the guy was unlikely to look so strained, as though his right shoulder was coming loose from his neck.  If it were just a blanket!

It was more out of curiosity than suspicion that the policemen challenged him. The time was well past dusk – could be eight or quarter-past eight. The noise all around was too much, and the people moving about in all directions made things even more chaotic.

The policemen might have been bored, and maybe as a respite from boredom they considered the man a curiosity — a better way to pass the time. But the hardened sound of the dropped bundle on the ground ramped things up a bit too much for curiosity or respite. And who would know this more than the policemen! They must have been thanking their alert instincts. So while one of them prodded the man’s chest, the other busied himself cutting the string and opening the folds of the bundled blanket.

A routine evening patrol feels dull and flat, most of the time being spent on cups of tea and cigarettes. On days when luck is smiling, some smuggled shipments of phensidyle syrup; and on still luckier days when the source had an authentic tip — heroine, yaba tablets. But arms, very rarely. Those who bring arms do their job cautiously. This guy must be an idiot, bringing it wrapped in a blanket!  But what type of gun is it! Not the common, ordinary type, apparently.  It looks like a rifle, but not the ugly three-naught-three kind, nor is it like the prized asset of the riot police — semi-automatic Chinese rifle. Smaller in size, it looked much lighter than HMG, but not like LMG either.

In no time a crowd has grown around the scene. The policeman standing statue-like with his gun had better change position; he could have completed a body search if he had relaxed and slung the rifle back over his shoulder. It seemed he was yet to fully realize that it was his clownish posture that had drawn the crowd.

The other one, still on his knees, was trying to fit together three disjointed parts, now out of the bundle and lying bare for all to see; but being unable to do so, he flicked awkward glances at the crowd and also at the man. His partner – whose name could be Rokonuddin – while still holding the suspect at gunpoint called out to him, “Mofiz bhai, disperse the crowd.” Mofiz bhai, whose name was without doubt Mofiz, immediately straightened his knees and stood up tall. But the next moment he looked worried. Scanning the crowd, eyes darting around the circle, he considered that the crowd, though mostly ordinary folks, might suddenly emerge as a fearsome force. They might snatch away the guy from their control, and who knows, even loot the three-part gun. He, however, felt assured thinking that Rokonuddin was doing a good job, holding the guy stock-still at gun point, though it was not very clear how frightened the man felt in this position. He stood motionless; not moving at all — one small move, Rokonuddin might go with a bang. Mafiz paced in a small circle within the crowd, yelling out, “Hey, move, move from here, all of you. What’s your business here?”

His yelling didn’t seem to work. He watched how eagerly the people were gazing at the split limbs of the strange gun, and to his surprise, it seemed as if the parts of the gun were urging the crowd to reach out their hands and piece together the disjointed parts into one – a single indivisible one. But how long could he watch and ponder!

Realizing that the crowd was in no mood to heed his yelling, he took his own gun out of its shoulder-strap, as if he too like Rokonuddin was now going to shove all the buttoned or unbuttoned chests in the crowd with the tip of its barrel. A single barrel against so many chests! It’s bound to be comical, he thought. As the idea of becoming comical dawned on him, Mofiz or Mofiz bhai burst into a violent rage. It was immediately clear he had other plans than simply shoving the chests with his gun. He shouted out furiously at the top of his lungs, “Didn’t you hear, you bastards! I asked you to leave. What is it you want, you motherfuckers! If you don’t listen I’m going to ram this up your fucking ass”, his last words were aided by unmistakable signs that he meant his gun.

No matter how impractical his proposal sounded, Mofiz found that splintering people’s eardrums worked. The crowd was clearing out. Seeing his success, he felt tempted to repeat the words one more time. However, he restrained himself, for he now knew he could clear the entire area without wasting any more words, but by simply waving his gun. He looked self-confident for a while until his eyes fell on the three-piece novelty on the ground. To recharge himself, he lunged toward the retreating crowd: “Motherfuckers!”

 

2.

What kind of knuckleheads are they? Fucking dimwits in police uniform! Can’t even recognize AK-47! Not even heard of it, apparently. But the way they towed him to the police camp in handcuffs, it looked like they were retuning from a grand victory. Once inside, they whispered something into the ears of two other fellows in uniform and then asked him to sit on the floor in one corner close to a damp wall. They didn’t address him with the disparaging ‘tui’, but in an ostensibly polite manner, with ‘apney’. The unexpected courtesy must be due to the AK, he thought; even though they were yet to figure out what it was.

His own folly led to this misfortune. There was nothing he could do about it now. The idea of carrying the AK wrapped in a blanket was his own. And he had almost made it. The journey from Dinajpur went off without any hassle. Twice, the paramilitary guys had stopped the bus and conducted random check on the bags and kits, but didn’t bother with a blanket shoved deep into the overhead rack. At Gabtoli terminal, mixed in with the crowd, he felt at ease walking out on to the road. He was carrying the bundled blanket in his right hand, gripping the knot of the nylon string. The hand was weak from a bullet wound right above the elbow, but it was not the bundle’s weight, so much as the sharp strings biting his fingers that injected his every movement with a sense of effort.

Things got worse on the street. He couldn’t carry the bundle any further. He thought of changing hands, but the sensation of having almost made it, of having reached the road, had relaxed him too much, and he could not properly weigh his options.

It was just as he had begun to feel the stress of the long and tiring bus journey subsiding that the drama (what else could he call it!) got unleashed, as though from nowhere. Ten yards away, give or take, a policeman with that stick of a gun. The sheer frustration of it was total and overwhelming; it came upon him that dropping the bundle could only be a relief.

It’s difficult for him to recall how it had happened. All he remembered was: he was just beginning to feel as if he was in the clear, and maybe the momentary feeling of safety distracted him. When he saw the policeman bearing down with his gun, finger on the trigger ready to go off, nothing came to his mind; and his right hand, so badly afflicted by the nylon string, loosened the grip and let the bundle drop. The sound that emerged instantly as the bundle hit the ground was so distinctly different amid the din all around that he himself was surprised.

Had there been a chance to think, what could he have done? No doubt, he would have reasoned it a good idea to risk death rather than to get caught by these knuckleheads and rot in jail for the rest of his life. Surely, he would have taken some risk — albeit not in a very innovative manner. Perhaps he would have gone for an almighty run, ramming into the crowd, zigzagging through. The police would have run too, chasing, maybe firing a shot into the sky to clear the way, and then, most likely, a second at his back, waist or legs. Dying wouldn’t have been easy. Only groaning in pain with shotgun pellets buried in the back, waist, legs!

Assessing the situation now, he didn’t want to blame his right hand for what it had done. It was the sudden shift in composure – relaxing and becoming absentminded – that called down such bad luck. And now that they got him, he had no idea what they were up to. At a table in the middle of the room, the two who had brought him here, now joined by two more, were busy trying to fix the three split pieces of the gun.  For quite some time, they looked to be trying very hard.

It was a vulgar display for him to watch: their idiocy with the most famous gun in the world! The simple job was beyond them, and yet they wouldn’t ask for his help, as though they feared handing him even the empty gun.

Famous gun! The words weren’t his coining. The supplier had said so; had told him all about how precious and admirable the gun was. It had a history, too: fondly called AK – an acronym of Avtomet Kalashnikov (Automatic Kalashnikov) – after the man Michael Kalashnikov who had invented it way back in 1947. That’s how the number 47 got tacked onto it.

Michael Kalshnikov – a nobody, an unknown – was an ordinary tank driver in the Red Army. Wounded critically in 1941 while fighting the Germans, he had to spend long days stretched flat on a hospital bed. Recovery was surely on his mind, but more than anything else he was occupied by a single thought. If he could design a gun of his own liking! One that would look like a rifle, but not the conventional kind – a new creation that mixed rifle and sub-machinegun. It would be user-friendly, automatic, not very heavy, and with an incomparable magazine capacity, sighting, and killing range, to make it the finest weapon in the history of human creation. He had thought it over, day after day, for months, even years. After many changes and modifications, he was able to give a final shape to the design he wanted. And yes, it was his dream design, with features that were strikingly beautiful: calibre 7.62 mm; loaded weight 4876 grams; unloaded weight 4300 grams; barrel 415mm; magazine capacity 40 rounds; sighting range 800 metres; firing range 1500 metres. The year was 1947. Hence the name, Avtomet Kalashnikov-47.

The four around the table suddenly burst into a joyous uproar. They did it — three pieces into one, at last. He remained on the floor, leaning against the damp wall, seeing the excitement in their wonder-filled eyes and faces, as though they had accomplished something really splendid. The giant leap, from a toy of a gun like their shotguns to AK-47, suddenly changed their faces, with perhaps a shade of mystery.

He knew in a short while their merry mood would change. Night was progressing. Low howls from the walkie-talkie on a chair near the table were followed by loud, broken messages. Soon, his identity would be revealed. These fellows are ordinary constables; he would be taken for interrogation to another group — those who had been keeping track of him since the last encounter. News of that showdown was published in newspapers with his name, photo and priors. They might skip interrogation, and do what they normally do, this very night. Or, was there a chance they might file formal charges against him? If they did …

It’s strange that only a short while ago he thought that getting killed was better than being caught. He thought capture meant rotting behind the bars for the rest of his life. But the possibility didn’t occur to him then that he could get done, even after being caught, and that it might happen this very night. He felt confused. Was it a faint glimmer of hope that now glinted in his innermost mind? If they chose to bring charges against him and file a case, the path to jail remained open, which meant he would live on. If they didn’t… he could hear his heart saying he could be done for, maybe this very night.

Clearly, it’s the fear of death that suddenly occupied him. The AK slipping out of his hand, he thought, was the cause for this all-too-unknown fear. He had never felt such fear the past four years, not once. It was the AK that gave him the strength and the guts, far more than he needed.

Rokonuddin (others were calling him Debashish; so that’s his name) lifted the AK into his lap like he was handling a little baby, and sat on the floor across from their prisoner. The others including Mofiz followed suit and made a half-circle facing him. They had scrutinized the AK thoroughly, now it was time to scrutinize him. But what he now saw puzzled him — their eyes and faces glistened with self-confidence, a radiance that derives from the right mix of strength and valour. The touch of the AK, though empty, appeared to have transformed them, each of them, into mysterious monsters. And what about him? A pitiable creature with yellow shirt unbuttoned and wrists awkwardly bound in handcuffs. Rokonuddin-alias-Debashish gently caressed the deep ashen barrel of the AK with his fingers. The fingers squeaked along the sleek steel. Such hungry looks — he felt a shiver and kept waiting.

 

3.

On nights when sleep leaves him, Michael Timofeivich Kalashnikov gets out of bed and paces the bedroom in slow strides. This is something people aren’t supposed to know. They keep asking, how can you sleep at night? In his nineties, Kalashnikov doesn’t give a straightforward answer. It feels bad, he might say, to find his gun dearly loved by terrorists. Even Bin Laden held it close to his heart and would go for target practice whenever an opportunity presented itself.

Although he avoids a straight answer, the question keeps gnawing at him. What hadn’t the gun given him! His elevation from an ordinary tank driver-cum-mechanic to three-star general and winner of the highest state honors. All on account of the gun! The gun is adored everywhere, not in his country alone, it’s the preferred choice of the best armed forces around the world. Who doesn’t love this gem of a gun — revolutionaries fighting oppressive regimes, terrorists, dacoits, contract killers…! Its fame and popularity came first from the revolutionary groups recognizing it as the right weapon they needed. It’s hard to find any groups who didn’t use it. Daniel Ortega’s FSNL and Vellupillai Pravakoron’s LTTE were of course the big names, but others, too, used it — the Shining Path in Peru and left-leaning guerrillas like Motoneros in Argentina, ISF in Algeria, NPA in the Philippines, HAMAS in Palestine, and the Kurdish PKK in Turkey — the list goes on. The Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua were the first to appreciate the merits of the gun. It was end of the sixties. A few years later, when the gun fell into the hands of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, it began to be revered as the most perfect killing machine.

There were times when Michael used to be thrilled — it actually choked him up with emotion — to reflect that freedom-seeking guerrillas with nothing but his gun were able to undermine the heavily equipped armies in every corner of the world. But there were other dimensions, too. Quite often, his gun was held responsible for the growth of terrorism all over the globe. In eastern and western Africa, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in racial carnage, and it’s the AK that had a major role in it. And what were the Somali bandits doing few years back? By brandishing the AK, they were driving entire fleets of vessels and tankers into the Gulf of Aden to extort helicopter loads of ransom money.

Once sleep is gone, getting it back isn’t easy. Pacing the bedroom doesn’t help. No one is supposed to know how he struggles to recover his lost sleep. Still, people can well imagine that he is restless when in bed, his head tense and agitated from fitful sleep. It is as if they can see Michael leave his bed, his slippers dragging on the carpet, his feet shuttling languidly back and forth from one wall to another.

As the shuttling progresses, he thinks there’re so many things that people want to know. They ask him so many questions, not out loud, they pass them along quietly, as though communicating with him through their minds, aware that he wouldn’t otherwise offer any clear-cut answers. Do you know how many people die every day because of your gun? Because of you? — they would charge. People are getting killed being long-range targets of your gun — getting killed in their houses, on the streets, in cars or while carrying it wrapped in a blanket! What a famous gun you’ve got, its counterfeits are also plentiful, and they’re all over. You made the gun, earned great fame, your country danced at your accomplishment, and the world met its doom. Didn’t you want to be a poet? Didn’t you write poems?

Michael gets somewhat baffled at the mention of poetry. Nevertheless he answers,

“Many.”

“Was it the gun that made you forget poetry?”

“No, I didn’t forget it at all. Poetry never left me. I still write.”

“Still?”

“I wrote last night, too. A single line, though, the opening line: a rose is a radiant rose.”

“What does that mean?”

“Poetry doesn’t care for meanings. One has to understand, just as one has to understand my gun.”

“Your gun is like your poetry?”

“It’s poetry itself.”

“So, you’re someone who composes a gun through poetry?”

“The other way. Poetry via a gun.”

“Do you know, right at this moment, because of your gun something serious is brewing in one of the most impoverished corners of the world?”

“ In Somalia?”

“No.”

“Nigeria? Ethiopia?”

“Name more.”

“Rwanda? Afganistan? Bangla…”

“That’s right. In Bangladesh, right at this moment, a guy is facing death for being caught with your gun. It might even be a counterfeit.”

“Is he a terrorist or a contract killer?”

“What’s that to you? The point is, it’s your gun — no, your poetry.”

General Kalashnikov felt baffled again by the mention of poetry. Perhaps he wanted to say: it’s the same passion and love that makes people write poems that I’ve employed in making the gun. It is indeed my poetry. However, there’s something in his mind that he can’t blurt out– it’s a bit complicated. He can’t say, he wanted to be a poet, and only a poet, not the designer of the world’s most loved gun. The gun came into his head during the war. It was the Germans who had pressed it into his mind. How their MP-40 sub-machinegun had wrecked havoc on Russian MI-38! It was then lying in hospital bed that the thought of a perfect gun had occupied him, and didn’t leave him until he came up with the design. So, who is responsible for the gun? I made it, but it was the Germans who made me make it. Or else…

“Or else…”

“Should I tell the truth?”

“Please do.”

“I would’ve gone for an agricultural tool, a truly extraordinary one in a hunger-stuck world.”

“Can’t you do it now?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Why do you say that?”

“C’mon. Think of my age.”

“Can’t you just try, one last time, your new poetry!”

“Gun and agri-tool in one life! No. It’s freakish…”

 

4.

The solid one-piece AK sways comfortably in Rokonuddin-alias-Debashish’s lap. His fingers quiver as they slide along the deep ashen barrel. His comrades watch him with sideways glances. The man in handcuffs watches, too. Another, who should have been watching, Michael Timofeivich Kalshnikov, stuck on the second line of his rose poem suddenly feels distracted by thoughts of agricultural implements. A farm tool! An innocent piece of cool metal instead of a thrilling, target-hungry killer! Targeting is all. There’s nothing in life more important than hitting the target. It all depends how correctly and powerfully one hits the target.

The thought of agriculture, of farming brings a whiff of fragrance from rose petals, tickling his nostrils. Beloved flower!

As the scent makes its way in slow rippling swirls into his brain, Michael relaxes, and soon feels a shiver, too. Oh, it’s coming. Shuddering the innermost strings of his heart, the second line of the poem …

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