I met Rahul and Amit during my first week at Trinity College. I can still remember those moments distinctly. Rahul was wearing the characteristic Sikh turban, and Amit was standing right next to him when I bumped into them in the middle of the main quad.
“Hi, I am Shahvar”, I introduced myself.
“Are you from Bombay?” Rahul questioned, which I would discover later was his typically inquisitive, yet diplomatic style, mistaking me for another incoming freshman from his town.
“No I am from Lahore”, I corrected him proudly, displaying the typical pride that Lahoris take in flaunting their citizenship.
“From Jamshedpur yaar”, Amit acknowledged me nonchalantly, finally taking his hands out of his pocket. “Don’t worry, you won’t have heard about it”, he quickly added, perceiving the confusion written on my face. “It’s a rather small town in Bihar in the eastern part of India”.
The conversation continued as the three of us strolled towards Mather Dining Hall. I don’t exactly recollect the consequential scheme of events, but it is enough to say that this was not our last walk together to Mather. We became best friends. In fact, our ‘trio’ was so tight-knit that later on during my junior year I heard that some of our American peers and acquaintances suspected us of having a deeper relationship than what most people would call just ‘best friends’!
That scepticism had its roots in cultural variance: men and women sticking together in their respective gangs is not the norm in most Western societies. Nevertheless, our friendship had another peculiar dimension: Rahul and Amit came from what most Pakistanis would regard the dushman mulk –India. Similar to most Pakistanis of my generation, I had been raised with stories of ruthless plunder, rape and murder that the Sikhs and Hindus had committed on the Muslims migrating to the Pakistani side of the border during the 1947 Partition of the Indian Subcontinent. The grief in my grandmother’s tone when she would narrate the horrid, yet heroic, story of the three women of a family who had valiantly jumped into the well of their ancestral home in the border town of Batala, to evade a prospective rape by Sikh rioters, is still very vivid in my memory. Another popular anecdote starred one of my cousin’s granduncles, who was killed by his very close Hindu childhood friend during a 1947 riot.
Though these stories did indeed affect me emotionally, strangely, I never developed the same bias against India that was so deeply ingrained in some of my fellow Pakistani compeers. The Partition stories that I grew up hearing were adequately balanced with my family’s emphasis on broad learning and an intrinsic temperament of nonconformity. However, I think my elders did not anticipate the nature of dissent that I developed against the prevailing notions. What they thought would be controlled enlightenment turned out to be outright disagreement that bordered on antagonism against blind anti-Indian prejudices. Not to say that I was not nationalistic or patriotic; in fact I was extremely passionate about Pakistan. I was as charged up as my pals, if not more, during an India-Pakistan cricket match. On other occasions, when privately discussing or using the Trinity podium to discuss international relations, I supported the Pakistan cause aggressively against India. However, since childhood, despite having only a vague idea of politics or history, I just could not identify with intolerant jingoism. My heart could not understand the logic of justifying spite for other fellow humans — and I didn’t want to stop thinking from my heart.
First of all, even though I was a mere child when I heard the Partition ‘saga’, I could not believe that the atrocities could be one-sided. Secondly, considering the strong physical, social and cultural similarities between different communities, essentially Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, I refused to accept the widespread notion that there was something inherently wrong with Hindus and Sikhs, or in Hindu-Muslim amity. The result: I was declared a radical heretic, often admonished by my friends as pro-India or Hindu lover! It was true, but not in the manner my Pakistani brothers alleged. They just could not understand me. Verbal fights occasionally took dangerous twists when I was threatened, sometimes even by my best friends, with potential calls to the police for alleged treason. For them, this apparent ‘love’ for India simply meant ‘hate’ for Pakistan.
Although the reaction in my house was not as extreme, even my ‘liberal’ family could not exactly empathise with this ‘heterodoxy’, which for them was way outside the realms of political and cultural correctness. “Now all this is okay”, my mother reacted teasingly one day, after I was finished with talking about the extent of cultural commonality between Pakistanis and Indians, as opposed to the deep-rooted ‘Islamic’ Middle Eastern ties that our press and state incessantly emphasized, “but now that you are going to the US, don’t come back home with a Hindu girl!”.
My mother very well knew that she did not need to emphasize this point. However heretic I might have been in my political and social beliefs, I always realised my responsibility as a member of my community and the limitations that accompanied it. I had a role to play in my society, which went beyond the individual in me. However, for me, not being allowed to marry someone outside the community, did not automatically translate into a repellent intolerance for the ‘other’.
There was no doubt that I was indeed fascinated by this ‘forbidden land’ across the border. I remember the annual visits to the Wagah border, just 25 miles away from my house, on Independence Day, August 14. While most of the crowd, including my friends, chanted “Hindustan Murdabaad” (death to India), I was extremely inquisitive about the on goings on the other side of the border, which was also the land of my forefathers. The idea that rain in Lahore also meant showers in Amritsar, the twin city that was now India, or that both cities had so much more in common — especially in terms of our central Punjabi dialect — than with most other towns in Pakistan, was overwhelming. I envied a flock of crows that oblivious of visa requirements, flew towards the other side of the border.
“Ali, this is an order”, Rahul was insisting, referring to me by the nickname I had been given at Trinity, “you have to take this”.
“No way dude, are you kidding me?” was my first response. Although everyone knew that I habitually rejected any or anyone’s suggestion at first, however, this time my “no” was meant in earnest.
“This is not fair at all”, I protested. “Plus, I am not dying to go home”.
“Ok, if you won’t go home”, now Rahul was trying to emotionally blackmail me, “I won’t go either”.
Rahul wanted to pay for my ticket to Pakistan. He knew that my on-campus jobs that semester were not sufficient for a twelve hundred dollar round-trip ticket. He knew how homesick I was; I had previously gone home during every break. Despite gnawing desperation for Lahore, I couldn’t take such an enormous favour from my friend. Apart from the fact that the air-ticket was very costly, I knew that Rahul, unlike me, was an extremely diligent kid. He had meticulous work ethics and he saved every penny he could. In fact, much to all our friends’ admiration, he often ended up sending money back home. Then how could I let him waste his hard-earned money for what seemed in comparison my immature whims?
“Yaar, pay it back whenever you have the money”. Rahul insisted as if I was doing him a favour. “It’s a done deal then”. I didn’t know what to say to him. The sincerity in his tone left me speechless.
It was anecdotes like these that I took back home with Rahul’s ticket to Pakistan. I desperately wanted to tell my friends, in Pakistan, that they were wrong about our so-called dushman across the border. The reality of Rahul and Amit gave concrete shape to the ideals I had always defended. Unless there was some hidden ‘truth’ that had invariably evaded my perception, I frankly could not differentiate a Jahangir of Lahore from a Joginder of Delhi; or for that matter a Gulzar of Jhelum from a Hafeez of Jalandhar!
“Was it a Sikh or a Hindu here who helped out a Muslim in hard times?” I excitedly questioned Majid, my childhood Lahori buddy. “Or was it a friend, a bhai, who was there for me when I needed support?”
The height of my frustration knew no bounds when I heard Majid’s response; but I should have known!
“You don’t understand the Hindu backstabbing mentality”, he firmly declared, as if he had met thousands in his lifetime. “This might hurt you, but you will definitely see that happening eventually”.
I was speechless again; just like I had been with Rahul a few weeks ago. However, to the contrary, this time it was due to this brash display of conceited ignorance, which for me almost bordered on innocence. How could I debate over beliefs that were a product of such simplistic, isolated and static perceptions? Was I fighting a lost battle?
I wanted to argue, but a resultant pessimism had engulfed my thoughts. I felt like a scientist who comes up with a new discovery, yearning for recognition, but is refused even simple acknowledgement. I was basically told to shut up, and I acquiesced. I didn’t bother to tell Majid about the time when during my freshman year finals this Indian “Hindu”, Amit, stayed awake all night teaching me economics, risking his own performance in an exam. Knowing my extraordinary deep sleep, he even woke me up for the sehree during Ramazan! How could I tell Majid that this “Sikh”, Rahul’s Sikh father, on his visit from “Hindu India”, affectionately declared to his friends that ‘Ali’ was just like his son? Perhaps my utopian self was oblivious of the ‘reality’ I was urged to see through. Nonetheless, it was undoubtedly the unblemished trustworthiness of my Indian friends that I just could not fathom any “back stabbing ulterior motives”.
After incessant but futile attempts at convincing Majid and Co. about the innocence of the dushman I had experienced first hand, I became somewhat immune to this failure. However, during every return flight to Trinity, I pledged that one-day I would go back home and emerge victorious in this battle against bigotry. Little did I know that I was destined to face another barrage of prejudice — this time though from a quarter that I expected it least from.
“Ali”, Amit spoke out in a somewhat sarcastic manner at the dinner table at Mather, “so when are you enrolling for flight school dude?” I was completely taken aback.
9/11 had happened a few weeks ago, but none of us had said anything offensive to each other. In fact, Amit and Rahul had empathised with me as they realized that Muslims, in general, were being isolated and targeted throughout the world. Therefore, I could not understand Amit’s unanticipated statement. Was there a deeper meaning behind what apparently seemed like a casual joke? Was this a delayed reaction to my ultra defensive stance against the U.S attack on Afghanistan? Was it being perceived as an ‘extremist’ Islamic view? Was my friend from the hamsaya country failing to differentiate between a fundamentalist and moderate Muslim view?
Moderate Muslims, like me, condemned the terrorist acts, but at the same time, maintained that the United States needed to review and rethink its lopsided foreign policy, which we thought was at the root of terrorism. If terrorism has to go, so must the neo-imperialism nurtured by generations of American policy-makers. Amit maintained similar anti-imperialist views. That is why I failed to understand his thinking behind his suggestion about flight school.
Perhaps there was no motive behind Amit’s statement. Perhaps I was over-analyzing the situation. Though usually a compassionate, sensitive and peaceful individual, Amit would be the last person to provoke me in this manner.
“What’s happening in cricket these days dude?” Rahul tried to distract us from the expected unpleasant situation. He may have seen the mixture of anguish and sense of betrayal in my eyes.
Playing this role of a peacemaker was not something unusual for Rahul. The poor guy was always trying to placate the heated political arguments that Amit and I indulged in umpteen times. Unlike Amit, who was equally patriotic and nationalistic about India as I was regarding Pakistan, Rahul had been detached from contentious political and historical discussions, a staple for Amit and me. I could never make out if Rahul’s aloofness had more to do with his general apathy towards politics, or if he was always trying to be cautiously diplomatic with me, fearing that litigious comments from him could tarnish the unity of our ‘trio’. I hoped the latter was not the case. Though it was true that Amit and I had indulged in heated debates over Pak-India issues, concurrently, we had been successful in differentiating between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political.’ When listening to Kishore Kumar or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, we were just friends sharing the pleasures of a common musical and literary culture, but when discussing Kashmir we would suddenly transform into the foreign ministers of our countries!
It may sound strange, but the fact was that both Amit and I respected each other’s patriotism. Nationalism was a trait that we both held in very high regard as long as it did not border on jingoism. I guess it is almost similar to a soldier respecting another fighter from the ‘other’ country. I still have a strange nostalgia associated with the times when Rahul used to laugh away in the corner, on what he considered extremely childish overtures. Amit and I often boastfully claimed that though we were for peace between India and Pakistan, if we were to confront each other on opposite sides in time of war, neither would hesitate to shoot the other! I think our idealist vision for a peaceful future was sometimes checked by our patriotism, a hallmark of mainstream Pakistanis and Indians. In this regard, Amit and I were probably the same sort of people, just living in different countries. It was actually the love for our countries, rather than the hate for the ‘other’ that provided the impetus for our antagonistic debates.
Nonetheless, in spite of this occasional hostility there remained an unfailing sentiment of empathy for each other’s arcane views and, more importantly, an underlying sense of frustration with the dirty political standoff between India and Pakistan. In fact, many a times the arguments would take on a positive trajectory, once the initial adrenaline level would fall and the discussion directed towards solution finding strategies. I still remember the day when Amit walked off from the college computer lab, in anger, after one of our characteristic heated arguments. To my surprise he came back after half an hour with a paper and pencil in hand and together we brainstormed for a ‘South Asian Union’ along the lines of the European Union!
However, on the particular day when the ‘flying school’ comment was made, Amit’s tone was different. I could sense the stark difference in his facial expressions, but I tried nevertheless to laugh off the belligerent nature of his statement.
“I have sent in my admission applications and physical tests yaar”, I tried to play along with the joke, as if Amit’s inquiry was just part of the old game of words that we were used to playing. “Let’s see if they let me fly!” On my way back to the dorm I kept shrugging off the incident as if it had not happened.
At other times, I tried to justify the comment as just a light-hearted quip on Amit’s part. In reality, though, I was deeply hurt. Why had my ‘Muslim’ identity suddenly taken precedence against all other things I represented? Moreover, why was I associated with a fundamentalist group that I equally condemned? Islamic extremists and ‘political Islam’, in my view, had pushed back the Muslim world into the Dark Ages. And my humsaya friends had always been very much aware of my political ideology.
“What are your brothers going to do now?” a Nepali friend joined the bandwagon. “Did you get an e-mail from Bin?” he inquired with a sarcastic smile.
It was obviously a joke, but by now I had lost my patience. I got up to hit him, but Rahul intervened. The tension by now had really become exacerbated. What started out as discreet innuendoes transformed into personal attacks and stereotypes about each other’s race and ethnicity.
“That is why people are scared of you guys”, Amit commented later in the day when he heard from Rahul about what had happened with the Nepali friend. “These sudden outbursts prove that you people by nature are irrational, destructive and aggressively violent”.
Amit was referring to the Muslims in general and Punjabi Muslims in particular: the age-old stereotype about Muslims and Hindus where the former were considered aggressive and emotional while the latter were generalised as rational and astute.
“You bastards are all freaking weakling vegetarian pussies and that’s why you give logic so much importance!” I reacted in a manner that was totally in line with Amit’s stereotype: “We are strong, open and ‘in your face’ type of people!” I cannot really analyze the extent of ignorance and intolerance in my reaction, but ironically I must have sounded as biased and inconsiderate as Majid back in Lahore, “We don’t use all the ‘planning’ and ‘back stabbing’ tactics like you guys”.
‘Back stabbing’. Wow!
Recalling all that was said, I cannot believe that I had stooped so low. However, that was not the end. I had actually become highly sensitive, aggressive and intolerant to the point where I could not even take small jokes. I went on and on from deconstructing ancient Indian history to aggrandizing the ‘diplomatic correctness’ with which “Hindu” leaders, during the colonial era, had compromised with the British against their Muslim co-regionalists. Political gossips were now weapons for personal attacks. I accused Amit of supporting England, an ex-colonial power, during Pakistan-England cricket matches and he in turn indicted that Pakistanis don’t even hesitate to sell their mother (land) when it comes to India, referring to the time when Pakistan allegedly gave away to China a chunk of land during the Indo-China War of 1962. Disparate issues and topics were being mixed to put the dushman down. No longer could Amit and I pinpoint the line that differentiated the ‘foreign minister’ and the ‘friend.’ It almost seemed as if it was not Amit and Ali anymore, but Majid and Majid talking to each other.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Amit’s biased remarks concerning the Punjabi Muslims were probably accurate to a certain extent. It is a known fact that most Punjabi Muslims are very emotional people. I remember someone telling me that during the India-Pakistan War of 1965 the Punjabis of Lahore went to the border with their hockey sticks! However, on the other hand these Punjabis are also the most candid and warm people, popular for their hospitality. Perhaps I did react in typically “Punjabi violent” manner. Probably, I was indeed a deeply hurt “irrational Punjabi Muslim!” Another more ‘logical person’ or prototypical ‘Bihari Hindu’ might have used a different defence mechanism; like complaining to the Dean of Students on grounds of racial abuse. However, from where I come, this would have been considered betraying a friend and hitting below the belt.
Therefore, even if Amit’s sweeping proclamation typifying the Punjabi Muslims was not warranted at that particular moment, it did reflect the truth; well at least partially. I guess it should be realised that most stereotypes have some truth behind them. That is precisely the reason why they should be recognised and understood. It should not be used as a means to attack other groups, but to face and respect those ‘differences’ that exist. ‘Difference’ does not have to mean ‘conflict’ and that’s exactly what I realised after that hostile period within our ‘trio’.
My ‘friendly’ ideals regarding the Indians had been tested under circumstances that helped me rediscover my amity towards India — Indians. What had previously been sheer romanticism towards Pak-India comity, based on the conjecture that Indians and Pakistanis are historically and culturally homologous, was now a recognition of that ‘difference’ that is commonly, and wrongly, in my opinion, perceived as ‘conflict.’ The dispute with Amit and the blatant biases that emerged as a result, greatly facilitated in comprehending the blind hatred that was put into practice during and post Partition. The childhood stories of the Partition and the mysteries surrounding the widespread abhorrence; inquisitions that had previously eluded my thought processes, now started to make much more sense. Now I somewhat understood how the best of friends could have become the worst of enemies.
In an environment of excessive cultural similarities between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent, when the reality of slight ‘differences’ hit home, both the groups, not anticipating the extent of dissent, felt deceived and hurt. The world can go against you, but nothing can hurt more if it is your own brother that suddenly opposes you. The feeling of betrayal that transpires afterwards is intolerable.
Here at Trinity, both Amit and I had similar anti-imperialist views when it came to the post-9/11 scenario, but I don’t have any reservations in saying that being a Muslim I did indeed feel a kind of emotional solidarity towards the people of Afghanistan that Amit did not, and probably, could not feel. Moreover his logical approach, cool and somewhat detached, to the issue was in great contrast to my emotional and aggrieved rhetoric. The result was regrettable, but somewhat predictable. While he mistook me as a tacit sympathizer of the so-called ‘terrorists’, I misperceived his passivity as ‘silent’ approval for anti-Muslim actions.
Coming to think of it, both of us actually could not anticipate and realise that the intrinsic differences concerning such contentious issues can indeed exist between an Indian and a Pakistani. And that it was not only on Kashmir or ‘India-Pakistan’ where we diverge. ‘Similar’ is not equal to ‘same’ and more importantly, the idea that it is okay not to be ‘same’. Apart from a shared regional ethnicity what puts a Hafeez from Jalandhar (now India) and a Gulzar from Jhelum (now Pakistan) in the ‘same’ bracket, is their service and patronage of one lingual heritage. However, Hafeez coined and identifies with a particular poem that is representative of a unique national ideology that Gulzar does not nourish. This makes them ‘different.’
Cultural commonalties obviously exist, in abundance, between Indians and Pakistanis, but at the same time discrepancies cannot be evaded. They have to be confronted with candour, beyond ‘we are all the same’ mindset. In intellectual tradition the “meaning-making”, of “reality”, or “knowing” is encouraged, as cross categorical ways of understanding, where each reality is “true” from the perspective of the “other”. We need to develop the maturity of respecting and owning the differences between communities and nations — a recognition of unique identities beyond the homogenous macro picture. There is no point in shying away from these ‘contrarieties’, otherwise there would always be an undercurrent ready to erupt to sweep away human comity and dignity. These differences need not lead to “Crush India” or “Crush Pakistan”. These need not stand between Amit and me. The debate and friendship must go hand in hand. Third party mediation would also help! And in our case it came in the form of our peacemaker Rahul of course!
Although it took time, both Amit and I began discerning the reality of our ‘difference.’ What started of almost as a microcosm of the 1947 Partition, ended up with an implicit promise to celebrate the commonalties and the uncommon. No loud apologies or promises were made, but the writing on the wall seemed crisp and clear. We could not make the same mistakes as our forebears. We would not let another bloody partition take place.
Tum khush raho, abaad raho
Krishan Nagar raho, ya Allahabad raho!
Just recently Amit, Rahul and I have planned that one-day we would meet across the Wagah border. It would probably be our best bet to see each other since I will return home after graduation and visiting each other’s country is not easy due to oft-tense political circumstances. It won’t be difficult for me: I would take a forty-minute car ride from Lahore to the border, but Amit and Rahul would have to embark on long journeys to come to Indian Punjab, from Jamshedpur and Bombay.
No doubt that it would be great to see Rahul and Amit: Mere Dushman, Mere Bhai, Mere Humsai. However, come to think of it, the frustration of not being able to actually cross the barbed wires to embrace the people with whom you have shared everything in those four long years would be enervating. May be a shake hand across the huge gates separating India and Pakistan, with the permission of the Pakistani Rangers and the Indian Border Security Forces, would be possible. But would that be enough?