By Sakuntala Narasimhan
“So how was your trip to Karachi? How was the conference?” my friends back home in India asked, when I returned to Bangalore after a week in Pakistan.
Good? Bad? In trying to choose a short answer I find myself stumped.
The second question is easier to answer – the three day conference was a fruitful, enriching, and enjoyable experience, as we interacted with artistes, activists from the arts, writers and academics from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Germany, UK and USA discussing the interfaces between politics, performing arts and gender. We exchanged ideas and experiences on the use of music, theatre and dance, as well as films and television, as vehicles for creating social awareness (with an overarching emphasis on gender because the NGO, Tehrik-e-Niswan, which had organised the event, worked for the promotion of gender equity).
The conference was good. The process of getting there, and “reporting to the police” as foreign visitors (“within 24 hours”, as the law requires) was, however, anything but. This was to be my third visit to Pakistan, and I had had no trouble getting my visa the first two times, but this time my presence was required at Delhi, even though the logical, faster and cheaper route to Karachi from Bangalore would be via Mumbai. The process of standing at the high commission gates, getting caught in the melee when the doors were opened, waiting endlessly for hours before being told to “come back” the next day, was enough to reduce one to considering canceling the entire trip.
Other countries (Italy, for instance) also require foreigners to “register” at the police station on arrival, it usually takes five minutes, and the procedure on my two earlier trips to Islamabad too had been simple – submit your form, get it stamped, and that was it. No hassles. This time, after endless excuses and four-odd hours of waiting (at the end of which it looked as though I’d miss the opening session of the conference I had been invited to) I got my document – after a hefty bribe had been demanded and extracted. Not for sanctioning entry into the country, mind you, but just for registering with the police after a legitimate entry.
We had planned a novel Indo-Pakistan musical duet for the opening session, using a bi-lingual verse by Amir Khusro (who is part of the historical-cultural heritage of both countries) where Persian and Hindi-Bhojpuri lines alternate. We had set it to a new melody that we named “Aman” (peace), but with the whole morning gone at the police station, there was no time for rehearsals with my Pakistani counterpart, singer Mehwash Faruqi, who could therefore join in only for the refrain.
But once I put the consular and police experiences out of my mind, there remain only memories of pleasant interactions with, and extraordinarily heartwarming gestures from not only our official hosts but also perfect strangers in Karachi.
I went looking one morning for an address near Bunder Road, where one of my Bangalorean friends used to live, six decades ago. She was curious about whether the house she was born in, still existed.
Taking a chance, I asked an elderly looking man sitting outside an ittar shop whether he knew anything about the address I had. He pointed excitedly to a lane three buildings away, and thereafter everyone around pitched in with enthusiasm, assuming that I was looking for my childhood home. A small crowd of shopkeepers and urchins escorted me, located the lane and the house number, and stood grinning triumphantly as I took pictures to show my friend back home. “Apa has come back after 60 years,” they told each other, treating me like an honoured guest and even offering me tea.
The garden that my friend remembers from her childhood as Ram Bagh, is now Aram Bagh, but otherwise nothing had changed. To me it was like being in the heart of Byculla or Dadar in Mumbai. I did not feel I was in an alien country. The language, the food, the shop signs (“Delhi textiles” and “Bombay hardware”) the people, and the mix of buses and autorickshaws and donkey carts and honking cars and cycles and two wheelers – it was all redolent of home.
So why is it so difficult to negotiate the hurdles of officialdom, when people-to-people we are so alike and friendly? Every Pakistani has grandparents who were “Indians,” to many of them I was some kind of surrogate relative (“I can’t visit the city my grandfather came from, but meeting someone from the same place is the next best thing to seeing it myself,” as one young man put it).
Says another friend (Pakistani) to whom I narrated stories about the warmth that I as an Indian received in his country, “Personal contacts are a central element in civilized life, and that is the reason the two states make it so difficult for people to meet.”
Does that make sense? What do the two nations gain? No one has the answers. Loss, yes, to be sure – in terms of precious money being diverted to hostilities and military ‘preparedness’ on either side, when so much could be done with those same resources, in terms of linking hands to address social issues of common concern (low literacy, lack of healthcare, honour killings, farmers’ distress, floods, drought, trade pressures from multinationals).
We speak the same language across the border – but not in the corridors of power – the language of detente or of linking hands. The people want to, and are linking hands. I remember being at the Berlin wall shortly after it was demolished. Chunks of concrete lay around as eloquent testimony to what people can overcome, despite barbed wire, armed sentries and threats of bullets in the back of anyone daring to go across.
We don’t have a wall at Wagah but I do see a groundswell of Aman (peace) on both sides that could tell the diplomats of the two nations, “Enough is enough, let’s now get on with more important issues” so that we, as a South Asian region, get ahead in the global hierarchy of nations.
Sakuntala Narasimhan, an Indian musician, was invited to present a paper at the Tehrik-e-Niswan conference held in Karachi, December 24-26, 2010. This account appeared first in the Aman ki Asha section of The News on February 9, 2011 and is reproduced here with the permission of both the author and the newspaper. The link to the original is here. Aman ki Asha is a campaign for peace between India and Pakistan, jointly initiated by the Jang Group of Pakistan and The Times of India Group.