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Boy who took the wrong lane and ended up in a dungeon

Deep in my dungeon
I welcome you here
Deep in my dungeon
I worship your fear
Deep in my dungeon
I dwell
I do not know if I wish you well
Deep in my dungeon
I welcome you here
I worship your fear
Deep in my dungeon
A bloody kiss
From the wishing well

— an old prison rhyme quoted in The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

There are two images of him from that November night four years ago.

One suggested the menace he’d been trained in — hair dishevelled, face blood-scarred, eyes at once devilish and furtive, hands at the ready to fire from the weapon they held. That was Ajmal Amir Kasab just after the mayhem he’d left behind in the concourse of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). He had charged across the overbridge and was about to leap down the unlit Badruddin Tyabji Lane en route to more havoc at the Cama Hospital.

The other offered a glimpse of what he probably was before entering his dangerous apprenticeship — a boy, just a boy, living out a callow Rambo dream. Wispy hair floating in the air, grey cargo pockets bulging with bullets, a knapsack, probably possessed of backup arsenal, slung across a cobalt jersey, automatic brandished in almost fly fashion, as if he were out shooting ad stills. He was so surreally serene in that picture he almost looked a poseur, an actor dropped into a plot not his own.

Which in a sense Kasab was — flaming end-shard of a malevolent payload other hands had crafted and parcelled across the seas, a desperate boondocks lad duped into the grim fairy tale of otherworldly riches, of the houris of jannat that await the purposeful jihadi.

About this time four years ago, India’s most notorious undertrial was already sharking down undetected en route to the most audacious terror raid this country has seen. Overnight, Kasab and his fidayeen crew would hijack a fishing trawler in the Gulf of Cambay, kill its skipper and sneak onshore a busy beachhead with enough arsenal to enact three days of spectacular carnage.

About this time four years ago, thanks to remarkable employment of stealth by the terrorists and even more remarkable lapses by those that should have ripped their trail, nobody knew what was coming, or who. If Kasab was known, it was only known to the initiated as a generic name for the community of butchers.

But Kasab arrived and quickly outran his utilities to his taskmasters. He became the revealed part of a still unravelling plot, his short career in jihad uncovered, his finite future fairly foretold, his bloody kisses all blown.

This morning his eyes may have opened on his adopted purpose before they finally closed. There was no fortune to be gained and forgiveness to seek — he sought Allah’s pardon, we are told, he said he had done wrong. This morning, too, his wish drowned in the well of his dungeon moments ahead of him — he wanted to meet his mother, he wanted his countrymen to call him their own. Last wishes are a hangman’s courtesy, they twist the rope sooner than wait upon them.

There’s been palpable impatience with effecting Kasab’s end, achieving a manner of closure — clinical, legal, even moral. It’s been voiced, most often, by relations of some of those who probably died at his hands. Kavita Karkare, widow of Hemant, was among the most outspoken in her frustrations. But the aggravation was wider and often very coarse. It did not carry the emotional sanction of Kavita Karkare. It erupted over money spent over Kasab’s solitary safekeep in Arthur Road Jail, it trailed along unseemly bickering over the quality of food he was fed — is he gorging biryani on taxpayers’ money? Is it possible to relish a plate of biryani in solitary confinement knowing the only freedom to be secured will be death?

From what little we know, or have been told, Kasab appeared quite done with his trial early and begged for closure. He recanted, of course, and thumbed his nose at the prosecution often. Eventually he — or his lawyers — pleaded for clemency. But what young person wouldn’t turn edgy and capricious in a hole such as Kasab dug himself? He broke into rants, he threw fits, he switched versions, very often he broke down and cried he did not want to die each day.

Call it hall of fame, call it hall of infamy, but Ajmal Amir Kasab has shot his way into it and found a place for himself. Kasab Bridge, that’s how south Mumbai folk had begun to refer to the overhead exit from the north gate of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), if only as a reminder of what they didn’t ever want repeated, as a memorial to the monumental lapses of the night of 26/11, 2008.

That night, Kasab and Ismail Khan left 56 dead in a 15-minute firing spree on the CST concourse, and walked out the footbridge, blithe and quite unchallenged, on their way to putting many more to death, three top Mumbai policemen included.

Imagine that moment if you will: an evening terror raid at CST, a bloody bedlam of the dead and the injured, panic, pandemonium. Then shudder, please do. It’s still all there just as it was four years ago, open to another marauding Kasab or Ismail Khan. Resistance at the CST even today is made up of no more than a handful of policemen nearing superannuation with weapons well past being effective — single-loading 303s, no match for the automatic bursts issuing from the raiders. Imagine what’s to stop them? Imagine what’s to stop them escaping this anarchy? No more than another set of those derelict investments prompted by terror, metal detectors that can do no more than harmlessly ping for truant ears.

At an easy canter, the footbridge — Kasab Bridge — takes barely a minute to cross, and quite suddenly you’ve dropped into the cavernous safety of Badruddin Tyabji Lane, a bereft alley that will deliver you bang behind the Cama Hospital, or should you so choose, the rear gates of the headquarters of Mumbai police. Kasab could have made himself scarce. There was no guard posted en route, no signs of surveillance, nothing to prevent him melting away into anonymous protections from the chaos he had left behind. He could have ducked into the darkness of the lane and vanished. Kasab didn’t, he embraced his assignment as tasked and became, this morning, a closed chapter of history, notorious as it is.

It could well be, though, that shorn of its fiery frills, Kasab’s was a simple and sad story: the boy who took the wrong man’s arm and landed in a dungeon.