I know this is supposed to be a letter to India, but if I tried writing that, I’d spend the entire allotted time listing the different Indias that exist in my imagination, and then moving on to the problems of addressing the ones that live outside my imagination, and we’d never get beyond that. So I know you don’t stand in for all of India—let’s face it, most days any one of us can barely represent ourselves, let alone an entire nation—but if you’ll allow it I am going to use you as a focal point to address these thoughts.
So that takes care of the ‘who am I addressing’ question. But there’s a second question, and it’s this: Which version of me is doing the addressing?
The version of me which existed 10 years ago, the first time I came to India, would have written this differently. Then I would have looked everywhere and seen symbolism; I would have noted similarities and differences; I would find myself drawn to any conversation where Pakistan was being discussed and I would have been slightly wounded when, in the middle of perfectly pleasant chatter, some barb about Pakistan would shoot out for no reason except that the other person couldn’t contain their venom about my nation.
Now, though, things are very different. I wasn’t fully aware of the extent of this until I read a description of these letters online, before writing mine, and saw they were being described as ‘love letters’. For goodness sake, I found myself thinking. Why can’t we write polite-but-mildly-indifferent-letters to each other across the border? Wouldn’t that be an improvement?
So, no love letter here. But I don’t like to stray too far from the brief I’ve been given—it seems impolite, and I wouldn’t want my many Indian relatives to think that the Pakistan side of the family has lost its manners—so let me at least look at some of the talking points that were sent to me to help shape this letter.
Can India and Pakistan converge over art, music, literature and films? Well, I think we can converge over the fact that cricket should be on that list, for starters. Of course on either side of the border many of us can converge on Abida Parveen and Vishal Bhardwaj, and I suspect some of you out there might even adore Shahid Afridi. Though maybe not this week.
The question isn’t ‘can we converge’—it is, what might that convergence achieve? Some years ago, when researching a book about Japan in the Second World War, I came upon this detail: Many of the kamikaze pilots pasted photographs of their favourite Hollywood actresses into the cockpits of their death planes—even as they were on their way to kill as many Americans as possible. That, to me, says it all about the role of culture in bringing nations together. All those Indian movies we watched on my side of the border when I was growing up in the ’80s, and all those PTV dramas you watched on this side—what did it do to bring the countries together? As human
WE ARE CAPABLE OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. A WRITER FROM PAKISTAN IS A WRITER; A TERRORIST FROM PAKISTAN IS A PAKISTANI.
beings, we are capable of the most extraordinary cognitive dissonance. Or let’s be more blunt about it—a writer from Pakistan is a writer; a terrorist from Pakistan is a Pakistani. It works this way on both sides. (My favourite variation on this, which I’ve encountered more than once in India is: “You’re not like most Pakistanis; you’re a writer so you see things differently”. I’d like to point out that terrorists tend to see things differently to a far greater degree than writers.)
Can negative stereotypes of two nations, reinforced by popular culture, be erased? The facts about India and Pakistan—their interactions with and rhetoric about each other, their levels of misogyny, the bigotry unleashed on minorities, their governments’ treatment of its own ‘troublesome’ citizens—do far more to create negative stereotypes than popular culture. Change the facts. Popular culture will follow.
What has made Islam the most misunderstood religion in the world? Actually, I’m sure Scientologists would tell you theirs is the most misunderstood religion in the world.
I apologise. I feel a churlish note entering my voice, and I know that this has a great deal to do with just coming to the end of
the ‘getting an Indian visa’ process which seems designed to make Pakistanis feel mistrusted and unwelcome—and so every time I enter India, or am poised to enter India, it is with the ill-feeling that the process provokes. I arrive here, meet my friends, am glad to be here; and then one of those barbed comments about Pakistan hits me and I wonder why I keep bothering to return; but the next moment I see Qutb Minar or Fabindia and I’m glad to be here again, etc etc, and on it goes.
It’s complicated. But really, that’s also a bit of a lie. It doesn’t feel particularly complicated any more. Eleven years of travelling back and forth, and I’m no longer searching for symbolism here or noting differences within similarities there. I don’t compare India to Pakistan anymore; I compare India to the last time I was in India. I regard questions about Indo-Pak relations with a certain weariness, but little heat. Barbed comments about Pakistan hit me wherever in the world I go now, so India doesn’t feel particularly different to anywhere else in that regard. In short, none of it seems so weighty anymore.
Don’t get me wrong—I understand the political, economic, military significance of relations between the two countries. We have nuclear weapons and a history of war. That’s not something to get complacent about. But a shift has happened within Pakistan in the last decade, moving India to the sidelines of the news reports. It’s our Western border we worry about more than our Eastern border, and it’s the Americans we love to hate more than the Indians. And frankly, our own troubles occupy so much of our mind that we think less of the relationship of India to Pakistan than we do of the relationship of Pakistan as it is with Pakistan as we wish it were. Across the country there are vastly— sometimes murderously— different ideas of how we wish it were. The age-old line that Pakistan defines itself in opposition to India might have once held some truth, but now the contestation for defining Pakistan is all internal. None of this is something to be cheerful about, of course, but it does mean that India just doesn’t occupy the kind of space in Pakistan’s mind that it once used to—this is not true in every corridor of Pakistan, but it’s true in most of them. (A side note on this: Pakistanis have always claimed that India is far more obsessed with Pakistan than Pakistan is with India. It was only once I started coming here that I realised you believe the inverse. So, here’s another meaningless thing we can argue about if we want to. Let’s not.)
A couple of weeks ago I went to the Wagah border to watch the flag-lowering ceremony. I’d been warned it was a terrible jingoistic sight. But as I watched the exceptionally tall soldiers stomping towards the border—their long strides and high kicks halfway between Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks and a Mark Morris dance performance —and as I listened to music blaring at an uncomfortably high volume so that our patriotic
I DON’T COMPARE INDIA TO PAKISTAN ANYMORE; I COMPARE INDIA TO THE LASTTIME I WAS IN INDIA. I WONDER WHYI KEEP BOTHERING TO RETURN; BUTTHE NEXT MOMENT I SEE QUTB MINAR OR FABINDIA AND I’M GLAD TO BE HERE AGAIN.
songs could drown out your patriotic songs, I realised I was witnessing a piece of theatre. No one around me seemed genuinely gripped by any feeling—everyone recognised they were witnessing a performance, and knew their own role was to cheer and wave flags and shout “Zindabad”. And as soon as it was over we all wandered out, drifting to roadside shops to buy bangles, posing for photographs next to the peacocks in their cages. There were no love or hate letters there—just some curiosity, and a wish that it were easier to walk across the border and see the other side.
It’s what we try to do as writers. We walk across borders, see the other side, and then come back to interrogate how that’s changed us, and what it meant. And look, Aatish, for the first time in this letter I feel I’m really addressing you. I don’t know how to be Pakistan talking to India here. (I’m from Karachi— Lahore’s not going to let me speak for it, for starters.) We’re writers, both of us. We know how it feels when the structure of a novel reveals itself, or when a book we read makes us dizzy with pleasure and a sense of our own inadequacy, we know the triumph of finding the right word. Let’s meet on that common ground—and leave it to the politicians to reach that point of sanity which strives for polite-but-mildly-indifferent relations over a state of hostility. It’s their job to do. Let’s not shift responsibility one millimetre off their shoulders by pretending it’s our job as well. Yours, politely, Kamila
Taken from ‘Letters From Across the Border’ by Aatish Taseer and Kamila Shamsie for India Today Conclave 2014