My Friend from Islamabad


Summer vacation never meant days off for international graduate students in the United States but in those warm months we could take longer-than-usual coffee breaks without feeling guilty.

Pocket Park, our campus coffee shop, was a tiny glass house wedged into the farthest corner of this small, open-air hangout. Tables, chairs, benches, stairs, the steps of a small wooden stage — we could seat ourselves anywhere. In the summer, the place was deserted and we usually picked a table under the trees.

That day another person was at a table some distance away from us. She looked a little younger than us. She wore her hair in a bob. She was dressed comfortably in a pastel salwar suit; no dupatta. To me, the trouser, not bunched at the ankle, looked like something a Chinese girl would wear in a martial arts movie. This was confusing.

“Look,” I said to my friend who was already looking at her. “Is she desi?” (Desi means compatriot in Hindi — I only meant if she is from India.)

“Don’t know,” he said.  A pretty girl is a pretty girl. What does her nationality matter?

At that moment, she looked up and smiled. We waved and gestured for her to join us. Introductions were quickly made.

“I am an undergraduate. I am here this summer to do research in the mathematics department,” she said. “I am originally from Islamabad.”

Questions flew back and forth. This was after all the first time we were meeting someone from across the border. We talked and talked. An hour later, we realised we had to be getting back to our labs. Our friend had mentioned she missed her good old dal chawal, as her dorm did not have any kitchen facilities. We said we would stop by the math department on our way home. She decided to join us for dinner.

As we walked home, we were thoroughly drenched by a sudden downpour. I pulled out some spare desi clothes for our guest to change into. My housemate walked in with a friend from the business school.

“Guess what? Pakistan lost today! They are not going any further in this tournament,” the friend said and looked around to exchange high-fives. Normally I would have joined in, but I remembered my manners.

“My friend, from Islamabad,” I said, introducing our guest.

My housemate and his friend from the business school looked decidedly embarrassed.

“Well, we celebrate much the same things in Pakistan,” my guest admitted sportingly.

Pakistan had lost to someone. We did not profit by their defeat. This only meant both our teams were now out of contention. Apparently, this is the kind of thing we celebrate on both sides of the border.

As they say, there is no better cure for cross-border acrimony than meeting someone from the other country and realizing that they are not so different from yourself.

That weekend we went out to dinner. My housemate’s friend, who wanted to make amends for his inadvertent gaffe, quietly offered to pay. That was a nice thing to do especially on a graduate student budget.

P.S. She was wearing a “mullah” salwar. Some summers later she sent me a mullah salwar suit in the mail.