By Shilpa Raina
For anyone living either in India or Pakistan, even the faint prospect of travelling to the other side is no less than a lifetime’s opportunity. The strained sub-continental relations have however resulted in strict visa procedures, turning dreams into distant desires.
I was luckier. With a passport stamped with a mustard-coloured visa, boldly declaring “Karachi Only” to cover a fashion week, I was exhilarated to be able to fill variegated hues into sketches I had drawn after reading and hearing many stories of the region that is now Pakistan when the sub-continent was undivided. Unburdened of any bitter memories or unhealed wounds, I was just curious to see life on the other side.
With Kashmir the bone of contention between the nuclear-armed nations, an issue they haven’t been able to resolve amicably, they have always been at loggerheads.
What has eroded their relationship further is the growing mistrust, Pakistan’s political instability and the growing clout of the Taliban, making it difficult to start a conversation that can forge cross-border trade and cement bonds of trust.
In this shrouded environment of uncertainty, it is obvious for anyone to be apprehensive about how the people of the other side of the border will receive you. Would you be welcomed or not?
But once you are there it is impossible to differentiate between Indian or Pakistani – till you open your mouth to speak. Otherwise, the two meet as if they are distant relatives coming together after decades of longing.
Conversations just never end.
From visa woes to Bollywood, from music to shopping, and from corruption to political indifference – the two long-lost friends collectively curse “political egos” against the “people’s wish” to connect and meet their second skin on the other side.
Everyone here wishes the political heads of the two countries bury the hatchet for the sake of the people and progress together as friendly nations and not enemies. After all, they are fed up of their leaders, who have miserably failed in their efforts to make Pakistan a democratic nation in the true sense.
The incompetent leadership at the helm has burdened them with a slow-growth economy, electricity and gas crises and massive corruption. It has derailed their progress by many light years, but the hope to see their country shine one day injects fresh oxygen into their lives every day.
For me, the most incredible quality of Pakistanis is their ability to be resilient amid volatile situations that bring a certain amount of uncertainty in their daily lives. Statements like “Everyday before leaving my house I hope I come back to see my family”, or “I am scared of sending my children to a park fearing they might be kidnapped” are nearly impossible to imagine in India, unless there is political unrest.
Yet, life never stops here.
People have embraced reality and do not live in a Bollywood-like fantasy. Even though the absence of a middle-class has created a huge chasm between the rich and the poor, the divide doesn’t come in the way of keeping their eyes and ears open for political developments.
While in India, the majority of youngsters might lack a basic political understanding of democracy and history, Pakistani youngsters just turn a blind eye to the political affairs of their country.
And for those who still believe Pakistan is a country of “bombs and burqas”, deeply rooted in conservatism, this Islamic nation has a brimming theatre culture, art exhibition soirees and extravagant fashion weeks – opening a cultural window to the people of other nations in the absence of regular tourism.
But there is one thing that can sharply divide the people of India and Pakistan: Cricket.
Perhaps, this was the only time during my stay here that I felt I was in the other country, alone cheering for the Indian cricket team. It was the only time I felt lonely in Pakistan, where otherwise, the people showered me with warm hospitality.
They were just like me. They are just like us. After all, we were one not too long ago.
(Shilpa Raina is an Indian journalist who travelled to Karachi on invitation to cover a fashion show. The views expressed are persojnal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)