Mukasa Bis and the Snowbird Affair – A Novella

Click here for the first and second instalments of this series.

Chapter 3:

The transit zone of an airport is a legal ‘no man’s land’. Since Snowbird did not have a Russian visa, he could not be let beyond the transit gates to enter the country. He could not be sent back either as he might face execution in his homeland. The Russian laws did not stipulate a maximum time limit to his stay at the transit. So technically he was now neither within Russia nor without. Many news-reports had used the word ‘limbo’ to speculate his current state of being.

The airport was a truly cosmopolitan space filled with citizens from all over the northern hemisphere. People from the Russian Federation, Europeans, Asians, a few Americans, some Cubans… Only Snowbird and a few like him that were stuck in the transit, had no nationalities at all, not on paper at the moment. All one did through one’s stay here was wait, wait and wait! There were instances, albeit handful, of people who had spent years in the transit zone of other airports. In recent history, the Iranian Mehran Karimi Nasseri spent 18 years of his life in the departure lounge of the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris (His autobiography ‘The Terminal Man’ later became the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s film ‘The Terminal’). What remains of one’s roots, one’s identity, after such a prolonged stay in a soil between the borders? Does one transcend the need for identities that require the assurance of insularity within domestic walls and barbed wires? Perhaps Snowbird could tell. Here was a man, a libertarian as classified by many, who had put the life as he had known it at stake, to follow his vocation. He had known that there would be no going back home the moment the explosive video of the interview he had recorded back in Hong Kong was released. Some lauded the strength of his conviction, some accused him of grandiosity, some called him a traitor who deserved capital punishment.

It was now important to know where he wanted to go from here. What were the ultimate ends, if any that he had in mind now? Apparently he had appealed to several countries for asylum and awaiting approval. Washington had revoked his passport, which made it difficult for him to cross borders. If he wanted to escape, Western European countries would not be an option for him. Where then? Tokyo? Shanghai? Tel Aviv? Azerbaijan’s capital Baku? Нет.

Journalists, and I was sure, some more people with less journalistic interests were keeping a close eye upon the flights to Latin American destinations like Havana.

Inside the Burger King that was situated on one end of the terminal, while the news channels kept on repeating the same news over and over, I opened the manuscript again. Its first page was blank and numbered ‘zero’. The second page, numbered ‘one’ bore the digital graphic painting of a grand piano in purple gray, and on it the intended title for the book that was never published – ‘Shapes of Error’. Three or more keys in each of the octaves of the piano were pressed down, as though some invisible people had queued before the piano and each had pressed a unique combination of its keys with their spectral fingers – the musical shapes varying between majors, minors, and sevenths. Some shapes became indiscernible as the colours and the lines, as they approached the borders seemed to dissolve like those in a still drying water painting. On the he following page was the dedication – “To Hermann Rorschach”.

If these names could be searched online, perhaps that would be of some help. But at the moment the whole Airport’s WiFi was down.

Someone was keeping an eye on me, too. I was told before I had left Bolivia, that at least one CIA agent would be present at this airport. As noticed before, there weren’t a large number of Americans at the airport, which made it easier to see which American fellow’s (travelling solo, no luggage, the mobile phone kept in the cover attached to the belt at the waist – a fashion convenient to on-duty schedules, the little bulge down the inside of the right leg where the socks should be, probably a standard semi-automatic) late night dinner coincided with me. He walked into the restaurant ten minutes after I had come and made a mobile phone call as soon as he saw me. He spoke in Spanish, I could tell from reading his lips with a stolen glance.

Although in terms of looks there was nothing so identifiably American in this fellow. Not the obvious Wasp features anyway.

“Gracias!” he thanked the waiter while I was leaving my table.

Accents.

The terminal E was so big that it took almost half an hour to walk from one end to the other. One would be surprised at how alive the place can be at this dead of the night. Loudspeakers constantly announced the comings and goings and delays and cancellations of flights to and from all over the world. People came and went from every direction to every direction. Such a crowd is normally a friend the follower and a foe to the followed. But if the one followed is consciously participating in the game, then the hide and seek gets interesting, but does not go on for too long. So the man following me soon came to a pause – ‘Where’d he go!’ his face asked. He paced the area for a minute or two while talking over his mobile phone in Spanish, clearly coordinating with others, and still at a loss as to where I’d disappeared. Then he followed his instincts, and just as I had expected, walked right into the trap. He pushed the glass door of the trinket store from where I had seemed to vanish. The inside of the store was real glass menagerie with its gorgeous glass racks on which the merchandise were at display. Many of these items were souvenirs left over from the former Soviet Union.

The sudden dodge had given me time to buy distance from my pursuer. He surveyed the place for some moments, and then walked to the counter where an old man wrapped in a marten fur overcoat was making payment. The man’s height told him that this was the man he had lost sight of moments ago, while the overcoat made it difficult to be sure. He held the old man by hand and made him turn around. The old man was baffled for a moment, but then he blurted in a feeble voice in a northern dialect of Russian, “Let go off me! Are you mad?”

“Oh! I beg your pardon! I mistook you for someone else.”

Still outraged, the old man took the bill from the man at the cash counter and thanked him, “Bal’shoye spaseeba!”

“Schasleevava pootee, Ser…. Dmitry Klyuev!” The cashier wished the old man back, sounding apologetic for his trouble, reading his name from his card, and gave it back to him. The old man left the shop mumbling indistinctly to himself.

He had known people to have extraordinary skills at masquerading. He must follow this old man now. But as he was about to exit the store following the old man, suddenly the loud alarm of the detector went off. Two guards came running and speaking excitedly in Russian, caught him by the arm. They manhandled him back into the shop before he could speak. The manager arrived in no time. It wouldn’t be wise to flash an ID here, so he let them frisk him. Before they reached the lower part of the right leg, thankfully, they pulled out a radio-frequency security tag from the back pocket of his jeans. A worker girl came running and informed the manager that a fur overcoat was missing from their display.

“That old man in the overcoat!” An involuntary smile broke over agent Rob Halpen’s face.

Earlier, when Mukasa had started his story, many in the bloggers’ forum had been joking around it or making fun of it, some in the most unpleasant way possible. Kaustav too had observed that. He remarked – “Remember that line from the Vendetta movie? Give a man a mask and he will become his true self, or something like that. One’s behaviour in the social networking site often proves an example. Since you can hide behind your display picture during any exchange here, you often decide to do away with the courtesy part, which you wouldn’t in case of a face to face interaction. Anonymity sets you free, in the most undesirable ways, exposing what your true face if you had one, must look like behind the garb of civilization.”

“Do you mean to say that in the absence of the social factors determining our behaviour, we would simply act like savages?” I asked.

“What else? Look at this one here.” He pointed to a ‘photo-comment’ from the previous day which had a famous actors picture – made to say the commenter’s heart’s content through the captions added to it. The caption had many ‘fucks’ and ‘asses’, stressing the fact that the person commenting was smart enough to be aware of the element of improbability in Mukasa’s account of the Snowbird affair.

“I mean, first of all you don’t know the age of the person your attacks are aimed at. It may very well be a person the age of your father or grandfather. The only reason you still dare to behave in this way is the fact that you are invisible here, no one will slap you in the face like they would if you had said the same inappropriate things to an older man in a tram, bus or a metro. From behind the fence of your anonymity, you can scratch at your keyboard and afford to howl like the royal Bengal tiger on the virtual space, and the easiest way for you to assert your power is by shedding your mask of decency, becoming arrogant, offensive. But that is just a part of being an Indian netizen.”

“Hey wait, wait! I just remembered something!” Piku, red-eyed, interjected. Kaustav and I turned our eyes towards him.

“There’s a story I remember from my CBSE English textbook. It was about this alternative history, where, the Marathas won the battle of Panipat instead of Abdali, and extended the Maratha regime all over India. In course of the altered history the East India Company had arrived here but was never able to later become the ruler as it did in the history familiar to us. As a result, India was never colonized and its people ever remained free citizens of an undivided India.

There’s this character of Professor Gaitonde in the story who somehow crosses over to that parallel reality and at the end he goes to the Azad Maidan in this parallel Bombay where a big crowd has gathered for a lecture is in progress. Professor Gaitonde discovers to his surprise that on the stage, the president’s chair has been kept vacant. He goes to the stage and protests on the mike against this inappropriateness. The crowd is very impatient and adamant. They say that they have done away with that convention long ago. The professor still tries to convince them not to keep the presidential chair unoccupied, at which point the crowd swarms to the stage and ejects him bodily from the stage!” Piku paused.

“Jayant Narlikar. ‘The Adventure’.” Kaustav said. “But what is its connection to what we were discussing?” We looked at him expectantly for what was to come next.

“Yeah…So why did I say this?” He had lost it. Marijuana does that to your short-term memory.

Before Kaustav lost his cool, I saw the connection – “I think what he is trying to say is that since in this alternative history, Indians have never experienced being strong-armed by the colonial rule, they have grown a rather strong-headed arrogance as well as a self-image as free and autonomous subjects. So strong-headed are they that, in the story, they feel free to insult the institution of presidency in a public meeting, and to throw a person from the stage when he comes to express his opinion against theirs.”

“Exactly!” Piku happily agreed.

“I once saw a writing on the wall outside the Sealdah station saying ‘Come back, O British! Slavery is my birthright.’ Are you implying something in that line?” Kaustav asked gravely.

“That wall. Did you see it from afar or did you go near it?”

“Why?”

“Because I have seen this writing a few times too. It is kind of impossible to miss it if you enter Sealdah from the north by an express train. In all probabilities, the wall in question outside the station and the area adjacent to it are littered with garbage, covered in spit or simply wet, sticky and mossy under a viscous pool of perennial and anonymous urinating, and fragrant with fresh morning potty too. All by free Indians. The same goes for the shit you come across in social networks, in your facebook-wall for example. Voluntary show of common sense in public life of India is perhaps a luxury we indulge in at times just to make ourselves feel better. Perhaps the fear of punishment is much more effective a tool to that end.”

This was the first instance of Piku coming up with such a tremendous insight. Both Kaustav and I were silent for some moments as Piku started crushing the weed he had scored from the Dunlop crossing the day before.

There was knock on the door. “Who is it?”

“It’s Me.”

The landlord. Kaustav and I looked at each other. “Shit! It’s Mr. Himself. The rent!”

Piku picked up his stuff and disappeared into his room. Kaustav, staring angrily at the path of his disappearance said – “The idiot has still not paid his share.”

I opened the door. His Excellency Mr. Taritmohan Jwardar was standing with a confusing look on his face. Had he smelled the weed? If he had, something worse than expulsion from this house would befall us. He could spend hours when it came to speaking non-stop non-sense, particularly while advising someone against social evils like ‘Daag’ (drugs). Having tasted all of the variations of drugs in his youth (that’s what he claimed) he took it upon himself to repeat, at the slightest mention of the subject, all kinds of truisms relating to drugs that he must have come to picked up from the TV. At the end of each such session, we felt our minds go numb, suicidal, soulless. The smell of Piku’s ganja, we feared, would launch him into his official tirade mode.

The interesting thing was that, despite claiming to have been a veteran druggie in his youth, Mr. Taritmohan Jwardar could not stand the smell of Biri (or, ‘country-cigar’ – as Piku preferred to call it). Piku had discovered this weakness when one day, by mistake, while opening the door for him he had accidentally blown the smoke on Mr. Jwardar’s face. To avenge the scandal, Mr. Jwardar had lectured us for three hours straight that day. After that event, Piku sometimes released biri smoke into our room from behind his door when it became necessary to send him upstairs as his spirits started showing threats of a potential prolonged tirade. The trick worked most of the times.

Presently, to our great relief, the landlord decided against entering the room that he still considered his private domicile. “I’ll come later.” He said and left.

Now, let me not stray too far. As I said before, from that day we had noticed a remarkable drop in the unthinking and frivolous posting of comments with regard to Mukasa’s story. The members of the forum were suddenly taking the story seriously. The reason was quite interesting. Before Mukasa picked up from where he had left earlier, ten or fifteen members had reported on the forum that all of them had received, in different versions, a strange e-mail. One of the mails read like this –

“Dear Friend,

Thank you for considering my proposal. Let me formally introduce myself to you. I am Mr. LEUNG Cheung, Executive Director and Head of Personal Banking, Hang Seng Bank Limited.

I contacted you concerning an abandoned sum of  $22,500,000.00 U.S Dollars. In June 2001, A customer called Aziz Musa Numan came to our bank for business discussions and investment, As the officer in charge of his transaction, I encouraged him to consider various growth of funds with prime ratings. Then he invested Nineteen Million Five Hundred Thousand United State Dollars only. Based on my advice, we were able to spin the initial deposit with profit and interest to 22.5 million U.S Dollars.

After few months; my bank (Hang Seng) sent several notice to him, even during the war between U.S and Iraqi. Again after the war another notification was sent but still no response came from him. After a series of investigation, I got information that Aziz Musa Numan and his family had been killed during the war in a bomb blast that hit his home at Mukaradeeb. Because of the sensitive nature of private banking, most customers do not nominate next of kin in their investment, also usually in most cases leave their WILLS in our care, in this case; our now deceased client died in-testate.

It is quite clear now that our dear client died with no known or identifiable family member. According to practice, the Private banking sector will by the end of this year broadcast a request for statement of claim to Hang Seng Bank Ltd, failing to receive viable claims they will probably revert the deposit to the Management of Hang Seng Bank Ltd. This will result the money entering the Hang Seng accounting system and the portfolio will be out of my hands and out of the private banking division. What bothers me most is that according to the laws of my country at the expiration of Ten {10} years the funds will revert to the ownership of the Hong Kong Government if nobody applies to claim the funds.

Now, I am prepared to give the necessary details to you as the closest surviving relation of our deceased customer (Aziz Musa Numan). I am also proposing that after a successful execution of the business deal, the funds will be shared in the ratio 40/60. You will get 40% and I will be entitled to 60% as the initiator of the deal. You know that I must have done my home work already before contacting you. Although the project is capital-intensive, I know I will be able to pull it through following proper banking and legal channels with your assistance at your end. I will tidy up the legal aspect with the assistance of a lawyer who will prepare all the documents that will be needed to transfer the money from Hong Kong to your country. Once more, I ask that if you find no interest in this project that you should discard this mail and forget I ever contacted you, I ask that you do not be vindictive and destructive; do not destroy my career. Opportunities like this only comes once in a lifetime. I am a family man and this is an opportunity for me to give my family the best in life. I would want you to think about this and let me know if your decision. If you give me positive response, I will give you the relevant INFORMATION for the successful transfer of these funds and we both enjoy it in peace.

To claim this money please provide the listed information below;

Your Full Name: ……………………………….
Address: ………………………………………….
………………………………………………………
………………………………………………………
Country: …………………………………………
Age: ……………………………………………….
Phone/Mobile: ………………………………….
Occupation: ……………………………………….

I await your response.

Regards,

Mr. Leung Cheung”

Perhaps on an average day, no one would be bothered by this. It was rather common for g-mail accounts world-wide. But as the members had pointed out, within 50 hours of starting a discussion on online data surveillance, so many members of the same forum had received different versions of the same mail demanding touchy private information. From the reference to the Iraq war they were sure that it was a trap designed to locate anti-States sentiments. One fellow who claimed to have a friend from Kashmir mentioned how they would sometimes get mysterious phone calls from numbers with Pakistan’s ISD code, with voices asking incognito, questions like ‘Is the job done?’

Piku had appeared briefly to shed commendable light on data mining, elaborately explaining how from security agencies tapping the transmissions from sub aquatic data cables to some companies designing computers and phones that leak the users’ private information to whom it might concern, information privacy had practically become a joke. This accelerated the paranoia in the group, and many significant noise makers disappeared from the comments section. Fortunately, many others that were becoming Mukasa’s serious audience, remained. This newfound seriousness reflected in the fact that for the first time Mukasa actually replied to some of the members’ questions.

“Were you finally able to reach Snowbird?” Someone named #BlackSwan asked.

“Yes. But let me come to that in the right time.”

“How did you change so quickly into an old man’s disguise?” Someone called #FichelMukho asked.

“That is the question of the moment, is it not? One has to learn all kinds of readiness in that job, I guess, but in this instance I did not take the disguise at all.”

“What? I mean then how did this agent Rob Halpen just get fooled by this old man if he did not have to do anything with it? The man apparently stole the overcoat from the shop and put the RF tag in the CIA agent’s pocket for Houdini’s sake!”

“You are right, except that the ‘old man’ had a lot to do with the whole affair.

Dmitry Klyuev is a researcher in Linguistics and a freelance journalist based in Moscow. I had previously only heard him mentioned by Dr. Bharadwaj in the context of his research which employed a great deal of insight from research in psycho-linguistics. A research paper by Dmitry Klyuev had piqued the elderly scientist’s interest and he even looked forward to have a meeting with the young Russian researcher. While the CIA agent wandered outside the trinkets and souvenirs store, the small but stout figure with an old man’s face walked up to me and said in a language that startled me for a moment – “Please don’t be surprised. I am Dmitry Klyuev.”

“That’s Polabian, an extinct Slavic dialect that only a linguist of your stature can know. By speaking in that dialect, you have left no room to suspect your identity, but the funny thing is that you actually expected me to know an extinct language!”

“Your reputation precedes you, Ser. And you are speaking it just fine! Call it a linguist’s advantage against surveillance.” Klyuev gave a hearty grin which made his old man’s make up look funny. He already had a plan in place.

It was hard not to be surprised. Was it a co-incidence? No. Hundreds of journalists had tried to find Snowbird, only Klyuev had succeeded. But instead of publishing his story, he was actually helping Snowbird to gain legal permission which was necessary to enter Russia. And my guess had been right, Snowbird had indeed been putting up in the Novotel.

“He has been expecting you. I know it may sound surprising, but if you don’t mind we could go into the details later. I know it sounds odd, but really there is no time now.”

“Why what’s the hurry? It’s just his sixth week at the airport!”

“I’ve been told that others would break in very soon. You must reach him without delay. Take this.” He handed me a technician’s ID with a photo on it that looked vaguely like me. “That’s the best I could manage!” he said with hesitation. Where did he get my photo?

I reassured him, saying – “You should see my voter ID.”

“Snowbird is controlling the WiFi and the surveillance feed of the entire area, that’s how he got your photo and mailed it to me before disabling the WiFi here. That was his first and only window of a shot in so many days, at making any outward communication before his device might start to be traced and monitored. He would keep the internet down for thirty more minutes. That was the arrangement we made yesterday. For obvious reasons, using phone calls for confirmation would be dangerous, so please hurry.” Klyuev paused for breath, looking a bit tense.

Briefly reassuring him that I had already formulated a way out for Walden, I said “Your physical stature is almost like mine.” I told him, taking out the fur overcoat from the display and detaching the RF tag. “The CIA agents are coordinating amongst themselves. Distract them for five minutes after you get out of the shop.”

“I will see both of you later in the hotel.” Klyuev said, wearing the coat and taking the tag in his hand. “And…” he added, “He is feeling a little lost from his course. Might require a little boosting. Good luck Ser!” He walked towards the counter.

I waited for some time for the opportune moment.

The slouching figure of the old man exited the shop’s gate. Two men who were lurking till now around the shop followed him. As I approached the other exit unnoticed, I saw agent Rob Halpen follow the old man. The alarm went off.
The security of the restricted sections of the Novotel were accustomed to Indian faces, normally technicians that often went in and out of the hotel. So getting through security was not difficult. Five minutes later the new technician disappeared from the server room.

Snowbird opened the door before I could knock on the door. He had apparently tapped the security cameras of the hotel, too.

“Good Evening Mr. Mukasa. I’ve been expecting you.”

Utsab Ray

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