[By Mayank Austen Soofi]
"My only dream is to take my old mother to Lucknow before she dies", Zulfikar said. I was talking to him as he tried to trim my prematurely graying hair one evening in Karachi.
Zulfikar had a small hair cutting saloon in Saddar, a commercial district in Pakistan's biggest city. He was the only child of his widowed mother. Suffering from tuberculosis, she wanted to visit the city of her birth. She was born, before the Indian partition, in 1945 at Lucknow, an aristocratic Muslim metropolis in North India.
I shrugged my shoulders. It was unlikely that the son would be able to realize his mother's wishes.
An Impossible Fantasy
It was not that Zulfikar was poor. His salon was crowded with waiting customers and the shelves were equipped with all types of facial creams and foreign deodorants. Even if he were financially disadvantaged, it wouldn't have been an issue.
Traveling from Karachi to Lucknow doesn't require much money or resources - an overnight train to Lahore; a short drive across the Indian border to Amritsar; again an overnight train and finally waking up in Lucknow.
Yet, it was foolhardy for the dying lady to torment her young son by fantasizing about visiting a city in India.
The governments of India and Pakistan do not encourage giving visas to their neighborhood citizens in large numbers. Excluding the cricket fans when matches are held here or there, the only people fortunate to end up with travel documents are always diplomats, politicians, journalists, film stars, CEOs and resourceful peace activists.
This is sad.
The Other Side of the Mirror
There are many people from both sides of the border who do not hold pleasant opinions of their counterparts on the other side. In India, Pakistanis are considered scheming plotters bent on breaking the country by aiding terrorists and sheltering dangerous gangsters. Pakistanis are perceived as Muslim fundamentalists following the severest strictures of Islam who like to keep their women enslaved and make their children constantly recite the particularly violent verses of Koran.
These impressions are true.
But this blogger was fortunate to visit the 'enemies' and saw them with his own eyes and heard them with his own ears, only to learn - if the worst opinions of an average Indian about Pakistan are true, the opposite is also a widely-spread reality and is a part of the bigger truth.
Both in Lahore and Karachi, and all the tiny towns in between (this blogger traveled on the road), there were warm hearted people whose kind opinions of the blogger did not change after learning that he happened to be an Indian Hindu; there were intelligent ladies, inside or outside the burqas, who conversed articulately, drove their own cars and were commanding and independent in their personality; there were young people, like young people everywhere - fluent in English with definite ideas about films, theaters, and music. Most interestingly, they all were curious about India. They wanted to visit cities like Delhi and Bombay.
But most of them would not be able to do so.
This is sad.
The Myth of Vegetarians
Pakistanis too have certain unflattering opinions about Indians - they torture Kashmiris, they are self-obsessed, Muslim-haters, arrogant, and that they are vegetarians. While all of this is true, the opposite is also a wide-spread reality.
There are many Indians who do not despise Muslims, do not look down upon their neighbors, do not shy from objecting to the human right abuses against the Kashmiris, do not desire the present grimness of relations with Pakistan to continue. Besides, most Indians are actually non-vegetarians! But since the people of these two countries hardly get to meet each other on a personal level, they are doomed to know only one aspect of each other's character.
This is sad.
The Saddest Dream in the World
There are many Pakistanis who 'dream' of visiting India. There are many Indians who 'dream' of visiting Pakistan. Actually, there could be nothing easier or less expensive than crossing into each other's country. India and Pakistan are not separated by a vast ocean; the traveling would not involve even air travel. The preparations do not need the complexities that occur while planning a dream trip to Europe or America. Ideally, there is no need for a Pakistani or an Indian to 'dream' about crossing the border. Yet, it remains a dream.
This is sad.
If They Can Gate-Crash into Each Other's Country
Indeed, traveling is the surest way to understand a country, its culture and its people.
Earlier this year, this blogger had barely managed to pass his way through Lahore while on his way to Karachi. In that short stay, Lahore appeared to be an unattractive, filthy, backward city full of auto fumes and tonga-clogged streets. But this judgment was reached after passing through certain districts of the town, which though real, did not make the whole city; and definitely were not the entire reality.
This blogger made a sudden trip to Pakistan, again, later this year and spent three days in Lahore. This time he drove by the wide avenues, noticed the clean bazaars, felt the absence of pathetic poverty so prevalent in Indian cities, dined in the glittering midnight restaurants, cruised in the first-world malls, browsed in the impressive bookshops, and walked in the chic art galleries. All of this was also reality. Not the entirety, but a significant part of it.
Unfortunately, most Indians and Pakistanis will never be able to view the complete picture. They will never get visas. There are serious problems of terrorism and distrust between the two nations and it is difficult for the governments to take bold measures for a peace in our lifetime.
This is sad.
Never Say No
But this blogger does not believe in karmic acceptance of the depressing present. Through his writings, though conversations with Desis - both Indians and Pakistanis, he is determined to bridge the chasm between the two people in whatever way he can, whether his articles receive many hits or not at all.
Make no mistake. Do not mock the blogger for being an unrealistic, foolish peacenik. He's not romantic but conscious of the vast divide between the two nations; he's familiar with the disturbing nuances of contemporary history, and aware of the terrorist camps and bomb blast conspiracies; he's not deaf to the hate agendas of both the sides.
He accepts it all as a reality. But he also knows that it is only a part of the reality. The opposite is also true. This blogger is committed to brining that 'opposing reality' - the one which is beautiful - to to the forefront.
He desperately wants the wishes of the dying mother of a Karachi barber to come true.