At the Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara in October 2022, when I met my Pakistani friends for the first time in person, we sat together in the langar hall and hesitantly began our conversation with a cup of tea. Sipping the steaming hot, milky, adrak wali chai, we discussed our preferred ways of making the beverage. After that, there was no turning back. Quickly, we turned into a group of loud Punjabis who seemed to have known one another forever.
Our similarities as Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis allow the west to put us in the single homogeneous category of ‘Desis’ or ‘South Asians’, which most of us uphold proudly. But upon returning home, i.e. to our respective countries, it is our differences that are highlighted. The singular identity of ‘Desi’, is replaced by our specific national identities, while bringing to the fore what divides, rather than what unites.
A friend's wedding and the desire to see my roots took me to Pakistan — a trip I did not think would be possible, and was warned against by many, and yet I continued to hope for. At the end of 2022, I became the first person in my family to have gone back to Lahore since my maternal grandparents' migration in 1947, when the partition riots, accompanied by independence, swallowed their city in its entirety.
On a cold Lahori morning, while exploring the old city, my friends and I stood at a golden spot near the Delhi Gate. We soaked the winter sun as the crowd thickened. People moved ahead rather organically, streaming and forming tributaries as they vanished into narrow gullys. Looking at all these people I wondered, in a sea of desis, how do you differentiate between an Indian and a Pakistani?
Simply put, you can't. With the same wheatish complexion, face structure marked by high cheekbones, and dark hair strengthened with the same nuskhas, we become indistinguishable. Adding to this, our common habits and mannerisms enable us to blend right in. So did I. Which allowed my Lahori friends to take me and my father to historical sites under the much cheaper ‘local’ tickets, rather than the exorbitantly priced, ‘foreigner’ tickets.
Walking in the narrow, winding lanes, we stepped into narrower ones. We passed by hawkers, shopkeepers, and the aroma of familiar delicacies as they slipped out from the kitchen and mixed with the air. If I didn’t know any better, I might have been in Delhi's Chandni Chowk!
From this beautiful chaos, which stands true to the old cities of both, Delhi and Lahore, we made our way to the famous Anarkali bazaar. Sitting in one local shop with my friend Anam, and her mother, Nadia, we looked at fabrics. Analysing the quality, colour and print, we selected and rejected suit pieces. While admiring one such piece, I referred to the soft khaddar in mustard as "sundar", instead of "khoobsurat". While both words mean beautiful, the former is a Hindi word, and the latter, Urdu. Catching on to the heavy Hindi in my Hindustani, the prices of the fabrics were immediately increased. It was only after a heavy game of bargaining with the shopkeeper — an art inherited by women of the subcontinent from their mothers — that the prices were brought down.
On both sides of the border, we dawn the Hindustani language — a blend of Urdu and Hindi with dialectical differences in distinct geographies. Interchanging Hindi and Urdu words is perhaps more common here in India, than Pakistan — something I realized in Anarkali bazaar. Keeping this in mind, from thereon, my Hindustani was adorned with a little more Urdu than usual.
It is not just history that we share, but also culture and roots. So many like me have ancestors who walked on what is now, the 'other' side. And no matter how much we try to separate ourselves from one another, our commonalities will outweigh our differences. Despite this, when my father, friends, and I decided to visit Gurudwara Dera Sahib in Lahore, simply saying that I am an India-Sikh and showing the religious kada on my hand was not enough evidence for the security to grant us entry. It was only after checking our passports, and a brief interrogation, that all of us were permitted to enter the sacred space.
During long drives across the city, as my Pakistani friends and I hummed tunes from Coke Studio, I thought about what makes us different from each other. To my mind, came nothing. Perhaps my knowledge of the region due to my work on the partition, familial connection, and openness to the country added to my experience. But even without these learned sensibilities, it will be difficult to distinguish an Indian, more so an Indian Punjabi from a Pakistani. While, the geo-political differences are here to stay, there is so much that we, as people, share with each other; perhaps more than we may even be aware of.
If you enjoyed reading this, here's more from Homegrown:
Eva B: How Pakistan's First Female Rapper Is Empowering Women Across The Country
How Film, Music, & Art Have Created A Bridge Between India & Pakistan Throughout History
Transverse The Streets Of Pakistan In This Game For Some Biryani