The Bengal Post is keeping this blog alive. But hopefully there will soon be some travel notes here - the sidewalks of Vienna, the Schonbrunn Castle, the lights of the castle on Buda hill and wild boar in a Magyar cellar.
Meanwhile, this Monday's effusion -
There were two people in line ahead of me. One was a crotchety old lady who needed attention and was going to some lengths to get it. As he took her order, his eyes met mine over her shoulder and I noted a flicker. Not of recognition, but perhaps realization? Two brown-skinned men, sizing each other up in an off-campus diner on Long Island, half way across the world from their homes. When I reached the counter, though, he was perfectly professional. “What can I get you, sir?”
It was I who broke the ice, venturing a few words in Hindi. “You seem to be from my part of the world” – the word I used was mulq, region, province. The smile came out then, a little hesitant, a little wary. A nod in affirmation, a few words in that accented Hindi that brought back afternoons on South Campus and back-slapping uproarious evenings in Nehru Place. I crashed on – “You must be from Punjab!” That nod again, and a smile I didn’t quite understand.
He ushered me to a table, excused himself, busied himself behind the counter. When he brought me my coffee, it was accompanied by doughnuts, cake, cookies, a tray heaped with sweet-smelling hospitality. “Aap khaao jee, ae mhaarey tarf se hai”. Afterwards, he refused to accept payment even for the coffee I’d ordered. “This is the first time you’ve come here, you are my mehmaan. Mhaarey mulq ke ho jee.” The unspoken statement of fraternity, of a common tradition in a foreign land. Heart-warming.
Except that he wasn’t from Punjab. At least not the Punjab I had in mind. “I’m from the other Punjab, bhai-saab. Kehnde hain beech mein kuchh baarder hai – what do you think?” How could I respond except with a smile and a shrug? We didn’t discuss it further. No ruminations on history, enmity, politics, lost families and homesteads. Just a smile on one side and a shrug on the other, the helplessness of 2000 years of common history cast aside by the next 60 years.
That encounter came to mind this week as I watched a most improbable script unfold. Take one Indian sportsman and one Pakistani, both a little past their sell-by date. Mix well, pour into one of the four biggest events in their sport. Not any one of the four, either. One in the US, where the government has an exclusive strategy team for this region. Serve garnished with the following – item#1 , a scandal about gambling and cricket that taints one side of the border; item #2, a scandal about doping that wipes out several medal prospects on the Indian side; #3, confusion about the biggest sporting extravaganza to be scheduled in India in several years. Wait, there’s more. Serve with the most perfect timing – a final match that coincides with both Ganesh Chaturthi and Eid. If poor Manmohan Desai had come up with such a series of coincidences, the scoffing classes would have torn him to shreds.
The script went a little pear-shaped at the end, of course. Bopanna and Qureishi lost in the finals. No matter. They scored one and a half billion points with their smiles photographed together off-court. In fact, the conspiracy theorists had already started muttering about a fix, with everybody from B. Husein Obama to the line judges and Marcos Baghdatis involved in some incomprehensible realpolitik to rival Robert Ludlum’s most convoluted plots. No matter. For a week, two countries looked on and smiled a little sheepishly as the rest of the world asked what the fuss was about, all these years. And the Internet bulged at the seams with a fantasy every cricket fan has indulged over the last 40 years – could anybody have beaten a team that had both Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Akram, where Javed Miandad and Kapil Dev were comrades and not adversaries?
This same week witnessed a rare partnership in the world of music – Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh performing together, an evening where the sheer presence of the two stars overshadowed their actual performance. Elsewhere, whether in collaborations or on the personal level, whether in the public domain or from my own experience, I seem to recall only good things happening when people from both sides of the border get together one to one. A new friend from Lahore, dapper in Hugo Boss and sharp as a knife, dismissed all politics with a wave of the hand and invited me to a weekend at his cottage in Murree. “We’ll play squash and drink beer, no government can object to those activities!” A millionaire’s offer that in its own way echoed the hospitality of my friend in the Dunkin’ Donuts on Long Island.
In Bollywood, alas, the story is not so good. There was Meera earlier, there was Mohsin Khan long before her, and now one reads of Veena Malik. Is it only in in the film industry that Indo-Pak partnerships have not really worked out. Everywhere else, we seem quite hunky-dory. If one leaves out, of course, the minor issue of international relations!