By Farooq Sulehria
June 11, 2013
On January 6, I nervously landed at the Delhi airport. I say nervously because I wasn’t there as a tourist. I had gone to India as a researcher – to spend six months conducting research on the Indian media. As a Pakistani, I was uncertain if I’d be able to get my work done without being suspected of any other activities.
On reaching India, however, it did not take long to for my nervousness to dissipate. My Pakistani origin, I soon discovered, was not a disadvantage. On the contrary, my Pakistaniat was not only helping me achieve desired research goals, it also began to pose gastronomic challenges: in the form of endless dinner invitations.
That my arrival coincided with the alleged beheading of an Indian soldier at the LoC invoked an unknown fear within me. Four months later, Sarabjit’s murder terrified me as well for a while. A fear of the unknown would grip me even otherwise – particularly when alone or lonely. ‘Anything can go wrong and land me in trouble,’ was a thought constantly nagging at me. However, the hospitality extended by my Delhi friends and acquaintances would lay to rest all such fears. Most importantly, a sense of familiarity – at times transforming into a sense of belonging – hardly ever made me feel alien.
My language, skin colour, name, or religion – nothing is alien to Delhi. On the streets, people would stop by and ask for directions. In one incident, while at a metro station I had asked a person standing next to me: “Which line goes to Rajiv Chowk?” Ironically, I was standing right underneath a route-map, which happened to be in Hindi. Rather well dressed and holding a laptop, I hardly looked like the stereotypical unlettered person. The man I spoke to was perhaps in a bad mood. Pointing towards the map, he shouted, “Why don’t you read for yourself?” “I am from Pakistan, can’t read Hindi”, I replied in Urdu. At which he apologised immediately, shook my hand and politely guided me.
The similarities were even stronger in the case of Punjabis and Muslims – even though I am neither Punjabi nor religious. For about four months, I lived in Malviya Nagar, a Punjabi neighbourhood. My Punjabi language skills invoked such an affinity that within weeks I had an Udhar system working with two local grocery stores.
Everywhere in Delhi, one overhears the Azaan. Is it that Muezzins in Delhi recite the Azaan in a highly melodic way. My Swedish-Pakistani friend Prof Ishtiaq helped me understand that the Azaan is also an assertion of Indian plurality and rights of the Muslim there.
As if to appreciate this plurality, I would candidly discuss the Kashmir question as well as the situation of Indian Muslims with my non-Muslim friends and comrades. My interaction with Muslim and Kashmiri students at Jamia Millia Islamia, with which I was attached, helped me enrich my understanding of their situation. While Kashmiri students – infested with conspiracy theories – visualised Pakistan as an Islamic paradise, Indian Muslims have no such illusions about Pakistan even if, like any other Indian, they are concerned about the crises in our country.
Also, like any other religious community, Muslims are divided along ideological and sectarian as well as class and caste lines. Jamia Millia epitomises Muslim diversity as well as the cultural progress Indian Muslims have made.
Imagine a campus in Pakistan with statues of Mirza Ghalib and Maulana Jauhar. While the road to the Mir Taqi Mir Hall is dedicated to Manto, a beautifully built auditorium is attributed to Noam Chomsky. However, my favourite hang-out was the Castro Café surrounded by the M F Hussain Gallery and the Maulana Azad Hostel.
Beyond Jamia Millia, my favourite escape was Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Away from conservative Delhi, JNU’s walls – graffitied with huge images of Marx, Lenin, Che, Bhagat Singh and Manto – offer relief to any frustrated progressive. However, it is Faiz one finds all over the place. But Faiz and Manto are not confined to the JNU’s romantic campus. They are all over Delhi. In fact, Delhi it seems has become Urdu’s last refuge in the Subcontinent.
While the annual Jashn-e-Baharan Mushaira symbolised Delhi’s role in preserving Urdu, a Quawwalı session during Khusro Week at the National Museum or an evening with dhrupad master Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar at the India International Centre (IIC) convinced me that Delhi is also protecting other forms of culture that Muslims have greatly contributed to.
There is a vibrant Urdu press and a flourishing publishing business. At the International Book Fair held in February at Pragati Maidan not merely offered a glimpse into Urdu publications, it was interesting to see an Ahmadiyya bookstore next to Tahirul Qadri’s Minhaj-ul-Quran bookstall. While Urdu press and publications promote a conservative agenda, progressive Muslim voices have found refuge in the recently-launched DD Urdu.
Visits to Doordarshan were always a great experience owing to the warmth shown by its Additional Director General, Ranjan Thakur. However, Faiz’s life-size portrait – surrounded by those of Gandhi jee and Tagore – at DD’s reception would add a special touch to every visit. Once a profitable enterprise, DD is now running huge financial losses. However, it remains committed to its social responsibility.
Apart from DD, the Indian television media is sensationalist. TRP-hungry channels have compromised themselves – journalistically and morally. Luckily, sections of the daily press, notably The Hindu and some magazines, have stayed committed to the Indian tradition of quality journalism. Interestingly, India is the only major newspaper market that has expanded even after the arrival of the digital age.
But electronic media – the television – has outdone other outlets. The sprawling Noida Film City, on the outskirts of Delhi, is a testament to this growth. An enviably modern and efficient, though overcrowded, metro is the best way to reach Noida. Ironically, from metro station one can reach huge media houses via cycle-rickshaws. Initially, I tried to avoid using cycle-rickshaws pulled by skinny migrant workers from Bihar. But they were unavoidable as well as living proof of India’s ‘combined and uneven development’, a theory brilliantly propounded by Leon Trotsky.
Beyond glaring class contradictions, one also comes across sights that would be very familiar for a Pakistani. The traffic is messy; manholes are usually uncovered; and there is an utter neglect for monuments (with few exceptions) and old buildings. Apart from some posh areas, most streets are littered with garbage. While there may be no power cuts, there is a real water crisis.
Since my return on June 4, I have been quizzed by siblings and cousins, friends and acquaintances. ‘What do they think about us? Do they hate us?’ I am asked. ‘I do not know. However, I had wonderful time,’ is my standard reply. Honestly, such simple questions cannot be answered in a similarly simple manner. Also, I do not have any documented evidence to substantiate or deny any claims. I can only narrate my impressions. And I think Pakistan is not the most hated country in India. We could say that about perhaps Bangladesh or Afghanistan where Pakistan is disliked near-universally. However, I can safely assert that the only country where I have been welcomed warmly as a Pakistani is India.
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor.