Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

What’s In a Name? Nothing and a Lot

December 17, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

A rose is a rose is a rose – Gertrude Stein

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – William Shakespeare


I know, I know, I know – which is why I didn’t have much of a problem when Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was remuslimed as Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road. I couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about. A road is a road is a road and people have the right to call it what they will. Some would continue to call it by its old name, some would use the new one, and most others would traverse it quite unaware of the name at all. In any case, life would go on without much care for passing passions.

We don’t need to wander far to vouch for that: Bunder Road is still Bunder Road in Karachi and The Mall is still The Mall in Lahore. Rarely does one hear the first being called M.A. Jinnah Road or the second being referred to as Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam, all love for Mr. Jinnah notwithstanding. In fact, the longer and more pompous the new name the less likely it would replace the old one – Shahrah-e-Abdul Hameed Bin Badees was dead on arrival in Lahore and has not made a dent on Empress Road, notwithstanding all our revulsion for the queen; Aga Khan III Road in Karachi remains Garden Road to all intents and purposes, notwithstanding all our gratitude for the Aga Khan.

All this is old hat. Only those without any sense of history indulge in these kinds of instant gratifications. How well did R.K. Narayan deal with all of that many years ago – go read Lawley Road and reflect, and repent.

I really don’t have an issue if people want to denude a city of all its landmarks and turn it into a maze with no names. But I do have a problem with how this might be done. It doesn’t seem right that some minister or bureaucrat or parliamentarian or sena somewhere can mandate such an uprooting of traditions. A street really belongs to the people who live and work in it, for whom it is a part of past memories and present lives. If they wish to rename Aurangzeb Road as Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road they at least have some legitimate claim to do so and they should be able to exercise that right in an acceptable manner. My own guess is that the denizens of Aurangzeb Road would not have given the name a second thought but in case they wished to rename it, they would have been very unlikely to have opted for what has, once again, been foisted on them without their participation. The same goes for the choice between Shadman Chowk and Bhagat Singh Chowk in Lahore – it is not for the District Coordination Officer to propose a change and the Tehreek-i-Hurmat-i-Rasool to challenge it in the High Court.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I must register my disagreement with the sentiment that names don’t matter at all. And here I present as evidence the case of ‘India’ – the name of a whole that was appropriated by a part to the lasting loss of many others.

Let me illustrate this by way of an analogy. A German can refer to himself or herself as a German and a European. Now imagine a new country formed by the breakup of an old confederation, say Yugoslavia, appropriating the name Europe for itself. Imagine Kosovo wanting to call itself Europe. This would not be allowed, and rightly so, because it would deprive the German of a very integral part of his or her identity. No longer would he or she be able to claim being a German and a European without causing a great deal of confusion.

I hope the point is clear. When India was divided in 1947 into two parts, the name India was appropriated by one thereby depriving me, a future Pakistani, of a key part of my civilizational identity. I legitimately wish to claim that I am a Pakistani and an Indian but am unable to do so. The terms ‘Subcontinental’ or ‘South Asian’ are second best and just do not resonate in the same way – by way of the loss just note the name of this weblog.

This eventuality is all the more egregious because India not only appropriated India, it took ownership of all the other names used for the undivided land mass – Hind, Hindustan, and Bharat. Of all these names, as far as I know, only Bharat is indigenous to the region – India was conferred by Greeks and Hind and Hindustan by the Persians, both using the demarcation of the Sindhu (Indus) River to refer to the people who lived beyond that natural boundary.

It would have been reasonable to name the two parts of the divided land differently so that both could claim their legacy without ambiguity. Pakistan chose its name for better or for worse. Today’s India could have chosen an entirely new name or Bharat, a name rooted in the traditions of the land, while ceding the other terms – India, Hind, and Hindustan as the common property of all the people who shared the civilization.

To be fair, these names were not appropriated by India; they were gifted to it by those so obsessed with purity and purification (there is an irony here, isn’t there?) that they were bereft of a sense of civilizational loss. The allocation of names should also have been a matter of negotiation but if that sensibility had prevailed our entire history may well have been different. From “Saarey jahaaN se achcha Hindostan hamara/Ham bulbuleN haiN iski ye gulsitaaN hamara” to “Cheen o Arab hamara, Hindostan hamara/Muslim haiN ham, watan hai saara jahaaN hamara” is the most apt summary of our journey.

I remain a Pakistani unwilling to relinquish my Indian heritage but the label leads to many misunderstandings – I cannot call myself an Indian in the same way a German can call himself a European. The expression of this sentiment is by no means a grand call to reverse history. I only wish to substantiate the minor claim that, in some instances, names do matter and not just a little.

A Capulet is a Capulet, a Montague a Montague – take that William Shakespeare.

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Meeting Oneself in Pakistan

January 20, 2015

By Vipul Rikhi


Towards the end of September 2014, the Kabir Project team went to Lahore to take part in the Kabir Festival organised by Aahang, a student body in the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Our visas hadn’t come through till the last minute and we hadn’t been sure of being able to go at all. But we finally made it. When we crossed the border at Wagah, we found bright, young students from LUMS waiting to receive us.

It was a wonderful one week that we spent there. We were overwhelmed by the love and warmth with which we were taken care of by the student volunteers. The air in Pakistan felt very alive with political and religious churning (Imran Khan was leading a massive protest rally against Nawaz Sharif while we were still there). We set up a photo and video exhibit of our work at the intersection of mystic poetry and folk music, showed films, participated in some classes, and sang the Kabir and Bhakti songs that we’ve learnt during the course of our own journeys.

The moment I wish to describe is the last evening of the festival, on October 2, when Dr Anjum Altaf, Dean of Humanities, took to the mike to thank us for our visit. He described in beautiful words how our relationship took shape. He said that we arrived as guests, became friends by the next day, and partners by the day after that, and now, by the last day, they were us and we were them. Truly, in that moment, as through the whole duration of our visit, all differences seemed artificial and arbitrary. We mingled together to form one stream. It felt appropriate that a Hindu bhajnik mandali from the Cholistan desert in Pakistan was invited to sing with us on that final evening. As Kabir says, “Ham sab maahin, sab ham maahin / Ham hain bahuri akela” (I’m in all, all are in me / I am many and alone).

Vipul Rikhi is a member of the celebrated Kabir Project in Bangalore. This comment was published in Aalaap magazine in Chennai and is reproduced with permission of the author.

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In Search of Diwali in Lahore

November 9, 2013

Diwali was on our minds. We were tossing around ideas on how to celebrate the first ever festival of lights on the campus of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. For some, it was too radical a proposition, for others something that just had to be done. It was in that context that a participant produced a newspaper clipping claiming there were only about 50 Hindus in Lahore and that some of them had celebrated Diwali at a private location for fear of being attacked.

“That’s just not true,” said a member of the team indignantly adjusting her hijab. Then and there, it was decided to locate a public celebration of Diwali in the city and to go ahead with our own event. The evening light was fading; the timing was right for lamps to be lit if they were going to be lit anywhere. A few phone calls identified three mandirs that might offer what we were looking for – in Model Town, on Ravi Road, and at Neela Gumbad, the latter two in some proximity to each other. We decided to head in their direction to maximize our chances.

Our guide suggested we take a rickshaw to the Ghazi Station on the Metrobus and ride it to Bhati Gate in the old city. There we were to ask for directions to either one of the two mandirs. We did as told and were informed with much confidence that there was a mandir close by and another some distance further off. Delighted, we boarded a rickshaw for the nearer one and were soon dropped off at the entrance to the lane headed towards the Badshahi mosque with a gesture that our destination was in the general direction. Having been there a number of times before, we all concluded simultaneously that the rickshaw driver had mistaken a gurdwara for a mandir.

Disappointed but undeterred, we engaged another rickshaw with instructions to take us to the other location that was now even further away. Much turning and twisting later, we were asked to disembark in front of a mandir that was in fact a church – the signboard said so quite plainly. We realized that the popular culture had erased the distinctions between mandirs, gurdwaras and girjas in Lahore.

Nonetheless, we were at Neela Gumbud and if there were a mandir there, we were determined to find it. Our best bet appeared to be a sleepy policeman with gun across his lap guarding the entrance to a narrow street. Sure enough he knew the location to a mandir and pointed us deeper into the lane while eyeing us with some suspicion.

The policeman, whose specific duty must have been to guard places of worship, turned out to be right. We found ourselves in front of a nondescript red gate which announced the entrance to the mandir. Another policeman frisked us and without much more hassle, we were past the gate.

Inside, Diwali was in full swing. Our protracted search had made us miss the puja but we were in time for the fireworks, the prasad and the music. There were certainly many more than 50 people in the compound and none of them looked afraid. Ominous, gun-toting policemen were stationed on adjacent roofs but that did not appear to cast any kind of shadow on the festivities.

It was Diwali alright, but, when all was said and done, it was Diwali in an alien soil. Half-way through the proceedings everything came to a halt and a prolonged round of speeches ensued. Muslims of various stripes came on stage to profess love for all religions and, for some odd reason, insisted the participants join them in full-throated renditions of Pakistan Zindabad. For many, the response was not good enough and the audience was exhorted to be more vociferous. The celebration of Diwali had turned into a test of loyalty, something that would be no part of a ceremony unencumbered with the need to prove anything to anyone.

Ordinary people, however, expressed a curiosity quite at odds with the certainties of the community leaders. My neighbor, sitting on the floor, was quite clearly a Muslim who took me for a Hindu and had questions about the similarities and differences between the two faiths. I answered as best I could and the conversation extended to the relationship of Sikhism to both and whether some Sikhs revered Muslim saints. It occurred to me how badly we needed to teach comparative religion in our schools.

Our mission accomplished, we strolled leisurely down the Mall treating ourselves to a congratulatory stop at Bundu Khan’s in the block where the rounded façade of E. Plomer and Sons still exists at the intersection across from Fane Road. At the Alhamra, we took a rickshaw and headed home.

Back on campus, we plunged into the Diwali preparations with renewed vigor. The student response was incredible. Within a day, Diwali was celebrated with great enthusiasm and fervor. There were no speeches, no talk of erasing differences, no tests of loyalty. It was an occasion for festivity and everyone went about the business of feeling good and enjoying themselves. We sensed at the end that some of the spirit of Diwali had been restored – there was hope that light could triumph over darkness if we set our minds to it.

 Diwali at LUMS

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Violence Has No Borders

October 26, 2011

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. (more…)

Induced Nostalgia

September 6, 2011

By Hasan Altaf         

The first time I heard the word “Gandhara” was when I was maybe eight or ten, and, driving from Islamabad to Peshawar with my father, brother, and grandparents, stopped in a town I’d never heard of to visit a museum that was equally unfamiliar. The little town was Taxila, and the museum was the Taxila Museum. I’m sure at the time someone, most likely my father, explained to me the significance, the historic and artistic value, of the objects presented there, but it seems I must have glazed over and ignored it. To the eight- or ten-year-old I was, none of the statues and relics, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, were particularly memorable. We left Taxila and continued our drive, leaving the museum behind, and until recently, I never thought about them again.

Many of us who grow up outside Pakistan have Pakistan always in the back of our minds, but that Pakistan is an imagined one that is different for each of us, and mine, at least, did not encompass Gandhara. (more…)

Ten Thoughts on Afridi’s Remarks about Indians

April 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Shahid Afridi’s perceptions of Indians and India are now common knowledge. On the way out of the airport returning from Mohali, he said: “I can’t understand the approach of people, why we are against India? Why there is so much hate for India when we have Indian dramas played in every home, our marriage celebrations are done in Indian style, we watch all Indian movies then why to hate them?” A couple of days later, he said: “In my opinion, if I have to tell the truth, they will never have hearts like Muslims and Pakistanis. I don’t think they have the large and clean hearts that Allah has given us.”

Given the short half-life of such episodes much of the hullabaloo has disappeared. It is time now to move beyond scoring points and to see if some more interesting aspects can be uncovered. In that spirit we present ten thoughts for comments and discussion. (more…)

Our Neighborhood

January 2, 2011

A friend introduced me to the notion of a ‘chewing-gum’ concept – one that has the flexibility to be stretched or shrunk as needed to suit the context. This immediately solved a problem that had been vexing me for months.

The problem was the following: I had been toying with launching local language versions of this blog but had found myself stymied by the challenge of translating meaningfully its name – The South Asian Idea. What had come so naturally in English turned into an impossible task in, say, Hindi or Urdu. There were two questions here: why was the task proving to be difficult and what was to do be done about it? (more…)

India, Pakistan and Survival

September 25, 2010

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall / Who is the Fittest of Us All?

The question, starkly posed, could be the following: Which country, India or Pakistan, has the better chance of survival, and why?

In fact, the question is just an artifact to extend a discussion we have been having on this blog about the relationship of tolerance to survival. Our engagement with the issue has been at the very basic level of understanding but the very fact that we have been debating it leads us on to better and more sophisticated arguments. This, I strongly believe, is the beneficial outcome of discussions and conversations on a blog like this. (more…)

The Indo-Persian Synthesis

September 1, 2010

By Vijay Vikram

It’s been a while since I wrote on this blog. And a very good piece by a chap called Ahmed Kamran on The South Asian Idea has pushed me into rectifying that.

One of the themes that I love ruminating on is the synthesis of Indic and Persian cultures that emerged after India’s encounter with Islam. What is equally fascinating is how this culture has fractured and is in a state of war after the Partition of India – probably one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated of world-historical events. Intellectuals, both Subcontinental and Western tend to treat Partition as a localised event. A horrific event, worthy of intellectual analysis and monograph upon dry academic monograph but in essence, a tragedy restricted to and contained by the Indian Subcontinent. In actuality, the Partition of India is a world-historical event whose consequences shall be felt on the continuum of civilisations for generations. (more…)

Neighbours: Private Dosti, Political Demarcations

June 8, 2010

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. (more…)