The only time I met the late Om Puri was in 2004, when he came to participate in the Kara Film Festival in Karachi. That was his first visit to Pakistan. I was introduced to him at a dinner hosted by Sultana Siddiqi, chairperson of Hum TV, in honour of the visiting delegates at her spacious Bath Island residence.
“I was warned by people back home that it would not be safe for me to come here. Tell me where have you hidden the enemy?” he asked in chaste Urdu.
“Maloom hota hai aap se dar ke bhag gaya,” (It seems he ran away because he must have been scared of you) I quipped.
Om had a hearty laugh before he shook hands with someone else waiting for his turn to meet the Indian celebrity.
The brief meeting strengthened my feeling that lack of contact between Pakistanis and Indians within the subcontinent gives birth to misunderstandings. Outside South Asia, they normally make the best of friends.
During my childhood, when I heard a lot of one-sided stories of Sikhs killing Muslims during Partition, I became mortally afraid of the bearded and turbaned community, until I met Khushwant Singh, whose writings I admired. Our paths crossed in 1976, when he was editing the popular journal The Illustrated Weekly of India.
I was introduced to him by his assistant editor, Raju Bharatan, who was also my guru as far as his knowledge of film music was concerned. Khushwant greeted me with a loud and disarming Assalam-o-Alaikum, as he showed me a poster he had gotten designed in support of the release of Pakistani prisoners of war in 1972.
The lesson that I learnt was that one should greet people with their own customary salutations. I found Sardarjis particularly pleased whenever I greeted them with Sat Shri Akal.
Interestingly enough, the most hospitable hosts I met were the Delhi-based Pami Singh, a nephew of Khushwant, and his sister Geeta. Pami was, pleasantly enough, a far cry from the fierce image of Sikhs that had been created in my mind due to Partition stories.
I am happy to divulge that now I have a good number of Sikh friends. The youngest of them all is Aman Jaspal, a turban-less Sikh, who is married to a comely young lady from New Zealand.
Aman (whose name means peace) divides his time between Chandigarh and Attari. He runs Sarhad, a restaurant-cum-museum, about a kilometre from the Wagah border.
On the way back home, some of those who attend the senseless flag-lowering ceremony on the Indian side, try either the vegetarian food served on what is known as Amritsar thali, or the non-veg fare termed Lahore thali. They get to see a small museum that has architectural, culinary and cultural artefacts from pre-Partition Punjab, and visit the souvenir store selling Pakistani ladies dresses.
The grass, as they say, is greener on the other side of the fence, so the ladies garments imported from Lahore by Jaspal, attracts the fashion-conscious amongst his clients.
Aman is an avid cricket fan, but when India is playing against New Zealand, he doesn’t openly root for his own team. This reminds me of Sunil Gavaskar, who supported Pakistan in his commentary during the 1992 World Cup matches.
When I interviewed Sunil at the Bombay Gymkhana and referred to his tilt in favour of the Pakistani cricket team, he said, “I will always support Pakistan, except in matches they play against India.”
Sunil is a fair-minded person. He came to the rescue of a Muslim family, which was surrounded by militant Hindus during the 1993 Bombay riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque. He saw the gruesome sight from his balcony and raced down the staircase to convince the rioters in Marathi to let the helpless family proceed in their car.
He came to Karachi and Lahore, not too long ago, to grace the charity dinners that were hosted to raise funds for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital.
Another distinguished Indian visitor at the fund-raising dinners for the same institution was the thespian Dilip Kumar. His itinerary included Islamabad, where he had been invited to be decorated with the coveted Nishan-e-Imtiaz.
That was his second trip to Pakistan. He had come here earlier when he visited the country’s capital and provincial capitals to raise funds for Fatimid Foundation, which is a blood bank for the needy and the community at large.
Literature festivals in Pakistan and India invite a good number of literary figures from the opposite side of the Wagah border. They normally draw larger crowds than the delegates from other countries.
Sadly, many people from across the border don’t have the chance to attend due to visa restrictions. I was supposed to go to India, and had been granted a one year multiple entry visa in October 2015, but the organisers of the second edition of the Kumaon Literary Festival developed cold feet and politely withdrew the invitation. I don’t blame them because they would have otherwise been victimised by extremists in India, who were opposed to Pakistani participation at such festivals.
Peaceniks are looked at with suspicion by both sides. In 1997, when I was interviewing the then Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, I casually mentioned that I was being called an ‘Indian agent’ by some Pakistanis, while in India, I was constantly being tailed by the police.
“That’s just to make sure you don’t feel lonely,” he commented lightly. By the way, during the rest of my stay in India, I was ‘left alone’.
A few years later, the noted Indian journalist MJ Akbar was a state guest and was granted an interview with President Pervez Musharraf. At the end of his trip, when my friend dropped him at the Karachi airport, a couple of plain-clothed men confronted Akbar and asked him why he had come to Pakistan.
“That’s a question you should ask your President who invited me,” retorted Akbar. Clearly, the persons who were tailing the Indian journo had not been properly briefed.
I felt sorry for the ‘follower’ who would wait for me at the taxi stand below the flat of the PIA manager Sultan Arshad, with whom I was staying in Mumbai. The mole had hired a taxi, and had instructed the driver to follow my cab.
A few days later, I tried to tell him that he might as well travel in the same vehicle as I did.
“We will both gain by splitting the fare!” I suggested, but the man ignored me.
Four or five days later, I drove to the Churchgate local train station because I had to go to the suburbs. I bought a ticket, but the mole didn’t need one. The train started moving when both of us were at the platform. We ran. He boarded a compartment, I couldn’t.
The poor fellow could not get down because by the time he realised I was not on the train, he could not jump because the train had gathered speed. Obviously, his life was more precious to him than his job.
That was also the last time I saw him. For a man who visited people like poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar and Raju Bharatan just by following me around, I hope it sparked in him some interest in literature and cross-border friendship at least.
(Asif Noorani, a peacenik, has been writing articles and delivering lectures in India, Pakistan and the US on the need for closer relations between the people of the two subcontinental countries for several years. He can be reached at email@example.com. This column was first published on Dawn.com.)
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