His ancestral roots went deep into the earth across the border. He sulked when a singer was forced to cancel his concert or an actor was barred from performing here. He felt a member of his own family was deprived of the opportunity to visit home. Therefore, Chaman Sethi, a lawyer in his mid-thirties, was super excited to read in the newspaper that Pakistan was the theme country at the Kolkata Trade Fair this year.
His grandparents – landowners in Lahore – fled with tin trunks at the time of partition. His mother disliked sharing the bitter memories of her childhood. But his father used to recollect early memories which included cycling with friends from Amritsar to Lahore in his teenage years. He talked of a dawn in the near future when the belligerent nations would turn intelligent and re-unite. Wars and terror attacks bombed this dream.
On several occasions, Chaman felt the urge to visit Pakistan. His wife, Pooja and mother restrained him with solemn promises. It was a prohibition just like when a child is restricted from playing under the sun or heading to a distant field to play. He tried to reason with his mother by saying they should visit the birthplace of Guru Nanak Ji. His proposal was tempting for the pious lady who kept her prayer beads aside to tell a lie. He did not believe she had been there in her childhood days.
Many foreign countries were participating in the mega trade fair. But his chief attraction was Pakistan. It was the first time the neighbour country had responded to the invite and he felt it was the duty of every peace-loving citizen to encourage and patronise the team visiting the city. He told Pooja about the fair and she glowed with enthusiasm. She was eager to find out what was being sold there. He had saved money for a short trip to a hill station but he was ready to cancel it and spend it on goodies from the trade fair. He convinced her with ease, “Dear, the hill station will not go away anywhere. We can visit it later. But Pakistan may not participate next year.”
Pooja was not surprised to see him thrilled. He had a strong connect with roots though he had never lived there for a single day. He tracked what happened in their society just as he followed events in other Indian cities. Pooja, born and educated in Ambala, had never entertained the thought of going to Pakistan. According to her, there were far more adventurous places to explore in the world.
They went out around noon on the very first day. Both were traditionally dressed as if they were visiting a relative’s place for a formal event. Chaman Sethi, who always held her hand in public, kept shrugging it off. He went to the pavilion where stalls from Pakistan were put up. Once inside, he felt at home, as if he was meeting brothers separated at birth. He showed better qualification to be the face of Indian hospitability with his warm and endearing smile. However, before stepping into the first stall, he looked around to check if there was any known face loitering around.
Chaman had always been fascinated by the onyx stone and there in front of him was a wide display of such furniture items. From vases made of onyx to dining tables made of onyx. There were prized artifacts he wanted to pick up and he was unmindful of the price tags. When he settled for a corner table for his chamber, he was asked to shell out five thousand rupees. He urged Pooja to select a vase for the centre table as well. She picked up a light brown piece along with a marble ash tray for his clients. The trader promised to deliver the goods at the end of the day. Chaman did not give his visiting card but wrote the address on a piece of paper. He paid in full and did not bargain. His brothers from Pakistan should not form the impression that Indians cannot pay the price demanded. Moreover, he had some other points to discuss with the trader. Seeking discount would generate bad blood. Once the billing formalities were taken care of, he struck a friendly conversation.
“I’m Chaman Sethi. My Dada ji came from Lahore.”
The trader had hennaed hair and a long beard. This opening up fetched lukewarm reciprocation. Chaman Sethi analysed the root of the problem in his mind. They cannot trust us even today. He began to speak in Punjabi to sound closer to their soil.
“I will meet you when I visit Pakistan soon.”
“Oh, haan ji, you are most welcome in our country any time. Visit us whenever you feel like,” the trader suddenly exploded in joy and fished out his business card and offered it to him. “Your items will reach your place safely before sunset.”
Chaman wrapped up with a line of poetry by Faiz as he saw some customers approaching.
A bevy of young women wearing jeans and high heels trooped in. They had no idea how elegant onyx stone would look in a garden area. After they left without buying anything, the trader expressed dismay at their ignorance along with Chaman who felt like recommending it to them.
When he came out of the stall after shaking hands with the trader, he told Pooja how soft-spoken the Pakistani trader was.
“You always create fear and restrict my plans to visit Pakistan. Do you see any enmity at the grassroots level? All are brothers even today, despite all noises.”
Pooja lost interest in his words the moment she noticed salwar suit pieces displayed in the opposite stall. She rushed there and he followed her slowly, reading the address on the business card. He found Civil Lines to be a common address in India as well.
Pooja was delighted with the stunning collection. She would have missed out such gorgeous pieces had he not insisted on her accompanying him here. She felt like hugging him for bringing her to this paradise. She went on choosing pieces of her choice, be it cotton or silk, fancy party wear suits or daily wear collection. She had picked up almost a dozen pieces and when the bill was prepared, she had spent more than he did on onyx.
Chaman saw an opportunity to chat with the young lad who manned the stall. He was very fair, his eyelashes thick and dark as if lined with soorma. He asked him about the future of the textile industry in Pakistan. He appeared to be aware of the ground realities and spoke with confidence. Being a third generation cloth trader, he said the domestic industry needed protection and a good client base who understood the value of good craft work. He saw India as a good market for Pakistani garments and showed a catalogue full of designer stuff he was about to launch under his label next season. He would set up a website and begin e-commerce to facilitate global clients to access his merchandise.
Pooja was thrilled to hear it and asked for the URL and email id. He gifted her one sample catalogue. She put it inside the shopping bags she was handed over at the billing desk.
Chaman was happy to be invited to visit Pakistan and since the boy was quite young and ambitious he wished him good luck in his business venture before sharing his thoughts on entrepreneurship.
“We also need such visionary businessmen who include Pakistan in the favoured list of trading countries.”
The young handsome guy took a selfie with him and immediately posted it on his Facebook page and sent him a friend request. Chaman Sethi took a while to decide if he should add him to his friend list. Just then the boy’s phone rang. His mother was calling from his hometown, to enquire how he was doing. He said he was absolutely safe and will call later. The arrest of two Pakistani nationals at the border spread tension back home.
“Every two hours I have to call my mother and inform her I am safe. She was most unwilling to send me here but Ghafoor Uncle, the organizer of the fair, had promised to take care of me,” the boy said.
Chaman controlled the urge to say all mothers were alike. The ones here were no different.
While gathering the packets Pooja had left for him to carry, Chaman asked him casually, “Coming again next year?”
“Inshallah.” He smiled and stepped back.
Making plans one year in advance was foolishness. The situation could turn volatile any day. A clamp down could happen any time.
Chaman moved to the next stall that sold pickles, papads and spice items. A senior couple managed the stall. The lady in pink salwar suit had lots of gemstones studded in her finger rings. She gave a catchy brand name to her range of items: Ammi’s Kitchen. It was spot-on in capturing the imagination of those looking for authentic taste. She loaded a bit of every pickle one after the other from the sample jars with loving interest.
“Beti, zara yeh bhi try karo.”
Pooja remembered her own mother calling her affectionately. Her eyes turned moist and she blamed the sharp taste for her tears. “Try this mixed one and jamun chutney. These are less spicy,” the lady at the counter guided her.
She was told what to buy and what to avoid with honesty. She went on picking up the items according to her suggestions. It did not appear the lady was a businesswoman. She behaved more like a mother guiding her daughter in matters of taste.
“I have a small team of housewives who gather in the afternoon and we have collaborated to set up this range. So far the response has been good in the domestic market and soon we are launching a TV ad,” she disclosed these details on her own.
“We wish you all success from the core of our hearts and we are sure your products will find buyers here,” Chaman answered on behalf of Pooja.
Uncle broke his well-maintained silence when Chaman pitched in.
“Jab zabaan ek hai, swad bhi ek hi hoga.”
“Well said, Sir, we have similar taste, similar culture, everything is common between us.”
They had bought enough stock to last for more than a year.
“Next year we hope to see both of you again,” Chaman Sethi said, to assure them they were very much welcome in this country.
“Yes, yes, most certainly. If this trade fair welcomes us, we will surely come. This year many traders backed out of fear, only four-five agreed to come.” Chaman was about to ask Uncle Ji about the lane his grandparents lived in before partition. Before that he was asked, “Acha, janaab, how far is Kankinara from here?” Chaman could remember it was somewhere in the northern fringe, local trains from Sealdah station connect the place.
“Actually, my school teacher had his family there. I want to find out about them.”
The search was the same, on both sides of the border. The senior couple talked about free trade and mass contact. This time, Chaman embarrassed his wife when the lady said, “Come to Pakistan, beta.”
“I want to come but she does not let me go. Fears the terrorists will abduct me.”
“Haan, beta, her fears are not untrue. We have insane people on both sides. But make sure you come in a large group. Organise a seminar, poetry festival, form a culture group and then visit.”
“Good idea. I will certainly try this out. And let you know in advance,” Chaman responded quickly.
“Please do come, send him at least, we are not that bad either,” the senior lady addressed Pooja who felt ashamed.
“Ji, zaroor,” Pooja said, beaming a smile that bloomed from her heart. Chaman noted her approval though he knew it was for the sake of not hurting the sentiments of the gracious couple.
Having spent the entire afternoon inside the trade fair, they decided to return home with pleasant memories. In the food court near the exit gate, the firni stall was irresistible. Though it was prepared by an Indian vendor, he regaled himself with the favourite delicacy from his childhood days when he celebrated Eid with school friends.
When they finally came out of the fair grounds, they hired an auto to reach home. It was not possible to travel by bus with so many heavy bags. Chaman was more than happy and so was Pooja. She kept reminding him of the pickles and suits she did not buy.
They got down at the crossing and began walking into the narrow lane where their house was located. Mr Sharma, the vocal local politician, was kicking his scooter when they entered the lane. An encounter was unavoidable.
“Kya baat, Sir ji, sara Pakistan khareed laye?”
Chaman then noticed the packets with names of Pakistani cities written in large font. The evidence was undeniable and there was no point shuffling the sides of the bags either.
“Haan, a little bit of shopping from the trade fair, got cheap budget items.”
He underplayed it to show he was not too happy with the purchase.
Mr Sharma kept looking at the packets, trying to guess what was inside.
“Bhabhiji toh kapde ki dukaan utha layi.”
Chaman merely smiled without answering his comment and kept walking behind his wife.
Mr Sharma kicked his vehicle and sped away, leaving behind thick fumes of smoke.
Chaman told her to hide these packets in the store room, to tear off the labels from the pickle bottles and set them on fire instead of dumping in the bin.
“Nobody should know that we use Pakistani goods,” Chaman clarified.
For reasons of safety she agreed but the joy was short-lived because the loudmouth Sharma would alert the entire colony.
Chaman went to his mother’s room and told her that he got a sober suit for her. Pooja spread the fabric in front of her like a seasoned salesperson.
His mother felt the texture and examined the cut work, “This is from Pakistan. I had such pieces in my bridal collection. Old fashion comes back again. In those days, your father had friends in Pakistan.”
Chaman and Pooja were amazed to see her guess accurately. They admitted having visited stalls from Pakistan. The fabric spread on her arms transported her to her past. The past she had always refused to slip into.
Pooja was restless to show her latest collection to her friends. She phoned some her close friends to come over in the evening. She showed them her new suit pieces and they raised tough queries.
“From New Market, this from Burrabazar, this from Bhawanipore.”
Pooja named different places in the city but stayed away from mentioning anything about the trade fair and Pakistan.
One lady, however, guessed correctly, “Saw something like this on TV, one Pakistani actress in the serial Kasam wore just like this only.”
“Yes, these are export quality material only,” Pooja said to manage the situation.
Then she presented the pickle collection but this time, she took no risk by mentioning the local market.
“My mother sent this from home. Parcel.”
“Super taste. Tell your Mummy to make for me also. Jawab nahin. Magical fingers,” her bestie said, licking her fingers.
This was the common refrain.
When the onyx collection arrived in a small motorised van, he was faced with the challenge of bringing it into the small lane blocked by scooters and cycles. Two labourers carried agreed to carry this home. Since this was packaged material, neighbours could guess it was furniture. Chaman prepared an answer well in advance. Sent by a friend who went to Jaipur for marble business. He knew someone would be snooping just around the corner.
The labourers delivered the items in the courtyard of the house. They tore off the newspapers covering the table top and legs and carried the crumpled pages with them. They were totally unaware of the scope of trouble they were leaving behind when they threw these newspaper shreds in the lane while going out. The torn mastheads of Pakistani English dailies lying strewn in the lane would raise the suspicion of patriots like Mr. Sharma.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and articles have been published in Deccan Herald, The Assam Tribune, Tehelka, The Pioneer, Thedelhiwallah.com, Openroadreview, and The Statesman. Apart from writing, he loves world cinema and Bollywood flicks. He is currently working on a novel.