I first met Madhuri Gupta at the Republic Day function in Islamabad two years ago and mistook her to be a Pakistani. Blame it on her size, the glitter on her clothes and her perfect Urdu accent!
She was chatting with a few local journalists when I was introduced to her. We got talking about Pakistani newspapers. She told me that I was wasting my time reading English newspapers. “If you want to read real news, read Urdu papers. That’s where the real gossip is,” she said airily.
I was new to Islamabad then, she asked me if I’d seen the city yet. “I’ll show you around,” she offered tossing her golden-brown hair back. For want of something better to say I told her that I liked her sari. She gave me details of where she had purchased it and then we parted with her insisting that “we meet again”. “I will come and see you,” she promised.
For the next two weeks she was on my mind. I had imagined her to be a compulsive shopper who would drag me to scores of stores before striking the right deal and I was dreading her visit. I was glad when she made no attempt to call or see me.
Over the years, we kept bumping into each other. She would tell me how she drove at breakneck speed on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway and I would deliver my “wahs-wahs” on cue. I would usually comment on her hair-colour or her clothes and vanish.
Somehow, she never struck me as an overtly intelligent or a career woman. On one occasion, I asked her if life was difficult for a single woman in Pakistan. She evaded a definitive answer. “Sometimes I don’t cook for days on end. I just eat Maggi and go off to sleep. That’s a problem when you are alone,” she said.
What struck me most about Madhuri was her energy and her confidence. She made friends easily and her excess weight never bothered her.
One of my longest encounters with Madhuri was in December last year. She had just driven back from India and was wearing a smart coat. “I got it from Lajpat Nagar,” she told me. She said her trip to India had exhausted her and that she was happy to be back in Islamabad.
“I feel I am back home,” she said. The look on my face gave me away. “Home is where you live. Good or bad, this is home,” she let out her trademark loud laugh.
I asked her how much more time she had left in Islamabad. She said she should be out in a few months. “Back to Delhi?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I am hoping to get London or Washington,” she said coolly.
I let out a long “wow”. “Two back-to-back foreign postings?” I asked again. “Yes,” she said, adding that she had done foreign postings before.
“I was in Baghdad earlier,” she told me. I was impressed. I decided that I had misread her all along. She was, after all, an exceptionally bright woman who had been sent by India to Baghdad and Islamabad – the world’s most dangerous cities. She started telling me about her days in Baghdad and I took in every word.
I asked her how her Islamabad posting happened. “Did you want to be here?”
She told me that she had learnt Urdu to be here. “I hired a Muslim woman to teach me. She came home and taught me for two years. She taught me everything from the scratch. I didn’t even know my ‘alif-bays’,” she said.
I was sure that her love for sher-o-shayri prompted her to learn Urdu. Her answer surprised me. “No. I don’t like all that.” Still I was impressed because I had tried to learn Urdu – but found the going tough.
I met Madhuri the last time in January. I spotted her smiling her polite smile at every body. We exchanged pleasantries but couldn’t quite talk.
When I heard two days ago that Madhuri had been held for allegedly spying for Pakistan, I couldn’t believe my ears – to me she was this woman who would rather worry about the golden on her clothes and her hair than pass on state secrets.