Fiction: As the Life Turns - Part 3

>> Sunday, January 25, 2009

By Ajay Pradhan | January 25, 2009

In December 1998 Ashay was an undergraduate student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He studied public policy with a major in international relations at Duke’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy and a minor in environmental policy at Nicholas School of the Environment. Global politics and policy intrigued him, especially those related to how powerful countries manipulated international relations, dominating less powerful countries for resources and influence, in the name of security.

On December 14, Ashay finished his final exams of the semester. He had one last semester to complete before his graduation in May of the next year. After the last exam, he rushed out of the Sanford Institute building and walked towards Towerview Road and briskly headed east along a forested stretch of the road towards Union Drive. He had a meeting scheduled in 30 minutes with Professor Henry Jacobsen and his undergraduate advisor Professor Robert Ascher in the Political Science Department at Perkins Library building, which was located in the beautifully landscaped quad just next to the awe-inspiring Duke Chapel, the centerpiece of Duke’s beautiful campus with Gothic architecture-dominated buildings.

As he turned the corner on Union Drive, his friends Colin Dunn and his girlfriend Cynthia McBride called out at him as they crossed the street towards him.

“Hey guys,” Ashay waved at them.

“Ash, how’s it going? You done with your exams? Neha says you’re going to New York with her tomorrow. What’s the deal?” Colin said.

“Yeah, that’s right. I don’t know what the mission is all about yet, but Bob offered us a chance to participate in a delegation to India, Pakistan and Nepal through CFR.”

“Bob who? Ascher? And CFR?”

“Yes, Ascher. CFR, the Council on Foreign Relations.”

“Sounds cool. Good for you. When do you leave New York?”

“We’re leaving New York on the 18th. I’m looking forward to the trip.”

“I’m sure you are. You have to tell us everything about the trip when you’re back,” Cynthia said. “Hey, Ash, wanna go to the Hideaway tonight? A bunch of us are going there for couple of drinks.” Hideaway was an on-campus pub and dance club, a popular student hangout, sort of hidden under a concrete driveway structure, not too far from the Chapel.

“I’d love to, but I’m not sure yet. I’m not quite done packing for tomorrow yet. If I come, I won’t be able to do late night. What time are you guys planning to be there at anyway?”

“That’s alright. Just come on over for a while. We plan to be there around 7. You got a ride to the airport tomorrow? Let me know if you need a ride,” Colin asked.

“Thanks, Colin, but Bob’s dropping us off at RDU.” RDU was short for Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Interstate-40, about 12 miles from Durham towards Raleigh, just about 25 minutes drive away. “Alright, guys, I've got a meeting with Bob in 15 minutes. I gotta run. See you later at the Hideaway, hopefully.”

“See ya.” Cynthia and Colin waved bye and walked on.

Ashay walked up north on Union Drive towards the Chapel. He reached Perkins within 5 minutes and he still had 10 minutes left for the meeting. Ashay had been assisting Ascher in his research on international conflict for the last 18 months. Ascher and Jacobsen recently offered Ashay and Neharika Kulkarni, a fourth-year political science undergraduate student, an opportunity to participate as assistant in an international delegation led by the New York City-based Council on Foreign Relations to India, Pakistan, and Nepal with a brief stopover meeting at International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore. Neharika was Jacobsen’s research assistant. She was the daughter of a high-ranking Defense Ministry officer in New Delhi.

Ashay didn’t yet have full details of the delegation or the mission. All he knew was that he and Neharika were to be part of a delegation that’ll go to India, Pakistan and Nepal on regional security relations fact-finding mission in the Indian subcontinent. Ascher had told him it should be interesting and had something to do about regional security intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan. How does Nepal figure into it, Ashay had asked Ascher. Because both Indian and Pakistani agencies RAW and ISI are suspected of having used Nepal as a safe haven playground against each other, Ascher had told him. He jumped on the opportunity to go. The mere mention of Nepal was sufficient for him to accept the offer. The details could wait.

The delegation was to be officially jointly led by a career diplomat named J. William Middleton from the U.S. Department of State and his counterpart in Pentagon, Retd. Col. Howard G. Brooks. The delegation was to have two yet unidentified intelligence officers from the CIA, one State Department official, one Pentagon specialist, three CFR staff officials, and one other student. That student, a Pakistani national, was an undergraduate student at Columbia University. The next day Ashay and Neharika were to catch a 12:30 PM flight to New York City to participate in a preparatory meeting at the CFR Headquarters.

Arriving near Perkins, under the Duke Chapel, Ashay surveyed the beautifully landscaped green lawns in front of him. He took a deep breath and thought what it’d be like to be with him mother in Kathmandu in just a few days. When he found out about the mission two weeks ago, he immediately called his mother in Kathmandu. She was thrilled. He hadn’t really done any shopping to give his mom and family any gifts yet. He made sure that he’d do shopping in New York before his departure for Nepal. In New York, he’ll be staying at a hotel near the CFR Headquarters, but he had promised to visit a cousin and her family in Elmhurst area in Queens. His cousin had asked him to stay at her house, but citing intensive program at CFR, Ashay said he’d better stayed closer to the CFR office, but he had added jokingly, “Invite me for a Nepali dinner, and I’ll surely come. It’s been a while.”

When Ashay arrived at Jacobsen’s office, Neharika was already waiting there. “Hey, just in time, kiddo,” Neharika called him kiddo when she was in her lighter moods. They shared the same birthday, born the same year. He was born at 4 AM and she at 3 AM. She was technically an hour older than him.

“Henry and Bob both in?” Ashay asked.

“Kathy says Henry’s on the phone. He should be done soon. Bob’s not in yet; should be here any minute, I hope.” Kathy was Jacobsen’s secretary.

Kathy came out and said, “Hi Ash and Neha, you wanna come in and wait until Bob arrives? Henry’s still on the phone.”

Soon, Jacobsen emerged from his office. “Come on in guys, Bob’s on the way. How are you guys?”

“Hi Henry,” both Neharika and Ashay spoke at the same time. “I’m good, thanks. How are you?”

“Not bad. Not bad at all. So, you guys excited about the trip?” Jacobsen asked. Ascher walked in at the same time. “Alright, Bob’s here.”

“Hey folks,” Bob said, taking his coat off and settling down in a chair.

“Hi Bob,” everyone said.

Bob said, “I wanted us to meet before your departure tomorrow. As you know, we’re doing this for CFR, not for the government. Even though the delegation will be led by the government, you two will be a part of the CFR mission. You know CFR is an independent, non-partisan organization that works closely with government policymakers, especially those who deal with foreign policies. You will report to CFR. The CFR delegation will be led by its Senior Director. But, of course, you are fully expected to cooperate with the government delegation and comply with their requirements.”

“What’s the mission?” Ashay asked.

“Our mission is academic and is more closely associated with that of CFR. The government’s mission is anybody’s guess,” Jacobsen replied.

“But what’s our mission?” Neharika asked.

“Overall, we want to know the modalities of how the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan are working. Specifically, we want to know if either or both of these countries have used or are using Nepal as a base against each other. And we want to know if anybody in the Nepal Government are helping either or both of the rival agencies.”

“Why? Why do we want to know?” Ashay looked at Jacobsen and then at Ascher. “And what are two undergraduate students to do with all this?”

“Smart question, Ash,” Ascher said. “Our interest is in understanding regional relations and rivalries and their implications and see if all this follows an established model. As for the second part of your question, there are two things here. One, government agencies in any of the countries involved would be less resistant to allow student researchers access to information. As academic researchers, you will have more success getting at information than any government officials would. Two, you each know the languages and the system of government in India and Nepal.”

“What about Pakistan?” Neharika asked.

“Tom Parkins of Columbia has selected one of his students who happens to be a native of Pakistan. He says the young man is a smart fellow,” Jacobsen responded.

“Tom Parkins? Professor Thomas Parkins?” Ashay asked.

“Yes, him.”

“So, what’s CFR’s role in this?” Ashay asked again.

“They have similar interest as ours. They want to understand the trilateral political, diplomatic and military relations between India, Pakistan and Nepal and how the relationship shapes the works of intelligence operatives. They want to know if these complex relationships based on regional rivalry can be understood with an established model,” Ascher said.

“What about the government? Why are the State Department, Pentagon and CIA involved?” Ashay asked.

“That is a tough question. CFR has advised us not to try to be too inquisitive about the purpose of their mission. But we can certainly speculate. Of course, the State Department wants to create a presence of influence in the Indian sub-continent. The State and Pentagon’s interest is because India and Pakistan’s bilateral relation is a hot button issue. The Kashmir issue is a volatile one. And, of course, the CIA wants to maintain a credible level of intelligence not only over the two countries, but over the entire region, Afghanistan included, especially because of the radical Taliban government there. The official government delegation will be led by a diplomat named Bill Middleton. I hear he's an old Nepal and India hand. They say he's had diplomatic tenures in all three countries, Nepal, India and Pakistan when he was younger” Jacobsen said, as he removed his eyeglasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief.

"I hear he even speaks a bit of Nepali and Hindi," Ascher added, looking at the two young students.

“OK, what’s our deliverable?” Ashay asked.

“A detailed term paper. Both of you are to write a term paper each. That’s going to be your senior thesis. And I know you won't disappoint us.”

“And why’s CFR paying for all this?” Neharika asked.

“Because they want to use your term paper as chapters of a book on foreign policy that they’re planning to bring out. It’s an opportunity of a life time. Take full advantage of it,” Ascher encouraged.

“We will,” both Ashay and Neharika said, both truly grateful. “And thanks for selecting us for this mission.”

“Your main contact at CFR is Bill Prescott, the Senior Director and his assistant Jane Middleton,” Ascher informed them. “I’ll give you a ride to the airport tomorrow. CFR will have you picked up at La Guardia tomorrow. Jane Middleton will give you all the details about travel documents, stipends, expenses, etc. It’s fully paid by CFR.”

“If you have any question, call, email Bob or myself anytime. Good luck,” Jacobsen ended the meeting.

As Ashay and Neharika rose, Ascher looked at their backpacks and winked at them, “You guys do have a more decent bag, don’t you? And I hope you both have some decent clothing, too.”

* * *

As they walked out of the meeting, Ashay asked Neharika, “Neha, wanna go to the Hideaway for a drink or two tonight?”

“You asking me out on a date?,” giggled Neharika.

“A date at the Hideaway? Jeez, gosh, no. If I wanted to take you out on a date, I’d take you to a decent restaurant on 9th Street or on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill,” smiled Ashay. “But, know what, yes, OK, I’m asking you out. Wanna go?” 9th Street was a downtown Durham street dotted with restaurants and Franklin Street was a lively street with restaurants in the nearby Chapel Hill, the home to Duke's basketball rival, the UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Come on, Ash. Be serious. We both have packing to do. And I don’t wanna wake up groggy in the morning.” Both kept walking.

“Colin and Cynthia asked if I wanted to go. A bunch of people are going, I think. Just thought I’d enjoy more if you joined.”

“Joined there or went with you?” Neharika quizzed, giggling.

“OK, if you went with me.”

She stopped walking, turned towards him, looked him in the eyes, paused for a moment, then placed her soft hand on his forearm, and whispered, “Of course, I’ll go with you, kiddo.”

He looked at her without saying anything for an awkward moment, then gazed into her eyes, and whispered back, “Will pick you up just before 7?”

“Sure.” She had a soft smile on her face, and a sparkle in her eyes.

* * *

That evening, Neharika wore a beautiful light green-hued flowery blouse, a Cashmere cardigan, a nice pair of jeans, and a pair of trendy green and purple sequoined high heels that she had picked up at a shoe store in Karol Bagh when she was in New Delhi the last time. She dabbed Chanel No. 5 perfume on her wrists, her napes, and on her chest, and put on a pair of cute earrings. She put on lipstick, lined her eyes with eyeliner, curled her lashes with mascara, and blended in just a hint of blush on her cheeks. She hooked a gold chain around her neck, with a heart-shaped gold pendant. She let her hair down, held a coat in her hand, and waited for Ashay.

Ashay arrived 5 minutes before 7. “You look beautiful.” He gave her a hug, and opened the passenger side door for her.

“Why, thank you, you knight in shining armor,” joked Neharika.

“Off we go to the Hideaway, the best ever destination for a date,” Ashay joked, too.

The Hideaway was already crowded when they arrived. Cynthia, Colin, Rebecca Matthews, Rebecca Chang, Steve Ma, Maria Ricaldez, Abubaker Odhiambo, Jayant Desai, Chris Barnett, Suresh Wadhwa, and Kiran Parekh were all there. More were still coming in. They were all friends of Ashay and Neharika's.

Ashay and Neharika met with everyone. “Neha, what can I get you?” Ashay asked.

“What are you having? Or, whatever you’re having. Except beer,” said Neharika.

“Well, I was going to get a beer for myself. You want some martinis? How about a Cosmo?”


At the bar, Ashay ordered a honey brown lager for himself and a Cosmo for Neharika.

They stayed there for about an hour, chatting with friends, enjoying the company and drinks and dancing. Then around 8 pm Ashay whispered into Neharika's ear, "I hope you're hungry, cuz I am. Do you want to go somewhere and eat something?"

"I'm starving," whispered Neharika.

Soon they left the club, saying good bye to their friends. Their friends wished them a pleasant journey ahead and bid them farewell. Ashay drove towards 9th Street, with Neharika by his side. They had dinner at Ravena's, a local restaurant. Around 9:30 PM, they left the restaurant and Ashay drove Neharika home.

“Thanks for a lovely evening, Ash.”

“My pleasure, Neha.”

She stepped towards her apartment building, then stopped, paused, turned around, saw him looking at her, and she walked back.

“Good night, kiddo,” she gave him a hug.

“Good night," he hugged her back. "Go now. See you tomorrow.”

He waited until she was inside her apartment building, and then drove off.

* * *

The next day, Professor Ascher dropped Ashay and Neharika at the RDU Airport at 11:00 AM. “Make the most of your trip, guys, and have fun,” Ascher gave them a bear hug. “Remember, I selected the best students for this unique opportunity that CFR can ever get from anywhere. Good luck. Have a safe and enjoyable journey, Ash and Neha.”

“Thanks, Bob, thanks for all this,” Neharika said. Ashay added, ” Take care, Bob. See you in January. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

The flight from RDU to La Guardia Airport in New York was only an hour and 35 minutes. They were going to be in New York just after 2 PM and they were scheduled to be picked up for transfer to the CFR Headquarters on East 68th Street near Park Avenue.

Arriving in front of the CFR Headquarters at the Harold Pratt House on East 68th Street in the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, Neharika nudged at Ashay, “This is it. We’re on.”

“Yes, we are indeed,” Ashay said, looking at the imposing building in front of him.

Once Ashay and Neharika were inside, an office assistant ushered them into a room where they were greeted by an attractive young woman, “Hi, You must be Neharika Kulkarni and Ashay Shrestha. I’m Jane Middleton. Welcome to CFR. I’m a research associate here. I’ll be sort of your CFR host while you’re here and on the trip. Anytime you have a question, let me know,” she handed them her business card.

Ashay looked at her business card. It read, Jennifer R.L. Middleton, Research Associate, Council on Foreign Relations, The Harold Pratt House, 58 E. 68th Street, New York, NY 10065.

Ashay looked at the attractive young woman who he thought couldn’t be any older than him. He thought to himself, I think I’ve seen her somewhere before. But he couldn’t recall where or when it was that he had seen her before, if he ever did.

“Lets go to the meeting room. I’ll introduce you to some other people,” Jane led them to another room where there were five other people already seated. “Hi everyone, meet Neharika Kulkarni and Ashay Shrestha, both from Duke. They have just arrived. Ashay and Neharika, meet John Dunsmore, Steve Cabot, Karen McNulty, Ravindran Shankaran and Parvez Ashraf.”

After the exchange of pleasantries, they all settled down for a meeting. Jane continued, ”John, Steve, Karen and Ravin are CFR staff members, they are all Senior Fellow. Parvez is an undergraduate student at Columbia. Karen, Ravin and Parvez will be joining the delegation. By the way, all of us are from New York, except Ravin, who’s from our Washington, DC office. We’ll have our full meeting tomorrow at 9:00 AM. The delegation leaders and other participants are going to be in tomorrow’s meeting. Today, it’s going to be quick. I’ll give you all the materials for you to read and familiarize. I’ll give you the trip itinerary and program and a list of contacts in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Singapore. All your travel documentation is ready. There are some forms that you’ll need to sign, just travel insurance-related formality. After the meeting, I’ll take Ravin, Ashay and Neharika to hotel; I’ve booked three rooms for you guys. It’s not too far, but it’s too cold to walk, especially with your suitcases. We’ll all meet at Malone’s at 6:30 for dinner.” Malone’s was a popular restaurant just three blocks north on Park Avenue and 71st Street. The hotel Ashay, Neharika and Shankaran were booked into was located three blocks further up north on Park and 74th.

Ashay was listening, but more looking than listening. The more he looked at Jane, the more he tried to remember where and when he had seen her.

After the brief meeting, Jane Middleton drove Ashay, Neharika and Shankaran with their luggage to the hotel. As they arrived at the hotel, Ashay's cell phone rang. It was his cousin. She wanted him to come to her house for finner, but since he had to go to dinner with the CFR group, they quickly made a plan for him to visit her house after dinner. She and her husband were going to pick him up at the hotel after dinner.

As he entered the hotel room, Ashay thought about Jane Middleton and tried to remember where he had seen her before.

[End of Part 3]

Note: I welcome your comments. Be critical if you want, or praise if you wish. Please excuse spelling errors. I've yet to run a spell check on it.


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