His name is Mahmoud. I don’t think anything of it even though I know no one else by that name. True, my mother’s name is Prakash and I have another aunt by that name. My father has a brother in law with the same name as his. So does uncle Sheel. But then, my name is Neerja and I don’t know anyone else by that name either.
I would be playing in the front garden and Mahmoud might come to see my dad. He was always dressed in his uniform: white jacket, white pants and shirt and smelled clean.
“Where is your dad?” he would ask. Before I could run in to call my father he would bend over and say “here, I brought something for you,” and he would open his palm – a lovely piece of candy or savory or something.
As I got older, he would tell me more about his day and I would tell him my secrets. Sometimes if he had time he would walk me to school – it was only 15 minutes but it made me happy enough to last a long time. If I got tired, he would give me a piggy-back. Other days we raced and I always won. “Come on slowpoke. Run faster.” I would laugh and push his back.
One day dad told me that I should not take candy from Mahmoud. He said now I was older. “But Mahmoud is my friend” I said. My father would pause and then say “well – it is his share of the candy that he saves for you – I guess it is okay if he wants to but know that it is not an extra piece.”
In school we had to speak only in English and when I walked to school with Mahmoud we started talking only English. Pretty soon Mahmoud had a better accent and knew more words than me. After about a year I noticed Mahmoud would come to our house and speak to my dad even, in English.
“I want to be a school teacher” he would say.
One day I came home with my clothes all torn. “What happened?” asked dad.
“I had a fight. When I said my best friend is Mahmoud the boys said he is my friend only because you give him money. Is this true daddy?”
My dad held me close. “That is not true. Sometimes I lend him money but he always pays me back. He is saving to get married. He is too proud to take money but he is paying a tutor and I want to help him.”
One day Mahmoud came to say goodbye. He was very happy. He got married and he got a job teaching English to little kids.
My father hugged him and asked “why a good bye?”
Mahmoud and his new wife were moving to Lahore. I cried and said I would not let him go.
Today, every time I read about a senseless bombing in a school, I pray for my first friend, the most gentle, refined, most loving friend I have ever had. And I think that if everyone had a best friend like Mahmoud maybe there would be no violence against children, no bloodshed of teachers, no harm done to people who know how to care for children.
How wonderful would that be.