The coolie handed over our luggage to us as we stepped out of our bus. We were directed to carry our luggage on the straight road divided vertically until we see a horizontal line. Beyond that line and the gate, there were coolies waiting impatiently. We approached them and started negotiating in the same language that we used with their counterparts who had seen us off.
It was a strange feeling, for we had just landed in a new country.
I witnessed a physical similarity and a sense of great familiarity, while travelling along the straight road that disconnects yet connects the two nations.
India-Pakistan: A dichotomous relationship
This apparent contradiction is a defining feature of the India-Pakistan relationship. Even though the two states hesitate to issue visas, creating endless hurdles to restrict entry, the immigration centres have a different tale to tell. It was pleasantly surprising to find a board in devanagari that read Aagaman (‘arrival’ in chaste Hindi) at the Pakistan immigration centre, welcoming the Indian visitors.
Such is the relationship between India and Pakistan, between the states and between the people — a dichotomous relationship of conflict and cooperation, of hatred and curiosity, of suspicion and trust.
My experience in Pakistan, for the second time, majorly comprised the latter set of emotions. It was a Track II Bilateral Dialogue that brought me to Islamabad, Pakistan, that I had often heard being referred to as ‘one of the world’s most beautiful capitals’.
The dialogue was a meeting of concerns, of thoughts and people who share a religion, and that of compassion. The dialogue debunks the notion of “peace is one-sided” quite substantially, and signifies its dominance on both sides.
Newfound friendships & warm encounters in Pakistan
The warmth, however, was not restricted to this particular hall. I visited the Lok Virsa museum with a newfound friend and went to a shop to buy some gifts. The shopkeeper started suggesting some good gifting options, unaware of where I was from.
He showed me several options while trying to convince by highlighting the details on the make. As I haggled about the prices, he assured me, “Aap aaj aayi hain, dobara aayengi” (You will come again to buy more). I started looking at the keychains when he suggested that I get them for my friends and encourage the local handicraft.
Later, he asked me, “Aap yaha se nahi hai, kaha se aayi hain?” (You don’t seem to be from here, where have you come from?).
I replied, “Main India se aayi hu” (I have come from India). He was visibly shocked and immediately blurted out, “Par..aap..Urdu..” (But you are speaking Urdu).
We then exchanged thoughts on how the spoken Hindi of India and the spoken Urdu of Pakistan are highly similar — almost the same, except a few words. Still confused, the shopkeeper gave me the discount that I had asked for earlier. He even reconfirmed, from my friend, if I was really from India. As we started to leave, he interrupted, “Ek minute rukiye” (Wait for a moment). He asked me to choose a bracelet. To my surprise, he said, “Aapko yaad rahein..” (As a memory).
I responded, “Agar gift hai to aap khud select karein” (If it is a gift then you select one).
He looked at the bracelets, tried to narrow it down to one, and then took out an elaborately-done bracelet for me.
Friendship & love across the border
While his gesture was truly unforgettable and precious, a friend later told me that it wasn’t that uncommon with countless stories by Indian and Pakistani visitors of having received such warmth in the ‘other’ country.
Given the stereotypes, narratives, and the cruel visa regimes — the cross-border movement and interaction is minimal.
But there is an unintended aspect to it that such incidents highlight. In these rare chances when the common people do meet, they often use these meetings as opportunities to weave new memories of love and harmony.
Many such incidents followed. In the lobby, I had a conversation with a bell staff. After expressing his amusement on discovering my nationality, he was quite outspoken with the other staff about it. He told his colleagues, “She has come from Delhi”.
The other staff person asked me about my experience and said, “We also wish to visit India, visit Delhi and Agra and go to Kapil Sharma’s show.”
I laughed and expressed my hope for his wish to be fulfilled. He then asked my name and to my surprise, he was among the rare group of people who can pronounce my name correctly. To this, he replied, “Your name appeared twice in CID (an Indian TV serial)!”
The role of common people in encouraging peace talks
We often ponder about the role that common people can play in international relations when the deliberations often limit their role. It is important that the people understand how the conflict is tearing both our countries apart and how it is affecting each one of us. People of India and Pakistan not only share a language, a culture, love for Bollywood movies or Coke Studio, but (unfortunately), they also share the same socio-economic challenges.
It is important that we pressurise or support our states to talk, despite the hurdles. We need to support the voices of peace, for it is the only path to sanity.
Devika Mittal is pursuing a Ph.D in Sociology at Delhi School of Economics. She is the Convener (India) of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a joint Indo-Pak friendship initiative and a core committee member of Mission Bhartiyam. She tweets at @devikasmittal.
This article was originally published on The Quint and has been reproduced with permission.