A unique friendship

Sitting around on the floor of the big conference room at the Pearl Continental in Bhurban, we shared our childhood impressions and memories of each other. In May 1993, this group of young Indians and Pakistanis were conscious, every single minute, of how unusual their experience was—that they could cross the border, that they could sit in the same room and talk about these things for which there is no room in coursepacks or seminars or anywhere else. We had not experienced Partition but our lives were punctuated by the outbreak of hostilities—1965 and 1971, most notably. Our mutual isolation and the absence of information flows between our countries during our formative years allowed our imaginations free rein and depending on where we had grown up, and in what circumstances, we imagined each other unconstrained by reality. So we knew that this was a special experience, a culmination perhaps, of another process that started outside politics while some of us were still in school.


In 1978, India and Pakistan played cricket with each other for the first time in a couple of decades and we could all watch the matches on our television sets. For my classmates and myself, this provided a wonderful distraction from our preparation for the school-leaving examinations we were about to take. Exotic names like Sarfaraz Nawaz, Imran Khan and Zaheer Abbas floated across our X A (read ‘10th A’) classroom and the scramble for autographs and posters occupied our time and attention.

Somewhere in the preceding five years, I had found a marvelous outlet for my interest in international relations and my childhood dreams of bringing about ‘world peace’ (sad, that it looks ridiculous when written down by an adult!). I had built myself a network of penfriends from different parts of the world, an expensive hobby supported with great patience by my parents. To my mind, watching and following the games was just not enough. I wanted to know what lay beyond the stadium at Faisalabad. I wanted to know what 14 year olds in Karachi looked like. I had so many questions about life, about politics and about Pakistan. I managed to get the address of the Pakistan Times and write to the Editor, explaining that I was looking for a Pakistani penfriend.

The May 25th, 1979 edition of the Pakistan Times duly carried my name and address and hobbies in their penfriends column. I received 97 responses and spent the summer after my school-leaving exams claiming huge batches of letters from our doormat twice a day! My name had been misspelt as "Awarna" and in family lore, that is what these letters came to be called—my "Awarna’s"! I read and re-read them, feeling very important, knowing that this was the start of something extremely special. I was fascinated by the fact that although my age (15) and gender (female) were specified, I had heard from people aged 15 to 44 and only one female among them! After whittling down the possibilities to a few, mostly by age, I simply replied to the youngest person who had written to me.

My penfriend was 15 then, and an only child. I only had one sister. So, after a few letters, I sent him a ‘Raakhi,’ specifying in my strident 15-year old way that it was not about ‘protection’ but friendship and support. We continued our correspondence and as I reflect now with a little embarrassment at my choice of topics and my ill-disguised political zeal, I wonder at many things. I marvel at the fact that my letters made it through without a problem. I marvel at the fact that my adopted brother did not entirely lose patience with me. I marvel at the confidence that I always felt that this friendship, this relationship would survive over the years. We survived the vehemence and unrelenting edge of my political discussions, his equal insistence on exactly the opposite views, our adolescent silliness and the vagaries of communications between our two countries. An application on his part (as a 16 year old) for an Indian visa brought an intelligence officer to our home to interview me—an early encounter with regional realities!

When he went abroad to study, I thought of my aunts and uncles with children abroad, how much they missed them and started writing also to his parents. That impulse fortified the foundations of our friendship, bringing our families together. Thus it was that long before I met my penfriend, my family met his father who was visiting India! I was studying abroad and our letter-writing was utterly supplanted by telephone calls. We finally met when I visited at the end of my year abroad. It was an unforgettable experience—to meet someone for the first time although you have practically grown up together. To some extent, meeting penfriends for the first time is always like that. However this was still unique because along the way, this friend had become the brother I wanted—someone close to me in age, someone I could talk to, someone I could learn and grow up with, someone I could count on. And yet, we had never met.

Oddly, our contact ceased almost entirely after this meeting. For almost a decade, I corresponded only with his parents, with my adopted Uncle picking up that end of the exchange. Through Uncle, I heard news of the family, and through Uncle, I heard that my penfriend had got married. In 1993, when I went to Pakistan, I spoke with my penfriend and his wife over the phone. His parents and adopted siblings drove up to see me—a first time meeting that felt like a reunion! They felt like I had long described them—my family in Pakistan. Quite simply that, with no qualifiers and no explanations. Letter by letter, card by card, call by phone call, we had built a unique friendship. They had for a long time been ‘Pakistan’ to me, and their presence in a context where we spent the day discussing security and confidence-building underlined that.

In the manner of other close relationships that form the foundation of one’s life, I have taken my Pakistani family for granted, knowing that I can always reach them and that I can always re-establish contact with them. Out of contact is not out of mind, and whether or not we write or speak, we are always part of each other’s universe. Thus, after a gap of some years, I called my uncle on his birthday last year. That call put me back in touch with my penfriend and his wife. We exchange messages and photographs regularly.

And again, I am left marveling that after all these years, I have one of my best friends back in my life—and as a bonus, his wife and children! I marvel that although we were so different from each other at different points, the values that first brought us in contact with each other—curiosity, wanting to make friends, wanting to learn, wanting to make things around us better—now bind us. They are what we have in common beyond language, birth, citizenship, religion, gender and location. We have meandered in very different directions, made very different choices, and ended up right where we began, next door to each other, talking and learning from each other.


Twenty-one years. "Old friends are like diamonds, precious and rare." I swallow my South Asian compunctions about jinxes and evil eyes to write about this precious friendship in my life. This, and other friendships that have begun with letters alone, have taught me that it is really easy to build bridges across cultures, contexts and citizenship. It takes two letters to complete the geography lesson, and then before you know it, the other person has homework, boss problems, faulty plumbing, a sweet tooth, favorite books and nieces, dogs and cats and allergies. You spend the next twenty-one (or twenty-five or thirty) discussing life decisions and family news. Before you know it, these people and relationships are some of the premises on which your political thinking—indeed your world-view—is based. You cannot enter into simple ‘us-them’ discussions because you are us and by virtue of this friendship, you are also them. You cannot judge and you cannot condemn—all you see in the place of generalized collective entities are the faces of your friends. You cannot be party to their annihilation nor they to yours—what better deterrence, I have often wondered.

Ultimately, politics is about the personal. As the Partition generation in India and Pakistan brought their traumas to decision-making about the other, so must the post-Partition generations bring their own personal baggage to this process. I still dream that someday, and not as far into the future as when my ‘nieces’ and ‘nephews’ graduate or get married, we can visit each other in our own countries. I dream that in their accounts of this friendship, it will simply be unique because it lasted a long time and it grew to embrace them, and not because it grew across a border that is still hard to cross. I dream that they will forget how hard it was to cross that border in the days before they were born, even as children in other places must read of historical inter-state rivalries as distant fictions. Twenty-two years ago, I could not have predicted this friendship and its survival with confidence. If the gestation period of my dreams is twenty-two years, I am willing to wait those years out to see them come true—person by person, letter by letter, word by word, day by day.

Swarna Rajagopalan
East Lansing, 5-26-00