Back in 2014, it was my first visit to Pakistan, to Lahore. I was the youngest of a 16-member delegation coming from India to Pakistan for a conference on South Asia People’s Union.
I vividly remember crossing the Wagah border chanting my Sanskrit mantras, gazing awestruck at the red sandstone expanse of the Badshahi Mosque, strolling up and down the Liberty Market looking for a printed designer cotton lawn suit, drooling at the sight of Haq Siri Paye and Mohammadi Nihari, and finally coming back home amazed by Pakistani hospitality.
A mere visit to Lahore had completely changed my personal perception about Pakistan. But the whole idea of socialising and making friends still seemed a far-fetched one.
Was being a part of delegations, conferences, cross-border trade, and peace projects the only medium of interaction between Indians and Pakistanis, or could it go beyond that?
Shortly after coming back from Lahore, I moved to Paris to study South Asian affairs. While I got thoroughly immersed in discovering the artistic and cultural treasures of the city - its Haussmannian buildings, Gothic art, perfectly manicured gardens and tender gourmet crêpes, I also felt a strong sense of South Asian identity.
More so, Paris gave me a new hope for India and Pakistan.
It was my first French language class. We were 15 different nationalities, all in our 20s, except one. There was a lady in her mid-forties, whom I guessed to be of Indian origin, sitting quietly in a corner. It seemed as if she was struggling to be in the classroom sitting with all the youngsters but had an aura and poise that none of us possessed.
I walked up to her, introduced myself, and we exchanged numbers. The following week she invited me to her home in Courbevoie, a little outside Paris.
After a long train ride, I found myself in her lovely, well-kept home. She introduced me to her teenage daughter and husband - both were very welcoming.
I accompanied them to their neighbours’ place for a birthday party. It was a family from Lahore - a young couple with two adorable daughters. And there I began narrating my entire Lahore trip from three years back.
With time, I started visiting my Indian friend more often. My trips began to last from several hours to several days. The longer I stayed, the more I fell in love with her.
I fed all my cravings for Indian food before going back to toasted baguette and cheese. On every trip, my Indian friend packed one tiffin for me and one for the little Pakistani girls.
It was heartwarming to see how closely knit the two families were. Birthdays, anniversaries, Diwali, Eid, Christmas – they were always looking for an excuse to get together.
And for me, I had found a bigger family in Paris!
Once, after a long day of classes, I went directly to my Pakistani friend’s place. Starving, I asked what they had prepared for lunch. Afghani biryani, she said!
Even my (conveniently) vegetarian self couldn’t resist. Shoving the bigger meat pieces aside, I began thoroughly enjoying that royal culinary treat. My friend asked if this would happen back home too.
I was reminded of the time I tried sharing food from Karim’s (one of my favourite restaurants in Delhi) with my housekeeper. Although she loved me like her own child, she drew a line there and said that she would eat with me when I get food from a ‘normal’ restaurant. She simply refused to eat food from a Muslim restaurant.
My friend and I then painfully discussed how sharing food between Hindus and Muslims is still a taboo for many. And here we were, raving about each other’s biryani and chaat.
Long dinners were often followed by longer green tea sessions. Whenever I was there, I happily took the charge of making tea for all and swaggered with the tray knowing I had got it all right - less brewed for my Indian friend, more brewed for her husband, strong and piping hot for the Lahore couple.
With a hot cup of tea of my own in hand, I thoroughly enjoyed going in and out of the delightful mix of Hindi-Urdu conversations.
After a mandatory session on French politics, we contemplated fast-changing trends back home - if palazzo pants are more popular than cigarette pants, if it’s still a while before the short length kameez shalwar is back in fashion, or what the new perfectly elegant cut is that Pakistani designers have brought into trend.
We talked about visas and told stories of friends and family who have been longing to visit an ancestral home or meet a childhood friend on the other side of the border. Occasionally, we got all emotional, travelled back in time and talked about Partition.
While scrolling through Facebook posts, I read out aloud: Indians and Pakistanis who cherish the bonhomie born of personal interactions tend to forget that Kashmiris are suffering in the crossfire every day.
My Pakistani friend instinctively replied, “In 70 years since Independence, ours is the first genuinely post-colonial generation. As experts are pulling the strings of political and economic diplomacy, all we can do is build more trust and show more love.” I promised to remember that.
The inevitable eventually came. I was asked if and when I plan to get married.
My ‘no’ was conveniently ignored amidst discussions on the tough visa procedures between the two countries. My Pakistani friends began brainstorming ideas for a destination wedding outside India so that they could be there to attend.
Discussing the latest wedding trends, I mentioned how a little girl in the family closest to the bride becomes her flower girl. Little Rameen, my Pakistani friend’s younger daughter, came running from inside, hugged me tight and asked, “So when you get married, would I be your flower girl?” I loved her confidence and said, “Yes!”
When the chai meeting had ended, it was time for me to leave. Rameen hugged me tighter and with a sad face said, “Please stay more. Khuda ke vaaste, please don’t go!” I tried not to cry.
At the end of June this year, my family visited me in Paris. They arrived on the day of Eid. My Pakistani friend invited all of us for Eid dinner.
For the unfortunate lynching of Muslims in India, #BlackEid was trending on Twitter back home and here in Paris, Eid was a gentle reminder that there’s still hope.
It was gratifying to see my parents and my sister who so vehemently opposed my trip to Lahore, conveniently mingle with everyone.
My Indian friend’s husband said to the little Pakistani girls, “So what if you are not in Lahore, here is your Eidi”. As the girls jumped in excitement, I wondered: Who says only blood makes family!
It was soon time for me to leave Paris. On my last visit, eight-year-old Rameen prepared me my farewell lunch - chicken biryani shaped into a heart. My little chef reminded me that only she will be the flower girl in my wedding.
We all hugged each other crying, all the while promising each other we won’t cry anymore. Sometimes I wish I could go back in life - not to change anything, but to feel a few things twice.
It is rightly said: Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from god, it’s what we give one another.
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