Cross Border Bonding – The People’s Story

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

For Sakuntala Narasimhan’s generation born before Independence, Lahore and Karachi were part of India. With Partition seven decades ago, new geo-political borders were put in place, but there are thousands of families that have close relatives on both sides of the border. The people-to-people equations between Indians and Pakistanis are nothing but friendly, as she discovered on each of her three visits

“My aunt lives in India,” says a Pakistani friend, while another friend, living in Karachi, says her mother is from a royal princely family of central India, and she has cousins living in India. And so it goes — one brother choosing to settle in Pakistan after Partition, while another preferred to stay back in their ancestral village in Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. Examples abound. 

The young waiter at the hotel in Islamabad where I stayed, sidled up to me shyly and looking at my bindi, said, “Aap India sey (Are you from India)?” When I confirmed I was, he asked excitedly, where in India? “Delhi,” I replied and he added animatedly: “Where in Delhi?” When I gave him details, wondering why he wanted to know, he said, wistfully, in Hindi, “My grandfather used to play cricket in the maidan near your house. I wish I could go and see where he lived and played as a young boy… but visa toh nahin milegaa (I won’t get a visa).” Thereafter, he plied me with extra attention, refilling my coffee cup with generous helpings. 

When I went shopping for souvenirs for friends back home, and chose some embroidered shawls, the shopkeeper declared, waving away the money I offered, “Aap toh mehmaan hain, aapse paise nahin lengey (you are a guest, I won’t take money from you).” In Karachi, when I asked for Karachi halwa at a sweets shop, with nostalgic childhood memories of buying the sticky, coloured halwa at Bengali market in Delhi, the shopkeeper said, with a broad grin, “No, aapa (sister), I will only give you Delhi halwa.” It was the same stuff, but he got a kick out of calling it Delhi halwa. 

Yet another incident – when a local professor at the conference I was attending in Islamabad invited me to her house at Rawalpindi, I had to decline since my visa was underlined and circled in bold black ink, saying ‘Only for Islamabad’. Rawalpindi was just a street away from my hotel, but when I said I was not permitted to visit her, she said, “In that case, I shall bring tea and snacks for you here.”And once when the delegation I was on, missed our connecting flight from Lahore to Delhi, the PIA pilots generously gave us their food packets. 

People-to-people equations between Indians and Pakistanis are nothing but friendly, as I discovered on each of my three visits, even if on a political level, our two countries may be hostile and confrontationist. My visa for Karachi was handed to me literally at the very last minute, at the airport at Delhi, even as my flight to Lahore was ready to board; I had to run to get on the plane; my Pakistani friends say they too have hassles getting visas for India, which are always given at the last minute, so one doesn’t even know whether it will be sanctioned or not. 

Never mind, thanks to technology now, people still manage to link virtual hands across the border, to promote friendship and goodwill. Especially people with common interests in literature, language, poetry and music. One such linkage took place earlier this year, when Transgressions, a book of poems by Professor Anjum Altaf, former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, was brought out by an Indian publisher (Aakar books, LG Publishers, Delhi).

The book of poems (in English) inspired by famous Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, has been warmly received in both India and Pakistan. (A Pakistani edition was brought out subsequently by Liberty Books, Karachi, since copies of the Indian edition could not be imported into Pakistan from across the border, thanks to the trade embargo.) 

Faiz is, of course, claimed by both India and Pakistan – one of his verses, Hum Dekhengey, made news when it was raised as part of a protest against curtailment of liberties in Delhi and Kanpur IIT last year during the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) agitation. Hum dekhengey was composed by Faiz as a condemnation of Zia’s dictatorship, but became popular with groups voicing dissent and wanting to promote people’s rights. 

The poem offers “solace to those subject to injustice” by emphasizing truth, courage, perseverance and resistance (against oppression), and is therefore of relevance at all times, in all regions, as Professor Altaf points out. Faiz, who spent time in prison for his persistent opposition to injustice, is reported to have attended Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral in Delhi in 1948. 

Says Professor Altaf, “The main feeling I always got from Faiz’s poetry was hope and dreams and a desire for change” – and these will never become irrelevant. Borrowing from the ideas enshrined in the original Urdu version, he has reworked them as a tribute to Faiz, whose lines he has often drawn comfort and consolation from, in diverse situations. Examples: 

Every moment bears fresh seeds of life
New passions, new affairs begin
Why mourn desires unfulfilled at the end
When still there is so much left to tend

 What myth is it that keeps you divided
Among yourselves
That keeps you blind to your strength

 We’ve fallen on bad days, it’s true
Love, beauty, truth, all lie askew
But what of that, but what of that
One day the buds will bloom anew

Professor Altaf’s poems are not translations but verses on a variety of topics “inspired by Faiz” as he puts it, and seek to uphold universal values of human dignity, humaneness, and linkages through friendship and peace rather than belligerence. And his credentials, not only as a respected academic and writer, but also as a pan-south Asian authority lend weight and legitimacy to this collection of his poetry – his ancestry spans several geo-political borders. 

Prof Altaf’s grandfather migrated from Kashmir to Peshawar, his mother was from Agra (where her parents stayed on) but her family had migrated from Afghanistan. His father worked for the railways in Calcutta (as it was known then) and then moved to Narayanganj (now in Bangladesh). Professor Altaf himself was born in Dhaka and returned to Lahore after a long stint in the US, before moving back to Pakistan (where he now lives with his author-wife, Samia Altaf; her book “So Much Aid, So Little Development” made waves some years ago when it chronicled insider stories of how international and multilateral aid gets spent/dissipated.) 

Faiz is claimed by both India and Pakistan as a towering literary figure; Urdu aficionados on both sides of the border recognize him as one of the leading figures of Urdu poetry in modern times. After all, Partition did not wipe out the fact that citizens on both sides of the border share the same heritage, culture, music, language, ancestry and lifestyles; as one Pakistani put it, “We were all Indians once, because there was no Pakistan in our grandparents’ time”. 

True, there have been occasional skirmishes and encounters along the border and on disputed territory in Kashmir, but for the majority of Pakistan’s population, the shared links are stronger than the strands of discord. Remember the girl who was arrested in India and punished last year for saying “Pakistan zindabad”? Zindabad translates as wishing someone well (as against murdabad which is a curse and condemnation). 

If a neighbour’s house is in bad shape, it cannot but affect adjacent residents too because it poses a threat to the safety of the entire region. What applies to individual houses holds good for nations too. If exchanging cultural ideas promotes amity, through either poetry or music or other arts, that is a trend to be applauded. In that sense, Professor Altaf’s book is an addition to the corpus that makes Faiz’s ideas accessible to those unfamiliar with Urdu language. If one extends the idea, the possibilities are enhanced – how many North Indians are familiar with the fiery poems of Tamil patriot Subramanya Bharati of the pre-independence period? 

For that matter, how many northerners have heard of the 9th Century poetess Andal of Tamil Nadu whose 30 Tiruppavai verses are sung to this day, every morning during the 30 days of the month of Margazhi (mid-December to mid January) or of the medieval Kannada poetess Akkamahadevi, or of Lal ded of Kashmir ? The Subcontinent is a rich storehouse of linguistic heritage. 

In this age of advanced technology that can even do instantaneous translations, we have plenty to unearth and enrich our cultural corpus with. As one more Independence Day comes round, I am wondering what happened to the Tamil classes that were inaugurated by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the Central Hall of Parliament, around 1952, for the benefit of North Indian MPs. 

Language can knit bonds just as effectively as non-lingual initiatives, not only across national borders but also within the country’s regions to fight divisiveness. Is a Bengali or Telugu translation of Faiz’s verses, on the cards next?

This review appeared in Vidura (A Journal of the Press Institute of India), July-September 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. Sakuntala Narasimhan is a musician and freelance journalist based in Bangalore.

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