In the year I spent in the United Kingdom, the toughest life lessons came in the first few days. First, brown bread and tortillas are poor substitutes for chapattis. Second, the chalk-flavoured abomination they sell as cottage cheese is nowhere as succulent as malai paneer. Third, the British may well claim chicken tikka masala as their national dish but you need to take that with a pinch of salt.
But soon, I had to stop moping and start cooking. There are only so many doner kebabs an Indian student on a scholarship can afford. It pinched me every time I could only buy a chewing gum for the price I would pay for a no-frills thali in my hometown Mumbai. (Fourth: shop in pounds, think not in rupees.)
I came to study in Cardiff in the autumn of 2015, a time when the Welsh capital was fighting a losing battle against soggy air and bristly winds. One afternoon, my flatmate and I were exploring a popular shopping precinct when I noticed a man stacking samosas on a display shelf. For someone who had not had real food in a week, you had to wonder if this was the fabled oasis of the hungry and weary.
But it was no illusion, nor were the rows of burfis, jalebis and spring rolls, smells and flavours I had so longed for. Zehid Saleem, the owner and chief samosa-maker, a short man with a closely cropped beard and the most familiar tongue, seemed delighted to meet us. “Bambai se hain (You are from Bombay),” exclaimed the Lahore-born man, introducing me to the chaat counter and the assortment of Gujarati crisps.
Within minutes, my flatmate and I were seated at one of the three booths in the confectionery, samosa and mint chutney on our plates. East met West as the zesty blend of spiced potatoes and diced onions exploded in our mouths. The floodgates of nostalgia now wide open, we requested some saag and chapatti before cooling off with a juicy rasgulla and a gulab jamun each.
Sated, I expressed my gratitude in words to make up for where I lacked in tips. That day, as the rest of the year, it was the neighbours who had made me feel at home.
The Pakistan I knew
It was the first time I had interacted with someone from Pakistan. Until then, I had only known of it by its sympathisers, or, as an uncle liked to call them, the Muslims. You know it when the Indian team loses a wicket in a cricket match and the mohallas start cheering, he would say. I had never really seen this myself but played his partner-in-rage anyway, even when my patriotism was tested by a Parthiv Patel on crease.
This continued till I found myself in Kashmir in the summer of 2014. As India faced Pakistan in the Twenty20 cricket World Cup, I was unable to challenge the irrefutable simplicity of my Pakistani-sympathiser host’s offer: “If India wins, you buy me sweets, if Pakistan does, I buy you some.” I would later find out that he had lost his uncle as collateral damage of the Indian Army.
In Cardiff, you could easily meet with those from Pakistan. Most spent time with Indians, sharing a puff, a pack, a pint and, as would often be the case, off-colour jokes in Hindi. Plucked out of the jingoistic surroundings, our cause was to find out if they served halal meat at Burger King (they did not), which country produced the better Coke Studio (Pakistan, in every season) and which of the two Hyderabads invented the eponymous biryani. The jury is still out on that one.
Around Christmas, I went to Rotherham, a town in central England, to interview a domestic abuse survivor from Punjab. She broke down while recounting the harrowing three years she had spent with her British-Indian husband. After he abandoned her, a non-governmental organisation run by a woman of Pakistani heritage had rescued her and provided financial and legal assistance for nearly a year. “If not for her, I would have killed myself,” the Punjabi woman said, wiping away tears.
It mattered not that her caretaker came from across the border. They had bonded over a shared language and an ability to tell rotis from assorted flatbreads in supermarkets, which was dutifully served at mealtimes. She told me, “I don’t think I would feel as comfortable if it was not for our own people.”
Months later, the sentiment was echoed by a man from Lahore who offered to drop me to London in his car. Throughout the journey, he recalled the grad-school days he had spent with his band of Hindi speakers, having found the natives difficult to get along with. “It is just easier,” he said. “There’s them and there’s desis.”
I returned to the Cardiff confectionery several times over the year: by myself, with friends and on dates. The food was not always consistent with the spice-mix I had been used to. But the hospitability always moved me. When my then-girlfriend’s mother visited her from Germany, she was keen on introducing her mother to an Indian takeaway, having realised that even the most authentic curry houses in her hometown had deceived them all their lives. Saleem, who had seen her dine with me on a few occasions, slipped in a few extra gulab jamuns in her package. “Send my regards,” he told her with a smile.
I visited him for the last time in June, days before I left the UK for the Maldives. We exchanged emails and contact numbers, promising to get in touch if we ever had a chance to visit the neighbourhood. But the India-Pakistan hostilities peaked soon after with the terrorist attack on an Indian Army base in Kashmir and the subsequent surgical strikes in September. For the past month, my Facebook feed has been littered with shouty capitals and screaming Goswamis. The possibility of visiting Saleem's Lahore dims by the day.
In the Maldives, too, I often found myself longing for paneer, for the cottage cheese they sell in the island state is but a chalk-flavoured abomination. After a desperate hunt for four months, I found a match for my expectations at a small, beach-side restaurant last week. I tipped heavily, went up to the tall owner wearing a Pathani suit, and expressed my gratitude. He seemed delighted. And treating me as you would a long-lost brother, he asked in that most familiar tongue, “Itna waqt ho gaya aur aap aaye nahi (You visit us only after so long)?”
Once again, it’s the neighbours who make me feel at home.