As writers, we walk across borders and then come back to interrogate what it meant
Some lines of Firaaq came to mind as I began this letter. They reminded me of our own firaaq of some six or seven years. Muddaten guzarin, teri yaad bhi aayi na humein, aur hum bhool gaye tujhe, aisa bhi nahin: Firaq Gorakhpuri. The man known among the poets for having persuaded Josh Mallihabadi in 1958 to emigrate to Pakistan. Josh—who had been in jail with Nehru, and who Nehru did his best to dissuade—came later to regret his decision bitterly. But it was too late. And he became, like so many before him—and I am willing now to put men as far apart as Manto and even Jinnah on this list—a victim of the idea of Pakistan.
A victim of the idea of Pakistan. A heavy note, I know, on which to begin this letter to you. But stay with me, Pakistan, for in some ways I feel our own trouble has also originated from this point. Perhaps from the point of my having taken too literally the idea on which you were founded, and from my never having been able to see you as just a place where people lived and worked and loved and died—where they brought up children—but always, and only, as the emanation of an idea. And what an ugly idea it had seemed to me, when I first came within your boundaries, now some ten or twelve years ago!
I could never have been indifferent to you. Not indifferent, not impartial, not sentimental. I was not some English schoolboy traveller for whom the Partition was a historical curiosity. Nor was I simply—though I was this, too—someone whose grandparents had come across in 1947 and who, decades later, was returning to the land of his forbears. I could not lose myself in the happy-sad pain of the Partition, I could not stand too long marvelling at the pretty symmetries that must necessarily arise when the composite wholeness of a society is shattered. And that too, along the one line that the society’s entire cultural evolution—from Baba Farid to Nanak to Bulleh Shah—had been an exercise in helping efface. Irony of ironies: Punjab that had put in centuries of work in blurring the religious line—that had thrown up a whole religion and literature whose supreme aim was synthesis—was, in the end, like those characters in novels possessed of a fatal flaw, divided along religious
lines. What is it Orwell says of tragedy? A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him. And certainly: The immense achievement of a composite society in Punjab—and perhaps in India, more generally— was a far more noble thing than the force by which it was ultimately destroyed.
I must confess, Pakistan, that when I first set eyes on you, I blamed you for the destruction. As much as Rushdie could not forgive Karachi for not being Bombay, I could not forgive you, Pakistan, for not being India. My biases were legion: I grew up in India, with an Indian mother. My father was Pakistani. They were both Punjabis. The line that had gone through Punjab affected me directly. No nostalgia, no bittersweet ironies for me: I had a parent on one side, and a parent on the other. I must have been among a handful of people, I felt, especially of my generation, on whose life the Partition had a direct bearing. But my prejudices declared— as if there are any who have none, any who can be truly impartial on such a subject—I will still say that when I first stepped across that border, my first thought was: What a bad idea!
What a bad idea, I thought, to lose the interlocking wholeness of a diverse society, an achievement centuries in the making, for what felt to me, at first sight, like a Muslim neighbourhood in India… But without end. Almost as if Chandni Chowk or Mahim were to declare themselves independent countries. And, initially, it was really only this that stood out: Your endless homogeneity. What did the Poet say on returning from a trip on your side: Accha mulk hai, Musalman bahut hain. Otherwise, it should be said—for the man crossing that border on foot in 2002—the two countries looked dismayingly the same: Vahi nange gande bhuke jahil log, on both sides of the border. But this, naturally, was not all. For you, Pakistan, were not simply a place where a lot of Muslims lived. You are—or were, at least—a concept: An ideanation, a Utopia to some. And, founded thus, you had to, on some level, be regarded thus: You had to be seen against the high ideals on which you were founded. One could not travel in the nation conceived of as a homeland for all India’s Muslims without keeping in mind that it had once been a Utopia. I would like to define this concept of Utopia in my own way. I would say that: Every man who ever dreamt up a Utopia was animated far more by the wish to purge than to build. I would say, too, that the great flaw in any Utopia is the intellectually lazy notion—and one capable of unspeakable violence—that if only the society were cleansed or purged of some particular undesirable element, the Utopia would automatically— khud ba khud— come into being. That
AS MUCH AS RUSHDIE COULD NOT FORGIVE KARACHI FOR NOT BEING BOMBAY, I COULD NOT FORGIVE YOU, PAKISTAN, FOR NOT BEING INDIA.
nothing more would need to be done. Here is Orwell again, speaking of the Left: Until well within living memory, the forces of the Left in all countries were fighting against a tyranny which appeared to be invincible, and it was easy to assume that if only that particular tyranny—capitalism—could be overthrown, socialism would follow. Replace capitalism with India, tyranny with impurity, and I feel one has a picture of the faulty intellectual mechanism on which the religious state was founded. An ideologue in Karachi, upon being questioned hard about the shape and form of the Islamic Utopia, once said to me: “Islam doesn’t depend on form. Form is not important. Essence is the main thing. If the essence is there, you can derive from it any kind of model.”
What he did not say— and what really lies behind this questing after essence and purity—is the business of getting rid of contamination. And that contamination, Pakistan, let’s face it, was, in your case, always and ever India; or rather, what remained of India in Pakistan. On its own, the idea of the Islamic Republic was inert: It could be boiled down into vague slogans, like: “Pakistan ka matlab kya, la ill il allah”. But when weaponised, when given teeth, as it were, it meant getting rid of impurity, and that impurity was eternally India.
But the odd thing was that, when I first began travelling seriously in your interior, I found that, even after the passing of six decades, you were still incurably Indian. In those early days of travel in Sindh and Punjab, I had the peculiar sensation of being in places where India was everywhere— there in dress and language and religion and custom—but where its existence was a cause of discomfort. A man in Sindh might say proudly to me he was no mere Muslim, he was a Rajput Muslim. When I questioned him as to how he, as a Muslim, could speak of caste—and this same man had spent the past two days trying to convince me that Pakistan and India were distinct in every way, from the way men spoke and dressed down to the weather—he replied: “Yeh jaat ki baat nahi hai. Ye good or bad families ki baat hai.”
I bring these things up now, these endless contradictions, not to mock you, Pakistan, but because, with time, I have come to
feel that there was something self-wounding in this experience of killing off what is integral to yourself. I wrote somewhere once that: “In trying to turn its back on its shared past with India, Pakistan turned its back on itself.”
But why, you might ask, does that matter? Why is this killing off of oneself or one’s past really a problem? In my view, for one reason mainly: It will always lead to nihilism. I feel that any society that has at its heart this dialectic of violence and purity, this unquestioned purity whose attainment depends on the eradication of impurity, will always finish by eating its tail. “Places as these,” I once wrote, “need enemies the way other places need ideas. They are there to justify the failure of the ideology on which the nation was founded.” It could be a minority one day, a festival or custom the next, or an unruly governor. The target changes, but the mechanism is always the same. But, Pakistan, you know all this already, and I began this letter by talking about victims of the idea of Pakistan, of which I count myself as one. I saw you too much in the light of the idea for which you were made. And because I reacted so strongly against that idea, found it meanspirited and historically invalid, found it did violence to what I believed was the more generous, more capacious idea of India, I could not see beyond my dismay. But places, I realise now, are not simply the embodiment of ideas. They are, beyond the idea for which they were founded, comprised also of the people who live there, with or without the idea.
I was reminded of this last month, when after seven years of separation, I returned to you. I don’t want to get into the reasons for that separation; you know them only too well. Suffice to say that I was tired of blood, tired of your great spectacles of violence. But on returning, one February day a few weeks ago, I realised how happy I was to see you. I realised also that in seeing you the way I had, I had missed out on a lot, missed out on life, as it were, on the human side. Crazy as it seems, I forgot that places are made up of people. Made up of supermarkets and play planets, of families and flowers and houses, of meals in front of televisions, of nephews who’ve grown up and of fathers who’ve been killed and buried, of a tiny but resilient middle class that has come into being against all odds, of grim overcast winter days, of parties and laughter, of art exhibitions and literature, of defiance, of people who could have lived away in safer places, but who moved back with so little to go on: places are made up of hope and resistance; and yes, disappointment. And though this letter is not meant as an apologia, Pakistan, I will say that I felt a great grief at not having recorded enough of this in the past.
I will say also that as much as I was happy to return to you, to feel again your warmth and amazing graciousness, it was not to a better or more hopeful place that I returned. I left six years ago, days after Benazir was killed, and what I came back to felt to me like a place—or an elite, at least—in retreat. I could not help but notice the higher walls, the Normandy spikes and army check posts, that now protected the Cantt. from the unnamed and amorphous threat beyond. I could not help but notice, as I always have, the isolation of the drawing room classes, living at a dangerous remove from a place that had turned against them. And, most of all, I could not help but notice the battle in the background, against which the calm and placidity of Lahore was unnerving.
Some people, Pakistan, had got hold of the idea for which you were founded,
HAVING ONCE SEEN YOU ONLY AS AN IDEA, AND HAVING MISSED SO MUCH ELSE AS A RESULT, I FOUND MYSELF LOOKING AT A COUNTRY THAT HAD BEEN ROBBED OF ITS ANIMATING IDEA.
and they were using it now to fight you with. They sought an ever purer distillation of that idea, sought to take it to its logical conclusion. What was frightening was that one sensed, in that absurd atmosphere of talks with the Taliban, that, for all the threats of repercussions, there was no counter idea strong enough to fight the extremists with. There was not even really, one felt, the will to fight. And in these moments, as we know only too well from our experience here— when a tiny but energised minority hijacks your founding principles, and starts at gunpoint to tell you what you’re really about—you need more than an army and a silent majority, Pakistan, you need an idea. This, above all else, was what I felt was lacking in the country I returned to.
Strange thing. I who had once seen you only as the emanation of an idea, and had missed so much else as a result, found myself looking at a country that had been robbed of its animating idea. And, as much as I had loathed that idea, I wondered now what you would be without it. What would you find, Pakistan, in place of faith to keep you going? And would it be enough— I could not help but ask myself—for the country, which at the time of its conception had seemed to some like a promised land, like deliverance, to finish by simply being a place where a lot of Muslims lived? As ever, Aatish