Monday, December 18, 2017

Mea culpa: I too have eaten dinner with Pakistanis

For over a week now, my conscience has been pushing me to write this mea culpa, for I too, have eaten dinner with Pakistanis. Yes, those same Pakistanis that Indian social media insists can never be innocent or trustworthy. Alas, I too am anti-national.

I have not just had dinner with Pakistanis, I have had breakfast, lunch, mid-morning coffee, afternoon tea, anytimeisteatime chai and late night green tea with them. And also, ice cream. I won't apologise, but I do confess.

The first Pakistanis I got to know, although they then were too far away to share any meal, were my Pakistani brother and his family. I did not eat with them until 1985, but I did send the occasional rakhi across the border. In 1985, I visited my brother on his American campus, and stayed with his cousin sister who, as a very hospitable South Asian, fed me. I also ate with him and his many Pakistani friends--dal chaval and pizza, as I recall. But all that was in the US, so it may not count.

In the meanwhile, my uncle visited Ajmer Sharif and came to Bombay just to meet my parents. I was not there but I believe he did not eat anything at our home. This is a terrible thing in South Asian culture, as you know. He did not eat. But many years later, when I visited their home, I ate many meals--lunch, tea, dinner--all specially planned for the visiting vegetarian daughter. A treasured memory remains sitting at the dining table, enjoying delicious apples from Pakistani Kashmir. The apples were sweeter for the affection with which they were chosen for me.

Long before that, my only other South Asian classmate in my MA International Relations course was a Pakistani woman about ten years older than me. She and her husband were both lecturers in Political Science in Pakistan and had come to study in the US. They were shocked (him, especially) that my parents had sent me alone to the US at 20, and adopted me. I ate at their home regularly--yes, usually dinner--when my classmate would cook sabzi separately for me, and feed me dal, subzi and roti early with her two little kids. In her eyes, I think I was not much older! They would make sure I ate--and what did they have that they shared so generously, she was a student and he had a campus job, and they had a relative staying with them too--and then one of them would walk me to the bus stop and make sure I got back to my dorm. They were family. But I am told now, they could not be trusted. So maybe there was arsenic in the delicious firni I ate in their house that I miraculously survived?

You might say, these are 'ordinary' people but it is the security-diplomatic gang one should be leery of. Perhaps. Perhaps.

You see, I have eaten dinner with them as well. Many of the people whose op-eds you read and that you watch on hydra-headed TV discussions are people who were in non-official track, confidence-building programmes with me in the early 1990s. We stayed together for weeks, and ate together, and talked all night, and much more... and confidence was built. And friendships that will last a lifetime. Friendships between people who shared similar experiences, across borders, with sometimes contradictory perspectives--but friendships, anyway.

And the women peace activists I work with now, who have gone from strangers to friends to sisters, who know what sorts of bangles I like and that I want to have a blog about fabric and embroidery someday using photographs of their clothes. The alliances made when eyes meet over shared hurt--one complains, the other consoles, without words. And yes, I am so sorry, many meals have been shared with these terrific women--and a regional buffet of munchies fuels our meetings, where chilgoza meets murukku.

And many other meals all over the world with friends and professional colleagues from the Pakistani side of the border.

I forgot to tell you about the Pakistani fellow-intern from Karachi whose 1971 memories were a mirror-image of mine. But I don't think we ate dinner together, so it doesn't matter.

I meant to write a detailed, chapter and verse confession, but I realise there have been too many meals in over half a century to list here. Also, too many deep and too many silly conversations. Too many books and too many mixed tapes. Too much tea and too much laughter. Tears too, when I first moved to a city where I (still) have few friends, but I could call Islamabad on my cell-phone and share my transition travails with close friends. Too much silliness over international calls made just to get instructions on how to receive faxes on a home printer. Too much water under this friendship bridge.

Mea culpa, even though I do not understand how warmth, love and friendship can ever be anti-national.

Do you think that sharing salt and bread build mutual obligations that keep us from hurting each other? Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that why breaking bread together is a part of spiritual practice? Not eating together preserves the walls between us; Indians have used that as a way of maintaining caste difference over thousands of years.

Do you think that hearing each other's stories reminds us of how similar our struggles are, making it hard to demonise each other? Isn't that a good thing? Is it not a good thing that we get to know each other's frailties from a place of care than of enmity? That we can protect each other?

Isn't communication--over dinner or tea--especially important when you disagree? And a good friendship is not one in which you agree all the time or that you follow slavishly, but where there is enough honesty not to fake all that and enough respect to give each other space to be quite different--but not so much that a helping hand cannot reach.

All my life, I have thought these were good things, and that building the personal ties that keep us from mutually destructive policies was a fabulous idea. I still do. Mea culpa, for that too.

Let me close by sharing with you something a Bangladeshi diplomat said to me during an interview in 1985. I was being clever and asking how he defined South Asia. His brilliant reply: "South Asia stops when you go to someone's house, and the food no longer tastes like home." My South Asian home has many rooms, each quite self-sufficient and separate, but our dining tables merge under the force of that common civilisational instinct to stuff people's stomachs to the point of stupor--and food across the region tastes of spices and condiments we have traded across millennia. Wherever I move, across this table, whoever I break bread with, I am still eating at home and that is how it feels.

But have it your way--so, mea culpa.

No comments: