A black SUV was waiting for them, revved up and ready to go the minute they stepped into her building’s parking lot. “This is for you,” said one of three men who hadn’t exchanged a word in the past twenty minutes. The other two seemed to be very comfortable with their silence.
He handed her an oversized face shield the outer surface of which was painted black and then opened the back door of the car for her to climb in. The same man went on to sit next to the driver. One of the remaining two guys sat next to her on the seat that faced away from the driver. The woman sat right opposite to her, facing front, with their remaining companion seated next to her.
As soon as they were out of the front gate and past the makeshift check post, where the stationed uniforms ignored their car, the woman and the man sitting opposite to her pulled down black shutters over the windows on either side.
“Please put on your face shield and do not take it off until told to do so,” said the woman. “Oh and here’s a pair of gloves for you. I see you forgot to bring your own,” she added.
With an intention to leave my prints in your car in case I disappear from the face of the earth, Indira thought to herself, but clearly these people had thought things through.
“Too kind…So I have a feeling that we are not going to the Armed Forces Analysis Wing headquarters in Delhi?”
The woman cocked her head. “I take it you have an idea about AFAW and what it does?”
“I know things that I shouldn’t and I also know that is one of the reasons why I keep getting into trouble.”
“We are going to AFAW headquarters for sure,” replied the woman.
That’s all she was going to get from her. There was no point wasting her energy on trying to glean more information from her. In fact she wondered how much even she knew. If the letter was to be believed, then she was just a pick-up girl out to do a chore with her colleagues.
Indira put on her face shield and everything went black. This was not a regular face shield that had just been painted black. The span of the plastic was such that it didn’t allow you to peep out from any direction. However, it didn’t make breathing any more difficult than an ordinary mask did.
After a forty-five-minute drive her co-passengers helped her out of the car and then up the ramp of what she suspected was an ATR aircraft, apologetic about everything – of touching her forearms, of practically shoving her up the ramp, of pushing her into her seat and clipping her seatbelt for her.
What followed was an hour-long silence, broken only by the loud hum of the aircraft. There was no food and beverage service, no pleasant greetings or instructions about the safety jacket below her seat. Not even announcements about their descent towards their destination and the weather conditions there.
When the plane had landed and taxied off the runway, two sets of hands, which she was sure didn’t belong to the people who had picked her up from her home, unbuckled her seatbelt and escorted her to a car. A total of four hours and fifteen minutes, she thought, calculating the duration of her journey starting from her home. It must be close to dawn now, she figured.
She was slowly and steadily guided once she got out of the car. But something wasn’t sitting right. The ground under her feet was soft and cushiony, not what you’d expect in an office. No stairs or lifts to be taken, no long tight corridors that echoed with your footsteps no matter how nimble you were. They barely took a turn or two to get to their destination. Finally, when they came to a halt, she was left standing on her own, not offered a seat, or rather, not pushed into one. After waiting for a couple of minutes, Indira began to shuffle. As she was about to fling the shield off her face she heard a voice.
“So sorry to keep you waiting, Ms Sanyal. Yes, do take that face shield off. I think it is time for us to get properly acquainted.”
Excerpted from the serialised story A Spy in China, Yamini Pustake Bhalerao, Juggernaut app. New episodes every Friday.