Escape to freedom
The day began like any other, with no hint of the storm it carried in its bosom. Chitra woke up when the first rays of the sun crept through the window and kissed her cheek tenderly. She stretched languidly and for a moment thought of not getting out of the bed. It was just too cold and the comfort provided by the warmth of the quilt was too hard to resist. But she could not afford to miss her assignment. After all, reputation was everything in her profession.
“Get up and don’t let up,” she said to herself, just as she had been saying the last five years while she struggled to set up her business. She had bought the unimaginatively named ‘Kapoor’s Photo Studio’ a week after she had arrived in this quaint town. Mr. Kapoor had exited from this world in a tragic accident under unexplained circumstances. His two wheeler was found badly damaged on the wrong side of the road and Mr. Kapoor was found in a nearby ditch, one hundred per cent deceased, having paid the price of going helmet less. All his friends and acquaintances were amazed as to how Mr. Kapoor had gone to the wrong side of the road, as he was a very cautious human being. The hit and run case had not been solved till date. “Destiny cannot be dodged,” was the general consensus. But Chitra was aware that this was not a random accident but a carefully orchestrated event.
Mr. Kapoor was a widower and his only son, having a well paid job in Dubai, had no interest in taking over a debt ridden photo studio. Two days after he posted a ‘For sale or lease’ notice on the shop, Chitra appeared on the scene and made a reasonable offer to buy the place in cash. The deal was quickly struck and Mr. Kapoor’s son paid off the bank’s debt under a compromise formula and then took the first flight back to Dubai. He was relieved, to say the least, and was never heard of again.
A fresh garishly painted signboard went up soon.‘Chitra’s Clicks, Bridal photography our speciality (Mehndi artist also available)’, read the new sign embellished with the pretty face of an actress in her wedding finery. The studio made steady progress and started making a small profit from the third year, mainly because it carried no burden of debt servicing. Also the lovely photography (and the equally lovely photographer) drew in customers. Marriage season was especially busy and today Chitra was to cover a musical function, part of the grand Indian wedding celebrations.
She had a quick bath and made her usual breakfast of two fried eggs and toast. She was 32, happily unmarried, and mistress of her own destiny. She nibbled at her toast as she read the morning paper. The headlines proclaimed that a full-fledged investigation and hunt for the attackers of the air force station in the town was underway and arrests will be made soon. Although this was going on for two days now, it still had not jaded the readers’ interest and newspapers were milking the story.
Chitra slung her camera bag around her neck and started for the wedding venue. Half way through she was stopped at a police picket, on the road leading to the air base.
“Where are you going?” asked a heavily bearded and turbaned police man.
Chitra flashed her brightest smile. ”Brother, I am going to Hall bazaar. I am a photographer and have to cover a wedding there.”
“Show me your I.D.”
Chitra dutifully produced her drivers’ licence and business card and was diverted to a side road and asked to take a longish detour to her destination. She smiled inwardly. Classic case of bolting the stable after the horses have fled!
She arrived at the venue half an hour late and was spared any flak as the would be bride was still not ready. She clicked about a hundred snaps and made her way to the studio after collecting the advance payment, grudgingly paid by the grumpy father of the bride. She arranged her digital camera on the rack and inserted the memory card in her computer as it warmed up. A pop up message announced that she had new mail. Her years of training had drummed it into her head that she should invariably check the emails immediately. More often than not, the mails were harmless solicitations from photographic equipment suppliers but she had to check all mails as soon as they arrived.
She stared at the email message on her computer, just three lines. Although she was mentally prepared for such an eventuality, the shock still left her dazed. She composed herself and read it again. The mail from Sandip (fictitious name) read
“Too much rains here, house is flooded and damaged.
Will have to shift to nani’s place.
Repairing crew on the way.”
Chitra knew what the message really said. It meant that her handler had been exposed, she was supposed to make her way to Nani’s place (Nepal) and the police may be on to her if her handler had cracked under pressure. She knew that she was in grave danger, as she had used her photographer’s cover to snap pictures of the air base and emailed them to headquarters about six months back. The first thing she needed to do was to format her computer to wipe out all data. This would give only temporary relief as the Indian agencies were well capable of restoring and extracting deleted files.
She sent off a reply, “Take care, bring back nani’s laddoos” to show that she had understood the message. The ‘laddoo’ was a code to indicate that the message had not been sent under threat of a gun. She then gave the format disk command.
Chitra locked the door of her studio from inside and glanced out. She could not see anything disturbing or out of the ordinary. She knew she had a crisis at hand and had to move quickly to ensure that she did not get caught. She knew the drill and mentally went through all the steps she needed to take. “Get up and don’t let up,” she said once again.
Zubeida had become Chitra about six years back. Her home in Doda village was destroyed in a cross fire between the Indian army and militants. Her brother had joined a militant group, fed up with continued unemployment, and was visiting his home when it was surrounded by the police and army personnel. Zubeida had luckily gone out for groceries and became a distant, mute spectator to the destruction of her house and entire family. She had nowhere to go and in short time got recruited by a prominent militant outfit and received extensive indoctrination and training. She was then moved to another town, where she proved her worth through intelligence gathering and photo surveillance leading to a successful attack on a police camp. She made steady progress in the militant hierarchy with access to sensitive information. However, her handler was convinced that she had been seen near the police camp with her camera and moved her to her present location with new identity and sufficient funds. Mr.Kapoor was collateral damage brought about by her team, so that his studio became readily available for purchase and served as a cover.
She used the backdoor to quietly exit from the studio. She had no idea how much of a lead time she had before the sleuths traced her out. It all depended on how long her handler had been able to withstand the sustained questioning. She used the back alleys to reach a small house and knocked twice in short bursts of three. The door opened immediately and she was pulled inside by a well-built matronly woman.
“Salaam, Sandip’s house is flooded,” Zubeida said breathlessly.
The matron nodded and silently took her to an inside room. Her instructors had told her during training that a small suitcase in a designated safe house would always be kept packed and ready for every operative for just such a day. Even the safe house operators had their own safe houses and suitcases. Her’s was a cheap rexine affair, small in size and easy to carry. The matron pointed towards the bathroom and Zubeida changed into a sober sari outfit, discarding her salwar kameez. She put streaks of white in her hair and a brown foundation on her face and hands to tone down her fair skin to a wheatish colour.
The matronly lady handed over a sealed envelope.
“The code to the numbered locks on the suitcase is inside,” she said needlessly. Zubeida had been familiarised with the exit strategy during her training. She was aware that in the suitcase would be a standard package consisting of some clothes, a new passport, money and a book. The book would have to be opened at the same page as the three digit number code and a coded message sent to an email server, attaching the first word on the page to create the mail id, once she reached Nepal. After that she would have to wait till contacted with further instructions. No gun would be provided to anyone as it would be difficult to explain it in case of a search.
She picked up her suitcase and wordlessly made her way out to catch a rickshaw to the bustling railway station. Her own house was on the way and she glanced wistfully at it, where the morning had begun so innocently. The realisation that she was again homeless and a fugitive hit her hard and she shook her head determinedly to get rid of foolish sentiments.
She reached the station without incident. “One ticket for Mughal Sarai,” she asked.
“The train is late by two hours due to fog,” and a ticket was slid through the counter opening along with change. Zubeida moved over to the crowded ladies waiting room and pondered over her getaway route. She will have to move from Mughal Sarai by bus to Birgunj, the Nepal border, flash her fake Indian passport at the guards and cross over. She could be questioned as to why she was going to Nepal alone. After some thought, she decided that the best answer would be that she is a widow on her way to pay homage to Pashupatinath temple, as that was her late husband’s last wish. She decided that she will procure an urn, fill it with some ash and tie a red cloth around it and carry it in her hand. She made a mental note to do so after reaching Mughal Sarai. Her sari was already of a sombre hue and would pass muster.
The train chugged in, late by three hours now. She came out cautiously, remaining in the middle of the milling crowd. The usual posse of policemen were around but did not seem to be on alert. She felt relieved and boarded the train after some struggle. It was hopelessly crowded and she did not find any place to sit. It suited her just fine as the crowds will make it difficult for any meaningful search to be undertaken. The journey would last nearly 20 hours which would seem like a lifetime. She sat on her suitcase in the passage near the door and kept a watchful eye on the policemen, till finally the train shuddered and moved after a cheerful whistle. The rocking motion helped her to doze off as her tension melted.
Zubeida woke up near dawn. The train had stopped at some station and a newspaper stall on the platform was right in front of her eyes. “Oh my God,” she hissed under her breath as she stared at her unflattering photograph on the front page of the newspaper hanging on display. “Wanted for questioning,” screamed the headline in boldface. Luckily everyone in the coach was still asleep and she sighed with relief as the train left the station.
Zubeida went into the toilet and stared at her face. She looked quite different from the photograph and should be able to evade pursuit. A sudden thought struck her. Did the new passport mention that she was married and had her husband’s name on the back page? Otherwise her story would fall apart. She decided to check the passport and slit open the envelope. It contained 10,000 rupees and a slip of paper with the numbers 167. Zubeida dialled the numbers on the lock and opened the suitcase.
A blinding flash and an explosion ripped through the confined space of the toilet. Zubeida became another casualty of the ‘jihad’, taking with her all the secrets of the network, and free of all worldly worries.