If you grew up in northern India, a visit to Pakistan is always a somewhat surreal experience. It’s like passing through a looking glass to a place that manages to feel both foreign and deeply familiar at the same time.
It’s not just the obvious things – food and language – that make Lahore and Karachi feel almost like home. At the gym at the Sheraton in Lahore i encountered a hugely overweight man who spent a desultory half hour on the exercise bike while glued to his phone. Perhaps this is a familiar sight in other countries too, but the only other place where i’ve witnessed this check-the-box approach to a workout is India. Moral of the story: it’s easier to redraw national borders than to change mental habits.
Needless to say, not everything is familiar. In privileged pockets of Pakistan, the availability of alcohol at a party creates a frisson of excitement absent in India, where the well-off take the availability of wine or vodka or Scotch for granted. And despite the shared language, there’s always room for verbal miscues. “We don’t say ‘bina’, we say ‘baghair’”, warns a friend as i order tea for us in Lahore. “You’re outing yourself.”
Not surprisingly, Pakistan feels much more religious than India. Pakistani liberals bemoan the gradual replacement of the Persian “khuda hafiz” for goodbye with the harder-edged “Allah hafiz”. But on the street, at least in Lahore, the latter appears to have triumphed. The default greeting – even at a hotel that’s part of an international chain – is not the secular “good morning” or its equivalent, but “assalam aleikum”. Rooms come equipped with prayer mats. God is everywhere.
Cliches about the warmth of Pakistani hospitality are true. But you can also encounter kindness among ordinary Pakistanis that has nothing to do with a culture of looking after your guests. At the Pakistan International Airlines counter in Lahore, a young man helpfully suggests that i check my carry-on bag at the gate to avoid paying for excess baggage. In the Indian imagination, particularly on the Hindu Right, Pakistan brings to mind only fanaticism and violence. But a visitor can experience it instead as a land of many small kindnesses.
The Indian view of Pakistan is increasingly shaped by a kind of national hysteria, an inability to view the country dispassionately as a geographical space that happens to be inhabited by a kindred people whose ancestors were Indians. In general, educated Pakistanis are less ignorant about India than their Indian counterparts are about Pakistan. (They are alarmingly up-to-date on Bollywood gossip.) But here too distortions abound. For Pakistanis, India is north India. Indian politics is the politics of the Hindi heartland.
In Lahore the idea of an impending war looms large, even among sober people who view it with trepidation rather than longing. The novelist Mohsin Hamid tells me this is because of proximity to the border. For a Lahori, a dip in India-Pakistan relations can mean more men in army fatigues on the streets. If you’re in Delhi or Mumbai life goes on as usual. Geopolitics does not intersect with daily life in quite the same way.
Some of Pakistan’s beleaguered liberals – brave but dwindling species – look upon India’s turn toward hardline Hindu nationalism more with sorrow than anger. They feel robbed of their best argument – that for all its flaws India showed that civil liberties and democratic norms could thrive even on the subcontinent. Under Modi, Indian visas have all but dried up for Pakistanis, even for known peaceniks who have visited India many times. In the past, the Pakistani army tried to discourage people from visiting “enemy territory”. Now the Indian government does their job for them.
But it’s not all just regret and longing for gentler times. There’s schadenfreude too. The idea that the likes of the venomous Yogi Adityanath represent the true face of India is common in Pakistan. As the argument goes, Indian secularism was always a charade. The only difference is that the Modi government doesn’t bother to dress up reality. This may strike an Indian as an absurd distortion of the truth, but in Pakistan it’s widely believed.
The Narendra Modi government prides itself on restoring hard-bitten realism to Indian foreign policy – no more empty posturing of the Nehruvian variety. Judged by this yardstick, New Delhi’s Pakistan policy is a disaster. It appears to be based on a combination of hubris and hatred that are the opposite of realism.
On television, Indians are fed a diet of jingoism that is detached from reality. For instance, while Pakistan’s global influence may have declined precipitously – in large measure because of its sclerotic economy – the idea that India can isolate a nuclear-armed nation with more than 200-million people is preposterous. As things stand, Pakistan enjoys a strong relationship with China, has largely repaired its once strained relations with America, and is open to overtures from Russia.
Perhaps one day the politicians who run India and the generals who run Pakistan will feel secure enough to allow Indians and Pakistanis to visit each other freely and experience each other’s countries for themselves. Until such contact becomes commonplace, the odds of South Asia becoming more like Southeast Asia – united by economics rather than divided by politics – remain vanishingly slim.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.