Twenty years ago I visited India for the first time. We were doing the same thing back then, celebrating 50 years of independence, or mourning 50 years of partition to a steady beating of breasts: why can’t we live like friendly neighbours?
Like many Pakistanis I saw my first Indians in London and was surprised that they were a bit like us. Most Indians and Pakistanis have the same reaction when they meet. It seems as if they are brought up to believe that a community of ferals lives across the border.
My first Indian friend and colleague, Zubair Ahmed, came up with this rather clever idea that we should travel to each other’s country, then come back and put together a series of programmes comparing our reactions. Originally we wanted to go and live with each other’s families but in retrospect, wisely, we decided not to take this newfound brotherhood too far.
We applied for our visas after explaining our plan to the respective high commissioners. They loved the idea and it was followed by a lovely Lucknow-style stand-off where two gentlemen at a platform keep telling each other “No sir, you first” and then the train departs without either of them. For two months we went back and forth. Have they given Zubair the visa? But have they given Hanif the visa? Their logic was impeccable, if one of us didn’t get a visa, how would there be a programme?
After we had almost given up, both sides relented almost simultaneously. We had our visas, and within days I found myself in Delhi trying to feel sentimental like we are supposed to about each other’s country.
I felt nothing. My family didn’t come from India, I had no emotional ties. My heart didn’t sink at the sight of Lal Qila. I was left completely cold at the banal familiarity of sights and sounds. I was a foreigner completely at home.
I tried. I lingered around traffic lights and asked random people for directions, asked them what time it was, where I could find a grocery store. I just wanted to see if anyone could tell if I was from Pakistan. Nobody did. I told a colleague. He shook his head. I was completely missing the point. Delhi is a huge city, it’s full of people who have just arrived from other parts of India. Who has the time to worry about a random stranger at a traffic signal asking silly questions?
The stories we heard were too horrid and too sentimental. “We lost everything … I am the only sibling who survived.” “We want to go and see our ancestral home, the place where we were driven from, oh the streets of our childhood.”
But there were lots of other people who couldn’t care less. They didn’t start sobbing when they heard the names of cities such as Sialkot or Rawalpindi.
They had never seen these places. Their ancestors weren’t born there. There was no fragrance of my own earth for them: no Hyderabad sunsets, no Lahore kebabs, no lovers left behind in Gujranwala.
And there was the overwhelming love and hospitality and the same mantra that we lived like brothers for a thousand years. How did it all go wrong within a matter of months? How did neighbours stab neighbours? What were they seeking freedom from? People were more interested in talking about their homes in Lahore, in Gujranwala.
For the answers one had to go to a cinema.
It’s business, was always business
The most we know about each other is from moving images from films and songs. And a bit from books but we are united in the habit of not paying much attention to the written word. When you can see Rajnikanth shake his geriatric hips, what do you need words for?
What we really have in common is music. There is always someone to remind you that the song you just heard was written by someone this side of the border, sung by someone on that side of the border.
Wherever Indians and Pakistanis of a certain age meet, they are quite surprised that everyone remembers all the words of a Hemant Kumar song.
A new film called Border had just opened in Delhi. One of my ambitions in life was to watch an Indian film in an Indian cinema. Border was the perfect fit: a bunch of Indian soldiers sing songs of love and then kick Pakistani ass.
I wanted to see how the audience would react. It was a full show. I thought as I had come from Pakistan, I’d get preferential treatment. I managed to make it to the ticket window after practically swimming over the shoulders of a crowd.
I shouted at the ticket guy: “I am from Pakistan.” “You can be from America for all I care. When I say no tickets there are no tickets,” he responded.
Of course there were tickets. I bought one from a guy in a corner who was selling bootlegs for twice the price. I felt proud that I had scored a much sought-after ticket. The audience whistled, cursed and danced through the film and every few minutes a Pakistani came to a bad end after he was declared to be something that dwelled in the gutters.
I felt afraid that if the audience found out that one of their enemies on the screen was sitting among them I would come to a similar end. I joined the mob. A joyous riot, 200 rupees for vanquishing your enemy. Every paisa was worth it.
Brothers from a suspicious mother
I have a doctor friend who lives in a very remote part of Sindh and happens to be a Hindu. Once in jest I asked him why his ancestors didn’t leave at the time of the partition. His answer was serious: his parents didn’t find out about the partition and what it would mean until months later.
Some of his relatives had moved to India in a new wave of migration in the 1990s. “They are miserable there,” he told me. “All their life they have been meat eaters and now they are stuck in a bad part of Indian Gujrat. Can’t live there, can’t come back.”
During my partition project, I met a Muslim boy in Lucknow University. He was big cricket fan. “I love the Indian cricket team, I love it from the bottom of my heart. But when we are watching a match in the hostel I don’t shout like everybody else. I can’t be very vocal with my reactions because if I do they will think I am doing it to prove my loyalty,” he said.
Cricket is the most frivolous legacy of the partition but it’s also more potent. Money, fame, you can just slaughter the other without resorting to machetes and for years dine out on the stats and replays.
But a citizen who is afraid of being suspected of disloyalty for showing his patriotism? That probably is the true legacy of partition.
Hindu water, Muslim water
From our twin journeys we came back with some sad and some bizarre stories about partition and put together about a dozen episodes.
We tried to sound informal and upbeat, as young people do. We fell for the nostalgia from people who still remembered the pranks they played with their childhood friends, people gushing over sharing their religious feasts.
But we kept returning to the bloodshed; we just had too many people on tape who had survived the massacres, as well as some who had participated in them and had no regrets. “It was war. It was unfortunate but they did what had to be done.”
We heard about the water sellers at railway stations and bazaars who would either sell water to Hindus or to Muslims. Like desperate journalists stumbling over a tiny period detail, we were fascinated by the idea.
We decided to call it Hindu Pani, Muslim Pani. We found some suitably grating music to go with it, almost like a thousand knives being sharpened with a voiceover of an old man who kept saying, “Sure we killed children, sure we killed women, sure we burned their houses.”
Later, when people said nice things about the series, I felt somewhat guilty. We had played up the communal stereotypes, I thought.
Twenty years on, I feel we had underplayed the whole thing. When I hear about another beef lynching in India, I am reminded of all those old men who boasted about throwing a pig’s head into a mosque or slaughtering a cow in the middle of a Hindu festival.
And I think of my own beloved country we carved out of India to protect our liberties. And where we don’t have to cower in fear of a Hindu or Sikh mob.
We can get lynched by our fellow Pakistani classmates for quoting a bit of poetry and questioning some fragment of a religious text.
The partition goes on in slow motion. I took a flight back from India after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Almost all the passengers returning to Pakistan had been dragged out of their hospital beds. Some of them were in their hospital gowns, others clutching plastic bags full of medicines and half-used IVs, yellow tubes hanging from their arms.
They were under treatment in various Indian hospitals for life-threatening diseases and had to leave their hospital beds and rush home as India and Pakistan were on the verge of yet another war.
When the 100th anniversary comes around, I am certain there will still be people trying to cross borders in the hope of saving their lives.
Mohammed Hanif is a Pakistani journalist and writer who has been nominated for several awards, including the prestigious Man Booker prize for his debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, in 2008.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) August 10, 2017