“Musalman ke do hi sthaan, qabristan ya Pakistan” (A Muslim has only two choices of abode – graveyard or Pakistan) is not a rhyme that a nine-year-old forgets with time. Its memory becomes stronger with age, as does the intensity of this choice. What hits her first is the option available; followed by the realisation of what is at stake — her life, and her loyalty to the country.
I have nothing to do with Pakistan. We do have family members who migrated during Partition, but I haven’t ever seen them — I have grown up abhorring all distant connections that I may have with a country which is neighbourhood for India, but for Muslims in India, is a dark geographic shadow that has chased them in the last seven decades; any allegiance to it makes them fail the litmus test of nationalism, and even today is thrown at them as their ‘natural place’.
I grew up as a very ‘conscious’ Muslim; not for my faith, but what this faith was associated with. In the mid-80s and early 90s, when my friends and classmates were fascinated with Pakistan’s fast bowlers, I couldn’t afford to ‘like’ them. I have vivid memories of 1992 when the Imran Khan-led Pakistan cricket team won the World Cup. It must have been a joyous and historic moment for their nation, but I hated that celebration — the visuals of the team bowing to the field in jubilation — because I was subjected to suspicious questioning by my Hindu Punjabi neighbours about my parents’ response to this victory, wondering if we also quietly celebrated this in our house.
An advertising poster for a film outside a movie theatre in Karachi, Pakistan. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro/Files
Pakistan became an enemy that came between my friends and me occasionally, and between my country and me often. My yearning for acceptance of my loyalty as an Indian was strong, even though it came at the cost of irrationally bashing ‘Pakistan’ for its cricket and its politics, and anything that kept me on ‘the side of my people’ was acceptable to me.
So, Pakistan, with which I had maintained a safe distance growing up, came close, uncomfortably close, when my husband had to travel to Pakistan for his journalistic pursuits. It was almost an irritation when my father had to go to the Pakistan High Commission to fetch my husband’s visa in his absence.
My work got me in touch with Pakistani academics and researchers, and that is when I began to know Pakistan as its people. I found a window into their research, courses, and universities, daily email exchange and communication grew, and very soon my Facebook profile could list at least a hundred ‘friends’ in Pakistan. In early 2017, as my son recovered from a major heart surgery at Jaypee Hospital, I learnt of a family who had traveled from Pakistan for their son’s surgery. Our children were in the same ICU, fighting bravely for life, and outside, their Indian and Pakistani mothers shared their grief and bonded over the pain that they were going through. After three months of tough fight, the Pakistani boy passed away, and I remember his inconsolable mother as she cried in disbelief at her misfortune and the futility of her struggle. The little hope and courage that I would gather every day to see my son for two minutes every morning in the ICU seemed ruptured, and I could feel her pain. I hugged her, as this was the only solace that I could offer to another mother, who happened to be a Pakistani.
A few days ago, I was at the Chaophraya Emerging Leaders’ Dialogue in Bangkok. A first of its kind in a nine-year-old Track Two dialogue between India and Pakistan, the dialogue brought together mid-career professionals who represented the next generation of leadership across industry and scholarship from both countries.
I suppose that this is the closest that I have come to Pakistan, a country that makes my position in my home country extremely vulnerable. And here I was representing India in an exchange of ideas for peaceful and productive bilateral talk between the two countries, on how they could coincide their actions to face shared challenges of climate change, extremism, and terrorism, and utilise the new media for mutual benefit. One of the most vibrant panels in the programme was on the role that women can play in foreign policy. All of us had something to contribute, and the room resonated with experiences and daily struggles that felt familiar and emphasised the similarity of everyday lives on both sides.
I can claim to know the ‘people’ side of Pakistan now, which is as humble, passionate, and desirous of amity as are the people in India. They are also progressive, articulate, and ambitious, as are my people.
I can appreciate them for what they are without the fear of being abused and demonised for this. I have come of age. But not all Indian Muslims who are subjected to verbal abuse and violent attacks and are repeatedly asked to ‘go to Pakistan’ will have the opportunity of mental healing. School-going Muslim children, who are derogatorily called ‘Pakistani’ by their classmates, will grow up as vulnerable and marginalised adults. No cricket enthusiast will ever be able to appreciate cricket for the spirit of the game, and no one will offer a hand of friendship.
So next time, when some Vinay Katiyar (founder of Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s youth wing, Bajrang Dal) asks Indian Muslims to go to Pakistan, we should be able to tell him: I belong to India, it is my homeland, and Pakistanis are friends.