Ansari Uncle, Shahana Aunty and Zehra lived in the same apartment building as ours. Downstairs, facing the open parking lot. Our apartment faced the vacant lot behind. We were from Kerala, a coastal state on the southernmost tip of India and they were from Karachi, Pakistan. We were foreigners together in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman, where both my father as well as Ansari Uncle worked for a multi-national firm.
Zehra was a year elder to me. Five to my four. She was slim and had the loveliest, silkiest hair I had ever seen. She was soft-spoken and kind and really took care of her younger brother, Shoaib. Despite being elder to me, she would let me take the lead in our games, without the slightest protest. We went to different schools. But the afternoons were all about playing till we dropped—indoors, outdoors, pretty much everywhere. As we grew afternoons were also to exchange stories about teachers and our best friends in class and annoying boys.
There were no boundaries—neither touchable nor perceived. And being based so far away from the sub-continent, our young minds had been spared from being conditioned to grieve over past hurts and perceived slights. We were just friends with no other baggage.
The whole family would come over for Onam and Vishu and other Malayali festivals that my parents diligently celebrated. Eid would be all about the special delicacies Shahana aunty made. My mouth waters at the mere memory of it. And then in 1994, the call of the motherland became impossible to ignore and we decided to go back and settle down in India.
I was leaving behind the people I had known for the first ten years of my life. But I was excited to go back and with the undamped optimism of childhood, I believed I would still, somehow be in touch with Zehra and Shoaib and everyone else.
As I write this in 2013, I’m still looking for Zehra and her family. Even in the era of Facebook, where I have reconnected with friends from my school in Muscat, I’ve still not found Zehra. I wish I had more to key in while searching for her than just, ‘Zehra Ansari, Muscat/Pakistan’. I wonder if she remembers me, and whether she is single or married, in Pakistan or overseas.
Wherever she is, I hope that like me, she too still remembers me just as a neighbour and a friend, free from the restraints of invisible and tangible boundaries. The story that I have jointly written with Naheed Hassan, in this anthology, is dedicated to you, Zehra. It comes from the place that you and your family still hold in my mind. And it is written hoping that there will always be a generation of friends like us, to whom borders will mean nothing.