Dear Aatish,

India Today - - WINNING - by Kamila Sham­sie

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


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


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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.