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July 30, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Ashwin Mahesh

At war with the Khan on the street

In late 1995, when my culinary shortcomings first began to disgrace the term home-cooked meal, I ventured out into the veritable global food counter that runs through the heart of the University district here in Seattle. Quickly learning that my own performances with the skillet would finish fourth in a three horse race, I settled down to world-traveler mode, savoring the foods of every continent in turn, and growing contented by the meal.

In doing so, I met chefs and restaurateurs from around the planet, assembled in the neighborhood to cater to every conceivable taste. Guys working the sizzlers at Greek delis, the batter-dippers at the seafood places, Thai maestros of the veggie world and Chinese superchefs for the carnivorous bent of mind. And inevitably, desi joints of every kind, from the "bonded-labour" Bengali who held his employees' passports in his custody, to classy third generation Guj places mixing aroma and style in equal measure.

Nadeem Multania waited tables at a desi place up the street in those days, and after a few tours of his employers' offering, I had his passing acquaintance. He is a simple man, willing to work hard to ensure a better future for his children, cast in quite the American immigrant mold. He worked his tables quietly and diligently, and spoke a few words from time to time with customers who recognised him. Sometimes, in the afternoons between the busy lunch and dinner hours, he'd stand outside the restaurant with his cigarette dangling from his mouth.

He must have packed quite some energy and thought into his labour, for in a few years, he put together a tidy sum of money to open his own place a little farther along the street. By now his wife was pregnant again, but despite the accompanying limitations, she worked the place with him, and they soon got up a fair trickle of folks who set store by their cooking, myself included. People who left the restaurant seemed happy more often than not, and from chatting with Nadeem from time to time, I understood that business was shaping up just fine.

And then the war came along, and something changed in the recesses of my mind, in a place which I wished didn't exist. The Multanias are fantastic people, the kind of folks you'd want your kids to look up to and respect, and if I'd ever thought different before the war, I must have been a fool to do so. But now, I began to remind myself that for all the things I liked about them, there is one detail that puts the Multanias on the other side of the human fence from me. They're Pakistanis.

Predictably, the battles of the frontier came home, not only in images of body-bags and fanatical mujahideen holed up in the heights, but in different shades of antagonism that made it to the media as well. On the one hand were the Shourie-clones, reminding us repeatedly that the minds of regular Khans across the border are held hostage to the schemes of mullahs and generals, and that no amount of extending the hand of friendship will ever overcome that hurdle. Nuke the buggers, this argument runs.

Counter to them is the elaborate optimism of those who imagine a different frontier, with parades of music and sport going back and forth across a seamless cultural mosaic. In their worlds, the little guys on the streets of Peshawar and Lahore have no more antipathy toward India than to a friend; they insist that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis want little more than neighborly relations with their brethren across the border. They light candles at Wagah and urge us to look away from disemboweled jawans and murdered officers.

There are plenty of places to eat around here, and for a while, I told myself that I was merely spreading the wings of my taste-buds. But with each passing day that I walked past Nadeem's place on my way to lunch, looking away from the truth became a little harder. I thought very little of boycotting the other Pakistani place around here; not knowing the owners of that joint, I was quite happy to stay away, and when friends at work suggested the place, I refused without qualms. But Nadeem's was a different plate of curry.

And so I sat myself down to seek the answers to questions I barely understood. Why? This seemed the most obvious question, the one that jumped out at my senses. The little voices in my head were a din. "These are good people, Ash. You've got no business doing this, it defies every notion of decent behavior you ought to uphold."

But does it? It's the principle of the whole thing, I tell myself. Way off in the background from our nodding acquaintance, the Multanias send money to family back home, buttressing a political economy that supports the war. Their folks, whoever they may be, might be holed up in Drass for all I know, and my friend Sanjay Bhatia could be up there with his regiment, risking life and limb to ward off these people. They're obviously devout Muslims -- Mrs Multania must be the only woman around here who can't tell it's summer from behind her whole-body attire -- who's to say if they identify with the jihadwallahs?

And so on and so forth. The truth be told, though, I know that the economic and political arguments behind these thoughts have little bearing on the Multanias' lives. Like everyone else, they merely exist in the worlds to which they have been born and bred, and the consequences of their actions and choices on people elsewhere are beyond their ability to comprehend or alter. They're interested in uncles and aunts, uniforms and weddings, things like that.

Knowing this hasn't made quite the difference it might, however. For I must live in my own world too, one to which I have been born and bred. In it, there are people on the other side of the fence, in whose name jawans from my neighborhood are slaughtered. In my reality, I am suddenly a Hindu, without knowing or believing the tenets that go with it, and it gets harder to remember that "Allah-o-Akbar" is not merely the battle-cry of the enemy, for my own people are wont to rally themselves to this tune in defence of the motherland. In my universe, I avoid some people without knowing why, suspended between shame and pride.

The tragedy is also that not very many decades ago, Mrs Multania was born in a quiet corner of Bangalore only a little distance from home. Things change.

Ashwin Mahesh

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