For the life of me, I can’t understand why people in India are so outraged by Shahid Afridi’s statements made on a Pakistani TV channel. In case you’ve been living under a rock over the past week, this is what Afridi said: Indians did not have as pure and large hearts as Pakistanis and Muslims did; and that no long-term relationship with India was possible because of this.
Now, as far as I am concerned, this is pretty much par for the course. However much we may try to kid ourselves, throwing around phrases like ‘We are the same people’, or even ‘Pakistanis are like our brothers and sisters’, the truth is somewhat different. If you monitor their media, listen to people on the street, or even log on to Facebook groups and Twitter, it rapidly becomes evident that most Pakistanis don’t like us very much.
And frankly, that’s hardly surprising. Ever since the Partition, each successive generation of Pakistanis has been brought up to regard India as The Enemy. The textbooks they study tell them how awful Indians are; the media sends out the same message; the political leadership constantly harps on an anti-India theme; and the army whips up a frenzy about India’s dire designs on the Pakistani state.
So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we are regarded with implacable hostility at best and visceral hatred at worst by our ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ across the border. And yet, every time a story like this pops up, the reaction seems to be shock and horror.
How could Afridi say such awful things? Doesn’t he know that we are the ‘same people’? (And that, in any case, there are more ‘pure-hearted’ Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan?)
At some level, I understand where these reactions are coming from. As a Punjabi whose family roots lie in Pakistan, I was also brought up on a steady diet of pre-Partition stories of love and brotherhood. My father’s friends from Pakistan visited, there were many evenings of bonhomie as they remembered the good old days, even as we kids hung on to every word invoking a past we could never re-visit.
It was easy to believe – as we sat down to large meals and an even larger dose of nostalgia – that we were indeed the same people, with the same roots, the same tastes, the same culture, but just divided by a border created by political forces beyond our control.
It was in that mood that I made my first trip to Pakistan – as part of the press party accompanying the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, as he made his historic bus yatra across the Wagah border. I was all set to get in touch with my Jhelum roots, re-discover the land of my ancestors, and get a taste of that famous bonhomie that had always marked India-Pakistan relations.
Boy, was I in for a shock!
The first false note was struck when a bunch of us were introduced to a group of volunteers who were assigned to look after us at the media centre. Our Pakistani friends repeated each new name with trepidation, as if they were trying out an entirely different language and weren’t quite sure of the pronunciation. Finally, it was my turn. "Ah, Seema," said one of them with palpable relief. "Yeh naam toh hum jaante hain. Yeh baaki sab Hindu naam humnein kabhi sune nahi."
That’s when I first realised that the West Punjab of my parents and grandparents had well and truly passed on. Now, there was a new West Punjab, with a new generation of Pakistanis, who had grown up with no Hindu neighbours. In fact, most of them had probably never met a Hindu in their life. To them, we were foreigners in their land; not long-lost brothers and sisters with whom they could establish an instant camaraderie.
If anything, the prevalent mood was one of hostility and suspicion. It reminded me of a story the late Mani Dixit used to tell about his time in Pakistan, when he visited a Pakistani diplomat at his home. He was introduced to the couple’s young son as a visitor from India. The child said an obedient ‘hello’ and then started running around a startled Dixit shouting "Hindustani kutta, Hindustani kutta!" The embarrassed parents hurried him out of the room and apologised profusely to Dixit.
A friend’s aunt, who is married to a Pakistani, and often visits the country, had much the same experience. Sitting at the breakfast table one morning, she saw that her young nephew was playing with his toy airplanes. She walked across to join him, but stopped short when she heard him mutter, "Main India pe bomb maroonga..."
In any case, this stuff about a shared culture only goes that far. After all, it’s only Punjabis – and to some extent, Sindhis – who have a cultural affinity with Pakistan. For the rest of India, there is no special bond in the shape of a common language or even a common cuisine.
I remember an office lunch at Bengal Sweets, when there was a group of Pakistani ladies sitting at the next table. There was a flurry of excitement when our masala dosa was served. What on earth was this, the ladies wanted to know. They had never seen a dosa in their life. I often think of that moment when I hear the candles-at-the-Wagah-border brigade ramble on about how we are the same people.
You know what, actually we’re not.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
- From HT Brunch, April 10
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