Putting aside my Kindle after finishing a novella by a Bangali doctor chronicling his journey through Bangladesh to visit what were his ancestral villages before the partition of India, my mind drifted to a recent encounter with a woman from Bangladesh -- my first such meeting.
Taking off from Delhi for my home in Chandigarh, I noticed the lady sitting beside me taking out her camera, with a long zoom lens. Quite the shutterbug myself, I enquired how the photography was coming along. “Oh, just terrible,” she replied. “I was hoping to get some aerial shots of the Jama Masjid, but it’s nowhere to be seen.”
Seeing my puzzled look, she broke into a chuckle and told me she was from Bangladesh, travelling onward to Kashmir to indulge in light mountain climbing, doing some photography, and taking back some amazing memories. She further told me that she spent at least half of each year in the Himalayas, trekking through treacherous mountain ranges, teaching the locals English, and managing her advertising agency from the roof of the world.
I looked at the woman, who could not have been a day over 40, gawking in amazement at her zest for life. She asked me about the food I ate in Punjab, and while I chattered on about dal makhani and butter chicken, she gleamed and told me about her love affair with Amritsari Kulcha and lassi, which she had discovered on a trip from Amritsar to Lahore.
While I explained her the rationale behind Punjabis’ fixation for curd and lassi, she told me about her paramour -- beef bhuna -- a mixture of beef, herbs, condiments, and spices cooked slowly, with a little gravy.
I realized I had forged an uncanny friendship -- she, a mother of three children who had demanded to sit at the back of the aircraft to enjoy some independence and I, a twenty-something IT consultant looking for the next story to write about.
Having stayed in Mumbai for over 10 years working with an advertising agency, my new friend had made several trips to Pakistan, and on asking if the Beating Retreat at Wagah was better from Amritsar or Lahore, she seemed to be in a quandary.
Despite having the potential to follow India’s steps, corruption was keeping Bangladesh from progressing. The constant change of power further exacerbated the problem -- with corruption, unplanned expansion of cities, and increasing religious intolerance plaguing both our countries
The grass is always greener on the other side, I told her. She told me about her love for mosques around the world, how the architecture spoke to her, and explained the history of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, which was built along the lines of Delhi’s Jama Masjid.
I silently thanked my father for forcing me to study maps in school when the lady talked about her mountain climbing exploits.
Having trekked the easier inclines of the Dhauladar range and the intimidating Annapurna peak, she now wanted to share her passion with her children, and decided to start with Kashmir. Hearing my stomach growling after an entire night’s travel without any breakfast, she offered me some home-made Pithas, which I still yearn for.
As we prepared for our descent, my friend worried about Bangladesh.
Despite having the potential to follow India’s steps, corruption was keeping Bangladesh from progressing.
The constant change of power further exacerbated the problem. The grass is greener on the other side, I reminded her -- with corruption, unplanned expansion of cities, and increasing religious intolerance plaguing both our countries.
In the momentary silence that followed, I wondered what my friend must have felt while entering Kolkata from Bangladesh, facing a salvo of questions, asked, in all probability in Bangla, only to visit the land which was once as much hers as it is mine today.
My father has long dreamt of visiting Sialkot, where our family left behind vast lands at the time of the Partition, and I wondered what he would tell the immigration officer at the border -- that, yes, he was an Indian, but first a Punjabi, similar on both sides of the border, speaking the same tongue, returning to his ancestral lands.
Mais, c’est la vie
The flight landed and the lady picked up the book she had been reading earlier. “This book is about a man on a solo trip to the Himalayas.
It’s my favourite book, and I’ve read it four times. I would like you to have it. Read it, and think of me,” she said.
I looked for a souvenir which I might give her, but she held up her hand. Our conversation was the best souvenir, she said.
Disembarking from the aircraft, I realised that, in the hour-long journey, we had not even shared our names with each other. A smile crept up on my face.
It was the kind of chance encounter when a stranger enters your life for ephemerality, but leaves behind memories for eternity.
I just hope that she enjoys reading this piece as much as I enjoyed reading her book. The Lady, as I like to think of her.
Rishabh Kochhar is a freelance contributor.