I don’t need to tell you about the multi-billion dollar enterprise that is the animosity between India and Pakistan. Suffice to say that the birth of a new nation-state on the Indo-Pak sub-continent was among the bloodiest of all time, entailing the migration of nearly 10 million of the wretched of the earth who had to find a new home.
Millions of deaths and three wars later, the bitterness refuses to go away and the interaction of the two countries’ populations has been very limited over 60 years. As a result, not all Pakistanis have the privilege of visiting India. I happen to be one of those who, by sheer coincidence, have been visiting India primarily for work or cultural exchange.
My forays into journalism coincided with my alter ego as a blogger. Purely by accident, I discovered the world of blogging, driven by the desire to post my pieces published by The Friday Times (TFT), a weekly Pakistani magazine. Trying to avoid creating a paid website, the blog template came to my rescue.
Within hours of my first blog entry, there was a plethora of comments and hundreds of hits completely out of the blue. I had never imagined the internet to be this boundless universe, traversed by so many from different parts of the globe and with peculiar interests.
Incidentally, my first article published by TFT was about my maiden visit to Delhi, theIndian capital, which left me quite inspired and bedazzled. Contrary to the textbook enemy stereotype, I was fascinated by the discovery of my “other”. It was almost as if a split-image of my entire identity was scattered all over a manic, dirty and enchanting city with a recorded history of at least a thousand years. And guess what, the thousand years of Delhi’s past are nothing but a testament to how an Indo-Muslim composite identity of sorts evolved, fermented and splintered.
One by one, as if I had a series of long-lost friends and associations, little pieces of my belonging emerged during travels to India and questioned the years of linear history and nationalism. This is why, unlike a lay tourist or a cultural aficionado or a babbling litterateur, my encounters with the enemy territory and environment have been deeply personal. I have to confess there are many across the border who harbour the clichéd renditions of history and the present.
One comes across bands of suspicion-mongers, Islamophobes and jingoists in the slum-istans that constitute Shining India. But there is much to redeem when one is interacting with the other. To one bigot in India, there are 10 peaceniks and to one fundamentalist, there are perhaps seven secular, inclusive beings. I can confidently state the same about Pakistan.
What is the problem then? Quite honestly, the problem, as Brutus was once told, lies somewhere within the fractured societies we live in. More importantly, the intricate cobwebs of statehood, so painstakingly woven by two centuries of colonial rule, refuse to clear out. If anything, the native elites have only made them firmer and more impregnable, where voices of dissent and peace are often drowned out by outbreaks of jingoistic hysteria.
My blogging experience also confirms this utterly self-destructive trend among the thinking, educated sections of the middle-classes. The typical wardrums beat quite vociferously on the blog comments the moment you challenge any of the notions based on “conventional wisdom”. There is little room, one frustratingly finds, to open the box of history and trash all the baggage and somehow start afresh. However, the paradox cannot be missed either.
For a decades-long iron curtain between the two countries has been demolished rather painlessly by the internet. The nation-states tried very hard to stop people on both sides from communicating, interacting and exploring each other’s similar lives. Increasingly, the blogosphere has provided an arena for a discourse that ought to have happened many years ago.
Straddling the cyber-world to the real encounter with India is also a fascinating experience. The internet, despite its limitless powers, remains confined to the English-speaking and literate section of society, within a particular income-bracket. The real world, on the other hand, comprises countless taxi-drivers, rickshaw-pullers, small-time menials and even the lower-caste cleaners you meet in the northern parts of India.
This is where the true journey begins. On the fateful day of December 27, 2007, when Pakistan’s best-known and much-maligned politician, Benazir Bhutto, was brutally assassinated in Rawalpindi, I was in a small Indian town, Ajmer. When I heard about the murder of Bhutto, I just wanted to be on my own, and left my friend Salman’s home to aimlessly wander in the medieval bylanes of Ajmer. I had thought this little walk would give me a sense of anonymity, a temporary bout of amnesia, but this was not to be.
To my surprise, I noticed that every little kiosk and shop had its television or radio-set blaring with minute-by-minute updates of the incident. Hundreds of people were crying throughout the bazaars. Such grief over the death of a woman whose father had promised a thousand-year war with India was incredibly comforting. I was in a foreign land, yet I felt at home.
Given the Sufi orientation of my blog and its frequent postings on Sufi lore and poetry, I have been attracting the attention of many spiritualists across the globe. Not surprisingly, a good number from the Indian subcontinent are part of the daily traffic brigade.
Ajmer, Jaipur, Delhi and, recently, Agra are my favourite haunts. There is enmity, affinity and mystery all rolled into one fleeting experience. The Pakistani identity crosses over into a South Asian one, sometimes traversing centuries of amity and bitterness.
These bittersweet encounters over half a decade have resulted in my forthcoming travel book, a few semi-finished drafts and tones of rambling.