Written by Kate Taylor
In recent days, as India and Pakistan came almost to the brink of war, the members of the Boston Gymkhana Sports Club — a cricket club that, like many in the United States, has members from both countries — did not interrupt their usual social calendar.
Some members were on edge about the escalation between the two nuclear-armed nations, which began two weeks ago when a suicide bombing in the disputed region of Kashmir killed more than 40 Indian soldiers. And many had sharply different perspectives on the conflict.
Rajiv Shah, 46, who emigrated in 1999 from the Indian state of Gujarat, was approving when the Indian government conducted airstrikes in Pakistan, claiming to kill a large number of terrorists.
Others felt that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was exploiting the situation, intentionally ramping up tensions in hopes of solidifying his support in the coming elections.
At least a couple of members gave some credence to conspiracy theories that the Indian government itself might be behind the terrorist attack.
And yet, there was a birthday to celebrate: The club’s founder, Bikram Singh, was turning 53. The club members, accustomed to setting aside their differences and carrying on with their friendships at times of heightened hostility between the two countries, were planning a party.
“No matter what, we live and play or interact with people that we completely disagree with sometimes, but we still manage,” said Singh, whose family is from the northwestern Indian state of Punjab.
The past week has seen some people in India and Pakistan openly root for war, while others have urged the country’s leaders to find a way to end the crisis. (Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan — himself a former cricket star — made a move in that direction, and gained an international publicity coup, when he released an Indian pilot whom Pakistan had captured, reducing tensions somewhat, although shelling continued along the disputed border.)
In the United States, sentiments were similarly mixed: Some Indian-Americans protested outside the Pakistani consulates in New York and Chicago, accusing the country of harboring terrorists, while others joined marches for peace.
But among the members of the Boston Gymkhana Sports Club, there was no palpable unease as they gathered Sunday evening at Singh’s comfortable home in Norfolk, about 40 minutes southwest of Boston. Singh, who had just returned from a vacation to India — his trip home took some 51 hours, because his flight had to be diverted to avoid Pakistani airspace, he said — wore a saffron-colored vest and sipped whiskey. Vegetable fritters and other appetizers were laid out, and club members and their wives and a few teenage children greeted each other with hugs.
The roughly 40 guests were a subset of the cricket club’s membership, which Singh said is between 150 and 200, depending on the year. The majority are from India; Singh estimated that about 10 percent are from Pakistan.
Overall, several members agreed, the club members do not discuss the decadeslong conflict between India and Pakistan much.
“Some of it is deferential, so you obviously try not to hurt the other person’s feelings,” Nafis Ahmad, 51, who is from Karachi, explained the day before the party. He added: “Our club is kind of gentlemanly in a sense. We try not to delve into topics that are too controversial.
This is striking given how much time the club members spend together. Games last some six hours, and afterward, the club members will often spend another six hours eating dinner and drinking together. In the winter, when they don’t play cricket, they play poker in a large upstairs room in Singh’s home, decorated with dozens of cricket trophies and nearly as many bottles of liquor. (The amount of socializing has led the club to adopt an unofficial motto: “We also play cricket.”)
There have been times when geopolitics have briefly intruded on the club’s bonhomie, and early on, one episode led to a member being ejected. That was in 1999, shortly after Singh had founded the club, and when it had only one or two Pakistani members.
That spring and summer, India and Pakistan briefly went to war in Kashmir. Singh said he received a phone call one morning from an Indian-American club member demanding that the Pakistani members be kicked out.
Singh said he was stunned. “I said, ‘You know what? You’re not going to play in our club anymore — that’s not the kind of club we are.’”
On Sunday, at a reporter’s request, a group of the party guests agreed to move into the poker room to discuss the most recent escalation. There was no one from Kashmir, the region at the center of the rivalry, whose residents are often left out of the debate about the two country’s actions. It wasn’t long before differences emerged.
Omar Virk, 28, who grew up outside Lahore and came here 3 1/2 years ago to study for his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said he believed that India’s prime minister was purposefully stoking the conflict.
“Modi is trying to push into this one,” he said. “You know how he won the last election, right? He was anti-Pakistan from the start.”
“I disagree with that,” said Moin Ghouse, 38, who is from the Indian state of Hyderabad.
“I think Modi is politically savvy enough to understand the risks involved in going for an all-out war,” Ghouse added.
Virk began talking about theories he said were being discussed on Indian television suggesting that Modi himself was behind the terrorist attack. “Nobody can prove that,” he added, though he said he had been thinking the same thing.
Others said the idea was absurd.
Shah, the club member from Gujarat — Modi’s home state, where he was chief minister in 2002 when deadly religious riots took place in which roughly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed — said many Indians were thrilled that Modi had taken a stand and attacked Pakistan in response to the suicide bombing.
As competing conversations broke out, Ahmad, the club member from Karachi, said he had been worried in recent days about the possibility of war, because he believed that India increasingly saw itself as a superpower.
“I was a little unnerved that we may be — on the other side of the border, some of our brothers may be a little bit too much trigger-happy, and they would say, ‘OK, these guys have been doing these shenanigans for us for many, many years, let’s show them.’”
One of Singh’s close friends, Parak Ananta, began reminding the group that dinner was getting cold downstairs. Eventually, everyone went down to eat.
Asked when club members last had a conversation like this, Singh said that it had been years ago, when he started a Facebook group for club members and others to discuss a series of India-Pakistan cricket games. Ananta had thought starting the group was a bad idea — that passions would run too high, and people would say things they would regret. Looking back, Ananta said that he felt he had been right; the conversation had damaged some friendships.
“We have to be real sometime,” Singh insisted. “We can’t just be in a cocoon all the time.”
Ananta disagreed. “Even between wife and husband there are certain things that are taboo,” he said.