Our friendly Neighborhood
There are lots of people whom you meet in your lives. Some of them become friends, some bring in the difference in your life and some of them set you thinking. Asif was one such person in my life - who set me thinking.
I met Asif while traveling from Almaty to India (via Sharjah). I first saw him at the Almaty airport when I was patiently waiting for the announcement of the flight that was supposed to depart four hours before. At the airport lounge, I was keener to know about the flight than to know about this guy who was trying everything to get some information about his next flight from Sharjah.
I again saw Asif at Sharjah airport. But then, neither of us was interested in conversation / becoming friends. We were interested in getting flight details from Dubai, as there were no flights then from Sharjah. After a lot of confusion and tension I stood in the airport lounge thinking about my next move. Two hours and two phone calls later, I heaved a sigh of relief because now I had a ticket to India. My flight was from Dubai and thanks to Air Kazakh authorities, I found myself in Dubai.
My flight to India from Dubai was after eight hours and I had a good seven hours in hand. I walked around looking at Duty free shops. A lot of things were available. Then, a familiar figure crossed my sight and it was Asif.
I saw him walk towards me. I tried to look away but his smile trapped my sight and I stood fixed - just looking at him. I couldn't help looking at him and smiling. As he came closer, without realizing, I said "Hi". "Hi" came the prompt reply. Our smiles translated to a sense of "victory", that of swimming ashore safely from troubled waters. After the usual introduction, we sat down in the lounge and started talking. We narrated to each other our stories about how we missed flights at Sharjah and how finally we were in Dubai.
"Going to Mumbai are you?" he finally asked.
"Yeah. You too?" I managed to ask.
"No. To Karachi, Pakistan. Why, you thought I am an Indian? Well, I am a Pakistani!"
This almost shocked me and probably it showed on my face.
"Why do you look so shocked? Because, I am from the enemy country?" He asked.
"Well, no. I mean, you look so Asian that I just assumed you to be an Indian" I managed.
Dozens of questions crossed my mind but I was determined to keep a straight face. I couldn't help thinking for once why I was talking to him or why I was entertaining this conversation. This man belonged to the enemy country and logistics claimed that I don't speak to this man. But studying this man, I felt he was good and also in his best behaviour. He had probably entertained many women before but he was very cautious in his speech and action. I was now trying to pretend to be friendly when I was voluntarily becoming friendly. He genuinely seemed to be a nice man. So, I decided that people are important and not countries. After all, I was bored. So if someone proved entertaining, then why give up on that - I thought. I dived deep into the conversation when a sense of betrayal creeped in. Here was a man from enemy country and I was talking to him. As a good patriot, I should stop it right then and walk away. I made up my mind. But half-hour later, we were still talking and I was not in the least bored. I made an attempt not to talk about politics - I did not want to embarrass him or myself. But one doubt I had - what if he is an undercover from ISI and what if tomorrow someone questions me for talking to him? I was confused so, I slowly asked him what he did for a living. He said he is a driller in oil fields and that he visited Almaty very often. I was half satisfied with the answer. In the meanwhile he asked me about what I do and where I live and so on.
After sometime Asif invited me for a cup of chai. In spite of telling myself a hundred times not to go, I agreed and we went to the nearby cafeteria. I was now slowly gaining interest in the conversation and more so in the psyche of a Pakistani.
As our conversations went on, it touched on the dreaded area of politics. "So, if given a chance", I started, "will you ever come to India?" I asked vaguely. He looked at a distance and said, "We have some ancestral property in Punjab. My aunt lives there and I know that she is old and lives alone. Some day I'd like to visit her but I don't know.
"Why not?" I asked
"Because, I am from Pakistan and being a Pakistani who knows, I could get killed right at the airport itself!!" he said.
"But who would know you are a Pakistani to kill you?" I asked.
"Well", he said, "I don't have the courage butů"
"You know", he continued, "in Pakistan, and in the place I live, children get into politics and join groups and do all the things they shouldn't be doing. I have seen kids being lured into gun culture. I get worried but we can't stop it. Perhaps, a day will come when things will get better."
I looked at him and felt that he was narrating a story that I have probably read a million times in magazines and actually happening. He also narrated an incident where he witnessed a shoot out! I couldn't believe that all this was coming from him - a Pakistani - the supposed enemy. The more I heard from him, the more I realized that he wanted 'Peace'.
"We are both fighting over a piece of land" - he said at last "when all that is needed is peace," he claimed.
"But whoever gets it in the end is the winner. So, who would want to be a loser?" I asked.
"It's all a big game of politics which you and I don't understand. See, in spite of being from two enemy countries, we have been able to talk peacefully for the last two hours. I can't speak for your country but I know that all that our country does is not right. But, I can't say all that. We are all originally from one country and today we just seem to hate each other. I think we should become an exception. Lets be friends - he offered."
By now, I was convinced that no matter where one lives, everyone is human inside. I accepted the offer. He invited me to Karachi for which I replied, "the day peace will ring its bell, I shall visit you".
We roamed in the duty free Mall where he shopped for chocolates. After sometime, he promised to call me in Almaty and bid good-bye.
The moment he left, I started thinking and ran our entire conversation in my mind. I couldn't help wonder why we all fight for everything in our lives. I also realized that in the big game of politics, small people were kicked around. We have somehow grown to believe that Pakistanis are enemies and that they are not good. But, here was a man, who was genuinely good and wanted to be friends with an 'Indian'. I was glad and I somehow felt a sense of achievement.
After a while, a young man sat next to me and we started talking. He was to fly by the same flight as mine. During our conversation I happened to mention about Asif. "How could you talk to a Pakistani? You know what - they are all goondas. How could you even say 'hi'" and he went on and on.
I did not want to explain and I didn't have to. "You didn't even meet him" I managed to say. " They are all the same." He claimed. That's what I thought before. I couldn't blame him. A person has to meet one to know one.
A few weeks later, in Almaty, Asif visited us and spent a few hours talking. My husband and I welcomed his friendship and made a conscious effort from then on to accept people without any prejudice. Asif is just an individual in our life who changed our way of thinking. Today we are convinced that among the thousands of Pakistanis whom we believe spread "hatred", there are at least a few hundred "Asifs" who spread "love" and "peace".