In Pakistan jail, a few good men, oil skimmed off food for sale fuelled Ansari’s hopes

Hamid Ansari with his family on arrival in Mumbai. File

HAMID Ansari has two hand-made velvet paper boxes as reminders of his time in Pakistan. Now kept in a show-case in his suburban Mumbai home, the boxes contain bracelets, a rosary, a pen and a keychain, that he fashioned out of beads during his prison term.

"I learnt it, just like cooking, in prison," says Hamid, 33. Three weeks since returning to India after six years in jail for illegally entering Pakistan, he is just back after meeting friends. His oiled hair has thinned, his complexion darker than when he was 27, but he smiles easily.

"A few days ago, I went to a friend's place in Andheri. My mother kept calling to check on me," he grins. Fauzia Ansari, 59, straightens in her chair. "I get restless every time he leaves the house," she admits.

In November 2012, the IT engineer and MBA graduate had left home saying he was going to Kabul for a job interview. A week later, he had entered Pakistan through Torkham, in the hope of rescuing a 25-year-old Khattak tribal girl he had befriended via Facebook. Over virtual chats, she had narrated that her parents were forcibly marrying her off, as part of a tribal punishment for a crime by her male relatives.

On November 14, 2012, Hamid was arrested, and handed over to Military Intelligence and the ISI. His first stint was in a military jail in Peshawar for three-and-a-half years, where he was kept in solitary confinement on charges of espionage. "They would make me stand for a week during interrogation and not allow me to sleep. Sometimes they would make me sit for days. I couldn't digest my food, I would vomit, lose consciousness," he recollects. His underground cell was always dark. "I could not differentiate between day and night."

In 2015, he was shifted to another military prison in Peshawar.

Unknown to him, a Pakistani journalist was trying to trace him by this time, at his mother's behest. In 2014, she visited the girl's house and then filed an application with the Supreme Court's Human Rights Cell. On August 19, 2015, though, she was kidnapped in Lahore, and remained missing for two years.

Months after her disappearance, in December 2015, Hamid was presented at the military court. "I was given a defending lawyer but he backed off. I was handcuffed and blindfolded and left to defend myself," Hamid says.

Meanwhile, in 2015, Fouzia got in touch with Advocate Qazi Muhammad Anwar and human rights activist advocate Rakshanda Naz. In 2016, Hamid finally received his first-ever visitor at Peshawar Central Jail - Naz. She remembers his perplexed expression when she introduced herself. "I realised there were people working for my cause," he says.

Eventually, Hamid's prison life took a routine - the cell would be opened between 11 am and 2 pm. He would wash his utensils and clothes, cook and bathe. To earn money, he says, "Hum tadke ka tel jama karke bechte the (He would collect used oil from food and sell it to other prisoners)." Every month, he managed to sell seven-eight little bottles of oil. With the money, he would buy beads from in-prison shops and make things to sell to other prisoners.

Pointing to the red paper boxes, he says, "I gave all this to Rakshanda ma'am." She gave it to Fauzia to show her what her son had crafted.

In Hamid's story, apart from advocates Anwar, Naz, the Pakistani journalist, and activist Jatin Desai, there is another hero: the girl he fell in love with. Naz told The Indian Express she gave a statement in his favour when officials visited her.

Hamid never met her, however.

He is now looking forward to his "second life". The family has applied for a new passport for Hamid, to offer umrah, a vow Fauzia had made. She says his time in jail has made him more affectionate, responsible. In a couple of months, Hamid will start applying to teach in colleges, and is planning to write his memoirs.

His parents are ready for another search: for a prospective bride.