By Tahir Mehdi
08 October, 2014
When you cross the Wagah Border, you are struck by so many similarities in the two countries that you may need Google map to confirm your current location.
However, India holds many surprises for a Pakistani visitor as well.
Here are the six that I couldn't resist sharing:
1. Eat, Sip and Travel
Train travel for a Pakistani of my age is a precious childhood memory – the anxiety of being on time, as it never awaited for anyone (not even a VIP!), siblings jostling for a window seat, snack vendors popping up every other moment, the coolies, uniformed ticket checkers, the signals and the crossings. All of this had existed as a fascinating sub-culture.
The behemoth shuttled past vast plains, snaked through mysterious mountains and jumped over mighty rivers, as astounded passengers, like me, gazed at the fast changing scenes. The best moment was when it used to stay put for some time (for truly technical reasons) in the midst of a strange place; a jungle, a hamlet, suburbs.
But then it would hit a red signal that would never turn green. A majority of Pakistanis in the 20s had never had the pleasure of a train travel.
The railway in India, however, is alive and kicking. It arrives and departs on time too. India has maintained well this technological wonder that we jointly inherited from the Colonial period. It comes with its fair share of changes; some make you feel good and others nostalgic.
I eagerly waited for the Chana Chaat Wala but was instead visited by a waiter every 20 minutes or so. Each time, he handed me a tray load of things to eat, so much so that with a mouthful throughout the journey, I barely spoke to my companions. I missed all those colourful characters from my childhood, now replaced by packed food from a host of companies, diligently offloaded onto keen consumers.
The overwhelmingly generous, or should I say lavish, hosting by the railway comes in sharp contrast with the measly ways of private Indian airlines. They hand you a menu with a ‘sky price’ of each item and you feel guilty asking for even a glass of water for free!
My Indian friends joked that they expected the airlines to soon start charging passengers for toilet use, with a ‘price list’ hanging at the door. You can well imagine the ‘items’ it would include.
India has maintained its railway system well. It has been modernised but signs of the past still abound.
Unlike in Pakistan, where one has to wait until Multan to savour the Multani Sohan Halwa, in India, assorted items reach you directly without you moving an inch from your seat.
2. The Other Wheel
The most startling difference you come across as soon as you enter India from Pakistan – women in public space.
They are everywhere, riding two wheelers, in buses and trains commuting independently and running businesses big and small, including roadside tea stalls and shops.
They come from all cultures and communities. I saw young girls cycling back home from school in a Ludhiana village. I saw two black Burqa-clad women riding a Scooty in Hyderabad. The most amusing, however, was to witness a grey Choti (braid) dangling from behind a helmet as an old lady sped past me in Bangalore.
With cities teeming with people and roads perennially clogged, the swift motorcycle is the vehicle of choice for millions, just as it is in Pakistan. But it is not a taboo for women to ride a bike in India.
In Ahmedabad, some of my friends decided to gather at one point and then go for a round of the city together. Everyone, however, had an errand to attend to on the way. The host took great pains in developing a please-all route and in accordance, divided the group among the available vehicles.
When I finally packed myself into a car, I reminded the host, sitting next to me, that Bhabhi (his wife) was missing. “No, I gave her my bike. She has to pick up our child from school before she can rejoin us.” I was flabbergasted.
“That simple,” I murmured. Luckily no one noticed.
So please, when there, don’t stare at a young lady in jeans on a motorcycle, checking her newsfeed on a Smartphone, while awaiting the green signal. It’s normal there.
When a woman runs a roadside business in Pakistan, it makes news. In India, it doesn’t. No news is good news.
3. Guess what’s for dinner tonight?
This one could be a little more than a surprise – a shock for many Pakistanis, in fact.
I signed a declaration as part of the entry process on the Indian side of the Wagah Border to state that I was not carrying any contraband items like drugs or weapons, etc. That’s commonplace but the check list also included ‘beef and beef products’. I was worried about what I had eaten for breakfast that morning, lest they make me walk through some special scanner.
The surprise kept springing up in intriguing ways throughout my stay.
There are restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian and there are those that serve non-veg as well but then, many firm believers do not like to eat veg meals from the kitchen that processes meat as well. So, they will go to a place that does not serve non-veg. At many places, rows of veg and non-veg restaurants are clustered in separate streets.
This ‘culinary partition’ is then extended to housing as well, as vegetarian landlords do not rent their properties to meat-eaters that include Muslims, Christians, Bengali Hindus and people of Scheduled Caste Dalit communities.
Non-believers, however, can try to sneak past these stringent tests if their family names are kosher. Vegetarian colonies and apartments, however, closely watch against a non-veg taking residence there. So, entire neighbourhoods can be identified with what they prefer to have for dinner.
In addition to meat, Jains abstain from eating garlic and onions as well. So there are separate Jain markets and colonies.
For most Pakistanis, eating out means nothing but neat-meat-big-portions. But it is impossible for a Pakistani to digest the socio-political dimensions of their seemingly banal love for the Boti.
Take for example, if a Dalit (lower caste) rights activist, from among a large group dinning together, orders a beef Tikka, would you suspect him of being a ‘revolutionary’? He might actually think he is making a statement against the Brahmin hegemony – the Hindu upper caste, the staunchest believer of the beef ban.
But the good news is that there are more ‘bad Hindus’ in India than there are ‘bad Muslims’ in Pakistan. You will have company.
Knowing the meat fetish of Pakistani middle-class, I can foresee a long line of Tikka and Karahi joints on this side of the Wagah Border post with ‘welcome back home’ signs, as and when the visa restrictions ease.
Chicken comes ‘fully dressed’ in India! I don’t really know what this signboard really meant but ‘meaty displays’ are a sensitive issues there.
The kind of security checks that Pakistanis go through at every second step, were nowhere in India but at this world renowned *Biryani* joint – one of the reasons being that they regularly receive threats for committing the crime of serving meat.
4. Now You See It, Now You Don’t
Besides the super active railways in India, there are many public transport options available for intra-city commuting, including the all too familiar rickshaws, mostly known here by their first name ‘auto’.
Two women police officers on duty in a Ludhiana bazaar with their Women Helpline scooty.
You can rely on these and do not need to consult friends regarding a fair charge from one point to the other. Some meters may not be calibrated to the new rates fixed by the government; in that case the auto wala will show you a chart comparing what appears on the meter to what is actually due.
You can note other signs of ‘the writ of the state’ in cities that we in Pakistan, have altogether forgotten.
I took a picture of a roadside book stall and its owner came to me quite worried. On my inquiry, it did not turn out to be a privacy concern; instead he was afraid of being reported for selling pirated books.
“Sahab, frankly I do have some pirated editions,” the poor man begged. A sharp contrast to the brazen ways of copyrights violators that I witness, and benefit from, in my country.
Some of my Indian friends insisted ‘Sab Chalta Hey’ and these acts qualify as mere posturing by the state. It may be so, but coming from a country where the state has withdrawn from even a symbolic existence in so many spheres, it was still a surprise.
5. Three Is Crowd, But How Many Is A Mela?
I was born and grew up in Punjab, Pakistan, and by the time I entered my 20s, I had known only Urdu and Punjabi speakers and a few Pakhtuns. I ‘saw’ (and later befriended) a Sindhi for the first time when I joined a federal college.
The metropolitan culture in Pakistan is way too shallow.
India, by that count, is an ocean, possessing endless diversity in its every span.
You can meet a Kannadiga in Ludhiana, a Manipuri in Hyderabad and a Bihari in Bangalore. There are scores of different languages and dialects, cultures and sub-cultures, religions and sects, castes and sub-castes and, of course, classes.
The permutations and combinations of all these factors are just mind boggling.
A Goan Christian married to a Hindu from Odisha and living in Ahmedabad, while working in a company owned by a Bohri Muslim from Kachh, Gujrat! Can you tell what identity markers this family chooses for itself?
The ‘ocean’ is not calm at all points and at all times. It is understandable that the countless fissures lead to frictions that keep flaring up every now and then. Hegemony of social, economic and political orders play with this fire and they are good at making a Tamahsa out of it, of course, a profitable one.
I am here not commenting on whether or not India is dealing with its diversity well. I am simply stating an admiration to the amazing tapestry that India is.
It takes a Pakistani some effort to come to terms with this amazing juxtaposition of human beings. It feels great to speak Punjabi with someone in Bangalore, with no intentions of hiding it.
India just cannot hide its wonderful diversity behind one mask. It’s both a blessing and a challenge.
This minaret and spire in a Bangalore bazaar has a multitude of shops at their base, visited by all.
6. New World Order
I ignored this one when I encountered it for the first time but then I gradually realised the pattern to it.
If someone introduces himself as say, Jai Parkash, an average Pakistani’s next obvious inquiry will be, “Are you a Pakistani?” But this will not happen in India, even if your name is Tahir Mehdi.
No one can know your nationality unless you make it known yourself.
They can’t guess it from the language that you speak and they won’t doubt it when you discuss Indo-Pak relations.
This unintentional anonymity can lead to interesting situations.
An auto rickshaw Wala was proud that India had beaten the hell out of Pakistan in all the wars that we had fought. We were passing by a cricket stadium where the two countries had played a match. He, however, was critical of Indian players for losing the Asia Cup 2014 to Shahid Afridi’s last over blitz.
Such responses to Indo-Pak relations are no surprise as they follow known positions of either the doves or the hawks.
The surprise, however, comes when they discover they’ve been talking to a Pakistani. Stances are softened, positions neutralised. And feel good statements are uttered, ‘After all, we are brothers’.
But many take it to the next exquisite level:
“You know what? Please, come closer. It is a conspiracy of the world powers, the US, of course. It’s a part of the new world order. They plot to make us fight each other. They are afraid that if India and Pakistan joined hands, they would not be able to stop us from ruling over the entire world!”
7 Things That Make A Pakistani Feel At Home In India
By Tahir Mehdi
Oct 01, 2014
1. Honk, Honk, Beep, Beep. Hey, You...!
A Pakistani driving license may not hold in India. But rest assured that a Pakistani’s road sense, cultivated through decades of weaving in and out of chaotic traffic, is exactly what one needs to be a great driver in India.
You are free to push, shove and honk your way to your destination, not to mention the abuses you can hurl at uncanny fellow drivers. The best feel-at-home experience, however, would be to pick up a fight with someone who has dared to trample over your ‘road ego’. You can simply play by your personal rule book and I assure you, no one would notice that you are a foreigner.
Hell of traffic – a view from Paradise biryani in Hyderabad
2. Sweet Tooth
India and Pakistan got rid of a foreign ruler together in 1947 and Muhammad Ali Jinnah refused to share the first Governor General with India. But we both still bow to the same local king, His Highness the Mango.
Some additions or omissions at an Indian fruit stall may surprise you (pleasantly), but the urge to indulge yourself while standing right there is pretty much the same.
You can even relate to all those coffee table talk, (or God forbid) pub chats attempting to prove that your favourite variety of mangoes is the only one with a blue-blooded lineage. If someone is all praise for Alphonso, don’t ask where he or she comes from, and instead ask them:
“Aren’t you from Mumbai?”
Exactly how when someone dares to belittle the Chuansa while trying to enthrone the Sindhri, and you can easily tell that your friend is from Sindh.
You can wear the same gleeful smile as you do in Pakistan, when you happen to visit a sweet mart. No shocks. I mean you can expect Luddoos to be as round, Gulab Jamuns as dripping and Jalebis as complicated as in Pakistan.
3. The 'Key' Factor
If you are staying in a hotel, you’re likely to miss this 'key' experience, but if you happen to have the joy of staying with an Indian friend or family member, you can relax.
You'll feel quite at home when all the mechanical fixtures – Kundis, locks, taps and switches – start giving trouble.
No plug fits the socket. You can’t simply go to sleep and think the batteries will be fully charged by the morning. No tap provides water like a foreigner would expect it to.
“Hello, this is me. Did you give me the right key? It is not working.”
“Oh, sorry, I forgot to brief you. You have to push the door a bit and then press the key to the left before rotating it. It works that way.”
In other countries, like Europe, fixtures are so annoyingly accurate and obedient that you never get the chance to initiate idle talk with your hosts. But thank God, they don’t follow standard instruction manuals here.
They all come with ‘personalised’ instructions that are passed from one custodian to the other, usually accompanied by some interesting story. They can help you plug in, turn on and unlock so many personal barriers.
4. Sugar Level and Milky Ways
If you order tea/Chai in different countries, you will be served different hot beverages. In central Asia, you will get Qahva; in the UK, black tea with sugar and milk provided separately, and in many other places, the order taker will either draw a blank or give you a rebuke. But expect no surprises when you're in India.
Chai is as Chai on this side of the border as that, and it's served as sweet, milky and hot; though the Doodh-Patti may come with a different name, like some in Hyderabad call it ‘golden’. And it's all about upping the sugar-level in your bloodstream. Tea leaves are perhaps merely used as a colouring agent.
And yes, the beverage is at an arm’s length all the time, as stalls, kiosks, carts are omnipresent. If you ever go out of reach from one, don’t Google, just wait and a mobile supplier with a thermos and disposable cups will pop up soon.
5. Ram and Raheem
For this, you'll need to be able to see through the surface, as only then you will realise that the ‘belief culture’ of the two countries is the same too.
Any tree that is old enough to boast of a spiritual self is occupied by some holy man. Though they use Moortis instead of green flags as their sign posts, the donation box and the chain it's tied with is the same.
Every lorry, rickshaw and motorbike plies on road with the Kirpa/Barkat of an amulet dangling on some part of it.
The pious ones among the affluent middle class love to turn a portion of their house into a public place of worship where Dars, Vird, chants go on at full blown volume. No neighbour can dare raise an objection, and housing authorities prefer to look the other way.
A friend showed me the spire of a Mandir, proudly describing it as the tallest construction in the entire town. I could relate to it, of course, coming from a country where mosque minarets compete with each other to touch the seventh sky.
Size matters, in both the countries in the same intriguing ways.
6. Stalkers and Strikers
Taking a stroll along a street or in a bazaar in India, the déjà vu is unavoidable; all the sounds ring so familiar, all the bells so natural.
You jump over a manhole right in the middle of a footpath.
You walk past a stray dog and a heap of garbage.
You deal with beggars with solid marketing strategies.
You carefully ‘find the path’ through the maze of street vendors displaying merchandise on the ground.
The hyperactive hawkers chant the same slogans with the same zeal. They stalk you and force you to buy something, if not for yourself then for Bhabhi or Bachay. You can stop over for the same snacks, Bhutta, Samosay, Pakoray, Gol Gappay, etc.
If it’s late in the night; it's a holiday; or a Bandh or Dharna is in progress, you can watch some street cricket with the same clumsy objects being used as wickets at the striker’s end and a pile of Chappals marking the non-striker’s end.
7. Water, Water Everywhere and Lots of It to...
I've written about how homely it feels when Kundis and Taalas diligently follow personalised instructions instead of going by the book. So when you are done with securing your privacy settings in a toilet, there's a bigger and more pleasant surprise waiting for you. There is a lota!
And you don’t have to feel guilty about making the floor wet either. Those who have travelled to ‘developed countries’ can better appreciate and value this great luxury. There is no better perk than this to make a Pakistani really feel at home in India.
Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy. He has recently been to India to cover the Lok Sabha Elections 2014 for Dawn.