I think it was the summer of 2017 when one weekend afternoon, our apartment doorbell rang when we were least expecting it. On the other side were a couple dressed in the familiar but festive versions of the salwar kameez. They were South Asian and soon greeted my husband who had first opened the door. They handed him a covered bowl with what appeared to be warm Sheer Khurma.
It was after all, Eid ul Fitr, celebrated at the end of the month of Ramzan. Here in the UAE though, almost all Indians and Pakistanis call it Ramadan, the Arabised name for the month of fasting and reflection. Eid ul Fitr is also called Meethi Eid and I remember our neighbours back home, the Qureshis, coming over with a box of sweets for us. They still do and we go over during Diwali with sweets. In Dubai however, this was most unexpected since we hardly knew anyone on our floor. And yet, when the doorbell rang and the couple handed him the bowl, it was the most normal thing ever, just unexpected!
They introduced themselves and the woman, roughly around our age, soon started talking to me when she saw me come to the door behind my husband. We wished them Eid Mubarak and exchanged pleasantries. Soon, numbers were exchanged and we resolved to meet over tea in the coming week.
We had to meet, after all now I had their ‘bartan’ or ‘dabba’ (utensils/vessel)! You always know when your kitchen has utensils that are not your own and when you do return them, they are almost never returned empty. Another totally normal South Asian thing to do.
That week, after polishing off the Sheer Khurma my neighbour had made, I wondered what I could prepare for her to fill the bowl on its return. I decided to make my trusty Sooji Halwa, the one meetha or dessert that I thought I made best. We spoke on the phone and decided to meet on a weekday afternoon.
As I rang the doorbell of her apartment, I could already smell that she had made something elaborate and I had not come for just a cup of chai. I entered and found that she laid out an entire High-tea like spread with fried crispy snacks, biscuits and also a pasta dish. I had already had lunch and was just looking forward to the chai. But then, this style of hospitality of going above and beyond just reminded me of folks back home and how everyone would say, “Arre, itni formality ki kya zaroorat thee?” (Oh, you shouldn’t have!).
Karak Chai and Charcha
As we slurped our milky but karak chai and chomped on biscuits, began a friendship with my neighbour who hailed from the capital city of Islamabad in Pakistan. We would meet each other almost every other day over some sort of Chai to exchange stories from back home and discover how we were so very similar. In the months to come, we would share home cooked food with each other and learn more about our sameness.
We weren’t diplomats sent from our country’s capital cities to discuss matters of national importance, we were just two girls chatting over copious amounts of tea and biscuits, something our erstwhile Imperial rulers had gifted us. We shared personal stories, often the deteriorating political climates in our countries and how the personal and political in our lives came together. That and plots of several Pakistani soap operas!
She would often bring me dishes like Haleem, her signature Egg soup with stringy egg whites, very desi versions of pasta and Chinese food and it was all so familiar. She would revel over Punjabi style Rajma and Chhole as I would relish her Chicken Karahi. I introduced her to homemade dosas and chaat and she gave me my first cup of Kashmiri Nun chai.
‘I’m coming over for Chai‘
On most afternoons, I would get a message around lunch time that she’ll be coming over for chai or I was invited at hers. So many times, we would discover that the hours had melted like sugar in tea when one of us got a call that the spouse was home but we were at our girlfriend’s place sipping chai.
We kept downing cups of tea, sometimes the normal karak way, sometimes just an infusion without milk and on a rare occasion phiti hui coffee. But we had so much to talk about each day and discuss our respective worlds, the foods we ate, the foods we wanted to try, the struggles of being a woman in the cities we came from and the countries we hailed from.
I discovered that her grandma had roots in India and was probably the only person who made sabzis the ‘Indian way’ or without any meat. She was obsessed with saris and fashion in India to my surprise and I told her about how Pakistani suits and fashion have always been the rage in North India. We just deduced that it was all a ploy to make us rave how fashion on the other side was probably better and thus priced higher to favour market dynamics.
Just the same
My friend has since moved to the Southern Hemisphere and left the UAE which is home to many Indians and Pakistanis like us. Indians and Pakistanis were one of the first so-called expats here and were and still are, instrumental in building this country. A country where I could sit in a cab and without thinking, start talking in Hindi or in my best rendition of Hindustani, that comes closest to its refined cousin Urdu. The sameness of brethren across the border is even more highlighted as I often find more in common with respect to food and language as compared to someone from my own country.
As I write this in the middle of August, a time when both countries celebrate their respective Independence days, I am just sitting in regret about how my friend and I never really settled the India-Pakistan mango debate!
I am sure it would have ended in her swooning over the Dussehri and Alphonso while I would go on about my love for the Sindhri!