It was a balmy night like tonight, when I stepped out of the Karachi airport. I looked around for a clue for my rapid heart beats: visually it looked like Delhi and felt like Bombay on the skin. I had this insane urge to touch the ground but as a guest representing a major television network, such actions might give a kookie start to what would be active negotiations in the coming days.
My father’s family comes from this city. My childhood myths had colours and smells of this place so this chance journey was making me sentimental. The drive to my host’s house showed a pleasantly laid out city. It was just like any Indian city: I was talking in Hindi to my host, and if he was answering in Urdu, I could scarcely make out the difference. The house looked like a bungalow in Vasant Vihar, the family like any warm Indian one, the clothes, the thandai, the furniture, just like home.
Where to look for Pakistan?
We went out for dinner to a great tandoori open air restaurant where 500 people were being served great gosht preparations and there was a smell of spices just like Jama Masjid or Mohammed Ali Road. I kept looking for differences. The buses were very flamboyantly decorated, the cars were all imported, the roads smooth but other than that nothing to tell me why I had needed that visa to come here.
In the next few days I couldn’t shake away this feeling. I worked from 9 a.m. to midnight everyday with people who were exactly like the ones in Bombay. I walked the streets, went to bazaars, restaurants, houses and met strangers that felt just too familiar. Towards the end, I gave up looking for Pakistan. I just became this professional out on a mission.
And then a very small incident broke the illusion.
Every night when I would return to my room at the Defense Club, an old man would be on duty and he would insist on carrying my tapes and papers up a flight of stairs. I would typically fling off my shoes and go to wash up. He would pick up my shoes, dupatta and put them away. Then he would bring me hot water and salt: ‘Garaara kar lo, bibi’- I had this cough that I was barely conscious of but he would never fail in his ministrations. No protests for him not to touch my shoes since he was much older than me would meet with acquiescence, nor my request to sleep without ‘garaaras.’ One night when I fell off to sleep out of exhaustion, he knocked on the door for half an hour to make me gargle. I knew how long it was because the water had gone cold and he insisted on bringing more hot water.
When I was leaving, I decided to give him a set of marble coasters instead of money. He accepted it with great tehzeeb. As he looked at them, tears were running down his crinkled cheeks. I asked him why. And he looked through those cataract eyes and I will never forget the pain in them. He said ‘Yeh to hamara mulq hai, bibi. Sadiyaan ho geyi dekhe hue.’ (This is my land, it’s been ages since I saw it). The coasters had little inlay work of Red Fort, Taj Mahal and other monuments.
What is this half a century old border? Just a mythical line to make exiles out of us.