The cars had double-parked in an already narrow lane. Many wanted to pick up their children studying at the kindergarten school located around the corner. The vegetable vendors occupied the rest of the space and autorickshaws could hardly get through. The path branching out to the main road in Versova had been blocked, which led to a mild, typical Mumbai-type commotion that was sorted out within 10 minutes.
During those 10 minutes, however, Hamid Ansari, 34, who lives right across the road from the school, had begun recalling his days in Pakistan. "Whenever someone speaks loudly or rudely, I am reminded of the interrogation room," he says, clad in a T-shirt and pair of track pants in his apartment.
Today, (18 December, 2019) marks a year since Hamid returned home after spending six years in a Pakistani jail over allegations of being a spy. He is grateful, but still trying to move on from the past, which crops up in his mind even after a ruckus as trivial as the one last week. He is currently a visiting faculty, teaching IT at a college in Andheri, because he has not managed to land a stable job despite being an engineer with an MBA. "There is a perception that my presence might give them negative publicity," he says, "The Ministry of External Affairs has issued and cleared my passport, which means I am clean. But six years is a long time. That gap is a bit too much for the people to ignore."
In 2012, Hamid smuggled himself into Pakistan to meet a woman he had interacted with online. The woman, he said, was a victim of the practice of Vani — a custom seen in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan in which girls, often minors, are married off to end disputes, often murders. The woman lived in one of the villages on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. India and Pakistan do not issue countrywide visas to each other's citizens. The visa is restricted to a city. And there was no way Hamid could have successfully gone unnoticed. He was picked up soon over suspicions of being an Indian spy on Pakistan soil.
"I could say (on my CV) I was abroad for six years," Hamid jokes, as cars honk, tyres screech and wheels rev in the background. "I wouldn't be wrong, would I? Most of those years, I was in solitary confinement. I am obviously relieved to be back. But after being alone for all those years, it is difficult to adjust to a place like Mumbai."
Even in solitary confinement, he had his routine cut out. "The time to wake up, the time to eat, the time to sleep — everything was fixed," he says, "I didn't have an option but to have dinner at 7 pm regardless of whether or not I was hungry. Gradually, your body gets used to the routine and you start feeling hungry at 7 pm."
Hamid has needed immense emotional and psychological support from family and friends to get back on his feet. "I am grateful I came back sane. My friends and family tell me most would have broken down. Their support has been reassuring," he adds.
His mother had taken a vow to visit Mecca if he returned safely. After she finally saw her son after six years, they couldn't control their tears. "I cannot describe the moment," Hamid says, "By January-end, I got my passport, and in February, we were off for the pilgrimage."
However, there have been people who have severed ties as well. "Some of them were my closest friends," he says with regretfully, "I don't know if it is them or peer pressure or societal pressure. But it is upsetting. One of the biggest letdowns was my old professor who offered me a job and then ditched me."
In March, the professor called Hamid and asked him to join his company. The salary was also decent. "But two-and-a-half months later, he said the company is shutting down. He has not even paid my salary. I later learnt he had duped several people like that," rues Hamid.
Until he lands a secure job, Hamid says he cannot get married either. "My parents want me to settle down, I also want to settle down. I have started a business of providing uniforms to hotels and schools. If that clicks, I do not have to depend on somebody to give me a job. Plus, I am writing a book about my time in Pakistan," he says.
Hamid is in a peculiar place where he intends to move on from his past but at the same time he has to immerse himself in it to be able to write the book. "After offering my morning prayers, I go to college from 11.30 am to 1.30 pm. After I am done with college, I attend to my business of uniforms, and then write in the evening."
Hamid is looking forward to the book. He has unique memories from Pakistan, where he met all kinds of people. And he reiterates how fortunate he has been to get back to his family. "A month after my release, Pulwama happened," he says, "Wing Commander Abhinandan was taken hostage. There was no way I would have been able to get back after that. Even when I was on my way back, I was not sure of what was going to happen. The reality finally sunk in after I saw the Wagah border."
He would not have managed to make it without Rakshanda Naz. "I cannot thank her enough. As a lawyer, her help was immeasurable. She came under a lot of pressure for helping an Indian," he recalls.
The discourse in Pakistan, says Hamid, is not too different from that in India. There are peace-loving people, and there are jingoists. "There were lower authorities in jail that genuinely looked after me," he says, "But there were also some that wanted to bully me because their fathers were in the army, and had suffered in the 1971 war against India."
The prisoners too were cordial, he says. "They would call me India," he grins, "And when they wanted to praise me, they would say India Zindabad. It was amusing to listen to India Zindabad in a Pakistani jail."
Hamid has a mine of such memories. Bitter, sweet, traumatic. And he is looking forward to share them. Amidst the disappointment of not landing a stable job and struggling to get back to normal, the book has kept him occupied. "Maybe it will be therapeutic in a sense," he says.
For now, he is still settling in. He is cheerful, but also aware that he is a work-in-progress. For what it's worth, he says, "It has been a year, but I still eat dinner at seven in the evening."
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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2019 18:30:42 IST