I live 6,000 miles away from my motherland, in a tall-ish building with 158 people from more than 70 countries and my best friend. A few weeks ago, “mama and papa are coming here!” she screamed, barging into my room and settling at the foot of my bed. “I’m asking them to bring Maggi for you. Anything else?”
Somewhere between the language and the fervent devotion to Biryani and Shah Rukh Khan that she and I share, we became friends. And then one day, I found her understanding me better than I did by only looking at what my eyes were saying. I found us speaking, without speaking, and wanting to be around each other to gabble on desi things and our take on not-desi things. We started liking throwing tantrums at life together. We found warmth and comfort in simply being around each other. And just like that, we found a home in each other.
I keep wondering if this bond between us formed because of our shared heritage and the sheer comfort of being able to find that in each other. For example, there’s nothing that cheers up the both of us, like some jolly old Bhangra, for she is Punjabi and I’m a very happily Aloo-ke-Parathe and Makkhan eating, Jai Mata Di chanting Punjab-influenced Bangalorean.
Oh, and she’s Pakistani.
Pakistan. I’ve never understood our country’s stance on this…Well, sister? Enemy? I’m not talking about politics; even that can be studied and analysed. I’m talking everyday thoughts, misinformed, educated and everything between – what the aam aadmi thinks about ‘the other’ mulk (country).
On the one hand, at the slightest unearthing of political strife, we fire up promising to fight back, to annihilate. But there are the Millennials that preach against hate, which keep trying to point out that we’re the same – with social experiments and their touching, soulful outcomes that always tug at one’s heartstrings.
Then again, there are the aunties and uncles, that neighbour’s kid that calls those Pakistanis the extremists, terrorists that don’t even let their daughters go to school. And then there are all the Pakistani celebrities and soap operas that we adored (until we started hating on them too, but that’s a different conversation).
Luckily, as a true-blue desi girl raised on is desh ki mitti, a bustling land of boggling diversity and a human mass 1.3 billion strong, I’ve learned how to extract sense out of total and utter confusion and contradictory chaos. The hate, the utter lack of understanding, the monumental emotional attempts at person to person bridging and everything in between – I’ve understood, springs from Pakistan being an unknown entity to us. Yes, we know what Modiji and the papers are telling us about Pakistani politics, some of us even have our opinions on those. But do we know what Pakistan really looks and feels like, the aam aadmi counterpart to us. What do we really know apart from the Zindagi serials and Fawad Khan?
And from this unknown or the half-baked information, we became apprehensive – haven’t we proved that we’re prone to being fearful or suspicious of anything unknown? Like staring at the shadows with a frown, one hand guardedly on the shoulders of our loved ones. When the half-baked information is painted in negative shades, this apprehension naturally starts morphing into hate. When it is painted highlighting the differences in their society and ours, their philosophy and ours, the lack of connection feeds this apprehension and morphing.
My father, however, taught me respect for the other. “Your disagreeing with them doesn’t make their opinion wrong. Opinions and aren’t wrong or right, and so you need to respect theirs, as you would want someone to respect yours,” he would say all the time.
And even with the distaste that my society cultivated in me (I sadly admit) for almost anything Pakistani, I learnt how to develop a detached acceptance and respect for them, from a distance. Never any association, any ‘that’s fine!’ – just a nod and wanting to walk away perhaps.
From my mother, I learnt curiosity. And the distaste and respect slowly turned into sheer curiosity and respect, inexplicable amounts of excitement sprouting whenever I could even come close to uncovering something about their unknown. The apprehension remained, however, and with this unknown my curiosity was cautious, I was working hard not to pull on sensitive and volatile strings.
And then, I met her at Minerva, my college. Everything I’d thought and felt so far came tumbling out as we started trying to prod gently, learn about Pakistan through her and she, India through me. “Tell me something, do you really wear jewelleries to bed?” she asked me, from sitting with her Nani and Ammi to watch “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. “You really have Hindu temples in Pakistan!?” I asked her, for some reason not comprehending the idea or plight of Hindus in Pakistan. We moved on far forward from that point and quite fast. Soon we were talking about the same things, saying “Arrey, aap log bhi ainvayi bolte ho!?” realising we both called all adults ‘uncle and auntie’, both of us had a rich childhood of the long pulling drone of “Good Mooorning, Teacher”.
I developed a very deep appreciation, for nearly everything Pakistani then. It felt like home. It was home, after all, just a stone’s drop away. Bas sarhad paar. And that happened, not because I was studying their culture, not because I was analysing or agreeing with their philosophies. It happened because we were humans together, simple and raw. Just humanness. Of course, politics and propaganda started fading away. Acceptance and respect became appreciation, even comfort. We started revelling in the fact that we were both desi girls, very boldly and unapologetically desi. Of almost the exact same kind. We had Maggi packed as our lunches for school and loved wearing our gorgeous sarees. Enough said.
One day, she told me, “yaar Jahnavi, we should go saree shopping in Sarojini for Diwali!” and I muttered, occupied with something else, unthinkingly “Inshallah!” This cultural crossover wasn’t new. The fact that we had stopped noticing that it was happening, that it had become normal for us, was new and exciting, so cherished. That’s when it started happening. We didn’t stop celebrating our desi-ness, our Indian and Pakistani-ness when we wanted to – but around each other we had started being in some senses, blissfully unaware of it. Because, it didn’t matter anymore. Because, it’s one thing to want to learn about the other, it’s another to start appreciating and celebrating the other.
But what we want is, to unlearn that the other exists. They are different, yes, but they are not the other. At least not for the aam aadmi in them and us, not for the desi girls and boys and mamas and papas in them and us. Cliched as this may sound, it is the truth, we are human. And when you start having to make your own food together, work together, study together and party together, when you live together, love together, struggle together and cry together – it’s all you’ll remember: You’re human.
In being simply human, in seeing them as simply humans – political and philosophical differences, religious differences don’t become the divider, splitting us painfully in fragments. They become the differences we enjoy finding, those things that we proudly and gladly claim to be the same and together. And when you’re pushed to the extreme edges, you drop those differences. You become viscerally human and you maybe even become beshtest fraands forever, like we did.