By Harmeen Soch
“I’m Indian” — I said as I stood beside the tour guide while he was introducing the members of the tour group who had come to take part in the beautiful four-hour long tour called ‘Taxali’ organised by the ‘Walled City Authority of Lahore’, a Government of Pakistan initiative, to promote tourism.
It was a walking tour that takes you through ‘Androon Lahore’, the interior walled city of Lahore, which is so similar to the interior walled city of Amritsar in Punjab on the Indian side. My introduction induced a dead silence for about two seconds as every eye turned towards me. The tour guide was naming the countries that were participating that day and had forgotten to name India — not by mistake, but because my ticket had been booked by a friend in Pakistan on his computerised national identity card (CNIC) so they had no idea an Indian was amongst them.
Hurriedly, the guide collected his wits and asked me, “Are you Indian or NRI?” I was all smiles as I said, “I am Indian and have come from Amritsar via Wagah border”. Taken aback he continued, “Should I say Namaste or Sat Sri Akal?” to which I replied, “either, but I will reply with a Sat Sri Akal”. There was a big shout out to me by the group. ‘Wow’, ‘OMG’, ‘the city of Golden Temple’ are just a few words I heard as the entire group gathered around me. Too many questions came up.
Suddenly, an old lady held my hand between her two warm hands and said, “We are so happy to have you here. Come stay with us so that we can serve you properly”. Another lady hugged me tight and said, “It’s my wish to visit Punjab in India”. A man came up to me and said that his grandfather was from Gurdaspur and I told him that my mother was from Faisalabad — formerly Lyallpur — in Pakistan.
Immediately, the medium of communication became Punjabi. His accent was exactly like that of a Punjabi in Amritsar. I felt as if I was home. The common language was a huge unifying factor. The barriers of nation, religion and culture melted away instantly. My fear of visiting what in hindsight appears to be one of the most misunderstood countries in the world was laid to rest by warm hugs and beautiful smiles. It wasn’t frightening anymore.
We shifted back to talking in English as there were foreigners in the group. As we began walking, I was entrusted with the task of translating jokes and idioms in Punjabi to English for the benefit of English speaking tourists. It was such fun walking the narrow lanes of Androon Lahore. The sights and smells were unique.
An old-world charm engulfed me as I walked through the last three centuries of history visiting havelis of Noor Jehan, Nadira Begum and Sir Ganga Ram. There were street performances on the way like flute, sitar, tabla, dhol, Punjabi songs sung with a traditional ‘gadwi’ used as an instrument.
To my utter surprise, there were two major performances namely, Kathak by a couple and the original ‘Heer’ sung in a traditional way by a fakir. It moved me to tears. I could not believe I could be sitting at 10pm in Lahore Fort in Pakistan watching Kathak and listening to Heer live in a mehfil. So many myths about this nation were shattered in less than 24 hours of being there.
I began wondering where were those people who hated India and spoke viciously over social media day and night. Every person I met with in Punjab in Pakistan seemed to get emotional at the thought of India. I heard people say they wished to see the Taj Mahal and Ajmer Sharif before they die. What! — I thought to myself. Was it a life goal of people of Pakistan to visit India? Unbelievable! Just day 1 of my 12-day tour changed my perspective about this nation. I realised they are just like us. They too want acceptance, love, peace and prosperity like us. They are us!
I spent seven nights in Lahore visiting historical places and Gurudwara Sahibs. Kartarpur Sahib in Narowal district, Nankana Sahib in Nakana city, Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal, and Dera Sahib in Lahore brought me closer to our Sikh roots and reminded me of the history and sacrifices of our great Gurus. Visits to Fakeer Khana, Badshahi Mosque, the Food Street of Lahore reminded me of our joint history and the love of food that Amritsaris and Lahoris indulge and enjoy alike.
My experience in Punjab across the border was unexpected. And my reaction to those experiences was enlightening. I have not been born or raised in Pakistan yet I feel a strong connection to the land. Could it be because of my parent’s affiliation with Pakistan before Partition or the fact that our history is so intertwined that it can never be separated for generations to come? Is it possible that my childhood visits to Pakistan for pilgrimage had such a profound impact on my personality that I wish to relive those moments yet again? I am dumbfounded. I don’t have an answer to my affiliation to Punjab that side. The pull is undeniable.
As I left Lahore to move further to Nathiagali in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, I couldn’t help but feel sad thinking about this division of Punjab in two halves where hearts still align and love flows abundant.
I can’t help but think of a day where I could wake up one fine morning and decide to have lunch in Lahore, shop for the ever so pretty Pakistani suits and come home by evening. After all, its just 50kms away from my home in Amritsar. That there would be one day when I hop across Wagah without thinking of how to stand on that white line in the ‘No man’s land’ while I bid farewell to one nation and enter another. Is there ever a possibility for such a dream to come true? I know for sure that love begets love. What if we all gave love a chance over hatred, who knows we may get the same in return and my dream and that of many others may actually come true!
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