Neighbours: Private Dosti, Political Demarcations

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.



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14 Responses to “Neighbours: Private Dosti, Political Demarcations”

  1. Vikram Says:

    “We seldom get to know, because getting through the border is not exactly the easiest of exercises in international travel.”

    I dont think that this is solely due to travel restrictions, I feel that many Indians simply dont see Pakistan as a place they would like to visit and vice versa.

    “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.”

    Obviously India has massive issues with gender equality but I find this very hard to believe. This is just anecdotal evidence but at my university, the ratio of female to male Indian graduate students would be around 40/60 but I have not seen a single Pakistani graduate student. I am also not aware of a single Pakistani female politician like Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati.

    I dont want to start a shouting match or whitewash India’s massive problems but its about time we see an article of this kind not twist facts just to make someone look better. If someone really wants a more detailed fact based account of an Indian Muslim woman’s experiences in Pakistan, I would recommend Farzana Versey’s A Journey Interrupted.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: In some ways your comment drives home the importance of personal interaction to dispel stereotypes. While travel restrictions do have a very constraining impact, you are probably right that there are many who do not think of the other side as a place they would like to visit. This is based on a perception they have of the other side. So the real question is: How valid is this perception?

      Take the example of Dr. Narasimhan. She started with the perception that a Pakistani woman could not be a surgeon. When she found herself sitting next to one, she had to modify that perception. If someone had just mentioned this possibility in the abstract, she might well have dismissed it as an impossibility.

      We have a natural tendency to stay with our perceptions and fit all facts to sustain them. Only direct refutations force reappraisals. The fact that almost nine out of ten visitors to the ‘other’ side find that their perceptions were way off the mark is a very telling indicator of the extent to which the perception is divorced from the reality.

      • Vikram Says:

        SA, there is a class angle we need to consider here. Within certain small subsets of both Indian and Pakistani populations (primarly descendants of people well placed during the colonial era) I see a nearly symmetric post colonial evolution. So it is not surprising that there are female surgeons in Pakistan.

        The real differences seem to be in the class between this 2nd or 3rd generation elite and the masses. The classes predominantly referred to as lower middle classes. I think one will find significant deviations in attitudes towards gender, politics etc. This was the point I was trying to make in graduate student demographics example. A majority of the Indian students in the US come from the class. And the absence of a corresponding Pakistani student population indicates to me deviation from the way India has evolved.

        I will reiterate that people to people contact, though worth pursuing will not achieve much. Will Pakistanis display the same hospitality to a Tamil person who does not speak/understand Urdu ? Will South Indians display the same hospitality to a Pathan ?

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: I have provided a long answer to your earlier comment. Since this comment was a continuation of your earlier observation I will add a brief remark here.

          I think your conjecture that female surgeons in Pakistan belong largely to the elite social class would certainly be proved incorrect. I hope someone with more evidence would contribute to this point. One key difference between India and Pakistan is that the middle class in the former is both numerically and proportionately much larger in the former compared to the latter – of course, the Indian diaspora is also much larger.

          My guess is that an apples-for-apples comparison might show that the values of rich, the middle class, and the poor are quite similar in the two countries. The big difference in the size and proportion of the middle group in the two countries has marked implications for the emerging national ethos. India is on a progressive path while Pakistan is on a regressive one. However, that overall regressive tendency might be masking many surprising facts about the country that can be easily overlooked without the benefit of personal contacts.

      • Vinod Says:

        Will Pakistanis display the same hospitality to a Tamil person who does not speak/understand Urdu? Will South Indians display the same hospitality to a Pathan?

        I’m a south indian Tamilian who has stayed with Pakistanis coming from the class you mention. I stayed with with two such Pakistanis. One of them could not stop ridiculing Tamil and the culture of Tamilians while the other was respectful and tolerant although he could not but occasionally let out his “lack of appreciation” for Tamil culture.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vinod: Thanks for sharing your experiences. What you say is very believable. But is it not reflecting a different phenomenon – that of unfamiliarity? If one thinks of India of twenty years back, there were similar stereotypes of regional cultures. Frequent interactions have diluted such prejudices within countries while lack of contact has increased them across countries. So increased contact is a sensible strategy if unfamiliarity has to evolve into familiarity.

          At the same time, human responses are different when you are visiting someone’s home. I know many people who have visited the ‘other’ country and I have yet to hear of a negative account of the experience – leaving aside interactions with public officials. This is an interesting subject in itself – why do people begin to behave differently when they assume an official position?

          You might recall the comment of Mr. Sivaraman on this blog: “I have been to Pakistan at the head of Indian delegations and have been the recipient of warm hospitality everywhere.” The countries are diverse so one should not expect a standard response – we have to make a judgement about the broad trends. I hope other people would contribute their experiences to this discussion.

        • Vinod Says:

          SA, when people are visiting or are hosting visitors they are usually on their best behaviour because, among other reasons, that behaviour has to only be sustained for a short period of time. To see the true colours of a person one has to stay with him/her for an extended period. I stayed with the Paksitanis for one year.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: You are right that an extended interaction reveals the true colors of a person but I am referring to a different aspect. The general level of hospitality varies a lot across societies. In all my travels I have yet to come across one so open as in the parts of South Asia I know. When Dr. Narasimhan mentions that total strangers insisted on inviting the visitors to tea at their homes she was not exaggerating at all – this is very common. You will never have similar experiences in, say, East Asia. I am not implying that this is particularly good or bad – simply that this is part of the culture of South Asia. Secondly, there is nothing that compels people to be on their best behavior towards visitors. If they truly dislike the visitors they can just as well be rude to them.

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, If that is what you’re emphasizing then it is only an emphasis on a tiny aspect of the common culture in south asia. It is not a statement on what Pakistanis actually feel about Indians. It is important to recognize that the warmth experienced by the reporters and diplomats of India in Pakistan is NOT an expression of love for Indians.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: I agree this is a characteristic of the common culture of South Asia and does not constitute evidence that the inviters love the invitees. At the same time it does constitute negative evidence that the inviters do not hate the invitees. It would be strange for people to invite those they hate into their homes to share a meal. Unless, of course, they are automatons so genetically programmed that they act purely out of habit with complete disregard for personal and emotional considerations. Is there evidence to support such a conclusion?

            Love and hate are not symmetrical sentiments. In the political economy context loving is much less important than not hating. In general, people find very few people to really love during their lives but they acquire a lot of people they dislike or hate. I think it is because the former they really have to discover for themselves while the latter can be acquired by default – the passing on of prejudices or propaganda that need not be personally verified.

            This is the reason why personal contacts are important. Our objective should be to reduce the number of people we hate or dislike. If there is such a core and if our culture has the ability to facilitate its extension we should focus on increasing the numbers. Love is personal, hate is political – I think that is important to keep in mind.

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, I know that Afghans are, by their culture, obligated to provide shelter and food to anyone who asks for it, even if that person be the enemy that they are fighting. Hate does not stop them from fulfilling the obligations of their customs.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: You are right about the Afghans but this is not an appropriate comparator. Primitive, kinship-based, non-monetary societies are governed by complex social norms that ensure political stability in the absence of central states. Violation of these norms are strictly enforced through social ostracism. Thus individuals do not have a free choice in making certain decisions that may go against their personal preferences. Any serious anthropological study will make the point that such norms have functional roots. Thus, Fredrik Barth in his classic Political Leadership Amongst Swat Pathans notes (p. 12): “This striking hospitality… only seems intelligible if we recognize that the underlying motives are political… It is a development in some ways analogous to the ‘potlatch’ institutions of many primitive, non-monetary societies.”

            The urban shopkeeper in South Asia has no such social norms enforcing a code of behavior. There are no penalties for not being hospitable to an outsider and no benefits from being hospitable to a disliked person. In this case it is a matter of the exercise of free choice. In the particular case we are discussing, the inviter most probably risks subsequent investigations by the intelligence agencies.

            Therefore, if we have to find a functional reason for inexplicable behavior (i.e., if the inviters are really being hospitable to people they dislike), it cannot be the one that explains behavior amongst the Afghans. In my view, the simpler explanation would be that, given free choice, people would not invite those they dislike.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: This is a tricky issue and I wanted to take my time to respond. I feel we might be mixing two issues – that of gender equality and a society’s norms of hospitality to outsiders. They need not have any direct relationship. So even if the situation regarding gender equality in Pakistan is as you posit, it need not negate the experiences of hospitality that Dr. Narasimhan has described.

      Regarding gender, the facts that you have mentioned are correct but they might not be the outcome of gender inequality; they may have other plausible causes. You mention that the the ratio of female to male Indian graduate students at your university in the US is about 40:60 while for Pakistanis is much lower. It would be interesting to track the ratio for Indians 10 or 20 years back. My hypothesis is that it would be much lower. I speculate that the ratio has increased rapidly since the 1990s in parallel with rapid economic growth and the increase in the numbers of the middle class. Pakistan has missed out on any such phenomenon and the result shows in the numbers you mention. More rigorous analysis would of course account for the much larger Indian pool of students; it would also separate out the second generation Indian-Americans now enrolled at universities whose number is a function of the population of Indian-origin parents in the US. Your observation would still remain valid but the explanation might rest in economic growth rather than in gender discrimination.

      Your second point is that there are no female politicians in India like Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati. This too is a correct observation but again I am reluctant to ascribe this to gender discrimination. India has had over 60 years of a democratic political process that has provided opportunities to representatives of previously marginalized groups to rise to the top. Pakistan has not had such a process with the result that you have observed. Once again, your observation is correct but the explanation lies in the diverging political trajectories rather than in gender discrimination. My guess is that once you move out of the middle class, the differences in gender relations in India and Pakistan might not be so stark. It would be interesting to compare gender relations in rural areas and in small towns.

      The divergent political and economic trajectories in the two countries have resulted in significant differences because the middle class is now proportionately much larger in India than in Pakistan and middle class values are the ones that get the most projection. Even so, the middle class is a minority even in India. For the majority in the two countries, old values still dominate and they have the same starting point. Of course, the future scenarios are much more promising In India than in Pakistan.

      The bottom line is that the causality is important. It is not some autonomous change in gender relations in India that accounts for the observations you have mentioned. It is economic and political processes that are changing gender relations. The intrinsic human and behavioral traits are common. And, also, these are unrelated to the norms of hospitality.

  2. Kabir Says:

    This is a very nice article. It’s so true that people-to-people and cultural ties can often trump the political situation even given the efforts by both states to create a certain view of the “other”.

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