It was my last evening in Lahore. We were at the famous Cuckoo’s Den
restaurant in Heera Mandi. Artist Iqbal Hussain’s labour of love, trying to
reclaim the lost glory of this cultural hub, is a lovely space, especially
if you are seated on the terrace, overlooked by a magnificent view of the
historic Badshahi masjid.
While everyone else was waiting for their dinner to arrive, Haroon and I
excused ourselves for a while. He wanted to say something. It took a while
for the words to come. “Chintan, we would have been such good friends if we
were living in the same city. We share so much in common. I hate
Partition,” he said. I was deeply struck by that spontaneous expression of
friendship. It was a reaffirmation of the respect and affection I had felt
for Haroon since the day we first met. I was overwhelmed, so there was a
long pause before I said, “I know, it’s so unfortunate. But we must stay in
touch. I think I’m going to cry when I leave.” I did.
Haroon, 27, is an anthropologist by training, works at the Citizens Archive
of Pakistan, and is deeply interested in recovering and celebrating the
lost histories of minorities in Pakistan. His remarkably pluralistic
perspective is informed by the rigour of reading, observing, listening and,
perhaps most importantly, questioning. Imagine having someone like that
show you Lahore, with anecdotes at every corner, poetry at every instant.
I was part of a 21-member delegation that crossed the Wagah Border near Amritsar to spend five days in Lahore, thanks to Exchange for Change, a collaborative program run by Routes 2 Roots, a Delhi-based non-profit organization and the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), which has offices in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The reciprocal visits of students and teachers from Pakistan to India and from India to Pakistan were planned as the last leg of the year-long exchange program that involved 2400 students from Karachi, Lahore, Delhi and Mumbai.
Through an exchange of letters, postcards, photographs and oral history
recordings, this program sought to help students from both sides of the
border appreciate the possibility and merits of sustained dialogue in order
to gain a clearer understanding of their shared history, culture and
lifestyles. This material was exchanged in the hope that it would clarify
misconceptions, dispel misinformation about historical events and empower children to reject inherited prejudices and form their own opinions based on personal experience.
Correspondence over long distances, literal and metaphoric, does have its
own charm. However, meeting people in flesh and blood is significantly more powerful. I mean the two schools we visited, City School and ILM. The welcome ceremonies, special assemblies and performances, guided tours, free-flowing interactions, lavish meals and photo sessions gave us a rich experience of their warmth and hospitality. I also mean Haroon Khalid, Anam Zakaria and Owais K. Rana, three amazing young people in their 20s, doing important and inspiring work at CAP, beautifully representative of a Pakistan that most Indians don’t know. They live in a society that is often dismissed as traditional, orthodox and unworthy of being engaged with. In their little personal choices, however, they resist becoming just what they are expected to be, in matters of gender, food and faith.
We visited some of the loveliest places in Lahore – Jehangir’s tomb, Data
Darbar, Gawal Mandi, Iqbal’s tomb, Lahore Fort, Lahore Museum, Gurudwara Dehra Sahib, Liberty Market and Government College. We dined at some of the most amazing eateries there – Dera, Peeru’s Cafe, Chatkhara, Uptown LA, Cuckoo’s Den, Nairang Cafe. We lived in one of the best hotels the city has – Avari. However, my fondest memories of Lahore are of the Lahoris — the lovely people from CAP, the friendly hotel staff at Avari from manager to janitor, singer Shafqat Amanat Ali who made time to sing for us, the qawwals at Peeru’s Cafe, the Vice Chancellor of Government College who humbled us with his hospitality, the shopkeepers, the immigration officials, just about everyone.
I feel a deep gladness that is difficult to describe. I am reminded of that
first evening in Lahore when I was a bit unwell and chose to have just
nimbu paani for dinner. Haroon was seated right next to me. We talked about Kabir, Shah Latif, Bulleh Shah and much else. We had just met and he wanted to know how I felt about visiting Pakistan. I began to speak without reserve.
Being able to eventually go despite the bureaucratic and political hurdles, border crossings and stringent visa procedures, was a great feeling. For me, crossing the border was never about setting foot into enemy country. The feeling I had was that of walking into an old ancestral family home. Haroon’s face lit up when he heard this. He said, “I know this might sound like a cliche but I really mean it. Welcome home!”