“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.
Similarly, some of those Indians who had seen united India could not truly understand the partition, even decades later. They could not comprehend how those who shared so much with them had now become a separate nation.
But many in the post-partition generation – at least in Pakistan – do not share the fears of their elders. Since they were born in Pakistan, they see themselves as natural Pakistanis.
The pre-partition generation also had a great emotional attachment to places like the Red Fort in Delhi or the Taj Mahal. The post-partition generations do not. Since they have no memory of a united India, they do not see the need to reunite, physically or emotionally.
That old man I met on the plane belonged to the pre-1947 generation. For him going to Delhi was like going home.
I don't know what happened to him. He got off the plane with us but disappeared in a small throng of relatives and friends who had come to the airport to receive him. I never met him again. But in him I saw disappointment: He found a Delhi overwhelmed in its newness.
I have known many Dilliwalas who were similarly disappointed with the ‘new’ Delhi.
"Yes, I went back to Delhi and to the house where the poet, Ghalib used to live. It was old and dirty," one said.
Another old Dilliwala was sad to see that even the Muslims were forgetting Urdu, a language once spoken by Muslims across the Subcontinent.
"If they stop learning Urdu, who will protect our cultural and literary heritage in India? Who will appreciate the poets?" he asked. "What a loss, what a loss," he kept saying.
But this was the older generation. The younger generation does not care whether the Indians know Urdu and respect Ghalib or not.
My neighbours in Karachi were from Delhi. Their son, who was born in Karachi and had always lived there, came back from a visit to Delhi complaining that the city was not as great as his parents had said.
"Some of their girls are pretty and alcohol is freely available," he said. "But our girls are more attractive and you can get alcohol here, too, even if it is illegal."
Since my family had not migrated from Delhi, I had little emotional attachment with the old Mogul city. Yet, when I went there I was eager, anybody who has read Urdu literature would be. We read so much about this city. There are short stories and poems praising Delhi. There are novels and plays lamenting its destruction during the war of independence in 1857, the one the British call the Mutiny.
I wanted to see the places that we always read about such as the Fort, the Qutub Minar and the mosque. So I hired a motor rickshaw for sightseeing. In three days the rickshaw driver, who was a burly Sikh whose family had come to Delhi from Rawalpindi in Pakistani Punjab, took me to about two dozen places and then declared that he had shown me "all that is there to see in Delhi."
Although we were in Delhi, we spent most of our time talking about Rawalpindi and other places in Punjab. He had never been to Pakistani Punjab and could not understand why his parents, who lived in India's capital, kept praising "smaller cities like Rawalpindi and Lahore."
When I told him that my family had migrated to Pakistan from India, he offered to take me to my ancestral village.
"Not now. Maybe later," I said.
He laughed and said: "You are like me. I prefer Delhi but my parents want to see Pakistan. At least once before they die."
But then he said that there was something in him that did not go with the chemistry of the people of Delhi. "Maybe I too have some Pakistani chemical in me," he said.
Later he found his own statement very amusing and once, thinking about it, he had a fit of laughter and had to stop the rickshaw. "Look at me. I am a pukka (solid) Indian and I say I may have Pakistani chemical in my veins," he said.
I asked him what would his parents say if they heard him say this.
"They would probably be amused," he said.
Then he told me that when India and Pakistan played a cricket match his parents prayed for the Indian team to win, but also wanted players from Pakistani Punjab to play well, "but only the Punjabi players, not other Pakistanis," said the Sikh driver.