By Urvashi Butalia
Imagine a large hall in a major city in Punjab. It’s packed with people, mostly women, from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. On the stage are two men, one a long-haired bearded, hairy-chested sardar, the other a clean shaven smooth-chested younger man. They’re engaged in a languorous, erotic, sometimes passionate, sometimes tender, rendering of the story of Heer Ranjha. In the background Madan Gopal’s wonderfully resonant voice sings the story. Tragedy hangs in the air, for most of the people in the hall are familiar with this beautiful story of star- crossed lovers, and after the initial hesitation at seeing two men, they now ‘believe’ that the bearded Navtej Johar is actually Heer, and the supple Anil is Ranjha. Such is the power of their dance.
We’re in Islamabad, attending a dance performance that marks the end of a day of conferencing, and of an award ceremony in the memory of a young woman, Meeto Bhasin Malik, whose untimely death remains one of the great losses of the women’s movement in India. There’s not a dry eye in the house – the story of Meeto, and the story of Heer and Ranjha have ensured that.
There’s joy too, for the Meeto award this year, given for outstanding contribution to the cause of women by young women, is given to the only woman mayor in Afghanistan, a young, petite woman called Azra Jafri. And there’s tension – the organizers are on edge, a crowded event, a dance performance, an Indian team, it’s a recipe for disaster in a town – and a country – that is no stranger to violence. But things pass off peacefully, the dance ends, the music dies away, and the entire hall erupts in applause and appreciation.
The last time I was in this city wasn’t so long ago. Then, my Pakistani friends and I had eaten and shopped in the very same market where, a week later, the politician Salman Taseer would be shot in broad daylight for speaking out in defense of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Things have, if anything, become worse. Yet, as in all such places, life goes on and I see my Pakistani friends joke and laugh about the problems they face every day – some of them life-threatening – as they come out of discussions on violence against women. It’s an odd thing about meetings that involve Indians and Pakistanis. No matter who else is there, somehow the discussion inevitably becomes one where Pakistanis and Indians talk to each other, often breaking into Urdu, or Punjabi, forgetting that others need also to be in the know. Those watching might shake their heads in resignation, thinking, there they go again.
Our discussions for the past two days have focused on violence against women. Between our two countries there is no competition here – rape, molestation, ‘honour’ killings, domestic violence, we have them all, and we’d be hard put to it to say who is the better entity here. Both have shameful records – another thing we have in common. But here at least, we’re listening to each other. As speaker after speaker details the ways in which they deal with cases of violence, the mismatch between law and forensics, the impunity of offenders and state collusion, women from across South Asia listen and nod and learn from each other. Nationalist rhetoric is remarkable by its absence here. The organizers, an NGO called Zeest Rozan, are happy, their large brood of male and female volunteers are excited, they’re learning so much, they’re meeting people from different countries but especially from across the border. A staff member who has been chasing our police clearances smiles as he hands them over to us – ‘it’s my dream to come to India one day,’ he says, ‘in meeting you I have at least begun the process of fulfilling that dream.’
As the conference ends I make my way to Lahore. I travel by bus, a unique Pakistani inter-city system known – rather like our Volvo buses – by the make of the buses rather than the routes on which they ply – as Daewoo. On the way I watch as the landscape of hills and hillocks gives way to flat terrain, as dusk sets in the dust begins to rise as the cows come home, the moment we call godhuli. I could be in India, there’s nothing that marks this flat terrain, these abundant crops, these heavy oxen, as different.
We stop for a fifteen-minute break. I’ve been told by all my friends to be very quick here – the bus doesn’t wait for anyone they say, that’s what makes it so efficient in keeping its timings. One loud report of the horn and it’s off. Fearful of missing it, and being stranded in the middle of nowhere, I stay on the bus. But a young couple sitting across from me comes up and encourages me to get off. There’s still two hours to go, they tell me, why don’t you come down and have a cup of tea. I’m not a tea drinker, but I don’t have it in me to say no, so I go with them. On the way, we decide to make a visit to the toilet, and the young woman and I have an idle discussion about the current fashion for women’s clothes in Pakistan. Something I say alerts her that I may not be local, and she exclaims: you’re from India? The gaggle of laughing, chattering women in the bathroom suddenly falls silent, they’re filled with curiosity – they look at me, at my clothes, my hair, my face, to see if I am any different, and they confess – or some of them do – that they dearly want to visit India, they’ve heard to much about it, and they watch serials on Star Plus!
The young woman’s partner returns, she tells him excitedly what she’s discovered about me, and he demands special tea from the chai wallah. I offer to pay – they’re both much younger than me, but they’ll have none of it. And the chai wallah, who’s heard our discussion, in the end doesn’t take anything from them, insisting that he wants to offer at least a cup of tea to the mehmaan in their midst.
I’m overwhelmed by this, but it’s nothing new. It’s not my first visit to Pakistan nor my first encounter with stray Pakistanis. And yet, apart from the odd occasion on which I have met hostility, people have been unfailingly polite, often very kind, and hospitable to a fault. I wonder, not for the first time, what the fuss and tension is about between our two countries.
I’m not naïve about this – I know of course that there are real issues there that keep the hostility alive, that keep us apart. But there’s also the inescapable reality that there is a deep curiosity, and a deep desire for people to meet and talk and learn that the ‘other’ is not the monster they believe him or her to be. Perhaps, I think, we should play many more cricket matches!
There’s another thing that happens – from Delhi, we’ve gone in a group: all women, one man who calls himself a trans-gender person (a TG in common parlance). From the moment we land in Lahore and begin the process of clearing immigration, he’s surrounded by people, mostly men, who have a deep curiosity about him and who don’t hesitate to show it. One of them even asks him if he feels more female than male – this a bare few moments after he sees him. At Lahore airport, as we wait to pick up our flight to Islamabad, a mother and daughter duo sitting across from us, watch him carefully, without seeming obvious. At some point, he walks across to them and the mother engages him in conversation and them makes him a gift of a lipstick. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’m struck by the frank expression of curiosity and the unabashed expression of it.
Back in Delhi, I go to my yoga class. Where have I been, my friends in the class want to know. I tell them Pakistan. Isn’t it dangerous, one of them asks me, did you feel safe there? The odd thing is, it is dangerous – the Pakistanis themselves will tell you this, they’ll advise you not to go to certain places, to always take care. But the only time I felt any danger, it was from the rampant dengue mosquito that has laid siege to the city of Lahore, where it has taken over 500 lives.
Six decades. It’s more than enough time. Time for us to make good our promises of normalizing relations, of opening up the borders, of making it possible for people to travel, to visit their old homes, to reconnect with their friends, to indulge in the simple pleasures of shopping, eating, visiting, and importantly, seeking our joint histories, perhaps working on joint research projects, uncovering our hidden histories.
Will this happen in the near future? It’s difficult to say. But this I do know, the day I am able to make a visit to Mohenjodaro and Taxila without having to seek a hundred permissions, without worrying about reporting to the police, the day my friends are able to cross over and visit Ajanta and Ellora, Indore and Orcha, I’ll know things have begun to normalize, and that’s when we can really begin to celebrate. It’s not such a difficult thing to imagine for two countries, can it really be so impossible to realize?
Urvashi Butalia, the author of the celebrated The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, is director of Zubaan Books, an imprint of Kali For Women. This article appeared first in The Tribune, Chandigarh, on October 19, 2011 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.
Related article on violence against women: Testing the Hypothesis of Sexual Repression in Pakistan
Meeto Bhasin Malik’s work (In the Making: The Formation of Identity in South Asia) has been mentioned many times on this blog.