Taking the leaf out of Koffee with Karan, what would you do if you were to live with a Kashmiri Pandit, a Pakistani, an Indian from a Defence background, and last but not the least, a Chinese under one roof? Unlike the popular opinion, I found a home filled with warmth, love and most importantly, food and kitchen conversations.
Imtiaz Ali’s movies have always highlighted travel as a key component which marks the beginning of an inward journey and opens up a new personality of the said individual. And truly, in a filmy style, I can say that I have experienced this and more. I have sung songs on the middle of streets; have run out of the house without informing anyone, even if it is to only pick up a ready-to-eat cake mix at 2 am; and have laughed out loud in an extremely emotional scene in a silent movie theatre, only to get death stared at later.
The primary constant in all these stories has been the same above people, my flat mates who were assigned randomly to my university accommodation while I was pursuing my Masters in International Journalism at Cardiff University, United Kingdom.
Blurring border lines
The enormity of the situation refused to dawn on me until a week later when post dinner, we sat through first, of our numerous, dialogue on the state of affairs our countries were entangled into. Having led a normal young life- without witnessing the scars of Kashmiri exodus of 1990s, or the constant threats of bombs, terror and unrest in my own city, or even the feeling of the pangs of fear when one’s father is involved in fighting in the border region- I would simply sit and absorb the conversations, offering my two cents based on the news I have seen or read.
It is through these dialogue sessions, I realised that ultimately the fear, difficulties and the longing for a ‘happy life’ underlined all our experiences and that we are same under these layers of different skin colour, religion and spoken languages. The politics of the state once divided the two countries in 1947. The bloodied partition and its aftermath continue to haunt each individual- be it an Indian or a Pakistani or a Kashmiri.
The lakeer (line), however, failed to separate the humanness which ultimately transgresses borders and bonds all us together.
We shared our lives together for 14 odd months, and not one day was dictated by our passports. Instead, grocery shopping, daily family dinner- cooked by me- gossip sessions, weekend getaways and more filled our home, hearts and lives. And if one talks about differences, then we embraced each other’s uniqueness and made it our own.
Because I was a vegetarian, they made sure that they would cook and clean the vessel so that I would meet only the cooked dish, rather than the sight of raw meat when I would enter the kitchen. Festivals were a reason for elaborate meals and halwa. It didn’t matter whether I fasted one day for Eid or my soul sister across the border, Sherina Junejo, fasted for Krishna Janmashtami. Iftaar was my responsibility while making sure that I ate my parathas after a hectic long day at the university was hers.
Indeed, as one says, food is truly a way to win a (wo)man’s heart, this statement was lived by us. It ensured that we spend time together and also, have a space for 2 am conversations about the shared love for Bollywood, Maggi, love, family and life in general. We were all regular human beings, who carried a varied baggage and experiences, yet, found the common thread in one another- friendship.
"On my first day in Cardiff, I discovered 3 out of my 4 flat mates were Indian. Having grown up watching my grandmother and mother watch Indian television all my life, drooling over Amir Khan (I’m an Amir Khan person) and listening to the 'other side' of the border tales from my Nani Ma, optimism took over me. To no surprise, however, I also had people fill me in about hateful Indians can be towards Pakistani’s, and how the only purpose of every Indian will be to isolate to me.
Then I met Shruti, the first day, flat kitchen, jumping around and just doing her thing. The first thing she said to me was “give me your number!!”, and then began a friendship that I knew would last a lifetime. We cooked and cleaned together, and cried our hearts out. I remember one-day Shruti came home crying because a professor had scolded her, and that day, seeing her cry, I felt like crying. This was when I realized she has become family for me away from home, just the way I would feel about my sister being upset.
I remember waiting for her to come home so we could eat together, for eating together is a part of my culture, just like it was a part of hers. Having lived away from Karachi for so many years, I still feel a weird sadness for people who sit and eat alone. I remember us baking butter cake together for Krishan Janmashtami, and I remember being in awe of how close she felt to Lord Krishna. Her relationship with her cousins, her aunts and uncles, everything felt like it was that of an ordinary Pakistani girl. Who knew in a land which is so difficult for me to visit, live millions of people who are so similar to me.
We’ve taken walks down random roads at Cardiff at 5 a.m. which felt meaningless then, but now make me realize were the most meaningful parts of my experience abroad. Just being there, listening, talking, having hot chocolate on cold winter nights. I remember how Shruti’s mum would tell her to take care of me during Ramadan, and she would cook seher and iftar for me. You know what is better than having one lovely family? Having two lovely families. My Indians became, and are, my second family.
We were there for each other during sickness (read: never-ending assignments) and in health. I felt a great ping of sadness when we were sitting in a God forsaken café in Amsterdam, talking about stuff that does not matter anymore, and it dawned upon me that we’re going home. How it would no longer be possible for me to just bang on her door show her my new clothes, or cry, or just take her for a walk to the casino (free hot chocolate). And I feel the same ping of sadness when I realize I haven’t seen her in three years, but hey, Dubai, we’re coming soon."
- Sherina Junejo
While ‘food’ was central to our shared comradeship, I also used the opportunity to sensitise and get better informed about the troubled history shared by each of us. The tiny young journalist in me, absorbed the pangs of a Kashmiri Pandit being a visitor in their own homeland post the exodus of the 1990s. It leads me to chronicle their lives and times in India after the 1990s.
I witnessed the heroic Pakistan election in 2013 when the citizens were excited to vote, perhaps for the first time. Few of my friends even travelled back for to their country for 72 hours. When asked why, they said if Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal can make a dent in India, why an Imran Khan cannot replicate the same model in Pakistan. While for me voting is a regular affair living in Bengaluru, but, for my friends from Karachi and Lahore, this was perhaps a first.
The same year even witnessed Malala Yosufzi winning the Nobel Peace Prize and that marked the beginning of another journey towards understand the life of aam aurat, the non-privileged women’s struggle in few parts of the country. The stories and learning exist everywhere once we open ourselves and remove the biases which inherently clouds our mind space.
More importantly, I became enriched by sharing myself with her and her family to the point that she once said, Hey Bhagwan!, while skyping with her mother and my Hindi became laced with Urdu words. These engagements are important, for often while painting another individual as the ‘other’, the most important element of being a human of flesh, blood and emotions is forgotten.