To be a friend, you need a pen pal from 'the other side'
It also means enjoying camaraderie with cabbies and getting juicy tips on the best Peshawari mutton karahi in Dubai, travelling, sharing art and being moved by poetry.
I was in grade one when I made my first Pakistani friend. Her name was Ayesha Atif. I can’t recall how she spelt 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 spelt with a ‘u’ and not double ‘o.’ 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 favoured 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 2017, I have a bunch of Pakistani friends, more than I can count on my fingers. Why do I need to specify that? Think, the ICC World Cup! 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 both 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 includes my colleagues (from Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri to Suchitra Steven Samuel) creating special Independence Day supplements for both countries. 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 this year 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. Last Saturday, 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. He is encouraging me to write too. By the time you read this, I would have attended a show called Mehfil-e-Urdu 2017, Bazm-e-Urdu’s annual programme with a special guest, Ghulam Ali, and a play called Ghalib in New Delhi (on August 17 and 18). Who all would have accompanied me? My friends from across the border.
There lies my answer.
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 the 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.