Saturday Story 5: United we Stand
He was standing in the vestibule, lost in a world of music. Ashish was just grateful to see another brown-skinned person, that too a Punjabi. Who else would listen to Honey Singh, on headphones? Normally, he would have felt shy to tap a stranger on the shoulder. But time was passing very slowly on the slow train to Stockholm. The price of a ticket that cost just 20 euros.
“Brother, kya sun rahe ho?” said Ashish, with what he hoped looked like a bright smile.
The guy looked at Ashish and continued bobbing his head. He pulled out the left headphone and offered it in a gesture of dosti. And just like that, they stood there for a good half hour, united by bhangra beats. Finally, the train drew into Stockholm station and they headed back into the compartment to take their luggage.
“Tum kahan se ho,” asked Ashish, eager to cement the friendship. “Delhi?”
Headphone Guy laughed and said, “Lahore.”
Ashish was stunned. Suna tha ki Pakistan mein Punjabis hain, par kabhi mile thodi the. This was too much. They really are ‘just like us’.
Sahil was a master’s student at the Stockholm Institute of Technology, not far from the Sodermalm School of Business, where Ashish was an exchange student. The purpose of exchange being to ‘backpack across Europe’, he’d spent the weekend in Copenhagen. But after such 6 weekend trips, he was feeling saturated.
Every European city had a town square, an old church, a palace and streets with cobblestones. Arrey, photo mein to sab ek jaise hi lagne lage the.
So, the following weekend, instead of heading out of town, Ashish accepted Sahil’s invitation for dinner. The apartment was on the 4th floor, in a building which had no lift. The appetite he’d built up came in handy when he saw the lavish spread on the dining table. Crisp naan, butter chicken and malai paneer.
“Brother, I thought you might be a vegetarian,” grinned Sahil. “Daba kar khao.”
The takeaway was from a nearby restaurant called Natraj, which had murals of Radha and Krishna on its walls. But, enlightened Sahil, it’s run by a Bangladeshi couple. Sweden has attracted a lot of Bengalis. Leftist-leftist bhai bhai was probably the reason for it, in the 60s and 70s. And then the Bangladeshis followed. Which side of the border who came from, was only of interest to desis.
Well, the 3 month exchange program was coming to an end. Ashish was due to fly back to india and rejoin IIM Indore. When, all of a sudden, duniya badal gayi. All local and international flights were cancelled, leaving Ashish stranded in a strange land. With no place to stay, and not much money…
When Sahil heard of his predicament, he opened his heart, and his home, in a gesture of dosti. Feeling overwhelmed, Ashish quickly accepted. Unlike the rest of the world, life was almost ‘normal’ in Sweden, he assured his worried parents in Ambala. Yaane ki waise bhi log koi khaas ek-doosre se milte julte nahin.
The month of Ramzan was about to start, and on the first day, something unusual happened. Before breaking his fast, Sahil declared it was time for a ‘special drink’.
“Drink? I thought it was haraam for you….” said Ashish, surprised.
Brother, yeh drink to hamari jaan hai. Shaan-e-Pakistan hai…
Ta-dah! Hamdard ka Rooh Afza. Ashish blinked, for the label proudly declared ‘Made in Pakistan’.
“Yeh to hamare yahan mein bhi milta hai,” said Sahil’s Bangladeshi friend Aabir. “Ghar ghar mein.”
For Hakim Adbul Hameed had stayed back in India, while his brother Hakim Mohammed Said migrated, and launched the family business in East and West Pakistan.
For once, the bright-red sherbet did not taste sickly sweet… for it had the mithaas of history, of mystery. Strange are the ways of destiny brother, let’s raise a toast to it.
Don’t miss the audio file: Inside the Author’s Mind: Why I wrote ‘United we stand’