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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A matter of 'honour'?

It is time to debunk all the myths that have evolved around rape

It has become something of a pattern by now. A woman is brutally raped, or, as is increasingly common these days, gang-raped. News TV channels go on overdrive, having shouty debates in the studios about how outrageous these daily assaults on women are. Newspaper headlines blare their indignation and anger, with some of them even christening the victim so that they can launch a campaign in her name. The suspects are arrested and paraded before the media. A fast track court is set up to ensure speedy justice. The trial goes on and on until the case fades from the media and our memories. And then, another woman is raped or gang-raped, and we go through the whole sorry cycle again.

But while the details of every rape case may vary, the myths that swirl around rape remain the same. And no matter how much we try and dispel them, their hold on the public imagination remains as strong as ever.

First up, is the myth that the rape is somehow the woman's fault. Why was she out so late at night? Why did she go to such a secluded spot? Why was she wearing a short skirt/low-cut top? Why was she drinking liquor? Why did she agree to take a lift from a stranger? Why didn't she call her potential rapist 'Bhaiya' and ask for mercy? Why does she sleep around so much anyway? Why? Why? Why?

The questions pile up until the woman ends up feeling like a criminal rather than the victim of a crime. In one way or the other, she is accused of having 'asked for it'. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong clothes with the wrong people. It is her fault.

Only, it isn't. No matter what she may have worn, no matter how she may have behaved, no matter how late it was, and no matter how much alcohol was involved, the rape was not her fault. It never is. No woman ‘asks’ to be raped. No woman ever.

And while we are at it, no means no. That bears repeating. In fact, repeat that slowly after me. No. Means. No. And anyone who doesn't respect that is a rapist. It is his fault that the rape happened. He is the one who 'asked for it'. He is the criminal. He is the one who should be punished. And he is the one who should be shamed and ostracized by society.

The second myth is that cities, and some cities in particular, are more prone to breeding rapists than others. At the moment, Delhi is pilloried as being the rape capital of India, but given the rash of rapes being reported from Mumbai, the latest being the gang rape of a young photo-journalist, the crown of shame may well shift. In the meantime, we are all subjected to the asinine ‘Delhi vs Mumbai as rape capital’ storyline.

It seems absurd to me that this needs saying but say it we must: cities don't rape woman; men do. And not all men, either, just the rapists among them. And these rapists live everywhere: in sprawling metropolises, in sleepy mofussil towns, in dusty villages. It is not their location that determines their depravity but their warped minds.

If anything, the plight of women who live in small towns and villages is worse, because patriarchy and misogyny are even more entrenched in these areas. And if you are raped here, the chances are that the national media will never get to hear about it, the police will laugh in your face when you try to register a case, and if you do succeed in taking the matter to court, society will shame you and your family at every turn.

Oh yes, shame. That is the product of another myth: that when a woman is raped it is not just her body that is violated; her ‘honour’ is besmirched as well. The Hindi phrase used most often to describe rape says it all: “Uski izzat loot li” (Her honour was stolen.) But as rape survivor, Sohaila Abdulali, wrote so movingly, “I reject the notion that my virtue is located in my vagina.” The only person who loses honour in the act of rape is the rapist himself. And we need to tell every rape survivor that, over and over again.

But the most dangerous myth of all is that if a woman is raped then her life is over. That being raped is somehow worse than being murdered because her ‘izzat’ is worth so much more than her life. The truth is that just as a woman’s virtue is not located in her vagina and cannot be stolen from her by an act of forcible penetration, her life also cannot be reduced to one heinous crime that was committed against her body.

Rape may have been the worse thing to happen to her, but it is not the thing that will define her. Life will go on. The scars will heal, the memories will fade, she will find love, she will laugh, she will take pleasure in the sight of a beautiful sunset, she will raise a family, she will grow old. But most of all, she will learn to live again.

Because there is more to a woman than her vagina. And her life is worth a lot more than her so-called ‘honour’.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Are you being served?

The snooty sales assistant is alive and well, and ignoring you at that unfriendly neighbourhood designer store

We’ve all been there at one time or another. You walk into a designer store where every item on sale has a stratospheric price tag attached. As you browse through the shop you realize that a sales assistant is beadily tracking your every move. You ask if you could get a closer look at a certain item on display. Instead of handing it over, he snootily informs you that it costs, say, Rs 3 lakh.

Technically, of course, he has done nothing wrong. You asked to see an item in his store and he told you its price. But you know exactly what is going on. The sales assistant has weighed you up, calculated the cost of your handbag, your watch, your shoes, and whatever jewellery you are wearing, and decided that this item is definitely not within your budget. Having decided that, he sees no point in wasting time showing it to you. He’s a busy man you know; he can’t be bothered with window shoppers like you.

Now, there are three ways you can deal with this. You can act as if you didn’t get the subtext of his reply and ask to see the bag anyway. Or you can call him on his rudeness and ask why he felt obliged to tell you the price when you hadn’t asked the question. Or you could just walk out and take your custom to another store where the sales assistants are a tad less snobby and a little more helpful. (Always choose option three.)

But if you are Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest women in the world and a global media superstar, you could also mention this experience in an interview. You can recount the time you walked into a store in Switzerland – which you are careful not to name – and asked to see a handbag. You reveal your amazement when the sales assistant refused to show it to you, despite your repeated requests, and steered you towards some cheaper bags instead. “This one,” she said, “is too expensive.”

Of course, being Oprah, you lay this down to the insidious racism that prevails in much of the world; a world which sees a Black person as being too poor to afford pricey goodies like these. And because you are Oprah, all hell breaks loose after your interview.

The Swiss Tourism Board offers you an apology on behalf of the whole country and says it’s a shame you were treated that way. The media track down the store in question and the owner is forced to clarify that it was all a huge misunderstanding because the sales assistant’s English is ‘not so good’. The sales assistant herself tearily explains that she is not a racist and that she was just trying to explain to Oprah that there were cheaper versions of ‘that’ handbag on sale as well. She adds, for good measure, that she cannot understand why Oprah is making such accusations. “She is so powerful and I am just a shop girl. I don’t understand why someone as great as her would cannibalize me on TV.”

At which point, Oprah backs down, and says that she wishes she had never raised the issue, and she regrets how it has all got so out of hand.

All this kerkuffle about being snubbed (or not) in a designer store…I know, it beggars belief, doesn’t it?

But while all this sounds very silly indeed, I have to admit that there is something about these fancy-schmancy stores that brings all our insecurities to the fore. I know women – otherwise completely rational human beings – who never venture into these shops unless they have at least one designer item on their person. And when I scoff at them, they regale me with stories of their ritual humiliation in such stores when they don’t quite look the part.

This can take several forms. The sales assistants may studiously ignore you, offering no help at all even if you indicate that you are looking for it. Or they will shadow you assiduously as if they are afraid you will slip an expensive item in your capacious handbag the moment their back is turned. Or they will be unbearably patronizing when you ask questions about the merchandise. Or they will resort to that tried-and-tested insult of telling you much a thing costs even before you ask the question.

Speaking for myself, I have noticed that service in such stores dramatically improves if I am carrying an easily identifiable label handbag, or wearing what looks like a designer garment, or even better, an expensive piece of jewellery. I can feel the sales assistants clocking up the value of every item in their internal computer and placing me on that sliding scale of costumer preference. And their disappointment is almost palpable when I leave without buying anything, as if I had somehow tricked them into serving me under false pretenses.

But while this is fun on a slow afternoon, I must confess that I would never ever set foot again in a store where the shop assistants had been snooty and rude. If I’m not good enough for you, then my money most certainly isn’t either.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Cut and (blow)dry

Why do women have such a complicated relationship with their hair?

It says something about Beyonce’s superstar status that even so mundane a thing as getting a new – albeit drastic – haircut sparks off a worldwide debate. It began when the singer posted a picture on Instagram, premiering her new gamine crop. Gone were the flowing, teased into curls, golden tresses. In their place was a punishingly short pixie haircut that perfectly set off her sculpted cheekbones and taut jawline.

With a certain predictability, the social media universe went into meltdown, with fans debating the merits and demerits of the new hairstyle on Twitter, Facebook and the many, many fan sites dedicated to the singer. Well, everything Beyonce does creates a media storm, so why should her hairstyle choices be any different?

But the flurry of ‘Beyonce chops off hair; what does it mean?’ stories just reminded me once again just how complicated the relationship between a woman and her hair is. Nothing a woman does to her hair is ever simple. How can it be, when we are forever looking for meaning in it?

Is she tiring of her sex symbol status and wants to try out a more demure avatar? Is this a sign of her reconnecting with her masculine side? Or more mundanely, does this mean that short, gamine crops are now ‘in’ and long, flowing hair is just a little bit dated?

Well, I am guessing that for a while at least, the short crop will become the trendy choice. I am old enough to remember just what a rage the ‘Rachel’ was (with Friends fans queuing up at hair salons with photographs of Jennifer Aniston to get the same layered bob; imagine their disappointment later when Aniston confessed that she had, in fact, hated the cut). And back home in India, we still call a style that involves a short ‘fringe’ or ‘bangs’ the Sadhana cut, after the 60s actress who first popularized it.

So, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if chopping off all your hair and going really short became known as ‘doing a Beyonce’. Well, it would be way better than ‘doing a Britney’; remember Spears’ slightly crazy phase a few years back when she shaved off all hair and emerged from the salon with a completely bald pate?

But even if you exclude spectacular breakdowns like Britney’s, hair is still a good way to gauge a woman’s mood. If it looks glossy and well-cared-for, then the odds are that she is a good place. If it looks limp, dirty of unkempt, then she is probably not feeling too happy (though that bad mood may just be down to the fact that she is having a bad hair day).

And then, there is the stereotyping that all of us are guilty of at one level or another. If she wears her hair in a demure bun, she must be a behenji. That one with the purple highlights in her hair; keep her away from your sons. Short, cropped hair with not so much as a whiff of hair gel? Must be a lesbian. Long, impeccably blow-dried hair? Has to be a vain, self-obsessed, lady-who-lunches with way too much time on her hands. Oh yes, there is stereotype to go with every hairstyle.

Speaking for myself, I can chart the various phases of my life by the way my hair looked during that period. The pig-tails and braids mark the decorous schoolgirl; the long, swishy hair left open to tumble down the back are a reminder of college days and a new-found freedom; that very unfortunate perm is a reminder of my callow youth. The shorter, layered style celebrated the beginning of my professional life; the gamine crop that followed was me trying out a new persona; and the blunt bob that I sport to this day marks the moment when I truly became comfortable in my skin.

Yes, you wouldn’t think to look at it, but hair is often telling us the story of a woman’s life. The moment of teenage rebellion when she chops off the long hair her mother has spent years oiling and braiding; the drastic change in colour or style that marks the end of a long relationship; the decision to eschew hair dye and embrace the grey as a mark of the inevitable passage of years.

Ah yes, to dye or not to dye: that’s the nagging question that most of my contemporaries are dealing with right now. And the only shades of grey in this debate lie in the roots of our hair; otherwise it is all very black and white. The no-dye lobby insists that this is the way to grow old: gracefully, with dignity, and with every white root on display. The dye-hard brigade scoffs at this defeatist attitude and promises that it is not going down without a fight (and some lovely highlights for good measure). Good hair, they proclaim, is worth dyeing for.

As for me, I am not ready to go grey yet. Or abandon the safety net of my bob. Or even give up the extravagance of having my hair professionally blow-dried. Because, like most women of my acquaintance, my self-image is inextricably tied up with my hair.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pakistan Diary

When I went across the border with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in 1999…

It was billed as a historic visit. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee would board a bus and ride across the Wagah border into the welcoming arms of Pakistan’s Wazir-e-Azam, Mian Nawaz Sharif. After years of tension over Kashmir, the Pokhran blasts and Pakistan’s nuclear explosions in the Chagai Hills, the two Premiers would meet in an atmosphere of amity and try and resolve some of the differences between the two countries.

Documenting this unique event would be a nearly 200-strong contingent of Indian media. The hacks would be flown to Lahore a day in advance in a chartered Indian Airlines flight. And I was going to be on that plane.

Preparing for Pakistan

My first stop is the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi. Armed with a visa form, duly filled in, my passport and Rs 15, I arrive to apply for a visa.

The huge iron gates are closed but there is a small window open, behind which sits the receptionist. I try to attract his attention but he is busy on the phone. “Mufti Saab, eh tussi ki kar rahe ho?” he says in Punjabi. “Mere te saare pass mukk gaye ne, aur eh journalist te aye jaande ne.” (Mufti Saab, what are you doing? All my passes are over and these journalists keep coming.)

I can’t hear Mufti Saab’s response but clearly it doesn’t serve the purpose as the receptionist gets even more agitated. “Te hun main ki karein? Bina pass de bhej dayan?” (What do I do now? Send them in without a pass?)

As this altercation continues, I can’t help but smile. I’m nowhere near Lahore, but I am beginning to feel at home in Pakistan already.

Perhaps an explanation is in order here. I am a Punjabi, whose family came from Jhelum (a mere two hours ride away from Lahore, as I am to discover subsequently). Punjabi is the first language I ever spoke and any country that converses in my tongue can’t be half-bad, I think.

Off to Lahore

When I check in at the airport, I find groups of journalists huddled around, deep in conversation. But only a few of them are discussing the political ramifications of the visit. The rest are talking about what they can buy in Pakistan, and where they can buy it from.

Sadia Dehlvi is, therefore, much in demand. Not because she is a shopaholic but because, being married to a Pakistani, she knows Lahore well. But Sadia’s presence in our party is significant for another reason as well. She lives in India with her young son, while her husband is based in Karachi. About four years ago, when she arrived in Pakistan with her baby son, she was sent back to India from the airport itself.

Wild accusations of her being some sort of spy were flung around – though never officially – and ever since she has not been given a visa by the Pakistani authorities. Her husband visits her in India and is allowed to stay for a couple of months at a time, but Sadia has always been persona non grata in Pakistan.

This is the first time she has got a visa to visit Pakistan – and then only because she is part of the media delegation accompanying A.B. Vajpayee. So, there is already one positive fall-out of this visit, whatever the next few days bring.

Friendly Neighbourhood?

A 40-minute flight brings us to Lahore. We land at the Haj Terminal, where special counters have been set up for us to clear immigration and customs. As we ride to the Avari Hotel, where the media party is staying, Lahore looks incredibly clean and antiseptic. But this, we are told, is the cantonment area; the old city is quite different.

A quick change into a churidar-kurta to blend in and I head down to join the press party. We are going to be bussed to Anarkali Bazar, chaperoned by two Pakistani volunteers.

We reach Anarkali and disembark. But before we can advance even a couple of yards, we are stopped by a police jeep. When they find out that we are Indian journalists, they say we cannot venture into the market without a police escort. The Jamaat-e-Islami has called for an agitation against Vajpayee’s visit and they can’t take responsibility for our safety if we venture forth on our own.

Disconsolate, we turn back. But I am not ready to give up just yet. I rustle up three other members of our party and we head out on our own.

Just outside the hotel, there are a couple of hefty Pathan suit-clad types hanging around. Could they be Pakistani intelligence officers, keeping an eye on our party? No, we are probably being paranoid.

We walk up to them and Ashwini Kumar, editor of Punjab Kesri, asks if they can direct us to Anarkali. This is the equivalent of asking someone in Khan Market to direct us to Lodhi Gardens. But the men look around vaguely and mutter something about being new to the city.

As we look around for a cab, we find the men following us at a safe distance. This is like something out of John Le Carre novel and we are beginning to enjoy ourselves immensely. We hop on to the cab and direct the cab to Anarkali.

In the manner of journalists all over the world, we begin pumping the taxi driver for information. Both Ashwini and I speak Punjabi so the conversation goes pretty well. Is there is a good reaction to Vajpayee’s visit, we ask. “Eh te sab theek hai pur jad tain Kashmir da masla hal nahi honda, kuch nai ho sakda.” (This is all very well, but until you solve the Kashmir issue nothing can happen.)

We ask him to drop us at Anarkali. But he demurs. There are many demonstrations today. Maybe we should wait till tomorrow. We are willing to risk it, we say. After all, we look like locals and speak the language. But one member of our party is looking frightened out of his wits, so we take pity on him and decide to turn back.

At the hotel, we ask the cabbie how much the ride came to. I sit back, waiting for him to say that it is free; that’s the least he can do for visitors from across the border. Isn’t that the stuff of that famed Pakistani hospitality?

But no, he asks for Rs 500. Given that the ride would have come to about a 100 rupees, we are appalled, but manage to haggle him down to Rs 200.

Clearly, even 50 years after Partition, in some ways India and Pakistan are very alike indeed.

Socialite Evenings

The highlight of the evening is a reception hosted by the Indian High Commissioner to Islamabad, G. Parthasarthy. Here, I meet Taimur Bandey, a young Pakistani who is putting a programme together for PTV World. He has been to India recently, where he saw the Delhi Test match between India and Pakistan and heard Abida Parveen sing at Madhu Trehan’s place, so we have a lot to talk about.

I ask him what he makes of the Jamaat-e-Islami agitation that is threatening to shut down Lahore. Taimur dismisses it as one of those things. Just as we have our Bal Thackerays on this side of the border, they have their Jamaat-e-Islamis.

A few of us leave early, as we have been invited to dinner by Iqbal Z. Ahmed, a prominent Pakistani businessman. I ask Taimur if he would like to join us, and soon a party of five Indian journalists and one local is making its way to Ahmed’s residence.

We settle down with our glasses of freshly-squeezed orange and carrot juice and small talk ensues. What does Mr Ahmed, who has been close to both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, make of this visit?

Ahmed is cautiously optimistic. But he believes trade is the key to normalizing relationships. “We have so many power plants that have been closed down because there is not enough demand in the country. And yet, across the border in Punjab, there is a shortage of electricity. So, why can’t we have an agreement to supply power to India?”

So far, so good. But then, that familiar bugbear of Kashmir raises its head again. Ahmed’s father, a venerable old man who spends several months of the year with his Indian friends in Delhi, says that the Kashmir problem will have to be solved before relations can improve.

But, says one member of our party, what the Kashmiris want is independence. What does that have to do with Pakistan? And in any case, how can any solution come about as long as the ISI continues to train terrorists and send them across the border?

That is enough to set Ashwini off. He begins to tell our Pakistani hosts that two generations of his family have been wiped out by the ISI. Kumar’s father, Ramesh Chander, and grandfather, Lala Jagat Narain, had been assassinated by Punjab militants at the height of the Khalistan agitation. And, says Ashwini, given that these militants had been trained by the ISI, the latter is wholly responsible for his loss.

Ahmed is beginning to look a little uncomfortable but Ashwini is not through yet. “And what is all this nonsense about Kashmir?” he asks. “We are in control and we will not give it up. In fact, I write in my paper (an Urdu publication that sells in the Valley) every day that Kashmir is ours.”

This is too much for Ahmed. “Par aap aisa kyon likhte hain? (Why do you write like that?)” he asks, in anguished tones. Before Ashwini can drop another brick, one of us intercedes with a question about Bibi’s (Benazir Bhutto) prospects and Ahmed thankfully turns away from his guest from hell.

But Ashwini is not done for the night. As dinner is served, he corners Mrs Ahmed, whose mother is from Jalandhar. “Aap to hamare taraf ke ho, (You are from our side),” he begins, as the lady smiles uncertainly in response. “Aap Ramayan to jaante honge (You must know about the Ramayan)?”

“Haan, naam to sunaa hai (Yes, I have heard the name),” says Mrs Ahmed. That is encouragement enough for Ashwini to begin reciting chaupais (couplets) from the Ramayan to her. The lady doesn’t know quite what to make of this; and nor, for that matter, do we. Thankfully, by then dessert has been served and we can wrestle Ashwini into the car and back to the hotel.

On the way, Taimur suggests that we drop by at Café Zouk, a trendy nightspot where the yuppies of Lahore drop in for dinner or a late-night cappuccino. We are game, needing to wind down after Ashwini’s little dinner performance.

Café Zouk may be in Lahore, but it wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan. The walls are painted an interesting orange, there are zebra-striped sofas and steel frame chairs, and completing the New York ambience is the presence of several PYTs. The only incongruous touch is the loud Hindi film music blaring from the sound system.

The girls are in regulation black – all in Western clothes – and made up to the nines, while the boys all look like Imran Khan in his younger days, with their figure-hugging T-shirts.

Who would have thought that I would feel out of place in a salwar kameez in the heart of Lahore?

In Tourist Land

Early next morning we set off to do the rounds of the tourist spots. First on the list is Gurudwara Dera Saheb, the historic spot where Guru Arjun Dev was martyred. There is a huge police presence outside; the site has to be sanitized as Vajpayee will be dropping in later.

The gurudwara is about two centuries old and history drips from its very patina. But despite its age, it is incredibly well maintained by its small, in-residence staff. The granthi (priest) hurries out to greet us and does an ardaas (special prayer) for us. He then opens the Guru Granth Sahib and takes a hukum (that is, reads out a verse at random, which is taken as a message from God).

I ask him if a lot of people come to the gurudwara for prayers. No, he says, there are no Sikh families in Lahore; he himself is from a 100-strong Sikh community in Peshawar. But people do come from across the border on occasion. Nonetheless, he and his wife do kirtan every day – even if there is no one to listen to them – and keep a langar in readiness for any visitor.

Next stop is the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This borders the Lahore Fort, which houses the Shahi Kila, the Badshahi Masjid and the poet Iqbal’s maqbara.

On the way back, we decide to stop at Urdu Bazar, near Anarkali, where Ashwini’s old house is situated. Given that this building houses the first Congress Party office in Lahore, the rest of us are easy to visit it too.

But as our car turns in that general direction, there is a sudden commotion in the streets. A 40-strong group of young men in white Pathani suits – presumably from the Jamaat-e-Islami – is advancing rapidly towards us, throwing stones at a five-strong contingent of police. Our driver shows considerable presence of mind and reverses before our windscreen is shattered and drives away at breakneck space.

We are all badly shaken. But we comfort ourselves with the thought that these are, probably, just guns for hire. After all, we have them in India too, don’t we?

Wagah, At Last

We are in our positions a couple of hours before Vajpayee’s scheduled arrival. Just when the ennui is getting unbearable, the bus finally trundles across the border. Vajpayee waves at the waiting crowd as do the other celebrities – Dev Anand, Javed Akhtar, Shatrughan Sinha, Kapil Dev, Mallika Sarabhai, to name only a few – accompanying him on the bus.

The PM alights and is greeted by Nawaz Sharif. The two men hug and the photographers go mad. The reporters exhort them to say a few words but they prefer to just smile instead.

This silence is obviously too much for Dev Anand to bear. So, he bounds across, elbows the Prime Ministers aside, and proceeds to hold his own press conference. His noises about this being a ‘historic occasion’ are interrupted by a Pakistani photographer who shouts, “Aap ki Des Pardes bahut achchi lagi (Loved your movie, Des Pardes).”

Dev extends his arm and wags a finger. “Aap ne kahan dekhi? (Where did you see it?)” The reply comes fast: on the video (which is how most Pakistanis watch Hindi movies).

By then Vajpayee and Sharif have moved on – refusing, probably, to be upstaged by a mere actor – but Anand continues to hold the fort for a little longer. A foreign correspondent is later heard to enquire if he is a comedian; which says it all about Anand’s little roadshow.

Ten minutes later, Vajpayee examines a guard of honour, as members of his delegation, his foster daughter, Namita Kaul Bhattacharya, her husband Ranjan and their daughter, Niharika, and about 500 reporters and photographers look on. He then boards a helicopter to make the short journey to Lahore.

As we ride back to our hotel, we are driven past a small contingent of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) demonstrators who are holding up placards advocating independence for Kashmir. But since Vajpayee is doing this bit by helicopter, he doesn’t have to face this.

But there is worst in store for our Prime Minister. The banquet held in his honour at Lahore Fort has to be delayed because Jamaat-e-Islami agitators are holding a demonstration in that area. They manage to stone the cars of various ambassadors who are attending the function and tear gas has to be used before they disperse.

That evening, all the press corps can talk about is whether this demonstration shows that the Pakistani government lacks the will to deal with the Jamaat-e-Islami. Or is the administration just incompetent rather than misguided? The jury is still out when we retire for the night.

A Whiff of Nostalgia

Minar-e-Pakistan is first on the agenda the next day. Prime Minister Vajpayee is scheduled to visit. But this is more a symbolic gesture (and a photo-opportunity) than anything else and after signing the visitor’s book the PM flies off in a chopper.

We have rather more important business to conduct. We are going to resume our abortive search for Ashwini’s ancestral home. We pile into two cars along with our three Pakistani escorts, Bibi Gul, Bilaal Malik, and a pretty young fashion designer called Maleeha.

After a few false starts, we finally trace the Gyan Vyapi Mandir which Ashwini’s uncle has given to him as a landmark. Of course, this has long since ceased to be a mandir. Various families have taken it over and the room where the shrine was located has been converted into a godown.

Tracing our way back from there – and with some help from the locals – we finally find the house. As we walk in, Ashwini is beside himself with excitement, rushing from room to room as he tries to recreate the image of his family home as it must have existed half a century ago.

Then the hunt begins for the Sheetla mandir. My mother, who lived in Lahore as a young girl, used to worship there and has told me many stories about it. We ask around and are finally led to a small gate, which apparently leads to the mandir. The statue of a lion on the gate – though in a state of disrepair – is enough to convince me that we are in the right place.

We enter the gate and step into a rabbit warren of small rooms, in a dilapidated condition and overrun by dozens of children. One man steps forth and offers to lead me to the shrine, stopping only to point to faded sign on which is written – in both Hindi and Urdu – ‘Sheetla Ma ka Mandir’.

My guide takes me into a little room where a young woman is making tea on a stove and asks if I can be led inside. She has no objection and so I enter her house and am led to the little alcove where the murti used to be kept. This alcove, where Ma Sheetla’s idol was once placed, is now used to store suitcases and other household stuff of the family.

My guide informs me that this room has been partitioned since then and the other side of the wall has the little iron grill through which devotees would give their offerings. He takes me across to this room, which belongs to his own family.
The Sheetla Mandir complex, it turns out, has been taken over by refugee families from across the border who settled down here and made it their home. My guide and his wife are from Mewar in Rajasthan and came to Lahore after Partition. His wife insists that I have a cup of tea before I go but I am in a bit of hurry and have to refuse. As I leave, several young girls, ranging in age between four and 14, run behind me and tug on my dupatta. When I turn around, they shyly hold out their hands to be shaken.

I am touched. This is the first sign of genuine affection that I have been shown since arriving in Pakistan. And somehow it seems fitting that it should come from people who came from across the border.

Highs and Lows

Vajpayee’s finest hour comes at the civic reception that evening. Speaking without notes and straight from the heart, the PM makes us all proud of being Indians. Vajpayee begins by saying that some people would question the wisdom of his visiting Minar-e-Pakistan, where the resolution to form Pakistan was moved. This could be interpreted as putting his seal of approval on Pakistan.

But, asks Vajpayee, “Kya Pakistan meri mohur se chalta hai? Uski apni mohur uske liye kaafi hai (Does Pakistan need my seal of approval? Its own seal is quite enough for it.)”

After that, the Indian PM has the largely Pakistani gathering eating out of his hand. They laugh at all his gentle sallies, clap at the rhetorical flourishes and listen in rapt attention.

My attention, however, is half-focused on a man a few tables ahead of me, who pointedly failed to stand up while the Indian national anthem was being played. After the speeches are over, I walk up to him and introduce myself. It turns out that he is a Pakistani journalist, Nasrullah Ghilzai, who works for the weekly Taqbeer, which is based in Karachi.

Why didn’t you stand up when the Indian national anthem was played, I ask him outright. He smiles and says, “Well, you may not agree with my views.”

“I probably won’t,” I reply, “but I’d still like to know why you did that.”

“In my view,” he says, “India is an enemy country. All this (he points to the guests milling around at the reception) is just protocol. This doesn’t mean anything to me. India has done certain things to Pakistan that I can never respect it for. And not to respect the national anthem is not to respect India.”

The viciousness of the sentiment prompts me to probe further. Where is he from?

From Lahore. Well, yes, he lives here now, but where is he from originally? Ghilzai looks uncomfortable. “My family is originally from Hoshiarpur, Punjab (on the Indian side of the border).”

Did he come over during the Partition? Yes, says Ghilzai, he came across as a five year old on the shoulders of his grandfather.

And did he lose anybody during those dark days? Yes, he lost nine members of his family.

In the context of memories like these, his decision to disrespect the Indian national anthem is more understandable – though, to my mind, it is still indefensible. More importantly, if memories like this still linger on, how much hope can we hold out of a India-Pakistan entente?

But, as Vajpayee said in his speech, we have tried to be enemies for 50 years; why not try to be friends now? After all, we can change our history but not our geography. And given that we have to live as neighbours, why not give peace a chance?