“And then I said ‘You may have danced in a hundred movies but here you are a passenger. Go back into the line. Welcome to Bombay Customs’ and pushed her trolley back.”
The rest of us started laughing as Sridhar made a clumsy gesture with his hands, in an attempt to imitate the heroine in mention. It was half past two in the night. Air India Riyadh had just left and it meant only one thing. For an hour, we had a break since no flight would land, giving all of us a much needed respite from the maddening crowds.
“Sahib.”, a middling man with wrinkled features and folded hands walked towards the counters where we had arranged our chairs in a circle. His rugged nose, short stature and round colourful hat reminded us of the hills. The green passport clinched it. He was a Nepali.
Behind him was a young girl. Twenty years of age probably. We need to look at her passport for the exact dates. She looked scared; actually she looked positively terrorized by the airport.
“This girl is from Nepal.” He pointed towards her. “She is returning from Riyadh in fifteen days. She doesn’t have ticket to Kathmandu. She has no money also.”
The laughter ended. Further enquiries started. She met this man in the flight back to Bombay and told him her story of horror. She was sent to Riyadh fifteen days ago by an agent who picked her up from a village ten hours by bus from Kathmandu. He had promised her family quick money saying that she only had to clean houses in Riyadh. After landing in Riyadh only, did she realized she had been trafficked into the flesh trade.
“Sir. You know everything wrong happens to girls in Riyadh in the hands of these old sheikhs.”, the Nepali man stuttered as he spoke, a tone of disgusted acceptance could be gleaned from him. “Now that fellow has kicked her back to India, with only a 100 Riyals in her hand. She has to go back to Nepal and doesn’t have money. I have only 1000 Rs with me. The ticket is 25,000 rupees. Can you help her?”
“There is no Nepali consulate in Mumbai. Only in Delhi.” I looked up from my mobile phone.
“What sir? Why Embassy and all? Today is Diwali. Let us send her home. Come on everyone. A thousand rupees each out of your pockets right now.” It was Mrs Salma, my superintendent. All of us reached into our wallets and started retrieving notes. Sridhar started collecting.
“Madam she might be hungry. Tiffin has come. Why don’t you take her into the office room and ask her to have something to eat?”
Yes sir. The lady officer gently escorted her into the office room. I noticed her properly for the first. A little over five foot two inches, she wore a worn out yellow kurta. She had the typical large flat eyes of the hills and walked with a slight limp. The hair was tied up in a messy round bun behind her head. There were remnants of aquamarine nail polish on one of her feet. Not the other. Strange. She spoke nothing. She knew nothing except Nepali. Only a smattering of Hindi. Even with a knowledge of Hindi, I don’t think she was in the state of mind to speak anything. All she said was “Saab. Ghar bhejdo (Send me home)” in a tired inaudible voice.
Armugam went upstairs to the first floor Air India counter to book the tickets. He kept chanting a slight prayer as he approached the counter. As soon as he saw the corpulent figure slouching in impatience behind the glass window, his crest fell a little. It was Joyce. She was the Air India floor manager with whom he had picked a massive fight a few weeks ago. They had a slanging match across the tarmac of the airport, where in Armugam, stolidly supported by me had used the choicest of adjectives against her.
He faked a smile, and went upto her. “Joyce madam. We need to block a ticket on the Delhi route to Kathmandu”
“No tickets to Kathmandu left. Get lost”, she spat without looking out of her magazine.
“This is urgent madam. I never call you madam. Today I have. It is urgent.”
“Who has died and needs to be shipped to Nepal?” She finally threw her magazine aside and turned her computer screen on.
As Armugam narrated the incident to her, her demeanor melted and she said “The ticket is 26,000 rupees. Give me 24,000 rupees. I shall adjust the rest of the money.”
“Make it 23. I shall pay a thousand bucks also”, another Air India employee who had overheard the conversation passed a crisp new note to Joyce.
I knocked and turned the knob of the office room to tell the girl that her ticket was done. It was a heart wrenching experience. She was cowering inside, face hidden within her hands and crying loudly. Two lady officers were consoling her. “Let her cry sir. Looks there were no other women there to help her out. She started crying when we gently tried to find out what happened. There were burn marks on her neck and wrists”
I winced when I heard it “Did she say anything? Address or name of that mofo?”
“Leave it sir. Nothing will happen. Those bastards are sitting on stockpiles of petrol.” Mrs. Salma heaved a long sigh, looked at her and said finally “Our Daughter of Nepal”.
“The seat is on standby sir.” the young man at the ticket counter hesitated to reply.
“What in the name of Air India’s losses does that even mean?”
“The flight is already full sir. If someone cancels their flight from Delhi to Kathmandu, we shall be able to accommodate her today. Otherwise we shall send her on the next flight tomorrow morning.”
“No. No. No way. She is going on today’s flight itself. How did the ticket get booked if the flight was already full? This sounds ridiculous. Stupid stupid Air India. Is this Railways to have a waiting list”
“Wait sir. There are always a few seats blocked by these Air India people for emergencies. Like our Headquarters Quota in Railways. That’s why”, Armugam interjected.
“Who is your duty manager?”
“Rodney Gonsalves? Usko phone lagao. No. No. Not on the phone. This is too urgent. Ask him to come down to the transfer bay. Tell him Karlapu is standing here. Its an emergency”
After banal pleasantries which are mandated at five in the morning and few clicks of the mouse, Rodney announces “Sir. Mumbai quota is full. We shall have to talk to Delhi to release a seat for you. Shall I make a call to my Delhi manager? You’ve met him already sir. Mr Jagjit Arora”
“Arora ji. Good Morning. This is Karlapu here. Must be a chilly morning in New Delhi. Happy Diwali to you too. Listen Aroraji. Remember those two Chivas Regal bottles last month that your nephew took home?” I looked at the girl sitting in a corner of the arrival hall as I spoke to him.
A hearty chuckle could be heard from the other side.
“Yes. You’ve got it. I need a favour. Delhi Kathmandu is full. We need to unblock a seat. It won’t happen from Bombay because the servers are showing “stagnant seat block here”. Youll need to log in from Delhi and get it done. Its urgent. A dear friend of ours is going.”
Ten minutes later, Arora calls back.
“Sir”, thunders the voice through the mobile. “Tell Rodney to check the status. I have released a seat from Delhi. Ask him to capture it and transfer it to the passenger.”
I gave my officer the thumbs up and he immediately ran behind the Air India counters and nudged Rodney. A few moments passed and the printer whirred to life. A smile appeared on Rodney’s face.
“Karlapu sir. The lady can go home. Seat has been released from Delhi.” We told the girl that. All she said was “When Kathmandu?” ” Three O clock in the evening“
We stood there. Armugam. Salma. Rodney. Joyce. Sridhar. Me. Outside the gate. The coach for the domestic transfers had just come. The girl had boarded the bus and would be taken to Santacruz for her flight to Delhi.
As the bus started chugging along, she didn’t look out. She just sat there next to the window stoically looking down. We waited for the bus to leave and returned inside.
“Our Daughter from Nepal”, Mrs Salma quietly whispered.
Exploitation of people from the Subcontinent is rampant in the Gulf. Especially women. Our governments conveniently look the other way. My officers tell me of the heart wrenching stories from the 90s when women from Andhra and Karnataka would land up at Bombay airport from the Gulf pregnant and crying. It’s a sad situation when we have allowed a few medieval sheikhdoms rich in hydrocarbons treat our brothers and sisters like animals.
FYI This was the second such Nepali woman who came back from the Middle East in the last week.
This is a true story. Minor artistic liberties have been taken to keep the narrative taut. Names have been changed.