Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mehr Tarar areporter from Pakistan spends few days in India

MY CORNER : From Lahore with love … - II — Mehr Tarar
The four days and three nights in Delhi were a blur of room service (masala tea, mint ice-cream, prawns, and an assortment of veg-food); Django Unchained, and much warmth, much love

Friday 12, 2013, almtas-gulmohar-scented, burst like a hot-air balloon, balmy, canopied by a clear white-blue sky, and I, anticipative to meet the famous Dr Shashi Tharoor, went over my list of questions, figuring out what the dress code for going to an official meeting in Delhi was.

Sighing, clad in black (what else), as the call from Tharoor’s office confirming my interview-meeting made me all helter-skelter about the rest of my touristy day, there was more-than-slight curiosity as to how the Indian democratic politicians differ from ours in terms of their public conduct. The nondescript car that picked me up from the hotel was the first white sign of how different-Delhi-is-from-the-whiter-and-bigger-Islamabad. Tharoor’s (Congress Minister for Human Resources) office (predictably), in the Shastri Bhavan, a sprawling governmental

complex a stone’s throw from Parliament House, which houses many ministries, made me roll my eyes why all these buildings saluting the Raj-influenced architecture are either too characterless, or, well, just rectangular boxes of varied sizes, all dull, all official.

The debonair Tharoor is one of those rare individuals who are a pleasure to meet: well-read, well-travelled, well-spoken, very smart and witty, yet disarmingly down to earth. This is one minister who gives niyatam kuru karma tvam, karma jyayo hy akarmanah a new suave

connotation (time to google translate, dear readers,), as there are numerous meetings to chair; to give interviews; stacks of files with various bureaucratic proposals to clear; answers to Parliament questions concerning his ministry to approve (or edit and reject), in addition to receiving visitors, petitioners, MPs making demands. Phew, even hearing about it made me think how Garfield and many a Pakistani parliamentarian wouldn’t have approved of the work-ethic of this very rare, conscientious-about-his-work minister.

The next stop was an art show, and as the interview was still many-a-question short of being complete, and one of the hosts was a Pakistani (married to an Indian), my eagerness was manifold, and when we got in Dr Tharoor’s official car (a modest white Maruti SX4, far short of being called a limousine, but an improvement on the boxy Ambassador that used to be the

standard official Indian car for eons), I was all whoa, Indian politicians display a strict code of an austerity ethic being representatives of a democratic system. (Sigh, the multiple SUV-owning Pak politicians, one good thing we could learn from our neighbour, no?)

Delhi, once thought of a sterile governmental capital, has now become a thriving cosmopolis, full of art galleries, theatres and literary cafes. And it has, quite literally, supplanted Bombay and Calcutta as a cultural capital, becoming the centre of India’s thriving publishing industry. ‘Art Melange’, at the Vista Art Gallery at the India Habitat Centre, was a collective of 17 artists, working under the guidance of the mentor, senior artist Mrs Vijaya Bagai. Meeting Farida Shervani -- the lovely, very talented Pakistani artist married to Saeed Shervani, hotelier, politician (formerly Congress candidate in UP for the last Assembly elections, now BSP candidate for the next Lok Sabha elections!) -- was like seeing an old friend at a dinner party full of strangers. Also present was a Pakistani diplomat residing in Delhi with her children while her husband was back home in good old Islamabad. Laughing with these two Pakistanis, aww-ing over the global village-ness of international politics of love and diplomacy, the evening was very vibrant, modern Indian. The artwork was dynamic, colourful, a mélange of multiple art forms, ranging from the haughtiness of abstract to the precision of still lifes.

Tharoor was the chief guest, and many a picture, a speech or two, diya-lighting later, the next sophisticated destination was a party celebrating the launch of Mohsin Hamid’s book (yes, our very own internationally-celebrated Mohsin Hamid). What a Pakistani day in India! The setting was Chikki Sarkar’s artistically-done house, open window-ed, with bearers serving champagne and delectable hors d’oeuvre (unfailingly fun to see people overstuff themselves on lots of tiny food, only to wake up to a food hangover). Sarkar, publisher at Penguin India and Random House had an eclectic mix of guests, and what a happy evening for the book-lover Pakistani me! Writers galore! Hamid, William Dalrymple, Vikram Seth, Jeet Thayil, Basharat Peer, Aatish Taseer, and some my spectacles-less eyes couldn’t see; as it was, I was too busy chatting a dozen-words-a-line to the writers of all genres, nationality and background to look for more.

There was also the tall, distinguished-looking Rajdeep Sardesai of the twitter and IBN18 Network fame; the smallness of the world was talked about as he recognised me from twitter, and we talked about this and that and Narendra Modi. As I watched the Indian literati interact with Hamid as simply as one of their own group, I marvelled at how an entire generation of Pakistani authors is finding a new larger international audience through being published in India. The entire Pak-India hostility (groan, sigh etc) narrative seemed to vanish into the perfectly nuanced lines of their books, and the delightfully-mouthed camaraderie in that room.

In the words of the very articulate Dr Tharoor (yes, yes, I am a fan), “New Delhi is, uniquely, a cosmopolitan society in the international sense. We have always been an overly self-obsessed people; our decades of protectionist policies also drastically reduced, in most other Indian cities, the frequency of routine contact and interchange between Indians and foreigners. Thanks to the diplomats and journalists based there, New Delhi is the one place where Indians of every class benefit from relating to, and seeing themselves in the eyes of, the outside world. In its urban openness and economic energy, Delhi reminds me, in fact, of the bustling coastal ports of a bygone era…New Delhi is India’s contemporary equivalent -- bustling, heterodox, anti-ritual, prosperous. For all its inadequacies, it is a symbol of a country on the move, the urban flagship of a better tomorrow. It will lead India into the 21st Century, even at the price of forgetting all that happened in the other 20.”

The four days and three nights in Delhi were a blur of room service (masala tea, mint ice-cream, prawns, and an assortment of veg-food); first-time sightseeing (tick off the to-do list); photographs; Django Unchained at the very fancy PVR theatre (a friend’s treat who also got me some homemade puri-aloo on finding out via twitter it was one of my favourite foods…things friends do, life’s many joys); drives through Delhi; a stroll through the DLF Mall (to buy some mushy gifts for a loved one), and much warmth, much love.

All achy feet, I landed in Amritsar, and after a breakfast of tiny parathas/eggs/aachar with Karan and his Naanijee, discussion (with many a shake of head) with his father and Nanajee, my-day-in-Amritsar began. Helped by Karan’s very sweet cousin on a visit from London, I bowed to being what I am beneath all my arty pooh-poohing: a shopping addict. What fun it was to find the perfect black sari, gorgeous joras, lehnga for my niece, and more sari-type stuff for my sister. The shop-owners were extra sweet to their obviously-obvious-to-the intricacies-of-fancy-clothes customer from Pakistan, and many bags and discounts later, we went to the Golden Temple.

Head covered, barefoot (gosh, it was painful, achy feet and hot marble floors don’t mix), I went inside the temple, and its majestic yet simple appeal was instantly heart-warming. As I stood there watching the Harmandir Sahib, or Darbar Sahib or simply the Golden Temple, one of the most renowned Sikh Gurdwaras in India, built by the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan, the 16th century structure exuded the awe-inspiring aura of a place where millions have prayed for centuries, where no caste is unwelcome, where all simply pray, kneeling, hands folded, foreheads on the ground. As I mouthed prayers for my loved ones, I could almost feel the centuries of prayers in that hallowed temple of Sikhs, and the sense of peace was like a celestial umbrella covering us from the bare rays of sun.

The wall had 27 holes, of some cartridge that reminded me of my uncle’s hunting guns when I was a little girl, and the inscription was insufficient to describe the horror of what must have unfolded that day in April 1919 at the Jallianwala bagh, also simply labelled the Jallianwala bagh massacre. Brigadier-General Reginald E H Dyer’s-ordered Gurkha Riflemen (ironically Indian) shot 1,650 rounds of gunfire on almost 20,000 unarmed people (women, children, elderly). Some ran to the nearest wall to die like trapped animals, some jumped into the park-well to avoid a certain death from a volley of bullets: 1,500 casualties, with as many as 1,000 dead. First standing in front of the wall, then the well, my eyes covered by huge sunglasses, I felt a goose-bumpy sense of grief, imagining, no, unable to imagine the screams of children, women, old, young men, bullets piercing their unprotected bodies, bodies adding up like mere statistics. I offered fateha and I wept. For all those who died at the Jallianwala bagh that fateful April 13, 1919, which seemed centuries ago from the April 13, 2013 I had spent in Delhi, happy and laughing.


The writer is an Assistant Editor at Daily Times. She tweets at @MehrTarar and can be reached at mehrt2000@gmail.com

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