I’d attained the age of a voter a month before millions of believers declared allegiance to Pakistan, a nation separate from India. Soon its citizens became them, different from us. Later, both countries went to war with each other three times. We soon created stereotypes of each other, the Om symbol for the Hindus, the crescent for the Muslims, green for the Muslims and saffron for the Hindus and also some obscenities to define each other. This was the background for the story you are reading now.
That day the weeklong UN-sponsored deliberations on Namibia had ended at Guyanese capital Georgetown. The sun was calling it a day when the delegates trooped out of the conference hall of Hotel Pegasus with its stunning view of the Atlantic. They shook hands of farewell, took out their ballpoint pens from their jackets and jotted down each other’s addresses and telephone numbers. They had all met years ahead of the mobile phone and the Internet. Then they went back to their rooms to pack their bags for different destinations and, time permitting, to do some hurried shopping. The UN office had booked me for a night flight that day.
It was five in the evening when a UN official knocked on the door of each delegate to the conference to make payments. According to UN rules part of the payment would be in local money, the Guyanese currency. We were paid 1500 US dollars and several thousands in local currency. The official took our signatures to acknowledge receipt of money. Since the Guyanese currency was not convertible we’d to spend it in Georgetown itself in less than three hours. In fact it was one hour only because shops in Guyana closed early. I took a taxi and went about the downtown. I thought if I went for a gold chain it was easy to carry and I would get rid of the local currency.. I couldn’t find a single shop that sold 22ct. gold. It was 14 ct. everywhere. On a previous foreign trip I brought home a 14-ct. gold chain. My wife was not very happy. So I bought two Caribbean shirts, two watches, Casio and Q&Q, for me and for my wife. I was left with a few hundred Guyanese dollars. I kept 50 G dollars for airport tax and gave away the rest to the hotel waiters.
A UN van brought us to the airport for the 9 p.m. flight to JFK. Delegates from New York took that flight. They checked in, went through immigration and customs and boarded the Guyanese Airways plane. When the belt sign went up, I fastened my seat belt and felt happy to return home. It was then I found the face of my neighbor at the window seat familiar. I remembered he’d chaired one of the sessions I spoke at, a delegate from Pakistan. We’d not started a conversation when the drinks cart rolled in. I was worried about how I could reach the Sloan House YMCA hostel in Manhattan. I was warned that most cabbies in New York were immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and likely to take me for a ride. Okay, let us tackle it when the moment comes, I thought.
I don’t remember who broke the ice but the Pakistani delegate and I got talking. He was a diplomat attached to the Pakistani Consulate in New York. I told him I was a journalist back home in India. I found him a handsome and extremely polite person in a navy blue suit. He told me his parents had migrated from Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan following partition.
‘That is interesting. Where in Uttar Pradesh?’ I asked him.
‘Lucknow,’ he said.
‘That’s great. I come from Hyderabad,’ I said.
‘Two great centers of Urdu,’ he said.
‘Do you remember your days in India?’ I asked.
‘Not really. I remember my school in a vague way. We’ve relatives in Hyderabad.,’ he said.
‘‘That’s natural,’ I said.
The visas are a problem. There are too many restrictions,’ he said.
‘I understand. It is the climate of distrust,’ I said.
‘When can we get out of it,’ he asked.
‘Distrust is the engine driving politics and politicians. Just as every eminent doctor builds his reputation on the number of well-known persons he’d dispatched to the nether world, politicians get into history books for the riots they’re able to engineer.’
The diplomat took my hand and shook it and said,
‘Well said, sir. Shall I call for a drink?’ he said.
‘No sir, thank you,’ I said.
‘How do you think the two countries can work for better ties?’ he asked me.
‘They’ve reached a low mainly because of politicians and the media on both sides. Hatred has more takers than love. The politicians play on the emotions of the people to become popular. The media exaggerate differences. Both countries should ignore the two wreckers of détente,’ I said.
‘That’s right, I believe. We have our own problems like the alternation of civilian and army rule. It is commonsense that peace between the two countries brings down the expenditure on defence,’ the diplomat said.
He asked me my destination. New York, I said and disclosed to him my apprehension about the cabbies. Where are you staying in New York, he asked me? Manhattan, I said. Don’t worry. The embassy car will pick me up at JFK. I will drop you at Y.M.C.A.
The food cart was wheeled in. I picked up the vegetarian tray and the diplomat the non-vegetarian tray. The food smelt garlic. I just took the yogurt and dessert and waited for the drinks cart to come in a second time. The food in my tray brought back memories of my experience in the city I’d left sometime ago. On the first day of stay in Hotel Pegasus I’d visited its restaurant and found nothing I could relish. I called for a couple of sandwiches and rounded them off with fruit juice. On the second day I took a taxi and went about the place looking for Indian restaurants. The taxi took me to at least twenty restaurants. None served vegetarian food. I thought with a 40 per cent of the population being Indian in origin there would be some vegetarian restaurant somewhere. So at the hotel restaurant daily I would call for sandwiches and fruit juice. It intrigued the waiter who looked at me with some amusement.
One night I sat in my room and remembered another vegetarian embarrassment. It happened in Mosul in Iraq. All journalists covering the Iraqi general election in 1980 were invited to a lunch the state was hosting. Each table was set for four persons. After a short while the service began. A waiter brought a huge platter full of biryani with a whole lamb stuffed with a variety of spicy ingredients in the middle. The three others at the table were Arab journalists who did not know English. If I walked away it would offend the Arabs. Luckily the waiter placed a bowl of grapes too. I began helping myself to some grapes. The Arab facing me asked in sign language why I was not eating. I replied in the same language that I was not well. Poor guy tried to be nice to me by offering grapes to me with the hand that he’d dipped in the biryani. I shammed stomachache and went out and bought some biscuits and ate them at the shop itself. I waited outside for my colleague to finish lunch and come out. Fortunately, we found at uur Baghdad hotel an Egyptian waiter who knew to make vegetarian food. So daily we had dal and chaval and okra sabji.
Back to New York
At JFK the immigration cleared him on a priority basis because of his diplomatic status. An hour later I emerged from the immigration and found to my surprise that he was waiting for me. I thanked him. We drove to YMCA. I got down and when the chauffer opened the trunk, I reached to collect my bags. No, sir, the diplomat said and told his chauffer to put my bags in the foyer of the Sloan House. He shook my hand, waved a goodbye and drove off..
Now, another story was waiting to happen. To my shock, the YMCA man at the counter told me that there had been no UN request to reserve a room for me. I’d to join a long line of accommodation seekers. Ahead of me in the line stood a person with Indian features. I told him my problem. He told me not to worry. I could share his room, he said. Meanwhile a YMCA official walked to me and asked me my problem. I said without a room I would be roofless in a strange place. Wait for half an hour. I will get you one, the official told me. I heaved a sigh of relief and went to the person who offered to share his room with me to thank him. I spoke in Hindi to him and he responded in Hindi to me. I asked him where in India he lived. He told me he was from Bangladesh.