Anshuman had his eyes fixed outside the window of the cab.
Kabul was like India. Four wheelers of all brands and makes, from most expensive high-end cars to the most ancient, vintage ones. The two-wheelers with drivers without a helmet, the disregard for traffic lights and the highly congested, snailing traffic reminded him of India.
The highway towards Jalalabad and this side of the Afghan landscape was no different than India. It appeared so familiar, once again. The deserted barren land till the eyes could see, with no plants or animals in sight for a long distance. The heat, the dust storms, the broken, half-constructed brick-walled houses, buildings torn by the war, the series of cliffs and sharp turns one after the other, the gravel on the damaged roads, ups and downs…
It was touted as the deadliest roads on the planet – He had been told again and again and again. But Anshuman was not worried about himself. His mind was pre-occupied with Manasvi’s thoughts. She was strong. He knew that. But that didn’t mean that she could be left alone to fight the harshest of circumstances. If only, he could have reached her before she left for this country and offered to be with her. Then, maybe, he wouldn’t be as anxious as he was, right now.
The cars zooming past each other at high speed, at every turn had the driver pressing brakes suddenly. Anshuman was jolted out of his thoughts. “Be careful!”
“Sorry sir, some drivers are very rash. Though all drivers this side are high on adrenaline, still some are saner than others. Not everyone wants to die.”
Anshuman just nodded. He was too tired and engrossed in his predicament to give a normal response to casual conversation.
“How much time more?” He asked.
“Half an hour, sir! The traffic is messy at this hour. Otherwise, we would have reached earlier.” The cabbie tried to be understanding and polite, looking at the messy state of his passenger.
The passenger buried his face in his palm for a moment and went back to his phone to try to call Manasvi again, hoping that she will call him. But he received no call. Her phone was not reachable, either.
He received a message each from Alex and Amanda both. They were boarding a plane to Kabul and were asked to join him at the camp near Jalalabad.
Manasvi sat at the stairs of the Population Registration Office, Jalalabad, looking far away into the sky and all the buildings trying to reach above and touch it. For a long time, she sat there wondering how she would meet Anshuman.
Where was he, if he had come to Afghanistan? Madhu aunty had told her that he will come to Jalalabad, but where? Did someone guide him that she would be at this office at Jalalabad? Did he go to the MoI, Kabul?
Was he fine? Of course, he had to be…everything will be fine! God will be with him!
Her attention was diverted when Krish brought 2 paper-cups of coffee from the cafeteria of the office. He sat beside her on the stairs. She took the coffee from his hand.
“Not a big coffee shop. Just basics. Nothing great to eat. We will go inside the city and eat!” Krish informed.
“Where are we going?” She asked.
“They have called you tomorrow. So, we need to spend this day here. Let’s go to the city. Eat something and take rest!” Krish tapped his fingers over his coffee cup after taking a sip.
“Can we wait here for some time?” Manasvi asked in a low voice.
“Here?!” Krish was surprised but could understand her, “Listen, I know that you are worried about your husband and you are hoping that he will reach here. But the chances are very dull compared to the heat. It’s close to 50 degrees, Manasvi. There isn’t a proper place to sit here. We haven’t eaten anything and you are not even sure that he will come here or not.”
Manasvi lowered her eyes to let them stay on the froth over her coffee and bit her lip. She didn’t want to leave this place. She didn’t know why, but her heart said that Anshuman was going to come here. He was on his way.
Deep inside, she felt… hoped… wished…
Krish could feel her pain, but the inquisitive eyes of the locals upon them, seeing them together was getting uncomfortable. He turned his neck around and said, “Look at them. It seems someone is going to stop by and ask us a hundred questions!”
Manasvi squirmed and looked around. The locals were not modest to throw cursory glances. They had a determined look. Suspicious and curious.
She stood up, “Okay! Let’s go!”
“We’ll find a phone shop in the city and buy new phones. I think that must work. Our old phones are not being set to changed location.”
“Hmm!” She couldn’t decide if there was any merit in disagreeing or arguing with him.
She couldn’t drink her coffee. Her throat was too choked for that act. Quietly, she slipped her cup along with the coffee in the dust bin below the stairs and followed Krish.
Anshuman quickly paid the driver and nearly ran towards the entrance of the PR office at Jalalabad. The security check at the entrance and then the stairs were crossed in a jiffy. His backpack was on his shoulder, repeatedly slipping away from his olive green, parachute, summer jacket, thrown over a black shirt and olive trousers, now dusty and messy after the travel.
He enquired at 2 counters and very quickly, he got the information about Manasvi. It wasn’t usual for them to receive an application for a duplicate birth certificate from a Hindu girl, now living in India. It was a rare and curious case for the officials too.
“She left some time back. We’ve called her tomorrow.” The official on the desk informed him while 2 others collected around them, purely out of curiosity.
Anshuman heaved a sigh of relief. At least, she was fine and she was around. Somewhere near! He had no idea how to find her in this alien city. He’d have to wait till tomorrow, it appeared.
“Can you please do me a favour?” He requested, showed them his identity card given by PBB, Doctor’s permit and explained that he was here to serve their country and people. Right now, he was in search of his wife.
The officials suddenly turned very helpful, understanding and hospitable. They offered him tea and asked what they could do for him.
“Please, take my number. When she comes here tomorrow morning, please call me on this number and tell her that Dr. Anshuman is looking for her. Please ask her to wait here.”
So much for trying to remain somewhere around and not trying to meet her!! He thought. Right now, every moment was like a rock to be climbed by his tired body.
“Sir, our duties change by the roster and there will be another staff tomorrow. Still, we wil try to leave the message.” The staff assured her but his ray of hope dimmed further.
He walked out of the office of Population Registration and walked towards the long deserted street towards the city, emitting fire from the scorching sun above it.
‘Where do I find you in this big city?’
Manasvi didn’t want to have food while Krish was starving. They walked along the busy market street at the center of the city. He bought bananas and ate six of them, one after the other, offering one to Manasvi, every time he ate and was refused every time.
“I could never understand how giving up food solved all problems?” He tried to crack a joke.
Manasvi was not even listening to him. She kept walking ahead. Her mind was numb and heart slow at pace, not even registering every beat. She sighed. Her birthplace was right here and she felt as if she was in her parents’ arms. How her life had changed with the insurgency in Afghanistan and how she had eventually found a future for her was nothing less than a living nightmare.
The sun was about to set. Manasvi’s shoulders hurt. Her back hurt. Her eyes stung. She knew that it was all the effect of stress, exertion, fatigue, and sadness. She needed to sleep.
“Let’s go to that roadside shop near the police station,” Krish tried to divert her mind, “He is selling dates, nuts, and figs. You know they are a specialty of Afghanistan?”
She spoke dryly, “Are you here for shopping?”
Krish shrugged, “Of course, not…but what is the harm in shopping when you get quality goods for a bargain price?”
He walked ahead towards the shop. Manasvi was just not interested, but she followed him. Hardly few steps ahead across the road and they were shaken by a loud noise followed by chaos all around them.
There was smoke, people running all around, pushing each other, pushing Manasvi and Krish too, who fell down on the road.
Manasvi immediately squeezed her hands and folded her neck by instinct, or maybe by experience. By an unknown strength and sixth sense, as she had been in a situation like this before, she rolled to her side and tucked herself to the wall of a shop nearby. Krish suffered injuries as the moment he tried to stand, he was pushed by the crowd.
They could see nothing in the chaos and the commotion and a huge rush of people resembling a swarm of bees whose nest was just broken. Manasvi sat by the wall and shouted, “Krish, don’t try to get up. Roll down to one side.”
Krish had got up before that and he didn’t listen to her. This time, he was pushed to the edge of the shop and hit a pillar on his head, leading it to bleed.
The smoke and the dust mingled to obscure visibility and it became difficult to breathe. The situation was out of control as someone told them that a suicide attack had happened at the police station when a car bomb had exploded.
They were shoved towards a small lane which could take them out of the market area. Even this lane was congested, with hurt and injured people running in one direction. Away from this situation.
When they reached the other end of the road, they crossed the frenzied crowd, the bustling roads and went to the other side where the drivers were about to take their cabs away as the news of disturbance had spread. They quickly entered a cab.
“Sir, I’m going home. This cab is not free!” The driver was panic ridden too.
Manasvi, “We need urgent help. Please take us to the hospital. Quickly!”
As a rule, the Afghans talked to Krish and they didn’t directly talk to her. It happened the same even in case of an emergency.
“Which hospital, Sir?” The cabbie asked Krish.
“Any! We are new here… start driving and take us wherever you know we’ll get first aid and help.”
“But sir… I’m going home…I’m worried about my family!”
“Drop us at any hospital that comes on your way to your home,” Manasvi spoke again, even after being ignored.
The driver started driving at a rapid speed and took them out of the city and the noise. Krish noticed that they were on a deserted road with no habitation and they were probably moving out of the city.
Immediately, he raised an alarm, “Hello, where are we going?”
“Relax sir. There is a lot of tension going on in the city right now. I live in a nearby village. I’ll drop you to a good treatment center near that…”
“But…” Krish was extremely apprehensive.
Manasvi nodded to draw his attention and when he looked at her, she said in a low voice, “Generally locals, Afghan people take good care of their guests to the country from a foreign land and they are honest. Let us trust him.”
Krish nodded but stayed alert despite bleeding from the forehead and an arm. Manasvi was mildly hurt with just a few scratches and completely ignored that she was hurt too.
After almost 30 minutes, the driver stopped at a huge dilapidated building looking like a ruin from the war. It appeared like a castle with broken, damaged walls. It was surrounded by several white thick tents, giving it a look like a camp-like structure.
“Where are we?” Krish got down and scanned the area suspiciously. He was almost sure that they had been kidnapped.
The driver informed them, “It is a humanitarian camp by PBB. People Beyond Borders. There provide every facility for basic diagnosis and treatment. You will feel safe here. They are nice people… people like you who come from different countries to help us… I live in a village nearby…”
“PBB?” Krish was not sure that he really saw a PBB camp by his eyes. He had only heard about them till now, “Is it really PBB?”
“Yes, sir… I’ve brought patients here, before as well!” The driver shrugged, “They have very good doctors. From America. Europe etc.. okay… my work is done. I’ll take your leave!”
The driver left and Krish limped his way to the PBB camp in Jalalabad to find the first point of entry. He needed a serious attention right now. Manasvi helped him and left him inside the small room, which was turned into a makeshift dressing room cum minor OT. Manasvi was asked to wait outside.
Something about PBB made her uneasy. She observed the surroundings and walked around… till far, there were tents converted to examination rooms and several volunteers running around to help the patients. It didn’t take long to connect the dots.
Anshuman was a doctor too. He was talking about Syria and Israel. Did he work with PBB?
She had read about PBB a lot. They worked in severe conditions, with war and epidemic stricken nations, with everyone who needed their services without considering the borders.
Is it possible that he worked for PBB and was here? There is no harm in asking. Immediately, she ran towards the front desk which served as inquiry desk too. Her foot had been paining due to the scratches, her pale-blue full-sleeved dress was dusty and dirty and her body ached. But she had to go. She couldn’t wait.
She asked at the front desk, “Excuse me, is there any doctor by the name of Dr. Anshuman Singh Shekhawat in your team!”
She had expected it but was disappointed with the reply, “Yes, mam! We have Dr. Shekhawat here. He reached just an hour ago.”
Manasvi’s face was drawn as melancholy washed over it. She fought with all the crazy creases on her face. Her tears rolled down.
Her husband was definitely in the same country, same city, around her… but he had come here for a PBB posting… and not because he wanted to be with her!!
Her heart sank deeper in agony’s murk with a twang of pain stabbing through it. Her tongue ran over her lips. She didn’t know whether to be happy that he was here or to be sad that she had unknowingly, unintentionally built expectations from someone who didn’t belong to her. Something, she had always avoided.. like all feelings, this feeling too, hurt. And hurt deeply!
‘So what if he is here for PBB? Madhu aunty said that he was here and I could contact him whenever I want and he will join me.
He knows that I am here. He might be worried. Or he must have tried to find me. And even if it is just a hope… maybe he did nothing like that… even then, I’m satisfied that he is around me. He asked his mother to tell me that he will be there if I need him. What else do I want? He has always done so much for me. I shouldn’t build more expectations and weigh him down with my hopes.
I’ll watch him from far and won’t meet him. It’s enough that he is safe. He is with his people. He is happy! I’ll be happy for him…’
“Where is he right now?” Manasvi asked hopefully.
“One moment,” The lady at the desk walked out of it and said, “Come with me. I’ll show you his cabin…”
She pointed towards a few tents to the far edge of the entire camp. “Those last few tents…” and then she spotted him on the other side, somewhere far, standing at the edge of a cliff.
“Oh wait! There is Dr. Anshuman…”
“Where?” Manasvi immediately turned to look at him. Her heart suddenly kicked off the pace. Her lips trembled and she could feel her throat constricting.
So much for seeing him from far and being happy for him!! This didn’t sum up all the feelings inside her for him… this was not, how she felt about him…
She could recognise him even from behind. Indeed, he was Anshuman!! The lady pointed towards him smiled before leaving Manasvi there.
Manasvi couldn’t wait. Without thinking much, she made a dash towards Anshuman. He was standing with his face towards the valley and back towards Manasvi. Lost. Confused. Disappointed. And tired. Manasvi felt almost the same.
She reached him in few seconds and stopped right behind him. At almost five feet distance from him. Catching up for breath. Holding her body still.
The rustling of the sand and gravel below someone’s running feet diverted his attention. He turned around.
And the world almost stopped. Right there!!