The Mythical ‘Other’

Last month my Facebook notifications brought up an interesting ‘memory of the day’ – a feature that shows all your past activity on the social media platform from that particular day – an article I had shared two years ago suggested that the 2015 India vs Pakistan Cricket World Cup match was watched by a billion people. The match day is still so vivid in my mind, its memories are easily accessible to be replayed before my eyes at any time. And this is not because India won. In fact, if I was to pick out one moment, the first feeling from that day, it wouldn’t be a celebratory happiness, but a longing. I yearned to return back to Manchester where I attended university with many friends from across the border, and watch the match screening sitting amidst a screaming crowd with ‘Chak De India’ and ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ playing simultaneously in the background. In an increasingly ‘me’ versus ‘you’ era, this notification stood out reminding me how to create a ‘we’ atmosphere celebrating the common ground – cricket.

Sometime ago, as I was travelling across the Indian state of Punjab for some research work, I received a text message from a friend from Lahore. It read, “Madam, how are you? Miss you.” I was in Amritsar then, and according to Google only 50 kilometres away from my friend. I planned to visit the India-Pakistan border near Atari village that afternoon, but my friend couldn’t make it on such a short notice. A missed opportunity, I felt at first, but today, I feel his absence on the ‘other’ side of the barbed wire was a beautiful blessing. I’ll explain how with my story from five years ago.

October 17, 2012: It was my friend Karan’s twenty-first birthday in a few hours and we wanted to celebrate him as loudly as possible. Oh, and when I say “we” I’m referring to a bunch of us Indians living in the university accommodation who were commonly referred as the “rowdy Indians.” We had planned everything to the best of our abilities – every person Karan had ever spoken to was personally invited for the midnight surprise, there were drinks and snacks, massive speakers for entertainment, a person on the camera and I was lighting the candles in my room as it was almost time. Once I walked out of my room, I was surprised, shocked would perhaps be a better word as I took a few steps backward looking at the large crowds, I only knew half of the faces, “Who are these people? I didn’t know Manchester had so many brown people,” I whispered to a friend walking behind me. She giggled and replied, “I’ve no idea. Karan met some of them during the welcome week this year and others are apparently his Pakistani friends from course.”

“Pakistani friends,” I repeated the words in my mind. My friend and I then walked out and through the sea of people to lead them to Karan’s room to wish him. Soon after the surprise, she and I stood in a corner enjoying the Punjabi music and watching people dancing to their heart’s content. Even though the room was filled with Karan’s well-wishers, our eyes were fixed on the three people we knew were from Pakistan. We knew one of ‘them,’ she and I had met him on New Year’s Eve and had welcomed 2012 together. Sohaib then walked up to us in his formal tone and gestures, and greeted us. We had only spoken to him a couple of times after the New Year’s celebration, and frankly, we felt he was too…different, almost had a daunting personality. As I tried to carry a conversation with him, she lightly giggled behind me, and this made me even more uncomfortable.

Learning is an interesting process where you acquire something, knowledge or skill, by studying or through experiences. The kind of person you are today is because of the things you learnt during your childhood and growing up years. Your identity of name, nationality, religion, beliefs, worldview etc is all yours because you learnt it in that particular way. But, how do you unlearn something?

As a 1990s child growing up in a middle class family in India, I don’t remember ever liking the idea of Pakistan. Their cricket team was our biggest rival and our armies had fought several different intensities of wars and conflicts. None of this is new for anyone, after all, our histories as independent nations started with a bloody massacre and the largest human displacement. So, it’s safe to assume my views of suspicion and animosity regarding Pakistan were engraved deep and dark. But, here was this young man standing a feet away from me, smiling, and asking me about my summer holidays. As if all of this wasn’t enough awkward, he was even singing to Karan’s then favourite singer Yo Yo Honey Singh.

Now, while I was organising my research from Punjab and preparing to start the writing procedure, something interesting happened. An old friend from university was visiting Delhi after a long time and a few of us decided to meet and catch up over drinks. The restaurant was buzzing with crowds of people and pop music, so we could only talk to one or two other people near us and not the full group. I was incidentally sitting next to two people I’d met for the first time, they were both school friends of my university friend visiting Delhi. As our conversation started building up, I told them about this piece I was going to write and some of my research work, the man who was sitting in front of me, his face, his expressions are something I can never forget. First, he said that I must feel very passionately about restoring trust and removing the fear of the ‘other,’ and then he struggled to find the right words, be polite and ask me something. A golden question, and I feel many people who hear me speak of my university days must want to ask me this question but never are able to gather the courage to put these words together. His eyes lit up, he stuttered but was determined to know, “so… how did…how did it feel, you know the first time you spoke to a Pakistani?”

I laughed in delight. Then, picking up my phone I reread an email I had received a few minutes ago. It was sent to me by an old friend who now overlooks international students’ admissions at a U.S. university. She had written to me to share a similar moment which had happened with her. While conducting a telephone interview with a prospective student from Pakistan, she was telling the boy of the quality of campus life when he suddenly stopped for a moment and asked her, “Are you Indian?” The boy then asked her a series of questions about her life in India, her experiences and more. You see, that boy, just like the man I was sitting with, was simply curious. They both reflected an energy of hope, of curiosity, of an unknown, perhaps hidden, desire to get to know the ‘other.’

“The first time I met Sohaib,” I replied to the man sitting beside me, “I actually had no idea that he was from Pakistan. Karan had asked me to join him and a couple of friends for New Year’s Eve celebration. I met him minutes before we entered the club and we were only able to exchange names. Later that night, once we were all settled down warmly in a common room, it was then that I had asked Sohaib where he was from. In a very casual tone, he had replied, Rawalpindi. Oh, that moment, if someone had taken a photo of my face, I bet the person would have become rich by selling the rights to my look of disbelief. ‘Rawalpindi?’ I’d asked him again just to confirm. ‘Yeah, you know where Shoaib Akhtar is from,’ Sohaib had replied. As if this wasn’t a shock big enough, Karan hammered the last nail to my coffin, ‘Sohaib’s from a military background too.’ Karan’s words were the last ones to be spoken in that room for a good few minutes.

“And then?” asked the man sitting in front of me, he was on the edge of his seat waiting for me to pick up my pace in the story. “And then nothing. We all went home and slept,” I replied with a smile dipped in shades of nostalgia. “So you don’t talk to Sohaib? Right? Of course you can’t…he’s the army. And we’re Indians. We’ve got to support our country. But then… how do you choose which Pakistani to talk to and which to avoid?” the man asked.

Let’s pause here for a moment and rewind to the moment of curiosity to know the ‘other,’ let us see how the unsaid and unexplored feelings which were like a chance to rebuild trust and perhaps the start of a friendship transformed into suspicion in this man’s last question. You see what happened here is very simple. All of his life’s learnings unconsciously flashed before him and he only remembered the bad – horrifying stories from partition of death, displacement, rape, torture, narratives of conflict, wars, terrorism and disruption of normal life in the last 70 years. If you grow up in countries like ours, you would know that his sudden change of emotions for the ‘other’ aren’t all that appalling. Indians and Pakistanis both have their versions of events, and yes, they both are running the race to disgrace the ‘other,’ to win the blame game. And in between this competition, the friendly stories are often discarded as fiction, as Bollywood. Just yesterday, a friend summarised this moment for me rather simply. “The only people that can understand Pakistanis are Indians and the only people that can understand Indians are Pakistanis, but they don’t get along.”

I recently read an article titled ‘History vs the Past’ in the newsletter of the John Carter Brown Library which discussed the differences between the two terms as defined by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. “The Past is an ‘ocean of events that once happened.’ Those past events are, ‘reconstructed by us on the basis of our present experiences…’” The article then presented an interesting remark following Kolakowski’s explanation, “The writing of history is a process of highly selective reconstruction of features of the past.” This last statement somehow found a quiet spot within me and stayed. I often think about it, especially in this context of India and Pakistan where I suppose past was the same, but histories, they’re as far apart as possible. Historians (governments) had different collective memories, different lenses of time, feelings and circumstances, hence they shaped records differently.

Let me now bust several fixed ideas by answering a few questions about the ‘other.’ First, “how do you choose which Pakistani to talk to and which to avoid?” The same way you choose who is going to be your friend when you walk into class on the first day of school – you find common interest. “So you don’t talk to Sohaib? Right?” You cannot be more wrong. He’s a good friend, someone without whom my Manchester experience would have been incomplete. My first Pakistani friend; although I did meet a few British Pakistani girls before him, in my mind they were British and not Pakistani so I don’t count them. I have been asked this next question more often than I would like to admit, “Has India run out of people that you need to speak to Pakistanis now?” Although I’d much love to poke fun of this question, I am going to choose not to simply because I understand that those people who ask me such question haven’t been as fortunate as I have been to have a cultural exchange, a dialogue, a communication, an opportunity to form bonds with people from Pakistan. And this exchange of ideas is key to understanding and then removing the fear of the ‘other.’

“You know this song?” I remember asking Sohaib in Karan’s room that night after the surprise. “Dope Shope!” he had replied in excitement, “Yes, Karan has been playing this on repeat for the last week. Aren’t you going to dance?” he asked looking eager to join Karan with his dance moves. I wasn’t sure how to even comprehend what was happening, let alone reply to him. The last time we had danced, it was in an overcrowded club on New Year’s Eve, and I had no idea of the kind of person he was or that he was from Pakistan.

Did you just say no to him because he’s from Pakistan? I remember thinking to myself. Isn’t that against everything you stand for? What happened to being a global citizen? If you could adjust with roommates from Myanmar, South Korea, Afghanistan then what’s wrong with him? See, I studied at an International boarding school where I grew up with people from different countries, different religious beliefs, of different colour and income levels who had different cultural assumptions than me, and all of that was a ‘normal’ experience. I had developed traits to learn others’ stories, tell them mine and practiced how to remove the most insignificant factors which make someone the ‘other’ and just share a laugh, a bond by finding a common ground. After being appalled at every prejudiced person who laughed at you all those years, do you want to become one of them, Shreen? Are you someone who sees diversity and differences with fear and is intolerant, or are you going to choose to be the person you learnt to be, who you have been, someone who sees everyone with respect and enjoys the beauty of unique identities, learns about diversity with empathy and kindness? It wasn’t how it happens in movies where you see two ghosts, one version of you in white who is telling you to be an angel and the other dressed in all black who is telling you to take the evil path, but it was the sight in front of me.

Karan and Sohaib faced each other doing their versions of Bhangra – their shoulders danced, eyes smiled, and arms were lifted high in the air jumping with beats. It was beautiful. They sang along the music matching their dance movements. And then, the most electrifying moment came, Karan and Sohaib raised their right legs, intertwined them while hopping on the left leg creating a circle, a trademark dance step that shouts fondness and warmth. These two weren’t the closest or oldest of friends, but they shared a moment of high spirits with Punjabi music and Bhangra.

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In an instant everything changed. I learnt that everything I’d known about Pakistan wasn’t true. And that was a moment of great distress for me as I challenged the rigidly carved ideas within my framework. See, befriending someone from South Korea or the United Kingdom wasn’t half as extreme as giving a chance to someone who is from the ‘enemy’ country. But then again, that friend from South Korean or the United Kingdom didn’t look like me, did not speak my language or understand my music and style of dancing, they weren’t accustomed to my loud voice, neither my flavours felt like home to them nor my obsession with Bollywood or colourful celebrations on festivals and after cricket games made sense to them. And if I can come to accept, appreciate and love these friends from distinct corners of the world, Sohaib, and my friend from Lahore and everyone else I had known was a neighbour. Over the next few weeks after Karan’s birthday and until Diwali, I began a process of unravelling the differences, and there really weren’t that many, and smiled from my heart each time I came across another mutual interest. I remember Diwali only because we were all great fans of Shah Rukh Khan and saw his film Jab Tak Hai Jaan which released on Diwali 2012 together at the theatre. From sharing memes of CID characters to videos mocking our countries’ political realities, the list of common interests was ever increasing.

As a result of this deep rooted friendly bond and countless memories with my friends, visiting the India-Pakistan border near Atari village was at first a very overwhelming experience. Even before I crossed the multiple check points and gates to finally get a glimpse of the border and Pakistan which falls behind the hostile lines of separation, I felt the energies of the ‘desi’ culture and lifestyle I had celebrated in Manchester. And here is my most favourite observation from experience: in South Asia we’re two countries divided because our cultural differences didn’t allow us to live harmoniously with each other, it’s an “us” vs “them” game, but anywhere abroad, like in England, Indians and Pakistanis live as a third community, ‘desi,’ enjoying everything from Holi to Diwali and from Eid to Christmas, finding occasions to celebrate with good food, music and dancing. The first senses of being in very close proximity to Pakistan starts 50 metres before the border with a signpost erected on the side of the road which reads, “Lahore 22 km.” I was closer to Lahore than my accommodation in Amritsar, and that was a strange feeling. I continued to walk with my overjoyed heart, saw the gates, the two flags, the uniformed and armed soldiers. I soaked my eyes with imprints of the ambience, my ears cherished the amalgamated sounds from the music playing in loudspeakers on two ends of the white painted line. But then, just as the tip of my smile knew no end, my heart kind of broke.

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I was still very happy to be there, but I wondered. If my friend from Lahore had actually showed up at the border to see me, we would have been so close, we would have been able to see each other, hear each other, perhaps even embrace each other after the ceremony if the guards had allowed, but we couldn’t dance linking our feet like Sohaib and Karan. There was a barbed wire between us. I would have been an Indian and he, a Pakistani. So, I was grateful he couldn’t come. I thought it was for the better that a ‘me’ vs ‘him’ moment wasn’t created. I remember in Manchester, even after cricket matches, regardless of the outcome of the match, we all ate together, although with a lot of friendly teasing and mockery of the losing side, but it was in a good spirit of oneness.

After seven decades of conflict and propaganda with bare minimum social and cultural exchange, tall walls have replaced the otherwise blurry borders which separate two nations armed from head to toe. It is this hostility, along with age old stories of rivalry which promotes suspicion and creates the majestic being called the ‘other.’ But sometimes, however rare this may be, if you look closely you ought to find scenes in our everyday affairs which make the strongest of borders seem too little. While at the border, I witnessed several people entering India from Pakistan and vice versa, and it was then that my eyes noticed a boy, probably in his late teens, standing in the queue with his green passport to show to the last of the border officials from India. It appeared that he was a part of a student group. But the thing which struck a chord for me was the brown paper bag resting on the suitcase the boy wheeled along. I recognised that bag…it was Haldiram’s! For anyone who hasn’t ever travelled to India or shopped at an Indian departmental store abroad, Haldiram’s is perhaps the most famous sweets and snacks manufacturer from India. It’s like Cadbury of India, everyone recognises Haldiram’s, just like I did sitting a few metres away from the boy, smiling at the package he chose to take from India to Pakistan.

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“Did any of you make a note of that scene?” I asked my family recently. They admitted that the boy with the Haldiram’s packet had made them smile too. Then, I wondered how many others had noticed it, if at all? You see, that border is an especially loud place, with the routine parade every evening the place is buzzing with people singing along patriotic songs and chanting on cue of the person on the loudspeaker on either end. The soldiers are seen chest thumping, challenging the ‘other’ side by stomping their boots as loudly as possible, twirling their moustache to symbolise strength, pride and courage. But somewhere between these spectacles, which end when the soldiers on the two ends smash their respective gates shut, scenes of pure connections, or similarities get lost. While this border is successful in selling a form of patriotism to all its visitors, I found it funny that the soldiers maintained a cordial relationship with the ‘others.’ After the show comes to an end, they secretly open the gates, walk on the no-man’s land, shake hands and some sweet jokes. It’s not that I have a problem with the good relationships between these armed men, definitely not, rather my issue is that the common visitor is deceived, fooled and left unaware of this light laughter that takes place between the two competing nations. This energy needs to be portrayed louder, I feel.

I wrote a letter in my journal while I was in Punjab, and now I’d like to share its first paragraph. “Nangal, January 31: Yesterday, the place we went to for dinner was near a town called Una, which is in Himachal Pradesh (another state in India). As we went from Punjab to Himachal, the first thing that I noticed right at the state border was the difference in languages on signboards…one had English and Gurmukhi and the other English and Hindi (Devanagari script). I wonder…if I was to ever cross the border and visit the streets my friends walk on, what would I feel? How would I react? Would the colloquial sound different to me or would I dance in delight remembering the words I’d learnt in Manchester? I try to imagine my feelings after I would cross a man-made mark, and surround myself with differently written signboards in Urdu and more people in Salwar Kameez who actually call it Shalwar Kameez.”

I do not mean to idealise the situation or romanticise these borders, frankly I don’t think that is achievable, but then people ask me what it is that I achieve to do? “Nothing big,” I always tell them, “…just perhaps show you that ‘the other’ is nothing more than a myth.”

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