By Chintan Modi
The last few months have been full of optimism for Indians and Pakistanis who are eager to step across the border and experience what lies on the other side. The fact that both countries have been working towards a liberal visa regime to enable people-to-people contact is a cause for celebration but there is bound to be anxiety until the time an official deal is signed.
The recent news about a last-minute snag, leading to a postponement in this process after a meeting between Pakistan’s former Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, and India’s Home Secretary, R K Singh, comes across as a dampener to the hopes of many who were jubilant about the possibility of tourist visas being issued soon.
I feel that we should not look at this as a failure but an obstacle to be overcome. This is a time for advocates of peace and friendship to stand together in solidarity rather than sulk or be cynical. I know it is a difficult thing to do but we must not despair yet.
As we wait for top officials in both countries to seal the deal, it might be a good idea to continue emphasising the need for interaction between the people of both nations and its potential in bridging the divides between those who have had little opportunity to interact with the ‘other side’ and are forced to believe borrowed images and ideas.
While the former interior minister (now advisor to the prime minister) and the home secretary were busy with discussions in Islamabad, another exchange was taking place in Mumbai. The Press Club of Mumbai received a 14-member delegation of journalists from Karachi who came down for a week-long visit.
I went over to meet them and ended up spending a whole evening with four of them. I avoid mentioning names in order to protect their privacy but would like to share a glimpse of the wonderful time we had together.
They were keen on shopping for jewellery for their spouses, sisters, daughters and other relatives, so we walked up to the famous Zaveri Bazaar. After buying some silver jewellery from a shop where I discovered, my hitherto, unexplored talent for bargaining, we explored out many stores and eventually landed at one they tremendously loved. What followed is something that I have never seen before. I was dazed at the amount of imitation jewellery they bought. I have never seen anyone shop for jewellery with the zeal I reserve for buying books at second-hand sales!
The rest of the evening was also packed with fun.
Bandra’s Linking Road reminded them of Liberty Market and Gulberg in Lahore. The seafront at Juhu beach made they exclaim,
This is so much like Karachi!
After dipping our feet in the sea, enjoying the cool breeze and posing for pictures, we had a delicious meal at the Mahesh Lunch Home, a restaurant famous for its seafood. It was a bit too late, so we had to round off our night-out with paan and goodbyes.
Regardless of whether we will stay in touch or not, it was indeed a special evening and I hope this was one of many more to come.
Speaking of people-to-people contact, I recall my first visit to Lahorein February 2012 as part of a delegation from Mumbai and Delhi comprising students and teachers from four different schools. When asked how he’d describe his experience of Pakistan to people who haven’t been there, Mahesh Sakhalkar, a student of Shishuvan School in Mumbai, who was then a ninth-grader, said:
I would tell those people to forget all that they have read, heard or seen on TV because it’s all nonsense. Pakistan is just like India and the people there are very friendly. It is a great place to be in.
What Mahesh said came from just spending five days in Lahore, visiting two schools and many historical monuments, interacting with children of his own age from the other side of the border, and from standing up for the national anthem of a country that many of his fellow Indians know little about, though it is just next door.
When asked if the experience could have been better, he said,
Yes, if we had visited more schools, roamed around more and shopped a little more. It would have been better if we had stayed a few more days.
I hope many other children from India are fortunate enough to experience this exchange and I wish the same for children from Pakistan as well.
This will happen soon, Inshallah, when getting a visa becomes a little easier.
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