November 4, 2006

Lovers Without Borders

I stepped out from the bus into the slightly nippy New England air of early fall. As the driver moved to get my suitcases from the trunk, I was sizing up the unfamiliar surroundings. There was no sign of human life anywhere near the bus stop, save one. She looked Indian, and was dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, hugging a few books to her chest. Extending my hand to her, I said, "Hello, I am Krish. Could you please help me find the way to the graduate halls?" She shook my hands and replied, "Hello, I am Shabnam. There should be a bus here in a few minutes that will take you there. I suppose you are a new student?" I nodded, and she said, smiling,"I am going there, too. I'll take you to the office." Shabnam was petite, lean, wore glasses, and had a beautiful smile.

I saw Shabnam after that a few more times on the campus during the orientation week. Soon the semester started, and I got busy with Stochastic Processes and Theory of Games. I was so preoccupied with the nuances of saddle points that I wouldn't have noticed, even if I had run into her between the classes. Life was tough for a vegetarian then in the US; even yogurt was unheard of in most grocery stores in the area. Until my roommates and I had come to terms with cooking our own meals, for days together I'd have to be content with boiled carrots, spinach and rice for dinner. And then the snow fell for the first time in my life.

It was Thanksgiving, and we celebrated it in an Indian professor's house. I saw Shabnam again at the party. She immediately recognized me and we exchanged a few pleasantries. As she moved away, Tushar, my roommate asked, "Krish, how do you know Shabnam?" I explained, and he said, "She is Ramesh's girlfriend, you know." I knew Ramesh from a previous encounter. Nice fellow, tall, good looking, wore glasses, too, and had a healthy air of confidence about him. I didn't know that Shabnam was his girlfriend, and I didn't care particularly about that piece of information volunteered by Tushar. Not then.

Overtime, I'd get to know both Ramesh and Shabnam better. Ramesh was from IIT, Delhi, and a pretty good tennis player. He was a grad student in his third year, working towards a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. Shabnam was an avid Tennis player too, and was in the second year of her graduate studies in micro-biology. They had been seeing each other for nearly a year by then. A gregarious couple, they were quite popular among the grad students. I'd have dinner with them several times after that, a few hosted by them in their apartment.

An uninteresting college romance, you say? Quite the contrary. For starters, Ramesh was raised as a Hindu, and Shabnam was raised as a Muslim. In those days, that was as tricky a situation as that of John and Joanna of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, probably worse. To complicate matters, Shabnam was from Pakistan, and Ramesh was from India, the two sworn enemies of South Asia, who had fought three wars by then. Ramesh spoke Hindi and English, and his father was a colonel in the Indian Army. Shabnam's father, a career diplomat, was posted in Moscow, where she had done most of her schooling. Besides Bengali, Punjabi, and English, Shabnam spoke fluent Russian, too. Ramesh was a vegetarian, but Shabnam wasn't.

Shabnam had more serious problems than Ramesh did. Her father was a Punjabi Muslim from the then West Pakistan, and her mother was a Bengali Muslim from East Pakistan. East Pakistan was, however, no longer East Pakistan, but Bangladesh. A nation carved out of a bloody rebellion that pitted Muslims against Muslims, with India pitching in for the Bengalis. Shabnam and Ramesh fell in love, when the Bangladeshis, the Indians, and the Pakistanis were killing each other, in the east, and in the west. When Shabnam's father was lobbying for Pakistan in the corridors of Kremlin, and Ramesh's father was leading the Indian battalions into Dacca. When the Americans and the Russians were fighting a proxy war in the killing fields of Vietnam and Cambodia. 1971.

Where else could Shabnam and Ramesh start a family, but in the USA? Where did they? If they did.

  1. I have also believed that love is an emotion transcends all these kind of borders. In response to one of my posts some young people said things like "I don't think I could fall in love with someone who is a non vegetarian" or born to a different kind of faith. I wondered if love has become more practical and less blind ove rthe years

  2. Usha,
    I believe that love is an accident, as I wrote in my post, A Conversation with Kira Argounova. Commitment, though, is deliberate, and practical considerations may weigh in. But then, what does a rational fool know about love:(


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