“Where do you live in India?”

“New Delhi.”

“Taj Mahal is there, right?

My friend, Mahnoor is better informed about India today than she was a year ago.

Our countries are as close as I am with my next-door neighbor, but the citizens view each other as not less than aliens. Our societies have successfully sensitized us to believe that we are enemies, enemies from birth till death. And the terms of this relationship cannot be questioned.

By now, it should be clear that I am an Indian and my friend, Mahnoor, is a Pakistani. The usual response I receive to this statement is a raised eyebrow followed by a series of questions. “Oh! How did you become friends?” “How can you be friends with a Pakistani?” “You shouldn’t be friends with a terrorist sympathizer.” I always use the opportunity to deliver a passionate cross-border friendship lecture till my audience walks out in defeat or denial.

How did I meet Mahnoor? Through Facebook. In its bid to connect people, it got us talking on a show we both liked, or maybe only I did. Little did I know about life in Islamabad and you already how much she knew about mine.

In this media frenzy environment where we happily exist, I think acceptability is more important than accessibility. The diplomatic circle will continue to function according to its whims and fancies and the politicians will persist as ever, with the hate-mongering. Unlike our parents, we have the wide and vast online world to debunk that false reality effectively created.

Today, information is available at the click of the mouse but, I could have easily googled about the languages spoken in Pakistan but I chose to revel in that false reality, that they are an alien species who follow a regressive lifestyle, and I should never talk to them.

“I actually thought we speak a different language,” I told my ‘frenemy’.

“You know, I hung out with a few Indians in the US, we are similar and different both,” she said.

“What did you think was different?”

“The slangs” she said and we laughed.

Somehow, due to the successful sensitization I mentioned previously, we have forgotten that people in Pakistan were once British Indians. We forget that share a common history, oppression, freedom struggle and once shared land too.

I bonded with my Pakistani friend over so many things - Coke Studio, Bollywood, Fawad Khan, Pakistani dramas and celebrities, clothes, stand-up comedians, university life and all the other things under the sun. Each word reminded us that except nationality and religion, nothing is different. We share a similar culture, cuisine, music, and art. Many a time, I wondered, what a culturally-rich country we would be had the partition never happened.

The thought of those broken and divided identities breaks my heart.

Talking about religion, I had a fair idea about Muslim culture, rituals and festivals but I was Mahnoor’s first Hindu friend. Diwali was around the corner and I utilized the opportunity. I sent her videos, photos and explained to her about the festivities, the Puja and rituals. Never did I expect that it would ignite her interest in the enemy religion too.

By the way, she couldn’t believe that forget cousins, Hindus did not even marry in their own lineage.

One day, she messaged, “Surbhi, I want to read about Hinduism, suggest some books.” I hadn’t read one myself, and here she was, eager to read and know more. I made me think of the constant threat of communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, of the millions who died and who killed in the various riots which erupted during and post partition Of acceptance and accessibility again.

This reminds me of Wahid, another Pakistani friend I can boast of. He became an overnight celebrity courtesy Facebook in both India and Pakistan. Unlike his friends, after playing Holi and immersed in colours, he decided to travel in a local bus to test Karachi’s public place for cultural diversity. As expected, he was questioned by his fellow countrymen for his participation. Thankfully, the city did not fail this boy from Chitral. A man gave a fitting reply to others, “If colors bring these kids together and they can celebrate it together with the minority, why do you have to bring in religion? That’s a great thing.”

Acceptance can be so beautiful, it brings the hearts and minds closer and differences no longer matter.

Earlier this year, I got in touch with another girl from Karachi, Zahra Fatima, who added me to an online community of women who call themselves ‘The Progressivists Café’. It had Pakistani women, predominantly, from across the globe and it was such an effective platform to discuss our feminist issues, experiences and rants. Our fluid identities ignored our nationalities and we connected as women. We were women who live in similar patriarchal societies and whose stories of oppressions are alike. Tucked in one corner of my Facebook profile, the group is a different world, forever open to embrace me.

My friends from Pakistan represent its rich diversity which Indians usually don’t know of. I know Mahnoor, who is a Punjabi living in Islamabad, Wahid who belongs to Chitral in Khyber Pakhtunwa province and Zahra, a Sindhi living in Karachi.

In one of our daily conversations, Mahnoor said, “My dad was in the Army and now my brother works there too.” Like a hyper nationalist Indian, I should have stopped talking to her then and there. Her family was part of the organization which allegedly backs terror attacks in my country, but we chose to speak.

“I don’t like all this political stuff, it’s for the crazy people; I like watching cat videos,” she said. Maybe, we were the crazy ones, maybe not. We chose to accept and connect as humans.

“I want to visit Pakistan, invite me for your wedding!” I said. “Yes sure, and I will visit India after I get married,” she promised. We were aware about how ambitious our plans were and the challenges ahead in our bid to make them a reality. Like other things, we chose to ignore them too and live in sweet reverie.

I still live with that dream of visiting the beautiful land of Pakistan and meeting those people who are just like me and are my own.

A year later, Mahnoor broke the news to me that she was getting married, but in the US. I was extremely happy, but it felt as if something had pierced through my heart and I complained. I complained because Mahnoor, one of my dearest friends, was going away to another country. At that moment, I completely forgot that she lived in another country, that too Pakistan.