Anshuman disconnected the call and gave the phone to Junaid Khan, standing near the cell, unintentionally privy to the conversation he had with Manasvi.
He kept standing during the entire conversation because he couldn’t allow a loophole out of an emotional decision and mistakenly let Anshuman to make a call to someone suspicious. It was an important duty to keep a close check on Anshuman even when he had now started trusting Anshuman. He had been benevolent enough to let him make a call to his wife. Now he expected the same from Anshuman to not betray his trust.
Anshuman didn’t let him down. After a genuine call to Manasvi, he returned the phone. Junaid took the phone without speaking anything, at first, and then he subtly smiled. Anshuman smiled too.
Junaid couldn’t curb the inquisitive streak in him. The questions arising in his heart would seem to be natural for anyone in his position. Moreover, he was the ACP. So, he had to ask. He couldn’t stop too.
In quick sentences, one after the other, he bombarded all his questions like cannon balls fired in a row, “Is your wife from Afghanistan? Then, why did she study here, in Karachi? How did you get married to her? Where did you meet her?”
“It’s a long story.” Anshuman sighed.
Junaid tossed his keys on the table and folded his hands across his chest, “I’m not going home. Now, start…”
Anshuman started narrating his story from the point where he was studying medicine in Scotland and had come back home for a holiday. One fine day, he was told that he had to marry Manasvi for the sake of documents. He spoke about his life at PBB and how he mainly stayed out of India for working in disaster struck areas and also about Manasvi’s life, her struggles, the way she build up her life after coming to India and got herself educated, got a job, and couldn’t go to Paris because of the issues with her passport. How she had to go to Afghanistan for her birth certificate and a new passport.
He narrated almost everything.
It was late at night when he was still speaking. Junaid had asked the constable to get tea for them. Stirring sugar in his ginger tea, he asked, “Is she alone right now?”
“Yes.” Anshuman replied.
“I really hope she is fine.”
“I hope so, too.” Anshuman whispered. He could feel his heart pacing faster. He had no choice but to accept her assurance when Manasvi had said that she was safe in a high-end hotel, known for ensuring safety of travellers. But neither his heart trusted it nor his mind. He couldn’t stop worrying for her. She was alone and had no one to help her in case of an emergency. Every now and then, he found himself praying to God to keep her safe.
He requested Junaid to send her the necessary documents – her TC and conduct certificate – on her email, so that she could expedite the process of her passport.
Manasvi woke up early. She hadn’t been sleeping well, anyway. The stress of Anshuman being in captivity had taken away all of her peace. The pressure of being in a new place was nothing as compared to that. She had heard so many negative things about the state of women in Afghanistan that she had been nervous, deep down in her heart.
Thankfully, that fear had been allayed by the trustworthy people she met and connected with, so far. And she was glad that she met a cab driver who was helping her go around so that she was not alone.
She prayed to God, as usual and checked her email. Her inbox had a new email with her documents. Quickly, she got ready and went downstairs to the hotel reception. She requested the staff to get her the print-outs of those documents so that she could submit them as requested by the MEA.
She wrapped her dupatta on her head, held the certificates firmly in her hand, and walked out of the hotel looking for the cab driver who had helped her a day before. He was waiting just near the hotel foyer, a few meters away from the entrance, and immediately came running towards Manasvi when he saw her stepping out of the hotel.
“Madam, the cab is there. I was waiting for you only.”
While Manasvi was deeply touched at his gesture, it confused her too. The driver was too eager to help and more excited and energetic than yesterday. More excited than normal.
Manasvi quietly sat down on the rear seat, feeling distinctly uneasy. Something was different from yesterday. It didn’t feel the same. Something was amiss. She asked the driver to take her to the MEA.
“MEA? Why??” The driver was shocked at the sudden change of plan.
WHY? Ideally, this was none of his business. She was not supposed to give every detail about her movement to a cab driver just because he was helping her. She was miffed at the way he questioned her. It appeared that the driver understood too. He had been taken off-guard so he reacted in that way. Quickly, he composed himself again and changed the tone.
“I mean…didn’t you say yesterday that we will go to the old city and search for an old hospital?”
“I did. But I need to go to MEA urgently, right now.”
“Okay. No problem. I’ll take you there, first.” The driver cleared his throat and tried to appear congenial and nice, all over again.
Manasvi was baffled, why she was feeling weird today. The driver’s body language, the look in his eyes, and the way he was talking to her was surely different from yesterday. She looked out of the window on her side but gave a quick sideward glance to him. The driver had been observing Manasvi through the rearview mirror. After a mile’s drive, he dialled a call and quickly ended it within few seconds, and few words, saying, “Err… the programme is a bit changed… keep it for an hour later… I’ll call you.” After that, he disconnected.
All her life, from a very young age, there was one thing that Manasvi had strongly relied on – her sixth sense and her natural ability to read people. She had nurtured and grown this ability by conscious thoughtfulness and by listening to her instincts.
At all times, without fail.
And today, her instincts said that something was different. And this change was not favourable to her.
She got down at the MEA and told the driver, “You go from here. It will take a lot of time.”
The driver insisted, “It’s okay. I’ll wait.”
Manasvi was now sure that he was behaving a bit fishy. She said, “It might take long.”
“No problem. I’m here. Anyway, you don’t know anyone in this country. I can’t leave you alone.” He was so firm and intimidating that she didn’t say anything after this. She didn’t want him to think that she had doubts on his intentions.
She rode the stairs to MEA, quickly thinking what she was going to do next. On her end, she had practically spent an entire life alone, dealing with stares and filthy, lustful looks of men who thought that every single, lonely female was available for their fancy. Her schooling in Karachi and college, and job in Mumbai was no different. With every man who ever supported and helped her, were a score of men trying to use her, flirt with her, misbehave with her. She had learnt to deal with them and now, she knew that at least she could read through these shameless stares and dirty looks.
She submitted the documents at MEA and met the officer who dealt with the issuance of passports. She explained her urgency and requested for faster approval. The officer told her that the passport was approved and they were waiting for these 2 documents only. She could collect her passport on the next day.
When Manasvi walked out of Ministry of External Affairs, she found the cab driver standing at one corner on the driveway outside the office. He smiled when he looked at her. This time, she could easily sense the scheming eyes and the betrayal behind that smile.
The worse was that this guy knew where she lived and was alone in the country. Manasvi smiled back in response and as she walked towards him, she took out her phone and clicked a full length picture of the man, and a second picture of close up of his face, confusing him. His smile vanished. Before he could ask anything, she smiled sweetly and turned around to click a picture of his car and licence plate number.
She opened her mailbox and sent the 4 pictures as messages to Anshuman, Krish, Azfar Malik, the official number of the Metropolitan hotel, and the officer at MEA whose number she had taken, asking help to be contacted in case of emergency.
The driver was perplexed at what she was doing with his phone. He fumbled with words, “What are you doing? Why are you clicking pictures?”
Manasvi smiled gracefully, without trying to raise her tone, and replied in a soft voice, “I am a journalist. I work with top newspapers and government agencies. Actually, you’ve helped me so much here that I need to save your credentials to feature you in an article, later.”
“No…no…I don’t need…”
Manasvi shrugged, “I’ve already sent the pictures to friends, family, and my husband. They should know who I am with.”
The driver suddenly became defensive, “Listen, don’t think I am…”
Manasvi interrupted him, “Relax! I just came out to say that I am not going anywhere from here. I know someone in the city. He is like a brother to me. His family is coming to pick me up. I’m going to their home for lunch.”
“Brother to you?” The man smirked, “Didn’t you say that you know no one here?”
“No, I didn’t. You assumed.” She raised her chin and turned around to go inside the MEA office. A government office appeared safe at this time.
The man tried to follow her, and spoke bitterly from behind her, “You know no one. You are trying to fool me. But I will wait here. Until the office closes down. Let me see who comes to save you.”
Manasvi was terrified. She paced up her speed and quickly entered the large metal doors with toughened glass shielding a perfectly working office of Ministry from a criminal waiting outside to kidnap her.
She quickly went inside and informed the PA to the Secretary of the External Affairs and asked him to provide police assistance in dealing with this man.
“I’m so so so sorry!” The officer immediately called the police and genuinely apologised to Manasvi for all that she had been facing, “Creepy men like these make us all feel ashamed. I feel embarrassed, it happened with you here.”
Manasvi shook her head to relieve him. She was about to say something when she overheard someone at her back. Another guy at the office, hearing the conversation, commented, “It is your fault. A pretty girl, travelling alone in this country unsafe for unescorted women will definitely attract men. What’s new in that?”
Manasvi sharply turned around and snapped at him, “Excuse me??!!”
The guy shrugged nonchalantly, “Did I say anything wrong?”
Manasvi folded her hands across her chest and asked in firm, stern voice, “What is my fault? Being pretty?? Being alone?? Or the fact that you guys have made it unsafe for women to manage things on their own without being escorted like cattle?”
“Mind your language.”
“I can’t!” Manasvi replied in a stable, calm, and composed voice, “I am a journalist and a writer. I don’t mind my words or language. I speak and write about things I find troubling.”
“This is not your country to change.” The man tried to find some reason in his offensive attitude.
Manasvi shook her head disbelievingly.
“I’m not here to change anything. I’m here to find a place I can call my own.”