“It’s a small world!” we often exclaim when we meet a total stranger only to discover that he or she is related to someone we know very well. But I didn’t realize how small the world had become until I went to a dinner party recently, in Westchester, an upscale suburb of New York City. I wasn’t invited but tagged along with Nasser, my son, who was.
Initially, I was hesitant to go because I did not know the hosts and didn’t know who the other guests would be. But Nasser persuaded me to join, saying that he had already informed the hosts that he would be bringing along a guest. And that it would be a large gathering, mostly of Pakistani-Americans, among whom I would easily find people to talk to. So, I went along.
The hostess, a charming young woman, received us at the doorstep and ushered us in. It was a beautiful house. In the middle of the spacious hallway, I noticed a grand arrangement of large maple branches displaying the full spectrum of fall colors — pale yellow to bronze-red. Fall is my favorite season. I found the arrangement particularly delightful.
Many guests had already arrived and were gathered in small groups in different areas of the house, busy chatting, and some were gathered around the bar set up in the backyard next to a roaring fire pit. It was a cool October evening.
After a few introductions, the hostess left us to receive other guests. And soon, Nasser also got pulled into the crowd of guests — out of my reach. I looked around searching for ‘friendly’ faces to enter into conversation with but gave up after a few attempts. They were mostly talking about things I didn’t understand — high finance, hedge funds, real estate, and other such stuff.
Left on my own, I drifted about exploring the house and admiring its décor. It was a spacious, elegantly furnished house with several living areas. A winding staircase led to the bedrooms upstairs. The walls were covered with attractive paintings, large and small. I recognized a couple of Jamil Naqsh, a renowned Pakistani artist. Family pictures also adorned the walls and shelves.
One black-and-white portrait of a beautiful young woman, perhaps in her late 20s, with her hair tied at the back in a bun, caught my eye. She looked so familiar. I felt I had seen her somewhere before. I inspected the portrait closely, and boom!
A flashback! The hair bun and the lipstick were the giveaways. Yes, I knew the young woman. I had met her many, many years ago, on the college campus in Fort Collins, Colorado. She was there as a graduate student, from Peshawar University on an exchange program, just as I was.
She was already married but had to leave her husband behind because he couldn’t leave his job for that long a duration. But she did manage to bring along a daughter — in her womb.
While I inspected her portrait, I could see the young lady, in my memory, crossing the college oval between classes, wearing a sari and bright red lipstick, her hair tied in a bun, like in the portrait ( sari was a popular dress among educated Pakistani women those days). She was the only Pakistani woman on campus and stood out because of her appearance. We called her Mrs. Esker. Her husband’s name was Ishtiaq Esker.
Finally, Mrs. Esker delivered her baby — a girl named Shaila — at a local hospital. After completing her studies, Mrs. Esker, along with the one-year-old Shaila, went back to Pakistan to join her husband and to pursue a career in teaching at Peshawar University.
Shaila, the baby girl born in Fort Collins, grew up into a charming young woman, married, had children, and — it is a small world, sometimes delightfully so — turned out to be our hostess that evening in Westchester. When I shared the story with her, both of us providing each other the missing pieces, she nearly swooned into my arms, and had her husband take our pictures together.
She became particularly emotional when she informed me that her mother had died some years ago, at a rather young age, of breast cancer.
When the story spread among some of the guests, I had no difficulty anymore finding people to talk to.
Hasan Imam Kazmi, a former colleague in Exxon Chemical Pakistan, who went on to become the company’s CEO, sent me an email from Karachi. He had just read the story, which I had shared with some of my friends. I haven’t met Hasan for nearly 25 years, but have remained in touch, off and on, thanks mainly to him. He’s good at connecting with old colleagues and friends.
His message read:
“I am in a hurry now but would like to talk to you about your wonderful and unimaginable rendezvous. When I talk to you, you will find this story even more interesting. Shows how small is this world is.”
Since Hasan is a passionate traveler and a good storyteller, I thought he might have a story to share — something similar to mine — about someone he met unexpectedly on one of his voyages to all those exotic places he keeps visiting. I replied to his email saying that I looked forward to hearing from him. He called me the next day and told me his story, and I paraphrase:
Having graduated from IBA Karachi with a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA), at the age of 21, Hasan went looking for a job and found one at an American multinational, Standard Vacuum Oil Company, Stanvac for short, that ran petrol pumps across Pakistan.
They posted him to Peshawar as a trainee salesperson under the supervision of the District Sales Supervisor of the area, someone who had been there at the job for quite some time. The supervisor taught Hasan the initial tricks of the trade — and much more besides. The things Hasan remembered the most about him were his friendly demeanor and a charming smile — especially the charming smile. He described it as “totally disarming”.
The supervisor with a disarming smile was none other than Mr. Ishtiaq Esker, the husband of the young expectant mother who went to Colorado to study, and gave birth to a baby girl, Shaila, the hostess of the party that October night in Westchester, New York, where I spotted her mother’s portrait on the wall.
Shaila, it seems, may have inherited her father’s smile.
Note: The story and the pictures published with the permission of Shaila