Madhuri Gupta: the Indian spy I met in Pakistan
The arrest of "Indian spy" Kulbhushan Jadhav in Balochistan last week brought back memories of Madhuri Gupta, the "spy" I knew.
Gupta was a second secretary in the information and press division of the Indian High Commission in Pakistan when she was arrested in May 2010. She was accused of leaking classified information to Pakistan's ISI.
Last month, the Delhi High Court set aside the trial court's January 2012 order and ruled that she be charged under the stringent provisions of the Official Secrets Act entailing a maximum punishment of up to 14 years.
But to me Madhuri would always be the woman who would rather worry about her clothes and makeup than mess around with state secrets.
The Madhuri I knew
It was 14 February, 2009. Women from the close-knit Indian community in Islamabad had gathered at a hilltop restaurant on the picturesque Margalla Hills to bring colour into their otherwise uneventful and dreary lives.
The excuse, Valentine's Day. The dress code, pink. The attraction, food.
Halfway through the drive, the mini-bus carrying the women made a brief stop at Daman-e-Koh, a breathtaking viewpoint of the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Most of the women got off the bus with their cameras, while a few of us, who had been overexposed to the aerial view from the Margallas, stayed put.
Madhuri Gupta was one of them.
A few minutes later, a young woman approached our mini-bus and asked us if we were Indians. Having learnt to be overcautious in Pakistan, we kept quiet. But the woman was curiously insistent. Her next question was bizarre: can we sing bhajans?
Bollywood-crazy Pakistanis are wont to asking about Shah Rukh Khan and the unending saas-bahu sagas on television. And if you have a crazy story - as I had one of being on a train with Shah Rukh Khan, the questions are endearingly boring and unceasing. It matters little if you are at a supermarket, a restaurant or a hospital.
I mistook her for a Pakistani because of her flamboyance and the fact that she spoke perfect Urdu
But such intrusions were rare and odd. We wondered how the woman had managed to sneak past the men from the Pakistani security establishment who tail every single Indian round-the-clock. There were at least half-a-dozen of them "protecting" us then.
The woman wouldn't budge. She wanted to know if she could meet the "Indians" later. That's when Madhuri stepped in. She slipped her visiting card into the woman's hand and sent her away.
She did not think of that as foolish. But most of us did.
My first meeting
I met Madhuri at the Republic Day function in Islamabad in 2008, the first formal function I attended after landing in Pakistan a few months earlier.
It was probably her flamboyance or the fact that she spoke perfect Urdu, that I mistook her for a Pakistani.
She was chatting with a few local journalists when I was introduced to her. I told her that she looked Pakistani. She let out a long laugh and tossed her golden-brown hair back.
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 gossip is," she said.
I was new to Islamabad then, she asked me if I'd seen the city. When I replied in the negative, she excitedly offered to show me around.
Gupta fell for a honeytrap. She became "Javeria" and played in the hands of a "Jim"
I got a little worried. Madhuri was a little too loud for my liking and I was glad when she made no effort to call me.
Over the next two years, we met a couple of times.
She would regale me with stories of how she drove at breakneck speed on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway. How she drove past a bunch of unruly youngsters. The places where she liked to shop.
She never struck me as an overtly intelligent or a career woman.
I paid her absentminded compliments on her clothes and her hair colour and she seemed to enjoy that.
I once 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.Also read - Family of Indian 'spy' arrested in Pakistan seeks lawyer to defend him
Brimming with energy
What struck me most about Madhuri was her energy and her confidence. She made friends easily and her excess weight never bothered her. She was cheerful and kept humming to herself.
One of my longest encounters with Madhuri was in the December of 2009. 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 quickly added.
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?" "No," she said. "I am hoping to get London or Washington."
During the conversation I was impressed to learn that she had been posted in Baghdad too.
Learnt Urdu to be in Pakistan
I was certain that Madhuri's love for sher-o-shayri had prompted her to learn Urdu. But her answer surprised me.
"No. I don't like all that. I learnt Urdu to get a posting to Pakistan," she said.
"I hired a Muslim woman to teach me. She came home for two years. I didn't even know the 'alif-bays' before that," Madhuri said.
A stay in Pakistan is never easy. Everyone is taught to be on their guard. On my very first day, I was casually sounded off.
Over the years, I figured that with the men from the security establishment on every Indian's track it is difficult to fall into a trap - unless it is facilitated by them.
Forget about befriending a human, it is difficult to make friends with an animal without their knowledge.
My last meeting
The last I met Madhuri was in January 2010. She seemed preoccupied.
When Madhuri was arrested for allegedly spying for Pakistan in May 2010, it just didn't add up for me.
I couldn't believe that she was a spy and that she fell for a honey-trap. That she became "Javeria" and played in the hands of a "Jim", a 30-year-old.
I will always remember Madhuri as the woman with golden-brown hair who would rather worry about getting organic, skin-friendly colours into Pakistan for playing Holi than the one who peddled state secrets.
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