“See. We’re really all the same in the end. If we can get along in London, why not Karachi, or Delhi?” The speaker was a Pakistani man in his early thirties, dressed in a beige suit and a subdued orange tie, the ensemble clashing with his light brown skin. His thick black eyebrows danced above his eyes approaching an arced lock of straight, gelled hair dangling on his forehead.
He sat directly across an Indian man, while they both sipped tea in a pub cum cafe while the morning sun maneuvered westwards to reach its zenith in the cloudy city sky.
The Indian was dressed in a white suit with a gray tie, clashing even more with his shade of darker brown. He too appeared to be in his early thirties.
“I agree completely!” His head bobbed to one side and back as if swiveling like a pendulum set upon his neck. Whenever he spoke, his cervical muscles were more in motion than those modulating his vocal cords.
The men were shuffling their bodies periodically within their suits as if restrained by the garments and vexed by their unaccustomed vestments. There was no apparent reason for either to be dressed thusly.
Both men spoke in heavily accented English that seemed to have superimposed itself on an adult voice mechanism as a late adaptation to a new language.
“You know, we were all living peacefully, side by side. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Then the English came in and just destroyed all that peace yaar (friend).” The Indian’s neck became more animated as his voice rose towards the end. His head movements might have seemed distracting or at least comical, but his interlocutor remained inert to their presence.
“Yes. Yes.” The Pakistani agreed. “Divide and rule you see. That was their policy.” His head never bobbed, but he kept massaging his fingers, rather meticulously extending every digit and applying soft pressure in a serpentine motion using the index finger and thumb of the other hand, and switching hands in the process.
“That is so true yaar.”
“But you have to admit”, the Pakistani continued. “London is a beautiful city. And the girls here are so pretty.” He cracked a knuckle as he said that.
“Oooo! Yes! I love English women.” The head bobbing was now wave like in motion with an almost unnaturally high amplitude for the anatomy in question. “They have such silky, smooth skin, like fresh milk from a cow with honey mixed in it.”His neck was now a veritable spring. Remarkably with all this supra-cervical activity, the remainder of his body remained stationary.
The Pakistani spoke with his eyebrows shooting up to just about his hairline, “Well said. Well said yaar.”
And then, as if the effect was rehearsed, they released consonant, soft, yet audible sighs.
The Indian spoke first. “But do you think they’ll take any interest in a couple of desis like us?”
The Pakistani shook his head. “You know they call us FOBs?”
“Fresh Off the Boat. That’s so insulting yaar!”
A few onerous head bobs and some rather industrious finger massaging later, the snub was absorbed.
“Chalo choro (let it go). So how and when did you get here?”
“You see, I studied law in India, but you know how corrupt and inept the legal system is over there. I decided to try my luck in England. I studied hard for the qualifying exams and was accepted at the London School of Economics for law.”
“Congratulations! You are ‘the man,’ for sure!” The Pakistani seemed genuinely excited for his latest acquaintance. He never inquired about how was his Indian mate financing his education.
“What about you?,” Head Bobber asked.
“My uncle owns a Pakistani restaurant in Wembley. He arranged for my visa to come and manage it. I’m still under training.” He laughed. “I think Uncle jee is interested in marrying off one of his daughters to me.”
The Indian sneaked closer. “Anyone you like?”
“Oh ho! Does it matter? British citizenship yaar!”
They both laughed.
Perhaps curiously, or perhaps not so surprisingly, neither asked whereabouts the other was from in their respective countries. Urban or rural? Who were their families? What was their childhood like? None of this information passed between them. It was as if both knew where the boundaries lay and where not to stir a skirmish.
“But that’s great news! You’ll be an English gentleman.”
The Pakistani looked at his polished black shoes soiled by the muddy snow outside. “Array, it’s not a done deal yet. The circumstances have to be just right in these situations. You know what I mean?”
This led to a discussion about marriages in the subcontinent versus those in the West, alternatively lauding the former and disparaging the latter, then switching sides.
It was here where the full depository of muscular armor was unleashed. After an intensely animated discussion, they both fell on the side of arranged marriages. The clinching argument seemed obvious, “Just took at the divorce rates!”
It was a limited cafe and bakery that operated during daylight hours in the pub, and with about fifteen to twenty tables, theirs was the only one occupied at ten in the morning.
While the Pakistani and Indian continued their conversation, interspersed with jokes and laughter, the door to the cafe opened accompanied by the chime of a bell.
An English woman entered. And what a woman! She was about five feet nine inches in height that she had accentuated with a three inch heel, slim, and with intelligent eyes set within an expressionless face. Though her cheekbones were elevated and angled to perfection, the remainder of her features were rather average and thus, not worthy of description.
But there was something extraordinary about her. It was clear that she kept herself well. Her skin was the pale white of a swan with a long swan-like neck. Despite the soft snow the night before, the weather wasn’t inclement, yet she was quite well covered. There were no visible tan lines in the off the shoulder white dress (their absence either ascribed to modesty or to something else left to the imagination) that swooped down to just above her pale ankles. Here, white shoes with the mentioned heels came into play. She wore a white bracelet on her left arm, and a white clip pinched her light blonde shoulder length hair, pulled away from her face. The skin was unblemished without a freckle, spot or wrinkle. She had on a wide brimmed white hat, no doubt designed to protect her from the sun’s ravaging effects.
She strode in with measured steps, walking with grace acquired, not inborn, though a discerning eye was needed to make that distinction. The admittedly exquisite effects of effort continued to be evident in her movements.
She made her way slowly to the counter, being minded singly by a balding, cherubic old man who flashed her a broad smile and said, “‘Allo Ma’am”.
The boisterous region of the subcontinent in the pub cum cafe had fallen suddenly silent.
Both men gazed at the English woman with no attempt at subtlety.
“What a vision of elegance!” Head bob.
An especially loud crackle from over-massaged digits in reply. “She’s a real English lady. Like a queen.”
“True. True. And look, she’s ordered a Lipton tea, just like us with the same biscuits. Just like us!” The Indian seemed to be unable to contain himself. His interiors were rumbling, and he began tapping his left foot quite vigorously.
“Look. Look.!” The Pakistani released his fingers from further punishment, enough to point at her. “She’s coming here.” Eyebrows now part of the tress of scalp hair hanging over his wrinkled forehead, muscles in action again.
The English woman did indeed make her way towards their table, white tea cup with saucer (that had a few chocolate biscuits) in one hand and a swan colored handbag in the other.
“Excuse me gentleman, would you mind if I joined you?”
“Of course, of course, of course”, they both said eagerly, but not in song this time.
They leapt from their seats and attempted to pull out a chair for her. Their hands got stuck on the same chair, and as much as their enthusiasm was, they were locked in a contest, vying for the prize of chivalry, each eager to possess the four legged piece of furniture to present to the lady. As a result, the chair got yanked back and the adversaries stumbled.
Having realized the faux pas, they swiftly, yet clumsily, managed to get the chair appropriately situated.
She remained expressionless, turned to look back, sat down, and with a bland cheerfulness said, “Thank you gentlemen”, making sure she looked at both her gladiators.
“Oh, no problem!” Head bob impossibly emulating the quantum motion of an electron in orbit.
“Yes, yes, it was our pleasure.” Eyebrows leaping up, fingers meandering cursively.
“I didn’t mean to cause any disquiet gentlemen. Actually, I could tell you were from the Indian subcontinent. Only, now I think I can tell that one of you must be from India and the other from Pakistan. Am I correct?” She turned her lips in an impenetrable Mona Lisa smile.
They kept looking at her with naked admiration, as if their queen was now seated on her throne, wise and beautiful.
“Yes, yes, you are right. I’m from India.”
“And I’m from Pakistan.”
Even as the enamel of their teeth bared itself, the angular wrinkles of a genuine smile were not forthcoming from either of them. They were grinning like little boys who’d won a toy at a circus.
“You may also be wondering about my interest in you.” She stated this as a fact.
They both nodded, eyes glazed.
“Please sit down gentlemen.” They did so promptly, faces still registering surprise.
“You see, my grandfather was stationed in Lahore (now part of Pakistan) prior to the partition of 1947. He travelled through much of what was then British India, and regaled us with stories of the the courage and hospitality of the locals. He said so much about them that I yearned to visit that exotic land personally, but have never got the opportunity of traveling out of England for a variety of reasons.”
She took a sip of her tea. “But I have read all about the history of the partition and try to keep myself abreast of the regional goings on.”
She turned to address the Pakistani. “I’m sorry about all this trouble you’re having with these tragic convulsions of violence in your country. What a rotten thing to happen to such a magnificent vista. Such a shame!” She sipped her tea again and took a bite of her biscuit, sitting ramrod, erect without a shade of any unnatural curvature of the spine.
“A shame indeed Ma’am. But as you may have read, it’s all because of India’s mischief. Instead of helping us like good neighbors do, they send their spies to create strife amongst us. They want to break Pakistan apart.”
The Indian’s pupils grew quite wide (though it must be stated that discerning the change in a highly pigmented iris was exceedingly challenging), and his head bobbing reached an electric pitch.
“We create mischief? Look Ma’am, we want peace in the region, but these Pakistanis are constantly causing trouble. No. More than trouble. They are ruthless murderers and terrorists with black souls. You’ve surely heard of the Mumbai attacks where Pakistani suicide bombers took lives of so many innocent Indians.”
The English woman’s eyes and face were highly attentive, even as she busied her hands sipping tea and eating biscuits.
She sighed audibly. Despair hung over the suddenly diverted eyes peering into her tea cup as if looking back in time or ascertaining the future.
“I know about the Mumbai attacks. Brutal business that.” She brought the cup to her lips and set it down without a sip as she spoke the words.
“He lies Ma’am. He’s filling your head with false ideas. No Pakistani was ever involved in that crime. One simply has to look towards the treatment of Muslims in India to see how vicious these bastards are. And how they fool the media. The attack was set up by them.” He pointed a finger at his suited table mate.
“Shut up you Paki asshole.” The Indian stood up, visibly shaking with anger and slapped the table with his open palms.
From behind the counter, the old man’s head peeped over the counter. The English woman had settled back into sipping her tea and eating her biscuits comfortably.
“How dare you! You know Paki is a racist term!”
“Yes it is. And I’m against all forms of discrimination.” The English woman spoke softly.
“Sorry Ma’am,” the Indian softened his tone for a a mere moment before peppering it with rancor again. “But he’s telling lies. Look at what Pakistani-trained terrorists have done to our lovely Kashmir.”
They were both standing up now, the woman seated between them. Voices grew louder.
“Lies again. Damn lies. They were not Pakistanis and it’s not terrorism. Kashmiris are fighting for their freedom while your soldiers rape and pillage them.”
“Kashmir belongs to India.”
“Kashmir belongs to Pakistan, you duffer.”
Now their bodies were visibly trembling. The head bob was at an indescribable pace while knuckles cracked hard enough to sound like bony fractures.
The old man behind the counter shouted in his husky voice, “Stop it you two.”
The woman finished her biscuits. “I must say, I’m appalled at your behavior gentlemen. You must learn to discourse civilly, especially in the presence of a lady. And I might as well let you know that you’re the first South Asians I’ve met. What kind of impression would you want to leave on me?”
“Sorry Ma’am,” together this time.
They sat down and began smiling awkwardly.
“Good. Now kiss and make up.”
They looked bewildered.
She laughed, revealing unstained white teeth arranged in perfect alignment. “Become friends again, I mean. Use whatever gesture you like. Come on. Let’s not spoil our afternoon.”
As if commanded by her, they shook hands and then hugged but whispered obscenities in each other’s ears. Strident, yet remarkably restrained whispers.
Upon withdrawal of the embrace, they began speaking in Urdu and Hindi.
“You and your Pakistan. I wouldn’t take a piss in your country. You’re all filthy pigs.”
“And you’re all a bunch of cowardly ass lickers. Nothing but cow dung.”
Despite the harshness of the words exchanged, their inflections were affable, and she continued to smile.
The English woman finished her tea and dabbed her lips with her napkin.
“Good. Now sit down and please continue what seemed to have been a warm conversation prior to my arrival. My sharing a table with you was perhaps a mistake. I must beg leave, but permit me to thank you for a most enlightening experience.”
She rose elegantly. This time, neither man tried to get her chair. They simply nodded silently as if sulking.
And as regally as she had entered, she exited the establishment.
The moment she walked out, fists emerged from both sides, and they began to fight taking undexterous jabs at each other.
“You Indians would fuck your mothers for a single rupee.”
“And you Pakistanis fuck sheep and camels, you sexually repressed sissies.”
On and on they went, disrupting furniture, breaking the cutlery on their table, until a couple of big, burly bobbies arrived at the scene. The old man had clearly called the police some while ago.
Upon seeing them, the combat ceased.
“Now, what’s the problem ‘ere you punks? Who started this?””
They pointed index fingers at each other. ‘He did!”
“A’right. A’right. We’ll sort this out at the station.”
They were both cuffed, read their rights and the charges against them, and shoved into the back seat of a police car.
Their eyes still exuded hatred as they stared dead ahead.
Just as the police were getting ready to move, the English woman (who apparently hadn’t left the vicinity) walked by them, smiling at the bobbies and exchanged a few words and a laugh with them. After a couple of minutes, she pointed at the car, and they tipped their hats and waved her in that direction.
She then peered in at the miscreants through the front window.
“Very enlightening indeed”, she said, and then continued in perfect Urdu this time, “Apna khial rakhna. Koi larai nahi! (Take care of yourselves. No more fighting!).
Having said that, her pale face blushed ever so faintly and the Mona Lisa smile returned, as indecipherable as before, and she walked away without turning back.
For a few seconds, there was silence in the car.
“These bloody English”, said the Pakistani, seething with froth at his lips, “always causing trouble.”
“It’s as you said my friend”, said the Indian, “Divide and rule. It’s always been their motto. Bastards!”
They both looked at each other.
And then in concert, they kicked the back of the front seats of the car and shouted, “Fuck the English!”
The car began rolling towards the police station. The driver saw an ever diminishing speck of white in his rear view mirror.