by Adnan Shahid (Courtesy: The News)
I am a proud Pakistani. I wear my national identity openly. But I am also a strong advocate of Indo-Pak peace. In 2004, I had the opportunity to work on a short term consulting assignment for a multinational oil and gas company in Delhi. Relations between the two countries were then lukewarm at best. But I still felt the warmth at the personal level, which reinforced my belief in the need for people-to-people contact.
These beliefs were further reinforced by my time at MIT as a Sloan Fellow in Innovation and Global Leadership in 2008 – memories of which came crowding back thanks to Zarminae Ansari’s article ‘Iftar with Puja’ (Sep 25, 2010, Aman ki Asha). Like her, I too developed lifelong associations with Indians and their families in while studying in Boston, which bolstered my faith and confidence in the need for peaceful and cordial relations between our two countries.
When I got admission to the Sloan Fellows Programme, I was excited but also nervous about the move to Boston with family. We had hundreds of questions about our relocation – housing, school for my son, halal food stores, a pediatrician for our newborn… There was only one Pakistani, Imtiaz Ahmed, in the outgoing class. He was very helpful, and we were moving into his apartment. But many loose ends still needed to be tied.
There was an orientation session for the incoming class a couple of months before classes were to start (organized by the outgoing class, a tradition of the Sloan Fellows). This gave newcomers a chance to meet the outgoing class and inquire about housing and schooling. In all this hustle and bustle at JFK Memorial Library overlooking the lovely city of Boston, I met Aditya. He introduced himself with his charismatic smile and said, “Bhaisaab Pakistan say ho?”
Aditya was settled in Boston and offered useful tips on anything and everything about moving in. The evening had more surprises in store. I met a lovely couple – Krishna and Matty, like Aditya, “locals” to Massachusetts. Afterwards I sent them several emails with all sorts of queries and they patiently replied. When we reached Boston, my wife Zeasth and Matty became great friends. We have maintained contact, and fondly remember the dinners at their beautiful home. Matty now has her own line of designer clothing – B Matty. We follow her success and support her endeavors.
We moved to Boston in the summer of 2008 – myself, Zeasth, three-year old Abdullah and three- month old Raanya. Moving to Boston with small kids was a big deal but thanks to our new friends, the settling in was much easier than anticipated. There was only one other Pakistani family (Shahid Azim, his wife Nadia and little Zyna) in our class of 100 students from 28 countries.
Our wonderful Indian friends made our little ‘American Adventure at MIT’ truly memorable. My five-student study group included two amazing Indians – Yatin Hoskote and Pankaj Khare, who proved to be a real blessing. Studies at MIT are tough by any standard. True to ‘desi culture’, Pankaj and I would have endless debates on our case studies. Yatin was the calming force while Marcelo (from Brazil) and Takefumi (from Japan) looked on. I was always amused that Yatin, who moved to Boston from Portland, had retained his Indian accent despite being in USA for many years. Pankaj was a former Indian Railways General Manager with interesting stories to share. Both were like a support group and the best part — it extended to our families.
Yatin’s amazing wife Ashwini and Zeasth got along really well, going grocery shopping and “mall hopping” together. Abdullah enjoyed the company of Sanaya who was his age. Our baby Raanya played with their twins Shonak and Vedh. We remain grateful to the Hoskote family for the extraordinary care they took of Zeasth when she had a bad fall in the snow, spraining her left arm. I was in Brazil for field research, and it would have been difficult for her to cope with a three-year old and six-month old without Ashwini’s help.
Pankaj played a key role in helping us settle into our unfurnished two-bedroom Westgate apartment, driving us in his mini-van to get furniture from Ikea. At one in the morning, he and Himenshu helped me carry the new furniture up two flights of stairs – our only connection: desi connection and friendship. He and his wife Aparna and kids always treated us like family. We did not have a car, so Pankaj and his family would come all the way to pick us up for any events or functions. Our kids got along very well too – Abdullah is Priya’s age but he was a huge fan of Pallavi, about seven years older. He would hold Pallavi’s hand every time they were together. We often used Pallavi’s name to bribe Abdullah to eat his food. Food reminds me of when Pankaj and Aparna invited us home for dinner and specially got halal chicken for us. These small gestures make you realize how peacefully these two communities coexisted for hundreds of years.
In a city obsessed with baseball and the Red Sox, I found cricket through Prat Vemana. It was a delight to see Prat and his son playing cricket at our class picnics. Cricket remained a main point of conversation. I recall passing scores during class to Yash and Subrat! How can I forget Himenshu and his wonderful wife Nupur and kids Hanu and Manu. Himenshu bhai is a great man and a big cricket enthusiast who I if I recall correctly, played first class cricket in India as well. He had been to Pakistan and we would often discuss how wonderful it would be if we could have peace between our countries.
Other great friends from across the border include Vinod and Pooja, who became our best friends. We rejoiced when we heard about their first born daughter Dhrti, like a new addition to our family and are waiting for them to send us some of Haldi Ram’s famous mithai. We have truly enjoyed some great time together, especially during Christmas time in New York.
With two Pakistanis, one Sri Lankan, and twenty odd Indians, we organized a hugely successful South Asian evening at MIT. There was much bhangra, desi food and music and desi jokes going around. It was a great showcase for Indo-Pak peace in particular and South Asia in general. If we can put up a common show outside our region, why can we not do the same at our home base? Our end of the programme was an international trip to Turkey and India. It was soon after the Mumbai attacks and Shahid and I, the two Pakistanis in the class, weren’t sure we’d get our visas. Our Indian class fellows rooted for us. At the last minute we got our ‘Delhi Only’ visas. It was a great trip. Our Indian class fellows were great hosts and we had a wonderful time.
We participated in two special events worth sharing – a Macro Economics debate on ‘Is the Economic Growth of India sustainable?’ and a ‘Country Spotlight on Pakistan’.
As part of Macro Economics course, Prof. Roberto Rigobon organized a debate on India’s economic growth. The FOR and AGAINST teams passionately debated their respective positions. When the results were being compiled, I went to the stage and shared my thoughts as an “unbiased and impartial” observer from Pakistan (pun intended) while acknowledging and appreciating the economic progress made. I also shared the Pakistanis’ following of Bollywood and our arch rivalry in cricket. The audience, including a large non-student community, listened attentively.
Shahid and I organized the Spotlight on Pakistan session, in which we discussed the culture, political and economic landscape of Pakistan. A large number of Indians attended, and heard our side of story on Kashmir and Partition. We spoke about the 1948 UN Plebiscite resolution, the Simla agreement, and Pakistan’s view on many other issues that our countries disagree on. Our version of history and conflicts is different from what is taught in India. But there was a consensus that regardless of these disputes and differences, we need peace in the region for prosperity.
The list of my Indian friends and anecdotes is long. There were cribbing sessions on governments with Abhishek and Himenshu bhai, desi food ventures with Bobby Dutta and Rupin who loved Pakistani haleem and biryani, desi jokes with Pankaj, Rajeev and Saatish, chats with Niki on all walks of life, homework discussions with Poonam and Subrat, Bollywood movie reviews with Hari, work life balance discussions with Meera and the list goes on.
These great friendships prove that we can get along very well. There are many similarities between us that we need to highlight and hang on too. Yes, we are different too. I believe in the two nation ideology and the national identity of Pakistan. I have met some wonderful and amazing Indians who are equally passionate about India but they too want peace. There is enough poverty, lack of education, insufficient health care and corruption across South Asia. Let us make peace and fight poverty together – for us and our children and our coming generations.
Signing off with desire for Aman ki Asha.
The writer is a graduate of MIT Sloan Fellows program in Innovation and Global Leadership, currently based in Islamabad.