A mosaic of Lahore

February 7, 2021

Despite some shortcomings, Sameer Khatlani’s book is an adequate attempt at breaking down Indian stereotypes of Pakistan

It’s only after one leaves Lahore, Pakistan, and meets Indians, that one realises the place Lahore holds in their imagination. I have met several South Indians who had a family anecdote about Lahore to gloat over. So it’s understandable why Sameer Khatlani would’ve pined for a most hospitable, colourful place that boasts of having produced or welcomed famous names, not to mention a memorable time his elders had spent there. But Khatlani has another fish to fry too: to humanise Pakistanis because Indians have changed and they “watch nothing that humanises Pakistan.” It never fails to amaze me to see how easily normal, decent people can be fooled into hating another religion and a people, even their fellow citizens.

To offer a background, he touches on the revivalism of Arya Samaj, hateful views of people such as Gowalkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, connecting the dots with Muslim anxiety and communal riots. Many Indian Muslims insist upon Pakistan being the sole reason for their misery, not the bigotry of other Indians. Khatlani had to deal with the anger of his in-laws. His trepidation mellowed as he reached eastern Punjab, amused that most Sikhs view Pakistan positively, primarily because they’ve been visiting their holy sites and enjoying the legendary hospitality in Pakistan for many decades now.

Sikh invitees to the same conference make him feel at home. Once the author reaches Lahore, things only got better. The sound of dhols welcoms the Indian contingent. Khatlani has been in contact with Pakistani journalists and activists who help him explore the city, discuss issues of political importance. He mentions the generosity of those he meets in the intellectual circle, namely Raza Rumi, Aamir Riaz, Farah Zia, her husband, and her lawyer brother-in-law, Salman Akram Raja, who argued Asghar Khan’s case against the army’s meddling in elections and prevailed fourteen years later.

The book is divided into ten chapters, but it adheres to no strict chronological order. The reader thinks she’s staring at a mosaic. Traveling backwards, the reader realises the history of Sikhs is deeply intertwined with Muslims. From Baba Nanak’s travel to Mecca with his Muslim friend to Guru Arjan’s invitation to Mian Mir to lay the foundation of Sikhism’s holiest shrine to Baba Farid’s verses being in Guru Granth Sahib. From Bhai Mardana’s kirtans to Malerkotla’s place of honour. He grapples with the rebellion and how that catapulted the Punjabis and Gurkhas into the British concept of martial race. That would prove destructive for Pakistan, which received 33 percent of the British Indian army while inheriting 21 percent of India’s population and 17 percent of revenue. Pakistan’s defence budget received more than two-thirds of the amount in 1948, leaping towards a poorly educated weak democracy.

Khatlani’s net of information about Pakistan and beyond reaches far and wide. He knows the names of the longest running Punjabi and Urdu films and mentions luminaries in music and films and their popularity in India. He knows how many Indian films have been shown in Pakistani theatres and about the spell Madhuri Dixit’s smile cast on Pakistani hearts. While he mentions trips by Gulzar and Naseeruddin Shah, someone should’ve mentioned the reception Manoj Kumar received when he visited Pakistan in the late ’70s which helped normalise trips by other artists and intellectuals in both directions. I had the honour of meeting the legendary dancer-actress Cuckoo when she visited her sister, who was my mother’s close friend.

While Khatlani may have the Indian reader as his ultimate audience, he brings up issues that will be equally illuminating for the Pakistani reader such as the creation of the ISI and intelligence regarding 1965 and 1971 wars. He write about the treatment the Pakistani establishment has meted out to Punjabi and the anxiety the Urdu-speaking Muhajir community felt under Ayub Khan. Pakistani reader will find his discussion of why Sheikh Abdullah felt a deeper connection with Nehru and Iqbal and how Muslim Conference curtailed the impact of Muslim League. There’s a lot to chew on throughout the book but I feel that due to the author’s writing style it often feels like a mosaic of tidbits despite catchy chapter headings - my favorite being Pale Shade of White, a play on a classic rock number A White Shade of Pale by Procol Harum, a song that refuses any interpretation - which offer weak glue to the content within.

Contrary to the author’s claim in the book, Zinda Bhaag (2013) wasn’t nominated for the Oscars’ foreign language category. It was only an official selection with 72 other countries. Unexamined phrases like “Soviet invasion” and that Bhutto “had to eat a humble pie” raise eyebrows. Both narratives are misleading. The leftist Saur revolution in Afghanistan caught the Soviets off guard who believed the country wasn’t ripe for a change and had good relations with the deposed King. When the ruling People’s Democratic Republic Party, consisting of Khalqi and Parchami factions, the latter being close to the Soviets, asked the Soviets to send in their military in the face of growing resistance supported by the CIA via Pakistan, they refused to intervene and urged the leftist government to find a domestic solution. It was only when the Khalqi group started targeting their Parchami partners that the Soviets arrived, but it was too late. They were forced thus to cooperate with and help the Khalqis. There’s a dusk and dawn difference between intervening and invading.

Khatlani should also have been more cautious when parroting the narrative about Bhutto being responsible for the 1965 fiasco. Bhutto had very little to do with it. He might have known about it, but Operation Gibraltar, not mentioned by Khatlani by name, was designed by the military high command. When India retaliated, Bhutto was blamed for it and quit the government. The operation was a result of Pakistan having to pull its forces away from Kashmir on President Kennedy’s insistence. Despite the American pledge to the contrary, the US sent military aid to India to counter Chinese offensive. Ayub Khan felt betrayed and this created resentment. Operation Gibraltar was designed to cool off the simmering resentment. Khatlani’s attitude towards Bhutto, though not always negative, perhaps results from a soft corner for Asghar Khan. Many in Pakistani political circles hold Asghar Khan responsible for foiling the compromise within reach between Bhutto and the Pakistan Qaumi Ittehad, consisting mostly of religious parties, paving the way for Bhutto’s ouster from power and his eventual judicial murder.

While Khatlani sprinkles the text with famous people and buildings, he wastes space by mentioning places such as the Pepsi Cola factory near Gulberg. How does it benefit the reader? Admittedly, his trip was too short to absorb a city as old as time. There was not enough time to seek out Punjabi writers to learn how they’d kept the flame going, about cross border exchanges of Punjabi literature transliterated across Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi and the place of Najm Hosain Syed in modern Punjabi literature. I hope he visits Lahore again.

Ending the book on Taliban in Pakistan as being synonymous with the Kharijis as if this is unique to Islam or Pakistan is missing the point. The phenomenon of Taliban(isation) is connected among others to the CIA and the Cold War. When in an interview published in Le Nouvel Observateur, Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor, was asked whether he regretted “having supported Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?” He replied, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” I’d recommend young Pakistanis to pick up this book to see how others, with a sympathetic eye, view them, though, as the noted Urdu writer Ikramullah once said to me: a good person is a tiny bit harsher to a friend yet a tad kinder to an adversary. The latest Gender Parity Index shows Pakistan at the very bottom, far behind other South Asian countries. The reader would’ve appreciated Khatlani’s observation on how Pakistan’s domestic policies have empowered or debilitated the growth of women’s social and economic status.

The Other Side of the Divide: The journey into the heart of Pakistan

Author: Sameer Khatlani

Publisher: Ebury Press

Pages: 249

Price: US$26.12

The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com

A mosaic of Lahore: Sameer Khatlani’s book attempts at breaking down Indian stereotypes of Pakistan