Anshuman was treated kindly and not as a criminal at the BSF chowki. This was the usual response he received, wherever he went. He was always treated with respect, by default.
One of the main reason for this was that he gave respect and commanded the same by his attitude and behaviour. He was always well spoken, respectful to the agencies, co-operated with all the procedures, never misbehaved or displayed an arrogant air around him. If he was asked to follow them, somewhere, or do something, he quietly followed and waited to talk to a senior official. Once he met a senior, his confident personality, his poised voice, and polished English, the way he stood and talked, the fact that he was a doctor and working with PBB, a humanitarian organisation, the fact that he had served in Indian Army, and the fact that his father was an ex-armyman – every single thing went in his favour and people generally didn’t misbehave with him.
They gave him due respect, because he never came across as a threat to them, whether in India or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or any other part of the world that he had worked. He knew how to present himself.
Again, at BSF chowki near Barmer in Rajasthan, he went through thorough checking without making a fuss about it and without being forced for the same. He had only his passport with him.
Before crossing Pakistan border, he had Junaid’s visiting card, in case he was caught inside Pak territory. Once he crossed the border, he had memorised Junaid’s contact numbers and email id and tucked the card in the camel’s seat, which he let go near Ransingh ki Dhani. He also sent back the empty water bottle.
The Officer on duty flipped through his passport. There wasn’t much light in the chowki, as it was right in the middle of the desert, and they were maintaining some visibility through a single lantern. Anshuman kept talking to the officer, trying to distract him from examining the passport carefully, worried that the officer might notice that a page was carefully torn – the one where it had a stamp of entry inside Pakistan. Since there was no exit stamp, he could have been caught by the forces, and he had carefully removed it on Junaid’s advice. He tore it in multiple small pieces and blew them in the air in the desert so that no one can ever retrieve them.
Thankfully, the officer was listening to him attentively, awestruck at the work he did, turning pages amused at the number of stamps on his passport, how he worked with different countries, for epidemic, and terror stricken areas, how he had left army because he was injured, how he was in Kashmir… and Anshuman didn’t fail to mention every single senior or batchmate he remembered so that the officer could know that he was not lying and speaking the truth.
The officer was immensely impressed. But he had his doubts, and he asked, “Why do you have only your passport? Where are the other things? No phone? No wallet? No water bottle?”
Anshuman replied, “It was in my car. I lost my way and got down at a place and climbed up a small sand dune to see around if I could spot the village that we were about to visit, when someone stole my car and everything else, phone, wallet etc. Only my passport was in my shirt pocket so it was saved.”
“Why do you look familiar?” he asked, “Have I seen you before?”
Anshuman was worried. There might have been some news running about him, 3-4 months ago, when his arrest had brought about some fresh discussions. Thankfully, the social media had an overload of information and he was sure that the officer won’t remember the exact details as it was not his job. Anshuman quickly replied, “Maybe. Our organisation is featured widely. And there are several interviews and articles on youtube as well. Maybe you saw me in a post on facebook or any other social media.”
The officer shrugged, “Maybe.”
They talked to him for a long time, and slowly the conversation turned from interrogation to common sentiments about serving the army and country. They remembered their training days and officers they remotely knew. They discussed politics and how their nature of work was similar as Anshuman was also braving the odds fighting an enemy, surviving bomb blasts and gunfire, and had been actively involved in world affairs.
By morning, RajSingh and his wife Madhu arrived, with two other officials of Rajasthan regiment. And they smoothly conversed, checked Anshuman’s identity cards, Aadhar card, and every single document which said that he was speaking the truth.
Both RajSingh and Madhu didn’t behave like they were relieved on seeing Anshuman after a long time. Army life had hardened them both and they knew that they shouldn’t let out their emotions at this time.
But once Anshuman was allowed to go, he sat in the car with them, and they were the only ones, Madhu hugged him and let her tears flow.
“Are you fine? Oh God! How did you cross the border? Did they let you? Who was the angel that helped you? I can’t believe it. Did you not eat well? You have become so thin.” Madhu kept blabbering in quick sentences, unable to believe that Anshuman was finally with her. She continued, “We were on the verge of losing hope.”
Anshuman didn’t reply to any of the questions. For this moment, he simply hugged her, tightly, and closed his eyes. His eyes were moist too, and heart overloaded with surging emotions, ready to flow out. He was back to his motherland, safe and sound. He had never felt like this ever before. Though he had always felt like a soldier would do. This feeling of belonging to this sand resurfaced every time he was in India. Partly because of his mother, and his father. Partly because this feeling was ingrained deeply in every individual during the army training.
But today, he had learnt the value of freedom.
RajSingh didn’t hug him. But his look, his behaviour, his warm solid handshake, and his pat on Anshuman’s back was nothing less than a hug. It was ‘his’ way of showing how much he cared.
After a few minutes in the journey, after Madhu had told him about Dadi and Preksha, and how everyone was doing, Anshuman asked her about Manasvi. “Mom, did you call Manasvi?”
“Yes, we did. But her phone was switched off. It was middle of the night. So we thought that maybe she is asleep, and we’ll talk to her in the morning.”
Anshuman tapped his finger tips on the back of his hand and then, after a moment, he said, “It’s morning, already. Give me the phone, I’ll call her.”
Madhu chuckled, “God! Are you the same Anshuman who would refuse to talk about her, and never asked anything about her. Look at you. You have changed so much. Asking your mom impatiently for her phone to call your wife?”
Anshuman swayed his jaw, “Really?! You will never stop melodrama, right?”
Madhu giggled, happy like a blissful mom, finally relieved for her son was changing for good, and for love, she took out her phone from her bag and gave him, “Manasvi’s number is saved.”
Anshuman scrolled through the contacts and pressed his lips, raking his hand in his hair, to rest them at the nape of his neck. He couldn’t wait.
But her phone was switched off.
Madhu understood his concern, and grinned, “We can call her in the afternoon, after we reach Delhi. Or you can also take the first flight from Jaipur to Mumbai.”
Anshuman rolled his eyes at the tease and sighed, “Come on, Ma! Please!”
“Arrey!! I’m serious!” Madhu laughed.
“We’ll go home first. I need to meet Dadi and Preksha. By that time, maybe she switches her phone on.”
RajSingh said, “I’m booking you a flight from Delhi to Mumbai for tomorrow, early morning. Even if you are able to talk to her, why wait more… go and meet her… and bring her home, if possible.”
Anshuman couldn’t stop smiling, secretively though. He tried his best to avoid displaying before his parents how a subtle smile was slowly making its way on his lips, leaving him thrilled, and grateful.
He was finally in India, breathing in the free air and he couldn’t stop feeling like fortune was smiling at him. He was finally with his parents, and going home.
He would finally be able to meet the girl of his dreams. The only girl in his life. The only girl, apart from his mother and sister, that he had ever thought about so deeply, found strength and solace in, admired and revered. The only girl who made him take decisions he would have never thought about otherwise. The only girl who stayed in his mind twenty-four-seven. The only girl who had the power to make him think emotionally and not rationally. The only girl he wanted to see happy and safe.
The only girl he had ever loved.