I had heard many things about India since childhood. I learned about my cousins who lived there, their culture, language and stories of the partition narrated by my grandparents to my mother. My mother recalled her visits to India many a times. Even today, she has hope of finding her lost cousins in the land her parents migrated from. She dreams of meeting them someday and silently loves them without their knowledge of it.
Around these emotional stories, I spent much of my childhood watching Indian dramas and movies. The first time I learned about rivalry between two countries was from these very dramas and movies. I was surprised because my mother had never told me about this enmity and hostility. She loved and still loves India. The empty roads during Pakistan-India cricket matches, social media debates that spewed hatred and electronic media’s exaggeration of events between the two countries made me curious to undertake a visit across the border.
In 2014, I participated in the Global Youth Peace Festival at Chandigarh with participants from different countries to discuss about and work upon global peace issues. I think I simply lack the capacity to express in words, my feelings of enchantment and bewilderment, the way I felt as I crossed the Wagah border. For me, the border was a mere line that divided the two countries, but as I entered India, I felt closer to my family and relatives, the ones who were always alive in my mother’s memories.
Due to an elongated process of security and scrutiny, our arrival to India was delayed. Our beloved khala (mother’s sister) who was a member of the Festival from India arranged a display of Dhol (traditional musical instrument from the sub-continent) for us. Being a Pakistani Punjabi, I could relate to this enthusiastic style of welcome. However, the traditional Indian welcome of a ‘tika’ (a mark on the forehead, symbolizing welcome to the guest) and ‘aarti’ (traditional Indian style of praying and showing respect to the guest) was new to me. I remembered watching all of this in Indian movies. I recalled seeing a boy touching the feet of an elderly lady and the first word came into my mind was ‘aashirwaad’ (blessings). The media has such a huge influence on our minds. I took an instant liking for people I met as everyone was so hospitable and welcoming. I decided I would try my best to connect to different types of people in India and on my return to Pakistan; I would spread awareness about the kind of love and respect I received here. This would be a small step in changing perceptions. I immediately started noticing similarities and differences among the cities, style of clothing, culture and language. The neat and clean city of Chandigarh seemed very much like Islamabad while Delhi was a complete contrast. Crowd, tourists and traffic jams were similar to what I saw in Lahore. The saree shops (saree is a traditional garment for South Asian women), ‘Parantha’ (traditional sub-continental bread) shops and the visit to Chandni Chowk was a charm. A lot of my friends in Chandigarh conversed in Punjabi and I managed to figure out a few words that were similarly used in Pakistan.
All the shopkeepers, people traveling in buses were amazed to meet us Pakistanis. They treated us so well and offered us the best of food and souvenirs as gifts. I saw a lot of mandirs (temples) andgurudwaras (place of worship for the Sikh community). I attended one of the biggest festivals being celebrated at the time. It was called ‘Dushera’. On the roads, I was mesmerized to see girls riding scooters/bikes with their male family member sitting behind them. In Amritsar, it was funny when I demanded salan (gravy) withparatha but the shopkeeper did not understand what I was asking for and kept thinking that I was demanding some kind of salad! It was only later that I realized that he did not understand the term salan.
Among the best memories of the visit are the compliments I received from my Indian friends for our dressing, looks and the way we spoke. We were invited by a school to talk about ourselves and our cities. Ironically I am from Lahore and my ancestors were from India and some Indians told me that their ancestors were from Lahore. There were a lot of emotions overflowing when we realized that sacrifices by our ancestors, common issues where we relate to each other had held us together.
About the media’s role, I do feel that they overplay issues at certain points, but they also play a role in promoting peace and love. Movies and TV dramas are platforms that have brought Indians and Pakistanis closer. The print media in India positively highlighted participation of Pakistanis in the peace festival that I attended. We were interviewed regarding our views about India and our experience of staying there. I have watched movies based on the India-Pakistan theme (Veer Zara, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Khoobsurat etc) and I wish to make a similar movie or be a part of a similar cinematic experience. I want to showcase how Pakistanis feel when they visit India and vice versa. How it feels to share a culture, language, food and dressing! How some people are divided by a boundary but not by heart!
I have a few cousins residing in India but do not have any contact or information about them. This saddens me. I wish the visa issues, hatred among people and border issues will be resolved with time. I wish Sikh community from Pakistan to have easy access to the Golden Temple in Amritsar and also for the Sikhs from India to be able to visit Nanakana Sahib in Pakistan.
Some of my Indian friends visited Pakistan in 2015 and playing host to them was an amazing experience for me. Nobody could recognize them as Indians here for they looked so similar to a common person in Pakistan. During a cultural exchange program in the United States (2014), I spoke in Hindustani (mix of Urdu and Hindi) with an Indian student and a lot of people were amazed at how we understand each other’s language despite being from two different countries. When I participated in a program in Denmark (2016), many people greeted me with ‘Namaste’. I think this is because our culture is very similar, be it the bright colors, delicious food or similar skin complexion. I feel connected to India despite all the rivalry that is so deeply institutionalized in the systems of both countries.
I met Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in India. Being a Pakistani, it was amazing to meet people from different faith backgrounds. There are people with different perspectives living in every society. I met Indians who are passionately working for cross-border peace, like their counterparts in Pakistan. I feel that war, hatred and bloodshed will never usher in any peace or love. During my India visit, I met enemies who were hospitable and loving! I never knew enemies could be that way. If those that I met were enemies, then I wonder how would friends be like!