Twenty years ago, I stayed with Naseem Iqtidar Ali in a Lucknow home with a 19th-century hum. An old rickety servant and his daughter who managed the household tip-toed around her as she left her bed; got her toast and tea while she wrote her letters on the breakfast table; and toned down their voices as they cleared the plates in the kitchen if she was awaiting a call from her daughter or other relatives in Pakistan.
Ali is one of the five women executive members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Twenty years later, I find her still buzzy with an active social life. But my 19th-century heroine won’t leave the 19th century and ‘do’ Skype.
Partition in 1947 displaced populations, divided families. According to a Dawn 2012 report, ‘North India and South Pakistan’, every fifth person in Sindh belongs to second or third-generation migrants from India, particularly Uttar Pradesh. Even till 1949, the idea of a border had not solidified; the question of legal status did not arise till 1949. People who went to visit relatives and decided to delay their return could not come back and began to be counted as Pakistani citizens. Four wars and other stand-offs and an uninterrupted history of quarrel have, however, hardened the divide. The recent Uri attack has made Indo-Pak relations hit a new low.
In such times how does an Indian family talk to or meet his Pakistani cousins? Air, train and bus travel –– at the mercy of political temperatures between both countries –– often stand snapped. ‘Trunk calls’, that ’70s perversity where one trekked to the local booth and shelled out Rs 400 for a 10-minute talk, or booked an international call days in advance on the neighbour’s phone, was thankfully over by the ’80s. Direct telephony between India and Pakistan had begun. But with the social media revolution of the 2000s, families in India and Pakistan have started to develop a more immediate connection over WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook
“Amma prefers the telephone,” says Abdullah, Naseem Ali’s son, punching the keys of his smartphone to show his Facebook page where he and his wife, Nayab are in matching white for a bash at their new hotel. His relatives from Pakistan, mainly his grand-uncle’s family, and his sister, have thumbed their ‘likes’. A quick round of “haalchaal (how are you)” and “khairyat (all well?)” conversations with his relatives in Karachi and Islamabad works for him. “No politics,” he says firmly. “We don’t talk politics.”
Abdullah also gets to supplement his online chats with going to Pakistan once every year to meet his cousins. Or, he meets them in a third neutral country. Usually, it’s Dubai, the go-to place for well-heeled Indians and Pakistanis to meet each other or catch a flight to each other’s countries in times of conflict, because their own planes won’t fly.
Given the security situation, should there be another war, it would be convenient for all parties concerned to have it fought in Dubai, say some joco-serious online couplets passing between families on both sides of the border these days.
Has he ever cut a cake, shared a Ramzan feast or sung a Bollywood number on Skype for his Pakistani family, I ask Abdullah. “If I sing, I think that’s the moment Indian and Pakistan might ban Skype,” he says.
For the present generation, the connection with their across-the-border family is close, but loose. When Cousin Ahmad sees Cousin Javed across the screen, of course they smile. When they meet, they will, of course, hug. But it is more about being part of a network, than a feeling of being family.
“In large measure, the generation who grew up together, or played together, and for whom Partition was a wrench, are gone or dying,” says veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi. In his recently published book, Being the Other: The Muslim in India, he talks of his aunt, Alia Askari, and his helpless gesture – the sending of an email asking her to take care of herself on receiving the news of her husband, Kazi Imam’s death: “If we tried we would have got visas to attend his funeral. But we did not. The sheer habit of living in different countries with obstacles in travel increases distance exponentially. Dearest relatives take up residence only in the mists of memory….”
Juhi Hasan, a student in Delhi, admits she has “very formal conversations” with her cousins Rashid and Shahid in Pakistan. “We wish each other Eid on Skype and then they invariably turn the Skype camera and say: ‘Talk to grandmother’.” She finds this disorienting. What could she talk to a person with whom she has no personal connect? “I had heard she (grandmother) said her marriage vows over the phone and a few weeks later she left for Pakistan. It was 1965, and war between India and Pakistan had broken out so the marriage had to be done in a hurry… but that’s all I know about her.”
Families keep trying to join the dots -- but it isn’t priority. Sohra (name changed), a teacher in Old Delhi, says they had “plans” to livestream her sister’s wedding to relatives in Pakistan. But she isn’t sure whether they ultimately got it done. Conversation between both families, she says, will pick up with her family having installed a WiFi connection on the third floor of their new home in north Delhi. “On the third floor, the signal is better. Our old home in the Walled City was on the ground floor. It was difficult there.”
There is also some online heart-to-heart and cousin-to-cousin sharing on the Shia-Sunni divide and majoritarianism in both countries. “ My Pakistani cousins talk of targeted Shia killings by supremacist Sunnis. And in India, we have Hindutva forces targeting Muslims. Here of course, we Shias pass under the radar being a minority within a minority,” says Sohra. “People play up the Shia identity in opposition to the dominant Sunni majority in Pakistan, and get into trouble.”
Her cousins from Pakistan also WhatsApp her brother-in-law, a doctor, their medical reports and ask for advice. Some brothers-in-law are, however, off bounds. The ones in the Pakistani Army and the Navy don’t talk to their Indian cousins on social media. It may reflect on their career. “Who knows who’s watching, who’s reading the posts,” she adds. “Had they migrated and joined the American army or navy nobody would have bothered.”
Loyalty is a prickly subject with Indians and Pakistanis who have family on both sides of the border. Families of professional soldiers feel the burden more. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor dumb bastard die for his country,” says Shanney Naqvi, a poet in Lucknow, borrowing US General George S Patton’s humorous and grim take on the Damocles sword that is patriotism, from a ’70s cult war film. Waving a flag is no answer to life’s problems, says Shanney, shaking his head.
These sentiments he prefers to air in offline conversations. That the kadai gosht in the Agha Khan Hospital canteen in Karachi he ate when he had gone to meeting an ailing relative, “is to die for”, I suggest, he also keep to himself in this happy hour of taking umbrage.
In the time of civil war, how did a Jaffna Tamil talk to his family in India? He probably couldn’t. How does a North Korea man speak to his South Korean cousin? He probably wouldn’t. But there are families in both countries who will not watch the weather vane and shut out the other. Saleem Siddiqui, a retired Indian Oil salesman in Delhi, and his sisters in Karachi, talk to each other every week.
Siddiqui’s sister Tasleem married her businessman husband and went to Pakistan in the ’60s. Sanya is Tasleem’s daughter. His second sister Waseem married a shipyard employee and did the same. The tussle between the three women to get to talk to him at the same time is making the call drop. Why did they leave India I ask and regret the question. Would it have been an issue had they gone to London instead?
The subject under discussion, when we drop by one evening at their Delhi home, is an upcoming family wedding. The outcome, he says, is usually the same: both families longing to be together but unable to do so. But they always play The Game.
“Assalamualaikum, mamu,” says Sanya, her face blinking on Siddiqui’s tablet.
“So should I come to your country or not ?”
Sanya mumbles. The connection is poor that day. Her face fades in and out. “Recently, I posted an old Sahir Ludhianvi lyric on Facebook. Chalo ek baar phirse ajnabi ban jayen hum dono…(Let us once again be strangers,” says Siddiqui to fill in the gap as he waits for his niece to call back.
From Pakistan, the response: 2 likes. 1 share.
When the Skype call comes through, Siddiqui asks his niece to “speak up. I’m getting old.” He then presses a key to take his other sister’s call. There is another round of hellos. But Waseem is a silent one. She does not speak much and looks happy enough just to see her brother. Siddiqui reads her mind. “She is unhappy there. I am unhappy here. We haven’t met for long. Both families suffer. So, it’s business as usual. Makes me feel everything is all right.” Waseem manages a weak smile. And then the line goes dead.