The other day, a new student of Year 5 (age group 10 years) at the school I work in at Sydney came up to me and asked, “Miss, where in India are you from?”
I explained that I was not from India but Pakistan. The girl, who obviously had an Indian background, said with absolute wonder in her voice, “But Miss, then how do you speak Hindi so well?”
“I speak Urdu,” I replied.
“But you even look Indian!” she exclaimed.
Her comment transported me back to Bloomington, Indiana in 1996 when I was studying at the university there. As we walked along a road there, my husband and I were chatting to each other in Urdu. An undergrad student walked up to us and said, “Hello, it is so good to see some more Indians here”.
We told him we were Pakistani. “But you speak such good Hindi,” he exclaimed.
We explained that we were speaking in Urdu, and that the spoken versions of Hindi and Urdu were pretty similar. He was genuinely surprised and said it was “awesome”.
He ended up coming back to our place for lunch. By the end of the evening we had discovered many other similarities. By the end of the week our circle of friends had increased and included many Indians. Over a decade later, we are still friends with all of them. We realised that the myth that Indians and Pakistanis can’t be friends because they are completely different was just that, a myth. We share many cultural values.
And we can work together as I found out while organising ‘Women’s Day Festivities 1997’ at Indiana University. I worked with a team of six wonderful women, two of whom were Indian. We had lively discussions about the issues that South Asian women face. We concluded that many of the issues were the same -- lack of education, dowry and so on. It was a great learning experience.
My parents had migrated to Pakistan after the partition in 1947. Like many such families some of their loved ones chose to stay back. Many a tear was shed on both sides when visas were denied and relatives couldn’t join each other for special occasions.
Growing up we heard stories about how much fun our mother had with her friends celebrating their festivals of Holi and Diwali, and them coming over to celebrate Eid with her. On the other hand we kept hearing from the media and in textbooks about the Indians who were our arch-enemies. So who were we to believe?
In the 1980’s we moved to Malaysia for about three years and I had my first experience of meeting Indians. Not the ones that we heard about from Ammi or watched in movies but real ones in flesh. To an 11-year old mind the similarities were striking. They dressed like us, looked like us and even talked like us. And guess what, they even ate food that was really like our food, and their kids liked the same TV shows we watched and enjoyed the same books. So I guess Ammi and Abboo were right, we could be friends.
Raised with the values that all humans are the same, that we should respect all beliefs and that the basic moral values all over the world are the same -- truth, honesty, respect, love -- we had friends from different parts of the world. So maybe Indians were no different either.
Yet obtaining a visa for going to India always seemed to be a formidable task, given all the stories I had heard of the long lines and then the heartbreak of rejection. However I decided to brave it all when my aunt from the US suggested we travel to India in 1988. To everyone’s surprise and my disbelief I got a visa pretty easily. The long wait in the line was completely worth celebrating my birthday at the Taj Mahal.
We went to India again in 1989. It was an interesting experience both times. I met so many cousins and aunts and uncles that it was hard to keep track of them all. But it wasn’t just the love that the family showered on us that made those trips so amazing. It was the love and empathy showed by the local people that made us feel really welcome. There was the kid selling flowers outside a temple near the Gomti river in Lucknow who would give me a flower because I was a guest from the neighbouring country, or the girls who gathered around to get a picture taken with a Pakistani who could speak “Hindi” and looked just like them.
Visiting the villages that my parents came from was another revelation. Locals, both Hindu and Muslim, remembered my grandparents and parents and asked after them and shared stories about them. They were excited and happy to see “Vakeel Saheb’s” (the lawyer’s) granddaughter visiting the land of her forefathers. When we decided to stay the night in my mother’s ancestral home, bedding was sent down from so many different houses that we had far more than we needed. The generosity showed by these people from our neighbouring country tells us that though we may be divided by people from both sides who continue to fan the flames of enmity for their own gains we are really not that different and we can coexist in peace and harmony.
It is time to put the ghosts of the past behind us and move into a happier, harmonious future. Let us be the ones who leave a legacy of hope, love and peace for the future generations of the Indian Subcontinent.
My bilingual 11-year old is frequently called upon to translate for new students from Pakistan and India who do not have much English. “The Indian kids speak Urdu too but they call it something else,” she says, “and they are cool just like the Pakistani kids. We should go to India sometime”.
Let us give these children the message that we share common values and hopes. Let’s use all the energy we waste in harbouring animosity against each other to work together for the progress of our part of the world.
The writer is a teacher based in Sydney, Australia, with an Honours Degree in English Literature and MA in Linguistics from Karachi University and in Applied Linguistics and TESOL, Indiana University. Email: email@example.com
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: Pakistani and Indian children play,oblivious of their nationalities. Below: the writer’s mother at her ancestral home in Jaigahan, UP