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Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Next after Last - The den

The train eased into a dead-end platform of Moscow’s Kazansky Railway Station. On the way from Ryazan, we had entered the city quite some time ago. I never thought that Moscow was such a big city. Even if it was not one of the most populated cities at that time, still territorially it was huge.

A journey from Tashkent to Moscow, by train, which normally took 68 hours or 3 days, had taken us 10 days. Arriving in that center of political strength, we knew that the only place, where we should go to find some affordable accommodation, was the central telegraph office on Tverskaya Street.
We had no maps, because back then maps were a rarity in Russia. In fact foreigners were still a rarity. Faisal and I had already undergone the miseries of not knowing the local language, so we were not surprised, when our attempts at asking for directions ended in vain.
We crossed through the huge arrival hall of the railway station and came through heavy wooden doors, out on the street. As soon as we exited the station, we saw a lone tall building standing to our right, in the middle of the square. Later we came to know that the doors had opened into the Square of Three Stations: Kazansky, Yaroslavsky and Leningradsky railway stations.
There were a lot of people around the railway station. Looking at the surroundings, we figured that we must had been close to the downtown area. As we already knew that the central telegraph office was in downtown district, we assumed that it must had been close-by.
And guess what, the word “Telegraph office”, inspired wide smiles, and wastage of foreign words, which we could not comprehend. Soon we understood that our queries about the central telegraph had to be more graphic. Putting our theatrical skills to work, we started asking people the same question, supported by gestures, like hand to the ear and the dialling motion.
Well those gestures at least made us understand that we could communicate the idea of a telephone, because a couple of very enthusiastic pedestrians, took time to walk with us to the nearest street phone, and one even tried to explain to us how to use it. Although that person did not know that we had come from a world, where people had gone far beyond the use of coin phones. We were already using telephone cards in our street phones. But, that was irrelevant information for the hospitable Russian, who wanted to do the best he could to assist us.
After more than 15 minutes of stopping every passer-by and displaying our abilities to mimic, we finally decided to roll back to only one question: “Do you speak English?”
And it was not long before we found a man, who answered: “A little bit.”
-          Please can you tell us where the central telegraph office is?
-          You mean telephone office?
-          Yes exactly.
-          Well it is this way. He pointed in the direction opposite to the tall building. It is about 200 meters from here.
-          Is it on this side of the road or do we have to cross?
-          No it is on that side. Come with me, I am going the same way.
We gladly followed him with our bags dangling from our shoulders. Walking towards the telephone office, which we assumed would be the central telegraph, the man asked: “Where are you from?”
-          From Pakistan.
-          Where is that?
-          Do you know where India is?
-          Yes
-          And do you also know where Iran is?
-          Yes.
-          Then right in the middle of these two countries is Pakistan.
-          You mean near Afghanistan?
-          Yes, exactly!
Probably after understanding, where we were from, the kind man lost all interest in further conversation, because for the next part of our joint walk, he kept quiet.
His quietness reminded me of Dr Last’s mention of “Dushman”. Probably this man also pictured us as “Dushman”. Anyway, soon we were near the telephone office. Pointing to the building across the road the man said: “The telephone office is on the second floor of that building.”
We thanked him, and went to cross the road. He waived us good bye saying: “Have a nice time in Moscow!”
We followed the instructions and entered the telephone office. The said office was too small to be the central telegraph office. But, we could see an operator sitting behind the counter, which gave us hope of asking her about the all-important telegraph central.
There was a queue, so in an attempt to look completely civilized, we took the queue. In less than ten minutes, we were at the head of the line. As always, I was burdened with asking the questions.
-          Hi, can you please tell me where the Central Telegraph Office is?
She responded. But, I could not grab the contents of her response. One thing was sure; she liked me more than anyone in that queue, because she had such a serious look on her face, before talking to me. I reverted to our street smart idea of gestures and gesturing with a hand to the ear and making that dialling motion, I again asked:
-          The central telegraph?
Well my gestures did not disappoint her, because she kept on smiling. And I was happy that I had made a human being happy. But, only after many weeks in Moscow I came to understand that hers was a smile of shyness and embarrassment.
Then a female voice from behind me caught my ear:
-          This is not the central telegraph.
I turned towards her to find out that she was in her mid-thirties, not very tall, and looking thin even through her heavy coat.
-          Good to know that someone can understand me! Can you please tell us where it is?
-          The central telegraph office is in a different district.
-          Ok. Then can you tell us how to get there?
-          I can show you, because I will also be going in the same direction. So if you could wait for me, I will be happy to help you.
-          Yes sure. We will wait. Please take your time.
She was not right behind us, which meant that she was not at the head of the queue after us. We had to wait for some 20 minutes until, she could send her telegram.
We came out of the telephone exchange with her. I got to tell you, she spoke very proficiently. As we came out she explained:
-          We will take the metro from here. The place where you want to go is 5 stations away. Why do you want to go there? If you wanted to call back home you could do it from here also.
-          No we do not want to call. Someone is waiting for us there.
-          Alright. Where are you from?
Once again it was the question, which one encounters the most in foreign lands.
-          We are from Pakistan. Do you know where it is?
-          Of course. It is near Afghanistan. Right?

Well there it was. The Afghan connection was there to stay with us.
Walking side by side we all went down the escalator into the Krasnoselskaya Metro station. At the metro station we went to the ticket counter and purchased our coins. Back then the Moscow metro coin was just 10 roubles, when one dollar was 1000 roubles. So as I bought the coins, I could quickly calculate that 1 dollar could provide us with 100 trips in the metro. I just did not know yet, the value of that 1000roubles for the local people.
As we were buying metro tickets, I saw two people, coming down the escalator. It was not hard for me to recognize them as either Pakistanis or Indians. I quickly asked Faisal to approach those guys and ask if they were from Pakistan or India.
-          Why me? Go ask yourself; said Faisal
Not even bothering to wait for my response, he moved away towards the targets. Being together for more than 10 days now, he had grasped the idea that I could be very arrogant in response to such questions.
Very readily Faisal returned and told me that those guys were from Pakistan. I thanked the woman, who had come all that way with us: “We will not be going to the Central Telegraph Office. Thanks for your help.”
She looked at us with astonishment. I said: “We have found an acquaintance. So he will take us where we need to go.”
Hearing that, she also wished us a very good stay in Moscow, and went her way further deep into the depths of underground railways.
Our new acquaintances were Asghar and Iqbal. They were from Punjab, and they told us that they were doing business in Moscow. Following the introductions our conversation went something like this:
-          We need to find some affordable place for a week or two.
-          Are you just visiting or have you come here for study or other purposes?
-          No we have just come for a short visit.
Iqbal and Asghar exchanged glances and Asghar continued:
-          If you want you can stay with us. We have a place. I mean if it is temporary…
-          Yes it is quite temporary. And it will be very good if it is not too imposing!?
-          No problem. You can stay for as many days as you want.
Faisal and I also looked at each other and probably we both had no-objection signs in our eyes. In fact unlike earlier occasions, we could not talk to each other, because those guys also understood Urdu. But that silent agreement was expressed in the following words:
-          We highly appreciate your offer and we think it will be a good idea, since you guys live here, you can guide us better.
Asghar replied: -  Great. Let us all just go together to a place, where I have to meet someone. After that we will return home. This place is just one station away.
Well we had not come to Moscow to sit at home. So we had no problem going with our newly appointed hosts to any place.
The place where they went was a travel agency near Chisty-Prudi metro station. All the conversations there were in Russian, so we had no chance of understanding anything. Following that short visit to the travel agency, all four of us again entered the catacombs of Moscow metro.
Interestingly enough, we returned to the same Krasnoselskaya metro station. Exiting from the metro, we went farther away from the railway station. The building, where Asghar had a rented apartment, was about 500 meters from the metro station.
Asghar was very talkative and inquisitive. He asked all sorts of questions, while walking from metro to his home. Once we got to the building he led the way and we entered our first Soviet apartment building. The stair case was not very bright. We went up half a flight to board an elevator. The apartment was on the 5th floor of a nine floor building.
As we got out of the elevator I noticed that there were four apartments on each floor: two on each side of the elevator.
Asghar took out the keys and opened the door. Turning on the light in the corridor, he asked us in. As I went in followed by Faisal and Iqbal, I saw a multitude of slippers in the corridor. For someone else it might had signified that either those two kept extra slippers for occasional guests or they probably had frequent guests. But for me those slippers had a totally different meanings.
I did not want to hurry into any kind of conclusions, so I waited until we were inside and had taken off our shoes and eased into a pair each of those slippers. Then Asghar opened the door leading into the room and as soon as I took a look inside, my doubts vanished. All those slippers told the right story. It was a human trafficking den.

To be continued...

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