(I wrote this essay for Borderlines Volume 1, an art catalogue published by Voices Breaking Boundaries, USA, in 2015.)
Yeh tau ghar hai prem ka, khaala ka ghar naahi
Sheesh kaat bhui dharay, tab baithay ghar maahi
[This is where love resides, not your maternal aunt
Chop off your head, leave it on the ground, then come have a seat.]
The first time I visited Pakistan, I felt like I was returning to a long abandoned ancestral home. Strange, the rational mind would say, considering no one from my family ever lived there. I was visiting, not with my family, but with a delegation of students and teachers who were part of the Exchange for Change project.
On my second trip, I sat down with eyes rapt in fervent prayer at a small shrine, begging to be brought there again. Outrageous, the rational mind would say, this feeling like a pilgrim in ‘enemy country.’ I was there not with a band of worshippers but to attend a children’s literature festival.
The third visit was even more momentous with my being taken to a temple that felt surprisingly familiar. Insane, the rational mind would say, this dalliance with the idea of a past life connection. I was surprised that the temple trip ended up being on my itinerary for I was there just hoping to spend some time with friends.
My fourth trip took shape as part of a Kabir festival on a university campus in Lahore. Over film screenings, singing, a photo exhibition and late night conversations with newly made friends, I experienced continuity and connection despite the many severed ties between our countries.
An Indian who feels a special affinity for Pakistan is considered to be an anomaly. I have lost track of the number of times people have asked me why I enjoy going to Pakistan or have questioned my loyalty to the country of my birth.
I must admit that such situations are mildly annoying but I refuse to be overwhelmed by jingoism. People hold the views they do because they have not had an opportunity to challenge their conditioning.
The nation state, which is a new political construction, can seem as natural as the sun in the sky or the course of a river. Families, schools, governments, media houses — all work together to strengthen this mindset.
Instead of wasting my energy defending my choices, I keep my focus on possibilities for transformation. I celebrate every opportunity to affirm friendship, connection, and mutual understanding.
This takes inner work. Staying authentic, saying what awaits expression, is not always easy even for articulate folks like myself. It involves expanding my heart to receive and cherish what can be incredibly difficult to when surrounded by narratives of suspicion and hostility. This is especially so because I am part of a culture where men are not encouraged to express their emotions or speak about their inner world.
As a child when adults used to ask me which countries in the world I would like to travel to, I would say ‘Pakistan’. They would laugh at me, or think I was ridiculous. I learnt to shut up. I had no clue why I wanted to visit that country until I actually visited and felt that being there seemed to nourish my soul.
This, of course, is not something I can write on my visa application.
Even as an adult, today, I find that those who seek to explore transnational identities can be called names, dismissed as naïve, and have clouds of doubt looming over their integrity.
You see, chest-thumping patriotism has no place for poetry, only for grotesque theater and public spectacle.
In this scenario, some of us can feel completely bewildered because we see suffering as suffering– on this side of the border, and that. We see competing needs, values and narratives– not someone in the right, someone else in the wrong.
We feel the pain of Kashmiris caught between India and Pakistan. We shudder at the thought of nuclear weapons. We mourn over the money that could have been spent on books and not bombs.
Unfortunately for us, this isn’t how the world works. Folks have jobs to do, you see.
Leaders pose for historic handshakes, newspapers bake fresh headlines, border officials stamp new anxieties, and we bear witness — we who seek solace in song.
Chaalo hamaara des, bataain da thanay bhaavnagri
Bhaavnagri, O heli, premnagri
[ Come to my country, let me show you a land of love
A land of love, my friend, a city of compassion]
The italicized couplets are attributed to Kabir, an iconoclastic mystic poet of 15th century Benaras, one of South Asia’s most ancient cities on the banks of the river Ganga. His non-sectarian appeal for love is celebrated in India and Pakistan. His verse thrives in the folk music and oral traditions of both countries.