Short story: Strange Bonhomie
Last November I was in Munich, Germany. It was a bright day after a series of gloomy rainy days but by the time I completed my work, the day was almost finished. Since the flight was next day, I decided to utilize some idle time for going around the city-who knows when will be the next time I come here.
So I took some directions from the concierge at the hotel who handed me a subway map. I reached the subway station after a five minute walk from hotel and reached the city centre in 20 minutes. It was five already, I thought the best thing to do would be to take a walking tour. The tour finished by 7, I was planning to collect some souvenirs, have food and leave for the hotel.
Just then I heard a voice asking me, “Can you please take a photograph?” Without waiting for my reply, the person handed his cellphone in my hand. It was a Blackberry, without much thought I said yes.
He was a well built, tall man in his mid thirties, black hair and a well kempt beard, I was nearly certain this guy was an Indian. I took his photograph and out of courtesy told him to check if the photograph was fine. It wasn’t, I took another one but the dark of evening didn’t help matters. I apologized, asked him if he had switched on the flash in his cellphone. He said yes and then stared briefly at the cellphone, rolling it in his hand as if he was unsure of what to do next.
He muttered to himself “Pata nahi kya masla hai.” (Don’t know what the problem is?) a knowing smile flashed across my face. He noticed my smile and asked me where I was from.
“India,” I said.
He smiled back and said “Main Pakistan se hun.“(I am from Pakistan) It was similar sounding to the Amritsari accent that I so often hear my in-laws break into.
“Which part of India?” “Bangalore,” he said, he was a punjabi from Lahore and then I told him that my parents are settled in Chandigarh, I work in Bangalore.
“Have you been to India?” I asked.
He quipped, “Sir aur mulk bhi ghumne hain, ek baar India ki stamp lag gayi to gaya passport!..aur mujhe lagta hai India mein bhi ye hi hota hoga agar pakistan ki stamp lag jaye.” (I want to travel other nations as well, if I get an Indian visa stamp my passport will become useless and I am sure same applies in India as well).
The satire was too deep and we laughed for nearly five minutes pausing in between to shake heads sideways an expression reflective of disapproval and helplessness. His name was Adnan, though he looked nothing like Adnan Sami that I knew.
Noticing the urgency to leave which was quite evident on my face, Adnan asked me if I was alone and if was in a hurry. Yes, I am alone, the affirmative yes was followed by a reluctant No “I am in no hurry just want to move around do some shopping and leave”.
Without delving deeper into the tone of my reply, he replied “Fir theek hai main apke saath ho leta hun.” (Then it’s fine I will roam around with you) The private person in me wanted to roam alone, the suspecting Indian in me sided with the private person but something in me said it’s okay – after all he seemed educated and moreover his company seemed interesting.
I tried to share second hand knowledge from the walking tour on the places we went past; he seemed impressed. After a while I realized we had a common ground to whine and complain on how Europeans took great care of their monuments and history while no one bothered in our part of the world.
“Do you drive in Europe?”
“No,” I said, “though I drive when I go to the US but I am usually scared of the hefty fines.”
“Achha wahan to 50rupay leke koi nahin chodega.” (There no cop will let you go if you pay him a measly bribe of Rs 50). These self deploring satires mocking our systems were becoming so common, we laughed hard. While we were taking photographs using my cellphone, Adnan told me all these photographs were for his son, who told him to go around the city and also visit Disneyland on his behalf which he might do tomorrow. I imagined a smile on the face of an unknown kid.
I finally asked him if he was hungry and wanted to have dinner.
“I will have some packaged food in the hotel, which I am carrying with me,” and my usually poker face gave way to a questioning expression -why? Why wouldn’t he have food outside, did he feel uncomfortable breaking bread with an Indian. “I am very particular about not eating pork, alcohol and meat should be halaal and these things you can’t be sure about, here.” He paused. “You must not have any restrictions, you go ahead, I can join you.”
Appreciating his beliefs and his resolve to stay true, I told him I was a vegetarian and yes, even I did not consume alcohol – at least not any longer. He laughed. “Chalo sharab pe to hamari rai ek hai, hmm.. masla apka bhi hai..but nothing stops me from having vegetarian food with you”(At least we have a similar view on non alcoholism, you too have a constraint. But I can always join you for vegetarian food) The nearly four hour walk demanded that I order a large vegetarian pizza and we paired it with Sprite, which I feel was a shameful thing to do in the beer capital Munich.
I insisted that I pay the bill; there was a lot of haggling. I haven’t put much thought into why I did it. It just felt the right thing to do. While having the pizza he seemed uneasy, he wanted to foot some part of the bill so he went and got two plates of salad, “Ye meri taraf se.“(this is from my side).
He then told me he was equally sceptical to talk to an Indian initially and we discovered a lot of similarities apart from non alcoholism- his wife was an MBBS doctor from Pakistan, we both were not big cricket fans, we liked similar movies. I didn’t realize at what point the scepticism transformed to affability.
The chilly Munich winter did nothing to stop the bonhomie from brewing. We talked about the companies we work for, about punjabi songs popular on both sides of the border. He told me how Imran Khan was a big hope for Pakistanis and that Pakistan was really inspired by the India against the corruption movement. I didn’t want to share my disillusionment about what happened to IAC and the populist that it produced.
We shook hands, I transferred the photos to his phone via Bluetooth and then we took the subway as we had to go in opposite directions but ran into each other one more time when I remarked, “Ab upar wale ne fir se milaya hai to ek selfie to banti hai,” (God willing we met again, let’s commemorate with a selfie.)
One last photograph, and we went in opposite directions. This was my first interaction with someone across the border but in the time we chatted, I realized we are so much similar to each other and have the same struggles, similar aspirations and crave for similar changes. The smile remained with me for a long time.