Notes from Pakistan

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

A visit to our neighbouring country brings memories that are reminiscent of our own land

Day 1:

I have three hours to kill between the time I check into my hotel room in Islamabad, and the commencement of the conference I have come to attend. I turn on the TV, lean back and glance through the day’s newspapers.  And suddenly, the border between India and Pakistan that I thought I had crossed somewhere along the flight between Delhi and Lahore, seems blurred, almost non-existent, as I take in the media images.

Sugar mills in Pakistan are in trouble, a news item says, because of falling prices caused by subsidised imports. This could be anywhere in the developing world, where imports from the developed nations kill indigenous earnings, thanks to. WTO and  ‘market liberalisation’. There is also a prominent report about severe shortages of atta (wheat flour) due to bungling in distribution chains. Sounds familiar…

One leading paper even carries an op-ed piece by an Indian columnist. The Sunday edition of the Daily Times paper has an editorial saying that “Relations with India need revival”, while also carrying Shashi Tharoor’s column. Advertisements in the print media range from those for  “stomach tucks” and dubious slimming and weight loss  ‘miracle treatments’. to multinational fast food chains  and “Unbeatable offers” for discount sales for wedding saris and churidar sets.

The page 3 crowds are the same too – rich, insulated, cocooned from the reality of their environment. Ministerial pronouncements are predictable (and pompous) just as they are in you-know-where, but it is the sports pages that make the strongest statement about the cross-border commonality – cricket as an obsession. “The final encounter” the headline says, reporting on an India-Pakistan match (that same morning, an Indian paper that I was glancing through while waiting at Bangalore airport had said, “War of a different kind starts today”).

I turn on the TV, and watch a “Crosstalk” discussion  on ethics in pharmaceutical promotions and drugs policy in Pakistan. Dr Murad Moosa says that a doctor gets a car as gift if he writes out 200 prescriptions for a certain brand of medicine. A large number of the questions from the audience during the discussions are from women – why does that come as a surprise to me? Why do we think of Pakistani women in terms of the stereotype of the “Muslim woman”?

During the commercial break, a cameo ad comes on about child labour, in which a schoolteacher calls out names of students during roll call, and finds many absentees. Those absentee children, the montage shows, are working in the fields, or at factories. All this is redolent of home, not a foreign country.

Day 2:

At the conference session this morning, one of the presentations was about loss of livelihoods for traditional craftsmen and women in the northern regions of Pakistan due to globalization and liberalized trade, while the afternoon session focused on migration and the problems encountered by Pukhtun women left behind in the villages of the northwest frontier mountain regions. So what’s different? Change the names of the places, and this could be a report from anywhere in India, from rural Orissa to the northeast. During the coffee break in between sessions, I overhear the hotel staff ask each other, “Score kya hai?” and when I switch on the television at the end of the day’s work there is Rishi Kapoor and his heroine gyrating and running round trees, followed by a song sequence that has Shahrukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee. The channels are the same, the music and actors the same, the preferred entertainment no different from where I come from….

Day 3:

Today’s sports page headline is “ Pakistan inch closer to safety” (turns out, through a sixth wicket partnership), while another says, “India gear up to face Pak threat.” One paper, The Nation, calls it “The final encounter”.  Never mind the semantics, cricketers of both countries link hands later in the day to promote a polio immunisation campaign.

At today’s conference session I get to meet Dr Talib Lashari, ex-coordinator of the Network for Consumer Protection and Mian Abrar Hafeez, secretary general of the Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan, and we exchange our experiences as consumer activists in our respective countries. They too have a consumer protection Act, passed recently, with redressal fora similar to what we have put in place.

There is an evening recital of music arranged for the delegates attending the conference, by Ustads Meher Ali Khan and Sher Khan. It is qawwali and sufi music, and some of the numbers, like Mast qalandar and Piya ghar go down just as well as they do back home with Indian audiences. Borders and demarcations melt under the seamlessness of the Eman and Pahadi ragas that flow, to the accompaniment of inspired tabla and harmonium played by the sons of the ustads. After dinner I go to the souvenir shop adjacent to the hotel complex to see if I can buy a CD of these performers. The sales assistant offers me instead, albums of Ravi Shankar and Chaurasia that he says, “sell very well.” If I am looking for something lighter, he suggests, he can offer me CD tracks of Om Shanti Om.  I don’t know about music being the food of love, it certainly seems to be the food of cross-border bonding.

Day 4:

This morning two of us from India, one from Hyderabad and me from Bangalore, were interviewed on CNBC, telecast live from the 15th floor of the posh and impressive Saudi-Pak tower in the heart of Islamabad. Though the focus was on the conference and its theme of sustainable development, the discussions covered general trends and social issues in Pakistan and India. There was no censorship, and we were free to articulate our viewpoints. (This was a day before the Emergency was lifted by President Musharraf.) And I could not help recalling that during a similar television chat back home, I was carefully instructed not to mention politicians, brand names, etc.

During the closing session of the conference, the main speaker, a former minister, cited an NGO of Andhra Pradesh as an example of how micro-credit initiatives can make a significant difference to women’s empowerment. The keynote speaker in turn, quoted two couplets from Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, describing how parting between friends can be pleasant instead of sad if one retains the happiness of togetherness rather than the pain of separation. It is a famous quotation that I have heard back home too. How come our shared literary links are never mentioned?

Day 5:

It is time to say goodbye. We embrace and exchange gifts, pretty onyx carved clocks and embroidered gossamer shawls, as mementos for me to carry back, Rajasthani miniature paintings from me for my friends. “Phir milenge” says the professor from Karachi, “Inshallah,” adds the anthropologist from Karachi.

I remember that before I left Bangalore on this trip, one of my students had said, “Ma’am, look for CDs of Roshanara Begum who migrated to Pakistan after partition, I can’t find them here.” “You must go see Taxila, the ancient site,” another had said. But Roshanara Begum was a famous singer of my childhood in Delhi, and Taxila, I learned at school, was an Indian heritage site?

I have heard of the Wagah border, where security guards from both sides glare at each other, but as I sit in the aircraft homeward bound, I am no longer sure of where the geopolitical border between the two countries is drawn.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore. This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of Vidura and has been contributed to this blog by the author.


  • anil sharma
    Posted at 21:14h, 29 March Reply

    The answer to pervasive ignorance is the frank communication by well informed & open minded individuals. The basic facts remain – I can NEVER be happy if my neighbor is in pain. Fomenting hatred has never benefited any one – the pleasure obtained from these negative thoughts are transient. The more we travel & meet our neighbors more we realize how alike we are! I hope one day to be able to travel to Pakistan. Until then I enjoy the company of individuals here in the USA who have enriched my life be it poetry, music, art or friendship.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 05:40h, 30 March Reply

    It takes a while of knowing each other to see that behind all the political grandstanding of an Indian or a Paksitani is someone who loves the same Biryani, music, human beauty (of both men and women), sports; who has the same problems of healthcare, education, loans and corruption; who grapples with the same spiritual struggle of maintaining equanimity through life’s travails.

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