As a child (and grandchild) of refugees from what is now Pakistan, I was weaned on tales of the halcyon days of our pre-Partition life. Needless to say, all these stories had a certain fairy-tale element to them, recounted as they were through the prism of nostalgia.
My grandmother, who had grown up in the North Western Frontier Province, never tired of recounting the many military victories the men of her village had been part of, the reminiscing growing bloodier with each retelling. And my grandfather, without fail, would point out with a sneer that while these men may have been brave they were also rather stupid.
Why? Because when the British granted them one wish after one such spectacular victory, guess what they asked for?
No, they didn’t think it was important to get drinking water to the village where women still had to trudge to the river to get supplies for their families. Oh no, that would have made too much sense. So instead they asked that a cannon be installed at the entrance of the village because then everyone would know what brave warriors they were!
My mother’s memories revolved around large bungalows with sprawling gardens where she and her five siblings would run wild. They took particular pride in infiltrating the houses next door and stealing mangoes off their neighbours’ trees without ever getting caught (a theme that resonates even now in the India-Pakistan story). And what do you know? The mangoes were always sweeter on the other side.
Of them all, only my father managed to salvage something of his pre-Partition life. He stayed in touch with the best friend of his college days in Lahore. And every year, we kids would look forward to Masood Uncle’s annual visit to Calcutta. He timed his visit around Eid so that his wife could spend time with her family in the city and his kids could get to know their Indian cousins.
Given these circumstances, it was only natural that I would grow up thinking of Pakistanis as people who were just like us. To me, they were not The Other. They were just like Masood Uncle who came to visit us laden with gifts and uncomplainingly ate the vegetarian food served by my grandmother’s kitchen (which remained an onion and garlic free zone till she died). They spoke the same language (Punjabi) that we spoke at home. They wore the same kind of clothes. Hell, they even looked like us, if just a little bit fairer and prettier.
After the Masoods departed, I would often daydream about the time when I would go to Pakistan. When I would get to walk down the street that bore my family name. When I would explore the rooms of the house we had left behind. When I would get to revisit all those haunts that my parents talked about incessantly: Shalimar Bagh and Lahore Fort (from where Maharaja Ranjit Singh ruled Punjab) to name just two. When I would be able to get in touch with my roots.
Well, as it turned out, I did get to go to Pakistan once I had grown up, as part of the media party accompanying Prime Minister AB Vajpayee on his historic bus journey across the Wagah border to Lahore in 1999. But sadly, this was not the Pakistan of my dreams, the Pakistan in which I believed I would fit right in, the Pakistan that would have seemed a home away from home.
Instead, from the get go, I felt like an outsider. Yes, everyone did speak Punjabi. But it was littered with so many high-flown Urdu words that they may just as well have been speaking a foreign language. And when my colleagues were introduced to some of the Pakistani media corps, they were completely befuddled by their names, trying them out gingerly as if expecting them to explode in their mouths. You see, one of them explained to me, they had never heard these ‘Hindu names’ before (my name they had no problem with, because it was also a Muslim name). In fact, none of them had even met a Hindu before, so we were like an exotic species which provoked both curiosity and wariness in equal measure.
This was not the Pakistan of Masood Uncle, who had had emotional and familial ties to India. This was a new Pakistan that had no fond memories of the pre-Partition days. This was a Pakistan that identified with the Islamic Middle-East rather than with ‘Hindu’ India. This was a Pakistan that regarded Indians (read Hindus) as The Other. This was the Pakistan that had been brought up to regard us as the enemy.
Clearly, we were no longer the same people. And frankly, looking back, I had been foolish to imagine that we would still be.
But over the last couple of weeks, as the Uri attack has dominated the news cycle, and various Pakistani talking heads have popped up on prime time Indian news TV, I have come to realise that, far from being the same people, we actually occupy parallel universes. And while we live in a world in which Pakistan is a failed state which uses terror as an instrument of state policy, in their world-view India is an aggressive neighbour, who bullies and terrorizes its own people and then blames Pakistan for it.
No matter how much we try, it is hard to see how we can reconcile these two positions. And so we are doomed to conducting an eternal dialogue of the deaf, talking at, rather than to, each other.
From HT Brunch, October 2, 2016
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