But for RK and HR

Published On: 2012-05-24

Author: unknown

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But for Raj Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan...


Source: Rediff Senior Editor Shyam Bhatia is the co-author of Saddam's Bomb, on Iraq's search for nuclear weapons

Their families may not know it yet, but Raj Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan may have saved my life on Monday while I was in downtown Baghdad reporting on the war in Iraq.

These actors are household names in Iraq and invoking their names helped me wriggle out of a difficult situation after a suicide bomber was shot dead on the grounds of a Baghdad hospital where I was researching a story.

Baghdad is a war-shattered city where US forces are still dealing with loyalists of Saddam Hussein.

There is always an element of danger involved for those reporters who venture beyond the safety of their US-protected hotel in the city centre.

But Monday morning seemed no more dangerous than any other day in the Iraqi capital. 

I headed for the Qadisiya hospital in north Baghdad to interview staff about war casualties.

Qadisiya is one of the poorer quarters of the city and home to the majority Shia Muslim community, traditionally opposed to Saddam Hussein. 

In the past, killing Shias was considered something of a sport for those keen to express loyalty to Saddam Hussein.

Since his downfall, some of his supporters have been looking for outlets to express their anger and disappointed.

At the hospital, I was interviewing a Shia leader Syed Jalal Al Hasani.

He was patiently answering my questions and complaining about the lack of medical supplies and other issues when suddenly he disappeared.

There had been some shooting in the background and when Hasani disappeared, I put two and two together.

There wasn't too much time to reflect because within seconds a terrified, screaming mob had filled the corridor.

"Suicide bombers are entering the hospital," someone shouted. "Run."

I and Hasan, my guide and interpreter, ran as fast as we could.

When we emerged five minutes later from behind the safety of a steel cupboard, a hospital orderly gripped my hand and said, "Don't worry, we've got him; he's been killed. Would you like to see the body?"

I had no choice as he dragged me to a sunlit courtyard 50 metres away.

As I watched open mouthed, he pointed behind an iron grill to a body lying on the ground and said, "There he is. Make sure you take a good picture."

But bringing out the camera turned out to be a mistake. As I pointed my lens at the body, someone shouted, "Jasoos (spy), take him away for interrogation."

Within seconds both Hasan and myself were bundled off to a house across the main road.

Armed men fired questions at me staccato-style with Hasan translating into the local dialect. It was obvious they were angry and looking for a scapegoat.

Was I really a journalist or an American agent? Did I know the suicide bomber? 

If I was a journalist, was I a believer? How could I prove I was who I claimed I was? 

Baghdad was full of trouble-makers, someone added helpfully.

At that moment, Hasan pulled off his master stroke. 

"He's Indian, you know. He knows film songs."

There was total silence. 

One of the armed men put down his Kalashnikov, asked me to sit down and asked, "So, what about Raj Kapoor?"

It seemed an absurd question, but I explained he had died when I was still quite young. 

"But," I added, "I have met his son and he told me an interesting story about his father."

"I think his name is Dabboo. He used to be married to Babita," I continued.

More people relaxed and a several more Kalashnikovs were placed on the ground.

"We met in London a few months ago and he told me a wonderful story about his father."

By now I had their attention and felt like a modern Scheherezade trying to talk her way out of trouble.

"When Raj Kapoor travelled, Dabboo was the one in charge of the passports. But one time when Raj Kapoor was flying to Moscow, Dabboo left the passports behind at the immigration counter in Delhi.

Just before they landed in Moscow, he told his father about his oversight. The captain of the Air-India jet duly radioed ahead to Moscow traffic control that Raj Kapoor would not be disembarking in the Soviet capital because he had misplaced his passport.

Nevertheless, when the plane landed in Moscow, Raj Kapoor saw through the window that a red carpet had been laid to the door of the aircraft.

Seconds later, a Soviet official bounded up the stairs to the first class section, grabbed Raj Kapoor by the hand and said -- Raj Kapoor does not need a visa or passport to enter the Soviet Union."

After I rolled out my punch line, I thought I was home and dry.

There were plenty of approving looks and some muttering, but no one said anything to me.

Finally, someone from the far corner spoke up. "If he really is an Indian," the voice said, "does he know how many fingers Hrithik Roshan has?"

As I shouted '11' to everyone's evident approval, tea was produced along with naan (bread) and dates. It was almost as if an evil spell had been broken.

"Do you want to see the body of the suicide bomber again," one man asked. "We only shot him when he refused to let us search him. He had explosives strapped to his chest."

"He's a Syrian," someone shouted. "No, no, he's an Afghan belonging to the Al Qaeda," someone else insisted

They were still arguing among themselves when I picked up my notebook and left, followed by a sheepish Hasan. 

I flagged down a local orange and white taxi to take us back to the hotel.

We could feel the heat bearing down on us. The street was absolutely peaceful. No one emerged from the house to wave goodbye. 

There were no regrets.

It was as if nothing had ever happened.