When India, Pakistan bond over books
Here's to my new friends, and here's to friendship - wishful thinking as it may be - between Pakistan and India..
My trip to Kasauli, India, earlier this month for the three-day Khushwant Singh Literary Festival (KSLF) would be etched in my mind for a long time, if not forever. Forever is as ephemeral as the love it professes to protect in its longevity. While I returned with the regret that the schedule permitted me no free time to just wander about Kasauli, to savour its untended splendour, its fragrant air, and the quiet parts of the lovely hills, I brought back nothing but good memories. While all the sessions that I attended on literature, poetry, media, films, art, politics et al were stimulating - on varying degrees - it was my interaction with Indians of all backgrounds, ideologies and Punjabi jokes that would be the most memorable part of my Kasauli trip. Yes, most of the jokes were old and not-so-funny, but I gotta focus on the positive side of that too.
As I thank the very gracious hosts of the KSLF, Niloufer Bilmoria and Rahul Singh, and their team of very dedicated young men and women, I can't help thinking how little regular Pakistanis and Indians know about one another. Other than their interactions abroad, and despite constant (strict visa regulations aside) travel between Pakistan and India, there is a startling dearth of information about the "enemy" country on both sides of the border. Literary festivals, Track-II meets, and peace-initiative conferences would never lose their relevance, notwithstanding the derogatory adjectivisng of the efforts. The "pappi-jhappi mafia", the "mombatti brigade", the "aman-ki-asha jholawallas".. don't let the negativity dampen your sincere desire to see peace between two countries that are so similar to one another they are literally like cousins separated in childhood in Kumbh ka mela.
This article is dedicated to some of the very cool Indians I met, talked to, laughed with, and befriended (another common factor between Pakistanis and Indians: the very liberal usage of the word "friend!"). The first one was Om Puri, the veteran actor who has a huge fan following in Pakistan. Before the first session on Day-1 of the KSLF, there he was, sporting a colourful desi topi, all big smiles and loud laughter. As I told him I was from Pakistan, and a big fan, his spontaneous response was: "You are from Pakistan? Then I must give you a big hug!" I was soon joined by another Pakistani guest, and many Indians, all asking for selfies. Yes, the selfie-obsession has taken over Pakistan as mindlessly as it has India and its politicians! Farooq Abdullah was one politician I was truly keen to meet, as his latest statements were a constant reiteration of his desire to see peace between Pakistan and India. As I introduced myself, he spoke to me like an old friend, posing for a selfie in the two-minute interaction I had with him then. The next day, while I awaited the commencement of my session, seated next to the very charismatic politician, and a at a dinner later on, we talked about this and that, laughing at the clothing choices of two gentlemen we both happened to know (or be related to), there was nothing but positivity in his words for Pakistan, urging both countries to move beyond the bloodied ghosts of past.
Then there was A.S Dulat, the former head of the R&AW. The very warm invitation to his home in Delhi, his wife's graciousness, his son's loud Punjabi positivity, his cousin, Robin's hospitality...it was quite an experience to meet the regular man who once headed the oganisation that is alleged to be behind certain incidents of mayhem in Bolochistan and Karachi. Phew. His reiteration of the need to resolve the Kashmir issue must have made him an unpopular figure in his own establishment. Now that happens to all peace-seekers on both sides. Right?
Talking to Avirook Sen, the writer of bestseller, Aarushi, the horrific true story of a teenager, and Hemraj, the domestic help in her house, it was refreshingly pleasant to experience the light side of the very solemn-looking journalist, as he deadpanned jokes and outrageous anecdotes. Moved I was to see his bond with his quiet, graceful father who had accompanied him to the festival.
It was also a pleasure to meet Ranvir Shorey, the very talented, very versatile, but kinda underrated actor. Watching him pose for pictures with an endless stream of fans, finally I understood why surly-looking, giant-sized guards encircle the big celebrities. Fame comes with its own negatives. There is a very blatant blurring of line.the celluloid image being taken for the real. The most noticeable thing about Shorey, apart from his weirdly-shaven head, and a wicked sense of humour, is his devotion to his four-year-old son. Yep, something I could totally relate to, although my tresses are long, my sense of humour guarded, and my son 15. A big shout-out for Titli, Shorey's upcoming film. Shunali Shroff, the mother of two, and the writer of Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother, a book most mothers, hither and thither, could relate to, was as lovely to talk to as she looked. Once we started talking, it was like connecting with an old friend back home, and the pictures of our families as screensavers on our phones further emphasised the fact: mothers are mushy, whether they are from Lahore or Mumbai.
Here's to my new friends, and here's to friendship - wishful thinking as it may be - between Pakistan and India. - Mehr Tarar is a columnist based in Lahore