What we need are soft borders and hard drinks, suggests the actor-director from Pakistan, contemplating all the friends he has made in India, thanks to one peace initiative or another.
This was the time before turbo-props and jets. At Lahore’s Walton airport an aircraft with two large piston-engines placed on wide wings sat on its tail and looked up at the sky wonderingly.
What I boarded was a DC-3, the Dakota. To get to your seat you had to be a minor acrobat, walking uphill along the narrow aisle. If my mother had not supported my rump as I negotiated the incline, I could have easily rolled into reverse. But a mother in need is a mother indeed and mine proved to be a truly supportive one that day. Before long, I was seated and strapped and peering out of the flat-paned rectangular windows as the engines roared into life and we taxied out.
As the plane lifted into the air, its fuselage straightened out to level. Before long, flying east, we had crossed over the Pakistani to the Indian Punjab.
The year was 1958, or it could have been ’59. We were visiting Aunty Romilla and Aunty Prem in Delhi, childhood friends of my mother’s whom Partition had quite not divided. Aunty Romilla had a spacious flat, or so it seemed to me at the time, right on Connaught Place. Her husband had a business manufacturing pencils, and I spent that whole winter in Delhi receiving free gifts of the most wonderful sets of pencils. The brand name was Moonlight, and they were so brightly emblazoned that they glowed in the dark
Being already some kind of a movie aficionado I went to the cinema. The first film I chose to see in Delhi was The Lone Ranger. I was very little but I did it alone. The practice in Lahore at that time was to break the film in the middle with an interval. But here in Delhi, interval took place after the adverts, followed by an uninterrupted film. As a consequence, I mistook the end of the film for the intermission and re-entered the auditorium. When the man at the entrance asked me for my ticket, I realised my mistake and quickly cooked up a story about having left a valuable while watching the earlier show. We spent some time trying to find this mythical item, until I thanked the staff for their labours, heaved a seven-year-old’s sigh of philosophical resignation as to my assumed loss and left the hall.
I was amazed to see Lahore’s Regal, Odeon and Plaza cinema houses magically transported across the border, not realising that these were the names given to the talkies in all Indian cities before Partition. Just like the gymkhanas and the Oberoi hotels. That the sweets and mithais this side of the border were more colourful, was another impression.
By that time, Parliament Street had already got the large office blocks it still sports today. We had nothing to match them in Lahore. Karachi might have had something similar, but I hadn’t visited that city as yet. Islamabad was still in the womb. Delhi was larger, bigger, as has always been the case.
I remember a canal that ran right by India Gate. When I returned, decades later, in 1993, the canal was not there, and what is more surprising, no one seemed to remember it. Upon reflection, I feel that perhaps my child’s eye saw a canal in the reflecting pools that run by the Raj Path towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Indian President’s palace.
This time, I had appeared on the Indian scene with my wife Beena, a journalist. There was another change: we were not staying with my mother’s pals but with a contemporary friend, Shabnam Hashmi. We decided to leave ourselves to Shabnam’s devices, and this included a visit to the office of her organisation SAHMAT. There, we got acquainted with a host of Indian writers and artists. Habib Tanvir was a frequent visitor. He later visited Lahore as well and there were plans to stage his play, Jinnay Lahore nahin waikhaiya. A Ravi Shankar performance was also scheduled, but then our bearded bigots stepped in to quash all hopes.
At the house of Shamshad Hussain, we met Bisham Sahni. He is the writer of Tamas, the popular Doordarshan serial on Partition so well-known to Pakistani audiences. This artistic milieu was so familiar yet strange that it left Beena and me feeling quite inebriated. But we never rose to that sublime level to which our host Shamshad seemed to have ascended. I reminded him three or four times of my name but this did not help, as he eventually mistook me for my wife.
We met a barefooted Indian yeti a couple of days later. He turned up like Goldilocks straight onto Shabnam’s breakfast table. I’m talking of M.F. Hussain, Shamshad’s father. A raging controversy was on at the time because of M.F.’s supposed desecration of the image of Ganesh. Much of the uproar seems to have been instigated by professional rivals under the garb of wounded religious sentiment.
We were soon in Bombay, staying in filmmaker Saeed Mirza’s Bandra office flat. His own apartment was in an adjacent block. Saeed is an Uzbek and he wished very much to make a trip to Pakistan’s Frontier region, though people of his stock are to be found more frequently farther north, in Afghanistan and beyond. We met Anand Patwardhan, the documentarist, as well. Reclined on a large green trunk in Anand’s lounge, from which he seemed to have emerged and which served as a divan, was Srinivas Krishna, another man of the movies.
Krishna was premiering his first movie, Masala, in Bombay. Saeed Jafri was playing one of the parts in the film and when he phoned to talk to his young director, I had a chat with him as well. Saeed is a friend of my father’s, who spent more than half his years, and most of his professional career with the BBC as a television producer in London and then Birmingham. Saeed had worked with father for decades in England. Despite the connection I was not able to fish an invitation for the premiere.
One evening, we stopped by at Saeed’s flat, to discover that he had Basu Bhattacharya and Gulzar over. The latter enjoyed hearing me talk, because my accent reminded him of the area he hailed from, Dina, located near Jhelum in northern Punjab. Rather than soft-spoken artistes, the area is better known for producing an endless crop of fearless sons who filled the British legions right down to the end of the Raj.
We left Bombay, unknowing that this was the last time we would visit it while it still officially started with a ‘B’. A couple of nights more in Delhi and we were back in Pakistan.
We had now developed an Indian connection. Soon afterwards, the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy was formed. The number of our encounters with Indians grew. Friendships were cemented. Rati Bartholomew, a teacher at the Drama School in Delhi was by now a fast friend. When she visited Lahore, we had discovered that we were distantly related. I also found a kind and benign step-uncle in India, Neel Batra, veteran journalist and radio man.
While the camaraderie grew, the mood of the masses continued to be disruptively swayed by politicians on both sides. After the Babari Masjid was demolished, Lahoris responded by toppling no less than a few dozen mandirs that had remained on the municipal map since 1947. All at the instigation of ‘interested parties’ who wished to occupy the valuable land on which they stood. It was around then that I received a call from the Goethe Institut—the Pakistani equivalent of the Max Mueller Bhavans of India. They wanted to know if I was interested in attending a workshop on Bertolt Brecht in Calcutta.
The Indian Airlines flight was delayed by a couple of hours because of which I arrived at Dum Dum at what is technically three in the morning but is really the darkest hour of the night. There was no reception party waiting for me. I got myself into a cab, thinking about the night runners of Bengal as in the John Masters book, and disembarked at a small hotel opposite, what seemed, an ominously large police station. Handed my passport and documents at the reception. Checked into my room and spent the rest of the night watching MTV.
Certain developments within the Subcontinent happen simultaneously, no matter how deep the divide between our societies and economies. One has been the emergence of the dish antennae on our collective horizon. The other is dug-up roads simultaneously in cities all over in the name of a so-called optic fibre. Another is the official consent of respective governments to allow private airlines to operate (Bhoja Air, Jet Air, Buddha Air, take your pick). And strangely, the habit of taking a gift of flowers when visiting. That, too, has taken root insidiously right across the Subcontinent from Calcutta to Karachi.
Theatre in Calcutta was inexpensive and good. I recognised Arthur Miller’s All my Sons midway through the Bengali performance. Satyajit Ray had just passed away so I could not even make an abortive attempt to see him. I believe he was a frequent theatre-goer, though he modestly declined to indulge in this particular form which he felt was in good hands. I saw a very good film, Fishermen of the Padma River, which recorded Utpal Dutt’s last appearance on celluloid. Incidentally, I chanced to be on a film jury with the man who had made Fishermen, Gautam Ghose, at the Film South Asia Documentary festival in Kathmandu in 1999.
The Calcutta trip concluded with a visit to Barrackpur, where we witnessed performances of traditional Bengali folk theatre, called Jatka, by a group of itinerant actors. This was the kind of theatre that had influenced Brecht in the formulation of his own theatre practice. A storm had raged in the vicinity, disrupting phone and electricity lines; the Barrackpur railway station was shrouded in ghostly moonlight with dozens of pale lanterns scattering shadows. On the way back to Calcutta, since there were no seats available on the passenger gaadi, we found ourselves in a maalgaadi occupied by sacks of vegetables bound for the big city. Myself, I spent a thrilling night sitting on an oversized turnip.
As we descended from the train at Calcutta, a large crowd of people was chanting slogans against Pakistan. I thought they had somehow got wind of the fact that an alien on board the goods wagon had been sitting on a turnip through the night and that was the cause for the commotion. But, thankfully, it was the Babari Masjid episode which was continuing to provoke common ire. Thanks to the benevolence of the Almighty, I was able to weave my way through the rabble without being asked to produce my citizenship papers.
Later, my fellow travellers were hard-pressed to hide their embarrassment for the shower of abuse that the cabbie, on our way from the station to the Max Mueller Bhavan, heaped on all varieties of Pakistanis. When we dispensed the cab, they apologised to me. I advised them not to take matters too much to heart, since on occasion they could confront similar sentiments for themselves, on my side of the border. This somehow rested their conscience, and with friendships intact I departed Calcutta for the last time before it became Kolkota.
The next opportunity to come over from Lahore was in 1998. Pokharan and Chagai had happened. My wife and I now had a child in tow. Just as our countries had crossed the nuclear threshold, we had become a nuclear family. To cross the threshold of peace was left to private individuals and organisations on both sides of the divide, and so SAHMAT held a conference to condemn the Subcontinent’s nuclearisation. Beena was a delegate, and I came baby-sitting. In fact, that’s what I wrote as “purpose of my visit” on the visa application form, although I could also have written “to protest nuclear bombs”.
The conference was attended by many people of India I had already got to know. Shyam Benegal, whom I met when he was invited to Lahore by the Faiz Foundation. Shabana Azmi, whose film, Fire, had just caught it and got banned. Arundhati Roy, who turned a novelist shortly before India made it its business to nominate a world beauty queen annually, otherwise I earnestly believe this presentable lady would have opted for pageants rather than publishers.
These stars aside, denuclearisation was supported by a cast of tens of thousands that evening. We took a candle-light peace march in the twilight, right to the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Imagine, we, Pakistani’s, doing this right in the heart of the Indian citadel. The evenings in Delhi were spent affirming our solidarity with all sorts of befitting beverages. Some lovely afternoons were spent at the Delhi Press Club, with Praful Bidwai (lately of a broken neck, but alright otherwise) serving his Praful Special, an ignitable item composed of a green chilly dunked irretrievably into an amount of vodka. Clearly, it was a recipe ferreted from the Indian ordnance factory, and one which could prove more lethal to Pakistanis than the Indian bomb.
This was also the time that my daughter saw her first movie in a theatre. It was K2H2, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and it really happened to all of us who went to see it. These Pakistanis, a man, a woman and an infant, thoroughly enjoyed the film which was truly great family entertainment. Sharukh and Kajol must be told.
Arundhati had us over for dinner one night, at her lovely space in Delhi. I discovered that she is an architect by training, who also worked as a script girl for her husband Pradip Krishen, who formerly was a director. Subsequently, both changed their professions. She became the novelist we know her to be, while her husband became a conservationist. I told them I was also conserving myself for a Praful Special for the next afternoon.
And suddenly, the trip was over. They do have a habit of ending abruptly as dreams. But that is not the end of the story. There are moments when being unemployed and on the fringes of society can prove to be a boon. You see, the British Council had organised a SAARC short story writing competition, and one of the judges had been a government civil servant from Lahore. Unfortunately he could not go to the awards distribution ceremony in Delhi because his employer (Government of Pakistan) would not give him a No Objection Certificate (NOC). So, the Council needed a replacement fast. So, I might well meet this article in Delhi, India.
That would be the fifth time I would have gone East of the Border. May there be many times more, really. After all, what we need is soft borders and hard drinks. Isn’t that the purpose of the peace initiative?