28/02/2015 8:38 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why I Couldn't Feel Like A Foreigner In Pakistan

Neelam Pol

Two months ago when our Pakistani friend invited me and my husband, Saurabh, to attend her wedding in Lahore, I said to Saurabh, "We can't possibly go... who goes to Pakistan?" By that I meant, which sane Indian would think of going to Pakistan? My reluctance did not stem from any animosity towards Pakistan or its citizens. In fact, during the time I spent in Cambridge (USA), I made friends with a few Pakistanis and attended the lavish Eid feasts they hosted. I was reluctant because the Pakistan I knew of was an unsafe place, where children were killed in schools and where atrocities were blatantly committed against minorities. I had visions of our Pakistani hosts hiding us away in their homes to protect our identities from possible hostile perpetrators who may whisk us away to a Pakistani prison (yes, I was inspired by the Bollywood movie Veer Zara).

Our Indian friends and relatives shared a common refrain: "Are you out of your minds? Who goes to Pakistan?" The fact that there were ceasefire violations on the India- Pakistan border at the same time did not help. Of course, it is hard to believe that it was always the 'enemy' who broke the rules first, though that's the only version the Indian media disseminated. So as more people cautioned us against visiting Pakistan, the more convinced I was that the visit would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be undertaken.

And thus began my tryst with Pakistan. We were granted a visa to Lahore only, and we could cross the border on foot. I was brimming with excitement as I walked across the Attari-Wagah border - I felt the same adrenaline rush that I had while jumping off a plane at 10,000 feet. The first person I spoke to in Pakistan was the guy who apprehended us outside the immigration and offered to get currency exchanged. This is a very common first experience in India for foreigners as well and I had to suppress a smile at the similarity!


Bombay Chowpatty in Lahore

Lahore's expansive ring road invalidated any assumptions I held about Pakistan's under-development (let's just put it down to my ignorance). The ring road is massive and seems to circle over most of Lahore. Once we were inside the perimeter of our friend's farmhouse, where we were going to stay as well, I felt like that it could have been any farmhouse gearing up for a wedding in Delhi's Chhatarpur. Be it the hustle-bustle of friends and relatives, the rigorous mehendi dance prep, the late night antakshari and farmaishye, hiding the groom's shoe or the mouthwatering jalebi at the wedding - every scene was just like a wedding back home.

It was impossible to feel like a foreigner in Pakistan. We, Indians and Pakistanis (in Lahore), speak the same language, crack up over the same jokes (with Pathan jokes replacing our Santa Banta ones), cook with the same spices and even have similar codes of body language. I felt at ease with everyone, there was no cultural awkwardness. Wherever we went in Lahore, people greeted us with warmth, were excited to know that we were guests from India. Women spoke about their fascination for the famous chikankari embroidery of Lucknow, and the elders often nostalgically shared with us a pre-Partition memory and a desire to someday visit their ancestral towns in India.

In the Lahore Museum I saw more statues and life-tiles of the Buddha than I ever had. The streets of old Lahore reminded me of walking in the busy but artsy lanes of Udaipur and the Lahore Fort reminded me of the old Agra Fort. Also very familiar were the chaos of traffic, cars driving on the wrong side to avoid going further for a U-turn and people crossing roads just as they pleased.

The city-bred modern Pakistani youth whiz around in their cars, have coffee shop dates, read all kinds of books, groove to Yo Yo Honey Singh (well, not everyone), hold candlelight protest vigils and spend late hours on the rooftop of Cooco's Den on Food Street, eating phirni or kulfi. No different from youngsters in our cities.


Overlooking old Lahore from Wazir Khan Masjid minaret

And then as we stood looking upon the walled city of Lahore from the top of a minaret of the gorgeous Wazir Khan Masjid, an unknown emotion welled up inside of me and I almost choked on tears. We were one people, sisters and brothers, so alike each other, yet so separated by years and years of misgivings, distrust and political agendas. Will these distances keep growing? Or will our similarities pave the way for collaboration and peace? I am left with these questions and with some hope in knowing that the average citizens in either nation do not want war with each other. They want a better life for their children.

This visit has helped me broaden my own myopic view of Pakistan. I sure hope that this is first of many visits that I will make there in coming years. Upon preparing to return to India from Lahore, I invited an aunt of my Pakistani friend to come visit us in India. To this she responded, "Thank you beta, but I don't think India is a safe place to visit."