It is not easy to ignore ordinary people's warmth in Pakistan and despite myself I have befriended plenty of locals -- cabbies, shopkeepers, little boys who play cricket in the neighbourhood and a little girl who races boys on her brother's bicycle.
The talking point has almost always been our 11 cats and now a puppy, the newest addition to the family.
Some time ago, the little girl asked me if she could accompany me to the market. I said "yes" and on our way we chatted about her bicycle, which she hardly ever gets to ride now because her brother returns home late.
|My little Pakistani friends...|
The little girl, who lives in our neighbour's servant quarter, shyly says "hello" to me when I go past her house. Her brother, who is just a year older, is sort of our official rescuer when our cats get stuck on a tree.
|Bilal, an expert at climbing trees, with his pet|
Since all our cats are rescues and, therefore, no fancy breeds, the older kids in the neighbourhood tell us to keep a "Persian" or a "Siamese". We let that pass because we have given up on people who think rescues are "junglies". Incidentally, all are cats are Pakistani rescues or "honorary Indians" as we jokingly call them. The cabbies, too, always stop to inquire about our pets' health.
Our Indianness has never been an issue with anyone.
So I was rather surprised when I walked into a shop in the neighbourhood market to buy cat food. The shopkeeper, a very friendly chap, passed me a tin of expired cat food. I told him that I could not feed my cats expired food and he should get rid of it.
"These are Pakistani cats.....they can eat everything....they will not die," he joked for the hundredth time and reached for the cans that he stocks especially for me.
Suddenly I heard the "I" word from behind me. "Arrey yeh kahan kee hain pehley yeh to pata karo... (first find out where is she from)..."
"Yeh Indian hai bhai INDIAN..." someone was saying very accusingly from behind.
I turned and saw a well-built man looking down at me. I had never seen him before, but obviously he knew who I was. Others at the shop also started scanning me. I looked at the shopkepeer and then at his boys, they were all avoiding eye contact. I paid my bill and exited.
The incident left a bad taste in my mouth. It haunted me for quite a while. I was mad at myself for not checkmating that man. I was also mad at the shopkeeper for not speaking up.
I decided not go to his shop again.
However, two days later, I was there again because he is the only one in the neighbourhood who stocks cat food. The shopkeeper was around, but he did not talk to me much. I, too, did not make an attempt to speak.
The day after I was at the shop again. I asked one of his boys to give me something. The shopkeeper was busy with another customer. I saw him signalling at me from a far corner. I ignored him.
Then he came near where I was standing and passed me the expired cat food can again. "Yeh hamari Pakistani billiyan hain....yeh nahin marti...inhain aap yeh expired food hi khilayeye (These are Pakistani cats..they will not die if you feed them expired food..." he guffawed.
"Feed this to your dog too!"
I laughed and retorted: "Doctor ke paas aap lejayenge (will you take the dog to the vet then?)"
"Which doctor do you go to?" he asked, ignoring other customers. I told him.
"I am going to feed these expired cans to OUR Pakistani cats....for FREE," he laughed some more.
It was obvious that he was going the extra mile to make up for that day. "I am going to order more cat food for you tomorrow! Is that okay?" he asked.
Long after I returned home, I was still smiling.