General VP Malik’s book, “Kargil – From Surprise To Victory” is not quite what I expected to see on the shelf at the bookstore in the Sheraton lobby in Karachi; but then, after Katrina staring at me from hoardings extolling the virtues of Lux body wash and Veet hair remover, and an improbably rosy-cheeked Kareena pitching in for Head and Shoulder from her billboards, after seeing skimpily dressed babes walking the ramp on a fashion channel on one TV screen while an IPL match plays on the other in the hotel gym, after reading on the front page of The News that the Chairman US Joint Chiefs Of Staff has ‘repeated the allegation’ that elements of the Inter-Servies Intelligence are supporting the Sirajuddin Haqqani network – well, I am not sure what I should be expecting to see anymore. For those of us bound by the prisms of projection, a first person perspective of Pakistan is engaging, even refreshing.
I usually smirked when I read stuff along the lines of how people in Pakistan are generally friendly, even warm, towards visitors from India, that it’s difficult to find traces of our inter-state animosity in everyday interpersonal behaviour. Now, I have to admit, even if it may be applicable primarily to the English-speaking class, there is more than a little truth to that opinion.
The people one meets with go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, perhaps sensing the edgy tentativeness of someone who’s in Pakistan for the first time. There’s very little of the hardline mindset, at least very little you can make out. Over dinner, alcohol flows freely, and on occasions the paradox is that me, the solitary “non Muslim foreigner” – the only category that can order liquor officially, as the footnote at the end of the card detailing the price of rum, whisky etc tells me in the hotel room – is the only one not with a drink in hand over extended conversation on dualities, contradictions and hypocrisy in modern day Pakistan. “There’s a thriving gay culture, but that’s not the sort of thing that’s written about in the media here, at least not yet,” you hear while everyone nods in agreement.
Young people have fairly sharp political views. “Zia-ul-Haq destroyed what we could have become and took us to where we are today,” a 20-something says, before explaining why the way Pakistan’s moved in the past few years has been so different from India. “You can’t keep asking a country for money all the time and then ask it to keep off your affairs, it doesn’t work that way”, says another, while reading the latest headlines over the government’s latest protest to the US. There’s a smart sense of humour over things that can perhaps only be laughed at. Sample this: Why is the Pakistan Military Academy an institution superior to Harvard? Because while Harvard makes you good enough to run MNCs, passing out of PMA makes you capable of running anything at all, from railways to water to power corporations.
There’s no animosity over the inequality of soft power; “Meera can’t be a Shilpa, there’s no way you can compare Lollywood to Bollywood”, one hears when wondering if the Pakistani actress was quite in shape to be the showstopper for JJ Valaya’s show at Karachi’s recently held Bridal Couture Week. While I was there, news of Moin Akhtar passing away leads to many genuinely upset people, and recollections of him being described as the most versatile comic actor in the subcontinent. Then an enthusiastic journalist reminds me of something which apparently Amitabh Bachchan had said, about India never being able to have Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Noorjehan and Moin, to which Akhtar responded by saying how Pakistan could never have the Taj Mahal, Lata and Bachchan himself. The specific accuracy of the exchange is grey, the episode having happened many years ago, but the sentiment of mutual appreciation for the icons of our societies comes through, direct and uncomplicated. Bollywood is, and remains, India’s primary representative, to the point that even when I ring the cab driver’s number, his caller tune loudly rings out, ‘Tere jaisa yaar kahaan, kahaan aisa yaarana…’
We are all cynical about the doves when it comes to the Pakistani establishment, but many Pakistani people are not just unaffected by the hostile legacy, they are positively warm to India and things Indian. They also understand the implications of the radicalization of their motherland, observe that Jinnah’s pictures in government buildings have quietly gone from western suit clad to more Islamic apparel over the years, and sometimes, express their sentiments in T-shirt slogans that say ‘We are peace loving Pakistanis’. Despite that, why the sentiment doesn’t reflect too often in Indo-Pak relations is, in hindsight, a factor of how much the official establishment on the one hand and the fundamentalist fringe on the other overshadows the middle / upper middle class in terms of ability to influence change.
A random fact to illustrate this, perhaps: the five Indians who make it to the TIME list of the 100 most influential people in the world this year are the cricket captain, a social activist, a professor of neurosciences and two mega-entrepreneurs; the sole Pakistani representative in the list is, appropriately enough, the convergence point of the establishment and the fundamentalists – the ISI chief.
The fine print is in the last line
Bombay Light House – an interesting choice of nomenclature, must assume it precedes 26/11 – and Raj Thackeray
…as is Kareena
The writing against the fundamentalists – ‘fundoos’ for short – may not quite be on the wall, but you couldn’t put in on a T-shirt if you’d be lynched for the thought, I guess