Nasreen and ‘Toto’ and the promise of friendship

WORDS BY NASREEN SULTANA
TEXT IN URDU BY FARJAD KAMAL
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY RIMSHA KAMAL
PHOTOS BY UMAIR KAMAL
Karachi, Pakistan 

The first time I went to India was in the winter of 1982.  My brother and I travelled via train from Karachi to Lahore, crossed the Wagha Border into Amritsar and finally- though it wasn’t our final destination- stopped in Delhi. I remember staying at my brother’s friend house located in the Balli Maraan Chandni Chowk area of Delhi. And after a few days there, we headed towards the state of Rajasthan.

Before the Partition, my family hailed from Jodhpur, which is where my aunt still lived- in Shastrinagar, a place in Sardarpura. Our month long vacation was to be spent with her. The house had Punjabi neighbours living on one side, and a Muslim family on the other side.

Luckily, I became friends with two sisters in the Hindu household, Kavita and Sangeeta. Kavita was older and was getting married in the days that we were there. When I was leaving Pakistan, I could have never imagined that I’d ever get to attend a Hindu wedding! Though all the rituals were new to me, I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. The guests who had come over from other parts of India also treated us very nicely, and amongst those guests, I even made a new friend ‘Toto’.

Toto was tall and had beautiful long hair. We got to spend a lot of time together in the wedding; she even taught me how to wear a saree and at an event- hers was yellow and mine was magenta. One night, the Sangeet function was to take place at a venue quite far away. I was hesitant to go but Toto being her jovial self, dragged me along with her.

The sangeet was yet another memorable experience for me. All the guests welcomed me with open arms. They were pleased to know I had come from Pakistan. The fear we had of being perceived as the ‘other’ was over, we felt like a part of the celebration. That day I realized how Punjabi families on both sides of the border are the same- warm, inclusive, and caring- and big the hearts of people can be. I even got a lot of compliments for my fair complexion and dimples. Toto repeatedly bugged me by asking me if my dimples were real. She always cracked these kinds of jokes that made me laugh, making my dimples even more prominent. I learnt quiet a few things from them while staying there. Writing and speaking Hindi language being one of them. I even discovered that jewellery could apparently be rented out!

The wedding finally came to an end and it was time for all of us to part ways. Toto left her contact number and address with me and we continued to stay in touch through letters. I wrote letters to her in Hindi and she replied in English every time. She once complimented my Hindi and even asked me to teach her Urdu. She even sent me her wedding invitation but I was unable to attend it.

A letter from ‘Toto’

A few years later in 1985, I also got married and we both got busy with our respective lives, eventually losing touch. Its been 35 years today since we last spoke to each other.

I was cleaning my cupboard the other day and came across a few letters Toto sent me written on a beautiful, warm yellow paper with a green floral border. Those letters brought back all the memories I have with her. Each time I read them, I became convinced more than more about how similar we were and how no border could diminish that similarity and friendship. I smile when I read them because they remind me of all the times when she bugged me with my dimples, when she helped me tie a saree for the first time, when she dragged me to the sangeet after midnight and when she came to see me off at the station with the promise to stay in touch.

“My dearest Toto, I wish I find out where you are and how these 35 years in your life have passed by.  I found your address in my diary today but I’m not sure if you still live there. I just hope wherever you are, you always stay happy, and that life will bring us together someday. I also hope you haven’t forgotten me just like I haven’t.”

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