Beyond borders: Embracing Pakistan
Writer : N Jayaram
When I chanced upon the Tweets and Facebook updates of Beena Sarwar, a leading journalist, artist and filmmaker in Pakistan, around Independence Day, I began feasting on a rich repast of articles, blogs and commentaries that showed there is a vast constituency of Pakistani people who harbour cordial feelings towards Indians. Many of these people desired nothing but peace and mutual well-being with Indians and generously acknowledged the positive sentiments that Indian visitors to their country expressed.
I was deeply grateful for this. Because, for many years, whenever I’ve come across the words “failed state” and Pakistan in the same sentence, I’ve fidgeted, thinking that surely one simply cannot equate a people – and so many warm-hearted people – with as amorphous a concept as “state” and throwing out, if I may use an ancient cliché, the baby with the bathwater.
The people of Pakistan, most reputedly, are warm-hearted. Over many decades, I’ve read countless accounts by Indian journalists, academics, civil society activists, film-makers as well as people in the official establishment, about the immense generosity that was showered upon them in the Pakistani street as well as in air-conditioned altars of the genteel bourgeoisie. Almost all have spoken of being treated courteously, restaurateurs refusing payment for tea, snacks or meals on learning the diner was from the other side of the border, and countless similar gracious gestures.
We live in an era of complex loyalties. Many men throughout the world have fanatical attachment to some football teams in corners of England or continental Europe. Almost everyone sides with teams from their own “country” or “nation”, often without questioning how old – or strongly identified with – that country is or nationhood is.
I remember a day in late 1985 when I sat in the press gallery between S. Nihal Singh, the renowned former editor of The Statesman, and a UNESCO official, a Pakistani (whose name escapes me), during that organisation’s General Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. The two spoke to each other in Punjabi for a while. The Pakistani gentleman asked me whether I’d caught anything of what they’d been saying. A few words are similar to Hindi (the North Indian language imposed on us South Indians in schools), I mumbled. It occurred to me that I had less in common with the person of the same ‘nationality’ as mine than the two of them had with each other.
I’m also reminded of the time in the late 1990s when I “discovered” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I was almost exclusively into Western Classical those days but the CD shop in Hong Kong I was in had prominently displayed Khan Sahib’s 1995 collaborative album with Michael Brook, Night Song.
Listening to it, I was covered with goose bumps and washed over by a sense of pride. Pride in what, I asked myself. In the immense talent and global fame of a fellow South Asian. These were moments of epiphany, although I was only too acutely aware of the many ironies and tragedies of Partition. Now that technology allows us to transcend borders and connect instantaneously, it is imperative that as many of us as possible join hands to celebrate our common humanity.
Which brings me back to Beena Sarwar’s newsfeeds. Following is a sample of the kind of articles she has been flagging: One of the most amazing is her own blog entry about Pakistan’s first anthem. Founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah had asked Poet Jagannath Azad to write it. How fascinating it is that that a man who eventually – and reluctantly – moved to India after Partition had written the first anthem of Pakistan, that a song Indian schoolchildren grow up with, Saare Jahan se Achha, was composed by Muhammad Iqbal, who is regarded as the national poet of Pakistan, and that Rabindranath Tagoreis the author of the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh.
Beena Sarwar has mounted a campaign to resurrect Azad’s anthem, asking people to “Bring back Jagannath Azad’s Pakistan anthem”. Her latest on the issue is here: “65 years… Reviving Jagannath Azad’s poem for Pakistan” . The following is, of course, an appeal by a Pakistani to his compatriots: “Jinnah’s Pakistan cannot be abandoned” by Raza Rumi. A nice article from 2010 on Gandhi was tweeted by her a few days ago: ‘Gandhi and Islam: Syed Ashraf Ali reviews the great man’s admiration for the religion of peace’. She has flagged reports about minorities in Pakistan – ‘In solidarity: ‘There are conspiracies to make Hindus leave Pakistan’. Sarwar has also flagged reports of Indians or those of Indian origin visiting Pakistan and being awestruck – ‘Eye Opener: An Indian-American Visits Pakistan‘. Blogger Riaz Haq has compiled a few impressions of visitors from the other side in “Indians Share ‘Eye-Opener’ Stories of Pakistan‘.
I end with my fellow Bangalorean Prakash Belawadi’s plea for an annual Independence Day Friendship Concert at Wagah, which, he says, “would make the ultimate jugalbandi of our shared musical heritage”. When that jugalbandi happens, I want one of my favourite ensembles, Sachal Studio, to be there. And I hope to go and watch them with a can of Murree in hand.
Note: N Jayaram is a journalist who is now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He worked with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years, and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
This piece can be found on N Jayaram’s blog.