Three years back when I decided to quit my corporate job and plunge into international affairs, I began my research on Regional Cooperation in South Asia.
Initially, I devoured books, blogs and op-eds, written by eminent academicians in South Asia and the West.
Frankly, the more I read, the more hope I lost. I wondered if there was any light at the end of the tunnel.
Every morning when we flip through news headlines, it definitely does not excite any of us to read about new lives lost along the India-Pakistan border, furious protests over the Indo-Nepal border blockade, lingering disputes between India and Bangladesh over access to Chittagong Port among many other disputes.
Also read: Why every Indian should visit Pakistan
One of the academicians in the West remarked — every few kilometres you go in South Asia, you will find two countries coming to blows over river water sharing or even two Indian states wrangling over the same issue.
Disputes are symbolic to South Asian land!
No wonder a simple hug between the leaders of India and Pakistan flooded the South Asian media for weeks. Some named it "Hug Diplomacy", others said a new wave of diplomacy was ushering between the two neighbours.
While I was absolutely elated to see such a positive gesture covered in the media, at the same time, I wondered about the sad state our South Asian cooperation, a mere hug between the two leaders made headlines in International media.
Every time people talk about South Asia, the debate continues if and how trade concessions can lead to territorial concessions. And the potential impact of cultural interactions and exchange between ordinary people like you and me, has been undermined in this whole political and economic episode.
As an Indian, a mere visit to Lahore completely changed my personal perception about Pakistan. However, it wasn't until I got to Paris that I felt the unmistakable and strong sense of South Asian identity.
In the last six months that I have been here, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans have continued to surprise me on a daily basis.
Recently, I was backpacking across Europe - from Paris, passing through the south of France, I travelled 900 km by road to get to Andorra, a small landlocked country between France and Spain.
Located in the eastern Pyrenees, it offers a ravishing snow clad landscape. Starving for food, I stopped at the first restaurant that came my way and ordered a Falafel.
Interestingly, I discovered that the restaurant owner was a Pakistani and, suddenly, we had much to talk about.
After narrating all my stories about being in Lahore, I left my rucksack there to walk through the streets of Andorra la Vella. When I came back and asked how much I had to pay, he said,
"Absolutely no! You are a guest. You loved Lahore and Lahore loved you. That gives me much more pleasure than what money can offer."
Yet again, a Pakistani had offered me food with so much love without taking money. And this time, not even in Paksitan.
Desi hospitality is certainly not limited to its geographic boundaries. And I realised the trip had just started. I left for Barcelona in the evening.
While I was completely immersed exploring the Gaudi architecture and taking in the grand Sagrada Familia, I realised you can never be alone in this city. More so as an Indian in Barcelona, never!
Also read: Cadiz — off the beaten track in Spain
Every other supermarket here is owned by a Gujarati from Pakistan and each one will give you the familiar warm welcome. Be prepared to be get a hot cup of tea to accompany the delightful conversations at every other shop.
As I made strides through Spain and Portugal, I reached Lisbon on a Sunday evening at 10 pm. Everything was shut down by then.
I was wandering with a rucksack on my back, trying to find some food, when I came across an Indian restaurant and walked inside to find that it was actually owned by a Nepalese.
They served me some nice dal makhani with butter naan. When I was getting ready to leave, I went inside the kitchen to thank the chef for the delicious Indian food.
In very kind words, he said, "though I am not happy with your Prime Minister’s policies towards Nepal, you are like my little sister and it’s my pleasure to serve you."
He not only did not take money but also packed some naan for me to eat the next day.
With these wonderful little stories my month on the road was coming to an end. I had reached Marrakech in Morocco and was ready to fly back to Paris. On the flight, I was seated next to an old Sri Lankan couple living in France.
They asked me if I stayed in Paris with my parents to which I replied – "No, I stay by myself. My parents are in India."
We continued to chat for an hour or so. As we reached Paris, they kissed me and said, "next time somebody asks you where your parents are, say – I have parents in France and I have parents in India. We are always there for you."
I felt a lump in my throat rising as I thought of my parents back home, I waved goodbye with a promise to see them again.
Here in Paris, every evening, on my way back from school, I stop for a second to ask, "Bhaiya, kya haal hai?" to the Bangladeshi fruit vendor at the train station exit and he will say, "Strawberries li jiye. Aapko sasta lagaunga!"
I enjoy this exchange of familiarity.
Another grocery store near my campus is owned by a Sri Lankan and every time I go, he will say to me in French that I can just tell him on phone what I need and he can deliver the groceries.
And after every couple of weeks, when I go to visit another amazing Indian family here, their Pakistani neighbours from Lahore greet me like family.
Their little girl jumps and clings on to me for the next few hours that I am there for and when it is time to leave, she hugs me tight, and with a sad face says,
"Please stay more. Khuda ke vaaste, please don’t go!"
For a young Indian girl, who is trying to make her way through the spectacularly beautiful yet unfamiliar and foreign streets of Paris, these are the people who make me feel comfortable and less alone.
They are who I call my little South Asian family, far from its frontiers, all coming together to make someplace, far away, home.