Although I had made the approximately 24 hr trip from San Francisco to New Delhi quite comfortably changing over flights at Frankfurt airport (a true example of extraordinary German efficiency and engineering), the last leg of the journey was what was giving me nightmares.
Being born to the parents of immigrant Pakistanis who had migrated to India during the partition of 1947 was something that I had learnt to live with quite early in life. Kids in the Old Delhi neighborhood where we stayed used to call me a ‘muhajir’ which I learnt much later on in life was not quite as normal a term as I thought it was. It was a term which literally meant “immigrant” in Arabic and was used relatively derogatorily for people like us who had supposedly abandoned our homeland and had moved to another country. But then, was Pakistan another country, was it separate from India, wasn’t it the political cunningness of The Mountbatten Plan which basically just drew The Radcliffe Line on the map of the subcontinent and separated brothers, friends and kinsmen from each other.
My grandparents and parents had a lot of familial ties with people from Punjab, India. My great grandfather was born and brought up in Amritsar and had migrated to Lahore only due to the fact that the firm he worked for – Redington Typewriters had shifted its base of operations to Lahore. He was their star salesman having bagged many a corporate order from the British Govt. for the firm and therefore, the perks offered by the company for him to relocate to Lahore was just too tempting for him to ignore.
My grandfather was born and brought up in Amritsar and had to change schools when he was in high school due to this relocation. My grandmother was someone who once again was born in Jallandar, Punjab and moved to Lahore after her marriage. Back in those days, they didn’t have a Pakistan or a Hindustan, it was just one home, one people. Despite various statements by leading politicians of the day to the contrary, all Muslims and Hindus loved each other and lived as one. They stood together shoulder to shoulder and fought the mighty yoke of the oppressive British Empire.
And then I was born in 1945. Yes, I am a Pakistani virtue of the fact that I was born in Lahore, but the fact remains that when the subcontinent was split apart in the biggest political divorce of its times, my father made a choice. Although he had been born and brought up in Lahore all his life, he made a tough choice to leave behind all he knew and move to India. He took this decision primarily because he truly believed that forming a country purely on the basis of religious affinity was not good in the long run and he was too broad-minded to live with that kind of thinking.
When I completed by graduation in 1967, I had secured enough marks and my father had earned enough to allow me to pursue further studies in the US of A. after I completed my post graduation there, I managed to get a job in one of the leading engineering companies at Detroit and settled down there. By this time two wars had happened between both the countries that I considered home, India and Pakistan, the first in 1965 and the second in 1971. Both of these events distressed my father so much that he requested that he move in with me. I immediately agreed and both my parents joined me a Detroit.
In early 1974, just a few months ago, my father passed away due to a prolonged illness brought upon by his chain smoking habit. One of his last wishes was his corpse be burnt and that his ashes strewn in the Ravi river, which flows on the boundary of India and Pakistan. He had spent quite a few childhood days playing on the banks of this river and enjoyed a deep sentimental attachment to it.
Here I was in New Delhi, with my father’s remains, contemplating the rest of the journey. I then took a taxi to Amritsar, the city closest to Lahore on the Indian side. Despite the innumerable potholes, cows on the road and the lumbering bullock carts, the faithful Ambassador and its Sardar driver ensured that I made it to Amritsar in good time. The last 30 odd kms of the journey from Amritsar to Lahore would sap all of my emotional energy. While I was fit physically, the death of my father and the subsequent sorrowful reticence of my mother had shaken me up mentally. I had never seen her so contemplative in my life before and this last task that my father had asked me to perform was testing me like no other.
On the way to Lahore from Amritsar, the driver stopped near a small town called Sarhad on the Grand Trunk Road. He told me to take a chai break as this would be the last stop before the Pakistan border and that the border formalities would take a good two hours, which effectively meant that we would have to go hungry for that period of time. As I stepped out of the taxi, I was greeted by a small boy “Namaste saab, chai ke saath kuch pakore bhi doon kya?” (Namaste sir, shall I give you some pakoras with the tea?). I nodded my assent and also quite enjoyed the savor snack.
Onwards, after clearing the formalities at the Atari Border Checkpost, after a good three hours, when we drove across the border into Pakistan, I couldn’t quite figure out why there existed so much animosity between the two countries. Everything looked the same to me, the sunflower patches, the wheat fields, the bullock carts, the friendly people. All of it looked the same to me.
As it was nearing nightfall, the driver stopped at a dhaba near Manawan town, once again on the Grand Trunk Road for dinner. Here as well, I was accosted by a small boy “Salaam saab, khane mein kya doon?” (Salaam sir, what will you have for food?).
Everything was still the same. Only the Namaste had changed to Salaam, that’s all.
This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda. This weekend’s post had to include the words Salaam and Namaste and that’s why these words have been specifically highlighted.
Image courtesy: Wikipedia