View From The South
There was much excitement in our household as my 80-year-old father prepared to visit Pakistan for the first time after 53 years. He'd fled, amidst gunfire and smoke, the day India and Pakistan were partitioned, carrying nothing but the clothes on his back, having handed over his apartment keys to a friend who was staying behind. All these years, though, he hadn't forgotten Lahore, his home, or Shamsher, his friend.
'This will probably be my only chance before I die,' he said when we expressed concern about his health. We were worried: he's diabetic, suffers from angina, tends to overstrain himself. He loses things, he's never kept a wallet - what would he do if he lost his passport or something equally important? But he was adamant.
The determination, however, began to wear a little thin as the day drew near. He couldn't sleep for worrying but he wouldn't, or couldn't, tell us he was worrying. We knew though, and made all sorts of oblique suggestions that he plead ill health or doctor's orders and back out. But he wasn't having any of that. 'I just have to go,' he said.
This desperation to visit each other's countries may seem strange to outsiders. But Indians and Pakistanis will immediately understand - as will others whose lives have been partitioned arbitrarily in doomed attempts at political solutions. The one thing we hanker after all our lives is to be able to visit the other country. For people who came from Pakistan to India (as my parents did) or those who went from India to Pakistan, this longing is even more deep. For many Indians and Pakistanis, that moment in 1947 when a more or less arbitrary boundary was drawn dividing one country into two was a moment of deep loss: of friends, of family, of homes and roots, of a culture. It was a moment which represented a division of hearts.
Today, it's well nigh impossible for Indians and Pakistanis to get visas to travel to each other's country. There is such deep suspicion on both sides that neither government is willing to allow the other's citizens to visit freely. If you get a visa at all, it's not for a country but for a city - the maximum being three cities - and everywhere you go you must report to the police within 24 hours and again 24 hours before leaving. So my father also felt that because he was fortunate enough to obtain a visa, he just had to go.
We saw him off at the airport, giving him all sorts of instructions about how to hold on to his passport. No sooner had he entered than he turned the folder upside down and dropped the passport on the floor. An alert guard rushed up and handed it back to him. After this he misplaced the document twice, the last time at a duty-free counter on his return to Delhi, and this time he decided to leave it there. 'I've been to Pakistan,' he told himself, 'and now I'm done with travelling so why bother?'
The visit was a memorable one in more ways than one: for my father it was a real trip down memory lane. But his one desire was to find out about his friend, or to contact his family. Shamsher had stayed in Pakistan and had chosen to convert to Islam. For years my father had tracked his career through Pakistan radio and the BBC in London. And then he'd heard that Shamsher had died. He felt the loss keenly: it wasn't so much Shamsher anymore as it was a link to a place, a home, a memory.
In the way that these things sometimes happen, my father struck lucky at a party hosted by a local media magnate. In a casual conversation he happened to ask about his friend. The person he was talking to took him by the hand and said: 'Come with me.' Somewhat surprised, he went along and was introduced to a young man. My father's companion said something odd to the younger man about meeting his 'other father' and it was then that my father realized he was talking to Shamsher's son. For my father this 'reunion' was the emotional high point. His journey to Pakistan was now complete, he could come home with an easy mind.
A half-century after the political division that caused the largest human displacement in history, Indians and Pakistanis are beginning to pick up the threads of their divided lives and start the process of healing, of remembering, of talking again. As one partition refugee put it when he visited his home village after 53 years: 'Once you have fought, what is there left but reconciliation?'
At a people-to-people level Pakistanis and Indians defeat all the machinations and hate campaigns of their governments. For nearly half a century it's been difficult for people to visit their old homes, friends, families - though from the number of visa applications it is clear that the desire to cross the border is great. Those who do succeed come back with wonderful stories of love and affection, warmth and hospitality. And it is these stories that keep the desire for peace going. Having found his way to Pakistan and tracked his old friend down, my father now feels at peace. He's been home.
Urvashi Butalia is a writer and publisher who lives in Delhi.
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