Postcard from India

The Indo-Pak partition of 1947, as described by the works of Manto, was undoubtedly one of the darkest periods in the history of the subcontinent. The violent nature of the separation was tragic and condemnable. Most of us have grown up listening to these heinous stories narrated by our forefathers, who were there when it all happened.  So when I visited India in the summer of 2008, and then later in 2012, I wanted to experience what it would have been like had the division not taken place. From the little that I saw during my time there, I came to the realization that the partition, in itself, barring the manner, was justified.

Unlike some Pakistani families who still have relatives settled in India, most of my paternal and maternal sides migrated to Pakistan. Hence, I did not have much incentive to retrace my past roots. We (my mother and I), took the PTDC bus from Lahore to Delhi last summer, crossing Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Patiala and Panipat on the way. So accustomed to the scenic journey of the motorway from Lahore to Islamabad, the drab and under-developed surroundings were a turn off. The suburbs of the Punjab area across the border were not as green as we had expected. But as we drove past these areas, it was as if a part of me went back in time to the pre-partition days.

Delhi, with its old architecture and humid, dusty weather resembled Karachi at times. The congested roads were named after old Mughal emperors, reflecting the prevalent influence of the Mughal rule in the city. And then there were times, when certain areas in central Delhi gave off vibes of the old Lahore. A metropolitan city by nature, Delhi oozed cultural heritage. But even its most posh localities cannot be compared to Defence, Clifton or Model Town in Pakistan. And as I think for a polite way to phrase this, Delhi and whatever little of India that I saw, in essence, was pretty filthy.  After my visit, I came to terms with the fact that cleanliness is a blessed virtue we should never take for granted.

Our mode of transport within Delhi was the “auto” (auto-rickhshaw), as they are famously called; although the human-powered cycle-rickshaw was also a popular means of travelling for the Delhiites. With “Halal” meat not easily available, we resorted to becoming vegetarians for the duration of our stay. South Indian ‘thaalis’, ‘dosa’, ‘bhel puri’, ‘gol gappas’ and ‘paneer’ were our choice of food. I have always taken great pride in the Lahori cuisine, but nothing beats the “chaats” and “gol gappas” of “Ananda Bhavan” in Green Park, a regular pit stop when we were in Delhi.

Gurgaon, the industrial and financial centre of the state of Haryana was at an hour’s drive from Delhi. When I went there in 2008, New Gurgaon was still developing with its towering skyscrapers and fancy malls. In contrast, Old Gurgaon was a congested, scrappy village. But it was remarkable how even in this remote barren place, they had managed to set up a proper national tennis academy with 5 synthetic hard courts and living facilities for the players.

The highlight of our trip was the visit to Agra, home to many splendid Mughal era buildings including the great Taj Mahal. We took an early morning tourist bus from Delhi through a phone reservation. From an American grad-student, a British scientist, a Keralite engineer to a Bengali family, we were part of a truly international group of travelers. As we stopped over for meals and bathroom breaks at the most shabbiest of “dhabas”, where hygiene was an after-thought, there was a great sense of irony for someone who’s pretty much lived off home-cooked meals.

Our first stop was the Agra Fort. Red bricks, white marble, outstretched green lawns and beautiful engravings, so typical of the Mughal era, every corner of the fort had a story to tell. Built around the same time as the Lahore Fort or the “Shahi Qila”, we could see the obvious similarities in the architecture and set up of the two forts. But there is no denying that the Indians have done a better job in maintaining their cultural heritage. With no eatables allowed inside the Fort boundaries, and the monument in its original state we witnessed a well preserved piece of history.

At a short distance from the Agra Fort was the Taj Mahal. Without the slightest hint of exaggeration, I was awestruck when I first laid eyes on that white marble mausoleum. It was like a dream; never before had I seen something like it. No postcard or picture could do justice to its real life beauty. No wonder it classifies as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was a fairly long walk from the entrance till the monument itself and as we only had an hour, we quickly scanned the inside of the Taj Mahal. We were made to wear shoe covers to avoid any damage to the priceless white marble.

On our way back to Delhi, we took a few detours in the city of Mathura. Having done the booking through phone, I had no idea we had signed up for this. As soon as we entered the city, an overzealous tourist guide hopped onto our bus and started narrating the life history of Lord Krishna in a language that sounded distinct from Hindi. After a short stop at the Krishna temple, we were made to visit another Hindu temple, “mandir”, as they are called. I was curious to see what was inside. If anything, I felt my monotheistic beliefs were only reinforced after this visit.

It is pretty natural for a Pakistani visiting India to draw comparisons between the two nations. And while we may find countless similarities, there are some obvious differences too. The people, their way of life, their culture and religion is essentially different, and you only get a sense of this when you’re there in person.

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One Response to Postcard from India

  1. hjabbar says:

    A very interesting recount of how unromantic India actually is. But despite it’s drab conditions, the love affair India is enjoying with the world at large apparently overshadows the real state of affairs. In the game of I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine, who cares about the millions of homeless and street dwellers.

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