My first Indian sojourn

India, a country that evokes all sorts of emotions in Pakistan and Pakistanis – some like it, some hate it, some are not bothered about it, while some (like me) love it. It had always been my dream to visit India one day because the country fascinates me. India’s rich culture and history and the fact that both India and Pakistan share a common history, including bittersweet memories, only added to my fascination. Add to it the fact that I have a lot of Indian friends whom I have met online and some of who, over the years, have become like family. Thus when I got a chance to visit India, I was overjoyed.

Panos South Asia, a media organisation, had arranged a media exchange programme for six journalists from Pakistan to visit India. This was part of a people-to-people contact programme in order to promote peace between the two South Asian neighbours. It was a 15-day trip and the three cities that we were going to visit were Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. All of us were excited at the prospect of going to India, as it was the first time any of us were visiting our neighbouring country. The day we were to leave, I could not contain my excitement. Yet at the same time there was an apprehension of how the Indian authorities would treat us at the airport, and if there would be any problems later on during the trip. Much to our surprise, when we landed at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, the airport authorities were very cooperative and in fact, quite welcoming. Since India and Pakistan share a complex relationship, there was some paperwork to be done before we could leave the airport, but the authorities helped us fill our immigration forms and were generally very accommodating. (They even made all six of us stand at the front of the immigration rows so that we would not have to wait.) I remember the immigration officer who was handling my paperwork congenially asking me about the situation in Pakistan – and mind you, he was not asking about the political situation, but about the situation of the PTV drama serials! “Aapkay PTV ke dramay abb bhi waisay hee hain ke jaisay kuch saal pehlay thay? Mujhay yaad hai ke bachpan mein hamaaray gaaon may sab log jama hokar raat ko PTV ke dramay bohot shauk se dekhtay thay. Bohot achay hottay thay aap logon ke drama serials.” (Roughly translated: “Are your PTV drama serials still the same as they were some years ago? I remember that when I was young, the people in my village used to gather at night to watch the PTV drama serials with a lot of interest. They were indeed very good.”) To which I laughingly replied, “Aapki Ekta Kapoor ki dekha dekhi abb hamaray logon ne bhi lambay lambay soaps banaanay shuru kar diye hain achay serials ki bajaye.” (“Our people have started imitating your Ekta Kapoor and now we have also started making long soaps instead of nice drama serials.”) The paperwork finished soon. Thus began my Indian yatra.

Praveen, a representative from Panos, was there to greet us at the airport and take us to our guesthouse. Although the others in our group left with him, my dear friend Hemanshu Kumar was there to pick me up. (The poor chap had postponed his vacations by a few days just so that he could meet me!) We then went for a drive around nearby Delhi roads (at midnight no less) and I kept thinking how the city felt so familiar. It was as if I was no stranger to either the city or to India. Later during the trip when we got more time to explore Delhi, puraani Dilli seemed just like Lahore’s walled city, while the more developed part of Delhi was a mix between the new Lahore and Islamabad (I guess the similarity with Islamabad comes because of Delhi being the capital of India).

After staying in Delhi for around three days, we left for Mumbai. We travelled from Delhi to Mumbai in the Rajdhani Express, and it was quite an experience. At first we were a bit apprehensive about travelling for 16 hours on a train, but soon after boarding the train, the apprehension was overtaken by excitement. Not only was the train service quite efficient, the journey was made more special by the people around us. A Gujarati family was sitting near us and when they found out we were from Pakistan, the conversation became very interesting. Their other family members soon joined us, and the discussion veered from one point to another – sports, politics (and of course politicians), business, the communal riots in Gujarat, the Indo-Pak relationship, etc. They even gave us very good pointers on where to do our shopping in Mumbai! One word of caution for those who are on a diet or just do not have much of an appetite, the Rajdhani Express keeps serving you food every ten minutes! Apart from breakfast, lunch and dinner, they serve you delicious appetizers and refreshments throughout the journey. I remember sms’ing an Indian friend during the train journey, “Yaar, I think tum log hamay khila khila ke maarna chaahtay ho!” (“I think you [Indians] want to kill us [Pakistanis] by stuffing us with food!”) Oh and if Delhi seemed similar, Mumbai was not much different either. It just looked like a larger version of Karachi. I am still nostalgic about sitting near the Gateway of India every night and the lighthearted discussions that we had sitting near the waterfront with the group, which also included Jatin Desai, a Mumbai-based journalist who was our coordinator during the entire trip, and the much-loved George from Panos (who was christened ‘George Panos’ later on in the trip).

From Mumbai we went to Chennai for two days, and there for the first time we felt as if we were in a foreign country. The city was beautiful. But the culture and language of South India is a world away from that of North India, and since we Pakistanis are a lot closer to North India in culture and language, Chennai seemed like a foreign land.

All in all, the India trip, though hectic, was not only a learning experience but also one of the most memorable trips of my life and I wished it would never come to an end. But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and so this trip also ended. (It would not be wrong to say that I have left some part of me in India. I so eagerly want to go back to relive my moments there.)

There is so much to write about – my experiences in India, the things I saw there, the people I met there and so on. But I would end this column by quoting some lines from an Indian friend’s e-mail: “Back in December 2000, I was at the Wagah Border watching the flag lowering ceremony in the evening. It was quite a trip. Each of us cheering our soldiers. There was also a keen sense of curiosity amongst all the tourists there. It is confusing to understand how we are at each other’s throats along one part of the border and standing a foot away from each other at another without incident.”

Comments

SicKo said…
My first and only experience with rajadhani express was also in the same route ,delhi-bombay, some 10 years back. Its a unique Indian experience, worth every naya paisa. I'm happy that you enjoyed India.
Ardy said…
I think you need some proof reading if this has not been already published since there are a few grammatical errors. Also, the part about south India seems rushed, add a few more lines - even if just briefly because you may be planning to cover the details later. You cover more details about the rest - Delhi, Mumbai and the train but nothing about how South India was different which would be more if not as important. Just my two cents, fun piece overall.
mehmal said…
Yes I had a great time Sicko, thanks :-)

Ardy yaar abb yeh chapp gaya hai so kuch nahi hosakta about the grammatical errors :P and no, the Chennai part wasn't rushed, I had to cut some of it due to the space constraints on the Op-ed page :/

But don't worry i'll write a detailed piece on South India soon :D
Ritesh said…
You are welcome! :D :)
ranvijay said…
I read your first experience of indian sojourn. In fact, Mehmal, we indians respect our guest too much.And it is also a big fect that we do not hate the peoples of Pakistan accept nonsence politicians. Your and our history is similar, so, it should break all type of boundations.
vichchoobhai said…
How good it feels to know that a young Pakistani speaks so lovingly about India. The entire piece oozes friendship. If only there were m ore peoplelike you on eitiher side of the border it would be a paradise to live in this subcontinent. I am eager to see your other blogs too and shall post my comments on each of them

Mehmal Zindabaad

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