(Nikita Singla is an IIT Delhi graduate and currently works as International Affairs Consultant.)
I said, “I want to go to Pakistan…” but, I couldn’t finish before the reactions came flying in:
“There are so many new places you can see, then why Pakistan?”
“If a war starts between India and Pakistan, the first thing they will do is seal the borders and you will be left on the other side forever.”
“Believe us, it’s not safe to go there. You won’t even get a US visa after this.”
Born and brought up in a Punjabi family, with an understanding of the Muslim world which was unfriendly, to say the least; these reactions were not all that surprising for me.
But there was still the question of whether a good part of this resentment did not flow from ‘Islamophobia’ or the lens through which the world sees Pakistan i.e. as a haven for the world’s al Qaedas and Talibans.
So I was clear: I wanted to go and find my own answers on the other side of my very own Punjab.
I reached Amritsar a day before, with fingers crossed but still clueless about whether I would even get the visa. Finally, everything fell into place and it ended with a lot of, “We cannot believe you are doing this…” lines.
I was going as a part of a 16-member peace delegation for a conference on South Asia People’s Union, and among the very few members who were visiting Pakistan for their first time. Everybody asked the youngest delegate in the team, “How do you think Pakistan will be?” And, that mounted my excitement even further.
The moment we crossed Wagah and got to the other side, a chill ran down my spine at the sight of the place where a suicide bombing had followed the daily parade, exactly a week before. And I caught myself chanting all the Sanskrit mantras I knew at mind-boggling speed.
A shower of rose petals by our Pakistani friends who had come to receive us at the border, was something I had definitely not expected. The South Asia Partnership (SAP) Pakistan’s team rolled out the red carpet and gave us a very warm welcome.
We directly headed for lunch at one of the members’ place. And in my first few hours there, I was at a complete loss at making out any difference between them and myself. We looked similar, wore similar clothes, ate similar food and spoke the same language; that same Punjabi with the same accent, except for the ‘Haye Rabba’ I burst into and the ‘Haye Allah’ they burst into, while laughing.
Within a few hours, hundreds of Pakistanis invited me to their homes and cities for lunches, dinners and stay-overs. It seemed that the entire country was going out of its way to welcome me.
Believe me, Pakistani hospitality cannot be overstated.
That day’s session was at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s office. When I heard the Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, Supreme Court Advocates and the who’s who of Lahore, mentioning how grateful they were to have the Indian delegation with them, despite the recent attack at the Wagah border, I could not help but feel proud of myself.
While I was still exhilarated and overwhelmed with all these feelings, I heard my delegation lead mention me at the podium:
“For the first time, we have with us, a very very young delegate from India. Though she was amazingly excited to be here, something about her did tell me that she feared encountering long-haired bearded men who would blast her into pieces if they learned she was an Indian. My Pakistani friends, I applaud her decision to come with us and I leave this up to you now, to prove her fears wrong.”
As the huge audience put their hands together for me, I stood up meekly to show my terror-stricken face.
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Minutes after that, I saw Jawad Ahmad from Coke Studio Pakistan walking towards the stage to sing his newly written song, “Kaun yeh faisla karega ki kiska vatan kaunsa hai” and his very popular “Mitti da pehlwan.” I was awestruck listening to him live.
By the end, there wasn’t a single dignitary who had not invited me for a meal at his place. When one of the ministers mentioned that he would see me again in a couple of hours for the Ghazal Night at the SAP’s office, I knew for sure this was going to be one of my most memorable weeks of the entire year.
With every passing day, the week was getting more exciting — sessions at the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and the Zakariya University, dinner meetings with eminent dignitaries, interviews with local newspapers, what not!
Two days in, and I was already regretting that I had only a week-long visa.
In my free time, I went around to see the stunning views this place had. From the Lahore Fort to Minar-e-Pakistan to the Badshahi mosque, I always had somebody local accompany me and explain the history of the place. When somebody you just met takes a day off at work to help you shop at the famous Anarkali and Liberty markets, you can be sure you are in Pakistan!
I thought about how an average Indian thinks about everything that is wrong with Pakistan. And just a week spent like that tells you how beautiful and kind, the place and the people are.
Towards the end of my stay, I asked somebody significantly senior if I could see a Pakistani wedding. And he very promptly said:
“Beta ji, hamaare mazhab mein chaar kar sakte hain. Aaj hi begum se jaa ke kehta hun keh bachhi ko nikah dekhna hai.”
Turns out Punjabis have the same sense of humor everywhere!
In a concluding dinner session at the office of Pakistan People’s Party, when a senior member of the Parliament stood up to offer his seat to my 24 year-old self, I knew for sure, this country respects women — a respect that is not barred by age, color, caste, religion and nationality.
My delegation lead, in his vote of thanks commended me again for deciding to be part of this delegation:
“This morning, I overheard her speaking on the phone to her parents saying that she did not want to go back without seeing Islamabad. Friends, we have changed the perception of one young Indian, exactly why I call this conference a success.”
I was sure, I would be coming back soon with Islamabad and Karachi on my itinerary. Every single person I met, extended help to arrange a multiple city visa for me. The longer, you stay the more you fall in love with the people and the place.
Things in Pakistan won’t change overnight. But a mere visit does shatter many misconceptions. For all those who call Pakistan a failed state, I have a suggestion: go to Lahore.
That’s the city I can confidently vouch for, though I am sure other places are no less.
Terror attacks intensifying in some parts of Pakistan cannot be ignored but does that mean that a small population is a representative of the 200 million Pakistanis doing amazing things within and outside the country? Certainly not!
It’s time we stop blaming the polity of both the nations. It’s time to switch off the news channels and get out of our houses for once, get to this transfixing destination which is so easy on the pocket and will kindle your love for the country.
Our soils are parted, let’s not part our souls.
This Blog was published in DAWN Pakistan