(Published in Dawn: http://www.dawn.com/news/1256207/are-you-indian-or-pakistani-why-it-shouldnt-matter )
Born to a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, I grew up in a family that embraces multiple religions and beliefs. Every Gurpurab(Sikh festival), we would go to the nearby Gurudwara to bow our heads and every Janmashtami (the birth of Hindu deity Krishna), we would go to a Hindu temple.
I wouldn’t say that we were a deeply religious family — perhaps what I grew up practising was just a function of what trickles down the familial hierarchy, spanning generations, and eventually catches up with you.
Stories of the eleven Sikh Gurus, the Mahabharata and theRamayana — that were a mandatory part of our academic curriculum right up till middle school and the idea of God and him ‘watching us’ — formed the premise of my moral upbringing and education in my formative years.
Having grown up with an amalgamated idea of God, the hard-hitting realities of different religions and religious wars that are rife today were things that eluded the conspicuousness of my daily life, like background music.
I hailed from what is today the ‘Indian Punjab’ (even though my grandparents are originally from Lahore). I didn’t have much interaction with Muslims, perhaps because there were very few to be found in my school.
It was not until I joined the University of Nottingham in England in 2007 for my post-graduate studies did I have the opportunity to befriend many Muslims, not to mention also reside in the same student halls with some of them.
Anyone studying abroad will tell you that one of the most exciting and enriching experiences is the hordes of expatriate students you get to interact with — people from all parts of the world whom you meet and live with under one roof, and ostensibly learn so much from about new cultures, traditions and lifestyles.
One of the very first people I met in my postgraduate student hall was a boy from Lahore whose sense of humour was as alarming as it was a riot.
Very quickly, he became an in-house entertainer for the entire building. Owing to the obvious overlap of culture and languages between us, we soon became fast friends and as it turned out, were also in many of the same classes.
A prankster, he would often find himself in a pickle with our house wardens who made it abundantly clear from the beginning that they were not his fans.
It made me like him even more. I would often have long chats with him and another Muslim girl who had moved in two doors down from me on my floor. We would converse on politics, Kashmir and India-Pak conflicts. Their views and sentiments, I found, were mostly aligned with my own.
He would say, “It’s the political parties and governments in power on both sides of the border that are spewing most of the trouble. My friends, family and many common people, like us, often discuss how sad it is that we harbour an unnecessary hatred towards those who are fundamentally our own.”
She would nod in agreement and then laugh and say, “Your Bollywood movies have made me fall in love with dancing around trees.”
To which I would respond,” You have Fawad Khan!”
If only these were the kind of conflicts both India and Pakistan had to spar about…
I cherish those memories even today while day dreaming at the back of a taxi in Abu Dhabi, where I live today.
I am snapped out of my reverie by my taxi driver Ajmal Khan who asks me: “Madame, you are British?” (Something I get to hear a lot here, including all those who are fair-skinned)
I smile and reply in Hindi, “Hindustani hoon. Aur aap?”
After a shocked silence, he quips: “Pakistani. Ek hi baat hai na lekin?”
This is common in Abu Dhabi. Most of the taxi drivers are from India, or Pakistan. They are also the friendliest.
Recently a video has gone viral on social media, stunning everyone who has watched it into introspective silence.
In the video, a young girl named Gurmehar Kaur from Jalandhar, Punjab — who lost her father at the tender age of 2 in the Kargil War — has implored the governments of both India and Pakistan to stop bloodshed and hatred-spreading one-upmanship and resolve problems once and for all.
Through a series of placards, Kaur conveys how she hated Pakistan and Muslims whom she blamed for her father’s loss. It was her mother who made her understand that it was not Pakistan that killed her father, but war.
I’m reminded of an incident that took place at my university one busy morning in 2008.
We were in the midst of our morning routine of rushing to get ready for class when we learnt that a Muslim student at one of the campuses of our university had been arrested for using the computers on the premises to research topics relating to terrorism and extremist outfits.
The boy was put behind bars for about a week, while investigations were carried out. He was later released after it became clear that he had downloaded the manual for a thesis he was writing for his course which had no connection with terrorism.
I remember how I feared for my own two Pakistani friends, even though the incident was far removed from them. The gravity of that situation brings me spiralling back to the flawed perception rife today of how terrorism is associated with Pakistan.
In equal measure, it is immensely unfortunate how religion becomes a tool for misuse. From the Muslim beef-lynchingepisode in India to the Hindutva hue and cry rampant today to the BJP’s insistence that Indians must shout ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ as evidence of their patriotism, it is incidents like these which give birth to societies, governments and countries that may very well be on their way to full-fledged fascism.
Instead of this overt display of nationalism and hate, why can’t we reconcile our differences?
Isn’t it time we listen to Kaur and become ambassadors of peace ourselves?