Speaker’s Corner: An Interview with History
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Two Augusts ago, the Punjab censorship authorities committed an act of foolishness that provoked me to write an angry op-ed against them and won me an unexpected friend and additionally, a great deal of food for thought. They banned the airing of Hindu cartoons on Pakistani cable on the pretext of safeguarding our culture and religious values. Outraged, I wrote an article defending the right of all Pakistanis, particularly Hindus, to choose what they let their own children watch. Among other things, I discussed the rejection of our shared heritage with Indians as unhealthy and unrealistic.
The following week, I received several derogatory comments on the online version of the article. Somewhat disillusioned with my first foray into journalism, I was surprised to arrive at work one morning to find a letter to the editor from a reader in India. He thanked the newspaper for printing my article, stating that he had always believed the popular depiction of Pakistanis as gun-toting, closed minded individuals, but now saw through the propaganda. I took his email address from the editor and wrote to him, thanking him for his kind words and his willingness to change the way he viewed Pakistanis. Having grown up in this country, I know it is no mean feat to admit you are wrong about your neighbouring country. I received a reply very quickly and we began corresponding with each other regularly.
Mr Sharma, my new Indian acquaintance, was warm and honest, telling me to let him know if he could ever be of any assistance from Himachal Pradesh where he lived. His address struck me as a particularly strange coincidence, as my own grandmother had migrated from that province when the communal riots had erupted after Partition – I told him so. Meanwhile, I learned that Mr Sharma’s father had been forced to flee Lahore, where my grandparents are now settled, and in the violence and confusion of 1947, he had lost his best friend, a Muslim who studied with him at FC College and most likely remained in Pakistan. Coming so soon on the heels of August 14, my accidental friendship with this Indian man felt fated at the time. I was determined to find out what happened to his father’s friend, as a tribute to our countries’ joint independence, if nothing else.
After one week of googling, asking elderly relatives and posting a status on Facebook which I asked my friends to share, I made a trip to Lahore to visit family. There, I engaged my great-uncle in conversation, knowing he had also attended FC College around the same time as my missing subject. Thirty minutes later, we had found him. He turned out to be an acquaintance of another great-uncle, known to be living happily in Islamabad with his wife and children. Unfortunately, I was unable to retrieve his address because the only person who could have provided it was very ill. Yet, I was unbelievably excited by the knowledge that in a country of 170 million souls, I managed to find out what had happened to one specific person who had mattered so much to somebody across the border. I rushed to send an email to Mr Sharma, telling him he could let his father know that his friend was alive and well. I was warmed and gratified by his response, which included photographs of his father and friend from before Partition. I felt privileged to have been part of this chain of events, lucky to have one more story to add to my personal collection about 1947. I majored in South Asian history in college, used oral histories about Partition for my thesis about political identity in the subcontinent and was finally living part of what I had studied. Yet, far from leaving me with clear ideas about identity, it muddied them – something only the most authentic sources can do – leaving me with mixed feelings about the subcontinent and its history.
Several months after I had found Mr Sharma’s acquaintance, I joined The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) and began researching the country’s history as a full-time job. As I collected interview after interview, meeting with senior citizens who had lived through the birth of the country and all of whom had starkly different feelings about it, my mind often went back to what had happened earlier that year. I sent off a note to India, informing Mr Sharma that my email address had changed, in case he needed to contact me. In return, he emailed me links to resources and projects in India similar to the one I was engaged in, opening my world to even more stories, this time from across the border. On a winter’s day in 2011, I received an unexpected message:
“Wishing you a very happy new year 2012. Hope the new year brings better things than the last one.”
I responded likewise and we wished that our respective countries would “stop squabbling like a couple of eighth grade boys,” as Mr Sharma put it. In another email, his wife sent me her regards, with a message that I looked just like her daughter (my photograph was above the original op-ed piece that began this correspondence).
The last I heard from Mr Sharma was on August 14, 2011, “Just to wish you a happy Independence Day,” he wrote. That day, I sat down to write an essay. It was meant to be about August 14 and 15, and independence and friendship and hatred and understanding – but it wasn’t, because I had no idea where to begin. I had planned to visit India the same month to conduct some research and collect more stories, but the person I was supposed to travel with failed to get a visa. Again, the contradictions that make up the subcontinent assailed me and I temporarily gave up my search for the more interesting bits of ignored history. Yet, however hard I try, the stories follow me everywhere. Everyone I meet has a story to tell and in Karachi, they are found on every street corner, forever entangled and impossible to separate. I kept writing and Mr Sharma’s emails remained in my inbox as my inspiration.
Suddenly, it is almost August again. This Independence Day, I will not wonder where to begin, where to separate myself from our past, because now I know that history is not a timeline – and stories have a way of telling themselves.
This article was originally published in the August issue of Newsline.
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