During the past few weeks, I have attended a series of events at Yale University, sponsored by various South Asian organisations. These included a dance and music performance in celebration of Diwali, a screening of the movie ‘Manto’, and a talk by Raza Rumi, a well-known Pakistani journalist.

At each event, I was impressed and fascinated by the fact that Indian and Pakistani students and faculty members worked closely together, and the students lived with each other harmoniously.

This was in sharp contrast to the war mantras and aggressive policies that are so prevalent in our countries back home; this made me think about my own identity.

My father is a veteran of two wars; he fought for Pakistan in 1965 and again in 1971. As a child, I frequently put his war medals on my chest with pride and dreamed of joining the army to fight India.

Even though I grew up in a moderate middle-class household, from early childhood, I was taught by my school and society to hate India. And although the country had become a symbol of hate, we never failed to enjoy their Bollywood movies and music.

It was not until 2007, when I visited New Delhi that I realised that socially and culturally the two nations are almost identical.

Other than the Devanagri script on shops, sign boards and hoardings, and women riding on scooters, nothing seemed to be different here.

Also read: 6 surprises that greet a Pakistani in India

However, in India too, prejudice and fear were deep-rooted. Most of the hotels and bed-and-breakfast places in New Delhi refused to give me accommodation. I was forced to stay in a noisy, dirty and cheap motel near Jamma Masjid, because that is where “all Pakistanis stayed”.

The animosity between the two nations, sowed in young minds at an impressionable age, runs deep. When I came to the United States for my medical residency, I was initially cautious, careful and even a little suspicious when I had to interact with physicians of Indian origin.

It took me a good few months and many interactions to get close to two associates, Sialaja and Shivana, who later became my closest friends at the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Long Island Jewish Medical Centre.

The author with Sialaja at their graduation.
The author with Sialaja at their graduation.
The author with his friend Shivana.
The author with his friend Shivana.

Although both of them were born and raised in the United States, they were practicing Hindus and enjoyed strong cultural affiliations with India.

Our friendship strengthened with time, and we frequently and openly discussed how we were raised in our specific cultures to hate the other on the basis of their religious or political backgrounds.

It was not until a personal connection was established that we found that there were more similarities between us than there were differences.

Also read: Breakthrough at ‘Heart of Asia’ — Pakistan, India to resume ‘comprehensive’ talks

When I first came to America, many people asked me where I was from, and to avoid a discussion on the ongoing disputes in Pakistan, I used to say that my parents were from Indian Punjab.

My maternal family has roots in Amritsar and paternal family hails from Jalandhar. And in this sense, I have a legitimate Indian identity.

Unlearning hate

I’m a Pakistani at heart, both politically and patriotically, and will always remain so. I take every opportunity to wear a Pakistani jersey and carry the Pakistani flag when I participate in marathons across the US.

The author at the finish line of the NYC marathon, central park, NY.
The author at the finish line of the NYC marathon, central park, NY.

I get goose bumps when Pakistan beats India in hockey and cricket matches. But, at the same time, I have also come to understand that I have an Indian heritage as well.

Kohli stays on top of my list of favourite players. Over time, my reactions to these sporting events have become more patriotic than before, and not slightly because of religious or national prejudice.

The author celebrates Diwali with his Indian friends at Yale.
The author celebrates Diwali with his Indian friends at Yale.

I have experienced mixed feelings of jealousy and pride when I see successful politicians and artists of Indian origin, such as Bobby Jindal and Anish Kapoor. In the past couple of years, I have also acquired and deeply appreciate the works of Indian, as well as Pakistani artists.

When India sent its first mission to Mars, I was thinking that my grandfather, who graduated from the prestigious IIT Roorkee in 1925 as an associate civil engineer would have been very proud.

The widening political divide between the two countries and the growing menace of religious and political intolerance on both sides of the border is a dismal situation for the people of the neighbouring countries.

Also read: Being Indian but ‘almost Pakistani’ in Abu Dhabi

In a recent Pew survey, Pakistan remained the least favoured nation in India. Unfortunately, the gap of cultural and social exchange seems to be increasing at this time. Warmongers and hate preachers continue to spit venom. Citizens of both countries troll and bully each other on social media all the time.

I want to stay objective in this political divide. While living as a proud Pakistani in the United States, I plan to expand my horizon of social interaction to include more Indian friends, and broaden my reading list with more books from Indian authors. Not to mention my everlasting relationship with Bollywood.

For me, liking one does not automatically translate into hating the other. It really is time for both countries to to unlearn some things.

—All photos by author.

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