As far as Suleiman was concerned, things went according to plan. Rumours were spread about the plot to blow up the entire Indian Cabinet when it met for a meeting planned that summer in New Delhi, and the police were tipped off with a view to sending them on a wild goose chase.

It was Khosravi who first noticed a police picket on the lake and forewarned his guests. After scouring houseboats from one end of the lake to the other, the team finally reached Mission Kashmir. Mahmud, Ayaz and Khosravi were interrogated, their belongings searched. It wasn’t long before the policemen laid their hands on Mahmud’s script.

“What’s this?” they asked him, pleased that their investigation had yielded results.

Mahmud answered as Suleiman had briefed him, but the constables who did not read English weren’t convinced. Ayaz and he would have to be taken into custody, they said. Khosravi made frantic calls to Suleiman. He was afraid the two Bombay boys would be thrashed to death at the police station to extract a confession from them. This happened in Jammu and Kashmir every day.

Senior officers questioned Mahmud and Ayaz at the police station.

“I am a researcher, sir,” Mahmud told them, “With a doctor’s degree from Bombay University. I’m in Srinagar with my typist Ayaz, working on an article.”

“The title of your article says it all,” the officers told him. “It is a plot to kill our honourable ministers all of them! We will have to arrest you, and probably shoot you dead in an encounter. The Big Bosses don’t bother with courts and prison sentences. They want blood.”

“That’s not true, we are not involved in any plot,” Mahmud said. “You have misread my title.”

“What do you mean we have misread your title?” the officers fumed, throwing Mahmud’s notebook at him. “It clearly says Finish Cabinet.”

“Please read it again, sir,” Mahmud told the officers. “The word has a double ‘n’. I am working on an article on the Cabinet of Finland. They used to run the best government in the world until a couple of years ago. It is a useful case study.”

“What?” the officers exclaimed, scrutinising the notebook. The word was indeed Finnish and not Finish. But they couldn’t let Mahmud outdo them.

“In that case,” the officers said, “tell us what you know about the ministers of Finland.” They were certain Mahmud wouldn’t have an answer.

“Sure,” Mahmud said. “I will start with their prime minister. His name is Mr Antti Juhani Rinne. He is a member of Finland’s Social Democratic Party. He took over as Prime Minister on 6th June this year. Mr Rinne studied at the University of Helsinki. He has been facing criticism over the way he’s handling the country’s ongoing postal strike. Like India, Finland’s postal service is state-owned. The strike is spreading to Finland’s national airline, Finnair, as well as to other industries. The opposition is calling for Mr Rinne’s resignation…”

“Well, all right, all right,” the officers said, impressed by Mahmud’s professorial tone. “Who are you writing the article for?”

“It’s a commissioned piece for an international encyclopaedia,” Mahmud said.

“A Who’s Who?”

“That’s right.”

“And why are you writing it?”

“For money. Also, I have plans to go to Finland for further studies.”

The officers looked at each other. The reference to further studies was the clincher. Education was greatly valued in Jammu and Kashmir.

The officers let Mahmud and Ayaz go. However, they told their men to be vigilant.

Suleiman called Mahmud even before they reached the houseboat.

“Are you okay?” he asked. There was panic in his voice.

“No worries,” Mahmud said. “We managed to carry it off.”

“Thanks so much, brother,’ Suleiman said. “The entire police force has gone into overdrive regarding the mega assassination plot.”

“Good for you,” Mahmud said.

On December 9, 2019, the Indian government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act in Parliament. The Lok Sabha passed it the very next day, with 311 MPs voting in favour of it, and only 80 MPs voting against it. Later, the bill was ratified by the Rajya Sabha. The bill provided Indian citizenship to illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who were Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian by faith. But it excluded Muslims.

“So, Mahmud of Ghazni won’t be given Indian citizenship,” Ayaz joked. “He’s from Afghanistan and he’s a Muslim.”

Following closely on the heels of the Citizenship Amendment Act was the National Register of Citizens. Its purpose was to identify illegal Muslim immigrants and deport them to their home countries.

“What a busybody government you have,” Khosravi said to Mahmud and Ayaz. “Always busy pulling down and destroying things.”

This time, many Indians decided that enough was enough. Students came out on the streets to protest. They said the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens were against the spirit of the Constitution because they singled out Muslims. Suleiman took Mahmud and Ayaz to a demonstration at Kashmir University. They were impressed by some of the slogans scribbled by students on banners and placards. The police, acting at the behest of the government, beat up students and put them in jail.

The controversial bills led to a civil war-like situation in India, with secular-minded Indians on one side and Hindutva revivalists on the other. Even the media was split in the middle. An NDTV anchor spoke against the bill, while a Republic TV anchor spoke in support of it.

The government built Detention Centres in the North East to house illegal Muslim immigrants. Mahmud checked out images of the Detention Centres on Google and found that they looked exactly like the Nazi Concentration Camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. They were low, boxy rectangular structures with wooden bunk beds one on top of another, as in a three-tier sleeper coach. The only thing they did not have were gas chambers. The Detention Centres, Mahmud thought, were India’s answer to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, where surveillance reigned supreme.

Surveillance, however, was everywhere. Ayaz’s iPhone 10 was so state-of-the-art that it instantly transmitted anything spoken against the regime. What George Orwell had envisioned in Nineteen Eighty-Four had finally become a reality. There were rumours that thugs had already started going from door to door to inspect people’s documents. And there wasn’t a dearth of documents that people were supposed to have: PAN Card, Aadhaar Card, Ration Card, Voter ID Card.

“I guess I must chuck my smartphone into the Dal Lake,” Mahmud said. “These are not smartphones anymore. They’re over-smart.”

Suleiman came.

“Hail Hitler,” he said, stretching his right arm forward, like a Nazi.

“What news?” Mahmud asked.

“They’re still probing the assassination plot, the fools. Meanwhile, we are working out the modalities at Vaishno Devi.”

There was another relaxation of the curfew.

“How about another evening at Coffea Arabica?” Suleiman asked.

“We’re game,” Mahmud said.

They told Khosravi they would be having their dinner outside.

Anup Kaul was at Coffea Arabica again. He seemed to be a fixture at the restaurant. He saw Mahmud enter with Ayaz and Suleiman, waved out to him, and left the group he was seated with to join the lovers at their empty table. Meanwhile, Suleiman veered away towards his own coterie.

Excerpted with permission from Mahmud and Ayaz, R Raj Rao, Speaking Tiger Books.