On a flight from Delhi to Srinagar, I sat beside a man from West Bengal named Raj Neogi. He was a Major in the Indian army stationed in Kashmir. Raj quickly introduced himself to me and made conversation easy for the duration of the flight.
When we landed in Srinagar, Raj was eager to help me get through security and find a taxi to the city. At the final police check, he even gave his name and address as my host in Srinagar, since I didn’t know the address of those I was visiting.
As we parted, Raj invited me to give him a call before I left Srinagar and to see if we could spend some more time together. A couple days later, I sent him a text message to see if he was available on the following day before my 3pm flight. He responded quickly and we arranged that he would send a civilian driver into the city to pick me up at a café by 11:30am.
A young man named Mr. Feroz picked me up and we drove out to the army base. Feroz was a young Kashmiri Muslim who was an expert in computers and did contract work for the army, mostly through Major Neogi. He had nothing but praise and admiration for Raj as a person and a business client, claiming that even the Army officers under Neogi’s command said that they could not ask for a more kind and humane Major.
After arriving at the first gates of the army base it took almost two hours to pass through security, including rigorous bomb checks. After all the waiting, Raj sent a military vehicle to pick up Feroz and myself and we made our way across the base through a few more gates and past various buildings. I thought we were headed for Neogi’s residence but instead we were driven out to an isolated valley on the base which turned out to be the artillery range. As we drove in, several soldiers were lined up with their rifles firing at targets a hundred meters away. The major and another soldier were sitting under a tent a short distance away. Raj, in full fatigues, greeted me warmly and offered me water, chai and chicken tikka.
By this time my flight was less than an hour away, but Raj assured me again and again that it would not be a problem. He said we would even have time for me to take up a rifle and fire a round if I wanted. At first, I refused, but after further bidding, I obliged. I made my way out to the firing range, lay down on the ground with a rifle and fired ten bullets into the targets. Immediately after that, Raj escorted us back to the main gate of the base, where he instructed Feroz to take me directly to the airport. By now I was very worried that I would miss my flight, and I think Feroz was beginning to wonder the same, and to feel the weight of the responsibility.
We arrived at the airport a mere fifteen minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart, and then it took another five minutes to get through a series of security checks. I made it to the SpiceJet ticket counter at ten minutes before take-off. The SpiceJet people were already outside and when I banged on the window they made it very clear that it was too late. At that point, I was curiously approached by someone not from SpiceJet and asked if my name was Mark Klassen. Shortly thereafter, a man from SpiceJet came inside and curtly told me that the ticket counter had been closed for more than twenty minutes. But to my surprise, he begrudgingly issued me a boarding pass. Before I knew it, I was flying to Delhi. I could hardly believe that I had made the flight.
Hours later, when I was back in my home in Delhi, I received a call from Raj. He asked about my trip back to Delhi. I explained the drama. He laughed and told me that after he had said goodbye to me at the army base, he made a call to the air traffic control tower at the Srinagar airport. He had given them very clear instructions that that SpiceJet flight to Delhi was not to depart until Mark Klassen was safely aboard.