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I was in grade one when I made my first Pakistani friend

Fast-forward to August 2023, I have a bunch of Pakistani friends, more than I can count on my fingers

I was in grade one when I made my first Pakistani friend. Her name was Ayesha Atif. I can’t recall how she spelled it, Ayesha with a ‘ye’ or Aisha with an ‘i,’ but I do remember her teaching me how to pronounce it correctly. I too taught her that my name was spelled with a ‘u’ and not double ‘o' — Purva, not Poorva. She was in our school in New Delhi in India, for just a few months — she didn’t even complete a term. Her father was someone who was called a ‘diplomat’, the meaning of which both of us didn’t know then. But we knew that it meant she would go back to her home country Pakistan, soon.

So, over a packet of sticky, chocolatey Eclairs (if you’ve lived in either of the two countries, you’d know the names of the favoured candy brand among kids) we hugged and bid each other goodbye. Back then, I didn’t realise that it meant I might not see her ever again. It simply meant we wouldn’t have play dates together or a chance to share our lunchboxes (my chutney-butter sandwiches and parantha and her suji upma and parantha with omelette). Little did we know the truth — we had to grow up for that. I missed her a lot. We didn’t even get a chance to be penpals/penfriends; yes, it was quite the thing in that era.

Fast-forward to August 2023, I have a bunch of Pakistani friends, more than I can count on my fingers. Why do I need to specify that? Think, about the upcoming ICC World Cup 2023! Of course, you don’t have to be a cricket fan to be friends with a Pakistani!

Hold on, since I’ve brought up cricket, let me say more on that before I come back to the reason. We’d need to rewind to February 2015, and yes, dates are important. I was a relatively new NRI (Non-Resident Indian) in Dubai, and Pakistan had just lost a cricket match to India in the World Cup. I was in a cab and my cabbie was Pakistani. On the radio, the highlights of the match were being aired and I would grin each time the Indian radio station interspersed the same with the song Chak De! India. A bunch of friends, who’d called in sick at work for obvious reasons, asked me to detour and see them at Karachi Darbar for an impromptu celebration. We’d be dressed in our Indian jerseys, they mentioned in the passing. I was dropped at my destination by the cabbie with a parting note, ‘Try the Peshawari Mutton Karahi,’ he said. We both couldn’t resist a sly remark, could we? The journey, besides being fun, taught me a whole lot about both of us. On returning home, I wrote a piece on the experience and readers of both nationalities shared it widely and wrote back saying they knew exactly what I meant.

Why do I think of Ayesha and this cab ride often, not just in the month of August? I may have found the answer and it’s not dramatic and scripted like a Veer-Zaara. We all love Bollywood, equally, just as we love Coke Studio Pakistan — hence the mention.

My answer?

Today, as an Indian expat in a foreign land, which many of us, Indians and Pakistanis included, call home, I extend a hand of friendship to people of all nationalities once every few days. Just like I accept one extended to me.

What does it mean to me — 'the friendship' or ‘Me Being An Indian,’ perhaps a glimpse of how my days look like could help you decide.

At work, just like most of you, we meet and beat deadlines together — which until recently included sharing work and lunch with my colleagues (from Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri (Pakistani) to Suchitra Steven Samuel (Indian)) who uses to together create special Independence Day supplements for both countries. How often my ex-colleague and friend, Yousuf Saif (Pakistani) and I bond over folk songs and upcoming bands from Pakistan.

Similarly, we share Zomato links on the best Hyderabadi biryani vs. Lahori biryani — we argue, but eat and relish both. On the road, I hail cabs to and from work, and each time a cabbie learns that can I speak in Hindi and Punjabi — we instantly switch from English to the preferred language. At the poetry group I run, I invite poets from all lands every month to share their words. In a session held during Ramadan in June a few years ago on the theme of prayers, a lady called Sara from the neighbouring land shared a poetic tribute to the late Aamir Zaki. Her words left us all in tears, we loved his music as much. A few Saturdays ago, at another session, Muhammad Aftab Khan, a poet who writes in Urdu and hails from Karachi, shared his wonderful piece on the comparison of our lives with a parking lot and left us all questioning ourselves.

Just yesterday (August 13, 2023), I was in the audience for a wonderful play, Sohni Mahiwal, produced by a Pakistani friend, who is also an actor and director, Asad Raza Khan. Directed by Alishan Bin Sohail, the show amidst other takeaways introduced me to my now new favourite band, Bayyan. By the time you read this, I would have heard many of their numbers! Oh yes, and come tomorrow I'll have a lovely desi meal too. Who would have accompanied me? My friends from across the border.

There lies my answer.

Oh yes, also how tomorrow, 35 Indian bikers from Blu.Oryx will ride 24 km sporting tees with Indian flags to celebrate India's Independence Day and then gather for a nice meal, as a large family! You could catch them as they kickstart their ride from the opposite of Latifa Hospital at 7.15 pm, via Dubai Mall, Al Wasl Road, and continue till Falcon Intersection....and gather for a meal at Desi Village, Garhoud.

You could ask why I mention all the names and dates. Well, details matter just like the balls bowled and runs scored. Also, it reminds me of Ayesha Atif when I was six and was yet to learn and unlearn the definitions of friendships, nationalities, and distance. But most importantly, because with each passing day, we all get a chance to grow, learn and unlearn.

PS: Ayesha, one day we’ll meet again, maybe in the virtual world. But we will. Then, you can correct me on the spelling of your name.


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