When you cross the Wagha Border, you are struck by so many similarities in the two countries that you may need Google map to confirm your current location.
However, India holds many surprises for a Pakistani visitor as well.
Here are the six that I couldn’t resist sharing:
1. Eat, sip and travel
Train travel for a Pakistani of my age is a precious childhood memory – the anxiety of being on time, as it never awaited for anyone (not even a VIP!), siblings jostling for a window seat, snack vendors popping up every other moment, the coolies, uniformed ticket checkers, the signals and the crossings. All of this had existed as a fascinating sub-culture.
The behemoth shuttled past vast plains, snaked through mysterious mountains and jumped over mighty rivers, as astounded passengers, like me, gazed at the fast changing scenes. The best moment was when it used to stay put for some time (for truly technical reasons) in the midst of a strange place; a jungle, a hamlet, suburbs.
But then it would hit a red signal that would never turn green. A majority of Pakistanis in the 20s had never had the pleasure of a train travel.
The railway in India, however, is alive and kicking. It arrives and departs on time too. India has maintained well this technological wonder that we jointly inherited from the Colonial period. It comes with its fair share of changes; some make you feel good and others nostalgic.
I eagerly waited for the chana chaat wala but was instead visited by a waiter every 20 minutes or so. Each time, he handed me a tray load of things to eat, so much so that with a mouthful throughout the journey, I barely spoke to my companions. I missed all those colorful characters from my childhood, now replaced by packed food from a host of companies, diligently offloaded onto keen consumers. Unlike in Pakistan, where one has to wait until Multan to savour the Multani Sohan Halwa, in India, assorted items reach you directly without you moving an inch from your seat.
The overwhelmingly generous, or should I say lavish, hosting by the railway comes in sharp contrast with the measly ways of private Indian airlines. They hand you a menu with a ‘sky price’ of each item and you feel guilty asking for even a glass of water for free!
My Indian friends joked that they expected the airlines to soon start charging passengers for toilet use, with a ‘price list’ hanging at the door. You can well imagine the ‘items’ it would include.
India has maintained its railway system well. It has been modernised but signs of the past still abound.
Unlike in Pakistan, where one has to wait until Multan to savour the Multani Sohan Halwa, in India, assorted items reach you directly without you moving an inch from your seat.
The Jhelum Express will arrive at the Delhi station at 10pm and will leave after five minutes. To where? Your guess is as good as mine.
2. The other wheel
The most startling difference you come across as soon as you enter India from Pakistan – women in public space.
They are everywhere, riding two wheelers, in buses and trains commuting independently and running businesses big and small, including roadside tea stalls and shops.
They come from all cultures and communities. I saw young girls cycling back home from school in a Ludhiana village. I saw two black burqa-clad women riding a scooty in Hyderabad. The most amusing, however, was to witness a grey choti (braid) dangling from behind a helmet as an old lady sped past me in Bangalore.
With cities teeming with people and roads perennially clogged, the swift motorcycle is the vehicle of choice for millions, just as it is in Pakistan. But it is not a taboo for women to ride a bike in India.
In Ahmedabad, some of my friends decided to gather at one point and then go for a round of the city together. Everyone, however, had an errand to attend to on the way. The host took great pains in developing a please-all route and in accordance, divided the group among the available vehicles.
When I finally packed myself into a car, I reminded the host, sitting next to me, that bhabhi (his wife) was missing. “No, I gave her my bike. She has to pick up our child from school before she can rejoin us.” I was flabbergasted.
“That simple,” I murmured. Luckily no one noticed.
So please, when there, don’t stare at a young lady in jeans on a motorcycle, checking her newsfeed on a smartphone, while awaiting the green signal. It’s normal there.
The motorbike is the vehicle of choice for the ‘Aam Aurat’ in India.
Bicycles make it easy to commute inside the sprawling campus of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
There are many bike accessories available only for women, like full-sleeved gloves to protect the arms from the sun and dust.
When a woman runs a roadside business in Pakistan, it makes news. In India, it doesn’t. No news is good news.
Hocus pocus: This picture of a Punjabi village in India has only two differences – Indian flags and women on bikes.
3. Guess what’s for dinner tonight?
This one could be a little more than a surprise – a shock for many Pakistanis, in fact.
I signed a declaration as part of the entry process on the Indian side of the Wagha Border to state that I was not carrying any contraband items like drugs or weapons, etc. That’s commonplace but the check list also included ‘beef and beef products’. I was worried about what I had eaten for breakfast that morning, lest they make me walk through some special scanner.
The surprise kept springing up in intriguing ways throughout my stay.
There are restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian and there are those that serve non-veg as well but then, many firm believers do not like to eat veg meals from the kitchen that processes meat as well. So, they will go to a place that does not serve non-veg. At many places, rows of veg and non-veg restaurants are clustered in separate streets.
This ‘culinary partition’ is then extended to housing as well, as vegetarian landlords do not rent their properties to meat-eaters that include Muslims, Christians, Bengali Hindus and people of Scheduled Caste Dalit communities.
Non-believers, however, can try to sneak past these stringent tests if their family names are kosher. Vegetarian colonies and apartments, however, closely watch against a non-veg taking residence there. So, entire neighborhoods can be identified with what they prefer to have for dinner.
In addition to meat, Jains abstain from eating garlic and onions as well. So there are separate Jain markets and colonies.
For most Pakistanis, eating out means nothing but neat-meat-big-portions. But it is impossible for a Pakistani to digest the socio-political dimensions of their seemingly banal love for the boti.
Take for example, if a Dalit (lower caste) rights activist, from among a large group dinning together, orders a beef tikka, would you suspect him of being a ‘revolutionary’? He might actually think he is making a statement against the Brahmin hegemony – the Hindu upper caste, the staunchest believer of the beef ban.
But the good news is that there are more ‘bad Hindus’ in India than there are ‘bad Muslims’ in Pakistan. You will have company.
Knowing the meat fetish of Pakistani middle-class, I can foresee a long line of tikka and karahi joints on this side of the Wahga Border post with ‘welcome back home’ signs, as and when the visa restrictions ease.
Chicken comes ‘fully dressed’ in India! I don’t really know what this signboard really meant but ‘meaty displays’ are a sensitive issues there.
The kind of security checks that Pakistanis go through at every second step, were nowhere in India but at this world renowned *biryani* joint – one of the reasons being that they regularly receive threats for committing the crime of serving meat.
Non-veg restaurants in India are not as flashy as in Pakistan. They are even less ‘fleshy’. A vegetarian told me Indians prefer much smaller birds. So when you find a place, don’t expect to sink your teeth too deep.
Beef-eaters apartment: Dietary preferences or beliefs are a housing issue in India.
Vegetarians food is not as banal as most Pakistanis think.
4. Now you see it, now you don’t
Besides the super active railways in India, there are many public transport options available for intra-city commuting, including the all too familiar rickshaws, mostly known here by their first name ‘auto’.
They indeed spew smoke but the surprise is that they have a fare meter.
You can rely on these and do not need to consult friends regarding a fair charge from one point to the other. Some meters may not be calibrated to the new rates fixed by the government; in that case the auto-wala will show you a chart comparing what appears on the meter to what is actually due.
You can note other signs of ‘the writ of the state’ in cities that we in Pakistan, have altogether forgotten.
I took a picture of a roadside book stall and its owner came to me quite worried. On my inquiry, it did not turn out to be a privacy concern, instead he was afraid of being reported for selling pirated books.
“Sahab, frankly I do have some pirated editions,” the poor man begged. A sharp contrast to the brazen ways of copyrights violators that I witness, and benefit from, in my country.
Some of my Indian friends insisted ‘sab chalta hey’ and these acts qualify as mere posturing by the state. It may be so, but coming from a country where the state has withdrawn from even a symbolic existence in so many spheres, it was still a surprise.
The official rickshaw fares are an issue that keeps cropping up in urban politics in India.
Two women police officers on duty in a Ludhiana bazaar with their Women Helpline scooty.
If you want to witness a complete absence of state in India, go to the slum of any city.
5. Three is crowd, but how many is a mela?
I was born and grew up in Punjab, Pakistan, and by the time I entered my 20s, I had known only Urdu and Punjabi speakers and a few Pakhtuns. I ‘saw’ (and later befriended) a Sindhi for the first time when I joined a federal college.
The metropolitan culture in Pakistan is way too shallow.
India, by that count, is an ocean, possessing endless diversity in its every span.
You can meet a Kannadiga in Ludhiana, a Manipuri in Hyderabad and a Bihari in Bangalore. There are scores of different languages and dialects, cultures and sub-cultures, religions and sects, castes and sub-castes and, of course, classes.
The permutations and combinations of all these factors are just mind boggling.
A Goan Christian married to a Hindu from Odisha and living in Ahmedabad, while working in a company owned by a Bohri Muslim from Kachh, Gujrat! Can you tell what identity markers this family chooses for itself?
The ‘ocean’ is not calm at all points and at all times. It is understandable that the countless fissures lead to frictions that keep flaring up every now and then. Hegemony of social, economic and political orders play with this fire and they are good at making a tamahsa out of it, of course, a profitable one.
I am here not commenting on whether or not India is dealing with its diversity well. I am simply stating an admiration to the amazing tapestry that India is.
It takes a Pakistani some effort to come to terms with this amazing juxtaposition of human beings. It feels great to speak Punjabi with someone in Bangalore, with no intentions of hiding it.
6. New world order
I ignored this one when I encountered it for the first time but then I gradually realized the pattern to it.
If someone introduces himself as say, Jai Parkash, an average Pakistani’s next obvious inquiry will be, “Are you a Pakistani?” But this will not happen in India, even if your name is Tahir Mehdi.
No one can know your nationality unless you make it known yourself.
They can’t guess it from the language that you speak and they won’t doubt it when you discuss Indo-Pak relations.
This unintentional anonymity can lead to interesting situations.
An auto rickshaw wala was proud that India had beaten the hell out of Pakistan in all the wars that we had fought. We were passing by a cricket stadium where the two countries had played a match. He, however, was critical of Indian players for losing the Asia Cup 2014 to Shahid Afridi’s last over blitz.
Such responses to Indo-Pak relations are no surprise as they follow known positions of either the doves or the hawks.
The surprise, however, comes when they discover they’ve been talking to a Pakistani. Stances are softened, positions nuteralised. And feel good statements are uttered, ‘After all, we are brothers’.
But many take it to the next exquisite level:
“You know what? Please, come closer. It is a conspiracy of the world powers, the US, of course. It’s a part of the new world order. They plot to make us fight each other. They are afraid that if India and Pakistan joined hands, they would not be able to stop us from ruling over the entire world!”