Pakistan, a travelogue

Runu Chakraborty
Gender Trainer, Feminist Singer, Activist

This story is part of a series written and curated by Runu Chakraborty, we suggest you also read The inner battle and Mahila Samakhya: some lives, many learnings

O, what kind of a foreign land is this
Pakistan, a travelogue

10 February has been a rather significant day in my life. At times it brought happiness and sometimes a mountain of misery. On this day I first connected with Action India and saw at close quarters flesh-and-blood individuals like me who stay merely 14 kilometres away from my house. They are citizens of this country whose houses have walls made of date-leaf rugs and plastic sheets, whose children play around sewers that are also next to their gas stoves. This was such a strong blow that its effect has stayed on till date and I have not quite recovered from the shock. They were manual labourers who had either come to Delhi or were brought here. People from many areas were made to flee or desert the lands of their ancestors. Settled in the heart of many of Delhi’s localities, they were again uprooted in 1975 when the city had to be beautified. These filthy people were the city’s scars.

The Delhi government rehabilitated them at the fringes of the city from where these daily wagers’ travelledan extra 15-20 kilometres,daily. If they found work, they left early in the morning and returned late in the night. Many would only catch their children asleep.

On yet another 10 February I lost my father…

In the midst of all this, 10 February 1987 came with a different colour. It was the day of Basant Panchmi and my first foreign trip. We were all going to Pakistan. There was Aruna Roy, Tripurari, Lakshmi, Krishnamurthi, Nikhil, Amit, Savita, Nafisa and from Tilonia’s communications team, Shankar, Bhanwar Gopal and Babulalji. Many of these people are not with us anymore. We were writing history. For the first time after partition an Indian team was going to give a public performance for the Pakistani masses. We were going to perform Gogol’s The Government Inspector in a big auditorium in Lahore.

Soon after we landed at Lahore airport and reached the city, we were in for a surprise…oh it was just like our city…the bazaars looked like Lucknow and Connaught Place. We may have forgotten the significance of the yellow colour during Basant Panchmi but here every shop was covered in its hues. Kites small and so big were all yellow…zarda, halva and traditional sweets too were yellow.

We had often heard Kamla rave about the hospitality of those in Lahore and Karachi. Then we used to think “Well, since it is Kamla’s mission to strengthen sisterhood, she must be exaggerating”. But there were a few eye-openers in store for us too…

There were 17 people in our group. We all decided to not eat at hotels but at roadside food stalls so as to save our respective DSA (Daily Subsistence Allowance). When we stepped outside, the tempo-autos were playing Hindi film music. At food stalls, owners refused to accept payment from us saying “Ji, today it is taken care of by that shopkeeper”. Believe me, we stayed in Lahore for five days but on no occasion did any stall owner let us pay. Some shopkeeper or the other would foot the bill for us. Outside, the cigarette-paanwallahs did the same: “No ji, keep the money with you. How can we accept money from you…you are our neighbour”. And then with a disarming smile, they would place a paan in our palms.

Now who would not like this type of seemed as if we had landed in a land of magic….beyond belief…was this really happening to us!  Now we believed what Kamla had told us.

For Pakistan, it was their phase of democracy’s victory. Pakistan’s public had voted Benazir Bhutto to power. The air all around carried a celebratory spirit. 13 February was the birthday of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It is the day of the ‘Faiz Fair’ in Lahore. We too joined the festivities. Wow, what a scene that was…in the middle of a huge maidan was a stage from where announcements were made about the team that would perform next, and the province they came from. They reached the stage with dhols, song and dance. They offered their salaams to all, and then joinedthe sea of people off-stage. All around there was noise, joyous people in colourful clothes who were singing and dancing. Lalan Fakir from Bangladesh too had joined the festival to pay his respects to Faiz.

Then came the day when we had to perform The Government Inspector. The hall where the plays were being performed was so crowded that passages and stairs were filled to capacity. At the end of the play, we offered our salaam to the public with an excerpt from a Marwari song…"mahaka raam salaam le lee jo re, jivanla toh phir milaanga nika rijo re” (hope I have shared the excerpt accurately). We started to dance as we sang this, and the audience in the auditorium danced too. There was no space on the stage even for a foothold. There was no limit to people’s exuberance. There were tears in many people’s eyes. Our hearts were teary too. We did not know how to hold this degree of delight. Everyone was inviting us for dinner, including students from Afghanistan. It seemed as if were had grown feathers....the stars had down come to the ground that evening.          

In a few days, we had to leave for Karachi. We also had to meet Karamat Ali and Marium’s labour union. There, we had to perform a play that Tripurari, Lakshmi and I had improvised. Itwas based on the ongoing communalism and terrorism in the country. We had tried to comprehend and reflect upon the sectarian monster within ourselves too. The story of the play goes something like this…

“…three women come across each other by a ruin. Two of them are of the same age. One of them is Sikh and had braved the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi. Shehad stayed on in the city, but growing communal tensions forced her to resign from her job and move to Punjab in search of her roots. The other woman is the sister of a fugitive soldier who is a member of an underground outfit that is fighting for Punjab’s liberation. She visits the ruins to hand over milk and food to her brother. The third woman is much older and belongs to a Hindu-Punjabi family. While she has lived in Punjab ever since her marriage, the recent communal riots in the city killed all her family members except her breastfeeding grandchild with whom she is escaping to Delhi. On the way, a bomb blast brings all traffic to a halt. The two women who were leaving from and for Delhi happen to seek shelter in the ruin. That is when they meet the third woman who is there to feed her brother. The play begins with the doubts and misgivings, tensions, sarcasm and struggles between these women.

At some moments, their identities as women would bring them close to each other but soon religious and regional identities would dominate and trigger a chain of blame and condemnation. Caught in the wonky negotiations of their interactions with each other, eventually it is feeding milk to the baby that brings them together. They have a new hope in their eyes. After the play, when the six-foot tall Pathans of Karachi wept and hugged us, we won our biggest award…

Next day, it was time to sight-see in Karachi.We had our lunch at one of Karachi’s famous restaurants. Really, the food was simply delicious and that kulfi…yumm…aaah! The restaurant’s owner informed us that the kulfi from Shakarpur was especially famous and tasty because it was made with pure milk…hmmm…since the kulfi won our hearts, we asked for more. Then we also ate Karachi Halwa, but not much since our stomachs were full…so we got the rest packed. Some also got it packed for India. When it was time to make payments, the owner refused to accept any. But what he said left us feeling ashamed and we did not have the courage to say anything else. He said, “It is my pleasure that you have come from the nation of my lost loved ones…my brother’s families live in Bombay but after the partition we have not been able to meet till date…by being hospitable to you all, it feels as if I have fed my own family…do not snatch this satisfaction from me…” There was happiness and pain on his face, and perhaps his eyes were moist.

Anyhow, Tripurari and Lakshmi’s mother tried hard to pay for the food but to no avail. The owner then joined us in a group photo and then arranged for a small bus for us to see the city. Even today I remember his face, his light, almond-coloured Pathani suit…These are not forgettable moments anyway!!

Hey, stop, stop. My Pakistani travelogue doesn’t end here. We were returning from Karachi to Lahore in a train. It was like an overnight journey in our Rajdhani trains. Food was served on the train but some of us were vegetarians. We did not eat but were enjoying the keenu and sweets we got from Karachi. The rest of us were enjoying the food served on the train. One of the waiters on the train noticed that some were not eating the packed food and asked us why it was so. Tripurari’s mother told him that some of us do not eat non-vegetarian food. On knowing this, the waiter looked upset and disappointed. With much politeness he said, “…Oh, then you should have told us this earlier. Give me half an hour and I will be back with fresh rotis, dal and vegetables. How can you travel without eating anything…” There was something about the way he put it that we could not say “no”. And when within 20 minutes, we saw fresh rotis, yellow dal, a paneer dish, not only were we surprised and happy, we also thoroughly relished the fresh and hot food.  I do not think we can expect this within our own country. O, what kind of a foreign land is this…!

This story is part of a series written and curated by Runu Chakraborty, we suggest you also read The inner battle and Mahila Samakhya: some lives, many learnings