The Reluctant Informant
by t. jahan
Alvi sat in front of his typewriter. Calls for prayer travelled into his office through the wooden window that never seemed to shut. He had dealt with his correspondence for the day. His staff were left to their own devices writing editorials and sifting through submissions of poetry and short stories that seemed to grow in number. Political events were often left to the bigger newspapers. They got their information right from the source: government officials and local politicians. But Alvi knew there would be no one reporting on what he had witnessed on the train tracks—the rice smuggling and bargaining.
What would be the right thing to do? He contemplated and watched a dusty spider circle itself on a window pane. To report the truth. But what was the truth? Where did the rice come from? Where was the train going?
Alvi leaned back into his chair, craving tobacco. It had been weeks since his lips had tasted some. He shivered as the craving creeped into his body and the reminder of justice and One-ness continued to sound in the crowded streets.
How could he find out what was happening on the train? Was it all innocent? Or simply the way things are done? As corrupt as it may be, it may be foolish to disturb the status quo.
He looked around the office with a cynical aura. What started off as a curious venture, now became a means to roll out tacky advertisements. Tapping his foot, he finally decided to give Ahilan a call. Ahilan had given his office number before leaving the other night. Perhaps out of courtesy, Alvi thought, as he extracted the slip of paper from his wallet. But, Alvi reasoned, to take the offer and call was a consequence that Ahilan should be well aware of.
Alvi closed his office door and looked out the window. He saw rikshaw drivers taking a smoke break. Hawkers were selling fried lentil pancakes, re-using the oil from the morning; puffed rice shook against jute baskets. Distinct smells of betel leaves and standing rainwater wafted into his office. He inhaled, picked up the receiver, started ringing the numbers clockwise, and waited for the wheel to return to zero.
“Afternoon, Ahilan Azad speaking,” a deep voice spoke.
Alvi replied quickly, “Hello Bhaiya, assalamu-alaikum. Kabir’s father, Alvi.”
“Oh!” Ahilan said in surprise.
Upon comprehension, Ahilan followed with the Islamic response.
“Is this a good time? Hope I’m not disturbing you,” Alvi said, a small plea in his voice.
Ahilan looked at his desk littered with various letters from those of higher ranks. His life had become much more administrative following the war and found that he would never see the end. Admitting this to himself, he bargained that this call would set him behind on things that were already far, far behind.
“For you, I have time,” he continued after putting his thoughts in order.
Alvi shifted in his seat with excitement. “Well, Brother, I find that I should report on what I saw. You remember, of course, that night I came late for dinner. Those men, those policemen, they were clearly taking bribes to let the train pass.”
Ahilan’s forehead wrinkled in resistance but he chose silence. His role was not yet clear.
Alvi thought aloud, “I would need to know where that train was going. Hmm, it would be hard to track that record. Certainly, not on schedule. Tell me, Brother, could we find out which policemen patrol the area by the track?”
Ahilan was at a loss for words. What Alvi wanted may imply Ahilan as obstructing whatever the situation might be. He fiddled with a gold pen an army-mate gifted him before being transferred to another district.
The army and the police were united in that they held force and power. It was a strange and necessary relationship that Ahilan found he must navigate because with power comes struggles, comes testing, comes exercise.
Alvi nudged, “Well, Brother? Is it possible?”
Should Ahilan concede, perhaps Alvi would leave him be. It may also end up catalyzing the journalist.
Regardless, Ahilan would have to leave behind footprints to gain the intelligence.
Ahilan did not always have a hesitant disposition when it came to policemen, or any authority figure. It had often gotten him in trouble when he was a scrappy village kid wanting to follow in his brother’s struggle for freedom.
The reluctant informant trembled out his answer, “Ji, Brother. It is possible.” To this Alvi expressed his relief and excitement with a laugh as if tickled.
They initiated goodbyes soon after. Ahilan heard an explosive click in the phone indicating a momentary pause in their connection. He slowly laid the receiver carefully into its place and dazed at the numbers running clockwise.