A Pakistani who has visited India several times revisited recently, now that hostilities between the neighbouring countries have spiked again. What changes did he notice?
On March 30, 2018, I was one of the only two Pakistanis boarding the 35-seater ATR plane from Lahore to Delhi. The ATR reminded me of my past work trips to distant schools in Gilgit and Skardu, and the ever-present suspense before the flight: "Will the plane fly today?" With only a couple of flights a day and weather a customary excuse, I often returned from Islamabad airport with an unused boarding pass.
Now here I was, flying to Delhi on a similar plane. I had been to India before -- studied in Mumbai five years ago at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences where I obtained my MA in Social Work.
I have travelled to India five times as a graduate student between 2011-13, and once in 2017. Every time I think I am used to this situation, I am again surprised by the anxiety it evokes. This time, given the current India-Pakistan hostility, I couldn’t help worrying about what the immigration officer would ask and how I would respond.
When I was in India before, family and friends in Pakistan would advise me to not disclose my identity unless absolutely necessary. Driven by stubbornness -- and because I liked what followed, I did otherwise. I always encountered warmth and curiosity, discussion and debate.
I was not disappointed this time either. At Indira Gandhi International Airport, as the immigration officer took my passport, I saw a few uneasy glances shifting from the document to me. Then, to my surprise, a smile, "Mr. Ajay this is the first Hindu’s passport from Pakistan I am stamping".
After a few technical questions, I was cleared, officially allowed to experience India -- of course, only the cities I had obtained a visa for after a three-month application process.
Unlike my earlier meticulously planned trips this one was triggered at the last minute by a WhatsApp message. A friend from university in Mumbai, now in Delhi, decided to get married with a two-day notice to family and friends. Since she was the dearest of all my university friends, the test had come where friendship sees no borders.
Sometimes, luck and timing come together to achieve miracles. I had been invited to attend a relative’s wedding in December 2017, for which I had submitted a visa application in October, but the visa arrived in late January after the wedding had already taken place. So, I actually already had a valid visa in place.
Friendships are magical. Even when meeting after years, old jokes, memories and feelings re-emerge in seconds. This is exactly what happened when I met my college friends at the airport. One had flown in from Lucknow, another had hopped on a bus followed by a train ride from a village in Uttarakhand and the third lives in Delhi itself. We headed straight for the wedding. It was already 3pm, and the nikkah was to take place at 5pm.
A traffic deadlock near Chandni Chowk forced us to abandon the comfort of our friend’s air-conditioned car, leaving our luggage in it. The four of us squeezed into a rickshaw but that too got stuck in traffic. We got off and walked for almost a kilometre inside the tiny bustling lanes behind Jama Masjid. Finally, we reached the bride’s 200-year old family home in time for the nikkah.
Saman has always been unique. After graduation, when everyone raced to secure a job, she joined a social movement as a volunteer, travelling across India as sometimes the only female in the entire group. Today, she is pursuing a PhD at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, connecting the role of consciousness played out through quantum physics, and seeing its potential to understand and transform social movements.
Sounds mind-boggling but it often gets us into wonderful conversations, the kind we had soon after her wedding. Every Friday, a tour operator brings foreigners mostly from North America to Old Delhi. Their tour includes a visit to Saman’s family home. It was wonderful to be present there that week, to sit on the floor in a house that has seen centuries pass by and converse about just about everything -- from inter-religious marriages, to geo-politics, hopelessness and hope.
When talking about India, the travellers were interested in many diverse topics. But when it came to Pakistan they had no experiences to go by, only news about perceived threats. As the only Pakistani present, I invited them to travel across the border and experience for themselves the different shades of daily life in my country too.
Saman added a thoughtful comment about consciousness and connections without borders, bringing a positive light to the discussion.
"Do you see hope?" one of the visitors asked.
"Yes," she replied. "If we collectively instill hope through our thoughts and words the magic of consciousness will spread it".
There was a feeling of joy about sharing without fixed expectations.
After two days in Delhi, when I left for Nagpur to visit relatives, my Uber driver was a Sikh. We were talking about Delhi traffic, family and many other things when I suddenly used some Urdu word which triggered his next question.
"Sir, aap kahan se hain?" (where are you from?) he asked.
"Karachi se," I responded.
I saw his curious smile in the rear mirror. It turned out that his family originally belonged to Sheikhupura, in present day Punjab, Pakistan. We chatted about Sheikhupura, Karachi, his longing to visit gurdwaras across the border but lacking the means and the passport.
Unloading my luggage from the car, he said, "Sir aap meray pehlay dost ho Pakistan se" (you are my first friend from Pakistan).
Even today, I receive good morning and wahe guru messages from him and sometimes a request to share pictures, as his children want to see Pakistan through images.
At Jet Airway’s domestic counter, Gurpreet, the employee checking me in, examined my green passport, and smiled. "In my three years of service at the counter this is the first time I am interacting with a Pakistani".
In Nagpur, each of my three days began at 5.45am, going to the Walking Street and Japanese Garden with my uncle’s friends who carpooled for the trip. On their respective mobile devices, one listened to music from the Bollywood 1960s, while the other tuned into the 6am news.
I witnessed a positive culture of physical activity there. So many were out and exercising in different ways at that early hour, some walking on a bridge, others stretching next to public benches, or practicing yoga in the park.
The park was named Japanese Garden because it was an uphill forest with a paved walking track like in Japan. Technology coupled with the garden’s natural architecture divided it into many exercise classrooms, each with their own music system and a mindful experience. The one I enjoyed most was the dandi (stick) yoga, where all exercises were orchestrated with the help of a stick with soothing music in the background.
Each jogging experience concluded with a wonderful organic vegetable or fruit, or mixed, juice and cheerful conversations.
I can’t help thinking -- if only more and more Pakistanis and Indians had the opportunity to experience such ordinary cherishable moments on the other side, the distance between our imaginations would be much less than before.