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We have these friends who live in one of those super fancy condos in Bombay that make India palatable to even the expats. Their building was called Raheja Pine Cone or Lodha Pristine Bliss or Kalpataru Walmart Gardens or something. They are the only apartment buildings in India without those ugly metal grills on every window. The glass towers perforate the city’s smog defiantly and there’s an app you can use to tell the security guards at the front gate which Ubers to let in. I am in one such Uber. My family are well off by Indian standards but not at this level. And as much as I too would like to live in Hiranandani Golden Showers, we ultimately all have to breathe the same smog.
But these are the “good” kind of rich friends and I love them and I’m staying with them for a few days as I return “home” for a week after two years abroad. At dinner the previous night, after updated CVs were verbally exchanged, the conversation quickly turned to cricket. Thank God. Old, young, male, female, everyone had an opinion and the distinguished alpha sitting at the head of the table suddenly no longer held sole dominion over the conversation. Even he hadn’t been following the latest developments as closely as the youngsters and looked bemused as they rattled off statistical minutiae about Rohit’s Sharma’s average against left-arm seamers. When a lull descended on the table, the head of the family surveyed his courtiers and said with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m looking forward to watching this new 16-year-old Pakistani fast bowler Naseem Shah.” And the rest of us nodded and murmured in agreement. The next day, you see, was the start of a new test series in Australia. There’s nothing like the first session of a Test series in Australia.
Some of us woke up at 5:30 a.m. for the toss and some at 6 but by 7 everyone was in the drawing room to watch the Test match. While the splendour of cricket’s longest form has dulled off late, the sight of a shiny red ball and plush green grass and gleaming cricket whites on a sunny morning in Perth still makes us purists misty-eyed. The sprawling stadia, the local media... no one does a home series like Australia. But alas they were the foe; we were not here to see them. We sipped our masala chai and an expectant silence fell on the resplendent 29th floor duplex as the new ball was thrown to Shah. Pakistan had a new fast bowler and we were all secretly cheering for the strapping teenage tear-away from across the border.
The Indians in my circles have a curious relationship with Pakistani cricket. On the one hand, the perennial conflict between India and Pakistan colours every thought, feeling and fact about the mysterious neighbour. We had discussed Pakistan and Pulwama at the dinner table the previous night and even the woman of the house — always measured, always diplomatic — remarked on the topics with pithy castigation. I’ve noticed even the FabIndia–clad peaceniks that constitute my close friends and family have hardened their views on Pakistan after the attack at Pulwama — something changed in India that day. I sense a new animosity towards Pakistan from my anecdotal interactions with India’s fellow liberal, urban elite and this has unsurprisingly translated into deeper alienation. In some ways, the two countries are more different now than ever: The Indians I am generally surrounded by like to think that Pakistan’s democracy, economy and influence on the world are not even worth mentioning in the same breath as India’s. I am sure Pakistan shares similar indignations about the sprawling elephant to her south. How much of the superiority is aspirational jingoism and how much is painful truth is eminently debatable but what is irreconcilable is the enmity that bubbles at or below the surface of any discussion involving the other. It’s not a friendly rivalry like between the Brits and the Aussies. There’s not “banter” to be had here.
Until it comes to cricket. After Pakistan walloped us in the ICC Champions Trophy Final in 2017, the packed bar I was watching it at in Manhattan put on Munni Badnaam Hui (Club Mix) and 100 people wearing blue and green danced together for hours. Only once the Himmesh remixes ensued did the crowd begin to disperse. I know that many (most?) Indians share a deep love for Pakistani cricketers because when I was 9 years old, I was gifted a video cassette of Pakistan’s 1996 tour of England and I watched Wasim and Waqar’s ferocious fast bowling on our guest room TV set whenever I could. And I’m certainly not the only 9-year-old to have done that. I know Indians love Pakistani fast bowlers because they represent something that India never really had until now: the potency to fight fire with fire, to go on tour to the Englands and Australias of this world and scare opposition batsmen with a cursory glare from the top of their run-up. I know that Indians on that morning, woke up like the rest of us to watch Pakistan’s latest speedy specimen sprint towards the popping crease with all his might and spear down a yorker at 95 mph. I may be writing this in 2019 but I know that Indians woke up early to secretly cheer on Mohammed Amir in 2009 and Shoaib Akhtar in 1999 and Waqar Younis in 1989.
People from the subcontinent see ourselves as the underdog, I think. When India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka tour the SENA countries of South Africa, England, New Zealand or Australia, you are basically seeing 5 ' 9 " brown men against 6 ' 2 " white men and somewhere this difference in stature on the field has reflected a chasm of standing in the real world. This is changing, of course. But the idea of the handsome, skulking Pakistani fast bowler as the third-world underdog’s trump card, striking a blow against the world order for the little guy, has long enchanted me and I suspect I’m not the only one. I wonder if Pakistani drawing rooms sip chai and look at India’s production line of valiant young batsmen with similarly longing eyes? I wonder if the same hopeful, covert silence descends in Lahore and Karachi when Virat Kohli walks out to face the ferocity of Australia’s bowling attack. I wonder if discussions of India’s spiteful, disastrous treatment of her Muslim minority abate when Mohammed Shami takes a wicket while wearing the blue India shirt.
I am acutely aware of the prickly war between our two armies, the crippling tension between our two governments and the suffocating mistrust between our two peoples. But when I think about India and Pakistan, I see two societies that essentially speak the same ancient languages, watch the same ridiculous movies, plough the same doomed crops and consume the same colonial sports. I think that is what makes it so easy, so natural to clap for the enemy’s son on the first morning of a Test match at Perth. There’s a yearning there, and I suspect it’s the yearning for the missing half of a country’s soul.