“Aap India se hai? You are Indian? That makes you our guest. We can’t take any money from you!”
It was my fourth and last day in Islamabad, and this reaction from a handicrafts shop salesman didn’t surprise me any more. I’d been getting it from the first day, this outpouring of warmth and generosity from Pakistanis the moment I mentioned India, and it never failed to charm me.
When I flew from Mumbai to Islamabad earlier this month, I was excited about finally getting a glimpse of India’s estranged midnight twin, about meeting the people who are ‘just like us’ but still the perpetual ‘other’. I was preparing for four days of spotting similarities and differences, but the only striking difference I was able to discern was one that left me with a twinge of shame: all the Pakistanis I encountered love Indians, but most Indians don’t return the love.
You must have some tea
I was in Islamabad for an international women’s empowerment conference organised by the American Embassy in Pakistan, and my precious single-city visa was valid for just seven days. The conference was an impressive gathering of nearly 300 women and men from all over Pakistan, who made sure that the few of us representing other South Asian neighbours – India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and the Maldives – were treated like mini celebrities. (Lots of selfies were involved, of course.)
But the two of us from India – one Mumbaiite and one Kashmiri – began getting special attention much before we met any of the like-minded, well-travelled people at the conference.
First, it came from the otherwise sombre immigration officials at Islamabad’s Benazir Bhutto airport where we landed: a lady officer, while scanning our documents, grinned mischievously at us and said, “India waale toh suspicious hote hai” – Indians are objects of suspicion, right? We grinned back and proceeded for the airport police verification for foreigners, where the official took a break from an argument with another man to say, “You are from India? You must have some tea!”
One Potato, Two Potato
Outside our hotel, we had time to grab a quick lunch before the conference began, and the only restaurant open on a Friday afternoon in Jinnah Market was OPTP – One Potato Two Potato – serving American fast food. We had been dreaming of kebabs and biryani, but for now, burgers and fries it had to be.
I still hadn’t had time for foreign exchange, so Ashwaq – my fellow Indian traveller – offered to pay for lunch with the Pakistani rupees that she had acquired from an agent in Delhi. But the cashier wouldn’t take them. “These are outdated notes, madam,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “They are no longer valid.” We pleaded, and after a minute of thumb-twiddling, he double-checked with a friend and came back with the same response: the notes couldn’t be accepted any more.
Tired and hungry, we cursed the dubious Delhi agent – and then it began. “Delhi? Are you from India?” the cashier said. “Well, it’s okay. I’ll take the old notes. You are our guests.” He insisted, and the burgers and fries, and the free cheese dips he threw in didn’t taste so American any more.
My first ever cup of tea
This experience repeated itself almost everywhere throughout our four days in Islamabad. Pakistani dildaari towards Indians seemed to be widespread, and manifested itself in discounts, mementoes and many eager conversations about common cultures, Bollywood and of course, cricket.
On my third night, while gorging on meaty street food at Melody Food Park, this dildaarimoved me to do something I never imagined I would: I drank a whole cup of tea, a beverage I dislike almost as much as coffee. (I’m weird, I know.) For journalists, sharing chai with sources is often the smoothest way to break the ice and win trust, but I always wriggle out of the ritual by claiming I’m allergic to tea.
But this tea – a steaming cup of Peshawari kahwa – was a treat from a humble vendor ofchappal kebabs, who couldn’t contain his excitement when he found out I was Indian. “I’ve always wanted to go to India! You have to let us show you our hospitality!” he said, and served us a complementary kebab along with kahwa.
I’m still no fan of any kind of tea, but that cup definitely left me warm inside.
So what answer did I have to the one question that so many hospitable Pakistanis in Isloo, as they call Islamabad, asked of me so eagerly, both in and outside the conference?
The question would typically come after heartfelt conversations about India, Pakistan, Kashmir and the politics that separates us: “We really love Indians – after all, we’re basically the same people. Do Indians feel the same way about us?”
Often, my response was a bright “We do!”, but was that really true? Was I speaking for most Indians or just a minority of sickular liberals like me? Every time I faced that question, my guilt-ridden mind would think of the many “go back to Pakistan” exhortations Indian Muslims have often faced, and the casual “are you meeting terrorists?” jokes that so many of my own friends had cracked when I got my visa for Pakistan.
The next time I cross the border ‒ Karachi and Lahore are on my bucket list ‒ I hope to have a more honest response to that question. I want that response to be, “Of course we love you too!”