(this 2000 words story was an entry for the Himalayan Writing Retreat contest. Open theme)
Five years ago
Camouflaging themselves right from across the border, in the dark herbage surrounding the wilderness the men moved closer to the Awantipur Airforce station.
Commander Sadiq signaled and a blast ripped off the surrounding boundary creating ripples across the landscape.
Inshallah… he hoped to get that document.
Aradhna rushed through her morning routine. She had an important task at work today at Jodhpur Public School, where she taught biology to high school students.
Clutching at her turquoise ivory locket, the last birthday gift from her late father, she walked towards his garlanded portrait. An Airforce commodore, Rajnish Sharma, had been martyred during his visit to the Awantipur station five years ago. Aradhna had since taken over the responsibility of her younger siblings and a distraught mother.
At 32, she was happy being a teacher and her siblings were set in their families and careers.
Half an hour later she was crossing the road near her school when a truck came uncontrollably towards her. Startled, she stood rooted to the ground when strong hands dragged her down and away in the nick of time.
Trembling, she turned to look at her savior and stared into the most beautiful brown eyes she had ever seen. The man was tall, fair, and strong given his hold and dressed in smart formals now ruined.
For the first time, she felt her heart flutter despite the event that just happened.
He moved first shaking her out of her reverie.
“Hi, I am Dr. Hanif Ansari. Are you alright?” He helped her up.
She only nodded and excused herself with a weak thank you.
She was sipping a hot cup of tea in the staff room still shaking from the effect of the close shave with death or… the brown-orbed guy, she couldn’t tell.
The door to the staff room opened with an irritating creak announcing the arrival of the principal.
“Good morning everyone. The sex-education lecture was canceled last minute but we now have a replacement providentially. Welcome, Dr. Ansari, a renowned sexologist from London.”
Her heart skipped a beat as the very handsome Dr. Hanif Ansari walked in… the world had faded away and she could only see those twinkling browns staring at her while her heart raced off to glory.
Being the student’s in-charge, she went to the auditorium where the all-important lecture was to be held. She had always prided herself in her ability to be strong-headed and tenacious. But today she couldn’t control her galloping heart watching Dr. Ansari prepare for his presentation. He had an alluring aura and she was drawn to him with an intensity that scared her.
An hour later she escorted him to his waiting cab.
“Um…Thank you, Dr, Ansari. That was extremely useful.” She blurted.
“Its Hanif… will you… er… join me for a cup of coffee later today? I will finish my lectures early. There is a café right opposite the medical college…it’s good and… shit… I am rambling…” he rubbed his face and looked away. “…Ok… will you come on a date with me?” His expectant eyes crinkled in their corners as he smiled.
She nodded and after the cab left leaving a trail of smoke behind, she wondered what had gotten into her. How could she agree to meet a virtual stranger?
But later that evening after school she found Hanif waiting in the café. He waved to her and she blushed. Again… a first.
“You are beautiful Ms. Sharma, I couldn’t help but ask you out. But I am attracted by that perceptive brain of yours. I like the camaraderie you share with your students. They adore you… and so do I.” his voice was deep and soft playing a harmonious tune with her heartstrings.
“Thanks, Hanif, and call me Aradhna. And thank you for saving my life earlier today…”
“Hey, relax… Do you like music? I am a sucker for Kumar Sanu numbers…”
“I love Sanu da as well…” The gigantic wave called Hanif was threatening to swallow her whole
More dates followed and Aradhna felt she had finally found her soulmate.
A month later, they were walking along the corridors of the Mehrangarh fort. The cacophony continued amidst the tourists and their guides sparring or the clicks of innumerable cameras. Hanif regaled Aradhna with stories about the rulers in India and she was in awe of his unparalleled knowledge.
As they approached a dark corner, he pulled her aside. It was the first time he had touched her and it sent her heart soaring. He gently pushed her towards the cold historic wall and she stilled as he lowered his head, gently clasping her lips. He looked into her eyes and an unfathomable emotion passed before she could react. His warm breath tingled her nerves as he plundered her mouth, the sensual experience tightening its grip on her soul.
She was in love with Hanif.
Aradhna often caught Hanif staring into space, or looking at her with a forlorn expression. He only smiled when she asked about it or when she asked him about the strange tattoo on his arm. It looked like a grainy version of a goat eating a snake.
However, it was strangely familiar.
One day they were halfway through a dessert safari Hanif had planned for them.
“Aru, you always said your father left you his legacy… what does that mean?”
She was surprised at the change in topic.
“Well, as you know my father was in the Indian Air Force and a strict disciplinarian but democratic parent at heart. I am like him…”
“Is that all…?” he interrupted.
“What is it, Hanif?”
“No Aru, I was trying to picture him. My Abba too was an Army man.”
“Really…?” She realized she barely knew his family.
Suddenly he asked for a halt and alighted the camel with her. Right in the center of the desert with the camels and their mahouts along with curious tourists watching, he got down on one knee, holding up a ring.
“Marry me Aru…”
A week later Aradhna’s mind was chaotic because Hanif had been out of reach for the last couple of days.
Later that evening she visited his medical college for the first time, emerging in a confounded daze a few minutes later. Dr. Hanif Ansari had passed away a year ago… and he wasn’t the Hanif she knew.
That night she went out for a stroll wanting to calm her distressed heart. She continued to walk oblivious to her surroundings as even as anxiety peaked. Suddenly a van halted too close for comfort and before she knew something was pressed against her mouth, sending her into the throes of darkness.
She regained consciousness in a dark cul-de-sac. Limbs tied she lay on the hard ground with just a sliver of moonlight peeping in for company.
A door opened somewhere and she heard footsteps. A few silhouettes appeared before her. Lights shone blinding her for a moment as someone sat close to her. When she opened her eyes adjusting to the blazing lights she was staring into the very eyes she had fallen for.
“Ha… Hanif? What the hell is going on…?” She cried. “…wait… I know you aren’t Hanif…” She looked up at the others all in Army uniforms… but it wasn’t the Indian Army.
Hanif stood up and walked towards the window while another man with his face covered, squatted before her.
“Look, Miss, we won’t harm you. Just give us what we want.”
She glared in anger and confusion….
“We know you are commodore Sharma’s daughter. We want the details of the last project he was working on for the Airforce.”
“My father would never have involved the family in his missions…”
Right then it struck her, sending a chill down her spine. The tattoo on Hanif’s hand was the symbol of Pakistan-ISI.
“Rot in hell…” She blurted.
She felt the sting of a slap and tasted blood. “I won’t hesitate to empty my pistol into your body. In two hours, I want the information.” The man threatened.
Everyone left, except for Hanif who still stood with his back to her.
After the door closed he ran towards her. She flinched when he touched her swollen cheek.
“…DON’T YOU DARE SPEAK MY NAME, ASSHOLE.” She bellowed while he cut open her binds.
“Aru…. please give it up and you will be free… I promise.”
She clutched at her locket, her only constant, and broke down.
“I know nothing, Hanif…” She wailed plonking on the floor.
“Sadiq… its Commander Sadiq.” He retorted.
She knew the name… he was the man responsible for killing her father and ten soldiers. She shuffled away from him and under the lights saw his stricken look.
“Stop… you are a murderer…” She held up her hand.
“I was only doing my duty… following orders, Aru.”
“THE FUCK YOU WERE…” she screamed and her voice hurt.
She gripped her locket tightly, it moved and separated. In the dimming light, she realized her locket was a pen drive.
Sadiq snatched it away and studied it.
“This is it, Aru… sorry for everything.” He rubbed his face and turned to leave.
“Was everything a façade…?” She muttered stopping him in his tracks.
“Aru… forget all this ever happened…have a great life.”
“Was anything… real?” Her heart broke into a thousand splinters and pain held her in its tentacles.
He glanced at her fleetingly and walked away leaving her in the darkness… probably forever.
Despite all that happened, Sadiq’s betrayal pained her the most.
‘Sorry dad, I let you down…’ She cried recalling her last birthday with her father. Putting the chain with the locket around her neck he had said it was his special ‘Airforce’ blessing, to be shared with only the Air Vice Marshall. In the racket of the celebrations, she had missed comprehending it.
That night the door opened again Sadiq came in.
“Come on Aru we have to leave… NOW” he whispered and held her arm.
She jerked it away and pushed him. “Stay away from me. Just let me go.”
“Aru they won’t leave loose ends. I am here to save you… trust me.” He commanded with his voice laced with fatigue.
She walked out with him from some exit and they ran through some kind of abandoned land. A while later they halted for breath.
“Here, take this Aru…” he handed the locket to her. “…It’s yours and will always remain so.”
What on earth was happening?
“Aru…” he held her face in those rough palms she had loved. “…I didn’t want this to happen. I met you as a part of my mission. I had to get this information… but I fell for you and you made me want to live a life free from deceit and betrayal.”
“I…love you Aru… I never thought it would happen to me… a hardcore ISI agent who didn’t hesitate from shedding blood…”
She gasped at his confession.
Right then she heard some clicks and he pulled her, falling to the ground.
“They seem to have caught up Aru… the Indian Army… I sent across a message to help your rescue. You should go…” he wheezed in agony, pushing her away.
She then realized he had been hit and hugged him tightly even as tears continued their onslaught.
She heard the dogs barking and a commotion of footsteps coming toward them.
“NO… Sadiq, please don’t… not like this…” She cried.
Holding up a bloodied hand to cup her cheek he said, “You were… the best part of… my life after the… inferno I have… lived in. I… want to leave with… these precious memories…” Blood sputtered as he coughed, blotting her sleeves.
“NO…SADIQ.” she held him close as he convulsed in her hands.
“AAA…Aru, live for me as well… I love you… forever…” the hand fell limp.
The army men reached them and dragged her away though she squirmed and cried out for her love…
Her lost love.