The Other Side of the Border: One Indian’s Attempt to Understand Pakistan

December 24, 2013 • Features, Print, Roots • Views: 2209

By Nitika Khaitan

“There’s no way you’re going to Pakistan.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat at the dinner table, slowly registering my dad’s words. He said them dismissively, as if I should’ve known better than to ask for something so impossible.

I hadn’t thought it was impossible when I planned the trip with Meiryum, one of my closest friends, who is Pakistani. We joined the same South Asian a cappella group as freshmen, and spent the year singing Bollywood songs we both grew up hearing and talking for hours in our native tongues of Hindi and Urdu, about everything from our shared love of chai to how Celsius makes so much more sense than Fahrenheit. On a trip to Boston, in a long car ride filled with more Bollywood music and more discoveries of all the things we have in common, it struck us that despite all our similarities, neither of us had ever crossed the border. We immediately drew up a plan for visiting each other over the summer—Meiryum had always wanted to see the Taj Mahal and her grandmother’s home town as well, and I couldn’t wait to taste Karachi street food…

“But Papa,” I ventured, “I’m going to the house of one of my closest friends. I’ll be completely safe; she also goes to Yale and her house is just like ours…”

“Uff, I know!” my dad cut me short irritably. “She can come stay with us whenever she wants, we have nothing against her family. But don’t you know how unstable their government is? You see riots happening there on TV every day!”

I did see reports of deadly Pakistani riots and bomb threats all the time; Indian news channels offer little other coverage of Pakistan. Bollywood movies rely on a similar image, their favorite villain in spy movies being the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency. Even my middle-school Hindi textbook couldn’t resist a dig at our neighbor. While explaining idioms that mean “to vanquish someone,” the sample sentences it used were “The Indian Army/cricket team defeated the Pakistani Army/cricket team.”

But there are political riots in India too, I argued further. Remote areas of Pakistan might be unsafe, but demonstrations in Karachi are as non-violent as popular protests in Delhi. “But you have an Indian passport, Nitika,” my dad sighed, “If something happens, there will be nothing we can do to get you out safely.” I was about to protest, but he continueed, “And in that country, anything could happen.” I fell silent, realizing nothing I said would sway my parents, who like most in their generation, probably grew up with even greater levels of anti-Pakistan bias.

I hadn’t grown up immune to the stereotyping either. The first time I met a Pakistani was as a sixteen-year old student in a summer program in New York. I spent most of the first day meeting other students from all over the world and fielding multiple “How is your English so good?!” On meeting him, I realized the most culturally aware questions I could think of were whether his female friends had to wear burqas because of radical imams and whether his school had ever been evacuated because of a bomb threat. I apologized, justifying my questions with the excuse that I’d grown up in India, where living room conversations and news channels built up a highly stereotypical image of Pakistan. He laughed, patiently explaining how all the girls in his school just wore jeans and t-shirts, how he had never heard of a bomb threat in school and even, how Pakistan actually has a strong free press.

But many in my generation, coming from increasingly cosmopolitan and urbanized backgrounds, are growing up more aware and more critical of these stereotypes. Coke Studio Pakistan, a music television series, is hugely popular amongst all my friends. Wearing the same clothes we’d see on the streets of Delhi and making music that could easily be playing on Indian radio, the artists and studio audiences on Coke Studio seem indistinguishable on a first glance from those in our spin-off Indian version. Compared to our parents, more people from my generation have the chance to attend college in the UK and US, and thus, the chance to meet and befriend Pakistanis – a phenomenon that wouldn’t occur in India for reasons ranging from absurd visa restrictions to the anti-Pakistan biases ingrained in our minds.

The map below depicts important locations in Nitika and Meiryum's stories (Brown/TYG).

The map below depicts important locations in Nitika and Meiryum’s stories (Brown/TYG).

I first met Meiryum during Orientation for International Students, where we put up a skit together for the talent show, poking fun at the same quintessentially South Asian things – arranged marriages, parents not approving of any grade below 99 percent, melodramatic soap operas. As the semester went on, we realized how many more things we shared. Neither of us were comfortable with shaving our legs. Both Indian and Pakistani girls waxed instead. We both craved the same parathas (bread) and sabzees (vegetable entrees), had the same mannerisms of head-bobbing and exclaiming Arre! and Uff!  And there wasn’t a single Bollywood reference Meiryum didn’t get; she even explained that some famous Bollywood songs came from Pakistan.

Indians often emphasize their cultural similarities with Pakistanis. My best friend’s mother spent years in Geneva as the wife of a UN diplomat and told me how she’d automatically gravitate towards the Pakistanis in a room full of internationals, because they shared everything down to a similar sense of humor. This emphasis on sameness might seem like a heartwarmingly broadminded view, but often it leads to statements that might offend Pakistanis more than any narrow-minded claims of who won which war, or more cricket matches.

A theme I’ve heard again and again from uncles at family dinners and many of my friends is that any Pakistani identity defined as separate from an Indian or subcontinental one is artificial, precisely because their nation was not founded on the basis of any substantive difference between the two peoples anyway. Their version of history is that Partition was more the result of a few well-timed power plays, and that Pakistan was formed because of the personal ambitions of a few separatist leaders of the Muslim League, egged on by British administrators eager to divide and weaken the leadership of the Indian independence movement.

“Artificial” is an interesting word choice for any Indian describing someone else’s national identity. We perceive our own as far more natural, based on a shared history of centuries of living together. But India throughout the ages was always divided into smaller kingdoms, and no political state remotely close to today’s existed except under the British Raj, which arguably was also the result of an arbitrary process of a few well-timed power plays. Immense cultural unity between India’s different kingdoms did always exist, but our characterization of Pakistan’s identity as “artificial” and ours as “natural” is an obvious oversimplification.

Those of us who stick to the version of history that highlights our cultural sameness with Pakistan, perhaps do so because we fear emphasizing difference, in the background of a past where our difference has been used to justify hatred of the other and has led to the massacres of millions. Partition-related violence alone claimed the lives of more than a million, and the three major wars since then added hundreds of thousands to the death count. But the opposite attitude of stressing sameness at the cost of trivializing genuine difference won’t get us far either.

I have to catch myself from forgetting that Meiryum is from a different country sometimes, as I ramble on about Hindi/Urdu songs and Indian weddings. I trail off, awkwardly reminding myself midway she is Pakistani, and does not know what an Indian wedding looks like. Once, Meiryum sang the lyrics to a famous Bollywood number from her notepad and I thought of borrowing it, expecting the lyrics to be written either in English or Hindi, till I looked at the Urdu script scrawled on the page, completely different from that of Hindi.

And in these conversations with her, I’ve come to realize that some of the stereotypes I’ve grown up with turn out to be more ingrained in me than I’d imagined. My history textbooks, had obviously been biased in their accounts of India-Pakistan wars, describing each war as being started by Pakistan. But no textbook, I’d thought, could lie about the basic fact of India winning every war. I brought up the latter issue with Meiryum once, curious to see how their textbooks described their losses in each war.

— Each war?! The 1965 one was a draw!

I laughed, stopping only when I realized from the deadpan look on her face that she wasn’t joking.

Towards the end of the year, Meiryum, along with another Pakistani sophomore, planned a trip for this December to Lahore for a few Yale undergraduates. It had to be cancelled, because Yale insurance couldn’t cover travel to a country with a MEDEX security threat rating of 5. “But it’s Lahore, and not some tribal area!” she complained, “You know it’s just like Delhi, it’s not unsafe!” I nodded, thinking that I did know exactly  how unfounded the concerns of both my parents and Yale insurance about Pakistani cities were. I knew that Lahoris described their city almost exactly like how I’d describe mine, with the same winding lanes full of vendors selling the same street food and new high-rise malls full of designer brands. I couldn’t, though, help but slightly empathize with their concerns. I don’t know for myself how much Lahore resembles Delhi, with both my plans for visiting Pakistan considered impossible by my parents and my university. The only images I have of Lahore still come from the news reports of bomb threats and daily riots.

Nitika Khaitan ’16 is a Humanites and South Asian Studies major in Silliman College. She can be reached at nitika.khaitan@yale.edu

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