“Baloch tribesmen, coming to Dera Ghazi Khan from their mountain bodes, often stayed there. They came on colourfully decorated camels, with bells hanging around their necks. At night we would hear those bells,” she said.
“Now that I am old, I often hear a voice, calling me from beyond the desert. Do you think those trees and that well are still there?” she asked.
“Most likely,” I said. I did not want to tell her that things had really changed in the last 66 years. Canals, built since the partition, have brought the much-needed water to some of those areas, turning them into green farmlands.
And where there’s no water, the desert has expanded, swallowing all trees and wells.
Sharing these details with her would have been cruel. She was nearing the end of her journey and was now trying to reconnect herself to the place where she began.
She was lucky that she still heard a voice calling her back to her childhood desert. Most of us hear no call.
Aasha is a neighbour, rather a neighbour’s mother. I only visit her when her daughter, Aarti, is away. I go there in the evening to read her news from her part of the world. She has been living in the United States for the past 35 years but she still calls the subcontinent, “my part of the world.”
“The Indian and Pakistani prime ministers agree to meet in New York later this month to revive peace talks,” I read the day’s main news.
“Fools, they don’t still get it, do they? What else is there to talk about but peace!” she remarked as I read her the news.
“Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi BJP’s new candidate for PM,” I read the next story.
“What a shame,” said Aasha. “Now they want a mass murderer to be India’s next prime minister. No surprise they cannot talk peace.”
Then she addressed me, “I want to see my place of birth in Pakistan before they once again mess things up. Can you get me a visa?”
I assured her, saying that I did not see why the Pakistani Embassy would refuse visa to an old woman.
“No, I do not trust these Indians and Pakistanis,” she said. “I have been trying to go for some time now and every time I am told that relations were not good, I need to wait.”
Although she was staring at me, I could see that she was focused on something else. “I am an old woman now. I must see that well and those trees before I die,” she said.
I was quiet. Her remarks reminded me of my own visit to New Delhi many years ago. I flew from Lahore to New Delhi. It was a short flight, while we were still having our tea; the plane was ready to land at the Indira Gandhi Airport.
I was happy that I was visiting India but since I had no memories of Delhi, I was not excited.
But the old man sitting next to me was, like a child. He jumped out of his seat when the stewardess urged the passengers to prepare for landing.
"Let me go to the window, let me go to the window," he said to his son, sitting next to him. "There, there, you see, this is Delhi," he said.
His son had told fellow passengers that his father was a Dilliwala – "a man of Delhi" – who had migrated to Pakistan after India's partition and was returning to his birthplace after 42 years.
"See, see I remember every road and every street," the old man told his son, looking out the window. "Even from here I can show you where the Red Fort and the big mosque are."
Judging from the thickness of his glasses, his claim raised doubts and eyebrows, but the old man insisted he could see the Delhi Diaspora.
But when the city came a little closer he was disappointed. He could not see his favourite fort or the mosque. Perhaps they were on the other side of the plane or perhaps other buildings blocked his view.
"Delhi has changed, it has," he said sadly. He hastened to add that it looked different only from the sky. "Once I am down there, it will be the same old Delhi again."
An American journalist friend, who was traveling with me, asked what was happening. When I explained, he said, "Doesn't this tragedy move you? If I were from the Subcontinent I could have written a whole book about him."
Was I moved? I was. And I was not.
It is difficult to explain. For us – the post-partition Pakistanis – going to India was not like returning home. India is another country. And yet it is not like any other country. It is a country we left behind more than half a century ago, yet we still share so much. And India is also the country we have fought in three wars.
We do see India as a neighbour – rather a powerful neighbour – and want good relations, but nothing beyond that. There is no desire for reunification, no craving for merger.
For most Pakistanis, the emotional separation came soon after the physical split in 1947. Even the sons and daughters of those who had migrated from India had no special feelings for the land of their ancestors.
But cutting the umbilical cord has not been easy. Despite a strong desire to become the ultimate un-India, we Pakistanis hold on to social, cultural and ethnic links with the "mother" country. This closeness sometimes causes more friction than harmony.
It is particularly difficult for some of the pre-partition Pakistanis and Indians. The Pakistanis feel they were not different enough to qualify as a separate nation and kept trying to make themselves as different from the Indians as possible.