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India: An unfamiliar territory — or not

It was the ordinary-extraordinary people who gave me countless beautiful moments in my ancestors’ homeland.
Updated Feb 22, 2019 12:59pm

As March 16th marks three years since my first trip to Delhi, I cannot help but recall the emotional rollercoaster ride I went through: from getting the Indian visa to the growing apprehensions before the trip as well as while I was there, to the current nostalgia that propels me to write about it now.

In 2016, I was preparing for the publication of my book Women In Green And Beyond. It was a culmination of a six-year long project that started as my thesis at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, where I was pursuing my post-graduate diploma in photography.

To conclude the visual narrative, I decided to get the final shots from the 2016 ICC Women's World Twenty20, which happened to be in India. I have to confess that, secretly, I have always had wanted to visit my neighbouring country.

The Mehmaan Khaana near the Taj Mahal. — All photos by the author
The Mehmaan Khaana near the Taj Mahal. — All photos by the author

India — once the home country to my ancestors. Maybe because the stories of Partition always fascinated me, or because my nani, who was also my best friend, used to tell me all about her youth in Amritsar — her home — where she grew up.

But the moment I’d decided to go, people started warning me about the potential dangers associated with going to India, as the number of rape cases in Delhi more than tripled in the previous five years.

My mom — a true patriot — told me that if it weren’t for my book, she would have never let me go to our dushman mulk and kept giving sadaqa for my safety every single day of the four days and three nights I was there. Although I had travelled alone multiple times, I had never been more scared.

How I got the visa for India demands a separate essay, so let’s not even go there. When I finally got the clearance letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs in India, after two months of hard work, the First Secretary at the Embassy of India in Abu Dhabi called me into his office. He wanted to know how I was able to get the clearance.

I guess some things are just meant to happen and this trip was definitely one of those, though the odds were totally against it. After a long chat of interrogatory nature, he was nice enough to give me a visit visa for Agra, in addition to the Delhi visa, when I showed interest in visiting the Taj Mahal. I got my passport back at 4:00pm — just hours before my flight at 2:00am the same night.

Flying from Abu Dhabi, I boarded the bus to the plane as per procedure, but as soon as I did, an Etihad crew member ran and got on to the bus to re-check my documents.

Maybe she had just realised that amidst all the blue passports, a green one had appeared from nowhere — unusual for a flight to India. As everyone’s eyes fell on my passport, that was my first realisation that I was the odd one out.

My first encounter, or lack thereof, at the Delhi airport was with the rent-a-car driver I had booked online, but who was nowhere to be found. Perhaps, he too had discovered the green passport, and decided it was better to not make things complicated.

I hesitantly made my way to the taxi booth and was met by a friendly Sikh man, who asked me where I wanted to go. I told him I was going to Taj Mahal Hotel on One Mansingh Road, the same hotel where the Pakistani team was staying.

With the team.
With the team.

With Captain Sana Mir.
With Captain Sana Mir.

Unlike taxi drivers in the West, who mind their business rather than inquiring about your destination, we, the people of South Asia, generally take it as our utmost responsibility to know all about other people’s business.

As expected, the taxi driver started the conversation, asking me questions like: where had I come from, was it my first time in Delhi? And then came the defining question that I was afraid he might ask, where was I originally from? I told him I was from (pause) Pakistan and — after a moment of silence — it brought a smile to his face.

There is a stark resemblance between Lahore and Delhi. Driving on Mansingh Road was just like taking a trip to Mall Road, the similar red-bricked, beautiful historic buildings, uncultured traffic, rickshaws, honking, bicycles trying to cut through traffic, paved roundabouts, chaos, green belts, smog.

It was an unfamiliar territory yet seemed so very familiar; similar faces, language that sounded like my own, and I remember at the time I couldn’t help but think if I had ever realised that such similar life was happening parallel to ours — so close to us yet so far.

The team had a strict schedule to follow, with a few practice sessions before the day of the actual match, so in between shooting, I did manage to somewhat explore the infamous city.

I sneaked out to visit Humayun’s Tomb, bought beautiful saris for myself and my family, and chandbalis from Khan Market, an expensive market primarily for foreigners near the hotel.

My brother had a friend from London Business School whose parents lived in Delhi, and although his mom, who worked from home at US working hours, was not able to meet me, she was kind enough to offer her car and driver for a day trip to Agra.

While buying saris in Khan Market.
While buying saris in Khan Market.

The Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal.

A closer view of the Taj Mahal.
A closer view of the Taj Mahal.

We left Delhi around 9:00am for a three-hour journey. The streets of Agra reminded me of my paternal city, Sialkot, with narrow streets and tanga rides are everywhere.

The concierge at the hotel had already arranged my tickets, that just needed to be picked up at a hotel in Agra. Surprisingly around noon, Taj Mahal’s entrance was not busy at all. We parked, had to walk a bit before taking a horse cart ride to the gate. The driver left after agreeing to meet me at the parking lot in about two hours.

Around 2pm, I got done roaming around taking pictures of the enormous structure, and headed back towards the gate to find the busiest hour possible. People were lined up in a long queue to get tickets, and there were all means of transportation from rickshaws to horse carts, camels and bikes taking people to and from the parking lots — or a single parking lot as I thought until then.

It was difficult to walk without bumping into people and animals! I took a rickshaw and made my way to the parking lot only to find that it was not the same one where I had come from. There were about five separate entrances to the main gate, I then found out.

The streets of Agra reminded me of Sialkot, with narrow streets and tanga rides are everywhere.
The streets of Agra reminded me of Sialkot, with narrow streets and tanga rides are everywhere.

View from a rickshaw.
View from a rickshaw.

Since I had activated the roaming option before flying from UAE, I tried calling the driver but heard the familiar message “your phone has been temporarily suspended”, the message I’d heard every time I tried to make a call since my arrival in India.

After I got completely lost, intimidated by the rush and the chaos, I decided to walk towards a police post that I saw at some distance. With my heart pounding I told a policeman that I had lost my driver and that my phone wasn’t working. He asked me where I was from.

By now I had become accustomed to this pattern, as throughout my stay in Delhi, I interacted with the locals most of the time — taxi drivers, shopkeepers, police, and every time we would go through the same set of questions, and invariably the word Pakistan would bring a smile to the other person’s face — after a moment of silence of course. It had become a ritual.

I called the driver, the policeman explained our exact location and suggested him to bring the car near the post. He then requested me to sit and asked one of the policemen to leave his seat for me by saying, “humaray humsaya mulk say mehmaan aayay hain.”

While waiting at the police post.
While waiting at the police post.

For the next 45 minutes, the time it took the driver to reach to our location, we spoke about the similarities we share as individuals in terms of culture, language, clothing, movies. They were convinced that spreading hatred was only a political agenda, and that the common people of both countries still have a lot of love for each other.

They also asked me to make a promise — a promise to revisit their country again.

I had a great time with the Pakistan Cricket Board squad, the amazing Pakistan’s women’s team and the then-team manager and the current general manager Ayesha Ashhar, who helped me in every possible way.

To my luck, Pakistan team beat India on their home ground, and I got the beautiful shots for my book that I came for.

With Captain Sana Mir and Player of the Match Anam Amin.
With Captain Sana Mir and Player of the Match Anam Amin.

With a photograph of Imran Khan at Feroz Shah Kotla Ground.
With a photograph of Imran Khan at Feroz Shah Kotla Ground.

At the Feroz Shah Kotla Ground.
At the Feroz Shah Kotla Ground.

But in the process I met some amazing ordinary-extraordinary people whom I may never cross paths with again, be it the commando and the Delhi Police officials in the police jeep who guarded the Pakistani team’s bus and gave me a ride to the stadium, or the usher at the ICC T20 match who booked an Uber for me, walked with me from the glass box to outside the stadium and waited until the car arrived, or the police officer in Agra who used his private phone to guide my driver to the location, or the server at Taj who after serving scrumptious aloo paratha and masala chai gave me an extra paan upon discovering that I was from Pakistan — these people left a lasting impression on me and gave me countless beautiful moments to hold on to from my ancestors’ homeland.

Whether I will be able to keep the promise I made to the policemen on March 20, 2016 to revisit India, I am not sure. But what I do know is that in a strange, reluctant and uncomfortable manner, I almost felt at home.


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