Hemant K Batra, Author & Writer
Venkateshwara Murthy, known as `Venky’ to his family and friends was 30 years old in 2001. He had graduated in law in 1994 from not so famed Law School situated in one of the southern provinces of India and had eventually settled in Mumbai. In an exceptionally short span of his law practise, he had earned fairly acclaimed reputation as a sharp and bright corporate and business lawyer. He had ventured into law practise as a typical court lawyer or counsel but as dictated by fait accompli, he branched out into corporate and business law legal services. He enjoyed being a white collared lawyer as against dark robes oriented attorney. Venky had never ever travelled beyond Indian borders until the age of 25 years.
Since the time he ventured into dynamics of business law, and with process of economic liberalization taking off in India in early nineties, there was no looking inwards or backwards for him. He was travelling within and out of India with clients and for legal conferences almost thrice a month. He was travelling far and wide, as far as USA and as wide as Russia and Australia. Between 1995 and 2001, he might have travelled overseas nearly 90 times covering almost all continents of the world.
Quite oddly, unlike many or most from the south Indian origin, Venky had very fair skin. Perhaps attributable to one of his parents, who was a Kashmiri Pundit. His father a civil servant working with Indian Statistical Services when posted in Jammu in his youthful days had fallen for Purnima Kaul, a local social and community activist. Though both parents of Venky were Brahmins by caste except father was dark in complexion and mother exceptionally fair. Friends would always make envious yet complimentary statements about Venky – a man who had looks of his mother and brains of his father. Possibly, they were right. He was average height, moderately handsome and medium built with typical south Indian accent. The most likeable part of his appearance was his virile darkish brown beard. He had lost count of how many times had he got compliments about his perfect looks and moistly cherry-red lips with an outstandingly shaped face-cut. He had a picture perfect face and unquestionably his beard was the key to all of it. His demeanour and interactive profile always came across as a highly confident individual. Even when he told untruth to his fellows, it sounded gospel truth. Perhaps, that made him a vibrant and successful lawyer at such a young age of his career.
Taking a leap into 2001. The most dreadful, tragic and horrifying digits being 9/11 were born in this year. These digits eventually became synonym for terror, since the September 11 synchronized terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda on the United States of America in 2001. The assaults entailed of suicide attacks aimed at emblematic landmarks of US. Four passenger filled commercial airliners took off from eastern side of the country and were destined for California. None of the innocents knew at the time of boarding or even departure that these flying birds were to take form of suicidal missiles. These four planes were hijacked by 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists with a devilish acrimonious intent of being crashed into landmark buildings. Two aeroplanes one belonging to American Airlines and the other one to United Airlines were made to collide into the two towers of the World Trade Center in the New York City. It did not take beyond two hours for both towers with 110 floors to collapse like a pack of cards, also causing substantial destruction to the big adjoining buildings. The third plane being another American Airlines carrier, was rammed into the Defence HQ of United States called Pentagon situated in Virginia, thereby severely damaging a part of its building structure. The final and fourth plane, which was a United Airliner, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, apparently once its passengers attempted to overpower the hijackers. So gruesome were these attacks that it resulted in loss of nearly 3000 lives and fiscal damage of trillions of US dollars. Hundreds of firefighters and law enforcement officers also had to lay down their brave lives in rescue operations.
The gravity and enormity of security situation required immediate responses from the United States and the globe as whole. Consequently, the United States initiated a 360 degrees’ war on terror. The condition of internal and external security for the first time became more than a serious concern for all nations. The United States took the lead in sharing intelligence information with all concerned nations especially those, which were more vulnerable due to multiple factors.
With so much unrest in the world in September, 2001, it transpired in a professional meeting on 15 September that Venky was required to travel on 22 September to Düsseldorf, Germany for an important business meeting. He was to travel all alone to meet a very important fashion business magnet of Spanish origin in a farmhouse near Düsseldorf. Venky was representing a Mumbai based woman entrepreneur who had authorized him to travel to Germany and workout the finer details of a MoU pertaining to a partial acquisition of a business facility located in some third country. As this business trip had materialized at a short notice, getting visa for travel was a matter of concern. German embassy in India was taking not less than ten working to grant Schengen Visa. A Schengen Visa entitles the holder traveller to visit all or any of the Schengen countries on the same visa. The Schengen Area comprising of more than 20 countries having agreed to allow free movement of their citizens within this area as a single country. Most Schengen countries being part of the European Union and few being part of the European Free Trade Association. Venky’s travel agent advised him to apply for Schengen Visa from the Dutch Embassy i.e. Netherlands, because they were granting visas within three working days. In the scheme of things transpiring, it is relevant to note that Germany and Netherlands or Holland are part of Schengen countries meaning thereby that one could get Schengen Visa from the Dutch Embassy and then visit any Schengen country including Germany. The advice of the travel agent worked well and Venky got desired visa in just two days.
The itinerary was that Venky would travel by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines on the midnight of 21 September so that he arrives at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on 22 September early morning after taking time difference into account, so as to take onward journey to Germany. For onward journey, it was resolved that the most convenient process would be to clear immigration at the Schiphol Airport and get into Amsterdam Central Train Station. Train journey between Amsterdam and Düsseldorf was less than 3 hours. The wealthy gentleman based in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Düsseldorf had chivalrously offered via email to send his car to the Düsseldorf train station to pick up Venky. Hence, the itinerary was credibly scripted. For Venky these travel plans and actual travels were like toy stories. Hardly important or impelling. These were like local bus rides for him. With so much of foreign travel recorded in his several additional passport booklets, Venky had started considering himself an unsurmountable traveller. He would be highly casual and informal during his travel, to some extent even disorganized at the cost of overconfidence. After, an unsavoury experience of losing his checked-in luggage a few years back while travelling between Sydney and Singapore, he had decided to travel always and only with cabin hand baggage.
The day of travel arrived, 21 September, 2001. The day was awfully hectic for Venky both on professional and personal front. He even tried exploring postponement of his instant trip to Amsterdam and Düsseldorf because of some unforeseen problems with an important domestic legal transaction, which had got into some complications. He somehow managed to convince the client that he will return by 24 September and monitor the assignment virtually in the meantime.
He barely managed to reach the Mumbai International Airport just an hour before the departure of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, he was restless and agitated. He had managed to change into pair of loose boot fit blue jeans and denim shirt. He always travelled in casuals so as to ensure comfortably relaxed journey. As a matter of principle, he would always travel business or first class on his professional trips. This was his condition precedent for any client before accepting any assignment entailing air travel. He was surely at an envious position for many others from his legal fraternity. Venky, on that night of 21 September, had this feeling of uneasiness about things not working out well. He had completely bizarre thoughts cross his mind, which had no meaning or significance. The thoughts could well be defined as impotently infructuous. During these weird depressing moments, the reprieve he got was in the form of a consolation from a beautiful young woman sitting at the checking counter. When she said, “Mr. Murthy, thank god, you have no check-in luggage, had that been the case, we could not have issued boarding pass to you at this stage”. But why, asked Venky, to get an answer, which had no bearing on his current journey. She replied quite bluntly, “Sir, after what happened in USA few days back, we have strict instructions regarding screening of luggage much in advance”. Basically, what Venky gathered from the brief conversation with her was that check in luggage screening was more of an Airline responsibility whereas cabin or hand luggage was squarely concern of the Airport security. Venky as a brilliant analytical lawyer wasn’t too convinced with what she said except that he appreciated her gesture of comfort for him. Venky rushed through the security screening and immigration to straight away reach the boarding gate. Business lounge had to be bypassed in light of paucity of time at hand. Venky noticed that security had definitely got beefed up since he had travelled last in August. This was offshoot of 9/11 but how intelligent and prepared were they only time will tell in days, months and years to come.
Venky reached the boarding gate and was told that boarding was to commence in fifteen minutes. He tried ignoring the mixed uncanny thoughts, which were lingering on his mind since last few hours. For this, he took recourse to his Sony Walkman. A prized collection in those days. And twenty minutes or so henceforth, he was sitting on seat 3A and on checking it’s recline angle, he could guess it wasn’t 180-degree bed but about 160-degree, perhaps a little short to becoming a bed. He was quite relived and settled. In his mind, he decided to skip the dinner and go off to sleep immediately on take-off because he had an exceptionally busy day ahead. Before take-off itself, he informed the motherly stewardess to not to disturb him throughout the air journey. She gleamed with a sigh of relief, possibly thinking that `one down’ from the service list. Keeping up with its reliability as to schedule, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines departed Mumbai at Indian Standard Time 11:55 PM with scheduled arrival in Amsterdam at 5:45 AM or so destination time, following day. When the belt fastening signs went off in the skies, Venky had a change in mind and decided to have a couple of small Vodkas to unwind and infuse sleep into his hyper mind functioning. Venky, this time avoided that motherly stewardess because he was changing his original version of `DND’. He got up from his seat and went to the service aisle compartment but to find same old stewardess looking at him with considerate squint. “Sir, what can I offer you? How can I help?” she said invitingly. “Thanks, can I have Vodka with tonic water?” said Venky quite sheepishly. “Absolutely, in a minute, I will bring it to your seat.” she said in a fully charged up manner as if Venky was demi-god to her. Venky returned to his seat, had couple of Vodkas and went off into deep sleep.
Venky then woke up only when the flight was couple of hours away from landing at Amsterdam. He would have woken up except for the noise all round of trays opening up for breakfast. He had an instant urge of having Spanish omelette, which he had noticed last night while going through the menu. He was hungry as he had not eaten anything for dinner except few nuts with his white spirit. He had omelette, fruits, yogurt and two cups of black coffee. This was enough for him to not to eat until he was in train to Düsseldorf. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines not giving any room for denunciation reached on the top of Amsterdam ten minutes to 5:45 AM but to be told by the Air Traffic Controllers to be in the queue as there was exceptional logjam due to heavy air traffic. The pilot announced delay of about 15-20 minutes in landing as the flight was sixth in the queue. The pilots had no other option but to encircle Amsterdam once or twice before landing. Venky had a window seat and hence peeped out of the window to see a mix of lights and dawning. Sun had not come out yet, though there were slight golden yellow light with red streaks in the sky declaring unequivocally that nothing could stop the arrival Sun.
The flight eventually landed at 6:15 AM and by the time it touched the aerobridge slot, it was 6:30 AM. The passengers literally sprung out of their seats as if they had been given amnesty or refuge from a harsh jail term. But that was normal for anybody travelling for ten hours actually fourteen hours or more if one was to reckon check-in time as well.
Venky with his hand luggage comprising of a leather laptop bag and a cabin sized wheeler bag, moved into the immigration area. As half a dozen or more flights had landed at the same time, the entire pre- immigration and transit area was thronging with hundreds of passengers. Almost all looking fatigued in the early hours of the day, when one should actually be looking fresh and renewed. Venky also noticed several watchful faces in uniform and not so uniformed. There were several sniffer dogs on the move dauntingly all around. Venky thought for a moment “why all this precautionary security? Where was the threat” and then in a split second he realized by talking to himself “9/11 aftereffects or hangover?”. Being a privileged business class traveller was of no help because once in the immigration rows, if non EU, one was to be in rows earmarked for foreigners. There were about 25-30 people in front of Venky. He had made a head count purely by using his vision and not finger count.
While he was fifteenth person from the immigration desk, he felt that he was being observed very sternly and enigmatically by three uniformed staff members of which one was a female. They talked through their eyes with each other and then one of them spoke with someone through his collar mic or some communication gadget. Venky noticed all this movement in a very casual manner not showing any nervousness or obviousness. All of a sudden he realized that he was not Venky anymore but a `Subject’ a `Threat’. He saw five un-uniformed cops like members appear from nowhere. Four males and one female, all had patently displayed automatic pistols or hand-guns loosely fastened around their respective waists. They looked perfect intelligence officers from a spy and intelligence crime thriller Hollywood movie. All these eight people got together and leaped rather pounced towards Venky as if he was about to trigger his suicide wired dynamite jacket. Mother earth literally glided beneath Venky’s feet as he saw these gun yielding officers and commandos yell, shout and command at him, “you…. you…. handen omhoog…. hands up”. The female security staffer with her gestures comforted some of the passengers around him to not to panic and in the same flow she screamed at him, “stap opzij …. step aside….. op de grond”. Venky was totally confused at their instructions as these were mix of Dutch and English. He could not make out whether they wanted him to just raise his hands or lie down on the ground or merely step away from the queue. Any wrong move, he thought, would lead to his death by bullets not a bullet. Too many thoughts whizzed through his mind, knowing fully well that he was an innocent victim and not a subject. His leading thoughts at that time were – “whether somebody switched his luggage or planted something in it while he was asleep in the plane? what was it drugs, arms, ammo, bombs, grenades or some fatal document? or did somebody falsely implicate him or fabricate something or passed on some wrong information against him out of jealousy or something?”. Venky actually thought of few probable adversaries of his including one female client from Singapore with whom he had a major unpleasant fallout relating to a professional matter. She had threatened one of Venky’s junior lawyers with dire consequences. But Venky could hardly envisage or imagine at that time, what he was to be actually accused of by the local authorities. His mind at that time was acting like a disc player playing a faulty disc where voices and images were skipping over each other recklessly and pixels spilling all over.
A person with a weak heart could have collapsed in that situation. Apart from fear, Venky also felt highly humiliated, demeaned and disgraced because almost each person around him was appearing to be frightened of him with the exception of some who were looking at him as if he was the most fallen and reprehensible person on earth. Everybody was appearing to have made an opinion about him with a verdict – “kill this terrorist or criminal…. Whoever he is”. Some people and travellers were surely thinking that he was one of the brainchild of 9/11 ghastly episode. In the immigration queue was a couple, who had travelled in the same flight and class as Venky. They were Dutch and had a brief chat with Venky on the business prospects in the automobile sector in India. The couple was consulting a leading European automobile brands exploring to enter the Indian market. They had even exchanged visiting cards with Venky. Venky for a second saw their faces, they were stunned with fright. Venky could not make out whether they intended to sympathize with him or actually thought that they got saved from him.
After being singled out and aggressively frisked at the same spot, Venky’s luggage was taken into possession by one of the uniformed men. While Venky was held by two ununiformed sleuths and forced ahead. They all walked past hundreds of people at the pre-immigration, all staring at Venky as exterminators. At that stage Venky had a tide of mixed feelings. He even thought that these sleuths were his saviours against these people who wanted him dead just on a perception. So dangerous could be situations or in other words how situations could transform into horrifying state of affairs by mere accusations or error of judgement.
Venky was roughly led by this group of cocky gumshoes to a corridor beside the immigration counter. The narrow hallway at the end of the corridor had a row of 5-6 rooms, which looked at that moment more like dungeons. The doors had little glass cut outs on them through which one could see the cagey movements of not so uncivilized staff and captives. Venky was then pushed into one of these rooms in front of which, it was very prominently displayed in red `geen toegangsprijs’ meaning `no admission’. Inside, there was a small table with three chairs around it. All chairs were wheeling ones in blue, black and grey combination. Table had a white spotless top. On the side were two racks with shelves full of papers and plastic folders. On the wall were hanging monitors with four screens shots each of different spots of the immigration hall. There was a wireless telephone on the top of one of the racks. Venky could see its light glowing and sound of faint beeping. He was made to sit on one of the chairs while one uniformed woman started to frisk and check his two pieces of luggage – a laptop bag and cabin bag or suitcase. She had couple of security sealing tags. It seemed that these luggage pieces were to become case properties. One of the ununiformed detectives signalled that uniformed woman to leave the room. Here Venky was sitting across the table with two detectives sitting in front looking at him like hungry beasts ready to eat their prey after roasting him with interrogatories.
The questioning was about to start and came the first two usual questions – “mister…..what is your real name? ……why you are here?” while asking these two questions these two were talking with each other in Dutch. Venky’s lawyerly blood got steamed up and in a Hollywood movie styled dialogue, he promptly responded “I need your investigation and interrogation rule book….your law book on questioning”. Venky didn’t stop there, he demanded, “I need a lawyer to represent me….I need to talk to the Indian Ambassador…Indian Embassy…Consulate……Whatever…..I want to talk to the Chief Justice of your country……I am an attorney….an advocate….lawyer….lawyer….do you understand law….rules….magistrate….prosecutor”. Venky was making demands without any logic or reasoning. He was just not thinking straight. He was made to saying all that. Probably, he wanted to impress upon that he was innocent, literate and confidently righteous.
“Qasim Mahdi Mohammed…You will be jailed….shortly…..executed. Who all are your accomplices….here with you? You want to now attack my country……we will not let you destroy us.” said one of the bully looking guys throwing on the table several black & white photos of Venky. In each photo Venky was wielding and brandishing different weapons ranging from a Mauser to a Carbine and a rocket launcher.
Venkateshwara Murthy alias Venky was now Qasim Mahdi Mohammed.
Who was Qasim Mahdi Mohammed?
Was Venky actually Qasim Mahdi Mohammed? Was this his real identity?
Did he actually go to jail in Holland? Was he executed?
Or, is it that Venkateshwara Murthy was nothing beyond Venky? If so, could he prove his real identity and how?
Read in the grand finale or culmination to above questions in the next final part.
©Copyright in this story belongs to Hemant K Batra. This story can be shared and republished under his name only. The story is inspired by true events though not exactly depicted or worded. It could be branded as semi-fiction as well.
Photo: Sourced Legally (BigStock)