An Indian in Pakistan
A simple white shalwar kameez, a pair of traditional Peshawari shoes and a black jacket. The packed hall of about 900 people exploded into thunderous cheers and a standing ovation. Young boys and girls jumped up with excitement, thumped their tables and filled the air with whistles. The welcome befitted a rock star.
The man in white moved to the stage and commenced speaking. He spoke clearly, simply and in elegant Urdu; every member of the audience could understand him. His thoughts were crystal clear; he stood for a multi- cultural and secular framework, believed in a corruption free society, condemned the attacks on minorities and their places of worship, and had faith in the young and rapid economic development. Each proclamation drew acclaim from the audience.
Clearly the speaker was the darling of the youth of Pakistan.
Seeing the stunned disbelief on my face, a Pakistani manager remarked,
“For us, he is your Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and Amitabh Bachchan, all rolled into one!”
Mr Imran Khan, the former captain of the Pakistan cricket team and now an important leader of the opposition, was generating mass adulation, bordering on hysteria. He represented hope and peace.
Raj Gujar, a young student, asked,
“Why should we vote for you next time, when we Hindus are facing problems? Our temples are being attacked in Larkana.”
“The attacks should be condemned.”
I was taken aback that a youngster would dare to ask such a sensitive question publicly; I was even more surprised to see that Imran respond with a straight bat.
With his rugged, Pukhtun features, brilliant declamation skills and shining sincerity, Imran could have cemented a place in the movies; but he bravely chose a road not taken, secularism and modernity.
A few nights earlier, my father had asked me,
“Are you sure you will be safe in Pakistan?”
He had lost a lot during partition; his parents, his home in Tandlianwala, his farms and his future. He had arrived as a penniless refugee in August 1947 in new India. He and my mother slept the first night on a street in Amritsar, using some bricks as pillows. In the ensuing decades, he came to terms with a new life, but the pain of losing his parents remained. The fact that I was part of a Harvard Business School delegation on a Pakistan study visit assuaged his concerns about my excursion.
The mistrust and hurt of partition has become ingrained amongst Indians and Pakistanis. Over the years, radical elements have fanned these doubts into fears in both countries.
I was in the crowded 200 year old Anarkali bazaar, shopping for Peshawari chapals for my father who had spent his childhood and youth in Lahore, the Paris of the East, when I was taken aback by a middle-aged lady who boldly and bluntly inquired,
“Is it true that Muslims in India are persecuted?”
The lady had realised that I was Indian, as I struggled to put together some local currency to pay the shopkeeper. So I asked her,
“Madam, I could be the only Hindu and Indian in this ancient, beautiful market of about 15,000 Pakistani Muslims. Yet I shop here, alone without fear. So how can about 177 million Muslims in India be frightened? Remember, we have as many Muslims in India as there are in Pakistan.”
I could not help adding,
“Look at many of the nationally admired idols in India – actors Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan), Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Nargis Dutt, Madhubala (Mumtaz Jehan) and Waheeda Rehman amongst others. We have had three Muslim presidents Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Abdul Kalam, and one of the richest Indians, Azim Premji, is a Muslim.”
The lady, after taking it all in, summarised,
“So perhaps the media and politicians exaggerate issues.”
The shopkeeper refused to accept money for the shoes after hearing my passionate response. Osman, the hawker selling ‘Kharbujas’ (sweet melons) on a handcart near the Wagah Border would not accept any money from me either when he realised that I would carry the fruit all the way to Mumbai in India.
Now, I had expected to visit a country where people would be reticent and introverted in dealing with Indians. I presumed that security levels would be high and could be literally tailed as a group of Indians. I presumed that some parts of the country would be as dirty as many parts of India. But to my surprise, I found that every person I met was very warm and friendly.
People were immensely hospitable. Pakistanis are, without any doubt, the most hospitable people in the world. The hotel doorman was extra polite and wanted to know where I in India I was from. A tea vendor in the street found that I had no local money and gifted me a few cups of tea. Shaikh, the Serena Hotel doorman gave me some Pakistani coins from his pocket as mementos, but refused to accept US dollars in exchange for them. With a broad smile, he says,
“Enjoy our coins and remember us.”
I was delighted to visit the Samadhi and Gurudwara of Emperor Ranjit Singh who ruled the undivided Punjab in the immediate proximity of Lahore Fort. I also spent two wonderful hours at the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, seeking solace and admiring the architecture.
Every stone, every pebble in Lahore holds a secret. It conceals centuries of history in it; from the Mongols, the Mughals, the Sikhs and the British to present. Lahore is not just a petite town; it is an open book of history.
The spring festival had adorned Lahore with bright yellow and pink flowers at every corner. Lahore, after all these centuries, resembles a beautiful girl in bridal finery. It is clean and tidy. The gurgling canal runs through the centre of Mall Road, providing twinkling chimes throughout the day. Tradition merges elegantly with modernity and the ruins of Emperor Akbar’s Lahore Fort blends with contemporary villas and hotels.
Islamabad is a steel, cement and glass modern city. Its five star hotels have world class amenities and services. The 367 kilometres M2 Motorway from Lahore to Islamabad covers the distance in five hours, crossing the highest pillared-bridge in Asia at the Khewra Salt Range.
Pakistan also boasts incredibly low prices of consumer products. A good leather jacket costs only $300 at Hub whereas in Dubai, it would cost $500 to $600. The prices of food products, clothes and footwear are about 30% cheaper than in India. The fine range of fabrics, embroidered clothes and hand-crafted shoes are impressive. So, you splurge beyond the budget. No wonder visitors from India return home with bloated suitcases and empty wallets!
Despite all the differences that plague the countries, Bollywood films and songs are immensely popular in Pakistan. Movies, music and cricket can bond these two distant neighbours and eradicate all differences. The moment a Pakistani delegate, shopkeeper or hotel staff realised I was an Indian, I would be transformed into a special guest and they would put their best foot forward. New friends like Nabeel, Syed, Rahail, Nofil, all young students, pampered us with Punjabi lassis, pickles and melodious songs at Monal, a restaurant on a mountain near Islamabad. The city seemed like a twinkling fairyland from the top of the mountain.
I was intrigued by the high interest of common Pakistani citizens in the elections scheduled in May. Ahmad, a general manager of a foods company in Islamabad asked,
“So what will happen in the elections in India? Will Modi be your new PM?”
This was the most common question asked of me during the visit. At various times, about a dozen people asked me who I thought would win the elections and become prime minister of India. Each time I replied unequivocally that Modi would lead the next Indian government, and each time there would be pin drop silence. When I asked Ahmad about his concerns regarding Modi, he replied,
“Well, the Gujarat riots and his RSS background.”
I explained to Ahmad that India is a secular country and whosoever manages the nation will have to administer it in a fair and impartial manner. If any government were to persecute Muslims or Christians, the first protests would emanate from the Hindus themselves. The Hindus realise that the Muslims, Christians and other minorities are an integral part of the country. In new India, our goals are development and growth, not religious dominance or strife. Like simple, common people across the world, simple, common Indians too seek rapid improvements in their lives.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), affiliated to Modi’s party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has basic Hindu leanings. Now, Hindus do constitute about 85% of India’s population and have organisations to express their religious and social aspirations. This is natural. In every country in the world, there are organisations which embody the feelings of local citizens; for example, the Muslim League in undivided India before partition and in Pakistan now. I also mentioned that no charge of rioting had ever been proved against Modi, despite painstaking legal reviews. Despite my passionate explications, there were reservations in Ahmed’s eyes. He would have loved to believe me, but could not.
One other factor that increased my admiration for the country was the well organised and friendly customs and immigration officials at the Wagah border. Two pretty, comely Punjabi girls stood at the immigration counter who warmly welcomed me to their country. This was my first exposure to Pakistan. Within a few seconds, they had stamped my passport and I was at the customs counter who waved me on speedily as well. In a total of about eight minutes I was through with the formalities of entering Pakistan. Even while returning to India, it took me three minutes to clear customs and immigration. Their system of processing arrivals was impressively fast.
Upon my return to India, I presented my father with a simple bottle of water from his home town. The look on his face was priceless. Seeing his delight, I thought to myself that here are two neighbours who are united by centuries of culture and tradition but are divided by a rottenly managed partition and mountains of misunderstandings.
During a lecture, Suzanne Houby, a speaker at our symposium in Islamabad, said,
“In my most painful and toughest moments in climbing Mount Everest, I told myself, one step at a time.”
She would know. She was the first Muslim Arab girl to whack Mount Everest in May 2011.
India and Pakistan can also wallop the mountain of misunderstandings, one step at a time. The fresh, youthful breezes blowing across both the countries may usher in new possibilities for each other.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.