Kya Dilli, Kya Lahore: An Indian’s Experience of Pakistan
by Madhavi Bansal
Whenever we think of foreign travel, one thing which makes foreign ‘foreign’ is the cultural difference. While travelling to a foreign land we expect to see different lifestyles, cultural practices, norms, clothing, food habits and values. Whether one would like to call it my fortune or misfortune, my first foreign trip was to a country that was similar to mine, in November 2015, when I visited Pakistan to present a paper at a conference. It felt like visiting a second home.
As I am a peace activist, I had already been able to shed a lot of the stereotypes that people in India hold about Pakistan. Despite the excitement of being able to visit neighbors, I was unable to shake off that little anxiety I felt while crossing the Wagha border. I harboured anxiety about visiting an Islamic country which is known as the epicentre of terrorism, where bomb blasts are a routine and women are rarely seen outside the burqa. What I experienced, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more contradicting. During my six day stay, I did not realize I was in another country. Lahore filled me with a homely feeling, the same that I experience in Delhi.
We crossed the Wagha border on foot and I found the immigration process to be smoother than the visa process. We met people who applauded the courage of two Indian women travelling to Pakistan all by themselves and also those who couldn’t stop discouraging us. Our hosts picked us up from the border and showed us around Lahore before leaving us at the UMT (University of Management and Technology) guest house. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying Dholki (a pre-wedding ceremony common in South Asian weddings) at a friend’s place and humming Punjabi folk songs. Next three days, we attended a conference, whose overarching theme was inclusive education. The moderator introduced us to the audience with a quote by Gandhi after which Devika Mittal and I presented our paper titled Attempting Inclusive Elementary Education in India: How Far Have We Come With RTE (Right to Education)? Presenting a paper on inclusive education in Pakistan will always be a special experience for me because the university where we spoke definitely practised what they preached: it had excellent facilities for visually challenged students; ranging from audio guides to Braille. Students were excited to meet and talk to us. We were floored by the display of graciousness by our hosts who left no stone unturned in making us feel comfortable. Their hospitable gesture was evident when they ensured that food for us was cooked separately considering the fact that we are vegetarians.
I also encountered people who are inspired by progressive policies of the Indian government. This enabled me to learn about that facet of Pakistanis which we as Indians rarely know. There are people in Pakistan who do not blame India for everything that is wrong with their country, but are willing to learn from good aspects of Indian society and governance. This strengthened my belief in the peace process. The fact is that not all Pakistanis hate Indians and India could do well to lead by example.
One major irritant of course was the constant watch being kept on us (which is normal in the case of Indians traveling to Pakistan and vice versa) and restrictions imposed on moving out of the campus. We roamed about the city once the conference ended. A visit to Punjab University exposed me to another side of Pakistan and I ended up questioning many things such as separate canteens for men and women, separate lifts and curtailment on mixing up of opposite genders. At the same time, during an evening visit to the National College of Arts, I got to witness a more liberal side of Pakistan with men and women hanging out together, practicing theatre, working on a piece of art or spending relaxed time together in a group.
I have met many Indians who had the opportunity to visit Pakistan and on their return they gushed about the great hospitality accorded to them. For me, Pakistan was a lot like India, and this extends to the oxymoronic, complicated juxtaposition back home where parochial thinking, great hospitality, respect and stereotypes all co-exist. One early morning, I experienced a sexually lewd comment inside Babri Masjid. But what resonated within me for a long time was the fact that I was dressed like a Lahori that day, and I know I was assumed to be one when the comment was made. I believe that a person’s true nature can be judged from how he/she treats his/her own fellow citizens—that morning, they treated me as they would treat a Lahori early morning at Babri Masjid, and that treatment was not of great hospitality. Experiences like this only reinforce the fact that Pakistan is not too far apart from the cultural juxtaposition of our own country, and in ways more than one, Pakistan reminded me of home.
The trip has ended but the memories will be cherished. I hadn’t even come back to India and I was already hoping to visit Pakistan again. My trip ended in complete Bollywood style–breakfast in Lahore, lunch in Amritsar, next breakfast in Delhi and the breakfast after that in Bangalore. From bhai chalenge aap to bhayia chalo to Anna, electronic city, the ride from Delhi to Lahore was a roller coaster!
This article was edited by Dr. Nidhi Shendurnikar Tere, Baroda Co-ordinator of Aaghaz-e-Dosti.
Madhavi Bansal is currently pursuing M.A. Public Policy and Governance from Azim Premji University in Bangalore. She is a peace enthusiast, who when not dancing, would be travelling.