The partition goes on: A Pakistani perspective

The partition goes on: A Pakistani perspective
From Al Jazeera - August 11, 2017

Twenty years ago I visited India for the first time. We were doing the same thing back then, celebrating 50 years of independence, or mourning 50 years of partition to a steady beating of breasts: why ca not we live like friendly neighbours?

Like many Pakistanis I saw my first Indians in London and was surprised that they were a bit like us. Most Indians and Pakistanis have the same reaction when they meet. It seems as if they are brought up to believe that a community of ferals lives across the border.

My first Indian friend and colleague, Zubair Ahmed, came up with this rather clever idea that we should travel to each other's country, then come back and put together a series of programmes comparing our reactions. Originally we wanted to go and live with each other's families but in retrospect, wisely, we decided not to take this newfound brotherhood too far.

We applied for our visas after explaining our plan to the respective high commissioners. They loved the idea and it was followed by a lovely Lucknow-style stand-off where two gentlemen at a platform keep telling each other "No sir, you first" and then the train departs without either of them. For two months we went back and forth. Have they given Zubair the visa? But have they given Hanif the visa? Their logic was impeccable, if one of us did not get a visa, how would there be a programme?

After we had almost given up, both sides relented almost simultaneously. We had our visas, and within days I found myself in Delhi trying to feel sentimental like we are supposed to about each other's country.

I felt nothing. My family did not come from India, I had no emotional ties. My heart did not sink at the sight of Lal Qila. I was left completely cold at the banal familiarity of sights and sounds. I was a foreigner completely at home.

I tried. I lingered around traffic lights and asked random people for directions, asked them what time it was, where I could find a grocery store. I just wanted to see if anyone could tell if I was from Pakistan. Nobody did. I told a colleague. He shook his head. I was completely missing the point. Delhi is a huge city, it's full of people who have just arrived from other parts of India. Who has the time to worry about a random stranger at a traffic signal asking silly questions?

The longing

The stories we heard were too horrid and too sentimental. "We lost everything ... I am the only sibling who survived." "We want to go and see our ancestral home, the place where we were driven from, oh the streets of our childhood."

But there were lots of other people who could not care less. They did not start sobbing when they heard the names of cities such as Sialkot or Rawalpindi.

They had never seen these places. Their ancestors were not born there. There was no fragrance of my own earth for them: no Hyderabad sunsets, no Lahore kebabs, no lovers left behind in Gujranwala.

And there was the overwhelming love and hospitality and the same mantra that we lived like brothers for a thousand years. How did it all go wrong within a matter of months? How did neighbours stab neighbours? What were they seeking freedom from? People were more interested in talking about their homes in Lahore, in Gujranwala.

For the answers one had to go to a cinema.

It's business, was always business

The most we know about each other is from moving images from films and songs. And a bit from books but we are united in the habit of not paying much attention to the written word. When you can see Rajnikanth shake his geriatric hips, what do you need words for?

What we really have in common is music. There is always someone to remind you that the song you just heard was written by someone this side of the border, sung by someone on that side of the border.
Whereever Indians and Pakistanis of a certain age meet they are quite surprised that everyone remembers all the words of a Hemant Kumar song.

A new film called Border had just opened in Delhi. One of my ambitions in life was to watch an Indian film in an Indian cinema. Border was the perfect fit: a bunch of Indian soldiers sing songs of love and then kick Pakistani ass. I wanted to see how the audience would react. It was a full show. I thought as I had come from Pakistan, I'd get preferential treatment. I managed to make it to the ticket window after practically swimming over the shoulders of a crowd. I shouted at the ticket guy: "I am from Pakistan." "You can be from America for all I care. When I say no tickets there are no tickets," he responded.

Of course there were tickets. I bought one from a guy in a corner who was selling bootlegs for twice the price. I felt proud that I had scored a much sought-after ticket. The audience whistled, cursed and danced through the film and every few minutes a Pakistani came to a bad end after he was declared to be something that dwelled in the gutters. I felt afraid that if the audience found out that one of their enemies on the screen was sitting among them I would come to a similar end. I joined the mob. A joyous riot, 200 rupees for vanquishing your enemy. Every paisa was worth it.

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