Nowhere else in the world can one enter a foreign country and feel so at ease. Crossing the border from Pakistan into India felt slightly strange, as there were none of the expected dramatic changes in environment. Of course, a few 100 metres cannot bring about much of a change in landscape, but crossing over to another country, one still expects to see something alien.
Indeed, as Amritsar approached, signboards and advertisements written in Hindi sprang up, making us realise we were not just in a different part of our own country. Even so, once read out loud, these became understandable, as spoken Hindi is almost identical to spoken Urdu. Looking at the people made it still more difficult to accept the fact that this was another country. Driving to Delhi, the people I passed were so very similar to our own, in practically every way — appearance, mannerisms, occupations and activities. The houses, the traffic, the atmosphere, were all uncannily familiar.
The larger part of our trip was spent in Lucknow. The seven days we spent there left a permanent imprint on me. ASHA — a voluntary organisation — were our primary hosts for the trip; as such, their crew accompanied us from the time we left Delhi, until the very last moment, when we returned to Delhi — a period of almost nine days. As time progressed, my opinion of these people developed from simple admiration to outright respect. Organised, friendly, and hospitable, each was exceptional in many other ways. Their selflessness, honesty, simplicity, and the harmony between their beliefs and their practices, was something I had never seen before.
The formal purpose behind our trip to India was to visit some of the schools there. We visited the first school on our first day in Lucknow — a school called Navuge Radiance. The experience left me completely dazed. With hundreds of schoolgirls crowding the entrance, craning their necks for a look, microphones, reporters, cameras flashing away, elaborate arrangements and decorations, and thunderous applause, the encounter left me bathed in a feeling of warmth and love.
Initially, I had thought that our visits to the different schools would be along the lines of a regular tour of the campuses, perhaps accompanied by a view of the classes and interaction with some students. Instead, we were greeted with all the pomp of visiting dignitaries, with a meticulously prepared show, consisting of beautiful classical dances, drama and poetry. Lunch was a sumptuous banquet, rather than the canteen food I had envisioned.
However, meeting the students was the real experience. A group of around 50 students would be led into the lunch area, where we were sitting, and given five minutes to speak to us. In those five minutes, I would be talking to about 20 girls. The conversation ranged from Bollywood, music, and boys, to politics, academics, Pakistan-India relations and mutual government bashing. After their time was up, the group would be dragged away to allow another their turn. Although we were allowed only five minutes per group, the laughing, excited chatting, talking and teasing transcended those five minutes. Our communication — not just with words, but also with twinkling eyes and whole-hearted laughs — left a deep impact on both parties.
The schools we visited ranged from the elite Mirambika — where learning is promoted through experience rather than exam-oriented academics — to more mainstream schools, where students are prepared for local board examinations. The differences between the elite and middle class schools were noticeable, but not as stark as in Pakistan. As for the students, in mannerisms, speech and confidence, there was no apparent distinction between the children of both classes. Their excitement upon meeting people from the “notorious Pakistan” was the same across the classes.
Meeting university students was different. They were more deeply involved in politics, more charged, more cynical and harder to convince of a possible positive solution to the enmity between our countries. Both sides raised questions and faults about the other’s country, but always ended up acknowledging that if not all, then most of the problems existing in the other’s country also prevailed in their own — the differences were only of degree, which varied with the nature of the problem.
We also had the chance to visit an exceptionally beautiful village some distance from Lucknow. I can safely say that the environment, lifestyle, the physical and social structures and the warm hospitality we saw are just the same in both India and Pakistan.
There are many who, by now, probably think me an idealistic peacenik. They may ask, if the situation is indeed as rosy as I have described, why does the present situation of war and tension exist? In response, all I can say is that the when it comes to inter-personal relationships, the picture is positive. However, the problems that exist are a result of political posturing and propaganda, on the parts of both governments. People on both sides of the border yearn for peace, yet their governments appear unwilling or unable to provide it. And the people I speak of are not just the educated elite, who believe that promoting peace is the correct thing to do. In bazaars, restaurants, and villages; in public meetings in Delhi, Lucknow, and Agra; wherever we went, people were exceptionally friendly, despite knowing that I was from Pakistan — in fact, in many cases, because of it. They were usually the initiators of conversations on peace and the unfortunate politics between the two countries. They would inquire which city I was from, and almost always tell me about some relative of theirs living somewhere in Pakistan.
I don’t think I can possibly write about all that I felt and experienced, because all my feelings and emotions would fill a book. I will say that it’s time for us people to force our governments to do what we want done. The millions on both sides of the border want peace, if not for humanitarian reasons, then for economic reasons. Due to the exorbitant amounts spent on defence, the peoples of both countries are being robbed of the very basics of life; people are dying of starvation and disease, and these are ills that have been inflicted by their own governments, not by war. Man has the ability to realise his desires. The peoples of Pakistan and India desire peace; we want it, so it will happen.
During the Agra Summit, 16 year-old Alia Amirali, of Islamabad’s Khaldunia High School, crossed the border with her classfellows and teachers. This was published in Pakistan magazine FridayTimes. It is refreshing to see such articles demanding peace in a hate filled society.