It was a cold, grey morning in Leeds - the erstwhile hub of the industrial revolution in the north of England. The town had all the relics from the past, and with its factory sheds and chimneys it looked like a hardworking, middleclass place. Probably the reason why a number of people from the subcontinent had set up their homes there - building new homes in new lands. That morning, however, I was too rushed to notice all this. Late for a flight, I was breathlessly looking for a taxi. And just when I was giving up on getting one, Wasim and his taxi appeared almost like Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve. I got on - my instructions were clear, drive as fast as you can. Wasim smiled - "Dourayenge madam. Apko flight mil jayegi (I'll race. You'll catch your flight)."
Wasim spoke as fast as he drove. In that 20-minute drive, he spoke incessantly. And this is how the conversation went:
Wasim:Aap Dilli se ho(Are you from Delhi)?
Me: (Eyes on the watch): No, Kolkata
Wasim: Arre roshogolla. (He actually made an attempt to get the pronunciation right, rolling his tongue dramatically over the letters). I have Bangla friends.
Me (still distracted): You mean Bangladeshis?
I bit my lips. Obviously a prejudiced statement. A Vikram will know Bengalis from Kolkata, a Wasim will know Bangladeshis.
Wasim (cheerfully): I have Bangladeshi friends too. They cook tastier food. But Kolkata's roshogolla is unbeatable. Maybe you should get some the next time you go there.
Me (amused): And how do I find you? Come to Leeds and wait for a taxi?
Wasim (laughing infectiously): No madam. Take my number. I will come to Heathrow for fresh roshogollas.
Here we exchanged numbers. It was more like the over-enthusiastic, roshogolla-loving Wasim coerced me into giving my number after insisting that I save his. I was characteristically suspicious of strangers asking for numbers.
Me: Why don't you just come over to Kolkata? I mean you can eat fresh roshogollas right there.
Wasim: Nahi ja sakte na madamji. Apne desh ke beech itne faasla jo hai (I cannot go madam. The distance is too much).
Me (showing interest for the first time): Where are you from?
Me: Kashmir se Kolkata itna dur bhi nahi (Kashmir is not that far from Kolkata).
Wasim: Hai na madamji. I am from PoK. Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Pakistani? Gosh, I should have been more careful about sharing my number! This, mind you, was just a few months after the failed Glasgow bombing. And years of insurgency back home meant I shared Great Britain's distrust of the Wasims of the world. Especially if he belonged to PoK.
Wasim for a change stopped talking and noticed my discomfiture.
Wasim (uncertainly): What happened? Pakistan sunke laga atankbadi hoga? Kisko dediya apna number (Did you think he must be a terrorist because he is Pakistani? Who did I give my number to)?
Me: No. Am just worried about my flight. Can you drive faster?
Wasim: Don't worry, madam. I'll make sure I'll get you to your flight.
Hum (He continued after a pause) ek hi desh ke hai, ek hi jaise baat karte hai, ek hi jaise dikhte hai par hum Lahore ya Kolkata me nahi Leeds me milte hai. Aur phir jab samajhte hai ke aap Indian ho aur main Pakistani, mu fer lete hai. Bahut fasle hai humme madam (We are basically from one country, we talk alike, we look alike, but we don't meet in Lahore or Kolkata but in Leeds. And when we realise that one is Indian and one is Pakistani we go in opposite directions. There are huge distances between us).
"We can meet in Leeds or New York, but not in Lahore or Delhi."
Wasim's words hit me hard. My years of hatred for Pakistan, my resistance to anything remotely related with the country, the years of conditioning against its people all simmered below the surface. And could I be blamed? We have witnessed the treachery of the Kargil war, the brutality of the terrorism in Kashmir, the grotesqueness of serial bomb blasts which have killed again and again. We have shouted ourselves hoarse, crying 'Pakistan Hai Hai' every time we see India play Pakistan. The Partition created more than a boundary -- it created a legacy of extreme hatred.
Yet as I listened to Wasim, I realised how ridiculous, how pathetic the legacy is. A legacy that separates people so agonisingly similar, that keeps us locked in a self-defeating vortex of hatred that has sucked us in deeper and deeper. And has led us to make sweeping generalisations -- all Pakistanis are terrorists, no Indian can be trusted.
"The Partition created more than a boundary -- it created a legacy of extreme hatred. Yet as I listened to Wasim, I realised how ridiculous, how pathetic the legacy is."
Yet on that cold foggy morning, sitting in a speeding taxi in a country which once ruled us, the generalisations seemed unfair. Here was a Pakistani nonchalantly breaking traffic rules so I could reach the airport on time. (Notice the similarities with India!) A Pakistani whose love for roshogollas set us talking about foreign policies and visas, about prejudices and history, about the beaches of Goa and the terrains of Pakistan. We knew that we could only paint a verbal picture of these places since our policies and prejudices made it unlikely for us to cross the border.
We can meet in Leeds or New York, but not in Lahore or Delhi.
I did catch the flight that day. As I struggled with counting change, Wasim waived 2 pounds off my bill. Not mean change for a man struggling to pay for his education by driving a taxi. He sprinted with my luggage to the airport door. And told me -- only when I asked him repeatedly afterwards - that yes he did get a police ticket that day for breaking the lights.
"Roshogolla la dena madamji. Same to same ho jayega (Get me some roshogollas. We'll be even)," wrote back Wasim in his reply to my email full of apologies. Could I wire him the money he paid in the hefty fine? He would not hear of it.
"A Pakistani friend who grew up in the terror camp-infested PoK and harboured dreams of roaming the beaches of Goa and the streets of Kolkata almost seemed like a figment of my imagination."
And so we kept up emailing for a while. Wasim believed Indians, especially those from Kolkata, are more intelligent so he kept asking for tips on his coursework. I asked him to share his amazing recipes. Wasim on every third email kept reminding me of the roshogollas. But as it happens, things as trivial as roshogollas get lost in the larger scheme of things. My life got busier, I returned to India, the frequency of emails reduced and the roshogollas slipped from my mind. So did Wasim gradually.
Several things happened in the interim. The ghastly 26/11 attacks. More bomb blasts. More cross border firing. More distrust. More pain. Issues so large that a lone Wasim saying that we are similar got lost somewhere. A Pakistani friend who grew up in the terror camp-infested PoK and harboured dreams of roaming the beaches of Goa and the streets of Kolkata almost seemed like a figment of my imagination. Where is the similarity? We are nations at war, as the rhetoric of the politicians or the bullets of the militants repeatedly remind us. Until we cross the border again sometime and end up in a taxi in sleepy Leeds. In Britain, we can at least pretend to bury the legacy they left us.