I am a voracious traveller and have had the good fortune of visiting about 40 to 50 cities across continents in the last two decades. Whether it is Naukuchiatal or New York, Periyar or Paris, Delhi or Denmark, I have enjoyed and celebrated each of my travels with equal zest, always discovering something unique and special about the place. And it's never been about the facilities or the comforts, as much as it is about the energy and attitude of the place and its people.
So for someone like me, an opportunity to officially visit Lahore -- to speak at the prestigious Women Leadership Forum organized by Nutshell & AIMA -- came like a blessing in disguise, as Pakistan is one country that most Indians wouldn't consider for a pleasure trip. I was delighted at the thought of visiting our closest neighbour and the birthplace of my parents. Finally, I thought, I'd be able to bring some life into their stories about Pakistan as a haven of large houses, warmth and camaraderie before the lines of geography came in the way of humankind. My mother would reminisce about her father's cinema hall, named Lakshmi in a small town near Sindh, and my mom-in-law still talks with yearning about their 22-room haveli with its badminton court.
""Jine Lahore nai vekhiya, o jameya nai (One who hasn't seen Lahore has not been born)." Whoever coined the phrase had obviously experienced the glory of Lahore -- and so did I."
I was excited about finally crossing over the line and meeting our neighbour, so similar to us yet always marked as "other". But I must admit that beneath this excitement lurked a nervousness stoked by the hostility and suspicion of our politicians and media. It didn't help that family members and friends were apprehensive: "What? Lahore? Are you sure? Think again!"
But I was only interested in the human interactions; the relationships beyond the politics and nothing could dissuade me from taking this trip. And how glad I am that I went ahead!
"Jine Lahore nai vekhiya, o jameya nai (One who hasn't seen Lahore has not been born)." Whoever coined the phrase had obviously experienced the glory of Lahore -- and so did I.
I experienced the outpouring of warmth and generosity from Pakistanis the moment we reached the Visa Office. Our hosts were personally present to meet the Indian delegates. The curiosity and conversation started the moment we identified ourselves as Indians. While, our papers were being processed, the lights went off and that became a conversation starter and the start of fabulous Pakistani hospitality.
"Do you have electricity problems too? Don't worry, it won't take long... please sit in the Duty Officer's room, there is a big window there. You'll feel more comfortable".
We were offered water and tea and made to feel so very welcome.
And this experience repeated itself throughout our three-day stay in the city.
As we got in the car to drive towards the Pearl InterContinental hotel, the driver got chatting. I noticed his finesse as a conversationalist. His speech was laced with nuances and peppered with fascinating details and facts. I soon realised that most Pakistanis are great talkers displaying genuine interest in the person they are speaking to and probably that's what makes their company highly enjoyable. Their conversations about the most everyday topics have so many flavours and if I may use the Hindi word, ras (juice) in them.
The conference itself was well attended and I was surprised to see at least 35-40% male delegates. You'd be unlikely to see so many men in a women's conference in India! There was an honest attempt at dialogue to address gender related issues across class and creed.
Later in the evening we went for an Atif Aslam musical evening at the Punjab State University, and this is one experience that sealed my belief that we have to step out of the prism of received opinion and false perceptions.
I am a big Atif fan and one of my Pakistani friends ( by now I had made a few ) insisted on taking me to the front of the stage to shake his hand. Looking at the sight of hundreds of students going wild in front of the stage I immediately resisted but my friend started cutting me through the crowd with just one phrase: "She's a guest from India, please let her pass." I was simply amazed at how swiftly the path opened up and we were in the first row within seconds!
"I am sure many people from both sides are brimming with delightful stories of warmth, friendship and their neighbours going the extra mile for them."
That got me wondering. Why hasn't our media ever captured these emotions? Why do they only cover large events like exchange programmes or music and dance performances or literature festivals that happen once in a while? What about the everyday experiences of people travelling to Pakistan or to India from the other side of the border? I am sure many people from both sides are brimming with delightful stories of warmth, friendship and their neighbours going the extra mile for them.
"Aap India se hai? (Are you Indian?) That makes you our guest and we'll serve you," is a phrase that stopped to surprise me after some time.
Pakistani goodwill towards Indians seemed to be visible all across and manifested itself in offers, mementoes and many eager conversations about common cultures, Bollywood and of course, cricket.
I can narrate many more experiences but I am sure by now you get the gist of my emotions. We have so much to share and gain by cutting across cultural-historical boundaries and wiping out the lines of division and hatred. It's time we started celebrating rather than denigrating each other because we are, after all, two sides of the same coin.