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The Last Tango: Under the Rain Tree

last tango, baghdad, woman, God, spirit, solidarity, american

The Last Tango: Under The Rain Tree

Book Extract: Under The Rain Tree
ISBN: 9788122309812
Author: Vatsala Balachandran Warrier

Publisher: Cedar books (

The Last Tango

Sometimes I wonder who I really am. I am known by so many names. I have multiple identities. My aliases would confound even the most astute police force. Each of my ten passports show a varied photograph, lists another name, gives a separate nationality and states a different profession. I travel incognito. I am faceless and anonymous.

If anyone ever met me, they would never know that I was an espionage agent, a spy, living in the world’s most dangerous region, Baghdad, Iraq. Every morning when I wake up I don’t know if I will survive till the end of the day; whether this would be the day I would dance my last tango with life. I live in dread that my current identity will be blown. In Baghdad, the Americans think that I am on their side, the Iraqis think that I am working for them, while the Kurds count me as one of their own. Only I know that I don’t belong to any camp. My loyalties, like my dreams, are my own. My only friends are my wits, sharpened by years of close shaves with death, my training which makes
me a formidable foe and my brain wired like a computer. It has
stored data, which anyone in this unfortunate city would be glad
to unload and use for their own advantage.

The 18 exciting stories in this book are images of human beings, from adolescence to adulthood to old age, experiencing love, fear, rejection and loneliness. There is a strong will to survive, to cross known barriers, and touch the unplumbed depths of the human spirit.
The stories try to capture the reverberations of human life across a spectrum of human emotions.

I was born Sadia Hassan in this very city. My father was a mid-level diplomat and my mother Rashida, was a bright woman trapped in a loveless and claustrophobic marriage.

When my father was posted to New York on a United Nations mission, my mother took her chance and escaped with me in tow. She fell in love with a native New Yorker named Tom Higgins. She ran away and married him. That was the beginning of a new name and a new life. I became Sandy Higgins when I joined school in New York.

“Sweetheart,” they told me, “you will be more comfortable and will blend in easier, in this city’s vast melting pot, with a name like Sandy, rather than Sadia.” It was true. Sadia would have instantly labeled me and set me apart. Sandy was innocuous. I loved my new name. I was Sandy till I went to the University of Columbia and met Karl Bellucci, a handsome Italian football player. We met, we fell in love, we married. Now I was Sandy Bellucci. When Karl and decided to part ways I stayed on in New York. I drifted into several relationships, but the pleasures were all transient. In due course, I learnt several languages—Arabic, Italian, French,Spanish and of course English. My natural gift for languages plus my chameleon like ability to assume a new identity made me a natural for intelligence gathering. Role-playing was easy for me and getting into a disguise became my second nature. I decided to join the C.I.A. as a translator.

I had all the qualities needed to kick-start my career as an International espionage agent. I was soon posted to Baghdad and embroiled in the swirling maelstrom of the war in Iraq. Being mired in a cesspool of political intrigue, distorts one’s sense of morality to such an extent that it becomes difficult to distinguish between wrong and right. I just followed orders. My mid-eastern looks coupled with my New York accent and mannerisms found ready acceptance by both the Americans and the Arabs. My career took off with a boom. Soon I was shuttling around the continents, using my several passports and disguises. I was a cog in the International War Machine that rolled relentlessly swallowing up lives, families and resources. When did disenchantment set in? It was hard to pinpoint. There were times when I wondered what this war was all about. Anguish engulfed me when I saw the body bags of young, callow, U.S. soldiers dead for a cause they cared nothing about. I grieved as well when I saw the charred bodies of Iraqi civilians dead in the daily bomb blasts, piled into unmarked graves. The loss of these lives disturbed me.

They were just cannon fodder for the mad machinations of manipulative men, sitting safely far away from the war front. Someday I hoped to find the answers for these questions troubling my mind. In the meantime, I stayed focused on the need to just stay alive, and do my job of ferreting out information that kept this war going. During the height of the conflict here, I often went on missions, sometimes right into the war zone to convey strategic messages across the city. Telephone lines and signals were not reliable and often intercepted. Information was sometimes better conveyed in person. Apart from the central parts of the city which were well protected and barricaded by armoured vehicles, the rest of the city was a cauldron of anti-social activities. What the bombs had not destroyed, looters and black marketers did. Most residents of this besieged city lived with minimum amenities. It was especially dangerous for women.

I was always fully veiled and covered, also armed with automatic weapons, in which I was fully trained. Even so I had to be alert and wary as I picked my way across the rubble of destroyed buildings and cratered roads. It was on one such mission, when I was caught in the middle of an enormous blast. A huge explosion shook the ground with the noise reverberating around me in swelling waves. The sky was smothered with rising billows of smoke. The air smelt as if a million rubber tyres were burning. Fires broke out all over. In the brilliance of their flares I saw bodies flung around lying scorched and scalded. I too was flung aside by the force of the blast. Suddenly the earth caved in and an enormous crater yawned below my feet. I fell headlong down into the bowels of the earth. A slab of concrete masonry tumbled down and encircled me. Except for some faint light and air coming through the cracks, I was entombed.

The sickly stench of the city sewers made me nauseous. Though I was badly bruised and bleeding from several cuts, I was thankful that I was still alive. The air was thick with dust and I could scarcely breathe. My throat felt dry as grit filled my mouth. Gingerly I tested my limbs and was grateful that I could move. I had flirted with Death for most of my life. I was sure that today Death had called my name to dance my last tango with him in this hideous ballroom of an underground tomb. Fear engulfed me. I was beset by innumerable worries. Would the concrete debris shift, slide down and crush me? Would I die of thirst or worse still, be eaten by starving sewer rats?

I shuddered as a furry rat scurried over me. Another ear splitting detonation shook the earth as more dust encircled me. When it cleared, I heard a faint whimpering. It seemed to come from a bundle I could faintly discern ahead of me. I crawled across and felt a warm human leg. It seemed to be a feminine feet, slender and delicate. “Who are you? Are you hurt?” I called out. “Help me!” a faint female voice answered, “ I am trapped, I cannot move!” In the dim light I saw a young woman. She seemed to be an Indian. Her body was sticky with her blood and she could barely move. A beam had fallen over her upper legs. I tried to shift it, but I didn’t have the strength to budge it. I couldn’t help her, but I held her hands and wiped the blood from her face. Trapped as we both were, there was nothing else to do except talk and pray. I had never believed in a God but this young woman’s trust in her God even in such a predicament was still unshakable. It was a revelation. Slowly she told me about herself.

“I am Suma, a Red Cross nurse from Kerala in India. I work in the hospital here. I think a bomb has hit the hospital!”
She started to sob.
“I want to go back to my home and see my Amma and Acha!”
“If we get out from here alive, I will come with you and take you to your family.”
I promised her.
“I don’t think I will live long enough!”
She gasped.
“Please find my parents and tell them I love them!”

Again I promised her I would. Her life was ebbing away and I was helpless to do anything to save her. She took a deep rasping breath and then there was silence. Sitting there, trapped underneath the earth with just enough air to breathe, I thought about my life. Here was this young woman, so far away from her home and loved ones, saving lives, healing strangers, tending their wounds. And here I was, living my shadowy life, adding to the miseries of conflicts across the world, which never brought anyone, anywhere, any happiness. I questioned the very foundations of my way of life. I decided that if I ever got out alive, I would leave my job and travel to India, to Suma’s home and seek some salvation for my soul. How long I lay trapped there I don’t recall. Time had no meaning anymore. I was parched and famished, soaked in the stench of my own body fluids.

Just as I thought I too would die, I heard the sound of voices. The rescue workers had reached me at last. I was pulled out of the rubble and taken to a hospital. I remembered to take Suma’s identity card with me. It gave me solace as I slowly recovered. I kept my promise to Suma and made the long journey to her home. It was a trip that changed my life. I arrived in India’s southernmost state, Kerala, a verdant land, ripe with the promise of nature’s bounty. In this timeless country of great sages and philosophers, I hoped to find the peace that had eluded me for so long. Suma’s parents were overwhelmed when I met them and told them that I had shared their daughter’s last moments. I wanted to help them but they would take nothing from me except a small rent for a room in their modest home. Though she was dead they were proud of her achievements. But what touched me was the solidarity that they shared with their relatives and neighbours.

This was in stark contrast with my solitary sojourns. Were my nomadic wanderings coming to an end? The numbness of my mind was slowly waning. Perhaps the very lushness of my surroundings renewed my jaded and weary spirits. I have a new identity now. I am a teacher of foreign languages in an institute here. There is a festive air today as my students sway and twist in a traditional folk dance, accompanied by rhythmic claps and ancient music that has endured through the centuries.

“Chechi !” they call me. “Teach us a dance from your land, your home!” Little do they know that I have no land and no home. But I join their group as I say, “Chechi, you call me, so I am your sister. How can I refuse you? I will teach you a dance I know only too well. It is called the Tango.”
Published: 2008-01-14
Author: Vatsala Balachandran Warrier

About the author or the publisher
I am en editor with one of the largest book publishing houses in India.
My preference is for non specialised articles relating to business, science, economic and global-interest.


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