Zahoor Ilahi, a Pakistani immigrant who sells peanuts on a midtown sidewalk, usually greets passersby with an innocuous “Very delicious nuts.” But he’s been a bit fired up ever since the nuclear tests began back home. “Ab dekhna kaun pancho India hamare saath takkar legi,” he shouts – “Let’s see how that sister-fucking India can take us now.”
Over in Jackson Heights, Gian Singh, a retired soldier, would be only too happy for the chance to try. Standing ramrod straight outside a music shop, the native Indian brags about his country’s newfound nuclear capability. “I’m happy that we have tested these bombs. So what if Pakistan has also? They are smaller.”
Such belligerent voices are a familiar aspect of the escalating tensions on the Subcontinent. Each day’s news brings more images of hawkish politicians rattling their sabers. But despite the huge numbers of transplanted Indians and Pakistanis now living in New York, these sentiments are surprisingly rare on our shores. Uprooted from the soil where the old poisons reside, the populations that once lived on opposite sides of a hostile border now live cheek by jowl. In bustling neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and the East Twenties in Manhattan, they occupy the same buildings, shop in the same stores, and attend the same schools, all under the new umbrella term “South Asians.” Often, restaurants run by Pakistanis call themselves Indian, so as to avoid confusing the locals.
“Look, basically we are here to make money,” says Shiv Dass, the mild-mannered owner of the Shingar Boutique on 74th Street in Queens. “I am being honest. We are businessmen. Traders, you know. We don’t like politics. If we talk about politics, we talk about it at home. There’s so much enmity between India and Pakistan, and these nuclear tests are bad, very bad. I don’t like them. No one in Jackson Heights does.”
Next door in Sona Music Center, the customers are all enjoying “Ho Jaayegi Balle Balle,” the hit song by Daler Mahndi, India’s latest pop sensation. But Gurpeet, a young Sikh who works there, shakes his head and mutters darkly: “These tests. Why? Do they want world war? They’re crazy. Stupid.”
The experience of the countless Indians and Pakistanis living in New York is far from universal among the city’s immigrant groups. Many other expatriates have found that the animosities of their native lands remain just as strong in America as back home. Within the five boroughs, numerous conflicts have flared – often violent ones – that originated on other continents, or even in other centuries. But the logic of the currently intensifying contest between the nuclear community’s two newest members seems remote to its émigrés.
The surrounding debate, on the other hand, is often altogether too present. “My real issue is with the shrill preaching and self-righteousness we’ve had to listen to from others,” said Neeraja Narayanan, a young executive with a major bank. “As an Indian woman living in New York, it’s been impossible for me to get away from this topic, and I’m frequently accosted by wild-eyed evangelists condemning this ‘dastardly’ act. There’s no escape, and frankly, I’m getting rather sick of it.”
In addition to the common drive to succeed, these expatriates say they’re brought together by their outsider status here in New York, where most people aren’t even aware of these two nations’ bloody history. As Mohammad Ashfaque, a cab driver, explains, “Brother, you are Indian. I am from Lahore, from Pakistan. You are in my taxi. I have a bomb, you have a bomb. But we are the same people.” He points to a car driving alongside. “Look at that driver, he’s an American. Can he know who is a Pakistani here and who is Indian? You tell him you’re from Lahore, and will he know?”
“Indians and Pakistanis have their shops side by side,” said Ishrat Ansari, the owner of a stylish café in the West Village. “They mix. The only time there’s a rivalry is when there is a cricket match. I remember in 1996, during the cricket World Cup, India was playing Pakistan in the quarterfinals. The match was shown live at a cinema in Queens, and there were slogans. There was more rivalry then than there is now.”