“Hi, I’m Raihana from Assam! Are you from India?” I introduced myself to the man standing next to me at the immigration hall at Singapore airport.
“Hello!” he replied with a smile. “I’m Mahmood, from your neighbourhood, Pakistan. Nice to meet you.”
It was wee hours of the morning on August 30, 2016 when I arrived in Singapore for the very first time. Assuming Mahmood to be a fellow countryman, I approached him for a help. He guided me throughout to complete the immigration formalities. Within 1 hour or so, we left the immigration hall and collected our luggage.
When we were heading towards the taxi stand, he offered me to share the same taxi, as our destinations were close. Honestly, I did not mind. He was not a stranger to me by that time to reject straight away. Also, it was not the first time for me being abroad, and meeting a Pakistani gentleman. I have such wonderful friends from this neighbourhood country, whom I met in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Singapore is extremely a safe country, even for the tourists.
During the 35-minute taxi ride from the airport to where I was lodged in, I shared my beautiful experiences of living in Saudi Arabia. My education till my doctorate was in Assam. When I stepped out of my country for my postdoctoral research, naturally I looked for Indian friends or someone who shares similar culture. As I was trying to adjust to the new environment, my colleagues – who were mostly Arabs and from Central Asia – were so supportive that, soon, I felt one among them.
During that one-year stay in Saudi Arabia, I met so many amazing people. Shared a strong bond of friendship, particularly, with those from the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps, it was food that strengthened our bond. We, especially, used to gather for meals. The canteen at the basement of our office served Biriyani on every Wednesday lunch and the Golf club restaurant served Lachha paratha with Mutton Korma on every Monday. No matter how much work we had on those days, we made sure not to miss these special foods.
I celebrated three Eids during my stay in Saudi Arabia. Because of those wonderful people, I never missed my family on the foreign land. It was my dear friend Shafaq, who introduced me to Pakistani TV dramas. The first one being ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hai’. The list of Pakistani drama that I have watched ever since is endless. I still love to watch their serials.
My Pakistani and Bangladeshi friends also love to watch Bollywood movies. On every moments of celebration, Bollywood songs are invariably played in their country. It was Shafaq, who also taught me how to cook Daal Gosht, Kabab and several other recipes.
The interesting conversation during that short taxi ride continued without a break. Mahmood also shared his wonderful experiences of living in a multicultural society in Singapore. He along with his family has been living in Singapore for past several years.
During the initial days in Singapore it was Mahmood and his wife who helped me to get familiarise with the city life. Not even for a single moment in the ever-busy Singapore, did I realise that Mahmood is not an Indian. What mattered to me was that, they too share the same kind of emotions, interests and tastes, as me. Not just Mahmood, there were several others from our neighbouring countries – be it Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka – we lived like a family in Singapore leaving aside our trivial differences.
Last three years in Singapore, students from our university (NTU Singapore) from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh celebrate every Eid and even Ramzan together. We also participate in Indian festivities like Diwali and Durga Puja. And more importantly, we never miss the chance to celebrate Independence Days of both India and Pakistan, commonly, because both are consecutive days – the 14th and 15th August. This year also, we, the friends from Indian subcontinent made it sure that we had desi food in Little India, located at the central part of Singapore. On Sunday, August 16, we had a great feast amid the crisis of COVID-19, to celebrate our Independence Days.
While, some Bollywood movies, politicians and even certain section of media try to create a hostile mindset for the neighbouring countries, we share a bonhomie in this foreign land. There are so many aspects which unite us – our love for the desi food, music, drama, movies and of course cricket. We speak the same languages, follow similar culture, we understand each other better. Even our vulnerabilities – socio-economic problems and political situations are similar. We often discuss the current situation and remain hopeful of a better future, when the countries and its leaders would share good relations, just like we do.