As a child, I remember her coming to visit my mother at my grandparents’ Tugluk Lane house in Delhi, where we spent most of our holidays. She was my mother’s best friend from her school days in Srinagar, the sari-clad aunty who always brought two brown paper bags — one for my younger brother and one for me — full of Indian candy (there was no imported candy available in India then).
Muna and I always looked for these paper bags and if we didn’t see them in her hands, we thought something was wrong. But that never happened; as certain as the fact that she would appear the afternoon after we landed was the handing over of these bags — often silently. It had become such a ritual and such a part of our trips to Delhi, I wonder now whether we even thanked her.
But back in Lahore, as I flipped through my mother’s photo albums from her school days, it was hard to imagine these two women — one now so distinctly Pakistani in her shalwar-kameezes and the other so Indian in her saris and bindis — as ever having dressed like this.
In these black and white pictures, there were no Hindus and no Muslims, no Brahmans and no Syeds — just a giggly group of girls in t-shirts and capris (which they called “knickerbockers”) — thrilled to be dipping their feet into the glacial streams that flowed off Mount Al Pathar on the way to Gulmarg.
Between then and now, much has transpired — in their lives and the two nations they were both wed off and sent to. There is often tension when they meet or watch the news together for the violence in Kashmir has had a profound effect on both their lives: my mother has not been able to go back since 1980, and Aunty Vijay’s family was forced to leave as their property was burned by the militants.
Yes, over the years, much has transpired that has caused these two childhood friends to give up the identity-less clothing of their youth for more nationalistic expressions of who they are now. And yet they remain connected by a deep, unspoken bond.
Growing up in Srinagar, the two of them came from very different backgrounds. My grandfather, Agha Nasir Ali, and Aunty Vijay’s father, DP Dhar, were both bureaucrats, but often on very different sides of the fence — one staunchly Hindu and nationalistic and the other upholding a very distinct Muslim identity. At one time, the only two cars in Srinagar belonged to them.
After retiring from government service, my grandfather moved to Delhi. There, my grandparents spent many happy years together. But after my grandmother’s death, he moved back to Kashmir.
It was a loss we felt at different levels — not only was Ami gone, we now had no place to stay in Delhi. And so, after all these years of going to Delhi, we finally went to Aunty Vijay’s house.
It was so different from my grandparents’ place. There was no Zahid, the cook, but Ram Chand. There were paintings and statues of Hindu gods, even a puja room in the centre of the house. And yet I never felt like I had not gone home.
Aunty Vijay would open up her whole house and her heart for us. She would get us special Kashmiri food that she knew was not available in Pakistan, take us to our favourite chaat houses and indulge our every wish — expressed and unexpressed. There would be a car and driver at our disposal. And we would go back loaded with gifts.
Two years ago, as I attended the Urs of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the great Sufi mystic who is buried in Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, Aunty Vijay and Aunty Rama, another childhood friend of my mother’s from Kashmir, expressed their interest in accompanying me to a Zikr. I was not sure how this would work. But that evening as they sat at the shrine, dressed in their signature saris, with a group of strangers chanting “La ilaha ill-Allah”, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
And with the chanting, the universe seemed to be speaking: there is only One. And we are all His children, whether we realise it or not.
I trace the lives of my mother and Aunty Vijay back through the years. They have come a long way from the days of those black and white photos when they spent their time splashing each other in lakes and streams; sometimes those chiselled features and wide grins are hard to find. They have been through marriage, children, grandchildren and now widowhood.
They once lived across the street from each other. Now they belong to two different countries. Often they don’t get visas to visit with each other. But when they do, it is like they are fifteen again, at a time and in a place when they were no divisions, only trees to be climbed and apples to be picked.
Ayeda Naqvi is a journalist who lives and works in Lahore. She can be contacted at email@example.com