As the melodious tunes of an Urdu song wafted in the background, an Indian, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi — who had just met — found themselves singing along.
Soon they were holding hands. Occasionally they looked at each other and smiled, deeply appreciating the golden voice of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, who sang the Qawwali song. They shut their eyes again and soulfully sang along.
“Afreen-Afreen,” the room reverberated behind the voice of Khan’s. “Afreen,” an Urdu word, expresses praise.
I was one of the three.
I’m Indian by birth. Khan is Pakistani. Our countries can be hostile to each other, but it doesn’t matter to me. And it never will. I will sing, dance and celebrate with Khan, and others.
Although all Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were countrymen before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, today, the scenario seems overwhelmingly less cordial than before.
Only 15 percent of Indians view Pakistan favorably, and only 13 percent of Pakistanis view India favorably, according to a Pew survey conducted in 2014. The favorable views of Bangladesh toward India and Pakistan are higher with 70 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
However, these statistics don’t represent my feelings. The first time I met anyone from these two nations was when I joined the University of California-Berkeley in August 2015, and my interactions and friendships with them have been more than amiable.
We often have light-hearted arguments on the better cricket team, but that’s about it.
So how does such a strong affinity develop when hostility exists back home?
My second question to any South Asian person after asking his or her name is: “Do you speak Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi?”
And if they do, we talk in one of them ad nauseam. I feel connected. I feel belonged. I feel inclusive.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the English language. It’s truly beautiful. But there is something about my mother-tongue that helps me develop a bond instantly with the speaker.
A majority of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis coming into the United States as students speak one of these languages, and it’s the primary factor in creating a relationship, especially in a foreign country.
A conversation sans filters.
Some of my favorite memories in my time as a student in the United States, so far, is sharing butter-chicken with my buddies from the global south, and conversing in only Hindi, or Urdu, and the occasional curse words that I utter in my Hindi sentences. It’s fun, and engaging.
I’ve not only made the lifelong friends through my bilingualism, but also the connections outside of college — with co-workers, restaurant owners or people walking on the street. At a famous Pakistani restaurant in Washington, D.C., I always get a hefty discount, as I once played the “Urdu card” with the owner, as one of my friends put it.
My association with my mother-tongue is something I can’t get rid of. It’s been more than two years since I’ve been in United States, and even now my music playlist is made up of only Indian or Bollywood or Pakistani music.
“Afreen-Afreen” is one of them.
To all those Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi students hoping to come to the United States, always remember one thing: Never shy away from who you are.
You don’t belong only to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, but to all of them.
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