“Because… I’m married to my fate, already.”
“So I am! Period. End of discussion!”
Miffed, she stopped speaking after this. She unlocked the door and entered inside her room, while he stayed at the entrance. Unsure and awkward.
She turned around and opened the door wide for him, shrugging as a matter-of-fact, as if it was natural for him to follow. There was nothing more to think and discuss. She tilted her neck and subtly moved her chin to ask him about what he was thinking.
He shook his head, but didn’t reply to her and walked inside, looking around the small but clean and neatly arranged room. It was so immaculately clean that it appeared as if she hadn’t used it. Neatly arranged white bedlinen, pillows and cushions set by the headrest, 2 single sofas and a coffee table in the corner, and one almirah. Her handbag was kept on one side of the cabinet near the television.
“Here.” She said, opening the door of the washroom, distracting him. He followed.
The washroom was an aesthetically designed tiny cubicle. She ran the tap water for him to wash away the beach sand sticking on his feet and ankles. He moved his feet under the warm water washing down the sand. So, did she.
None of them spoke anything. Their eyes were on the floor, observing the water splashing on their feet, and wet sand trickling away towards the faucet. They were standing at hardly a few inches distance from each other but it neither felt awkward nor confusing. They knew exactly what they felt for each other and were aware of the warmth they felt when they were around the other. Whether they spoke about it or not, something assured both of them that there was only one person on this planet who understood them as no one else could ever.
When enough time had passed, every fleck of sand was removed from between their toes, around ankles, and soles too, she turned off the tap and was about to make a move to go out, he stretched his hand before her and rested his palm on the wall near her shoulder, thereby blocking her way. She waited for him to remove his hand to allow her to leave but he didn’t. She didn’t dare to look at him, being aware of his sharp, piercing gaze fixed on her.
He could observe her for eternity, for as long as they stood there. Her lowered eyes shielded by the curtain of her eyelids, her long lashes fanning on her cheeks, her soft, flawless skin, tiny studs in her ears. Everything about her was understated and yet so enticing. Nothing was loud or glaring about her, yet it felt so compellingly attractive. Her persona was a reflection of her soul. No blemishes, no external frivolities could tarnish her shine.
As if on cue, she looked at him. Her eyes were congested, reddened and tired. He removed his hand from the wall to touch her cheek. She held his hand in her hand and ran her fingers over his palm, and whispered, in a low broken choking voice, “I missed you.”
Slowly, he lowered himself for a soft peck on her forehead. “I missed you, too.”
Taking one step towards him, she leaned over him and hugged him tightly, with her face buried in his chest right below his throat. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her closer, so deeply that she was nearly engulfed within his hold.
She sobbed, without moving, and complained, “I could have managed. Didn’t you trust me? I hate it that I’m responsible for every bit of the pain you’ve endured.”
He rested his chin on her head, hugging her close, “You are only responsible for every bit of peace in my heart. That’s all.”
“I will never be able to get over this.”
“We will move on. Trust me. We will do it together.” He emphasized on together and hugged her tighter. She didn’t oppose, didn’t resist or refute him. Being held by him was bliss. He was her abode. She didn’t want to disturb the harmony by any stubborn act or words. She held him as possessively as he did and stayed tucked to his chest.
After some time, pulling a towel from the overhead towel-rack, she said, “Go and dry your feet. I’ll change and come.”
“Ok.” He held the towel and walked out of the washroom, leaving her alone.
She took a moment to believe that it was real. It had happened. When she had come to Goa, not even in the weirdest of her dreams, she had imagined that Anshuman would be here with her, in this room. She kept reminding herself that it was reality. He had come all the way for her. He was not angry or upset at her. In fact, he behaved as if nothing had happened. For all that he had done for her in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he didn’t even mention any of it as great acts of generosity or benevolence. Neither did he try to take any credit for the same. Let alone blaming her for his turmoil. But that was what Anshuman was. He was always like that.
And deep in her heart, she had always known that he might be suffering somewhere. He was not someone to choose a plush, lavish lifestyle and leave everything behind. She had always feared about that. Because she knew that the image he created for himself was so not him.
After a few minutes, Manasvi changed into a cotton palazzo and tee-shirt, and walked out of the washroom into her bedroom. All lights of the room were on. Anshuman was reclining on the cushions and pillows on one side of her bed, eyes closed, and hands folded in his lap. His legs were still on the floor. It appeared that he had been sitting on the bed and reclined to take rest and fell asleep quickly.
She went near him and carefully observed him. His even breathing signified that he was sleeping soundly, and probably peacefully, too. He had told her that this was his first night in India. Just last night, he had spent almost awake, crossing the border and being interrogated by the BSF. And every night before that, for 5 months, was spent on cold hard floor of jail. This was the first proper sleep in 5 months on a comfortable bed. And first sleep where he was not suffering anxiety of any kind.
Her heart tore apart when she noticed in full light how tired and worn-off he appeared. Apart from a good amount of weight lost, his hair had grown slightly and were ruffled due to lack of care. His face was deeply tanned. He had a well grown moustache and a week-old beard. The skin of his hands was roughened. Though his messy look made him appear more attractive than he already was. It suited him so much that she blushed when she noticed that she was staring at him unabashedly. The reminder, that he had kissed her twice, made her blush more.
She bent down and held his legs to slowly lift them up and rest them straight on the bed. He was not disturbed as his sleep was too deep to be shaken away by her delicate touch. He was sleeping well for the first time in months. She spread a duvet over him, switched off the lights, left a small bedside lamp on, and without making any evident noise or movement, she slowly slipped inside the duvet beside him. She lay her head on the pillow, continuously observing him, and then, impulsively, she rested her hand on his hand to hold him.
She had to make sure he was really there.
In the wee hours of the morning, around 4:00 am, she shuddered in her sleep. Her nightmares would make frequent appearance every now and then, scaring her in her sleep.
He was woken up with her movement. Surprised to find her near him, shivering in sleep beside him, with lights switched off, it took him only a few seconds to realize that he had unknowingly fallen asleep last night. Even in the dim glow of the bedside lamp, he could figure out the frown on her face, sweat-beads laced on her forehead, pressed lips, and heavy breaths due to the scary dream. He had been suffering nightmares too. He could guess what she was going through.
The next moment, he curled his arm around her and drew her towards him. She snuggled close to him. His masculine smell and his arms around her made her aware of his presence. She never slept so soundly that she didn’t perceive movements around her. She sighed and opened her eyes. He had been watching her sleep. She shifted closer and rested her head on his shoulder. He made space for her to adjust.
They looked at each other for a long time, adoringly, speechlessly, but completely at ease. The awkwardness between then was diminishing with every passing moment. Right now, it felt like they were where they were supposed to be, where they belonged. He cleared her hair away from her face. She blushed. The fact that his foot was over hers when he turned towards her, added to the blush.
He pulled away the scrunchie from her long hair, letting them loose. She had no idea how to deal with this. She tried to move, but there was no way to go. She couldn’t turn away from him. She couldn’t get up. So, the only option left was to stay still. He touched her soft, silky, straight hair, and curled a wisp around his index finger.
“Your hair is so beautiful. Why do you keep them covered?” He asked.
“I think, I have told you before.” She remembered telling him about it when they were in Afghanistan camp.
He twisted his lips and nodded, “I don’t remember.”
“Okay. I’ll tell you. I wear a head scarf because my Ma used to wear it all the time. She was from a small, rural area near Karachi and spent her entire life there. After marriage with my Papa, she came to Kabul and there, everyone wore hijab. After my father’s death, we shifted to Karachi and lived as refugees, trying to attract as less attention as possible. So, practically everywhere we went, Ma insisted that we wear it to merge in the crowd. She was so used to it. She never removed it until the last day of her death. It became a habit for her, and then for me. When we came to India, she insisted that we should continue here as well. Men won’t look at us if we did.”
He listened patiently at her theory, and replied, “I understand about Karachi and Kabul, because you were in a vulnerable, uncertain position there. And they say, when in Rome, do as Romans do. So, it’s a good idea to blend in. But here, you don’t need to wear it.”
“I know. But I’m just used to it, now, I guess. It makes me feel safe. I don’t even think before wearing it…”
He interrupted her, “Then, you should start thinking now. The decision will always be yours, but I’d love it if you step outside the shackles of our past. Let everything that belonged to the past stay there. Let go of everything that reminds us of what we have gone through.”
“I’ll think about it,” She nodded, and then she took a deep breath, before she said, “You know what… I want to tell you something.”
“What?” He whispered, taking her hand in his own, lovingly stroking her palm with his thumb. The hollow of her palm was soft like a baby’s. It tickled her but she didn’t move her hand away. She loved the attention showered on her, for the first time in her life.
Like a kid, her eyes twinkled, and she sported a wide grin when she informed him, “I’ve completed all paperwork. I’ve surrendered the Afghanistan citizenship and I have an Indian passport now.”
The spark in her voice was evident as each word was spoken with an added zing. She was elated because ‘this’ was a big deal for her. She had spent eight years in a hope that one day she will get the citizenship of the country of her ancestors. The country which her grandparents and father belonged to. The country where she would get every valid constitutional right that she was entitled to, as a woman, and as a native citizen. Where she would be respected and would get a chance to work, learn, and earn a decent living without any bias. She had hoped to get valid documents without being dependent on Anshuman or anyone else. She had that now. She belonged to India now.
“Wow!” He smiled, “Finally.”
“Yes. Finally. All because of you.”
“Stop giving me credit for everything. You would have managed any way. I just happened to be there.”
“Stop refusing credit for everything.” She replied in the same tone as him.
“On one condition…” He found a perfect opportunity to corner her and he was not going to leave it in any case.
“What?” She widened her eyes, looking at him hopefully.
“You will stop blaming yourself for everything.”