The ragged backdrop

Some time before Partition, my father, an employee of the railways in Bombay, had opted to go to Pakistan when the time came. Many years later, as a young man struggling to come to terms with the abiding sorrows of Southasia, I asked him why he had made that choice. Well, he had thought that if he were to be posted to Lahore, the distance to our hometown in North India would be shorter, making the annual trip less of a hassle. But realities that had initially not tainted his dreams began to assert themselves as the moment of freedom drew closer. I was a child of about nine when we left Bombay, exactly on 15 August 1947, surrounded by street celebrations.

We were headed, by train, to our hometown, a qasba that is actually significantly less than a town. My father left the family there, and ventured alone into the unknown, his destination being Lahore. He had just boarded his train at the Delhi station when a friend persuaded him to accompany him on the next trip. The train that he did not take was attacked, and its passengers slaughtered before it reached Lahore.

He was posted in Karachi, and came back to take us there, via Bombay and by sea. During the course of the fifty years that he lived after that arrival in early 1948, he visited his hometown just three times. My mother had only one sister, who stayed back in India with her family. The two sisters could only meet in person on those three occasions. A telephone call, before the recent revolution in telecommunications, would leave my mother in tears, and she would stay sad for days thereafter. I have been to India a number of times, but always in order to attend conferences, to talk about the imperatives of peace and a rational visa regime to allow people-to-people contact. It was only in June 2006 that I was in Bombay – now Mumbai – with a delegation. I was there as a foreigner, as a Pakistani citizen.

What made this visit emotionally overwhelming was that I was able, with the help of a local journalist, to find the chawl in Mahim where we had lived. Across the chasm of nearly 60 years, I struggled to recover an entire treasure of lost memories. I also realised that this experience, which only poets and novelists can really explore, was not so unique. Millions of such encounters and linkages constitute the ragged human backdrop to the modern history of Southasia. I wrote a column about this visit, which was reproduced in a major Indian newspaper, and I subsequently received e-mails from some old residents of Mumbai, who had spent their childhoods in Karachi.

In that column, I also raised the question of whether that journey, made from a lower-middle-class neighbourhood, had found its trajectory of hope and, in a spiritual sense, achievement. The answer has to be an emphatic yes. And this is my bond with Pakistan. I never shy away from admitting that our family was poor and socially underprivileged. My mother never went to school. But her daughter, my sister, was the first woman in Pakistan to complete a doctorate in nuclear physics, back in the 1970s. During the course of this unambiguous assertion of patriotism, I do not want to look at India as an enemy.

Nor do I have any respect for those in India who have not reconciled to Pakistan's existence. It is interesting how the leaders of the two countries, after irregular intervals, profess to make a new beginning in terms of bilateral relations. There is talk of changing history, of making borders irrelevant. But meanwhile, the visa regime between India and Pakistan remains inexplicably vicious, sadistic even. In May, I read a news item about an old woman dying outside the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, while standing in a visa queue.

Lost paradise
The last time I was in India was to attend a roundtable in Goa, sponsored by an international agency. I was told not to include any other city on my visa application, and to provide a photocopy for Pakistani intelligence. During an earlier visit to Delhi, I had boarded a jumbo jet that was almost empty. But they still needed six wheelchairs at the Delhi airport when we arrived. There is not much time left before Partition recollections slip completely from living memory. Indians and Pakistanis become breathlessly emotional when they visit the other country, even when they do not have to carry the baggage of childhood memories and family linkages.

They readily become the best of friends when they meet in alien environs, intriguing people who know about relations that exist at the official level. Lahore, I have discovered, is something of a lost paradise for Indian Punjabis. Indeed, the carnage that took place in the Punjab 60 years ago has now given way to deep fraternal feelings, rooted in language and history. During exchanges sponsored by peace organisations in recent years, there have been some dramatic expressions of this warmth in exchanges. I also understand that the intelligence agencies have intervened to discourage such initiatives. A decade ago, I was involved with a seminar in Karachi on the role of civil society in Pakistan and India, with a few participants from India.

As always, there were some who could not get visas. An Indian social activist was visiting Pakistan for the first time, though his parents came from Rawalpindi. He had come with some apprehensions about Pakistan being the enemy country. But he was overwhelmed by the hospitality he received. When it was his turn to speak, he talked about his family and his encounter with Pakistan. And then, suddenly, he started to cry. He cried like a baby. I often think of that touching incident, and wonder how the intelligence officers, who must have been in attendance, reported the incident.

~ Ghazi Salahuddin works with Geo TV, and is a columnist with The News. He serves as Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

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