Trailing spouse. That’s what I was. I’d chucked up my job, packed up my home and decided to accompany my husband to a posting that was about to change our lives. This wasn’t just anywhere in the world, this was across the border – in Pakistan.
Based out of Islamabad, barely 12 hours from New Delhi by road, we were so close, yet so far. Especially since we were on a restricted visa, which meant we couldn’t step out of the capital city, even if our lives depended on it.
You see, we had been warned aplenty before we’d left and the advice kept rolling in even when we reached there: You’ll be under surveillance. Look over your shoulder constantly. Try not to stick out like a sore thumb. Be careful about who you meet. Don’t dress inappropriately. And for God’s sake don’t shoot off your mouth.
We needn’t have worried. For, from the time we landed in Isloo, though it was nearly midnight, it was as if the city was waiting to receive us. The first thing that struck me was that everyone was just so courteous – from the flight stewardess to the taxi driver to the hotel staff – and that everything was just so green. After all, the new city of Islamabad, at the foothills of the Margalla Hills, was made with the terrain and the weather in mind. Plus we’d landed at the end of summer and the leaves were already turning an autumnal auburn.
I had carried my dupatta with me, just in case I felt I would have to cover my head. But to my surprise I saw only a handful of women wearing the hijaab or burqa. And while salwar kameez suits were the main dress code, they were worn so trendily, that I instantly wanted to go shopping. Over the next couple of months I learnt that pants and jeans were just as easily a part of their wardrobe as they were ours.
So, were we tailed from the moment we touched down? Yes, of course we were. We were followed when we went to buy cleaning supplies for the house, followed when we went to the bank to open an account, and followed especially when we headed out to meet people. And yet, the people who tailed us were polite and non-intrusive.
As we learnt to recognise them and greet them each time we saw them, they just became part of who we were. We realised that it was a lot easier leading a transparent life, over that of secrecy, only because they’d get to know everything in any case. The walls really have ears here.
But that didn’t stop me from exploring and meeting new people. In fact, one of the first things I did was trawl the Internet to find out what happened in the city. And you’d be surprised at what I learnt.
I met some of the nicest people at the market, people who I’m proud to call my friends, people who made a difference to my life. But that didn’t mean the surveillance ended there. Every once in a while one of the ‘bhais’ as they were fondly called, would come to the market and then “surreptitiously” take my photograph on their mobile phone cameras.
Which brings me to the part about how our phones were tapped. To be honest, I found it quite amusing that they felt I was important enough to have my phone wired, considering most of my conversations bordered on girly issues and planning a family wedding. It was quite something when we realised that the authorities knew where we were going even before we got there.
Despite that, we ended up going out almost four times a week. There were social occasions we’d be invited for, dinners at people’s homes, and regular curious visits to places that had been recommended to us. I also ended becoming part of the Islamabad’s Supper Club and hosted the first-ever dinner of full-fledged Kerala cuisine.
From HT Brunch, August 3
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