A Pakistani offers an Indian food for thought

A couple of years ago, the biggest blockbuster of India's "Bollywood" was a movie called "Gadar," which had a lot of anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Many movies followed suit, casting our next-door neighbor as a villain. Cut to 2005: One of the runaway hits today is "Veer Zara," a love story about a Pakistani girl and an Indian Air Force officer. The themes of Bollywood are good indicators of the state of relations between our two countries.

I am not part of the generation that lived through India's partition (1947), nor do I have any family ties to Pakistan. For many Indians like me, the image of Pakistan is a blurry one. We've had tense neighborly relations, and we've played cricket like war. Day-to-day information about the Pakistanis - their lives, struggles, and achievements - has been nonexistent. Many of us saw a two-dimensional portrait of Pakistan, one without life or character.

It was only abroad that we could freely interact with everyday Pakistanis. That is where I met Arshed - while studying in Japan. I was there with another Indian, and he was the lone Pakistani in the group. We found ourselves gravitating toward each other. Our language was the same and our cultural moorings similar. We sought out the same kind of food on the cafeteria menu. I discovered that he was equally enamored of Hindi films.

In the neutral environs of Tokyo, we had animated discussions about our history and politics. Underlying our differing points of view, we shared a thread of hope for better times. My Indian colleague in the program was amazed.

Not many at the time believed that Indians and Pakistanis could be friends on an individual level. That was in 1998.

This short but close interaction with someone from across the border was a revelation to me. My picture of Pakistan became three-dimensional. Back at home, whenever I read about India and Pakistan, I felt a personal tinge: I knew someone across the frontier.

In the following years, India-Pakistan negotiations fell through. A period of heightened tension and aggression prevailed. Cultural exchanges stopped, everything from cricket matches to the sharing of airspace.

In 2002, my husband suddenly had to attend a World Bank workshop in Islamabad, Pakistan. The distance between Delhi and Islamabad is about 435 miles, but because Pakistan's airspace was closed to Indian airliners, the flight was routed through Abu Dhabi, a trip of more than 2,175 miles.

We felt considerable disquiet about this visit. Then I remembered Arshed. From a long-forgotten diary, I dug out his number. I did not know if a call to Islamabad would even go through, but surprisingly it did. Arshed and I were reunited after many years. I had a simple request: Could my husband call on Arshed if he needed help?

Arshed was waiting for my husband at the Islamabad airport. "If relations between our two countries had been good," he explained, "I would not have come."

Every evening in Islamabad, Arshed took my husband around. Through him, my husband got a firsthand glimpse of life in Pakistan - and I got a secondhand glimpse. I pictured the restaurants that are open on all four sides. In my mind's eye I could see the beautifully painted trucks. I imagined what it was like to see Pakistani men going to work in there traditional dress, unlike Indian businessmen.

My portrait of Pakistan was growing clearer.

Then things began to look up again. One evening I was watching a state-owned TV channel covering the visit of Indian members of Parliament to Pakistan. Suddenly, I saw Arshed on-camera being interviewed about his latest venture, a cafe in Islamabad.

Arshed's idea is a not-for-profit enterprise with "food for thought" that offers "coffee, interaction, meals, and tolerance."

Long before our leaders decided to reach out to each other, Arshed's cafe was serving a refreshing drink of orange and lemon called Bharat-Pak Dosti ("Indo-Pak friendship"). One can also taste "American Democracy" and "Karzai's Kava" there.

I am glad that things are looking better for our two nations. I now can dream of driving to Islamabad from Delhi one day, reaching Arshed's cafe, and - after ordering a "Musharraf Guesspresso" - ask him if he now also offers a "Singh Surprise."

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