On 19 June, in the aftermath of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, India mourned the loss of one of its finest athletes who had left behind a gilded legacy – Milkha Singh, also known as the ‘Flying Sikh’. The following day, a fascinating column appeared in The Indian Express, titled – ‘His passing a loss to our family, to Pakistan: Milkha Singh’s rival’s son’.

The piece was authored by Mohammad Ejaz, the son of Pakistani athlete, Abdul Khaliq, who had competed with Milkha Singh in the famous 200 metre race during an India-Pakistan athletic meet in Lahore in 1960. It was this victory that gave Singh the endearing epithet of ‘Flying Sikh’. In the article, Ejaz reminisces about the sportsmanlike relationship between Singh and his father, both the late rival athletes. He recalls how both Khaliq (himself known as the ‘Flying Bird of Asia’) and Singh, despite being officers in their respective nations’ armies, enjoyed a convivial and bonhomie filled friendship outside the track field.

For instance, when Ejaz first spoke to Singh in 2009, the aging athlete had remarked: “Putt, tera bapu boht wadda athlete tha (Son, your father was a great athlete). I became Flying Sikh upon defeating him. My fame is due to him”.

Again, as per Ejaz, during the 4x100m relay race in the same 1960 Indo-Pak sports meet, Abdul Khaliq had received the baton before Singh, but decided to wait for the latter to catch up. And once both were at the same level, Khaliq remarked: “Milkha Sahib, ab zor lagana (Milkha Sahib, give your all now)”.

Such deep respect and admiration between sporting-cum-professional (Armed Forces) rivals of two countries whose mutual relations have remained defiantly dicey brought a smile in my face. Who knows how many such anecdotes are hidden in plain sight, waiting to be unearthed, especially at a time when diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan are at an all-time low.

Left: Abdul Khaliq (centre), Wikimedia Commons; Right: Milkha Singh, Wikimedia Commons

Since the dawn of history, stories have connected populations across diverse cultures and regions. The story of the apocalyptic Great Flood and all living beings saved by a large ark built by divine intervention is a case-in-point. Versions of the same story can be found throughout diverse cultures of the past – Manu and Matysa avatar in Aryavarta, the flash flood brought by Zeus in ancient Greece, the legend of Utnapishtim in ancient Sumerian mythology, the Great Flood of Gun-Yu during the reign of emperor Yao in ancient China, the lore of Great Flood among indigenous communities in Polynesia and Meso-America and the later versions of Noah’s Ark and Nuh by Christianity and Islam, respectively.

It remains a mystery as to how the same motif of Great Flood spread among and connected cultures miles apart from each other. Similar cross-civilisational connections were fostered by epics, such as the Ramayana, which travelled through Chola traders and explorers to Southeast Asia (and evolved into the Ramakien of Thailand) or through Buddhist travellers and pilgrims, like Xuanzhang whose The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions contain references to the Ramayana and the Lankavatara Sutra describing Ravana’s Lanka.

In today’s time, stories of Hollywood movies, Bollywood songs, Korean soaps and Netflix dramas, like Game of Thrones, bring together a global millennial fan-base. Given this extraordinary power of stories, is it possible to use them to build bridges between cultures in the 21st century? (At the outset, by ‘stories’, I am not referring to the earlier examples of myths, epics or popular culture, but instead, the personal anecdotes of similar experiences shared by individuals hailing from different nations and across borders).

Also read ‘Pakistan Has a Love-Hate Relationship With Buddhism, and Its Flaring up Again

In the context of my personal experiences, I have found the answer to the above question in the affirmative. The search for commonalities, rather than differences, in conversations have gifted me with friends or brothers and sisters from Tibet, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Afghanistan. As ambitious as it may sound, I wish to have friends possibly from all the 195 countries of the world.

It was back in 2016 during my undergraduate years that I became ‘Tibetan’, though not officially. It was a result of a chance meeting at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) campus in Guwahati with Lopsang from ‘Students For A Free Tibet (SFT) India’ in Dharamshala. I took this opportunity to tackle all my curiosities about the region, which till now, had only been accessible through books and newspapers.

In the conversation, which lasted two evenings, I was able to understand the emotions and force behind the peaceful Tibetan movements and the tragic story of a nation reeling under coercive occupation. This drove me to join the SFT movement. While in the movement, I met my Tibetan brother, Norbu. His story of escape from Kham, Tibet, in the 1990s on a raft, the perilous trek through Nepal to the safety of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala with his parents staying behind in Tibet under the close watch of Chinese troops and surveillance cameras deepened my support for the popular Tibetan aspirations of a free nation.

There are other such stories that increasingly transformed me into a ‘Tibetan’ and in turn, my ‘Tibetan’ experience has been a major turning point in my life. It generated empathy in me for other similar self-determination movements taking place in East Turkestan, Hong Kong, Northern Ireland, Kurdistan and West Papua. I felt as if the stories of Lopsang, Norbu and others had brought me much closer to Tibet than any of the books or newspaper articles I had read. Norbu’s struggle and experience made Tibet more visible than movies or documentaries. Although both are powerful mediums for conveying stories, a live experience of conversation is more powerful and appealing than other mediums.  

The author as the President of Students For A Free Tibet (SFT) Guwahati chapter, 2018 | Photo provided by author

Bangladesh greeted me and we smiled in 2018 when I met Shubho, Priya and Swagoto from Chittagong in a workshop in Siloam, Meghalaya. The men were not wearing the lungi or skull cap and didn’t have funny beards, and the women were not clad in the burqa from head to toe – stereotypical ways in which we are socialised to think about Bangladeshis. Instead, they were dressed in jeans, denim shirts and salwar-kameez.

The seminar, which lasted for a week, also became a seminar on Dhaka and Chittagong covering a wide range of topics – from the story of Bongobondhu (Friend of Bengal) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the difference between the compositions of Kazi Nazrul and Rabindranath Tagore to the adventures of Hero Alom who defeated gun-totting goons with a dhoti (a lá Rajnikanth?).

On my part, we conversed about Romoni Gabhoru, the Ahom princess destined to marry Ajamtara, the son of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and who is believed to have been buried in the Pori Bibi’s Kobor (tomb) in Dhaka; the erstwhile trade and barter system that existed between the indigenous communities of Meghalaya, like Garos and Khasis, and the inhabitants of the Bengal suba (province); and Shubho’s fandom of Bollywood stars, especially Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan.

Also read ‘Reading Proof as ‘Proofs’: The Search For The Elusive Bangladeshi in Assam

Strangely, in the seminar that had participants from all over India, I found more commonalities with my three Bongobondhus (friends from Bangladesh) than participants from Bangalore, Bhopal and Kochi. Instead of English, we conversed in Bengali and they were able to grasp a few words that I uttered in Assamese. Most importantly, we converged on food – bhaat (rice), ilish maach (Hilsa fish), aloo bhaja (fried potato) and mutton. The four of us couldn’t start our mornings without a hot cup of chaa (tea).

During those days, for me, as well as the other participants from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, it seemed as if the cartographic borders dividing us had disappeared. We felt distances between Delhi, Guwahati, Bangalore, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Sylhet and Chittagong seemed easier to traverse. For me, the greatest takeaway from the experience in Siloam was the shattering of stereotypes regarding our neighbours across the Sunderbans and Sylhet who shared the water of Ganga as Padma.

Bangladesh was not just the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). It was also Shubho who was a die-hard fan of Shahrukh, Priya who loved a warm cup of chaa, and Swagoto who played songs of Mohit Chauhan on his guitar. Hopefully, for them, India was not just Lutyens Delhi or Congress-BJP, but also a land inhabited by people like me who cherish Tagore, Hero Alom, Hilsa and mutton. 

I met Burma (Myanmar) and Afghanistan during the course of the pandemic of 2020 and the lockdown in the form of Min and Ahmed, respectively. While Min brought stories about his hometown, Yangon, in the common rooms of Ashoka University, Ahmed lured me with photographs of sparkling blue waterfalls and deep gorges from his home in Balkh, shared on our academic WhatsApp group. 

The stunning landscapes of Balkh Province, Afghanistan | Photo by author’s friend, Ahmed; arranged by the author.

Seated in the common room sofas of our Residence Hall (RH) 1, Min narrated the tale of his grandfather who had come from China to Rangoon (older name of Yangon) in the 1940s and his grandmother who was a native of the Land of Jade (Burma). As a Burmese citizen of mixed ancestry, Min also talked about his inability to acquire the Orange Card, whose holders are seen as pure, indigenous citizens of Myanmar and enjoy certain privileges over others (such as Green Card holders). He told us about how this often made him feel alienated from his Bamar neighbours.

However, our conversation also picked up on cheerful lines when we spoke about the Shwedagon Pagoda, the tomb of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II and the history that my home state of Assam shared with his country since the time of the Pagan dynasty of 9th century. Interestingly, Min often remarked feeling closer to the students of Northeast India, such as myself, as he became more familiar with our songs, dance forms and food.

It is this closeness, which we cherished that made my heart move when Min’s homeland was overrun by a military coup on 1 February 2021 and his parents had to flee Yangon and move to their relatives’ place in Naypyidaw. In addition, many of Min’s friends have been arrested by the junta and are behind bars. Although as a mere citizen, I felt powerless at our last conversation, I saw power and hope in Min’s generation that has been facing the diabolical junta on the streets and forested border areas. It was the power of Kyal Sin that nudged me to tell Min: “Bro, everything will be ok. Three Finger Salute to you and your countrymen”. 

Embed from Getty Images

In our first conversation, Ahmed said he, along with the people of Balkh, were big fans of Bollywood. I tried unsuccessfully to sing a popular number by the Afghan singers, Rameen, Omar Sharif and Mozhdah Jamalzadah. But we did jam together over WhatsApp on Ahmed’s favourites from Bollywood – like ‘Dil Diya Galaan’, ‘Kuch na Kaho’ and more. In addition to forwarding Bollywood songs every evening, Ahmed and I also shared our desires to visit Delhi, Taj Mahal, Mumbai, Babur Bagh (tomb of Mughal emperor Babur in Kabul), Mazar i- Sharif, Bamiyan and of course, his home in Balkh.

My conversations with Ahmed invoke a picture of Afghanistan that is different from the ones we see in popular media – land dotted with winding valleys, snow capped mountains, clear blue waterfalls and domes of picturesque mosques. The Afghanistan hidden behind popular media glare of Taliban, desert operations of NATO, bombings and the realpolitik of US, Russia, China, India, Iran and other powers. Ahmed, to me seemed like the Kabulliwalah of Tagore. He reminded me Balraj Sahni in the 1961 film Kabuliwala humming ‘Ae mere pyare watan, ae mere bichre chaman, tujhpe dil qurban’ (O my beloved homeland, O my lost garden, my heart is sacrificed at your beauty).

I would like to think it was this bichre chaman or lost garden of Ahmed and his story of Afghanistan that has been overshadowed by the image of the bearded Mujahideen or the NATO soldier patrolling barren landscapes – stereotypes that have veiled our eyes from the beauty of the land from where Gandhari came as a bride of Hastinapura, where Siddhartha Gautama got immortalised in the Bamiyan, the land of Ai Khanoum where merchants and traders from the Han empire and Saurashtra enjoyed Greek tragedies, the land that bore the steps of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian phalanxes, where Zahiruddin Babur rested on his way to Panipat and planted orchards of exotic fruits, and from where Muinuddin set out to establish the Chisti Silsila in Ajmer.

The most cherished ‘Afghanistan’ moment was when Ahmed remarked in one our conversations – “We shall not be friends, but brothers”.

Also read ‘Religious Tourism Between India and Pakistan Can Open New Doors to Peace

It is in the search for such stories – stories that unite, not divide, and foster friendships, bonhomie and most importantly, empathy – that one may find the spirit of “people’s international relations” – a form of IR that goes beyond the inter-‘national’. After all, national boundaries cease to exist with the flow of conversations and discovery of commonalities in stories, tastes, interests, food and culture. It is a variant of IR that is not confined to the theories of global politics, UN headquarters or diplomatic summits.

It is a field of study that strives to go beyond news headlines and popular images of televised media and instead, searches for the bichre chamans or lost melodies of connection that bind us together. It is an IR where the ‘other’ is not the hated or unknown alien, but a complete individual with whom stories are to be shared and exchanged and friendships fostered; an IR where Ahmed is not the ‘potential Mujahideen’ as portrayed by the reinforced stereotypes of popular media but an individual who brings with him the stories of buzkashi (a traditional sport in Afghanistan) and enjoys Bollywood songs; where Shubho and Priya are not the quintessential ‘illegal immigrants’ of local rumours but individuals with similar stories as ours that are waiting to be shared over a cup of hot chaa; and where, despite not being a Burmese or Tibetan, we are able to empathise with the travails of Min and Norbu. It is an IR driven by empathy, values of sharing and common experiences, rather than by national interest or power. 

Realists might call me an idealistic Wilsonian fool, but I hope my fate is earmarked with many such meetings – with Waqar or Shahid across the Radcliffe Line whereby the stories of Lahore and Lavapur, Ram Thaman and Margalla hills, songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bollywood numbers of Shahrukh and Salman and melodies of Coke Studio, the beauties of Cherrapunjee and Hunza Valley and the Urdu nazms (verses) of Faiz, Iqbal and Rahat Indori are waiting to be explored.

These are stories that exist beyond the machinations of Islamabad, Delhi, ISI and RAW and surgical strikes; stories of empathy and commonalities that forge undying friendships, such as between the ‘Flying Sikh’ and ‘Flying Bird of Asia’ flying in the same azure blue sky.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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