A Pakistani's eye view of India@70: Is India turning from the land of the free into another Pakistan?

My best friend at school in Lahore was ordinary like me, except for one thing: she had an Indian grandmother. 

 

I was deeply envious of the connection. Nano wore saris and a chignon. She smoked cigarettes and spoke English. Accustomed to my Punjoo grannies with their kurtas and plaits, I thought Nano personified sophistication. Never mind that my Urdu textbook told me that India was Enemy No. 1. Never mind that we’d fought wars with them. To me, everything Indian back then was achingly cool. 


I’d been reared on wondrous tales of my mother’s childhood, a chunk of which was spent all over India. So while other kids dreamt of going to Disney World and meeting Cinderella, I longed to summer on a houseboat bobbing gently on a lotus strewn lake and zoom down Bombay’s Marine Drive in an open topped car with the wind in my hair and salt on my lips. But aside from my BF, who went occasionally to visit Nano across the border, I knew of no one who ever went to India any more. It was as if a door that had once stood tantalisingly ajar, had slammed shut forever. In the late ’70s, it opened just a crack. Suddenly, our TV antennae in Lahore started catching ‘India’. 

 

 

And there was Shammi Kapoor, gambolling down the very hills my mother had described. Rajesh Khanna courting a bashful Sharmila Tagore with that naughty smile. And Helen, swathed in rhinestones and feathers, sashaying around a nightclub. Languishing under General Zia’srepressive martial law, I longed to go somewhere as liberal. And fun. And free. 

 

Ten years later, my dream came true. Through favours granted by ‘high-ups’, BF and I wangled visas to Delhi. Humayun’s tomb, Qutub Minar and Lodhi Gardens were every bit as magical as I’d hoped. Indian textiles and jewellery were swoon-worthy. Delhi’s food was a revelation. Who knew vegetables could be so interesting? India’s indigenous book industry hadn’t quite taken off then, but the plethora of newspapers, magazines and local comic books astonished me. So did the number of bookshops and art galleries, and abundance of dance, music and theatre. General Zia had outlawed everything fun and fine about civic life. So Delhi’s vibrant cultural scene and political freedom was heaven for me. 


But I see disturbing signs of the hatred and intolerance I have seen in Pakistan taking root in India too. Public lynchings of minorities; media trials of ‘traitors’ conducted by crazed TV anchors; violence against women; witch hunts of academics, activists and even (gasp!) Bollywood stars who speak out are all depressingly familiar. I also know that I’d be hard pressed to find the happy shiny people I saw in Kashmir ki Kali in that tragic valley today. No longer do I dream of bobbing houseboats .. 

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