I’m writing this Sunday morning with my countrymen who bear an antipathy for Pakistan primarily in mind. I doubt if I can change their thinking but it might be worth their while to read an opposite viewpoint. That, to me, seems a useful purpose for sharing my thoughts.
As I sit in the gardens of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, alternately chilled by the mountain breeze and gently warmed by the late winter sun, I’m struck by how similar India and Pakistan can be. Actually, that’s not surprising because for centuries — indeed millennia — we were one country. But those of us born post-partition either forget or overlook this critical fact.
From the air as the plane approaches Allama Iqbal Airport in Lahore, you would be forgiven if you feel you’re returning to Delhi. From the sky they seem very similar. Both cities present an unplanned sprawl, with masses of little brown roofs crammed together, suggesting a combination of congested-ness, affinity and masses of people.
On the ground the resemblance is even stronger. You’ll find black and yellow taxis, military vehicles with upward-pointing arrows on their number plates, the same unhidden contempt for politicians and a similar use of Punjabi swear-words as terms of endearment. Autorickshaws and scooters compete with cars on Lahore’s streets, the city’s lights frequently fail and little boys sell desiccated coconut, magazines and toys at traffic lights.
In a strange way even the language we speak confirms the commonness. When we speak colloquially we can easily understand each other. Their Urdu and our Hindi seem the same. But spoken officially on government-controlled television they become different languages. Theirs is heavily laced with Arabic — or Persian — ours with Sanskrit. But neither they nor we talk like that at home.
I was most struck by two areas of uncanny similarity. The Lahore Literary Festival has the same excitement, crowds and self-importance as its Jaipur cousin. The Pakistani papers were full of it and the celebrities from abroad — filmstars, authors or scientists — the most sought-after. Second, our politicians behave very similarly when you interview them. Like ours, Pakistanis also specify what you must not ask only to happily expound when you ignore their plea and press on.
Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s astute and charming foreign affairs advisor, but actually de facto foreign minister, who I interviewed last Sunday, reminds me of Salman Khurshid or Ravi Shankar Prasad. On different occasions all three have told me not to touch on certain subjects or issues but, when I did, they spoke fulsomely, honestly and unhesitatingly. British and American politicians are very different. They mean no whey they say so. Thank God ours don’t!
To be honest, even our defiance of silly laws is reminiscent of each other. Alcohol is prohibited in Pakistan. So is it in Mr Modi’s Gujarat. But in both places the good citizenry have found clever ways to tipple without fear of detection or punishment. And both governments know and are similar in their laissez-faire response. Is this acceptance of popular defiance uniquely Indian? Or specifically Pakistani? The question itself proves my point.
So when next you hear someone ranting and raving about Pakistan — and, sadly, we do it far more than they do — point out we are like two peas in the same wretched pod. The more politics divides us the more we end up responding in similar ways. Clearly, the history, culture and traditions that bind us are stronger than the divisive forces of partition.
The views expressed are personal