Sunday, April 20, 2008
Travel – Journey to Pakistan
When an Indian goes to Lahore with excess baggage.
[By Rakhshanda Jalil; a resident of Delhi, she recently edited neither night nor day, a collection of 13 stories by women writers from Pakistan; picture of the Allama Iqbal International Airport by Manitoon]
My first trip to Pakistan, in March, 2007, began with the usual excess baggage -- usual, that is, for most Indian Muslims who set out for Pakistan carrying their nationalism on their sleeve even as they totter under the weight of an indefinable deja vu.
This sense of seeming familiarity with everything in a country one is going to step foot in for the first time is uncanny. Virtually from the moment you step into the PIA aircraft in Delhi -- no, even before that, actually, when the PIA security person says 'Assalam-alekum' as she does a thorough body search -- this sense of the familiar and the known grows.
Lahore airport could pass of as an airport in any Indian city except for two things -- it is a lot cleaner and modern, and that distinct smell of phenyl and stale urine that greets passengers as they step off the tarmac at any Indian airport anywhere in the country is missing here.
But once outside, the air smells the same as Delhi, the trees look familiar as does the chaotic traffic. Rickshaws, pony carts and autos (gaily decorated contraptions that veer crazily all across the road with the same devil-may-care attitude that makes their Indian cousins such a menace on our roads) jostle for space with the latest state-of-the-art dream machines.
Our nifty Maruti Suzuki is equally ubiquitous there as it is here -- with one small difference of having dropped the 'Maruti' from its derriere. What takes some getting used to, however, is that everyone is dressed in salwar suits -- even the men!
I spend the next few days making several discoveries about the said garment: (a) in this Land of the Pure, its tailoring has been elevated to an exact science, comparable only with astronomy or rocket science, and (b) it comes in a seemingly endless variety of styles and shapes -- loose or fitted, billowing or snug, long or cropped, plain or profusely embellished -- the variety within the sameness making it mind-boggling.
The same applies to Pakistan -- as I would discover in the course of the next seven days while I travelled from Lahore to Sargodha, Faisalabad and back to Lahore to catch the flight home.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah's dream of a people united under Islam, leaving in peace and harmony as part of a pan-Islamic brotherhood is just that -- a dream. While it is true, I stayed within the province of Punjab and did not get the opportunity to visit Karachi and Islamabad which are considered far more cosmopolitan, I was struck by the regional, ethnic, linguistic differences and the pride people take in their distinctness -- be it of food, dress, language, idiom, custom.
The stereotype of monolithic Islam -- so often trotted out for Indian Muslims -- is as untrue for Pakistan as it is for India. I met people of various inclinations and denominations -- Shia, Sunni, liberal, fanatic, tolerant, intolerant, Wahabi, Hanafi...
While I came back loaded with salwar suits, I had no excess baggage on my return trip. I found I had shed most of it as I realised a shared past and shared histories give more occasions for persistent deja vu than shared religion.
(Ms. Rakhshanda Jalil read a paper on "The Events of 1857 as reflected in the Poetry and letters of Mirza Ghalib" at the University of Sargodha, and on "Society, Culture and Literature" at GC University, Lahore.)