As dawn broke on 15th August, India's Independence Day, I landed at the Lahore airport. A few hours earlier, Pakistan had celebrated its Independence Day, and the entire place was bedecked with green flags carrying the crescent.
One could sense hope and excitement in the atmosphere even at that early hour.
I reached the immigration counter, preparing myself to be grilled by an officer, whom I imagined would be looking like a headmaster about to discipline an errant school boy. My feet came to an abrupt halt. Behind the desk sat a young lady wearing a black hijab.
She shattered my perception that most Pakistani women were burqa-clad, like the ones we see in Bhopal and Lucknow.
I handed my passport, both my cataract-operated eyes keen to watch how her comely face would look when she twitched her nose – that's just what a bearded co-passenger had once done upon spotting the logo of the three lions on my passport.
She leafed through it, stamped it, and returned it with a smile, "Happy Independence Day to you, Sir."
Her words shattered my second perception: That every Pakistani was as hostile to India as those elderly Pakistani guests in our TV debates.
In the following three days, I came to understand the people of Pakistan even further, and discovered that basically, we are more alike than different.
The average Pakistani has the same anxieties as we do in India – price hikes, children's safety and education, the impact of saas-bahu TV serials on our family life, and a deep concern for the future.
My tryst with Pakistan had commenced on a rainy June morning, when I opened the Facebook page of my novel, and out popped a message from a stranger – Dr Shahid Ahmad Rajput, Professor at COMSATS Institute in Islamabad.
He informed me about an international conference, referred me to his Facebook wall, and asked if I would be interested in participating. He also added, "I'm intrigued by the title Trade winds to Meluhha."
Trade winds to Meluhha is my novel, set in the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation and Mesopotamia. Failing to interest any of the big six publishers, I had published it as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. One-fifth of its demand generates in Pakistan, and therefore I was very keen to visit the country.
I sought clarification on few queries from Dr. Rajput, and to address his interest in my novel, sent links leading to my guest-posts in historical blogs. Not only did he answer in detail, but he also invited me to speak at the Harappa International Conference, whose theme was, 'To achieve a visible change in the protection of the national heritage of Harappa archaeological site.'
In my paper, "Novelising the ancient Indus Valley", I referred to World Travel and Tourism Council's 2015 report, which said that the sector contributed 10 per cent to GDP, and supported one in every 11 jobs. Narrating how the UK, Hong Kong and Jordan used fiction to attract tourists, I suggested that Pakistan and India could reap immense economic benefit by promoting Harappa, Mohen-jo-Daro, Lothal and Dholavira through fiction.
Thus, I made a case that Indus Valley fiction could indirectly help both the governments in creating more jobs and wealth in their respective economies, and they could be better equipped to invest on preserving their Bronze Age heritage.
Dr Qasid Mallah told us how his team had salvaged Lakhan-jo-Daro mound, 90 per cent of which had been destroyed by brick thieves, antique hunters, land mafia and factories. I could not help nodding, because that is exactly what happened to Rangpur, an Indus Valley culture site in India.
|Presenting paper at the Harappa International Conference in Lahore.|
Dr Shahid Rajput highlighted the need to adopt latest techniques to conserve and landscape ancient structures. Aliza Saba Rizvi explained how Lahore Museum had catalogued all Harappan artifacts by developing computer programmes. It occurred to me, then, that the 'Digital India' initiative could also be relevant in preserving Indus Valley Civilisation sites and artifacts in India.
Dr Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, a leading expert on the Indus Valley culture, observed that this conference stood out in that many speakers were drawn from professions which were not linked to either archaeology or history, and their inputs contributed considerably towards attaining its objective.
|Conference speakers: (Back row) - Dr Qasid Mallah (Prof. Chairman, Dept. Dept. of Archaeology, Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur) is second, and Dr Jonathan Mark Kenoyer (Chair, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, USA) is fifth from Left. (Front Row) - Dr Shahid Ahmad Rajput (Prof., Dept. of Architecture, COMSATS Institute, Islamabad.) is second from Left.|
On the last day, the delegates visited Harappa with Dr Kenoyer unraveling its mysteries. Unfortunately, I missed that golden opportunity as my visa was limited to Lahore. In my hurry to fly back to prepare for the tour, I had not noticed it when the High Commission of Pakistan in New Delhi returned my passport.
I wished to meet Mustansar Hussain Tarar, a pioneer in writing Indus Valley fiction. His well-researched novel Bahao has been recognised as an Urdu classic by the BBC. But unfortunately, I was unable to meet him because Tarar sahab was recuperating from sickness.
|With my young fans in Old Lahore, from Left to Right: Farasat Ali Shah Bukhari, Asim Mirza, self, and Khalid Hussain Majeed.|
|Participants of the Harappa International Conference on a visit to Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore.|
|The wait for lunch in front of the Badshahi Mosque.|
Many Indians want to visit Harappa, but cannot do so due to stringent visa rules. Participating as delegates in future Harappa International Conferences would enable them to procure the necessary permission.
Overall, my experience of the Pakistani people was extremely positive.
Inshallah, as my Pakistani friends would say, after next year's conference, I hope to visit Harappa and Mohen-jo-Daro, the two most famous Indus Valley Civilisation sites located in Pakistan.
—All photos by author