I stood there, stupefied.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
I waited for him to repeat his question, just to be sure I heard him correctly.
It started when my wife, Ramisa, and I, boarded the flight from Bombay. We were married in a modest ceremony in my village, Kovalam, just a year back. 1984, a benchmark year in my life. An enchanting woman, she brought with her a train of luck, including a job offer that could change my life. I received an appointment letter from a hotel in Riyadh, with a salary four times that of what I currently earned. I obviously couldn’t say no to that.
My wife, however, wasn’t that thrilled by the prospect of moving to a foreign country. I ignored her apprehension.
A month later, I sat proud on a window seat of a Middle East bound aeroplane, flipping open the cover of my passport. My name was printed there in bold – Kootampara Ismail Vadakara. Beside me sat Ramisa, fixing her gajra.
As soon as the flight took off, she felt giddy. I had to summon a flight attendant to reassure her that motion sickness was a common phenomenon, and administer her a pill.
The flight attendant’s next visit was much a pleasant surprise.
“Sir, if you want, we could upgrade you and your wife to the first class cabin. Someone had reserved seats for two passengers who missed the flight.”
I was delighted! Travelling business class was something I knew I could never afford. I didn’t want to waste a minute of the opportunity of a lifetime, and persuaded my wife, still dizzy, to change seats immediately.
The elite section of the aircraft was worth every penny of the exorbitant price charged for travelling in it – luxuriously spacious with plush white leather chairs and the oceans of leg space before were all in stark contrast to the cramped seating arrangement of the economy class. We were offered champagne, which given our orthodox upbringing we refused, and warm, moist towels that we didn’t know what to do with.
“These are to clean your hands,” came a man’s voice from the seat across, thick with an Arabic accent “dinner is about to be served.”
Slightly embarrassed but grateful, I thanked him.
“Is this the first time you are taking an international flight?” he asked. It was the first time I was taking any flight.
“Yes” I answered politely. I learnt he was the man who had the seats reserved which were given to us.
“You will get used to it. I remember my first overseas flight in my father’s plane when I was a boy. I fell sick the moment it took off.”
The flight attendant must have informed him of Ramisa’s plight before we were moved up.
“Where are you from?”
“Where in Kerala?”
“Kovalam. It’s near the beach.”
He took a sip of the champagne he had been served. “Ah. The beach. Everyone loves the beach.”
I was flipping through the pages of a magazine when again my fellow passenger enquired, “Are you travelling for work or haj?” It didn’t take a genius to figure out flying overseas for pleasure was beyond our means.
“Work” I obliged.
“Where will you stay?”
This was a curious man.
“Actually we will be provided with an apartment by the hotel I will be working for.”
My wife wanted to wash her hands before the meal; simply wiping them on a towel didn’t satisfy her. She rustled in her white silk sari on her way to the washroom. Once she was gone, the man across the aisle spoke again.
“I must say, you have a very beautiful wife.” He expertly cut a small piece of meat with a fork and a knife. “May I ask what her name is?”
I was somewhat taken aback with the frankness with which he complimented another man’s wife and even asked for her name! Back in my village no one would dare to speak like this. But he had already shown kindness in giving up seats for us, and had proved his modesty by not directly speaking to my wife.
“Ramisa” said I.
“Ah, a white rose.”
Ramisa returned, settling in her seat. In the one year that I had been married to her, I had never asked her the meaning of her name. I wondered why she was named such – there was nothing in common between whiteness of a rose and her dewy dusky complexion. I also wondered why instead of asking me my name first, he asked for Ramisa’s.
I realised it was my turn to enquire. “You have been very generous in offering us an upgrade in compartment. I would be obliged to know your name.”
He smiled, “I figured out you weren’t aware of who I am. Sheikh Gilani. My oil fields supply most of the petroleum exported from my country.” That explained a lot.
“Do you also stay in Riyadh?”
“I have a few houses there. But I mostly stay in my home outside the city. In fact, why don’t you stay the night at my house? I suggest you don’t travel by yourself to the city so late.”
This man’s generosity knew no end! But we hardly knew him, so I hesitated.
“It’s less than half an hour from the airport, and the capital is over an hour away. My chauffeur will drop you to your destination in the morning.”
I changed my mind.“We would be delighted to” I said, grateful.
Ramisa looked at me in disbelief.
His residence was the very embodiment of opulence. I was awestruck! Our luggage was sent up to a guest room, and the sheikh’s wives, just as courteous, offered to show Ramisa around the lavish harem where other women – companions to their husband – also stayed, while the man of the house himself gave me a tour of his game room, garden and his fleet of exotic cars. I was told she would have to stay in that section of the property, as it was their norm that men and women stay in separately.
What a magnificent establishment!
Had I known the turn of fate the next day held, I would never have stepped into the wicked place.
Early next morning – today – I waited for Ramisa by the car which was set to take us to Riyadh. Twenty minutes lapsed but she was nowhere to be seen – unusual of a punctual person. Concerned, I asked an attendant if he could ask her to hurry up.
He looked at me blankly.
I repeated, “Can you please call my wife? We are getting late. She must still be in the harem.”
He looked at me, confused. “I am sorry, sir. I do not understand. No one came to this mansion with you last night, sir. Just the sheikh. I do not know who you are waiting for.”
Irritated by his inane response, I grabbed the hand-luggage to show him her photograph in the passport so he could understand who I was talking about.
I searched frantically, but hers was nowhere to be found. I opened the trunk to check the suitcases. None of hers were there.
I felt sick.
I rushed back into the mansion and the moment I saw the oil baron, I demanded “Where is my wife?” trying not to show how disturbed I was – or that I had already predicted what I was about to hear.
He knew I was stripped off of all evidence of Ramisa being captive within the walls we were in.
So he confidently said: