Pakistan is humming with optimism. What’s happened to India?

Pakistan is humming with optimism. What’s happened to India?

Musings from an Indian in Karachi.

By Vivek Narain

Published on :

To say that humanity is facing unprecedented challenges as we turn the page to this new decade is quite the understatement. We live in an age defined by information, and where misinformation plays a pivotal part in shaping our worldview. It’s not hard to imagine why so many polarised opinions exist across a host of topics that impact our lives today.

A key issue that hugely impacts almost 1.5 billion people across India and Pakistan is the diminishing understanding of each other as a people, despite our shared past that dates back to the beginning of civilisation. While the first 50 years after the Partition saw relationships on both sides wane, the last 20 years have seen little or no people-to-people contact. With no tales left to tell, we are raising an entire generation that will soon have no meaningful connection to the other side.

I, like many people across the subcontinent, descend from a family displaced during the Partition. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents had ancestry in what’s now Pakistan, and growing up I was fortunate to hear about their fond memories and deep relationships with that land and its people. My paternal grandfather was a commissioned officer in the British Indian Army and went on to become a major general in the Indian Army. My father joined the Indian Air Force and was an ace fighter pilot, having flown MIG 21s in combat. Both fought the wars of 1965 and 1971.

It’s fair to assume that I was an outlier when I married my wife, who is half Pakistani and half French. I would joke at the family dinner table that they had fought the wars, and I was making peace.

I have been lucky to visit Pakistan, Karachi in particular, several times since I first met my wife in 2002. I have built great relationships over the last few years and met some incredible people, but most of all I have come away with the realisation that there are more similarities than differences among us. It is said the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, and it’s fitting that we have a Karachi Bakery in Delhi and a Bombay Bakery in Karachi. I guess a sweet tooth doesn’t discriminate across national borders.

For those who might find it tough to visualise an Indian in Karachi, let me give you a glimpse of my past two weeks spent there, over Christmas and New Year. I crossed the border at Wagah on a cold December morning and took a domestic flight from Lahore to Karachi, where I spent two wonderful weeks with family and friends. Karachi has a very vibrant civil society. Restaurants are full of young and, if I may add, attractive people. Shopping arcades and streets are bustling. The food is delicious as evidenced by the extra three kilos I am carrying into my fitness resolution for the new year. The French beach on the outskirts of the city is packed with families on the weekend and for those who like music, the talent from Coke Studio to burgeoning underground DJ scene will leave you amazed. But don’t take my word for it; if you prefer to get your recommendations from the mainstream, Conde Nast Traveller recently ranked Pakistan as the top destination to visit in 2020.

The Pakistani diaspora descends on Karachi in December and the social calendar is packed with weddings and nonstop house soirees in some of the most elegantly designed homes I have seen. The whole experience feels strangely familiar. Close your eyes and an evening at the Sind Club could very well be mistaken for an evening at Delhi’s Gymkhana Club.

But it’s not just the surroundings. Whether it’s dinner conversations with people who wield significant influence over Pakistan’s public life or with the common man on the street, an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance prevails. Never did I feel the need to hold back my opinions. Those who know me will testify that restraint is not a character trait I am known for.

There is a sense of positivity when speaking with people in business and government, despite the economy having been brought to its knees by sheer incompetence and blatant corruption of the last few administrations. There seem to be no delusions about the challenges that lie ahead given the disproportionate influence the Army has on policy and the economy at large. But they are cautiously optimistic, sensing that there is real intent from the ground up to change the status quo. Eager to learn from their own mistakes, they are the first to admit that pandering to the fundamentalists in the 1970s changed their fortunes for the worse, and coming out of it continues to be a Herculean task.

On the issue of treatment of minorities, for once we in India seem to be on the back foot.

However, this is not the Pakistan the ordinary Indian perhaps imagines. Our opinion is formed by limited information from a biased media. An interesting thing I noticed while reading the newspapers on both sides during my visit was that we in India seem to be more obsessed with Pakistan than the other way around. This left me curious as to whether a hateful narrative sells more papers or serves a larger (political) purpose?

Our government seems to have amped up the rhetoric in the past few months, but the intent as evidenced by the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens leads me to believe that the current Pakistan equation is just an excuse to push through a broader divisive agenda.

Either way, we seem to be fighting the war of a few – in particular, the governing few – even as years of repeated and divisive rhetoric have left us unable to distinguish fact from fiction.

This is no doubt a very complex and tumultuous relationship, and I do not believe there is any quick fix. There has been too much blood shed and distrust built on both sides over the past 70 plus years. Having said that, we are fundamentally the same people in more ways than one. Small incremental steps to encourage more engagement amongst ordinary citizens is the need of the hour. Both our countries have young and aspirational populations that need to be led with hope, not hatred.

Surely, the whole has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.

I was recently introduced to WH Auden’s poem on the Partition of India. The 1966 poem, Partition, is a scathing criticism of the seven weeks Cyril Radcliffe spent in the subcontinent drawing up the borders between India and Pakistan. Once he was done, Radcliffe burnt his papers, refused his Rs 40,000 fee, never returned, and left us to pick up the pieces.

The weather was frightfully hot,

And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,

But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,

A continent for better or worse divided.”

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