As we headed back to Kennedy Caddesi from the jetty at Kabataş Motor İskelesi, quite by chance, we met a few interesting people.
There was a young couple with fair and sharp Caucasian features on the bus. The lady was in black Islamic attire and kept staring at us. And then she spoke - "Hello! Where are you from?" in perfect English.
"We are from India, Mumbai. How about you?" Neeti responded.
"Ohhh! India! We love India. Bollywood is great. We are from Baku, Azerbaijan."
Bollywood, I discovered on all my travels, is one cultural aspect of India people abroad easily identify with, alongwith Indian cuisine and yoga. And that clearly is India's incredible soft-power!
"O really, Azerbaijan! We have heard Azerbaijan is a very beautiful country and would like to visit there someday", Neeti exclaimed.
The entire Caucasus region - Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan is an area that has fascinated me for long. Not only is it stunningly scenic but it has a great deal of cultural and historical heritage. Besides those mountains (remember the photos of Mount Ararat that I had spotted on the flight to Paris) and rolling green meadows, I remembered that Baku, in Azerbaijan, is home to the Baku Ateshgah or "Fire Temple" is a castle-like religious temple located in the Surakhani suburb, that has a fire burning for a long, long time now. Natural gas or naphtha from a natural underground reservoir fuels the fire. While a lot of history on the temple is lost, certain inscriptions have been found which indicate that the temple was used as a Hindu, Sikh and Zoroastrian place of worship. Incredible.
And then a Pakistani family got on to the bus. They looked quite Indian. The man was beefy and grumpy. The lady was a bit plump and fair, clad in a salwar kameez. The couple had two sons - one would have been in his early teens while the other was either 7 or 8 years old. The younger kid was quite mischievous and was bothering his mom, who in exasperation chided and then said in chaste Urdu "These people here understand that you are being scolded. Does it look nice?"
We were then convinced that they were Pakistanis.
She realised that we understood what she had told her son and was a bit flustered, and asked Neeti "Aap kahan se hain?" (Where are you from?)
"Hum Dilli se hain, Mumbai mein rehte hain! Aap kahan se hain?" (We belong to Delhi, but live in Mumbai. Where are you from?)
"Hum Lahore se hain! Main India gayi hun - Dilli, Agra, Lucknow, Mumbai. Mujhe Dilli bahut pasand aaya! Merey wahan rishteydaar hain" (We belong to Lahore. I have visited India - been to Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Mumbai. I loved Delhi. I have relatives there).
The smart-aleck teenaged son joined in the conversation. "Meri teacher Chennai se hai." (My teacher is from Chennai).
We wondered how come an Indian teacher in Pakistan? How weird can it get?
The father of the kids looked straight ahead, ignoring us completely, as though we bothered, but the lady was quite cultured and perhaps understood the weird thoughts running in our minds. "Mera beta boarding mein padta hai London mein. Hum Lahore se yahan chutti pe aaye hain." (My son studies in a boarding school in London. We live in Lahore but are here for a vacation).
Ohh, moneyed Pakistanis - they are far too rich to afford to send their kid to the United Kingdom, probably because they don't want him to go the terror way. Frankly, I have never heard of Indians sending their kids abroad to study in school - they might send them to college abroad for higher, specialised studies, but that's a different matter. Or perhaps schools in Pakistan aren't really that great.
The smart-aleck son butts in again. "Aapka Modi ke baarey mein kya khayal hai?" (What do you think of Prime Minister Modi).
This was tricky, we didn't want to get drawn into a debate, especially because Modi is regarded as controversial in Pakistan. Also he had responded resolutely, retaliating to unprovoked Pakistani firing on the border, killing quite a few Pakistanis, raising a storm, We paused a bit.
Neeti in her diplomatic best responded "Kaam karne wala banda hai aur humen kaam karne wala banda hi chahiye tha iss samay" (He is devoted to his work and we needed a guy like him at this stage).
I was happy Neeti responded as I couldn't have been so diplomatic.
"Merey school ke Indian doston mein wo bahut popular hai" (He is very popular among my Indian school friends).
The lady was quite embarrassed again and tells her younger son "Yeh pata hai Viraat Kohli se shehar se hain" (They are from the city where Viraat Kohli comes from). For those who read this blog from countries where cricket isn't played, Viraat Kohli is an extremely popular, astute and flamboyant Indian cricketer.
The lady looks at us and says "Mera beta Viraat Kohli ka bahut bada fan hai!" (My son is a big fan of Viraat Kohli). And the cute son looks at us, blushes turning his cheeks rosy red and we smile back. But the dad seated in front seems to fume. And that made us wonder he is from the establishment or the army or the ISI - the architecture that created the whole anti-India, and now anti-world terror network.
But think of it, this little kid loves and adores an Indian player, a pure and innocent human emotion. The big and dirty world of terror is so far away from him, but for how long? And that is the real tragedy, if you raise and unleash a genie like terror, it will consume you, one day. But we prayed this kid remains safe from all the masla (trouble) Pakistan has and grows up to be a sane and logical human being...