A light-hearted banter; I could only grin and bear

Driving down Janpath, the tree-lined avenue in the heart of Delhi, this past week, I halted at the Le Meridien roundabout to quickly get a bottle of water from a roadside kiosk. Though early March, the springtime sun blared down sharply.

A loitering young crowd, apparently college-going, accosted me. One of them asked: “Can you drive us to Patel Chowk, Sir, if you’re headed that way?”

“Hop on,” I told him, but since they were five (two of them girls), one of them would have to opt out. The girls seated themselves at the back. The boy who bobbed up to ask for a ride sat next to me. We soon drove off.

“Are you an editor?” my immediate guest asked me, the clue having come from the Press sticker on my car. “That’s correct”, I answered. He asked my name next.

No sooner than I said my name was “Zia Haq”, he asked without a pause: “You are Muslim. Were you born in Pakistan?” It had the sting of a kindly lash.

I wasn’t born in Pakistan, I told him, but many Indians, like our prime minister and BJP leader L.K. Advani, were indeed born in that country. “Also, Pakistan’s former ruler Musharraf was born right here in Delhi.”

The questioner was young, probably 17, and the question redolent of youthful inquiry. In less than a km of asphalt, some stark realities were unwittingly playing out.

By now, I desperately wanted to know what led him to assume I could have been Pakistan-born? Where did he think actor Aamir Khan might have been born?

But the next query was already upon me: “If Musharraf was born in Delhi, should he not have been India’s president?”

In a minute, we were at Patel Chowk. I pulled my car to a side. As my guests prepared to get off, they thanked me.

The boy who thought I could have been born in Pakistan shook my hands and said: “Doesn’t matter whether you’re Hindu or Muslim. Sania Mirza is a Muslim but she plays for India.”

I suppose I was stumped by the heat of his blunt inquiry; maybe learnt to grin and bear it in its cool aftermath. If he is reading this, maybe, I would like to tell him, “Bro, let’s meet again, over coffee.”

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