Islamabad Diary, December 2007
By Sakuntala Narasimhan
The flight from Bangalore to Delhi takes over two and a half hours, while the flight from Delhi to Lahore takes less than an hour. And yet, how little we get to know about the day-to-day lives of the people just across the border, their preoccupations, aspirations and lifestyles! We get media reports, to be sure, about the emergency, about political pronouncements by politicians in Pakistan, and about the forthcoming elections. But that does not portray the lives of the Aam Admi of Pakistan; just as the controversy over the Indo-US nuclear agreement does not reflect anything about the daily lives of the average citizen of our country. What is it like, to be a resident of Karachi or Lahore, what do the people think, about their “big brother’ next door, or even about the political decisions on either side? We seldom get to know, because getting through the border is not exactly the easiest of exercises in international travel. And for the media, daily lives are not ‘news’, which seems sad, judging by the experiences of those who travel across in either direction.
The ‘dosti’ begins even before one lands on Pakistani territory, on the flight leaving Delhi itself. The young woman in the seat next to mine is a highly qualified surgeon in Karachi. One doesn’t think of a Pakistani woman as a surgeon, right? And yet – in spite of the Islamic restrictions that we have preconceptions about, women across the border are doing exactly the same things as Indian women, taking up careers, traveling overseas, teaching, undertaking research, and breaking social constraints with élan in a manner that mirrors the Indian social scene.
The dosti in fact began even before we emplaned – the invitation for a three-day conference of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute at Islamabad came with two cartoon figures, one waving an Indian flag and the other a Pakistani one. On arrival on Pakistani shores, human hosts took over where those cartoon figures left off, plying us with hospitality and genuine friendship of a kind that left a lasting impression.
Pakistanis who said they had had the “good fortune” to visit India, recalled the friendliness they encountered everywhere they went, and we (ten of us from India, a mixed group of researchers, academics and policymakers) were remarking at the end of our visit, on the genuine, and often overwhelming, affection that the locals showered us with wherever we went. The people-to-people bonds seem vibrant and strong, regardless of the political equations between the two countries.
The emergency was still on during our visit, and we drove past the Supreme Court of Pakistan, parliament house, the intelligence headquarters and the offices of various VIPs. I saw far less barbed wire, sandbags and armed sentries than I find in the VIP areas of Delhi. We moved freely around, strolling through parks and monuments in the evenings after our conference sessions, and went shopping in the markets that could be from anywhere in our own Kolkata or Mumbai. We got invited to participate in a talk show on TV where we were not gagged in anyway, and were free to air our opinions without censorship. Some television channels were blocked, to be sure, but there were plenty of others where the programmes criticized state policy (I watched fascinated as President Musharraf himself was grilled by a questioner in one telecast).
On my first morning in Islamabad, the waiter at the hotel gives me a wide grin, and asks, “Aap India sey?” His grandfather came to Pakistan as a refugee, and he was looking forward to visiting his ancestors’ village “some day, Inshallah”. Some of the locals were insistent about taking us home for “chai” and seemed disappointed that we could not spare the time. The spicy dal and saffron rice and parathas and halwa reminded one of home (that’s silly, we had to keep reminding ourselves – after all, the two nations were a single entity, within living memory).
I went looking for tapes of some classical musicians who had migrated to Pakistan in 1947, but was offered instead, CDs of the “latest hits” – Om Shanti Om and Goal and a dozen other recent films, and DVDs of a Jaya Bachchan-Anupam Kher blockbuster. Those, the salesman assured me, were the “fastest moving items”. The music, the language, the cultural strands, the social fabric, are such that one has to keep reminding oneself that one is “abroad”. After all, there is the shared history and heritage of millennia. “We as a people have more in common with India than with other Islamic nations of the Middle East,” remarked a woman economist at the conference. Ponder over that. During my stay there the hotel hosted a typical upper middle class wedding; the saris and salwar suits had come from Delhi, the menu was based on fancy Lucknawi nawabi fare. This was like back home, as nowhere else I have seen.
A shopkeeper at one store, after asking, “Aap India sey?”, shyly asks me to guess his name. I give up. “Sunil Kumar,” he says with a grin. Are you happy here? I ask him. “If insaan wants to live in peace, he can be happy anywhere, he replies. These kinds of nuggets rarely make it to the media. We read in the papers about the rocket attack near Peshawar but not about the amazing work that an NGO here is doing to empower women. Positive stories take a backseat when there are those that showcase violence, trauma and mayhem.
“The polls wont be perfect,” says an American comment on Pakistan – “Look who’s talking”, said an American visitor, recalling the controversy over the election of Bush and the ‘Florida count’. The keynote speaker at one session, a distinguished international consultant, closes his comments with a quote from Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “Mile kuchh aisey…. We met in such a manner that my heart is leaving not with a scar but with a flower…” You can say that again, Shoaib Sultan Khan sahib…
Sakuntala Narasimhan is an award winning journalist-author-musician and academic resource person, specialising in gender and development. She has doctorates in sociology (women’s studies) and in musicology.
This article appeared first in The Deccan Herald, Bangalore, on January 3, 2008 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.