Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Visiting Pakistan – A lifetime dream comes true

toy models of Pakistani cargo trucks; photo courtesy of
My visit to Pakistan was a lifetime dream come true for myself and vicariously for my family.  Many friends and colleagues ask ‘What were you doing in Pakistan??’ Their double-question mark can be heard in the tone of their voice which lingers around much curiosity and equally as much concern, but mostly amazement.


In Spring 2013 I presented the blueprint for my dissertation research at Northwestern University, at the Comparative-Historical Social Science seminar series.

Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, USA

My audience of colleagues were curious to know why my research itinerary on Indo-Pakistani smuggling via Dubai should include visits to New Delhi and Dubai, but not Karachi. My reasoning was that in Pakistan I would fear for my personal security. A few responded that visiting Pakistan is not exclusively dangerous, and on came a slew of contacts I could reach out to in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, and so on. They also emphasized that one must at least set foot in a context they claim to have expert knowledge on. Though I was not immediately convinced of my own safety in Pakistan, these comments prompted me to reconsider my evaluation on visiting Pakistan and particularly since avoiding the region could put my professional reputation at stake as a budding South Asianist scholar. I thus began pursuing some processes which could lay the groundwork for a visit.

To go, or not to go?
pondering -- 'hmmmm?'
Visiting Pakistan entailed several processes which can be labeled as psychological, legal, logistical, social, and emotional.

Psychologically, I needed to imagine myself in Pakistan the same as I had been doing for India and the United Arab Emirates (and also Hong Kong and Taiwan, for the latter sections of my dissertation research). I had to imagine myself feeling not entirely nervous walking its streets and bazaaars, living among its people and conversing with them in my Hinglish.  This psychological preparation began with reaching out to friends with life experience in Pakistan, and to colleagues with research experience there. Lahories swore that Karachi is a mad house, and vice versa was the opinion of Karachites regarding Lahore.  Folks with more cross-country experience assured me that Pakistan should be safe to visit save for basic safety precautions such as avoiding particular areas and holiday periods.  Knowledge is always power, and so as knowledge ushered my psychology towards greater ease I mustered courage to start the the legal process.

Legally, I would need a travel visa.  A visa for research was not tenable due in part to inadequate time for processing, and also institutional constraints that prevent graduate students from using the University’s fellowship funds to visit countries that frequently appear on the US State Department’s list of travel warnings, Pakistan is all too familiar on this list, and so I decided I would pursue a visa for tourism and on my own dime.

I knew in advance that obtaining a tourist visa would be challenging since I would be submitting my application to the Pakistan Consulate of Chicago which would receive me as a non-US national (being a Canadian citizen) and possibly also receive me as a person of Indian origin (given my namesake) which I guessed may not fair well.  To my surprise and joy, my visit to the Pakistan Consulate went very well. I figured that half the application process for a travel visa to a tumultuous region is appearance; how you dress, speak, behave. I was unsure if I should wear my graduate student attire and appeal for pity but risk looking sketchy, or to wear something corporate from my government days and project power but risk looking like a boob. I gambled and opted for the corporate look with a smart suit, buttoned-up shirt absent of a tie, slick thick-framed eye glasses, and a thin black leather briefcase. I spoke Hindi and Urdu as I described my status in the United States as a tax-paying resident of the State of Illinois (thus eligible for Consulate services -- cough, cough) with an international student visa. The person I spoke with (who seemed to be a signing authority on many documents being passed his way) asked “Mr. Rahul-ji, what do you do here in Chicago? You are a smart-looking well-spoken man. We would love for you to visit our country – Pakistan – so you can tell others that our people are good-hearted.” I told him I'm a PhD candidate at Northwestern University and that I plan to visit India beginning September, and so during that time I want to visit Pakistan. “Accha, you see religion doesn't divide us. It's politics. And I want you to see Pakistan so you can tell others that.”  He asked that I obtain an invitation letter from a sponsor in Pakistan along with a copy of their identification card. He added that processing my application should not take more than two to three days. 

I promptly questioned him on where I could find good biryani in Lahore -- that famed Mughlai dish of fragrant rice and succulent meat.  He burst out laughing.  We talked about our favorite Pakistani restaurants in the South Asian borough of Chicago, dubbed West Devon. As it turned out we lived in the same neighborhood of the city, around the intersection of Devon and Clark.  He asked where my parents were born and since my grandparents were all born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan we talked about some of the towns there. He asked that I say “Pranam” to my mummy and papa which is a Sanskritized form of greeting someone, and thus he was explicitly signaling that he wants to build a bridge. When I was ready to leave he said “jeetay raho” which means 'live long' and is typically said from an elder to a younger person that resembles a child. So which one of my strategies was effective?  Donning corporate clothes, speaking in Hindi and Urdu, conversing about personal topics such as biryani -- one, more, or none? Who cares, really. Visa toh lag gya! Overall I I employed one or more varieties of what is typically labeled 'charm', and such rarely goes unappreciated ;) And so began the logistics of completing my visa application. 

Chicago, IL, USA
Logistically, I needed a sponsor. Though I had already received numerous contacts from friends and colleagues, none were well-established enough to make me comfortable with presenting such an imposition. And so the first people I called were mummy-papa, who know someone in nearly every walk of New Delhi’s life.  I thought that perhaps Delhites have Pakistani connections, despite the less than amorous legacy of Indo-Pak relations.  Mummy-papa came through for me as they always do. Despite their own apprehensions to enable me to visit a country associated with many security risks, mummy-papa came through for me -- as they always do. Perhaps my parents also know that once I decide on something that I will get it done, particularly since they knew I had three alternate schemes to obtain ia sponsor.  Mummy-papa much preferred to be involved rather than excluded.  Such has been my parents’ attitude with me since I was 18 and self-financed a backpacking tour of Western Europe.  They were quite upset with me at the time – fearing I would be unable to stay safe and survive, and preferring that I reserve those monies for University – and in retrospect they became very impressed with that trip, and proud of it. After I returned from that European trip, my parents were constantly repeating to relatives and friends that “aada beta poora Europe goomkar aaya hai – our soon has just returned from a tour through all of Europe”.  And so Pakistan would be added to mom and dad’s log of things that their son frustrates them with, and that they will become equally as proud to reflect on post-hoc.

Another logistic arose from approaching mummy-papa: my mother became intent to join me in visiting Pakistan.  Why? For many Indians -- particularly North Indians and especially us Punjabis -- Pakistan is the birthplace of their grandparents and greater grand elders.  For this reason, many Indians long deeply to visit Pakistan in order to step foot on the soil of their ancestry, and the same feeling is shared among many Pakistanis whose roots originate from pre-independent India. These sentiments exist despite the political tensions that animate Indo-Pak state relations and communal tensions (real and perceived) that are associated with relations between Hindus and Muslims, and between Sikhs and Muslims.  I was reluctant to bring along my mother, but Pakistani friends retorted that travel would be far easier along with a female and particularly with my mother.  And further, that if my mother ever planned to visit Pakistan then it would be equally as easy for her to be accompanied by a male and particularly her son.  Let us leave the reasoning behind these hypotheses off from the record.  And so my mom obtained a tourist visa from the Pakistan Consulate in Toronto. And once our travel visas were processed and thus our visit to Pakistan became more probable, family and friends who preferred we not visit became immediately alarmed. And thus began the social process.

Socially, my mother and I joined forces to reassure disconcerting family and friends we would be safe.  This task required countless cups of chai and telephone calls that stretched from San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, Ottawa, and Washington DC to New Delhi, Mumbai, and Amritsar.  Some elders were altogether dismissive: “Wherever Muslims go, there is trouble. So then why visit a nation of Muslims? Do you see how Pakistan treats its Hindus? We never do such things to Muslims in India. Yahaan toh Musalmaan bahut kush hain, zara pucho [Muslims here in India are happy, ask them]” This reasoning contained a contradiction, which is that if Muslims in India are happy then the correlation between Islam and ‘trouble’ may be more to do with particular governments and less with Muslims.  This reasoning also contained an error which is that many Muslims fair poorly in India.  But I was not prepared to talk back.  The younger generation of my friends, nephews, and nieces were almost exclusively excited: “Yaar, I am so jealous. Take pictures of everything! Photograph their driveways and cars, their kitchens and living rooms, their streets and parks. I want to see what Pakistan actually looks like. Not the bombs we see in the media; the real Pakistan. Please post on Facebook every hour, yaar. Oh my gosh, you are so lucky. If we as Indian citizens get a Pakistani stamp in our passport it can become very troublesome to travel abroad. You are so lucky to be a citizen of Canada, you can go to Pakistan and have no worries after. Please take a lot of pictures for us.” In addition to this attitudinal divide between generations, I encountered another attitudinal divide between different geographies.  While younger Delhites were more excited and supportive of my visit to Pakistan then elder Delhites, Amritsaris in my family were  unsupportive across the generations.  Amritsar fronts on the international boundary that divides India from Pakistan, and is located a mere 20 kilometers from Lahore. I think somehow the ‘othering’ of Pakistan as the enemy is experienced more intensely in Amritsar than in Delhi as a consequence of the former being far closer to enemy lines.  I am generalizing of course, but I think the stark contrast in my interactions is worth pondering.

Emotionally, the night before my scheduled entry into Pakistan, I had an anxiety attack. This came from a combination of being exhausted with all the effort that had gone into making this visit possible – effort that brought my mother and I from Toronto and Chicago (respectively) to New Delhi and then Amritsar and soon Karachi and Lahore -- combined with the realization that this visit had reached high probability, that I would actually enter the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. These tasks had also distracted me from the realization that a lifetime dream was about to come true – a dream of mine and that of my family’s. For my family, it was that a member of their own would touch foot on the soil of Pakistan, on the soil that bore their people. For me, it was that I was about to trek that same route trekked by those hundreds of millions at partition in 1947 from Amritsar to Lahore, some of whom were my ancestors. On this trek, my mother and I would cross the Wagah border that cuts through Punjab and thus divides the Punjab of India from the Punjab of Pakistan. My entire life has been animated by narratives about the communal violence that broke out here during the great migration and population exchange at independence in 1947, and the heaps of corpses that lined this stretch by the end of that process. These narratives came from parents and other elder relatives, and also in in news archives, films, and literature. News such as as Life magazine, films such as Earth, Pinjar, Gandhi, and literature like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, and Bisham Sahni’s Tamas

photographed by Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine

With all these thoughts suddenly upon me, my chest became heavy and my eyes swelled up. Mom could sense my mind was eating away at itself. She came forward to embrace me and once my body felt her presence, it heaved in relief – my chest opened, my eyes moistened with a small pool of warm tears, the skin on my cheeks and neck became red from a flush of blood. She informed me that “If you do not want to go, we won’t. Just because we have a visa, does not mean we have to use it”. I shook my head and laughed. “Nahin, ma. I know I am a humanist and so I do not believe in destiny or fatalism, lekhin mujhe lagta hai ki yeh hamari kismet hai, I feel this is our kismet. We are going to go.” And so my mom laughed because she saw that her habitually rationalistic son had inherited at least some of his mother’s Bollywood melodrama. 

Maa - Beta (Mother - Son) (1962)


Crossing the Attari-Wagah border was joyous and intense. After clearing customs in India twice, my mother and I were permitted to board a shuttle bus that drove us 500 metres towards the Indo-Pakistan border. Mom was very excited, and our porter (a.k.a. coolie) could feel our excitement.

Mummy and I on a shuttle bus between Indian customs and the Indo-Pakistani border at Attari-Wagah.
Mummy and I snap a selfie on the Indian side of the Indo-Pakistani border at Attari-Wagah.

Our coolie on the India side of the #Attari #Wagah border entering #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta

Mummy excitedly poses for a photograph next to the Pakistani soldier guard checking her passport and visa. Ten days later on the day of our return back into Pakistan, this same guard was on duty. With a wide smile he asked curiously "Did you leave India ten days back?" My nodded her head and exclaimed "Hain!" The soldier responded that "I remember you -- hehe. We snapped a picture together. Pakistan kaisa raha?" It was a beautiful exchange.

Monumental stroll -- My mom straddles the #India #Pakistan border at #Wagah #Attari en route to #Lahore and then #Karachi Instagram @rahulmediratta

Once in Lahore, we boarded a flight to Karachi and by the evening we were having dinner with my Bhai Jaan, his wife, and three really lovely children. Throughout the week we played tons of cricket, Ludo, and ate at marvelous restaurants like Kolachi which appears to float on the Arabian Sea.  I also enjoyed about nine visits to the dessert parlor for Peshawari ice-cream – holy creamy milky yum.  
Midnight #cricket in #Karachi #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta
#Ludo to beat the #Karachi heat Instagram @rahulmediratta
Delicious dinner by the sea -- Kolachi restaurant by the #Arabian Sea in #Karachi #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta
During the week mom and I had many great adventures in Karachi.  We attended a film shooting where Mom caught the attention of the director and was placed in the shoot. The lead actor gifted me an Afghani Karakul hat, famously worn by the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.  
#Jinnah wala #selfie in #Karachi #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta

We watched an exciting Oscar-nominated film, Zinda Bhaagh, starring the celebrated Naseeruddin Shah. It exposes the tireless spirit of Pakistan society to make something of themselves, even if it means risking their very lives -- youth, artists, the aging. 
Zinda Bhaag (2013) poster on display at the Atrium Mall in Karachi, Pakistan Twitter @rahulmediratta

I befriended a retired rug maker who gifted me two beautiful table rugs, and allowed me to photograph his stunning garden. 
Garden of a retired rug designer in #Karachi #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta

My Bhai Jaan toured me through Karachi's exciting business districts, such as the Shaheen complex, the PRC towers, and buildings along Karachi's financial district. 
PRC Tower #Karachi #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta
National Bank of #Pakistan in #Karachi Instagram @rahulmediratta
I took some classic shots, like of a colorful bus, vintage wheels, British Raj architecture, and cargo. 
Public transportation in #Karachi #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta

Empress Market in #Karachi #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta
Colorful cargo in #Karachi #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta
After ten days, my mother and I grabbed a morning flight out of Karachi to Lahore and toured Lahore for the afternoon.  We enjoyed the many 'Lahorizons' such as Shah Jahan's Shalimar Gardens. 
Lahorizon -- #Lahore #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta

#Mughlai Emperor Shah Jehan's Shalimar Gardens in #Lahore #Pakistan Instagram @rahulmediratta

By 4:00 pm we crossed back into India… 
The world's largest democracy welcomes me back home -- crossing back over the #Attari #Wagah border from #Pakistan into #India Instagram @rahulmediratta
…and by 9:00 pm that evening I was at the Golden Temple in Amritsar -- my favorite spot in all of India.

Revisiting my favorite spot in #India -- the Golden Temple, Harmandir Sahib in #Amritsar #Punjab Twitter @rahulmediratta
In Amritsar I spotted a plaque that honors a very famous and important mantra which calls for religious tolerance.
Ishvar Allah tero naam! The emblematic call to tolerance and love in India. In Amritsar, Punjab

I have arrived at some conclusions in the context of my doctoral research work -- Indo-Pak economic ties will surely help stabilize South Asia.  The questions that underlies my own research puzzle, and which now remains yet to be answered is if Indo-Pak trade will expand and precisely how.

photograph courtesy of Outlook India


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