Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Write...Edit...Publish.. - the inaugural entry - A Tough Customer

Feels great to be part of the brand new bloghop over at Write..Edit...Publish, created by Denise Covey.  The prompt for this month is vacation, and I am here with a flash, condensed from a much longer story.  

A Tough Customer

The Rajdwar is no ordinary hotel, she feels lucky to have landed this job.  Savera pulls her bag onto her shoulder with a frisson of smugness, and checks her hair once more, pats a stray strand back as she calls out, “Amma, I’m leaving.  Bye—e –e.”

The lobby will be crowded today.  The vacations have just started, so people are either moving out or moving back into the city.  It’s only a filler job, a trainee’s assignment for the weeks of the vacation, but it will polish up her résumé another shade.  She enjoys people-watching, especially children, so it will not be any hardship.  Rather fun getting an insider view of a hotel this large, this luxurious.  There is a swing to her step, a jauntiness to the way her head sits on her shoulders. 


It has been easy this far. For a city with such a record, no extra security measures are in place. 

“Have they already forgotten? 1993? 2006? Not even a metal detector in the whole place. Really!”  He jostles into place at the queue for the unreserved carriages, holding his single case carefully close, disguising its heaviness with a light, three-fingered grip.   No-one gives him a second glance, another unshaven college kid in a scruffy T-shirt and large shades, going home on an impulse without advance reservation.   He smiles a little.  These people are such fools, they imagine they are invincible, when no-one is.  Well, they’ll find out soon enough, he thinks to himself; and then wipes the smile off his face swiftly. 

The queue moves forward as the train pulls into the platform.  He notes the route, the next stop will be at another end of the city on the long journey east.  He can recollect the map faultlessly, though he has never stepped here before.  The trainers have been strict and his training is superb.

He is in some amount of shoving later, and finds a sliver of an aisle seat by requesting an old man, “Uncle-ji, a little space?”

The man looks at him with milky, cataract-filled eyes, he is old enough to be the younger man’s father, “Come son, sit.  How far are you going?”

He grunts and sits down, opens a newspaper out to discourage talk.  The usual stream of passengers and hawkers of tea and meals, of cheap plastic toys and miracle portions pass through the carriage till the train finally draws out of the platform in long interrupted shudders.  Later, when the train has picked up speed, he walks through the vestibule into the first car, and enters a toilet with his small case.  Inside, he gets quickly to work, and by the time he finishes, a small black oblong shape is clipped below the lavatory opening, well out of sight on the back of the soil tube.  He flushes twice to make sure it is secure and invisible and dry.  He then shaves, changes into a business suit that instantly ages him a decade, and gets off at the next station. There’s work to be done at Rajdwar too.  He takes out a phone and sends a clipped text.  “Gone east.”


Savera puts down the telephone and looks at the guest, “Good evening, Sir. How may I help you?”

“I haven’t seen you here before.  Are you new?”

“Yes.” She keeps her smile smooth, even though she is bristling a little, “Do you have a reservation, Sir?”

He mimics her tone sotto voce, “No, I don’t have a reservation, and yes I need a room, and I am sure you are full up.  I need to see your manager, is Singh around?  Now be a sweetie and run and get him for me.  I am not a customer you can handle.”

“If you will provide an i.d. Sir, I will do my best.  As you know it’s the start of the holidays and you may not get the choice you want, Mr Singh is a busy man.” Her shift was nearly over, her feet were hurting, it was only her third day at work, she didn’t want to run to the manager bleating like a clueless lamb because she couldn’t face a tough customer.  Deal with this odd fellow, too bold by half, bung him into a room and then straight home.

“Have it your way sweetness.  Here’s the i.d.”  He’s got through this far without a hitch, the room matters nothing now.  He just needs to kill time till the others get in.  Kill time first, and then zoom in for the real thing.

The passport feels light, she looks it over dubiously, but can’t pinpoint any flaw exactly.  She photocopies it and goes through the forms; allocates one of the less-prized rooms.  He takes the key, but she notices that he saunters over to the lobby and sits there waiting.  Anyway, it’s none of her business, she winds up her work, and leaves.


Outside the streets feel jittery.  The shops which should be open, are closing their shutters early.  She wonders what’s happened as her autorickshaw crawls towards the station.  The streets are choked.  

“Kya baat hai, bhaiya?”

“Pata nahi.  Tirayn ka kuch gadbad .” *

Trains being disrupted isn’t anything unusual, she slumps back into her seat.  But she is stopped from getting into the Samrat Ashok Terminus by a cordon and a senior looking official, “The terminus is being evacuated.”  

Then he looks at her puzzled, young face and drops the offialese.  “Daughter, the city is under attack, go home some other way, get somewhere safe fast.”

“How? What?” her bewilderment knows no bounds, but he just waves her off resignedly.

She walks back into the milling crowds and turns to face the station.  Above the ornate entrance the large news-screen blinks the headlines out in dotted green lights.  Breaking News.  Synchronised blasts in long distance trains.  Rajdwar under siege.  Terrorists occupy landmark hotel.  

Not a customer you can handle.  The words and the passport pages swim into her mind, and she finally realises the flaw in them in one stinging flash of remorse.
WC -1013
All feedback welcome.
* "What is the matter?"
   "Don't know.  Probably a problem with the trains."

India, where I come from, and where I come back to every year for home leave in July-August, has long been a target for terrorists. Many of the vacations I have spent here in the last decade have been disturbed by news of blasts and attacks and high alerts all across the Indian cities. This flash is distilled from all those vacation headlines. 
Updated as per suggestions in the comments.
Read the other entries here:


  1. You've written a powerful story with several different points of view. She couldn't have stopped this chain of events even if she'd known how and that is the scary part.

  2. Not the kind of tale one relates to vacation, and yet we should, it happens way too often. But we like to put our blinders on and pretend otherwise. Very well told, an example of the evil that's still has too strong a hold on our lives.

  3. Woah Nilanjana this is quite a story and one all to common today. It does read like a much longer story as there's so much going on. I was afraid Saverna was going to be caught in a blast. I think you've caught the persona of a terrorist well.

    All that said, I loved the atmosphere of India and the foreign phrases.

    There are a few problems when you swap points of view. Would have been helpful to add *** so the reader isn't confused momentarily.

    Thanks Nilanjana for posting for the inaugural WEP blogfest!


  4. Wow! Nicely done. The tension is intelligently crafted.

  5. This is definitely a gripping story. The part where he changes into a business suit & shaves, and looks 10 years older, particularly struck me. And the way it ends has a lot if impact. Good job.

  6. Very atmospheric. I like the way you built up the tension.
    I think it's a significant moment when he handed over the passport, it reinforces the fact that she is no fool when "... she looks it over dubiously", but probably doesn't want to make a fuss as it's only her third day on the job.
    I enjoyed this. Would love to read more.
    Writer In Transit

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. The command that u have is very inspiring for an amateur like me. Thank u

  9. Hi Nilanaja
    You've captured the tension and the regret well. Even though your character isn't to blame, she is young and will no doubt fill to blame. I hope she finds her way home. I watched Hotel Rwanda and that brought home the plight of so many people. I hope you live in a safer place and never have to deal with this subject in real life.

  10. Thank you all for the detailed feedback. Much valued.

  11. Hi, Nilanjana,

    A very powerful piece!.. Reminds me of a vacation I had to Bucharest... A civil war went on right in my hotel lobby ..bombs, teargas, and the gunmen only ten floors below our room... very frightening...

  12. Your point of view in telling this story is one that brings home the true challenge of terrorism, how it affects everyday people, how it changes lives in the blink of an eye. Thank you for sharing this with us... I have a friend who lives is Mumbai and your story makes me think of her and how different her life is from mine.

  13. Definitely a gripping story and excellent description. You paint a very nice picture of the environment and the people.

  14. Sorry I'm so late commenting. Great writing here. I was totally sucked in to the end and never jarred out of the story at any point to remember that I was looking for critiques. That's always a sign of strong writing. This would make a gripping start to a novel.

  15. Very nice, Nilanjana. My only gripe, wish I'd read the longer version.

  16. Thanks to all.

    @KayEm - the original story is almost three times the word count. Totally not acceptable for blog posts, I understand :) Great seeing you here.